Batman v. Johnny the Homicidal Maniac: a review of Death Note

This article largely came out of a conversation with Adam Shaftoe regarding the Death Note film. I would strongly recommend reading his review as well, as his knowledge of the source material Death Note is derived from is greater than mine, and it provides a good overview.

But there’s one thing in specific that has been bothering me about Death Note, that I wanted to explore in some greater depth and that’s the use of the mode of alienation and the ethics of nihilism in teen media.

Page excerpted from Johnny the Homicidal Maniac by Jhonen Vasquez

In order to fully explore that I’ll start with an alternative comic from the mid-1990s called Johnny the Homicidal Maniac.

This comic did the circuit through a lot of the counter-culture scenes circa 1997 and it was something that seemed rather unique at the time. The comic focused on the surrealistic adventures of a solipsistic spree killer, who was driven to kill by supernatural incarnations of alienation and angst that took the form of a pair of gothed up Pillsbury Dough Boys.

Drawn in a sharply chiaroscuro style reminiscent of expressionist woodcuts, this comic presented itself as a commentary on the fundamental banality of modern consumer culture, as the protagonist, defined by his isolation, responds to the desire for undeserved attention, customer-always-right arrogant consumerism, and hollow passion directed to the trivial, projected to seem life shattering with a variety of increasingly nihilistic impulses including murder, torture and suicide.  The audience is openly invited to identify with Johnny; there is no other protagonist provided, and with the exception of the two innocents who are deeply traumatized by contact with him (a potential girlfriend who fast realizes the monstrosity of her date and then there was a whole book about her PTSD and a deeply anxious child who Johnny “befriends” for whom there was also a whole book about his PTSD) but ultimately unimportant to the story, the secondary characters who are introduced are universally banal, shrill and unpleasant.

The thesis of the comic largely becomes that the pervasiveness of consumer culture creates an alienation so deep that all people become entirely solipsistic, viewing all other people as Others only considered either as an audience or an enemy. In the face of this, the comic proposes a reasonable response is an urge toward total annihilation: of the self, the Other and the world.

Johnny the Homicidal Maniac is presented as being slightly counter to this culture. During a kill spree at a fast food restaurant, he’s listening to Wagner on his Walkman (Because of course he is. This book is so influenced by German romanticism and early modern thought that the only surprising thing is that there isn’t actually a character named Nietzsche in it.) However, for his difference, he’s still embedded in the culture. He’s at the fast food restaurant not because he intends to tear down the establishment, but because he wants to buy a taco. During another public massacre, he is at a 24 hour convenience store buying a slushie. Instead, the absurdity of the way others react to their own alienation causes a moment of revulsion in Johnny that points to the nihilistic urge. And then the page is spattered in black ink blood spatter drawn from sharply angular knives.

Johnny believes himself to be special. He believes that his spasms of nihilistic violence help to keep the world from ending. However he is ultimately revealed to be just another alienated young man, unable to affect change in the world, and faced with the choice between death of the body and a spiritual death which comes from final emotional disconnection from his place and culture.

Light Turner in Death Note is effectively just a dumbed down version of Johnny. The bones are there. The mode of alienation is presented clearly, and how Light’s alienation leads to nihilism is also well established. But absent a critical lens to society beyond, “crime hurts families,” he fails to project even the purile illusion of depth that made Johnny the Homicidal Maniac an interesting book for a certain young art student with altogether too much interest in early existentialism.

But for all that Light fails to be an anti-heroic protagonist of the nihil, the film itself does do a good job creating a sense of alienation as a mood. And a lot of this can be laid at the feet of the soundtrack and the portrayal of Ryuk.

These two elements seem like an odd juxtaposition, but they actually do some very important work together. The soundtrack is designed with razor focus to elicit nostalgia. A deft combination of modern ’80s inflected synth, new wave deep cuts and pure schmaltz grounds the blue-washed and perpetually overcast streets of Seattle in the Real. The music conjures for the audience the sense of high school dances, and the sense of listening to music just weird enough to signal one as an “outcast” in the smoking pit while the jocks do jock stuff somewhere nearby. They help to draw the audience into a frame of feeling like they did in school.

Then the unreal invades.

There is absolutely no attempt to make Ryuk realistic. Cloaked in shadow and silhouette, out of focus at times and other times a mass of sharp lines that become nothing but a chaotic mass of angle and form, the death god is a projection of the liminal. And his gift is equally unreal. The deaths granted by the eponymous note fit into the Rube Goldberg / Final Destination / Dead Like Me style, and depend not only on chains of increasingly unlikely coincidence, but also on the ability of the keeper of the note to exact complete control over his victim, their actions and circumstances for a period of time leading up to their demise.

The grey, brown, earthy visual palette of the city, and the deliberately nostalgic soundtrack thus create an intense tension against the unreality of Ryuk and his dark gifts which alienates the audience from the proceedings. This does much of the heavy lifting for providing a sense of identification with the otherwise un-likeable, un-meritorious antihero of the film.

“We are so alone in this world in which there is no justice, in which death is arbitrary,” the film says before positing that one solution is to put religious faith in a nietzschean ubermensch who can overcome the contradiction between good and evil to mete out justice, accountable to nobody.”

The film then presents us with a second protagonist who provides a second, equally dark, resolution to our alienation in L.

L, a Holmsean detective / ninja / chosen one is possibly the best live action screen representation of Batman in the modern period. Unlike like Light, who claims special status and intellect, but who does not show any such quality until the closing scenes of the film, L really does seem that much smarter than anybody else.

By the time he arrives in Seattle it’s evident that he’s already fingered Light as the likely killer, and his challenge becomes more about entrapping Light without exposing himself than about actually figuring out who did it.

A mind capable of processing and synthesizing vast amounts of data to reach broad understandings of his subjects, L is sharply indicative of the modern panopticon, even down to being a consulting detective of nebulous actual authority but the blessing of state actors to operate.

And so these are the choices Death Note presents us for resolving our alienation: surrender to the self-appointed heroes who attempt to transcend good and evil or to the ever-watching eye of an anonymous surveillance apparatus: all of society mobilized to respond to the Other either as enemy or audience.

This isn’t a comforting choice that the film invites the audience to make. What makes Death Note even more discomforting is that it deliberately leaves this choice ambiguous. A late scene involves an anonymous figure aiding Light against L because he sees “Lord Kira” as a suitable solution to the film’s poorly defined social woes. Of all the various coincidences that the film retcons into Light’s eleventh-hour plot of genius manipulation, this one alone is left out of the end descriptive narrative. In this case alone, the character may have acted with agency as opposed to being fate’s plaything.

And the idea of being a plaything to uncaring Others is another thread of alienation running through the film, driven home by Ryuk’s last line when he menacingly says, “humans are so interesting,” implying that all the carnage that unfolded was merely an idle entertainment for him.

Death Note is a bad film. It is a sexist mess in its treatment of Mia, and it strips any pretense of social commentary from its profound alienation before offering up either the chaos of destruction or the rigidity of the ever-watching eye as the solutions to this alienation.

What makes it comment-worthy is that it is particularly slick iteration of a spectrum of media, mostly targeting young men, that points in a specifically misanthropic direction – and is thus likely to reach a larger audience than Johnny the Homicidal Maniac. It is important to discuss films like this, because they do have an impact, and for all their objective defects, will speak to an audience. Especially an audience that, due to a hyper-saturation of targeted marketing, a continuum of study which is beginning to expose them to new ideas, and a volatile emotional milieu feel alienation ever so strongly.

Frankly Death Note left me with a bad taste in my mouth. And now I kind of want to go and watch something that responds by collapsing the Other into the Self and resolving the difference by the act of mutual recognition. You know. Like Valerian: City of a Thousand Planets, which seems all the more meritorious in the retrospect provided by this piece of garbage.

I watched Iron Fist so you don’t have to. Watch these instead.

First housekeeping. There will be spoilers in this article. If you care about spoilers for a mediocre AF martial arts show on Netflix, you probably want to stop reading.

Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way first. There’s some racist stuff going on in Iron Fist both on-set and off it. But just to be clear, the central plot of the show involves an insidious order of mystics who are textually situated somewhere in China and / or Japan (and the less we dwell on the inability of the scriptwriters to distinguish between China and Japan the better) and who have infiltrated the American Family Business using opium and the promise of alchemical immortality. These guys are about one Fu Manchu reference away from actually using a 1912 Sax Rohmer style yellow peril narrative here.

But I think that’s been addressed well by others already, including here – where Genevra Littlejohn gets at the disrespect presented by the showrunners and by Jessica Henwick, one of the stars of the show. I also don’t want to belabor the excellent points made by Abigail Nussbaum in her article on the show. What I will say is that while I entirely agree with her assessment of the characterization of Danny Rand, there was a level of personal discomfort with his character for me which I have to accept may have exacerbated my reaction to the show.

Namely, as a white man who speaks Mandarin, does martial arts, has spent time around Buddhist temples and who consumes a lot of Chinese media, some of Danny’s bad behaviour hit a bit too close to home in the, “please tell me I was less insufferable as a kid,” sort of a way. That sense-of-identification with this blatantly awful human being with stunning boundary issues certainly didn’t increase my enjoyment of the show.

I didn’t enjoy the show. In fact, the slight frission of pleasure I got from shitposting about it on Facebook faded by about Episode 4. After that I was mostly only watching out of stubbornness. However, my lack of enjoyment of the show had less to do with the whitewashing controversy or even the yellow peril narrative (which I largely bit my tongue over when Daredevil did similar) than it did with how poorly constructed Iron Fist was as a piece of martial arts media and that’s where I’m going to concentrate.

The creative team

The central problem here appears to be the formation of the creative team. And I think a lot of those can be traced to the employment of Scott Buck as the showrunner. Buck’s previous production and writing credits almost entirely center around either comedies or adult dramas (notably Six Feet Under and Dexter). His only experience with adventure television is Rome. He certainly has no background in martial arts cinema, and with his lack of a background he failed to hire appropriate scriptwriters.

Of course Buck was credited with three episodes himself. Beyond him, Quinton Peeples has done a variety of light genre, but mostly it gravitates towards police and military narratives. He has no experience with martial arts that I can find. Scott Reynolds is also mostly a police drama writer. Christine Chambers pretty much only wrote previously for Boardwalk Empire, a gangster show.

The writer of one of the two best episodes of Iron Fist is also the only one who has previous experience working with anything even remotely close to a martial arts story. Dwain Worrell previously worked as the scriptwriter for a 2010 (zombie?) movie called Walking the Dead which was set in China. It featured an antagonist with an axe but followed slasher tropes rather than martial arts from what little of it I was able to track down.

Ian Stokes, credited on two episodes, is straight-up genre but again no martial arts background. Tamara Beecher-Wilkinson mostly did police drama writing although she was the script coordinator on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Pat Charles is mostly known for writing episodes of Bones.

In other words the writer’s room was long on experience with police and crime drama but had no previous experience writing martial arts media. This lack of experience carries through to the direction team, with two notable exceptions.

Episode 6 was directed by RZA and episode 8 was directed by Kevin Tancharoen. These two directors have, between them, a reasonable resume of martial arts related work. Tancharoen has directed good episodes of all the CW superhero properties, while RZA wrote, directed and starred in the grossly under-appreciated martial arts horror / comedy and Shaw Brothers homage The Man With the Iron Fists.

It’s unsurprising then, that as pieces of martial arts media, Episodes 6 and 8 are the best Iron Fist has to offer. It’s the only time there was even a lick of experience in the creative team.

Trope Deployment

With a creative team better suited to making a police drama than a martial arts show, it’s somewhat unsurprising that their grasp of martial arts tropes is weak. A central example of this has to do with their failure to understand what “external” and “internal” mean in a martial arts context, their failure to properly identify whether named styles are external or internal, their failure to understand how internal cultivation features into the education of a martial arts hero and thus their accidental deployment of the “flawed internal cultivation” trope when they try to address Danny’s PTSD.

So let’s back up.

Internal vs. External

In the real world, internal vs. external is a formalism that divides certain theoretical bases concerning application of force. External martial arts believe in applying personal physical force to combat. Their training regimes focus on body conditioning and use techniques that frequently expect a certain level of strength and speed from the practitioner. Boxing is a perfect example of an external martial art. In martial arts media, external martial arts are the physical manifestation of a martial artist’s abilities, allowing them to become more effective at punching, kicking, wrestling, wielding weapons, etc.

Internal martial arts in the real world describe a group of martial arts that concentrate on leverage and borrowing force from your opponent (and also Xingyiquan which is mostly about stabbing people efficiently with a spear when in military ranks.) Internal martial art training regimes focus on balance, core strength and grace-in-movement. The cooperative and meditative arts such as Taijiquan and Aikido are perfect examples of an internal art. In martial arts media, internal martial arts are the spiritual manifestation of a martial artist’s abilities. With their internal skill, they can empower their external skills to greater effect, make use of qinggong (super-speed, wall running and high jumping) and dianxue (pressure point) techniques, become resistant to injury, heal the internal wounds of themselves and others and impart exceptional force to darts and other small missiles.

Now first off, Danny Rand claims to be versed in internal martial arts when he paternalistically starts instructing Colleen Wing during their awkward fight-flirt. Then he immediately identifies Tiger style as an internal form.

And this is where the CMAists in the room must burst into laughter, because within Shaolin Five Animal, it doesn’t get any more external than Tiger.

Well then, what about if we look at a different CMA with a Tiger style. Say… Hung Gar? Again, tiger is the epitome of external conditioning within that art. Again and again, within kung fu systems with animal naming conventions, tigers stand in for the tendons, for raw power, rending, tearing and breaking. You know, because tigers look like this:

I mean, look at the shoulders on that monster.

Anyway, this seems to suggest that Danny doesn’t have the first clue what external and internal really mean and this is a problem because…

Internal martial arts are a fundamental component in the education of a martial hero

We’re told (not shown) that Danny earned the right to claim the Iron Fist by mastering all the martial arts of K’un Lun. And K’un Lun seems to want to be established like a martial sect. I mean its name is lifted from one after all (even if the Kunlun Sect of the wuxia genre is a secular Taoist one and thus absent warrior monks). Danny is supposed to be the top student of K’un Lun. The star pupil of Lei Kung “The Thunderer”. So why the hell does he need to learn basic neigong for restoration of qi from a master of the Hand?

That’s right, having exhausted himself in a previous fight, Danny is unable to call upon the iron fist. We’re told his qi is depleted, though he doesn’t show the exhaustion and wasting sickness we might expect to see from a person who has scoured their internal force. As part of an effort to seduce him, secret “no we’re the other Hand” hand master, Bakuto teaches Danny some qigong. I guess the taiji we saw him butchering earlier in the series didn’t count or something? It’s never exactly clear. But yeah, somehow the star pupil of this great sect was entrusted with a weapon that depends on manipulation of qi without first getting any education into how to manipulate qi. And, yeah, that’s kind of a problem. Especially when it leads to the apparently accidental deployment of a trope that undercuts some of the character beats they were going with for Danny Rand.

You don’t want to pull an internal muscle

In martial arts stories people get injuries all the time either from overexertion during training or combat. These injuries take on three forms usually: wounds, poison and internal injuries.

Wounds and poisonings are simple enough; though the cure for poison is generally a combination of qigong and medicine rather than medicine alone. But internal injuries are another matter. An internal injury sustained in combat may paralyze or cripple a warrior, but generally they can recover with time, qigong and the intercession of internal masters. More dangerous is making a mistake in internal cultivation.

Here’s a key example: in Legend of the Condor Heroes, Guo Jing comes into possession of a terrible and powerful manual on internal cultivation. For complicated reasons, he’s apprehensive to practice it, but he’s found himself in a position where he both knows the contents of it and has begun making some small use of it. One of the results of this is that he’s caught the attention of several old masters.

One of them, the villainous Ouyang Feng, (note: my favourite villain in the history of literature) extracts leverage from Guo Jing and uses it to demand the young hero give him access to the manual. Unwilling to risk the deadly consequences of defying Ouyang Feng, but also unwilling to grant the vicious poisoner access to another powerful martial art, Guo Jing changes one word in the manual in such a manner that the meaning of one line is opposite what it would otherwise be.

Ouyang Feng begins using the manual and it works. Well. His power grows. But… The reversed character causes the villain to reverse the direction of energy in his body. This has several effects on him that appear in the long run: emotional instability, fits of violence (and not his usual malice but rather actual fits) and an uncontrollable urge to walk around in a handstand – at which he becomes very accomplished – because of the reversed direction of the energy circulating through his body.

Danny Rand is suffering from PTSD. His emotional problems serve as a key character touchstone. But when you combine them with his ineptitude at internal martial arts, it begins to look like the show deployed the, “screwed up Neigong training,” trope. Except that they didn’t. Danny’s inability to regularly access the Iron Fist is, textually, a consequence of his emotional instability alone. The writers’ weak understanding of internal and external means that they never explore the possibility that he was ignoring his internal lessons and somehow became top student anyway.

Of course, top-student is also a problem since…

Finn Jones is not a fighter

Ideally you should cast martial artists for your martial arts show. Iron Fist even did that for some secondary and tertiary characters such as Zhou Cheng (played with aplomb for far too little time by Lewis Tan). If you don’t get a martial artist for your star it’s fine. But picking somebody with a background in dance or gymnastics or… SOME sort of physical activity is probably a good idea. That way, when you do the reaction shots and have to show the character’s face, they can still sell the part.

Finn Jones moves with the coordination of an awkward teenager, has the muscle definition of the same and fails to sell his scenes. In fact, you can tell you’re likely to get a decent fight in Iron Fist when it either doesn’t involve Danny Rand at all, or when it starts with Danny inexplicably putting on a hoodie to hide his head.

Of course there’s an easy fix for this problem with comic book heroes. Put them in a disguise. Daredevil did this. It freaking worked. But for some reason, the directors and writers of Iron Fist insist on showing off Danny’s hipster curls every chance they can and didn’t bother introducing any of the Iron Fist’s costumes. That’s, honestly? I don’t even know what to say. I expected a reveal in the last episode. But nope. No costume at all. Because… reasons? I mean this is a show with a dragon in it (the eyes of one anyway) so the no costume thing CAN’T possibly be, “realism.”

Finn Jones practicing martial arts solo is an embarrassment. His body mechanics suck. It’s clear he’s just learned the forms, he has no inkling of martial intent behind his flailing and his attempts to look focused mostly come off as constipated. Finn Jones engaging in the actual fights is a disaster. And the result is a succession of poorly lit, poorly blocked, highly cut (like three cuts for one hip toss) fight.

During two car-jumping stunts, one is obviously CGI, and the other involves seeing Danny winding up to jump and then landing without showing the jump in the middle at all.

So we have in Iron Fist an actor who can’t move portraying a version of Danny Rand who doesn’t look like a master of martial arts, who is inexplicably ignorant of basic martial arts concepts and who isn’t able to control his own abilities. This is what you get when you hire a bunch of cop show writers and directors to do a martial arts adventure story.

And again, I’ll note that I’m leaving the directors of episodes 6 and 8 out of this critique. RZA didn’t light his fights well, but I think that was him recognizing he had a useless star and doing what he could to hide that. Tancharoen’s solution of putting Danny into a hoodie and filming him from behind led to better fights in general and that’s why I’d give 8 the crown for least-awful episode rather than 6.

So to summarize, we have a show which is ostensibly a martial arts show, which features an actor who doesn’t look like a fighter portraying a supposed martial arts master who doesn’t know basic martial arts knowledge because the writers who wrote his lines didn’t bother finding out. Most of the action beats seem to be derived from 1980s era martial arts ephemera such as the Karate Kid. It’s like nothing filmed after the Matrix was ever made. So yeah, the bad reviews from this show? They’re not just SJW grief over a missed opportunity in casting. They’re because the show is a turkey.

Watch These Instead:

So let’s find some silver lining in this cloud. Here are some shows to watch instead. I’ll start at the shallow end and work deeper.

So let’s say you want a superhero show. One about a hero who is the heir to a major corporation. This heir takes a trip to an Asian locale with his father and sees the vehicle he’s travelling in destroyed, followed in quick succession by witnessing the death of his father. Billionaire heir finds himself stranded somewhere remote and falls into the orbit of a succession of martial arts masters who reshape him first as a survivor and then into a weapon. After several years, during which he has been declared dead, this man returns home to reclaim his life and uncover the truth about the conspiracy behind his fathers’ death. He is haunted by the losses he suffered and has almost crippling emotional and psychological problems that he must overcome.

Does that sound familiar? It’s basically the setup to the plot of Iron Fist. But it’s also the setup to the plot of the first of my “watch this instead” shows:

Watch Arrow instead

I told you that this was the shallow end.

Arrow was the original CW superhero show. From it spawned The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, the second season of Supergirl and there’s talk of more spinoffs in the works. Arrow is not anything even resembling a perfect show. It’s effectively a tawdry soap opera, and its repeated killing of Lance sisters is so not-cool that I very nearly stopped watching on more than one occasion. So why did I come back?

Well, Stephen Amell is a charming and charismatic actor who manages to bring real and resonant emotion to the character of Oliver Queen. He is also built appropriately to be believable as a superhero when he’s doing solo training sequences. (Google Stephen Amell  salmon ladder if you want proof of that)

By putting him in a hood and costume from Ep. 1 the Arrow team were able to sub in stunt fighters easily and cleanly; this is a technique that they leaned on increasingly, making sure that the entire Arrow team wear hoods, masks and iconic costumes – which allow them to do group fight set pieces that don’t suck.

In a martial arts program, you can do a lot with a charming lead and good action. Arrow is proof of that as it takes effectively the exact same story as Iron Fist and makes it not suck.

But that’s a little easy. It is, after all, still a superhero program. What if you want, you know, a kung fu show? (Cue the audience being apprehensive that I’m going to rec Martial Law or something…)

Watch Into the Badlands instead

Into the Badlands is proof of how much difference it makes when your writers know their genre.

Specifically Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, the creators of the series have past work experience with Jet Li (Lethal Weapon 4), Jackie Chan (Shanghai Noon and sequels) and Sammo Hung (Here’s the Martial Law reference). Li, Chan and Hung are three of the biggest names in martial arts cinema since Bruce Lee died. Gough and Millar having worked with martial artists who had the clout to make story decisions since the ’90s means that they understand the tropes they’re using, how to use them, what the audience expects and what the audience knows.

On top of having a decent writing team, Into the Badlands has an excellent star in Daniel Wu.

Wu started training in wushu at age 11, inspired by Jet Li and from 1998 onward has been polishing his talents in a succession of film roles, most in fantasy and martial arts cinema. He’s also able to act, which is not something every martial artist star delivers.

On a personal note, Into the Badlands is precisely how I would write a wuxia story for a North American audience. In fact its setting is so close to that of The Black Trillium, that I remain thankful that it aired first after my publication date. So I’m a bit biased here. It is, in my opinion, the best thing on television.

Seriously, I am watching Season 2 now. It’s still amazing.

But you don’t have to just watch TV to get a sense of what you can do with martial arts on film in the 21st century. So let’s say you want something modern, but rooted in tradition…

Watch 七剑 (Seven Swords) instead

Seven Swords is the painfully under-appreciated 2005 masterwork of long-standing Chinese fantasy auteur Tsui Hark. Starring Donnie Yen, it is an adaptation of a novel by Liang Yusheng.

Liang was one of the four greats of the mid-20th century wuxia renaissance, along with Wang Dulu (whose work led to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon), Gu Long (whose work has not made inroads in North America but who remains a big deal in Taiwan) and Jin Yong (aka: the greatest living fantasy author in the world, aka: my personal idol).

Liang was also responsible for 大唐游侠传 (Datang Youxia Zhuan) and for 白发魔女传 (Baifa Monü Zhuan or, as it’s better known in North America, The Bride with White Hair).

It’s a very traditional martial arts narrative. The imperial government is occupied by a foreign invader (the Manchus this time, though those themes have been in use even as far back as Shui Hu Zhuan, which came out in the late 1500s.)  An opportunistic warlord takes advantage of this to assault the wulin, and is opposed by a ragtag band of martial artists each gifted with a special sword. Seven Swords is long and ponderous compared to 1990s era Jet Li films, but it makes excellent use of Yen’s ability to present melancholy and displays the fantastical and innovative special effects and action which are Tsui Hark’s trademark.

Seven Swords is martial arts cinema at its essence. But pressingly, it’s an example of what can be accomplished in the 21st century with the genre.

Tying this all up

I love martial arts.

I love doing it. I love talking about it. I love reading about it. I love watching it. I went into Iron Fist really hoping that it’d prove better than expected. It proved worse.

Iron Fist is not a show you need to watch. There’s so little movement in its Hand plot that the Hand at the end of Iron Fist is in exactly the same position that it was at the end of Daredevil season 2. The personal journey of Danny Rand is uninteresting at best, grating at worst and also does little to advance his character. He goes from being fucked up and in denial to just being fucked up. But it’s not like he grows or changes. At all. So if you’re thinking of watching it because you plan on watching The Defenders, don’t bother. There’s no need. This is a show which is all noise and fury signifying nothing.

Into the Badlands got renewed for a second season. It deserves to get a third. Go watch that.

Arrow has a catalog of 115 episodes which, at their worst, are equal to Iron Fist at its best.

The martial arts movies of Tsui Hark, Zhang Yimou, and Ang Lee elevated wuxia to an art form as great as any other in cinema. Go watch them instead. Or go read a translation of a Jin Yong novel or a Wang Dulu novel (and if you can find any extant Liang Yusheng or Gu Long professional translations let me know). Martial arts is a huge sub-genre of fantasy. One of the biggest, one of the deepest. It deserves respect. Iron Fist doesn’t do that. But we can, as an audience.



I have a love-hate relationship with rebel narratives.

I mean, I get the appeal. When you live in mass societies that are grounded in structural inequality, there’s something clean, something uplifting about imagining slicing through the bullshit and cutting out the cancer.

There’s something uplifting in the idea that a person can, through direct, heroic action bring about lasting mass-scale change.

But, of course, there’s the problem of all the death and violence. Historical rebels generally caused a fair bit of mayhem before they got to the business of making something better than what came before. A happy few actually ever got to the “making something better” part. Most didn’t, either because they lost, their vision of better was monstrous or they never expected to win.

Generally, when we write rebel narratives in fiction, we cheat. We create an authority so monstrous that rebellion is the only reasonable course. When you’re fighting space Nazis, whether it’s Cardies or the Empire, it’s pretty easy to root for the scrappy underdog rebels.

Of course the down-side of using these sorts of narratives is that they provide an ideological tabula rasa, which is itself rather dangerous. But that’s something of an aside. The core dilemma is rather that even rebels who have the best of intentions and the fortitude to bring those intentions about, may need to do some terrible things in order to dislodge the same corrupt power structures that birthed them in the first place.

Some media have addressed this more directly than others; Deep Space Nine pulled few punches in the characterization of Major Kira, especially in early episodes, as she struggles with the transition from rebel to authority. This is one of several reasons it remains probably the greatest Trek TV series. It’s also one of only a handful of shows to deal with revolution directly while being situated specifically after the revolution ends. Most media prefer to roll credits on the heroes standing amid the ruin of the old, without having to roll up their sleeves and get to work on creating something new.

On the other hand, Star Wars was so desperate to avoid removing the rebel mantel from its heroes, that it created a rather convoluted political situation, which was not (at least within the bounds of the film) very clearly elucidated, just so that it could call Leia’s faction, “The Resistance.” And Les Miserables deliberately chooses a revolution that died in its crib in order to create pure heroes of truth and liberty to be sacrificed upon the altar of Javert’s moral absolutism.

This may be why I ultimately like Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles, despite it’s so very overt  1990s comic book flaws.

Hegel and the Invisibles

13227839Before I get into the meat of what The Invisibles did differently from most rebel narratives a little segue into Hegelian dialectics.

Hegel saw dialectical processes as underpinning reality. Our understanding of the real came from the sublimation of dualistic opposites as they came into contact, and in the process of resolving those conflicts led to the synthesis of something different.

Ultimately Hegel didn’t see this as a destructive process; opposites transformed at contact rather than annihilating.

Morrison really ran with this in The Invisibles. At the inception of the book, he presents us with a pretty standard rebel group: King Mob’s Invisibles cell is a small rag-tag group of talented weirdos who must stand up against a vast network of established, faceless authority.But then he yanks the rug out from underneath the readers as it becomes increasingly likely that either the Invisibles and the Outer Church are one and the same, take orders from the same thing or are, at the very least, related phenomena.

King Mob’s journey is of particular note since he transitions from a destructive rebel to ultimately a figure of the establishment, and a builder-of-things; and in the process of that transition from one opposite to another helps complete the ritual needed to birth something new out of Humanity.

King Mob’s dialectical character arc also helps to draw an underline under another thing about rebellion that The Invisibles obsessed over: the idea of rebel as identity.

The changeability of the concept of self is a running theme throughout the entirety of The Invisibles. King Mob goes from violent force of destruction, to media mogul. Jack Frost transforms from a petty delinquent to a homeless vagrant to a figure of nearly religious salvation. Ragged Robin’s mutating back-story, and the transition of Lord Fanny both also try to get at the idea of “self” being a floating point derived more from accumulated experience than a fixed concept. Even the unfortunately plotted character arc of Boy, one of the most rightfully criticized parts of The Invisibles tries to make the same argument: we are not ever who we think we are, because we are always in the process of becoming something else.

The Rebel Archetype

A rebel identity is very much a personal identity. It’s part of what makes rebel stories attractive; they’re always about the personality of the rebel, why this person, in this place must take up a dangerous task.

annex20-20dean20james20rebel20without20a20cause_02Specifically, rebel identities are reactionary identities. They are formed in opposition to some other thing. Take away the Authority and the Rebel collapses.

So what do we do with a problem of the Rebel? There’s a few good reasons for us to retain rebel narratives in some manner. First: they make for entertaining stories. If we are story-tellers, this is important. The Rebel is an archetypical construct, and one which speaks particularly strongly to people in mass societies. After all, who hasn’t felt dissatisfaction with the state of their culture in some way or other?

Second, the societies we live in aren’t perfect, and if we’re being socially responsible artists, fostering opposition to Authority for authority’s sake is important. There are plenty of people in the world who will tell you to obey because The Rules Are Sacrosanct. Artists should push back against that, and the Rebel is a useful tool to do so.

Perhaps the honesty of Deep Space Nine is a good direction to go. Perhaps we should spend more effort talking about what world rebellion creates, rather than just focusing on the simple heroics of a small band of individuals struggling against faceless space Nazis.

Situating rebellion within a dialectical framework was a powerful tool for deconstructing the archetype, and while Morrison got many things wrong with The Invisibles, he did that one thing very well. But deconstruction in literature without action to create a synthesis afterward is the road to Batman v. Superman and that’s no good for media or for those who over-think media for fun and profit.

So my plea to those of us who write rebel stories, and for those of us who consume them is ultimately to be more thoughtful, less certain. Partly this can be done by where we situate our narratives. Giving rebel heroes feet of clay is fine from a deconstructive standpoint, and is probably more honest-to-life than the heroics of Luke Skywalker and co. But if our only tool for assessing rebellion in literature is either to present them as heroic martyrs on one hand, or the-new-boss-same-as-the-old-boss on the other, we’re missing the final step of the dialectic.

Instead, perhaps, we should concentrate on the duality of the vision of the rebel, what they wish to build, and the consequence of rebellion. Perhaps it’s time for the Rebel to become a figure of nuance rather than absolutes. Perhaps we need to break down the archetype of the Rebel, an ultimately reactionary character and replace them with something Revolutionary, a person with a vision to transform the world, not just to oppose how it is.

Everything gets tainted: A review of THE HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS

house-of-shattered-wings-2I’ve been struggling with this review. I dawdled over writing it for so long that I stalled out on reviewing at all. Because Aliette de Bodard has done an amazing job writing one of the most nuanced looks at colonialism I’ve ever read. And it’d be impossible to talk in any depth about what she wrote without addressing colonialism.

And I really wasn’t sure if the internet needed another essay about colonialism written by the descendant of a bunch of Scots who got just about everywhere as a direct beneficiary of colonial power.

But I was picking over my lack of recent reviews with a good friend of mine, another critic and they pointed out that, while they got my anxiety, the climate is such currently that, no, it’s probably for the best that there are some white men writing reviews saying, go read this book written by a non-white woman.

So I think I’ll start right there.

Go read this book. It’s a very good book. It’s a very intelligent book. It probably represents the best of de Bodard’s work, and she’s a very good author, so that’s saying something.


De Bodard does something with her work that would put her in a class with authors like Max Gladstone, Kameron Hurley and Saladin Ahmed. And I don’t mean that she’s an outspoken SJW on twitter; what I mean is that she’s an author who can combine the triple-threat of deep characterization, high-concept fantasy and a thoughtful assessment of modern anxieties and pressures.

In the House of Shattered Wings we are presented with an alternate world where the great war was fought with magic by fallen angels and their human servants. The protagonist of the story is a banished immortal brought to the war from the colonies of French Indochine. The war ended, and he survived, but with infrastructure crumbling and the survivors of the war turned inward to lick wounds and pursue old vendettas, nobody really cares enough to help him get home.

So we see him as a person far from home: hating the people who dragged him away but also resigned to the fact that they are likely the only people he’ll ever interact with.

The other half of this equation are the not-so secret masters of this post-apocalyptic Paris: the fallen angels.

Banished from heaven for reasons they aren’t allowed to know, these angels are also trapped somewhere they would rather not be, unable to return. But angels seem plentiful; there are probably as many angelic characters in the book as human. And their fall is into familiar territory. They are the colonizers, the ones who arrive in force at a new land and take it for themselves, unconcerned about how their claims and feuds impact those people who were there before.

There’s an alienation at the core of the story. Philippe, the twice-banished immortal, is alienated both from the Fallen because they are many while he is singular, and from the ordinary Parisians among whom he half-heartedly tries to hide. The Fallen are alienated from their subjects by dint of their own alienness, their power and arrogance. Everybody can speak to each other, and the story frequently plays out over banquets and parties, but nobody communicates without dissembling.

Then there’s the Seine. Twisted by the pollution of a magical war, the Seine is a no-go zone for angel and human alike. It’s no surprise that Philippe ends up at the bottom of it eventually. And there he finds a dragon court, something very familiar to him from home. But the court is rotting, both figuratively and literally. And I think this strikes as close to a thesis as we’re likely to come to this.

Colonialism, the process of power being imposed from outside, the process of creating classes of people based on a sense of an other, touches everybody in the story. It pervades every relationship and taints every transaction. Some of the Fallen angels seem like they’re probably basically good people; but they’re still Fallen. Philippe is a sympathetic person, a person trapped far from a home he longs to return to and believes he never will. But he’s also a man carrying around a lifetime’s worth of anger and resentment, which sometimes lashes out in self-destructive ways. In the ruined Paris of the House of Shattered Wings, the slow, cumulative spiritual decay of these imbalances has been laid bare in beautiful, and terrifying glory.

But don’t take my word for all of that. Read hers.

The Conservativization of Free Speech

I caught a little flack for my blog post yesterday. Among the various unhappy letters I got there was a running theme:

“You’re too sensitive.”

“This is too PC.”

“Nanny state censorship.”

“SJWs can’t take a joke.”

And at first my reaction was just to do the typical delete-delete-block-ignore dance. Any of us who have engaged in political discussion, especially political discussion that borders arts criticism knows that dance well. But something hit me, and I wanted to explore it.

I’m not the one being too sensitive. It’s actually the guys who, “stand with John Cleese,” who are being too sensitive by half.

Too sensitive

Ok so two people. One person hears a comment, directed at him, regarding his family and takes offense.

Another person hears a comment, directed at a general audience, regarding anonymized strangers who he probably doesn’t know. He also takes offense.

The first person is offended by something specific to him and his family and life. The second is offended by an abstract concept: to-whit that, “just a joke,” is not a valid defense for saying something awful.

I encounter abstract ideas all the time. Sometimes I engage them and challenge them, saying they’re not OK, or saying they’re interesting or whatever. But what I rarely do is invest the time and emotional energy into creating an anonymous email account and writing a blog comment on a stranger’s blog, talking about how offended I was by their presentation of that abstract. In part that’s because of the delete-delete-block-ignore dance I mentioned up at the top. But in part it’s because I’m fully aware that there will be people who hold different opinions from me. And that’s fine. Really. I might try to persuade them otherwise, or I might not. That depends on the extent to which I care about them, not about their ideas. On the other hand, if you do some problematic act, I’m going to point to that and say, “that’s not OK.” Because when abstract ideas spill out into the real world and have the potential to cause real harm, that’s when it’s important to speak out.

And this gets to what I think a lot of classical liberals misunderstand about the modern left. We, as a movement, are VERY interested in protecting freedom of speech. But, of course, you hear about PC censors all the time. So clearly there’s some skulduggery going on here.

What speech should be protected?

I read an article recently about harm prevention and meaning shift. The article argued that the proliferation of situations like parents who face legal trouble for letting their 10 year old walk home from school had to do with an a-priori assumption that it was good to protect children from harm rubbing up against a shifting definition for what constituted harm.

When these models of behaviour rub up against extant laws enacted to enforce harm prevention we face problems.

And this gets into one of my favourite topics: Overton windows. Since the mid 1990s we have seen a concerted effort by conservatives to move the Overton window to the right in general. They have been more successful in economics than in social policy, in general, but the proliferation of anti-LGBTQ+ laws and anti-abortion rules in the USA is an example of this.

Another region where the frame of discourse was successfully pushed far-rightward was that related to acceptable speech. And this has been to the detriment of free speech, but not for the reasons many people think.

Simply put, the reason that freedom of speech matters is dissent.

That’s why it was so important to protect during the enlightenment. Society was undergoing a MASSIVE, FUNDAMENTAL shift, and the people working to change their world faced persecution for trying to affect change, for speaking out against power. Protecting the right of people to speak protects them from the powerful. THAT is what free speech is for.

But classical liberalism took an absolutist position on free speech. That’s part of the reason we have had such a struggle over hate speech laws. Because even when speech is directly associated with prejudicial violence against rights-protected groups the knee-jerk reaction is to quote Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s interpretation of Voltaire.

Enter the early culture warriors. And the conservatives in this movement discovered a tic in liberalism they could exploit: they’re trying to censor you.

Never mind that free speech was a tool to let the powerless speak out against the powerful. Never mind that people who try and shout down critique are just as guilty of, “censorship,” (IE: not at all) as those who are doing the criticism. They told classical liberals that the new left wanted to become censors, and the classical liberals bought it hook, line and sinker. In the process, the greatest crime became framed as telling a comedian that his joke was unfunny and unwelcome. It became not inviting a lecturer to speak for pay because they hold disgusting beliefs.

What Hall cited Voltaire on was regarding a hangman (a government employee) literally burning books. Ain’t nobody even suggesting that on the left. And I mean it. I read a bit of Requires Hate’s blog back in the day and even she didn’t call for book burnings. Context matters. And criticizing something, especially an artwork, which (broadly construed) includes jokes, is NOT the same as censoring it.

Of course these sensitive classical liberals aren’t censoring anybody exactly either. But instead what they’re doing is something else: favoring one category of speech over another.

Being fair that’s what I’m doing. When I criticize freely expressed speech what I’m doing is showing disfavor for that speech. And that’s fine. That’s a built in part of the system. But it means the John Cleeses among us should carefully consider what speech they’re favoring. Because when you say, “you shouldn’t criticize that joke,” what you’re actually saying is, “I prefer that joke over your criticism of it,” and that’s a much more loaded proposition.

Ultimately I think that we should be most adamantly protecting speech that dissents against the powerful. This is because I do believe in the importance of free speech. But I think there’s a vast chasm between an individual favoring speech and censorship. Clearly I have not been censored. That’s not my concern with the criticism I’ve received. My concern is that the people who said I was being, “too sensitive,” think it’s more appropriate to be sexually inappropriate, misogynistic or rude than to criticize those behaviors. And that’s not OK.

Taking back free speech

I think the new left needs to abandon liberalism as a guiding doctrine. I say this because liberalism was the new hotness in 1730, but now, clinging to it is like clinging to a Van Leeuwenhoek microscope in a world where fluorescent light microscopy is a thing that exists. Liberalism is tainted by the conservative failure to differentiate between critique and censorship. It’s infested by an economic model fully invested in capitalism. At best, liberalism is a half-measure. The radicalism of Voltaire is not the radicalism of the 21st century.

And this isn’t trying to discount Voltaire. But just as Marx didn’t address climate change, Voltaire didn’t understand the idea of weaponized speech, because, and this is important, speech began being used as a weapon when people speaking freely began using their soapboxes to point out the actual weapons that were being used by the powerful against the disempowered.

Another problem with liberalism is that it has turned being accused of bigotry into a massive anxiety. Because the disempowered were very effective at showing why bigotry is not OK, and why that sort of speech leads directly to violence. But it means that if you say something that makes a liberal feel vulnerable that somebody might accuse them of being a bigot for something they said in the past, they get defensive fast.

That defensiveness is a problem. Because not one of us is perfect. I’ve told shitty jokes. I’ve subscribed to toxic narratives. But then I listened to people saying things like what I’m saying here, and thought about what they had to say, and I’ve decided to make changes. Because the disempowered spoke freely, I was able to better myself.

Art should be protected speech.

Critique of art should be likewise.

Criticism of critique is also free speech, and so-on, ad nauseam.

And we need to accept that. But that means that the left needs to move beyond the paradigm of speech-as-censorship-writ-small and begin actually engaging expression deeply. Dig into what is said in the cracks of language. What does the thrust of a critique mean?

The question is no longer, “should a thing be said?” The question is, “why was that thing said, and what does that entail?” What impact does that speech have? Is somebody harmed?

Ultimately, I have the right to be offended and you to take offense at my offense. But if you find yourself angered by what I’ve just said, what I would plead of you is to introspect and to ask yourself why you’re angry. Are you angry because you’ve told a shitty joke in the past and you don’t want to be criticized for it? Are you angry because you think it’s fine to hit on people you’ve never met?

Are you afraid?

Or are you just being too sensitive?

Ad Astra Wrap-Up

I just got back from my home convention, Ad Astra, and wanted to write about it a bit. Now you might wonder why I waited until today to write it. Well…

First off, Sunday was May Day, and I took the Monday off and didn’t do anything work-adjacent, that includes blogging. I take my vaguely socialist holidays seriously. Secondly I wanted to decompress a bit, because while I have a lot that I was very positive coming out of this weekend to talk about, there’s also a bit of stuff that happened at the con that didn’t sit right with me, and I wanted to pause for 24 hours before actually talking about it.

The Good

So amazing getting to catch up with all my out-of-town friends. And my in-town friends who I don’t get to see often enough. Special shout-outs to Adam Shaftoe, David Blackwood and Mike Rimar for making the second We Destroy the Things You Love panel a roaring pile of shouty, sweary fun. Also a big shout-out to Kelly Robson for being awesome and shockingly coherent for anybody on Sunday morning at a con during our panel on social media.

Beyond the amazing people, who there are too many of to list them all, I’ve also got to take my hat off to the hotel, which gave us a surprise upgrade to the best room I’ve ever had. I also want to say thank you to the con staff, there were some scheduling issues which caused some problems, but I will say that the con staff did their very best to fix those issues and to accommodate panelists who might have been inconvenienced.

The Bad and Ugly

That being said, it’s becoming increasingly clear that there are problems in convention culture, and those problems do affect my home con. A few vignettes:

It’s 2 AM on Friday and we’re leaving the consuite. On the elevator down, a large older man in a star fleet uniform gets off. He turns, gestures expansively and solicits all the women in the elevator (all of whom are probably young enough to be his daughters and none of whom he’s so much as spoken to) to join him in his room. He leaves and there are uncomfortable chuckles and eye-rolls.

It’s at a panel. Literature related topic. Panel has gender parity, and all four of the authors on it are authorities on the subject. Five minutes into the panel, just after the one straggler takes her seat and the introductions have been completed, a hand goes up in the audience. The moderator says she’ll take questions at the end. He clearly doesn’t respect her. He proceeds to spend the first half of the panel blurting out random phrases that are sometimes related to something a panelist said, and sometimes seem like a bizarre game of word association, “government inaction,” says a panelist, “George Bush!” he exclaims. Eventually he withers under the combined glares of several people in the audience sitting behind him who have trouble hearing the panel under his interruptions.

It’s at a launch party with my family and I’m talking to a friend. My wife and daughter leave the room and I excuse myself, telling my friend I have to hunt down my family. A person I wasn’t speaking to says, “what caliber?” The words make no sense. I say, “what?” He says, “you know, because you’re hunting them.” Sickened by the idea that somebody would joke about shooting my family, worse about ME shooting my family, I say, “that’s not funny,” and walk away. It’s that or hit him. He’s unpleasant to me the rest of the convention whenever he gets the chance. I avoid him whenever I can.

It’s the next day. I’m at lunch and have left the convention. I check Facebook and it’s full of comments from the audience at another panel. One about a woman and populated by women. Disruptive men in the audience have derailed the panel enough that people are taking to social media to grouse.

So yeah, noticing a theme yet? Unwanted and awkward solicitations. Jokes predicated on violence against a woman and a girl. Disrespect for a woman moderating. Disrespect for women on a panel. This is my home convention. This is my safe convention. This is the convention I bring my family to. This kind of stuff is not OK. It’s not OK anywhere and it’s not OK here.

Final thoughts

After the convention my wife asked me if I’d go back next year and I said, “probably.” It’s never been anything other than a resounding, “YES,” before. And it’s not because of the con-com. Volunteer run events will have their little glitches. It’s part of life. And at the convention itself they worked hard to try. And it’s not because of the programming which was good or about the hotel which was excellent or even about the inconvenience of going all  the way to Richmond Hill: just too far for transit but close enough to make a hotel seem an unnecessary expense. It certainly isn’t because I don’t see the utility in the convention. I’d not be a published author if not for Ad Astra.

But if my home con isn’t a safe space for my daughter, it isn’t a space I want to be in. Hannah loved Ad Astra. She got to explore a hotel, go swimming, meet storm troopers and Jedi, eat snacks that her parents don’t normally give her and do a dozen other exciting things. I want to share it with her. But conventions need to be safe spaces for women and girls before that happens. They need to be spaces women and girls get the basic respect that any person should be afforded. And that’s not something the con-com can fix on their own. That’s something that depends on a sea change in our culture to fix.

Ad-Astra 2016 schedule

Here’s my Ad-Astra schedule. There’s also a small chance I’ll be making a super-secret appearance at another panel. And I have a panel that overlaps the scotch tasting, but I miiiight turn up for the back 50 of that too.

Reading – Friday, April 29 – between 7:00 and 8:00 P.M. with Naomi Foyle, Anatoly Belilovski and Ian Donald Keeling.

Thinking Outside the Superhero Box – Saturday, April 30 between 5:00 and 6:00 P.M.

Cinematic Universes Serialized Television and The Disappearance of the Beginning Middle and End – Saturday, April 30 between 8:00 and 9:00 P.M.

We Destroy the Things You Love II – Saturday, April 30 – between 9:00 and 10:00 P.M.

Online Social Networks and Communities Explained – Sunday, May 1 between 10:00 and 11:00 A.M.

How to poison a franchise

3-6-banthaThis isn’t about squicking anybody’s squee. Well, it is, but not in the way you might expect. With that being said, fuck Star Wars Legends.

I hate, HATE Legends. I have read a grand total of 0.5 Legends books, and that some decades ago. Usually I don’t hold passionate opinions about sprawling franchises that I’ve no investment in. So why the hate for Legends?

Because of the fans who won’t let that shit go.

These are the fans who are so convinced that their manic pixie dream villain Thrawn would be better than Hux, Snoke and Kyllo Ren for Reasons.

These are the fans who heap insults upon Chuck Wendig books that haven’t been released yet, up to and including one who said he hoped Wendig had an accident that permanently ended his writing career.

These are the fans who whined that there were two Star Wars movies, (In A Row!) with a woman as the main protagonist.

I am generalizing a group a bit here. I don’t think every one of the misogynistic SW fans is also a Legends EU fan, but the venn diagram kind of looks like this:


Mostly overlap.

And here’s the thing: When, every time I hear, “but it should have been THRAAAAAAAAAAAAWN!” it’s accompanied by, “eeew, girls and gays all over my Star Wars!” I am less likely to want to read about Thrawn ever again.

I bounced off the EU books because they were crap.

Sorry fans.

They started off as bland corporate tie-in fiction, and they turned into a dog’s breakfast of bad plot decisions and shocking twists that failed to shock or twist much.

So, no, the Heir to Empire books should NOT be movies 7, 8 and 9. But what’s more, I’ve been re-examining a lot of Star Wars media because of how wildly successful the film was. I might have considered revisiting the Legends books. Except that fans who aren’t happy because the story they like isn’t the annointed official narrative for some reason that I’ve never been fully clear on have poisoned that well.

So congratulations Sad Banthas. You’re so worried about Disney taking Star Wars Legends off life support that you’ve killed the franchise yourself.

Meanwhile I still don’t understand why the fuck canon status matters.

Oh wait, it doesn’t.

A spoilery discussion of Star Wars Rebels

p11761869_b_v8_aa.jpgI’m going to try and hold off on saying anything about the meat of my discussion for about a hundred words because I don’t want the spoilery content to make it onto Facebook, Twitter, etc. previews. Please note that if you continue there will be spoilers. This is because I’m trying to get at some thematic things that depend on some of the late-season action pretty heavily.

With that said, I’ll note now that I came to Clone Wars very late (as in I’m still not done watching it) largely because I was one of those fans who felt very let down by the prequel trilogy. In fact if it weren’t for Adam Shaftoe being like, “no, seriously, give it a chance,” I wouldn’t have ever got around to it.

Clone Wars largely seems to be an apologia for the prequel trilogy. It does this by giving room for the relationship between Anakin and Obi Wan to breathe, by introducing Ahsoka Tano as a character, by allowing time for Anakin and Amidala’s romance to seem less straight-up creepy and by humanizing the clone troopers and giving space to examine how they’re affected by a war they were born and raised to fight.

But even so it seemed like a half-measure to me. Clone Wars does much to humanize Anakin Skywalker and remove some of the taint of Hayden Christensen’s career-destroyingly bad performance in the prequel trilogy. But, at least the parts of it I’ve seen to date, don’t really do anything to show us a man being seduced by the dark side of the force. And that’s a problem, because Palpatine’s co-option of Skywalker remains the most awkward and ham-fisted parts of the prequel trilogy: a victim of stilted scriptwriting, crowded plotting, last minute stunt-casting and Christensen’s inability to act his way out of a paper bag.

And so we’re left with a story of a now thoroughly humanized Jedi, who suddenly goes inexplicably insane and starts murdering children for no fucking reason in Ep. III.

I don’t know, maybe there are scenes later in the Clone Wars trilogy that I haven’t seen yet, where Anakin must engage Dooku on a dialectical level rather than just as an enemy swordsman, where he’ll have to confront the discrepancies in Jedi orthodoxy and see that perhaps the ideas of the Sith – that embracing passion makes one stronger, more able to shape the universe the way it should be – are worth examining.

But I haven’t seen them yet, at all really, and I’m into the second season of that show.

Ok, that’s probably long enough.

So let’s get to it.

Spoilers, etc.

Star Wars Rebels is the Darth Vader origin story the prequel trilogy should have been.

Being in the second season is significant because Rebels is two seasons old and has managed to create a Vader origin story on two levels, both of which are more effective than Ep. III ever was.

The first level is as a textual origin story. Throughout the second season, having defeated the Inquisitor from season one, the rebels face a nemesis in the form of Vader himself, and gain an ally in the form of Ahsoka Tano.

Within the show, Vader is as different from the season two inquisitors as Ebola is from a head cold. The inquisitors in season two are largely typical cartoon antagonists. They’re dangerous enough to provide an obstacle to our heroes, but rarely present much in the way of legitimate peril.

And then there’s Vader.

Vader gets a large vehicle dropped on him in his first encounter with the rebels. He’s buried under tonnes of scrap metal. And then he just shrugs it off. His laboured breathing doesn’t even change speed. Vader is implacable, a juggernaut, he’s inevitable death, patiently walking toward his enemies, fully aware that they are insects.


Just try not to cry.

Ahsoka discovering his identity, and coming to terms with the fact that her master, the man she fought with, who taught her to be the person she became, has become a monster, is one of the most emotionally intense moments I’ve seen in a cartoon. I mean we’re almost reaching Jurassic Bark levels here.

In these moments between former master and apprentice, we manage to see at the very least  how far Vader has fallen. We see the contempt he has for the man he was. We see how he’s encased himself in emotional armor, and how he believes, and not without cause, that this distance has made him so very much stronger than he was.

This provides context for Vader that functions as an origin for him better than a direct retelling of his fall. But of course, as Lucas said, and Abrahams skillfully showed, Star Wars products should rhyme. And that’s where we hit the thematic way in which Rebels becomes a better Vader origin story.

We need to talk about Ezra

Ezra is the perspective protagonist of Star Wars Rebels and he holds the narrative focus much more strongly than Anakin does in the Clone Wars. This callow youth is a force sensitive who has grown up without his parents due to their having been among the first people to actively oppose the Imperial order. We eventually learn that they were imprisoned and later died orchestrating a prison escape in response to their own son’s rebellious propaganda.

Bam. Ezra holds some responsibility for his parents death while simultaneously being able to externalize the blame to a vast and implacable foe to whom his anger was already devoted.

He’s also frighteningly powerful. The show handles this with uncharacteristic grace considering how heavy-handed the Star Wars franchise can be, focusing on Ezra’s special talent: charming animals. Over and over again, his ability to empathize with the monstrous creatures who occupy the frontier of the Star Wars universe gets him and his friends out of peril. He soothes angry monsters. He secures flying steeds for last-minute escapes. He identifies potential environmental hazards and enlists beasts to fight his enemies for him. This happens over and over again. And what’s more, Ezra is shown to far surpass Kanan in this regard. As for Ahsoka, she may be a masterful light sabre duelist, but the script never gives her that sort of ability.

And Ezra has a clear affinity with the Dark Side. Kanan agonizes over it. Yoda is nervous around it. Maul exploits it. The inquisitors egg it on. Every force sensitive Ezra encounters (again, seemingly except Ahsoka, who seems to have a blind spot when it comes to the Dark Side) notices that the boy has a bond to it.

And boy howdy but it’s seductive. When Ezra fails to accomplish Force feats using Jedi methods of serenity, Maul tells him to harness the power of his emotions, and it might as well be nitrous. Ezra, when he lets his passion into his force work, is far more powerful than when he is under Kanan’s watchful eye. This is highlighted repeatedly through the second season to such an extent that it reinforces my opinion that the whole dark side / light side thing and some of the toxic structures that leave the Jedi so vulnerable to the Sith exist precisely as a check to the power a fully trained Force user can wield. Simply put, the Jedi are deliberately handicapping themselves for moral reasons. And Rebels makes this much clearer over and over.

This whole story boils throughout the length of the second season, but it comes thoroughly into focus when Ezra encounters Maul (not Darth, not anymore) during the finale. Old Master Maul embodies the seduction of the Dark Side much more effectively than his own master ever did in the movies. And I can see a dark timeline where Ezra slowly drives away his friends with his spiral into darkness, until all that’s left is to bow before a master he hates, but who is the only one who understands the journey he’s set himself to.

Parallels in the supporting cast

So if Ezra is our Anakin Skywalker stand-in, and Maul is our Palpatine, this sets Kanan as our Obi Wan. And he does an admirable job. We get a real sense of mentorship with Kanan, but also camaraderie. Kanan is in many ways the ideal Jedi. He’s selfless, kind, brave and occasionally reckless. He tries to temper his action with wisdom and agonizes constantly as to whether he’s really up to the tasks he sets himself.

Unlike Obi Wan with Vader, Kanan is probably the first one to notice how strong Ezra is with the Dark Side. And as he tries to guide his apprentice along the Jedi path, this anxiety, that he will fail his apprentice and precipitate a fall, is his core fear.

Yoda stands in for himself in the series. He remains the slightly disapproving master turned recluse that he is in Empire Strikes Back. But his reaction to Ezra, while echoing his reaction to Luke Skywalker, is much more level than his immediate rejection of Anakin Skywalker in Episode I. Of course Yoda’s awareness of Ezra and Kanan presents a puzzle since, his words to Obi Wan regarding Luke at the climax of Empire is, “there is another,” and this is clearly Leia, he never says, “and, you know there’s that Jedi Knight and his apprentice who helped found the rebellion kicking around too.”

So that raises the question of why they’re out of the picture by the time Luke bursts onto it.

There isn’t really a Padme equivalent, as Ezra’s romantic life has taken a thankful back-seat to his master-student relationship. However the closest parallel is probably Sabine – the Mandalorian artist/bomber who joined the rebel crew shortly before Ezra.

She’s a heck of a lot more interesting than Padme ever got to be, though this could be the combined influence of both the awful scriptwriting that Portman faced in the prequel trilogy, and the fact that she’s got so much more screentime when all is said and done. Still, her ascerbic wit, her moodiness and her desire for inclusion, trust and respect provide a role model for Ezra which point him away from the staid teachings of the Jedi without going into the nonsensical, “Jedi aren’t allowed to love,” crap from the prequel trilogy. After all, Kanan’s relationship with Hera stands in stark contrast, a relationship of mutual respect, tender love and compassion.

Hera then acts effectively as a foil for the Padme role.

Here I have to divert to say momentarily that it’s unfortunate the extent to which the show does use the women in the cast to advance the character arc of the male characters. However the episode where Hera and Sabine have to recruit a ship builder together remains one of the strongest stand-alone episodes in the series, so this is something which will hopefully be corrected as Disney comes to realize how strong the force is with women.

The remaining key cast members mostly serve roles of comic relief and don’t need much discussion here. Chopper as stand in for R2-D2 isn’t exactly something that advances much thematically, especially since he’s basically just a palette swap.

That finale tho

So this is where we leave our Rebels: Kanan wounded by Maul. Ezra opening a Sith holocron even though he knows that thing is bad news. The battle between the Rebels, the Inquisitors, Maul, Vader and Ahsoka reduces the Inquisitor population further but ultimately sends all the other force users to their respective corners to wait for Round 3.

It’s hard to say which way Rebels will go. Using Jedi as much as it has – and Rebels is absolutely lousy with force users – paints it into a corner since Kanan, Ahsoka, Ezra, Maul an the Inquisitors are absent from the original trilogy. We could be looking at a tragedy story here.

But it’s  children’s cartoon. So maybe we won’t get such a dark ending. And that’s what ultimately makes Rebels compelling entertainment. The stakes are organically high. The characters are invested in the story in a way that makes sense and that puts them in a position of genuine peril – both to the body and to the heart. And that leaves me anxiously awaiting Season 3, flaws and all.

About that Iron Fist thing

I hesitated to write this post. As my hand hovers over publish, still I hesitate. Because I’m not sure the world really needs an attempt at a think piece on cultural appropriation from a white writer. To some extent I fear that this article might be seen as apologia, and it’s really not intended in that vein. But ultimately, I have some thoughts on some things I’ve seen, culminating with the Iron Fist casting thing and I don’t think I can express them in the brief space allowed on Facebook or Twitter.

So here goes.

I write martial arts stories. In general I’m a fantasist in my writing and I’m one who has a lot of the same influences as other fantasy writers: Dumas, Scott, Tolkien, LeGuin, Zelazny. But being a martial arts author specifically I’m also influenced by a few authors that might not be so well known: Luo Guanzhong, Shi Nai’anWu Cheng’en, Jin Yong. And what’s more, I wear the influence of their books on my sleeve just as openly as the influence of LeGuin’s A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA, Scott’s IVANHOE or Dumas’ COUNT OF MONTE CHRISTO. (Jin Yong is himself a fan of Dumas and so that influence ends up impacting me twice.)

Now that means that my stories play with Chinese tropes as often as they do British and French ones. But I’m also somebody who recognizes the problems posed by cultural appropriation and colonialism. I’m well versed in the damage of yellow peril narratives and orientalism in genre fiction. A bit of cognitive dissonance there. I’m aware of that.

The thing that makes appropriation and influence extra complex is that, unlike the orientalist view of monolithic cultures, people within a culture may have vastly different opinions on things surrounding their culture. When you add diasporas and cultural interaction within migrant populations into the mix that becomes even less clear which is how you get situations of kimono manufacturers in Japan targeting external markets at the same time that people of Japanese descent in the USA ask people to please stop using their ancestral dress as a costume. Because, you know, people are people shaped by personal experience everywhere, and how much comfort you have in living aspects of your inherited culture without fear of censure probably impact your desire to export elements of culture.

I suspect Canadians are more sensitive to the idea of cultural export than average, living as we do next to the biggest cultural exporter in the world. But the United States is far from the only cultural exporter. Britain, France and the other old colonial powers play that game, of course. Meanwhile the film industries in India and China and the music industry in South Korea have all begun targeting export markets aggressively.

A lot of this can be viewed through a Conflict Theory lens as a consequence of relative power; a film studio executive in Mumbai has a lot of it while the child of Indian immigrants getting bullied because her lunch smells different from bologna on white bread does not. It’s likely within that lens that they’ll develop differing views on how outsiders interact with their shared material culture.

Tropes are part of material culture. In fact they’re a huge part of material culture. Tropes present a shared vocabulary for understanding how to decode literature. Literature often becomes how cultures come to understand themselves. So in a way tropes are the basic building blocks of shared cultural understanding.

So using tropes from another culture is a big fucking deal, and can be a minefield. Some things to consider:

  • When you use the trope do you understand what it stands in for and how it connects to other tropes?
  • Are you perpetuating a harmful stereotype with your deployment of those tropes?
  • Are you showing respect to the culture that owns those tropes?
  • Is there a vast power differential between your culture and the parent culture for the tropes you intend to use? (EX: It’s not ever going to be appropriate for white people to mine First Nations tropes you know, since we were actively engaging in genocide against First Nations people within living memory and since they still represent the most repressed population in North America.)
  • Have you done your research? Seriously, do your bloody research.
  • Do you understand why you want to use these tropes? Is it a good reason?

So let’s look at Iron Fist.

Bill Everett got in on the martial arts movie craze in the US early – he says before Bruce Lee put out his first film (and he probably means before the theatrical release of the Big Boss in 1971 which means he was probably watching one of the late 1960s era Shaw Brothers / King Hu films, which included some true masterpieces like COME DRINK WITH ME, so right on for him being a fan.

In the 1971, Nixon and Mao hadn’t yet normalized relations between the USA and China, so what media there was came out of Hong Kong or Taiwan. But by the time Iron Fist hit comic stands in 1974 that had changed, and China was huge in American consciousness. Writing accessible stories that deployed tropes from China could be seen as reasonable. But it’s unfortunate that, along with those Chinese tropes, the author inserted the Orientalist trope of the white guy who goes to an exotic locale and becomes better at exotic stuff than the locals.

Marvel did some interesting stuff previously with Shang-Chi, who could be seen as a critique of Yellow Peril narratives, if somewhat accidentally, so Iron Fist was a bit of a step backward.

But the Iron Fist / Power Man team-up was kind of ground breaking in its own way and I’ve generally been content to see the Iron Fist comics as effectively benign. The aren’t an ideal way for white audiences to interact with Chinese tropes (I’d rather we got more works in translation instead) but they’re not that harmful either.

So we’re getting an Iron Fist show in the MCU and there’s been something of a three way debate over the casting of Iron Fist. This debate breaks down approximately like this:

  • Iron Fist should be played by an Asian actor because the MCU has been unwilling to give major roles to Asian characters. Considering the background of this character and the extent to which he’s built from Kung Fu movie tropes it’d be fitting to race-bend him.
  • Iron Fist should be played by a white actor because the character is white in the comics.
  • Iron Fist should not be played by an Asian actor because he’d be yet another Asian ninja character in a shared universe of film and TV that includes Asian characters, and actors of Asian descent portraying aliens only either as hand-to-hand combat specialists or doctors. Casting Iron Fist would act as a release valve for the MCU to improve the diversity of its lead casting.

I tend to support the first of these three positions. Arguably the biggest role in the MCU played by actors of Asian descent is in Agents of Shield in which Melinda May is a breakout character and in which we have Chloe Bennett (previously when discussing this issue on Facebook I forgot to mention her and felt a need to highlight her now) playing Daisy Johnson, a multi-talented hacker / spy / inhuman super-power. Still, arguably Phil Coulson is the actual lead on Agents of Shield. After Season One, Daisy was largely relegated to supporting lead status, a position that Melinda May has always been in. (Seriously can we just add May to the Agengers? Please?)

The same situation arises in Guardians of the Galaxy, where Dave Bautista (who is half-Filipino) plays a supporting lead as Drax the Destroyer. OTOH almost every MCU product includes a white lead. Certainly that’s the case for Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, The Avengers, Ant Man, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Guardians of the Galaxy and Agent Carter. I’ll give you that you could look at Agents of Shield as an ensemble cast in which Daisy and May play very large roles.

About the only thing to say positively regarding the second position is that white / black partnerships were rare at the time that Iron Fist teamed up with Power Man. Other than that, no, I don’t care. Race-bending is a thing that happens these days and just because the character was created as a blond guy doesn’t mean he has to stay blond. It’s not integral to the character of Danny Rand aside from as it relates to his relationship with Luke Cage.

The third position I have some sympathy for. The only thing I’d argue is that while it’s true that Daisy is basically the only named character played by an actor of Asian descent in the entirety of the MCU who is neither a martial artist first and foremost, nor a doctor, the population of the MCU is largely composed OF doctors and martial artists of one stripe or another, race notwithstanding. I’d say that it’s kind of sad that, for all its flaws, the MCU has done a better job of diverse casting than average for Hollywood. After all, we live in a world where this movie and this movie were both greenlit in close proximity to one another.

I certainly agree that the MCU could do a MUCH better job. And I’d much rather see either an Amadeus Cho fronted project or a Shang-Chi project come into the MCU than Iron Fist. That said, I understand why we’re getting Iron Fist instead.

I think casting Iron Fist as white is a missed opportunity. Iron Fist – the comic – is a harmless enough bit of trope stealing, especially considering both when it was inspired (at a time where the only contact the USA had with China was largely kung fu movies coming out of Hong Kong) and the context of the creator writing the comic as a reaction to how much he loved Hong Kong film. But this isn’t 1974 and it certainly isn’t 1971 anymore and standards have changed. The MCU has overwhelmingly allowed their properties to be fronted by white actors – and will continue to do so until Black Panther comes out.

Iron Fist, drawing, as it does, from the vast well of wuxia tropes, a well which is much more accessible if you do your research today than it was in 1974 would have been an ideal place to put an actor of Asian descent front and center.

You know, like they did in Into the Badlands.

The best show on TV.

Go watch Into the Badlands right now.

Um… what was I talking about? Oh yeah, Iron Fist. I hope that Marvel uses the show to highlight race relations through the Rand / Cage connection. Frankly BLM has brought a lot of stuff to the forefront of public consciousness that it would be good to give space to in pop culture. Establishing a friendship between Luke Cage and Danny Rand, in 2016, in the city of Eric Garner, and doing it in a way that demonstrates just how vast the gulf is between the privilege Rand enjoys and what Cage must endure could make for interesting television. But that’s the only even half-way compelling reason I can see to release an Iron Fist show and to cast Danny Rand with the same guy who played Ser Loras.