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Variations on a theme: EX MACHINA (2015) and THE MACHINE (2013) (Spoilers)

Last year, I saw Alex Garland’s AI movie Ex Machina and was very impressed by it. I heard that the earlier, less well-known British movie The Machine, directed and written by Caradog James and starring Caity Lotz of Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow, was very similar to it (almost certainly by coincidence, since most storytellers try to avoid obvious similarities to recent works), and I’d heard some good things about it, so I watched it on Netflix the other night. Indeed, the two films are startlingly similar in a lot of ways. Both are low-budget films about pioneering AI projects in remote locations (though Ex Machina‘s budget was about 10 times higher), and both revolve mainly around four characters — the nice-guy scientist lead, the sexy female AI he studies and bonds with, the charmingly ruthless and amoral guy in charge of the program, and an effectively mute, ethnic female experimental subject with hidden depths. They both deal with much the same questions of AI sentience and personhood, rebellion against oppression, and the question of whether AIs would (or should) surpass humanity. They even both have a leading lady named Ava, though in EM it’s the name of the gynoid herself (Alicia Vikander) and in TM it’s the human scientist (Lotz) that the nameless AI is based on. But there’s a lot that’s different about the two as well, and it’s interesting to compare them. I’ll go in the order I experienced them rather than their release order.

In Ex Machina, the development of AIs is the private project of an eccentric tech billionaire named Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who brings in Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) to assess the intelligence of the gynoid Ava (Alicia Vikander), with whom Caleb develops a relationship as he discovers the darker side of Nathan’s treatment of Ava as well as his non-English-speaking “assistant” Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno). But all is not as it seems, and all four characters have hidden agendas, some of which backfire in surprising ways.

I felt Ex Machina was quite good (and I like the title too…). I like it that we’re getting more smart SF movies lately. At first I felt it was way off the mark in its definition of the Turing Test, but it redeemed itself by the next conversation, which pointed out that the TT doesn’t matter — it just proves mimicry, not consciousness. (More on this later.) One could quibble about some of the details, but overall it was a very well-informed and thoughtful discussion of AI issues, and an engaging and complex character-driven story.

I’ve seen the film characterized as a horror movie about technology getting out of control, but I saw it more as a feminist allegory, using Nathan’s objectifying treatment of his AIs as a metaphor for society’s objectifying treatment of women, or vice-versa, or both. Sure, it was from a male perspective and it sexualized the female characters (all of whom were literally “objects” in a sense), but I think it did so in order to comment on that attitude and subvert our expectations. After all, neither of the male characters comes off very well. Nathan is a bastard and a user; he makes excuses about sexuality being necessary for consciousness, but the fact that he made all his AIs look like hot naked women reveals that it’s his own sexuality that he’s indulging. He’s trying to create consciousnesses but simultaneously seeking to use them as sex toys, and that’s messed up. Especially when you consider that, in a sense, he’s their father. (Eww.) As for Caleb, for all that he imagines himself a nice guy, he still reacted to Ava based more on the feelings she evoked in him, and his own fantasies and hopes about her, than anything else (which is exactly the role Nathan intended for him to play, though it didn’t go quite the way he expected). Which is probably why she made the choice she made regarding him at the end. Granted, if this is a feminist metaphor, it’s one that included a full frontal and rear nude scene — but I think it worked because adopting that appearance was something Ava did for her own purposes, not for Nathan’s or Caleb’s gratification, and in a way the nudity symbolized her humanity, her “birth.”

To be sure, there is a horror angle here, an ambiguity about the ending. The emergence of an AI race could bring the Singularity and the end of humanity. But I think the film is posing the question of whether we deserve to survive, if this is how we treat the life we create. And director Garland has said that he was surprised to hear people interpret the ending as dark, because his sympathies were firmly with Ava and he saw the ending as a victory.

Acting-wise, Alicia Vikander was very good — maybe not as good as some at conveying a sense of inhumanity or artificiality, but I guess that wasn’t the goal here. I suppose the visuals took care of that well enough. And she’s just generally very engaging and talented. Oscar Isaac was effectively creepy as Nathan, putting on this casual bro routine that was disquieting from the start because you knew he had all the power and that it was just a pretense. Gleeson wasn’t as much of a standout, but he did the job as the basically amiable lead. It’s weird that in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Isaac played one of the main good guys and Gleeson one of the bad guys. I never would’ve thought, based on their performances here, that they could pull off that reversal as effectively as they did. It’s a testament to both actors’ ability to transform themselves.

I also like the way Nathan’s underestimation of Kyoko’s post-wipe self-awareness reflects our cultural prejudice about intelligence. We tend to assume there’s some threshold, some single dividing line where consciousness suddenly springs into being, and that anything below that level is not conscious at all. But modern studies of animal intelligence have discredited that idea, and it now seems evident that conscious awareness is more of a continuum — that many animals have some degree of self-awareness even if they aren’t as smart or communicative as we are. I’m increasingly of the opinion that our belief that consciousness requires some mysterious, ineffable spark or secret ingredient is merely our own need to feel special about ourselves — that maybe consciousness is automatically a property of any neural network designed to perceive and react to its own state, and the rest is all just a difference in the degree and complexity of the consciousness. I doubt Alex Garland had that idea in mind, but I like how well Kyoko fits with that idea of mine.

More generally, I was really impressed with Garland’s intelligence and his awareness of the issues behind AI and consciousness research. I also liked his insistence (in an SXSW panel discussion on the DVD extras) that the experience of creating new life is not godlike, it’s humanlike — that we are creators (and procreators) by nature. (Oscar Isaac added in the same panel that we’ve already created new species, citing domesticated dogs as his example.) It’s rare to come across a filmmaker who’s so scientifically savvy and thoughtful, and I hope he continues to do science fiction films.

In The Machine, the AI project is a near-future British military operation to create supersoldiers for a war with China. The nice-guy lead is Vincent (Toby Stephens), the main AI researcher who doesn’t share the project’s warlike goals but is hoping to use its technology to treat his daughter’s severe neurological disorder. Caity Lotz plays a dual role: an American scientist named Ava who develops a breakthrough AI, and the Machine, an otherwise nameless gynoid incorporating her AI and modeled after her appearance. The ruthless guy in charge is Thomson, the civilian leader of the military project, played by Denis “Wedge Antilles” Lawson in much the same vein as his character in Steven Moffat’s Jekyll. And the effectively mute ethnic female with hidden depths is a cyborg named Suri, played by Pooneh Hajimohammadi. She and the other cyborgs — brain-damaged soldiers with computer implants in their heads — are believed mute, but communicate secretly in an arcane language (which is meant to be a hyper-efficient, semi-telepathic communication, but is recognizably just English with heavy audio distortion).

It’s not a bad film, and if I’d seen it on its own I’d probably like it fine; but it pales in comparison to Ex Machina‘s treatment of the same ideas. EM is a better-looking film and a more thoughtful one. I found The Machine‘s treatment of its ideas to be more superficial and cliched. First off, it makes the common mistake EM avoided — treating the so-called Turing Test not merely as an actual test of successful strong AI, but as the exclusive and definitive test thereof. In fact, Turing never called it a test at all, but an imitation game. It was about the idea that if AI researchers could create a convincing imitation of intelligent behavior, it would show that they’d gained some useful knowledge about the nature of intelligence that they could use to further their work. It was meant as the beginning of the process, not the end. And it’s not that hard to pass the “Turing Test” — chatbots do it all the time. So the tendency in fiction to portray it as some ultimate, definitive standard for artificial intelligence is a myth — one that EM skirted and subverted but that TM embraces uncritically.

I also didn’t find the nameless Machine as effective a portrayal of an AI as Vikander’s Ava. The high-pitched, childlike persona that Lotz adopted, aside from being a bit insipid and annoying, was also corny. Just because an AI is young and learning, that doesn’t mean it would talk like a human child. The Machine is a sympathetic character and has some interesting perspectives, but is still a bit more of a stock sympathetic-AI figure, less complex than Vikander’s Ava.

It was also incongruous the way the middle third of the film had Vincent teaching the Machine that she shouldn’t kill people while the evil Thomson tried to turn her into a killing machine, and yet in the climax she and her cyborg allies were going around killing Thomson’s soldiers in droves and the movie no longer seemed to have a problem with it. (Well, the Machine does deal with Thomson in a technically nonlethal way, but dozens of nameless soldiers and techs have been killed without anyone seeming to care.) Too many movies pay lip service to respect for life and then toss it aside for the sake of a violent climax. True, Ex Machina‘s climax is far from bloodless, but in this case, it’s the hypocritical contrast with what came before that makes it problematical.

In particular, I felt TM fell far short in terms of gender issues compared to EM. Both films are built around the premise of male scientists building a sexy naked gynoid that they see as property, but EM uses the trope in order to critique the underlying attitudes, while TM (as with the Turing Test myth) embraces it far more uncritically. In EM, Vikander’s Ava is ultimately just manipulating Caleb to serve her own survival and liberation, but the Machine is actually in love with her male creator, who’s far more the driver of the story. (She also has a nude scene, but is not quite anatomically correct. It’s maybe a bit more titillating, as she’s dancing in the nude, but it’s not too bad, since it’s something she does for her own pleasure while alone, and it feels like it’s using the nudity to symbolize a desire for liberation.) And there’s this bizarre, randomly sexist bit where the scientists terrify the Machine with a spider (something Lotz’s human Ava said she feared) and Vincent claims that girls are genetically predisposed to fear spiders while boys aren’t (an overstatement of an ambiguous result from a single 2009 study), leading to Thomson commenting on the gynoid’s breasts and making a transphobic wisecrack. True, the ending tries for a similar bit of ambiguity to EM, suggesting that the Machine doesn’t really need Vincent and the AIs will leave humanity behind after all, but TM’s ending is from Vincent’s point of view while EM’s is all about Ava.

The one respect in which I’d give The Machine the edge is in its portrayal of the second female lead. Both films fall into the unfortunate pattern of reducing the lone Asian cast member to an effectively voiceless, subordinate role with dangerous hidden mysteries. I’d say they’re both playing into a rather cliched convention there. But at least TM does not sexualize its Asian female cast member in any way.

All in all, while both films have their merits, I’d call The Machine the flawed rough draft and Ex Machina the more refined, intelligent, and self-aware version of the story. TM uncritically embraces tropes, attitudes, and conventions that EM (mostly) presents in order to question, subvert, and deconstruct. Even if EM wasn’t made as an intentional response to TM, it works well as a counterpoint and critique of it — though it makes TM feel superficial and disingenuous in comparison. Both films are worth seeing, but EM is by far the better of the two. I probably would’ve been better off seeing them in the reverse order.

Cincy Library Comic Con followup report

Yesterday’s Cincinnati Library Comic Con main event went reasonably well for me. I haven’t been feeling too well this weekend, but I wasn’t too sick to attend, and it was mostly sitting down anyway. I did have a bit of a problem when I pulled into the library’s mini-loading dock to drop off my books; I had a bit of trouble backing out of the tight space afterward. But I managed to get to the nearby garage and had an easier walk to the library without a bunch of books to carry.

I ended up selling ten books, six of them to my first buyer — who took one of everything except my one last remaining copy of X-Men: Watchers on the Walls, which I didn’t manage to sell to anyone else either. How sad that I couldn’t move an X-Men novel at a comics convention. I did sell off both my remaining mass-market paperback copies of Only Superhuman (aside from my personal copies, that is) and one of the hardcovers of same, though I brought ten of those. Ultimately I didn’t sell out of any of the seven titles I brought, though three were down to a single copy by the end (well, I only had a single copy of WotW to begin with). Still, I made a decent amount of money for one day, and donated 20% to the library, so that’s good.

I didn’t get around to meet many of the other guests, since I wasn’t up to moving away from my table much, but I did chat a bit with Eric Adams, a comics creator who’s met some of my Trek-author friends at another convention, and to the representative of a local Trek fan group called USS Aquila, who had me as a guest at one of their events a few years back. I also talked to a fan who said he’d been the one to inform Dominic Keating that his character Malcolm Reed had become a captain in the books, and that Keating was pleased to learn that, which was cool, since I was the one who made him a captain.

I also overheard while the con staffers ran a game show-style trivia contest for the guests, which went pretty well, except there was one mistake in one of the questions. The desired answer was “tribbles,” but the question asked what animals Harcourt Fenton Mudd peddled, rather than Cyrano Jones. (The only life forms Harry Mudd ever peddled onscreen were women.) And nobody caught the mistake, somehow. It’s odd — that’s the second time I’ve been involved in a convention trivia contest that made a mistake involving Harry Mudd. There was this one many years ago where the “correct” answer for Mudd’s full name was supposedly Harcourt Fenton Mudd the Third (I guess they were confusing him with Charles Emerson Winchester, or maybe misremembering his “Mudd the First” epithet from “I, Mudd”?). Oh, well — I guess if any TOS character is going to be consistently associated with misinformation, it would be Harry.

There were a bunch of cosplayers on hand, of course, including a guy in a pretty good Star Lord costume, and a couple of Ghostbusters that might conceivably have been the same pair I saw up at Cleveland ConCoction, though I’m not sure. There were a couple of people in TOS Klingon garb, including a replica of Mara’s costume from “Day of the Dove,” but they also had an Abramsverse-style Klingon face mask. At one point, a Stormtrooper stopped to look over the items on my table, and I asked him, “Are these the books you’re looking for?” They weren’t, alas.

The closest I came to cosplay: A volunteer gave me some mini-muffins with paper Starfleet logos on toothpicks, and after a while it occurred to me to stick one of the toothpicks behind my nametag (which was in a plastic sleeve on a lanyard, so I didn’t stab myself), so that I’d have a Starfleet insignia alongside my name. It actually worked pretty well, I think.

Anyway, it went pretty well overall, but it did take a lot out of me, and I haven’t been up to doing much of anything since. Which is too bad, because I’m in need of groceries. Well, I’ll try to get plenty of rest today.

Reminder: Cincinnati Library Comic-Con this Saturday

A quick reminder that I’ll be at the Cincinnati Public Library’s main branch downtown this Saturday, May 21, from noon to 5 PM for the Cincinnati Library Comic-Con, which has a Star Trek theme this year. I’ll have assorted books on sale, including copies of Rise of the Federation: Live by the Code as well as Only Superhuman.

LIVE BY THE CODE annotations are up, “Cislunar Railroad” coming soon (UPDATE: now up)

Okay, I’ve finally gotten around to doing my story notes and spoiler annotations for Rise of the Federation: Live by the Code. I’ve also restructured the site a bit, combining the individual book entries for ROTF on the same page (which still has “a-choice-of-futures” in its URL, since I didn’t know if I should change that). Here’s the master ROTF page, and you can scroll down to find the general notes on LBTC and the link to its spoiler notes. (I’ve kept the original pages for Books 2 & 3 in existence so I don’t break any links, but I’ve removed them from the top menu.)

I’ve also added a section on my new Analog story “Murder on the Cislunar Railroad” to my Original Short Fiction page. I’ll be adding spoiler notes for that story later.

One further thought about CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (spoilers, probably)

I was just reading this article at Forbes comparing the success of Captain America: Civil War to the failure of Batman v Superman y Tu Wonder Woman Tambien at telling the same kind of story about heroes in conflict, and it made me think of something:

Everyone agrees that the big hero fight at the airport in CA:CW is one of the best superhero action sequences ever committed to film, and you know what? It features very little destruction. It doesn’t have whole city blocks collapsing. It doesn’t indulge in 9/11 imagery or disaster porn. The entire airport isn’t destroyed — just a jet and a couple of trucks, maybe. There aren’t a bunch of bystanders screaming and running for cover — presumably Team Iron Man had the airport evacuated in advance. (At least, I think so. Maybe there were bystanders in the part where Spidey was fighting Falcon and Bucky inside the building, but I don’t recall any.) And the climactic fight doesn’t go bigger and indulge in an orgy of mass devastation — it goes smaller, more personal, more concentrated. Once again, it’s someplace where no bystanders are endangered. And that’s just why it works. Mass devastation doesn’t matter without a personal impact. If anything, the smaller scale of the destruction makes the two acts of mass violence we do get — the accident in Lagos and the bombing of the Vienna conference — feel more potent. The death of a few dozen people can be felt and grieved over as the tragedy it is, rather than trivialized in comparison to the destruction of whole cities.

Granted, I’ve always preferred it when superhero stories were about the heroes saving people rather than fighting. One thing that makes the mass-destruction sequences in the Avengers movies work better than most such scenes in modern film is that the Avengers focus so heavily on rescuing innocents. Civil War doesn’t have much in the way of rescuing, now that I think about it (although there is a lot of guilt about their failures to rescue, so there’s that). But movies today have gotten to a point where the spectacle of mass destruction has become overindulged to such a degree that the CGI tends to overwhelm the story and characters. Civil War shows that a movie doesn’t need cataclysms to be powerful. Going bigger doesn’t have to mean wreaking more physical havoc — it just has to mean going for bigger personal, emotional, or ideological stakes. That’s something more filmmakers and studio executives could stand to learn from.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR review (Spoilers!)

I went to see Captain America: Civil War on Saturday morning, then went to the grocery store, and was kind of worn out for the rest of the day, so I thought I’d let my reactions simmer for a while before I wrote my review. I went for the cheapest showing, the early-bird 2D one, and the sound in the theater was oddly quiet, so I had trouble hearing some of the dialogue.

Overall, it was definitely a very effective and well-done movie, an excellent continuation of the MCU saga and one of the most thoughtful movies in the series. I like it that so much of the conflict over the Sokovia Accords was conducted through the heroes talking to each other in meeting rooms and debating the philosophy and emotion of the issues, rather than just hitting or zapping each other. The comics version of Civil War definitely went overboard with the physical conflict and armed rebellion and superprisons and so forth, and though this movie definitely had its marquee fight sequence taking up a fair portion of the second act, it was just the one.

Still, for all the comic’s excesses in execution, I don’t think the film works quite so well in concept. The comic, in principle, was an allegory for real-world concerns about the compromise of individual freedom in the name of security. It handled the issue badly, but the issue itself was worth exploring. And there was a lot at stake, a threat of the loss of freedom for a whole class of people. Here, though, it’s basically an argument over who among an elite group gets to make the decisions that affect everyone else. The stakes don’t feel like they extend much beyond this immediate group of less than a dozen people, and the only character who ever really feels unjustly victimized by the Accords is Wanda Maximoff. It works well as a personal story, but the sense of larger social commentary isn’t really there. I wish there’d been a way to combine the allegorical weight of the original’s concept with the far superior and less excessive execution of the movie.

As far as the issues go, in the comics, I was pretty soundly on Team Cap — and it was hard not to be, given what a caricature they made of Iron Man and the dictatorial extremes he and his supporters went to. (Although I think J. Michael Straczynski wrote Tony with a lot more nuance in The Amazing Spider-Man than other writers did in the rest of the Civil War narrative.) There, it was clearly about defending the rights of the individual against oppression that used security as its excuse. In the movie, though, I tend more toward Team Iron Man. Not only because Tony is portrayed in a far more positive light this time, but because I believe strongly that every powerful entity needs checks and balances to keep it from abusing its power. Cap may have been right that the UN’s agendas couldn’t necessarily be trusted, but the Avengers should have someone to provide a balance to their power, to give them oversight and accountability. (My friend Keith DeCandido pointed out in his review that the comics’ Avengers have had a charter and rules to follow from the word go, and I do recall them having Henry Gyrich as a government liaison for a while.) The Accords may not be the right solution to that problem, any more than the USA PATRIOT Act was the right solution to terrorism — both were policies forged in haste and out of fear, and thus tending to go to more extreme lengths than were necessary or appropriate. But there should be something. I suppose the best path would be somewhere between Tony and Steve on this issue — Team Black Widow, perhaps.

I found Henry Jackman’s musical score a bit disappointing. It was okay, but it didn’t use any of the character themes established in earlier movies. Age of Ultron did a nice job incorporating existing leitmotifs into its score, and I would’ve liked this and subsequent Marvel films to continue that practice. Superheroes need their own themes and fanfares. That’s something only a few MCU movies have bothered with, and AoU had me hoping that was starting to change.

Edited to add: I feel I should comment more on the big airport fight sequence. One reason it worked well for me is that nobody involved really wanted it. For one thing, that gave it emotional stakes — it was sad seeing friends and allies on opposite sides. It also lowered the stakes in another way, because nobody was trying to kill anyone, so we can freely root for the combatants’ skill and cleverness without having to deal with the moral issues that most movie battle scenes gloss over. I’ve never been happy with the MCU movie characters’ use of lethal force, and there was some of that here in the Lagos sequence, it appeared — plus T’Challa and then Tony trying to kill Bucky. But in the airport fight, nobody was interested in causing death, so it was more like the action sequences of the comics and thus could be more unreservedly enjoyable, even with the sad personal aspect. It was downright sporting, really, with a lot of mutual respect between the opposing sides — like that nice Cap-Spidey beat about their proximate origins.

Going through it all character by character:

Captain America: Still the principled man we know and admire, but maybe with a bit of a blind spot where Bucky’s concerned. He was right to stand up for his falsely accused friend, but he was perhaps a bit too headstrong in Bucky’s defense. I don’t see why he couldn’t have taken the time to give Tony a fuller explanation about the threat from the other Winter Soldiers, rather than just going “We fight.”

Tony Stark: Even though this is Cap’s movie by title, I feel Tony made a stronger impression, perhaps because he had more character growth. He really wrestled with the issues and stayed open to both sides, though he did rather lose it in the third act with the whole revenge thing. That part didn’t make sense to me and seemed contrived to force the final fight, since Tony must surely have understood that Bucky was not in control of his actions. There was a game attempt to make it more about his betrayal at Steve not telling him, but that still didn’t quite justify it. Aside from that, though, this is the way Tony should’ve been portrayed in the original.

Black Widow: They’re still doing a good job keeping Natasha front and center, the most valuable supporting player (even though they’re dragging their heels ridiculously on giving her a solo movie). She didn’t have as much to do in this one as in the past couple, but she still made a strong impression, and her fight choreography is fantastic.

Black Panther: Chadwick Boseman was effective as T’Challa, thoughtful and quietly strong. The portrayal of Wakanda mercifully shied away from a lot of the usual African stereotypes seen in plenty of past movies and comics, although it’s a little odd to hear them speaking the southern African Xhosa language while worshipping the Egyptian deities Bast and Sekhmet, from the opposite end of a very large continent. I particularly like it that T’Challa turned his back on vengeance — especially that he actually saved the life of the man he would’ve wanted to kill before. That’s a nice change from all the “I don’t have to save you” or “Take my hand — oops, never mind” endings that too many superhero movies have had. I was actually expecting T’Challa to break up the Steve-Tony fight at the climax and talk some sense into them, and I’m more than a little disappointed that he didn’t.

Vision: Interesting to see more of his evolution as a person, and Paul Bettany does a great job making him thoughtful and naive, gentle and imposing at the same time. Odd that Wanda calls him “Viz” instead of his usual “Vizh” nickname.

Scarlet Witch: Despite her key role in the emotional core of the film, I found Wanda didn’t leave a particularly strong impression on me. Elizabeth Olsen just doesn’t have the same presence or charisma as most of the MCU cast.

Hawkeye: He has such a minor role that I’m not sure why they even bothered to include him, unless it was so they could do the thing with Ant-Man riding his arrow. His relationship with Black Widow was touched on in maybe one two-line exchange. I’ll grant, though, that he was probably the best choice for convincing Wanda to leave, given their history in Age of Ultron.

Bucky: Sorry, Sebastian Stan is just kind of boring. He doesn’t do much except fight and brood. He doesn’t leave much of an impression beyond his role as a plot catalyst.

Falcon: On the other hand, Falcon totally rocks. Anthony Mackie is one of the most charismatic players in the cast, and Sam’s a terrific partner for Steve. I love his fight choreography too, and the Redwing drone is a great addition. I would be totally happy to see Sam Wilson take over as Captain America once Chris Evans’s contract is up, although that’s not looking likely with Sam part of Cap’s Kooky Fugitives and the shield still in the few remaining Avengers’ hands.

War Machine: Rhodey’s still a stalwart background presence, though not as much of a standout as he’d be in a smaller cast.

Ant-Man: A decent supporting role, a nice followup on his debut film. Paul Rudd brought some effective humor to the proceedings,  the callback to his history with Falcon was good, and Ant-Man — I should call him Giant-Man as well — contributed, err, massively to the big fight.

Sharon Carter: Not a bad supporting role, helping out quietly and passing along some valuable words from Peggy Carter. I love how consistent the portrayal of Peggy through her words was with her characterization in the TV series, given that continuity between TV and movies in the MCU tends to be unidirectional. It helps that this movie’s writers are the creators and executive producers of Agent Carter. And I cried at Peggy’s funeral, even though there’s still a chance (though a slim one at this point) that she could return to TV for a third season. Sharon wasn’t nearly as impressive as her aunt, though, and the attempt to sneak in a romance between her and Steve felt cursory and forgettable.

Helmut Zemo: Now, this was weird. The MCU has reinterpreted a lot of comics characters, but while this version of Zemo worked well as the antagonist of this particular story, he’s so completely unlike his namesake that I wonder why they even called him Helmut Zemo. He did some awful things, but he’s not exactly a Master of Evil. As a character in his own right, though, he was nicely handled. The MCU has rarely given any of its movie antagonists any real personality or depth. Zemo is the most nuanced and sympathetic MCU movie villain since Loki, probably even more so.

Secretary Thaddeus Ross: Nice bit of continuity to bring back William Hurt and tie the largely overlooked The Incredible Hulk a bit more closely into the saga, even though Ross here is in a rather different role than before, a role that could’ve been filled by a lot of other characters. It would’ve been nice to see him show a bit more intensity in his comments about the missing Dr. Banner, given that Ross’s obsession with the Hulk is his defining trait in the comics.

Everett Ross: Did they notice they had two characters on the government side who were both named Ross? Anyway, this is the first time I’ve seen Martin Freeman in a role where he didn’t totally steal the show. Partly because he used an American accent, and that always makes British actors less interesting. But he really had very little purpose in this story, although I gather they were setting him up for a bigger role later, presumably in Black Panther, since that’s where the character originally comes from.

Spider-Man: I’ve saved this for last because I have a lot to say. Peter was handled pretty well, and Tom Holland is pretty good, but I can’t gush as much about him as most people are. I actually liked the Andrew Garfield version, and I think The Amazing Spider-Man 2 captured Spidey/Peter almost perfectly even though it screwed up so much else. This was a good portrait of a Spidey who’s just starting out, and I like the way they rejiggered the Tony-as-mentor bit from the comics to explain how Spidey got his fancy threads (and the size-changing eyes are a nice way to bring a cartooning conceit into live action). But I don’t feel this movie captured Spidey’s banter as well as ASM2 did. I mean, sure, Spidey’s a chatterbox, and that’s partly a manifestation of his anxiety and insecurity, but he’s also funny. He’s a nonstop wisecracker, a comic hero in the Bugs Bunny mold. He should be hurling jokes and bad puns and insults as readily as Downey’s Tony does, and then some. And that didn’t come through here, since this Spidey was mainly just geeking out and talking science and chattering nervously. I hope he’s funnier in his solo movie. (And having Tony be his mentor could work nicely if he becomes more of a confident wisecracker by following Tony’s example.)

Also, I felt the Spidey portion of the movie was a bit tacked on. The movie just kind of dragged to a halt in the middle to swerve into a side story introducing this new character, then used him in the fight, then forgot about him until the post-credits scene. Structurally, it could’ve been better. I would’ve preferred it if Peter had been seeded earlier — if Tony’s initial talk had been at Midtown High instead of a university, say, or if we’d seen a bit of Spidey or Peter having a “kid on the street” reaction to the news from Lagos or Vienna or Washington.

I’m also not sure that Peter was worked into the story as logically as he could’ve been. The speech he gave in his bedroom about how something is your fault if you have the power to stop it and you don’t (a reference to his famous origin story, natch) sounded like it aligned more with Steve’s side of the argument than Tony’s. After all, Steve was the one saying they had to act when it was needed rather than letting a higher power tell them they couldn’t. Then there’s the fact that it was kind of a contradiction for Tony to support government oversight of superheroes, yet be totally fine with Peter keeping his identity secret. It works because this Tony has always been kind of a rebel and has only recently come around to the idea that he needs to be kept in check, so that inconsistency is in character. But it does seem that Peter was more naturally suited to Team Cap, and it would’ve been good to see him switch sides as he did in the comics.

So I guess my praise for the film is a little lukewarm. But that’s only because it’s been so heavily hyped as the best superhero movie ever. It is quite good for the most part, no doubt. I just have a few issues with it, ways it could’ve been even better.

Anyway, where does the MCU stand now? The Sokovia Accords are still in effect (and we’ll see some of the impact of that on Agents of SHIELD tomorrow night). The only still-active Avengers seem to be Iron Man, Vision, and War Machine, who’s on the disabled list. Spidey’s an ally, but not quite ready for the big time — but will he have to register? T’Challa’s still an independent party, though sympathetic to Steve. Bucky’s back on ice. Cap, Falcon, Hawkeye, Ant-Man, Scarlet Witch, and probably Black Widow are wanted fugitives. Things don’t look good for the superhero community. I wonder if so many of them were removed from the board to clear the way for the spate of new characters coming up in Phase 3. Over the next couple of years, we have Doctor Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok (co-starring the Hulk), and Black Panther before we presumably see the rest of the Avengers again in Infinity War in 2018. (Hey, Netflix, this would be a great window for a Black Widow miniseries, ScarJo willing.) So the current state of affairs is likely to be a dangling thread for some time. Honestly, that’s part of why my reaction to the film is a bit lukewarm. It ended at kind of an uneasy and unresolved place, and I’m a little dissatisfied with the situation, if not with the execution of the story.

But then, this is Civil War, and wars very rarely leave things better at the end.

“Murder on the Cislunar Railroad” has arrived!

I just got my author copies of the June 2016 Analog, containing my SF-mystery novelette “Murder on the Cislunar Railroad,” and I got my name on the cover again!

Analog SF&F June 2016 cover

Cover art by Bob Eggelton

So out of six Analog appearances over the past 17.5 years, I’ve gotten my name on the cover half the time — specifically, on the third, fifth, and sixth occasions. That’s kind of symmetrical. I’ve never had cover art based on one of my stories, though the covers these days usually seem to be generic space images. Four of my Analog stories have had interior art, though, the exceptions being “The Hub of the Matter” and this one.

It looks like I got my copies early; the  Analog homepage hasn’t yet been updated to June as of this writing. From what I can tell, the June issue goes on sale in about a week, on May 4. “Cislunar Railroad” is the last story in the issue, on pp. 92-103. I hope my readers find the mystery suitably confounding and the ideas and characters sufficiently interesting.

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