Insert ye standard “oh my God, is it really 2022 already, oh my God is March really over already.”
Here are some Things I Liked this month.
I’m going to be trotting out the “I don’t have guilty pleasures” line several times in this post. For those who are new to the blog, I have kind of a refrain where I say that I don’t like the term “guilty pleasure” because it’s usually used to refer to things that you like but feel you shouldn’t like because they’re, like, not highbrow enough or something when there’s nothing wrong with enjoying something that’s just simple and well done. And then I go on to say that I do sometimes use the term “guilty pleasure” to describe things I like which I worry might actually be harmful in some way (like pro wrestling, see below).
These particular cheese snacks aren’t a guilty pleasure in an ethical way. At least not any more so than any other slightly overpackaged product of modern consumerism. But I am very aware that they will fucking kill me. They’ve got that “baked not fried” thing on the packaging which makes them sound all healthy and shit but it’s fucking cheese. It’s fucking solid cheese. And when you eat it, that part of your brain that evolved to live entirely on rare caches of salt and fat you’d track down between long periods of near-starvation as you roamed the tundra with your band of hunter-gatherers kicks in and says “yes, this is definitely an important and vital nutritional source, you should immediately eat all of it.”
But it’s fucking cheese. It’s far more cheese than any human being would reasonably consider eating if it was packaged in any other way but it is—and I cannot stress this enough—incredibly fucking delicious.
Snacking cheese. It is good. But don’t start eating it or you will die.
So apparently the MCU is Bad Now and the DCCU is Good Now and all that is old is new again?
I’ve never quite understood why Marvel was the brand that became synonymous with superheroes even though the two characters who are most synonymous with superheroes (including the guy so synonymous with superheroes he has the word Super in his actual name) are DC properties. Although thinking about it, that might be exactly why. Superman and Batman are huge brands but outside of that DC has … what exactly? Batman’s extended rogues gallery of—as one parody musical once put it—guys with things on their heads whose whole deal is making puns about the things on their heads?
And I think that what held the DCCU back originally was that it focused too much on Superman, Batman and Superman vs Batman and failed to realise that, especially in our cynical modern world, a back catalogue consisting entirely of incredibly shit superheroes with incredibly shit gimmicks that it is impossible to take seriously, actually works really well in the right kind of movie.
Those right kinds of movies being Birds of Prey¸ The Suicide Squad (2021) (not the other Suicide Squad that they just seem to have genuinely decided didn’t exist) and its spinoff Peacemaker.
Quick version: Peacemaker is John Cena shooting people, being sad, and doing a silly dance. If that sounds good to you, you will like it. If it doesn’t, you won’t. In fact, let me link you to the title sequence. If that works for you, watch the show. If it doesn’t, then you have no soul.
In retrospect, I don’t know why I liked Peacemaker, because I am so fucking over edgy superheroes and I have been over edgy superheroes since, probably, the 1990s. Although I suppose, thinking about it, what I like about Peacemaker is that it’s kind of over edgy superheroes too.
The Peacemaker was originally just a straight up heroic characters in, like, the sixties but very quickly evolved into a villain whose deal was “I will have peace at any cost”. And in the The Suicide Squad (2021) movie, that’s the version of the character we get. He’s, not to put too fine a point on it, a lolmurderer. The TV spinoff gives the character somewhat more depth in a way that, honestly, only half-engages with the “it’s funny to watch John Cena shooting people in the face” vibe of the film, but which I found weirdly compelling almost against my own instincts.
I should stress here that I chose the word “instincts” carefully in that I could have said “against my better judgement” and that would have been genuinely unfair. Even if this was a straight-down-the-line bro action thing for bros about how sad it is for John Cena that he has to be awesome all the time, that would be a perfectly reasonable thing to like if you like that sort of thing.
Just I personally don’t like that sort of thing, and I think what’s interesting about Peacemaker is it that seems to be that sort of thing but actually isn’t.
Sometimes obnoxious people on the internet will get really angry about the term “manpain” because they either feel, or think they can score internet points by claiming they feel, that it delegitimises men’s’ emotional reactions. And I think what Peacemaker provides is a really interesting counterpoint to that. On paper, this is a manpaintastic show: Chris “Peacemaker” Smith has an abusive father, is kind of sexist and racist, carries a great burden of guilt because of the death of someone close to him, and spends a lot of time being a broody loner. But the thing is, none of that comes across as manpain. It just comes across as regular pain.
And I’m not sure how to clearly articulate what the difference is, and the difference is subjective. But if I had to try to put it into words (because it’s literally my fucking job) I’d say that the basic difference is that manpain is presented as cool and regular pain isn’t.
There is kind of no getting away from the fact that Peacemaker is a worse version of the Punisher in a very 1960s costume. And what the makes the series work is that the showrunners kind of … just lean into that. And, don’t get me wrong, he’s still John fucking Cena so he’s still awesome and he moves like a ballet dancer who could kick your arse and the action sequences are fantastic. But they’re also genuinely willing to let him be properly pathetic. Like manpain ultimately comes from a place of power. It’s “there is a darkness that drives me”. Regular pain just hurts. And leaves you lying on an unmade bed in your crappy trailer howling your eyes out because you feel lonely and worthless.
And that’s a … that’s a genuinely quite subversive for a TV show about a superhuman murderbro to be about.
Honestly, I could say a lot more about Peacemaker because it’s kind of great. It’s genuinely hilarious in a dark, lots of people get shot in the face way. It’s got the prince from Bridgerton in it as a chirpy sociopathic serial killer who can’t read a room. It does have a slightly difficult thing where, from a certain perspective, its alien invasion plot is “refugees came to our country, then tried to take it over” and, while it tries to make it a bit more nuanced, it does wind up a little bit … um … dissonant? But overall, I Liked this a lot. Also, and I can’t stress this highly enough, you get to see John Cena and the cast doing that silly dance at the start of every single episode.
So on the subject of guilty pleasures (remember the cheese thing, above?) I enjoy pro wrestling. And I’ve written before about why I sometimes feel a bit bad about enjoying pro wrestling (tl;dr it’s dangerous and performers are in no way adequately compensated for the risks they take unless they get extremely lucky). But it turns out that you can at the very least watch pro wrestling in way that doesn’t support the genuinely awful, monopolistic, and anti-worker practices of the WWE by, well, watching other promotions.
In retrospect, I’m kind of embarrassed about how long it took me to work that out. One of the many gross things about the way the WWE works is that it flat out refuses to acknowledge that other promotions exist (unless those promotions have already been destroyed and incorporated into its monopoly) and one of the reason’s that’s gross, is that it fucking works. For the past, shit it must be forty years at least, Vince McMahon has been on a personal crusade to make his personal brand absolutely synonymous with pro wrestling, and it has totally worked. For years after I decided I couldn’t quite be arsed with the WWE any more I’d find myself really wanting to watch some wrestling but also having this strange unsettled feeling like any non-WWE promotion wasn’t “real”.
Branding. It works. And one of the reasons is works is because we all think it doesn’t work on us.
But AEW finally managed to get me over this silly mental block. Admittedly, it did this in large part because it includes a lot of people I recognise from the WWE but hey, it got me back into wrestling. And while the industry still has its issues, AEW does at least allow its performers to keep control of their own gimmicks and work for other promotions.
It’s the penultimate of those points that I think I’m enjoying the most about it. WWE has a very strong house style and that house style is…actually I’ve honestly lost track. Sort of a mix of being stuck in the 80s, having no sense of self-irony about it, and being really, really, really into really, really, really big men.
AEW, though, isn’t afraid to let people just get incredibly silly if they want to. Or not. So you’ve got this fantastic thing where half the roster is just athletic people who are good at wrestling and their gimmicks are “I am good at wrestling” and the other half are completely gonzo. Like “I am a literal dinosaur” gonzo. Like “Count Chocula meets Beetlejuice meets Mr Bean” gonzo. It’s fucking excellent.
Basically it’s people who love what they’re doing, doing what they love doing, for people who love watching them do what they love doing.
The Shrieking Shack Podcast
Okay this is a tricky one. I am very aware that there are people who grew up with Harry Potter who feel genuinely hurt by J. K. Rowling’s sharp turn into TERFery and who would rather just, like, not think about her ever again and I completely get why some people feel that way, so if you want to skip this one do go right ahead. Scroll down and tell me what you liked this month in the comments.
The thing is, I found this (now four-year-old) podcast because I saw it quoted on some gaming-related articles about the new Hogwarts video game to which I’ve paid no attention. And what specifically stood out to me about that coverage was that it was actually confronting the question of “what do we do about the fact that this beloved franchise was created by somebody who is currently using their platform to cause genuine harm” in a direct and interesting way.
The Shrieking Shack is specifically a pocast by two people who consider themselves “lapsed” Harry Potter fans and so it engages more critically with both the material and its creator than you normally get from HP focused media. And in a lot of ways I’ve found listening to it quite cathartic. Because one of the things that I’ve found very difficult about the mainstream media discourse around J. K. Rowling is that so much of it has been of the form “it’s so strange, she wrote these wonderful books about tolerance and forgiveness, but now she’s turned out to be prejudiced, how can this be?” (or, worse “J. K. Rowling wrote these wonderful books about tolerance and forgiveness and now SJWs are trying to cancel her”) And ultimately a lot of what this podcast does is look back and say “did she though?” and I’ve found that weirdly useful.
It is a reread podcast and they do go into the books with an open mind, so if you’re not in the mood to hear anything positive said about HP at all, this probably isn’t for you, but I’ve found them really good at engaging with the wider discourse around the series.
I’m still fairly early in their archives (because there are hundreds of episodes of this and they’re all 1-2 hours long) but the bit I’ve found most strangely moving so far is listening to them talking about—and I appreciate that this gets very meta and quite intense—the mainstream media response to the fact that some of the March for Our Lives protesters had Harry Potter signs. Basically, if you can remember as far back as 2018, you probably remember that there was a fairly major protest movement amongst highschool students who wanted Congress to maybe do something about gun laws? And like most popular movements it prompted a host of bad takes some of which, like this one seemed to weirdly give credit for the actions of a group of teenagers to … umm … J. K. Rowling?
One of the nice things about slightly amateur podcasting (as far as I can tell neither of the hosts are professional journalists) is that you sometimes get a far more sincere emotional reaction than you do from more slickly produced shows. You also get the kind of emotional reactions that you encounter a lot in real life but not so much in, well, non-real-life-media and their discussion of the way in which some news outlets decided that the most important thing to talk about in the wake, let’s not forget, of an actual school shooting, was … how great Harry Potter was, is shot through with a kind of nauseated anger that I found at once jarring and relatable.
Something I often say in interviews is that I’m a huge believer in the death of the author and so I’m also, in a lot of ways, a big believer in separating art from artist. But I think the “How Harry Potter Inspired the Parkland Generation” meme, even if—I suspect—it only really cropped up in a couple of thoughtlessly worded articles written by people who had a professional obligation to come up with a new take on an event that literally everybody was talking about, highlights why this can be so hard in practice. The books we read—the stories we love—are, ultimately, part of how we relate to each other and this gives the people who create those stories a disproportionate, ultimately unearned authority. And that authority can be used to hurt people.
Which, thinking about it, is kind of a bummer of an ending for a things I like post.
I’ve also enjoyed playing a tower defence game about monkeys popping balloons?
Tell me what you’ve been liking in the comments.