Category Archives: Analysis

Processing Endgame VIIa: The Avengers (2012) (continued…)

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

Date re-watched: 2019-09-06

(Note also that this I liked Avengers (2012) so much, that I had to write more about it. #filmateleven)

In an effort to make this not just a laundry list of ramblings, I want to organize my thoughts into a few themes. Remember that a lot of this is about processing my feelings from Infinity War & especially Endgame, and really about the finality of the character arcs that ended there. There’s something about character death, similar to the death of a famous painter or sculptor. It puts all of their other actions into relief, and each moment becomes more poignant, as you see how each moment led them to their now inevitable end. Your mind tries to piece together their story, and make each bit make sense, now that you know the ending.

As far as characters, Tony is of course at the top of the list for me, probably because he’s the intended stand-in for the cis white male viewer, and perhaps also because he tickles my nerd/maker side (in a very cinematic way). In Avengers, a lot of the interesting interactions with Tony happen with Cap. As Jack Saint[1] argues, they are representatives of the two main sides of the heroic ideology in the MCU[2], Tony being the ‘pragmatist’ and Steve being the ‘idealist’, but still both representatives of the fundamental ‘great man‘ ideology of the MCU.

That being said, Tony & Steve, though they have philosophical differences, respect each other, well enough that Tony, who never takes orders from anyone, says at the height of the battle for New York (his home): “Call it, Cap.”. In the other direction, Cap asks everyone about Loki, to better understand his tactics. (Especially since Cap is the only one who has physically traded blows with Loki, and understands and appreciates his strength.) Thor is too embarrassed about being Loki’s brother, Banner dismisses him as having a brain with ‘a bag full of cats’, and Cap ends up understanding that only Tony can understand the way that Loki is a “full-tilt diva“. They also agree on other fundamentals, very distinctly that SHIELD should not be developing super weapons[3], and on defending the Earth from external threats…such as Loki.

Speaking of Loki, like Gamora, he is reborn (in a way) after Endgame, effectively re-setting his character development to the end of Avengers, so it’s worthwhile talking about where he is as a character here.

Physically, he’s the Asgardian/god/high-level ‘rogue’ of the party, able to hold his own in combat against ‘lesser beings’, even a ‘super-soldier’ human like Cap. With an artifact weapon (the staff), he is fought to a standstill by his warrior brother (Thor, who is likely pulling his punches), and falls twice to Tony’s repulsor blasts, and is taken out by the Hulk.

Loki wants attention and adulation ‘Full-tilt diva'[4], and is happy to bully lesser beings to get it, or to talk when he perceives that he has the upper hand, instead of using it. Tony is able to read this, perhaps because he sees it in himself, and has had to confront some of those demons in himself[5]. Perhaps more importantly, Tony is able to use this against Loki, using Loki’s distaste at being reminded of his brother Thor to distract him while he puts on the Mark 7 ‘bracelets’. Out-tricking the ‘trickster god'[6]. How much must that sting?

So, where is Loki sitting at the end of this? He had been cast out by his family and home, was taken in by an interstellar villain, given power (but always reminded that he was subordinate to them)[7]. He knows that he is being taken back to Asgard, to face some sort of punishment. He likely knows it will be some sort of imprisonment or exile. Like ‘a bag full of cats'[8], Loki is at war with himself. Thor is able to convince him briefly that they can work together to undo things, but he is unable to help himself from stabbing Thor and running away[9]. Throw the influence of the mind stone/scepter, and it’s difficult to come up with a consistent characterization. If anything, he might have learned something about being more effective, and perhaps how he is unsuited to command in a combat situation.[10] Or is he still ‘burdened by terrible privilege’?

Speaking of alternate timelines, the scene where Tony is thrown out the window in Stark tower has always been super-harrowing for me. Think of how many timelines there are where Tony didn’t survive[10], where Loki thought to shoot his suit with the scepter, all the times he almost died, both before and after this.

Moving on to the Natasha, she is easy to overlook, as she rarely gets a lot of screentime, and she is not the flashiest character, but we really have to give her credit for being the bravest character in the movie. (Also each scene she’s in makes sense, and there’s a reason for her being there.) She’s a (well trained) normal human being who decides to take it upon herself to leap onto a flying Chitauri chariot, knowing that one misstep would be her death. (And how did she even grab it? Was it her suit locking her hands?) We also get to see her unique ‘interrogation’ technique, allowing herself to get captured[11] earlier in the film, and again tricking the trickster god to get his plan for the Hulk out of him. Her ploy/way of understanding people and making them talk is not really played up in the other movies, and I hope that they explore it more in her solo movie. Avengers also brings out her relationship with Barton, and perhaps explains some of her bravery, as S puts it, the self-sacrifice might be a way to wipe the ‘red in her ledger’ clean.

There was also a nice gentle non-toxic masculinity scene with Tony & Banner (about 3:10), where Banner talks about being ‘exposed, like a nerve’. ‘A terrible privilege’ ‘but you can control it’ ‘because I learned how’ (Note that this scene also includes blueberries that RDJ hid on set.)[12] This is perhaps Tony trying to do for Banner what Yinsen did for him, trying to remind Banner that he can be a force for good. Tony is proven correct, when Banner shows up to the Battle of New York, after perhaps making a difficult decision while talking to a security guard who seems curiously well informed, and pushing him towards helping out… “I know where I can do the most good, but it’s also where I can do the most harm.” “Your mind’s already made up, son. The rest of you will follow”

A few last random comments, so this doesn’t become three posts:
I really enjoyed the ‘Metal Man’ comment by Thor, and the idea of Thor charging up Iron Man’s suit (which would not be fully realized until Endgame). I also wonder if the ‘Shwarma’ scene was part of Tony’s journey to deal with his PTSD and accepting the good things that the Middle East has to offer. I thought the ‘Hulk yelling at Tony’ to save him was silly, but it had the desired filmmaking effect to break the mood, even if it was outside the film’s general scientific basis (unless the Hulk has special ‘jumpstart’ powers in his yell).

Cap is also understated and seemingly hurt all through the helicarrier section, perhaps because the mind stone/staff is getting to him, perhaps by bringing out his PTSD and his feeling of being ‘out of time’. Eventually, perhaps Cap and Tony bond over their shared pain, but in a subconscious way (as opposed to the conscious way that Tony & Banner, or Natasha & Hawkeye bond over shared pain).

We also see the first installment of Thor vs. The Hulk, where they seem to be evenly matched, although Thor’s dodging prowess seems to be vitally important.

Lastly, we see the Tesseract acting with inconsistent characterization, with it ‘telling things’ to Selvig, although that could easily have been the Mind Stone (or the other stones have powers beyond what is normally assumed by their expected bailiwicks).

Thanks for reading all the way to the end! Next time, we’ll continue with Iron Man 3, where we follow Tony’s reaction to the Chitauri invasion and almost dying carrying a nuke through the portal into space. Stay tuned!

[1] S showed me this video this week. I recommend it very highly. πŸ™‚

[2] And this conflict will spiral into ‘Civil War’.

[3] This leads to the great scene where Tony is trying to break in and comb through SHIELD files on the helicarrier, to figure out what Fury and SHIELD are up to (‘Phase II’, energy weapons similar to ‘Hydra weapons’, as Cap puts it), while Cap simply breaks into the armory and brings one to the lab. “Sorry, the computer was moving a little slow for me.“[3a]

[3a] At 2:36, that video shows one of multiple occasions where Hawkeye enjoys posing with his bow slightly too much for non-sequential-art.

[4] Funnily, this just seems to add to the Shakespearean feel of the Asgardians, almost like they understand that they are but players on a stage.

[5] There are interesting questions here about whether humans, because of their mortality, are more likely to see it necessary to learn and grow.

[6] We never really get to see Loki’s illusions in ‘Avengers’. The closest we see is a few costume changes, and one image projection to trap Thor in the ‘Hulk Hotel Room’ on the Helicarrier (and to get around behind Coulson). So, we never really get to see how Tony would have dealt with them. There seems to be a ‘Mirror Image‘ quality to Loki’s illusions, where sometimes (like Ragnarok), he seems to leave an image behind while he walks away, while in Stuttgart, he seems to almost be able to teleport between them. (Although, upon watching it again, they seem to be only images…but this disagrees with what we saw in Dark World…) So, how would Tony deal with have dealt with these? Are they only visual illusions? We know that the Soul Stone was able to dispel Dr. Strange’s images in Infinity War, so we know that it is possible to tell them apart, but can it be done using only things like heat signature detection?

[7] Thanos’ herald: “You would question me, him?”

[8] As per Banner.

[9] Similar to the ‘snake story’ in Ragnarok.

[10] In Dark World, we see Loki only being truly effective in combat when paired with Thor. In Ragnarok, Loki will learn that he is not the most effective at command in the rulership sense, but eventually learns some of how to do this by the end of the movie (while still fighting alongside Thor). There’s also questions as to how much Loki was being influenced by the mind stone/scepter, and how much that impaired his judgement and abilities…but he seemed perfectly willing to cause chaos and destruction after being separated from the scepter during the ‘final battle’. However, Loki perhaps learns very different lessons when he escapes from ‘Avengers’ at in the middle of ‘Endgame’, perhaps having learned how to be a little more effective, but perhaps thinking that he just needs to find people more suitable for his ‘rule’, similar to how he pretends to be Odin later in the series, or perhaps he will just go around messing with people, taking the opportunity to be actually free of constraints.

[10] Although, we see in Endgame how the Ancient One is busy fighting off Chitauri during the Battle of New York, so one would expect that she would have used the Time Stone’s powers to set things so that New York would not be nuked. This also brings up general questions of fate, and how much the events were controlled by various types of puppetmasters, but that is perhaps more appropriately a better conversation for a later post about Dr. Strange’s plan(s).

[11] Perhaps by some of the arms dealers that Tony refers to in Age of Ultron.

[12] Perhaps the best foreshadowing of ‘Professor Hulk’ from Endgame.

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 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.

Electoral Reform in Canada: Introduction

During the last Canadian federal election, two of the three major parties made electoral reform* part of their platform.

The goal was to find a better system for electing members of parliament than the current ‘first past the post’ system. Under the current system, a candidate can win a seat with (28.6%) of the votes in that riding[1], and a party can win a majority of the seats in the country (54%) with a bare plurality (39.5%) of the popular vote.

This tends to lead to voter disillusionment, as many voters (rightly) believe that their vote has no chance of influencing an election. The ‘Per Vote Subsidy‘ was one attempt to rectify this, by counting votes to fund political parties, so voters could feel that no matter where they were voting, their vote was doing something.

So, we want to change this system. What do we want out of a voting system?

At its most fundamental, the goal of a voting system is to provide a system for a peaceful transition of power. The way voting systems do this is by making people feel like they have a say in that transition of power.

At the same time, you want the system to be quick, fair, and resistant to cheating (as there are millions of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars at stake).

(I’m also assuming that we will continue to have a representative democracy, and the number of representatives will remain approximately the same. I’m also assuming that there will be political parties in whatever new system we come up with.)

So: having a say, quick, fair, representative, and resistant to cheating.

Having a say:
– Each vote should have the highest probability possible of changing the representation of the House of Commons

Quick:
– The public should know the results within hours of the polls closing.

Fair:
– Political parties should not be significantly inconvenienced by the electoral system for not having money.
– Any barriers to entry should be reasonable (number of candidates to be a registered party, number of votes to get deposits back, percentage of popular vote to qualify to get seats, etc…)
– The system should not unduly give power to very small groups (49/49/2 split, the 49 and 2 have equal power).
– The system should be ‘simple enough’ for people to understand. Currently, people vote for one person, one party with the same vote. A similar system being successfully used elsewhere in the world is a reasonable way to determine ‘simple enough’.

Representative:
– There are a number of ways to be representative:
– Geographically
– Representation of party by population
– Minority groups
– Diversity of opinions

Resistant to cheating:
– Secret ballot to reduce intimidation and coercion as factors
– Reasonable voter ID laws to increase voter turnout while keeping the risk of personation low.
– Distributed counting makes the current system quite resistant to cheating. One would have to mess with the voting tally computers in real-time to change this. The fact that there is an anonymous paper record of every vote cast in the ballot boxes is also an important check on this system.

Interestingly, the current system seems to do most of the above well, except for representative part (and the current voter ID laws).

Next time, we’ll look at a list of options to increase the representativeness, and see how they affect the rest of the criteria.

[1]Far more likely to induce voter disillusionment is when the party or parties that a voter supports has no way of winning a seat, such as the Conservative party in Trinity-Spadina, or the Liberals or NDP in Red Deer.

When You Wish Upon a Star…

So, a good friend of mine recently posted the following meme:

Depressing thought...But is it true?
Depressing thought…But is it true?

“According to astronomy, when you wish upon a star….
You’re actually a few million years late.
That star is dead.
Just like your dreams.”

It’s a really depressing thought, perhaps even more depressing than the Nietzsche/Kubrick mashup: “God is dead, and you are alone in an uncaring universe.”[1]

At least with an uncaring universe, something with persist after you are gone. If all the stars are dead before you can even see them, would there even be anything left after we are gone?

But extraordinarily depressing statements require extraordinary evidence. So let’s take this sentence apart and define some things.

First: “According to astronomy” means that we get to (and have to) use astronomy in our proof or disproof. It also likely refers to modern astronomy, as it did not specify a time/technology period. (It may be interesting to see if any answers would be different under astronomy from a different time period, but that will be a secondary investigation.)

Second: “when you wish upon a star….” has a few different readings. The phrase seems to come (at least most recently) from the song written for Disney’s Pinnochio. In that movie, Gepetto says the following:


Look! A wishing star!

Starlight, star bright, first star I see tonight…

I wish I may, I wish I might have the wish I make tonight.

This is an ‘English language nursery rhyme’ first published in the late 19thC (Wikipedia).

Interestingly, it seems to refer to ‘shooting or falling stars’, or meteors. These would certainly be ‘dead’ (as they are vaporizing in the atmosphere during the ‘wish’, but not for ‘millions of years'[2], as the distance from the viewer to the meteor can be measured in tens or hundreds of kilometers, an insignificant time light distance[3].

But going back to “When you wish upon a star, the meme-maker seems to be clearly referring to the 1940 Disney song and film. Looking at the occurrences of this song in the film:

At 0:34, you can see the image of Gepetto wishing upon the star:

The star is clearly stationary, as can also be seen in the reprise at the end of the film, where Jiminy Cricket is looking upon the same star, still unmoving:

So, this restricts us to the realm of non-moving (or slowly-moving) celestial objects[4]. From the film, the star also seems significantly brighter than the surrounding stars, but the exact extent to which this is true could be dramatic license.

The rhyme mentions ‘first star I see tonight’, which also suggests that the celestial object seen is unusually bright.

So, non-moving (or slowly moving) celestial objects which are bright. This leaves us with comets, planets, and bright stars[4][5].

Comets are objects orbiting through the solar system, and unless they fall into the sun, impact another body, or otherwise breakup, they tend to go on ‘living’ after we see them. (Halley’s comet has been known since at least 240BC.)

Planets could easily look like stars, often like unusually bright stars. Venus was called the ‘evening star‘[6] since antiquity, and it would be bright enough (up to apparent magnitude -4.9) to be significantly brighter than anything else in the sky. Venus could be considered ‘dead’ because it may have once supported life before a runaway greenhouse effect millions of years ago, but this seems an unlikely metaphorical interpretation. Mercury (up to apparent magnitude -2.45) would also be significantly brighter than anything but Venus (and the moon and sun), but has never been ‘alive’, being too close to the Sun[7]. Mars (up to apparent magnitude -2.91) could have been alive at some point, in the same vein as Venus. One or more of the moons of Jupiter (up to apparent magnitude -1.61) or Saturn[8] (up to apparent magnitude 1.47) could have been home to life, under this same metaphorical definition. (The other planets and other bodies in the solar system are too dim to ever be a ‘bright star’.)

So, a planet could be a metaphorical source for this quote, but this seems unlikely, as the quote seems to be referring to the fact that the celestial object is no longer emitting the light itself.

This leaves us with bright stars. Looking at the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius (up to apparent magnitude -1.46), it[9] is only about 8.6 light years away, so we would know in less than a decade if something were to happen there.

The next 91[10] brightest stars are listed here:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_brightest_stars

You will note that even the furthest among these, Deneb is still only 2600 light years away, much closer than the ‘few million years’ mentioned above.

Based on all this evidence, it would seem that the original meme:

“According to astronomy, when you wish upon a star….
You’re actually a few million years late.
That star is dead.
Just like your dreams.”

is false, which is good, because it would be super-depressing otherwise.

If you enjoyed this sojurn through astronomy, you may like the rest of my blog. Comment below with things you want me to talk about or investigate!

[1]If you have a better source for this, please let me know.

[2]If you want to be pedantic (and I know you do), you could say that meteors are the dead husks of possible (or tidally destroyed) planets, and their burning up in the atmosphere is hundreds of millions of years after they ‘died’.

[3]Much less than a second, even if you assume they impact the Earth’s atmosphere thousands of kilometers away.

[4]A close supernova might also qualify, as it could easily be brighter than anything else in the night sky, would last just long enough to be a ‘wishing star’, and would have been ‘dead’ for some time before it was seen by a human observer. This might indeed be source of this rhyme, where a ‘guest star‘ could inspire wishing and omens. However, looking at this list of supernovae, any supernova which would have been visible as a ‘bright star’ with the naked eye would be at most tens or hundreds of thousands of light years away, not qualifying for the ‘few million years’ mentioned above. I also personally see supernovae more as a seeding of the galaxy with heavier elements, and thus wishing upon one of these would be wishing that the spreading of heavier elements would inspire life to form elsewhere in the universe.

[5]I see no way that any reasonable person could confuse the Sun or Moon with a ‘wishing star’.

[6]Interestingly, the Babylonians had figured out that the ‘evening star’ and the ‘morning star’ were one and the same. It took the Greeks a significant amount of time to discover this themselves, calling them ‘Phosphorus’ and ‘Hesperus’. How many times have there been such dark ages, where knowledge needs to be rediscovered? Was there a Greek ‘renaissance’, or were the Babylonian star charts lost until modern archaeology? Did mere dregs survive to inspire subsequent scientific revolutions?

[7]…unless there was life along the terminator, at some point in the past…

[8]Or [spoiler alert]:

One of the planets themselves!

[9]They, really, as Sirius is a double star, but that is outside the scope of this post.

[10]93, including the Sun, Sirius and the next 91 of magnitude 2.5 or greater.

Five Management Roles

I was talking with my best friend earlier today, and we were comparing notes on some different management roles. Traditional hierarchical management theory[1] tends to have all of the management roles embodied in one person. This can be problematic, as very few people are good at all of the management roles.

This has led to a number of different techniques for dividing these roles among people. To start, we’ll talk about five of these roles, using Agile software development language, as that’s what I’m most familiar with:

Performance Manager (Worker Evaluation):

The ‘Performance Manager’ is probably the most traditional of the roles. When someone talks about their ‘boss’, it is generally the person who evaluates their performance, gives them performance reviews, and decides if they should get a bonus, a raise, or be fired[2].

Estimatrix (Estimator):

The ‘Estimatrix[3]’ is in charge of estimating the amount of effort required to perform a task or set of tasks. This role is often spread out over multiple people, even in traditional hierarchies.

Product Owner (Prioritization):

The ‘Product Owner’ is the other half of ‘traditional’ management. They are in charge of prioritization of the work being done, once it has been assigned to a team and estimated.

Scrum Master (Removing Obstacles):

The ‘Scrum Master’ (my favourite) is charged with removing obstacles. Once the team knows what it is working on, things will get in the way. Some of the obstacles are acute issues, associated with work being done, some of the obstacles are chronic issues, which are generally solved by trying to change habits, and many ‘restrospectives’.

(People) Development Manager (Development Conversations):

As a retention technique (and because it’s the right thing to do), many organizations spend time on development of their employees, helping them figure out what they want to do with their careers, and helping to find them ways to develop while doing their job.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at some ways these roles are remixed.

[1]It’s really more of a default.

[2]Like user stories, anytime your description includes the word ‘and’ or ‘or’, it means you can subdivide it further. That is left as an exercise to the reader, if they are so inclined.

[3]I really enjoy this suffix.

How do you Make Computer Games Challenging?

So, you’re designing a computer game. You want some sort of challenge for your player(s) to face. How do you design that challenge? We’ll assume some sort of single player game for now, but most of the things we’ll talk about should easily translate to multiplayer.

Almost[1] all games have a goal[2]. Most of the time, this goal is imposed by the game creators, some of the time this goal is invented or imposed by the player themselves.

For example, in Candy Crush, the goal is to match enough candies in a specified time period to gain points to pass a threshold (‘obtaining one star’). In Skyrim, the quest (at least at the start of the game) is to escape an area and survive.

As you attempt to reach these objectives, the game designers have provided you with various positive and negative obstacles.

Terrain:

Terrain is an excellent example of an obstacle that can be positive or negative. In Skyrim, you can hide around corners, or you can fall down a mountain. In Candy Crush, the shape of the board can make certain portions easier or much more difficult to match.

Offensive Items:

Special Candies can be classified as offensive items, compare them to a sword which allows you to do more damage with a single blow.

Defensive Items:

In Candy Crush, the candies can be encased in ‘jelly’, which acts as a shield that must be overcome. In Skyrim, you have various types of armour which you and your adversaries can wear. (Sometimes, only they can wear it.) There are also magical defenses.

Miscellaneous Items and Magic:

In Candy Crush, you can obtain a ‘Lollipop Hammer‘, which helps you by removing or triggering single candies.

In Skyrim, there is a wide variety of special purpose items and magic. The line between these is often blurry.

AI Adversaries:

I don’t think there are many AI adversaries in Candy Crush, unless they decide to tinker with the random candy generation algorithm, or if you count level design. Skyrim is populated with hundreds, if not thousands of NPCs who will interact with you in various ways.

Repetition:

An uninteresting way to make a game more challenging is to make it more repetitive[2.5]. You could make your player battle the same enemy 35 times, or solve minor variations on the same puzzle 50 times, or make them walk through an endless samey forest.

Ideally, you want to give a feeling of exploration and small but noticeable differences along the way.

Next time, we’ll compare two more games which are even more distinct. Suggestions in the comments below!

[1]I say almost, even though I can’t think of any games which don’t have a goal, and/or can’t have one created by the player. Inventing one sounds like a fun challenge. I don’t mean a game with an impossible challenge which always seems almost possible, I’m talking about a game which aggressively has no goal, and cannot, to the greatest extent possible.

[2]Or goals plural. Multiple interlocking[3] or interrelated goals are out of scope.

[2.5]Than usual…Most of these games are quite repetitive.

[3]Sometimes I think I write just because I enjoy using words such as ‘interlocking[4]’.

[4]Not to be confused with Interlochen[5].

[5]S: “Or Interleukins.”

DS9: The Power of Adversaries, Season 4

Continuing our adversaries series, we’re looking at DS9 season four. We’ve seen a number of different patterns season to season, with season one being ‘Q and Prime Directive’, season two being ‘Cardassians and Introspection’, and season three being ‘Dominion, Time/Planar travel, and Introspection’.

Let’s see what’s out there…

S4:

High: 7 (3 Dominion)
Equal: 4 (Klingons, Klingons, mirror, and Jem’Hadar)
Low: 3
Self: 11

The standout this season was internal conflict, whether it’s Bashir vs. O’Brien, or Worf vs. his brother, season four was a study in character stories and internal dilemmas. The writers continued to use the Dominion for the plurality of the high-powered adversary plots, while eschewing almost entirely low-powered external adversaries.

Almost like the calm before the storm, the self introspection before the galaxy erupts into war.

1 (Klingons)
2 (frozen in time)
-1 (Bashir vs. O’Brien)
-1 (Kira vs. Dukat vs. Dukat)
-1 (Dax vs. Dax)
2 (Time Travel)
2 (Two Jem’Hadar ships and a gas giant)
-1 (Worf vs. Kor vs. Worf vs. Kor)
2 (Holodeck)
-1 (Earth and fear)
-1 (Earth and fear, part II)
-1 (Odo & Kira)
2 (freighter vs. Klingon ship)
-1 (Worf & Kurn)
-1 (Quark and the union)
0 (Bajoran politics)
1 (Klingon courtroom drama)
-1 (O’Brien suffers)
1 (Defiant vs. Mirror)
0 (alien & Lwaxana’s lover)
-1 (Sisko)
1 (crew + Jem’Hadar vs. Jem’Hadar)
2 (Dominion disease)
0 (one Ferengi)
2 (The Great Link)

DS9: The Power of Adversaries, Season 3

Continuing our adversaries series, we’re continuing with DS9. Today we’ll see if season three follows in the footsteps of season one, season two, or something else entirely.

As usual, moderate to severe spoilers below.

S3:

High: 8 (3 Dominion)
Equal: 6
Low: 3
Self: 9

Note that all of the times that the Dominion appeared during season three, they were presented in an overpowering way, with even one changeling being equal in power to the Defiant’s crew.

Season three is a different mix again from seasons one and two. Season one focused on high- and low-powered (‘Q and Prime Directive’) adversaries. Season two focused on self and equal (mostly Cardassian) adversaries.

Season three goes back to a more TNG-like mix, in fact almost the exact same mix as TNG seasons six and seven, with the focus on High/Equal/Self instead of High/Low/Self.

This seems to be because DS9 meets with the other major powers much more often than the TNG crew, possibly because TNG is more exploratory, and DS9 is more interested in politics.

It’ll be interesting to see how the remaining seasons compare, especially once the Dominion War starts in earnest.

(0 is less powerful, 1 is about the same, 2 is more powerful, -1 is self)

2 (Defiant vs. The Dominion)
2 (The Dominion)
1 (Klingons)
-1 (Dax)
1 (Cardssians)
0 (one Jem’Hadar)
2 (DS9)
-1 (Dax)
1 (Cardassians)
-1 (Lwaxana)
2 (Time stream)
2 (Time stream)
-1 (Bashir)
-1 (Odo)
2 (Prophecy)
0 (Nagus)
1 (Romulans)
-1 (Bashir)
2 (Mirror)
1 (Tain)
2 (Dominion)
-1 (Sisko & Jake)
-1 (Quark & Family)
0 (Bajorans)
-1 (Jadzia)
1 (One Changeling!)