The Worst Filing System Known To Humans

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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

So Bad It's Good: The Inhumans

The Inhumans can really only be enjoyed ironically... but is it possible to sincerely enjoy something ironically?

It's hard to know where to begin with The Inhumans. I guess it makes sense to just say that it's very, very bad. Most of the egregious examples of it sucking require context, though, because just sharing the incoherent dialogue or baffling editing wouldn't really capture the experience. Because the experience is one of these pieces compounding until the show becomes genuinely||ironically brilliant in its sheer incompetence.

Let's start with something that should reasonably stand on its own, then, as an introduction: the opening titles.

Well. I say opening titles but this is just about the most perfunctory thing I can imagine. Bearing graphics that I probably could've whipped up as an undergrad in 2010, and not so much a theme as a remix of every blockbuster soundtrack from the last decade and a half god help us, it feels like it was thrown together hastily after some executive decided that without a title card audiences couldn't figure out what tv show they had tuned into. 

This characterizes The Inhumans as a whole and, increasingly, Marvel's output more generally. They have more money than God but--like God--lately do only slapdash, perfunctory, ill-conceived, and morally questionable work. With a lot of superhero shit these days I find myself asking whether the story might sustain even one StIT article. I select media these days based on the level of engagement I can have with it, intellectually or emotionally. If I'm not getting from something a sense of collaborative effort, a sense of a relationship or conversation I can have with the text, it seems kinda pointless. What are we to each other, Marvel movies? Are we just staying together for the children and by children I mean my Patreon money? Because it's not working!

Nevertheless, sometimes I just need something to keep me company and that's the spirit in which I turned on The Inhumans, planning to shut it off after half an hour or so. Instead, I was utterly captivated. I mean, I fully expected it to be awful, and I was right, but I expected it to be awful like how Iron Fist was awful. I expected it to be really fucking boring.

I was so wrong.

The Inhumans is bad in ostentatious ways that go far beyond what the slapdash title card suggests. As a comparison point consider: You may be familiar with the fact that I am something of a fan of Plan 9 from Outer Space. My podcasts notably start and end with clips from that masterpiece. I genuinely||ironically love the opening and closing monologues of that film: 

Well. I'm not sure The Inhumans has any single line that can compete with the sublime brilliance of "We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives." But man, sometimes it really comes close.

There's one line in particular that stands out, though it needs a bit of setup to understand. This line is uttered by Maximus "the Mad" shortly after deposing his brother Black Bolt, king of the Inhumans. Maximus is down in the moon mines where the lowest caste in the moon city of Attilan toils. Yes, Attilan has a caste system. And people who aren't deemed useful are sent to the moon mines. To mine for moon. The society of Attilan is caste-based feudalism in which King Black Bolt shares some power with the Genetic Council, who as far as I can tell are his eugenicist royal court, who determine the nature of each Inhuman's abilities and then assign them to their caste--i.e. decide whether to banish people to the moon mines.

The immediate context for this is that we've seen two teens go through terrigenesis, their generic-brand mutant awakening. The girl grew butterfly wings and because she is a "flier" she is not sentenced to the moon mines, because I guess being able to fly is of critical importance when you live inside a small dome on the surface of a rock with no air. (Wait... why is there no gravitational difference between the moon and the Ea-you know what forget it actually we've got bigger Tritons to fry.) Meanwhile her brother has the ability to predict the future. He's sentenced to the moon mines, because the Genetic Council can't figure out what he is and, well, that moon won't mine itself. Anyway, Maximus has realized what the kid can do and he's gone down to the moon mines to talk to this kid about his plans for the future. And he utters this remarkable line:

"I'm here to overthrow Black Bolt's rigid meritocracy."

[takes a few deep breaths]

How... do you even write a line like this... and not realize how utterly stupid it is? It's so deeply hilariously incoherent. Like, Black Bolt literally got his position because he's the first born and, even though he doesn't want the job and Maximus did, his dad decreed that he HAD to be king because they live in a fucking MONARCHY on the fucking MOON. And the genetic council is too incompetent to realize they have someone on their hands that can predict crisis and death--something Agents of SHIELD made a big deal about being super rare--and yet! Rigid meritocracy!

The whole show is like this. It's totally politically incoherent, but where it threatens to cohere it coheres around the idea that actually monarchies are pretty great. Marvel has finally found something they like more than cops or soldiers or [checks news] war profiteers Northrop Grumman I guess. What Marvel really loves is Divine Right of Kings and the Great Chain of Being. So they've gone full fucking Dark Enlightenment here.

It's this particular form of badness--the particular awfulness where incomprehensibly shitty politics and incoherent plotting meet to form the word salad that is "I'm here to overthrow Black Bolt's rigid meritocracy"--that makes laughing at The Inhumans so satisfying. It's so satisfying that I feel compelled to defend this nasty, mean, spiteful, hateful method of engagement with media. 

It seems to need defending, if only because every time I drag something people emerge to remind me that Real People Made This So Why Be So Vicious? And more broadly I keep seeing people question the value of irony, satire, and sarcasm--why would anyone engage in these twisty, turny rhetorics?

Well... because A. this show is propaganda for fucking Feudalism come on and B. this ironic stance is a genuine and honest account of my response

This second point might seem contradictory, and various corners of the internet have latched onto this seeming contradiction to try and tear down the whole notion of So Bad It's Good. After all, how can you like something sincerely and also ironically at once? This line of critique caught on in particular with the "Birth Death Movies" crowd, which is where I encountered it. You might know this as the circle of people Film Crit Hulk ended up hanging out with, much to the detriment of his critical abilities, sadly. I in fact misremembered this idea as coming directly from Film Crit Hulk, though in fact he simply seems to have endorsed and agreed with the arguments other people have put forth, without ever laying out the argument systematically himself. Either way, the stance has always bugged me a bit, and as I've come to terms with the deep limitations of this circle and its critical frameworks it's stood out more as a strange failure of logic.

So we watch [bad movies], some of us snorting and smirking and shouting, “Bad! Bad!,” but we do watch. And we enjoy watching. Which leads to a revolutionary, not-so-bold concept:
If a movie entertains us, then it’s good.
The majority of us look to movies primarily for amusement and distraction. When a film hits both of those targets — with or without the training wheels of irony — it succeeds.

We are in the land of the Hot Takes here, oh man. 

Look. When people are saying that a film is bad what they're saying is not that they can extract no pleasure from the film, not necessarily. This might be true, but it doesn't have to be. It may just as easily mean that there's a fundamental disconnect between what the text is saying and what the audience is experiencing.

Now, I think we COULD refer to intentionality here. I think it's usually pretty obvious when someone is setting out to make one film and they accidentally make another. See: George Lucas. But I don't think that we need to rely on intentionality if we're strict structuralists or poststructuralists. I think it's pretty easy in fact to say that even if we don't know the author's intentions we nevertheless exist in a system of language and are capable of understanding the association of various signs. It's possible for us to understand that a statement can convey meaning other than its surface level designs. When we enjoy something ironically, or when we read counter to a text, what we're doing I think is uncovering the way in which text undermines itself, like an ad hoc version of literary deconstruction. 

It's pretty obvious, I think, when the codes of a narrative are trying to invite one emotion and they invite another. Take, for example, another of the truly amazing moments in the first two episodes. It's a bewilderingly perfunctory scene in which we discover Black Bolt's power: a voice so powerful that it can destroy anything. Maximus is staging his coup and, as he confronts Black Bolt, he says something along the lines of "Will you speak, brother, and kill me... just like you killed our parents??"

We then get a sudden cut to Teen Black Bolt shouting at his parents and them getting instantly turned into fucking particulate paste, into atomic blast silhouettes on the wall, I swear to god. And then, then!, we just immediately cut back to Black Bolt looking sad! 

It's fantastic!

Everything about the reveal of Black Bolt's powers should inspire should inspire horror. According to everything we know about narrative convention we should be having an affective response of horror and sorrow and revulsion and so on. This is partly for sympathetic reasons, but also for narrative convention reasons. It's obvious what the rhetorical point of this is within the show because this is a pat and lazy superhero narrative. There's the traumatic backstory gotten out of the way, in a super perfunctory fashion to be sure but hey, it's done. But the effect runs dramatically contrary to its rhetoric, for me at least, and I don't think it's just because I'm uniquely sick and twisted.

I mean...

He mouthed off to his parents and they were instantly vaporized! I mean! Holy shit that should be tragic but it's so stupid, and the actual cinematography and editing are so inept, that every time I think about it I start giggling uncontrollably!

This reaction is ironic in the sense that the relationship to the text's codes are ironic. "So Bad It's Good" is a description of the relationship between reader and text, and of our understanding of the language a text employs. Saying that because a reader sincerely finds something funny means that the text is sincerely working is nonsense in part because it ignores specifically where the pleasure comes from: the hilarious disconnect between the text's aims and a viewer's response.

What makes hating on something like The Inhumans so satisfying though is that it comes, for me at least, with a sense of righteousness. Sure, there's plenty of stuff like the above disintegration of Black Bolt's parents that comes across as simply goofy, but there's other material that is more directly politically odious. It just happens to be odious while also being totally nonsensical and poorly put together.

There's a point in episode 2, I shit you not, where a bunch of dudes decide to help royal guardsman and all around Dude-Who-Has-Hooves-I-Guess Gorgon fight off some of the insurgent Inhumans with... machine guns. Why? Well they're on Hawaii, and as the one rando explains, Gorgon is serving his king, and Hawaiians used to serve their queen, and then America came and deposed her, so therefore these ex army dudes are going to use automatic weapons to help Gorgon make sure his monarchy isn't overthrown.


I mean look I'm not defending American colonialism, but to go from "imperialism is evil" to "therefore any and all monarchies are good" is just bewildering. It's hard to even talk about in a coherent way because it's such gibberish. That doesn't stop real people from expressing similar beliefs, of course. As I edit this my mentions are once again full of a nest of dumbass wanna-be peasants professing how great it'd be if we could just bring kings back. Mocking the everloving shit out of The Inhumans is extra satisfying for me personally just because I keep running into these True Traditionalists in real life, much to my frustration.

I mean, the show is, no exaggeration, a perfect neoreactionary vision: feudalism with meritocracy yo! Libertarianism with divine right of kings! That's straight out of the playbook of these kooks. And hey, it might even be the true intent here. It's, after all, an Ike Perlmutter project, and Perlmutter is of course a Trumpist, infamously. Now, it's not necessarily true that Perlmutter is part of the Dark Enlightenment and a monarchist, just because he's a Trumpist and a bunch of those guys are also Trumpists. But he's only a few connections removed from that crowd. Maybe Peter Thiel has already bitten him and turned him into a vampiric thrall! Who can say?

If I seem vehement about this it's because I find the politics of this show so atrocious that I can't imagine not taking SOME adversarial stance toward it. When faced with art so comically villainous it's genuinely bewildering to me that we'd fail to at least hate on it a little bit. 

Nevertheless, Film Crit Hulk has a whole thing about how you should never hate a movie, which is an insight he got from Quentin Tarantino (really, I am not making that up even though it really sounds like the ultimate Film Nerd Origin Story cliche). And to an extent I'm even sympathetic to this position because a lot of the time I actually do find myself wanting to see the good in things and pull out what's interesting from the wreckage. If you've read articles where I tear into things and found yourself thinking "Keeper doth protest too much," well, congratulations, you're probably not wrong: I'm often frustrated by the amount of leeway I'm inclined to give things, honestly. I am easily swayed by an orchestral swell and a fragment of an interesting idea that almost threatens to become something interesting. But there has to be a place for passing judgment and recognizing that some things are just bad. This show about noble monarchs and "rigid meritocracies" isn't a gift except in one sense: that it's possible to get comedic enjoyment, perversely, ironically, from the thing's badness.

Like look to pick the most extreme possible case, laughing at the "little white cuckball" reactionary meme--remember that?--doesn't imply that the meme works. The meme is a rhetorical tool meant to incite chowder-headed geek Nazis into being mad about a Star War. In practice it's hilarious in how much it reveals from a vulgar Freudian perspective about these dudes and their myriad sexual hangups. If finding that deep disconnect hilarious makes me an "irony bro" so be it. But please don't try to tell me that this nonsense "succeeds" simply because in the process of shooting off its own dick it happened to prompt an ironic chuckle.

Of course, if you really must engage this series in only the straightest of ways, with no irony whatsoever, there is a way out. Simply convince yourself that they meant to make Maximus the hero all along! I mean, we're practically at that point already. Maximus sometimes is written as a bit of a creep but this half-hearted attempt to put a finger on the scales can't really hold up to greatest opponent of Black Bolt and the Royal Family: the show's actual cinematic language.

Let's take a look at the mythic arc the show sets up. This profoundly autocratic and unequal society is in the process of being overthrown by the "villain" whose inhuman power is that he... turns into a human. Like, literally his terrigenesis results in him transforming on a genetic level into... a normal human. Which is pretty interesting given that there's a whole bunch of canonical legend stuff suggesting that mutations emerge within the wider uh, breeding... stock? I guess? when there is a need for those mutations. So, Maximus "the Mad" turning into a human has a real mythic weight to it that the show can't seem to grapple with. On a symbolic and thematic level he seems to obviously be the hero, because his great power is not some magic ability but the ability to step outside the "rigid meritocracy" of inhuman society--particularly because it is only his royal blood that prevents him from being sent to the moon mines like the rest of the genetic failures!

And then there's the editing again, and soundtrack, and so on, all these things that impact who a narrative seems to want you to sympathize with. A big thing in trailers right now is dramatic, sort of industrial sort of rock sort of symphonic slow covers of classic rock songs. The Inhumans, much like Suicide Squad, is not so much a movie as a vague set of boardroom sketches where a movie might have grown (but didn't). As such it's not surprising that it uses this trailer soundtrack aesthetic. What IS surprising is just how weird and nonsensical the choices are, and how they're staged.

The first comes as Maximus is staging his coup, during which they play a cover of The Doors' Break On Thru. Why did this seem like a good idea? I haven't a clue. Like this is honestly almost genius, from the perspective of this deeply ironic counterreading of the text where Maximus is the hero of the story. It fits this perfectly because, even though the track feels very y2k post-Matrix, it's just cool sounding enough that it makes Maximus seem like a total badass! Moreover, to pick a song that suggests shattering the bonds of reality and ascending to a higher state, and put it behind a character who, as I've noted, has ascended beyond the constraints of inhuman genetic casteism... well!

What's really amazing though is that they're not merely content to do one of these songs. Immediately afterwards with no pause they go into a female fronted industrial rock cover of, I shit you not, The Rolling Stones' Paint It Black! They couldn't do it just once they had to do it twice in a row with escalating, incomprehensible song choices. So Maximus's loyal comrades of the People's Inhuman Army are shaving off Medusa's hair--which doesn't resonate at all because we have no emotional link whatsoever with her fucking hair and it's obviously being done because they couldn't figure out how to use their SyFy Original Movie budget to make Medusa's hair not look ludicrous--while Paint It Black plays dramatically in the background. 

This sort of exemplifies the basic problem with any straightforward engagement with The Inhumans. It simply doesn't work! Even if you can sustain, briefly, the sense that yes we really are meant to see this as the triumph of Subcommandant Maximus over the decadent aristocracy it's impossible to not get distracted by how self-important, pretentious, hammy, and incoherent the show is on every conceivable level. 

The Inhumans, at points, is just garbled enough at times to let me re-imagine it as the tale of Maximus the Mad, liberator of the Moon Mines. In those moments, through the uncanny power of irony, The Inhumans is so bad it's good. 

But mostly, by definition, it's so bad it's bad.

This Has Been

Maximus Breaks On Thru
So Bad It's Good

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