Masculinity and Performance in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog

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Whatever you may think of Joss Whedon, it is impossible to deny that his work (especially in the realm of television) never fails to provoke discussion. “Buffy Studies” – the niche of film scholarship that critically analysis Buffy and Angel – is nearly an academic discipline unto itself. There is also plenty of written material on both Firefly and Dollhouse (the former more than the latter). While Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog certainly enjoys a good reputation, I have seen comparatively little writing on it relative to the rest of Whedon’s oeuvre. In this essay, I will examine how Dr. Horrible examines masculinity via its performances by the film’s central characters. I will argue that both Dr. Horrible (Neil Patrick Harris) and Nathan Fillion (Captain Hammer) represent different masculine paradigms and that the film is ultimately critical of Dr. Horrible for succumbing to the same masculine faults that are embodied by Captain Hammer.

Whedon signals that Dr. Horrible is about the performance of masculinity first and foremost by his choice of genre. The musical is a format that demands that its characters literally perform their songs and choreography. Furthermore, musicals have a kind of cognitive dissidence at the heart of them. From the perspective of the other characters, are the performers *actually* singing and dancing or are the musical numbers just peculiar interludes that other characters do not acknowledge? The answer, of course, is that it doesn’t really matter but the logical observer in us can’t help but wonder whether musical performances are made salient to the characters in said musical. Thus, the musical is the perfect venue to examine the performance of masculinity, which is a performance that most men don’t even realize that they are doing.

The choice to work within the confines of the superhero genre once again calls attention to the performativity of the main characters’ actions . Due to the ubiquitous trope of heroes and villains having secret identities, superheroes constantly perform. For example, Clark Kent pretends to be a mild-mannered dope, Bruce Wayne a vapid playboy. These examples are relevant because both characters evoke questions of exactly which aspects are of their personality are authentic and which are performative. Is Clark Kent the “real” person, while Superman is an affected persona that helps to conceal Kent’s identity, or is it the other way around? Most Batman fans accept that Bruce Wayne is the performance while Batman is the real person underneath (an assessment that I disagree with, but that is another essay for another day). The one two punch of the superhero musical invites us to question who exactly is the true persona of both Captain Hammer and Dr. Horrible, and who is a performance.

The super personas of Captain Hammer and Dr. Horrible convey a lot of information about each character. Hammer adopts the masculine-associated title of “captain” and pairs it with a hammer, both a traditionally masculine tool and an object that signals a blunt and basic approach to problem solving (the old saying “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” comes to mind). Hammer seems to have also put the bare minimum of effort into his disguise, slapping a picture of a hammer on a yellow circle background onto a plain black shirt. From this lack of effort, the viewer can glean two key pieces of information. First, we learn that Hammer doesn’t take his super heroics all that seriously beyond his opportunities to inflict violence on Dr. Horrible. Secondly, there is very little that separates Hammer from his non-superhero persona. He is a pair of gloves and a homemade symbol away from being a normal guy, the implication being that being Captain Hammer is his normal life. Billy, on the other hand, has clearly given his persona more thought. He has more elaborate props, such as his goggles, which are purely theatrical and never actually used until he switches costumes at the end. Billy also takes on a masculine-associated “doctor” title but it is to emphasize his intelligence rather than his strength. We also see that Billy puts a lot of thought into his super villainy, trying on new catchphrases and pursing the super villain career path of joining the Evil League of Evil.

Hammer and Horrible figure nicely into a classic nerd vs jock dichotomy, which incidentally sets them up as embodying different masculine paradigms. Hammer is old school masculinity, valuing simple brawn over all else. We see this in the way that Hammer solves problems. He stops the Billy’s heist in Act 1 by punching the van control device and forcefully pushing Penny in the garbage, he tries to impress her on their date by showing off his physical strength on the swan boat and he tries to kill Horrible with his own death ray.  Billy is a newer masculinity that is very much a response to the former. He solves problems with his mind, designing technology like the freeze ray and van remote. Billy rebels against the classically masculine norms that Hammer is emblematic of, but he is frustrated that this rebellion means that he can’t have the things that Hammer has. He wants people to think he’s good looking, capable, loveable and more than anything else, he wants Penny’s affection. None of this is meant to endorse Billy’s perspective, as I think the film ultimately rejects it and this will be discussed later in the essay.

One of the crucial takeaways from what I have said so far is that superheroes and masculinity are explicitly paired in the world of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. The story is about two men who represent different masculine paradigms each trying to validate said paradigm by proving that they can attract a woman. It just so happens to be the case that the brains vs brawn battle for Penny’s affection is dramatized through the means of the superhero musical, which calls attention to the specific context of masculine performance that is always present in love triangle stories. Every super-event in the film, such as the wonderflonium heist, Horrible’s off-screen freeze ray test and the showdown at the homeless shelter are all explicitly linked to Billy and Hammer’s competition for Penny’s affection. The heist is performed to get the freeze ray working, which “My Freeze Ray” equates with winning Penny’s affections, the off-screen heist tests the freeze ray and the showdown is a direct response to Hammer emasculating Billy at the laundromat by flaunting his victory in the chauvinistic competition for Penny’s affections.

Whedon makes it easiest to answer the question of “which persona is the mask” with Captain Hammer. Captain Hammer is distinguished from Billy in that he only has one persona that the audience actually gets to know. We never meet his civilian identity, even when he meets Penny at the laundromat or goes on a date with her. Penny doesn’t even seem to acknowledge that Hammer has any more to his life than being Captain Hammer. She tells people that she’s Captain Hammer’s girlfriend, making no reference to a civilian persona. In some sense, in virtue of consistently presenting himself as a superhero, Captain Hammer is always performing. It is no mistake that we are introduced to the character while he is singing and that we spend most of our time with him in songs. Regarding the theme of the performance of masculinity, it is no accident that Hammer is also the most classically masculine character in the film on top of being the most consistent performer. The audience sees Hammer solve problems with brute strength repeatedly throughout, with his muscularity being referenced by both Penny and himself. In addition, when Hammer says that he is “going to give Penny the night of her life, just because [Billy wants] her”, he reveals that he is primarily motived by the prospect of dominating and emasculating his enemy than by any romantic feelings he might have towards Penny.

Contrasted against the consistent, hypermasculine performance of Hammer is the bifurcated Billy/Dr. Horrible. Unlike Captain Hammer, the lines between the Doctor and Billy are blurry. In Doctor Horrible’s first song, we see Billy in the laundromat singing as well. In his second song, aptly titled “A Man’s Gotta Do”, Billy is seen only briefly before the context of the song demands that he shift personas and change into his super hero outfit. The lyrics to “A Man’s Gotta Do” can even be read as Billy’s two personas engaging with one another. As Billy considers abandoning the courier van heist (signaled by his longing gaze in Penny’s direction and the conflicted expression on Billy’s face), the music kicks in and the audience hears:

“A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do
Don’t plan the plan if you can’t follow through
all that matters: taking matters into your own hands
Soon I’ll control everything; my wish is your command”

In the first line, the masculine is explicitly evoked to justify Billy’s continuation of his actions as Dr. Horrible. The second line makes the most sense directed at Billy himself, since he is the one who is in danger of not following through on his plan. This line begins the trend of Billy including the word “you”, rather than “my” or “I”, in his lyrics despite singing to himself. It is tempting to read the final line as the typical claim that a supervillain would make to the public, but it wouldn’t make sense for “you” to shift from referring to Billy in the previous lines of the verse to the citizens of the city in the final line. Instead, we should read the final line as Dr. Horrible shifting from encouraging Billy to take part in the performance of supervillainy to threatening him. In Act 1, Billy primarily moves around in the real world while his Dr. Horrible persona is relegated to the film’s musical segments and one-take blog sequences (the blog is another form of performance, which is why Horrible is seen doing it). The implication is that Billy is still the one in control, needing to be coaxed into performing the heist and hanging on the prospect of a normal life.

The third song, “My Eyes”, is the only one that is performed by Billy outside of his guise as Dr. Horrible. This shift is crucial because it backs up the message behind the song. When Billy sings:

“Anyone with half a brain
Could spend their whole life howling in pain
‘Cause the dark is everywhere And Penny doesn’t seem to care
That soon the dark in me is all that will remain”

He is telling the audience that Dr. Horrible is in danger of taking control of their shared identity (“the dark” being an obvious reference to his supervillainy). As such, we are being shown here that the lines are starting to blur, and Billy is now acting as we have only previously seen Dr. Horrible act.

In the laundromat confrontation between Billy and Hammer, Billy is utterly unequipped to handle Hammer outside of his super villain persona. He frantically tries to leave after learning about Hammer’s arrival, going so far as to leave his clothes behind. Hammer controls the interaction, going on a lengthy monologue while Billy is nearly paralyzed. After Hammer leaves, Billy once again starts singing and quickly changes into the Horrible persona. It is during the song “Brand New Day” that Billy is confident and collected, even as he misses all of the darts that he throws at a cut-out of Hammer’s head. Billy’s fantasy of being a giant who is capable of physically intimidating and scaring Hammer betrays the fact that his fantasy is about no longer being at the mercy of macho guys like Hammer, rather than the social change that he frequently demands. This is a running theme, as we see Billy frequently fantasize about his super villain victories. In “My Freeze Ray”, Billy imagines himself dancing with Penny and sings about them ruling the world. It is telling that Billy never fantasizes about actually ruling the world or having henchmen or followers of his own but only about getting the girl and defeating his male adversary.

In “So They Say”, Billy sings the following:

“There’s no happy ending
So they say
Not for me anyway
Stop pretending
Take the chance to build a brand new day”

The line of interest here is “stop pretending”, which gestures toward Billy only being half committed to his performance as Dr. Horrible up until this point. The verse making reference to a “brand new day” pairs Billy’s commitment to his performance with killing Captain Hammer, a decision he made during “Brand New Day” and that the viewer is reminded of by both the chalk board and death ray that are seen during “So They Say”. In “Slipping”, Dr. Horrible frequently refers to himself in the first person but nonetheless reasserts the dichotomy between himself and “Billy” in one of the last verses

“No sign of Penny – good.
I would give anything not to have her see
It’s gonna be bloody – head up Billy buddy
There’s no time for mercy
Here goes – no mercy…”

By referring to “Billy” as both a separate person and his “buddy”, we see that Billy is very close to committing to Dr. Horrible in the same way that Hammer has committed to his superhero persona full time. This commitment is finally realized in “Everything You Ever”, when Dr. Horrible sings:

“Now the nightmare’s real
Now Dr. Horrible is here
To make you quake with fear
To make the whole world kneel
And I won’t feel
A thing”

Whedon cuts to Billy, in his living room blogging space right before the last line. This signals the definitive shift in who the dominant persona between Billy and Horrible is. Billy now inhabits the space that Horrible used to inhabit, a space that represented confinement in virtue of it being both a space of performativity and a persona space for Billy (his apartment). It is important to note that the lighting in the living room is terrible and the scene seems to be taking place at night, which is highly irregular for the blog (the only instance being after Billy’s off-screen defeat at the Superhero memorial bridge). Also, Billy is recognizably miserable in the shot and appears to be making no effort to engage an audience. The evocation of a major defeat and the lack of any performativity in Billy’s behaviour dispels the notion that Horrible will be performing Billy in the same way Billy performed Horrible. Instead, the takeaway is that Billy has been defeated by Horrible and left in a sate of isolation.

Billy’s character arc plays out through every song and it is ultimately one of self destruction. We see that he is slowly being overtaken by his exaggerated, masculine persona until the persona becomes dominant. This pairs Dr. Horrible with Captain Hammer; whose hyper masculine person is his primary (if not only) one. The final question to answer now is what, exactly, is the point of all this? To answer that question, we will have to take a look at Billy’s relationship with Penny and how it is affected by his adherence to the masculine norms embodied by Captain Hammer.

Firstly, it is made very clear to the audience that Penny and Billy have the possibility for a romantic relationship. After “Penny’s Song”, the two leans towards each other slightly, indicating a mutual desire to kiss. Also, during “So They Say” Penny is eating frozen yogurt, with a second yogurt that is clearly intended for the absent Billy. Whedon puts a fine point on the scene by having Penny excitedly check the door when it opens in the hopes that Billy will show up. This beat is especially important because it conveys to the audience that Dr. Horrible, and by extension Billy’s, participation in the objectifying and masculine competition for Penny’s affections is actually an obstacle in his attaining them. If Billy were not planning Hammer’s murder (and thus not attempting to recede further into his super villain persona) then he could be bonding with Penny. In the homeless shelter sequence, we also learn that Penny is off put by Hammer’s objectification of her and leaves during his speech, telling the audience that she really has no interest in his overt machismo. Dr. Horrible being antithetical to a relationship with Billy and Penny is literalized when the Death Ray (the mechanism by which Billy will “make the nightmare real” and become Dr. Horrible full time) explodes and kills Penny.

The obvious thematic upshot here is that the regression of Billy’s newer masculinity into only a slight variation on classical masculinity is a detriment to men, women and society in general. It leaves Hammer an emotional wreck, Billy defeated and Penny dead. The implication of society being worse off comes from the movie positioning Penny as the arbiter of what is and isn’t good for society. She was the only one of these three central characters who was legitimately interested in changing things for the better. On top of that, she calls out Billy’s flawed plans for social change and is ultimately vindicated by the narrative. For Hammer, social change was a means to get laid and for Billy it was about quelling a growing dissatisfaction and indulging in a power fantasy. Without Penny, and the truly altruistic social change that she represents, we can infer that society will be worse off. This decline is confirmed by what little we see of the city post Penny, with Dr. Horrible robbing a banks and being unchallenged as the ELE’s newest member.

Dr. Horrible is a cautionary tale that laments the failure of nerds to properly change the way that they perform masculinity in response to “alpha male”, strength flaunting chauvinists like Captain Hammer . This theme is also explored in Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s sixth season, where disempowered nerds like Jonathan, Warren and Andrew are presented as far deadlier than any supernatural foe that Buffy has ever come up against (this is made explicit by the controversial killing of Terra by Warren in Seeing Red). In Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, Whedon is once again lamenting that nerds who were shoved into lockers and ridiculed by men trying to assert their dominance chose to emulate this behaviour in a new form rather than to repudiate it.

 

Saturday Streaming: Power Rangers

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Power Rangers is the bad version of a movie that I have wanted to see for a while now. The movie’s heart is in the right place and I can respect that it takes time developing its characters before getting to the big superhero action finale. Its just a shame that the characters don’t really warrant an hour and a half of development in a two hour film. Despite the welcomed diversity of Power Rangers, which features a racially diverse team that included both a queer member and a member who is on the spectrum, there isn’t a single memorable character amongst the super heroic breakfast club that we spend so much time getting to know.

Dacre Montgomary has the lead as Jason, the red ranger and team leader. Montgomary definitely has charisma but, curiously, he is the team member that we come to know least well. He throws his football career away in favor of a prank at the beginning of the movie (in a sequence that contains a noticeably out of place joke about “milking” a male cow) and yet we have no greater sense of why he did this at the end of the film than we do at the beginning. The rest of the team fairs better, with Kimberly (Naomi Scott) and Trini (Becky G.) making the strongest impressions. Kimberly remains sympathetic even when we come to learn that her character is the most flawed of the bunch and Becky G. does a great job of selling Trini’s introverted nature through her physical performance. Its not that RJ Cyler and Ludi Lin are bad as Billy (the blue ranger) and Zack (the black ranger), respectively. It’s just that Cyler is shackled with too many comedic lines and Lin gets the least amount of attention. Overall, this is a good cast that could have flourished if the material that they were working with wasn’t so weak.

Surprisingly, it is the big name actors in the film all flounder. Bryan Cranston is mostly digitally imposed on a big wall for most the film and he acts with all the enthusiasm that that suggests. Admittedly, some unintentional comedy does come from hearing Walter White loudly lament that he is trapped in a giant wall but realistically, the filmmakers could have gotten anyone to play this part. Elizabeth Banks is next level bad in the movie, shutting up anyone who tried to justify the whitewashing of Rita Repulsa by saying that they had to give the job to “the best actress”. She goes for a level of camp that would surprise Uma Thurman’s Posion Ivy and feels like she’s in a completely different film than everyone else. It is hard to blame her when she spends 95% of the movie separated from everyone else, essentially doing an embarrassing and lengthy one woman show.

The movie definitely has its moments, most of which come when the team is getting to know each other. We’re five years out from The Avengers and apparently we still can’t think of anything more interesting than “friendship is good” to make super team origin movies about but the main cast is able to make some of the trite material spark. Its a pity that Dean Israelite can’t think of many ways to visualize the team coming to learn the value of cooperation and friendship. Remember the iconic shots in Avengers that actually had team members playing off of each other (Iron Man banks shots off Captain America’s shield, Thor and Hulk kill the big space alien together etc). Those weren’t just cool looking shots, they were instances of the film’s theme being communicated visually. We get very little of that in Power Rangers. Instead, the 3rd act action scene is a visual mess of ugly CGI and footage that could be reshuffled in the editing room without losing story cohesion.

I really wanted to like Power Rangers but this film fails to live up to the standard set by even mediocre super team movies. It is a boring teen drama at best and a spectacular superhero failure at worst. If you are really fixing for Power Rangers, you would be better off just throwing on an episode of one of the many, many different Rangers TV shows that you can currently find on Netflix.

The 2017 Golden J Awards

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This was a busy year for me, which means I saw less movies than I normally do. Fortunately, 2017 was a great year for movies. This victory is small, seeing as how 2017 was also the year I became convinced that the Clown-Man President of the United States is probably going to kill us all by ushering in a nuclear apocalypse but hey, I’ll take what I can get. I’m always disappointed to miss out on a lot of the year’s big movies (as of this writing, I have yet to see Lady Bird, Phantom Thread, The Shape of Water, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, etc – yikes!) but it is especially unfortunate because I have literally only managed to see three movies directed by women this entire year (Before I Fall, Wonder Woman and Rough Night. These were all good films that I would recommended but none were among the best of the year). This lack of exposure means that my year-end list is dude heavy and I wouldn’t feel right about suggesting that all ten of the year’s best movies were directed by men without including the caveat that there are definitely films directed by women that deserve to be on this list…I just haven’t actually seen them yet.

10. Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond – Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton (directed by Chris Smith)

I once had a documentary film professor who told the class to never, ever agree to be in a documentary. The documentarians have so much power over you and the events that you are involved in that you can never be sure how you will come off. Whether Jim and Andy is presenting something close to objective truth or not, it presents us with a fascinating central character that we are completely willing to follow down this peculiar, method acting rabbit hole. Jim Carrey is here presented as someone who needs to get away from himself and uses method acting as a thinly vailed excuse to do so. Director Chris Smith doesn’t just coast on the sheer audacity and unbelievability of the behind the scenes footage of Man on the Moon that informs the film, he also examines Carrey as a sort of tragic, peculiar figure and the results are worthwhile. This movie is definitely not for everyone but, for me, it was a worthy and unique entry in the Netflix documentary stable.

9. Split (directed by M. Night Shyamalan)

I’ve been sticking up for M. Night Shyamalan for a long time and, if you know me well enough, you have probably heard me go to bat for almost all of his films (except the irredeemably awful The Last Airbender). Given that, it should be no surprise that I enjoyed the hell out of Split, Shyamalan’s goofy yet tense movie about a guy with 23 different personalities. James McAvoy makes the whole thing work, giving a legitimately great performance that extends far beyond the wow factor of an actor playing so many different roles in the same film. You feel for his different personalities and he brings a unique energy to each one. However, none of that would matter if the film wasn’t as effective and tense as it is but, fortunately, Shyamalan’s partnership with Blumhouse has continued to be great for him creatively. You would never notice how little money was spent on this movie or how claustrophobic it actually is because Shyamalan keeps raising the stakes and finding new angles within the established setting (between this movie and It Follows, cinematographer Mike Gioulakis is one to watch out for). Oh ya, there is also the small matter of the ending. You couldn’t pay me to spoil it but let’s just say it has been a long time since a movie has left me feeling such surprise and excitement.

8. Thor: Ragnarok (directed by Taika Waititi)

After Joss Whedon’s departure, I was worried that the Marvel Cinematic Universe didn’t have anything left for me. Ant-Man, Captain America: Civil War and Doctor Strange all had me underwhelmed and like Marvel had permanently traded substance for its repetitive, worn out style. I’ve never been so glad to be wrong. Not only is Thor: Ragnarok one of the funniest films I have seen in a long time, it also has a ton of things to say about current events (some of which I covered here). There are so many aspects to love about the movie: the great performance given by a finally-not-bored Chris Hemsworth, the way it dives into real Marvel Comics weirdness with both feet and the kick-ass use of Immigrant Song. I am a huge fan of Thor and I couldn’t be happier that Taika Waititi did the impossible and reinvigorated Marvel’s weakest franchise.

7. Star Wars: The Last Jedi (directed by Rian Johnson)

The Last Jedi was the perfect film for a franchise that had, since its recent Disney funded revival, been getting by mostly pandering to fans with callbacks to the original Star Wars trilogy. The Force Awakens and Rogue One definitely have their bright spots (the former more so than the latter) but Jedi was the first of these new Star Wars films that felt interested in taking the series in a bold new direction. The whole cast is fantastic, but this movie belongs to Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver and (unexpectedly) Mark Hamill. I liked Daisy Ridley in Force Awakens, but she  truly comes into her own as Rey. Adam Driver remains the find of century as Kylo Ren, who might well be the best villain in all of Star Wars. Hamill is on another level, selling Luke’s transition from jaded hermit to full blown hero over the course of the movie’s admittedly long run time. It is not just the performances that make the movie work, it is the themes and Ideas that inform the film as well. I love that Finn (John Boyega) sees the scope of the First Order’s influence and oppression, I love that Poe (Oscar Issac) learns that sometimes the most heroic thing that he can do is put faith in his fellow rebels and I love Rose’s statement about how the rebels will ultimately win. The structure may be wonky but that did little to affect my enjoyment of this excellent film.

6. Baby Driver (directed by Edgar Wright)

Baby Driver had me in the palm of its hand from the very first second it started. The opening action scene is an incredible piece of cinema, with Edgar Wright using every tool at his disposal to engage the viewer (I still have “Bellbottoms” by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion stuck in my head). Wright has made kinetic, endlessly fun action movie with a compelling, unique hero at the center of it. Ansel Elgort is giving an amazing central performance as Baby, who commands your attention despite his introspective and quiet demeanor. The film makes some missteps, most notably its undercooked central romance that seems to rely on Baby’s girlfriend reminding him of his dead mom, but the stuff that works in Baby Driver works so well that it is easy to overlook the flaws.

Warning: film contains disgusting amounts of Kevin Spacey

5. Gerald’s Game (directed by Mike Flanagan)

Between Gerald’s Game and Hush, Mike Flanagan is making a name for himself as a director of tense, frightening thrillers starring incredibly compelling women. The plot concerns Jessie Burlingame (Carla Gugino) trying to escape from a bed that she was handcuffed to and stuck in when her husband (the titular Gerald, played by Bruce Greenwood) died, leaving the key far away from arm’s reach. You might think that a movie about a woman chained to a bed would be boring, but the movie is far from it due to the strength of the Flanagan’s direction. Things get especially interesting when representations of Jessie’s subconscious enter the picture in the form of her husband and her own inner voice. Flanagan really explores the character’s psychology and it is a treat to watch Burlingame sink her teeth into such a meaty role.

Side note: the film also provided me with the most disturbing image I saw in a movie all year (and that’s saying something in a year that also contained Mother!)

4. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 (directed by James Gunn)

Wow, what a year for Marvel Studios (despite the disposable Spider-Man: Homecoming). Before Thor: Ragnarok delivered the most entertaining movie going experience of the year, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 provided what might have been the most emotional. Don’t get me wrong, the film is a riot but it’s also an incredibly compelling drama about real, flawed character (that just happen to be silly space aliens) who substantially grow and change over the course of the narrative. The film’s themes of empathy, maturity and collectivity were also profoundly resonant, at least for me. I’ve been a fan of James Gunn ever since Super but even I couldn’t have guessed that he would be able to make original, thought provoking and hilarious movies within the rigid, overproduced Marvel framework. Oh, and I’ve been pretty much listening to the soundtrack on loop since May.

3. John Wick: Chapter 2 (directed by Chad Stahelski)

I get the sense that a lot of fans of John Wick were a little off-put by Chapter 2, which is not unexpected. The first film has the hook of being “the dog revenge movie”, which is an easy mechanism for investment and empathy for almost any audience. The second film has to survive on the strength of its characters and complex, original world and for my money, it pulls that trick off without a hitch. Director Chad Stahelski impressively builds on everything that made the original compelling. The action is better, the underground network of assassins is fleshed out and, to top it off, the film leaves on a hell of a sequel tease.

2. Mother! (directed by Darren Aronofsky)

Mother! is a ruthless gauntlet of emotion that it is impossible to look away from. What starts out as a relatively grounded, creepy film evolves into an expressionistic fever dream that understandably shocked and disturbed audiences during its theatrical release. For my money, Darren Aronofsky is the best American film director currently working and he is in greatest hits mode with Mother!. There is some of Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan, The Fountain and Noah in this film but none of it feels diluted or compromised as a result. This movie is definitely not for everyone, but it reminded me of exactly what I love about cinema and it is the movie I will likely be revisiting the most on this list.

1. Get Out (directed by Jordan Peele)

What else could it have been, honestly? Jordan Peele, who has proven himself as one of the funniest people in show business, made the shift to expert dramatic storyteller look easy with his debut feature. Get Out is tense, funny, timely and contains a murders’ row of talent in front of and behind the camera. Daniel Kaluuya is an instant star, Lakeith Stanfield makes a small role pop like few others could and Betty Gabriel makes them look like lightweights as Georgina, the mind controlled maid of the Armitage household. Get Out exploded in the culture (references to the sunken place and Armitage family quotes like “I would have voted for Obama a third time if I could have” are still a regular occurrence on social media) and endless buzz surrounds Jordan Peele’s next project. In a world where the Transformers movies generate endless revenue and the Fifty Shades movies continue to be popular, it is always nice to see the public and critics harmoniously agree on the quality of a film that is as great as Get Out.

On the Wonderful Anti-Capitalism of Black Mirror’s USS Callister

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The first episode of Black Mirror’s 4th season, titled USS Callister, is also my introduction to the highly regarded anthology show. The internet is full of Black Mirror hot takes that call the show everything from a worthy successor to The Twilight Zone to “kind of bullshit”. I can’t speak to the quality of previous episodes, but I was incredibly impressed by USS Callister. In particular, the episode’s anti-capitalist themes jumped out at me. Ostensibly, the episode (directed by Toby Haynes and written by William Bridges and Charlie Brooker) is a dark riff on Star Trek that cautions against VR gaming and its ability to enable our worst tendencies. Beyond that surface layer, however, is a critique of hierarchical capitalist power structures and their dependency on exploitation.

The plot of the episode concerns Robert Daly (Jesse Plemons), a sad sack coder who is second in command to Walton, the CEO of the software company (called Infinity) that they both started. In his every day life, Daly is a meek and disempowered loser who sleepily glides through his time at work and obsesses over an ersatz Star Trek TV show called Space Fleet. However, we soon learn that Daly reacts to any perceived slight by uploading sentient copies of his coworkers into an indistinguishable-from-reality simulation of Space Fleet, where he is an all-powerful captain who abuses and humiliates the crew to cope with his lack of confidence and power in the real world.

The first point I want to make about this episode is that it explicitly establishes a link between Robert’s dissatisfaction with the power structure of his company and the desire to recreate that power structure within his simulation. When Robert first meets the episode’s protagonist, Nanette Cole (Cristin Milloti), she is introducing herself to Robert and they seem to be getting along well enough. Robert even makes a corny joke she doesn’t get but he is visibly satisfied by his own wit after making it. This is the only time we see Robert happy with one of his real world social interactions. When Walton comes in and interrupts the interaction, he gives Robert and order and subtly undermines his position at the company when he says “I run the company. Well…we run it. Kind of.” Robert becomes visibly frustrated, especially because Walton is sitting on a collectable from Space Fleet. Notice that Walton towering over an icon from Space Fleet is an explicit inversion of the power dynamic presented in the game world. This scene is followed by Robert rushing home to enter his fantasy world, wherein he asserts himself over his crew and berates them with the kind of demeaning requests that we just saw Walton throwing at him. The implication that Robert indulges in his space captain fantasy because of his dissatisfaction with the hierarchy of his workplace is clear.

Robert’s fantasy offers a mirror (get it) to his workplace where he is in charge and did not let Walton push him out of a leadership position at his company. This connection allows us to read the events of the simulation as just another capitalist hierarchy. All the workers from Infinity are present and doing menial jobs. They have to kiss up to their boss on pain of punishment, just as they do in real life. When Shania (Michaela Cole) gives real life Nanette instructions on how to navigate interactions with the boss, she points out that he is often inappropriate and sexually motivated. This pairs him with Robert, as Robert dominates Nanette by making her kiss him in the simulation. Furthermore, Shania mentions later that the employees are planning to get incredibly drunk and then using their upcoming time off work to recover from it. This scene pairs with the multitude of times that we see simulation versions of the workers coping with alcohol. Through these pairings, the simulation of the capitalist  acts as a more explicit version of the real life one that we see, making its flaws more pronounced as the characters do not have their real life social structure in place to help make sense of what is happening to them.

The episode calls for a rejection of capitalism and hierarchical power structures when it comes time for the crew members to mount their escape from Robert’s simulation. The first thing to notice is that the decision to mount the escape is not unilateral. Nanette suggest the escape plan but everyone on the crew must consent to it before the plan is enacted. It is at this point that the viewer learns that Walton is motivated by Robert holding his son hostage. Robert has uploaded and killed Walton’s son before and can do so any time he likes. Since this is the case, Walton is compelled to fall in line with Robert’s demands. It is crucial that what keeps Walton complying with the power structure of the spaceship crew is his desire to provide for his son, an incentive that keeps many people from openly rebelling against and rejecting capitalism. Once the group ensures that Walton’s son will be safe, it is Walton who realizes the error of his ways when he apologizes to Robert for exploiting him in an effort to control Infinity. It is at this point that Walton himself, the most explicit capitalist in the real world, subjects himself to an extreme amount of pain so the group can persevere and escape Robert’s simulation.

We see the crew all take each other’s hand as they mount the final escape, showing the viewer their status as equals. After the resolution of the conflict, the crew finds out that they did not die as expected and now exist in the cloud. This is thematically important, because the cloud itself is a non-hierarchical space where the information and data of many coexists. This space is contrasted with their previous existence on Robert’s computer, which symbolized his control over them. The episode ends with Nanette rejecting the title of captain and thereby rejecting the hierarchical power structure that comes with it. For the reasons I have given, I conclude that USS Callister is not simply a cautionary tale about technology but about capitalism and its necessary exploitation of the working class. The final interaction with the self-proclaimed “king of space” gestures towards the crew not living in some kind of socialist utopia but instead in a space with individuals who will still try to dominate and threaten them. At the very least, they are existing in this space as a collective rather than a singular entity.