Rating: Marvel Cinematic Universe, Phase 1

We’ve taken a bit of a swerve in our rewatching and rating project. In between tv series, we’ve decided to take a run at the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Here’s our take on Phase 1:

  1. Iron Man – 7
  2. The Incredible Hulk – 2
  3. Iron Man 2 – 6
  4. Thor – 4
  5. Captain America: The First Avenger – 8
  6. The Avengers – 10

It’s a bit of a mixed bag. The overall average is 6.2, which is perfectly respectable, but the range is all over the place, from pretty bad to meh to awesome.

You can tell that Marvel was still figuring out how to make not only a new kind of superhero movie but a new kind of movie franchise. The early installations are stand-alone, fairly slow-paced, and self-contained. We can still remember how exciting it felt to have a minor character like Agent Coulson pop up in multiple movies that weren’t sequels. Nowadays we don’t even get out of bed for a Marvel movie that doesn’t have at least three tie-in characters and a place in the ongoing arc of the Phase.

The Incredible Hulk, the largely forgotten Marvel movie, is on the bottom of the heap at 2. Formulaic and uninspired, the story drags itself from one obligatory action scene to another. Having seen Mark Ruffalo’s take on Bruce Banner, Edward Norton feels flat and unsympathetic. So much backstory is assumed that this movie feels like a sequel to something we’ve never seen (it takes care not to step on Ang Lee’s previous Hulk movie without actually picking up on its story in any meaningful way). Although there are some bright spots in this movie, like the visually thrilling foot chase through a Brazilian favela, you can see why we haven’t gotten another stand-alone Hulk movie.

We’re lucky that Marvel hedged its bets on launching the MCU with two movies instead of just one. Iron Man delivers much of what The Incredible Hulk lacks. While the story is still relatively straightforward and follows a predictable Hollywood three-act structure, it is more competently handled and more subtly embellished than Hulk. We get to see Tony Stark tinker and iterate not only on his suit designs but on his ethics and sense of self, which is makes his character much more interesting to watch than Banner, who has no real character development in his own movie. Robert Downey Jr. sells the character of Tony Stark as a flawed genius grappling with the consequences of his own choices.

Iron Man 2 carries on the good work of the original without adding much to it and begins the unfortunate trend of Marvel movies whose plot is driven by Tony Stark’s emotional issues. Thor has some beautiful art design and fun character moments, but mostly ends up feeling like the product of too many compromises.

Captain America: The First Avenger delivers a solid origin story not only for its eponymous hero but for the whole Marvel universe as well. With an alternate-version World War II dominated by Hydra’s experiments with cosmic technology and an American super soldier, the ground is prepared for a modern world of superpeople. Chris Evans’s performance takes a character who could be flat and sanctimonious and makes him charming.

But it is The Avengers, at a full 10, that crowns Phase 1. Joss Whedon’s last great work before his descent into self-satisfied mediocrity, The Avengers is a superhero movie that takes not only the idea of superheroes but the idea of a superhero movie seriously. The characters have both emotional depth and clear motivations. Their conflicts arise not from plot contrivance but from conflicting world-views and emotional needs. And they smash alien monsters together real good.

Got a different take on Marvel’s first hexalogy? Let us know in the comments!

Image: Still from The Avengers via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

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Visual Inspiration: An Underground Fire from 1962 Is Still Burning

Apparently in Pennsylvania, there’s a town—Centralia—all but abandoned due to a coal mine fire that’s been burning underground since 1962.

Flickr t3hWIT Centralia PA Cracked Old Route 61

There is disagreement over the cause of the fire. It seems that one way or another a surface fire moved into the system of mining tunnels below the town.

The effects are indisputable and scary: unstable ground, sink holes, damaged roads, plumes of hot steam, vents of smoke and toxic gases (like lethal levels of carbon monoxide), and, finally, evictions plus abandoned and/or demolished buildings.

Flickr Kelly Michals Coal Fire in 2011

Flickr dfirecop AP Photo Sinkhole

Speculative fiction that takes place in a post-catastrophy world of some sort immediately comes to mind, and no wonder. Even the little that I read gave me a glimpse on the variety of reactions people can have to major environmental disruptions and their aftermath. Not to mention that photos of the abandoned parts of Centralia are stunning. They remind me of Pripyat after the Chernobyl nuclear accident, which is the closest equivalent I can think of from my childhood in Finland.

Found via Paul Cooper on Twitter. (Visit his Twitter tread for additional photos & info.)

Images: Cracked old Route 61 by t3hWIT on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0). Coal fire in 2011 by Kelly Michals on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0). Sinkhole from Feb. 14, 1981, by AP Photo via dfirecop on Flickr.

The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?

Barbarians in the Greek and Roman World Preview

What did the ancient Greeks and Romans think of the peoples they referred to as barbari? Did they share the modern Western conception—popularized in modern fantasy literature and role-playing games—of “barbarians” as brutish, unwashed enemies of civilization? Or our related notion of “the noble savage?” Was the category fixed or fluid? How did it contrast with the Greeks and Romans’ conception of their own cultural identity? Was it based on race?

These are the questions that my first book addresses. Barbarians in the Greek and Roman World will be published in the fall of 2018. The book explores both the realities of interaction among peoples of different cultures in the ancient Mediterranean and the ways in which Greek and Roman thinkers interpreted these interactions to create the idea of the “barbarian.”

Here’s a preview, discussing the experience of the Greeks in their colonial settlements around the Mediterranean Sea:

* * *

The history of Greek settlement in Egypt demonstrates the complexity of colonial interactions. In the late 600s BCE, Egypt was under Assyrian dominion. An Egyptian noble, Psammetichus, had been appointed as governor, but when the Assyrians were distracted by internal conflicts, Psammetichus raised a rebellion, bolstered by mercenaries from Greece and Caria, a region of southwestern Anatolia. When the fighting was done and Psammetichus had become king of a newly independent Egypt, he settled the remaining mercenaries in the Nile delta. These settlements also attracted other foreigners, such as Phoenician crafters who made imitation Egyptian artworks on the site for export.

The mercenaries remained in Egyptian service, and it appears their descendants did as well, since some were deployed to southern Egypt under Psammetichus II decades later. One such band carved graffiti on the temple of Abu Simbel to commemorate their adventures: “When King Psammetichus came to Elephantine, this was carved by the companions of Psammatichus, son of Theocles, who sailed beyond Kerkis as far as the river went.” The mercenary Psammatichus was evidently named after the pharaoh by his Greek father. Some families went beyond names and embraced Egyptian culture, as shown by the burial of Wahibre-em-akhet, whose name and hieroglyph-inscribed sarcophagus are conventionally Egyptian; the only clue to his foreign ancestry are the Greek names of his parents, Alexicles and Zenodote. Other soldiers left graffiti at Abu Simbel in Carian and Phoenician, another testament to the cultural and linguistic diversity of those traveling and trading around the Mediterranean at this time.

Sometime after 570, the pharaoh Amasis reorganized the Nile delta settlement. Land was granted for the construction of a Greek colony, which, unusually, was collectively founded by nine Greek cities from the coast of Anatolia. Representatives from these cities jointly governed the new community now called Naukratis. Greek ships were banned from landing anywhere else in Egypt for trade. The colony thus became the primary site of exchange between Greeks and Egyptians. Trade connections brought people of many different backgrounds to Naukratis and connected its people to a wider world. One visitor was Charaxos, the brother of the poet Sappho, who traded wine from his home city Mytilene to Naukratis. He met a slave courtesan there, a Thracian woman named Rhodopis who had been brought to Egypt by her Samian owner. Charaxos fell in love with Rhodopis, bought her, and freed her, after which she chose to remain in Naukratis to ply her trade. To celebrate the fortune she had amassed in her work, Rhodopis later made a rich dedication at Delphi in Greece. A hieroglyphic inscription on a stele erected by the pharaoh Nectanebo in the fourth century, dedicating revenues from Naukratis to the temple of Neith, shows that the pharaohs kept an active interest in the administration of the colony. Naukratis retained its importance and trading privileges after the Persian Empire conquered Egypt in 525. It continued to welcome not only traders but tourists and other travelers, like Herodotus, who visited Egypt and whose writings record the existence of a local industry of tour guides and interpreters. The Greeks who settled in Egypt did not exist in isolation but had productive relationships with traders, artisans, and the ruling class alike.

The interactions in and around Naukratis are a window into the complexity of the colonial world. There were Greeks trading with Egyptians, but also Phoenicians making knockoffs of Egyptian art, Greeks assimilating into Egyptian culture, Thracians and Carians negotiating the needs of Egyptian and Greek patrons, and Egyptians making a living off showing the wonders of their country to curious foreigners. Interactions like these were happening all around the Mediterranean. There is no simple way to describe Greek relations with non-Greek peoples in the archaic and classical periods because those relations were never simple.

* * *

If you’ve enjoyed some of my posts about ancient trade connections, the diversity of ancient armies, individuals crossing cultural boundaries, modern peoples’ attempts to claim ancient peoples’ identities for themselves, and the variety of different kinds of “barbarian” you may find something to enjoy in Barbarians in the Greek and Roman World.

Barbarians in the Greek and Roman World comes out in September from Hackett Publishing.

Hardcover: $48 / Paperback: $16

You can pre-order directly from Hackett or on Amazon.

Image: Barbarians paperback cover by Hackett Publishing

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DIY Star Wars Marquee

Ashley DIYed a really cool Star Wars marquee. It even lights up!

Handmade with Ashley diy_marquee_star_wars

The base is a handmade wooden sign stenciled, painted, and varnished.

Handmade with Ashley diy_star_wars_marquee_sign_wall_art_knockoff_tutorial-25

Wow. I don’t think I’d have the patience! Full props for such a meticulous job!

See the full tutorial at Handmade with Ashley.

In Making Stuff occasional feature, we share fun arts and crafts done by us and our fellow geeks and nerds.

 

Quotes: Trust Isn’t a Gift

“Trust isn’t a gift […] You earn it, and it’s not cheap.”

– Harper Blaine in Kat Richardson’s Greywalker

However long I live, I cannot understand how some people can’t (or won’t) grasp this concept.

Richardson, Kat: Greywalker. New York, NY: Roc, 2006, p. 185.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

1970s Concept Art of Space Habitats Courtesy of NASA Ames Research Center

In the 1970s, NASA designed potential space habitats in three basic shapes—toroid, Bernal sphere, and cylinder. Artwork depicting some of the plans has now been published in several sizes without copyright restrictions. Here’s the NASA description of the images:

“A couple of space colony summer studies were conducted at NASA Ames in the 1970s. Colonies housing about 10,000 people were designed. A number of artistic renderings of the concepts were made.”

Below are some of my favorites.

A version of cylindrical habitats has since been seen in popular media—Babylon 5, anyone?

NASA Ames Research Ctr AC75-1086 Rick Guidice Cylindrical Interior

The residential buildings look kind of cutely 1970s. (And I say this as a non-fan of the 70s aesthetic!)

NASA Ames Research Ctr AC75-1086-1 Rick Guidice Toroidal Cutaway

Apparently all of these designs were meant for thousands of people: the toroid and spherical stations could house around 10,000 and the cylinder a million. Wow. They certainly did not dream small!

Finally, two images of a Bernal sphere habitat:

NASA Ames Research Ctr AC76-1288 Don Davis Bernal Sphere Construction

NASA Ames Research Ctr AC76-1089 Rick Guidice Bernal Sphere Cutaway

Visit the NASA’s “Space Colony Art from the 1970s” page for more images and links to high-res scans.

Found via The Public Domain Review.

All images courtesy of NASA Ames Research Center: Cylindrical habitat / interior view looking out through large windows (NASA ID number AC75-1086) and toroidal / cutaway view exposing the interior (NASA ID number AC75-1086-1) by Rick Guidice. Bernal sphere / construction crew at work (NASA ID number AC76-1288) by Don Davis. Bernal sphere / cutaway view (NASA ID number AC76-1089) by Rick Guidice.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Two Black Amazons from 1400s

Oh, goodness! An illumination from a 15th-century French manuscript shows two black Amazons. Have a look:

Le secret de l'histoire naturelle fol 2r Cropped
Le secret de l’histoire naturelle, France, ca. 1480-1485, BnF, Français 22971, fol. 2r; via discarding images on Tumblr.

This image has clearly been cropped and edited. My source, discarding images on Tumblr, says the two women are Amazons but gives no more details.

Being an early history nerd, I did some additional digging. Below is the whole page via Gallica, the digital library for the national library of France (Bibliothèque nationale de France, or BnF).

Le secret de l'histoire naturelle fol 2r Full Page
Le secret de l’histoire naturelle, France, ca. 1480-1485, BnF, Français 22971, fol. 2r.

The full title of the manuscript is Le secret de l’histoire naturelle contenant les merveilles et choses mémorables du monde. It was created between 1401-1500, and is currently stored at BnF. The illumination comes from the first part of the book, which presents the great countries and the great provinces of the old world.

Unfortunately, my French isn’t good enough anymore to be confident in my reading; I can understand a word here and there, but not the whole. However, it does look like the first word below the illumination is Amazon.

I’ve cropped into a separate image the bottom left corner of the illumination with the text following immediately after it:

Le secret de l'histoire naturelle fol 2r Amazons
Le secret de l’histoire naturelle, France, ca. 1480-1485, BnF, Français 22971, fol. 2r; cropped.

I just cannot make out the full spelling of the first word due to the ligatures that squish up the last two or three letters. It definitely looks like it’s inflected, though. The sequence ma definitely follows the capital A, with most likely a z and o further along.

It also looks there’s a sigil marking an abbreviation on top of the o, which was very common in handwritten Medieval documents to mark inflectional endings, among others. (Unless it’s a diacritic like in modern French – were they even used in Medieval French? If so, maybe Amazonye? Amazònye? Amazónye?? Amazônye???)

Anyway, it seems that Amazons are indeed talked about on the same page. The larger block of text above the illumination mentions the word affricà, too. (Again, not sure whether that’s a sigil or diacritic on the final a.)

In any case, if the two women aren’t Amazons, at the very least they are heralds of some sort leading a column of warriors. The image details, like the mi-parti dresses, are really neat, too.

Found via MedievalPOC on Tumblr.

And speaking of MedievalPOC, I’ve found it a truly valuable source for types of art imagery that’s not usually included in the canon from the Middle Ages onwards. The site is sometimes a little too interesting: on several occasions, I’ve spent much longer than intended there, happily chasing intriguing details down the rabbit hole. If you’ve got the time to spare, I wholeheartedly recommend it. 🙂

P.S. You can also follow MedievalPOC on Twitter. Happy browsing!

Crossposted from the Playfully Grownup Home blog.

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.

 

Quotes: Trail Goes Down Between Two Hills

“[T]he Pima of Central Arizona have historically embedded in their landscape the stories, histories, and lessons of their way of life and culture. Thus, the Pima, when they wish to remind someone of their past, or of a lesson they would like that person to remember, make what seem to white people abstract references to locations on their territory, such as ‘Trail Goes Down between Two Hills.’ The target of their comments, however, will know what they mean.”

– Matthew Barlow, Griffintown: Memory and Identity in an Irish Diaspora Neighbourhood, 11

Historian Matthew Barlow here cites the work of anthropologist Keith Basso on how memory can be embedded in a landscape to explain how the Irish-Catholic population of Montreal imbued the working-class neighborhood of Griffintown with meanings important to their identity as Irish-Canadians, such that even after the neighborhood was redeveloped, Irish-Montrealers could invoke generations worth of memories by reference to churches, pubs, streets, and other landmarks.

It’s a fascinating way of thinking about how we relate the landscape we live in, but, of course, the first thing I thought of was:

Image: Still from Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Darmok” via IMDb, text added by Erik Jensen

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Cheddar Man: A European Mesolithic Male with Blue Eyes and Brown Skin

I saw these headers go by earlier this spring, but didn’t really have time to really dive into it until now. Well, better late than never, as they wisely say. 🙂

Despite the name, the Cheddar Man isn’t some silly cheese ad bloke. Instead, he has opened doors to very intriguing discoveries about European population during the later Stone Age.

The remains of an anatomically modern human male from about 10,000 years ago were found near Bristol in Gough’s Cave in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, England in 1903. Recent DNA analysis of the skeleton—Britain’s oldest (almost) complete one—suggests that he had blue eyes, dark curly or wavy hair, and dark brown to black skin.

Natural History Museum Tom Barnes Cheddar Man Bust Closeup

They also found that the Cheddar Man belonged to the same population as Mesolithic individuals whose bones were recovered from Spain, Luxembourg, and Hungary, usually referred to as western European Mesolithic hunter-gatherers or European early modern humans.

Hannah Devlin at The Guardian writes most aptly:

“The discovery shows that the genes for lighter skin became widespread in European populations far later than originally thought – and that skin colour was not always a proxy for geographic origin in the way it is often seen to be today.

“Tom Booth, an archaeologist at the Natural History Museum who worked on the project, said: ‘It really shows up that these imaginary racial categories that we have are really very modern constructions, or very recent constructions, that really are not applicable to the past at all.’”

A new bust model of Cheddar Man was made by Kennis & Kennis Reconstructions. (See a photo of the previous model made by a team at the University of Manchester here.) They took measurements of the skeleton, scanned the skull, and 3D printed a base for their model. Then they applied certain conventions to shape the face.

I fully confess I’m having a hard time keeping track of the exact timespans and geographical limits of the various Stone Age eras in Eurasia and Africa—what’s paleolithic, mesolithic, or neolithic and where and at what time. But it is so fascinating (and delightful!) that we continue to develop new methods of finding more about our past, and that so many different disciplines seek to understand where we came from and what makes us tick.

Image: closeup of the model of Cheddar Man by Tom Barnes / Channel 4 via Natural History Museum, London

Jane Austen, Mystery Writer

The great mystery novelist P. D. James has noted that Jane Austen’s novel Emma has all the essential elements of a mystery novel: the plot revolves around secrets which are revealed at the climax but to which the heroine and the readers have been given clues all along. I think we can extend that idea further and say that most of Austen’s novels are, in spirit, mysteries.

The plots of most of Austen’s completed novels are about heroines becoming wiser about themselves and the world, usually by discovering things that make them reevaluate the people around them. Elizabeth Bennet discovers that Wickham is a scoundrel and Mr. Darcy has an honorable soul under his proud manner. Marianne Dashwood discovers that Willoughby is a scoundrel and her sister Elinor has feelings as deep as her own. Catherine Morland discovers that Northanger Abbey is not a Gothic haunted house. Other discoveries and reevaluations made by the heroines and other characters also propel the plots along. Darcy learns that Jane Bennet was actually in love with Bingley all along. John Thorpe learns that Catherine was not in line for a fortune after all. Anne Elliot learns that William Elliot is responsible for her friend’s financial difficulties.

Austen also leaves some clues hidden in plain sight, unremarked upon in the novels but waiting for the clever reader to put together for themselves. Why is Mr. Darcy in such an ill humor when Lizzie first meets him at the Meryton ball? Austen never lays it out for us, but once you know his history it becomes clear that only a few months have passed since his beloved younger sister Georgiana nearly eloped with the scheming Mr. Wickham. Of course the sight of young women his sister’s age freely dancing with men they have barely met puts him in a sullen mood, and it is this mood rather than his natural character on which Lizzie first judges him.

Austen’s great literary innovation, the “free indirect style” in which the narrator stands apart from the point of view character but reflects their judgments and perceptions in the narration, represents a careful balance between objectivity and subjectivity that is important in mystery writing. The job of a mystery author working in the classic style is to present the reader with all the necessary facts to resolve the mystery themselves, but to obscure those facts in such a way that the reader does not get ahead of the detective in working out what happened. Austen’s free indirect style achieves precisely this goal, letting the readers in on what is going on in the world around her characters but coloring the facts with the main characters’ own perceptions and biases.

Austen framed her social satires and ethical critiques in the genre of romantic novels since those were popular in her day. I sometimes wonder, if she were alive and writing today, would she have chosen to write mysteries instead?

Image: Portrait of Jane Austen via Wikimedia (National Portrait Gallery, London; c. 1810; pencil and watercolor; by Cassandra Austen)

Story Time is an occasional feature all about stories and story-telling. Whether it’s on the page or on the screen, this is about how stories work and what makes us love the ones we love.