Peter Parker the Neoliberal

[Spoilers for Spiderman: Homecoming and Spiderman: Far From Home]

There’s something slightly disappointing about the Marvel Cinematic Universe Spiderman films. In Homecoming, Toomes/Vulture is a salvager who finds his small business failing as Tony Stark and the government roll in to take over the salvaging operations that were previously his job. Dejected by being forced out by a megacorporation and a government, he resorts to illegally selling alien weaponry to criminals.

Beck/Mysterio goes through a similar arc in Far From Home. Beck was an engineer working under Stark who was fired, with the technology he created remaining with Stark and his company. Angered by this, he leads a team of disgruntled former Stark employees into manufacturing a plot to make Beck appear like a hero.

The villains are unified by the cause of their turn to evil: an injustice wrought upon them by a figure of the elite. They are working class/middle class figures oppressed by the cooperation of the government and a megacorporation. However, rather than presenting these antagonists in a sympathetic light, the films choose to perceive them within a binary: they have chosen to be evil, and so are evil, not to mention that our hero who stops them, Spiderman, is funded and equipped and mentored by Tony Stark, the reason for their oppression.

There’s something quite unfortunate about this. Spiderman was always the ‘Friendly Neighbourhood Spiderman’. Unlike Batman or Iron Man or any other superhero for that matter, who outside of their roles as superheroes are also figures of great social or financial status. Peter Parker is just a student from a working class background, raised by a single guardian. He is the superhero of the working class.

The MCU films have distorted this symbolism. He is emblematic of the ideology of meritocracy: his talents are deserving of further development so an elite figure swoops in and funds and mentors him. Through this distortion of the character along with the demonization of the working class antagonists, the MCU Spiderman films now become an expression of neoliberal ideology: working class people should just man up and adapt. If you’re not as talented as Spiderman you do not deserve socioeconomic opportunities. Attempts to fight perceived injustice will be met with force.

Into The Spiderverse understands the working class roots of Spiderman. It is not the ‘renegade working class’ who pose a true societal wide danger. The ones who can truly harm society at large are those with access to wealth and resources: the rich and elite.

Disney and our Copyrighted Culture

This week saw the release of a new trailer for the X-Men film The New Mutants, slated for release this year. The film had finished production in 2017, but was delayed till 2020 as a consequence of the Fox-Disney merger. Evidently, Disney wanted to fit the film around their monolithic film release schedule and to evaluate if it could fit within the Marvel Cinematic Universe canon.  The New Mutants features several young up and coming actors who would presumably have gotten significant boosts to their careers as a consequence of this film. Instead they had to watch it languish in purgatorial stasis due circumstances out of their control.

This of course is not the first instance of troubles associated with Disney’s monopoly on the film business. The future of the MCU Spiderman films, maybe even the Spiderverse films, seemed to be in jeopardy when it emerged that Disney were unhappy with the prior licensing arrangement with Sony, details of which are frankly too tedious for me to bother to repeat.  All of which could have ironically been avoided had the copyright to the Spiderman character been transferred to the public domain, which would have happened years ago naturally if not for the numerous extensions to the copyright period signed into law by the US government after consistent and aggressive lobbying by the Disney corporation.

The coexistence of the MCU Spiderman and Spiderverse films serves as an excellence counter argument to the belief in the necessity for such outrageously long copyright periods. If Spiderman were in the public domain, there’s be no need for the licensing agreement between Sony and Disney. Both studios would be free to develop their own versions of Spiderman, executing on their own unique visions for the character.  It would also not be just Sony and Disney who would have the freedom. So would you, or me, or anyone else for that matter. There are countless diverse interpretations of Spiderman or any other pop culture character out there in the world in the form of fanfiction or fanart, none of which can be commercialised by their creators for fear of angering the corporate powers-that-be. 

Imagine if we had that freedom. Imagine how much richer the world could be if artists and creators could contribute to the world’s cultural melting pot and support themselves financially while doing so.  Long copyright periods serve largely to allow mega corporations to continue to consolidate and monopolize intellectual property and the businesses they operate in. After all, these businesses live long after their creators die and can sustain themselves for indefinite periods through the enormity of wealth they control.

If we want a richer culture, then the elements of our shared culture must be allowed to blend. Locking away these worlds and characters is locking away parts of our collective consciousness. 

Rian Johnson: The Great Subverter

(Some spoilers for Brick and Star Wars: The Last Jedi)

Rian Johnson understands character archetypes really well. That’s evident in the ensemble cast of Knives Out, which feature characters reminiscent of the British landed gentry types in classic Agatha Christie works, but yet are very American and contemporary, in their personas, perspectives, and beliefs.

This similar understanding of archetypes is demonstrated in Brick, a neo-noir detective mystery but based in and around a high school, with classic detective mystery archetypes now transplanted onto high school personalities and cliques. This transplanting of archetypes reveals a great deal about the underlying characters. In Brick, The Pin is a local drug dealer, but he dresses like a Mafia don, and looks ridiculous as a consequence. The pretense of hierarchical roles in high school culture is laid bare.

When you understand archetypes, you can transplant them to new contexts. You can also subvert them. So it makes sense that the Rian Johnson-directed Star Wars: The Last Jedi did what it did.

(yes this is about star wars yet again)

Rey is the hero in the classic monomyth? Subvert it! She isn’t some prophesied hero, she is some nobody who worked her damnedest to fulfill her potential. Poe Dameron is a swashbuckling modern reincarnation of Indiana Jones and Han Solo? Subvert it! Give him an arc where his heist goes all wrong and he is humbled and learns the cost of his arrogance. Luke Skywalker is a prophesied mystical sage who shall solve everything? Subvert it! He is old and jaded by his past traumas but learns to trust in people, not ancient dogma.

The Last Jedi was the first and only sequel that Johnson directed. Like a rock band’s sophomore album, it was probably not an easy job, making the second and middle entry in a new trilogy part of a larger more expansive transmedia universe. This new trilogy must evolve and redefine the themes and iconography of this universe, and the middle entry doesn’t have a blank canvas to start with, and also can’t finish the painting on the canvas. By subverting the character archetypes that are so deeply buried at the core of the Star Wars films, It laid a groundwork rich with potentiality that moved beyond the retreading of old tropes in The Force Awakens (which was subsequently squandered by The Rise of Skywalker). For Johnson, taking tropes, transplanting them, and subverting them reveals the new.

Star Wars: Time to stop Skywalking

Solo: A Star Wars Story was a perfectly decent movie. It’s a surprisingly fun trek (hey get its an ironic Star Trek reference) through the galaxy hampered by its own misguided desire to feature all the classic Han Solo associated Star Wars iconography. Despite that, the film performed quite poorly at the box office, resulting in a net loss for Disney.

Every single Star Wars film under the Disney umbrella has had something… ‘wrong’ with it. Rogue One had a bland passive protagonist who meanders from plot beat to plot beat. The Force Awakens was ‘A New Hope, but even newer!’. The Last Jedi performed poorly amongst audiences despite being Good Actually™, and The Rise Of Skywalker was a lukewarm bath of meaningless nostalgia that exposes J. J. Abrams’ inability to tell proper a story.

(jfc TROS was a bad film)

Disney should really just stop making Star Wars films. The problem is not really Disney per se, but the audience. There is a fundamental expectation that a Star Wars film concerns itself with a central cast of characters and the iconography associated with them. A Star Wars film is the story of Skywalkers and Solos and Vaders. As a consequence, the films are concerned almost entirely about the characters that serve as the core figures of power and status of the universe. The everyman is not represented, except in the context of said everyman serving roles in the stories of those central figures of power. We thus naturally end up with constant retreads of the same narrative ground with any attempt to branch out beyond that (cough The Last Jedi cough) punished by a nostalgia-obsessed audience.

Which is a massive shame. We’ve already told the Skywalker story decades ago in the original trilogy. Enough of that already. The Star Wars universe is a rich tapestry, steeped in history. Each era in the universe provides a stimulating backdrop for stories of people of diverse backgrounds and experiences, whether it be the political bureaucracies pre-Galactic Empire, or the post-Jedi lawlessness, to the authoritarianism of the Empire.

The Star Wars universe should be handled like the Dungeons and Dragons universe of the BattleTech universe: a setting in which a myriad of stories can be told, but without a central core narrative. This is what is explored by the auxiliary media in the Star Wars universe, be it the animated series The Clone Wars or the videogame Jedi: Fallen Order, or the recent TV series The Mandalorian. These works explore stories of people with their own lives and drama in the backdrop of the Star Wars universe. They are not of dramatic world-changing importance, but still have their own stakes and significance. There is a tonal and thematic wealth and diversity here that cannot possibly be matched by the films. These are the stories of the people in the universe, powerless to change the hegemonic power structures that rule the galaxy, but forced to live and survive within the confines of said power structures.

This is life as it is truly lived in reality. The lives we lead. You. Me. Us. These may not the stories we want, but they are the stories we need.

Press G to Wipe Mask

There is a bandwidth asymmetry inherent to videogames. Millions of bytes of image data are streamed to our retinas every one sixtieth of a second and in return, our input devices send back, at best, several kilobytes of user input.

This asymmetry often leads to laughable juxtapositions.

Press X to Jason.

Press F to Pay Respects.

Or in the Metro series, you press G to Wipe Mask.

There is a moment early in Metro: Last Light, where Artyom, our protagonist, emerges from the dark abyss of the Metro into the light of post-nuclear Moscow. Rife with urban decay as muddy soil overtakes solid concrete, portions of the ground more closely resemble marshlands than Moscow streets.

Trudging into the mud elicits a bubbly splash. The effects span beyond just sound and particle effects though. The mud and grime fly through the air from Artyom’s footsteps, some of it landing straight onto his gas mask. Streaks of brown and green goop cover the player’s screen, like an old photo frame with mould growing on it.

Then the prompt appears. Press G to Wipe Mask, so you press G.

Artyom extends his gloved hand to his mask and quickly wipes it from right to left, cleaning away the grime. The dirt does not simply fade away or vanish immediately. You see it streak away, trails of stained water left behind, shrinking into minuscule droplets from the capillary effect.

You press G again. Artyom wipes his mask again. The remnants streak again and form back into water droplets again. His hand isn’t exactly dry. Your gas mask is not going to be squeaky clean for a while.

You are here. In this wasteland. You can see it stretch beyond. You can feel the dampness on your hand from wiping your mask. You can see the specks of dirt, the cracks in your mask, the moisture from your laboured breathing. You are here. This is no videogame.

First Person Shooters have tried various ways to make you feel like more than a floating camera. Sometimes you’re a full-bodied avatar, complete with head bob. Sometimes the HUD is diegetic, information displayed in the world or on your weapons.

The Metro series does all that and goes one further: it makes you feel dirty.

Mr Robot: The Machine that Whiterose built

Mr Robot’s episodes are peppered with Chekov’s guns. An insert shot of a Signal message. A spoken line cut off mid-word. You can practically hear the metaphorical rounds loaded into the metaphorical rifle. It means something right? It has to. Sam Esmail is no J.J. Abrams right? The secret box isn’t empty.

And the guns do fire. One by one. All is explained. Phase 2. Bang. Lucky Irish Bastard. Bang. The Other One. Bang.

Except for Whiterose’s machine. It is turned on but never allowed to boot. We all want to know: does it fucking work!?

But Mr Robot doesn’t tell. The credits roll as if to say, who gives a shit?

Indeed, who gives a shit? The machine is a symbol. An idea. It says to us, reality doesn’t matter if you can manifest a better one. Does it matter if an entire town is wiped out by radioactive fallout? Does it matter that the salves working in the coltan mines in the Congo now slave under the thumb of Whiterose? Does any of it matter if you can reshape reality as you see fit?

It doesn’t matter that only Whiterose decides what perfect. You have no vote, you have no voice. This oligarch will decide for humanity what’s best because she knows better of course, and she will get what she wants even if a few bullets need to be united with some heads.

Do you get it? Whiterose is Elon Musk. The machine is his ambition.

He will bust your unions, overwork you to your bones, destroy your reputation, all to get what he wants. He’s trying to save humanity, don’t you see? Sure, his method of saving humanity involves hurting actual human beings but you know, something about cracking eggs and omelettes. And in his Mars colony, who decides what’s perfect? Spoiler alert it ain’t you.

Billionaires will not save us. They will save themselves. Who gives a shit if Whiterose’s machine works? The machine is evil. It is rotten to the core. It is too big to NOT fail.

Disco Elysium

“There is a specter haunting Europe: the specter of communism.”

Disco Elysium embodies these words, but probably for the opposite reasons Marx and Engels wrote them. They ushered in the rise of communism with these words, but Disco Elysium speaks of its fall.

In Revachol, communism is a *thing* that happened, but in the fog of the past. History does not happen in Disco Elysium. History *has* happened, and we are left with its footprints. Ideas like capitalism, communism, nationalism, they rise and fall like tides, and our protagonist, much like any other individual, is powerless to change it. We are left to live in its aftermaths and its precariousness, with nought but uncertainty in the future.

Events of a distant past leaving us ashes in the present with little vision of the future? Disco Elysium is basically about being a millennial.

Though we are left with but a powerlessness, Disco Elysium wishes to remind us: fuck, being alive is great isn’t it? The bullet pockmarks left by firing squads, the accented voice echoing from the rafters. It sends shivers down the spine does it not? We’re standing in the desiccated whale bones of history and good god does it fucking stink but that’s how you know it’s REAL, all of it! Better to be the one studying the corpse than to be the corpse.

So breathe in that stale Martinaise air. Live in that moment, whether you’re interrogating a white supremacist or kicking a mail box or punching a smug child, live it.

We’re alive goddamnit! That counts for something.

Sayonara Wild Hearts

Rhythm games can broadly be broken into two camps. There is the Guitar Heroes and DDRs, which are very much about rhythm and anticipation of beats. Then there is the Rezs’ and Audiosurfs, which are more about manifesting flow and a zen-like state.

Sayonara Wild Hearts is both. It phases between Audiosurf-like ‘driving’ sections and hit-the-button-on-the-beat QTEs, but it phases between them sensibly. The game understands musical structure and composition. The drop in a dubstep track rarely manifests a flow-like state. Instead its rhythm is front and center. Sayonara Wild Hearts’ duality of systems reflects this understanding.

But Sayonara Wild Hearts does not stop at just theory. There’s a story. Our protagonist traverses these wondrous worlds, implied to be of her own imagining, fighting off fantastical antagonists, because music is rarely experienced as just an intellectual pursuit.

Music manifests emotions, and our brain wants to understand the emotions, wants to understand us. Thus, it manifests a narrative in our minds, putting pictures to melody, conjuring worlds and characters like our unnamed protagonist does. If a song makes us feel like we can conquer the world, then in our mind’s eye we are doing just that.

Sometimes Sayonara Wild Hearts wants you to feel that kick drum. Sometimes it wants you to feel that chord, but really, it wants you to look in between. That liminal interval, between kick drum and snare, when the synth chord rises through the sidechain compression, you’ll find YOU.