5 things Civil War has that Batman v Superman needed

Why Marvel won the battle of the battling superheroes

*Abundant spoilers from the get-go*

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War are in many regards very similar films. Both films feature superheroes. Both films centre on those heroes fighting each other. In both films, the impetus for that conflict is the collateral damage that resulted from the superpowered battles in previous films. Both films begin with a scene in which the parents of one of those heroes is murdered, which allows them to inherit the vast wealth they will one day use to build the suits of armour than will enable them to become superheroes. After these murders, both films then move onto an action sequence in Africa, the casualties of which turn the public against heroes.

Yet they differ in one really important regard: Civil War works, while BvS doesn’t. That’s not just my view – though it certainly is that too. On Rotten Tomatoes, Civil War has a resounding score of 90% whilst BvS elicits a measly 27%. There are cases where audiences and critics, whose reviews power Rotten Tomatoes, disagree but this is not one of them. BvS hasn’t lost money, in fact it’s made rather a lot of it. But a film featuring Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman would always manage that. It has, however, underperformed. A project this massive ought to be aiming to be one of the year’s biggest hits. Yet it’s not only been comfortably outgrossed by Civil War but also by Zootopia. The Jungle Book is not far behind and had Deadpool opened in China it would almost certainly have topped BvS too. And it’s only May.

Worse still its failure has likely depleted the supply of goodwill surrounding the franchise which will likely hurt the box office takings of future instalments. So where did Marvel go right and DC/Warner Bros go wrong? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Humour

Let us start with the most commonly voiced complaint about BvS: it is a bit of a slog. Its combination of brooding characters, a gloomy colour palette and a story that focussed on the suffering of ordinary people that superheroes create. That makes it a rather dour affair.

The same could be said of Civil War – it is a film where at one point it appears that Steve Rodgers is going to smash in Tony Stark’s face – but for the fact the darkness with jokes. Falcon and the Winter Soldier bickering over legroom in a Renault Clio is not simply amusing: it also helps us relate to those characters and prevents the tone of the film becoming morose.

That said, I don’t think this is the crucial distinction it is made out to be. It’s quite possible to make a superhero film of any quality in any tone. The Dark Knight is gloomy and fantastic, the Fantastic Four is gloomy and excruciating.

The sad reality is that the problems with BvS went way beyond a lack of jokes and couldn’t have been fixed just by throwing some in.

2. A function for its shoehorned in hero

The narrative of BvS did not require Wonderwoman. Likewise Spiderman is more or less extraneous to Civil War’s story. But in order to set up future films they had to be in there.

Both films make a virtue of this commercial necessity. Wonderwoman’s entrance into the final battle is the only fist pumping moment in BvS. However, she is underused and her presence appears to have confused Chinese audiences unfamiliar with her character.

Spiderman is better used: a wisecracking, exuberant and innocent teenager gatecrashing the film counterpoints the darkness that would otherwise pervade the proceedings.

3. A plot that makes sense

After the aforementioned scene of Bruce Wayne’s parents being (once again) murdered and an impressive flashback to the carnage at the end of Man of Steel, BvS moves to a scene in Africa. Louis Lane and some of her colleagues are kidnapped by a warlord they are supposed to be interviewing. As soon as the hostages are out of sight, a group of private military contractors arrive and begin shooting people. Then Superman arrives and rescues Lane.

Something probably has been lost in the process of summarising that scene but not much. It’s as nonsensical as it sounds. None of the elements besides Superman and Lane have previously been introduced. Nor is there a proper through line between this scene and the one before or after. This makes it hard for the audience to place it in context.

Even if you manage to, there’s still a definite lack of internal logic. The confrontation in Africa was apparently orchestrated by Lex Luthor, so Superman would be blamed for the deaths caused by the mercenaries. But it’s never explained why anyone thinks Superman, who has super-strength and can shoot laser beams from his eyes, would shoot people.

There are definitely problems with the plotting of Civil War but they are relatively minor. The introduction of a number of the heroes is rather contrived. But I’d rather be thinking “it’s so obvious what the writers are doing here” than “I haven’t got the faintest idea what the writers are doing and apparently neither have they”.

It’s also probably fair to say that appreciating Civil War depends on having seen the proceeding Marvel films. But at this stage we really need to accept that Marvel isn’t making films but a TV series new episodes of which are shown in cinemas biannually. You can’t join the MCU after 13 episodes and fully comprehend it, anymore than you could Breaking Bad.

While Marvel lean heavily on things they have previously shown in their movies, DC/Warner Brothers rely on you knowing stuff they’ve never shown and don’t explain. The formation of the Justice League and the arrival of the villainous Darkseid are foreshadowed. In a Marvel movie, this would have been done in post-credit sequences or easter eggs. Batman v Superman sticks them into the main body of the film. If you’re an audience member who realises these sequences are basically irrelevant to the story you’re currently watching, they are jarring and mess up the rhythm of the film. If you don’t and you, therefore, try to incorporate them into your understanding of that story, then it becomes even more baffling.

4. An understanding of what its heroes are fighting about

In Civil War, the UN gives tells the Avengers that their activities need to be regulated. A faction lead by Tony Stark wants to accept that regulation, whilst Steve Rodgers and his allies reject it. There are wrinkles and complications but fundamentally that is what the audience needs to know to follow the film’s conflict between superheroes.

Any decent hero vs hero story needs to be able to boil down its central conflict to a sentence or two. Six X-Men films are a battle about whether Mutants can co-operate with humans or whether conflict is inevitable. In Season 2 of Netflix’s Daredevil, the Punisher thinks it’s acceptable to stop criminals by killing them, whilst Daredevil rejects that view and tries to stop him.

In Batman v Superman, Batman and Superman are not two sides of a single dichotomy. Indeed, their reasons for fighting each other are tangled and rather hypocritical. Batman thinks Superman is too powerful and produces too much collateral damage, even though he is himself rather powerful and has himself produced plenty of collateral damage. And Superman dislikes Batman being a vigilante despite being a vigilante himself. The lack of clarity about why they were fighting in the first place makes it hard to invest in the conflict or to understand its sudden resolution.

5. A decent villain

Speaking of unclear motivations let’s turn to Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor. I like Eisenberg and think he does a good job with the material he’s given. But that’s not great. Luthor as an entitled tech bro could work – indeed I predicted it would – but the execution is really sloppy. It’s clear what his immediate objective is: kill superman. But what lies behind that? He seems to have been damaged by his abusive father and – for some reason – that makes him resentful of Superman. At points he seems to share Batman’s misgivings about the inherent danger of the existence of a being as powerful as Superman but later goes on to create one himself. There seems to be some religious thing going on but what it means is unclear. There are no signs of Luthor having a faith that might be feeding into his motivation. I suppose he could have become a disciple of Darkseid but if so that only happens in the film’s final act long after his plan began. Alternatively maybe it is his self-belief that is powering his actions: his arrogance is palpable and perhaps killing the most powerful creature on the planet is to him what stealing paintings is to Thomas Crown. But why then all the ponderous Revelation lite warbling? Perhaps, he simply wants Superman out of the way, so the Man of Steel can’t intervene with his plans to blow up California in order to inflate the values of his landholdings in Nevada or whatever supervillains are into these days. But if Superman is an obstacle that must be cleared away in order to carry out a larger plan, what is that larger plan? Any of these would have been fine – ok maybe not the abusive father one but the others seem OK – but rather than choosing one or finding a way to mesh several together BvS leaves Luthor to blunder directionless through a film he’s supposed to be driving the narrative of.

By contrast, Daniel Bruhl’s Zemo is an understated highlight of Civil War. A lack of screen time means that Marvel villains often wind up being rather generic. They are vaguely evil, they want to destroy and/or rule things, which they will proclaim in a booming voice before being killed in the final act.

Despite Bruhl having even less screen time than his predecessors, he makes a far greater impression. The comic book character with whom he shares a name is a leader of Hydra who has surgically attached a purple mask to his face. The name turns out to be a red herring. The film’s Zemo is a villain rather than a supervillain. He’s a soldier whose family was killed during the events of Age of Ultron and, not unreasonably, blames the Avengers. With no powers of his own, he can’t possibly defeat them in a direct confrontation, so he manipulates them into battling each other.

He works better than the average Marvel villain for a number of reasons. Having gone in expecting him to be a character similar to the one Reed Diamond plays in Agents of SHIELD, he came as a welcome surprise. And Bruhl is a very capable actor able to bring plenty of pathos to his performance without becoming hammy in the way many of his counterparts do. And his character meshes with the film’s broader theme: that revenge is an inherently destructive motivation. It’s also true that being less objectively dangerous, makes him seem more sinister. His motivation is mysterious and his cruelty is more apparent: killing someone by drowning rather than using some supernatural mcguffin just feels more real.

To wrap up…

Zack Snyder’s vision for the DCU has come in for a lot of criticism and there is plenty to criticise. His pursuit of darkness for darkness sake leads him to, for example, complain that in the Nolan Batman films, the hero goes to “a Tibetan monastery and…[is]…trained by ninjas. Okay? I want to do that. But he doesn’t, like, get raped in prison. That could happen in my movie.”

But the errors that really bothered me were not to do with the concept but the execution. The visuals and some of the action sequences are clearly the product of the kind of obsessive craftsmanship that can only arise from a genuine love for the task at hand. But that just makes it all the more glaring when everything else is so slapdash.

This contrast is clearly a reflection of Snyder’s priorities. His back catalogue makes clear that what matters to him is whether stuff looks ‘epic’. If it does then nothing else seems to matter. What is less clear is why Warner Bros – having spent $250 million on the film and presumably wanting to see a return on it – apparently collaborated in this indifference. Man-child auteurs may disdain narrative coherence and relatable characters but audiences probably won’t. Had the studio pushed for an additional rewrite to rationalise the plot and the character motivations – and perhaps also throw in a joke here or there – Snyder’s grisly vision intact would have remained intact but would have led to a far better film. Indeed, Warner Bros might have wound up the with something like Captain America: Civil War.

Some quick thoughts on ‘Super Thursday’

Britain voted, I hapzardly analyse.

THE LIBERAL DEMOCRATS NEED TO REALISE WE ARE STILL AT RISK OF EXTINCTION

Yesterday was a novelty for Liberal Democrats. The public voted and we came away in a better position than we were before. We not only gained councillors (and a council) but our absolute gains were more than anyone else’s. And there were some impressive wins in the constituency section of the Scottish Parliament. The sense of near elation at not being battered by the electorate again is palpable.

However, these results do demonstrate that the end of the coalition will not end the damage it did to the Party. We have gone from being Britain’s 3rd party to one of a number of minor parties. We are now only the fifth largest party in the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and GLA.

It would be tempting to think we’ve turned a corner. And we may well have done but yesterday could also simply be a stay of execution. While the good outweighed the bad, there were some depressing results too: notably big losses in the Welsh Assembly. And things could quite easily start getting worse again. We faced Labour and Conservative Parties that were both unpopular and divided. If they get their acts together we could be in trouble.

I’m also concerned that renewed successes for our old approach of burrowing in and building at a local level may lead us to neglect building a brand that resonates nationally.

SADIQ KHAN IS NO OBAMA BUT HIS WIN IS STILL INSPIRING

With so much of European politics currently revolving around Islamophobia, the fact that the continent’s largest city now has a Muslim mayor is encouraging. That London’s voters chose him despite a Conservative campaign that sought to remind everyone that Khan was a Muslim and that Muslim’s are all scary extremists, makes it more heartening still.

After 16 years of big egos using the Mayoralty as a platform for their clowning, it’s actually rather refreshing that London now has a rather average machine politician as it’s Mayor.

WE MAY HAVE BEEN LEARNING THE WRONG LESSONS FROM THE SCOTTISH REFERENDUM

A trope of discussions about the ‘Remain’ campaign’s tactics is that ‘No’ to independence was too negative and calculating. The argument is that frightening people about the consequences of breaking up the Union stopped people voting ‘yes’ but energised no one. That set the stage for the freshly fired up nationalists to sweep all before them in the subsequent General Election. Their new political dominance will eventually lead to independence. The moral apparently is that ‘Remain’ can’t just warn about the consequences of Brexit, it needs to make people feel good about the EU.

Yesterday was a blow to that theory. The SNP is not unstoppable. It lost its majority at Holyrood. Independence may not be inevitable after all. Of course, Brexit will be inevitable if ‘Leave’ wins the referendum as polls suggest it very well might. Stopping that should be our priority and if raising valid concerns about its results is the way to do it, then let’s do that.

THE RISE OF THE SCOTTISH CONSERVATIVES IS AMBIGIOUS FOR THE INDEPENDENCE DEBATE

On the one hand, the fact that the main unionist voice in Scotland is now the Conservatives makes it easier for the nationalists to equate opposition to independence with support for Conservatism. But the fact that the Conservative Party is winning elections in Scotland makes it harder for the SNP to present it as an alien force imposed from London. Expect them to try anyway.

JEREMY CORBYN’S LABOUR PARTY IS THE KIND OF LABOUR PARTY THAT LOSES SEATS TO THE CONSERVATIVES IN GLASGOW!!!

During an episode of Have I Got News For You from week of the first elections to the Scottish Parliament, Angus Deayton turned to the camera and reminded viewers that ‘this program is being recorded before the announcement of the results. So we cannot tell you how Labour, the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, Greens or Scottish Socialists are doing. However, we can tell you the Conservatives have done extremely badly.’

How times have changed.

Scotland was supposed to be the proving ground for Corbynism. The voters who’d rejected Blairism for Nationalism would supposedly be won back with red blooded socialism. To say the least, that’s not really worked.

More generally, I find the notion that because these elections were not quite a total disaster for Labour they were therefore a vindication of Corbyn’s leadership rather mystifying.

Opposition parties with new leaders basically never lose seats in the first round of local elections of a parliament. Given that the Government has a) split over the EU referendum and b) inflicted the junior doctors strike, academisation and an unpopular budget on itself, Labour slipping backwards is even more damning for Labour.

THE CONSERVATIVES MAY NOT QUITE BE BULLETPROOF

An understandable inference for a Conservative to draw from these events is that as long as Corbyn is Labour leader, they can do whatever they want without electoral repurcusions. That’s probably true up to a point. If their splits on Europe develop into schisms or they elect a leader even less qualified to be PM than Corbyn (*cough* Boris *cough*) then trouble could lie ahead.

UKIP ARE NOT DOING AS WELL AS THEY THINK

UKIP IS FULL OF IT

You know how UKIP loves to go on about corruption in the EU? Do you think this reflects an honest disdain for corruption or knee jerk Europhobia?

Well if they actually wanted clean politics, then they’d want nothing to do with Neil Hamilton. He is after all the personification of the sleaze that engulfed John Major’s government; the man who took money for asking parliamentary questions. But he’s now in the Welsh Assembly under UKIP colours. Which is all a bit yucky.

THE GREENS ARE CAUGHT IN A WEIRD FLUX STATE

My reading is that the fate of the Greens is in Labour’s hands. If Corbyn survives or is replaced by somebody like himself they’ll struggle. If the Labour moderates reassert control of their party, then there will be a lot of seriously pissed off lefties ripe for the taking.

Until Labour choses what direction to go in, the fate of the Greens is likely to be ambigious.

Lib Dems in glasshouses

Liberal Democrats should denounce Ken Livingstone’s antisemitism but our own record on dealing with out of order grandees is pathetic.

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The Labour Party appears to have an Anti-Semitism problem. Many of its own members say so. That fact was hard to dispute even before Ken Livingstone’s intervention. But a former mayor of the nation’s largest city expounding on a spurious connection between Zionism and Nazism displays the issue on an IMAX scale.

It is absolutely correct that Liberal Democrats – and every other right thinking person – should be condemning this. It was quite fair for Tim Farron to say:

The sight of Ken Livingstone – a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee and former Mayor of London – touring television studios spouting more and more ill-informed, divisive rhetoric was truly unbelievable and grew in offensiveness with every interview.

And most of the harsher words spoken by Lib Dem activists on social media were also justified.

What is not merited, however, is us developing any sense of superiority over the Labour Party. As a Party we have been terrible at dealing with wayward members. The most obvious example of this is the fact that despite being accused of sexual assault by multiple women, Chris Rennard still takes the Lib Dem whip in the Lords. The reason being that this he said/she, she, she and she said story was judged according to a criminal standard of proof, despite the fact that party membership is clearly a civil matter. The deeply unsatisfactory outcome is that Rennard is still in the Party but his victims have been pushed out.

However, more relevant to Livingstone’s case is that of another Lib Dem peer: Jenny Tonge. Whilst  she was eventually pressured into resigning from the Lib Dem group in the Lords, she remains a member of the Party. That is despite saying things that make Ken sound like a semitophile. The most gobsmacking came about in the wake of the 2010 Haitian earthquake. Medical assistance came in from across the world (including Israel). Tonge suggested that there should be an investigation into an allegation originating that the Hezbollah Youtube channel that Israeli medical teams were harvesting organs from the earthquake’s victims.

It is disturbing to say the least that a known menace to women and a propagator of a modern day blood libel are still Liberal Democrats. The scandal that followed the unearthing of Rennard’s misdemeanours led to the Party’s procedures being tightened but it remains to see how effective these will be in practice. More disturbing, is that both Rennard and Tonge still enjoy the support of vocal minorities within the Party.

We should by all means criticise Labour’s shortcomings but we must also recognise our own.

The best things I’ve read recently (01/05/2015)

A Spell Deferred (the New Republic) by David Hajdu

“[Nina Simone’s] voice, in pointed contrast to her piano playing, was untutored, informal—blistered and gray. She sounded oldish at twenty-five, and her quivery vibrato gave her music the quality of a haunting. Simone was mocked sometimes for sounding masculine, and the tinge of the transgressive likely contributes, too, to her enduring appeal to the pop audience. There is no cheesy chanteuse continentalism or cutesy pin-up sass in her singing. Her tone, always acrid, grew more stinging over time. She tended to sing a couple of microtones sharp—not quite out of key, but on the top end of the notes, an effect that gave her voice some of its spikiness. To hear one of Simone’s recordings on a playlist today, popping up between tracks by singers such as Björk or Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Simone sounds among sisters. She pioneered the caustic severity that pop singers, male and female, have learned to adopt to show their seriousness.”

Two men dancing in their underwear – Boris and Ken (the Guardian) by Mariana Hyde

“One of the greatest acts of comic sabotage in the entire Tony Blair premiership came during prime minister’s questions, when a Labour backbencher, Tony McWalter, stood up and inquired solicitously: “My right honourable friend is sometimes subject to rather unflattering or even malevolent descriptions of his motivation. Will he provide the house with a brief characterisation of the political philosophy that he espouses and which underlies his policies?”

Despite four days’ notice of the question, Blair was more than momentarily silenced. Yet compared to Boris, Tone was John Locke. You’d have more luck finding Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction than you would a sincerely held view not predicated on Boris’s personal ambition. I shrieked when he attempted to map himself on to the space occupied by Winston Churchill by publishing a book about the man who frequently polls as Britain’s greatest ever leader. It called to mind a great line in Working Girl: “Sometimes I sing and dance around the house in my underwear. Doesn’t make me Madonna. Never will.””

Why I’m too selfish to have children (Vox) by Sung J. Woo

“As a child of war, the Korean Conflict forced my mother and her family to literally run for their lives. She was 5 when the tanks started rolling and 8 by the time it was over, and during those years she learned what it meant to lose her home, to have all her essential belongings in a burlap bag, to have not enough to eat €— which is why Costco is now her favorite place in the world. When she walks into that warehouse stacked full of everything, her shoulders relax.  She smiles as she hugs the enormous rolls of paper towels and loads it into the cart. As she gazes at the giant bin of bananas, I’m certain she’d like to swim in them, like the way Scrooge McDuck wades in his pool of gold coins. Her closet in her condo is like a survivalist’s dream, triples and quadruples of toilet paper, kitchen gloves, Ziploc bags, because in her uncertain upbringing, nothing was permanent. Nothing could be counted on.”

Leave Root Causes Aside—Destroy the ISIS ‘State’ (the Atlantic) by James Jeffrey

“Defeating ISIS-as-state is not dependent upon solving Syria as a social, historical, cultural, religious, and governance project, let alone doing the same with Iraq. ISIS feeds on the conflicts in both countries and makes the situation in both worse. But it is possible to defeat ISIS as a “state” and as a military-economic “power”—that is, deal with the truly threatening part— without having to solve the Syrian and Iraqi crises or eliminate ISIS as a set of terrorist cells or source of ideological inspiration. Of course, even if ISIS is destroyed as a state, we would still have the Syrian Civil War and Iraqi disunity, but we have all that now, along with ISIS, which presents its own challenges to the region and the West.”

English spelling is exasperating (-ough edition)

In one sense English spelling is fantastic. In its mishmashes and inconsistencies you can see much of the languages long and winding history. For example there’s a whole academic discipline devoted to uncovering the history of places through their unusual names and weird spellings like ‘Worcestershire’ are a key part of it.

But in a larger sense the lack of a consistent correspondence between spelling and pronunciation is a nightmare. It makes learning to read and write unnecessarily difficult. Rather than remembering a few simple rules, we also wind up learning myriad exceptions and special cases.

This video from Oxford Dictionaries highlights one of the most maddening, the strange case of ‘-ough’:

 

I ranked every Marvel film and TV series because I’m that cool [updated]

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A year ago I made a ranking of every part of the MCU. But this being Marvel, that universe has grown by 25% since then. So to celebrate the fact Civil War is nearly here, I’ve done an updated version.

16. Iron Man 2 (2010)

Pros: The first film to move beyond hinting at a broader universe and start fleshing it out. It also introduced us to Black Widow, and Don Cheadle is a better James Rhodes than Terrance Howard.

Cons: It’s all set up and no pay off. The filmmakers seem to have purposefully avoided anything too interesting lest that prevent them being able to use it later on. Perhaps because of this the story and script are a mess. It wastes Sam Rockwell (a serious crime) but gives us plenty of Gwyneth Paltrow (an even worse crime).

Summary: The film that sacrificed itself for the good of the rest of the MCU.

15. The Incredible Hulk (2008)

Pros: Nothing in particular.

Cons: Nothing in particular.

Summary: It’s really forgettable.

14. Thor (2011)

Pros: The scenes set on Earth are mostly fun.

Cons: Despite having superthesp Ken Brangh directing, the faux Shakespeare stuff doesn’t really work. That’s unfortunate because that’s most the scenes and the bulk of the most dramatic ones.

Summary: A film where some physicists taking readings in a backwater town in New Mexico is more interesting than the action sequences. That’s not a good thing.

13. Thor: the Dark World (2013)

Pros: Loki only really came into his own when Whedon’s writing injected him with some menace and panache. The improvement carries over into this film, with by far the best scenes being the Whedon penned sparring between Thor and Loki. They are a joy to watch.

Cons: I really could not care less whether Thor manages to prevent the Dark Elves unleashing the Aether at the centre of the convergance.

Summary: Ideally Thor: Ragnarok will just be Tom Hiddleston delivering Whedon one-liners.

12. Jessica Jones (2015)

Pros: Rytter is great as the titular hero but Tennant is even better as Kilgrave. Rather than planning to take over the world, he’s essentially a superpowered stalker, and all the more menacing for it. That allows the show to explore some weighty issues around violence against women.

Cons: The supporting characters are nowhere near as good as the two leads. And the story is stretched beyond breaking point. As a result it becomes messy and unsatisfying.

Summary: Has this been six episodes long it might have been great. At twice that length it is unsatisfying.

11. Captain America: the First Avenger (2011)

Pros: The by no means straightforward evolution of Steve Rodgers into Captain America is well played with nice twists like how the military’s first instinct is to use him for propaganda. The best part, however, is Hayley Atwell managing to elevate Peggy Carter from a generic supporting role to the core of the film.

Cons: The actions scenes are bland beyond words. As a result, the film actually tails off as it reaches its climax.

Summary: The first film to hint that Marvel was capable of doing smarter things. However, it gets the basics wrong and largely falls flat as a result.

10. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Pros: A great ensemble deliver great lines among some nicely done action scences featuring one of Marvel’s better film villains.

Cons: Having so many different subplots and characters pulling in different directions nearly pulls the film apart. It just about holds together but often feels meandering and overlong.

Summary: Too much of a good thing?

 9. Iron Man (2008)

Pros: Started the whole MCU, revived Robert Downey Jnr’s career and made post-credit stings a thing.

Cons: It’s a bit hammy in places.

Summary: If you ignore what it lead to, it’s a pretty generic blockbuster. Naught wrong with that mind.

8. Ant Man

Pros: Turns its silliness to a definite advantage. Rudd is probably Marvel’s most likeable lead. And the battle aboard a toy train set is the franchise’s most inventive sequence.

Cons: The story is generic and predictable. I also dislike the use of ethnic stereotypes to make jokes.

Summary: Indisputably entertaining.

7. Agents of Shield (2014-15)

Pros: It took a while getting there but it is now genuinely good telly. It’s pacey, delivers plenty of cliffhangers and has found interesting character dynamics to explore. And surprisingly for a show that started out rather cheesy it’s become darker and more violent than the movies. It also provides some of Marvel’s best villains.

Cons: Very little good can be said about the first sixteen episodes. They were corny with terrible CGI and a meandering story arc. It’s got a LOT better but it still has weaknesses. The most grating of which is overuse of on the nose exposition. It is also held back by the strange dynamic whereby it has to react to the movies without being able to influence them.

Summary: Quality wise this has been a rollercoaster: in gestation it looked like a sure hit, then it seemed like it was dead on arrival, but even more remarkably it turned itself round and is now a quiet triumph.

6. Iron Man 3 (2013)

Pros: Impressive stripped down action sequences, a plot that makes sense and as much as it annoys comic purists, the twist is hilarious.

Cons: Gwyneth Paltrow is still in it.

Summary: Proved that Marvel could live up to the standards it set itself with the Avengers.

5. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Pros:  Rivals Scott Pilgrim as the funniest comic book film ever. Plus the sheer boldness of making a film with a racoon and a tree at its heart.

Cons: Marvel loves its McGuffins almost as much as its underwhelming villains. This film has two of the latter chasing after one of the former. It’s an indication of how good this film is that this only mildly undermines the fun of the movie.

Summary: If you didn’t enjoy this, I despair of the possibility you will ever be entertained.

4. The Avengers (2012)

Pros: Successfully married sci-fi epic and office comedy with phenomenal results.  Created a new sub-genre: the superhero ensemble. In Mark Ruffallo, we finally get the movie Hulk we deserved, who let us not forget at one point destroys a massive alien spaceship with a single punch.

Cons: The plot is occasionally a bit thin (*cough* failsafe *cough*) and it introduced Thanos which on the evidence of Guardians was a mistake.

Summary: Whoop, whoop!

3. Daredevil (2015)

Pros: All that juicy weighty morally ambiguous darkness. The simultaneously beautiful and horrifying fight choreography. The compelling Punisher storyline from the second series. And most of all it has Vincent D’Onofrio as a villain we can believe in and therefore get really scared by.

Cons: The second series is weaker than the first. As I said, I like the stuff with the Punisher but that gradually peters out. In its place there is some nonsense about ninjas, which given the tone of the rest of the show comes across.  D’Onofrio’s much curtailed role means he doesn’t ground the proceedings in the same way.

It’s also worth mentioning that neither series is suitable for Marvel’s young fan base.

Summary: Daredevil is to Marvel, what Daniel Craig’s 007 is to the Bond franchise.

2. Agent Carter (2015)

Pros: You know how I was raving about Hayley Atwell earlier? Well given her own series she doesn’t disappoint. It is not only funny and exciting but also has a real empathy for underdogs. In contrast to the huge movies centered on white men, Agent Carter tells its story from the point of view of outsiders – women, people of colour, immigrants and the disabled – who have to live with the consequences of the superpowered theatrics. It also manages some great humour – much of it courtesy of Dominic Cooper and James D’Arcy playing Howard Stark and his long suffering butler Edwin Jarvis – and lots of period detail and style. And it’s further confirmation that Marvel TV has way better villains than the films do.

Cons: The first season is near flawless. The second falls short of that standard. The storytelling is a bit pedestrian and it doesn’t really advance Carter as a character.

Summary: The most underappreciated entry on this list. Seek it out if you get the chance.

1. Captain America: the Winter Soldier (2014)

Pros: Another great ensemble. Fight scenes inspired by the Raid and a car chase based on the French Connection.  I love how it adopts of a Seventies political thriller and the fact that it uses the space afforded by having a lead character called ‘Captain America’ to highlight the fact that not everything the American government does is desirable.

Cons: You can knit pick the plot and the massive battle scene at the end rather undermines the more grounded feel of the rest of the film.

Summary: The best.

Would Edmund Burke be for Leave or Remain?

Why do so many so-called ‘conservatives’ back such a radical upheaval?

 

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The wisdom of Michael Oakeshott

 

The watchbreakers

I want to briefly take you back to 1980. This was the point when the deflationary policies of the Thatcher government were beginning to bite. The government had raised the cost of borrowing in an attempt to wring inflation from the economy. So far, it did not appear to being doing that. But it had pushed many firms into bankruptcy and thereby propelled their workers into unemployment. To add cruel irony to the situation this was a government that had got itself elected by declaring that “Labour isn’t working”. In this context Michael Foot, one of the greatest radical MPs in Labour’s history, took aim at Keith Joseph. He was a Conservative MP, Secretary of State for Trade and the Iron Lady’s ideological guru. He had introduced her to the works of the American Economist Milton Friedman and was therefore arguably responsible for what was unfolding. Foot’s weapon against him was to be a simple story:

In my youth, quite a time ago, when I lived in Plymouth, every Saturday night I used to go to the Palace theatre. My favourite act was a magician-conjuror who used to have sitting at the back of the audience a man dressed as a prominent alderman. The magician-conjuror used to say that he wanted a beautiful watch from a member of the audience. He would go up to the alderman and eventually take from him a marvellous gold watch. He would bring it back to the stage, enfold it in a beautiful red handkerchief, place it on the table in front of us, take out his mallet, hit the watch and smash it to smithereens. Then on his countenance would come exactly the puzzled look of the Secretary of State for Industry. He would step to the front of the stage and say “I am very sorry. I have forgotten the rest of the trick.” That is the situation of the Government. They have forgotten the rest of the trick. It does not work. Lest any objector should suggest that the act at the Palace theatre was only a trick, I should assure the House that the magician-conjuror used to come along at the end and say “I am sorry. I have still forgotten the trick.”

It’s a good joke at which Joseph had the last laugh. The economy eventually rebounded and in the General Election that followed Thatcher would crush Foot.

Nonetheless, Foot’s story points at an apparent paradox. He was perhaps the most left-wing leader Labour has ever had. He was not merely a progressive but a radical. By contrast, it would have been hard to find a political figure more conservative than Joseph. He had been instrumental in the transformation of the Conservative Party from an organisation rooted in genteel centrism to one that pushed right-wing policies more assertively than any other in Europe. Arguably more so than any other party in the world.

Yet Foot’s implicit criticism is that Joseph is not being conservative enough. He is experimenting with new economic policies he does not understand and cannot control the impact of. It would have been better, according to Foot, to stick the Keynesian status quo.

I want to suggest that in the EU referendum we are confronted with a loosely analogous situation. A lot of people affiliated with the Conservative Party or who call themselves ‘conservatives’ are advocating a massive and potentially destabilising policy change. And the best hope for containing their dangerous radicalism are people who would normally regard ‘conservative’ as an insult.

Of Conservatives and conservatives

Like most political concepts, conservatism exists in the eye of the beholder. It can mean free market economics, authoritarian politics or a host of other things. But here, I use it to mean a political disposition born of intellectual scepticism. It’s what Michael Oakeshott meant when he said:

To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.

These ideas have been on my mind of late because I have been reading Jesse Norman’s biography of Edmund Burke. The great man is best remembered now for a celebrated critique of the French Revolution that provoked Tom Paine into writing A Vindication of the Rights of Man as a response. Burke was also a Whig MP and, Norman argues, a seriously underrated political philosopher.

Norman extracts from Burke an argument that humans are more characterised by interdependence than independence. This fact will frustrate the efforts of social engineers. They want to be able to manipulate societies in a precise, predictable and tidy way. But that demands being able to move humans like Lego bricks and actual people aren’t like that. If you pull them apart and start putting them back together again, the ties between them will become tangled and torn. Therefore, wherever possible the Burke/Norman hybrid argues we should leave things the hell alone. Failing that changes should be small and go with the grain of what already exists.

Burkean Euroscepticism

Norman – who has traded in academic philosophy for being a Conservative MP – clearly does not think much of the European Union. He has declared himself neutral in the EU referendum in the hopes of ‘holding the ring’. However, he has previously written that:

…this lack of legitimacy…poses the deepest challenge for the EU, deeper even than the economic challenges of debt and competitiveness. Without legitimacy, no government can sustain itself over time by democratic means. Unaccountable government is ineffective, unresponsive government; government which turns inwards on itself and becomes vulnerable to corruption, self-dealing and domination by special interests.

People start to ask: why pay your taxes, why vote, why obey the rules, if you have no power to change things? Resources are allocated for purely political purposes, rather than in response to public need. Resilience, competitiveness and energy are reduced; sclerosis sets in. When change occurs it tends to be convulsive, not gradual.

And in the Burke biography he indicates that his subject would have shared his distaste:

Within the European Union, the new currency of the euro was introduced as an elite project which deliberately ignored, and ignores, longstanding public concerns about the huge differences in the societies involved, and about the legitimacy of the Union’s own institutions. Burke would have reminded those involved that a project which ultimately seeks to abolish national identities and allegiances is likely to fail.

In this reading of the EU it is an unwanted and unwarranted imposition on imperfect but servicable national communities. They had developed ways of making laws, representing their people and providing them with services. They did not need a bunch of Euro-utopians coming along and attempting to displace all of that with their dreams of a pan-continental federation united in a chorus of Ode to Joy.

Norman perhaps imagines Burke would see Eurocrats the way he saw the East India Company’s corporate raiders: complacent outsiders trampling all over societies they did not understand and whose merits they did not appreciate.

All of which is enough to convince me that Burke would have been at least dubious about further European integration. And it is hard to imagine a truly conservative case for a United States of Europe.

Overwhelming benefits or extreme necessity?

Despite this I would like to claim Burke – or at least his arguments – for Remain. Conservatism ought to abhor wrenching discontinuities like Brexit. While attempting to channel Burke, Norman writes that:

The political leader knows in advance that all change, however well intentioned, will disrupt the social fabric, with unforeseeable and potentially serious negative consequences. Still more is this true of sweeping, radical change – what Burke calls ‘innovation’ – which abolishes whole tracts of settled human understanding and social wisdom. For radical change to be genuinely worthwhile, it must bring overwhelming social benefit, or be the product of the most extreme necessity.

It is hard to argue that the EU – as opposed to the Euro – has reached the point where its flaws are so massive that leaving could lead to ‘overwhelming social benefit’ or that our departure would be of “the most extreme necessity”.

If you push leave supporters on this kind of point, the answers tend to be comically inadequate. Asked to cite benefits of leaving they’ll point to things like being able to negotiate a free trade agreement with Australia, lift the tampon tax and even make our own regulations on the size of shipping containers. Neither individually nor collectively do these amount to a compelling case for departure.

Alternatively, there are those who see things on the EU’s horizon that are so ominous they do in fact necessitate an exit. There is the talk of a convulsive crisis of legitimacy, like the one hinted at in the article by Norman I quoted earlier. Alternatively, there is the notion that the EU is a whirlpool from which we much must escape before we are pulled into a Federal Superstate. Take this from Boris Johnson:

The idea of the Single Market has become so capacious that it is a cloak for full-scale political and economic union. We now have up to half our law coming from the EU (some say two thirds); and if the Five Presidents get their way, the process of centralisation will simply continue – much of it in the name of the “Single Market”. It’s time we learnt the lesson. The federalists do mean it when they sketch out these programmes. The ratchet is clicking forwards. When you come to vote, the status quo is not on offer.

This notion is basically rot. For starters, Britain has successfully stayed out of projects it doesn’t like including the euro and Schengen. I would agree there is an unfortunate tendency for the European Court of Justice to take the most integrationist reading possible of the treaties. But it is still constrained by those treaties and a superstate could not built on the basis of them. They would need to be amended to, for example, unify defence and foreign policies. This can only be done with the unanimous agreement of member states and that would allow the UK to veto them.

Worries about the EU’s legitimacy and democratic deficit are less easily dismissed. Clearly they are real. But they are hardly unique to the EU. A loss of faith in governing institutions is a global phenomenon which is having an impact well beyond the EU. Indeed, the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom seems to be in as much danger as the one between European nations.

The notion that the EU is a uniquely undemocratic institution is generally rather glib. For most purposes, it is simply a collection of member states each with their own democratically elected governments. It is these governments that choose the Commissioners and cast votes in the Council. In addition, the Union has its own parliament. It is quite capable of responding to pressure from below. As a small example of this, witness the deal to allow the UK to scrap the ‘tampon tax’. Campaigners pressured the UK government for a change, which precipitated the government going to their European partners and advocating for a change in the Union’s rules on what products could have VAT levied on them. The system worked: it allowed for a change to be negotiated and British voters were able to hold their government accountable for whether or not it delivered the change they wanted.

The EU as a means of conservation

Much of the anti-European discourse tends to assume that the natural social order is embodied in the nation state, and that the EU is an artificial imposition upon it.

I would agree that the EU is indeed artificial: it was made by men not discovered in nature. But the same is true of all political groupings. Nationhood is like paper money, it only has power to the extent humans agree among themselves it does.

Human beings have not always been organised into distinct nation states. From tribes through to Colonial Empires for most of history, most of humanity has lived outside the Westphalian System. Indeed one of the signatories to the Treaty of Westephalia was the Holy Roman Empire, a confederation of political units not totally dissimilar to the EU.

Now clearly if you are dealing with societies organised into nation states, the default conservative position should be to stick with that arrangement. But that does not mean it can never be modified.

Norman writes that:

…Burke is not opposed to change as such, only to radical or total change. On the contrary: for him acceptance of change is the indispensible corollary of commitment to a given social order, which will itself be continuously evolving. To recall the words of the Reflections on the Revolution in France, ‘A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation’.

And at the time of the founding of the EU’s predecessors, European states were in need of a means of conservation. They had fought not one but two wars that had killed millions. Communism had enveloped parts of the continent already and was menacing much of the remainder. Europeans needed to bind themselves together to avoid falling apart.

Even given that it would have been hard for Europe to immediately jump to a union of 28 member states. So it didn’t. It began as a Coal and Steel Community of 6 states. And from there gradually grew and deepened into the entity that currently exists.

That allowed for the creation of a single market, for resources to be shared between rich and poor areas, and provided an incentive for potential members to adopt free markets, democratic institutions and the rule of the law.

I therefore, submit that far from being an imposition on the European social order, the EU is now an integral part of the order. And a Brexit would be disrupt it.

You see the thing is there are good conservative reasons to condemn not only revolutionaries but also counter-revolutionaries. For example, one of Burke’s intellectual heirs Michael Oakeshott attacked the attempt to restore Irish to its status as a Ireland’s national language. He felt this was an ideological project that was unnecessary and unlikely to succeed when English sufficed perfectly well as a means of communication for Irish people. Given that there may be fewer fluent speakers of Irish than of Polish in the Republic, he seems to have been right. Attempting to push people back into an idyllic past is as foolish as trying to drag them into a utopian future.

And that’s what trying to rebuild a pure Westphalian system in Europe would amount to. It never actually existed and for good reasons we have gradually moved away from it. To destroy that would be to privilege the dubious insights of ideology over the more reliable guide of history.

Norman quotes Burke describing the British constitution as like an old building which:

stands well enough, though part Gothic, part Grecian, part Chinese, until an attempt is made to square it into uniformity. Then it may come down upon our heads altogether, in much uniformity of ruin; and great will be the ruin thereof.

A Burkean therefore should not distressed by the untidy intermingling of national sovereignty and European community that characterises the current British constitution. It is those who fail to appreciate the purpose served by such messiness who should worry us.

Into uncertainty

I don’t want to rehearse the full arguments about the merits of leaving. Nonetheless, it is worth subjecting a fair number of them to a Burkean analysis.

The essential point here is not to give equal weight to the benefits of arrangements that currently exist and those a proposed alternative set of arrangements. We can have more confidence in the former than the latter.

As we’ve already discussed societies are unimaginably complex. So when we draw up plans for a new improved version, we only be making the roughest of sketches. We therefore have little idea how the finished product will look. It is thus probable that we will like it less than we imagined.

In the case of Brexit such disappointment is basically guaranteed because Leaverers are working from multiple sketches. One of the peculiar features of the Out campaign is that it draws a disproportionate amount of its support from the further edges of the political spectrum. Rather than left facing off against right, it’s often the far left and far right taking on the centre-left and centre-right. The fact that a single ‘remain’ campaign was opposed by a series of rival ‘leave’ groups is not all that surprising. Their views are not only different, they are contradictory. The EU can’t simultaneously be ‘a capitalist club’ and be chaining down British capitalism. Brexit could theoretically result in freer trade or more protectionism but not both. In the years following departure either Daniel Hannan or George Galloway would be likely to wish we’d stayed in.

More likely is that both of them would be disappointed. A common feature of radicalism is condescension towards the past. The only way we could have wound up with such dumb policies and institutions is if our predecessors were themselves a bit dumb. Take for example, the common assertion that the UK entered the then European Community under false pretences, believing it was a free trade area only to see it mutate into a political union. In fact, a large part of the 1975 referendum campaign was a debate about national sovereignty rather similar to the one we are having today. Witness, for example, the Yes campaign reassuring voters that: “membership of the Common Market also imposes new rights and duties on Britain, but does not deprive us of our national identity.”

Notwithstanding the ideology of radicals, people usually had pragmatic reasons for the decisions they made. Those reasons generally still at least partially apply. Therefore, it’s generally hard to completely change course. Witness, for example, the way that the SNP’s vision of an independent Scotland has transmogrified into an EU member country with sterling as it currency and the Queen as its head of state.

In the European case that would likely mean having to rebuild some kind of trade relationship with the remaining members of the European Union. Not having easy access to our immediate neighbours – who also happen to collectively be the world’s largest economy – is not really an option. Not doing so would put close to half our trade at risk. Vote Leave reassures us that this will be no big deal:

The UK is the EU’s largest export partner. It is overwhelmingly in the EU’s – particularly Germany’s – interests to agree a friendly UK-EU free trade deal.

But their complacency is misjudged. The EU would indeed have an interest in free trade with the UK and in all likelihood such a deal would be concluded. But it does not follow that this would be a good deal for the UK. We are an island, they are a continent. They would want a deal, we would need one. It is easier to gamble with a modest fraction of your trade, than it is with half of it. They could therefore credibly threaten to walk away from a deal they found unsatisfactory, while we would have to swallow it. Emotion would play a role too. The rest of the continent would likely take a dim view of our departure and the disruption that resulted. They would therefore be unlikely to be feeling charitable. And we’d need to consider how a British civil service that has not negotiated a trade deal since the 1970s would fair dealing with an EU bureaucracy that exists in large part to make such deals. There is therefore a real possibility, perhaps even a probability, that we would wind up with some combination of access to fewer markets than we’d hoped, still paying into the EU budget and something like Norway’s ‘government by fax’ whereby we’d have to follow EU rules but have no role in making them.

Set against this we must consider the argument put forward by free trading Brexiteers that leaving the EU would give us more opportunities to trade beyond it. Douglas Carswell has argued that “staying in the EU means confining ourselves inside the world’s only declining trading bloc. That means a future of shrinking markets, and diminishing opportunities” and that we should look for “light regulation, free markets, and free trade with the whole world” on the outside.

A conservative should have nothing nice to say about this argument.

For starters, it invites disruption. My reference point for understanding why this is a problem is someone I briefly encountered in my days as a local councillor. I was at a public meeting about plans to pedestrianise the centre of Oxford. A corollary of this idea would be rerouting the coaches to London. One of the members of the public who spoke was worried by this. She didn’t think one route or the other was inherently better. Nonetheless, she commuted into London and had bought a house specifically to be near the existing route. Had the route been different she’d have bought a different house. But having made her choice, if the route changed there would be no easy way for her to get back to a position as desirable as the one she was currently in.

There’d be a real risk of something comparable happening with regard to European and non-European markets. Businesses will have made plans and investments on the assumption of having access to the European single market. Even if they get greater access to markets outside the EU in compensation that’s still not what they’ve been preparing for and they would therefore be less able to exploit it.

More baffling still from a Burkean point of view is that getting to some nirvana of global free trade would involve the UK sacrificing its existing free trade agreements. It would go from having treaties with 50 countries to none. The Leave camp would probably dismiss this concern: surely negotiating replacement deals would just be a formality? Well not necessarily. The UK’s economy is substantial and access to its market is a big prize for any country. But it is an order of magnitude smaller than the EU and therefore our government would go into any negotiation with far less clout. And let us not forget that that government has not negotiated a trade deal in 40 years. So it seems reckless to assume that everything would go according to plan. That forces us to confront the prospect that exiting the EU could restrict Britain’s trade not only with Europe but beyond it. Brexit thus becomes a classic case of the folly of sacrificing the known benefits of the present for the speculative ones of some imagined future.

Stepping back from the issue of trade, we can observe a host of other areas where leaving the EU would unleash disruption and uncertainty. How would the lives of British citizens living in other EU countries be affected? How about EU citizens living in the UK? What would be the impact on the friends, neighbours and employers of both groups? How would we decide which of legal precedents established since accession, all of which were supposed to be compliant with EU law, would still apply? Will dealing with a Brexit distract the EU and make it harder for it resolve the refugee and Eurozone crisis? Would we alienate allies like the US and Germany by leaving? Would we embolden enemies like Putin? Would the EU evolve in a direction we don’t like without us there to advocate for the alternative? Would there be a second referendum on Scottish independence?

And those are just the first few questions that came to my mind. There will be myriad repercussions I can’t predict. Probably no one can predict them. European integration is a ‘game’ which dozens of states and hundreds of millions of citizens are playing, and that the rest of the world are engaged spectators of. Its complexity is so vast that making predictions is very hard. Caution is therefore the only responsible position.

The gamblers

There has been criticism of the Remain campaign for being uninspiring. It is claimed that it focuses too much on arguing against Brexit. It apparently needs to do more to make the case for the EU. This may or may not be a good point as regard political tactics. I’m personally sceptical. But when it comes to the substance of the policy debate, it’s definitely wrong. If Britain were not currently a member of the EU, I would want to join. But even if you don’t like the EU, you should still recognise that the very process of leaving would have real costs. They theoretically might be justified by “overwhelming social benefit” or “the most extreme necessity.” But as we’ve seen they simply aren’t.

That makes Brexit an unjustified gamble, which in turn makes it a profoundly unconservative thing to do. It is therefore be surprising that so many members of the Conservative Party back it. And furthermore that they do it in such a thoroughly unconservative way. Rather than wisdom and caution they offer bravado. Rather than warning of the dangers, they ridicule those who do as “merchants of doom” who can be ignored because…uhh…Britain. You will search Burke and Oakeshott’s writings in vain for a passage explaining how exclamations of national machismo can substitute for the hard work of policy making and institution building. Yet that is what many self-proclaimed ‘conservatives’ are in fact doing.

The Leavers want you to believe Brexit will be simple; that the details will fall into place; and all kinds of benefits will arrive without costs. But it won’t be easy. You only need to be slightly convinced by conservative ideas to realise that a change this big can never be easy and is seldom wise.

But the likes of Johnson, Hannan and Carswell do not deal in such ideas. They are not pragmatists or sceptics but ideologues. Rather than cherishing institutions they seek to eliminate any that stand in the way of the realisation of their vision of pure Thatcherism.

Brexit is not an act of conservation but of destruction. Its proponents casually assume it will be the creative kind. But they have given us little reason to believe that. Their arrogance strongly suggests they have little hope of putting the watch back together again, and given the chance they will sacrifice our trade relationships and international alliances in pursuit of a blissful utopia of national sovereignty.

You can be a conservative or you can be for Brexit. You cannot be both.

 

 

P.S. If you are interested in how right-wing ideas went from conservative to radical, I wrote a more general post about this topic which you can find here.