What is Management?

So, I’ve been thinking about management training recently[0], and while I’m collecting my thoughts, I thought it would be good to talk about what ‘management’ is, at its most fundamental.

I’m going to make some assumptions here:
– Management is about the art of helping[1] people to work together towards a common goal
– We’re talking about ‘good’ management, which is trying to do the above in a positive and sustainable way
– The things we’re going to talk about will be relevant to all[2] organizations with some sort of hierarchy, and perhaps some without

“Those who can, do. Those who can’t, manage.’
– A paraphrase of a quote from George Bernard Shaw

The quote above, while flip, has some interesting truth to it. I would argue that, beyond perverse financial incentives[3], those who decide to go into management from an individual contributor (IC) role do so because of some competitive advantage pushing that choice. Likely one of:
– They are better at managing then at being an individual contributor (leading to the quote above)
– They are better as an IC than as a manager, but they are better than anyone else at being a manager (competitive advantage)
– They are better as an IC than as a manager, but they are afraid that any one other than them chosen to be manager will be worse (and/or they want control over their work environment/process)

So, having some idea of why people ‘get into’ management, what is ‘management’?

Like we said above, ‘management’ is the art of helping people work together towards a common goal, in a positive and sustainable way.

To me, this includes the following components:
– Helping people work together towards the goals of one’s team
– Helping people work together towards the goals of the larger organization
– Helping people and the organization as a whole improve goals and process[4]
– Helping your team (and yourself[5]) achieve career goals
– Keeping your team (and yourself) happy

Now that we have some categories, we’ll continue next time going into a little more detail. Thanks for listening. πŸ™‚

[0] And feeling super-pompous about it. Luckily, I have good friends who will tell me when I’m full of it. πŸ™‚

[1] I use the word ‘helping’ here, a relatively positive word, and probably suitable for working with one’s direct reports, or in a truly psychologically safe environment. Sadly, most environments are not that, and people must often be convinced to do what is in the best interests of the organization (and often must be convinced to do what is in their own best interest, too). ‘Convincing’, or ‘getting’ might be used in other environments, but even in those environments, I think ‘helping’ is still a healthier and more productive choice.

[2] Public, private, etc…

[3] There are some organizations where the structure is such that one can only advance in one’s career (read payscale) by advancing in ‘management’. Some would say that most large organizations are like this to some extent. This discussion, while important, is out of scope.

[4] I have much to say (and many books have been written) about the ways in which organizations do non-optimal things, decide on non-optimal goals, or otherwise lose their way. (My favourite book which touches on this is ‘The Goal’, by Eliyahu M. Goldratt.)

[5] It’s incredibly important to support your team, and do the best you can to ensure their success. In general, you become successful when your team is successful. There will be points where this diverges, though, and it’s important to know when those are, as you and your team members will be healthier with healthier boundaries.

Some More Management Roles

A few years ago, I talked about some management roles, specifically how the traditional ‘Team Lead’ role could be de-convolved into five different roles:

Performance Manager (Worker Evaluation)
Estimatrix (Estimator)
Product Owner (Prioritization)
Scrum Master (Removing Obstacles)
(People) Development Manager (Development Conversations)

At the time, while I’d been running important teams in my organization, it was still a relatively small organization (each CEO knew me by name), so the role and significance of each team was more clear (or at least had been justified by someone before me).

Since then, I’ve learned a little more about what is important in a large organization, and I have some more roles to add. The above management roles have more to do with day-to-day management of a team, and assume that managing upwards and managing long-term are taken care of elsewhere. (Theoretically, they are probably most likely part of the ‘Product Owner’, but most likely they would be part of the ‘reserve power‘, and would devolve to whomever was considered ‘highest’ in whatever organizational hierarchy was present.)

I had also been blessed with excellent technical leads on all of my teams at all of the places I’ve worked, enough so that I didn’t think to explicitly call out ‘Technical Lead’ as one of the ‘traditional’ management roles.

(So now, we have six):

Technical Lead (Software Architecture & Implementation Decisions)
Performance Manager (Worker Evaluation)
Estimatrix (Estimator)
Product Owner (Prioritization)
Scrum Master (Removing Obstacles)
(People) Development Manager (Development Conversations)

(There are also some questions about the exact line between ‘roles’ and ‘skills, for example: ‘Running a Meeting’ ‘Presenting engaging presentations’), so I will include them for completeness, even though they bleed into many of the other ‘roles’.

As mentioned above, the roles below would fall under some combination of:
– ‘Product Owner’ (because they involve working with people or groups outside/above the team in question)
– ‘Scrum Master’ (because the team would notice that they were blocked or impeded by not paying attention to a certain type of issue, and might be perceptive enough to up-level the discussion to a more general/role-based one)
– ‘Reserve Power’ (roles or tasks that are automatically put under a traditional ‘Team Lead’, but no one really considers them separately, even though they take real time and effort)

Anyways, here are some other longer-term and/or more upward-facing roles to add to the above:

Milestone setter
Team Vision & Planning
Recruiting, Interviewing, & Hiring
Team compositions planning/Team Development (this is development of the team as a whole)
Building relationships (travel, phone, random 1:1s)
Running Meetings
Preparing & presenting engaging presentations
Tech architect (Longer-term decisions about code structure)
Code reviews (this would likely fall under ‘Tech Lead’ above, but ‘what is good enough’ would likely fall under the next line, ‘Quality decision-making’)
Quality decision-making (how good is ‘good enough to ship’?)
Quality Assurance & testing
Asking for resources
Team Champion, in charge of Dog & Pony shows[1] (Why is the work that the team does important?)

Some of the above roles are systematized, automated, or otherwise circumscribed by processes in larger organizations, for example, they may have specific processes for project planning, or for recruiting or development conversations.

But still, there are a lot of these. This suggests that either teamwork is super-complex, and requires too many different things to easily handle without tools[2], or there must be some way of grouping them into meaningful ‘roles’.

So, how do we group them? We could group them into the familiar Agile ‘Technical Lead’, ‘Scrum Master’, and ‘Product Owner’, but that just really puts us back where we started, shoehorning roles into boxes that don’t quite fit, or with a bunch left over.

Fundamentally, all of the above roles are some combination of tasks and making different kinds of decisions.

I’ll do what I can to define, codify, and group them tomorrow.

[1] I am somewhat flip in my naming here, but in any large organization, any team should have a story for how they are planning to remind the management structure of why they are important. This serves a number of functions:
0) The obvious ‘remember who we are and what we do’
1) It’s a good check-in, to make sure that what they are doing is actually perceived as important
2) It’s good practice for the inevitable re-orgs in any large organization, or even if one’s boss changes because they leave for another position or organization

[2] Like checklists, or more advanced tools like JIRA and wikis.

Sriracha & Potato Stir-Fry

So, we were experimenting with stir-fry composition, and happened upon a new favourite: Sriracha & (Rosemary) Potato.

It goes as follows:

Total preparation and cooking time: 25-30 mins.
Serves 2.

Recommended music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UkSr9Lw5Gm8
(Because cooking is very much like building things.)

Equipment required:
– Some sort of stove
– Some sort of frying pan
– Some sort of stirring/spatuling instrument

Ingredients required:
– Some sort of cooking oil (we’ve been using grape oil, which is actually super-tasty)
– Two medium potatoes
– One medium onion (I prefer yellow) or 1/2 bunch of green onion
– Three half peppers
– Two cloves of garlic
– Sriracha sauce
– Some sort of soy sauce (we used Kikkoman low sodium)
– Rosemary (cf. Rosemary Potatoes)
– Some sort of herbs/spices (we used Oregano & Basil)

Pairs well with rice & greek salad, as seen here:

The delicious stirfry from today:
The delicious stirfry from today:

Directions:
– Turn on the stove to medium-low (I do 3/10 on our stove’s large burner, with both parts of the burner turned on)

– Thin-slice the potatoes, and cut these slices in four (I cut the potatoes in half, cut them into thin slices, and then put the pile on the cutting board, and cut again in four.)
– Add the potatoes and some cooking oil to the frying pan.
– You are going to want to stir on a regular basis. Potatoes are frying pan-sticky
– If you’re using a medium/cooking onion (not green onion), chop up the medium onion and add it to the frying pan. (I top and tail the onion, remove the outer layer or two, then slice it, then chop the stack of slices in four or six. I usually rinse the onion before chopping, but that was not enough to protect me today.)
– Chop up the garlic and add it to the mix (I do garlic the same way I do onions, top & tail ,then remove outer layer, and then slice, then cut stack of slices in two or four.)
– You may need or want to add a little more cooking oil, to prevent burning or sticking.
– This is a good time to add the herbs (rosemary is the most important), and the sriracha & soy sauce. For the sriracha, enough to go back and forth in the frying pan a few times, and perhaps 3-5 splashes of soy sauce.
– Chop up the peppers (I chop three in half, so I can get red/orange/yellow, and save the other halves for tomorrow’s meal). I wash them, remove the tops, rinse them, cut them in half, remove the bottom center part, then slice and then dice them. Throw them into the mix.
– You’re still stirring, right?
– Keep stirring until the potatoes are soft enough that you want to eat them. Total elapsed time was about 30 mins today. (Total time yesterday was about 25 mins at a stove setting of 4/10, but I was worried about burning the mix throughout the entire process.)

Serves 2.

On the Importance of ‘Technical Debt’

A couple of years ago, I was talking with a good friend of mine, we were talking about the difficulties of prioritizing the maintainability of software in a large organization development context.

And so, logically, the concept of ‘Technical Debt’ came up. Interestingly, he had never heard the term before[1], although as soon as he heard it, he grasped the importance.

(I remember it as being a really inspiring conversation, but sadly, my notes from that day don’t well capture what I found so inspiring about it. πŸ™ )

Although the concepts of ‘clean up after yourself’ and ‘do it the right way’ are likely as old as human civilization, it was likely only after systems reached a certain level of complexity that the concept of ‘Technical Debt’ was really useful. There is a limit to how complex a mechanical system can get[2], and most other systems are amenable to human factors and psychological safety solutions.

It’s also interesting to think about what is different about software, that makes it: A) possible to make a working product with large (including conceptual) defects, B) Useful to ‘go into debt’ to get a product out the door faster (or more cheaply).

One wonders how much it is the sheer complexity of software systems, the number of interacting modules, or perhaps the number of layers involved, from OS to dev_tools, to language, to standard libraries, to 3rd party libraries, to user-made helper functions. Perhaps it is just that one can ‘go into debt’ in the uppermost layer, because there exists a good foundation.

It could also simply be that software is an automation of so many smaller tasks, that any human system as complex would have similar useful concepts of debt[3].

Doing a little bit of digging, it seems that the concept was first termed ‘debt’ sometime in 1992[4], but it was not until later that it was termed ‘Technical Debt’.

Articulating the concept of ‘Technical Debt’ has a number of important benefits:

1) It puts a name on the category of ‘things we want to clean up in our code’, adds an urgency, and calls out more precisely why this is important.

2) It links the concept of ‘do things the right way’ with ‘Business’ concepts of money. This enables much better CTO-CFO conversations, allows better and more informed project funding decision making, and (hopefully) enables better and more structured funding for Technical Debt reduction[5].

3) It enables conversations in the moment, during architecture conversations and code reviews (and everything in between), where the parties involved can directly weigh/balance the time/resource costs of proper implementation with the opportunity costs of delaying time to market (or MVI/MVP[6]).

It will be interesting to see how organizations (and organizational decision-making) change as this concept spreads from ‘pure’ software companies.

[1] We theorized that this was because he had grown up in Hardware companies.

[2] I am not a Mechanical Engineer, and I’m happy to hear counterexamples, as well the conceptual frameworks used to address this… πŸ™‚

[3] Such as ‘Organizational Debt‘.

[4] https://www.martinfowler.com/bliki/TechnicalDebt.html “As far as I can tell, Ward first introduced this concept in an experience report for OOPSLA 1992. It has also been discussed on the wiki http://wiki.c2.com/?ComplexityAsDebt.”

[5] My favourite label for this is the ‘FBI’ list[7], as in ‘Can you F****** Believe It?’, passed down to me by an executive from a famous Canadian software company.

[6] ‘Minimum Viable Increment/Minimum Viable Product‘, from various implementations of Agile theory.

[7] Things that might linger on a list like this include things filed ‘Too Dangerous to Fix’, which are often interesting memoir fodder.

The Mysterious Case of the Regex Dot

So, I’m in the middle of organizing my photos into folders, something more useable than the default Photos application on Mac[1].

While trying to count the number of photos/videos[2] in each subdirectory in my …/2018/ folder:

$ time find * |grep IMG|grep -o ‘^[0-9][0-9]/.’|uniq -c
22 04/0
3297 05/1
104 05/2
100 06/0
1830 06/2
2040 10/2

I first tried the supposedly logical:

$ time find * |grep IMG|grep -o ^..|uniq -c|head
1 04
1 /0
1 1/
1 20
1 18
1 04
1 01
1 -0
1 00
1 41

Interestingly, grep (and/or the OS) seemed to be taking the front off of each line, and then putting it back into the STDIN hopper for the next call to grep.

As this was not doing what I expected (nor wanted), I tried:

$ time find * |grep IMG|grep -o ‘^[0-9][0-9]/’|uniq -c|head
1 04/
1 01/
1 04/
1 01/
1 04/
1 01/
1 04/
1 01/
1 04/
1 01/

Which, while better…

$ time find * |grep IMG|grep -o ‘^[0-9][0-9]/’|uniq -c|sort|uniq -c
22 1 01/
22 1 04/
3501 1 05/
1930 1 06/
2040 1 10/
3297 1 13/
104 1 23/
1830 1 24/
2040 1 27/

…gave me too many results by about a factor of two, and somehow found 27 months in the year.

I quickly figured out that while parsing mm/dd/yyyymmdd-hash/IMG_[0-9][0-9][0-9][0-9].[FILETYPE], this particular grep/OS combination will happily grab the ‘mm/’, and then also grab the ‘dd/’. This habit, while charming, does not solve my problem.

After google searching https://www.google.com/search?q=grep+one+match+per+line proved unfruitful, I decided to try:

$ time find * |grep IMG|grep -o ‘^[0-9][0-9]/.’|uniq -c
22 04/0
3297 05/1
104 05/2
100 06/0
1830 06/2
2040 10/2

and it worked!

I was stumped, until I figured out that the issues that I had been seeing before were entirely because grep was finding results at the start of the newly chomped string, and that by chomping part of the next ‘match’, I was stopping grep from finding any more matches.

#themoreyouknow

[1] Right now, when Photos organizes photos, it puts each photo into its own folder, based on year/month/day/yyyymmdd-hash, which makes it super-annoying to use anything about the Photos app, which is super-slow and annoying to use.

[2] The images are all in the format ‘IMG_[0-9][0-9][0-9][0-9].[FILETYPE]’, where FILETYPE can be ‘PNG’ (screenshots), ‘JPG’ (camera pictures), ‘MOV’ (camera movies), ‘GIF’ (saved .gifs), or perhaps some other recognized image format.

Processing Endgame VI: Captain America: The First Avenger

Please note that this is one a series of posts, all of which may contain spoilers for the MCU, and particularly Endgame.

Selflessness. Nobility. Bravery. What are the words that come to mind when you think of Captain America?

I wasn’t sure what to expect when we started watching Captain America. I had seen enough clips over the years since I had first watched it, and the story wasn’t really that complex. Scrawny kid gets chosen to be a super soldier, the serum works, but because of a mishap, he is the only one it works on[1]. He then goes and defeats the menace, and crashes the plane to protect millions of civilians.

Watching it, I think I perhaps now understand a little more of when people talk about ‘formula’.

I mean, don’t get me wrong. I liked the movie. It just felt a little flat compared to the Iron Man movies (perhaps even compared with The Hulk).

A great part of these origin story[2] movies is seeing the hero[3] going through character growth, as they struggle with their inner selves because of a huge inner stimulus. But Steve Rogers always knew what he wanted to do, on the inside. It was just that his outer self was not capable, and when he was finally able, he slipped into that new body, no problem. His struggles were all against external forces, his internal forces were consistently always ‘in alignment’.

I can’t help but compare and contrast with another superhero period war piece that came out recently, Wonder Woman. It’s also an origin story, of a character with singular origins, who is created to created to defeat a similarly (previously) constructed[4] villain, one that didn’t quite work out the first time.

But Wonder Woman feels deeper, perhaps because it asks deeper questions about the human condition and truth, that Evil has more depth, and wants more than just power, and that Good has self-doubts[5], and has motivations other than punching caricatures of nazis[6]

Perhaps the one thing that Cap really learned was that although he has great power as a propaganda tool, he’s much more powerful/useful/effective as the leader (from the front) of a small squad.

Some other observations: The first time we watched it, back in the day, S found Chris Evans’ digitally altered physique super-incongrous (I didn’t really know who he was, so I hadn’t noticed it). Expecting it this time, it didn’t bother me so much (except for where, even <10 years back, some CGI looks almost uncanny valley). What I did notice (and bothered me) was the bass/baritone/large voice of Chris Evans coming out of the tiny-seeming character. It kinda threw me out of suspension of disbelief. I had forgotten that it started in present-day with Cap's plane, but this was ultimately unimportant to the story. Rogers and the scientist (Dr. Erskine) ultimately bonded over their mutual dislike of bullies. The 'Genetic Code' is mentioned during WWII, placing it about 20 years ahead of our reality, where the first part of it was discovered in 1961.

[moving a blue power source from a Hydra weapon from one WALDO arm to another]
[explosion]
Howard Stark: “Write that down!”

Here we see the interest in knowledge (at the cost of self-image) that so characterized Tony Stark in his (recorded) experiments. (Perhaps their playboy/famous lifestyle/attractiveness acted as insulation or a helpful counter, allowing them more leeway to make fools of themselves…)

S: “What if they had found Cap as a skeleton?” “How would that change the rest of the series?”

Would Tony and Thor have worked out their differences in Avengers? Would the team have been able to work together as well to defeat the Chitauri? (Who would have let Iron Man out of the helicarrier rotor?)

Would there still be a Civil War? Tony would probably have still overreached in some way, whether it was Ultron or some other thing, that caused a calamity, that caused him character growth.

Would Bucky have caused even worse problems? Would Tony have become even more powerful and megalomaniacal, with no moral foil (that he trusted)?

Would Vision have fallen at the beginning of Infinity War? Would Thor and Iron Man have been able to delay Thanos for long enough during the final battle in Endgame?

It feels like Cap is a subtle but vital part of the MCU, perhaps more as a foil to Tony than anything else, perhaps as someone to look after all of the other Avengers, to get them to actually work together as a team, rather then minions of Iron Man (you could think of them as a lead vs. a tech lead, and how it’s important to have each of them, but you want to have the correct person in each role).

The post-credits scene, with Cap realizing that he’s lost everyone, but now he has a job to do, a new war to fight, helps understand his motivation going into Avengers. Perhaps we see him as the ‘Noble Super-Soldier’ because that’s all he has left, and he doesn’t find anything else (except for a few moments with Bucky) until the end of Endgame.

Interestingly, all of the MCU movies are PG-13, but Captain America had significantly more onscreen deaths and seemed much more violent than Avengers.

Captain America throws his shield kinda like a baseball pitcher[7] (although slightly more underhanded), using the whole body (which makes sense), but not like a javelin, discus, or shot-putter. (Note that it’s hypothesized that he is able to aim and ricochet his shield so well because of his super-reflexes and super-ability to calculate trajectories.

More parallels: Both Cap and Iron Man are saved by a foreign scientist with an accent[8] who helps them get their super powers. It is perhaps telling that they are given different messages, Tony hearing ‘don’t waste this gift, do something better’, and Cap hearing ‘Don’t change who you are’.

Coming up next, Avengers (2012), where we finally get to see many of these threads come together, and we see what everyone has learned. Stay tuned!

[1] Although, we know at this point that The Hulk was a result of others (Bruce Banner) playing around with the same super soldier serum. Interestingly, I don’t think we’ve ever seen Cap go up against The Hulk in the MCU. Only Thor & Iron Man (amongst the heroes) have done so, ‘our biggest guns’ as per Cap (Avengers). If it is the same serum, does that mean that Cap is acting at his full potential? Or does Hulk’s anger (and whatever went wrong) push his power level up?

[2] If you’re lucky, your character has enough growth for more than one movie, like the tormented Tony Stark, or the ‘continually-buffeted-by-forces-even-he-can’t-control’ Thor.

[3] Or Anti-hero (but not in this case).

[4] The Red Skull was the first recipient of the (not yet perfected) super soldier serum, and Ares stated ‘only a god can kill another god’, showing them to be two sides of a coin[9].

[5] Can you think of any time in this movie that Captain America had self-doubt? Perhaps when he was performing to sell war bonds, instead of being in actual war zone, but even then, it seemed that he was able to justify it to himself as the optimal use of his talents. Even when he had the largest defeat of his life (Infinity War), it only redoubled his motivation, as emphasized in his tag line: “I can do this all day”. He did have other things happen to him, his whole life in the future shaped by the tragedy of losing everyone he held most dear while frozen, his losing and finding and losing and finding Bucky, but even that felt like a secondary reason for his conflict with Tony Stark (I’m sure more on this later).

[6] As satisfying as that may be…

[7] And yes, of course, there’s a “Captain America Shield Throwing Compilation” on Youtube.

[8] There must be some kind of social commentary here, if only that the best scientists often have accents, as talent knows no borders.

[9] Note that I didn’t specify how many sides this coin had.

Processing Endgame V: Thor (2011)

Please note that this is one a series of posts, all of which may contain spoilers for the MCU, and particularly Endgame.

“Shakespearean Drama.” If you read any articles about Thor (2011), it’s hard to miss the choice of Kenneth Branagh, an acclaimed Shakespearean actor, as director. I had been expecting something of the sort when I watched the movie, but as it was happening, I realized that I didn’t really know what that meant.

It seemed to me a very human story, an uncomplicated story of youthful brashness and foolhardiness, leading to a fall from grace, redemption through discovering selflessness. A nice uncomplicated origin story (with one of a thousand faces)[1].

But so well told. It felt good all the way through, it made sense all the way through, the blending of magic & science worked all the way through. This is perhaps because of the way the character was originally conceived:

“Thor, at his best, has always had a classic bent in terms of his history, the way he speaks and the often Shakespearean dramas that surround him. That kind of dialogue and character needs someone who comes from a classically trained background in order for it not to sound forced or artificial. Branagh is the perfect choice.”

β€”J Michael Straczynski, co-writer of Thor, on Kenneth Branagh

“Thor’s powers are godly, yes … But at the end of the day, he’s a man … Odin sends him to Earth because he’s not perfect. He’s brash, arrogant. Even over-confident … he also bleeds. He struggles. Life kicks him where it hurts the most … You want to feel Thor’s rage when he rages. You want to see him fight like hell, and take as much as he dishes out — maybe more. You want to have a visceral reaction to the guy, and what happens to him. You don’t want his adventures to be clean and antiseptic. You want to see the dirt, and grime and blood. You want to feel every bone crunching moment of every fight. And when he unleashes the storm, you want to feel like you’re seeing the power of a GOD at work.”

β€”Ashley Miller, co-writer of Thor, about the project

Yes, world-shaking and family-shaking[2] Shakespearean Drama, all in one accessible package. That’s Thor (& his family).

The film opens with Thor triumphant[3], on his way to being named heir to the throne of Asgard, but the jealous younger[4] son Loki organizes an interruption to embarrass him, setting off the chain of events that cascade through most of the rest of the MCU Phases 1->3.[5]

The film does an interesting bait and switch, setting up the frost giants to be the antagonist, but even though Colm Feore[6] does a fine job as Laufey, I never particularly felt threatened by them (perhaps because I had seen the movie before, and we were watching it on a small screen). They could have used more time/space to set them up as a more believeable adversary.

But the bait and switch still worked, as it didn’t occur to me until later, that it was indeed Loki who had orchestrated the original break-in (even fooling the all-seeing Heimdahl), to embarrass his brother. It wasn’t until a little later, that he tipped his hand and fully became the overt antagonist.

But was he really? You can say that Odin had the best interest of the Nine Realms in mind when he kidnapped Loki, to raise him as Asgardian[7], but ultimately, he didn’t do it well enough, perhaps because he didn’t know about the idea of ‘Sevastokrator‘, a power-sharing agreement to help younger children work together with their older siblings (You could also see the ceremony of naming Thor heir being this type of ceremony, but he must have known, after hundreds of years of raising him, how Loki would react…).

So, maybe the real antagonist of Thor (and Phases 1-3) was Odin’s inability to emotionally communicate and connect with his family[8]. This eventually ends the movie, with Loki, unwilling to accept that he has failed his father, voluntarily letting go and falling off the Bifrost into oblivion[9].

But there’s other aspects of toxic masculinity, not just Odin’s inability to communicate, or to defuse competition between his children, there’s the aftereffects of this, Loki’s mocking Thor being ‘soft’ for caring about Earth, because he cares for one of the people there, even trying to turn it against him, to try to get Thor to stop trying to prevent Loki’s genocide of the Frost Giants, by saying ‘you’ll never see her again’ if he breaks the Bifrost bridge[10].

As far as other characters in the movie, we were surprised that Coulson was such a hard-nosed, by-the-book agent (although he did vote for science in allowing Thor to try to wield the hammer), and not really a likeable character (Perhaps J.J.Abrahms made all the difference there, in ‘Avengers’.)

Natalie Portman got to be a strong, intelligent woman, to be the first to really understand what is going on with the Einstein-Rosen (bifrost) bridge[11]

It did feel kind of like an odd couple, with Thor being so massively muscled. It was nice, that he did remember to steal her notebook on the way out, as he had promised.

Darcy also showed indications of how she would be stealing the show in Thor:The Dark World, especially with little comedic timing gestures like getting her taser[12] ready as they’re talking about going to find Thor again.

Later in the movie, we have a touching moment, where Erik Selvig comes to rescue Thor in custody (and pretends that he is ‘Donald Blake'[13], in a fun comic callback). Remembering Thor calling Erik Selvik ‘He is a friend’ when they discover he is under control by Loki has so much more poignancy when you see the scene where he is the one to go drink with him, where Thor opens up about how he is truly feeling about being cast out, that Erik is the one who was there when he needed someone the most.

I also enjoyed the ‘Son of Coul’ moment, where Thor declares himself an ally of Midgard, and promises to return. (Not to be confused with the cute Coulson moment, where he confronts the Destroyer with a megaphone.)

So, what did Thor learn in this film? That he had more to learn…that some humility is in order, that he does not always have the answers, and that his decisions can get people killed. Perhaps some sense of the responsibility of defending all nine of the realms, not just Asgard. Maybe even the sense that even when he is cast out, and at his worst, that there are people who will care about him, just for himself.

There’s also always the danger that every time you surmount another unsurmountable foe/obstacle, it’s another opportunity to become arrogant? This is a common human failing, and also allows second movies (such as Iron Man 2), but is perhaps not as well understood as a concept, and is perhaps why those second movies fail more often[14].

What defences against Thanos fall in this movie?
– The Destroyer (would not have stood up to Hela, but would have perhaps allowed some help vs. Thanos’ minions)
– S: “It could rotate like that, because there’s nothing inside.” As a design, it’s a really interesting piece of machinery, and bespeaks some really good industrial design in Asgard’s past.
– The unity of Thor & Loki (really, Loki) as protectors of Asgard & the Nine Realms
– Odin has to enter the odinsleep
– Frost Giants are no longer really possible allies

What alliances/defences are forged?
– Thor & SHIELD/Jane Foster

[1] It might fall under ‘Voyage & Return‘, but it is for sure a ‘Hero’s Journey‘.

[2] I think the key here is to have the world-shaking events, but to also have the family-shaking events happening at the same time, having the family-shaking events be almost a synecdoche or accessible proxy for the world-shaking events.

[3] Well, it starts with him being hit by a van, but that’s beside the point…

[4] ‘Younger brother'[15], the trope of so much fiction (and history), caused by the flawed practice of Primogeniture. Like many older concepts, it might have been one that humans had to pass through on the way to greater enlightenment. Perhaps better than Partible Inheritance[16], but only a stepping stone towards modern republics & representative democracies[17].

[5] One could argue that Loki letting the Frost Giants past Heimdahl, leading to Thor’s overreaction, leading to Thor being banished to Earth, leading to SHIELD increasing activity to deal with external threats, leading to Loki being cast out, to working with Thanos, to the invasion of Earth, to Tony’s PTSD, to Ultron, to the Sokovia Accords, to the Civil War, to the death of Frigga & Odin, to the unpreparedness for the Infinity War, to the eventual resolution, is the main arc of the series. I feel like it is still a point of contention as to whether this was a ‘best’ (or even good) way for this to turn out, but 1 in 14,000,605 should tell you something.

[6] I first heard of Colm Feore as being that famous person performing in Toronto musicals. I’m glad to see him doing so well. πŸ˜€ Also, he had a super-interesting note about the power of ‘Shakespearean Shorthand’:

“He said the Shakespearean training he shared with Hopkins and director Branagh helped keep production moving briskly, saying that “during the breaks, Tony, myself and Ken would be talking in Shakespearean shorthand about what the characters were doing, what we thought they may be like, and how we could focus our attention more intelligently. These were discussions that took no more than a few minutes between takes, but they allowed Ken, Tony and [me] to understand each other instantly without Ken taking an hour away to explain to the actors exactly what was going on. So that was enormously helpful.”

[7] So much colonialism in this movie, that I don’t have the chops to fully dissect.

[8] Made explicit in conversations between Loki & Thor in Thor:Ragnarok.

[9] Well, ‘Avengers’.

[10] I really enjoyed the portrayal of the Bifrost bridge (the bridge to the sphere where the Bifrost emerges from) as some sort of conduit from some power source in the heart of Asgard to the (probably dangerous) sphere that emits the Bifrost. (Interestingly, there are electrical discharges when making the Bifrost happen, which might be dramatic license, or they may be associated with Thor’s power (or indicate something fundamental about the connection of Thor’s power with the power of Asgard), or they may be something that falls out of Wormhole equations.)

[11] I have all kinds of questions after Thor:Ragnarok & Infinity War about where Thor’s power comes from, and how the Bifrost works after Asgard has been destroyed, even if Stormbreaker is made of Uru metal.

[12] I always took the fact that Thor was susceptible to tasers to be an indication that he had lost his powers (or at least confidence, similar to Thor:Ragnarok, with the control chip).

[13] Interestingly, Marvel seems to really enjoy taking people who have or feel a duality, and then doing the gedanken experiment of ‘what if they were separate people?’, or ‘what if they grew apart?’ We see this with Hulk’s story arc, and apparently it happened in the comic books with Donald Blake.

[14] This could also be selection bias, where 80% (made up number) of all movies fail, so having 80% of sequels fail is not unexpected.

[15] “Loki’s like a comic book version of Edmund in King Lear, but nastier.” (Edmund being an illegitimate son.)

[16] I became most aware of this concept from a problematic book I read a while back, which talked about the Partition of Poland (1138). Others might use more classical examples, such as Clovis, or the Partition of Babylon (or Triparadisus).

[17] One could make an argument here for an analogy with Polytheism -> Monotheism -> Atheism, but that would be outside our scope here.

Processing Endgame IV: Iron Man II (2010)

Please note that this is one a series of posts, all of which may contain spoilers for the MCU, and particularly Endgame.

After the somewhat disappointing The Incredible Hulk (2008), we turned to the next movie in the MCU, Iron Man II (2010). I had low expectations for this one, not remembering a lot of it from 9 years ago, except that it wasn’t an origin story[1], and that it would have to deal in some way with Tony’s narcissism (as all of the Iron Man movies did). I couldn’t shake the memory that Robert Downey Junior had started to get bored with the movies (although that might only have happened in Iron Man 3), and I was expecting it to be not very good.

I was quite pleasantly surprised.

From the beginning, they set up the premise of the movie, that Tony was dying from palladium poisoning (from the arc reactor in his chest, that was keeping him alive). Somewhat similar to his brush with death in the first Iron Man movie (in the desert in Afghanistan), it humbled him somewhat, making him think about what his legacy would be, how he would be remembered. He thus set out to recreate the Stark Expo, perhaps to make his father proud[2]. Of course, this inner humbling had to be outwardly avoided, at all costs, by huge stage shows, large parties, and public drinking to excess.

This led to his actual first low moment, where he let ‘Rhodey’ take his Mark II armour[3], perhaps as part of a legacy, perhaps because he knew that he really was actually out of control.

Scarlett Johansson makes her first appearance here, going undercover in the legal department of Stark Industries, then as Tony and Pepper’s personal secretary. She gets to show off her badassery, first sparring with Happy, then breaking into Hammer Industries. She also gets to show off her creative understanding of computer systems, where, after she and J.A.R.V.I.S. both being unable to break into War Machine’s system, she manages to reboot it, restoring Rhodey’s control.

She felt like she was used as a supporting character through most of the movie, but that makes sense, given her cover[4].

Overall, the movie felt like the ‘A’ plot was Tony trying to save his own life, by developing a better arc reactor. The fights against Vanko and the Hammer drones seemed almost too easy for Iron Man (totally unprepared, he suits up in his weakest, portable armor, and wins reasonably handily on the racetrack[5], and the Hammer drones are only a threat because of the civilians nearby. (The last battle sequence with Vanko is also incredibly short[6].)

Along the way, he got a bit closer to his father, and solved the ‘B’ plot of Vanko[7] & Hammer.

He solved some of the problems (but not all) of quick field deployment of his armour (The Mark V was much quicker (about 15 seconds), and doesn’t require specialized equipment. He learned a better appreciation for his father, and got some emotional support from him. During the movie, he added electrical resistance and the new arc reactor to his Mark VI armor, which was otherwise mostly unchanged from the Mark III[8].

However, he triumphed mostly over himself. His external adversaries (Hammer, Vanko, that senator) were not substantial enemies for Stark & Iron Man. He even managed to defeat them with no bystanders being harmed. This would only fuel his narcissism, which would not be adequately countered until much later[9].

The movie held up quite well. It felt well paced (all of the ‘best of’ scenes on Youtube were connected by scenes that seemed to make sense, and went on for reasonable amounts of time), all of the characters were believeable (Justin Hammer wonderfully punchable villain, and Vanko was well-devloped, and quite in character[10]). All of the rest of the cast were believeable, and made sense.

How did I feel about it? I felt that I understood Tony as a character better, I understood where I knew Black Widow from, and why I wanted to see more of her as a character. I wanted to see more interactions with technology, more world-building in that direction, more Tony making better amour, or other things. (Making Black Widow’s devices would be pretty cool.) I appreciated the interactions with Tony’s father. Justin Hammer perhaps spoke even more to me, as he channeled an ’80s movie villain. I understand more of the dual challenges of Tony fighting with himself, vs. fighting with others, and how this varies over time.

How did this help me process Endgame better? Perhaps it showed me that Tony was at his most interesting and effective when he was right on the edge, or that he wasn’t, and it was all about giving him time to be apart and get into ‘flow’, to solve large intractable problems. It helped me understand his arc better, and how him coming face-to-face with his mortality, and tempering his narcissism were key (although he always had the drive to protect those around him, which always seems to have included all civilians, which seems to have been a constant part of his character).

This was perhaps best personified in the “C’mon!”, where he’s desperate to make a difference (and survive), and save people, but he needs others to do help him do it[11], and being so frustrated when this is difficult.

Stay tuned for next time, when we watch a movie with a totally different feel, the Shakespearean[12] drama Thor!

[1] I still have a soft spot in my heart for Iron Man’s origin story.

[2] The dealing with his distant father issues were done in (I thought) an understated and tasteful way, focused on a few scenes of introspection

[3] To be refitted and ‘weaponized’ into the ‘War Machine’ armour. Interestingly, he calls him ‘War Machine’ explicitly in the film, before this happens. Also, it’s pretty obvious that off-screen, he had allowed Rhodey to play with the armour.

[4] I really hope that her movie gets into her origin story with Fury…

[5] Vanko suggests in the jail cell scene that he was deliberately just trying to make Tony bleed, not actually trying to kill anyone, which would agree with how no civilians seem to have been harmed in the Stark Pavilion battle.

[6] Vanko mentioned in the jail cell scene that once you ‘make god bleed’, then ‘there is blood in the water’, about how now that he has shown that Iron Man is not invincible, others will come after him. Some[13] have suggested that this is related to the ‘All that for a drop of blood’ line in Infinity War. I interpreted that line straight, that even with the benefit of surprise, and a pretty good plan, Stark was not enough to defeat Thanos head-on.

[7] Although it’s never really explained exactly what happened to Vanko’s father, we only have Fury’s word on it.

[8] The ‘arm lasers’ are a noticeable exception.

[9] It was a work in progress, but it could be argued that his PTSD arc after Avengers, and his defeat in Infinity War are the keys.

[10] Apparently Mickey Rourke did a substantial amount of work to prepare for the part, and it showed.

[11] A substantial part of the character growth may be Tony learning that others are not subordinates, but can be full partners in what he needs to do. Promoting and giving Pepper control of Stark Industries may have been the first step here, then Rhodey, and finally letting Cap call the shots in New York…

[12] Why else would you choose Kenneth Branagh to direct? Fun factoid: He also directed the post-credits scene for Iron Man 2, where they discover Mjolnir.

[13] Sorry, I can’t find the reference. πŸ™

Processing Endgame III: The Incredible Hulk (2008)

Please note that this is one a series of posts, all of which may contain spoilers for the MCU, and particularly Endgame.

Music playing: Still “Avengers Theme Remix”, remixed by ‘Approaching Nirvana‘.

CW: suicide

We had originally planned to skip The Incredible Hulk (2008), as many do, but after thinking/hearing about all of the controversy regarding the arguments between Edward Norton & Marvel about scripts, we decided we wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

The movie opened with a strange choice: The film’s editors decided to put the usual character origin story into a short montage at the beginning[1]. S noted at the time that she felt cheated of the best part of one of these superhero movies, the part where they discover themselves for the first time, when they go from zero to one.

The rest of the movie just seemed a bit off. It’s hard (for me) to put my finger on exactly what the issue was. I’m sure part of it seemed to be that the Hulk character seemed a bit inconsistent with the later portrayal, with Norton’s silent & brooding fugitive contrasting with Ruffalo’s more comedic take, some of it was the on-screen depiction of the Hulk, seeming scarier and more visceral, but I think I could have dealt with that, and found my peace with the film, accepting that Banner and the Hulk were learning about each other, and that this movie was all about acceptance of one’s inner Hulk…

…except they never really talked about that. There was a deleted scene in Norton’s edited screenplay that showed Banner trying to commit suicide to get away from the Hulk (a similar scene alluded to by Ruffalo’s Banner in Avengers). This was supposed to be the opening scene, and it might have gone a long way towards justifying an arc through the movie of Banner slowly coming to terms and accepting the Hulk as part of himself, where after trying to remove him, he finally accepts the necessity, in order to defeat Abomination[2].

Some things that were done really well: The chemistry between Tyler & Norton was fantastic, they were really believeable as long-lost lovers (apparently they spent a lot of time discussing their backstory, even though they didn’t talk much about it in onscreen), and Tyler’s character was pretty badass, in one scene, leaping on top of the Hulk to try to save Banner, in another, taking them out of a cab, to reduce Banner’s stress level.

The rest of the characters…well…it felt like they never really fit into the story. I always find it difficult to figure out what drops me out of my suspension of disbelief in a film. Is it the editing, that makes the time between comments feel unnatural? Is it the script? Is it the actors not living their parts? Whatever it was, Thunderbolt Ross felt unnatural, the scientist ‘helping’ them felt absurdly over-the-top, and I can’t even remember the rest of them[3].

The one other shining star was Ty Burell’s Samson, who felt believeable all the way through. You could just picture him understanding Tyler’s character, feeling her inner torn-ness, and choosing to let her go.

Overall, the movie felt like Banner trying to find Betty Ross (eventually successfully), while trying to control and suppress/expurgate the Hulk part of himself. Along the way, he eventually accepted that the Hulk was part of himself[4][5] (which is a long way from liking or trusting the Hulk[6]).

But overall, it didn’t really deliver. It might have been because Norton and the editing team had different ideas about the character, or what movie they were making. It might just not have been put together well.

In my head-canon, I see The Incredible Hulk (2008) as being an alternate universe explanation of how the Hulk came to be, and not really part of Earth-199999 (unless there are cross-overs), and not really informing the Hulk’s (or Banner’s) character moving forward[7]

I would recommend this film only for completionists, or those who like Ed Norton (or Liv Tyler).

Next up: Iron Man 2! Purported to be ‘not as good’ as the first, but we’ll see how well it’s held up.

Other random notes:

Much of the film was shot in Toronto, leading to some interesting cognitive dissonance for the scenes shot on UofT campus, as the terrain/buildings really didn’t connect well with each other. (It’s difficult to know how much of this is because I know how things connect, and how much is because they had a grassy meadow with no buildings visible in the distance right beside a university building with a treed circle and cars.)

(Contrast with Avengers, which had regular establishing shots[8] with Stark tower in the background)

[1] Apparently, there was a test screening where viewers found the original plan (a reboot with flashbacks) too similar to Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003), and that is why they made this decision. 11 years later, it just seems like an odd design decision.

[2] This might also have helped a lot with explaining the ‘leap of faith’ that Norton’s Banner took near the end of the film, to try to transform into the Hulk in mid-air. I didn’t feel that there was anything in the movie that showed that Banner felt guilty enough about being the Hulk to take that action.

[3] Looking at Wikipedia, to check part of this post, I realized that I had forgotten Tim Ross’s Abomination. I felt during the movie that I never really understood where he was coming from. Yes, he said that he a survivor, that wanted to keep fighting (very likely some form of PTSD), but it was a bunch of ‘tell-rather-than-show’ moments, and some sort of flashback would have been much more effective for this character.

[4] This would eventually lead into the ‘Hulk is feeling taken for granted’ storyline from Ragnarok->Infinity War->Endgame

[5] Also, random note. They changed the ‘>200bpm -> Hulk’ to ‘letting yourself be angry’ after this movie, likely for storytelling reasons, but it’s a super-interesting ‘science’ part of the film.

[6] There was a final scene, where Banner is off somewhere hiding, and you see him almost gleefully going to ‘days without incident: 0’, which could have been a super-interesting ‘addicted to Hulk’ story.

[7] I’ll have to wait until Ultron to decide, but I feel that it is unlikely that Banner’s romance with Ross in this movie is consistent with his later romance with Black Widow.

[8] Thanks Ty Templeton for his fantastic Comic Book Boot Camp, which taught me about Establishing Shots, and many other important things!

Processing Endgame II: Iron Man (2008) [SPOILERS]

Please note that this is one a series of posts, all of which may contain spoilers for the MCU, and particularly Endgame.

Music: “Avengers Theme Remix

First on the list to watch was Iron Man (2008). I had watched a few of the ‘best of’ scenes on Youtube, including the really impactful opening scene, and when he first takes the Mark II out for a spin.

A lot of the hagiography about Tony Stark talks about how he has a lot of features that make him an effective superhero. They talk about him being a futurist, super-smart, and handy. This movie perhaps emphasizes his handy-ness more than any other, with the extended scene of him building an innovative new Iron Man suit while a prisoner in a cave.

But what I think people perhaps forget is while he goes through a character development arc, his armor perhaps goes through even more of a change. His perhaps greatest ability is to learn from experience, and adapt by changing his actions and the tools he builds.

In this first movie, we see three versions of his Iron Man suit: The first, iconic grey suit that I remember so well from his first appearance in comics in the ’60s[1], the redone silver-coloured Mark II, and the familiar red & gold Mark III.

The suits go from working for a few minutes (Mark I), to almost being able to beat altitude records (Mark II) in what is probably a few weeks (or months).

And that’s when disaster almost strikes[2]. The suit ices up, and Tony has to manually de-ice it[3] in mid-fall. Luckily, he survives, and with this survival comes a small bit of learning.

This learning is used when making the Mark III, and is an important point in the final battle scene.

This learning from experience will be shown in later movies, but looking at it here, from Mark I->Mark II, the suit is streamlined, focus is placed on being able to fly (presumably because if it had been able to fly, Tony would not have had to walk out of the desert), and most of the weapons are removed (apparently because it was a flight test model). Tony also adds an automated way to don the suit[4], perhaps because his friend and compatriot[5] in building the Mark I dies to give him the time required to finish donning it and charging it up.

This learning from trauma, perhaps a source of his perfectionism is another theme that is consistent throughout the series.

From the Mark II to the Mark III, there’s the aforementioned de-icing package, along with the re-addition of some weaponry, as Tony was planning in a semi-revenge fashion to go destroy all of the weapons that bore his name that had made it onto the black market.

But there are two other things that make a huge difference. From the Mark I to Mark II, Tony integrated his home AI J.A.R.V.I.S. (Paul Bettany) into his suit. It’s difficult to describe how much of a difference it would make to have an AI companion riding along with you, vs. a mere targeting computer with Heads-Up Display. Part of the reason to have it there is very effective in movie terms, as it gives Robert Downey Jr. someone to argue with and be snarky with (also a super-important part of the Iron Man character), but even for someone who is great at multi-tasking, having a separate intelligence there, ready to sort through all of the data to tell you what is important *right now* is invaluable in a life-or-death situation[6].

The second (and perhaps even more important than anything else here) thing that makes Tony different is his willingness to embarrass himself. You see him videotaping himself testing all of his experiments, presumably so that he can watch the replay and learn from it.

Can you imagine Thor, or Captain America experimenting with repulsor boots so that they flip over and land unceremoniously on the ground? It’s totally out of character for them. Perhaps this is different, because we actually see into Tony’s practice workshop, and we never got the chance to see Thor first learning how to wield Mjolnir.

Next up: Iron Man II, one of the less-well known (and lower rated movies), but we’ll see how it goes on a re-watch!

Other notes: Pepper Potts’ ‘proof Tony has a heart’ moment was really poignant, and the interactions between the two of them were fun and meaningful to watch. I especially liked her bravery, and when she stuck up for herself and gave as good as she got.

Messages: How easy it is to fall into the mental trap of believing that your actions are not hurting others or having unintended consequences, if you never see them… #chardev

[1] I was lucky enough when I was growing up to have access to a few cardboard boxes of old comics from the late ’60s. I still remember the first Iron Man story, I think from before he had his own comic series, the first story where he builds his first suit, and before he paints it. It’s difficult to separate how I felt then about it then from the movie adaptation, and how much of it is from a soft place in my heart, vs. just feeling familiar[8] from childhood….

[2] There are so many places in these movies that disaster almost strikes, that there must be alternate timelines for each of them. Earth-199999 feels super-lucky.

[3] Well Chekov’s gun-d by the ‘cool suit-up montage’ (great multiple-use of a scene) showing the demo of all of the control surfaces.

[4] There are a number of iterations of this, with so many different ways to don the suits, or otherwise adapt to situations, that it almost deserves its own post.

[5] Shaun Toub‘s Ho Yinsen was the most poignant part of the movie for me, as I knew he was going to die (because I remembered enough of the plot), but I had forgotten that he was willing to die partially (or mostly) because his family had already been killed by the group that had captured him and Tony. There’s something here about the necessary sacrifice of good people to thwart evil, and from the (likely deliberate) casting of an an Iranian-American actor, about how people of all races and backgrounds can be good people, and we should be working with them.

[6] And your house robot will bring you your spare arc reactor, so you can put it back in your chest and save your life… πŸ™‚

[7] This ability to give a voice command and have it followed intelligently will become super important later in the first Avengers movie. #staytuned

[8] I wonder how much of it is that Tony falls into the ‘scientist/inventor’ category of Marvel Superheroes, that speaks to me, or spoke to me especially when I was growing up, and that was how I saw my life/career unfolding.