Act Four Live: Pop culture with Alyssa Rosenberg (Mar. 11)

Mar 11, 2019

When the credits come up at the movies, the pages in a book run out, or the last commercial rolls over the end of a television episode, the story might be over. But the discussion is just getting started. Here at Act Four, we’ll get together every week to talk about the best (and worst) in pop culture. We’ll also try to sort out why the stories we love mean so much to us, and what they mean for the rest of the world.

Happy Monday, everyone! I fiiiinally watched "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse" over the weekend, and it's given me a lot to think about in terms of how I'm frustrated with other superhero movies and why. (Speaking of which, I...did not love "Captain Marvel.") Since we've last chatted, I also finished Patrick Radden Keefe's sensational non-fiction book "Say Nothing," about the ripple effects of the IRA's disappearance of a Belfast mother. Tell me what else you've loved recently. Let's get to it.

Does "The View" get such great ratings to justify it as a "go-to" campaign stop for all the people running for Democratic nomination?

Ratings for "The View" dipped for a while and have subsequently been on the upswing, but politicians stop by the show less for the precise number of people who watch it, and more for who those people are. A huge strength for the Democratic party right now is women: turning out the suburban women who have been viscerally disgusted by Donald Trump's presidency is going to be an important part of the party's 2020 strategy, no matter who the nominee is. Going on "The View" is a way to talk to some of those women.

"Why hasn't so-n-so jump into the Democratic primaries yet?" Maybe just to give us some relief. I already feel burnt out and no caucus or primary voting will take place for just under a year and even then it's couple of weeks gap between the states. Even as I type this I keep wanting to opening a new tab to look up the political news even I keep telling myself it will keep and I feel bad for breaking my discipline when I do. Is this is totally unique thing to just me?

You are not alone! I have to follow all of this stuff because I do it for work (and in particular, because I'm editing David Byler, our resident data genius), but on a personal level, I definitely find it a queasy combination of addictive and boring. Part of it is that we're still in the very early stages, so while some developments are genuinely important--I think the reports about how Amy Klobuchar treats her staff may fall into that category--a lot of things are not. I am not, for example, taking Howard Schultz's walkabout very seriously, and I find having to hear from him tiring, and the resultant debates about centrism and whether he represents it downright exhausting. This is sort of the junk food stage of the campaign: we're taking in a lot of information, but it's not necessarily good for us or for our decision-making processes. You are totally justified in finding other ways to amuse yourself. In fact, one project that might help is assigning yourself some substantive reading on important issues in the campaign, whether that means reading Annie Lowery's book on Universal Basic Incomes, or going back and reading some history. When I was on leave, I found myself messing around on social media a bunch in a way that made me queasy, and I addressed that gross feeling by committing myself to reading Robert Caro's Years of Lyndon Johnson books. I read them on Kindle, so every time I was on my phone and about to thumb over to Twitter, I could open the app and do something more substantive for my brain instead.

While I normally don't put a lot of stock into box-office numbers, and with the acknowledgment of the arbitrariness of comparing two movies solely because they both center on women, I was a little surprised by how much Captain Marvel surpassed the opening weekend gross put up by Wonder Woman, which obviously still made plenty of dough. What is it about the MCU specifically, and Disney in general, that has made it such a dominant presence in Hollywood, at least from a financial perspective? Is it just because of the release date in this case (less competition in March versus July)? I suppose Marvel movies have been more consistent than their DC counterparts, but they're rarely spectacular IMO, so I'm sort of surprised more of a fatigue hasn't set in at this point.

As much as I find this approach kind of creatively enervating, I think a lot of the success of the Marvel movies comes from the fact that the folks behind them see them as a long-running and insanely expensive television show. I dislike this, at least to a certain extent! Movies should be able to stand on their own as coherent stories, even if you *can* put the installments of a franchise up next to each other to tell a coherent story. All major superhero movies should learn from the first two "Godfather" movies! But I digress.

Basically what this approach means is that if you care about these stories and these characters, watching every single installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe starts to feel mandatory. Want to know who Nick Fury was paging at the end of "Avengers: Infinity War" (or how Fury lost his eye in the first place)? You've got to watch "Captain Marvel." Want to know if Carol Danvers is going to come back to Earth, even though the answer is guaranteed to be yes? You'll have to get your ticket to "Avengers: Endgame." The movies are calibrated to satisfy one urge and set up a new craving so you'll have to come back and back and back, like rats seeking out a hit of sugar water.

Also, the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies tend to be good-enough. My husband and I will often put one on when we've had a really tiring day and want something on in the background that we don't have to pay too much attention to. There's a certain level of quality control, and because Americans are culturally risk-averse, audiences come back over and over because they can be confident that Marvel movies will be at least reasonably enjoyable. It's not a recipe for greatness. But it is a design that produces massive piles of cash.

Captain Marvel isn't getting terribly great reviews. Most of what I know about this movie is it leans very hard into the "apparently things aren't exactly as they were 24 years ago" and Brie Larson beats on little old lady on a bus. I am curious to see if just being from the MCU is enough for movie these days? Also on stage names. Maybe I'm a Francophile, but I think I prefer Brie Larson's real last name of Desaulniers more.

I think I figured out I'm spending too much time online when I watching the 1989 Batman movie on TV yesterday and basically every line of dialogue was "Oh that could make a good gif" in my head.

I suspect you are not alone in this, nor is it only audiences who are thinking this way. One of the reasons I find "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" comedically impressive is that the writing staff constantly manages to come up with punchy jokes or lines that when delivered a certain way are instantly memorable while also integrating those gags and line readings into broader plot and character development. You'll never hear, or say, "Cool, cool, cool" the same way again.

So I went to Catholic school until the eighth grade and Sunday school every weekend. I don't ever remember being taught about Israel or Zionism or support for both. Romans feeding early Christians to the lions, sure, but not that. So is it different for Pentecostals or Southern Baptists or Mormons or other Evangelical faiths? I read about the prophecy about the Jews returning to the Holy Land before "End of Days" where they will convert and be saved or they will perish. Is this something they know and really follow since again, I never knew about any of this growing up and only learn about as an adult through magazine articles.

Well, McCain went to Xavier College Prep, an all-girls Catholic school, and I can't speak to what she may or may not have been taught there, or in any other part of her education. I do think that ideas about Jews returning to the Israel and what that may portend are taken much more literally in some denominations than others. As  very non-practicing Jew, I find the whole thing a little creepy (especially the assumption that we're all basically instruments of the Second Coming, and that our only purpose is to be converted). I guess some other Jews have made some other determinations about Evangelical support. Those decisions are theirs to make.

I've never really gotten the "star" attraction of Brie Larson. I just don't find her or her "acting" that attractive or interesting. Ann Hornaday seems to agree at some level, giving the movie only two stars. And Larson's churlishness (politics) on tour isn't welcome. (I loved "Wonder Woman" and Gal Gadot and have watched it at least two or three times. No plans to watch "Captain Marvel".) So, how much of Hornaday's two stars is Larson, and how much is everything else?

I don't know! Ann and I haven't discussed her review, so I'm not that familiar with her thought process in assigning these particular stars. (A note to readers who may not be aware: Ann Hornaday works in the newsroom, and I work in Opinions. Our sections are technically firewalled from each other, and we don't coordinate on coverage in any way, or even see each other very often. I don't represent her, and vice versa.) That said, I happen to like Brie Larson a great deal, and didn't like either "Captain Marvel" or her in it.

And I think it's a mite telling that you're referring to Larson having politics as "churlish." There's absolutely no question that, given the way Marvel marketed the movie as a girl power story, that Larson had her talking points. Do you really find the basic message of women's empowerment that offensive?

I read your article calling Captain Marvel the "Lean In" of female empowerment. I haven't seen the film yet because I've given up on the possibility of finding satisfying stories within the major franchises that dominate our movie going options. So my question is, what of the ways Captain Marvel failed as a film do you attribute to the format of belonging to the Marvel franchise, or do you think they could make improvements within said franchise?

As I wrote in that piece, I think a huge part of the problem is the format and the corporate conditions under which these movies are produced, and I think left-leaning culture-lovers should be very, very conservative in what we think is possible in these movies. The disconnect with "Captain Marvel" is especially jarring, since it takes a chipper girl-power approach to a period that was actually extraordinarily unsettled, and sometimes downright traumatic, for women in the military. The version of any politics we get in these movies is going to be the one that's most compatible with world-conquering capitalism. Maybe that's realistic: that's the condition under which politics in America takes place. But it's not revolutionary; it's relatively timid.

There are tons of Donald Trump is this fictional character and that fictional character, mine is Scarlett O'Hara. image obsessed, constantly scheming and destroying people in her wake, three marriages, uninvolved parent, Ku Klux Klan than is comfortable. I guess Trump's Ashley Wilkes is acceptance by New York wealthy bluebloods

Scarlett O'Hara is the original female anti-hero. Also: comparing everything to Trump is tiresome, not to mention not terribly apt.

What's the most original take you've seen, good or bad, on this now-juggarnaut movie?

I liked Peter Suderman's take on "Captain Marvel" and "Into The Spider-Verse."

Call it depression over current events, disillusionment with certain celebrities, malaise, late-winter blahs, DST-conversion lag, or whatever, but lately I've felt turned off by pop culture. Are others experiencing this?

Any other chatters want to commiserate? Or offer solutions about how to get bucked up?

I watch The Orville, it's actually not a bad show and I get the humorous appeal (sci-fi with a more humorous take and looser characters), but there seems something unethical in copying Star Trek so closely. Isn't that why copyright law was created? I understand a homage or satire but copying every element of Star Trek and giving it a different name, I'm not sure how it works in a humorous context (which would be satire)

It's very hard to win copyrights for concepts. I think Seth MacFarlane would have a good argument that it's homage, just as "Galaxy Quest" was a genuine satire.

I've always been annoyed at my parents (typical DC insider political junkies) for getting into the primaries way before it actually mattered and preferred the John Oliver approach which is that it doesn't matter so early. However, since Trump occurred (something I've found terrible), I've been eager to get involved in politics more and I can't help on occassion seeing politics as exciting as the NBA playoffs or the Oscar race when framed in certain ways. One way is the midterms where I found myself tracking polls every day. I think the presidential primary is another way where politics gets framed as entertainment in a way that's irresistible. However, we have to keep in mind (at least in my opinion, feel free to disagree), that it's not important as what the lawmakers are doing in the here and now.

This seems right to me. As much as the obsession with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez can tip over into creepiness, I think it's actually a good thing that people are so interested in and excited about a new class of freshman lawmakers.

The GDP of a small nation is about to spend on the election next year and can we just pause for a second to realize this? I mean Facebook alone is going to how much money off these campaign directly? Why don't I just donate it directly to Facebook.

I both feel like the level of money in politics is despicable and am not sure I see a viable way around it at this point.

It's kind of like McDonalds or Wendy's is you kind of know what you are going to get so you driving along and you see them versus another take-out place you've never heard of before and you end at the familiar one even you've never been to this particular location. You go to movies and between movie never heard of before and one where you kind of know what you get with MCU...

I think that's right.

Do you remember the scene in the 1994 "Little Women" where there is a discussion about women's suffrage and somebody (I think it's actually Donal Logue in an early role) says women are better than men by this or that virtue and Winona Ryder's Jo counters women shouldn't get the vote because "they are good," since men do not get it because they are good, but just for being men. I think this is something which might bother me a bit with "girl power" since even if in certain fields of power and influence women have gotten less opportunity to suck than men, women can still suck

This is one of the reasons I liked and was so disturbed by "The Power," which got embraced as a women's empowerment narrative. It's actually a story about how women might end up behaving exactly as badly men, given the opportunity. The greatest victory "Captain Marvel" struck for equality is in demonstrating that a totally mediocre superhero movie starring a lady can make just as much bank as the ones starring the boys. That, in its own way, is some kind of victory.

Also, OMG, you're totally right that it's a young Donal Logue!

If Donald Trump is Scarlett O'Hara, than Stephen Miller is his Rhett Butler.

Stop it. Stop it. This metaphor does not work at all.

I like "The Orville" too. I do wonder how you can watch it without ever having watched "Star Trek: The Next Generation" since my knowledge of the latter show fills in for the former show.

This would be one of the arguments against a copyright claim: they aren't actually substitute goods.

I think part of the problem is this "Captain Marvel" is such an inauthentic/inorganic character. The original Marvel "Captain Marvel" was a business ploy to keep the copyright away from DC. Then the Carol Danvers character became "Ms. Marvel" to lock in the female variation. The move to finally make her THE Captain Marvel smacked more of marketing than any creative impulse.

I mean, IP grabs can turn out successfully! I still think She-Hulk is an amazing character. But I agree that there just wasn't much to work with in the movie; we never really got a sense of Carol Danvers as a person or as a superhero. Being over-powered can actually really present a problem, both for action sequences and character development, and I think that came rather dramatically into play here.

Is the whole thing just a vanity project lark for McFarland? I don't condemn him for it and definitely a more wholesome pursuit than say, running for high office.

The show is not having a particularly good second season so far, though as this piece notes, it has some economic cushioning that could make a third season more viable. MacFarlane and I don't have the same case, but I do think this is genuinely a passion project for him.

Ooh, I want to play this game! How about Putin or MBS? Gotta be someone who "frankly, my dear [doesn't] give a damn."

You're all banned from the chat. 

I kid, mostly, but this is a kind of literalist reading I really hate. What makes that line so completely devastating is that we've learned, long before Scarlett did, that Rhett actually did love her very, very much. It's unclear whether he's reached a point where he truly doesn't care, or if he cares so much he has to leave for his own self-preservation. But the surface meaning is not actually why that line stings!

Did you watch it? Any opinion?

Not yet!

Was everyone else in the world reading comic books when I was a kid, and was I just somehow oblivious? Or are these movies popular as movies, even for people who (like me) never cared for or read comic books?

I think the latter.

You said in a previous answer about "Captain Marvel" that "Americans are culturally risk-averse". I'm curious, what nationalities do you think are not "culturally risk-averse"?

This is a good question from a somewhat flip line. Let me ponder it for a potential newsletter post.

Do you think Gunn will end up directing the third Guardians movie after all?

He's moving over to DC to direct the next "Suicide Squad" movie, so I doubt it.

As Samuel Johnson so aptly said, when a person is tired of pop culture, he or she is tired of life. That said, whenever I am feeling bored or punchy about pop culture, I shift gears. I decide that now is the time to get into whichever 2008 TV series I haven't previously made time for, or screen the five 1954 Best Picture nominees, or read "Middlemarch." This usually refreshes me, and by the time I'm finished it's usually time for another season of "Atlanta" or something.

This is a great idea.

The Trump=Scarlett thing falls apart when you realize she ACTUALLY built her empire.

Albeit on convict labor! But yes.

I deleted my account and resubscribed but no dice. Any other suggestions?

Can you email me? I can talk to our product team and see if we can find out what's happening.

I'd meant to ask before if either of you had gleaned anything from the mob deciding that he was, well, someone else, or just decided that bunkers in remote locations are the only counter to that stupidity. Also, wasn't a fan of the Power because there's an argument to be made that women assuming control of a society would do equally but differently abhorrent things - the Maerlande Chronicles are one of the few books that gets this right.

Oh, he's fine. For those of you not in on the context, my husband, Media Matters Senior Fellow Matt Gertz, is frequently mistaken for Trumpist Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz on Twitter. Sometimes, this is funny (and the Congressman is kind of thirsty about wanting to be in on the joke and wanting my husband's attention). Sometimes it is less funny, as when Congressman Gaetz appears to threaten a witness and people start flooding my husband's Twitter mentions in an attempt to report him to the FBI for his crimes.

And on this note of Boy Is Life On The Internet Weird, I'm going to bow out to get to a 2pm meeting on time. See you next weekend. Let's all make plans to watch "Triple Frontier" on Netflix and discuss on Monday!

In This Chat
Alyssa Rosenberg
Alyssa Rosenberg blogs about pop culture for The Washington Post's Opinions section.
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