Saturday, May 31, 2008

What Makes Iron Man So Good?

I just came back from seeing Iron Man, and it's been years since I've seen a superhero movie as good. Within the first 30 minutes I was hooked. (Truth be told, I was hooked within the first 5 minutes.) I sat in the theatre drawn in to the story, but also trying to hang back enough to figure out what the director, writers, and actors had done to make the film work so well. Here's what I came up with.

First, the film has wonderful character development. Tony Stark's character—his personality and motivation—come to life within minutes, but in a way that feels closer to three-dimensional rather than two-dimensional. We see that he's incredibly brilliant and bored hedonist, playing out the role smart and smart-ass industrialist without a real purpose in life. The first 30 minutes of the film don't feel like a superhero film because the characters are so well explicated and the relationships among them so clear. Unlike many superhero films, Iron Man shows the relationships among the characters rather than simply tells the viewer about the relationships through narration or embedded in dialogue.

Second, the story arc of Stark's transformation from a smart-ass hedonist into a superhero is believable. No science fiction needed—no aliens, no superpowers, no genetic mutations. Just a brilliant and creative engineer motivated to save himself and destroy his captors. (I suppose if I were an engineer I might think that the technical aspects of the story were beyond the realm of possibility, but I'm not, so the story didn't seem outlandish to me.)

Third, Stark fights two sets of enemies—one set that is clearly the "bad guys" (his captors) and the other is someone close to him. I won't give away too much here in case you haven't yet seen the film. But because Stark has enemies who are not quite so easy to spot, the story is less black-and-white than some other superhero movies where the villain is clear from the outset, such as Spiderman I.

I could go on, but I urge you to see the movie and make your own analysis.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy

I just returned from the new Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

One thing that struck me about the "fashion" part of the exhibit—that is the runway costumes, not the actual superhero costumes—is that the women's attire generally looked horribly uncomfortable to wear, whereas the men's runway costumes looked much more comfortable. For instance, in the photo above, Batman's costume (from this year's The Dark Knight film) is on the left, then there are two male fashion versions, and three women's fashion versions.

Would you rather wear the male or female costumes if you were going to be out all evening?

Of course I really shouldn't have been surprised by the difference in comfort and utility between men's "costumes" and women's "costumes". It's true of fashion in general. Men's clothes are built for comfort and practicality—ample deep pockets that can safely contain important objects (cell phones, keys, wallet) without danger of falling out or spearing buttocks when the wearer sits down.

In contrast, women's clothes are generally built to show off the women's shape in the best light, regardless of comfort: tight dresses and skirts that make it impossible to take long strides when walking; high heels that make standing or walking for even moderate periods of time painful, no functional pockets so that purses are required (and another opportunity for the fashion industry to make money with accessories!). I often wonder how men would react if men's suit designers did away with pockets so that men would need to carry some type of satchel for the important belongings.

But I digress…back to the Superheroes fashion exhibit and the utility of a costume. One more example—the "armor" section that includes the costume for Iron Man, and then a women's fashion version (on the right, in case you couldn't tell the two apart):

More of women's armor fashions are below. If I needed armor, I'd go for complete coverage.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Brave New World, Part III: Instant Communication and Regulation Problems

(This is the third of three blog entries about possible cultural ramifications of growing up in the age of instant communications)

One upside of the instant communications (phone, texting, and Internet including email and instant messaging) is that it makes it easier for people who are experiencing emotional turmoil to obtain information and resources to help them, such as social support—from friends and family, even from strangers on the Internet through websites and chat rooms.

This instantaneous knowledge and support has a downside. Consider that when someone is angry or frustrated, it's almost too easy to vent those feelings:
Directly and privately to the person via email, texting, or phone;
Indirectly and privately by communicating with others about the person via email, texting, or phone;
Publicly, by posting the negative feelings via a website.

These rapid communications mean that people no longer have to "sit with" uncomfortable feelings: If we're annoyed by the service at a restaurant we can, with our web-enabled phone, rant about it on our blog or as a "reviewer" on a food website. If we're upset about a transaction with a friend, we can call most anyone to talk about it via our cell phone (and theirs), or send a long email about it. As soon as we have an uncomfortable emotions, instant communication technologies allow us interactive outlets to try to transform these negative feelings.

Before instant communications, people coped with life's emotional vicissitudes in a variety of ways:
• We talked to a friend or family member in person;
• We tried to distract ourselves with activities;
• We wrote, in a diary or in a letter to a friend, family member, or to the person who aroused the feelings in us, to vent or better understand our feelings;
• We thought about and reflected on our feelings, the events that precipitated them, and the effects of possible courses of action.

What these activities had in common is that they typically require some effort and sometimes some patience and ability to tolerate our feelings until we could transform them or act on them in a significant way—we had to find the people we wanted to talk to (no cell phones or pagers) and we might have had to wait until they were available to speak to us; we had to work a bit at distraction—leaving our homes or offices, or at least leaving our chairs (rather than districting ourselves with the internet on a computer always at hand). And thinking or writing about what had transpired gave us pause to reflect without acting on our feelings.

People can still cope in these ways, or with their modern communication equivalents; however, these newer modes of communication require significantly less effort and let's face it--why not go with the easier path? Moreover, the speed of our ability to express ourselves, and obtain a response, is much faster. This speed can be a good thing, minimizing the time that people experience discomfort without relief. But it also has a downside: People have less experience or practice managing their emotions without acting on them rapidly. Unfortunately, the instant aspect of these communications seems to discourage deep reflection and encourages immediate reaction, leading instead to simple venting or "look at me" type communications—profile updates and photos, comments on blogs or websites, and youtube videos—that are less an attempt to share considered, reflective thoughts and images.

For each of us, these new technologies can become, in essence, extensions of ourselves that help us regulate their emotions. Feeling blue? We can shop (or window shop) online, communicate with friends, find solace and support in a chat room, post a comment on a website. Angry? Vent your anger in a call, email or post (in which you can be anonymous).

We've become used to acting quickly in response to uncomfortable feelings; we've become less adept at being able to manage or regulate our feelings without acting. Then, in cases where instant communication fails us (either technologically or emotionally—because our feelings are so powerful or the instant communications don't work sufficiently), we are less able to tolerate or regulate the uncomfortable feelings. And when we're emotionally aroused, we become jangled and less able to reason and use to use our good sense. The combination of being used to acting instantly, in combination with being less able to reason things through, lead us to be more likely to act impulsively, without thought for the long term consequences.

Are my speculations in this three-part missive merely the typical grumbling of someone from an "older generation" complaining about the change arising in with the times and affecting newer generations? I don't think so. Neuroscience research has accumulated to the point were we know that brain development is affected by the patterns in our emotions, thoughts, and behavior. The new instant communications now available are influencing the ways that our brains develop--particularly younger generations who grew—or are growing--up with the new technologies during formative years. We just don't yet know the specific ways that brains and behavior are being affected.

We can't unplug the internet, nor should we. I just think that we should try to anticipate the unintended but predictable consequences, some of which I've laid out, and then try to prepare for their negative effects—a less reflective, more action-oriented (and perhaps impulsive) populace, with a greater desire to be seen and heard than previous generations, who have at their disposal an ever-increasing smorgasbord of ways to obtain attention.