Tag Archives: Action

The Purge: Election Year

The Purge: Election Year

The Purge: Election Year (2016)

Universal Pictures

Director: James DeMonaco

Main Cast: Frank Grillo, Elizabeth Mitchell, Mykelti Williamson, Joseph Julian Soria, Betty Gabriel


The Purge series falls into the tradition of relatively low-budget horror films with dodgy technique that use the “lowbrow” appeal of the film as an opportunity to critique the upper classes.  The first film in the series is rather poor, caught up in empty suspense for its own sake (and presumably, due to budget constraints too).  But the second film, The Purge: Anarchy, is actually quite good — even going so far as to feature a Black Panther-like group presented sympathetically.  The third film, Election Year, is pretty raw and blunt with its message.  There is no nuance.  And yet, the bad guys are bad guys  and the good guys are worth rooting for.  The good guys are never saintly.  They all face moral challenges, and most are presented as having overcome mistakes of their past.  The bad guys are truly monstrous, employing self-serving religious dogmatism and the fascist concept of redemptive violence to further a thinly-veiled class war against the poor — notably along racist lines.  The script seems flawed, in that the characters are slow to pick up on plot points that are quickly apparent to the audience.  There is also a group of annoying teenager characters who all seem entirely superfluous to the main plotline.  So, while falling short of the previous film, this one is still better than the first Purge film.  It may be simplistic, but, unlike most commercial films, it actually has a moral center that isn’t stupid.

Doctor Strange

Doctor Strange

Doctor Strange (2016)

Walt Disney Pictures

Director: Scott Derrickson

Main Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Mads Mikkelsen


Another superhero film. Much of the plot is an ersatz version of anarchist writer Ursula K. Le Guin‘s fantasy classic A Wizard of Earthsea (1968). But there is plenty of good humor here. Tilda Swinton proves yet again that she is one of the best actors in mainstream cinema. While her character, and others, at first seem to be yet another example of the dubious practice of casting white people in “Asian” roles, the film actually addresses that concern in a satisfactory way. In the end, this film is quite average, maybe *slightly* above-average in a relative sense.  There are certainly worse big-budget superhero movies out there.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice  Captain America: Civil War

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

Warner Bros.

Director: Zack Snyder

Main Cast: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg


Captain America: Civil War (2016)

Walt Disney Studios

Director: Joe Russo

Main Cast: Chris Evans, Robert Downey, Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie


Here are two big superhero movies that offer two slightly different takes on very similar subject matter.  They both highlight the eerie similarities of the underlying political assumptions.

So, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (part of the DC Comics universe) turns out to be better than it seems like it would be, which maybe doesn’t say a whole lot. I very nearly stopped watching after a few minutes. It gets better though. Like a number of other big-budget superhero movies of the day, this film is long. Yet it also crams in so many characters (and a few useless Lois Lane and Jonathan Kent scenes scenes) that it still feels a bit rushed. The basic premise is vaguely in line with Alan Moore‘s famous Watchmen comic, asking Juvenal‘s immortal question (from Book II, Satire VI: The Decay of Feminine Virtue): who guards the guards themselves [Quis custodiet ipsos custodes]? The film is at its best when it convincingly puts forward that question. But then it hints at a sequel (deferring complete resolution) and, at most, answers the question in an unsatisfying way. Anyway, Ben Affleck is for the most part completely unlikeable as Batman/Bruce Wayne. That makes him the perfect choice for the role. He brings out the arrogant right-wing vigilante qualities of the character’s recent incarnations well. Henry Cavill is also good as Superman/Clark Kent. His character’s dim-witted engagement with Batman is surprisingly convincing.  Jaime Eisenberg is well-cast as the unlikeable Ayn Rand-worshiping villain Lex Luthor. This film was directed by Zack Snyder (slated to make a new version of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead) and produced by Steve Mnuchin, now Secretary of the Treasury (!) in the Trump administration.

The essence of this Batman/Superman film’s morality is that it accepts Thomas Hobbes and perhaps also Machiavelli as providing the philosophical foundations for the ideal society.  All the usual critiques of those thinkers could be applied to the film.  Machiavelli, of course, is known for his argument in The Prince that in politics the ends justify the means.  Hobbes was a “social contract” theorist, famous for writing in Leviathan that life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.  G.D.H. Cole described Hobbes’ theories this way:

“Hobbes . . . regarded the people as agreeing, not simply to form a State, but in one and the same act to invest a certain person or certain persons with the government of it.  He agreed that the people was the final source of all authority, but regarded the people as alienating its Sovereignty by the contract itself and as delegating its powers, wholly and for ever, to the government which its members agreed to set up.  As soon, therefore, as the State is established, the government becomes for Hobbes the Sovereign; there is no further question of popular Sovereignty but only of passive obedience: the people is bound, by the contract, to obey its ruler, no matter whether he governs well or ill.  It has alienated its rights to the Sovereign, who is, therefore, absolute master.”

Hobbes argued that such a State must be formed in order to avoid a situation of civil war and bellum omnium contra omnes (“the war of all against all”).  The film flirts with these concepts, by asking whether Superman, or Batman, or some larger group of superheroes, should be invested with the authority to fight monsters and villains on behalf of society.  Batman is kind of like Hobbes, a defender of “liberal” aristocracy/monarchy against the divine right of kings-type theories.  Machiavelli lurks behind the story in that the superheroes (technocractically) decide amongst themselves what is best for the people.  What is sad about this Hobbesist argument is that it was a political argument made hundreds of years ago!  In other words, the political background for the film’s plot is reactionary by framing the “relevant” political question as being exactly the same as what was debated hundreds of years ago.  Critics of Hobbes (like Rousseau) who argued that democracy should prevail over aristocracy do not even enter the frame of the debate.  Put another way, the film places “relevant” contemporary American political debate in the pre-Revolutionary War era!

Captain America: Civil War (part of the Marvel Comics universe) is also overly long and filled with too many characters.  It does, curiously enough, probably set some kind of record for the action film with the most debates in conference rooms (I kid you not!).  Much like Batman v. Superman, the movie preoccupies itself with the concept of who guards the guards themselves, or, put more bluntly, who governs the superheros (in this case, many are ordinary mortals with access to special military weapons).  While there is a wide array of superheroes here, allocated proportionately along race and gender lines, the main rivalry is between Captain America/Steve Rogers (Evans) and Iron Man/Tony Stark (Downey, Jr.).  Stark wants to submit to a United Nations accord that will govern the superheroes’ “Avengers” group.  Captain America refuses.  The characters’ motivations are mostly absurd and implausible.  Iron Man/Stark in particular just comes across as stupid and arrogant.  The character The Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) is obnoxious, a character designed merely to pander, and a wasted opportunity (to link the character to the real-life Black Panther Party for Self-Defense perhaps?).  Spider Man (Tom Holland) appears, as does Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), and they leaven the proceedings in a good way.  There are many fight scenes, some of them a bit formulaic, and the film struggles to plausibly present these when some of the characters have superpowers of a substantially greater magnitude than others. But some are engaging.

All those details aside, there is an important difference from the Batman v Superman film.  Captain America: Civil War is kind of post-political.  On the surface, it appears that the film is “left” of Batman v Superman because it explicitly depicts a role for the United Nations (UN) as a “democratic” body that overcomes the superhero “civil war” that is a “war of all against all” of sorts.  When the UN creates an accord (somehow in secret; that is, without the knowledge of the superheros), the film glosses over the imperialist corruption of the UN, merely referring to the nearly 200 countries that signed on — creating the false impression that all countries are equal in the organization.  The character of the really-existing UN aside, the details of the accord are never actually discussed.  When the Avengers debate it, the political character of the accord is subsumed in the silly, irrelevant interpersonal conflicts, mostly between Captain America and Iron Man.  While the UN accord is supposedly driven by a desire to curb the collateral damage to civilians caused by the Avengers (just as Batman/Bruce Wayne complains about with respect to Superman), who actually governs the Avengers under it (and how they do so) is never really mentioned.  An official simply throws a large stack of paper on a table — the content of the accord is simply some legalistic/technocratic thing that neither the Avengers nor the audience is supposed to be concerned about.  This leads to another important point.  There is curiously no depiction of ordinary civilians as anything more than background props in a few action scenes.  A largely faceless government of technocrats simply decides for the people what is best for them.  Comparisons to the European Union “Troika” institutions (which push “austerity” measures that favor bankers/finance over ordinary workers) might be apropos here.  So, while there are ample opportunities to critique the aristocratic-leaning political philosophy of Batman v Superman, Captain America: Civil War instead leaves no room for political debate.  To adopt Colin Crouch‘s term, the film depicts a “post-democratic” world (“A post-democratic society is one that continues to have and to use all the institutions of democracy, but in which they increasingly become a formal shell”).  From another angle, it is also worth noting that the prior Avengers organization could be called a worker self-directed enterprise, and the UN accord an attempt to override worker self-management with a command-and-control top-down hierarchy (under the guise of the putatively “democratic” UN).

What these films (and Watchmen too) offer, just like similar print comics, is a pretty remedial set of political philosophies.  What each excludes from consideration is any sort of governance system in which ordinary people have equal votes and equal power.  All these films are wedded to the idea that some people are better than others, or at least more suited to rule, and therefore everyone has a “proper” place.  Perhaps there is a belief that such an approach goes hand-in-hand with the genre of superhero films, but it doesn’t have to (*ahem*, Trashman, V for Vendetta, and even the original Incal comics or The Dispossessed).  An interesting counterpoint to the sorts of worldviews in these films is Lars von Trier‘s Dogville.  There, a small town (on a stage set up like the popular Thornton Wilder play Our Town) takes in a woman (Nicole Kidman) on the run from gangsters, and the town votes (the woman excluded from voting) to turn her into a quasi-slave.  The film highlights the deficiencies of the brand of “democracy” employed by the town, with a tyranny of the majority abusing its power and the democratic “vote” doing nothing to prevent the majority’s exploitation.

On top of the structural/procedural political aspects of the DC/Marvel universes, and the usual superhero fantasies of overcoming social problems with the actions of no more than a handful of individual actions, there is also the nagging question of framing the sorts of problems that the superheroes address.  That is, the superheroes in these two films don’t fight poverty, environmental destruction (though occasionally superhero media does address this, usually only in passing), financial exploitation (though occasionally other superheroes do), or other “structural violence”.  Instead of addressing the “banality of evil”, superheroes fight discrete, monstrous villains.  But as often as not, the villains are seen as “evil” merely by stepping out of their “proper” place in globalist social hierarchy — thereby framing the very definition of “evil” in such a way as to exclude a conception of society in a universalist, egalitarian way.

Though it almost pains me to say it, the Snyder/Mnuchin film is considerably better than the Captain America one.  Its politics could be questioned, especially from the sort of Rousseauian perspective (that drives Dogville).  But at least it comes closer to making the politics explicit, and does align itself with some kind of political philosophy (mostly Hobbesist).  And, for that matter, the main characters of the Batman v Superman film behave in a more plausible way, on a strictly interpersonal level.  In spite of the film’s story and character bloat, there are also effective scenes, and the “redemption” of the right-wing vigilante Batman character, who actually comes to realize his mistakes and change his outlook on life (even if still imperfectly), is a rare feat on any level in a mainstream film.

X-Men: Apocalypse

X-Men: Apocalypse

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

20th Century Fox

Director: Bryan Singer

Main Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Oscar Isaac


Although perhaps not as clear-cut as the Batman film The Dark Knight Rises in terms of making the “superhero” the bad guy (a right-wing capitalist vigilante) and the “supervillian” the good guy (an enlightenment-era agent of revolution-from-below), X-Men: Apocalypse follows a similar trajectory.  Apocalypse AKA En Sabah Nur (Isaac) is a powerful ancient mutant who is unearthed in the 1980s and seeks to destroy (mostly capitalist) human civilization.  He starts by safely destroying all of the world’s nuclear weapons (just like star child).  The X-Men gather to defeat him.  The thing is, it is mostly just assumed that the audience should oppose Apocalypse.  This film does not explain why he is bad.  He claims to bring the world peace.  He takes steps in that direction, by getting rid of the nuclear weapons, promoting two women in his “administration,” etc.  Yes, he does destroy a lot of things and kill some people — some of them monstrous.  But should he just be seen as a metaphor for the ancient tradition of Jubilee, the “year of the lord,” in which a (usually new) ruler would annul all personal debts and declare a clean slate?  In that sense, can the X-Men be considered like Obama/Clintonite neoliberals, defending the financial sector from the villagers and their “pitchforks” and the possibility of “old testament justice” (as the disgraced Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner snidely opposed after the 2007 financial crash)?  True, in the film Professor X (McAvoy) pleads for the strong to protect the weak, rather than for the strong to join Apocalypse.  But, it is fair to ask whether the X-Men are really defending the weak, or merely pretending to do so while supporting present-day institutions by which the strong systematically oppress the weak (what is sometimes called “structural violence”).  On top of that, the overall story is a little disjointed in trying to introduce too many characters.  But on the plus side, this film has better dramatic acting than most superhero films, and it does convey emotion in an effective way at times.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)

Paramount Pictures

Director: Michael Bay

Main Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Tyrese Gibson, Frances McDormand, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley


Basically one long product placement advertisement that, at best, distracts from that agenda with thin and disjointed scenes of meaningless heroism.  One of the worst movies I’ve ever seen.  Add one more to the tally of Michael Bay’s crimes against humanity.

Fury

Fury

Fury (2014)

Columbia Pictures

Director: David Ayer

Main Cast: Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Jon Bernthal, Michael Peña, Shia LaBeouf


The problem with this film is that it has a beginning and an end.  Both are terrible.  In the middle there are worthy things.  But the ending is so stupefyingly, implausibly bad that viewers have to walk away embarrassed for having sat through it.  After opening titles that glorify American Exceptionalism, twisting the history of World War II to frame it as a conflict just between the noble but underdog Americans and the Nazis, the film starts by making Brad Pitt’s character out to be an inhuman monster (seemingly equally as bad as the Nazis), and those around him one-dimensional caricatures.  The film then seeks to humanize Pitt’s character, and add dimension to those around him.  The battle scenes in the middle of the film are excellently staged and are thrilling.  Of course, then there is the ending, which is so preposterously staged as to garner sympathy for the Nazis.  The Nazis (in vastly superior numbers) stand around waiting to be shot (really!).  The weapons they are shown marching with suddenly disappear and one Nazi indicates that a small box of other weapons must be rationed carefully.  The movie banks on viewers thinking that Nazi are so terrible that they should completely suspend disbelief at the staging of the final battle scene.  Ughhhh.  Terrible.

While clearly trying to follow on the style of Saving Private Ryan (an arguably even worse film), this ends up being a second (or third) rate version of The Big Red One.  Just compare the endings.  Lee Marvin‘s character in The Big Red One is, objectively, one who stands for something beyond himself.  Brad Pitt’s character stands for empty valor, no more.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Warner Bros. Pictures

Director: George Miller

Main Cast: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult


Here’s a movie for which the glowing critical praise is perplexing.  It is a deeply hypocritical film.  For instance, it takes pains to pass the “Bechdel test” and insert feminist positions, like the female revolutionary character Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron).  And yet at the same time the film has a group of scantily clad women prancing about in what is uncomfortably close to a wet T-shirt car wash scene.  These positions are not compatible as they are portrayed, in that the film engages in the worst sort of pandering, trying to have it both ways, appealing to feminists and sexists.  This is like the worst form of facile multiculturalism.  The plot, as much as there is one (and there barely is one), is kind of inferior to Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, which already sets forth in starker terms the symbolism of pointless wars over resources (especially fossil fuels).  Still, this film has a lot of action sequences and special effects — the movie is practically one long stunt scene — and they are good, as are the costumes and other technical aspects.  But those things don’t make up for the film’s flaws.

John Wick

John Wick

John Wick (2014)

Summit Entertainment

Directors: Chad Stahelski, David Leitch (uncredited)

Main Cast: Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen


A standard tale of hubris & nemesis.  Hollywood makes a lot of movies like this.  But John Wick has a few things going for it that others don’t.  There is no gratuitous romantic subplot.  The fight scenes are also choreographed well — the bane of some many TV shows and big budget movies, where the bad guys seem to roll over and die because…well, because they are the bad guys and they are supposed to die.  Sure, John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is practically unstoppable, though his voyage back to through the fists and knives and bullets of a world of gangsters leaves him with plenty of scars.  The best part of this rather simple plot is that Wick does it all because somebody killed his puppy.  The bastards.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Directors: Joe Russo, Anthony Russo

Main Cast: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Samuel L. Jackson


The plot is entirely unoriginal.  I have heard it compared to the video game Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty.  But it also might be said to borrow from Star Trek: Insurrection and the Bourne series (with the theme of government corruption), Minority Report and the Terminator series (with “precrimes” and drones like “Skynet”), and Robocop (the “Winter Soldier” being much like the cyborg Robocop).  And that is not even to mention the plot holes.  Why exactly are the bad guys doing what they are doing?  And how did they get the money to do it?  And why do they drop hints for Captain America to use to uncover their plot?  Anyway, it isn’t any of those things that make this movie fun.  It is that the fight scenes require a minimum of suspension of disbelief and are intense, well choreographed, tautly paced, and impeccably executed.  Plus, the good guys are actually trying to do good, which is not always the case with superhero movies.  Like some of the recent Iron Man films, this is better than most superhero garbage.