Saturday, July 01, 2006

Continuing the Top Ten Game: Superhero Movies

You know how you hit somebody else's computer and they never bothered to make a homepage other than Well, that happened to me today and I found this fascinating list of the ten best and five worst superhero flicks.

Having seen what MSN came up with, I've got my own list to post.

10. Darkman -- One of the darkest and quirkiest superhero flicks ever. The main character has major problems with anger and anxiety. Even when he's kicking butt he's quite, shall we say, edgy. Occupies a unique spot in the genre.

9. The Shadow -- This isn't in anyone's list of favorites, but it scored with me. Alec Baldwin captures the old Radio Age Lamont Cranston quite well. I particularly enjoyed the way his face and personality changed when he inhabited the Shadow character. Very much a piece of pulp, but a satisfying one.

8. Batman Returns -- Keaton, Devito, and Michelle Pfeiffer. This film does a wonderful job of exploring the psyche of people who develop these wild meta-personalities with which to encounter a violent world. What keeps the film down is that Batman's ability to solve some problems is more magical than gritty.

7. Batman Begins -- Christian Bale was a brilliant choice to play a young Bruce Wayne. Still an American Psycho, but this time with a moral compass. Sending Bruce to the Orient to learn the ancient arts just as Lamont Cranston (the Shadow) did worked. The action almost didn't even need to return to Gotham to satisfy.

6. Batman -- The original Keaton vehicle was the most pleasant of surprises. After years of pure crapola from the superhero industry (save a couple of Superman movies a decade or so previous), Batman arrived to save the day. Things haven't been the same since. Jack Nicholson steals the show, but that's expected from The Joker.

5. Superman -- There was a reason people cared so much about what happened to Christopher Reeve. This film was it. During an era when superhero entertainment meant bad animation, or worse yet, terrible, terrible live-action, Reeve's Superman was a bolt from the blue. Beautifully filmed. I'll never forget the young Superman bounding across the plains or Reeve's success in portraying a hunky, yet truly nerdish Clark Kent. Margot Kidder was tops as Lois Lane, too. Not glamorous, but spunky and you can see why Superman is torn in his affections between Lois and the world.

4. Superman II -- Based on limits of technology, this one probably ranks as the greatest of all time because it worked without today's special effects. Combat, combat, combat tied in beautifully with a drama and a romantic backstory.

3. Spiderman II -- Successfully continued the Peter Parker hard luck story with amazing battle scenes with our hero and Doctor Octopus. Extremely enjoyable and guess what (Spoiler), Peter gets the girl. In fact, the girl next door.

2. Spiderman -- The origin story magnificently rendered. Superhero movies had already improved with the resurgence of Batman, but this was another level.

1. I know one of the three top spots will belong to the newest Spiderman movie, so here's a big vote of confidence.

Biggest Disappointments

5. Daredevil -- I didn't hate it the way so many reviewers did, but it failed to capture the feeling of the comic. I'm not sure it was a great idea to combine the origin story and famed Electra tragedy in one go-round either.

4. The Hulk -- This movie was going somewhere for the first hour, but it all fell to pieces. Try again.

3. All the X-Men films -- Really not bad, but far, far short of the original comics. I've gone to each with high expectations and have each time thought it was worth the money, but not amazing. The last one really screwed up by combining favorite bits and pieces from lots of different stories in one film. Hodge-podge can be fun, but it's no substitute for a little literary discipline.

2. Fantastic Four -- Not bad as entertainment, but again falling short of places where the comic has been. Reed Richards was definitely too young and Sue Storm was too much sex appeal and not enough maturity.

1. Superman III and IV plus whatever the heck the Clooney Batman was. 'Nuff said.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Top Ten New Names for the Holy Trinity

Well, those Presbyterians are at it again, and I think it's about time.

Seems Christianity's Big One/Three needs a retitling. Too, I dunno, biblical, I guess.

Well, a couple of their new really good ones are omitted here for lack of risibility, but here are my favorites from what they came up with:

• Sun, Light and Burning Ray

• Compassionate Mother, Beloved Child and Life-giving Womb

• Rainbow of Promise, Ark of Salvation and Dove of Peace

• Overflowing Font, Living Water, Flowing River

• Fire That Consumes, Sword That Divides, and Storm That Melts Mountains

Eh. Mankind has already tried the Sun God thing, and too much of Him gives you skin cancer. "Our Rainbow Who Art (Am, Is) Wherever" makes me want to fetch my Divine Coloring Book. With the recent floods in the northeast, overflow is counterintuitive: Dear Overflow, leave us alone, willya? And here in California, a Storm That Melts Mountains caused a landslide that almost took out my patio deck.

I don't think the Presbs go nearly far enough. Everybody sees God in his, her or its own way, so what we need here is some market research and narrowcasting to our core focus groups and potential customers.

--Solar, Wind, and Clean-Burning Hydrogen Power (Enviro-God)
--Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Holy Flamingo (Kung-Fu God)
--Owner, Driver, Pit Crew (NASCAR God)
--Apatosaurus, T. Rex and Archaeopteryx (Jurassic God)
--Pop, Snap & Crackle (Breakfast God)
--Tinker to Evers to Chance (Teamwork God)
--Townshend, Daltry, Entwistle (The Writer, The Song and The One Who Plays Bass God)
--Life, Liberty & The Pursuit of Happiness (Separation of Church and God God)
--Mother Sheehan, Brother Murtha, and BTW, What's in My Womb is None of Your Damn Business Anyway (Kos God)

Well, it's quite a fruitful vein. One Presbyter said you might as well call 'em Huey, Dewey and Louie, but I think he isn't quite down with the Spirit of the thing. The Deity Formerly Known as The Triune God has got to get into the 21st century.

I bet y'all have a topper, but in the meantime, for now I'll think of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost as:

Rock, Paper, Scissors
. A Good God. A Great Game.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Superman: Will to Power or Will to Love?

Jordan Ballor is less than thrilled with the evangelical bandwagon to baptize Superman as yet another in a long line of literary and pop-cultural Christ figures. Maybe it is a bit uncritical and perhaps a bit overdone. But I have to take issue with Ballor when he suggests that Superman is more reminiscent of Nietzsche's Ubermensch than he is of the Son of Man.

Having read my share of Superman comics through the years and having taken in many, many pop manifestations of the character, one thing is clear: Superman is not Nietzschean. Although he has all the power in the world, he has a prevailing morality that trumps his own power. A perfect example of the anti-Nietzschean aspect of the comic Superman is that he has virtually always refused to kill, even when a villain richly deserves it. He is also the type of fellow, who though often indestructible, has always been ready to sacrifice himself for his friends (and everybody else).

There are a couple of examples that go against the grain. For instance, in the lamentable Superman IV, our hero drops any pretense of respect for democracy and imposes his will on the globe when it comes to nuclear weapons. He simply throws them all into outer space. No word on whether he then intended to police every border where the Soviets might have had tanks ready to roll! I would argue this Superman is a version (a lefty-liberal Greenpeacey type) of the will-to-power superman, but he is an exception that virtually all fans would excise from the legend. Another example occurred in a graphic novel tracing out alternative worlds with a Superman. In one of the alternate planes, he sets himself up as a king. Pretty logical, eh? But again, this was the authors' funnin' around and not setting up a new idea of the hero.

The C.S Lewis-Anscombe Debate Revised

It's been referenced here at the Reform Club and is often mentioned here and there in the literature. C.S. Lewis was well known as an unbeatable debater until he ran up against Elizabeth Anscombe. The history of the event is that Anscombe won the debate and that C.S. Lewis abandoned apologetics (reasoned defense of Christianity) for other things like children's literature. Victor Reppert, who has written his own book about Lewis, disagrees vigorously with the idea that Lewis abandoned apologetics after the Anscombe debate. Read about it here.

In addition, I think the general thought is that Anscombe beating Lewis in debate represented some triumph of the non-Christian over the Christian. She was actually a serious Catholic who was later in life arrested for pro-life activities in England similar to what Operation Rescue did in the United States. More about her and a confirmation of Victor Reppert's report on Lewis's continued interest in apologetics here at First Things.

Paid College Athletics

So here's a story at Inside Higher Ed on track athletes who are turning professional and eschewing a college career. I'm not so interested in the fact that track athletes are doing what others (especially baseball, hockey, and basketball players) have been doing for years, but it does pose an interesting question. (And that question is not about students taking the money and leaving college early - most everyone, I would assume, would skip their last couple of years in college for a seven-figure salary). The NCAA prohibits student-athletes from receiving goods that they wouldn't otherwise receive except that they are athletes. So the local car dealer can't spot you a new Corolla because you're the third-string punter. But to be equitable, shouldn't we extend that to all students? Shouldn't the computer science major be barred from making money on the side working for some start-up? Or the journalism major be prohibited from taking that part-time job with a newspaper? There's a difference, of course. The "regular" students are, in some sense, merely getting a head start on their careers (and probably learning more about their profession than they do in the classroom) while whatever sorts of benefits might come the punter's way are probably just a way of enticing him to join the team. But I've never quite understood the case for barring benefits to student-athletes: why shouldn't they be able to trade on their skills as they see fit? (As a side note, it would as well help ease the corruption that currently infects big-time college athletics. While direct payments are probably relatively rare, I'd bet that there are lots of places in the country where students live in housing at, er, "reduced" rates, drive much nicer cars than they should be able to afford, have relatives with very lucrative jobs, etc. And what's more, the strict rules against providing anything to athletes means that when an athlete actually does need help - say, to get home for Thanksgiving - if you play by the rules, there's little you can do). Let the punter get his Corolla, I say.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Western Europe At The Barricades

At a recent conference in Switzerland student representatives asked, how could the Muslim population gain traction so quickly in Western Europe? It is a simple and direct question that could easily be addressed with reference to the disparity between Christian and Muslim birthrates and immigration patterns.

But numbers do not tell the whole story, nor do these numbers reveal very much about European attitudes. There are philosophic underpinngs that reveal more than any statistical analysis can provide.

The first of these is multi-culturalism, an attitude which suggests each culture should be treated on its own terms without regard to universal considerations. For example, female deformation in the form of cliterdectomy is not wrong; it is simply the manifestation of a different culture.

The second, and arguably the view that represents the most significant shift in European attitudes, is secular humanism, a turning away from the spiritual to the temporal. European churches are now ostensibly museums, not places of worship. The moral teachings of Christianity have been largely interred replaced by relativism or “new age” phenomenology, such as pantheistic environmentalism.

The third shift in attitude might be characterized as extreme liberalism. In this case the virtues of liberalism such as tolerance have been perverted into an unwillingness to discriminate. Right and wrong are seen as archaic concepts belonging to the ash heap of history. What counts is openness, a strange form of egalitarianism in which all opinions have equal value if rendered earnestly.

The fourth attitudinal consideration is transnationalism. A project to reduce or eliminate the national heritage of European states through continental harmonization has had the unintended effect of making citizens rudderless, of losing an identity and deracinating patriotism. Do the bureaucrats in Brussels represent the will of the European people? And can a continental parliament rely on consent of the governed or even care about those governed? Answers beg the questions.

Last is the loss of confidence. The retreat of apostolic teaching has resulted in an absence of authority. Catholicism is in retreat, not only as a religion but as a voice of moral conviction.

On the other side of the west European ledger is Islam, a fanatical faith with an obsessive desire for control and conversion. Using the freedoms conferred by western European states, Muslims employ strong conviction and physical intimidation to promote their faith. Their mosques are not merely centers for religious observance, but political centers for subversion. Any attempt to interfere with these activities is deemed an affront, a violation of liberal precepts.

As a consequence, the governments seem powerless, unable to interfere. Scholars are intimidated if they don’t share interfaith egalitarianism and religious figures dare not criticize, fearful of being charged with bigotry.

The march to dominance therefore appears inexorable unless the western European societies can regain their traditions and recapture the convictions that led to Christianity’s dominance in the first place. You cannot defeat an implacable adversary with verbal pabulum.

Western Europe needs to assert its traditions and liberties, but, more importantly, it should insist that its basic ideas are imbibed by all citizens. Isolated cultural pockets removed from the prevailing positions of the host societies will not do. Liberalism should ensure freedom, but not the freedom to destroy.

Moreover, western European governments should demand reciprocity with Muslim states. The freedom Muslims enjoy in Europe should not be a freedom denied to minority communities in Muslim states, which is presently the case throughout the Islamic world.

European Muslims sense that Europe is in a defensive mode as the present dominant attitudes suggest. Hence there is the leap for a final solution, caliphates throughout the continent. It is widely believed that the vacuum of a soulless Europe will be filled by an Islam of determined will and fanaticism.

There cannot be any doubt at this point what is at stake. The issue is one of civilizational survival. The antidote to the march of Islam is reChrististianizing Europe through a Great Awakening. Is there a contemporary Wilberforce eager to lead this struggle? Is history on the side of fanaticism? Can the war of ideas be engaged by series exemplars of Christian doctrine? And has attitudinal drift emasculated Western Europe from the brave and defiant heart that is needed?

Herbert London is president of Hudson Institute and professor emeritus of New York University. He is the author of Decade of Denial (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2001). London maintains a website,

Monday, June 26, 2006

Who Built Their Houses?

I see that a number of Democratic activists here in the Golden State, at least rhetorically are reluctant to support Treasurer Phil Angelides in the Governor's race against Arnold because Angelides used to be a "developer," an epithet that apparently for those people ranks right up there with "child molester," "capitalist," "conservative," and "Republican." Anyway, did those people build their own houses? Or did they buy houses previously built by... developers? Or do they live in caves, and I refer here not to the intellectual kind? Just asking.

Federalism, Will of People Win in Supreme Court's Death Penalty Decision

The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld a Kansas law mandating that juries impose the death penalty in cases where there is an equal weight of factors aggravating the severity of the crime and those tending to explain a defendant's actions. In order words, the law held that juries should impose the death penalty if mitigating factors do not explicitly outweigh aggravating ones. Tie goes to the victims, you might say. (Or to the executioner, if you think convicted murderers are more important than victims and their families.)

While not stating it directly, the New York Times story revealed that the Court's decision had a strong federalist component:

[T]he five conservatives, including Alito, overturned a Kansas Supreme Court ruling that found the law violated the Eighth Amendment's protection against cruel and unusual punishment. . . .

The ruling affirms the court's long-held position that states should determine how juries weigh factors presented by the prosecution and defense in capital cases. . . .

According to the Times story, Justice Scalia wrote a separate opinion explicitly suggesting deference to state legislation on death penalty matters:

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a separate opinion on Monday to defend the death penalty and the court's ruling in the Kansas case. [The claim that Scalia's opinion defended the death penalty as such is incorrect: his opinion was centered on allowing the people to decide these matters through their legislative representatives and governors. Note the next paragraph from the Times story.]

"The American people have determined that the good to be derived from capital punishment—in deterrence, and perhaps most of all in the meting out of condign justice for horrible crimes—outweighs the risk of error. It is no proper part of the business of this court, or of its justices, to second-guess that judgment, much less to impugn it before the world . . . ,'' Scalia wrote.

Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the pro-death penalty Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, said the decision ''signals that a majority of the court is not inclined to invent new procedural restrictions on the death penalty.''

That appears to be the correct interpretation of the ruling.

Why We Incarcerate

A frequent commenter wrote, in our thread regarding crime and leniency in Great Britain:

Based on these trends, 2% of the adult population in this country is likely to continuously break the law. Punishment seems to work dandy, yessirree!

The commenter's sarcasm is absurdly misplaced. Holding those people in prison definitely prevents them from committing crimes against the public during the period of their incarceration. In this way, incarceration most certainly works to reduce crime.

It is true that a punishment should fit the crime, but that means not only that it should not be too severe but also that it should not be too mild. The appropriate severity of punishment for any particular crime is a valid matter for debate. What is not debatable, however, is that incarceration reduces crime. It does so, at the very least by taking the criminal out of circulation.

It is only when one shifts one's concern exclusively to the welfare of the criminals over that of their real and potential victims that one can see inarceration as risible.