Chad Comello

Librarian, cinephile, et al

Tag: Spider-Man

Captain America: Civil War

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Spoilers, natch.

Finally, a Spider-Man who actually looks like he’s in high school! That, along with ever more compelling character studies of Steve Rogers and Tony Stark, made this latest episode of The Marvel Cinematic Universe Show worth watching.

Captain America and Iron Man are by far my favorite Marvel characters thus far, and the Avengers I find most interesting. That they find themselves on opposite sides here is made all the more interesting when you realize how both have essentially flip-flopped. Stark, the recalcitrant “genius billionaire playboy philanthropist” playing by his own rules but tormented by guilt, now wants controls on their heretofore unchecked power. Rogers, the patriotic soldier desperate to fight for good, now is disillusioned by authoritarian overreach and wary of a corruptible bureaucracy. Neither of them are wrong. The other superheroes who align with or against them have their own reasons for doing so, but fundamentally Civil War concerns itself with this core conflict.

I suppose this puts me on the #TeamIronMan side of things, but I think there absolutely should be some oversight of the burgeoning cadre of “enhanced” persons formerly under the purview of SHIELD. Even after gnashing their teeth about the devastation of Sokovia, it takes like two seconds before this motley crew of all-powerful superheroes with fragile egos and hair-trigger tempers are obliterating an airport or whatever building they happen to be in during their latest squabble. It’s like they’re all early-stage Spider-Man, wracked with teenage insecurity, lacking self-discipline, flailing around while trying to discover and control the extent of their powers. Setting aside the ethical debate over the Sokovian Accords, the cost of their property damage alone warrants reparation and regulation.

As for the film itself, the directors Anthony and Joe Russo mentioned in an interview that they tried not to follow the typical three-act superhero movie structure, which is something I noticed while watching. The film doesn’t resolve where we’re conditioned to expect it; it could have ended at several points but didn’t. Perhaps that’s a product of the ongoing (infinite?) nature of the MCU, wherein each movie doesn’t begin and end in its own self-contained universe like normal movies and needs to set up the next installments. (Which currently include not only the two Avengers: Infinity War films, but offshoot franchises for Black Panther, Spider-Man [again again], Doctor Strange, and a bajillion other products characters.)

However, for the first time in eight years’ worth of movies within Phase 1 and 2 of the MCU, I’m OK with that. I’m OK with, or at least resigned to, winding through the spider’s web of stories with cautious optimism, knowing not every installment will achieve the same balance of thoughtfulness, wit, and dazzling spectacle the best of the MCU display.

As much as it’s true that superhero films are eating Hollywood; as much as it’s true that a fraction of the billions being spent on these franchises could and should be allocated to the smaller, non-serialized films that end up on Oscar ballots and Top 10 lists far more often than the latest comic-book fare… I enjoyed watching superheroes fighting each other. It was fun (if sometimes confusing to determine who was on which side and why), and made the case for being seen on the big screen. For another entrant into an already abundant genre, that’s good enough for me.

The Glass Cockpit

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Is the Internet making us smarter or stupider? It’s a question Q the Podcast recently tackled in a lively and in-depth debate between lots of smart and interesting people. There is enough evidence to support both sides of the debate. But what I concluded after listening to the show was that for all of the doomsday talk about the technologies and processes that have become embedded in our digitized culture within the last decade or so, how we use the Internet is ultimately not up to the Internet.

No matter how incentivizing are the apps and social networks we frequent; nor addicting the silly games we enjoy; nor efficient the tools we use, there is still a human being making decisions in front of a screen. So while I certainly sympathize with those who profess addiction (willing or otherwise) to Tweeting or checking Facebook, I remind everyone using technology of any kind of Uncle Ben’s famous maxim: “With great power comes great responsibility.” We as autonomous, advanced-brain human beings have the power to do or not to do things. It’s a great power to have, but it also requires perseverance. The allure of instant gratification the usual Internet suspects provide won’t be defeated easily. It takes a willpower heretofore unknown to modern peoples. It takes resolve to fight temptation that is equal or greater than the temptation itself.

Do you have what it takes? Do I? Eh, it’s day to day.

But flipping this entire argument on its head is Nicholas Carr’s recent article in The Atlantic called “All Can Be Lost: The Risk of Putting Our Knowledge in the Hands of Machines,” which delves into the burgeoning world of automation. He writes about how we’ve become increasingly reliant on computers to perform more elaborate and complicated tasks that had previously been done by humans. The benefit of this is that we’re able to get tasks done quicker and more efficiently. The downside is that some human services are no longer required, which means the skills needed to perform those services are eroding.

Carr uses the example of airplane pilots, who have been increasingly relegated to monitoring digital screens (the “glass cockpit”) as the computers do the heavy lifting and only sometimes take the plane’s reigns. While the usefulness of autopilot is obvious, when computers take away control of the primary functions of flying they are also taking away the neurological and physiological skills pilots have honed over years of flying.

This is a problem, says Carr, because “knowing demands doing”:

One of the most remarkable things about us is also one of the easiest to overlook: each time we collide with the real, we deepen our understanding of the world and become more fully a part of it. While we’re wrestling with a difficult task, we may be motivated by an anticipation of the ends of our labor, but it’s the work itself—the means—that makes us who we are.

Computer automation, he says, disconnects the ends from the means and thereby makes getting what we want easier without having to do the work of knowing. This just about nails social media, doesn’t it? It’s so easy to get what we want these days that the work we used to have to do no longer is required of us. To research a paper in college, one had to go to the physical library and pull out a physical book and transcribe quotes by hand; now a quick Google search and copy-paste will get that done in a jiff (or is it GIF?).

This isn’t a bad thing. I’m thankful that many tasks take eons less time than they used to. (I mean, typewriters are cool, but they’re not very amenable to formatting or mistakes.) My point is it’s important to understand how and why we use technology the way we do, and to acknowledge that we have agency over that use. To disregard that agency is to refuse to accept responsibility for our own power. And we know what happens then.

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