Category Archives: gender issues

How The Captain Marvel Movie Could Actually Fail

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I hope everyone has had a chance to catch their breath after the release of the “Captain Marveltrailer. I certainly needed a day or two. It was one of those experiences in which it takes time to process every wondrous detail. I don’t know how many times I watched it. I just know that March 8, 2019 cannot get here fast enough.

The response to the trailer has been overwhelmingly positive, which has become the norm for all things affiliated with Marvel Studios. The bar for this movie is high, but matching and exceeding high bars is exactly what Carol Danvers does. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is already on an unprecedented win streak, both in terms of acclaim and box office. By all accounts, “Captain Marvel” is poised to continue that streak.

If I had to bet on it, I would place a hefty wager on “Captain Marvel” succeeding. Marvel Studios is riding such a huge wave of hype after “Avengers: Infinity War” that the idea of one of their movies failing seems unthinkable. However, it wasn’t that long ago that people felt the same way about “Star Wars.” Then, “Solo: A Star Wars Story” came along and shattered that notion with the force of a thousand Death Stars.

Like it or not, the law of averages dictates that Marvel Studios will fail at some point. Whether or not that happens with “Captain Marvel” remains to be seen. For the moment, that doesn’t seem likely, but the possibility is definitely there. I would go so far as to say that “Captain Marvel” is more vulnerable than previous Marvel movies and not just because the bar for success is so ridiculously high.

Kevin Feige, the President of Marvel Studios, has gone on record as saying that Captain Marvel will be one of the most powerful characters in the MCU. Her presence will be a game-changer for the immediate and distant future. That means the margin for error is ridiculously small. Marvel Studios literally cannot afford for “Captain Marvel” to fail. That may end up being what makes this movie so vulnerable.

As a lifelong fan of superhero comics and a Captain Marvel fan, I feel like it’s worth contemplating this most distressing possibility. Never mind the implications for Marvel, Disney, and the entire superhero genre that may unfold in the event that “Captain Marvel” fails. How could a movie with so much going for it and an Oscar-winning actress in Brie Larson end up failing in the first place?

After watching the new trailer multiple times, reading multiple articles, and contemplating my previous comments on this movie, I’ve surmised a handful of concerns that I believe could derail this movie. Some of these concerns assume certain details that may very well be dead wrong by the time the movie comes out. I have no insight beyond the trailers I’ve seen and the details that have been made public.

I don’t expect everyone to share these concerns. Some may even have entirely difference concerns and I’d be happy to discuss them in the comics. For now, this is just me, as a fan of both Carol Danvers and superhero comics, contemplating what could go wrong for a movie that aspires to do so much.


Reason #1: Limiting The Extent Of Carol’s Agency (Inadvertently)

One of the biggest revelations from the second trailer had to do with an important plot point that was ripped directly from the comics. In the first minute, we find out that Carol’s memory has been erased and she’s caught up in the agenda of the Kree. Given how the only notable Kree character in the MCU to date has been Ronan the Accuser, this does not bode well for her.

This is a critical detail because in the comics, Carol lost both her memories and her powers at one point and had to effectively rebuild herself. That struggle helped establish how resilient she was, as a character. It also helped build her appeal. More importantly, though, it emphasized her struggle to regain her sense of agency.

Being mind-wiped is always a tricky plot point, as was nicely demonstrated in “Captain America: Civil War.” The biggest problem is being mind-wiped really hinders a character’s ability to make weighty choices. For Bucky Barnes, that isn’t too controversial. For Carol Danvers, a female hero in an era where female heroes have become fodder for identity politics, it could be an issue.

If, from the get-go, Carol is just a puppet of the Kree and her entire story revolves around her escaping their control, then that doesn’t just narrow the plot. It limits her agency because it makes her choices predictable. If, at any point in the story, she’s faced with a choice to follow the agenda of the Kree or go against them, it’s not going to surprise anyone when she chooses to go against the aliens trying to use her.

By making too much of the story about Carol re-asserting her agency, it makes the movie less about her fighting shape-shifting aliens and more about her regaining her independence. While that too can be a compelling story, and one in line with her history in the comics, it hinders the plot by making every choice obvious. When none of the choices in a story seem difficult, it can get boring fast.


Reason #2: Not Allowing Carol To Be Wrong

This is another factor that could make “Captain Marvel” too predictable and boring. Marvel Studios has made it clear that they want Carol Danvers to be the future of the MCU. Like Captain America, she’s poised to become the face of Marvel and their Disney overlords. For that very reason, it’s important that they allow her to be wrong.

To understand why, think back to “Wonder Woman,” the movie that set the gold standard for female superhero movies. In this movie, Wonder Woman doesn’t just make a fateful choice when she leaves Paradise Island. She also ends up being dead wrong about the identity of Ares. It made for a powerful moment that genuinely surprised me.

That moment didn’t just establish that Wonder Woman was fallible, despite being this overpowered badass warrior princess. It humanized her in a critical way. You could argue that this trait is more integral to Marvel’s heroes because they end up being wrong in a wide variety of ways. Tony Stark’s journey to becoming Iron Man started with him being wrong about something.

My concern for Carol is that making her this overpowered female hero who can defeat Thanos will take priority over everything else. The story won’t even give her a chance to be wrong or make a bad decision. That won’t just make the plot predictable and boring. It could earn Carol Danvers the dreaded “Mary Sue” label that has plagued characters like Rey.

That, more than anything, could derail Carol’s ascension to the upper echelons of the MCU. If she becomes a joke more than an icon, then she won’t be able to do carry out the bold plans that Marvel Studios has laid out for her. Part of what makes characters like Iron Man and Wonder Woman so popular is that they’re so easy to cheer for. Cheering for an annoyingly flawless character who is never wrong is much harder.


Reason #3: Not Effectively Explaining Carol’s Absence From The MCU

This is more a logistical concern than anything else. Before the first trailer ever dropped, it was established that “Captain Marvel” was going to take place in the 1990s. As a result, it would unfold within a world before the Avengers ever assembled and before superheroes ever became mainstream. It would also explore the origin of pre-eye patch Nick Fury, something that “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” only hinted at.

That’s an intriguing idea that digs into an unexplored aspect of the MCU. At the same time, it does raise a major question. If Carol has been Captain Marvel since the 1990s, where has she been? Why wasn’t she available when Loki or Ultron attacked? While it makes sense outside the movies in that a “Captain Marvel” movie wasn’t even scheduled before 2012, those questions are still relevant in the story.

The end of “Avengers: Infinity War” somewhat compounds this issue because Nick Fury reveals that he has had a way of contacting Carol all this time. A tie-in comic also hints at his past dealings with Carol, but is vague on why he chose not to summon her. Chances are “Captain Marvel” will try to answer that question more in depth, but that answer might not be adequate.

It’s not a trivial detail that can be glossed over. If Carol doesn’t have a good reason for not being on Earth during invasions from aliens and genocidal robots, then that makes it harder to get behind her as the most powerful hero in the MCU. It can’t come off as an excuse because Marvel Studios hadn’t planned that far ahead. Without a good reason, Carol just wouldn’t come off as heroic.


Reason #4: Making Her A Female Superhero BEFORE Making Her A Great Female Characters

This is where the stakes for “Captain Marvel” get frustratingly political. I’ve mentioned before how creating quality female characters has become mired in identity politics. This movie has already been affected somewhat by those corruptive forces. “Wonder Woman” managed to avoid it from a plot perspective and that’s the most “Captain Marvel” can do.

This means that before Carol Danvers becomes the super-powerful, high-flying badass we saw in the trailer, she needs to establish herself as a character, first. This is something I’ve seen movies, comics, and TV shows get completely backwards in recent years. There’s such an emphasis on making someone a “strong female character” that they forget the part where they’re a compelling character.

Carol Danvers has decades of character development in the comics. She’s someone who has deal with upheavals in her personal life, her superhero life, and everything in between. It’s hard to fit all of that into a two-and-a-half hour movie, but both “Wonder Woman” and “Captain America: The First Avenger” showed that it’s possible.

I can easily imagine Marvel Studios feeling tempted to make “Captain Marvel” the kind of cosmic spectacle we saw in “Guardians of the Galaxy.” I wouldn’t blame them for taking that approach, but having that without establishing the depths behind Carol Danvers would only be half a movie. Visual spectacles are great, but without quality characters, it’s just flashy images and nothing else.


Reason #5: Trying Too Hard To Make Carol Too Powerful

This issue is part logistics and part agenda. The events of “Avengers: Infinity War” were astonishing in terms of scope and scale. In the end, the collective might of dozens of Avengers could not stop Thanos. He was stronger than Thor, the Hulk, and the entire army of Wakanda. By default, taking him down requires a new level of power.

Carol Danvers promises to wield such power. Before the movie finished shooting, Kevin Feige dubbed her the most powerful Avengers in the MCU. That power may be necessary to defeat Thanos, but getting Carol that power could be tricky. Her power levels are already pretty extreme in the comics, but the MCU deals with different circumstances and scales.

The second trailer offers some clues as to how Carol gets her powers. Like the comics, they’re tied to her biology getting mixed up with that of the Kree. Beyond that, the scope and extent of her powers are vague. It’s not clear whether there’s something unique about her or the process that gives her so much power. At some point, she’ll have to level up and expanding powers in superhero media is always tricky.

When powers don’t have defined limits or are left vague, they tend to resolve every story in the spirit of a Deus Ex Machina trope. In short, there’s a supremely powerful threat. Then, by some contrived happenstance, the good guys gain access to power at or greater than the threat. It’s simple, but contrived. A DC movie may get a pass, but the bar for Marvel Studios is higher.


Again, I believe that “Captain Marvel” will be a great movie. Most of these concerns are just a byproduct of only knowing the movie through a couple of trailers. None of these reasons are inescapable. Given the impressive track record of Marvel Studios, there’s no reason to believe they won’t find a way to make it work and raise the bar even more.

One way or another, “Captain Marvel” is set to be a major turning point for the MCU. Whether it succeeds or fails, it will have a significant impact on the overall genre. However, it’s in the best interest for the MCU, Marvel, and superhero media, in general, that this movie succeeds.

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Filed under Comic Books, Jack Fisher, Superheroes, gender issues, Marvel, movies, political correctness, superhero comics, superhero movies, women's issues, Wonder Woman

The Stigma Of Being Single (Especially If You’re A Man)

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Picture, for a moment, a single woman in her mid-30s with no kids. What’s the image that comes to mind? For most people, especially those who watch sitcoms or have seen one episode of “Sex In The City,” a certain narrative plays out that helps shape that picture.

The woman is probably not a supermodel, nor could she be mistaken for Sarah Jessica Parker. She probably has a stable career. She probably has her own money, a tight social circle, and a fair amount of independence. She likely has a few hobbies and passions outside her career. Even if she isn’t in a relationship, it’s easy to imagine her being happy with her situation.

The fact that she’s single wouldn’t raise many red flags. That said, there are some stigmas associated with being single at a certain age for women. There’s still this misguided notion that women who are single at that age have somehow come up short in life. Every woman has different reasons for being single. By and large, though, we tend to have sympathy for women who stay single.

Now, picture a single man in his mid-30s with no kids. What image comes to mind in that instance? Chances are it’s not the same as that picture you imagined of a single woman. A single man in his mid-30s probably won’t inspire mental pictures of Channing Tatum. Hell, it probably won’t even inspire pictures of Jonah Hill.

A single man in his mid-30s with no kids will likely raise more red flags than the woman. It’s not just that the man is struggling to forge a meaningful relationship. He’s not just unlucky in love. There’s something wrong with him. A man like that must be a creep to some extent. He must have some sort of shortcoming or deficiency that repulses the opposite sex.

Maybe he has unhealthy hobbies.

Maybe he has a short temper and abusive tendencies.

Maybe he’s just a lazy slob who doesn’t even try.

It’s still entirely possible that a single man in his 30s is just content being single. He doesn’t feel inclined to pursue a relationship at the moment. He’s healthy, relatively attractive, and contributes positively to society. He’s not opposed to being in a relationship, but not just for the sake of being with someone.

No matter how common that possibility is, though, that’s probably not the first assumption you would make if all you knew about a man was that he’s over 30 and single. Even though marriage rates are declining, there’s still a stigma associated with being single beyond a certain age. It exists for women and men, but the stigma is more pronounced for men.

There’s no getting around it. A single man in his mid-30s is going to evoke a different reaction. It’s not a double standard like some of the others I’ve cited. It’s just the byproduct of different expectations and assumptions. I know this better than most because I’m a single man in my mid-30s with no kids and I’ve witnessed some of these reactions.

It’s subtle, but noticeable. When I tell someone I’m single and in my 30s, I get this weird look. If the person doesn’t know me very well, I get the sense they’re a little concerned. Once they learn that about me, I suspect they think that’s creepy or odd. There have been times when I’ve seen people, mostly women, get uncomfortable when they learn I’m over 30 and single.

There was even one instance where a woman at a store asked if I was gay. That really caught me off-guard, but it was the first time when I really felt the stigma of being single. I laughed it off at the time and so did the woman. However, when I later recalled the incident, I felt genuinely anxious about my status. I worry that it will undermine my ability to find love in the future.

I’ve even seen it among relatives. While most of my family don’t make a big deal out of it, there are a few who express concern about me. They see my age and my relationship status as a problem to be solved. I can understand that sentiment. I even appreciate it because I know it comes from sincere concern. Even so, I still feel the stigma on some levels.

I know I’m not alone in that. As much progress as we’ve made in society, with respect to tolerating non-traditional relationships, there’s still this over-arching sentiment that being single is a deficiency. It’s not so much a choice as it is an excuse. When it’s less subtle, it can be downright demeaning. It takes many forms, but often carries similar themes.

Your standards are too high.

You’re not a desirable companion.

You’re too high-maintenance and clingy.

You’re past your prime.

You’ve got little to offer.

I’ve seen this levied at women and men. I know women who get very combative when someone tries to figure out why they’re not in a relationship after a certain age. I honestly don’t blame them, but I’ve seen those same women get plenty of sympathy. Even when they make excuses, men and women alike will offer them support when they need it.

As a man, though, I feel like I can’t get away with that. If I were as apprehensive as some of the women I’ve known, I wouldn’t get a lick of sympathy. If anything, I would be scorned. Men would look down at me as desperate and whiny. Woman would look down on me as pathetic and weak. None of those traits warrant much sympathy or support.

On some levels, I  understand why being single is stigmatized. For society to grow, it needs people to get together, forge close society bonds, and creature stable families. People who remain single aren’t contributing to that growth and stigma is just one way of incentivizing them to try harder, even if it creates distressing taboos.

I can also understand why the stigma is more pronounced in men. Like it or not, men tend to commit more crime. Men who lack the influence of a stabilizing relationship tend to cause more deviance and there’s even some research to back that up. It’s one of those instances where a particular prejudice has some statistics behind it.

However, statistics rarely tell the entire story. More often than not, they leave out critical details. In my case, the primary factor that has influenced my single status is a desire not to be with someone just for the sake of being with someone. I’ve seen more than one person fall into the trap of being with someone who is totally wrong for them, but stays with them to avoid being single.

I don’t want that for myself. I want any relationship I have, be it romantic or platonic, to be for the right reasons. Being single hasn’t made me feel more inclined to commit crime or do something deviant. It’s a reasonable choice that I made for myself and I don’t regret it. That doesn’t make it any less frustrating when other people make misguided assumptions about why I’m single.

I’ve met women who’ve made similar choices. I’ve also known plenty more who are single for different, but understandable reasons. They’re not selfish predators who are just holding out to marry a prince who will love them, cater to their every need, and be their personal pocketbook. There are women like that, but they’re the annoyingly loud exception and not the norm.

When it comes to being single, the lingering stigma feels like a very small battle in a much larger war involving gender, society, and politics. As a self-professed romantic, I’m all for encouraging people to find love and forge relationship. It’s a beautiful thing and I feel like that same stigma undermines the beauty.

On top of that, it shoves yet another wedge between men and women when we already have too many of those. We’ve steadily moved away from the notion that an unmarried woman at a certain age must either be a widow, a prostitute, or a nun. There’s still room for improvement, but we’re steadily making progress in empowering people to find their way, regardless of whether they’re single.

At the same time, a man remaining single is not prone to as much scrutiny as we’ve seen in in the past. There are still assumptions and anxieties that are uniquely associated with single men. Regardless of whether single men or single women have it worse, I feel as though one part of the stigma is being addressed while the other is being overlooked.

Like it or not, this is going to be an increasingly relevant issue. As women stay single for longer, there are going to be more single men. That’s just basic math. The desire to find someone special won’t go away anytime soon. The stigma is just making it more difficult and a lot less romantic.

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Filed under gender issues, Marriage and Relationships, men's issues, sex in society, sexuality, women's issues

The First Genetically Modified Humans Have Been Born: Now What?

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When the USSR launched Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957, it didn’t just kick-start the space race. It marked a major technological paradigm shift. From that moment forward, venturing into space wasn’t just some futuristic fantasy. It was real and it had major implications for the future of our species.

On November 26, 2018, a Chinese scientist named He Jiankui announced that the first genetically modified humans had been born. Specifically, two twin girls actually had their genetic code modified at the embryonic stage to disable the CCR5 gene to make them highly resistant to HIV/AIDS. In the history of our species, this moment will likely exceed the importance of Sputnik.

This man may have just upstaged Neil Armstrong.

To appreciate why this is such a big deal, consider the full ramifications of what Mr. Jiankui achieved. The change he made to the genome of those girls was impossible for them to inherent. This particular allele is a result of a mutation within a small population of Northern Europeans and is present in no other ethnic group. It is best known for providing significant immunity to common strains of the HIV virus.

This is of significant interest to China because they’ve been dealing with a surge in HIV/AIDS rates in recent years. Even though AIDS isn’t a death sentence anymore, the medicine needed to manage it is costly and tedious. These two girls, who have not been publicly named thus far, may now have a level of resistance that they never would’ve had without genetic modification.

On paper, that’s an objective good. According to the World Health Organization, approximately 35 million people have died because of AIDS since it was first discovered and approximately 36.9 million people are living with the disease today. It’s in the best interest of society to take steps towards preventing the spread of such a terrible disease, especially in a country as large as China.

However, Mr. Jiankui has caused more consternation than celebration. Shortly after he announced the birth of the two unnamed children, China suspended his research activities. Their reasoning is he crossed ethical boundaries by subjecting humans to an untested and potentially dangerous treatment that could have unforeseen consequences down the line.

Those concerns have been echoed by many others in the scientific community. Even the co-inventor of CRISPR, the technology used to implement this treatment and one I’ve cited before as a game-changer for biotechnology, condemned Mr. Jiankui’s work. It’s one thing to treat adults with this emerging technology. Treating children in the womb carries a whole host of risks.

That’s why there are multiple laws in multiple countries regulating the use of this technology on top of a mountain of ethical concerns. This isn’t about inventing new ways to make your smartphone faster. This involves tweaking the fundamental code of life. The potential for good is immense, but so is the potential for harm.

Whether or not Mr. Jiankui violated the law depends heavily on what lawyers and politicians decide. Even as the man defends his work, though, there’s one important takeaway that closely parallels the launch of Sputnik. The genie is out of the bottle. There’s no going back. This technology doesn’t just exist on paper and in the mind of science fiction writers anymore. It’s here and it’s not going away.

Like the space race before it, the push to realize the potential of genetic modification is officially on. Even as the scientific and legal world reacts strongly to Mr. Jiankui’s work, business interests are already investing in the future of this technology. The fact this investment has produced tangible results is only going to attract more.

It’s impossible to overstate the incentives at work here. Biotechnology is already a $139 billion industry. There is definitely a market for a prenatal treatment that makes children immune to deadly diseases. Both loving parents and greedy insurance companies have many reasons to see this process refined to a point where it’s as easy as getting a flu shot.

Even politicians, who have historically had a poor understanding of science, have a great many reasons to see this technology improve. A society full of healthy, disease-free citizens is more likely to be prosperous and productive. From working class people to the richest one percent, there are just too many benefits to having a healthy genome.

The current climate of apprehension surrounding Mr. Jiankui’s work may obscure that potential, but it shouldn’t surprise anyone. During the cold war, there was a similar climate of fear, albeit for different reasons. People back then were more afraid that the space race would lead to nuclear war and, given how close we came a few times, they weren’t completely unfounded.

There are reasons to fear the dangers and misuse of this technology. For all we know, the treatment to those two girls could have serious side-effects that don’t come to light until years later. However, it’s just as easy to argue that contracting HIV and having to treat it comes with side-effect that are every bit as serious.

As for what will come after Mr. Jiankui’s research remains unclear. I imagine there will be controversy, lawsuits, and plenty of inquiries full of people eager to give their opinion. As a result, he may not have much of a career when all is said and done. He won’t go down in history as the Neil Armstong of biotechnology, but he will still have taken a small step that preceded a giant leap.

Even if Mr. Jiankui’s name fades from the headlines, the breakthrough he made will continue to have an impact. It will likely generate a new range of controversy on the future of biotechnology and how to best manage it in an ethical, beneficial manner. It may even get nasty at times with protests on par or greater than the opposition to genetically modified foods.

Regardless of how passionate those protests are, the ball is already rolling on this technology. There’s money to be made for big business. There’s power and prosperity to be gained by government. If you think other countries will be too scared to do what a science team in China did, then you don’t know much about geopolitics.

Before November 26, 2018, there were probably many other research teams like Mr. Jiankui who were ready and eager to do something similar. The only thing that stopped them was reservation about being the first to announce that they’d done something controversial with a technology that has been prone to plenty of hype.

Now, that barrier is gone. Today, we live in a world where someone actually used this powerful tool to change the genome of two living individuals. It may not seem different now, but technology tends to sneak up on people while still advancing rapidly. That huge network of satellites that now orbit our planet didn’t go up weeks after Sputnik 1, but they are up there now because someone took that first step.

There are still so many unknowns surrounding biotechnology and the future of medicine, but the possibilities just become more real. Most people alive today probably won’t appreciate just how important November 26, 2018 is in the history of humanity, but future generations probably will, including two remarkable children in China.

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Filed under futurism, gender issues, sex in society, Sexy Future, technology

Kamala Khan Vs. America Chavez: How To Succeed (And Fail) With Female Superheroes

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It shouldn’t be that difficult or controversial to create compelling female superheroes. In a perfect world, it would be no different than creating quality male heroes. As long as they’re compelling, enjoyable, and foster great stories, that should be enough.

Sadly, we don’t live in a perfect world. You could even argue it has become even worse in recent years for female superheroes because they’ve become entwined with identity politics. It’s no longer sufficient for a female hero to just be likable and interesting. They have to take part in the never-ending whining contest that dominates outrage culture.

As a lifelong fan of superhero comics, this really frustrates me. I get that comics, like any medium, often reflect the issues of the time. That’s not new and comics have taken positions in those issues. Iconic stories have been crafted around them. The current situation with female superheroes, however, is less a reflection of the times and more a liability.

To illustrate this point, I’d like to single out two female superheroes, Kamala “Ms. Marvel” Khan and America “Miss America” Chavez. Both characters were created within the past 10 years. They’ve also been cited as prominent figures in the recent push for diversity within comics that has caused a lot of uproar or all the wrong reasons.

What sets them apart is that one character, Kamala Khan, has become a success story by most measures. Since her debut issue in February 2014, she has become popular and beloved. She has received and won numerous accolades and her graphic novels have made it onto the New York Times Best Sellers list. I consider myself a fan of hers. She’s one of my favorite female heroes.

On the other end of that spectrum is America Chavez. She debuted in 2011 and went onto have her own ongoing series. Unlike Kamala, though, her series received no accolades, sold poorly, and did nothing to endear her to fans of superhero comics. She has had opportunities to establish herself as a quality female hero. With few exceptions, she has failed at every turn.

These two characters represent a stark dichotomy in the current world of female superheroes. One provides a template for success. The other is a cautionary tale of how not to create a compelling female superhero in the current climate. It’s pretty striking how two characters created within a similar cultural environment can go in such wildly different directions. However, that difference also carries with it plenty of lessons.

To be fair to the medium I love, creating female superheroes today is very different compared to past decades. If Wonder Woman, Storm, Carol Danvers, or Supergirl were created today, they wouldn’t have the same impact. They came out at different times and under different circumstances. Those circumstances played a key role in how they became iconic.

Great female superheroes, and quality female characters in general, have traits that allow them to resonate in any era. However, the timing and influences have to be right for them to carve a place in popular culture. Kamala Khan and America Chavez dealt with similar circumstances when they debuted. That makes them a good case study in how female superheroes can succeed and fail.


Why Kamala Khan Succeeded

I still remember the day I read Ms. Marvel #1. I hadn’t been planning to buy it. I remember clearly that it was a light week, in terms of comics. I happened to have a few extra bucks to spend. I had heard that there was going to be a new Ms. Marvel. Having been a fan of Carol Danvers, I decided to check it out.

I’m glad I did because that one fateful issue made me a Kamala Kahn fan for years to come. The story it told struck all the right chords. It presented a character who felt real, genuine, and relatable. The fact that she was a girl, a Muslim, and the daughter of Pakistani immigrants was secondary. She still felt like a character that I could be friends with if she were real.

The reasons why Kamala was so endearing had little to do with how many diversity points she scored and everything to do with how the writer, G. Willow Wilson, went about developing her. She spent almost the entire first issue just revealing who Kamala was and what sort of life she had. We learn about her family, her friends, her hopes, her dreams, and even her favorite hobbies.

She quickly becomes more than just another teenage character. She’s a self-professed fangirl who writes fan fiction, plays MMO games, and loves gyros. Wilson approached developing Kamala the same way Stan Lee approached developing Peter Parker. She developed the personality before turning them into a superhero.

When Kamala finally does get her powers, Wilson establishes a solid reason for why she’s a hero. Just getting powers isn’t enough. Unlike Peter Parker, however, she doesn’t need a loved one to die. Being a fan of superheroes and having decent parents puts her in a position to make that choice without anyone dying. That, alone, makes her worthy of admiration.

From that point forward, it’s easy to root for Kamala. She carries herself as someone you want to root for. She personifies how fans of superhero comics are inspired by their heroes. Her having a chance to be a hero like the ones she idolizes isn’t just endearing. It’s special. That’s why she succeeds and why it’s very likely we’ll see her enter the Marvel Cinematic Universe at some point.


Why America Chavez Failed

Take everything I just said about why Kamala Khan works and why she’s so lovable. Then, reverse it completely. That’s basically who America Chavez is and why she’s more a joke than a success.

On paper, America has a lot going for her. She’s not just another generic female hero. She’s Latina, she’s a lesbian, and she comes from a very different world, literally and figuratively. In terms of diversity points, she checks as many boxes as Kamala. She has her own unique style and she even uses a familiar moniker that has been successfully used by others.

Beyond those traits, however, there’s nothing about her character or her story that will get superhero fans cheering. She’s not relatable like Peter Parker or Kamala Khan. She’s from a place called Utopian Parallel, which is exactly as boring as it sounds. Her world was threatened with destruction, but her parents sacrificed themselves to save it. They’re the only respectable heroes in her story.

America, for reasons that are poorly told and poorly developed, decides to prove that she’s as good a hero as her parents. Her world is a utopia. It doesn’t need her. As a result, she just looks for a world that needs heroes and happens to choose one that has a massive glut of them. Already, her judgment is questionable.

If you’re expecting me to explain the depths of why she’s a hero and how she distinguishes herself, I’m sorry to disappoint. That’s the extent of her heroic journey. She doesn’t answer the hero’s call as much as she looks for an excuse. She doesn’t work her way into the world of heroism. She just throws herself into it and skips the part that makes it a meaningful story.

It certainly doesn’t help that she’s grossly overpowered in a way that makes every battle feel boring. Unlike other powerful characters, including Superman or Captain Marvel, there’s no real intrigue to her abilities. Whereas Kamala Khan and Peter Parker struggle, seeing their powers as burdens at times, America Chavez rarely strains herself. When she does, it feels forced and contrived.

On top of all that, America never comes off as a likable person. In nearly every scene she’s in, she carries herself with an in-your-face, screw-you, I’m-better-than-everyone attitude that isn’t the least bit endearing. She basically tries too hard to be a badass female hero, but forgets the part where heroes are actually supposed to be admirable.

It’s not enough to just punch a Nazi, which she does at one point. Being a hero means embodying ideals that go beyond gender politics. America Chavez’s story is so contrived, at times, that it feels like the most shameless kind of pandering. It’s why those who bemoan Marvel’s diversity push often cite America Chavez as the personification of everything wrong with that effort. Sadly, she gives them plenty to work with.


Lessons For The Future

I have high hopes for Ms. Marvel. I even hope that, at some point, America Chavez becomes a solid character. There’s plenty of room for new characters that resonate with everyone, regardless of gender, race, creed, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. It doesn’t have to come at the cost of established characters, either. Heroes can be anyone. That’s what makes them icons.

Now, I understand that there are plenty of people out there who don’t like Kamala. I don’t deny that she has her flaws and she’s had some pretty unflattering moments. I also understand that America Chavez has her share of fans who think I’m not being fair to her. I don’t claim that my take on her is definitive.

I singled these two characters out because I believe they embody the struggle facing female superheroes in the existing cultural climate. Like any creative endeavor, there is a right and wrong way to go about it. Kamala Khan and America Chavez provide important lessons on what to do and what to avoid. They include, but aren’t restricted to, the following.

Lesson #1: Build the character before the hero

Lesson #2: Appeal to everyone and not just a select few

Lesson #3: Make their struggle feel real and genuine

Lesson #4: Give the character a distinct and endearing voice

Lesson #5: Don’t just rely on punching Nazis

There are many other lessons to be learned from characters like Kamala Khan and America Chavez. Some of those lessons have to be learned the hard way, but they’re worth learning. More quality female superheroes can only help the genre, as a whole. Superheroes, by definition, are supposed to inspire others to be better. That inspiration need not be restricted to gender, race, or any other distinction.

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Why You Should (And Shouldn’t) Marry Your Best Friend

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Love is complicated. You don’t need to be an aspiring erotica/romance writer to understand that. Anyone who has any experience with love, good and bad alike, finds that out very quickly. As someone who writes about and contemplates it more than most men dare admit, I find many of those complications both fascinating and frustrating.

Recently, one particular complication has interested/confounded me. It has to do with who we ultimately decide we want to spend the rest of our lives with. I know marriage is rapidly changing and I’ve highlighted some of its past deficiencies, but I’m focusing primarily on the romance part. I know love hasn’t always been linked to marriage, but love is a feeling that goes beyond any institution.

That’s what makes it so special when we find someone who we love so much that we want to indelibly link our lives with theirs. Whether or not you call it a marriage is beside the point. Seeking a romantic connection that deep isn’t just the premise of a good romance story. It’s a powerful human drive that has guided us since the hunter/gatherer days.

Whether or not we marry that special someone, having that kind of love for someone and wanting to be with them is a romantic constant that transcends institutions. This brings me to a question that I’ve asked more than once over the years and gotten many conflicting answers that all sound legitimate.

Should you marry your best friend?

I’ve asked it to close friends and family members. I’ve asked that question on Reddit. I’ve even asked it on Twitter. No matter where or how I ask it, though, I always get a wide range of answers. Some say your best friend is the only person you should marry. Others say that’s the last person you should marry. Both give reasons that I can’t entirely disagree with.

As an admitted romantic, this really confounds me. Beyond complicating my efforts to write compelling love stories, it highlights the complexity and diversity surrounding love. Even though it’s a feeling most of us experience, people go about it in such wildly different ways. Remarkably, people can make those ways work and experience intensely meaningful romances.

To understand how, I want to share some of the responses I’ve gotten over the years. When I first started asking the question among close friends and relative, most said without hesitation that you should definitely marry your best friend. Your best friend is someone you know, care for, and stand by through thick and thin. Marrying them is just an extension of that depth.

I’ve seen relationships built on this. When one of my close relatives lost his wife after a nearly 50-year marriage, I could hear the strain in his voice when he said he’d just lost his best friend. To him, there was no line dividing the woman he loved and his best friend. The same person he hung out with on a Saturday night is the same person who bore his two children.

It seems definitive, but at the same time, I have another close relative who sees it very differently. To him, a spouse is someone very different from your best friend. A spouse is someone with which you share a unique intimacy that you can’t have with any other friend, no matter how close you are. Trying to mix friends and spouses is like trying to get a plumber to fix your computer.

Whether you agree with that sentiment or not, this same relative has been married to the same woman for over four decades. Their love is every bit as intimate as anyone else’s. I’ve seen them interact differently with each other than they do with their friends. This is how they go about their relationship and it works for them.

On the other side of the spectrum, I’ve seen people who’ve tried to answer this question prove themselves dead wrong. One of my cousins made it clear in seeking a partner that he didn’t want a best friend. He wanted a wife. He wanted someone he could share his life with and later build a family. He eventually did find someone and they had that family.

However, their relationship was never that stable. They ended up getting divorced after less than 10 years and it was one of those divorces that surprised nobody. My cousin and his wife both shared the same goal. They even shared the same approach to finding love. Despite that, they couldn’t make it work.

Something similar happened to a girl I knew in college. She was a romantic like me and she once told me that she would only marry her best friend. I believed her and I may have even encouraged her. Right around my senior year, she claimed she found her best friend and she couldn’t wait to marry him. Like my cousin, though, it didn’t work out. They got divorced.

Their reasons for breaking up aren’t mine to reveal. I’ll only say that if you spent a just few days with them, even at their best, you wouldn’t have been surprised about their relationship failing. They were one of those couples that just never took anything seriously enough. They acted as though just being best friends was enough. Relationships, no matter how good they are, still require work.

I could list dozens more examples that prove or disprove both sides. There are plenty of cases where best friends go onto become strong relationships. There are others in which attempting to turn a best friend into a spouse fails miserably. It’s possible that either approach could lead to a profound love story or an agonizing heartbreak.

To add even more complications to the mix, friendship and romance can be one of those things that just never intersects for some people. While some may disagree with me, I believe it is possible for people of different genders and complementary sexual orientations to be just friends. I’ve had female friends that I could never dream of marrying and I guarantee they would say the same thing about me.

At the end of the day, this is one of those rare questions where there are just as many right answers as there are wrong answers. The people who claim their answer is correct can cite plenty of examples beyond their own experiences that are perfectly valid. They could just as easily argue that the other side is wrong and be objectively right on some levels.

In discussing and contemplating this question for many years, I can’t claim I have more insight than anyone else. I feel like I’ve had experience on many friends, both with friends and with romantic partners. In light of that and all the other responses I’ve gotten from this question, I think the only true answer is best summed up with two simple words.

It depends.

I know that sounds like the kind of answer that only a politician would give, but it’s probably the most comprehensive. Some people just approach love in a way that precludes their best friend entirely. Others go about it in a way that practically requires it. Both can work if you and your lover are on the same page. Both can make for great romance stories with plenty of sex appeal.

It can still be frustrating. It can be downright counter-intuitive at times. It’s for that very reason, though, that love and romance can be so intriguing. If something can confound and compel you at the same time, then you know you’re dealing with something uniquely powerful.

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Masculinity, Feelings, And The Taboo Of Expressing Emotions

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Real men don’t get all touchy-feely with their emotions. How many times have you heard that said in one way or another? Maybe that’s the wrong question to ask. Maybe a better question would be why is it that men can’t get emotional without it being a flaw?

Whatever way you frame the question, it’s hard to deny that there’s an unspoken taboo when it comes to men expressing emotions. A man who gets emotional is seen as weak. He’ll get called a sissy, a wimp, or a pussy. Their ego takes a hit. Their reputation and sense of worth takes a hit. As a result, men have little choice but to suppress their emotions, which is objectively unhealthy.

Conversely, a woman who gets emotional tends not to get criticized. For them, showing emotions is normal. We don’t think it’s wrong for a woman to cry during an emotionally distressing experience. We don’t see that as a sign of weakness. If anything, we would be more concerned if they didn’t show emotion.

It’s a strange, but impactful dynamic. One gender is allowed to express a wide range of emotions without ridicule. The other is expected to suppress those emotions. For men, the only acceptable emotion, it seems, is anger. Men being angry is the only emotion they can show that isn’t entirely taboo, although even that is changing.

The same regressive attitudes that create meaningless terms like “toxic masculinity” adds even more constraints on men’s emotions. Now, a man isn’t even allowed to be angry anymore. His anger just identifies him as another member of a toxic culture that hates women, despises minorities, and wants to create a patriarchal world where they’re all Don Draper.

I hope I don’t need to explain why that notion is wrong, misguided, and just plain asinine. That’s not the purpose of this piece.

I bring this topic up because, as a man, I’ve felt the impact of these attitudes on a personal level. There are a lot of stereotypes about men and masculinity that don’t bother me because the effects are usually overblown or exaggerated. This is one issue where I’ve felt genuine distress.

As I’ve said many times before, I’m a big romance fan. I love romance in comics, movies, TV shows, and even video games. I’ve been a fan of all things romantic since I was a teenager. However, a young man who admits that enjoys romance is likely to get a lot of odd looks from men and women. Nobody ever told me that it’s uncool for men to like romance, but that’s the impression I got.

As a result, I was downright secretive about my love of romance. I wouldn’t mention romantic sub-plots in movies or TV shows among friends or family. I often had to seek out romantic media covertly. There were even occasions where I would be watching something with heavy romance on TV, but change the channel as soon as someone entered the room.

At times, I treated hiding my fondness for romance with the same tact as most men would in hiding their porn stash. If anything, hiding porn would’ve been easier because most people expect men to enjoy that. A man admitting he watches porn won’t surprise anyone these days. A man admitting he enjoys romance doesn’t have that luxury.

That sounds melodramatic on my part and in hindsight, it probably was. However, being a man, I didn’t want to deal with that extra scrutiny. Growing up, I already had other personal issues to deal with, including a terrible acne problem that killed my confidence for most of my youth. The last thing I needed was another reason to feel like a freak.

Eventually, it helped when I found online communities full of romance fans who were men, women, gay, straight, bisexual, and everything in between. That finally gave me an outlet and it’s a big reason why I started writing sexy stories. While I’ve come to appreciate that outlet, it was still frustrating having to hide the fact that I liked romance. If I weren’t a man, it wouldn’t have been a big deal.

As hard as that was, the cost of managing emotions as a man can get much higher. Just this past year, I’ve felt the extent of that cost in ways I honestly can’t put into words. It started with the passing of my grandmother. Saying goodbye to her was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done before.

I had to go through so many painful feelings during that process. I couldn’t tell you whether I handled them well. I like to think I did, but I can’t say with a straight face that I successfully managed my emotions through that whole ordeal. There was a lot I had to either temper or suppress.

It wasn’t because someone was stopping me. There weren’t a cabal of other men actively shaming me for feeling sadness, sorrow, and grief. There weren’t teams of women questioning my masculinity because I dared to show unmanly emotions. As a man, I just didn’t know how to express these feelings. There was just a sense that this wasn’t something men did.

I think it’s only getting harder as masculinity, itself, faces more scrutiny. Nobody can seem to agree on when it’s okay for men to get emotional or how they should go about it. We just know there’s a high price for screwing up. Think about the kinds of criticisms men face if they don’t put on the tough, confident poise of James Bond.

A man who shows too much anger is just a product of toxic masculinity.

A man who cries openly is overly sensitive.

A man who is overly romantic is either whipped or domesticated.

A man who shows sadness is weak and incapable.

A man who tries to talk about his feelings is either mansplaining or whining.

Given all these pitfalls, how is a man supposed to go about expressing his emotions? Just being strong isn’t enough anymore because strength has steadily become more gender neutral. While I think that’s a good thing for men and women alike, I also believe that dealing with emotions is a major blind spot in the world of gender politics.

That’s not to say this issue is being ignored. In wake of the anti-harassment movement, there has been some efforts to re-evaluate how we think about men and emotion. A few tech companies have even formed private men’s groups where men can get together and do more than discuss these issues, among other things.

I can already hear some men saying those groups are for wimps. Some might even doubt the masculinity of the men who participate. That’s understandable. These kinds of attitudes don’t change overnight. However, between the growing suicide rate among men and the impact emotions have on mental health, this is an issue worth confronting.

I won’t say yet whether these groups will be effective at helping men with their emotions, but I believe it’s a start. I also believe that this is one issue in which men and women can come together on. Other parts of the anti-harassment movement and modern feminism are bound to be divisive. This can actually be a unifying force.

Human beings are emotional creatures. No matter how masculine you are or how feminine you are, you’re going to experience a wide range of emotions over the course of your life. If one gender can’t even figure out which emotions are socially acceptable, then how can we hope to forge emotional bonds with one another?

I don’t doubt that emotions are difficult to deal with. I’ve learned that the hard way this past year. I know plenty of other men who are going through the same struggle. In the end, being able and comfortable expressing feelings should be one of the most gender-neutral aspects of the human experience.

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The Distressing (But Relevant) Questions Raised In Uncanny X-men #1

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The most relevant stories are often the ones that ask the most difficult questions. The nature of those questions vary among places, people, cultures, and whatever happens to be pissing off a significant chunk of the population. Regardless of the circumstances, those questions are important and sometimes they come from unexpected places.

I wasn’t expecting such questions when I picked up “Uncanny X-men #1,” the latest relaunch in the most iconic X-men brand of all time. I was just glad to see Uncanny X-men return to prominence after an extended absence dating back to 2016. This first issue was over-sized and priced at $7.99, which is a lot for a single comic. I still feel like I got my money’s worth.

In addition to telling a great story that brought many prominent X-men characters to the forefront, “Uncanny X-men #1” did something unique in terms of how it established a conflict. For once, it didn’t involve killer robots, preventing a genocide, mutant terrorist, or alien space gods. Instead, it asked one profound question.

What if there was a way to preventing people from becoming mutants in the first place?

That may sound like a question that has come up in other X-men stories, but that’s only partially correct. This isn’t about curing mutants, a story that Joss Whedon brilliantly told during his run on Astonishing X-men and that “ X-men: The Last Stand” botched horribly. This is about inoculating children the same way we do for polio.

Specifically, a lab develops a vaccine that prevents the X-gene from expressing. Technically, they would still be mutants in that they would still have this gene. It just wouldn’t express itself. It would be akin to turning off the gene responsible for cystic fibrosis or sickle-cell anemia. It essentially treats mutation the same way we would treat any other genetic-based disease.

Naturally, the X-men and many other mutants don’t like this idea and not just because it’s akin to treating homosexuality as a mental illness. It reeks too much of genocide, something they’ve faced on more than one occasion. It would’ve been easy for “Uncanny X-men #1” to present it in that way, but that’s not how it plays out.

The all-star creative team of Ed Brisson, Kelly Thompson, Matthew Rosenberg, and Mahmud Asrar frame the issue in a very different way. Instead of some anti-mutant racist like Graydon Creed or William Stryker calling for mutant extermination, we get Senator Ashton Allen. He’s as generic a politician as can be in a superhero comic, but what he says and how he says is revealing.

Amidst a crowd of humans, mutants, and X-men, he talks about this mutant vaccine as a tool to alleviate suffering. He doesn’t rant about the dangers of evil mutants like Magneto or Apocalypse. He talks only about mutant children developing powers that could be dangerous to themselves or others. In that context, a vaccine might actually help them.

When you consider the mutant powers of characters like Rogue and Cyclops, who have mutant abilities that do real damage when uncontrolled, it seems entirely reasonable to make this vaccine available. Senator Allen never says anything about forcing it on kids or on mutants that already exist. He only ever emphasizes making it an option for concerned parents.

That’s distressing for the X-men because they don’t need to be omega-level psychics to imagine the implications. They can easily envision a concerned parent who doesn’t want their child to deal with the possibility that they may shoot lasers out of their eye one day. Any parent who cares for their child will want to mitigate the chances of them enduring such hardships.

In a world populated by mutant-hunting robots, parents already have plenty of incentive to use this vaccine. Given the damage that mutant-led conflicts often incur, the government has just as much incentive to make that vaccine available to everyone, free of charge and tax deductible. Governments less concerned with things like human rights could force it on children and that has some real-world parallels.

For mutants and the X-men, though, that means a permanent loss of their identity. Considering how mutants act as a metaphor for other oppressed minorities, this has implications for the real world, as well. I would even argue that the question will become increasingly relevant in the coming decades.

To appreciate just how relevant it could be, you need only look up the heartbreaking stories of parents who have disowned their children because they’re gay or transgender. In tragic some cases, people are driven to suicide. Even for those who aren’t parents, anything that might avert this kind of hardship is worth considering.

Given the complex causes of homosexuality, as well as the many factors behind transsexuality, it’s unlikely that there could ever be a vaccine to prevent it. The same can be said for conditions like Dwarfism. It’s not just genes, hormones, or radioactive spider bites that shape an individual’s persona. It’s a complex confluence of many things.

However, we are getting very close to a point where it’s possible to design children at the genetic level. Thanks to tools like CRISPR, it might even be possible one day to cut out entire traits from the human genome. That could, in theory, eradicate both cystic fibrosis and Dwarfism. More than a few people have expressed concern about that possibility.

Homosexuality and transsexuality are a bit different since there is no one gene or hormone that causes it, but most contemporary research suggests that genetics do play at least some role. Using similar technology, it might be possible for parents in the future to minimize or eliminate the chances of their children being homosexual or transsexual.

I imagine many in the LGBT community feel the same way about those efforts that the X-men felt about Senator Allen’s efforts in “Uncanny X-men #1.” Even if it only extends to giving parents this option for children and provides strict protections for those already born with these traits, it still treats who and what they are as a disease.

It’s dehumanizing and demeaning. More than one X-men in “Uncanny X-men #1” makes that abundantly clear. They don’t see being a mutant as a disease any more than homosexuality, transsexuality, or dwarfism. The fact that there’s now a way to prevent this makes for an existential crisis with some pretty heavy implications for the real and fictional world.

In the world of Marvel comics, a world without mutants has its own set of issues, the least of which would be the loss of a top-selling comic series. In the real world, though, the stakes are even higher. What would we, as a society, do if we suddenly had the tools to prevent homosexuality, transsexuality, and dwarfism in children before they’re even born?

I’ll even ask a more controversial question that’s sure to draw plenty of ire. What if those same tools could be used to modify the skin color, facial features, and overall appearance of our children? We already understand how genetics affects our appearance to some extent. What happens when we’re able to determine that for someone before they’re ever born?

These are objectively distressing questions. I’m glad “Uncanny X-men #1” dared to ask them. I doubt they’ll get debated or resolved completely in the proceeding issues, mostly because such resolutions are impossible in superhero comics. It still presents the X-men with a unique issue to confront and one that we will likely have to confront in the real world.

As is often the case with difficult questions, the answers are likely to anger some and distress many. Most people genuinely and sincerely want what’s best for their children. In the world of Marvel Comics, that could mean preventing them from gaining the kind of superpowers that makes them targets for Sentinels. In the real world, that could mean removing an entire class of people from the gene pool.

In issues like this, there are no heroes or villains. There are just difficult choices that we must make before someone else makes them for us.

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