Friday, September 30, 2016

The Magnificent Remake

The Magnificent Seven (2016) came out last week, which is a titular remake of a classic western from 1960, which itself is a thematic remake of Akira Kurosowa's uber-classic Seven Samurai. That's fertile ground for the question of "how do remakes work in the modern era?"

Image result for magnificent seven Image result for magnificent seven Image result for seven samurai

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Batman vs Superman: Ignorance

A frequent criticism of BvS is that it's morally empty, with nothing but frat-boy Zack Snyder's love of gritty fight scenes and tepid plot to justify them.

Which is weird, because BvS has some of the most blatant thematic statements since the first Magnificent Seven.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Television: Sweeps Week

Next week this blog is going to spend more of its focus on the philosophical messages conveyed through various television shows, and how their techniques contribute or detract from that.

If you have a television show to request (not anime), or your own critical essay to submit, please do so. Anyone who thinks seriously about art is welcome.

Hancock: Apologies

A touching moment to end our exploration of Hancock, is a contrast of the two apologies given by Hancock.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Hancock: A Good Ol' Bank Robbery

The "superhero stops a bank robbery" is probably the most standard trope that Hancock uses, and Berg subverts the cliche delightfully while maintaining its essence. Let's go over it today.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Hancock: Back to the 1930's

A great deal of this movie is wrapped up in the 1930's, which is the time period of Hancock's origin. We're not given any flashbacks, just occasionally told hints of what happened that fateful night. This is a really telling period of time for Berg to use.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Die in a Fire

If "literally" has become just an intensifier adverb due to linguistic drift, and the word diagetically has taken the role it used to hold instead, then I look forward to when diagetically also becomes a figurative intensifier.

"He was diagetically killing it last night!"

Hancock: Miscege Nation

It's not really possible to discuss Hancock without discussing cultural attitudes towards black-white romantic pairings in media. So let's rip the bandaid off and jump right in.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Storks: Wow, a Good Review

Megan Garber reviews Storks.

By which good means "actually looking at the techniques and how it overall contributes to the message of the movie and the culture we live in" without defenses of "I liked it, it was exactly what it knew what it wanted to be, like a good hamburger."

In the mfing Atlantic of all places.

Hancock: Celebrity

One of the few things most critics noticed about this movie was the imagery of celebrity. But beyond "I guess superheroes are like a basketball star or OJ", not much was added to the discussion. Let's examine these allusions more in depth.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Videogame Criticism

Reading through "Paean to Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri", which seems to be another writer that takes their subject seriously.

Video game criticism is interesting, since it needs to avoid the twin pitfalls of "ignore the mechanics" and "focus only on the mechanics and how fun it was to play." Good criticism needs a way of relating the mechanics to other elements of the game, and what combined message they relate. Toss in box art, controller experience, and franchise context as well.

And whoever can do that properly, needs to tackle the whole Hideo Kojima oeuvre.

Movies Coming Out

This fall actually has a large number of potentially interesting feature films coming out. Some will probably be rubbish, but at least some of them should have the redemptive potential of an Alien sequel.

Hancock: Noted Stanford Professor and Bank Robber...

After the big three, very few characters in this movie even get multiple scenes. Aaron is the lovable moppet who always likes Hancock despite his gruff exterior. And there's the villain, who is relatively minor but pretty interesting for all that.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Hancock: Mary Part Deux

So Hancock the movie spends the first hour establishing how systemic racism (primarily through class signals, and not explicit antipathy towards blackness) degrades black men who become depicted as angry and slovenly and thus not worthwhile members of society, even when they have so much to contribute.

Having done that, Peter Berg goes for the hat trick by applying the same lens to feminism and intersectionality too. It's so great.

Hancock: Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

The plot of Hancock is like an M. Night Shyamalan movie where the twist is... the woman was an actual character all along.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Hancock: PR Man vs Realism

Before jumping in to a character like Mary, let's actually give a bit more space to the philosophical stances represented by Ray.

Hancock: Boy

Just for a focus on the use of one word in one scene, I'm going to copy paste SMG's analysis of how Hancock uses the word "boy". Like most SMG critiques, it uses historical context and the tone used in the film, and it takes the form of arguing with forum trolls.

Hancock: Ray, a Drop of Golden Sun

At first blush, Jason Bateman's Ray is the cliche hero of this tale. But there's more nuance to his position.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Comments: No Longer Requiring Log In

I did not realize comments required users to be logged into to gmail. I have turned that off and anyone can comment.

Comments will still be screened before posting, but only for outrageous spam or personal attacks. Thus far every comment submitted has been approved and I expect this to continue.

(This is less a statement that personal attacks are unacceptable, but more that they are boring. We are here to engage with the text, not to identify and expunge "bad people".)

Hancock: What Could Have Been

Something that's interesting about this fairly weird movie, is that the original script that inspired it was completely different.

Hancock: the A-Word

And when we’re talking “uncomfortable class imagery” there’s nothing more direct than the pervasive use of profanity. The defining word of this entire movie is…

Friday, September 16, 2016

Hancock: Weather and Critical Observation

As mentioned before, Hancock contains a lot of uncomfortable class imagery. Holy hell, does it contain a lot. And the easiest thing to do is dismiss this as juvenile attempts to appeal to "frat boys" with no more substantial meaning in the film. "That's a nice theory but do you really think the director was thinking that?"

This is the wrong outlook. As a demonstration, let's talk about weather in this movie.

Hancock: Progression

Hancock's character arc is the evolution from Jar Jar Binks to Luke Skywalker.

(Obviously, full spoilers ahead for all posts from now on.)

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Hancock: Preview

Tomorrow or over the weekend I'm going to write about the best superhero movie of the post-2000 age of cinema, Hancock. This is a very controversial and very rich movie. There are so many details and social lessons we could pry into.

Individually, Will Smith, Charlize Theron, and Peter Berg are all signs that a movie is going to powerful commentary on class and oppression. (I Am Legend, Mad Max Fury Road, Friday Night Lights.) When they get together...

Except I think most people reading this blog haven't seen it. You should, you can rent it for $3.

So I'll probably only write one post. But if people have seen it, sound off in the comments letting me know (or +1 this on some social media or whatever). If so, we could really dig into this one. You know, form a truly authentic reading of the text and re-examine our role in the social hierarchy? If that's not your idea of a fun weekend why are you even reading this blog.

TFA Review: The Light

The broadest theme of "The Force Awakens" is that which awakens, which is the light side of the Force. Let's talk about this terrifying concept a little.

Tim Rogers

Some quick links before a new post on The Force Awakens later today.

Tim Rogers is the best videogame critic out there. He combines a sophisticated understanding of how games work, with thoughtful appreciation of symbolism, and a great deal of words.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Tuesday, September 13, 2016


While Worm has us on the topic of superheroes, I'll review and analyze some of my favorite superhero movies this week. But weird superhero movies. So, starting with Birdman.

It’s about Michael Keaton dealing with life after being a superhero movie star, and struggling to be taken seriously as an artist, and what “being taken seriously as an artist” even means. It’s heavy on monologues and bold cinematography, and has the acting and set-pieces to back that up.

It also says a lot about LARPs, and emotionally losing yourself in transparently artificial art.

The movie elicits comparisons to JCVD, a similar vehicle for Jean Claude Van Damm. It’s pretty good and more people should watch it.

The long review contains spoilers. This isn’t a movie ruined by spoilers, so feel free to read on if you haven’t seen it. But just to warn you. 

Monday, September 12, 2016

Every Frame a Painting on Musical Score Choices

Just a reminder if you aren't following Tony Zhou, your popular film criticism needs to level up.

Worm: The Tail

We're wrapping up the week of Worm posts here. I may return to some topics in the future as I reread my favorite passages, but it's been enough for this breakneck pace.

You know who we've barely talked about? Taylor. Skitter. Weaver. Khepri.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Worm: Normals: the Bad and the Badass

Most superhero stories actually have a high proportion of characters without powers, who still affect the plot and characterization in many ways. The MCU and DC movies both have more normal humans as characters than they do metahumans. The world of Worm has an absolutely tiny number of normals who make more than a token appearance, especially for a work the equivalent of 20 novels long.

How normals are depicted often matters in superhero works because they portray how much you can get done, and how much you can *matter* in this world if you haven't been gifted powers. Can you use sheer grit or emotional connection to become a real player, or do external factors dominate over human will? Are you a joke, or are you a badass normal?

Normals after all usually get pigeon holed into one of those two groups. A person without any powers who through cleverness and stubbornness makes the godlike characters have to contend with them, is a badass normal. In other stories, a character who tries that may be doomed to patheticness for their hubris, or become evil with their obsession (such as in The Incredibles.)

Let's go over these often overlooked characters.

Comic Recommendation

If you've been enjoying this analysis, and think you enjoy superhero stories with rich themes regarding moral philosophy, you should try Strong Female Protagonist.

Tagline: "What are you going to do, punch poverty in the face?"

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Tarot of the Ages of Humanity

"Seriously, kids, hardcore semiotics can be hazardous to your epistemic health, don’t try this at home…"

Worm: Cauldron and Privilege

Worm is not particularly good at depicting class. Yes there are *plots* going on regarding characters' position in the class structure (New Wave, Grue), but they aren't *aesthetically* drawn based on their class. We have a couple deliberate class-defined characters (Bitch, Grey Boy) but by and large most of the characters don't show these traits. Does Tattletale (upper class) talk differently or have an appearance in contrast with Taylor (middle class) or Grue (lower class)? It's not Star Wars where you generally know a character's place in the class structure the second you see them.

That's fine because there's still some fantastic commentary on the power structures of society.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Worm: The Wyrm

Dragon's secret of course, is that she's human.

Star Wars: Link

Someone shared with me this analysis that I am linking to despite the hideous domain title, where they critique imperial actions in terms of real world military politics.

In fact, our very first glimpse of the Imperial High Command is an argument between the Army and the Navy about the strategic vulnerability of the Death Star. The stakes are high: For the Navy, the Death Star represents the ultimate in bureaucratic power-grabs, a guarantee of perpetual dominance on top of the Imperial pecking order. For the Army, the Death Star represents the potential death of their service as a viable political force. 

Nowhere is inter-service rivalry more apparent than in the lead up to the Invasion of Hoth in Empire Strikes Back. After coming out of light speed, an Army General reports to Vader that the Navy fleet has come out of light speed – a clear attempt to cut Admiral Ozzel off at the knees. Vader’s view of the situation is completely colored by the Army’s spin on the situation. Instead of allowing the Navy to give a report (and a possible justification for the strategy), the Admiral gets killed, the Army gets the glory, and CAPT Piett moves up a slot after learning a valuable lesson about the utility of throwing his Army colleagues under the bus.

(And how can we not respect an article with subtitles such as "Systems not Sith"?)

Where I was worried about this article, but in fact it turned out to be good, is that by the conclusion all these errors are presented as not mistakes.

The comfortable materialist path is to treat these sort of systemic sabotages as exceptions. "If only the Empire's military wasn't so poorly set up, then maybe they would have ruled eternally. If I was the Emperor I would..."

But this is an Empire set up by a man who gets his jollies by watching his apprentices kill each other for his favor. Of course the system will encourage backstabbing by the top generals. It's an Empire that thinks all rule should be subservient to one powerful person. Of course corruption will undermine their defense contracting system. 

(And Vader is the one who consistently steps *outside* these systems.)

The logic of the Empire itself is contradictory and inefficient. The dream of totalitarian inefficiency is just that, a dream that can't even be fully realized in a 2 hour movie.

This will be relevant in today's Worm post.

The author of the article may believe he is "over thinking it", but the evidence and logic he lays out is true.

Worm: Random Thought of the Day

Bonesaw is Jack's Harleyquinn.

Anyway, there will be a longer post later today.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Worm: Taking Requests

There are several more posts queued up. But if anyone has a chapter or character they are interested in, they should post it in the comments. We can go over what sort of themes are explored by that scene or cape, and how they relate to the broader work of Worm as a whole.

Endbringers and the Failure of Enlightenment Philosophy

The most iconic line to come out of the Enlightenment was Voltaire’s “‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it!”[1]

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Worm: Golden Idol

One problem discussing bullying and this universe is that looking at what unites the characters risks “creating a false equivalence” between bullies like Shadow Stalker and the sort of things Taylor does in the end. It’s important to identify that they are using the same methods (psychological torment through imbalanced power relationships) while also understanding that they are doing it for different reasons (SS does it to define her personal identity, Taylor does it to protect the people she cares about). Of course, different motives might not feel any better to the people on the receiving end of bullying.

So do these motives matter? Is it the consequences that define whether this bullying is ok in this universe? What sort of rules can we even use to judge the morality of an action? Or is moral action just impossible in the Wormverse?

These questions are valuable when we talk about Scion. And about Christianity.

Because Wildbow is an atheist author who has written one of the best anti-Christian works I’ve ever encountered.


To be clear, maltheism - or the perspective that god is bad and religion is bad - is pretty common in genre fiction. It usually comes in two forms

  1. Spirituality is pure, but the church is evil. In these stories, the church is a corrupt institution where the leaders of it just seek to advance their own ambitions and crush any dissent. Eventually the heroes overthrow the church, usually with assistance from the very god that feels they have been cut off from their people (FFX, Small Gods, there are tons of examples.)
  2. Gods are really like people, and not worthy of worship. In these stories, the gods have a lot of supernatural power, but otherwise are just as petty and worldly as any mortal. The heroes either have to defeat them, or convince them to be more humble and not treat human beings like their toys. (Like, every piece of fiction by Neil Gaiman. Unsong, and most other rationalist fic that deals with gods.)

A radical Christian will counter that none of these are what Christianity means. Christianity is a revolutionary religion that describes God sympathizing with human suffering, and descending to show solidarity with the weakest, and put the power of his kingdom in their hands. To them, Christianity is not about the Church, or about angels and nativity but it’s about the Sermon on the mount:

“Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.”

Even if you don’t think the Christian church has stood for those ideals, the question still remains: are they good ideals?

(If you’ve read the earlier entries on this blog, the Star Wars movies describe this sort of sacrifice and “love for the lowliest” in expansive detail.)

And this philosophy is one that atheists and Christians alike should want to grapple with. Christians so their beliefs can get a fair test, and atheists because they should be confronting their opponent’s strongest arguments, not strawmen.

So who could argue with this revolutionary, divine ideal?

Worm does.

In Worm, God in all his power and suffering descends, and places it in the hands of the most abject, degraded person. Worm actually wrestles with the question of what would happen in this divine revelation.

Worm’s answer? It does not go well.


So this is why Scion is the best inhuman figure in Worm. Abrahamic God-symbol checklist?

  • Something greater than and incomprehensible to humanity.
  • He appears as a floating golden idol, with a beard but no clear ethnicity.
  • He adopts the name Scion / Zion. (And loves the lost Eden)
  • His power level is basically infinite, be it delivering miraculous cures or dispensing wrath.
  • He finds a homeless man and carries out whatever charitable ideas the man has.

Kevin has a great line about platonic realism when replying to a comment that Scion looks sad.

“He doesn’t,” Kevin said.  “Don’t buy it.  He doesn’t look anything.  That expression never changes.  But whatever’s underneath, that’s what’s giving you that feeling.  He looks sad because he is sad.  Except you take out the ‘looks’ part of it.”

Kevin is a great character, of course. He’s poor. He’s dispossessed. He probably has mental health issues (and certainly appears to.) He’s anti-social and can only bond with his dog. He’s been used and abused but is so low that he can’t even get the recognition of victim status. He is the lowliest worm humanity has. He is without doubt “the meekest.” And so in the kingdom of God, it is he who will be exalted.

This monstrously powerful golden idol, that the whole world is fascinating with, appears before Kevin, and takes orders from him. He listens to Kevin. He tries to do right by him.

And Kevin is even properly humble about this power! He doesn’t enrich himself, he tries to help orphans and stop disasters. And Kevin feels true terror at the thought that all the problems of the world are now his responsibility. If he wastes this power, it will be on his head, and that (rightly) scares him.

The whole Interlude “The Most Powerful Man in the World” is just really brilliant stuff. The title ironically links “this is about Scion” with “the rants of a homeless man”, efficiently linking these two concepts. Kevin’s fear, but also his rage, and his hope, are expertly done. And Scion really does come across as… weird and inhuman. But also a potential symbol of goodness, now that we know his power can be directed to productive ends.

(It's also an incredibly funny scene: witness how Kevin constantly talks to his dog like a person, but talks to the most powerful entity on Earth like a dog.)

So many critics claim what makes Worm good is the consistent power levels and intelligent use of powers and the type categorization, and other immersive elements that read more like an RPG handbook. None of that fits in here. There’s not even “Taylor bonding with her friends.” There’s just two people being befuddled and in awe at the mysteries of the universe.

What more religious scene can there be than the sacrament of one High Priest of the Golden Man passing his mantle to a new successor, in symbolic exchange for a token offering?

In many works of fiction, this would be the last, triumphant scene of the entire series. (For instance, such a revelation is not too dissimilar from the ending of Return of the Jedi, where Darth Vader has sacrificed himself to rid the galaxy of the Dark Side, and now Luke must ponder what to do with his new responsibility and power. Or Elysium, or the Neverending Story.)


But it doesn’t work. The story doesn’t end here, and in fact it rapidly gets worse. How come?

Well it sure was fun watching Scion kick Behemoth’s ass.

But beside that, what sort of orders does Kevin have to contribute? It turns out he is not full of insight into reducing inequality, overthrowing oppression, and critiquing capitalist power structures. He saw there were some orphans in the news, and so he feels God should sort that out. He is not really that full of revolutionary fervor, and he’s probably pretty representative of his class that way.

Even what ideas he does have, he’s downright bad at communicating to God. The communication barriers between inhuman omnipotence and mere humanity are pretty high. It’s kind of a miracle they can relate at all, and after years finally get around to “take out those city destroying monsters.”

Worst of all, by the end, it goes horribly wrong. This sort of dispassionate helpfulness is easily turned towards destructive glee, as Scion enters the anger stage of grieving over his lost partner. And on his way to wiping out all of Earth, he slowly takes time to toy with the heroes and rub in the futility of their attempts to oppose him.

He’s not a suffering God. He’s a bored God.

(This is somewhat reminiscent of Mxyptlk in “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow” [spoilers for the comic book] .)


Literary nitpickers above will have noticed that I left one category out of “types of maltheism in genre fiction” : Lovecraftian. That’s the tradition of stories that depict gods who are beyond our understanding, who have no concern for us, and are so horrifyingly weird that the merest glimpse of them drives a human being mad. Humanity can barely, maybe fight them on a lucky day, but is by far best off avoiding their attention entirely.

(Hell, the only way Taylor takes him down is by finding his one vaguely humanist aspect - his aching grief - and exploiting it brutally.)

By the end of Worm, this Christian ideal has been transmuted to that Lovecraftian maltheism, and it’s a fairly chilling argument against wanting any involvement with the divine.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Worm: Oh the Humanity

Let’s take a step back from the universe, and get there later. First I want to talk about humanism.

“A stranger is just a friend who’s story you don’t know.”

I think we’ve all heard that saying, and let’s hold on to it a second.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Worm: Title

So why is it called "Worm"?

Reading it, I initially thought Worm would be the name of the hero, after all she has insect based powers. But she never takes that title, and earthworms are neither prominent in her costume, nor her creature of choice.

Later on, we discover the cosmology of this universe is based on creatures with phenomenal power and intelligence, best described as worms. But their connection to the rest of the story is limited, and the exposition around them is far from the most compelling part of the story.

So why Worm?

The best statement of the themes of this work is given by the insecure villain Cherish in Chapter 24, who has just used her power to understand Taylor.

“Who?” Jack asked.

“When I looked at her with my power, before, I called her the Worm. She spent some time being as low on the food chain as you can get while still being able to move under her own power. As low as someone can get while still having an identity of their own. But she’s realized she’s poisonous, dangerous in her own unique way. She’s useful, like a silkworm we harvest or an earthworm who works our gardens. She’s even realized she’s not alone, so long as she looks for friends among other dirty… contemptible creatures. Speaking of which, I forgot to say hi, little brother.”

“Fuck you, Cherie.”

Cherish smiled and stared at me, “The little worm found a nugget of self-worth, she just doesn’t want to look too closely at what that nugget is made of. If she’s lucky, she’s one of the worms without eyes. They might be keenly aware of their environment, but they’re happier blind.”

Like every sentence of that is a perspective you can use to understand Taylor, humanity, or plenty of other aspects of the story. This is just some great dialogue. Have I mentioned how good the side-characters Wildbow brings in are?

This parallel between Taylor's social status and her insect friends are brought up numerous times, but most dynamically with the state of Brockton Bay itself. The more disasters happen, the more there is a sort of fetid decay that insects thrive in, the more powerful Taylor's toolset is. Society collapses around her and she literally becomes stronger, giving her the ability to interfere and cause even more chaos, linking the vicious cycle.

What's true of Taylor on a supernatural level is true of her on a *social* level, as Cherish says (and she does very well for herself, in the middle of the story). And so in the end times when the world is collapsing, we see people like her come to their power.

(This is all very ironic. Taylor could only come from a chaotic world, yet she herself is obsessed with imposing order. She would deny the conditions which bring her into existence.)

Taylor is of course, a universalizing character. She's someone we are encouraged to identify with, especially in the early arcs. Which is where we get back to the cosmology: the "truth" of the worm - that you are a grubby insect blindly crawling around seeking more power - and that this is reflected in the very building blocks of the universe.

We'll get into what sort of universe this leads to tomorrow.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Worm: The End is the Beginning is the End

Full spoilers for Worm here, and every other post. Go no further if you plan to read it unspoiled.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor

The new World of Warcraft expansion, Legion, is out this week. So that's a conflict for writing time right there. However, the official end of the previous expansion, Warlords of Draenor, is a good time to revisit this much reviled explansion. Here's a review I wrote at the time about how much I liked its messages:


Some people are apparently coming to this long from the tumblr of Nostaglebraist (who himself probably got it from some comment thread at SSC). Which is cool, as I like his work.

I especially like The Northern Caves. . If you haven't read it yet, you should.

But I must admit the parallels between this blog and Errants KnightsMove are... uncomfortable and obvious. Well that's a subject for another time.

Read "Worm"

Today and this week I'm going to be posting some deep dive analysis of the online serial fic "Worm" by Wildbow. I'm interested in it because it's gotten a lot of praise in rationalist circles, but it has fairly different themes than most rationalist fic.

Also it's very good.

If you haven't read it yet, it's over here.

God read it. It's ok, I'll wait.