Movies: Avengers: Infinity War, Mission Impossible
Philosophy: The Basics by Nigel Warburton
This is what it says on the tin: a short, basic overview of Western philosophy, written by Nigel Warburton, one of the hosts of the excellent and inspiring Philosophy Bites podcast.
It feels like what a "... for Dummies" book *should* be. None of the smarmy bantering. No attempts to cover the entire field at a uselessly shallow level. No long-winded arguments as to why the field you've just bought a book about is worth studying. And he's not wearily trying to prove to you that the field is unintimidating or (*shudder*) "cool".
Instead, he picks out eight broad questions — things like "Does god exist?"; "What is art?"; "How should we treat animals?" — and explores the current state of things for each. He usually does this via arguments and counter-arguments: chapter one, "God", begins with the main arguments for the existence of god, along with the main objections to each. He moves on from that to explore theodicy, miracles, the paradoxes of free will and so on, each time just giving a clear overview of the main arguments and points of contention in Western philosophy.
Mr. Warburton writes with enviable clarity. Without any sense of dumbing down, he cites clear and simple examples, slows down when the terrain gets rocky, and makes every sentence as simple as it can be, and no simpler. When he employs humor, he does so drily, sort of in the background of the content, as opposed to feeling like he has to spice up the material with ingratiating humor. And each chapter ends with some great, succinct suggestions for further reading.
I have trouble imagining a better basic guide to philosophy than this. And, given where we've landed ourselves as a society with a bunch of people in charge who *don't* understand philosophy, perhaps it's a good time to take those first steps into the field.
Avengers: Infinity War [major spoilers]
This is the 2018 pan-Marvel team-up that, with the upcoming Avengers: Endgame, brings this "phase" of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to a rousing conclusion.
I'll lead off with two claims — one will be divisive, and the other will be confusing. First: this movie was vapid. Second: that was a good thing.
Thematically, this movie is not about *anything*. Character arcs are almost nonexistent — maybe there's something in place with Tony talking about having a kid and then being a mentor towards Peter Parker, but that's about it. Rocket gets an affecting moment of taking a leadership role. Bruce has... I dunno, some deal going on with the Hulk. And... that's kind of it, really. The movie flits by with remarkably little emotional engagement, given the stakes and the body count.
And now the confusing bit: this is a *good* thing. Infinity War is not about thematic weight or emotional journeys. It's about getting forty-odd Marvel characters together for one giant gonzo adventure — which is a logistical challenge, not least because many of said characters are in outer space. So that means, frankly, you don't have *time* for 'serious' storytelling. It means you have to have possibly the MCU's dumbest villain, who wants to kill everybody pretty much Just Because, since we don't have time to build out a moving backstory or sympathetic viewpoint. (And yes, because the MCU is generally ass at villains.) It means we're going to have a breezy, video-game-esque plot where the bad guy has to collect the Six Magical Whatsits, because frankly that's the only way we get four simultaneous plot threads going that can trammel together this massive cast of characters.
So: Infinity War is vapid in the exact way that it needed to be, for the movie itself to work.
The result is just a screamingly-fast, totally-plot-driven machine. We don't introduce characters (besides Eitri) because we don't *have* to — we're just using everybody we've already loaded up in the umpteen previous movies. And it's pretty much alternating between over-the-top battle scenes and over-the-top screaming matches about strategy (usually between "we have to sacrifice this person!" and "we can't sacrifice this person!"). The closest thing to a pause in the action is an occasional "okay, let's plan *how* we'll fight" check-in.
But that does a perfect job of delivering what we want from a big team-up picture. You go to a big crossover superhero movie with three questions: (1) what if characters x and y met? (2) what if characters x and y fought each other? (3) what if characters x and y teamed up to fight a bad guy? And we get endless, delightful variations on that. We get lots of great first-meeting jokes ("I am groot!" / "I am Steve Rogers."). We get the inevitable "heroes fight each other until they realize they're on the same side" trick. And we get lots of "our heroes are almost beat, until look! this additional hero comes in on their side to save the day". And it's great!
The plot is neatly constructed to get us from fight to fight to fight to fight. The Russo brothers do their usual reliable job, creating engaging action sequences and squeezing in comedy where they can. They're not the best at scenic design — somehow they make Wakanda look kind of boring — but they inherit great work from Ryan Coogler and Taika Waititi, so it's not the drab-low-saturation-fest that, say, Captain America: Civil War gave us.
And kudos to them for killing off half their cast at the end. Yes, it's superhero-land, so death tends to be impermanent (no sense in cutting off the revenue stream of a popular character), but they did a fine job of splitting the two-part phase-one finale right at the lowest point. It puts Endgame in the weird position of being an Ultimate Superhero Battle set in the world of The Leftovers, but I imagine it'll sidestep the impotent rage and crippling loss of a global genocide so that we have our awesome this-time-it's-personal battle to take down Thanos.
I had fun watching this movie. I respect the hell out of its construction. I'm pretty psyched to see Endgame, and see how they tie up this chapter of the world's largest film franchise.
Mission Impossible (1996)
This is the first Mission Impossible movie, wherein field agent Ethan Hunt has to unravel a terrifying conspiracy after a job goes bad and his team of spies winds up dead.
I've joked before about spinny watches, when a director attempts to show characterization, but instead just shows us something that the director thinks is cool. It was amusing, in Mission Impossible, to see an entire plot put together from spinny watches — none of the plot moves are necessary next steps for the story, and none of them have much symbolic or emotional weight.
Nope, we're *just* chaining together things that the creative team thought were cool.
This includes the most unintentionally-bananas depiction of the Internet (which was, in 1996, new and cool) that I've ever seen. There are lots of tense scenes of Tom Cruise coming up with google search terms, and the UI shows him browsing usenet groups, and there's a set of usenet groups for each verse of the bible (one for each language), and each usenet group has a monochrome-geocities-looking login prompt, and they let you send anonymized email.
It's like an elderly relative explaining to you how AOL online works while they're simultaneously having a stroke.
And of course the big finale happens at the Chunnel — which had just been built a few years before, and was therefore new and fabulous and cool. Now it's just odd: so... we're having our final battle on an inter-city commuter rail? I mean... okay? I guess?
There's a plot going on, and it's got lots of spy-style twists and reveals. It all makes about as much sense as that moment in the Detective Pikachu trailer: "Or... what if your dad faked someone *else's* death? That last one... doesn't work *at all*." If you give any of these plot beats a few minutes' thought, you realize that these spies must be jaw-droppingly stupid, finding the most byzantine, error-prone ways to do every little thing. Meanwhile, the movie works hard at hand-holding, making sure you're following this entire storyline, hopefully without giving it too much thought.
But De Palma directs the hell out of this. The tension in the "black vault" break-in is perfect, to the point that we can still reference that hanging-from-wires-at-a-keyboard sequence today. They create great sexual tension between Tom Cruise and Emmanuelle Béart. And De Palma gives us all the dutch angles, splashy colors, and smoldering femmes fatales his Hitchcock-idolizing heart could want.
It's inconsequential, but it's engaging and fun to watch. I plan to plug through the whole movie series in the coming weeks.
For next week: I'm watching season one of GLOW and season two of The Dragon Prince. I'm reading Amy Gentry's debut novel and Vegetable Gardening for Dummies. I'm just starting up an audiocourse about the Islamic Golden Age.
 ... beyond the usual egregiously self-congratulatory interpretations of Objectivism.
 Though none of the combat really informs character — I watch CGI punching other CGI and I keep thinking back to this tweet from John Rogers.