Pierced Through the Heart, but Never Killed

A review of Taylor Swift’s “Midnights”

Credit: Beth Garrabrant

Part seven in my ongoing and apparently endless series on the music of Taylor Swift – see parts onetwothreefourfive, and six)

With Midnights, her tenth studio album, Taylor Swift leaves no doubt that she’s in a creative league all her own. That reality has been apparent for some time now, especially after the surprise releases of folklore and evermore in 2020 – and Midnights puts the matter beyond any reasonable doubt. But the album is more than a just portrait of an artist at the height of her powers – Midnights is a brilliant record in its own right. Painfully intimate, relentlessly introspective, and intrinsically universal all at once, it’s an album that sinks its emotional hooks deep into listeners before we even have a chance to realize it.

On Midnights, Swift invites us to get lost in the labyrinth of her – and our own – late-night ruminations, the hall of mirrors that reflects our anxieties and insecurities and ecstasies back at ourselves. It’s a far moodier album than its immediate predecessors, one that perfectly captures the writhing emotional contortions we endure when we stay up to wrestle with our hopes, fears, and worries in the middle of the night. Swift conjures up an aura of claustrophobia on Midnights, giving us a queasy sense that we’re all on our own as we embark on what she calls our nocturnal “journey through terrors and sweet dreams.”

Appropriately, then, it’s a record that deals extensively with the questions and issues surrounding intimacy, human connection, and lacerating self-doubt that have preoccupied Swift throughout her career. On Midnights, she refracts her thematic concerns through a neon-lit soundscape of purring, ambient synthesizers and palpitating drum machines, complemented by the occasional buzz of distorted electric guitars and pensive acoustic strumming.  This sonic panorama does more than evoke the up-at-midnight vibes that concern Swift on this record; it puts her own vocals front and center, calling attention to Swift’s emotive performance as well as her lyrics.

That’s apparent with the pulsating opening track “Lavender Haze,” a song that sets the tone for the album as a whole. It’s a finely drawn portrait of the narcotic exhilaration inherent in falling in love, both sedate and urgent in its sound and lyrics. Swift also gives us a glimpse into the sort of unconditional acceptance and intimacy she and most everyone searches for in a romantic partner, namely a person who accepts us for who we are and doesn’t care about what others say or think about us. Indeed, the song’s a call to indifference in the face of the criticism and gossip that might swirl about our personal lives: “Talk your talk and go viral/I just need this love spiral.” Or as Swift put it elsewhere, “this song is sort of about the act of ignoring that [external] stuff to protect the real stuff.” 

Midnights immediately turns darker with “Maroon,” an exceptional song that continues Swift’s penchant for using color as a mode of musical and emotional expression. This time around, however she paints in rather somber shades: maroon, scarlet, and burgundy, and rust, blood, rubies, and wine. It’s a stark contrast with the burning red of her 2012 song and album (it’s perhaps no coincidence that “Maroon” is also the second track its album), one that reminds us that love often leaves us with emotional bruises and scars – even when there’s no enmity involved. The song draws its emotional power from the way Swift dexterously superimposes the beginning and the collapse of a relationship on one another, reflecting the way heartache often mingles with euphoria in memory. Its first verse recounts the romance’s promising start, while the second depicts its unfortunate but inevitable demise in brutal and unsparing terms:

When the silence came
We were shaking, blind and hazy
How the hell did we lose sight of us again?
Sobbing with your head in your hands
Ain’t that the way shit always ends?
You were standing hollow-eyed in the hallway
Carnations you had thought were roses, that’s us
I’ll feel you, no matter what
The rubies that I gave up

Again, Swift doesn’t harbor any ill will toward her ex; it’s simply a relationship that didn’t – couldn’t – work out in the end. But she does “wake with your memory over me/That’s a real fuckin’ legacy to leave.”

Then there’s “Anti-Hero,” as pure a distillation of the profound self-doubts and deep insecurities that fuel anxiety as can be found in popular music – or anywhere else, for that matter. It’s easily the best track on Midnights and stands as one of the finest songs Swift has yet written, an intimate and uncompromising examination of her own self-perceived flaws and shortcomings that strikes a raw nerve with those of us who have had to wrestle with anxiety at some point in our own lives. Swift’s visceral, self-lacerating lyrics play out against a dreamy sonic background, creating an ironic but emotionally and thematically compelling tension between the song’s music and its meaning. 

Swift immediately worries in “Anti-Hero” that she doesn’t simply learn or grow from her experiences: “I have this thing where I get older, but just never wiser.” After all, she proclaims, she shouldn’t be “left to my own devices/They come with prices and vices” as she’ll invariably “end up in crisis.” She goes on to assert that she’ll “stare directly at the sun, but never in the mirror.” “It’s me, hi/I’m the problem, it’s me,” Swift declares in the chorus, noting that just about everyone agrees with her own savage self-criticisms. That’s of a piece with the irony that courses through and indeed defines the song; “Anti-Hero” is nothing if not an exercise in self-examination of the sort Swift claims she evades. But it’s also a remarkably perceptive observation of how anxious rumination works, how we paint inaccurate portraits of ourselves and let our “depression work the graveyard shift” as we brood over all the mistakes we think we’ve made over the course of our days, years, and lives.

Swift’s subtly affective vocals elevate “Anti-Hero” even further. A slight crack of her voice at the start of certain phrases, for instance, and slight quavers during particularly poignant lyrics leave listeners with the sense of a woman on the emotional edge. Her pitch lowers as she repeats “everybody agrees” during the song’s post-bridge section, as if she’s convincing herself that her worst critics are in fact right that she’s the problem.

“It must be exhausting always rooting the anti-hero,” Swift tells herself at the end of the chorus. It’s a line that’s directed as much toward her friends, family, and fans as much as herself – and also one that reflects the Swift’s prowess as a songwriter. Here as elsewhere, her lyrics contain multiple meanings, often obvious but rarely if ever contradicting one another and typically cohering together quite nicely. It’s impossible to praise “Anti-Hero” too highly; the song is simply that well written and executed.

A sense of anxiety – if not dread – pervades even some of the brighter songs on Midnights. “Snow on the Beach” avers (correctly) that “life is emotionally abusive” even as it describes, as Swift remarks elsewhere, “falling in love with someone at the same time as they’re falling in love with you.” Likewise, Swift gives her younger self sage counsel on “You’re On Your Own, Kid,” albeit advice marked by a gnawing sense of isolation and loneliness despite its underlying message of resilience.1 It’s something of an existential quandary; the “blood, sweat, and tears” needed to pursue her dreams were worth it, she says, and while she may be on her own, she’s “got no reason to be afraid” and “can face this.” There’s clearly a silver lining here, but it’s just as evident that life invariably leaves its fair share of scars and bruises when we actually try and live it.

No other track on Midnights so embodies Swift’s artistic purposes as “Midnight Rain,” a song that marries sparse, downbeat sonic textures with intense rumination about a youthful romance dashed on the rocks of incompatible life goals. As she relates,

He wanted it comfortable, I wanted that pain 
He wanted a bride, I was making my own name

Even when we accept the past for what it was, she reminds us, it can still possess us on rare occasions . “I guess sometimes we all get/Some kind of haunted, some kind of haunted,” Swift concludes in the outro, “And I never think of him/Except on midnights like this.”  

Midnights soon begins to open up in sound and tone, with Swift slowly but surely navigating her way out of her own late-night hall of mirrors. A marked undertow of anxiety and angst still permeates the album’s remaining songs, but we can see the cracks of light that herald the inevitable dawn with each track. An alcohol-soaked conversation on “Question…?” presents something of a false start before Swift moves on to “Vigilante Shit,” a smoldering revenge fantasy that could have been lifted from 2017’s criminally underrated reputation.

Matters only truly begin to brighten up both sonically and lyrically with “Bejeweled,” Swift’s shiny, bubbly anthem to breaking away from a romantic partner who took her for granted. “I polish up real nice,” she says as she heads out for a night on the town. “What’s a girl gonna do?/A diamond’s gotta shine.” On the ethereal “Labyrinth,” Swift expresses the self-protective anxiety involved in picking oneself up and moving on after the end of a relationship all while remaining open to the possibility of a new one:

It only feels this raw right now
Lost in the labyrinth of my mind
Break up, break free, break through, break down
You would break your back to make me break a smile

Stomach-churning metaphors of elevators and airplanes capture the dizzy, nauseous sensation of vaulting from one relationship into another – or indeed any other leap from a familiar situation to a new and uncertain one.

Karma,” on the other hand, represents the most upbeat and unabashedly radiant track on Midnights, with Swift confidently accepting all that fate throws her way. “Karma is the breeze in my hair on the weekend/Karma’s a relaxing thought/Aren’t you envious that for you it’s not?” she reports with impressive self-assurance. It’s another conspicuous instance of amor fati, the philosophical “love of fate,” making an appearance in Swift’s recent albums – one that’s made all the more attractive by the song’s dazzling, video game-style synthesizers and steady, reliable backbeat.

But it’s on the album’s last two songs that Swift finally takes her listeners back to the daylight, returning to the unconditional acceptance and intimacy she seeks in an ideal romantic partner – a desire that surfaced all the way back on “Lavender Haze.” She divulges and defines her deepest romantic longings on “Sweet Nothing,” the album’s delicate and affectionate penultimate track with faint musical echoes of Lover’s “It’s Nice to Have a Friend.” Accompanied by an electric piano and little else for much of the song, Swift lets her significant other know that she loves him because “all that you ever wanted from me was sweet nothing.” In the face of incessant external criticism, she can open up and “admit that I’m just too soft for all of it.” He gives her shelter from the hurricane that rages all around her, even though she knows she can never give him the same measure of peace in return.

On the equally intimate but much more buoyant “Mastermind,” however, Swift’s anxieties seep back in. She feels she has to plot and scheme to win over the object of her affection – “I’m only cryptic and Machiavellian ‘cause I care,” she professes – but he sees through her machinations and “knew the entire time.” It’s “the first time I’ve felt the need to confess” her romantic intrigues, tacitly acknowledging that they don’t really matter all that much. 

It’s remarkable just how open Swift is about her own relationship in her music, given how justifiably private she’s been about it over the years. As she lets informs us on “Paris” – one of the vault tracks released with the album – that “romance is not dead if you keep it just yours.” That she’s willing to reveal so much about herself, her insecurities, and her personal life in her songwriting and music testifies not just to the intense sense of intimacy she’s forged with her listeners over the years but the premium she places on music as a mode of raw emotional exposure and personal expression. As Swift herself remarked in a recent interview, writing songs about “pain or grief or suffering or hard things you go through in life” offers a way to “suck the poison out of a snakebite.”

As stellar as Midnights is in its own right, then, it’s important to take a step back and appreciate Swift and her music in the moment – not years or decades after the fact, as has been the case with a number of artists in recent years. She taps into the most basic and universal elements of the human condition, especially our shared desire for emotional connection and intimacy. Her supremely confessional music gives her listeners an opportunity to share our own vulnerabilities and insecurities, offering us a chance to clearly see our common humanity and shared predicament.

For its own part, Midnights certainly takes us on an introspective odyssey. It’s a journey that demonstrates that our emotional cages are almost entirely mental and self-made – and that we’ve got the wherewithal to break out of them. After all, midnights always give way to the dawn.

1

On this song and “Midnight Rain,” it’s clear that Swift lacks the sort of complicated affection that artists like Prince and Bruce Springsteen had for their own hometowns and states. 

The Burdens and the Hopes

Will Artemis I be the start of our Next Giant Leap – or our One Last Shot?

Artemis I arrives at Launch Complex 39B in the dawn on August 17. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

It’s an image that immediately brings to mind the golden era of human spaceflight: an enormous rocket at rest in the purple-pink light of dawn at Kennedy Space Center, ready to blast off to destinations once thought beyond humanity’s grasp. But this rocket isn’t the mighty Saturn V standing vigil in the twilight or under the watchful gaze of searchlight beams on hot July nights in 1969 as it waits to send the three Apollo 11 astronauts on their way to the Moon. Instead, it’s the uninspiringly named Space Launch System, a brawny orange rocket carrying the new Orion crew vehicle and a series of instruments (including a plush astronaut Snoopy as a zero-gravity indicator) on a crucial test flight to lunar orbit and back again to Earth.

If all goes well on this first mission of the Artemis Program, it’ll be the first step toward what NASA officials and others occasionally call our Next Giant Leap: sending astronauts back to the Moon by 2025 at the earliest, and then on to Mars and points beyond. It’s entirely possible that Artemis I will help rekindle our exhausted imaginations, raise our shared horizons, and spark a modest renaissance in space exploration that’ll eventually lead to astronauts hiking on the surface of Mars. I personally hope that’s the case, and about two-thirds of the time that’s what I think will happen – at least to some small and uncertain degree.

At the same time, though, it’s hard not to sense an aura of unease and foreboding that occasionally lingers over Artemis I. It’s almost as if the mission represents one last shot at a better future, not humanity’s next giant leap into the cosmos – an attempt to prove to the world and, most of all, to ourselves that we can keep the light of our shared hopes and common ambitions burning. Every now and again, the mission feels more like an elegy for our nation’s once-soaring aspirations and determination to achieve the seemingly impossible than a powerful measure of our talents and energies. This launch takes place in a time of palpable national and even global pessimism, when far too many of us seem to have lost our grip on reality altogether and many more harbor serious, corrosive doubts about the future of the country, the planet, and indeed humanity at large.

It’s a far cry from the nervous anticipation that accompanied the launch of Apollo 11 in July 1969, an electric mood eloquently captured early on in Todd Douglas Miller’s stark but euphoric 2019 documentary Apollo 11. If anything, the times were even more grim then than they are now: a raging war in Vietnam, riots in major cities across the country, and the ever-present specter of nuclear war with the Soviet Union only begin to scratch the surface. Nor did matters improve much over the next several years, with energy crises, inflation, and Watergate all hitting in the five years that followed Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon. Even if it just offered most Americans a breather from the seemingly constant upheaval and frequent bad news of the late 1960s, Apollo embodied a sense of national optimism and faith in the future that’s diminished and faded in the intervening decades.

Artemis doesn’t carry with it the same colossal burdens and hopes as Apollo, at least not in as obvious or conscious a way. Amidst our present national miasma, however, Artemis has been burdened with an unappreciated significance that few realize but most of us intuitively understand at some level: do we still have the sort of ambition that drove Apollo, and the confidence in ourselves necessary to carry it out? It’s hard to give a positive or even minimally certain answer to that question right now, especially with everything that could possibly (or even probably) go wrong for America and the world over the next several years. At times it feels like we’ve entered our national twilight, a long, drawn-out decline into collective senescence – or worse, a dramatic collapse into national senility and madness.

It’s up to Artemis to help prove this widely-held defeatism wrong. That’s the heavy burden that rests on the shoulders Apollo’s twin sister today, one largely unencumbered by the hopes we invested in its predecessor. Instead, Artemis bears an outsized share of the responsibility of keeping our heads above water as we make our way through the rest of this decade. Of course, it won’t have to carry that particular weight alone: the Mars rover Perseverance and the James Webb Space Telescope have already given us steady drips of optimism in recent months and years. If successful, though, Artemis has the potential to do that on a much grander scale in sending astronauts further than anyone has ever gone before and, in time, returning them to the lunar surface.

Again, most of the time I’m personally hopeful that Artemis can help inoculate us against despair and revive our atrophied sense of national possibility. There’s no denying the considerable enthusiasm for and interest in Artemis I that exists among ordinary people around the world, much as it does for the Webb Space Telescope and the stunning images of the heavens it’s beamed down since July. More robotic missions are on the way as well, including one later this decade that will pick up samples collected by Perseverance on Mars and return them back to Earth. Even the legacy of Apollo remains strong, as evidenced by the crowds that showed up in the sweltering summer heat in July 2019 to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the first Moon landing. It’s not as if there aren’t good, solid grounds for optimism, at least when it comes to America’s space exploration program.

Still, it’s hard to shake the disquieting sense that Artemis offers us a reminder of passed ambitions more than anything else. Like the ruins of the Colosseum in Rome or the Great Sphinx of Giza or the carcasses of aqueducts and amphitheaters that litter the Mediterranean world, Artemis recalls of the grandeur and passions of an age still remembered but long since passed. And like those ancient wonders of art and architecture, it invites us to contemplate the impermanence of even the most spectacular and epochal of our achievements – ones that pushed ourselves to the limits of our intellect, endurance, and skills.

Will Artemis be our next giant leap into the heavens or our one last attempt to reach for the stars before we fall off a precipice of our own making? Does it mark the beginning of a new era or the end of an old one, a new dawn or a darkening national twilight? For my own part, I remain fundamentally optimistic about both Artemis and America. But I also know that it’s far too soon to know the answers to these questions, and there’s only one thing we can really do to find out: turn the page and see what happens next.

“The Avengers,” Ten Years On

A retrospective meditation

It’s hard to believe it’s been ten years.

I’d taken the day off to attend an all-day marathon of the five films that then constituted to the Marvel Cinematic Universe ahead of the main event: a midnight screening of The Avengers on May 4, 2012. It had been a long day for those of us assembled at the theater, but the excitement was palpable as the clock ticked toward midnight. To pass nearly of a nice early summer day indoors with fellow fans watching Iron Man, Captain America, Black Widow, and company on the big screen and then see The Avengers was something of an exceptional experience, one that’s fairly easy to put into words yet hard to fully capture in substance.

Other moviegoers soon started to show up at the multiplex for their own midnight screenings, some of them decked out in superhero costumes for the occasion. I’m ever so slightly embarrassed by this style of enthusiasm for, well, anything, both in this particular case and in general. There’s no doubt that I share something of the same passion put on display by these cosplayers – after all, I spent an entire day and a decent chunk of change for the privilege of occupying a dark theater to see these movies one after another. I won’t be able to put my finger on it until years later, when I read the writer Oliver Burkeman describes this sheepish feeling as a trustworthy sign that an activity or interest is “a source of true fulfillment,” one that’s enjoyed for its own sake rather than social approval.

Today, however, it’d be impossible to replicate the electric atmosphere of that early May night a decade ago. Though it was successful enough in its own right at the time, the Marvel Cinematic Universe wasn’t yet the juggernaut we know today – a perhaps too-well-known quantity with an enormous base of devoted fans spanning the entire spectrum of American life. Indeed, it’s become easy to forget just what a risky and uncertain bet Iron Man and star Robert Downey, Jr. in particular were in 2008, and many people have. Characters that average, normal people couldn’t have picked out of a lineup if they tried back when Iron Man debuted are now household names, and it’d now take the better part of two days to watch the more than twenty films that now make up the MCU uninterrupted.

What’s more, midnight screenings of highly anticipated blockbusters like The Avengershave long since faded into oblivion. The frission and excitement of being amongst the first to see a movie, or even the sort of dedication and interest required to make a midnight showing of a particular film, no longer exists – not when theaters desperate to fill seats make it easy to see them in on late Thursday afternoons, as I’ll be doing with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. That’s not to downplay the social aspect of certain movies – indeed, the best way to watch Marvel films like Avengers: Endgame or Spider-Man: No Way Home is in a packed, cheering theater – but it’s still clear that the feeling of exhilaration that coursed through the air that night in 2012 has gone forever and will prove impossible to resurrect.

It was around 2:30 in the morning when The Avengers finally finished, but we’re all energized and invigorated by what we’ve just seen.  I drove away from the multiplex in a car I’d rented for the day from a carsharing service, but I felt so amped up and alive that I found it hard to get to sleep when I got home – or even sleep at all. I’m exhausted the next day at work but still fired up by the previous day’s marathon, akin to the sort of high a person achieves after a tiring but vigorous workout.

That night showed us all something magical up on the silver screen, a vivid and inimitable cinematic experience that came together by serendipity and good fortune – if not plain sheer luck. A whole new universe had opened up right before our eyes, pulling us in and leaving us rubbing our eyes in wonder at the new possibilities we glimpsed. That’s hard to imagine now given the colossus the Marvel Cinematic Universe since became and the fashionable flak it now takes, but our shared and individual responses to that first showing of The Avengers spoke to the power of cinema as a medium and the awe it can inspire in audiences.

Above all else, though, The Avengers gave us flawed but deeply human characters who strive to do the right thing and live up to their own potential. We want to spend time with this unlikely, fractious band of heroes and watch them struggle to overcome their fears, mistakes, and self-doubts. We’re with these characters every step of the way as they proceed on their difficult and costly moral journeys, seeking to become better people in spite of it all.

The spirit and appeal of The Avengers – and the Avengers themselves – can be witnessed in two very different scenes: the team’s initial assembly at the climax of the film and a short, silent post-credits shot of the exhausted Avengers enjoying shawarma at a local storefront diner. The first scene sees the camera circle around the Avengers as they come together for the first time as a unit and fight off an alien invasion of New York City, all with composer Alan Silvestri’s rousing orchestral theme thundering in the background. It’s a scene that works only because audiences have seen these characters butt heads with each other and wrestle with themselves over the previous hour and fifty minutes. Without these conflicts – Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man duking it out in their first encounter, the entire team bickering amongst themselves as the villainous Loki sets his scheme in motion – and the emotional ties they forge, this stirring shot would have had nowhere near the same dramatic effect on audiences it did.

But it’s the post-credits shawarma scene that truly captures the heart and soul of The Avengers and, indeed, the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a wholeClearly worn out by their battle with Loki and his army, our six heroes sit around a table the shawarma joint Tony Stark spotted during the course of the fighting. It’s a brief moment based on what at first glance seems like a throwaway line Stark utters at the very end of the battle, but it’s one that producer Kevin Feige and director Joss Whedon ran with and eventually shot on the very night of the film’s world premiere in Los Angeles. The unlikely camaraderie on display gets directly to the heart of the matter: audiences enjoy seeing these characters and seeing them together, even if they’re just munching on shawarma at the end of a long and grueling day.

There’s also a distinct and elemental faith in humanity beating at the heart of The Avengers, one that’s all the more noteworthy given the often-checkered pasts and transparent shortcomings of its protagonists. Indeed, the faith the movie places in its characters reflects and embodies its weathered, world-weary faith in humanity. Both as individuals and a team, the Avengers themselves stand as avatars of humanity as well as its defenders and, ultimately, vindicators. It’s a notion that’s encapsulated by the arcs of individual characters like Tony Stark and Natasha Romanoff across the MCU’s larger narrative; they’re as messy, imperfect, and full of self-doubt as humanity itself can be. But they do their best to transcend these shortcomings and become better people, genuinely and sincerely seeking to rise to the occasion and do the right thing in spite of the physical pains and emotional losses they inevitably encounter along the way.

It’s an underlying streak of humanism that’s also neatly revealed by a pair of sequences that bookend the film. The first occurs at the very beginning of the movie, where a voiceover brings audiences up to speed on the premise of The Avengers: Loki has been deputized by an as-yet unnamed and unseen antagonist – later shown to be the arch-villain Thanos – to retrieve an artifact known as the Tesseract from “little world” called Earth. “And the humans?” this chief henchman known as the Other sneers, “What can they do but burn?” After the Avengers prevail against Loki and his army, however, in a mid-credits scene the Other is forced to concede, “Humans… They are not the cowering wretches we were promised. They stand. They are unruly, and therefore cannot be ruled. To challenge them is to court… death.” 

Does humanity in fact deserve to be saved? That’s an open and rather large question, but one The Avengers resolutely answers in the affirmative. Over the course of the film, the Avengers themselves show that humanity is at the very least worth fighting for and believing in, no matter our failings and imperfections. This is the sort of faith in humanity The Avengers offers us: bruised and bloodied, perhaps, but heartfelt and ultimately unbowed – even in the face of impossible odds.

None of this should be surprising given how these stories and characters flow from the same emotional and thematic streams as myths and legends have drawn from for millennia. But to see The Avengers up on the big screen for the first time that night ten years ago was to partake in a unique experience, to inhabit a fleeting moment in time when a universe of endless possibilities opened up right before our eyes. That sense of infinite potential was inevitably lost with the onward march of time and the progress of the MCU’s overarching narrative. It’s a loss that naturally stings, no matter how well we think the subsequent entries in this sprawling cinematic enterprise are done or how much we may enjoy them. This onward march foreclosed possibilities as it took certain paths and not others – as in life, so in cinema.

In the end, The Avengers left us with a set of six remarkable, flawed, larger-than-life, indelible, and above all human characters. It’s a profoundly humanistic experience to spend more than a decade with this particular group of fictional characters, one the likes of which will not come again any time soon. This sort of alchemy is virtually impossible to create on purpose; it emerges organically rather than by design. The chemistry and camaraderie between the original six cast members (matching tattoos involved, naturally), for instance, isn’t something that could have been planned out or calculated ahead of time. Looking back ten years later, it’s clear The Avengers and the wider, character-driven cinematic odyssey it anchors represent a very real storytelling achievement – one that reminds us in equal measure that there’s no substitute for serendipity and that humanity is worth believing in, all its faults and foibles included.

That’s the true status of The Avengers in contemporary popular culture – and it’s more than earned it.

The Wages of Heroism

A review of “Hawkeye”

What does it take to be a hero?

That’s the question at the heart of Hawkeye, the latest television series produced by Marvel Studios for the Disney Plus streaming service. There’s a double meaning inherent in the way the show poses this question as well: Hawkeye is concerned just as much with the personal sacrifices and losses heroes endure along the way as it is with the personal attributes and attitudes that make someone a hero. It’s a series very much in keeping with the best of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, telling a story driven by flawed, human characters who struggle with the meaning of their roles as heroes.

Hawkeye draws much of its emotional depth and power from its place in a narrative tapestry that stretches back nearly a decade and a half. Audiences may not have spent as much time with Jeremy Renner’s Clint Barton as we did with Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark or Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff, but we’ve nonetheless been around the block with his master archer and original Avenger. It’s this history that makes Hawkeye and its preoccupation with the nature and cost of heroism work so well, building on the experiences audiences have shared with the show’s eponymous protagonist and showing the full range of their consequences. In that respect, it makes the series a strong companion piece to previous entries in the overall mythos – especially Avengers: Endgame and Black Widow.

This background also allows the series to show events and characters we already know from different perspectives within the MCU’s mythos. That’s clear from the very first episode, when in we witness the battle of New York depicted in The Avengers through the eyes of a young and terrified Kate Bishop, who goes on to idolize Hawkeye after he unknowingly saves her with an ace arrow shot during the fighting. Hoping to emulate her own personal hero, Hailee Steinfeld’s Kate goes on to become a skilled archer and martial artist in her own right before stumbling into Clint under less-than-ideal circumstances.

Then there’s Rogers: The Musical, a Broadway show depicting the events of The Avengers that Clint and his three children attend during a holiday season visit to New York City. Written to be deliberately cheesy and, more importantly, irritate Clint, the production includes Ant-Man for reasons unclear. When his daughter Lila chides him for turning off his hearing aid, a visibly irked Clint replies, “I know what happens… Since I was there.” That the musical apparently receives rave reviews within the MCU itself gives us as viewers another perspective on how the world at large sees the Avengers.

More than anything else, though, this history imbues Hawkeye with a streak of melancholy that elevates its animating themes of sacrifice and loss. It’s perhaps most pronounced in the spectral presence of the late Avenger and Clint’s best friend Natasha Romanoff throughout the show. From the start, Natasha’s memory – and her ultimate sacrifice in Avengers: Endgame in particular – haunts ClintHe leaves his seat during Rogers: The Musical after the production reminds him of his lost friend, for instance, and appears fairly ill at ease when Kate’s mother (portrayed by Vera Farmiga) asserts that he must be familiar with personal loss in his line of work.

Clint most directly expresses his intense and abiding sense of loss when he goes to a memorial plaque erected to commemorate the events of The Avengers, one inscribed with the names of the team’s six original members. He takes out his hearing aid to talk to Natasha, noting she “was the bravest of us all” and that she always had to win – even to the point of sacrificing herself “for a stupid orange rock.” Renner delivers an impressive performance in this emotional soliloquy, dredging up powerful yet reserved emotions over Clint’s intimate friendship with Natasha and her self-sacrifice in Avengers: Endgame. As he later admits to Florence Pugh’s Yelena Belova – Natasha’s adopted sister and fellow assassin introduced in Black Widow – Natasha “made her choice. We’re going to have to find a way to live with that.”

Likewise, Natasha’s memory weighs heavily on Clint as he reluctantly takes Kate Bishop under his wing. When Kate asks him about the best shot he ever took, Clint replies that it’s “the shot I didn’t take” against Natasha. He waves off further discussion, but Kate presses him – only for Clint to forcefully shut her down by vehemently insisting, “It’s not a good story.” Later, he sees Kate dangle on a rope from the edge of a rooftop in a scene clearly meant to parallel Natasha’s final scene in Endgame, a parallel reinforced by the effective use of musical cues from that film’s score by series composers Christophe Beck and Michael Paraskevas. (The composers make similarly worthwhile use of certain cues from the Black Widow score as well.)  

Kate’s also essential to perhaps the most poignant moment of the series, one that showcases the excellent chemistry between Renner and Steinfeld and speaks to the broader questions about heroism at its heart. With Clint’s hearing aid broken, Kate helps him keep up a phone conversation with his youngest son Nathaniel, writing down the son’s end of the conversation so Clint can reply. As a result, she’s privy to the fact that Clint’s son says it’s OK if he can’t be home for Christmas – a sacrifice Clint’s making to help her out of a predicament of her own making. 

For Clint, heroism is something takes more than it gives and requires enormous personal sacrifice. What’s more, he’s clearly uncomfortable with his own status as a hero – like other original members of the Avengers, he’s not sure he deserves it. When we meet up with him again at the start of Hawkeye, Clint plainly harbors doubts as to whether all the sacrifice and loss we’ve seen him endure was actually worth it. Bathroom graffiti and coffee mugs asserting that “Thanos was right” certainly don’t encourage him to think otherwise. It also explains why he tries to warn Kate off the path of heroism, telling her it “comes with a lot of sacrifices… And some things you’ll lose forever.” He goes even further, claiming he’s “not a role model. I’m sorry, Kate. I’m not a role model to anyone. Never have been.”

But Kate passionately believes otherwise, and slowly but surely convinces Clint that he is indeed a hero – all while shedding her own hero worship of him. Whenever Clint tries to disavow his own hero status, Kate immediately offers a rejoinder to the contrary. As a hero, she tells him, he’s selling inspiration whether he realizes it or not. Similarly, when Clint claims he’s not a role model, she retorts, “you left your family at Christmas because you thought some stranger was going to get hurt” and “stuck around even though I screwed up.”

This repartee culminates in a heart-to-heart between the two before the series’ big finale. Wanting to make sure she’s ready for what’s ahead, Clint reminds Kate that sacrifice and loss are inherent in heroism. She replies that when she saw him “fighting aliens with a stick and a string” in The Avengers, he showed her that heroism is “for anyone who’s brave enough to do what’s right no matter the cost” – a conviction she’s brought Clint himself back around to over the course of the show. It’s put to an acid test at the end of the final episode, when Kate turns her mother over to the police (it’s complicated). Asked by her mother if arresting their parents on Christmas is what heroes do, Kate doesn’t respond directly but it’s clear she’d answer in the affirmative.

As somber and serious as Hawkeye can get, it’s not a dreary or dour series – far from it. Indeed, the show strikes an impressively effortless tonal balance between dark themes of sacrifice and loss on the one hand and light-hearted moments of fun and levity on the other. It rarely if ever strikes a discordant note, drawing its both its humor and humanity organically from its characters and the events of previous films. “Don’t mention it,” Clint replies with bemusement when thanked for saving the world; when Kate demands Yelena stop making Kate like her, Yelena disarmingly admits that she can’t help it. 

The simple fact that there’s a canine companion lovingly known as Pizza Dog(eventually named Lucky after much trial and error on Kate’s part) and a contingent of good-natured live-action role players play a critical role in the narrative shows that the series can’t be tarred as a mirthless exercise. Indeed, Hawkeye manages to maintain this equipoise throughout from start to finish, smoothly sliding from one emotional register to another without ever feeling abrupt or even standing out.

Lucky, AKA Pizza Dog, portrayed by Jolt the golden retriever.

The lion’s share of the credit for Hawkeye’s success must go to the actors who bring these characters to life, especially leads Jeremy Renner and Hailee Steinfeld. Without them, it’s hard to imagine Hawkeye – or the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe for that matter – working at all. Renner quietly brings a soulful, intense melancholy to Clint, almost single-handedly maintaining the show’s emotional equilibrium as it shifts in tone. Steinfeld likewise plays Kate with an infectious enthusiasm that’s easy to see, and she shares obvious chemistry with Renner and Florence Pugh. As elsewhere in the MCU, plot largely serves as a narrative scaffolding that allows Hawkeye’s characters to meet and interact with one another in various ways. It’s hard not to want to see them ricochet off one another all day.

Hawkeye ends with Clint Barton in a much better place, having laid down his emotional burdens and accepting that he is, indeed, a hero – all while picking up a new protégé in Kate Bishop and a new family pet in Pizza Dog. It’s an example of the MCU at its best, driven by its characters and drawing on its own mythos to explore fundamental questions surrounding heroism. What’s more, the show moves from these serious questions to wry humor with remarkable ease. We can only hope there are more adventures in store for Clint, Kate, and Lucky in the years to come.

Burning “Red”

How Taylor Swift transformed heartbreak into art

(Part six in my apparently ongoing series on the music of Taylor Swift – see parts onetwothreefour, and five)

“How can a person know everything at 18 but nothing at 22?”

That’s the question Taylor Swift asks herself on “Nothing New,” a previously unreleased track included on her recent re-recording of her landmark 2012 album Red. It’s a song full of intense personal and artistic self-doubt, with Swift expressing severe reservations about her ability to stay creatively relevant and tacitly acknowledging that adolescent over-confidence fosters the illusion of wisdom. But it’s also the thematic question that drives Red as a whole, as the youthful romantic fantasies portrayed so vividly on her previous albums shatter and give way to more mature meditations on love, intimacy, and heartbreak – all elemental experiences that help define the human condition at its core.

On Red , Swift takes us through the intense emotional odyssey of a heartbroken person looking back on and convalescing from a fatally flawed and ultimately doomed romantic relationship. It’s hard to put it much better than she herself does in her introductory note to the re-recorded album: thematically and emotionally, Red “was all over the place, a fractured mosaic of feelings that somehow all fit together in the end.” Swift assembles an elaborate, heartfelt kaleidoscope of the feelings we experience in our lifelong pursuit of intimacy and human connection, a quest in which we’ll inevitably stumble and fall short of our deepest desires more often than we’ll fulfill them.

As wrenching as Red can be, though, it’s hardly a lament about the cruelties of modern romance and human existence. Throughout the album, Swift leaves us with the sense that all the trepidation, vulnerability, and heartache intrinsic to our attempts at intimacy are worth it, no matter how it all turns out in the end. The hurt and anxiety are a necessary part of life and, indeed, being human; heartbreak is a risk we take every time we reach out and try to forge a close connection with another human being. As she puts it “State of Grace,” over the course of our lives we all “learn to live with the pain” and piece together “mosaic broken hearts.” But as she reminds us on “Begin Again,” the romantic scars we accumulate can’t and shouldn’t cause us to close ourselves off in a futile search for invulnerability. Or as she counsels on “Treacherous,” “Nothing safe is worth the drive.”

Swift’s undeniable brilliance as a songwriter comes across exceptionally clear on both the original and expanded versions of her now-classic opus “All Too Well.” The original five-and-a-half-minute rendition is raw and passionate, a direct and emotionally piercing blow. Swift painstakingly paints a lyrical picture of a doomed relationship (complete with exquisite imagery like “autumn leaves falling down like pieces into place”) amidst constantly escalating musical tension provided by the steady crunch of her backing band’s electric guitars and bass. This built-up pressure finally detonates at the song’s bridge:

And maybe we got lost in translation 

Maybe I asked for too much 

But maybe this thing was a masterpiece 

‘Til you tore it all up 

Running scared, I was there 

I remember it all too well 

And you call me up again 

Just to break me like a promise 

So casually cruel in the name of being honest 

I’m a crumpled up piece of paper lying here

‘Cause I remember it all, all, all 

Too well 

It’s an intense and incendiary song, to be sure, but it’s not necessarily a vitriolic or vituperative one. (She was in this relationship for a reason, after all.) Swift seems to possess – and convey – an underlying understanding that these deep romantic wounds are a necessary part of life and the pursuit of intimacy. Though she’d “like to be my old self again, but I’m still trying to find it,” Swift still possesses her self-confidence and lets the former object of her affection know that he’s “lost the one real thing you’ve ever known.”

In contrast, the ten-minute extended version of “All Too Well” that serves as the grand finale of Red (Taylor’s Version) is a sprawling epic that in many ways resembles the “mosaic broken heart” of the album as a whole. It relies much more on Swift’s vocals and lyrics than anything else, both of which superbly carry the extended rendition’s moody and subdued sonic palette. The song becomes much more pensive and reflective as a result, but it’s still as sharp and emotionally compelling as ever.

For all its additional lyrics and verses – the extended version contains roughly twice as many words as the original, and there are two additional verses plus the expansion of a third – the extended version of “All Too Well” remains remarkably lean and focused for a track that’s more than ten minutes long. There’s nothing unnecessary added here, only a natural expansion of the original’s lyrics and a journey deeper into the song’s emotional recesses. In one particularly pointed new lyric, for instance, Swift reminds her ex, “You kept me like a secret, but I kept you like an oath.”

The song begins quietly and slowly, like a needle picking up the opening track on an old vinyl record. It lends this extended version a dreamy, ethereal atmosphere, as if Swift’s starting to recall a memory that’s grown hazy over time. As the song picks up, it proceeds more slowly but more steadily than the original; it’s a persistent, smoldering burn rather than an explosive release. The peaks and valleys of the extended version may be smoother and shallower as a result, but it’s a shift needed to sustain the song’s simmering emotional intensity for over ten minutes. Swift lets us steep in the feelings she conjures up, leaving us to soak them up as we listen her recount memories that grow increasingly detailed and evocative as the song progresses.

In this extended version, then, Swift takes us on a grueling ten-minute voyage through the shattered emotional landscape heartbreak leaves in its wake. Swift uses stark physical imagery to describe how she felt at the end of the relationship; it’s an ordeal that “broke my skin and bones,” leaving her “a soldier who’s returning half her weight.” She asks the former object of her affection if he suffered the same emotional injuries: “And did the twin flame bruise paint you blue?/Just between us, did the love affair maim you too?” As painful as the experience may have been, though, it’s hard to sense much if any regret or bitterness at the song’s end – only a flickering awareness that Swift and her listeners have acquired some hard-earned wisdom about life and the human condition.

That’s in keeping with the spirit of Red (Taylor’s Version) as a whole, both in the re-recorded original album and the new tracks taken from Swift’s musical vault. After all, it’s the record where Swift breaks hard from the romantic fantasies of her youth and takes listeners on a sojourn through the emotional torments of heartbreak. But Red also marks the moment where Swift evolved from a songwriting prodigy to a fully-fledged artist in every sense of the word. None of that discounts her earlier work, of course, but it does reflect her own acknowledgement that she’d already been “learning tiny lessons with every new crack in the façade of the fairytale ending she’d been shown in the movies.”

On Red, Swift picks up the pieces of that now-shattered façade and begins to assemble the mosaic broken heart we all have to put together at some point. By the end of the journey, though, it’s clear that our reconstructed hearts serve us just as well as the originals that were smashed to pieces in the past. That doesn’t mean we stop learning about ourselves and our shared humanity, though; as Swift reminisces on “Daylight,” the final track on 2019’s Lover, “I used to believe love was burning red/But it’s golden.” It’s an education that never really ends, and never really can – not least when we think we’ve got it all figured out.

Heartbreak may be miserable and emotionally brutal, Swift tells us on Red, but it’s a universal, necessary experience we’ve all got to endure – and one that’s ultimately worth it in the end. It we recognize this fundamental emotional truth, we can always pick ourselves up and begin again.

“Mass Effect” in Retrospect

Why the space opera still resonates almost ten years after its last chapter

Commander Shepard, Mass Effect’s player-protagonist.

Last Sunday, November 7, Mass Effect aficionados and video game developer BioWare marked N7 Day – a fan appreciation day created to celebrate a space opera that’s captured the hearts and minds of countless players around the world. This year also saw the release of Mass Effect Legendary Edition, a souped-up version of the original Mass Effect trilogy for current generation consoles and contemporary gaming rigs. The fact that Mass Effect retains a devoted and dedicated fan base nearly ten years after the final entry in the main series first appeared testifies to its status as one of the best science fiction stories ever told.

It’s fairly easy to understand why Mass Effect commands such enduring loyalty. The series creates a lush and immersive world set in the late 22nd century – the years 2183 to 2186, to be precise – in which humanity aspires to find a place for itself alongside a number of other complex and complicated alien species in the Milky Way’s sprawling galactic civilization. From the very start, Mass Effect floods players with detailed accounts about all of the galaxy’s political, diplomatic, social, and technological facets, from the titular mass effect fields and mass relays that make interstellar travel possible to the intricate diplomatic architecture that governs and structures galactic politics. But a cosmic horror lurks beneath the effervescent surface of galactic society: the Reapers, a race of sentient machines that return every 50,000 years to harvest technologically advanced organic life in order to prevent its inevitable destruction at the hands of artificial intelligence and thereby allow less-advanced organic species to survive.

Most of all, though, it’s the rich and fully realized characters protagonist Commander Shepard encounters and with whom she builds relationships (sometimes romantic and intimate) as she fights to save the galaxy that make Mass Effect such a compelling and memorable experience for so many players. Excellent writing and superb voice acting bring alien characters like Liara T’SoniGarrus Vakarian, and Tali’Zorah vas Normandy to life, and it’s the human connections that Shepard forges with these crewmates that makes Mass Effect special. These characters grow and evolve over the course of the trilogy, moreover, reflecting the influence the Shepard has had on them.  It’s a fact the game’s creators understood and exploited to great effect in the Citadel downloadable content, allowing players to simply relax and spend time with many of the characters we’ve befriended over the course of the trilogy.

Despite the dire straits in which Shepard and her crew find themselves, Mass Effect remains an optimistic story at heart and a deeply human adventure to boot. We may stand on the precipice of galactic annihilation, but we can still find reasons to hope. It also reminds us of the necessity to focus on what really matters – our relationships with others and our basic, shared humanity – even when the fate of the galaxy’s at stake.

Fundamental questions about faith in humanity and hope for the future as well as the pain, loss, and sacrifice necessary to make it through the worst of circumstances course through the trilogy as a whole. But they find their most brutal and unsparing expression in Mass Effect 3, where it’s repeatedly hammered home that Shepard cannot save everyone from the Reapers – no matter how hard she drives herself. Nonetheless, there’s something viscerally and powerfully humanistic involved in fighting against the vast, unfathomable, and inescapable cosmic forces that threaten crush humanity and its alien allies under foot. By the end of the trilogy, Shepard herself has become an avatar of existential hope for the galaxy in the face of its foreordained and seemingly inevitable doom.

Mass Effect deepens these themes by repeatedly alluding to the indispensable notion of holding on to our humanity even in the most desperate of situations. When explaining her decision to destroy the base of the enemy Collectors at the conclusion of Mass Effect 2, for instance, Shepard declares, “I won’t let fear compromise who I am.” It’s Mass Effect 3, though, where the importance of holding fast to our humanity comes through the strongest. Justifying a complete change of heart, for example, the hyperactive salarian scientist Mordin Solus (a fan favorite who first appeared in Mass Effect 2) remorsefully notes that he “focused too much on big picture. Big picture made of little pictures.”

Indeed, Mass Effect consistently argues that maintaining a grip on our humanity matters far more than survival at any and all costs. It’s a point that’s made most directly in a philosophical conversation Shepard has toward the end of Mass Effect 3 with EDI, the artificial intelligence who first appears in Mass Effect 2 and then uploads herself into a Metropolis-style synthetic body near the start of the trilogy’s last entryEDI observes that humans on Reaper-occupied Earth don’t seem to place a particular priority on survival, while the Reapers are “repulsive” because they are “devoted to nothing but self-preservation.” Shepard tells EDI she’s discovered a little humanity, making plain that mere survival isn’t a sufficient goal or motivation for humans or any other intelligent life – even when confronting potential extinction.

It’s a stance also conveyed by the premium Mass Effect places on relationships and personal vulnerabilities. Early on in Mass Effect 3, for instance, Liara asks Shepard how she stays focused “even in the worst situations.” Shepard responds by saying she thinks about her friends and loved ones – the people she’d lose if she failed. Here again, Mass Effect gives the abstract big picture meaning with a focus on the real, flesh-and-blood of the immediate. Humanity and the rest of the galaxy aren’t fighting for survival against overwhelming odds; they’re fighting for each other and their common future.

Shepard and crew, Mass Effect 3.

What’s more, all of Mass Effect’s characters eventually expose their own personal vulnerabilities and insecurities. The player can have Shepard reveal her own self-doubts to close companions like Liara and Garrus, while Shepard herself spends enough time with her crew – alien and human, organic and synthetic – to see them lower their defenses and lay bare their own flaws. It allows players to cultivate a sense intimacy and build a series of emotional connections with these characters in ways that compel us to care about them and their hopes, fears, and foibles.

When played in 2021, though, Mass Effect often feels like a time capsule washed ashore from a more enlightened and humanistic era – one less than a decade in the past. It’s a wide-open window into the in many ways more liberal and vibrant world that existed before the dour pieties and illiberal orthodoxies of the present day seized the commanding heights of American culture and society. Neither Mass Effect’s forthright if often awkward embrace of sexuality nor its optimistic, universalist ethos would likely fly with today’s creative class.

Ironically enough, it was Fox News that attacked Mass Effect over its romance options and sexual content shortly after the game’s 2007 debut – and led to BioWare to shamefully self-censor the 2010 sequel to avoid a similar controversy. Now, however, it’s difficult to imagine the original Mass Effect trilogy existing in the censorious cultural climate that’s evolved over the past ten years. The alluring all-female asarispecies would have to go, as would many of the overt expressions of sexual desire and physical attraction from male and female characters alike across the series – and especially obvious attempts to needle characters in an effort to defuse interpersonal tensions.

The same goes for Mass Effect’s optimistic and universalist ethos. In Mass Effect 3’s Citadel DLC, for instance, when ex-agents of the human supremacist group Cerberusaccuse Shepard of saving more alien lives than human ones, she replies that she doesn’t care what species they are: “every life counts.” (As presented on the dialogue wheel the choice simply states, “They all matter.”) Prejudice and racism are present throughout the trilogy, expressed by characters of every species against every other. But it’s hard to imagine that two characters cracking jokes about various alien stereotypes (human among them) as a way to ease tension and establish common ground would make it into the game today.

Most of all, though, this ethos finds its expression in the trilogy’s sweeping narrative of an upstart humanity bringing other species together to work together on behalf of the common galactic good despite their manifold disputes and manifest differences. It’s surely no coincidence that a human supremacist group goes on to serve as one of the game’s primary antagonists. Deep in its storytelling bones, Mass Effect holds fast to an old-fashioned sort of liberal humanism that’s wildly out of fashion in our own illiberal and deeply pessimistic times.

Thanks to our collective lurch toward ingrained gloom and entrenched despair over the past decade, however, this fundamental optimism toward humanity and the possibilities of existence has become all the more indispensable. Mass Effect is a story imbued with the aspirational spirit of liberal humanism, a spirit that’s even more precious and indispensable today than when games first appeared. What’s more, something special occurs when deep worldbuilding combines with compelling characters and an emotionally resonant narrative at the same time. It’s a very, very difficult feat to achieve, one that makes Mass Effect all the more remarkable for doing so.

In the end, Mass Effect presents us with a majestic and essentially optimistic vision of humanity and its place in the cosmos, flaws and faults included. It’s one we’d do well to hold onto tightly even – and especially – in the darkest and most perilous of times

Red in Our Ledgers

A Review of “Black Widow”

It’s a shame that Black Widow has become best known for star Scarlett Johansson’s justified lawsuit against Disney over its simultaneous release in theaters and Disney’s streaming service. The dispute overshadowed the film’s rich and sometimes brutal character study, one that builds on the decade Johansson and audiences have spent with Natasha Romanoff. Black Widow works well enough on its own, but it truly excels as the final part of a broader character arc that began more than ten years ago with her first appearance in 2010’s Iron Man 2.

It also sheds light on a widespread but basic misunderstanding about why the Marvel Cinematic Universe works for so many people. The plots of these films tend not to be terribly intricate or complex, and they’re often dismissed as mere “theme park rides” reliant on special effects-laden finales to wow audiences. While there’s a grain of truth to these views, for the most part they miss the mark. Plots of Marvel movies, for instance, do frequently veer off into the absurd or the preposterous. But they’re only meant function as a scaffolding for stories that, at their heart, are driven by character: how our protagonists change and become heroes, how they see their own roles and live with them, and, most crucially, how they struggle to do the right thing despite their own flaws and often-checkered pasts.

Black Widow stands as a paradigmatic example of what make these blockbusters tick. Audiences have spent a decade with Natasha Romanoff, watching her grow and evolve in ways second only to Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine the slow beats and quiet conversations that make Black Widow work without this shared history. The end result is a character study punctuated with solid action sequences that both divert our attention away from the film’s rather over-the-top plot points and denouement.

Though Florence Pugh rightfully received praise for her performance as Yelena Belova, Natasha’s adoptive younger sister (it’s complicated), Black Widow remains Natasha’s show through and through. Yelena serves as a Natasha’s foil, and it’s through her constant poking and prodding that we see how Natasha has evolved as a character over the past decade. Her caustic jibes at Natasha’s earnest attempt to become a better person draw blood but make Natasha’s own bruised and innate heroism stand out all the more clearly.

“You’re a total poser,” Yelena chides her while mocking Natasha’s tendency to whip her hair back during fights. When Natasha retorts, “All that time I spent posing, I was trying to actually do something good to make up for all the pain and suffering that we caused. Trying to be more than just a trained killer,” Yelena responds that they’re both still trained killers – “except I’m not the one that’s on the cover of a magazine. I’m not the killer that little girls call their hero.” It’s an emotionally unsparing exchange that throws Natasha’s best qualities into relief and reminds the audience why we find the character compelling in the first place.

Indeed, Black Widow has a number of organic connections to the broader narrative in which it’s embedded. Its callbacks and references are necessary rather than gratuitous, serving Natasha’s character arc – both in the film and overall – rather than obsessive fans on the lookout for such nuggets. Natasha’s dialogue with Yelena, for instance, harks back to the intense self-doubt she expressed in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Well aware of her own imperfections and past infractions, when prompted by her fellow Avengers to try and prove she’s worthy to lift Mjolnir, Thor’s hammer, Natasha responds, “Oh, no. That’s not a question I need answered.”

It’s an open wound her surrogate father Alexei, a Russian former super-soldier and spy, does his best to pour salt in after Natasha and Yelena liberate him from a gulag. Attempting to convince his daughters of his quasi-parental feelings toward them, he declares his pride in their records as assassins: “You both have killed so many people. Your ledgers must be dripping, just gushing red.” A visibly disgusted Natasha pushes him away, leaving the audience to recall her interrogation of Loki in The Avengers. When she notes that she has “red in her ledger” in that film, Loki doubts she can really “wipe out that much red” from a ledger that’s “dripping, gushing red.” Though she apparently gets the best of the God of Mischief in this verbal exchange, a later talk with Clint Barton (aka the master archer Hawkeye) shows the encounter clearly left her shaken and deeply unsure of herself.

Even Natasha’s brief mention that she’s “not on speaking terms” with Tony Stark early on manages to be more than just a throwaway reference to a previous movie. It brings to the audience’s mind her parting scene with Stark in Captain America: Civil War, where the two heroes go straight for one another’s deepest insecurities. After Natasha lets a fugitive Captain America go amidst a fight, Stark accuses her of possessing “the double agent thing” in her DNA – to which she responds by questioning whether Stark is “incapable of letting go of [his] ego for one goddamned second.” It’s probably the most painful scene in the movie, with both characters directly attacking each another where it truly hurts.

Above all, though, Natasha’s decade-long character arc and Black Widow in particular show us the emotional and physical pain inherent in trying to become a better person and do the right thing. Natasha can’t atone for anything she’s done in the past, no matter how much she may want to – and neither can we. All any of us can do is try to act morally in the present, in the here and now we flawed human beings happen to find ourselves in at any given moment. We’ve got to keep going and take action in line with our values, refusing define ourselves by our uncertainties about ourselves or our past mistakes and ordeals.

As Black Widow reminds us, that’s easy to say and far harder to actually do. We’ve seen Natasha wrestle with it over the past ten years, and she doesn’t come away from it without her fair share of bruises and scars. There’s no reason to expect otherwise, though, and it’s perhaps the most heroic aspect of her character: her persistence in the face of her own doubts about herself and the harsh realities of her chosen path – as Yelena points out, “I doubt the god from space has to take an ibuprofen after a fight.” Natasha remains a deeply flawed and human character whose drive to be a better person resonates with our own struggles to live up to our own potential – like the rest of the Avengers, she just does it on a much bigger canvas and with much higher stakes.

There’s much more that could be said for Natasha’s heroism, starting with her central role in Avengers: Endgame. Her determination pushes the film’s narrative forward, and her ultimate sacrifice testifies to her ingrained heroism. She herself explicitly states that her time with the Avengers not only made her a better person but made her want to keep trying to be a better person regardless of her own personal circumstances. Present across a decade of stories, this very human aspiration to overcome her flaws and errors in order to become more truly herself helps make Natasha an enduringly compelling character.

As Johansson herself put it, audiences see “a character that’s fully evolved. They know her history, her habits, they know the things that are important to her. There’s an intimacy that the audience has with this character now that we can finally embrace [in Black Widow]… Just to be able to have the opportunity to peel back all the layers of this character for a decade is such a rare thing.”1

Natasha’s growth and evolution as a character, in turn, tells us why so many people love the Marvel cinematic universe: not explosions or pseudo-profundities or a rollercoaster kind of rush, but the emotional bonds audiences forge with the flawed characters they see up on the big screen. Movies like Black Widow cultivate these connections with viewers in ways that more narratively complex and technically proficient films often fail to do. Marvel movies manage to resonate with many of us in very basic ways that regular old blockbusters and niche art films either don’t, can’t, or won’t.

There’s nothing ironic, subversive, or deconstructive about Black Widow or its predecessors; they’re straightforward and sincere. It’s far from an exact correspondence, but these movies mine many of the same emotional and thematic veins tapped by the earliest myths and legends of millennia past. Through their flawed heroes and larger-than-life settings, at their best these movies manage to tell us something about ourselves and our condition. In that regard, at least, they’re much more mature and adult in nature than much of what passes for contemporary popular culture.  

Audiences may have had a long wait to see Natasha’s own movie, but it was well worth it. We’ve accompanied the character over more than ten years, experiencing with her the stark reality that it’s not a simple or easy thing to look past one’s own flaws and aspire to be a better person. She reminds us that there’s no shortcut we can take to avoid the pain and hardship inherent in that undertaking. But the journey itself more than makes up for any scars we accumulate along the way.

With Black Widow, Natasha has finally earned her rightful place in the pantheon of cinematic heroes.

Onward to Substack

For anyone who’s interested, I’ll be posting what I write up on Substack moving forward. Having worked with it for another project, I’ve found it an easier platform to use for my purposes. What’s been published here will stay here, but future pieces will be posted on my Substack page:

pmjuul.substack.com

Hope to see you there!

A Rollercoaster Kind of Rush: How “Fearless (Taylor’s Version)” captures the frenetic nature of adolescence

Last April, Taylor Swift launched the first salvo in her campaign re-record and recover the rights to her first six albums with the release Fearless (Taylor’s Version). A virtual note-for-note replica of her 2008 breakthrough record, Swift’s new re-recorded version nonetheless manages to sound fresh and energetic rather than an exercise in nostalgia. That’s due in no small part to the strong vocals Swift lends to the album, honed by over a decade of additional experience she’s accumulated since originally recording it as a teenager.

That experience helps elevate Fearless (Taylor’s Version) above its otherwise worthy origins as a way for Swift to assert ownership over her own work. With this re-recording, Swift managed to create something new: an implicit retrospective on the glories, agonies, and follies of adolescence. It’s a new perspective she tacitly acknowledged in the note she posted online announcing the remake, characterizing the album as  “full of magic and curiosity, the bliss and devastation of youth.” 

In part due to their performance by an older and wiser artist, the album and its songs themselves take on new meanings with the passage of time. That’s certainly the case with “Love Story,” a song whose meaning has shifted from that of an adolescent fantasy to an adult reminiscence of a couple’s founding myth – as well as a tale of Swift’s own intimate relationship with her fans. With lyrics like “I didn’t know who I was supposed to be/At fifteen,” moreover, it’s easy to understand why a song like “Fifteen” assumes a novel meaning when sung by an thirty-one year old Swift rather than the teenager who wrote it. As Swift herself would remind us in 2020’s “betty,” no one really knows much of anything at that age – making her re-recording of “Fifteen” exceptionally wry in this new context.

As a whole, the album remains undeniably precocious and gives an unmistakable early notice of Swift’s impressive songwriting skills. The central themes that mark her work also begin to percolate up here, especially on a number of Fearless-era songs from Swift’s vault re-recorded and first released for this project. Songs like “You All Over Me,” “Don’t You,” and “Bye Bye Baby” all reflect the longing for intimacy that’s suffused her music from the start, a yearning that in these cases can be most clearly seen in the aftermath of failed or dying relationships. As she wistfully recalls on “You All Over Me”:

I lived, and I learned 

And found out what it was to turn around 

And see that we 

Were never really meant to be

Most of all, though, the re-recording shifts the way we listen to the album and its songs. Swift’s own maturity puts them in stark relief, allowing the fierce immediacy and existential torment of adolescent romance burn with intensity. We’re able to glimpse facets of the original work that may not have been visible amidst the light and heat of the album’s original 2008 release, and all the more so since it’s a note-for-note re-recording of the original. Time and distance make it easier to put matters that may have seemed life-or-death as a teenager – a bad break-up, for instance, or an unspoken crush – in the wider and fuller perspective that almost always comes with age and wisdom. 

That’s apparent from the very start of the album, where the volatile and nervous energy of adolescent romantic infatuation that courses through the title track itself. There are the urgent, unrequited appeals of the classic “You Belong With Me,” where a desperate Swift pleads with an oblivious platonic friend to see that she’d be perfect for him. On “The Way I Loved You,” Swift contrasts the attractions of an earlier chaotic romance – “so in love that I acted insane” – with her seemingly idyllic current relationship to illustrate the tempestuous nature of many youthful liaisons. 

Throughout the album, we can also see what Swift called “every new crack in the façade of the fairy tale ending she’d been shown in the movies.” These cracks start to appear on songs like “White Horse,” where Swift takes direct aim at her own romantic fantasies and acknowledges that she’s “not a princess” and her broken relationship “ain’t a fairytale.” It’s a sentiment that lingers on “Forever and Always,” a spirited and scathing portrait of scorned love and romantic betrayal where promises of eternal commitment crumble on contact. As she asks on the equally caustic “Mr. Perfectly Fine,” “How’s your heart after breaking mine?”

At the same time, the teenage Swift gives intimations of a more mature perspective on tracks like “Breathe.” She acknowledges that romantic relationships don’t always go as planned or expected simply because we’re human: “people are people and sometimes it doesn’t work out.” That doesn’t make the demise of these relationships any less painful in the moment, but it does make it easier to move forward from them. These more introspective themes receive additional elaboration on songs from Swift’s vault like “You All Over Me” and “We Were Happy.” With these songs, then, Swift sends a strong signal of the direction her work would take in the future.

Above all, Fearless (Taylor’s Version) illuminates the ways in which time and experience can change our points of view – even on the things that, in the moment, seem life-or-death. It’s also a powerful reminder of just how wild and intense our adolescent emotions and juvenile ideas can be, even if we rarely stop to consider it at the time.  That doesn’t necessarily make these emotions and ideas wrong or unfounded – far from it – but it does prompt us to take another look at ourselves when passions overtake us, just breathe, and keep things in perspective.

Records You Should Listen To: “Buffalo Springfield Again” by, well, Buffalo Springfield

Buffalo Springfield - Buffalo Springfield Again - Amazon.com Music

[The third in an incredibly infrequent series.]

Ask anyone with a bare minimum of awareness of the band about Buffalo Springfield and they’ll probably be able to identify it as the performer of the classic 1966 song “For What It’s Worth” – thanks in large part to its repeated (if not incessant) use as a sonic wallpaper for films and documentaries about the Vietnam War and the protest movement that opposed it. Those better versed in the arcana of late 1960s and early 1970s rock might tell you that the band’s roster contained luminaries like Neil Young and Stephen Stills, as well as Jim Messina before his latter-day partnership with Kenny Loggins. Still others would inform you that the band derived its name from a steamroller manufacturing company.

These recollections sell Buffalo Springfield far too short, however viewing the band as a mere prelude to the greater and more worthy artistic ambitions of its members (Stills and especially Young in particular) or as part of the soundtrack to a historical era that recedes further and further into the mists of our collective memory with each passing year. But as the band’s penultimate album – 1967’s Buffalo Springfield Again – makes abundantly clear, Buffalo Springfield deserves much closer consideration in its own right than it now receives.

Again starts off with Neil Young’s hard-charging “Mr. Soul.” Distorted guitars open the number and recur at regular intervals throughout, punctuating the steady baseline and drumbeat that drive the song forward. Young’s lyrics tell the tale of a rock star’s jaundiced perspective on his own fame, where “the thought that I caught in my head” becomes “the event of the season.” Throughout the course of the song, a fickle public presses the protagonist to conform to their own visions of rock stardom – and the narrator wonders if “In a while will the smile on my face/Turn to plaster?”

After a brief detour into country with “A Child’s Claim To Fame,” Again turns to a pair of pensive songs: “Everydays” and “Expecting to Fly,” written and performed by Stills and Young respectively. The former sees Stills layering an introspective lyrical portrait of ennui over a minimalist arrangement marked by the peal of an occasional distorted electric guitar and constant background tinkling of jazz-inflected piano. Young’s “Expecting to Fly” likewise stands out for its haunting and ethereal account of a failed romantic relationship. His evocative lyrics – the narrator’s formerly significant other “stood on the edge of a feather/Expecting to fly” while he himself “tried so hard to stand/As I stumbled and fell to the ground” – float through an otherworldly and deceptively sparse soundscape.

But it’s the exquisite “Bluebird” that almost single-handedly stakes Again’s claim to greatness and easily stands as the band’s single best song. Written by Stills, the final track on the album’s first side launches with a quick and searing Neil Young electric guitar solo. Stills then tears into the vocals with a fierce urgency:

Listen to my bluebird laugh

She can’t tell you why 

Deep within her heart, you see 

She knows only crying, just crying

An extraordinary acoustic guitar solo from Stills ushers in the transition from the frenetic, psychedelic rock of the song’s first two minutes to its quieter, folk-inspired conclusion – a coda complete with delicate banjo picking. 

It’s a kaleidoscopic arrangement that’s beautifully complemented by the vivid and melancholy imagery of Stills’ lyrics. He tells the tale of the titular bluebird, an outwardly happy but inwardly depressed young woman chronically longing for the object of her affection. She’s got “all those blues/Must be a thousand hues” – but at the same time she’s caught the narrator’s eye, who sits “mesmerized/By the depth of her eyes” that reveal “She got soul.” But once the song shifts to its folk-influenced back half, Stills makes clear that its subject is “going to fly away” since her “Sadness is her own” and “Give herself a bath of tears/And go home.”

Side two of the album can’t compare with side one, quality songs like “Hung Upside Down,” “Sad Memory,” and “Good Time Boy” notwithstanding. But Again closes strong, with the low-key anxiety of Stills’ “Rock and Roll Woman” and Young’s “Broken Arrow.” A solid and straightforward rock number with a songwriting contribution (and alleged backing vocals) from David Crosby, “Rock and Roll Woman” features an infectious acoustic guitar riff and backing vocal harmonies punctuated by a bridge marked by a distorted electric guitar trading licks with a pulsating Hammond B3 organ. 

On “Broken Arrow,” Young returns to the theme of alienation that kicked the album off on “Mr. Soul.” That’s apparent from the live sample of the record’s opening track that opens the song, as well as the first verse’s impressionistic sketch of the unrequited enthusiasm of rock fans who camp out in the rain just to catch a glimpse of their musical heroes as they leave a concert venue. Young’s lyrics become more abstract and brooding as the song proceeds, with breaks following verses filled respectively by a baseball organ, snare drum, and clarinet. The heartbeat that closes out the suite provides a fitting end to the album as a whole.

Why give Buffalo Springfield Again a listen? “Bluebird” alone is worth the price of admission, but as a record Again provides eloquent testimony to the songwriting talents of Stephen Stills and Neil Young. At turns pensive and propulsive with a strong streak of melancholy, Again takes the listener on a cruise through the psychedelic ether of the late 1960s rock world – and proves that Buffalo Springfield deserves greater renown as a musical force in its own right.