The misapprehension of mythology

Odysseus' return from Trojan War dated
Odysseus slaying the suitors.

There’s something of a truism that has arisen over the last decade within anglosphere cultural conversations. This goes that superhero stories are, “modern mythology.” I call this a truism because the discourses surrounding the position of the superhero vis-a-vis the myth is not to ask whether a superhero constitutes a mythic figure but rather to treat the consequences of superheroes as mythic figures. This has been an unfortunate development for criticism for a few reasons. It is, of course, flatly wrong. It also elides the reality of the mythology that underpins the modern world. This is ultimately a harmful obfuscation because it obscures how mythologies inform both literature and ideology. But to pick apart the nature of this error it’s necessary to step back and look at how the anglosphere has, throughout the 20th and 21st century, completely failed to understand myth.

The Golden Bough

During the Victorian period, James Frazer published a substantial study of mythography called The Golden Bough. In the Golden Bough, Frazer attempted to show commonalities between ritual and myth across cultures. He argued for an evolutionary progress of human culture from magic to religion and then science. This rigid progression of knowledge allowed for the assumption that the industrial imperial nations of Europe were, actually, helping their subjects by accelerating their progress past superstition toward technology. Furthermore, by categorizing “primitive” religions as magical thinking less advanced than monotheistic religion, efforts to convert colonial subjects to Christianity could be justified as a necessary progression to move them from superstition and toward reason.

It’s difficult to overstate the significance of The Golden Bough. The idea of cross-cultural mythological commonality became central to Campbell’s monomyth. Frazer’s work also informed Freud’s development of the Oedipus Complex – the idea that laws against incest could only arise because incest was desired traced directly from Frazer’s treatment of sacred kings and the origin of law. But, of course, there’s a problem here. Frazer’s work was an explicitly colonial treatise. The assumption of an inevitable progress to the development of culture was a fiction formed by colonial powers as a post-hoc justification for their abuses of power.

This error was expounded upon in a particularly cogent fashion by Pierre Clastres when he said, “the assertion of an obvious evolution cannot justify a doctrine which, arbitrarily tying the state of civilization to the civilization of the State, designates the latter as the necessary end result assigned to all societies.” Clastres demonstrated, rather than a necessary evolution of societies toward the (capitalist) state, that societies would find social equilibria in which they operated quite stably until some disruption occurred. This is a social version of an ecological concept called metastable equilibrium. The interesting about systems in states of metastable equilibrium is that, when they are disrupted by external conditions, these systems tend to find new modes of equilibrium. These changes in equilibrium then require far more energy input to restore to the previous state of equilibrium than was required to disrupt the state to begin with. There is no inevitable progression there is equilibrium, disruption and some new equilibrium. The commonality that underpins the work of Frazer and later theorists like Campbell then becomes largely a fragment of cherry picking and of projection. The colonial theorist plasticizes the culture of the imperial subject and shapes it in his own understanding to fit his idea of how these subjects should behave.

Monomyth and Archetype

It should be clear by now that I hold Campbell’s monomyth in no particular regard. I last visited it when I was discussing A Wizard of Earthsea and the ways in which Le Guin disrupted monomythic expectations by deviating from Campbell’s heroic journey.

However the next fall-back of mythic universalists is a slightly harder nut to crack than Campbell’s hand-picked selection of mythography, and that’s also often the point of approach which advocates of the superhero-as-modern-myth prefer. That is the Jungian concept of the archetype. Now of course the through-line here with Jung is largely the same as it is with Campbell. Jung, as a student of Freud, was influenced by Freud’s reading of myth which was, in turn, influenced by Frazer’s colonialist universalism. However it would be a little bit shoddy to just declare Jung and Freud fruit of a poison tree and discard both out of turn. In one regard, Jung is much more assailable than Freud in that his concepts of collective unconscious and of synchronicity become increasingly nothing but idealistic mysticism. Jung puts forward these ideal forms of unconsciousness and suggests that they create universal patterns, a shared phenomenological shape to experience. These packets of meaning are communicated at a subliminal level be it by processes of biological heritability or by a more mystical connection between minds at some quantum level. Any specific hero then carries The Hero within it. Le Guin realizes one of these archetypical constructions in A Wizard of Earthsea in the Gebbeth – a material manifestation of Ged’s own Shadow. But Jung’s archetypes have the typical idealistic failure of assuming a reality that is perpetually out of reach. We can’t apprehend this ideal Shadow directly but only manifestations of it – facets of a jewel that is never entirely within our experiential frame. And as these archetypes cannot be apprehended directly but instead can only be apprehended via their manifestations they become just as plastic as Frazer’s colonial universalism of myth.

This plasticity and denial of the particularity of myth makes it a simple process to declare any sufficiently broad piece of art mythic. Superheroic stories are about these “archetypical” characters who engage in “epic” adventures. This makes them “mythic” and thus makes them into myth.

Except archetypical here mostly just means broad. Superheroes are the products of many hands, their tangled literary continuities are full of internal contradictions because of the divided character of their authorship. But divided authorship isn’t the hallmark of a myth. Homer’s Illiad may or may not have been contributed to by multiple people but it has a singular author. Likewise Beowulf’s author, the Green Knight poet, the Theogony of Hesiod or Snorri Sturlson. The diffusion of authority that led to superheroes becoming broad, “archetypical,” characters misses the reasons that the Illiad, the Theogony, the Grail Cycle, Beowulf, or Gylfaginning achieve the status of myth. Myth exists in the investment of a people into these stories to the point where they believe this particular story says something about their particular experience as a people.

The value of myth doesn’t lie in its archetypical similarities but in the particulars. It’s irrelevant that there is a commonality in that Pangu‘s bones are the mountains and that Ymir‘s blood is the oceans. What makes these stories into myths are the ways in which people tied their own being to these stories. The mythic doesn’t lie in the general or the generalizable. It lies in the particular.

Guan Yu

Guan Yu was a retainer of Liu Bei during the three kingdoms period of China. There is little known about his life with the historical record depending principally upon the Sanguozhi – an historical document written by the official historian of the Jin dynasty, Chen Shou, which provided a valuable justification for the succession from the Han dynasty through the three kingdoms period and to the rise of the Jin – effectively a chronicle of the time of disruption between two moments of social equilibrium. As such the Sanguozhi has to be treated as a fundamentally political document and the things it reports about Guan Yu – his loyalty to Liu Bei, the high regard Cao Cao held for him, his eventual execution by Sun Quan and his posthumous honoring by Cao Cao should be treated as specifically propagandistic works. However something odd happened with Guan Yu that did not occur with the other historical figures of the Sanguo Zhi – he was deified. Now the deification of Guan Yu was a messy process and one that also contained some rather explicitly political dimensions. Buddhists adopted him at some point after the start of the Tang dynasty as a bodhisattva and between the Song and Ming dynasties, Guan Yu became increasingly treated as a god figure within Taoism and Chinese Folk Religion. By the time the Sanguo Yanyi was written, Guan Yu was well within the popular consciousness as a god figure and the book drew from various popular depictions to create something of a canonical story of his apotheosis that combined the guardian deity elements of Chinese folk religion with the war god and slayer of demons of Taoism and the bodhisattva of Buddhism into something of a coherent character. It’s from the Sanguo Yanyi that the picture of Guan Yu with eyes like a phoenix and skin as red as a ripe date arises, and this is the image that all modern altars to Guan Yu use as the basis for his depiction.

The myth of Guan Yu doesn’t come from a singular author but it was seeded by one in Chen Shou and codified by another with Luo Guanzhong. He is a man who was elevated to a war god, a protector and a god of good fortune, a killer of demons and a protector of the faith. But comparing him to Gilgamesh or to Romulus misses everything that makes Guan Yu significant as a myth. The threads of Taoism, Buddhism and Chinese Folk Religion, the operas and the histories, the particularity of the political situation that gave rise to his fundamental texts, these are where the myth of Guan Yu lives. Guan Yu has a terroir, he is inseparable from the people who deified him across history and into the present. Guan Yu is a modern myth in that he is a figure out of myth who still holds mythic resonance today. The shrine to Guan Yu is an incredibly common Chinese cultural indicator but reducing him to nothing but an archetypical character means erasing the messy particularity that creates him as a subject of myth making.

Constructing a myth is something that people do together. They are the product of centuries of that call-and-response feedback that is the artistic cycle as a culture tells itself about itself and replies again and again and again. The figures within it might carry surface similarities to figures from other myths. But they are inseparable from their origins, from their particularity.

Myth and Literature

Superman isn’t this. Frankly all these superheroes are far too young to have become mythic. The accretion of myth is a geologic process. Guan Yu contains strata: the Sanguozhi and its commentaries, the folk operas, the escalation of posthumous titles, the elevation to bodhisattva, the positioning of him as a war god, as a door god, as a protector and bringer of fortune, the codification of these narratives in the Sanguo Yanyi and the operas, movies and TV shows that arose from that. These strata conceal what came before but incompletely. The past of the Sanguo Zhi erupts into the Sanguo Yanyi a thousand years later. The nation building task of the Jin and the nation building task of the Ming create resonances between these strata that sing to each other like tectonic plates grinding. We have a tendency to look back at myth and say, “it started there,” but if we peel back the layers that origin retreats from us. It took 2000 years to create the modern myth of Guan Yu. These broad, plastic, heroes are empty of particularity. Sure you can say of Superman that he stands for, “truth, justice and the American way,” but even after a century of growth there’s far too little there to say what Superman stands for. He hasn’t had nearly the time necessary for Americans to fill him up and make him mythic.

George Washington, on the other hand, has.

Superman is literature. He’s a story told by authors to an audience. What’s more, the careful ownership that DC maintains over Superman, the fact that he remains just one owner’s piece of art constrains him from ever achieving a truly mythic resonance. Nobody owns the mythic resonance of American “Founding Fathers.” The civic cult is far more diffuse than that. A subject escapes literature and becomes myth when there is sufficient weight behind them that they stop being property of a person and become, instead, a reflection of a people. The mythic contains within it all the particularity of the people who elevated that myth and being modern myth depends on a depth of history that is contiguous with the development of the people holding that myth. There’s an arrogance present in these creators of broad archetypical stories that are all so hollow and plastic in thinking they can conjure myth out of declaring it so. But the mythic, the truly mythic, will repel these idealistic declarations.

Contracts and the will to power in Brand New Cherry Flavor

Brand New Cherry Flavor (TV Mini Series 2021) - IMDb

Brand New Cherry Flavor is a Netflix limited series based on the first section of a 1996 novel by Todd Grimson adapted by Nick Antosca who is previously known for Channel Zero and Brand New Cherry Flavor is a mess.

I’ve often said that I’m much fonder of an ambitious project that swings for the fences and misses than for a project that plays it safe, strives for little and accomplishes less and so I do have a fair amount of fondness for this messy and confused attempt. It certainly succeeded at injecting a fair amount of edge into the often atmospheric and moody world of Netflix horror miniseries with its regular use of well-executed practical gore effects and disturbing body horror. A scene in which a character pulls a worm out of the eye socket of another is well done enough to make even horror fans cringe a bit and there is a moment of Cronenberg-inspired body horror fused with seedy sexual desire in episode four that was incredibly disturbing – but in the precise way that people fond of extreme horror are likely to gel with. Antosca owes a very deep stylistic debt to Cronenberg throughout the series and I would recommend that people who enjoyed eXistenZ or Vieodrome in particular will enjoy the seedy aesthetics of this show.

I would also like to mention that Rosa Salazar delivers an excellent performance as the show’s anti-hero, Lisa Nova. I think it’s funny that somebody who has been putting in the effort in genre film as long as Salazar is still getting “will this be her breakout performance?” notes on her performance here, particularly after she already starred in the sadly poorly received Alita: Battle Angel, but it is true that she brought precisely the correct blend of edge, cruelty and vulnerability to this difficult role to make the character’s journey something we care about. Shame that Eric Lange wasn’t really able to keep up with her. Happily, Lange’s Lou Burke is rapidly eclipsed by Catherine Keener‘s Boro – and Keener provides an understated performance that works quite well as she drifts through the madness her character authors with a faint smile a sense of detachment.

But for all that the show had slick visuals and some strong performances from the leads it ends up being a little bit muddled. It is, at its core, a show about contracts. The inciting action drives this home as Lou offers Lisa a contract to direct a feature length adaptation of her short film and tells her to get a lawyer to read it. She does not, instead trusting a music video director friend-of-a-friend to ensure it’s all good. This leads to her missing a loophole that allows Lou to steal her movie in an act of petty spite for her rejecting his sexual advances.

In the second episode, Lou reinforces that there’s a dichotomy between a promise and a contract – and he suggests that the contract, the agreement on paper, is ultimately far more important than the promises made. This ends up being something the show reinforces in the final episode. But throughout it we see the various victims of either Lisa and Boro’s shared quest for revenge on Lou or the war-of-the-witches that builds between the two once Lisa discovers how Boro has manipulated her suffering and dying despite never having entered into a contract at all. But then perhaps this is the point.

When we think of contracts we often think of them as a device to enable something. We enter a contract to secure work or to agree to the performance of a service. A person who signs a contract agrees to do a thing and in exchange the other party also agrees to do a thing: A does a job, B pays for it. But when we look at the world of Brand New Cherry Flavor we see, more than anything else, a world where people with power, when unconstrained, do whatever they want to whoever they want.

Lisa emotionally manipulates Mary to get the performance she wants out of her for Lucy’s Eye. She’s so successful that, while the two of them are both high on Peyote, Mary rips out her own eye and eats it. Lisa films it and adds it into her short – grist for the creative mill. Lou exploits his power to make or break would be stars. Alvin Sender, despite his obsequious demeanor makes it just as clear that he wields power and expects obedience. And, of course, Boro does what they want to whoever they want whenever they want. They drug people, murder people, enslave them as undead zombies. They ensorcell people and they steal the bodies of people, forcibly overriding their victims’ minds so that they can continue their eternal life. These people don’t need contracts to enable them. Boro has eyes on Lisa the second she sets foot in Los Angeles and long before Lisa comes to them for help with her revenge on Lou. Boro, in fact, manipulates Lisa to the position where she expects Lou to betray her and while Lou’s ultimate motive for his treason is personal, common and pathetic there may, in fact, be a bit of self-fulfilling prophecy in how things work out for Lisa in that Boro primes her to believe she has the power to hurt Lou and the will to use it.

No. Contracts constrain the powerful. In Brand New Cherry flavour it isn’t that a contract enables you to do anything. Instead the contract sets the limits of what the powerful can do to you. Boro makes a contract with Lisa to help her take her revenge on Lou in exchange for the kittens she begins vomiting up. Lisa makes a contract with Lou which she believes will constrain him in his choice of director but she’s deceived.

Contracts are protective in Brand New Cherry Flavor. This is a show with a remarkable body count. Almost every named character is either killed or maimed. But it’s notable that the people who survive: Lisa, Boro, Lou and Jules are all people who have entered into contracts with each other. Lisa adheres to the precise limit of her contract with Boro and, as such, is unconstrained in the use of her own, not inconsiderable, power to repel Boro’s attempt to take more than they were owed. Lou enters a contract with Lisa and, despite losing everything of value to him, he lives. We can safely assume that Jules has signed a contract with Lou and Jules was also intimately involved in the deception of Lisa regarding the terms of her contract and he, too, survives, if barely. In the end his girlfriend happily announces that his restorative surgeries are going apace. Meanwhile Roy and Code, Jonathan and Christine and even Mary never engage in contracts. They enter the arena of the powerful without any such protection and they are consumed.

There’s a scene early in the first episode where Lisa moves into her apartment and discovers a coyote being eaten by a pack of stray cats. Cats turn up a lot. Boro compels Lisa to vomit white kittens and Boro leaves Lisa with a cat of her own as a token of their contract. Lisa’s mother may, in fact, be a spirit of a white jaguar. The spirit is an ancient enemy of Boro’s but in particular she is a spirit being who Boro broke a contract with. The Jaguar left Boro for dead but they managed to escape and the two of them have been playing something of a game of cat-and-mouse ever since. Boro wants to steal the jaguar’s magic to reinforce their own and Lisa is a conduit to that magic. But Boro is playing with fire since Lisa, as such a conduit, is a being with power of her own to wield, and Boro has, by necessity, to educate Lisa in the use of that power in order to advance her revenge and position her to become Boro’s new vessel. As the show goes by the dead coyote slowly decays and nobody really does anything about it. Lisa, becoming increasingly a witch rather than an artist, seems somewhat at home with it and her visitors all react with revulsion but think it should be someone else’s job to clean up. Instead it’s just… consumed.

Hollywood, in Brand New Cherry Flavour, is the domain of predators who eat anything smaller than them and who have implemented the contract to impose the minimal limits upon their consumption necessary to allow any collaboration at all. But this goes beyond people being inhumane – this presents a cosmology where altruism is punished. It’s a universe where powers contend and overthrow each other: a universe of struggle. This then allows us to unify the dialectic we’ve established surrounding a contract. Because, in its character of a restraint upon the powerful and a shield for the less powerful against predation it allows a savvy negotiator the opportunity to secure more power to herself. In their pentultimate confrontation, Lou castigates Lisa, accusing her of being no better than him. In a sense he’s not entirely off the mark. Lisa did exploit Mary. “She’s an actor; she means whatever I allow her to,” she says at one point. Mary believed there was something far more mutual between her and Lisa to the point where, when Code tells Mary how little Lisa really cares about her, she murders him on the spot in a particularly brutal fashion. Except Lou has missed something important. Lisa, burned by her inattention to her contract with Lou, has used her contract with Boro to grow both the power available to her and her will to use it. The first time Lou sends an assassin to kill Lisa he almost succeeds. The second time, Lisa eats the assassin. This is, in part, because Lisa has secured power from Boro but that’s not the full story. We know, by this point, that Boro is a parasite. They need Lisa’s power to execute their magic. That is what the kitten blood is all about. It’s fuel. So when Boro heals Lisa and grants her increased strength with which to confront the assassin, who Boro intentionally puts in Lisa’s path knowing full well the outcome, they’re only returning to Lisa a fraction of the power they took along with the knowledge and the will to use it. Lisa isn’t like him. By the time they have their second-last encounter she is far more powerful and far more willing to use that power. This is demonstrative in how she approaches her revenge – as a restorative vengeance which Nietzsche describes as being built around a need to assert a lack of fear: “The intention of showing their complete lack of fear goes so far in some people that the dangers of revenge—loss of health or life or other losses—are in their eyes an indispensable condition of every vengeful act.” Lou fidgets and hesitates when he decides to kill Lisa and ultimately goes through an intermediary. He’s unable to summon the will to do the deed himself. By this time Lisa has already infected Lou with a parasite, been a conduit through which Jules spontaneously combusts inadvertently led to the death and zombification of Lou’s son at the hands of Boro and eaten the assassin Lou sent to kill her. Lou’s money is power just as Lisa’s magic is. But he doesn’t have the will to wield it. He’s small and pathetic. Lisa, ultimately, has so little concern for him that she gives him the final insult of letting him live. Blind. Ruined. When they meet for the last time, he asks her not to turn on the TV – he doesn’t want to hear it if he can’t see it.

She leaves it running.

Marx described revenge as being, “one of the highest incentives to energetic and passionate action,” in revolutionary times. And as such we can also see how Lisa, in her contracts and her proletarianism, is embodying a revolutionary drive contrasted to Lou’s bourgeois moralizing. “Law, morality, religion, are to {the proletarian} so many bourgeois prejudices, behind which lurk in ambush just as many bourgeois interests,” and so it doesn’t matter if Lisa is better than Lou. It doesn’t even matter if she has committed some of the same sins of exploitation that he did before. She has contended with him and brought his so very bourgeois world crashing down with the power of her will.

When we first meet Lisa and Lou there is a vast gulf of class and status at play. She’s living out of a car. He’s living in a mansion where he keeps falcons and he is able to throw around cash to do whatever he wants. He sees the world as his oyster. But this class antagonism proves insufficient to forestall Lisa’s revenge once Lisa uses the system of contracts in place to marshal her strength and pit herself fiercely, completely, against him. Lisa isn’t just like Lou, she’s far far more terrifying because while Lou might be guided by appetites, while he might be a predator, he’s divided against himself while Lisa has an intensity and singularity of focus that allows her to use any power she can seize far more effectively. And, of course, Lisa is not alone. Things don’t go well for her allies but she has them nonetheless. She even tries to protect them. But more than that, she marshals their strength and guides it into the spear-thrust of her attack on Lou and later into her escape from Boro.

Lisa’s proletarian stature remains throughout the series. She never gets much money and what she does she spends to rent a room in a derelict hotel. She’s the only tenant in the cavernous building and so she ends up with a demesne much like Boro’s a home for a witch – a run-down and forgotten place possessed not by the bonds of capital but by the will of the holder to take it. When we learn the backstory to Lisa’s movie we discover that it was financed by the star and shot in her house. Lisa hadn’t any money before shooting and she didn’t after. She didn’t even pay for the peyote they took.

When Boro tries to jump into Lisa they’re unable to explicitly because her will is too strong to dominate. They try to compel her to despair by killing the last of Lisa’s allies and by pushing her to renounce life. But she refuses. Lisa would rather live with all the death and terror and monstrosity that suffuses her life than give in. Mary chooses otherwise and is consumed in her stead.

Ultimately it’s fundamentally important to understand how Brand New Cherry Flavour decouples class position from power. At the end Lisa is confronted with a Hollywood executive more powerful and insidious than Lou ever was and she laughs in his face. She’s done what she set out to do with Lou and set his world on fire. All his bourgeois posturing, his anxiety, concern for lineage, his pride in family and his last-minute defensive moralizing are ash. And she did it without needing to engage bourgeois power. Boro is never seen spending a penny on anything. They take the scraps and refuse a butcher doesn’t need to feed their zombies. They take what they want directly and what they don’t take they make themselves – they’re a gardener and a doctor one and the same with being a witch. Boro is not bourgeois; they’re something far older, something best approached via Nietzsche’s ideas of master morality. But Lisa is not an embodiment of slave morality so much as an exemplar of proletarian will thrusting against the power of her enemies.

Brand New Cherry Flavor is a clumsy, messy work full of internal contradictions. There isn’t an easy or neat through line and this interrogation of Lisa’s revenge and its ties to power dynamics and class is, itself, something which suffers from muddled and unclear readings. But the one thing that shoots straight and sharp as an arrow through this tangled mess of a horror story is the will of the protagonist. It gleams out of Rosa Salazar’s expressive eyes and radiates from her stance. It is something the rich predators of Hollywood lack. There is a certainty to the poor, to the forgotten, to the underbelly, here. Even the cheap assassins Lou hires have more certainty, more will, than their employer. This doesn’t become a valorization of the proletariat. Lisa isn’t a good person and many of the other proletarian characters we encounter are far worse. But it is an evident divide from the contempt this show demonstrates for Bourgeois comfort and platitude. Brand New Cherry Flavor is a difficult show to recommend. The chances are if you’ve read this far and still want to watch this show you’ll appreciate the experience. But it’s a tough pill to swallow with an expression of theme that is, at times, as messy and haphazard as the gore that gloriously spatters every frame. But it is compelling. This season has me curious to read the book it’s adapted from in part to see if certain structural elements of mirroring between Boro and Lisa that don’t pay off in the show are present, and resolved, in the book and in part because I suspect that as somebody with an appreciation for Barker, Bataille and Burgess I might also enjoy the work of Grimson. At the very least, this eight-episode war-of-the-witches is far better paced than the average Netflix fare and is served well by being only eight episodes long. If you’re a fan of horror it might be one to consider this Halloween season.

Kid’s Stuff: Another among others in Addams Family 2

The Addams Family 2 (2021) - IMDb

Before I spend too many words praising Addams Family 2 – which I will be doing – I want to start by referring back to the last time the Addams Family was a main subject of this blog. I have been relatively consistent since my writing of that piece in situating the creative rights of artists to make use of old media over that of firms to continue to profit off their purchased ownership of them. I persist that Adult Wednesday Addams was sufficiently transformative that, even within the bounds of copyright law as conceived, it should constitute IP protected parody. This film is a product of MGM’s ownership claim which I do think is harmful to a franchise venerable enough (Charles Addams having died over 30 years ago) that it really should be public domain. With that said, The Addams Family 2 is a remarkably good family film and the things they do with Wednesday, in particular, as a character are interesting. This film presents a favorable counter-point to the failings of The Mitchells vs the Machines and in light of my criticism of the latter for the ways in which it reinforced patriarchy and demanded that children must recognize parental hardship in the face of mistreatment I think it’s valuable to show how this film, through the use of a lighter touch and a different family dynamic managed to use the same premise: father arranges a road trip in a bid to connect to his increasingly distant daughter, to much better effect.

The fascinating thing is the extent to which these two movies mirror each other. There is, as mentioned above, a very similar inciting incident. Wednesday is increasingly distant from her family, whose foibles have become terribly irritating to her. Gomez is anxious that his daughter is acting aloof and impulsively decides to take the family on a cross-country roadtrip. Meanwhile a tech billionaire has devised a new product which works poorly and Wednesday holds the key. His interactions with the family drive the a-plot of the movie and provide an action frame upon which to hang an exploration of a father-daughter dynamic. This is all hauntingly familiar to anyone who has watched The Mitchells vs the Machines. There are, however, two very significant differences between these films and they are the sources of the strength of the Addams Family 2 over the older film. The first is that The Addams Family 2 uses a much lighter touch with the conflict between Wednesday and Gomez and a much healthier relationship dynamic between Gomez and his wife than the triangle formed by Katie, Rick and Linda in The Mitchells vs the Machines.

Unlike Katie and Rick, there’s nothing really wrong in the relationship between Wednesday and Gomez. He’s a loving and doting father who still sees Wednesday as his little girl. Wednesday sees the impulsive, passionate, affectionate Gomez as embarrassing and cloying. Like Rick, Gomez has to learn to trust his daughter to make good decisions for herself but Wednesday doesn’t need to come to any sort of cathartic understanding of Gomez’s perspective. She just has to come to accept that heredity isn’t a straight jacket and that she doesn’t have to renounce her family ties to create her own identity. This understanding on her part is sufficient to resolve her conflict with Gomez and restore the family to harmony. Morticia, meanwhile, is not caught in the middle. She acts as a confidant and helper to both Wednesday and Gomez, giving Wednesday an important plot MacGuffin that serves to cement her place in the family but also talking through parenting strategies with Gomez and, in fact, sharing agency over his mistakes.

It’s unsurprising that any modern configuration of the Addams Family has Morticia and Gomez being the sort of couple who talk through their fears together and who come to mutually agreed parameters with how to act that they both follow through on, but it is refreshing in comparison to Rick’s boorish anachronism. And this changed dynamic helps to drive home that Wednesday’s parents truly love her unconditionally and want the best for her. If they fail it’s because they’ve not calibrated how ready she is to decide, for herself, what is best.

The other significant difference is the handling of the villain. In Mitchells vs the Machines I was always very dissatisfied with the easy way Mark Bowman is let off the hook. Although his decision to discard PAL was the inciting moment of the a-plot action, he is quickly eclipsed as the villain. He regrets easily and at the end of the film has learned the error of his ways.

There’s no such kindness given to Cyrus Strange. He’s a rotter through and through. In the initial moments of the film Wednesday, at a school science fair, devises a machine to transplant animal traits into humans. The example provided is transferring the ability to solve Rubik’s cubes from her pet octopus into her oafish uncle Fester. Strange, played with airs of Steve Jobs and Tony Stark in equal measures, witnesses the demo and immediately tries to con Wednesday into giving her invention to him. She refuses, claiming it’s built around a “family secret.”

However Pugsley, Gomez and Morticia attend the science fair too, despite Wednesday’s admonitions for them to stay away, and between Pugsley’s pyromaniacal reconfiguration of another student’s baking soda volcano and Gomez and Morticia’s PDAs they manage to both destroy the venue and mortify their daughter.

Gomez then proposes a road trip to bring the family back into harmony and as they are leaving they’re confronted by a lawyer claiming that Wednesday is not, in fact, an Addams but has been switched in the hospital – a danger later made more plausible when Fester admits that he snuck into the hospital on the night Wednesday was born and upset all the babies, a situation he resolved by juggling said newborns. He says he’s mostly sure he put all the babies back where they went. Gomez and Morticia aren’t particularly interested in discussing their anxieties about being hounded by a lawyer seeking a paternity test with their aloof daughter but she overhears them discussing the issue and goes on a quest to discover the truth of her parentage.

Of course it’s all a con. Strange heard about the disruption at the hospital and used it as a basis to supplant Wednesday’s family in the belief it would gain him access to her technology. Although his aesthetics – black turtlenecks and holographic displays – point to the stereotypical billionaire-entrepreneur-inventor character, Strange is more of a Dr. Moreau. His great plot is to create human-animal hybrids to staff militaries and call centers. That’s right, the evil plot of the villain of this movie is to try and do the thing from Sorry to Bother You. He fakes a DNA test and tries to persuade Wednesday that she is really his long-lost daughter. This goes poorly for him and by the end of the movie Strange has been transformed so that his appearance corresponds to the ugliness of his heart. His lies are exposed and he is killed by Uncle Fester, now transformed into a tentacular kaiju by the side-effects of Wednesday’s treatment. None of this is ground-breaking to anybody who has paid attention to the themes of the Addams Family in the last (checks calendar) 57 years. The Addams Family are strange but loving. The beauty of their hearts becomes revelatory despite their outward strangeness while their enemies all start quite mundane but their own inward monstrosity slowly is revealed through the awful ways they treat the lovable oddballs of the cast. This works as well with the animated characters today as it did during both the Julia / Huston / Lloyd / Ricci movies and the original TV show. The gloss of tech billionaire helps to drive home the mundanity of Strange and makes the revelation of his monstrosity thus that bit more poignant.

The funny thing about the Addams Family movie is how low-stakes it all kind of seems. Wednesday is always so obviously an Addams. It’s present in the steampunk lab she sets up in the science fair and her “tremble brief mortals” monologuing about her experiment. It is deployed in a moment of legitimate humour when, in an effort to hide her from the lawyer, the Gomez enrolls Wednesday in a Texas child beauty pageant. Another girl in the group politely asks Wednesday what her talent is and Wednesday reveals that it’s min reading before promptly and horrifically invading the other girl’s mind, sending her screaming from the room in abject terror.

Later, during the same sequence, Wednesday is in the midst of the other girls on stage but, ignorant of the expected dance moves and blocking she keeps getting shoved around by the other girls until, at the moment of the climax of the musical number, she reveals a dagger secreted in her boot and cuts a rope backstage, spilling buckets of *ahem* red paint on each of the other girls in a delightfully deranged callout to Carrie.

In general the movie subverts the expectation of conflict. In one scene Wednesday commands Lurch to show a gang of bikers what his cold dead hands can do. He sings a disco number and ultimately replicates one of the best scenes from Tangled (only better because I Will Survive is a bop whereas I’ve Got a Dream is one of the Disney Princess line’s weakest songs.) In a later scene Lurch is sent into conflict with a bruiser in the employ of Strange but the villain’s thug immediately changes sides – it transpires that he was previously Lurch’s room mate at the asylum Gomez retrieved Lurch from and they’re quite fond of each other. In fact this show delights in setting up conflict and then giving us a moment of harmony instead as much as it does in setting up something mundane and pleasant – a science fair, a marriage proposal, a beauty pageant, and so on – only to transform it into absolute carnage. There is a winking kind of edge to the humour in this film which, at its best, manifests like the Carrie homage and, at its worst, is pretty much bog-standard weed jokes trading off the stunt-casting of Snoop Dogg as Cousin It. Which really isn’t all that bad when you get right down to it.

I wouldn’t say that Addams Family 2 is without flaws. Some of the fine details of the beauty pageant scene will almost certainly have reasonable critical readings that will point to some issues with perspective and power relations in the United States and the use of a vial containing a drop of blood from every member of the Addams Family as both a metaphor for the bonds of family and as a literal tool to save Fester from the unintended consequence of Wednesday’s hubris is a bit overly treacly for a movie that generally slashes away the maudlin with a riot of camp excess. However what we end up with, though imperfect, remains one of the better realizations of a non-toxic family comedy about a daughter growing up and a father struggling to come to terms with this. Wednesday is a freak. And so are her family. And their freakishness is not the same as hers and it bugs her. She doesn’t like PDAs and REALLY doesn’t want a hug.

But what makes it good is that, while Wednesday learns it may occasionally, rarely, be OK to give her freakish dad a hug because she loves him and cares for his feelings, she doesn’t have to be like her parents. She can be other than them. And being different, being other, doesn’t invalidate the bonds between them.

And that’s alright as a message by me.