Ant-Man and the Sky Woman

This week, I consumed two units of media.

Yesterday, I finished The Orenda by Joseph Boyden. The book is set in North America in the 1630’s1 and depicts the relationship between the French and the Huron, told from the perspective of a Huron war-bearer, his adopted Iroquois daughter and a Jesuit missionary.

Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is one of my favourite books. I read The Orenda expecting a similarly violent and wry dreamscape of a novel. I was certainly wrong, but not disappointed.

Boyden’s book captures, within a grounded, realistic framing, two life philosophies, two competing schools of magic, their meeting and ensuing struggle.

Père Christophe, “the Crow” , tries largely in vain to save the souls of the Huron among whom he lives. Despite his ambiguous personal progress, he is the herald of a new, inescapable pantheon of interests, interests that stumble across the Atlantic and trespass into every aspect of the lives of the Huron. By the book’s end, the course of the future is clear.

Bird, the Huron war-bearer, Gosling, the Anishinaabe mystic, and Snow Falls, the adopted daughter, represents facets of the magic of the native people, their Orenda. They are varied, human, proud and doomed, without2 resorting to cliché; without even the threat of cliché.

We’re familiar enough with colonial narratives to know how the story goes. To Boyden’s credit, The Orenda reads as though independent of that epic cycle of exploitation, justification, blame and guilt. It is consciously a story about people coming to terms with incredible change, even apocalypse, and is well told.

The book didn’t smash my worldview, but I don’t think it was supposed to.

I closed the book with a profoundly-felt respect for its characters and for the historical figures and peoples they represented.

Ant-Man is probably not post-colonial literature.3

I cherish those films that you can watch again and again, without ever getting bored. The background films. The movies you can dip into, that don’t ask too much.4

Marvel’s Ant-Man might be one of those films.

Like many of Marvel’s recent entries, it suffers from being what it is, an entry in a franchise. Unlike many such films, Ant-Man revels in those fanboyish obligations, stuffing the picture full of in-jokes and references.

Much has been said about Ant-Man’s troubled gestation and weak box office. I love Spaced as much as the next guy5, but I don’t regret Edgar Wright’s leaving the film. Perhaps Wright’s pure-blooded Ant-Man would have been amazing. Perhaps it would have utterly failed to integrate into the “Marvel Cinematic Universe”, both stylistically and narratively.

Wright started on Ant-Man in 2003, long before the world we know now existed. A world where Groot is a thing.

The comparison between the first Iron Man and this film is apt and unnecessary. Ant-Man is a origin story, with mad science, families, fathers, sons, daughters, all that, but it isn’t weighed down by an obligation to be an “origin story”. It concerns itself with being a cool, comic book movie. The origin stuff just happens.

Like Netflix’s recent Daredevil, Ant-Man is mature in that it knows it is a comic book movie and leans into the comic book tropes that serve its narrative. In one scene, an Ant-Man and an Avenger6 have a fight, but it turns out they are both good guys and it’s all a misunderstanding. Like every issue of every superhero comic ever. Delightful.

In addition to all that lowest common denominator froth, crafted to tickle and caress my geek bones, Ant-Man depicts an exhilarating moment that literally7 left me breathless. It could have been ripped out of the trippier parts of Kubrick’s 2001. The scene is sufficiently, delicately foreshadowed such that it easily fits within the film, despite its otherworldliness. That was a good scene.

Ant-Man isn’t art. I’m not convinced The Orenda is either. But neither of them need to be.

We celebrate noble failures all the time. We perhaps give such failures more credit than they deserve, or wear rose-tinted spectacles for longer than we should.

I think, on most days, I’d rather consume a well-crafted, workmanlike meal than a failed, but noble, gastronomic experiment.

  1. Or thereabouts.
  2. At least to my unsophisticated ear.
  3. Heh, ant colony.
  4. E.g. Anchorman, Back to the Future, The Seventh Seal.
  5. The next red-blooded, British, Star Trek fan guy.
  6. Spoilers. *cough* Falcon *cough*
  7. Literally.

In defence of the right-hand man

Netflix’s Daredevil is the closest thing to watching a TV comic book you could hope for. Cheesy dialogue, strong art direction, and a slow-burning, yet episodic, plot.

But that’s not why I’m here.

The stand-out character of the show is James Wesley, played by Toby Leonard Moore. Wesley is the right-hand man of Vincent D’Onofrio’s delightfully interesting lead villain, Wilson ‘Cuff-links’ Fisk.

When it comes to stereotypes and archetypes, it’s easy to write things like “Moore’s performance rises above the norm” or “what, in other hands, would have been a forgettable performance”.

Moore’s performance as Welsey is great. Welsey becomes a thinking, feeling major character, his reactions and behaviour human both in their consistency and inconsistency. When he is summoned or dismissed by Fisk, Moore captures in Wesley’s face the satisfaction of playing the part of a valued factotum, and also the struggle between that pride and the hurt and fleeting anxiety of a friend losing control and influence over a man he loves and respects.

I haven’t finished Daredevil season one yet, so I don’t know if it gets weird1, but as it stands I have been hugely impressed by how Moore’s Wesley improves on the right-hand man archetype. This article does a great job of indicating why.

That said, I don’t want to write about how good one actor’s performance, or one writer’s script, makes a rubbish thing great. I don’t see why the baseline for second-in-command needs to be an archetype we expect so little of. When did that happen?

Number twos can become great in their own right. Ask Lucifer.

I think the reason right-hand men2 and women are often rubbish characters in their own right is because they act as a factotum in service of the plot, the themes etc. of a creative work.

We know better than to make the villain of the piece a symbol. We expect them to be a real character, with hopes and dreams of their own. They need to smile as well as frown, whisper and shout, be nuanced and all that; else, they would be accused of two-dimensionality.

But it’s okay for henchmen to be one-dimensional. Right-hand men are frequently used to augment or supplement a main villain’s strengths 3, or to distil their essence into a simpler form4, a symbol.

Writing a second-in-command into which you can dump all the stuff you would have had your lead villain do/represent, but for the sake of art, is worse that writing a two-dimensional villain. You’ve indicated that you know better, by creating a fleshed-out antagonist, but left a skeleton standing next to him.

Let’s consider a few points that could apply to any would-be second-in-command:

1. Make a henchman/woman a character in his/her own right

At least try. What would the story be if told from this character’s point of view? What to they think and feel? Do their actions make sense?

2. Don’t engineer behaviour from necessity

Are you sure a henchman needs to do/say/be those things? Could the lead antagonist do it? Does it need to be done/said at all?

The easiest way to make something feel organic is for it to be organic. “Smash characters together and see what happens” is one approach. Another is to put more effort into looping through the logic of a plot-based decision; you need X to happen, so Y does a thing, but does it make sense for Y to act so that X happens?

3. What would the follower do without the leader?

If, upon removing their boss, the right-hand man simply evaporates, try harder.

Characters are always going to be artificial things, collections of words and/or pictures that pretend to be people, but there aren’t degrees of reality5. If characters are going to pretend to be real, they need to pretend to exist in terms of themselves, not as extensions or reflections of other characters.

Minor, out-of-focus characters need to come into focus as you approach. They can’t stay fuzzy. That is hideous.

To be honest, any or all of the above could be nonsense.

I suppose my point is that no characters should be written weaker, narrower or with lower expectations of realism because of their function. Nothing should be an afterthought.

When we, as a society and as individuals, create, we should aim for all killer, no filler6.

  1. Ahem, Rule 34.
  2. #everydaysexism
  3. The mastermind’s pet ninja or heavy. The brutal tyrant’s vizier. The visionary’s pragmatist.
  4. The evil sensei’s protégé. The tyrant’s general. The visionary’s fanatic.
  5. Or maybe there are. I’m not a physicist.
  6. Does This Look Infected? is better.

The Basic Character

After a good deal of departure and return, I recently finished Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces. I’ve captured thoughts (at least preliminary) elsewhere, but a passage at the very end of the book has stuck with me:

“The differentiations of sex, age and occupation are not essential to our character, but mere costumes which we wear for a time on the stage of the world. The image of man within is not to be confounded with the garments. We think of ourselves as Americans, children of the twentieth century, Occidentals, civilized Christians. We are virtuous or sinful. Yet such designations do not tell what it is to be man, they denote only the accidents of geography, birth-date, and income. What is the core of us? What is the basic character of our being?”

Too often, I find that non-fiction written for the semi-initiated audience leans heavily on an unearned closing flourish. Over two thirds of the latest tract on quantum cyber-logistics or pop entomology is generally workaday, but if a book has a strong hook and catches a cultural wave, it must sell.

If the book ends with an epic pull back shot, demonstrating with a grand macroscopic vision that quantum cyber-logistics lives in the heart of all of us, then it must be good. Worse still, it means it must be important.

I suspect that most of us don’t always finish these books.

Campbell’s book ends on a chapter entitled The Hero Today. The final image in the book is a photo of the Earth “taken” from the Moon1; the grandest pull back shot of all.

Given that the text is entirely about epic myth and grand aeon-spanning cosmogonic cycles, Campbell can’t really be accused of crowbarring in relevance at the end. The grand summary of The Hero Today feels earned, relevant, and possibly even important. I’m not sure I would recommend this book to anyone, but I don’t regret finishing it. Campbell’s dissection of multifarious myths, religious texts and cultural narratives into a somewhat contrived but pretty tight Ur-myth feels relevant and useful in a world of capitalism, bureaucracy and ISIS2.

Last week I heard a cleric on the radio arguing that extremism needed to be fought not just from a socio-economic perspective, but on ideological and religious grounds too. Extremism expresses itself in those terms, and so to challenge radicalisation, alternative ideological and religious arguments must be made.

I found it to be a persuasive argument. Ideology has become something of a dirty word in the West, the classic fallacy that ideologies generally are bad things. I don’t know if this stems from a distaste for what appears from the outside to be brainwashing or thought-policing, or whether the antipathy is based solely on flawed reasoning.

The cleric’s argument reminded me of G.K. Chesterton’s maxim, “When a man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything.”. It follows that, to prevent a man, a person at risk of radicalisation, from believing in anything, you must persuade him to again believe in God. The right God.

I’m not making this an argument for or against religion, but I doubt that improving a vulnerable proto-radical’s lot in life, providing better secular education and a job in a bank or supermarket will quickly or easily solve a problem created by religious fanaticism.

Our radical is being persuaded, on the one hand, that being in a militia is cool and you can take selfies with your tank etc and, on the other, that he is saving his soul and those of others. I couldn’t say which argument I would find more convincing, but Joseph Campbell has an opinion. In the closing paragraph of his book, Campbell argues that:

“It is not society that is to guide and save the creative hero, but precisely the reverse.”

It’s a thought that is going to fester.

  1. Titled Earthrise. The addition of a later editor, given when the book was first published.
  2. Or ISIL, if you are an Al Jazeera journalist.