Sunday, February 12, 2017

Supergirl Season 1: Frustration

I've never been interested in Marvel, DC, or any other superhero worlds. The only reason I watched Supergirl is because according to my tumblr dash, the show is super gay. It wound up being extremely straight, almost forcibly so. But I kept watching, despite a lackluster pilot episode, a campy attitude, and relatively predictable plotlines. Something about the story of Kara Zor-El, a hotheaded, too-trusting, altruistic alien, stuck with me.

Maybe what stuck with me was the episode where Kara turns evil. That was terrifying.
 I can't exactly figure out what that something is. Kara herself isn't the most exciting hero. At the age of thirteen, she was sent from her dying planet, Krypton, to help her cousin Kal-El make the transition to Earth life. But Kal-El made it to Earth before she did, came out as Superman, and took his now younger cousin to live with a nice Earth family. Kara eventually became Supergirl and started beating up a new villain every week.

Kara as a protagonist is relatively cookie-cutter, obsessed with maintaining the status quo and unraveling her tragic past. Most of the problems Supergirl's writers throw at her are black-and-white. Imprison the bad alien. Convert your evil aunt. Rescue your sister. Save all humans by throwing an alien prison the size of a city into deep space. These problems don't change her character, even though they are fun to watch.

Like fighting a guy with his own chains. That's pretty cool.
The issues Kara grapples with which aren't black and white--whether to administer the harsh kind of justice her mother did back on Krypton, whether to trust tech billionaire Max Lord, whether to learn from her evil aunt--are either ignored or unsatisfactorily resolved. It's not enough to introduce a morally compelling dilemma for our hero. The writers have to use those dilemmas to reveal that the hero was wrong and should learn from the villain in some fashion. But, instead, the heroes keep stopping the villains from changing the world, and in doing so, preserve the destructive aspects of the status quo while pretending to have learned something from the villains' (usually far superior) ideas and modes of thinking. Most fantasy stories are like this. It's a dangerous argument in favor of maintaining destructive aspects of the status quo while offering no alternatives.

The largest example of this in Supergirl is the whole environmentalism dilemma. The show establishes early on that Krypton exploded because its inhabitants, the Kryptonians, overused its energy sources. Kara's aunt, Astra, tried to warn everyone to curb their energy use in the face of anthropogenic global warming (the show directly references rapidly changing ocean and weather patterns.) But the greedy Kryptonians don't listen, and so Astra becomes an eco-terrorist, blowing up government buildings and attempting to use mind control to turn the whole of Krypton into a think tank (yes, seriously.)

Astra's sister, Alura, cracks down on the terrorism and sentences Astra to a lifetime in prison. But right before she does, she tells Astra that Krypton will actually die and they're all screwed. A few days later, Alura ships her daughter Kara, our protagonist, off towards Earth and dies when Krypton explodes.

Years later, Kara learns all of this. And she's devastated that her mother didn't do anything to stop Krypton from dying.

Kara, getting upset at a hologram of her mother.
When Kara finds her aunt the eco-terrorist plotting to use the same mind-control tactics against humans, she obviously puts a stop to it. But Kara can't ignore the fact that humans are doing to Earth exactly what Kryptonians did to Krypton; and yet, she turns into her mother and does nothing to stop global warming. At least, not in Season 1. What's the point of agreeing with the environmentalists if you won't do anything to forward the cause? Kara is one of the most powerful superheroes in the world. She could use her image to champion an environmental agenda. Or at least persuade the feds to fund Max Lord's research into renewable tech. Something. Anything.

OK, so Max Lord's plan to get rid of the mind control regime was to irradiate National City and kill thousands of people. Maybe not the best idea. But he was all about green transportation in episode 5.
Kara needs to help fix Earth's sustainability problem to prove to herself that she isn't her mother, who watched Krypton burn.

At the show's finale, Kara saves the humans by throwing an enormous prison the size of a city into space. It's a voluntary suicide mission, and Kara is 100% prepared to die. Her act of heroism is apparently a big enough action to alleviate Kara's guilty conscience, making her feel like she did something to prove she isn't her mother. But in the end, Kara's foster sister rescues her from a death in deep space. Everyone goes on burning their fossil fuels and eating potstickers. Except for our libertarian tech lord billionaire, Maxwell Lord, who is up to some nefarious business in his back rooms. It's always the mad scientist/criminal hacker who gets pegged as the evil alternative to status quo maintenance. Maybe next time, Kara can team up with Max Lord to save Earth from its own destruction. That's what will prove Kara is not her mother. Kara Zor-El is all about working together, after all.

Astra, just telling it like it is.
I know that Supergirl isn't supposed to be great writing. But, I really hope this show addresses its glaring status-quo-enforcement issue, because Supergirl took so much pleasure in pointing out human wrongdoing that it's a crying shame it doesn't make its heroes address human wrongdoing.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Top Four Fight Scenes in the Avatar Franchise

If you haven't watched Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra, you should do so at your earliest possible convenience.

The former has won several Annie Awards and a Primetime Emmy.  The Last Airbender's ancient, East Asian-influenced world feels expansive and thoughtful, while elements of Hinduism underpin the show's extensive exploration of spirituality. The show is one of the best examples of the hero's journey, with spectacular character development.

The Legend of Korra, also boasting Annies and Primetime Emmys, combines The Last Airbender's heart and action with some of the most nuanced sociopolitical commentary in children's media. That The Legend of Korra accomplishes this despite repeated sabotage (executives seemed determined to send the show to an early grave despite its popularity) and meager funding from Nickelodeon is furthermore impressive. The show is darker and edgier than its predecessor, built for older teens, with mature themes which prompted websites like Forbes to routinely review the show.

Both shows are action-adventures known for martial-arts fighting with natural elements--earth, water, metal, etc. The creators and directors took their time with unique fight scenes which move the story forward with heart-thumping action. Here are some of the best fights in the franchise.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Backlash Over Black Hermione the Latest Battle in Pop Media Racism

There's been some hullabaloo in the Harry Potter fanbase surrounding Hermione Granger, one of the series' central characters.. J.K. Rowling collaborated on a sequel play, titled "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child," which follows various characters into middle age. The play is set to premiere in London next summer. The buzz surrounds black actress Noma Dumezweni, who will play Hermione. Baffled fans insist Hermione is white and Rowling intended her to be so.

The main actors in "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child."
We cannot dismiss the backlash as anger over misrepresentation of canon, e.g. a male Hermione instead of a female one, since the books never specify Hermione's skin color. The Sorcerer's Stone describes Hermione as buck-toothed with bushy brown hair and brown eyes. The Prisoner of Azkaban says "Hermione [looks] very brown." The book also notes "Hermione's white face" when she is terrified, but this usage of "white" is probably equivalent to "pale with fear" and not an indication of skin color. 86% of Britons are white, so if Hogwarts has the same racial composition as the United Kingdom, Hermione could certainly be white. But the books never specify Hermione's skin color.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Positive Disintegration

I've always assumed existential crises are fundamental to some sort of personality growth; apparently a psychologist named Kazimierz Dabrowski beat me to it, developing the Theory of Positive Disintegration in the late 1900s. I've found the theory reassuring since it recognizes the importance of existential concerns to personality/moral developments, here the theory is for your future reference.

Polish psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski created the theory of Positive Disintegration (TPD) during his lifetime. The theory states that conscious, autonomous moral growth drives a person to operate independently of society's prevailing values. It outlines three factors propelling higher personality development and the five stages of this development, emphasizing that not every person can or will shape their personality this way. Unique to TPD is the positive role of anxiety and psychological tension which help an individual's journey of personality customization; most contemporary psychologists see mental breakdowns as obstacles to growth, but Dabrowski recognized their importance to an individual's moral development.

Monday, August 24, 2015

"Paper Towns": Flat, But Enjoyable

The latest young adult mystery-romance lacks flavor. In "Paper Towns," directed by Josh Boone, high school senior Quentin (Nat Wolff) gets a dose of serendipity when his crush Margo (Cara Delevigne) suddenly includes him in her nighttime revenge scheme. After she dramatically vanishes the next day, he sets out with his friends to find her. The movie is based on the eponymous John Green novel.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Which Leaveners Make the Best Cookies?

One of my favorite cooking blogs, Averie Cooks, swears cornstarch is the magic bullet for soft, pillowy cookies. The idea makes sense: cornstarch is the main ingredient in pudding mix, which many bakers (including Averie) swear is the secret to soft, chewy cookies. However, when I started adding cornstarch to my cookie leavening, my creations flattened. Maybe the dough is a fan of reverse psychology?

I bake because I'm a huge fan of sweet things, mixing dough, dangerous implements, and experimenting. In True Science Fashion, last June I carried out a leavening test. I made a double batch of dough, divided it into 6 sections, and calculated how much of each leavener I needed to keep the necessary leavener-dough ratio called for in my original recipe. I baked each group at 375°F for 10 minutes, rotated once.

Hull House: a Social Experiment

I wrote this paper on Hull House, a fascinating social work experiment in 1900s Chicago. The settlement house's commitment to ending urban poverty, and the women's commitment to their suffrage rights, really resonated with me. I'm a sucker for people who dramatically change the way humans think or act: Albert Einstein, Dorothea Dix, Carl Jung, Jane Addams.