Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Defining Feminism: A Defense of Rebecca Brink

          The various social strata of Seattle and their economic and cultural underpinnings are starting to become very familiar to me. It feels as if the LGBT community is better represented here than anywhere I have ever lived in California, including San Francisco, as evidenced by the sheer number of people I have met or seen here that identify as either bisexual, queer, pansexual, asexual, gender-neutral, and so on. Related, it also seems as if the practices of having "open relationships" and polyamory is very much accepted here; I have seen and met many people, both men and women, who openly admit to having multiple partners, both love-driven and sex-driven, without any kind of social repercussions, either from his or her partners or elsewhere. This is not to say that this practice should be frowned upon (unless, of course, one is a strong adherent to various religious ideologies), but it is worth pointing out that, as mentioned, I never encountered anything like this in California or Arizona, where, up until recently, I spent most of my life living and growing up. And this is also not to say that such lifestyles are the norm; it is pretty evident that monogamy, like many places, is still the norm. However, such alternative relationship styles certainly illustrate an interesting twist to Seattle.
          And, of course, the social strata between neighborhoods are also very apparent. Take, for example, the area where I live, Eastlake, and the neighboring University District (where the University of Washington is located); it seems to me that many people in Eastlake are young professionals, skilled in various trades or arts, who work for one of the major Seattle-based companies (Amazon, Microsoft, or Starbucks) and also appear to be out-of-state transplants to Washington (I will admit, with a slight degree of pride, and also a slight degree of reluctance, to belonging to this group). When compared to many other places in the city, Eastlake is relatively quiet and low-profile, despite being so close to the heart of the city; many shops and cafes close at 6 pm daily, leaving only a handful of pubs and restaurants open late, which attract only modest crowds (or, at least, "modest" when compared to many other pubs and restaurants in other neighborhoods). For this reason, Eastlake doesn't strike me as the most "hip and happening" place; such a distinction is, of course, usually given to Downtown Seattle or Capitol Hill or the University District or Ballard. And it is also for this reason, perhaps, that Eastlake is a comparatively quiet place: everybody from Eastlake is spending his or her Friday night in the Capitol Hill or Queen Anne or Ballard areas (again, I will admit to this, as someone who frequents Capitol Hill and Queen Anne).
          However, a quick, two-minute drive across the bridge, over a narrow stretch of Puget Sound, from Eastlake to the University District, will illustrate a much more interesting dynamic. As I walk through the avenues of the University District, I can't help but feel as if San Francisco's Haight Street was pushed through the strange filter of Green Day's "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" and Jaco Pastorius' "Punk Jazz", all shrouded under a blanket of clouds. The streets mostly consist of independent or family-owned restaurants and shops; a Greek restaurant will be right next to an Indian restaurant which will be right next to a Thai restaurant which will be right next to a Mexican restaurant (of mediocre quality of course, since Mexican food in Seattle doesn't even come close to Mexican food in California, as I have learned the hard way), and, I must admit, I have never seen so many Vietnamese restaurants concentrated in one area before. Of course, all of this is brought together with the token Starbucks on the corner of 52nd and University, and the occasional smoke shop nestled casually between restaurants, most of which seem to be strategically placed equi-distant from each other. In stark contrast to Eastlake, these streets are far less empty and quiet; one can't help but notice the colorful graffiti decorating the walls of the various back alleys and the occasional used needle lying in the gutter. Perhaps even more apparent than graffiti and used needles are the small huddles of the Destitute plotted here and there on the sidewalks and back alleys, plagued by unfortunate situations in their lives, forsaken by mental illness, left behind by the economic elite of the city, or enslaved by heroine or methamphetamine. The most interesting part about these destitute souls is that, every so often, one comes across a huddle of them so large and established that it might constitute a small camp, trying to survive among the hustle and bustle of the University District. And as one might imagine, since the University of Washington is the focal point of the University District, the students make up the majority of the population of U-District, and the district itself serves as their own odd little college town (odd in the sense that it is in the middle of a major city, so, unlike many actual college towns, it experiences all of the other baggage that comes with being in a major city). Extreme ideas at both ends of the spectrum are also well-represented in U-District; for example, one simply need to browse the isles of Bulldog News in order to find the latest issues of anarchist journals from Berkeley, economic trading advice from Wall Street, and French language art journals from Quebec, all scattered among the usual Entertainment Weekly or Time.
          I've had time to meditate on the social atmosphere of Seattle over the past couple of weeks in order to prepare for this blog entry. I promised in my last entry, my review of Ant-Man, that I would do another "Philosophy" entry this time around, so I've had to crack my mental knuckles, if you will, and step away from art and film. And in my last "Philosophy" piece, I hinted at what the topic of this piece will be: defending the antics of a certain self-proclaimed "feminist". I feel inclined to take on this topic mostly because the timing seems appropriate; discussions of feminism having been occasionally buzzing around the mainstream art media since the representation of Claire and Zara in Jurassic World. Perhaps even more important than Jurassic World, I begin writing this entry while many journalism outlets are abuzz about the contention among the various branches of the military allowing women in combat roles and only days after the first Democratic Presidential Debate for the 2016 election. And while the country would be much improved if Bernie Sanders became president, the prospect of having our first female president is nothing to take lightly, and I am sure many people would like to see Hillary Clinton engage Carly Fiorina head-on. But these larger issues merely set the context for this piece - they are not the focal point. The driving force for my discussion of feminism here will be something much smaller.
          Essentially, I will be adding substance to and defending the actions of one feminist's reaction to the Tumblr page "Women Against Feminism". The issue started a couple of years ago when the Tumblr page http://womenagainstfeminism.tumblr.com/ appeared. A quick glance at some of the photos should illustrate where the potential for antagonism comes from. And, as one can imagine, there have been several responses to the page, including one very humorous one from feminist Rebecca Brink, as BuzzFeed reports (http://www.buzzfeed.com/rossalynwarren/heres-how-one-feminist-responded-to-women-who-say-they-dont#.lc0v4AeJY). Of course, the argument continued, with some other bloggers calling Brink's rhetoric "shallow" and "non-analytical" [3], and some even saying that Brink is "bitching about the most pointless shit" [4]. The Amazing Atheist has even gone so far as to post a video response to Brink on YouTube [5]. A lot of these responses came within the last year, so some may say that I am somewhat late to the party as far as this discussion is concerned. That said, given the reasons mentioned above, the social climate surrounding this issue seems just as volatile as ever. All that is needed now is for someone to either defuse the bomb or light the fuse that blows the powder keg.
          My goal in this piece it to defend Brink by qualifying many of the claims she makes in her photos, as well as provide some additional statistics that illustrate related phenomena pertaining to women and the feminist movement. However, in the process, I will also put forward what I take to be the strongest criticism of feminism: the implicit splintering of the movement into poorly defined factions that ultimately lead to confusion about what the movement really is. For example, a distinction needs to be made between the feminist that sees the statistics about women in mathematics and questions whether or not there is a larger social reason underlying this phenomenon versus the feminist that calls for the extermination of all men with militant zeal. Feminism does a poor job of distinguishing between these different groups, and the movement could perhaps learn from the anarchist movement, which has done a great job of having its distinct factions well-defined (only the novice would be unable to distinguish Anarcho-Capitalism or Anarcho-Syndicalism from Anarcho-Socialism or Anarcho-Primitivism). I will defend Brink by presenting the evidence that supports the feminist that wonders why there are so few women in mathematics, while pointing out that most of her critics seem to conflate this feminist with the misandrist that calls for patriarchal genocide, which, at least from her photos, does not seem to be the position that Brink is advocating. I have a feeling that there are those who may say that I am not qualified to talk about this issue insofar as I am not a woman, and that this issue should only be talked about by women. But this strikes me as the same kind of mentality held by those who say that the controversy surrounding the Confederate flag can only be talked about by Southerners; the South doesn't exist in a bubble that is completely distinct from the rest of the country. To that extent, insofar as the South is intertwined with the happenings of the rest of the country, the issue surrounding the Confederate flag spills beyond the borders of the region. Likewise, many of the aims of the feminist movement directly and indirectly affect the interactions that women have with men. It is in this sense that I think there are sufficient grounds for me to be able to opine on this matter. But I am not particularly worried, and I think feminists need not worry either; I am overall sympathetic to all but the most militant feminists, which, it seems, are the minority in the movement.
          Perhaps the best place to start would be by declaring up front a few principles that I assume. (1): A person's beliefs influence his or her behavior. This should be intuitive; if a person believes that pizza is bad for him or her, he or she is likely to avoid pizza, or if he or she believes that they are likely to get mugged if they walk through a particular neighborhood at night, then he or she will not walk through that neighborhood at night. Using more ubiquitous examples, if one believes that everything written in the Bible is true, then one will be behave as if he or she will go to Hell if he or she commits a sin, or if one believes that a certain group or race of people is inferior to another, then one is likely to treat that group as inferior. It wouldn't make a whole lot of sense for someone who believed that eating meat was morally wrong to indulge in a steak every other evening. (2): Some ideas are better than others. Don't get me wrong; I am certainly a proponent of the idea that everyone is entitled to their own opinion. At the same time, however, it should be pointed out that "being entitled to one's opinion" does not justify having bad beliefs or adhering to absurd ideas. Being entitled to one's opinion does not unreservedly justify one in believing that Jews should be exterminated from the planet, for example, particularly if this belief manifests itself as a behavior. (3): The credibility of a particular idea or belief is contingent on how close it is to the truth. And since many people believe that the truth of something can be measured using science and reason, the preceding point can be understood as saying that the credibility of a particular idea or belief is contingent on how well it is grounded in science and reason. (4): Bad ideas should be resisted. This seems like the inevitable conclusion of the previous points; if someone has the bad idea, for example, that everyone who has pre-marital sex is actually a demon in disguise and, subsequently, goes on a shooting spree to eliminate the demons, I would be inclined to think that the overwhelming majority of people would have a problem with this. Of course, such behavior can be stopped by force, but this does not necessarily remove the bad belief, which is the root cause of the problem. On that note, lively, engaging discourse and activism seems to be the best way of countering bad ideas.
          With those assumptions laid out, I am now in a better position to defend Brink. There are three photos that would seem to serve as a good first example, one from the Women Against Feminism Tumblr, and the other from Brink. The photo from the Women Against Feminism Tumblr presents us with a rather normal-looking, dark-haired girl holding up a large note scribbled on notebook paper that reads "I don't need feminism because I am NOT a 'victim', there is NO war against me, I have & will continue to succeed in life, because I work for it, NOT used my gender as a 'get out of jail free' card. I love to be sexy for my man & cook for him...in the KITCHEN!!" Juxtapose this photo with one of Brink, donning a red, short-haired wig, holding up a note that reads "I don't need feminism because the only way I think I can get along in this world is by pandering to the status quo and shitting on other women." I am inclined to think that Brink is referring to the same kind of thing that our girl on the WAF Tumblr is referring to: the tendency, nay, norm, for women to spend more time at home and serve their husbands while the male is the "primary bread-winner" of the household. And such a phenomenon certainly does appear to be the norm; pewsocialtrends.org reports that, while the number of stay-at-home fathers does appear to be growing, men still only make up 16% of stay-at-home parents (it would also be interesting to point out that the report also notes that one of the primary reasons for the uptick in stay-at-home fathers is because the men supposedly cannot find jobs) [6]. These stats are also supported by Time magazine, which published a graph that visualizes just how jarring the disparity between the number of stay-at-home mothers versus stay-at-home fathers really is [7]. And after looking at these statistics, the inevitable question that follows is, quite simply, "why?"
          The traditional explanation that I have heard is that "women are inherently more caregiving, therefore belong at home." I never understood this explanation, since it really only takes one counterexample to prove the falsity of it. And such counterexamples certainly exist; as just mentioned, there are a number of men that are able to be stay-at-home fathers, suggesting that this trait is not unique to women, and, at the same time, there are women who are work-oriented businesswomen or adventure-seeking daredevils, not at all concerned or interested in staying at home and supporting a family or a husband, suggesting that this trait is also not inherent in women either. Of course, a possible reply to these points is that these are outlier cases, that they don't reflect the general human condition, that there is something wrong with the man that wants to spend time at home to take care of the children or the woman that aspires to be a business executive or an exotic dancer. In one sense, there is only a slight merit to this reply, insofar as it is indeed that case that these are the outlier cases that don't really constitute the norm. But to say that what makes these men and women the outlier cases is some kind of defect with, or deviance from, the normal human condition is a laughable one. This is most evident if one were to question the criteria upon which one establishes the "norm"; proponents of the idea that the reason some men want to be stay-at-home fathers or some women want to be daredevils is that they have some kind of neurological defect try to justify this claim by pointing out the fact that this does not appear to be the norm. But such a criterion is hardly permissible; a bunch of people once believed that the Earth was flat and the center of the Universe. However, the fact that many people believed this and accepted it does not make it any more or less justified.
          Subsequently, one must entertain alternative explanations as to why men are the "primary bread-winners" and women tend be "care-givers" or homebodies. A more feasible explanation than a mere "defect" is that there are underlying cultural or social norms, usually referred to as "gender roles", that dictate how men and women are supposed to behave. The notion of "gender roles" is an ancient one; one simply needs to look at Ovid's Art of Love or the historical role of women in politics before the 20th century to get even a slight idea of how grounded in tradition gender roles have been. And this notion of "gender roles" serves as a nice answer to our above question; women are statistically the primary care-givers because traditional American gender roles dictate that they should be. Likewise, the explanation for the comparatively low number of men serving as stay-at-home fathers is because traditional American gender roles dictate that men should be making the larger income that supports the household. A similar theory would also explain why there are so few successful businesswomen or female adventure-seekers; it goes against their gender roles. And this is, of course, not to say that contrary examples don't exist; for example, when I was living in California, I was very familiar with a couple where the woman in the relationship had the higher income and the man was still living with his parents. I also saw both of them criticized for the relationship; he was often criticized for being outdone by his girlfriend and still living with his parents, while she was often questioned for dating him. However, such a hostile attitude towards this couple raises some reasonable questions: a) Are these gender roles a good thing, and are they grounded in anything scientific or reasonable? and b) is the hostility towards those that deviate from such gender roles justified? Enter Rebecca Brink.
          I interpret the "status quo" that Brink is referring to in her photo to be these aforementioned gender roles and the inevitable results that stem from them and the negative attitude directed towards those that deviate from them. In many ways, such gender roles don't seem to have any rational foundation; there doesn't appear to be any good explanation as to why women cannot succeed in the sciences to the extent that a man could, yet, according the National Science Foundation, women made up less than 25% of science and engineering majors every year from 2001-2011 [8]. At the same time, the potential of women in science and mathematics is evidenced by the likes of Danica McKellar and Maryam Mirzakhani, debunking the idea that "women are inherently bad at mathematics" that John Bohannon describes on sciencemag.org [9]. That is, unless one wants to try and account for such cases are outlier cases of women with neurological "defects" that make them excel at mathematics, which, of course, is laughable.
          The next explanation, then, for the statistics that the National Science Foundation presents is that there are underlying social constructs, these gender roles, that women are sub-consciously conforming to that prohibit them from participating in things like math and science. Brink recognizes this phenomenon as the "status quo" and deems it a bad thing. And perhaps this is the one point where one can really question Brink; there isn't really much of an explanation from her photos as to why the aforementioned gender roles are a bad thing. However, such an attempt to question Brink's conclusion is a stretch; I can augment Brink's point by noting that, given the statistics provided by the National Science Foundation, women are missing out on any potential benefits of devoting their lives or careers to mathematics and science, all because modern American gender roles tell them not to. It would also be important to point out that these gender roles are preventing not just women, but men as well, from doing certain things without being met with hostility. There are numerous unfortunate circumstances that can befall a man such that he is not the "primary bread-winner" of the household, and he should be able to occupy this position without being met with ridicule or hostility. Likewise, women should be able to partake in math or science or business or alternative lifestyles without being ostracized by other women. Thus, when some women on the Women Against Feminism Tumblr promote the status quo of women serving as stay-at-home mothers and shying away from such endeavors as mathematics or science, and the negative attitude directed at those few women that do experiment outside of these defined gender roles, Brink has sufficient grounds to engage them.
          Another large point of contention between Brink and the supporters of Women Against Feminism centers around women's sexuality. Again, I should point out here that some might say it is not my place to participate in this discussion, but, as I mentioned before, insofar as the consequences of this discussion have a direct impact on the way women may interact with men, I think that I at least have grounds to make an observation. This point of contention can be captured by a different set of pictures from both Brink and the Women Against Feminism Tumblr. One young woman on the Tumblr page, who obscures most of her face, holds up a sign that reads "I need feminism because I need an excuse for when I act like a drunk, empty-headed slut and cheat on my boyfriend". Before presenting Brink's response, it should be pointed out that the negative disposition towards women who liberally engage in sexual conduct displayed by this poster need not meet the conditions aforementioned by the above poster (i.e. being drunk); such an attitude is oftentimes targeted at women who liberally have sex who are not drunk or cheating on a lover, as characterized by Rush Limbaugh's "slut" comment towards a Georgetown student who was asking for easier access to birth control [10]. And, on that note, Brink satirically responds to this attitude in another photo, donning a purple wig, obscuring part of her face (suggesting that this response is directly targeted at the same poster on the WAF Tumblr), holding up a sign that reads "I don't need feminism because I spent my childhood around people who told me that women who had sex before marriage were sluts and whores so now I'm afraid of my own body". As the comments by Limbaugh and the sign on the Women Against Feminism Tumblr show, there is an underlying negative disposition against women who engage in sex outside of marriage, especially when one considers the amount of support that both the Women Against Feminism Tumblr and Limbaugh have. Again, one must wonder whether or not there is any kind of rational foundation for this attitude. And while there certainly does appear to be a similar kind of attitude targeted towards men who also sleep around, it doesn't appear to be nearly as strong, nor is it invoked as often. This is notable insofar as, as The Atlantic points out, women's sexual desires are comparable to that of men [11], which begs the question as to why men are not held to the same sexual standards as women (or, perhaps for the better, why the standards applied to women are not just done away with altogether). Similarly, Dr. Kristen Mark reports to the Huffington Post that the idea that "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus" is nothing more than a myth, and that men and women have more similarities than differences when it comes to sexual desire [12]. Brink recognizes this myth as well and attributes its perpetuation and support by the Women Against Feminism Tumblr to the same set of cultural norms being taught to girls at a young age, again captured by this underlying notion of "gender roles".
          Ultimately, Brink is justified in her response to the Women Against Feminism Tumblr. The reason for this comes back to an axiom I proposed early on: bad ideas are to be resisted. And, as mentioned in the previous paragraphs, the ideas put forth by the Women Against Feminism Tumblr are bad ideas, with no rational or scientific justification for them. And defenders of the Women Against Feminism Tumblr have criticized Brink for doing the very thing that she accuses the WAF Tumblr of doing, i.e. "shitting on other women". However, this criticism of Brink also has no merit to it. If one really wanted to analyze Brink's manner of engagement, it should be pretty obvious that Brink is being satirical towards the Women Against Feminism Tumblr, and this shouldn't strike anyone as particularly problematic. Satire has been a literary and rhetorical device for millennia; indeed, one simply need to look no further than the comedies of Plautus or Voltaire's Candide for traditional examples of satire, or, since I brought up the Democratic Presidential Debate at the outset of this piece, the subsequent satire of the debate that Saturday Night Live that aired the following evening (and this is saying something, coming from me; I have never really been a fan of SNL). Thus, insofar as Brink is employing a traditional rhetorical technique in her criticisms of bad ideas, which is to say, ideas that have no rational or scientific basis, Brink is justified in her course of action.
          On that note, there is one last photo from the Women Against Feminism Tumblr that I think I should bring attention to. One young poster, a fair-skinned girl with blue eyes, attributes to feminism the idea that "males are inherently bad". This concept of feminism is later supported by another young woman who understands feminism as making the claim that "men are inherent rapists and women are perpetual victims". I confess myself initially perplexed by these signs. I never really got the impression that feminism maintains any of these positions, and Brink certainly doesn't appear to be proposing these ideas. My initial reaction to these women on the WAF Tumblr was that they are just further confused about what they are talking about. But then I remembered Valerie Solanas and the attempted assassination of Andy Warhol and then realized that such ideas do actually exist and are attributed to feminism. It is here, then, that I return to a point I made at the outset of this piece: the one glaring criticism of feminism that I see that has the most merit to it is this splintering into poorly defined factions. I don't get the impression that Brink is a follower of Valerie Solanas, and it seems clear that some of the women on the WAF tumblr are conflating what Brink is doing with the kind of militant feminism represented by Solanas, which would be a mistake. Again, the feminist movement would be well-served if it took a page from the various anarchist communities and better defined its different sects, such that further confusion could be avoided. Despite this confusion, however, this doesn't render Brink's point inaudible, and the supporting points I mentioned above still remain.
          Ultimately, the Women Against Feminism Tumblr is strewn with bad ideas, and insofar as bad ideas should be resisted, Brink seems perfectly justified in her satire of it. Again, the attitudes represented on the WAF Tumblr don't seem to have any basis in science or reason, and many of the criticisms leveled at Brink seem to conflate what she is saying with a different, more militant kind of feminism that most certainly appears to be the minority. Hopefully, the statistics that I presented in support of Brink help to illuminate both the position that Brink is coming from and bring to the purview these various social issues, particularly in today's social climate where we may very well have our first female president in the near future.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Review - Ant-Man

          This will be something of an experiment for me. If these words actually make it to the blog, then that means that I decided to go ahead and review Ant-Man. It should be noted that I haven't actually seen the film yet, but I felt inclined to put pen to paper (or, in this case, fingers to keyboard) and start writing anyway, which is what makes this review experimental. I imagine that I could perhaps get about a third of the review done and get the groundwork for the review out of the way without needing to have seen it. Of course, if I decide to go see Ant-Man and finish this review, then I will be seeing it in the coming days, and I will note the point at which I will be writing after having seen it.
          And I could really only pull this off with Ant-Man, insofar as my relationship with superhero/comic movies has been a rocky one. I have never really been a fan of the whole superhero craze in Hollywood, with a few notable exceptions. The Batman films, for example, I really enjoy, particularly the Chris Nolan and Tim Burton iterations of Batman. Other than that, I am usually hit or miss with my satisfaction of superhero films, and in those cases that I am more satisfied than I am disappointed, it is usually only a mild satisfaction. It probably doesn't help that I wasn't a big comic-reader when I was younger (Spawn being the only notable exception to that), so when I talk to fans of the films who inevitably try to compare them to the comics, I always feel as if I am at a loss for words. The superhero craze has been particularly infectious these past few years; it seems as if the action movie landscape in Hollywood right now is littered with reboots (see The Amazing Spiderman), spin-offs (see Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice), and endless sequels (see the entire X-Men series). Studios have even figured out a way to invest more money and wrap all of these reboots, spin-offs, and sequels together into one lovely package and call it a "cinematic universe". Now one might wonder, if my general disposition towards superhero films is unfavorable, why I would even bother seeing, and then reviewing, Ant-Man. The answer is actually quite simple; for the past several days I have been debating what my next blog entry should be. I want to do another review, but there is actually nothing good playing at the movies right now, and Ant-Man, not because it was initially enticing, but because it sounded like the least lame thing playing, seemed to be the best option. I entertained the idea of instead starting my next "Philosophy" entry, but I quickly realized that I actually just wrote one of those right before my Scorch Trials review, and, while I have been brainstorming topics for my next "Philosophy" entry, I don't have all of my resources or materials laid out yet for the topic I have in mind. Nor did I feel inclined to just skip a period and wait until either something good came out in the theaters or until I was ready to write my next "Philosophy" piece. Thus, by sheer circumstance, I am strongly considering doing an Ant-Man review, though I confess a degree of reluctance.
          Marvel's whole "cinematic universe" might be a good place to start an Ant-Man review; the whole superhero genre the past few years has been dominated by Marvel's Avengers and all of the individual IPs that feed into it (i.e. Iron Man, Captain America, etc). I will confess that, despite what I said in the previous paragraph, I have actually seen most of the movies in Marvel's cinematic universe, and that there are actually a few noteworthy standouts. I actually really enjoyed Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which presented us with Captain America, the paragon of American values, questioning the imperialistic and paranoid motivations behind the government developing what more or less amounted to doomsday machines, all in the name of "keeping America safe". This is in stark contrast to the first installment of the Captain America series, which could accurately be summed up by noting that the first half of the movie is backstory in 1940s New York City and the second half is a drawn-out montage of American Flag-Man punching Nazis until the very end, where the villain is then randomly beamed into space. At the very least, one could say the first Captain America film was cliche (so much so that one might also think it was actually just a trailer for a new Wolfenstein game, albeit an excruciatingly drawn-out trailer), and, at the more cynical end of the spectrum, one could call the first Captain America film a really boring attempt at pro-American propaganda. Beyond the Captain America series, I also thought Thor: The Dark World was fairly enjoyable, not necessarily because it had some compelling story or asked some important questions, but because its blend of sci-fi technology and its constant references to Norse mythology illustrated a kind of sci-fi/fantasy crossover that is little seen in film. In some ways, the design and architecture of Asgard invokes the design and architecture seen in The Chronicles of Riddick, while, if I may say so, the whole sci-fi/fantasy crossover thing actually hints at Warhammer 40,000 (make of that what you will). I should also perhaps give some credit to the first Iron Man film, which seemed to understand the core notion in science fiction known as the "suspension of disbelief". One of my biggest criticisms of superhero films is that they all seem to miss the mark on invoking the suspension of disbelief; it is painfully apparent how implausible the events of most these films are, almost to the point of being absurd. A telltale sign of good science fiction is that there is a sense in which the events of the film are plausible, causing the audience to sympathize more with the narrative, or "suspend their disbelief". (Perhaps a side note could be said here that one of the reasons that J.J. Abrams' Star Trek series is so strong is because he knows how to invoke the suspension of disbelief.) The first Iron Man actually did a fairly good job at this, painting a Middle East ravaged by constant war and terrorism, when, suddenly, an engineering genius creates a robotic suit to combat both extremists and private military contractors that sell weapons to these groups on the black market.
          Beyond these examples, if one is looking for genuinely good sci-fi or fantasy films, I usually refer them elsewhere. I should point out that I don't think that the Marvel cinematic universe is invariably bad, but I also don't consider it to be of the quality of Fury Road or Jurassic World this past summer. It's average, run-of-the-mill, where the number of pros are even with the cons (and perhaps even, on one of my more cynical days, the cons slightly outweigh the pros). For example, in may last review for Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, I made an analogy between a film's use of CGI and a addict's use of heroin. Marvel's cinematic universe is the prime example of the addict sprawled out on the dirty mattress; virtually every film in every series relies on CGI so much that one might wonder whether or not one were actually watching a Pixar film, or at what points in the films there was any actual acting. Perhaps it can be argued that I am holding the Marvel movies to an unfair standard insofar as it would seem like any superhero movie will inevitably have obscene levels of CGI, simply by the nature of it being a superhero movie. However, if Chris Nolan's Dark Knight series taught us anything, it taught us two things: 1) it is possible to have a superhero film with compelling characters and equal parts action and drama, and 2) it is possible to have all of this without relying on CGI.
          For the purposes of an Ant-Man review, I should perhaps focus specifically on the two Avengers films, insofar as Ant-Man is purported to be the next major player in the Avengers roster. In all honesty, I consider the two Avengers films to be among the lowest points for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. One might counter by pointing out that Age of Ultron was record-breaking, and that, at the end of its theatrical run, it became one of the highest-grossing films of 2015. However, after seeing Age of Ultron, I look at this statistic not as a testament to how good Age of Ultron actually is, but rather more as a confirmation of my suspicion that the average American movie-goer is borderline brain dead. The Avengers films are more or less what any sensible person would expect when you have a Norse god fighting alongside a guy in robot suit fighting alongside American-Flag Man against an invading alien force or an artificial intelligence gone rogue: one large clusterfuck, dripping with a fresh coat of CGI, without any semblance of depth or character. The plots of both films are tissue-thin; in the first Avengers, for example, Loki opens a portal to an invading alien force in order to try and subjugate Earth, and the Avengers have to stop him. That's it. I've tried to look at it in many other ways, for the sake of playing devil's advocate, to see if one can actually sympathize with Loki, and it turns out that one can't. It's black-and-white. And, as one can imagine, the ending is just as predictable as ever: they stop Loki. The good guys win and the bad guys lose. And Age of Ultron is a lot more of the same; a rogue artificial intelligence is bent on wiping out the human race, and the Avengers have to stop it - which they do. Unlike the first Avengers, however, Age of Ultron at least makes an attempt to try and get the viewer to sympathize with Ultron, such as when Ultron says how sick and twisted humanity is right after he is created. And this might have been an interesting twist indeed...if the film actually succeeded at doing this. In order to get us to sympathize with Ultron, one would need to witness first-hand the flaws and horrors of humanity in such a way as to think that humanity truly is a horrible thing, which the film doesn't do. Ultron simply tells us that humans are bad, he doesn't actually show us why humans are bad.
          Beyond the poor plots, the fight scenes in both movies illustrate the aforementioned clusterfuck. One simply has to look at the ending fight scene in Age of Ultron as evidence; everything that was unique about the characters in their individual IPs is lost during the ending fight against Ultron. Every character can be categorized as someone that either punches stuff or shoots energy beams out of his or her face. Captain America punches stuff. Thor punches stuff. The Hulk punches stuff really hard. Iron man shoots energy beams. Even The Scarlet Witch, a character that was introduced at the beginning of the film as an Eastern European refugee with psychic powers, a potentially unique kind of antagonist for the Avengers (it was interesting to watch her manipulate the dreams and mental states of our heroes throughout the first half of the film), simply resorts to shooting energy beams by the end of the film. Indeed, I found myself wondering what exactly it was about The Scarlet Witch that made her a 'witch' (she clearly didn't have anything in common with Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and I'm trying to imagine how The Blair Witch Project would have turned out if the Witch in that film was anything like The Scarlet Witch, or how closely any of the aforementioned 'witches' relate to the historical witches of the Salem Witch Trials). And let us not forget The Vision, a character that was introduced five minutes before the final fight against Ultron, who immediately just starts shooting energy beams. In short, every semblance of character is lost in the fight scenes; in Age of Ultron, I could have replaced the Avengers with Rock-em Sock-em Robots and achieved the same effect. There is no explanation as to why it has to be Captain America or why it has to be Hawkeye that fights Ultron. And this also confirms my earlier suspicion about the average American movie-goer; the fact that they keep hyping up the ending fight scene in Age of Ultron tells me that none of them actually stopped for a second and asked exactly what the fuck is going on (essentially, this .gif illustrates the ending fight scene in Age of Ultron well: http://i.imgur.com/s89eq.jpg).
          Now with the appropriate context on The Avengers given, I can start to focus on Ant-Man. It is also from this point that I write having actually seen it - and I must say, I was fairly impressed. And this is actually saying something; not only have I been historically skeptical of superhero films, but I have never been a Paul Rudd fan. I have never been able to make it through five minutes of any of Rudd's previous films without either finding something else to watch or leaving the building altogether. However, Rudd's performance actually delivers in Ant-Man. Rudd plays Scott Lang, a misunderstood thief trying to rebuild his life after being released from San Quentin State Prison in the San Francisco Bay Area. He takes up some dead-end jobs to try and generate a modest income (it should be noted that Lang's interactions with both customers and co-workers at Baskin Robbins are not too far removed from what it is actually like working in the minimum wage service industry - i.e. cancerous), with the ultimate aim of re-earning the favor of his ex-wife in order to be able to see his daughter again, both of whom now live with her new fiancee, who also happens to be a seasoned cop. Meanwhile, Darren Cross, a prodigy in biological engineering, is on the verge of discovering a way to shrink a biological organism to minuscule size, a breakthrough he intends to incorporate into his Yellowjacket combat suit and sell to various contractors and organizations. However, the technology had previously been discovered and harnessed by Cross' mentor, Hank Pym (portrayed by Michael Douglas), who, after seeing the destructive and volatile potential of the technology, locked it away, refusing to share it with Cross and reveal it to the rest of the world. Upon learning that Cross is on the verge of perfecting the Yellowjacket prototype, Pym enlists the help of the struggling Lang to try and steal it. Pym introduces Lang to the Ant-Suit, a shrinking suit that Pym used for covert operations during the Cold War. Harnessing the power of the suit, and with the help of Pym, Pym's daughter, Hope, and his ex-con roommates, Lang sets out to infiltrate Cross' laboratories, destroy the Yellowjacket suit, and stop Cross.
          Scott Lang/Ant-Man is distinct from other Avengers characters, due in large part to Rudd's performance. Rudd makes the character unique, gives him an individual identity, much in the same way that Downey Jr. sets Tony Stark/Iron Man apart from the other Avengers. This is to be contrasted with Chris Hemsworth's Thor and Chris Evans' Captain America, where one could simply reverse the roles and have Evans portray Thor and Hemsworth portray Captain American, and it would amount to absolutely zero difference in any of the Thor, Captain America, or Avengers films. Even on a conceptual level, Ant-Man stands out from the rest of the Avengers; there is something much more intriguing about an ex-con thief who wears an ant costume and can shrink down to minuscule size than a guy from Brooklyn wearing an American flag going around punching Nazis (the former requires at least some degree of imagination, while anyone can replicate the latter by stapling a swastika to his clothing and then proceeding to get punched in the face, which would be guaranteed to sell). Speaking of the Ant-Suit, I think praise is in order for the costume design. Despite the fact that I haven't been the biggest fan of Marvel's Cinematic Universe, one aspect of it that I always thought was extremely well done was the costume design, and Ant-Man is no exception. Perhaps this is because the Ant-Suit itself refers back to that "suspension of disbelief" I had mentioned earlier on; the suit is by no means over-the-top, and, in fact, when Lang first finds it in Pym's house, he refers to it as an old motorcycle outfit, albeit a slightly strange one. The simplicity in both its presentation as an upgraded leather motorcycle outfit, together with its equally straightforward black and red color theme, is further augmented by the fact that the helmet actually looks like an ant, also without being too over-the-top. If the designers wanted to be silly, for example, the helmet for the Ant-Suit could have been something complete with antennae and pincers which, through some bizarre process, could have molded onto Lang's head, rendering Lang as some frightful hybrid of Zorak from Space Ghost and Jeff Goldblum's Fly. Instead, the helmet for the Ant-Suit is better compared to a futuristic gas mask with a black and red color theme, still resembling an ant, but only in very subtle ways. Speaking of the "suspension of disbelief", perhaps my overall satisfaction with Ant-Man can be summarized by pointing out that, unlike some other installments of the Avengers films, Ant-Man actually succeeds in getting the viewer to suspend his or her disbelief. The idea that a genius scientist discovers a technology that can shrink biological organisms, and then incorporates that technology into a suit that only subtly looks like an ant, is not too far-fetched, or, at least, it's not as ridiculous as a guy running around wearing an American flag that throws a shield that somehow always manages to come back to him while knocking every bad guy unconscious in the process.
          However, despite its strong points, Ant-Man isn't flawless. The most glaring error that Ant-Man makes is what I sometimes refer as "backstory padding". Pym and his conflict with Cross and the Yellowjacket suit were all introduced in the first 5 minutes of the film - and then this conflict isn't really addressed again until about an hour in, when the film is halfway over. Everything leading up to that point was more or less backstory on both Lang and Pym, as well as Lang training with the Ant-Suit. For example, it could be said that the first half hour of the film was kind of like a documentary on Lang's life immediately following hist release from prison; we see the kinds of jobs he takes up, how strained his relationship with his wife is, and how his daughter is the most important thing to him. At the same time, we also see how Pym struggles with his efforts to hide his shrinking technology, his rocky relationship with his daughter, and how he copes with the loss of his wife. Again, it feels as if the larger issue - Cross and the Yellowjacket suit - is just a footnote to this, something briefly mentioned in passing. And the second half hour of the film only inches us closer to dealing with the Yellowjacket prototype; one could say that the second half hour is actually just a montage of clips of Lang learning how to use the suit and how to mind-control ants, and such a summary wouldn't be too disingenuous. This error of "backstory padding" is also not new to the Avengers films; the first Captain America film is perhaps the worst perpetrator of this. The first fifteen minutes of Captain America introduces us to how Rogers undergoes the experiments that turn him into the supersoldier that he is, while the next hour or so is a montage of scenes of him punching Nazis on the various battlefields of World War II. His first confrontation with Red Skull doesn't come until much later. One might argue that such a thorough illustration of backstory is necessary in order to properly introduce the characters, and, therefore, that my criticisms of these "introductory" films on these grounds is unjust. But, interestingly, one can also point to a different Avenger's introductory film as an example of one that presented the backstory correctly. The first Iron Man film wasted no time in cutting to the chase; the movie opens up with the only really relevant scene in Tony Stark's backstory as far as the plot of the first film in concerned - the explosion in the Middle East the riddled him with shrapnel. After that, Iron Man only spent about 20 minutes providing context to this, and then, before long, the Iron Man suit is touching down in terrorist strongholds, liberating hostages. A lot more could have been done with both Captain America and Ant-Man if they didn't fall into the trap of "backstory padding", and illustrated the backstory narrative more in the fashion of Iron Man.
          If I were to try and summarize my satisfaction with Ant-Man in a brief one or two sentences, there are, I think, two core things that it does well: 1) it takes an already unique concept (that of a man who can shrink down to the size of an ant) and gives it character and personality, and 2) it does a good job at understanding and manipulating the notion of the "suspension of disbelief". Despite it's slightly drawn out backstory, Ant-Man paints a picture of an ex-con who is not necessarily a bad person, just misunderstood, down on his luck, who only desires to be with his daughter again. His world is turned inside-out when a scientific genius offers him the chance to don a suit that allows him to shrink down to the size of an ant, a concept that is much more intriguing than an American supersoldier fighting Nazis in World War II, a concept that, at this point, is so overdone that one might wonder whether or not there is any imagination left in Hollywood. Speaking of scientific geniuses and advanced technology, Ant-Man also draws from good science fiction films and presents its narrative as feasible in a modern context, where we are asked to suspend our disbelief and imagine that, for just a brief moment, we were to wake up tomorrow and such a shrinking technology became the latest engineering breakthrough, and illustrates to us potential worlds in which that shrinking technology falls into the wrong hands.