Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Destroying the Destroyer

This past weekend, during the Great Snow-In of 2016, my wife and I watched the Thor movie from 2011. I had offhandedly mentioned the possibility of renting/streaming Thor: The Dark World, which as I recently mentioned I haven't seen yet, and my wife expressed interest in watching that with me but also wanted to see the original, since she had missed that the first time around. I certainly enjoyed the first Thor enough to be up for a re-watch, and so we settled in for some Asgardian antics on Saturday night, and will get around to the sequel some other weekend (and/or homebound winter weather event).

So she liked the movie and I liked it all over again but I was particularly struck by the first half of the climax. Spoilers for some/recap for others: on Earth, Thor-in-exile confronts the mystic Asgardian artifact the Destroyer, willingly laying down his life to end its rampage, which restores his worthiness and godly birthright. Returned to full strength, Thor defeats the Destroyer (end of first half of climax) then returns to Asgard, confronts and defeats Loki, and blows up the Bifrost in order to save the Frost Giants from Loki's attempted genocide. It's a lot of sturm and drang, appropriately enough! But as I said, my focus here is on the Midgard stuff.

They shot Thor in New Mexico, in one of those synchronicities of plotting and budgeting (I assume): the friends Thor makes on Earth are astrophysicists studying phenomenon in the night sky, so of course they're hanging out in the middle-of-nowhere desert away from light pollution. The showdown between Thor and Sif and the Warriors Three and the Destroyer takes place in a tiny town that looks like it has about five streets, one diner (with big plate windows for bodies to go flying through) and one gas station (to blow up real good from the Destroyer's heat blasts).

I mean of course there's some nasty collateral damage, because it's an action-adventure movie and those sort of visuals (a) raise the narrative stakes with a sense of danger and (b) look totally rad. But what's noteworthy is that when the Destroyer first stomps into town, the other Asgardians go to fight it while Thor helps his new human friends to evacuate the town. Thor does humble, subservient (and, not for nothing, a bit Christlike) things like picking up little kids and putting them in the back of a pickup truck so they can get the heck out of the combat zone. When all the civilians are gone, that's when Thor goes to face the Destroyer and offer his own surrender.

Then he gets his powers back and it's ON. And one thing I really like is that they don't forget to emphasize Thor's powers over storms as god of thunder. He doesn't just punch the Destroyer or smack it with Mjolnir, he actually summons up a tornado by spinning the hammer, and the vortex sucks up the Destroyer so that they are both in midair, with the Destroyer hurling fiery blasts out of its face and Thor swatting them aside until finally he batters the blasts back into the Destroyer's head, overwhelming it and blowing it up.

In many fair points of comparison, Thor is essentially Marvel's Superman. (I'm far from the first person to observe this, obvs.) They both have red capes and fly. They're both big guns, superstrong and tough. Neither one is human. The weather control stuff is one of the big differentiations, which is one reason I approved of their inclusion in the Destroyer scene. But notice, if you would, the other narrative function the tornado serves: at that point they're so high above the rooftops that the impressive explosion doesn't do any further property damage to the little desert town. This is the right way to dispatch an enemy, and Thor takes care to do it this way because he is a good guy.

Clearly I am teeing up to yet again take a whack at how Man of Steel fundamentally fails its title character. In my defense, the hype machine for Batman V. Superman has been roaring along lately, and I've been sitting through the trailer while trying to socially enjoy other things (The Force Awakens, the NFL playoffs) which naturally gives rise to people talking about anticipation for the Man of Steel sequel ... and what am I supposed to do, just sit there and smile and nod and not remind people what a garbage fire of cynical dreck Man of Steel was? So the portrayal of the ultimate altruistic omnibenevolent superhero as someone who wouldn't know the right thing to do if it smacked him in the spitcurl, who doesn't spare a thought to innocent bystanders or cataclysmic property damage while he whizzes around trading blows with his antithesis, has been top of mind.

I just never made this explicit connection between the first Thor movie and the new Superman movie before. Thor came out two years before Man of Steel, after all, and plenty of other stuff got processed through my overthink-a-tron in the interval. And I gotta say, even at the time when I first saw Thor, it didn't really leap out at me how Thor was motivated by a desire to preemptively clear the battlefield and move things to an atmospheric level where the fallout on human lives would be minimized. I just took it in stride as The Way These Things Are Done In The Superhero Stories I Was Raised On. It took Man of Steel's obliteration of the rules of engagement to make me consciously aware of it, and now, in retrospect, Thor comes out ... well, if not looking even better, at least proving the point that it's not that hard to get the fundamentals right.

So yeah. Goyer and Snyder can keep on being the worst imaginable custodians of superheroic legacy. There's plenty of other filmmakers out there who actually get it and whose movies I'll happily support.

Friday, January 15, 2016

After you, no no, after you

The other day as I was leaving the Big Gray I encountered just about the perfect storm of social awkwardness. Normally I pride myself on being reasonably familiar with all the little unspoken rules of politely navigating the working world, how to ride on an elevator or occupy a cubicle with a modicum of respect for the comfort and sanity of fellow human beings. But sometimes circumstances conspire.

Specifically, I was a couple of steps away from pushing through the glass front doors of the office building. The doors open outward from the inside. Another person was outside the building, walking toward the doors to come in. Normally, that would lead to me opening the door and holding it open for the other person, at least, because it’s just polite courtesy, but I gauged that I was going to get to the doors about a step before the other person, which would not really leave me enough time to get through and to the far side of the door before the other person arrived. At best I’d be making them wait a beat or two, and at worst I’d be opening the door right into them. Again, this might not be a problem if the doors opened inward, in which case I could grab the handle and pull the door open and step back, allowing the other person to go through, but they don’t.

I tend to hold doors for everybody, just basically transcending any and all notions of chivalry or feminism or whatever in favor of undifferentiated human decency. (Does this make me an SJW? Discuss.) Still, there are always mitigating factors. For example, if someone is following me or converging on the door from the other side with a few seconds lag, I might be more inclined to hold the door a little longer for, say, a woman of my mother’s or grandmothers’ generation( based on what I assume their expectations might be), or for anyone wrangling one or more small children (been there, buddy). A random dude several paces behind me will probably see me cruise through the door and let it fall shut behind me. So it goes. At any rate, the person I was on a threshold-collision course with was a woman, probably within five years of my age. Should that have changed the etiquette calculus? Also she was wearing a walking cast on one foot, although it didn’t seem to be slowing her roll at all. Should that have changed the calculus? Also she was wearing BDUs! Should that have made me more likely to hold the door, because Support The Troops And All That? Or less likely, because she could kill me with her bare hands eleven different ways and she could dang well open a door for herself, too?

As it happened, in the split-second after I rattled through all of those branches of the decision tree, I decided to try to hustle through the door so that I could in fact position myself to hold the door. But as it also happened, the soldier didn’t alter her pace at all, nor break her gait, and we ended up both going through the door more or less at the same time, me against the door as I pushed it open and her squeezing past on the opposite side.

Not sure if I could have handled the situation any differently to achieve a better outcome. And I know in the grand scheme of things this was a fleeting moment of absolutely no consequence. But it did give me a chance to use yet another screencap of a classic Simpsons moment to illustrate to story, so I figured it was worth sharing.