Thoughts on The Hobbit Films

Last week, the third of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films came out on DVD and Blu-Ray. Wednesday night, I rewatched the film after seeing it in the theater after Christmas, and I think this Tweet summed up my reaction to the film:

I didn’t write about the Hobbit films as they came out. Indeed, the last I wrote of The Hobbit films was this post about a strange metatextual dream about the first film before it even came out. Except for panels at Philcon in 2013 and Farpoint in 2014, I don’t believe that I’ve discussed them at any length in the off-line world, either. I’ve occasionally defended them or criticized them on social media or in private conversation, but I’ve never said, “You know, this is what I think about The Hobbit films,” largely because I’m not quite sure where to begin.

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Shamrock Fest 2015

On Saturday I was in Washington, DC for Shamrock Fest, “America’s Largest St. Paddy’s Day Celebration.” A celtic music festival held at RFK Stadium in Washington DC annually right around St. Patrick’s Day, Shamrock Fest is something I’ve attended annually for the last five years (see write-ups on 2011, 2012, and 2013), and it’s something that I have come to look forward to each spring.

After this year’s, I may have to reevaluate attending. Shamrock Fest, you are on double super secret probation.

I’m being slightly facetious here. I had an enjoyable experience, but it was also a somewhat boring experience.

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The Jerks of the Atheist Movement

I am sometimes asked what I think of today’s leading atheists, people like Richard Dawkins, Bill Maher, Sam Harris.

I am saying this as someone who doesn’t own a Bible (I suspect the Smithsonian’s replica edition of The Jefferson Bible doesn’t count), but does have copies of Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Hitchens’ God Is Not Great on his living room bookshelf.

I think they’re generally assholes in how they go about doing what they do. I have no issues with their goals of destigmatizing non-belief and working for a religiously pluralistic society that doesn’t favor any particular creed. How they go about arguing their corner, though, is not infrequently painful. Sometimes, I feel they cross the line into bad taste and deliberate offensiveness.

I am not alone in feeling this way. I am not the only atheist who thinks Dawkins is the world’s best argument against becoming an atheist, because who wants to hang their flag on that jerkface? Patton Oswalt feels the same way:

“I feel, as an atheist, about people like Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher the way that Christians must feel about Fred Phelps. Look, being an atheist means you don’t give a fuck about what anyone believes in. I don’t think any of it’s real, but you can go ahead and do it. I’m not trying to destroy religion. I just don’t care about it. I have my own moral code, as twisted as it is, but it’s not a bunch of old, desert fairy tales that I live by.” (Source)

That’s pretty much exactly how I feel. I don’t care what anyone believes; if it makes the person happy and their belief doesn’t harm me or anyone else, what do I care? I have my moral code; very simply, it’s “Don’t be an asshole.”

Where I differ from Dawkins — and a big part of why I think he’s an asshole — is that he thinks that believers are foolish and stupid to believe, while I don’t think that at all. (His “bright” meme — atheists should adopt a new term to describe themselves — made pretty clear what he really thought; if atheists are “bright,” then by extension theists must be “dim.” That’s the reason I won’t use the term “bright,” because I think it’s deliberately insulting to believers.) I don’t think that what believers believe in is true — obviously — yet I recognize that what they believe in gives them meaning, structure, and happiness, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong at all with having meaning, structure, and happiness in one’s life.

I agree with something Ricky Gervais, also an atheist, said in an interview in 2013: “It’s a strange myth that atheists have nothing to live for. It’s the opposite. We have nothing to die for, we have everything to live for.” When you get one shot at life, you better make it count. Spending time being a miserable git or making people miserable just isn’t worth it.

Why be an asshole like Dawkins or Harris or Maher? That won’t convince anyone to abandon their belief in god, and it may push someone who was on the edge of questioning religion away from embracing atheism.

Kevin Smith gave the world the Buddy Christ in Dogma. Maybe we need an atheist comic to give the world a Buddy Percy Bysshe Shelley or Buddy Thomas Paine or Buddy Sagan as the icon of a kinder, gentler atheism.


Harve Bennett: A Reminiscence

There is a generation for whom their Star Trek isn’t one of the television series. It’s the movies. Maroon jackets. Admiral Kirk. James Horner. “Of all the souls I have encountered…” Protomatter and Project Genesis. “My god, Bones, what have I done?” Humpback whales. “A double dumb-ass on you.” Born too late for the animated series, already into teenage years when Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted, the Star Trek films hit at just the right time.

I’m part of that generation of Star Trek fans. The Star Trek movies are my Star Trek. Everything else is just prologue or footnotes.

The man who shaped that era of Star Trek was producer Harve Bennett. Bennett died today, aged eighty-four, less than a week after his friend and colleague Leonard Nimoy.

Nimoy’s death saddened me, but Bennett’s breaks my heart.

I wouldn’t be a Star Trek fan today were it not for Harve Bennett. And, were it not for Bennett, there wouldn’t have been the four television series from the mid-eighties to the mid-aughts; people who came to Star Trek through Voyager or Enterprise would not have done so had Bennett not rescued and reinvigorated the franchise in 1981 and 1982.

I’m not overstating this. Bennett, a well-regarded television producer, was brought on to salvage the mess that Gene Roddenberry had made of the property with Star Trek: The Motion Picture. He made three well-received films and showed Paramount that there was still life in the Star Trek name. Because of Bennett’s work, Paramount decided to begin production on what would become Star Trek: The Next Generation, returning the property to television with four series and a combined twenty-five seasons.

I met Bennett at a convention. Between 2006 and 2009, Bennett attended the Farpoint convention, usually held in the vicinity of Valentine’s Day weekend, in Baltimore. His first appearance, in 2006, was his first convention appearance in almost thirty years. I made a point of going, and I made a point of attending his talks. He talked about his career, he read from his unpublished memoir. (And it’s still unpublished. He had a publishing deal for it, but the publisher went out of business.) And he talked about his relationships with people, some famous, some not.

I found an e-mail I wrote, dated February 20, 2007. Let me quote from it:

I loved both of Mr. Bennett’s talks this year.

The first, on Saturday, was not especially well attended, but it felt very intimate. He spent an hour talking about working in radio, and it was absolutely fascinating.

The second, on Sunday, was a great way to close out the convention. His stories of his encounters with people like Sammy Davis, Jr. and Ted Williams were very well told. The emotion in his stories of Ingrid Bergman and Leonard Nimoy was very real and very touching. I’m glad I was there to hear those stories. He’s a fantastic speaker.

At the span of eight years, I do not remember what he said about Sammy Davis, Jr. or Ted Williams. I remember a little bit about his story of working with Ingrid Bergman on a movie about the life of Golda Meir. (She was emotionally distraught during the filming, it looked like she was going to cause the film to go over schedule and over budget, and she found it in herself to turn in a marvelous performance.)

I remember his story of Ricardo Montalban. He first saw Montalban, as a young man, on stage. He was in a musical, the name escapes me. He had a fine signing voice, and there was a magnificent dance number. It just so happened that one of Montalban’s legs was shorter than the other, by about an inch, due to a childhood accident. It sometimes caused him great pain, and he often walked with a pronounced limp. Bennett asked him about this, how it was that he could dance so beautifully when he was in so much pain, and Montalban’s answer ran something like this: “I may have a limp and suffer pain, but my character does not. When I’m in character, I feel no pain and the limp vanishes.”

The story of Leonard Nimoy. I’ve told it, but I’m not really sure that it’s mine to tell. It was a story of personal failings, professional misunderstandings, a strong relationship that fell to tatters, and the more powerful friendship that emerged, to Bennett’s surprise, from the wreckage. When Bennett began the story, his voice was strong and assured. When Bennett finished, he was in tears, and I doubt there were many in the audience who were not likewise in tears. It was a powerful moment, and I will cherish that memory forever.

I had the opportunity to speak with Bennett for a few minutes. Again, from that 2007 e-mail: “I told him Sunday afternoon in the autograph line that I’m anxious to read his memoirs whenever they’re published, and he said that the Farpoint convention has motivated and inspired him to get them finished.” But that wasn’t all we spoke about. I thanked a man for the difference he made in my life. I told him I wouldn’t have been a Star Trek fan were it not for him. I told him he did good work.

Star Trek wasn’t the entirety of his work. Far from it; his association with Star Trek lasted just a decade. But that decade touched me and millions of others, and it kept Star Trek alive and in the public eye until another generation could boldly go.

The joy I feel in my memories is tempered by the feeling that, today, a light has gone out. Thank you, Harve Bennett. I’m glad I got to meet you.

A Correction: Though Bennett’s death was revealed today, March 5th, he actually passed away last week, on February 25th, two days before Nimoy.


Things I’ve Been Reading: It’s Summer Camp, Charlie Brown

Peanuts #25
BOOM! Studios/kaBOOM!
Written by Paige Braddock and Vicki Scott
Pencils by Vicki Scott
Inks by Paige Braddock

For about three years now, BOOM! Studios has published comic books and original graphic novels starring Charles Schulz’s beloved Peanuts characters. Typically, each issue of the the comic book has three or four original stories of about four to six pages, along with reprints of classic Schulz Peanuts comic strips in full color. For the twenty-fifth issue of the ongoing series, BOOM! decided instead to do a single, ad-free, long-form story, “It’s Summer Camp, Charlie Brown.” Thirty-two pages of Charlie Brown and the gang going away to summer camp, as some of them do every summer.

School is out, and it’s time for Charlie Brown to go away to summer camp. He doesn’t want to go, Lucy tells him it’s a growth experience for him, Snoopy tags along, Peppermint Patty and Marcie are at another camp, Snoopy and his bird scouts go on a camping trip, Charlie Brown gets mail from home, and so on. Most pages are self-contained scenes with beginning, middle, and punchline. (The exceptions involve Snoopy and his bird troop, which amount to a longer-form narrative.) Sally’s friend Eudora makes an appearance, as does Roy.

It’s delightful to read. Each page feels like one of Schulz’s daily comic strips, told in four to six comic book panels, and the punchlines on many pages feel authentically Schulz-like; in other words, they’re bitter and somewhat cruel. The overall feeling I got from the comic was that I’d watched an early 80s Peanuts special, one that’s not a classic but is certainly fondly remembered. If you’re looking for something on par with the classic “Mr. Sack” summer camp storyline, you won’t find it here, but what you will find is something with its heart in the right place.

It’s not without flaws — it’s not clear that Charlie Brown and Linus are at the same camp until one page puts them together, and Charlie Brown has no story that carries through like Snoopy or Peppermint Patty and Marcie do — but they are flaws I can overlook because the overall feel of the comic is so charming. One issue I’ve had with BOOM!’s Peanuts comics has been their inauthenticity; tonally they weren’t as bitter as Schulz’s work, and the comics have an approach toward the characters (like telling stories with Shermy and Pettermint Patty at the same time) that forced me to treat them as though I were reading comics based on The Charlie Brown & Snoopy Show rather than on Peanuts itself. “It’s Summer Camp, Charlie Brown” feels like a cut above BOOM!’s usual fare, like its ambitions were higher.

If you read one Peanuts comic book this year, make it “It’s Summer Camp, Charlie Brown.”


The Trouble with Artwork

This weekend at Farpoint, I bought my first piece of artwork from the Art Auction. To be honest, it was the first time I bid on anything in the Art Auction at any convention. Usually I’ll go and take a look, see something that looks nice, but never anything I felt like I simply couldn’t do without.

Then I saw this Lord of the Rings piece, “The Study,” by John Kaufmann. And I wanted it.

There were no bids on it. The minimum bid price was twenty-five dollars. The “buy it now” price was forty. I felt like twenty-five was too little for this piece of art, but I didn’t want to go to forty, so I thought thirty was a good price to pay.

A few hours later, I came back to the Art Auction, just to make sure that no one else had bid on the piece. And someone had! B43 or somesuch, whoever you are! And B43 had bid forty dollars!

Well, this simply wouldn’t do. So, I placed another bid, taking the price to forty-five (and, if you note, over the initial “buy it now” price which I hadn’t wanted to go to) and forcing the piece to go to an actual auction on Sunday morning.

At 10 o’clock Sunday morning, I was at the auction, but B43 was not. I had “The Study,” for forty-five dollars.

Then, I needed a frame for it. The piece came matted, so all I needed was an appropriate frame. I went to Michael’s after work two nights ago and studied the 16″ x 20″ frames. It seemed to me that the simplest way to frame it was to get a frame with a matte already in it, dispose of the matte, and simply drop my art (with matte) in.

I located a frame that I thought would work with the dark blue matte (Michael’s called it “Montreal,” I think), took it home, and made a horrible discovery.

The matte came out easily. That wasn’t the problem. The artwork I had went in the frame easily. That wasn’t the problem.

The problem was that the artwork and its backing was so thick that the back of the frame wouldn’t go on easily. The clasps wouldn’t slide back into place because they didn’t line up with the grooves.

Thus, I spent half an hour with a screwdriver and a hammer, gently hammering these clasps into the frame. Basically, the artwork is never going to come out of the frame.

Then I had to hang it. That I did last night.

It’s one of those dual hook frames. Whoever designed a dual hook frame, with hooks that flop around and fall over, was a diabolical mind to rival that of Torquemada. Getting it on the wall took twenty minutes, the picture isn’t level, and just when I thought had it up the first time, I went to wipe down the fingerprints I’d managed to smudge on the glass while putting it up and ended up knocking it off the nails.

That said, the picture is on the wall, it looks fantastic, and “The Study” is easily the best sixty dollars (picture and frame) that I’ve spent at a convention.


The Man from UNCLE Trailer

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen an episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., though I have seen the George Lazenby sequence, in which he plays James Bond, from The Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Nonetheless, the trailer for the new Guy Ritchie (Sherlock Holmes) adaptation of the 1960s television series dropped last night. And, well, take a look:

I like it. It feels very Ritchie. As I said to a coworker this morning, “It feels like Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, but with spies in the 1960s.” Yes, that’s the Duke of Suffolk (Henry Cavill from The Tudors) as Napoleon Solo. And Hugh Grant pops up as, I presume, some sort of M-type character.

I don’t go to many movies anymore, but this definitely looks like the kind of movie I’d go see.


The Ire of Reince Priebus

I love it when Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, writes me. He’s usually incensed about something and expects me to be so, as well. And, of course, he then hits me up for money.

What has raised his ire this week? President Obama’s appearance at the National Prayer Breakfast, which I wrote about last week. Right in the subject line, Reince says, “Demand Obama apologize for his insulting remarks.”

I don’t want to repeat myself, that’s why I’m including the link to what I said before, but I’m a bit baffled by what, specifically, was insulting and demands an apology. Can you enlighten me, Reince?

Rather than lift people up and bring them together at the National Prayer Breakfast last week, President Obama has managed to insult, hurt and offend.

While speaking about how we should grapple with the threat of radical Islamic terrorism, Obama said:

“And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.”

Now is not the time to divide Americans and attack Christians. The crusades are over — and have been for some 1,000 years now.

Now is the time to stand strong and united against those who threaten our country, our families and our freedom.

Obama needs to stop lecturing the American people and insulting Christians. And he needs to start focusing on the very real, very current and very dangerous threat at hand by Islamic extremists.

Add your name to demand Obama apologize for his insulting remarks.

Reince, really. Don’t take me for an idiot. You’re taking one sentence out of a larger speech and using it to completely the miss the point.

Here, from the Washington Post, is the full context of that single sentence.

How do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities — the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious for their own murderous ends?

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ. Michelle and I returned from India — an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity — but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs — acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhiji, the person who helped to liberate that nation.

So this is not unique to one group or one religion. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith. In today’s world, when hate groups have their own Twitter accounts and bigotry can fester in hidden places in cyberspace, it can be even harder to counteract such intolerance. But God compels us to try. And in this mission, I believe there are a few principles that can guide us, particularly those of us who profess to believe.

And, first, we should start with some basic humility. I believe that the starting point of faith is some doubt — not being so full of yourself and so confident that you are right and that God speaks only to us, and doesn’t speak to others, that God only cares about us and doesn’t care about others, that somehow we alone are in possession of the truth.

Our job is not to ask that God respond to our notion of truth — our job is to be true to Him, His word, and His commandments. And we should assume humbly that we’re confused and don’t always know what we’re doing and we’re staggering and stumbling towards Him, and have some humility in that process. And that means we have to speak up against those who would misuse His name to justify oppression, or violence, or hatred with that fierce certainty. No God condones terror. No grievance justifies the taking of innocent lives, or the oppression of those who are weaker or fewer in number.

And so, as people of faith, we are summoned to push back against those who try to distort our religion — any religion — for their own nihilistic ends. And here at home and around the world, we will constantly reaffirm that fundamental freedom — freedom of religion — the right to practice our faith how we choose, to change our faith if we choose, to practice no faith at all if we choose, and to do so free of persecution and fear and discrimination.

In context, Reince, the sentence that raised your ire is an example of how the practice of a religion was perverted into something against its professed beliefs. The point of the anecdote comes at the end of this extract: “we are summoned to push back against those who try to distort our religion — any religion — for their own nihilistic ends.” By taking one sentence and holding it up as example of the president slamming Christianity, Reince, you missed that he was offering that sentence so he could criticize and condemn the very ethos that allowed such actions to happen.

Reince, you’re attacking the president for the exact words he uttered but not the exact meaning behind them. And, in so doing, you look like a putz.


Spider-Man’s Cinematic Future: Some Thoughts

Last night, Marvel Studios and Sony Pictures surprised the geek world by announcing that they had struck a deal to bring Spider-Man into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in other words, the universe of the Iron Man, Captain America, and Avengers films.

Some potentially unnecessary backstory follows; those who know it can skip this paragraph. While Spider-Man, the Avengers, and the X-Men all share the same universe in the pages of Marvel Comics, in the ’90s Marvel, desperate for money, sold the film rights for a number of their properties to rival studios, in some cases in perpetuity so long as films continued to be made from the property. Hence, Columbia Pictures (later Sony) held the rights to Spider-Man, Fox held the rights to the Fantastic Four and X-Men franchises, New Line Cinemas had the rights to Blade, and so on. Then, a decade ago, Marvel decided to launch their own film production company and produce films with characters that hadn’t been bought up by other studios, which led to films such as Iron Man, Captain America: The First Avenger, Avengers, and Guardians of the Galaxy, all sharing the same universe, actors, and creative personnel. Fans began wishing for Marvel to recapture the rights to the X-Men and Spider-Man franchises, just as they had for Daredevil and Ghost Rider. (The film rights for these were held by Fox, but their rights lapsed and reverted to Marvel when Fox was unable or unwilling to make further films, and now Marvel has made a Daredevil television series for Netflix set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.) Fox continues to produce successful X-Men films and they are relaunching the Fantastic Four this summer, so these rights are unlikely to revert to Marvel at any time in the immediate future. Sony, however, has had some financial difficulty, and after last year’s Amazing Spider-Man 2 met with critical and audience indifference the fannish cry for Marvel to somehow reclaim the rights grew louder. A few months ago, Sony’s computers were hacked and secret emails were released that indicated that Sony and Marvel had, in fact, entered into discussions about coproducing the Spider-Man movies; Sony would finance and release them, Marvel would have creative input, and the studios would share Marvel Cinematic Universe and Spider-Man characters between them. That brings us to yesterday’s announcement that Marvel Studios and Sony Pictures had reached an agreement.

That agreement, from the press release, is this — Spider-Man will appear in a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, and Sony will produce and release a new Spider-Man film in 2017 with creative input from Kevin Feige and his team at Marvel Studios. Choice quotes: “Together they will collaborate on a new creative direction for the web slinger.” And “Marvel and Sony Pictures are also exploring opportunities to integrate characters from the MCU into future Spider-Man films.” And “with this deal, fans will be able to experience Spider-Man taking his rightful place among other Super Heroes in the MCU.”

Beyond that, the press release says nothing about creative choices, such as whether or not Andrew Garfield will continue as Peter Parker/Spider-Man from the two most recent films. Of the issues that the Amazing Spider-Man films have had, Garfield has not been among them. It’s not impossible to integrate the Amazing Spider-Man films into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, though questions such as “Where was Spider-Man during the Chitauri invasion and the Ultron incident?” and “Where were the Avengers during Amazing Spider-Man 2?” might require addressing at some point. On the other hand, Marvel Studios may wish to draw a line between what’s come before with Spider-Man and the “new creative direction for the web slinger” by recasting.

And if that’s what Marvel Studios wants to do — recast — then I will suggest that they need to go bold. Dispense with Peter Parker altogether. Use Miles Morales, the Ultimate Spider-Man, as the Spider-Man of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Or, if you want to be even more radical, use Gwen Stacy from the pages of Spider-Verse, aka Spider-Woman, aka Spider-Gwen.

We’ll start with Spider-Gwen first. In the comics, Spider-Gwen is from an alternate universe where the radioactive spider bit Gwen Stacy instead of Peter Parker. She developed the spider-powers, not Peter. She became a super-hero, not Peter. And she may be one of Marvel’s biggest character launches of the last five years; really, I think only G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel can compare.

What does Spider-Gwen bring to the table for the MCU that Peter Parker doesn’t? First, she’s largely a blank slate at this point. The movies can do with her anything they want, and because she’s largely a blank slate it would be easier to build a synergy in characterization and development between the comics and the movies; there isn’t a weight of history and continuity behind her that would make the cinematic and print versions of the character too terribly incompatible. Second, she would address the gender imbalance in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. We still haven’t had a female headlining MCU film, and Black Widow notwithstanding, the cinematic Avengers are a “no girls allowed” club. Spider-Gwen would make one of the most prominent characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe a woman, and the 2017 Spider-Man would, in fact, be a Spider-Woman film.

Next up, Miles Morales, the Ultimate Spider-Man. In the comics, Miles is an African-American/Latino teenager. After Peter Parker dies in battle with the Green Goblin, Miles, who through a convoluted series of events also has spider-like powers, decides to honor Peter’s very public sacrifice by becoming the new Spider-Man. People who knew and loved Peter in the Ultimate Universe were reluctant to accept Miles, but his dogged determination to live up to Peter’s example won over even his harshest skeptics.

What does Miles bring to the table for the MCU that Peter Parker doesn’t? First, he’s an entirely different type of character. He’s not the whitebread middle-class genius that Peter is; Miles comes from a different background and carries with him different baggage. His family has had run-ins with the law, he’s a reluctant hero, he just wants a normal life. Second, the convoluted origin isn’t necessary (and I’m not going to summarize it here, because it’s just nuts); Marvel is trying to build up the Inhumans (humans super-evolved with powers) in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a replacement for mutants (which Fox holds the rights to, thanks to the X-Men films), so simply make Miles an Inhuman with spider-like powers. Third, Miles would address the racial imbalance in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While Marvel Comics has always prided itself on how they reflect the real world, the major heroes of the Avengers are all white. Yes, there’s Rhodey and Nick Fury, but these aren’t the characters the films are putting forward as the ones driving the story. If you put Spider-Man in an Iron Man movie or an Avengers movie, he’s going to have an important role that’s going to push the story forward. That’s the very nature of this deal; two rival studios are going to cooperate in this way for a cameo here and there, and the Avengers “big three” becames the Avengers “big four.”

(As an aside, Marvel and Sony could bridge the gap. Use Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker in Captain America: Civil War. Have him die in the final act, sacrificing his life for some noble cause. In that film’s post-credit scene, we meet Miles Morales. Then, in the subsequent co-produced Spider-Man film, Miles reluctantly emerges as the new Spider-Man where he faces criticism and hostility from people like Tony Stark and Nick Fury until, at the film’s climax, he does something hugely heroic and wins over his doubters.)

Spider-Man is the Marvel Universe’s everyman. There are structural reasons why other major Marvel Cinematic Universe characters are white — Tony Stark is a billionaire industrialist, Thor is Norse god, Captain America is a relic of the 1940 United States military. (That said, when there were rumors that Will Smith was going to play Captain America, I worked out how that would work, and what I came up with was pretty compelling.) There’s no reason why Bruce Banner has to be a pasty white guy. Or Star-Lord. Or Dr. Strange; I’m sure Benedict Cumberbatch will be great as Dr. Strange, but Tilda Swinton would have killed that role. It’s the same with Spider-Man. There’s nothing that requires Spider-Man to be white. There’s nothing that even requires him to be a man.

That’s my advice to you, Marvel. You are putting Spider-Man in your cinematic universe. Use it as an opportunity. Take a chance. Go big. Give us an Avengers team with Miles Morales or Gwen Stacy. You’ve earned your audience’s goodwill. Use it.


Obama, the National Prayer Breakfast, and the Crusades

On Thursday, President Obama addressed the National Prayer Breakfast, as has been his custom during his presidency. This year, his remarks drew the ire of conservatives and religious conservatives; as an example, Bloomberg News headlined an article with the verb “Troll” to describe the president’s remarks. What was so controversial? The president acknowledged a settled historical fact — Christianity, like other faiths, has a long and bloody history of religious violence and inhuamnity justified by faith that is contrary to the values it professes. On the right, this provoked a loud and sustained whine, from “they weren’t really Christians” (Franklin Graham, I think) and “that was Catholics, not Protestants” (Erick Erickson) to defenses of the Crusades (Ann Coulter and Jonah Goldberg).

My reaction to the reaction is one of bafflement. As I said, it’s a settled historical fact the Christians shed a lot of blood over the centuries for religious reasons. Christians did what they genuinely believed their god told them to do, from brutally stamping out heresy in the early centuries to atrocities such as the Fourth Crusade and the Albigensian Crusade in the Middle Ages. And Protestantism isn’t immune; it has the Thirty Years War on its hands, and Americans venerate the Pilgrims and Puritans, factions who were every bit as willing to torture and execute those they viewed as heretics as the early Christians. Yes, Graham, the Bible was used to justify slavery. Yes, Erickson, Protestants executed Quakers like Mary Dyer. Yes, Coulter and Goldberg, Muslims were not the only targets in the Crusades; Christians waged war against fellow, though different-thinking, Christians in the Crusades as well.

I’m not trying to dump on Christianity this morning, that’s not my point. My point is that an honest appraisal of the religion’s history shows that Christianity is what the President said, a religion that preaches good that, in the past, was capable of great violence done in the name of its god. The president’s point was that we see the same thing happening elsewhere in the world today; people doing evil things in the name of their god, and we must remember they are the exception, not the rule. By painting ISIS as the face of Islam, we are tarnishing the religion by taking its most extreme elements as the norm. In other words, Christians who are throwing stones at Islam over ISIS are forgetting — or worse, wilfully misremembering — their own history.

Paul Waldman, for The American Prospect, explores why conservatives were especially incensed by the president’s remarks and why some, like Erick Erickson, sputtered rage that the President claims to be a Christian. (Contra Bill Maher, I don’t believe the President is a closeted atheist. I think he’s very liberal in his Christianity, intellectual and universalist.) Obama’s Christianity has room for doubt and questioning, and that seems to be the thing his critics this week cannot abide. Obama’s faith can acknowledge and embrace the messy truth of the past. His critics’ cannot; they’re forced to deny history or attempt to justify it.

Finally, I also agree with Waldman that presidents shouldn’t attend the National Prayer Breakfast. Despite its name, it’s not an official function. It’s an event put in by a Christian fundamentalist outfit. Its name implies that it’s inclusive. The reality is that the National Prayer Breakfast is anything but.

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