Dune (2021)

My best friend has recently taken to watching Quantum Leap, so I was trying to describe the premise of the show to my born-in-1995 significant other, and I did so mostly with lines from the show’s opening. If you’re reading this site, I assume you remember the gist. Theorizing that one could travel within their own lifetime, Dr. Sam Beckett stepped into the quantum leap accelerator and disappeared. Yada yada, yada, setting right what once went wrong, always hoping that the next leap would be the leap home, that sort of thing. I’ve never read Dune. I saw the David Lynch version precisely once when I was quite young (for its Sci-Fi Channel Scinema Event premiere, so … September 1999), and although I was a little bit older when the same station broadcast its self-produced Frank Herbert’s Dune miniseries in 2000, when I tell you that I can’t recall a single thing about it other than that Matt Keeslar was in it, I mean that I can’t recall a single thing about it other than Matt Keeslar. I didn’t even remember that William Hurt was in it until I just looked it up on Wikipedia, and I love that guy. I remembered bits and pieces of Virginia Madsen dressed like the Childlike Empress delivering a huge dump of exposition at the beginning of the 1984 film, mostly her saying the word “spice” a lot. When Brandon asked if I was planning to see the new Dune and if I planned to write about it, asking if I had any personal connection to the source material, I refrained from elaborating that I once bore witness to a not-entirely-cohesive explanation of the novel’s plot while on a largely unsuccessful date, attempting to grasp the relevance of why Kyle McLachlan was named after a mouse while sitting outside of the cafe that used to be next to Funky Monkey and trying to hear my companion’s thin voice over the Number 11 bus loudly idling right next to us. Other than that, most of my Dune knowledge came from an (admittedly ill-informed) Lindsay Ellis video mocking the Lynch adaptation, which was nonetheless beloved by a certain group of my friends; we still sometimes quote “All aboard the party worm, Harkonnens aren’t invited!” to one another. 

Suffice it to say, I gave myself a quick idea of the general plot with a little Wikipedia skim before making my way to the theater, and although it’s complicated, it’s also not impenetrable Coruscant bullshit, either; it makes sense. Some twenty millennia from now, mankind has scattered amongst the stars and settled into fiefdom, with planets ruled by various royal houses who all swear fealty to an emperor. Space travel is enabled by use of the spice melange, a resource found only on the planet Arrakis, a desert world nicknamed “Dune” and inhabited by giant worm creatures and the scavengers known as the Fremen. As our story opens, the emperor has transferred control of Arrakis from its previous caretakers, the morally bankrupt House Harkonnen, to the more popular House Atreides. This is a ploy to weaken the emperor-threatening Atreides family, who are inexperienced with handling the harsh Dune and the demands of mining spice in such an inhospitable environment. Duke Leto Atreides, along with his concubine Jessica and their teenage son Paul, journey to Arrakis with their retinue;  Leto seeks to ally with the Fremen by extending an olive branch rather than carrying on an antagonist relationship with them as the Harkonnens had. Jessica has her own agenda, being a member of the mysterious religious order of the Bene Gesserit, a sisterhood of mystics who have been secretly carrying out a galactic eugenics experiment to create a messiah; despite being instructed to bear only daughters for Leto, she gave birth to Paul out of her love for the Duke. The sisters of the order are practiced in both martial arts, stress conditioning, and a kind of super neuro linguistic programming technique called The Voice. 

That’s the backstory, anyway. It’s here that I’ll also admit that I was slightly exaggerating my lack of familiarity with Dune up at the top there, after a fashion. The narrative has always seemed needlessly confusing to me (although it’s pared down here to be extremely parsable for a general audience, not least of all because everybody in 2021 understands fealty, house affiliations, and the like thanks to Game of Thrones), but someone who has spent as much down time reading TV Tropes as I have in the past 13 years doesn’t escape that kind of wiki rabbit-holing without garnering some useless knowledge. So yes, I know a little something about Mentats (human computers who do calculations in lieu of machines due to anti-mechanist sentiment held over following a devastating war between humans and AI), ego-memory (the individual memory of one of the individuals in the chain of matrilinear genetic memory curated by the Bene Gesserit using refined sand worm bile), and kanly (the strictures that allowed for certain forms of socially and legally acceptable conflict and combat between great houses to avoid the potentially greater loss of life resulting from outright war or atomic weaponry). But none of that is really relevant for the narrative of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, all you really need to know is what I’ve outlined for you, and even that’s mostly well-communicated in the text of the film. Or the part of it that’s relevant for this film, anyway.

Duke Leto is herein portrayed by Oscar Isaac, and Lady Jessica is played by Rebecca Ferguson, whom I adore. Since part of the Bene Gesserit’s plan is creating the whitest, twinkiest little messiah you ever did see, we’ve got our whitest, twinkiest actor Timothée Chalamet as Paul. Stellan Skarsgård is unrecognizable as Baron Harkonnen, and Jason Momoa is momoa-ing it up as Duncan Idaho, the super warrior guy that has been training Paul in combat and who spends some time embedded with the Fremen on Arrakis in preparation for the Atreides family’s arrival. Josh Brolin is also there, and Zendaya is Meechee Chani, a Fremen woman about whom Paul has visions. Because of the eugenics, remember. 

So, yeah, about that. The day after I saw the movie, I saw this tweet, in which a person made a blanket statement about what they perceived to be the racist, sexist, gender essentialist, and homophobic intent of Dune, based solely on reading various plot outlines across different wikis. And that person appears, based upon feedback from readers who engaged with the text directly instead of through secondary sources, to be quite wrong about the thesis of Dune. That’s the danger of engaging only with content instead of context, which is the whole reason that freshman composition courses stress the importance of using both primary and secondary sources. And you know, I hope and pray that if I ever make a public declaration that is just flat out incorrect, that I’ll have the humility and to not double down on being an ignorant stubborn asshole. I think about people like this lady after getting ratio’d regarding her extremely niche pet peeve of … people eating bread, or that guy from The Long Winters saw a teachable moment and decided to do the opposite of teaching, or that person who dropped this worm-riddled take about relationships and then smugly got off on pretending that all the responses, even the ones made in good faith, were all in bad faith and thus proved their point (luckily the term “asshole” is not gendered). So when this person, who in general is someone with whom I agree about most cultural critique, responded with, essentially, “lol, even though the error was mine, all feedback will be considered in bad faith regardless of accuracy or intent.” And what’s most frustrating about this—other than everybody has fucking worms in their brain and lacks the humility to even acknowledge when they misread something—is that this person isn’t wrong per se about the Dune film (that they claim not to have watched). 

As a text, Dune (the novel) can be entirely about how racism, eugenics, white saviorism, etc. are all not only facile but also dangerous, but this film opts to drop its cliffhanger at a point where that hasn’t been made clear. However, unless this film were going to be six hours long (or 4.5, as the miniseries was), it arguably can’t get to the narrative point where it doubles back on audience expectation that what appears to be a straightforward western white savior narrative of a kind that they’ve seen before. To invert assumptions, it has to exist in the form that it’s in, and that’s not a bad thing, but our instant gratification, humility-scorning, wikipedia skimming, knee-jerk presumption culture has reached a point where we actually fail to recognize and realize that this is a problem of consumption and commodification. This comes from the left just as often as it does from the right, but there’s a profound inability among the left to see that large IP-holding monoliths have spoonfed audiences for so long that they said consumers have reached a point where no one has the patience to allow time for a narrative to actually create a compelling condemnation of moral ills, and that they themselves are not immune to that kind of indoctrination. Selling the idea of activism as reading a wiki and developing a thesis about a text without engaging with the primary source is part of the commodification of art into yet another thing to mindlessly tweet about without consideration of one’s own foolishness. 

Consider this: Erstwhile Roommate of Boomer had different feelings about Dune than I did. He hated the ending, describing it to me (before I saw it) as “basically a lightsaber fight” and comparing the way that the Fremen crawl around on the rock face in the film’s concluding sequence as something “straight out of West Side Story.” After I saw it and we were texting about it, he sent me a message saying “Tell me you didn’t expect them to start snapping their fingers and closing in like the Sharks.” It reminded me of when I explained the ending of Batman v. Superman mostly talking about the different musical leitmotifs that were used in the climax, as to me that was (and remains) the most interesting thing that happened in the last hour of that movie; this included a (poor) reenactment of the guitar-heavy Wonder Woman theme. Years later, when he saw the movie, that had somehow morphed in his memory into being a story about how the film ended with a literal musical battle, and he was disappointed. But he didn’t have to go on Twitter and say something like “Well excuse me very much for hearing that plot synopsis and thinking that maybe it would be a better movie if it ended with a battle of the bands instead of whatever it actually ended with” because he never went online and proudly declared his misunderstanding in the first place. And the thing is, that the Fremen looked like the Sharks never crossed my mind. But that doesn’t make his reading any less real or true, because he’s engaging with the text directly, not projecting because he’d rather appear to be “better” than the text by not engaging with it. I can’t and don’t agree with that particular sentiment, but that’s ok! It’s still legitimate. 

Anyway, this has, as it often does, turned into less of a review of this movie and more of a jeremiad about how exhausting the discourse is and what that means for our society. Dune is good. It’s great, even. Although I don’t think it’s a good idea for megacorps to try and pressure people who aren’t ready, people who are immunocompromised, people who lack vaccine access, and people who are victims of anti-science rhetoric to the point of complete dissociation from reality to go back to theaters so that they can “see Dune on the biggest screen possible,” I can affirm that I don’t regret that decision. I don’t want to be the Boss Baby vibes guy, but there was an actual moment where the vistas and visuals of the movie made me gasp a little with their beauty, and my first thought was “Disney Star Wars could never.” Dune is good. See it. 

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.: The Avengers (2012)

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Superhero Watching: Alternating Marvel Perspectives, Fresh and Longterm, Ignoring X-Men, or S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X., is a feature in which Boomer (who reads superhero comics & is well versed in the MCU) & Brandon (who reads alternative comics & had, at the start of this project, seen less than 25% of the MCU’s output) revisit the films that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe from the perspective of someone who knows what they’re talking about & someone who doesn’t have the slightest clue.

Boomer: The Avengers was always one of Kevin Feige’s goals. Audacious and ambitious, when Feige started conceptualizing the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe his intention was to create a crossover film that united characters originally featured in individual films, mirroring the character/team dichotomy that permeates superhero comics. As such, a great deal of the history of the Avengers film project is really the history of the MCU up to this point, which has been discussed in our previous posts.

Casting for the film began in 2010, with Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye being cast far enough in advance that Kenneth Branagh was able to insert an early cameo from him into Thor in 2011. Marvel’s official story is that they “declined” to have Ed Norton return as Bruce Banner, whereas Norton has claimed that he never intended to return to the role after the 2008 The Hulk flick, as he “wanted more diversity” in his career. His role was recast with Mark Ruffalo. The only other major addition to the ensemble was Cobie Smulders, who was cast in the role of Maria Hill. Hill is well-known to comic book fans as the sometime director of S.H.I.E.L.D., and she was a key player in Marvel’s then-recent Secret Invasion storyline. As a result, her casing fueled fan theory that her casting was an indication that the metamorphic Skrulls would be the primary antagonists in the film, especially when the Chitauri (who essentially stand in for the Skrulls under Marvel’s Ultimate imprint) were announced as well; ultimately, these theories were proven incorrect. Other than the six Avengers themselves, the film also featured the return of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts and Paul Bettany’s Jarvis from the Iron Man flicks and Stellan Skarsgård’s Erik Selvig and Tom Hiddleston’s Loki from Thor. Clark Gregg also reprised his role as Agent Coulson, and Samuel L. Jackson is featured as Director Nick Fury.

Early story work was completed by Zak Penn, who also contributed to the story for the excellent X2 and co-wrote the screenplay for the abysmal X3; the script was rewritten by Joss Whedon when he was brought on board to direct. There’s no need to explain who Whedon is, right? There are probably sea mollusks out there that are sick of hearing about the Cancellation of Firefly like it was an actual battle that was lost. Still, Whedon’s experience as a director as well as a purveyor of superhero yarns (his run on Astonishing X-Men was particularly good, although I didn’t care for his work on Runaways) made him the perfect fit for bringing the Avengers to celluloid life. Composer Alan Silvestri so impressed Marvel Studios with his composition for Captain America that he was brought back to score this film as well.

But enough about the seeds of the franchise. Brandon, what did you think?

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threehalfstar
Brandon: Finally, an MCU film I’ve actually seen before! When I went to the theater to see The Avengers in 2012 I was aware of its individual characters’ basic attributes, but a little lost as to what exactly was happening in the film plot-wise until about halfway into its massive runtime. The funny thing is that now that I’ve watched all five standalone films that have lead up to this crossover effort, I still found myself somewhat lost. The Avengers is the beginning of the MCU’s descent into full-blown Infinity Stone, MacGuffin-chasing nonsense. The film’s opening sequence feels like the ending of a nondescript action film that just happens to include a magic scepter and a “tesseract”. It’s a pretty clever idea to throw the film’s in-the-know audience into just as much of a confused state as those who just happened to wander into the universe for the first time, but the film’s central Infinity Stone caper is not nearly as much of a draw as the thrill of seeing six wildly varied superheroes share top billing in a single feature, so it feels a bit like wasted time. And once the film sets up its stolen tesseract conflict, it then takes way too much time to re-introduce each of the film’s disparate heroes & bring them together as a single unit. I had a lot of fun with going into an IMAX 3D screening of The Avengers completely blind of context in 2012, but returning to the film fully-informed (movie-wise, anyway) dampened my enthusiasm a good deal. It’s still a fun, crowd-pleasing action film, to be sure, but I think the effort required to get to its gang’s-all-here charm rolling reveals itself to be a little more labored on repeat viewings.

That being said, there are at least two scenes in The Avengers that rank among the best moments in superhero cinema of all time. I’m thinking, firstly, of the scene where the pissant god Loki’s evil scepter causes all six Avengers & (released from his post-credits stinger prison) Nick Fury to bicker in a slowly ratcheted moment of bitter discontent. It’s a well-played moment that sets up how a group of inflated superegos would have a near-impossible time working together as a unit. That scene functions as a set-up for the much more obvious centerpiece: the climactic battle with the alien robot army that destroys an entire metropolis. I don’t really have much to say about the film’s concluding action sequence other than it’s a grand spectacle of fist-pumping action that might be one of the single most fun to watch half hour stretches in the history of superheroes on film. I have no doubt that the reason I left the theater so satisfied in 2012 is that the spectacle of that Battle for the Fate of the Universe completely obliterated any concerns about the labor it took to get there. I was probably also less bored with the film’s individual introductions to the characters & the concept of Infinity Stones on that first go-round, since I feel now like I already put in that effort in the 10 hours of media leading up to that point. Still, I’m entirely grateful for the isolated moments of excellence that The Avengers delivers on its own time, not to mention some wonderful character beats for my favorite duo within the franchise so far (Black Widow & Captain America) and a fantastic revision of a character who simply did not work the first time around (The Hulk). I’ll just be more likely to return to those moments as isolated scenes in the future instead of watching the film as a whole, unless it’s as background noise. The Avengers is one of those movies I can see working best as something you can drift in and out of, maybe while channel surfing or housecleaning or something along those lines.

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Boomer: It’s been three-and-a-half years (and roughly 7,283 thinkpieces of varying insight and coherence about whether or not Joss Whedon’s body of work is sufficiently feminist or hopelessly static and outdated) since a group of friends and I went to see The Avengers after a long and trying semester. There was some concern that the film would be bloated or an overall mess. While there’s certainly a case to be made that Age of Ultron would realize those concerns three summers later, I find myself drawn in by Whedon’s first MCU outing every time I watch it, despite the number of times that I have seen it. Between the whip-smart dialogue, the extended but imaginative action set-pieces, and the undeniable cool of seeing super-powered characters come together and coalesce into a united, if volatile, front, there’s so much to enjoy about the film that even the most cantankerous of critics found it hard to commit to panning the movie.

The Avengers is a fun ride, and although the Battle of New York—as the final action sequence would come to be called in later MCU media—admittedly experienced a series of diminishing returns, most of the myriad of other high-octane set-pieces were genuinely thrilling and engaging. It was a smart move to start the film with an action sequence that was largely Avenger-free and which instead focused on Fury, Coulson, and Maria Hill before following that up with a series of smaller scenes that reintroduce each of the key players with varying degrees of bombasity. Other checkmarks in the “good idea” column include the decision to have characters express reluctance and hesitance to commit to the idea of a full-on superhero team, and to introduce the seeds of discord early on. As a result, when the temporary falling out occurs at the end of Act Two, it feels properly earned and not as forced as it so easily could have.

As a writer, Whedon has always had a talent for drafting dialogue and characterization that is at once clever, observational, and occasionally devastating. Jeremy Renner isn’t given much to do in this first flick as he spends most of the film under the brainwashed control of Loki’s staff, but the other Avengers work well here. In particular, Tony Stark improves a great deal as a character under the direction of Whedon, as his dialogue, while still pompous, is less obnoxious in all its crackling Buffy-esque witticism than when other writers have put words in his mouth. Chris Hemsworth’s Thor gets in some good lines as well (the reference to the bilgesnipe is a favorite of mine despite its brevity, as it’s totally wacky while remaining oddly conversational), and Evans gets to show more dimensions to Cap, now a man out of time. Evans’s performance is particularly strong, but, for my money, Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha is the MVP here, not that it should be any surprise that Whedon would expand her role significantly from her previous appearance in Iron Man 2.

Throughout the film, Romanoff is surrounded by men who project assumptions onto her: the Russians she is “interrogating” in her first scene see her only as an object of sexual scorn, using derogatory and charged language; Banner initially underestimates her strength and resolve; Loki spits insults at her, concluding that her investment in saving her friend is purely the result of pathetic romantic attachment. In every instance, these assumptions are false, and Black Widow uses these misogynistic and presumptive attitudes against the antagonists at every turn. Despite some well-choreographed ass-kicking in her last appearance, Natasha was still mostly played for the male gaze (potentially an inevitable consequence of appearing in an Iron Man film); here, she’s an extremely competent agent who is so skilled that she doesn’t seem out of place as a team-member alongside supersoldiers and literal gods. And, like Buffy before her, Nat is not an “strong female character” in the sense that she is an emotionless and implacable badass–she gets hurt, experiences doubt, mourns her comrades, and is forced to fight her closest friend. She doesn’t have to be coded as a male character, and it’s just grand.

Overall, The Avengers is an ambitious but well-suited capstone to the first phase of the MCU. It expands a lot from here, as Phase Two would include not only six films but two network television series (it’s not clear where Daredevil and Jessica Jones fit into the “phase” structure, if they fit in at all) over the following three years. It’s big fun that’s mostly (but not wholly) a surface-deep spectacle.

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Boomer: Not only did my friends and I go see this film in costume, but we caught it in 3D as well, as we had with Thor. For those so inclined, I daresay that Chris Evan’s punching bag scene towards the beginning of the film may well justify the extra dollars spent on the post-conversion.

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(image courtesy of user thecaptainrogers of rebloggy)

With regards to the larger MCU, the events of the Battle of New York will come up again and again, especially in regards to how the public and governments will respond to the team. The death of Phil Coulson is cheapened by the knowledge that his character returned a mere three months later when Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. debuted; the reason for his sudden and unexpected resurrection was one of the ongoing mysteries of that show’s lukewarm first season (arguably the weakest). My original theory at the time was that his mind would be used to create the personality imprint for Vision when that character eventually appeared in the MCU, standing in for Wonder Man, although the MCU obviously went in a different direction.

Brandon: The feeling I got while watching The Avengers‘ 2015 followup, Age of Ultron, was that the MCU was stretching itself a little thin trying to include both barely-interested newcomers & deeply invested comic book supernerds in the same audience. Now that the novelty of meeting the MCU’s characters for the first time in the first Avengers film has worn off a bit for me, I feel that strained divide might’ve begun as soon as 2012. As a compromise between pleasing both the well-informed and the completely contextless, The Avengers is a massively impressive balancing act. However, I think that these crossover films might be better served as standalone works of art if they left newcomers behind completely & just focused on serving the audience who’ve already put in the effort to get there. And I’m saying that as a recent convert who’s just barely keeping up as is.

Combined S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. Rating for The Avengers (2012)

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fourstar

-Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.