Note 13: No plan survives contact with the enemy

Additional Thanksgiving notes and a lengthy X-Men film digression.

So, it looks like America’s inability to take COVID seriously is biting us in the ass. I’m writing a few days before Thanksgiving, and nationally we’re setting records for infections, while hopefully we avoid the mortality that trailed cases in the spring.

As I detailed in past Notes, Holly and I were planning on sticking around Chicago, given that Illinois is surrounded by other states experiencing worse COVID surges. Our truncated plans were to invite a couple of friends over with whom we’ve had contact, and do a small Thanksgiving.

Well, one of those folks came down with symptoms of the virus, and it looks like at best, I’ll be able to induce two food comas (me and my wife), and I’ll be eating leftovers until Christmas. As I’ve said before, I’m perfectly okay with that. LucasArts’ TIE Fighter taught me that it’s always good to establish secondary objectives in case the primary mission goes awry.

Given that I’ll be cooking for two, I’ve started to cook some of the desserts and appetizers that I was planning as finger foods while folks waited for the main course.

My deviled egg game is on-point:

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While my personal-pie making needs a few more innings in the Minors:

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I’ll be posting more photos as my experiments in my culinary lab progress.

In other holiday-related news, I broke my No-Christmas-Before-Thanksgiving rule over the weekend and started wrapping gifts and assembling cards.

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The rationale wasn’t to cheat, or that I couldn’t wait - it was driven more by holiday-related scheduling constraints that would be addressed if I sent out some of the gifts this weekend.

One of these was my participation in the 2020 JoCo Cruise gift exchanges. We did a Festivus in July, and the organizers put together a more traditional Festivus in December. The way this works is basically like a Secret Santa. You provide some information to the organizer and they match you up with other folks and you send them gifts. I had wrapped up my shopping last month for this, but I also like to send out something extra with Chicago flavor, namely Frango chocolates. The chocolates arrived last week and I had everything I needed to send those packages out.

The second constraint was that I had some gift that were time-sensitive and intended to be opened before the holiday - ideally before December 1. I wanted to get those out this weekend as well.

The packages made it out just fine, and right before I have to start stealing and selling children to pay UPS’s holiday rates. Since I had a couple more boxes ready to go as well, I sent those out, so I’m sitting at around a 50% completion rate for gifts to send. I don’t have any plans to send more out for a couple of weeks - I have a couple things still on their way, and a couple Black Friday/Cyber Monday sales that I need to take advantage of later this week.

What’s been nice about this is that my home office has been accumulating boxes for the past couple of months, and I’ve managed to send out the contents of those boxes and can now see my floor again. I guess that makes me a seasonal Hoarder?

For folks worrying whether I’ll run out of things to do before the holiday season begins in earnest, put your mind at ease. While most of my wrapping is finished, I still need to break out my wax seals for Christmas cards, assemble some home-made Christmas crackers, and write an entire Note on the brilliance that is Twisted Sister’s Christmas album (you’ve now officially been notified that this coming). I also have some plans to put together a classic holiday film marathon, so there’ll be enough Cheer that you’ll be cheering the New Year to arrive, and quickly.

The New Mutants, a film review

Since I don’t have too much to say about the current state of the world, save for a hearty Nelson Muntz laugh aimed at the Trump legal team, I figured I’d do a brief review of Josh Boone’s The New Mutants, which finally arrived in a form that I could watch at home last week. I have thoughts about the film and figured that this is as good of an avenue to share them.

While my membership in the X-Men fan club is officially older than some members of Congress, I was a late arrival to the New Mutants comic. To recap, Marvel introduced The New Mutants in 1982 (just a few months shy of being older than a presidential candidate last cycle!) as a way to re-establish the school-centric storytelling aesthetic that the X-Men books lost as their members morphed into a more adult-oriented team after being introduced as teenagers in 1963. While the adult X-men were off doing Adult Things (such as marrying and then ditching clones of their dead teenage crushes), Chris Claremont and Bob McLeod moved the X-Men proper off-world and an evil Xavier established the New Mutants (nominally) as the next generation of mutants training to be X-Men (but really to be incubators for an alien invasion of Earth).

The series did fine for the better part of a year and a half, but something magical happened in issue #18 when art duties fell to Bill Sienkiewicz, who broke completely with Marvel’s house style to introduce a look and feel that was much more experimental than mainstream comics had seen at that point in The Demon Bear Saga. In addition to the shift in the visuals, the book’s writing morphed into a more internalized storytelling dealing with Danielle Moonstar’s history and trauma, as opposed to the traditional Villain of the Week. What would be a simple teen drama in another medium became a visual tour de force in comics as those teens’ internal demons found themselves manifested in reality, all thanks to Moonstar’s unique mutant abilities. (Read more about it here.)

To say that I’m a fan of both this story and its storytellers would be an understatement.

When FOX announced the film years ago, I was a good bit nervous about it, given that the studio had a mixed record adapting key canonical X-Men stories into film. First Class did an amazing job rebooting the series by capturing the flair and fun of the ‘60s X-Men. (Most importantly, it is really the only X-Men film to actually get Magneto’s characterization right.) Days of Future Past was a decent adaptation that tied together the original early ‘00s X-Men with the rebooted McAvoy team. The Wolverine and Logan did well adapting Wolverine’s Japan and “Old Man Logan” adventured. Ryan Reynolds nailed Deadpool and made Rob Liefeld’s DC plagarism his avatar in the Hollywood superhero blockbuster Multiverse.

On the flip side, the FOX X-Men movies whiffed twice on The Dark Phoenix Saga. Apocalypse was a missed opportunity to revisit the ‘80s and ‘90s X-Men nostalgia. And despite its relatively positive critical and financial success, X2: X-Men United failed to do justice to what I feel is the definitive X-Men story, God Loves, Man Kills.

So, I was both elated and extremely concerned when I heard that director Josh Boone was bringing Demon Bear to the big screen. But Boone earned the benefit of the doubt with the original teaser three years ago:

In addition to assembling a stellar cast, I was pleased to hear that - like the other X-Men spinoffs around the end of the FOX era - Boone was planning on telling a light horror story using the next generation of X-Men.

Then we had to wait years for the film to become available after multiple delays: delayed for Deadpool 2, delayed while Disney purchased FOX, delayed due to COVID. It finally landed last Tuesday and I finally got to put all of my anticipation to rest.

So, how was it?

Overall, I was very pleased with the film. As mentioned above, Boone pulled off the greatest bit of X-Men casting since Bryan Singer convinced Patrick Stewart to play Charles Xavier. Maisie Williams played a great young Wolfbane who not only is coming to terms with her religion and mutant powers, but her budding sexuality as well (echos of the messy aftermath of The X-Tinction Agenda). The biggest problem with Charlie Heaton’s Cannonball was that we didn’t see nearly enough of him, nor hear him utter the phrase “I’m nigh invulnerable when I’m blastin’!” Henry Zaga played a cocky and self-sure Sunspot. And I could envision Blu Hunt’s Danielle Moonstar growing into the team leader (and a Thor-adjacent badass) that she plays in the comics.

And special recognition is due to Anya Taylor-Joy’s portrayal of Magik. Her character has one of the most convoluted backstories in the X-Men canon, and despite the lack of space spent on her trauma in the film, she nailed the portrayal of a young woman who has both done and suffered terrible things, and contrary to the outward mask she wears, is not okay with what she did and what was done to her.

Boone assembled what’s likely to be the best version of the New Mutants to grace the big screen, and he hit the Goldilocks zone when it came adapting Demon Bear. Despite its outsized place in the X-Men canon, The Demon Bear Saga is a relatively small story that takes place for the most part in a small-town hospital. Boone’s adaptation is similarly-scoped, and that was a smart choice. The third act action sequence wasn’t some world-spanning battle to save Earth - it was five kids realizing that they’ve been manipulated and then fighting to free themselves from both internal and external demons. Boone’s been pretty open about the influence that Nightmare on Elm Street played in his film, and I think that was a smart choice. (I’d also note that the Demon Bear preceded Freddy Kreuger by a year, so who influenced whom is still an open question in my book.)

If there was a weak spot in the film, it was in Alice Braga’s Cecilia Reyes character. Boone had a very good reason for flipping her traditional allegiance 180 degrees, but she basically plays the role of the assistant principal from The Breakfast Club. She’s there move the plot along, but we don’t see what led her to her starting place in the film and her character’s journey is pretty half-assed. That said, given the strength of the performances offered by the teens, I’m happy to look past that gap in the script.

Finally, the cinematography, the sets, everything else had more than enough Sienkiewicz visual DNA within it that I was satisfied. While I would have liked to see more action take place on the astral plane and within Limbo, the Demon Bear looked just like it should, and the switch from a small-town hospital in the comics to an enclosed sanitarium in the film was an inspired choice.

So, overall, I’m a big fan of the film, and the end product was better than I was expecting. It’s certainly in my top five X-Men films, roughly on the same level as the original Deadpool film. And I think it’s the last interesting X-Men film we’ll see for quite some time.

If you’ll allow me a digression: While I was generally bullish about Disney’s purchase of FOX, I’ve been bearish on what that means for the X-Men film franchise. While plenty of fans complained that the main FOX X-Men films were getting stale (and I would largely agree with that) and should be incorporated into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (disagree), since First Class, FOX had been telling some really interesting stories with their mutant license. First Class worked well because it hearkened back to the earlier James Bond spy films. Logan was basically a Sergio Leone Western without the horse and cowboy hat. Deadpool showed us what a National Lampoon Superhero Vacation film would look like. The New Mutants was another attempt to use superheros to tell a tight horror story, and it succeeded. (Josh Trank’s earlier Fantastic Four film - the other Marvel property FOX controlled - attempted to be a David Cronenberg film and failed.) Mutants became interesting again when viewed through different genres’ lenses and vice versa.

While I think that some former-FOX properties like the Fantastic Four will do very well as part of the MCU - especially Doctor DOOM - I don’t know how well Disney can incorporate the X-Men and succeed without losing what makes the X-Men special. (Earlier in the decade, they certainly tried to replace X-Men with the Inhumans, and that failed miserably both in the comics and on screen.)

The reason for this difficulty lie in the two words that define the X-Men: hate and fear. What makes Marvel’s mutants worth caring about is that they fight for a world that hates and fears them, day-in and day-out, and at great personal sacrifice.

For the X-Men to be meaningfully incorporated in the MCU, there will have to be two communities of super-powered beings: those like the Avengers whom the (human) population trusts and idolizes, and those like the X-Men that are pushed underground and excluded from any sort of respectable status. And for that to happen narratively, characters like the Avengers have to be on the wrong side of that moral conflict for it to have any meaning or weight.

Note that toward the end of the FOX era, we did get a fairly solid television-scale mutant story in The Gifted for two seasons:

It’s difficult to see how stories like that get told in the mainstream Marvel cinematic series, with Marvel dollars behind it. As we see with The Gifted, First Class, and The New Mutants, the quality of the storytelling is inversely proportional to the budget and resources available. On the silver screen, the X-Men work best as smaller indie films than tentpole summer blockbuster events.

In the end, I’m skeptical that the suits at Disney will allow their billion-dollar franchise characters sink to the level that makes any X-Men storytelling meaningful. I also don’t think that those same suits will leave the X-Men money on the table, and the X-Men will be pulled out of the cinematic longbox sooner, rather than later. What makes these characters interesting - hate and fear from those they protect - will be watered down to a point where mutants might as well be the same as the MCU’s Inhumans, which has already happened to two longtime mutant characters drafted into the MCU.

So, if you like interesting mutant films, be sure to check out The New Mutants. It’s likely to be the last compelling X-Men film for quite some time.

Interesting reads

The case for a Native American secretary of the interior (Vox)

World of Warcraft's Zombie Invasion Hits Different in 2020 (io9)

Facing collapse, the famed Arecibo Observatory will be demolished (The Verge)

Crowds Seen at O'Hare as Travelers Depart Chicago Ahead of Thanksgiving Holiday (NBC-5 Chicago)

FBI agents, Prohibition, and beer made American cider sweet and sober (Atlas Obscura)

Tilting at Windmills #282: The End Days of DC Comics (Comics Beat)

Azerbaijan’s drones owned the battlefield in Nagorno-Karabakh — and showed future of warfare (Washington Post)

I have two kids with Down syndrome. Here’s what I wish those considering abortion knew about life with them. (America, The Jesuit Review)

Fly safely this week, CMDRs.