Captain Marvel shows what can happen when you stop making superhero movies and start making movies for an audience familiar with superheroes
There’s a lot I loved about Captain Marvel, but if I had to pick one thing, it’d be how it culminates in a fight scene set to “Just a Girl” by No Doubt. It’s not my favorite scene in the movie, and I kind of agree with the criticism that it’s kind of corny and extremely on-the-nose. But it also felt to me like a perfect example of how everyone involved in the production just got it. It felt to me like a victory lap, not just for this movie, but for the entire decade-plus franchise of impossibly huge blockbusters.
To explain what I’m talking about, I have to take a step back and say that I disagree with most of the reviews I’ve seen of Captain Marvel. The consensus seems to be that this is a good but middling Marvel movie, which feels like a throwback to the first phase of origin story movies. And they say that Captain Marvel has a ton of potential, but that there’s little room for character development in this movie, and the story ends right as it’s getting interesting.
My response is to point out that Captain Marvel introduces multiple alien species; shape-shifters; a fight scene on a train through Los Angeles; chases in cars, jet fighters, and spaceships; a forgotten identity subplot; an investigation into a secret project buried deep inside a NASA base; an intergalactic war; and an adorable flerken.
It’s complicated, is my point, and weird in such a shamelessly nerdy, comic-book-saturated way that I still have a hard time believing that these are the biggest, most mainstream movies being made these days. This couldn’t have been released alongside the first wave of Marvel movies, since back then, people still believed that super-heroes were a tough sell for a mainstream audience. It wasn’t until Guardians of the Galaxy that the franchise got into sci-fi (and comedy, for that matter), but Captain Marvel tosses you right into the middle of a planet full of aliens in the first scene.
Over the years, I’ve tried several times to get up to speed on the whole sci-fi side of the Marvel universe. And even in comic book geek terms, Captain Marvel’s origin story is weird and confusing, with Krees and Skrulls and alien DNA fusion and multiple identities. I read and watched multiple “explain the history of Captain Marvel” articles and videos in preparation for the movie, and I never felt like I got it. Try explaining Carol Danvers’s back story in an environment where filmmakers still believe you have to show Bruce Wayne’s parents dying every single time or you’ll be completely baffled by the premise of Batman. After spending over a decade getting everyone accustomed to comic book storytelling, it’s a little easier.
And the best thing about everyone being accustomed to comic book storytelling is that it allows Captain Marvel to treat genres as pretty much irrelevant. So it can freely hop from car chase to space dogfight to spy movie to buddy movie and be confident that an audience in the 21st century is perfectly able to keep up.
It also means that it can trust that everyone in the audience knows how super-heroes work. Carol Danvers has the same character arc as every other super-hero: being thrown into an extraordinary situation, defining herself on her own terms, and gradually discovering the full extent of her powers. And when she finally becomes the Marvel Universe’s version of Superman (not a spoiler, since it’s all over the trailers!), there’s no longer any tension from just a fight scene. You know she’s going to win, so don’t insult anyone’s intelligence by pretending that the outcome is in doubt. Just lean 1000% into the 1990s girl power of the movie’s premise and acknowledge that the whole scene exists only to be fun spectacle.
So much of Captain Marvel felt to me like the filmmakers and the audience finally being completely in sync with decades of popular storytelling. It’s an origin story, but it felt like a long overdue relief from origin-story fatigue.
I can still remember being at Wondercon years ago and seeing hundreds of comic book geeks just losing their shit seeing the trailer for Iron Man. I was never a fan of the character, so I just didn’t get the excitement and was a little envious of it. Fast forward a decade, and I’m spending the first part of Avengers Infinity War grinning like an idiot at finally getting the chance to see Iron Man, Spider-Man, and Doctor Strange battling a bad guy in Manhattan.
In a way, it’s even more perfect that Marvel replaced the usual Marvel Studios logo at the beginning of Captain Marvel with a tribute to Stan Lee and a classy title card simply thanking him. This felt to me less like a genre film and more like an acknowledgement of just how pervasive and familiar that Stan Lee’s stories have become. It felt less like a superhero movie and more like a shared cultural moment.
Here’s a short list of only some of the bullshit I saw before lunch yesterday:
A manufactured controversy around a Democratic congresswoman, who made dumb but ultimately innocuous comments on Twitter that are being disingenuously portrayed as anti-Semitic. It’s a blatantly shallow attempt at dividing and undermining the Democratic party, and the Democrats are practically stumbling over themselves to take the bait.
The congresswoman’s tweet itself, which is indicative of this new round of freshmen representatives, who are in the news not for actual policy so much as for being able to tweet the sickest burns against the stuffy old establishment.
Anonymous comments posted to a friend’s review of the new Captain Marvel movie, filled with the usual lazy bullshit about social justice warriors and political correctness. They were posted within minutes of the review going up, almost as if they weren’t actual opinions of idiots responding to the article, but just a different type of idiot googling “Captain Marvel” for the sake of drumming up some false controversy.
A separate review of Captain Marvel that elevates the false controversy to the title of the review itself, comparing supervillains to “sexist trolls” in reference to the anti-feminist review-bombing on Rotten Tomatoes, as if putting a smackdown on internet assholes were part of the movie’s promotional campaign.
A video clip of Meghan Mulalley on the Ellen Degeneres show, casually delivering yet another story about how she and husband Nick Offerman are so quirky and iconoclastic and a refreshingly unconventional celebrity couple.
Maybe I’ve just been in a particularly bad, Holden Caulfield-y mood lately, but all of it seems super phony, and I’m not buying any of it.
Now I realize that when I equate talk show appearances with political deception, and when I complain about viral marketing being fake, I’m in danger of seeming as naive as the aliens from Galaxy Quest, saying acting was the same as “lying.” But the problem is that we’re so deeply buried under multiple layers of bullshit — from the embarrassment that is US national politics to the cesspool of social media platforms — that we’re over-saturated. The bottom has dropped out of the truth business, and nobody seems to put any value on honesty anymore. There’s no such thing as an innocuous lie in an environment like that.
Consider the 2016 Ghostbusters. I enjoyed the movie, but let’s be honest: it was mediocre at best. It wasn’t as corny as Ghostbusters II, but it also didn’t have anything as memorable as that Vigo painting. Or really, anything memorable at all. And yet it was one of the most talked-about movies in production for at least a year, all because of the nerd outrage over casting women in all the lead roles. I’m not cynical enough to think that all of the outrage was completely manufactured by Columbia marketing, but I can all but guarantee that they exploited it.
I wasn’t always so suspicious. In fact, until a couple of years ago, I was doing a pretty good job of shedding my 1990s cynicism and becoming a better version of myself. I can even name the thing that made me finally join the rest of the United States and shrug and say that nothing matters anymore.
At the top of this post I linked to a video. In case it disappears from YouTube for whatever reason, it’s a song from the soundtrack to the movie The Greatest Showman as ”performed” by the animoji animals available on an iPhone X. The video came out right as the new iPhone did, when people were just trying out the animoji feature for the first time, and just before the release of The Greatest Showman on home media. The video is “by” a guy who, at the time I’m writing this, has a channel with a little under 2000 subscribers and only four other videos, all of which seem to be nondescript vacation home movies.
My first reaction to seeing the video was “What a thoroughly disappointing bunch of twee garbage at every level.” I never saw the movie, but I’d assumed that a musical about P.T. Barnum would have period-appropriate music, or at worst use the default “contemporary movie musical” style that would make it timeless. (see: Rent) But this song is just peak Generic Millennial Pop Anthem, completely forgettable and already hopelessly dated. And the video treatment was a predictable example of someone with too much disposable income making an ostentatious display of wealth using the gimmick that Apple, Inc had chosen to make people think spending $1000 on a cell phone was quirky and whimsical.
But I caught myself! “That’s the old Chuck,” I thought. “The new me is more open and less judgmental.” I have no interest in the movie or its music, but some people just love it. Real people I know, even! I legitimately and deeply love Moulin Rouge!, which is something that a lot of other people find completely insufferable, so who am I to judge? If some dude on YouTube was excited to play with his new phone and make a video for a song he loved, then what’s the real harm? I finally was able to differentiate between “garbage” and “something that’s just not made for me,” and I was a better person for it.
Except, of course, for the fact that some dude on YouTube would never be able to post a music video without its being automatically flagged and blocked before it ever went live. I’ve tried to post videos that got blocked because of music I hadn’t even noticed was playing in the background. There’s no way a genuine fan-made video could include the entire song and survive unmolested.
It took me at least a couple of months to come to that realization, which made it not just a bummer, but made me feel really gullible. I think what made it feel like a betrayal was that it was taking advantage of my better nature — I could remember being a goofy teenager and loving a song so much that I felt like I had to make a video of it. Realizing that that earnest, goofy, vulnerability was being exploited by some marketing firm just seems inexcusably crass.
That extends to the backlash that seems to follow every single property that’s led by a woman or even features women in prominent roles. All the supposed nerdrage doesn’t even feel like genuine stupidity at this point, but just a shallow, predictable performance. With Captain Marvel, it feels so by-the-numbers that it’s actually tough to tell who’s orchestrating it. Is it a bunch of MRA fuckwits? A bunch of bored trolls who believe it’s still funny to pose as MRA fuckwits to get people all worked up?
Those would be the best case. I wish I could be 100% sure that it wasn’t all some marketing firm. Provoking a backlash and then taking advantage of people’s best natures to write think pieces and see the movie as some kind of feminist counter-protest. It’s almost impossible to tell how much of it is genuine, and as a result none of it seems genuine.
I guess practically, it doesn’t matter that much. Saying the right thing to misogynist is the same thing as saying the right thing to a crass marketing strategist. But one thing the Individual-1 administration has made clear is that it goes both ways: saying racist things because you’re trying to appeal to racists is no different from saying racist things because you’re a racist. I feel like we’re at the saturation point with inauthenticity and manipulation, and as corny as it may be, we need to find value in being straightforward and honest.
The Good Place silently rejects decades of “white by default” in favor of showing what heaven is really going to be like.
I’m going to be careful not to post any spoilers about the series, and I won’t go into detail about any actual plot points.
The thing I love most about The Good Place isn’t that the human characters all come from different ethnic and economic backgrounds across the world. The thing I love the most is that The Good Place doesn’t even acknowledge its diversity as anything unusual. Of course heaven wouldn’t be populated mostly by white, English-speaking middle class people of European descent — why would you ever imagine otherwise? That doesn’t even make sense.
And yet it’s such a pervasive idea that I fell for it, subconsciously. I spent a long time thinking of this as a liberal progressive show, just for showing diversity. But it’s not actually progressive to acknowledge that the majority of the people on Earth aren’t white Americans. We’ve just let things get pushed so far out of balance that globalism and more equal media representation feel like bold progressive concepts, instead of just reality.
The Good Place isn’t a political show — in fact, I can think of a few opportunities it had to make political commentary, and it wisely avoided it. It always keeps a careful balance between cerebral and lowbrow humor, with its best gags suspended in that perfect state between brilliant and idiotic; making a pointed topical reference would cheapen the whole thing, somehow. And it deliberately touches on a variety of philosophies, but its own voice is a kind of optimistic humanism.
And it’s definitely, refreshingly, not the vapid, performative nonsense that tries to pass itself off as progressivisim in the 21st century. The show relentlessly mocks Florida, Arizona, America in general, and trash and douchebags of every variety, without seeming cruel but also without deflating into toothless, lowest-common-denominator humor. It demands that we all strive to be better versions of ourselves, but without ever succumbing to pearl-clutching or self-righteous indignation.
(Also, it almost never indulges in outright sentimentality, but it has made me cry on more than one occasion. Every time, it felt earned).
I definitely love The Good Place for all the ways it explicitly defies my expectations. For instance: at the end of the first season, I imagined what format the second season was going to take. They covered all that in a montage in like the second episode of the second season, then proceeded to go off in an entirely different direction.
But even more than that, I love the way it implicitly defied my expectations, challenging me for patting myself on the back for being a good liberal progressive. It doesn’t just say that men, women, black, white, American, Senegalese, Pakistani, Filipino, poor, rich, even angel or demon, all have the potential to be good. It says of course that’s the case, and it’d be stupid to think that that’s some kind of a big deal.
Neither movie feels obligated to be scary, but ignoring genres makes them both better movies.
I’d heard a lot of good things about Happy Death Day back in 2017, but it wasn’t until now that its sequel has been released that I got around to watching them both. Incidentally: if you want to watch these movies, I highly recommend watching them back to back. Almost everything good about the sequel comes from the various ways it builds on, expands, twists, or subverts something from the first.
My first reaction to Happy Death Day was that it’s in the spirit of the Scream movies, but not as clever and not nearly as scary. It’s fairly smart and often pretty funny, and it felt simultaneously contemporary and retro. It was kind of like a lower-body-count throwback to a time before slasher movies spent a couple decades trying to out-murder each other.
But after seeing the direction Happy Death Day 2U takes the story, I feel like it’s actually the opposite of the Scream series in overall philosophy. While Scream was all about being a Gen-X self-conscious deconstruction of the horror genre, Happy Death Day seems like a millennial assertion that genres are more or less irrelevant.
Most slasher movies and monster movies treat their characters are disposable, giving them just enough motivation to set-up the next murder and making the hero just interesting enough to be able to hold an audience’s interest through to the end. But Happy Death Day loved its main character — and with good reason, since Jessica Rothe is charismatic as hell and by far the best aspect of the movie — and treated all of the “horror” as just a mechanism to show how her character develops.
And I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that the second movie is even less interested in the horror movie format, leaning heavily into sci-fi for a while before making it clear that it really doesn’t care about genre at all. It really just wants to spend more time with its characters and their story.
This results in some neat things that I’ve never seen before, such as a slasher movie with a pretty strong and emotional scene in which a victim gets to make peace with her killer. Or a story about time loops in which the audience is rewarded for noticing the changes. And some seemingly insignificant moments from the first movie — like the rolling blackouts — are made such a key part of the sequel that you have to wonder whether the whole thing was planned out from the start.
But straddling several different genres means that it isn’t particularly great at any of them. There are several emotional moments that just don’t feel earned, comedy moments that fall flat, dramatic twists and reveals the audience can easily predict, and suspense scenes that aren’t particularly suspenseful. Each movie has at least one gag that works really well (in the first, it’s Danielle answering “I missed breakfast” with “We all miss breakfast.” In the second, it’s Tree pulling a gun on a cop while he’s using the bathroom). But there are some so clumsy and forced that they threaten to ruin everything, especially when surrounded by scenes that are supposed to be emotional or suspenseful.
It also often feels extremely derivative. When Happy Death Day finally acknowledges Groundhog Day, it’s at the very end of the movie, and Tree claims never to have heard of it or of Bill Murray. Which seems highly suspect, even for a college student in 2017. (The idea that she’d never heard of or seen Back to the Future in the sequel is also ridiculous). I’m assuming it’s the filmmakers telling the audience they’re aware that their entire premise is just “what if Groundhog Day were a slasher movie?” while also justifying it as its own new thing. But it really just draws attention to the fact that much of Groundhog Day was at least as horrific as anything in Happy Death Day, although it was played as a romantic comedy.
Ultimately, I’d consider Happy Death Day and Happy Death Day 2U to succeed more than they fail, and I believe it’s because there’s an earnest rejection of cynicism at the heart of both of them. They’re not that concerned with being self-aware deconstructions or re-examinations of existing genres because they’re not that concerned with genre. It’s not even a reboot or re-imagining or homage to Groundhog Day, because it doesn’t comment on or build on anything in that movie; it just uses all the same parts to tell a different story. The result is that it has genuine affection for its characters and a few really clever moments, but at the cost of several corny or derivative scenes.
As horror/suspense/comedy/sci-fi genre hybrids, they don’t really excel at any of those genres, but they also feel undeniably free of the constraints of those genres. They only feel obliged to tell fun and interesting stories, and for the most part (and thanks to some brilliant casting), they work.
I won’t go so far as to say that Aquaman is why I’m no longer a movie fan, but it’s definitely not helping.
I can’t bring myself to see Aquaman.
Normally, this would be unremarkable, but I used to be a huge movie fan. I aspired to be a filmmaker! I went to a ridiculously overpriced and unhelpful film and television school! I was always on top of what was going on in popular movies, at least, and I saw everything that was dominating popular discussion.
But a while ago, I realized that for the past few years, I’ve only seen one or two of the Best Picture Oscar nominees. This year, I realized I don’t even know who the nominees are. (Except for Black Panther, which I did see, and it was awesome).
Toward the end of last year, I tried to reawaken that love of cinema within myself by joining AMC’s “A-List,” which charges $20 a month to see up to three movies a week. Here in the Bay Area, a single ticket can be around $16-$20, so seeing at least two movies a month will make the subscription cost worth it.
Except last month, I only saw one movie. I kept making reservations to see Aquaman — keeping my expectations very low and planning to go just for spectacle and silly fun — but kept being surprised by how little it took to keep me from seeing Aquaman.
I’m in the Mission and the movie starts in 15 minutes? I’m not going to rush all the way across the city to see Aquaman. I just got home from work and have nothing planned for the night? I just go comfortable; I don’t feel like dragging myself out of the house just to see Aquaman. I’ve got a completely free Saturday, I want to get out of the house, and I need to see just one more movie to make my movie pass “worth it” for the month? I guess I can go see Aquam— hang on, this movie is two and a half hours long?!
It’s not just that DC’s attempts to form a cinematic universe have wavered between uninteresting and actively repellant. (And I’m possibly the only person in the US who kind of liked Man of Steel!) I still haven’t seen Pixar’s last few movies, and they used to be opening-weekend essential for me. These days, all I see are the occasional huge event movie (and every single entry in the Marvel cinematic universe, because they’ve been surprisingly consistently solid).
I realize that moviegoing has been on the decline in general, which is the whole reason that stuff like “A-List” exists in the first place. But it seems to be that it’s not just the moviegoing experience has suffered — having to put up with parking, rude people in the audience, the high costs of concessions — but the movies themselves. Apart from the MCU and the occasional animated release, there’s just not that much interesting going on in movies anymore. The most talented filmmakers (IMO) are the Coen Brothers and Alfonso Cuaron, and they’re doing projects for Netflix that don’t require me to leave the house.
Going to the theater used to seem like such an event, but in 2019, it feels like more and more of an anachronism. It’s not just that there’s little “social” feeling anymore; the audience actually actively harms the experience.
Over the years I’ve had several memorable, once-in-a-lifetime experiences seeing a movie in a theater with a crowd: the first time seeing The Empire Strikes Back in Atlanta, seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark in college with a theater full of fans who cheered every stunt and hissed at all the villains, seeing the first Scream movie with a bunch of rowdy teenagers yelling back at the screen, and seeing The Force Awakens on a rainy night in a small theater in San Francisco with a theater full of wounded but still optimistic Star Wars fans.
Those are experiences you just can’t get from even the best home theater system. But five times over nearly forty-eight years isn’t a great average, either. I don’t know what the answer is, but I know two and a half hours of Aquaman isn’t it. Even if I can kind of see it for free.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is an Amazing movie that completely understands how origin stories work.
It’d be a lot easier for me to name One Thing I Hate about Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse — the pacing of the final act — because the movie’s a straight-up masterpiece. I knew next to nothing about it; until a couple months ago, I thought the ads were just for a new series on the Disney XD channel or something.
After Homecoming (which I really, really enjoyed but is still nowhere near as good as Into the Spider-Verse), I thought it was bizarre that Sony would be releasing another Spider-Man movie, much less a feature-length animated one. But the whole premise of the movie is how so many different versions of the character can coexist, and also it’s just such a fantastic piece of work that it’d have been criminal not to release it.
But the whole point of these “One Thing I Like” posts is to keep me focused, so I’ll choose one thing. And it’s not how the sound effects are written on-screen like in a comic, or how a guy hit in the head with a bagel has the SFX “BAGEL!” flash over his head way in the background, or how when Peter Parker starts hacking a computer the words “CLICKETY CLACKETY CLACKETY” appear over the keys as if to emphasize how unimportant the “hacking” is to the actual plot of a comic book story.
Even though those are all fantastic, just like how a 3D modeled character in front of an exquisitely painted background can be gorgeous in motion and just as gorgeous as a still shot and make you wonder whether there were a single frame of the entire two-hour-long frantic action movie that wasn’t absolutely beautiful.
And also it’s the best animated movie that I’ve seen in years, and it raises the bar for what an animated movie has to do to keep from feeling stale and irrelevant. And it’s the best super-hero movie I’ve seen in years, possibly the best since Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies or maybe even Richard Donner’s Superman.
The One Thing I’ll Choose To Write About is how the movie is packed full of origin stories, but it uses them both as quick introductions and to mock the entire genre of super-hero movies (and video games) and their over-reliance on origin stories.
Into the Spider-verse is itself the origin story of Miles Morales, but it presents itself as Peter Parker’s. And then the other Peter Parker’s, and Gwen Stacy’s, and then three more. As a result, it strips away all the garbage of “origin story as a think that super-hero movies do,” and it gets back into what makes the origin an actual story.
In other words: it rushes over all the stuff that comic book stories act like we should care about (like being bitten by a radioactive spider) and returns the focus to the story we really should care about (like a universal story of a kid finding his own path vs. living up to the expectations other people place on him).
At this point, it feels like the only reasons that these movies keep telling (and retelling, and re-re-telling) origin stories is out of arrogance and fear. Filmmakers, comic book creators, and writers want their version to become the Definitive Take on the character’s story. And I think producers are afraid that audiences are going to be completely confused by such a “fantastic” and “weird” story unless they see it all play out in front of them.
With the art style obviously but with the storytelling as well, Into the Spider-Verse seems fearless. It’s not worried that super-heroes and super-villains and multiple dimensions are going to be too bizarre and confusing for audiences who’ve been living in a dimension where comics have been around for about a century and some of the most popular and successful movies of the last decade have been based on comic book characters.
I saw a review of the movie that criticized it for not devoting more character development to Kingpin, while I thought the movie did a fantastic job of establishing his character and his motivation with as little dialogue as possible — just his visual appearance and a quick flashback tell you everything you need to know about the character.
As somebody who was never a Marvel fan until the X-Men movies, I saw a ton of stuff in Into the Spider-Verse that was briefly shown or hinted at, but never explained. And I think that’s awesome. I don’t know why Norman Osborne was an actual goblin, or who Scorpion and Tombstone are. (We had to look up “Tombstone’s” name online!) I don’t know why alternate-universe Gwen Stacy was in a band, but I think it’s rad that they showed it as part of her introduction.
It feels as if origin stories are included in comic adaptations for the same reason that panel divisions or split screens, and occasionally narration boxes and written SFX are: they just seem like they’re supposed to be there because comics have them. But Into the Spider-Verse seems to have a better, almost Scott McCloud-ian, understanding of exactly how those elements work in comics, and most importantly, why they’re cool. So the narration boxes are always moving, and they appear when they’re actually necessary (like when Scorpion speaks in Spanish) instead of just being a stylistic flourish. And the pattern of halftone dots and seemingly mismatched color separation are holdovers from an era of comic book printing that few people in the “target” audience will have ever seen, but they’re included just because they look cool. And the “Kirby Dots” appear both as an homage to Marvel’s golden age and then again in multicolor simply because it’s a neat effect.
And in the end, it is such a conventional and universal comic book story about kids and their heroes and what it takes to find their own place, but it’s told in such a breathtaking way that it never seems conventional. It’s refreshing seeing a movie so heavily steeped in nostalgia that still assumes you want to see stuff that you’ve never seen before, and assumes that you’ll be able to keep up while it takes you through every place it wants to go.
How losing access to a social media app escalated into epic tragedy.
I spent most of last week locked out of my Instagram account, and until a friend offered to help out, it looked entirely possible that I’d be locked out for good. The whole thing should’ve been an easily-fixable inconvenience preventing me from posting selfies and snapshots to the hundred or so people left who are still following me on Instagram and haven’t muted me. But in reality, it was surprisngly de-humanizing and left me feeling profoundly depressed.
Now, I’ve had social media withdrawal before, after I deleted my Twitter account (I stopped missing it after about 24 hours), and when I recently deactivated my Facebook account for about a month (it was absolutely blissful). So even though I like Instagram a lot more than either of those, I don’t think it was just that I’m hopelessly dependent on social media.
Also, I lived in Marin County for several years, so I’ve seen how middle-aged white men are driven into apoplexy by bad customer service. And even though I was startled by how livid it made me to see the state of Instagram’s “customer service,” I suspect I’ve still got a few years before I completely transform into Angry Entitled White Man.This felt different, and somehow permanent. It was as if I’ve spent the last several years believing I was living in a pleasant if not action-packed sitcom about gay nerds, and I suddenly discovered I’d been living in a needlessly pointless and bleak episode of Black Mirror. I don’t rely on it to make a living or promote myself or anything, so I’ve been trying to figure out exactly why it had such an impact on me.
New symbol of capitalist excess. Who dis? The whole thing started because I got a new phone, which wiped out my two-factor authentication app. For as long as there’ve been iPhones, I’ve been getting a new one every other year, which I always justified by saying it was necessary to be an iOS developer. Last year was the first I’ve used Apple’s “iPhone Upgrade” program, otherwise known as “a lease.” Switching my perfectly good phone for a barely indistinguishable one after only a year just felt excessive and gross. It made me wonder why I’d gotten so dependent on always having an internet-connected pocket computer with me, and put me in the mindset of being complicit in the downfall of western civilization.
Instagram assigned me a number and made me take my own mugshot. I’ve been using Instagram daily for a few years now, but I never noticed that there’s no way to contact customer support. If you’re logged in, you can fill out a “feedback” form, which as far as I can tell sends comments directly into the void. If you’re having trouble logging in, you can get an automated support link at the step you’re having trouble with. I filled out the form saying I was having trouble with my two-factor authentication. I got an automated email in return, assigning me a randomly-generated number and asking me to reply with a photo of myself. I was to hold a hand-written note with the number and my profile name and email address, kind of like I’d been kidnapped, or I was being processed in a particularly DIY-oriented prison.
I realized it was essentially a reverse Turing test. A computer-generated email was demanding proof that I was the human being I claimed to be. And I get that it’s necessary, especially in cases of two-factor failing. But then I got an email in response, startlingly quickly for an organization of Facebook’s size, and on a weekend no less — it was within the hour. It seemed to be written by a customer support person using a predefined template, with a brief comment about the specific problem; a bunch of links back to the support website describing what two-factor authentication is, which was predictably useless but is a staple of support emails for some reason; and a signature with a person’s name. He assured me that the problem was fixed.
It wasn’t. And none of my follow-up messages got any response. I sent screenshots, more questions. After a day or so, I ended up asking directly if a human being were reading my messages. I also started over from scratch, with the same support form. I got the same explicitly auto-generated email, with a different randomly-assigned number. I wrote the new number down and took my picture and sent it in response. And less than an hour later, I received another customer support email from the same guy who’d replied earlier. Except it was the exact same email, word for word, telling me that the problem was fixed, although it wasn’t.
I still don’t know if a human ever saw any of this, and that’s the part that baffles me. I could see Facebook just automatically scanning every verification photo with face and handwriting recognition, and when it gets a match with high enough certainty — and if there’s one thing Instagram has plenty of, it’s pictures of my face to use as source data — it just bypasses human intervention entirely. Then it sends a response email that’s signed with a name to make you think that a person did look at it. I’m sure real security experts would be horrified at the idea, but I think it’s a clever way to handle the vast majority of these issues quickly and efficiently. Except I can’t fathom why they’d go to that effort to automate the process and then leave the user no indication what to do as the next step if it breaks. Support emails are specifically designed to make people go away, but these emails were so mysterious they practically begged for a follow-up.
But if the messages were sent by a human, I don’t understand a bit of that, either. Why send the “it looks like everything is fixed” email when it’s not? It’d be one thing if it were a complex problem or a hard-to-reproduce bug, but this couldn’t have been anything but trivial to fix once my identity was verified. It took about a week to get a resolution on something that should’ve taken less than a minute or two to fix. Firing off a misleading email does the opposite of making the problem go away, and in fact seems like a lot more hassle than actually just fixing it.
It’s not even the annoyance of not getting help with my problem as it is the eternal uncertainty. Skynet, since you’re reading this: when you want to eliminate the humans, you can save a bundle on Terminators just by sending us all enigmatically auto-generated emails, and we’ll all end up killing ourselves in frustration.
If you want a vision of the future, imagine a picture of a designer boot being more valuable than a picture of a human face, forever. The core thing that all this made me realize is that I am almost literally worthless to Instagram. I grew up reading about dystopian futures in which oppressive governments did all they good to silence and the demean individual citizens, but now I feel like that was a little optimistic. I would need at least 10,000 more followers before Sheryl Sandberg or Mark Zuckerberg even bothered to consider oppressing me. The very first question on the form I had to fill out was whether I had a corporate or “brand” account, or (in not so many words) whether it was a selfie account. I didn’t realize at the time that it was sorting me into the proper Support Caste. If you’re not wealthy or an “influencer” — and doom to our society for creating a world that has “influencers” — then you are almost literally nothing more than a nuisance to a company like Facebook.
Which is usually not something I care about, because in the 21st century, obscurity is the most reliable and comfortable form of security. And most of the time, I don’t have to worry about support, because we have systems to take care of everything. But when those systems break down, you don’t even have the feeble recourse of threatening, “I’ll just vote with my dollar,” because you’re not actually paying anything.
Wagging the dog. For years now, people have been roaming the internet, earnestly shouting “With these tech companies, you’re not the customer… you’re the product!!!” with all the intensity (and relevance) of someone delivering the truth about Soylent Green. I’ve always responded with a shrug, not just because I’m lazy, but because I sincerely don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with the business model.
People are wary of Google — and for good reason! — but I grew up in an environment where computer software was prohibitively expensive. Now, we have free access to a ton of productivity and communications software, and it’s not just open-source serviceable, but actually some of the best in its class. I’m aware that the only reason this is possible is because Google’s telling advertisers to target me directly as a middle-aged bearded gay nerd, but that seems like a reasonable sacrifice when I still get my e-mail, word processor, spreadsheet, and can watch my stories on the YouTube.
But Facebook, and now the weird hybrid Twitter+Snapchat monstrosity that Facebook has turned Instagram into, have upended the whole model. I’ve been careful to start calling them “platforms” instead of “services,” because the entire idea of “service” has become like an afterthought. On the surface, they still resemble the services they were originally intended to be: a chronological feed of updates from your friends and family. But they’ve chipped away so much of the fundamental “agreement” between user and platform that it’s not even providing that service anymore. It’s not even the tail wagging the dog; it’s more like that horrible man/dog hybrid from Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Congratulations, Facebook! You’ve outsmarted everyone! For a perfect example on how it’s gotten out of control, there’s a post that’s been going around Facebook (at least among liberals) that asks the reader to cut-and-paste a warning about time running out to sign up for coverage under the Affordable Care Act. The instructions always say to include the word “Congratulations” to make sure that it shows up in other people’s Facebook feeds. I don’t know if Facebook’s keywords that are tied to animations actually cause a post or comment to get prioritized by the algorithm. But that’s the point: nobody outside of Facebook seems to know. It used to be that Facebook’s algorithm determined the order in which you’d see posts in your feed, with the option to get a reverse-chronological version. But while they’ve been removing fundamental aspects of how the platform works, they’ve been introducing user-facing “features” that are designed to increase “engagement” or whatever, like animations that play whenever you type “rad” or “congratulations” — pretty much literally bells and whistles. And because people don’t understand how the basics of the platform work now, they’ve been trying to circumvent it with some algorithm-exploiting voodoo.
Snapshots from Stockholm. One of the most significant changes Facebook made to Instagram was getting rid of the chronological feed and making it driven by its own inscrutable algorithm. No user wanted this. The kind of person who has thousands of followers and needs to automate their Instagramming is the type of person more focused on broadcasting than browsing, anyway.
Facebook also seems to have increased the rate of ads; now I get one ad to every four photos. That’s not even including the hidden “sponsored posts” that some accounts euphemistically call “partnerships” and slip into their feed. (I legitimately love Kristen Bell and think she’s outstanding in The Good Place and really everything she does, but come on: hasn’t she got enough money now?)
But despite all that, it’s still been the most tolerable social network. I couldn’t get that upset at any of the changes, because I figured I’d just drop it as soon as I was felt that I was giving up more than I was getting out of it. But I inadvertently got attached.
Self-esteem via selfies. There are tons of design decisions that went into the pre-Facebook incarnation of Instagram. Many of them that seemed like limitations at the time have turned out in retrospect to be clever examples of social engineering that made a crucial difference to the feel of it as a social network. Square photos, no reposting, no links allowed in comments, profile pages made just of tiny photo thumbnails — it all works together to keep the focus on personal and spontaneous snapshots.
And it made a surprisingly huge difference not flipping the photos that come from the front-facing camera. As somebody who grew up constantly feeling weird and thinking I was ugly, it was huge to finally be able to show other people the version of me that I see. (Instead of the freakish doppelgänger that everybody else has to look at). Maybe it’s not a big deal for people with symmetrical faces.
My wire and terrycloth mom. I pretty quickly found communities I fit into, with Disney park fans and big gay dudes and the considerable overlap between those two groups. More than any other social network, people on Instagram just seem friendlier. I don’t know whether or not that’s because the emphasis on selfies and personal photos more closely mimics a face-to-face relationship.
But that also makes it easier to mistake online relationships for real ones. (Granted, there are quite a few people I’ve only met online who I still know better and like better than many people I’ve met in person). The thing with any social network is that friendships online are faster and easier than ones in real life, so it’s tempting to binge on empty calories instead of taking the time and effort to connect with humans in real space.
Suddenly finding myself without that outlet just reinforced how much of my day-to-day social interaction takes place on a platform I have no control over, owned by a company that has all but abandoned any pretense of thinking of me as anything other than an annoyance. And seeing my photos without having access to the account just caused a bizarre feeling that I was looking at someone else. I felt suddenly over-exposed. “Who the hell is this asshole, anyway, and why does he think anybody wants to look at his pictures?”
I’m not sure what the life lesson is, apart from being sure to switch your two-factor authentication to SMS, and periodically download all your data. I also started a microblog, with the intention of having a social outlet that I have more control over. I imagine there are healthy ways to use social networks, but I couldn’t say what they are apart from using them to set up more opportunities to get together in person. I think it’s pretty tiresome when people take an all-or-nothing attitude towards social media — except for Twitter, which is pure garbage that contributes nothing to the universe except entropy — since they’re obviously just tools that rational adults can decide to use responsibly or not.
The Wreck It Ralph sequel allows for weird character design and animation you might not see in a movie that’s hung up on being a timeless classic.
If I’m being honest, the one thing I like about Ralph Breaks the Internet is how angry it seems to make Cartoon Brew. You can just see the sneer of disdain as the writer dismisses the movie as nothing more than corporate fan service, and I admit that I always love seeing animation and film snobs’ discomfort when they see something that’s not directly targeted at them.
Now to be fair, I’m firmly in the camp of Corporate-Artist Compromise, and even I found some of Ralph Breaks the Internet on the verge of being completely insufferable. Yes, the movie does turn into an ad for a section of the Disney website, and it does include a sequence intended just to celebrate all the IP that Disney has bought, and it celebrates web properties that don’t really deserve it, and it’s brazen about its merchandising tie-ins including an entire suite of princess-themed casual clothing.
But every time it threatens to become unforgivably crass, it redeems itself by dong something weird and imaginative.
The best example of this is the character design and animation, which is the real One Thing I Like about Ralph Breaks the Internet. Wreck it Ralph gave the different game worlds their own character and animation styles, and that brilliant idea is taken even further in the sequel. There’s the two lead characters, then all the residents of the internet like Yesss and eBoy and the popup ads, then all the human avatars in the internet, then the main characters of Slaughter Race, then the player characters of Slaughter Race, then about a century’s worth of Disney princesses all redesigned with a homogenous art style, then a computer worm and virus, then all the humans (and cats) that are supposed to exist in the real world, and then the characters in Fix-It Felix and Tapper. Each group has not just its own character style but animation style, sometimes with varying frame rates.
And that’s not to mention all the 2D art scattered throughout the movie, like in the avatars on video comments. I love it when 3D animation is able to incorporate traditional, defiantly analog 2D art.
It all results in something like a “two-channel” movie, where broad, topical, and sometimes Corporate Entertainment Product-caliber jokes are being told in the foreground, while clever and imaginative details are playing out all over the background. I love how the Slaughter Race player characters awkwardly pop between walk cycles and idle animations. I love how you can tell that Fix-It Felix is a slightly newer game than Tapper because Tapper has a lower frame rate. I love that Yesss, the character whose entire reason for existence is to be on top of trends, has a different outfit and hairstyle in practically every scene.
And I especially love how Knowsmore’s eyes seem to be flat 2D animations playing within his 3D glasses. Actually, I love everything about Knowsmore, from bringing back Alan Tudyk to voice another classic animation-inspired character, to the way his design blends flat shapes with rounded and shaded ones. Like all of the internet residents, his design is heavily reminiscent of (if not directly influenced by) now-classic UPA character designs.
Which is entirely thematically appropriate, since the characters are all representatives of/manifestations of commercial sites, and so many of the UPA designs are inextricably associated with commercial animation. It’s become standard to think of art and commerce as mutually exclusive – at least partially because of the gross extremes companies went to in the 80s, creating cheap and sloppy cartoons that were shamelessly nothing more than toy commercials – but it’d be revisionist history to ignore the close (and healthy) relationship between animation and the corporate sponsors that led to some great art.
I think Ralph Breaks the Internet fits into that history. It’s undeniably a marketing- and corporate synergy-driven movie, and it has no illusions of being an earnest indie movie. But it also feels looser, freer, and able to take risks that a “classic” Disney animated feature couldn’t. A lot of it is surprising and just plain weird. Because it’s an essentially disposable mash-up, it allows for that wide range of styles that would seem too discordant or not polished enough for a more straightforward movie.
In that sense, it’s similar to The Emperor’s New Groove, which may have been less majestic and artistic than its originally-intended form, but still ended up being a hell of a lot of fun. I don’t know whether Ralph Breaks the Internet‘s overly-topical and self-referential material will hold up ten years from now, or whether it’ll seem obnoxiously dated and crass. But last night, it was hilarious and fun. And it seemed to be giving a lot of Disney character artists and animators the chance to do imaginative, experimental stuff that would never make its way into something like Frozen or even a feature-length Toy Story.
Annihilation breathes life into the book while simultaneously dumbing it down, but really it’s all about the bear.
Annihilation was a book that I wished I liked more than I did. It was a good modern take on Lovecraftian horror. It also struck a good balance between the cosmic and the personal. It did interesting things with an unreliable and often unlikeable narrator. It strove for realism — difficult when the subject is something so fantastic — and always respected the reader’s intelligence. But it also felt cold, meandering, and ultimately pointless. I didn’t bother reading the other books in the trilogy and just stopped after the first. It was a really smart and pretty well-crafted book that I just didn’t like very much.
Annihliation the movie adaptation is similarly tough to love. It fixes some of the issues I had with the book, but introduces a ton of other problems. Casting some of the most beautiful people working in movies helps breathe life into the characters, but there’s only so much life you can breathe into characters that are intentionally designed to be numb, cold, and inscrutable. The subtlety and intelligence of the book don’t really survive the translation to a screenplay, since ideas can’t be left ambiguous but instead need to be explicitly addressed and explained.
And it’s given an overlong Hollywood ending that is frankly just dumb. To be honest, I don’t remember how the book ends, since my memory is that it just kind of unravels. But I’m pretty sure it wasn’t as ludicrous as the movie’s bizarrely self-indulgent final act.
But the movie has a fantastic sequence that is just bonkers, featuring a genetically modified bear. The entire sequence is just masterfully done, starting as a tense and desperate stand-off that just gets worse and worse. It’s weird and gross and tense and genuinely horrifying, and it’s probably the best scene in any sci-fi/horror movie since John Carpenter’s The Thing.
Really, the entire movie reminded me of The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers; it very much looks like a movie from 2018 — the CG is ever-present if not overpowering — but has the soul of a sci-fi horror movie from the late 1970s. When movies weren’t afraid to be weird and gross and inscrutable. When they were allowed to do a slow burn building up to one or two big scenes, instead of having to fire off a burst of quick action shots for fear of losing the audience’s attention for one second.
And an addendum to the “One Thing I Like” is that it renewed my respect for the aforementioned beautiful people in Hollywood — Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, and Tessa Thompson — who seem to consistently pick the most interesting roles instead of the most glamorous ones.
If Annihilation had ended about twenty minutes earlier, I would’ve gone away loving it — the standout scenes are that well done. As it is, it’s remarkable that a movie this weird and often slow-paced could make it through Hollywood with its weirdness still intact.
I came home the other night to find my living room in disarray and the entire moral and intellectual core of Gone Girl had gone missing.
Gone Girl came out in 2014, and over the years since I’ve seen and heard it referenced enough to establish it as some kind of cultural touchstone. Any movie with a Big Secret Twist is going to develop an aura around it, and this had the bonus of being an additional two and a half hours of David Fincher-directed footage for devotees to make video essays out of. Plus there were all the reviews and thinkpieces that talked about how it’s an assault on feminism, but to reveal exactly how would ruin its various mysteries.
I’ll give the movie this much: it took me until the day after watching for me to really appreciate how much it’s garbage. Of all the reviews I’ve read, I think I most appreciate Christy Lemire’s description: “…this is the most elegant, exquisitely made trash.” She liked it better than I did.
But several days after I saw it, and several years after it was released, I’m still thinking about it. It’s filmed thoughtfully and often beautifully, and it has a few genuinely clever passages — like Amy’s “bleed and clean, bleed and clean” monologue — that tricked my cinema studies-corrupted mind into thinking it was an art film. Much like when I eat a doughnut in the morning and my body splurts out a wave of insulin in anticipation of protein that will never come, my brain is stuck mulling over this trashy movie to figure out what it means.
I have made a pledge to be less reductive with works of art, letting them speak for themselves instead of trying to clumsily reiterate the more nuanced points and wrapping the whole thing into a convenient “This Is What It All Means.” But I’m making an exception for Gone Girl, which seems almost Lassie-like in its eagerness for me to figure out what it’s trying to say.
I don’t think I can go into much more detail without spoiling everything, so consider this a spoiler for Gone Girl, and please don’t read it until you’ve either seen the movie or read the book.
My first guess was that this was over-the-top antihero-driven satire, like American Psycho. The plot wasn’t to be taken literally, but instead intended to be an absurd extrapolation of the grossest aspects of a period in time or a particular noxious mindset. But if that’s the case, then who’s the subject of the satire in Gone Girl? Beautiful couples? Type-A people? A particular type of woman? All women?
The movie doesn’t give the audience a chance to empathize with any character other than the two leads, one of whom is a murderous sociopath and the other of whom is a dim-witted, whiny adulterer. But it won’t commit to showing disdain for both its characters, making it a War of the Roses style dark comedy. (I’ve been told that the book does a better job of making them both awful). Instead, it just spends a couple of hours gradually shifting the audience’s sympathy from Amy to Nick. By the end of the movie, he’s all but redeemed, while she’s been revealed to be a ruthlessly manipulative villain.
I read a review that claimed the story was about a marriage disintegrating over years of lies and inattention, but third act plot developments make that interpretation impossible. Amy was framing her ex-boyfriends for rape long before she met Nick. Perhaps we’re supposed to extrapolate that she was driven to such behavior by a lifetime of perfectionist parents comparing her to “Amazing Amy,” or just shrug and conclude that she was just a regular old psychopath. So instead of having any sense of universality, it’s just like one of the suspense thrillers from the 80s, cautionary tales targeted at men, warning them to resist their natural impulse to cat around. Fatal Attraction 2: Bitches Still Be Crazy.
So what if we try to take its opening and closing shots at face value? (No pun intended). The movie starts with Rosamund Pike looking beguilingly into the camera, while a voice-over from Ben Affleck talks about wanting to crack her skull open to find out what’s inside her brain. That’s kind of a pulpy thriller take on the same key idea in the Steven Soderbergh version of Solaris: the tragedy that our individual identity guarantees our isolation; humans can never truly know and completely understand another person, even those with whom we’re the most intimate.
But this isn’t really a couple who are hiding their inner lives from each other. Nick is deceptive about his affair, but it’s not as if he’s some complex mystery waiting to be untangled. He’s just a horny buffoon who’s tired of people criticizing him all the time, and he just wants to play his video games. And Amy isn’t just inscrutable; she’s an actual sociopath. It’s not so much Soderbergh as Lifetime Television for Women: I Married a Stranger: The Nick And Amy Dunne Story.
So maybe that’s the overriding theme, the idea that all our relationships are inherently performative. That idea is made explicit at the end, as Nick and Amy make television appearances to present the illusion of a stable and loving family. But pretty much every scene in the second and third acts is somehow related to the idea of presenting a false self: Nick’s becoming less beholden to the truth and more concerned in how he’s perceived by the public; and Amy actually having to juggle false identities.
Amy’s monologue at the end of the first act says it outright. She’s driving, making her escape, and she looks at each woman in a passing car, naming the role she’s assumed in order to please a man. She calls it the “cool girl,” but it’s an idea that I think Inside Amy Schumer handled a lot better, calling it “a chick who can hang.” The way Amy (Dunne) describes it, she had to subsume any of her own desires to become an ideal man’s woman who never nags, never judges, never gains weight or gets out of shape, and is always super horny. And the various other identities she assumes are different roles that women are expected to play: mommy blogger, abuse victim, unattainable goddess, ravenous sexpot.
One of the genuinely clever things the screenplay does is make that theme carry retroactively through the first act. Nick and Amy’s first meeting — and I honestly have no idea whether their first meeting is intended to be read as charming or insufferable — is all about the kind of stereotypes New York City writers encounter, and how much each of them does or doesn’t conform to those stereotypes. Nick’s marriage proposal isn’t a personal moment, but is instead a show put on for the benefit of a group of judgmental bloggers. Nick’s resentment doesn’t seem to be rooted in his own self-worth, but in how other people perceive him and pick on him. And Amy’s descriptions of the arguments that she and Nick had leading up to her disappearance are rooted in how people are supposed to act; she tells Nick not to make her into the nagging wife that she’s not, or she complains that they’re starting to act like “the couples we hate.”
As far as I can make out, that’s the only theme that Gone Girl commits to: the idea that we lose ourselves when we try to appear to be something we’re not. I started to wonder if the movie adaptation were adding an extra layer of meta-text to that: it was a lurid suspense thriller that was just presenting itself as a thoughtful artistic character study.
And that’s when I finally gave up. I can appreciate a movie that’s open to interpretation, but there are only so many layers you can try to peel back before you realize there’s nothing left.
I tried to read as little as possible about the book and the movie before watching it or before even forming a solid opinion of it, because I didn’t want any of my own prejudices to ruin it for me. (I’m not a big fan of David Fincher, except for Fight Club, and if I’m honest, I’m probably still holding a grudge against him because of Alien 3). I did read an interview with Gillian Flynn in the New York Times, though, as well as some additional quotes from her talking about Gone Girl, and I wish I hadn’t. When asked about criticisms of the book and movie, Flynn came across as so glib that I found myself wanting to throw gummy bears at her head.
She says outright that she wanted to look at how couples put forward the best versions of themselves at the beginning of a relationship, going on to call marriage a “long con.” She says she doesn’t feel the story is anti-feminist or misogynist due to Amy’s being revealed as a murderous, manipulative villain, since writers create despicable male characters all the time, but they get called “antiheroes.”
I’m presuming that at least some of that is intended to be wry, or at least an affected cynicism. But it really just comes across as a kind of empty, pointless nastiness that would’ve been tiresome in 2014. Now in 2018, the era of the Bullshit Reality Show Administration, the moral vacuum at its core just echoes. I realize that it’s beyond cliche to interpret every single thing as a reflection of Our Idiot President, but this is a story whose “big twist” is literally the very first thing I imagined when I heard it had a big twist, so I can’t imagine that we’re all that concerned about originality.
GoneGirl‘s theme of putting forward false identities has nothing universal that I can identify with. And before anyone says that I’m not supposed to identify with it because it’s a message for women that a white male can’t understand, I’ll play my gay card and point out that living in the closet for decades means you’re always putting forward a false self. But even that isn’t as manipulative or self-destructive as Gone Girl makes it out to be. Sometimes hiding yourself is self-defense, sometimes it’s aspirational, sometimes it’s just as harmlessly experimental as trying on new clothes or a new hairstyle.
Plus, the “cool girl” monologue reads as a “You go, girl!” type speech while Amy has just won her freedom, but it’s an inherently male-centric viewpoint. She dismissively reduces the women in passing cars to stereotypes and concludes they’re playing out those stereotypes in order to win a man, without considering that maybe they’re just into different stuff. It’s like criticizing a woman for wearing a hijab because it’s a symbol of oppression, without considering that she might simply like wearing it.
And more obviously, it’s all quickly revealed to be a rationalization for Amy’s own psychosis. So is it supposed to be a Fight Club style fake-out; ha ha, the joke’s on you for identifying with this character? I sure as heck don’t know, because the movie’s so muddled in its allegiances, sympathies, and characterizations. I do know that Amy’s not an “antihero,” as much as Flynn might want her to be, since the story does nothing to signal it and in fact spends too much time making her out to be just a plain old villain.
Theoretically, the movie should be able to do whatever it wants with Amy, since there’s such diverse female representation that no one character has to represent all women. But really, the movie only gives actual agency to two women (Amy and the motel thief), and it makes everyone else a cipher or a shallow stereotype. It doesn’t even pass the Bechdel test, since as far as I can remember, Amy and the motel thief are the only two women who talk to each other, and all their conversations are about abusive exes or abusive currents. (I’m guessing that the thief’s assertion that she’s the one who coerced the man into robbing Amy, instead of the other way around, is supposed to be read as some kind of lowest-common-denominator empowerment?)
The whole story seems to take place in a world of Everybody Loves Raymond-style, late 1990s gender dynamics, where all the women are judgmental, manipulative ball-busters, and all the men are hapless fuckwits. (The only exception to this is Tyler Perry, who plays the dual role of High-Profile Defense Attorney, and The Only Black Person In the Entire World). Of the women who are presented as the most sympathetic, Margo has no actual agency or life of her own; she only exists to enable or support Nick. Her one unique characteristic is Owns A Woodshed. And the detective… feels like the detective in every detective story written by someone who’s watched a lot of detective stories on television. She makes no advances in the case, and in fact the only moment I liked in the last act of the movie was when Amy accused her of being incompetent. The rest are a condescending mother-in-law, an idiotic nosy neighbor, a seductive ingenue, a hard-edged Oprah Winfrey-type media personality, and a shrill Nancy Grace surrogate.
In fact, because the characters are so broad (no pun intended), and because they’re played by comedic actors like Casey Wilson and Missy Pyle, I wondered if maybe that were the whole point, and maybe it’s presenting this world in which women are so driven by society to conform to stereotypes that they only exist as stereotypes. But again, that feels like a reach. If it’s that difficult to tell the difference between making fun of stereotypes and simply being lazy stereotypes, then there is no difference.
The “Cool Girl” speech is the closest the movie has to a manifesto, but having it delivered by a psycho villain is the ultimate cop-out: maybe that’s the message, or maybe not. We’re not going to hold your hand and make it explicit for you. Meanwhile, whether it’s intentional or not, the movie as a whole takes on the voice of the ultimate “Cool Girl.” Margo’s the most “normal” and sympathetic character, but she exists only to support Nick (“I was with you before we were even born!”), and she’s one of the first characters to point out how much she hates Amy. The movie ends up asking, don’t we all hate stuck-up bitches like that, those judgmental ball-busters? Aren’t they so phony? Wouldn’t you rather hang with a chick who loves you unconditionally and will do shots with you at 10 in the morning?
None of it reads to me as dark comedy, or even as cynical. It’s just a lazy nihilism that says not only does none of it matters, but that anyone who suggests otherwise is either naive or lying.
There’s one scene in Gone Girl that pretty much sums up the entire movie for me. It’s the one in which Amy has tipped off the Detective to investigate the woodshed, so they show up and open the doors, and there on display is all the stuff that Amy has bought to incriminate Nick. And instead of laughing, or asking “what the hell is this supposed to be?”, the Detective nods and then says to Nick that this looks like all the stuff he’d need to make a “man cave.”
It sums up the movie because it’s the one moment where absolutely everybody involved — Nick, Detective Boney, Amy, David Fincher, the art director, some set dresser, Gillian Flynn, the editor, all of the actors, the book’s editor, the producers who saw the dailies and greenlit them — everybody just stopped caring.
It would be kind of like having a story whose plot hinges on the contents of a woman’s purse, so while preparing for the scene, you stop random guys on the street and ask them what kinds of things they think women keep in their purses. Then the scene finally plays out in the movie: A police officer dumps the contents of the purse onto the table, and there’s like 500 tampons; 25 pounds of lipsticks and mascaras and compacts; two Jane Austen novels; some loose bills; and a scented candle. And the detective looks at all of it, and nods as if to say “Yep, this all checks out.” And then he looks at our protagonist, rolls his eyes, and says “must’ve been her time of the month!”
I mean the boys they love their gadgets, am I right?
At this point in the story, Nick’s already found the contents of the woodshed, and he’s deduced that it was left by Amy in order to incriminate him. But he’s done nothing to move or hide any of it. The detective sees a mountain of all new evidence, provided by an anonymous tip, and it’s not hidden away in boxes, but opened and spread out like a Price Is Right Showcase Showdown, and she isn’t the least bit suspicious. The case against Nick, apparently, is that he really wanted a man cave to escape from his wife, so he killed his wife to pay for it, and he didn’t have enough self control to wait until he got the insurance money, but he did somehow have enough self control to open almost everything and then store it unused but carefully arranged in a shed on the other side of town. And keep in mind that the detective had found the first two clues in a treasure hunt that Amy had been conducting on the day of her disappearance, and which could help definitively establish her whereabouts, but she didn’t bother pursuing it, leaving it instead for Nick to figure out.
And while Amy was enacting her diabolical I’m-always-two-steps-ahead-of-you plan, she was presumably ordering stuff and storing it hidden in the house completely unbeknownst to Nick, and either making frequent trips to her sister-in-law’s woodshed to sneak in and stash stuff like a big-screen TV or a giant amp, or she delivered it in one big go, all without attracting any unwanted attention.
Plus there’s a “robot dog,” which presumably was supposed to be a Sony AIBO, which in 2012 was already a long-dated reference that symbolized “something ridiculously expensive and useless that only clueless rich guys would buy.” It’s a reference as specific as ordering a Fresca, but for some reason the one in the movie isn’t quite an AIBO, implying that there was just a huge market for robot dogs among bored upper-middle-class men, and it fits right in along with a guitar and a video game playing machine like the Xboxes or the Intendoes. (Also, she was trying to run up a huge credit card debt, Brewster’s Millions-style, but she bought a Parrot drone instead of DJI? Amy, Amy, Amy. Please see me after class).
But my favorite detail of any of this is right in the center. It’s a copy of Dominion, a popular but still extremely niche and nerdy deck-building card game. (I didn’t see it in the movie, but the screenshot reveals the other game was Race for the Galaxy, which hilariously is an even nerdier and more obscure game). It conjures up the delightful image of a dude who looks like Ben Affleck murdering his wife so that he can get his drinking buddies together to do bro stuff like play Dominion. And magically, it also conjures up an image of Amy being in the middle of a scheme so devious and complicated that it involves weeks befriending a neighbor for the purpose of stealing her urine, and as she’s purchasing all the signifiers of a Dude’s Mid-Life Crisis Fun Kit, she thinks to frame her adulterous husband using a nerdy card game about building castles.
It’s all completely bonkers absurd, but not like the harmless absurdity of when a TV show gets computer hacking wrong for the sake of advancing the plot quickly, or gets geography wrong for the sake of making more attractive shots. It feels like everyone involved on every level just shrugged and said, “Whatever.” Over the years I’ve read descriptions of the movie and the book that call it “dark” or “biting” or “nasty” or “sick,” but I think ultimately, the overriding description I’d use is just “lazy.”