Hiking Report – Dog Mountain

And now for something completely different…

The world of politics, diplomacy, refugees, and climate change isn’t going away.

But, once in a while, a vacation is helpful.

This is going to be the start of what I hope to become a (semi) regular series… I want to talk about hiking and climbing. In particular, I want to actually hike a trail and/or climb a mountain, and then talk about it here. These pieces won’t necessarily be trip reports in the same vein as what you might find on http://www.oregonhikers.org/ or https://www.summitpost.org/. But they will be my personal thoughts on the experience of these trails.

Last October, I moved to Portland, Oregon from Kansas City, Missouri. The move was for work, but I’ve always loved the Pacific Northwest, and always hoped to end up here. In particular, I loved the mountains and the hiking. This is – for my money – possibly the most beautiful part of the United States. And since hiking and climbing are already among my favorite activities (apart from online rabble-rousing), I was excited for the chance to spend time wandering around this area. So, I decided to give myself a birthday present. I took the day off work, and set out along the Columbia River for my first serious Northwest hike in about a decade.

I knew I wanted elevation, but I also knew I’m in mediocre shape – and now closer to 40 than 30. It would be wise to build myself up before trying to tackle something serious. So, after some research, I came up with Dog Mountain, in the Columbia Gorge, on the Washington side. Fairly steep and strenuous, but not particularly high, long, or dangerous. The vistas look lovely, and every trip report seemed to be enthusiastic. If Dog Mountain proved to be something I could handle, then perhaps in a couple weeks, I would look across the Gorge at Mt. Defiance – a hike nearly twice as long and twice as high.

So, emboldened by this research, just this past Friday morning, I set out from my home in Portland, and headed east down the river. Dog Mountain is just past the town of Stevenson – about an hour from downtown Portland. The trailhead is a wide gravel parking lot right off of Highway 14. It tends to get busy on the weekends, so I made sure to be there on a weekday, relatively early. At the time I arrived, there were only a couple other cars in the lot.

An information/pay station stands near the start of the trail, as well as this sign:

Dog Mountain Trail Start

Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

3.8 miles to the top? Piece of cake.

Mmmm… cake. Dammit, now I’m hungry.

Okay, where was I? Right… time to start walking.

At this point, it was about 8:15. I originally wanted to show up earlier, but a warm bed slowed me down just a bit that morning.

Speaking of walking, I have to emphasize that a good pair of hiking shoes is invaluable. Maybe something with some ankle support. You’ll appreciate that – especially on the way back down.

The trail gets steep right from the get-go. It starts off wide and is initially mostly gravel, but gradually turns into dirt – albeit with a healthy amount of fist-sized rocks scattered along the way.

There’s a pair of restrooms (compost toilets, no sinks) just a few hundred feet from the start, but then after that, it’s just you, the trail, and the woods. And possibly many other hikers, though at just past 8 AM on a Friday, the trail was mostly empty.

Dog Mountain Trail lower trail

Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

The trail inclines steeply, with plenty of tight switchbacks through the woods. Now and then, a gap will appear, providing lovely (but still low) views of the Columbia Gorge.

Dog Mountain Trail early - view through the forest

Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

And now and then, obstacles – usually trees – dot the path.

Dog Mountain Trail - a tree in the trail

Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

You’re going to take this path for the first 0.7 miles. And I will admit, after scoffing at “only” 3.8 miles at the start, I quickly gained respect for that whole gravity thing. Walking 0.7 miles on level ground with a smooth surface is pretty easy. Doing it uphill on dirt and rocks is… well, less easy, especially if you don’t pace yourself. Despite the 55 degree Fahrenheit temperatures, my hoodie came off pretty quickly. Stylishly wrapped by the arms around my waist, of course. I felt kind of silly even bringing it, as I was quickly dripping with sweat. And now I looked like a scruffy imitation of an 80’s preppy teen bully.

Dog Mountain Trail - Early switchback

Look – a switchback! Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

As one heads up the trail, it’s highly recommended to stay on the trail. Poison oak abounds, and an attempted shortcut between switchbacks might end up being rather… uncomfortable.

Dog Mountain Trail - a tree off the trail

Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

But the vegetation is lovely, even from the trail. And animal life is plentiful, although they make themselves heard more than seen, as birds chirp overhead, and the branches shake with squirrel gladiatorial games being waged in the canopy.

Well, that’s the mental image I had. Maybe hiking alone was a bad idea.

But I digress.

Meanwhile, after those 0.7 miles that feel just a teensy bit longer – you come to a junction. This is the “difficult” path versus the “more difficult” path. Every guide I’ve read tells me there isn’t actually a huge difference in difficulty between the two paths – but the merely “difficult” path to the right (a newer and shinier one, I might add), is vastly more scenic, running along the edge of the mountain closer to the Gorge.

Dog Mountain Trail - Fork in the road

Decisions…  Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

I’m more than willing to take the advice of people who’ve already been there – and I did kind of show up for the vistas. So, about 25 minutes into the hike, I took the path to the right, and plunged into the woods.

I noticed the wind was picking up a bit, but I was still warm enough to justify the hoodie remaining firmly around my waist. But my now sweaty legs were objecting to my choice of wearing jeans, instead of something lighter and looser.

As I pushed forward – and up (mostly up), I found myself in a wide forest, where the path was mostly straight, and the forest was filled with evenly spaced, mostly bare trunks. The effect was surprisingly spooky, but also quite serene. At this point, I had only encountered one other pair of hikers on the path, and they were on their way down. I had the mountain to myself, and it was exactly what I was hoping for.


More switchbacks!   Hunter Breckenridge – 2018


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018


Look up! Hunter Breckenridge – 2018


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

Oh yeah, and there was also the spooky hut. It showed no sign of recent occupation, although my expertise in these matters is limited. Also, my urge to suddenly re-enact Scooby Doo was powerful at that point. I let out one Zoinks!, and moved on.

Finally, 1.2 miles past the juncture – and about an hour into the hike – I came out of the forest to a clearing – the lower lookout. There were views of the Gorge in both directions, and it was absolutely stunning. It was also fairly windy up here. The hoodie ended up coming back on.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018


It’s me, being stoic. Or, maybe just silly. Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

After some time enjoying the view, I headed back up the trail, back into the forest.

The trail was noticeably steeper at this point, and the bare lower branches of the trees at this point were covered in moss. They looked kind of like broken green ladders.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

At 9:30, I reached the point where the “More Difficult” trail met up with my bunny slope. A sign very kindly informed me of my progress:


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

The sky had darkened at this point, and a mist had started to fall. I’m not sure what the difference is between fog and a cloud, but I was in a light version of one of them.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

At around 9:50, I finally caught a glimpse of the summit meadow, just above me. The trees were now mostly behind (and below), and the trail was more exposed. Also, the cloud/fog/poison mist was pretty heavy, and I couldn’t see the gorge, or even much of the mountain below – which was admittedly disappointing. I was hoping the covering would be on its way before I reached the summit. I did get a brief glimpse of the gorge below through a fleeting gap in the clouds, and it felt like a bit of a tease.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

The wind was also picking up strength. I rounded a bend to the left, and there was the old fire lookout point, also known as Puppy Dog Lookout. It was just about 10 AM. At this point, the view was still pretty minimal, but I could tell I was up high (2525 ft), and quite exposed. It appeared that the final push to the peak was starting here. So, I rounded the bend, and trudged into the wind and mist through the meadow.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

The next sign on the trail was not all that useful.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

The meadow became steeper on both sides, until it turned into a ridge, complete with some rocky outcroppings. The steepness of the path, the limited visibility, and the high winds, all combined to create a disorienting effect. I had to slow down. I can’t say I felt like I was in danger, but the conditions were harsher than I had anticipated.

Finally, as the trail narrowed, it switched back one more time, and then up to the top of the summit meadow. There were some wildflowers left, but not like some of the photos I’ve seen from late May and early June.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

The path itself started to level, no longer heading steeply up. This was a bit of a relief.

The wind, however, was stronger than ever. I’m not a great judge of guessing windspeed, but a very rough estimate of 30-40 mph seems about right. Gusts maybe closer to 50. The grass and the flowers were dancing with some enthusiasm. A few hundred feet past the last turn, there was a spur up and to the left, that went hundred feet or so. It ended up in a dirt covered clearing, with a small ring of trees at the top. This was the summit. Further behind the summit were much larger trees, towering over me. I recognized that they started behind the ridge, much lower, but it was a strange effect, to be at the top of a mountain, looking up at treetops.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018


I lingered for a few minutes, but the view wasn’t improving, and a couple pairs of hikers were appearing on the summit with me. I headed back down the spur to the main path. I had the option of returning the way I came, or heading forward down the path.


The summit grove. Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

According to the maps and guides, this would take me back to the fire lookout through more forest.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

I figured I should see as much as possible – and maybe the forest would help block some of the wind.

It was only a few hundred feet from the summit spur to the start of the forest, but I quickly discovered that this was much denser and heavier than the woods on the lower part of the mountain. The rain had made the leaves wet, and the ground mushy. At points, the vegetation was so heavy that I couldn’t see where my feet were stepping – which is not a good thing when walking down an unknown (to me) trail 2900 feet above the ground below. I didn’t last long. Pushing through the brush, stepping off the trail repeatedly, and having to duck beneath branches that would make Danny DeVito do the limbo was more than I felt like dealing with. At least the path back had the potential to be scenic – and more importantly – I could see where I was going. So I turned back. I found myself back on the summit meadow. I even ran back up the spur to the summit itself, hoping that maybe, just maybe, the clouds would start to clear. But… not yet.

At about 10:35, I decided to start heading back. Back down the meadow, back to the switchback and the ridge on the west side of the summit slope.  Then, as I glanced to my right, I could start to see a shimmer through the clouds. It was clearing up! And I could began to see this great view everyone raved about.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

I followed the path down the ridge, heading back to the fire lookout. More people were now popping up on the trail. I was grateful I started out when I did, so I was able to enjoy the first half in solitude.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

The winds were still strong, but they were blowing the clouds away, so that was something. Just before 11, I made it back to the lookout. And by then, the clouds had largely cleared. Just in time.

Yeah, a written description couldn’t do it justice. The photos really don’t, either, but it’s closer. Please enjoy these, and consider taking a trip to Dog Mountain, yourself:


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

Below is me again, pointing at my next target – Mt. Defiance. If the image were better, you could get a better view of the peak of Mt. Hood just poking over the ridge.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

After a few minutes of photos and gawking, I turned back down the way I came.


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018


Hunter Breckenridge – 2018

No longer fighting gravity, the path was quicker… but I also failed to tie the top part of my hiking shoes, and I kept rolling my ankles on the rocks in the trail. Part of the problem was me being clumsy, and part of it was my rubber ankles… Still, to the poor souls slogging through this, make sure you have good hiking shoes, and make sure you have ’em laced up all the way. Because ouch. My ankles are still sore, two plus days later.

But I kept staggering downhill, now muttering hello to hikers coming up the other way every few minutes. Definitely glad I started early.

Funny thing was, despite my general disinterest in interacting with strange people, I was pleasantly surprised to note that there was a sense of camaraderie among my fellow hikers. People asked me how the hike was, if there were flowers on the upper meadows, even just how I was doing. It was all pretty normal stuff – but for me, it was a good feeling. I stopped to chat briefly with a couple groups as I made my way down, and I didn’t hate it. And that seriously is a big deal for me.

Just about 4 hours after starting, with aching ankles, I clambered down to the trailhead.

I’m not an expert hiker. I’m not all that experienced. But I’m now living in an excellent area to become more experienced. If things go well, I’m going to do this again in a couple weeks. Dog Mountain got me hooked. It was long and intense enough to feel like I made a real effort, but it also wasn’t so grueling that I couldn’t handle it. The views were stunning and the environment was just lovely in general. And even the people I encountered were universally friendly.

This was a good day, and I hope to share more of them in the future.


Posted in Adventure, Series | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Political Hostages in Texas


U.S. Customs and Border Control – public domain

When I discuss current events, I do my best to do so in a logical, fact-based way. It’s important to make sure the truth is told. Emotions can cloud that truth. Getting angry about a situation frequently leads to overreaction and overreach.

That said, Spock was (somewhat) wrong. Emotion isn’t necessarily the antithesis of logic. One’s emotions can positively inform one’s logic, and vice versa.

So I’m going to embrace some emotion right now, and let that feed into my thoughts on current events. Change is tougher if one doesn’t feel outraged from time to time. And right now, at the American southern border, there’s plenty of reason to feel outraged.

First of all, let me just start this off bluntly:

Donald Trump is holding thousands of children hostage in order to solidify his political base.

Whew. That felt slightly cathartic to write. At the same time, I feel sick to my stomach, knowing this is our country now.

Okay, deep breath. Let me take a few steps back.

It’s no secret that Donald Trump ran for the White House on a platform of demonizing immigrants. His kickoff campaign speech included an explicit claim that immigrants from Mexico were primarily criminals. One of his first executive orders was an attempt to ban the entry of all persons from seven majority-Muslim countries. Much of the success of his election campaign came from stoking the fear of the Other among white Americans. Donald Trump made it abundantly clear that “Making America Great Again” was a dogwhistle to white people who were afraid that progress for marginalized groups meant a loss of status and influence for themselves. Black and brown people moving in from other countries with weird religions and strange languages  were a danger to the comfortable white supremacy they were used to. And that supremacy wasn’t always explicitly racist in the hood-wearing sense of the word (although it sometimes was that). The supremacy that Trump harkened back to was often a more recent one where white people felt comfortable watching Will Smith movies, and occasionally voting for a black city councilperson. But beyond the occasional token nod to the existence of others, this was still a world where white people – particularly straight, white, cisgendered men – still remained the American default position.

Donald Trump didn’t create that longing among America’s whites – but he did help give it strength. He gave it a voice. He was the backlash to the white fear of losing dominance. Because to many, losing dominance doesn’t mean equality. It means subjugation. It means suffering through what you’ve been dishing out all these years. And that idea – misguided as it was – is scary.

I digress a bit.

Yes, Donald Trump scared white people, and he certainly pushed for a harsh immigration policy. Hardliners on his team like Jeff Sessions and Stephen “Uncharismatic Dracula” Miller have been the primary architects of the worst of the Trump immigration policies, including the (shhh… don’t call it that) “Muslim ban.”

Then came March 2017. The Trump Administration – still new and flailing – considered implementing a policy that they described as “deterrence.” They would separate children from their families when those families arrived at the border. The idea was that such a harsh practice would scare families from even attempting to enter the US, thereby reducing immigration. At least, in theory.

By October, the Trump Administration was ramping up border enforcement, and had already started the practice of family rupturing – although they attempted to keep it quiet at that point. Between October 2017 and April 2018, more than 700 families had been broken up at the border. Many of these were asylum-seekers – basically refugees from dangerous and sometimes desperate lives.

On May 7th, the administration officially announced their “zero-tolerance” immigration policy. Attorney General Jeff Sessions declared that all undocumented entries would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law – including families with children. This was a notable change from the previous practice of allowing families, children, and people deemed non-threatening to find a place to stay with friends or relatives while awaiting processing.

This was where the Trump team officially admitted they were taking children from their parents and holding them indefinitely. They also claimed that a pilot program instituted in El Paso from the previous year had met with great success – and as always with this bunch – it turned out to be a massive lie.

From then on, the Trump Administration engaged in constant obfuscation and contradiction regarding what was happening at the border. Jeff Sessions would admit that family separations were taking place, and pushed the “deterrence” theory as an excuse. He pretty much blamed his boss for the current situationHe would also cite the Bible – Romans 13 – as a justification for the separations. It should be noted that Romans 13 was used by the American right to justify slavery and later Jim Crow. So there’s that.

But at the same time, Donald Trump himself would make the remarkable claim that “a Democrat law” was forcing the administration’s hand. He didn’t want this to happen. These poor kids deserved better. All that needed to happen was for the Democrats to “fix their law.” If only that mean old marginalized minority party would use their 47 votes in the Senate and go along with all of Trump’s personal demands on border policy, then those kids could be reunited with their parents. Back in Mexico, of course, but reunited nonetheless.

Oh yeah, and somewhere in there, the head of the Department of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, flatly claimed there was no such policy of family separation.

Well. There’s a lot to unpack here. I’m not entirely sure where to begin.

When in doubt, use bullet points. They make for less unwieldy (more wieldy?) reading. Especially when one is slogging through my paragraphs.

So here goes:

  • Trump’s position(s) is a lie. As always. There is no single law that mandates children be separated from their parents at border crossings.
  • The Democratic Party has been in the minority in the Senate since January 2015, and in the minority in the House since January 2011. They cannot make or change any laws alone.
  • The Democratic Party (in the Senate, anyway) has actually unanimously agreed to support a bill banning the practice of separating families at the border.
  • There has been one law in particular cited by Trump defenders and surrogates to defend the position that “the Democrats did it, too.” In 1997, the Flores settlement obligated the government to release children as soon as possible into their parents care when said families were detained by immigration authorities. This claim was used to argue the opposite of reality. The Flores settlement simply was not a law that mandated the separation of families. It was essentially the reverse.
  • The Obama administration’s policies are frequently brought up by Trump defenders. This part requires its own section. *cracks knuckles*
    • The Obama Administration’s record on immigration was decidedly mixed. DACA was a real accomplishment, but the Obama Administration also oversaw 2.8 million deportations over 8 years. And family detention became a major controversy in 2014 during a surge of immigration that nobody seemed ready for. However, the Obama team attempted to reverse course on the old harsher detention and deportation policies – with inconsistent results.
    • Obama seemed willing to learn from his mistakes. There was a slowness that could be frustrating, but efforts were made to reduce the harm done to those at the border. Enforcement of immigrants with criminal records became the priority, and the much vilified “catch and release” returned – kind of – where children, families, and those seeking asylum were allowed to remain in the States while their cases were processed. Obama represented imperfect and belated attempts at humanity on the southern border. Trump’s response was: why bother with humanity?
  • Right now, as of June 19, 2018, nearly 2000 children have been separated from their parents at the southern border over the last six weeks – and around 2700 since last October.
  • The current rate is around 45 children separated per day.
  • They are being held in absolutely appalling conditions. There are multiple hoops to jump through, and many of the children themselves have largely been kept in the dark. There is little guarantee that they will be reunited with their parents. And the process of finding them homes is taking more than a month at a time. Imagine you are a child. You may not speak much (or any English). Your parents have just dragged you along a harrowing journey toward the prospect of a better life after years of fear, poverty, and violence. And then police forcibly take you from your parents, place you in tents and cages, and prevent you from knowing what the hell is going on, or where you’ll end up. That’s what’s going on right now.
  • All of this is just what’s recent. In total, more than 10,000 immigrant children are being held without their parents in detention centers across the U.S..
  • It’s important to note that those who use the policies of previous administrations to defend Trump are engaging in blatant whataboutism. Even if their claims about the earlier administrations were completely true (and they usually aren’t), they’re still making the argument that mistreating children is okay because someone else used to do it.

There are plenty more points to make, in both bullet and mortar form. But I believe the basic point is becoming clear here:

The endgame of the Trump team is to try to force Democrats into voting for his proposed immigration reforms. He’ll agree (he claims) to legislation banning the practice of ripping apart families in order to get his border wall, and to be able to drastically limit legal immigration.

That’s what this whole thing is about. Donald Trump is holding 2,000+ children hostage in order to be granted full Congressional blessing to wall off the country from foreign invaders. Remember when I talked about Trump fanning the flames of fear and resentment in white people? That’s what the whole point is. He wants white people to think that scary brown people from other parts of the world want to come in to the States, leach off our (rather tattered) safety net, and get away with all manner of crimes.

The narrative of immigrant criminality has been one of the constant themes of Trump’s political career. And it’s been one of the most thoroughly debunked. Study after study has demonstrated that first generation immigrants, both legal and otherwise, commit far less crime than their more established neighbors. Good information on this can be found here, here, here, here, and here. They pay taxes, yet receive fewer services. They contribute mightily to the economy, and take jobs that native rarely want.

But remember, from the beginning, Donald Trump has wanted you to know that people don’t come to the United States for a better life – they’re here to rape and pillage. And the only way to fight the melanin menace is to institute draconian border laws, and turn the United States into a fortress.

And he’s willing to place children into internment camps in order to get his way,

If your first reaction to criticisms of Trump breaking apart immigrant families is, “Obama did it, too,” then your problem is that partisanship is more important to you than morality.

If you’re told that children are being placed in cages for months at a time without their parents, and you respond, “they should just come in legally,” then congratulations – you just dehumanized thousands of refugee children.

Okay, still with me? I’m almost done here.

Thus far, I’ve taken over 1800 words to say what should have been one simple paragraph:

The safety and comfort of children should never be used as a political bargaining chip. No immigration policy is worth the suffering of children, whether it be honest policy, or like Trump’s – policy built entirely on lies. No child should have to spend night after night in a cage somewhere in southern Texas, not sure if they will ever see their parents again. This is sick and cruel, and should be beneath any human capable of comprehending the situation. We as humans have a near endless capacity for dehumanizing others – but I desperately hope that most people would be willing to put aside ideology for the sake of the defenseless and the innocent.

I fear my hope may be misplaced – at least in Trump’s America.

This is a humanitarian crisis, and our reactions to it over the coming days and weeks will go a long way towards helping us as Americans figure out just what kind of people we want to be. Do we want to take forward steps to a more humane future… or (apologies to Godwin) goose steps… back to a more barbaric past?

Posted in foreign policy, Governance, History, immigration, Law Enforcement, Media, Politics, Rant, Social Justice | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Space Days!


The Pale Blue Dot – NASA

Time to shift gears a bit…

The primary focus of this blog has been politics and current events. Occasionally I muse about other topics, but I definitely have skewed my writing toward the political world. I’m not going to stop doing that any time soon. However, I would like to redirect my focus now and then, specifically toward topics that actually provide me with some optimism. Politics, especially American politics over the past few years, generally does the opposite.

Soooo… let’s talk about space!

I want to start a regular feature discussing space topics. But it will probably end up being more sporadic and random than it will be regular. Of course, if people read it, then it may become a bit more regular. In theory.


I’m going to cover subjects ranging from overviews of objects in our solar system to musings on space exploration (both past and future), and then on to the wonders of exoplanets, and eventually to the possibilities of alien life.

These will be topics that interest me. I will provide information as accurately as I can, and I will endeavor to make it entertaining. But I do need to stress that I have almost no formal scientific training. Everything I write is information I’ve researched myself. So it’s possible this stuff will be riddled with errors. It may even be as ridiculous as my political commentary – shocking as that sounds.

Growing up, more than *almost* anything else – I wanted to be astronomer. Even if I never physically left Earth, I wanted to explore the cosmos. As a kid, I followed the final planetary legs of the Voyager missions (Voyager 2 reached Neptune when I was 7), I watched every episode of the original Cosmos, read up on every shuttle mission, visited Powell Observatory in Louisburg, Kansas to watch Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 smash into Jupiter, and hung out on a roof of the University of Missouri-Kansas City to look through telescopes on summer evenings.

My formal schooling largely ended after high school, but I continue to educate myself as best I can into adulthood. I have been a member of the Astronomical Society of Kansas City, and am a frequenter of many blogs and publications. There are a ton of good resources on the interwebs for learning about space and science in general. I’m going to list a few of my favorites below as just a small sample of what’s available out there.

I would advise anyone who’s interested to check out these links. And maybe even if you aren’t interested… perhaps a new passion might take hold.

In the meantime, I’m going to continue to blather on about the world of politics and current events. I’ll occasionally vent about pop culture, and toss some boxing musings out on my other blog. It’s a big universe. There’s room to talk about… well, everything.

I better get started.

http://www.nasawatch.com/ – It’s not affiliated with NASA – but it does, um, watch it.

https://www.universetoday.com/ – General space and astronomy blog. It’s one of the older ones still being regularly updated.

http://www.planetary.org/ – The official site of the Planetary Society.

https://www.centauri-dreams.org/ – A blog discussing the possibilities of interstellar travel.

http://scienceblogs.com/startswithabang/ – A fun personal blog that officially ended in October 2017 – but the archives are still available dating back to January 2008.

http://www.syfy.com/tags/bad-astronomy – Astronomer and writer Phil Plait’s current space blog, hosted by SyFy.

http://www.slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy.html – Phil Plait’s blog from 2012 to 2017.

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/#.Wsp2HogrImI – Phil’s blog from 2008 to 2012.

Finally, for just a little more Phil Plait, here’s his first episode on YouTube of Crash Course Astronomy. These short (10-12 minute) episodes are educational and addictive.


Posted in Quick post, Science, Series, Space, Technology | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

One Dares Call It Treason

According to Merriam Webster, the primary definition of the word “Treason” is:

“The offense of attempting by overt acts to overthrow the government of the state to which the offender owes allegiance or to kill or personally injure the sovereign or the sovereign’s family.”

From a legal perspective, the US Constitution defines treason thusly:

“Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.”

Seems pretty clear. Treason is a serious crime. An actual charge of treason will get someone the death penalty in most countries. And in the United States, the burden of proof is higher for treason than for other crimes. Good thing, too, since an individual committing treason has literally become an enemy of the United States.

This is no small thing. Accusations of treason should not be thrown around loosely.

Now that we’ve established the gravity of this topic, and the seriousness and delicacy it requires, let’s bring in that master of verbal finesse, Donald Trump.

American political rhetoric is rich in hyperbole. Grandiose accusations of horrible malfeasance committed by political opponents is commonplace here. Many Americans just tolerate the theater as part of the game. We accept that politicians campaign as though the other side is an actual danger to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

That said, it’s rare that a significant national political figure casually tosses “treason” out into the conversation. It’s even more rare to hear a President speak in such stark terms. A better researcher than myself could give me a specific answer, but I can’t think of any time where Presidents Obama, Bush, or Clinton referred to a mainstream political rival as “a traitor,” or accused them of committing actual treason.

So, for a less-than-smooth segue, once again, let’s talk about President Trump. The 45th President is notoriously sloppy with facts and accuracy. Most online fact-checkers have awarded him some of the lowest marks for honesty from his public statements.

Beyond general dishonesty, he’s also known for dramatic, and even apocalyptic rhetoric.

Trump’s habit of enthusiastic slander has become commonplace, and it seems that many Americans (including those in the media tasked with calling out his excesses) have become somewhat numb to it all. It’s the boy who cried wolf on steroids. When every problem is the worst problem ever, one stops caring about the problem itself.

So with that in mind, let’s look at what the Dissembler-in-Chief said during a speech in Cincinnati today. He was referring to the tepid reaction he received from congressional Democrats during his State of the Union speech from last week.

“Even on positive news — really positive news, like that — they were like death and un-American. Un-American. Somebody said treasonous. Yeah, I guess, why not? Can we call that treason? Why not? I mean, they certainly didn’t seem to love our country very much.”

Now, those who pay attention to his pronouncements may notice one of his little rhetorical tricks. Rather than acknowledge a claim is coming from him, he’ll refer to some vague third party, where he heard about a statement. “Somebody said.” This helps insulate him from those who accuse him of directly lying. He can just claim somebody else said it, and he’s just repeating it like gossip. In fact, he’s done exactly that when called out on his dishonesty.

But he also made it clear he agreed with the notion of equating a lack of enthusiasm for one of his speeches with treason.

It’s well known that Donald Trump is not exactly a scholar on history, public policy, or governance. He likes to brag about being an expert on these things, but when grilled, he almost always demonstrates a frightening ignorance of pretty much any topic important to his job. But even with that in mind, it’s difficult to believe he doesn’t understand the gravity of something like treason.

Or maybe he really doesn’t understand, which may be an even scarier concept. Either way, what he’s saying is that publicly disagreeing with him is analogous to betraying the nation or giving support to its enemies.

Plenty of people smarter than myself have noted Trump’s authoritarian instincts. He has made it clear that he expected the presidency to provide him far more power and authority than it actually does. Most presidents find themselves frustrated with the political limitations of the job. But Trump is unique in that he frequently expresses a wish to limit the press, reduce access to voting, and curtail dissent. He has praised the policies and actions of brutal dictators, and of course is being investigated for allegedly working with the famously oppressive Russian government to manipulate the outcome of the 2016 Presidential election.

If Barack Obama were to have responded to the outburst from South Carolina Republican Representative Joe Wilson (You lie!) with an accusation of treason, I find it likely that many in the Republican leadership would have called for his resignation. It’s almost certain there would be a powerful political backlash.

But with Donald Trump – somebody who has repeatedly longed for more power – the reaction should rightfully be at least as severe as what Obama would have seen in that scenario.

I completely understand why people are already getting Trump fatigue. There’s been so much wrong and terrible with what has happened under his leadership, that it’s easy to ignore statements that don’t involve baiting unstable nuclear powers. But something like this really matters, and I want anyone who reads this to think long and hard about it.

Donald Trump received almost zero applause from Democratic Congresspersons during his first official State of the Union speech. The speech was full of his usual dishonesty and demagoguery. He’s immensely unpopular with Democrats. Enthusiasm was never likely. But regardless as to whether one agrees with him or not, free speech still matters. The right to dissent still matters.

Referring to polite dissent from political rivals as treason is dangerous.

Were the situation reversed, it’s very likely the backlash would have been extreme against a Democratic president. Time will tell if anything comes of this from a political standpoint. His comments are less than a day old as of this writing. But I strongly implore any readers of this piece not to dismiss this incident as yet another stupid statement from a political dilettante. The United States president has referred to a lack of applause as treasonous behavior. He equated a mild demonstration of disagreement with the highest possible crime against the nation.

Words matter. The meaning of terms like “treason” matters. It is vital we hold the president accountable for his reckless assault on our language, for his threats against our basic freedoms.

Dissent is not treason.

We need to remember this.

Posted in Governance, Media, Politics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

It’s the end of the year as we know it

…and I feel ambivalent.

That doesn’t rhyme. With apologies to Michael Stipe and Co., nothing else has occurred in any sort of rational way in 2017, so why should I come up with a clever lyrical parody? I’m just trying to figure it all out.

So here it is. The end of a really weird year.

Am I wrong for thinking there’s more than a hint of despair in the air? Like there’s a decline occurring in our society that we’re all powerless to stop. Maybe after the roller coaster crashes, we can dust ourselves off, and try to figure out what to do next. But applying the brakes and making sense of the ride while en route feels futile.

On the other hand, it’s possible that the despair is overstated. I’ve written about this before. The world is, for the most part, getting better, not worse. On a worldwide scale (as well as at most individual national levels), war, disease, crime, poverty, child mortality, oppression of women – all of these factors have improved greatly over the last century. The trend lines have shown them to have improved over the last 50 years, the last 20, the last ten… Only in the last two or three years have certain indicators turned negative, particularly involving warfare between and within nations. But this uptick, when viewed from a distance, is likely part of the usual cycle of spikes and drops within the larger downward slope of worldwide violence.

It must appear somewhat cold and callous to seem to write off bloodshed, chaos, misery, and suffering in Syria, Egypt, Myanmar, Venezuela, South Sudan, Iraq, North Korea, Ukraine, and other hotspots around the world as a mere historical blip. Indeed, these are very real problems. Problems that require concentrated attention from diplomats, humanitarian aid workers, and the bureaucracies of several powerful nations – all actually working with some alacrity to address these crises. But when a relatively privileged American views these emergencies on the news, they all tend to blend together into a red blur. A certain despairing malaise takes hold, and many feel a sense of general unease about the world. It’s no wonder many people retreat into the open arms of the blunt orange instrument inarticulately railing about the horrors of the modern world. The only solution, he proclaims, is to wall ourselves off, keep the people with that religion from getting in, and to strike a belligerent tone to scare others away. When everything in the world seems terrifying in a somewhat generic and slightly-scripted sort of way, there’s comfort in locking our doors and telling the neighbors to go away.

That’s precisely why I try to acknowledge the real problems of the world, while still taking the long view. Even with the Fearmonger-in-Chief in Washington, we still do live in perhaps the safest, securest, healthiest, and best-educated era in the history of humanity. Yeah, we’re likely going to see the negative blip grow a bit more, and we may backslide some, at least until we can get the Dorito stains off the nuclear football… but there’s no reason the world has to backslide all the way back to the Dark Ages. No reason, despite what Fox News tells you when they show pictures of battlefields and terror attacks half a world away.

But work is required to prevent that backslide. Just because it doesn’t have to happen doesn’t mean it can’t.

It’s a good idea to at least take a quick look at the damage of 2017.

In charge of my home nation is a man who appears to have a superpower – he can deny and resist objective reality. His weaknesses involve people telling him the truth, which is why he seems to prefer his advisors with spinal columns pre-removed, to improve their sycophancy rate.

How does one resist a man who simply denies the facts? Who proclaims lies true? Who proudly brags about assaulting women, then later claims the televised evidence is somehow a fraud? Who accuses his predecessor of treachery without providing any evidence? How does one combat misinformation when a significant percentage of the electorate becomes MORE convinced of their worldview when confronted with opposing factual information?

How do we resist a man who is staggering toward war with North Korea? The North Korean government, it should be noted, is propped up primarily by scaring its citizens into constant fear of the United States. If the US government decided tomorrow to leave Kim Jong Un alone, he would likely be deposed within a few years. But instead, we have a President who hurls childish insults toward the dictator via Twitter, and uses apocalyptic language when directly threatening to obliterate a sovereign nation.

I could go on. We could talk about Russian interference in American elections – a fact proven by multiple intelligence agencies – and alternately denied and dismissed by the one person with the most power to do something about it.

We could discuss the enormous rollback of environmental regulations. We could talk about the re-militarization of American police. We could discuss the return of voodoo economics. We could talk about the gradual sabotage of the Affordable Care Act. We can discuss the political party in power doing their damnedest to obstruct investigations into potential crimes committed by the POTUS. We can talk about constant, unapologetic corruption at the highest level of American government. We can talk about the fact that the current president’s primary interest seems to be dismantling every good thing his predecessor did, while accelerating the worst aspects of the prior administration.

And yes, I guess most of my personal sense of malaise and despair keeps dragging me back to the same stupid topic – Donald Trump. Well, Trump, and the 63 million people willing to play Russian Roulette with our government.

I swear, I know other things happened in 2017. Even though he would hate to hear it – not everything in America (or the world) centered around the Tantrum Tangerine.

From a cultural and social standpoint – we’ve seen massive conflict in the US… right wing extremist groups are on the rise, but being countered hard by anti-racist and anti-fascist movements, as well as enormously increased political participation by women, Democrats, liberals, leftists, LGBTQ citizens, and people of color. The #METOO movement exploded, seemingly out of nowhere – although not really from nowhere (for those who don’t benefit from systemic misogyny).

The Russian government continues to ratfuck everyone and everything. Syria is still essentially collapsed. Robert Mugabe resigned. The EU is still suffering from self-inflicted austerity-reinforced wounds. Democracy has backslid in nations like Turkey and the Philippines. The government of Myanmar is committing ethnic cleansing of a large minority population. Big chunks of the Arctic continue to melt. Puerto Rico was pummeled by a massive hurricane, and then intentionally neglected by the federal government. One of the best movies of the year was about one of the worst movies of the century.

And Francisco Franco is still dead.

I don’t know if 2017 has definitively been more chaotic than other years. That’s likely difficult to quantify – and it’s easy to become hyperbolic about it all.

But this shit has been weird.

Even with positive long-term trends, we live in a world that feels less stable. Uncertainty is in the air. Social change is occurring at a rapid pace. The role of the United States in world affairs is in increasing doubt.

Hell, even in my personal life, everything has changed. I moved from Missouri to Oregon, started a new job, and kind of rebooted my life. I started writing more fiction (possibly to be posted here some day).

But life continues. We still hurtle around and around through the void. The sun still does its giant nuclear reaction thing. And all these little, self-important creatures running around on this tiny speck in the suburbs of a medium-large galaxy continue to drive each other crazy.

I don’t think I can predict what’s gonna happen next year. But I plan to still be here, writing about it all. With any luck, I’ll be able to talk about it all again this time next year.

Good night, and happy new year.

Posted in foreign policy, Governance, Healthcare, Politics, Rant, Social Justice | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ranking the Marvel Cinematic Universe


By Gage Skidmore [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I talk a lot about politics. Sometimes I talk about science, sometimes economics. But usually I stick to discussing topics that tend to be more serious.

That said, sometimes one needs to turn toward more light-hearted topics, at least as a way to prevent insanity. Donald Trump is the U.S. President. The planet is warming, and we aren’t doing nearly enough about it. There are wars all over the globe. We have no shortage of hatred and prejudice directed by almost every possible group of people at almost every other possible group of people. The world isn’t a hellscape everywhere, but we certainly have problems.

If I ignored these issues, I would be guilty of burying my head in the sand. However, since I don’t ignore them (in fact, sometimes I obsess over them), I feel like my sanity is best preserved by enjoying some escapism now and then. And that’s what leads me to the MCU.

I discovered comic books just as I stumbled awkwardly into my teen years. Superheroes in particular appealed to a small, nerdy, timid, unathletic kid. After spending a day in school feeling outcast, being picked on, and failing to be picked for any teams, going home and imagining myself as a physical marvel was a delightful way to occupy my thoughts. Comics were an amazing source of imaginative kindling, stoking the fires of my mind. Much of my fiction writing has centered around people with extraordinary abilities, certainly influenced by my love of comics from my youth. I happily consumed comic book-based movies along with comics (not to mention novels based on those comics), though comic book movies were almost always pretty bad when I was young. Even the best early examples of the genre – like the first two Christopher Reeve Superman films, and the first Michael Keaton Batman – were mostly just “good for a comic book movie,” rather than actually good movies.

Then came 2000, and the first X-Men movie. It was arguably the first example of a comic book-based film that could actually stand on its own as a solid film. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was generally thoughtful, reasonably complex, often witty, and well-acted. It was followed by a much-better sequel, as well as two very good Spider-Man films. DC got in on the action with an excellent reboot of Batman in 2005, and by then, comic book movies had been established as potentially legitimately good films. Well, sometimes. There was always Daredevil, and Elektra, and Catwoman, and Ghost Rider, and so on… But I digress.

Due to rather complex financial arrangements that other people have discussed in depth, Marvel Studios does not own the rights to make movies for many of its most popular characters. Spider-Man is now able to join the Marvel Studios team, but X-Men and the Fantastic Four currently belong to 20th Century Fox and Sony, respectively. But Marvel still had plenty to work with, and beginning in 2008, laid the seeds for a much larger cinematic universe. With the initial success of Iron Man that year, 20 total (mostly) interconnected films have been released, with at least a dozen more planned. The Marvel Cinematic Universe also includes three network television series, six Netflix series, and a Hulu series, with more shows on the way. All of which work together to maintain the same continuity, and for the most part, do a reasonable job.

I dig the television shows, but they are all a different beast from the movies, and should probably be ranked separately, or even by individual season. As one might have guessed, ranking things like this is fun for me. It provides plenty of opportunity for discussion and debate, and allows me to talk about comics and the MCU, which is usually more fun than discussing Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.

FEBRUARY 2018 UPDATE: I have now seen Black Panther, and will add it to this ranking. There are now 18 MCU flicks, and by this summer, there will be 20, with Ant-Man and The Wasp, and Avengers: Infinity War. I will probably continue to update my ranking on this page here, for the time being.

MAY 2018 UPDATE: And now I’ve viewed Avengers: Infinity War, and have updated the rankings accordingly.

JULY 2018 UPDATE: Ant Man and The Wasp is now included in the ranking.

Many sites have already compared and ranked the MCU films, and I will include links below to some of them. In the meantime, here is my highly-subjective list of the current 20 MCU films. Let readers be warned, spoilers lie ahead:

20.) Thor: The Dark World

I enjoyed the first Thor movie, although I had trouble really getting into its strange mix of magic and gods (aliens?). The sequel, which felt more like obligatory time-killing than a necessary continuation of a character arc, still has the hokey fantasy aspect I didn’t much enjoy, but now includes legitimate boredom. The first half is dull and dour and has a lame villain, wasting an excellent actor. The movie does pick up after it brings Loki into the mix, and the second half alone is almost enough to bring it up a spot or two.

Thor 2 isn’t a bad movie, but it is the only MCU film where I was seriously bored for more than a few minutes. If a movie about gods, superheroes, and magic hammers is made to be dull and unentertaining, then it has committed the most egregious sin possible for  a superhero flick.

Hits: Loki, some humor and action in the second half.

Misses: Slow first half, not enough Loki, boring villain.

19.) Iron Man 3

Iron Man 3 may be the most polarizing of the MCU films. One of the below links actually puts it in at Number 1. Several others rank it near the bottom. To me, it was a series of entertaining segments, but poorly tied together, and beset by some really dumb points. Iron Man 3 didn’t have long periods of extended ennui like Thor 2, which kept Tony Stark ranked above the God of Thunder, but it was also kind of stupid in general.

I didn’t mind that Tony Stark spent so much time without the suit, and I actually enjoyed the sudden agency acquired by Pepper Potts near the end. Comic book movies have historically struggled with providing women with interesting roles where they drive the plot and action and don’t end up playing second fiddle. By her character’s definition, she is second fiddle, but the ending did a good job empowering her character.

Beyond that, the big reveal of the villain didn’t really work for me, even though I appreciate what writers Drew Pearce and Shane Black were going for. The powers provided by the Extremis virus were poorly-defined and kind of goofy. The movie itself was oddly paced, and shifted pace too frequently for me. I found it entertaining, but kind of a mess.

Hits: Good character work with Stark and the kid, Pepper saves the day!

Misses: Disjointed, messy, confusing. Poorly-handled twist with the villain.

18.) Iron Man 2

Six months or so after the events of Iron Man, billionaire inventor and industrialist Tony Stark is succumbing to alcohol abuse, and poor health from the arc reactor implanted in his chest, the US government is breathing down his neck regarding his rather cavalier attitude toward wielding advanced weapons technology, and a rival industrialist is attempting to undermine him and steal his secrets. And then a crazy Russian scientist shows up, and everything comes together, blows apart, and kind of becomes a mess for awhile.

I actually kind of like this movie, despite its low ranking on my list (and everyone else’s). I enjoyed the early stuff, with Tony enjoying his new life as a fully-out and public Iron Man, but internally collapsing from radiation poisoning and alcoholism. Yeah, the early fight with Rhodey was unnecessary, and the three villains of Congress, Justin Hammer, and Ivan Vanko are all a bit underwhelming, but the movie is filled with fun moments. The final showdown is pretty brief, and the first fight with Vanko on the racetrack is a bit silly. Scarlet Johansson’s first turn as the Black Widow is mostly wasted. And the secret to Tony’s cure is incredibly contrived. It really isn’t a good movie. But every time I’ve seen it, I end up feeling entertained. The action (when it happens) is fun to watch. And there really is some good character work there, with Tony’s gradual fall and sort-of rebirth. It’s not nearly as good as the movie that preceded it. And it feels like it’s sort of just sitting there, filling time until The Avengers. But I was never bored.

Oh, and special mention to Mickey Rourke, who turns in a bizarre, yet fun appearance as one of the villains. Yeah, his accent is goofy, and his motivations are strained. And it feels like Jon Favreau didn’t direct Rourke so much as just filmed him walking around, being himself. But that made for a scene-theft every time the camera was pointed his way.

Hits: Good character work (as always) by Robert Downey Jr. Fun action sequences.

Misses: Weak villains, underutilized Black Widow, goofy deus ex machina cure for Tony.

17.) Thor

Thor Odinson, the scion of the alien/godly/mystical realm of Asgard, pisses off his dad with his hubris and immaturity, and is forced to redeem himself without his magic hammer, lost among strangers on the primitive planet known as Earth. There, he gets involved with a human scientist, and has to save both his world and Earth from the machinations of his evil brother Loki. Following along so far? For some, they may already be skeptical. This is certainly “high concept.”

Thor is not a bad movie. It’s probably the first on this list that can qualify as at least “pretty good.” Maybe a B- or C+. It’s got some impressive and creative visuals, and the Asgard scenes contain a sense of vastness befitting a realm of demigods. The fish-out-of-water themes are played well (and often hilariously). It’s got impressive pedigree – directed by Kenneth Branagh and co-starring Anthony Hopkins as Odin! It also introduces the best MCU villain by far, Thor’s brother Loki.

It’s also undeniably one of the silliest concepts in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And that’s saying something, considering it exists in a realm with talking raccoons, a ridiculous number of blue and green aliens, unfrozen supersoldiers, and sentient AI. Thor’s escapism is certainly fun, but as a fan of pure science fiction, it’s not quite my cup of tea. It blurs the line between sci-fi and fantasy, and does it competently, albeit a bit sloppily. The third act is a bit of a letdown, and the movie doesn’t flow as smoothly as some of the other entries on this list.

Chris Hemsworth is perfectly cast as the titular character, and Tom Hiddleston steals every scene as the devious Loki. The movie serves as a solid introduction for what will become mostly a supporting character in the franchise. Not perfect, but it’s the lowest ranked film on this list that I think of as “good.”

Hits: Gorgeous scenery, epic scope, solid humor, the best MCU villain, Anthony Hopkins.

Misses: A bit slow once on Earth, hokey concept, disappointing climax, feels like a chapter in a larger saga rather than a film standing well on its own.

16.) Thor: Ragnarok

Look, Marvel managed to make a (fairly) good Thor movie! The third installment in the franchise-within-a-franchise accomplishes this feat by being the first one to not just understand, but to fully embrace the fact that even for the science fiction/fantasy hybrid that it is – the Marvel take on Thor is a ridiculous concept.

Throughout the larger MCU continuity, particularly the television series Agents of SHIELD, there has been some effort made to establish that Thor and his fellow Asgardians aren’t really gods as much as they are super advanced aliens. Aliens that live for thousands of years, have physical (and sometimes mystical) abilities far beyond those of humans, and… yeah, frequently refer to themselves as gods.

It’s weird.

While nobody would argue that Ant Man or the Hulk are particularly grounded in reality, they have been long established as fitting within the rather loose rules and laws of the Marvel quasi-scientific canon. Thor and his ilk bend that quite a bit. However, Thor Ragnarok goes out of its way to acknowledge the absurdities in the character and his background, and finally let loose and have some fun with it.

Chris Hemsworth is a talented comic actor, and plays his role in a relaxed and wry manner – moreso than we’ve seen previously. As strange situation after strange situation is thrown his way, Thor takes everything in stride, accepting that he inhabits a weird universe.

The plot is straightforward, but well-executed. Thor’s father, Odin, seemingly dies while in quasi-exile on Earth. This – for somewhat strained reasons – causes Thor’s long-lost (maybe half?) sister to reappear. In the tradition of… well, every supervillain ever, Hela embarks on a mission of conquest – specifically back to Asgard. She kicks everyone’s ass, destroys Thor’s hammer, and in the ensuing fight, he finds himself eventually taken prisoner on a faraway world. Naturally, he runs into his old pal Bruce Banner, who has been stuck in his Hulk form for over a year now.

The team-up and eventual rematch are predictable, but fun. The final confrontation isn’t as excessive and bloated as some Marvel flicks, and there’s constant humor throughout… so much so that it almost reduces the impact of some of the more consequential aspects to the plot.

It’s got energy, it’s funny, it’s light – almost too light, but it has a heavy enough villain to keep it from turning into farce. It meanders a bit, especially toward the middle third, but it ends up a fairly satisfying entry into the series.

Hits: Seriously funny dialogue, a good primary villain, pretty epic action.

Misses: Still a silly concept, almost too reliant on comedy, script could be tighter.

15.) Doctor Strange

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. Arrogant wealthy genius is injured, forced to become a superhero to survive, then gradually learns how to be a better person, all while mastering his new powers. Nope, this isn’t Iron Man. But the formula is pretty much the same.

The redemption story of the snarky genius thrown into adversity is familiar. If this entry had occurred earlier in the MCU, it may have appeared fresher. On the other hand, Doctor Strange introduces filmgoers to an entirely new aspect of the Marvel universe. Most of the characters introduced up to this point in the MCU had a certain scientific underpinning, far-fetched though they may have been. Doctor Strange largely dispenses with that and jumps into pure mysticism.

The acting is solid, the characters are reasonably interesting, the plot isn’t too convoluted (though some of the dialogue is), and while the finale does suffer from some of the standard bloat that most comic book films have, it also ends with a clever confrontation with the villain, who scores countless “victories,” before realizing he’s being outwitted by a lowly human.

There are some issues. Tilda Swinton’s character was originally a Fu Manchuesque “wise Asian” stereotype in the comics – and a more faithful rendition of the original character would have been problematic in its own right. Nonetheless, when we discuss issues of representation in media, and persistent issues of whitewashing that occur even today, it seems like a glaring problem to cast a Caucasian woman in the role of an Asian man. Of course, this is made maybe a little better (and a little worse) by the fact that Swinton absolutely nails the role, and steals the movie whenever she’s on screen. Insulation through skill.

That issue aside, it is a visually stunning film that almost demands to be seen on the largest possible screen. While quite CGI-heavy, it’s done in a way that doesn’t feel cheap or distracting. The plot is pretty familiar, but with new details. It’s a good movie, but not one that elevates over some of the other films in the franchise.

Hits: Jaw-dropping special effects, smoothly-executed plot, interesting concepts.

Misses: Glaring whitewashing issue, familiar plot, so-so villain.

14.) The Incredible Hulk

This one will probably cause the most disagreement among Marvel fans. I personally consider this one to be pretty underrated. If it hadn’t been released within a couple months of The Dark Knight and Iron Man, I believe it would have made more of an impact. It certainly isn’t as good as either movie, but the second attempt to portray the Hulk on the big screen gets most things right.

So, this film is unique in that it’s definitely part of the larger universe, but also includes a handful of nods to the painfully misunderstood Ang Lee-helmed Hulk. It’s not quite a sequel, but it’s not a pure reboot, either. And it’s a bit disconnected from the main bulk of the MCU films, although Tony Stark makes an appearance at the end, helping tie the first two films of the franchise together.

The story follows Bruce Banner (now played by Ed Norton), as he’s hiding from the US government in Brazil, and attempting to figure out a cure for his condition. The opening 20 minutes or so follows Bruce as he works in a factory, learns Portuguese, flirts with a coworker, clashes with other coworkers, learns jiu jitsu, and practices meditation. It’s a relatively low key opening that I think is quite effective in establishing who Bruce is and what he’s trying to accomplish. Quiet setups like this allow us to care more about the character (are you listening, Zack Snyder?)

Eventually, the military finds him (with a nifty foot chase through a favela), leading to the first Hulk-out of the movie (and Bruce’s first in months). He finds his way back to the States, with the military tracking him. He borderline stalks his ex, Betty (who is now dating Leonard Samson), and tries to meet with a fellow scientist Samuel Sterns for help with a cure. General Thaddeus Ross recruits a British-Russian military officer named Emil Blonsky, juices him with super-soldier serum, and sends him out to confront and capture Banner. All these names make for great fan service, and the actors mostly do them justice, particularly William Hurt as Ross, and Tim Blake Nelson in a slighty off-kilter performance as Dr. Sterns (or Mr. Blue). Liv Tyler comes across as being half-asleep portraying Betty, and doesn’t get much to do.

Blonsky is nearly killed, then ends up being treated with what transformed Banner, and becomes a dark, twisted version of the Hulk. The big final fight in Harlem of all places is done quite well, and finally gives a live-action version of the Hulk a truly worthy opponent.

I know this film is considered one of the lower points of the MCU, and even I can admit its not among the best, but I truly believe it’s underappreciated. Reasonably thoughtful dialogue, good acting from most of the cast, a solid look into the torture that Bruce goes through with his transformations, and a worthy (while admittedly undermotivated) villain. It’s not the tour de force that Iron Man turned out to be, but it really was quite good. The production was apparently troubled, and star Ed Norton feuded with Marvel before finally quitting the character, being replaced by one of the original contenders, Mark Ruffalo. Interestingly, the studio wanted David Duchovny in the title role, which would have been… interesting.

Hits: Good action, solid acting and pathos, well-paced

Misses: Betty is wasted, the movie feels shoehorned into the MCU

13.) Ant Man

Stop me if you heard this one. Roguish troublemaker gets in a jam, uses an advanced high-tech suit to get out of said jam, fights corporate takeover from the eventual main villain. Film ends with vastly-more-qualified sidekick gazing wistfully at high-tech suit, vowing to be part of the action next time. Nope, this isn’t Iron Man. Just like Doctor Strange wasn’t, either.

Along with Guardians of the Galaxy and Doctor Strange, Marvel seems to be using this movie as a way to test their limits. Yes, bigger name characters could anchor a film, but what about a relatively obscure Silver Age Avenger with the power to… get really small?

Sure, why not?

For the most part it works. Paul Rudd is charming and charismatic as Scott Lang, an ex-con lured into a job as Ant-Man, a superhero with a high-tech suit that enables rapid mass change. It was previously worn by Hank Pym, a billionaire industrialist wearily played by Michael Douglas. Evangeline Lilly is excellent as Pym’s daughter, who is tasked (rather thanklessly) with training Scott to become Ant Man, when she clearly (and quite reasonably) believes she would be better suited to that role. Corey Stoll is just okay as Darren Cross, basically playing the Jeff Bridges role from Iron Man, but without near the menace or gravitas. Michael Pena, T.I., and David Dastmalchian are Scott’s old burglary crew, meeting back up to help him out. Pena in particular provides much of the comic relief of the film. He occasionally nears cartoonishness, but doesn’t quite go that far most of the time. His contributions, along with a clever script and Mr. Rudd, help provide a more light-hearted tone than we have seen in most of these entries. As a result, the movie feels a bit less consequential, but Rudd, Lilly, and Douglas all do an admirable job keeping it grounded. Well, as grounded as a movie about shrinking superheroes can get.

Hits: Paul Rudd, fun set pieces, good sense of humor.

Misses: Fairly weak villain, feels almost too breezy.

12.) Captain America: The First Avenger

The first time I saw this movie, I enjoyed it, but left feeling a bit underwhelmed. However, after repeat viewing, especially after having seen Cap portrayed in four (kind of six) other MCU flicks, I think it looks better.

This is a fairly straight-forward origin story, and almost entirely takes place during World War II. Chris Evans is Steve Rogers, a small, frail kid from Brooklyn with a good heart and an unwavering code of honor and morals. He wants nothing more than to serve his country and fight the Nazis, to the point of lying to pass the physical exams. His best friend Bucky is already in the Army, and serving with distinction. Bucky is everything Steve wants to be; a big, athletic, charismatic ladies man. In his desperation to join, Steve agrees to an experimental procedure, in order to be able to enlist. Despite skepticism from military leaders, Steve’s selflessness and leadership potential make him the best choice to undergo a treatment to make him a “Super-Soldier.” Predictably, bad guys intervene, and disrupt the proceedings while Steve undergoes a transformation to make him the physical pinnacle of human potential. Steve’s transformation is successful, but the formula is lost, and since Steve is the only super soldier, he’s deemed kind of useless. So he spends a large chunk of the movie as a mascot for the Army, touring with the USO, and promoting war bonds as “Captain America,” a largely unfulfilling performance role.

That part of the movie is interesting to me. Turning Steve into the ultimate physical badass, then frustrating him by making him a figurehead at best helped demonstrate not just the importance of teamwork during war, but helped the character progress in a less-predictable way.

How does one make a basically ideal person interesting? Someone with completely honest and pure motives needs to have his ideals challenged, and to have his sense of duty blocked – by circumstance, or conflict, or both. And for the most part, Captain America does a good job of this.

Eventually, Steve gets his chance to see real action, where he naturally thrives, leading a group of veteran soldiers into battle in Europe, meeting (and then losing) Bucky, discovering the first man to undergo a less-successful version of his super-soldier treatment, and eventually sacrificing himself to save the day. There are clear tie-ins with the larger MCU, and a solid coda where Steve discovers that he’s still alive – but it’s now 2011.

When I first saw the movie, I thought there wasn’t enough development of his skills as a soldier and combatant, and we didn’t get to see enough action with Steve as Captain America. And even now, I do feel like that aspect was under-developed. But the more I consider how the Army utilized him, and how Steve’s moral compass was frustrated by his predicament, the more I found myself liking the choices made.

As an origin story, as a period piece, as a war movie, as a morality tale, the movie works. It’s not perfect, and its not deep, but its a good story with a good lead, and a very good supporting cast, particularly Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter, who would go to her own (highly underrated) MCU series.

Hits: Great cast, good WWII atmosphere, works as both standalone film and a piece of a larger whole.

Misses: Villain is so-so (typical for MCU), not enough time spent as Cap

11.) Ant Man and The Wasp

For years, conventional cinematic wisdom held that sequels were inevitably inferior to their predecessors. While notable exceptions existed (Godfather II, Empire Strikes Back, Star Trek II), they were notable due to their rarity.

So, it’s been interesting to see that within the various sub-franchises in the larger MCU, sequels tend to be better than the first installments. At least, some of them.

Ant Man and the Wasp fits this trend well. Its predecessor was a fairly light-hearted adventure story, with less intense themes compared with some of the other installments in the MCU canon. This installment enjoys much of the same jokey tone as the first one… but the dark points are a little darker and the stakes feel just a bit higher. Also, Evangeline Lilly as Hope van Dyne (the Wasp), is freed up to be the badass only hinted at the first time around.

It starts off with former Ant-Man Scott Lang nearing the end of his house arrest – a punishment induced by his role in assisting Captain America two years earlier during the events of Captain America: Civil War. Part of his punishment includes being forbidden to contact his former mentor Hank Pym, who, along with his daughter (and now the Wasp), is a fugitive in his own right.

But a strange dream/vision hits Scott, and he believes he has connected with Janet van Dyne, Hank’s wife believed lost in the “quantum realm” during a semi-botched mission decades earlier. This vision prompts him to contact Hank, who ends up dragging Scott into his own mission to try to rescue his possibly-stranded wife.

Scott has to dodge his parole officer, remain in the good graces of his ex-wife and her husband, and once again suit up as Ant Man, despite being in the doghouse of both Hank and Hope. Meanwhile, his sidekicks from the first one are back, still in largely broad comedic form. Now, they have a fledgling security business they’re on the verge of losing, and a plot arc that intertwines well with the larger plot.

Further complicating matters are a former colleague of Hank’s (Laurence Fishburne, classing up the place), and a mystery villain with the ability to phase in and out of matter. Walt Goggins is charming and smarmy as a crooked businessman after Hank’s tech.

The movie is essentially a race to find Janet, while dodging cops, crooks, old cronies, and a new super-powered character. It’s fast-paced, the action scenes are inventive and entertaining as hell, and Evangeline Lilly in particular gets a chance to really shine, after being relegated to a disgruntled background role the last time around.

Some of the tone shifts feel abrupt, transitioning from humor to pathos too quickly. And there are some odd plot holes that seem to be acknowledged and then immediately shoved aside (just how does one survive for 25 years in a subatomic world, not to mention remain sane through the process?).

But those quibbles aside, Ant Man and the Wasp made for a solid and fun summer action movie. It made for a welcome change of pace from the relentlessly dark Infinity War (while tying in with that film). Like the first one, the humor is generally clever while occasionally skirting the “too broad” line. The action is exciting, and makes superb use of shrinking/growing – even if the physics behind the transformations is a little murky.

Hits: Exciting, creative, often hilarious.

Misses: Some glaring plot holes, jarring tone shifts

10.) Spider-Man: Homecoming

The second reboot of Spider-Man in just a decade, Spider-Man: Homecoming avoids some of the pitfalls suffered by the Andrew Garfield reboot by not rehashing the origin story we all know so well. In this film, Peter Parker is still a teenager, but he’s now part of a larger universe, and he’s already been in action for a while. At least for a few months, anyway. He’s young (obviously), impatient, and a bit reckless. Played with considerable likeability and amusing naivete by Tom Holland, Peter feels like he’s being held back by his superhero mentor and benefactor, Tony Stark. And he’s not wrong. The movie does a great job showing the frustration and impatience of a teenager with great power and a still-developing sense of responsibility.

Moreso than the prior Spider-Man films, this captures the lives of teenagers in a (mostly) realistic and often quite funny way. The classic Spider-Man problems of finding balance with his personal life, his school life, and his superhero life are done well, and Michael Keaton is terrific as a reasonably believable and sympathetic villain.

Spider-Man: Homecoming ties in well with the larger MCU, but is also clearly meant to stand on its own, existing just a bit separately from the bulk of the larger continuity. It’s fun, energetic, witty, and has an engaging cast. The pacing is a bit inconsistent, and there’s a feeling that a good ten minutes could be trimmed from the runtime. Overall, it’s a solid outing, and is probably now my second favorite Spider-Man film (after Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2).

Hits: Likable cast, good humor, one of the better villains

Misses: Could stand tighter pacing

9.) Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2

I waffled on where to place the two Guardians films. They are both fun, action-oriented science fiction films with an underlying theme of family. I could very well change my mind the next time I see this one and place it above the original, but for now, GOTG2 goes here.

Despite being a big-budget blockbuster with massive space battles and huge setpieces, it almost feels like a smaller film. Mixed in with the action are long discussions of family and belonging. There’s quite a bit of good character development, and the chemistry developed in the first one continues to improve.

Guardians 2 isn’t paced quite as well as its predecessor, and I generally enjoyed the team origin story a little better than their continuing adventure, but this is a very solid film that actually improved upon the characterization of the first one. Kurt Russell’s Ego and Michael Rooker’s Yondu were served particularly well by the story.

Hits: Excellent character stuff, good dialogue, laudable commitment to themes of family

Misses: Inconsistent pacing, sometimes tries too hard to make us laugh

8.) The Avengers: Age of Ultron

There is a scene halfway through Age of Ultron where the movie slows down, and we are treated to an extended sequence on Hawkeye’s (Jeremy Renner) hidden farm, where the Avengers regroup and lick their wounds. It acts as a sudden departure in tone from where the movie had been, but the shift works. We get to see development from pretty much every character on the team, which in turn allows us to better appreciate and empathize with them. We become invested in their outcomes, because we are given a sense of who they are. So then later events, including death and major trauma, become more impactful. And that is the big difference between the MCU and Zack Snyder’s DCEU. Concentrating on the humanity of these demigods pays off later, rather than leaping from scene to scene, searching for the next iconic moment to film in slow motion.

There are plenty of excellent character moments scattered throughout the film, that not only help keep most members of the massive cast growing as characters, but also make us care what happens to them. Of course, the biggest trauma ends up happening to one of the least developed main characters. And that ties into the biggest problem with the film – too much is happening. There are too many characters, too many scenes, too much plot development shoehorned into one movie. Much of that is necessary, as the Avengers movies tend to be used as the payoff to all the development of the prior series (Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and so on). Joss Whedon had a thankless job in many ways, trying to create a successful followup to one of the greatest superhero films ever, and trying to tie together a million plot threads and character arcs. It’s no surprise that making this movie basically broke him.

And despite all of that, to my eyes, this movie works. Despite the huge cast, most of the characters had plenty to do. The quieter moments were all pretty much perfect. The individual setpieces were often spectacular. And despite some critical complaints, I thought James Spader’s Ultron was a damn good villain. Yeah, his motivation could have been fleshed out a bit more, but he proved to be a challenge for our heroes, and was portrayed with both menace and humor.

Age of Ultron was a bit sloppier than the first Avengers, and bit overstuffed. But so much of it worked. Great character work abounded. And it was frequently a visual joy to watch.

Hits: Character development, action scenes, clever introduction to Vision

Misses: Too much going on to keep the plot moving smoothly

7.) Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy was an example of Marvel taking a risk, throwing an out-of-left-field idea out there and seeing if it would work. And by and large, it worked better than anyone could have expected. Officially based on a relatively obscure comic from the ’70s, Guardians is what happens when a studio tries to make an Avengers and Star Wars mash up, mixes in a great ’70s pop soundtrack, throws in far more humor than almost any other recent comic book adaptation, shakes it up, and sees what happens.

The main characters all receive compelling backstories, the action is exciting, and the plot moves along quite nicely. The dialogue suffers from a bit too much technobabble, and there are a few points where they seemed to try too hard to squeeze in a joke (or several). And in the recent Marvel tradition, the villains are rather underdeveloped. We know they want power, and one of them wants to kill her sister… but we aren’t really given much reason to care. But overall, this was not just a fun surprise – it was a shock to see such goofy, obscure source material work so well on the big screen. Guardians of the Galaxy showed what could happen when Marvel decided to take a risk. The swung for the fences, and hit the ball all the way to Xandar.

Hits: Great lead characters, spectacular visuals, great soundtrack

Misses: Yet another set of weak villains, Star Trek Voyager levels of expository technobabble

6.) Captain America: Civil War

Captain America: Civil War is officially the third Captain America movie, but it could arguably be considered the third Avengers movie, too. Loosely based on the “Civil War” plotline from the comics, it acts as a followup to basically every big event that occurred in the MCU up to that point. Consequences are a major theme of this film. Some science fiction and action movies have failed to demonstrate the effects of huge battles that lay waste to cities. In those films, collateral damage is often merely used as eye candy, not as a reason to discuss issues of control and fallibility.

In Civil War, the effects of the previous films is what gets the plot moving. A fight with a former SHIELD agent in Africa kills a building full of innocents. The US government (along with the UN), bring up the reasonable point that these massively powerful people are largely unregulated and unsupervised, and in several cases, untrained. Perhaps some supervision would be wise, they argue.

The film does a good job presenting the pro-superhero-regulation argument fairly and thoughtfully – but this movie is still about Captain America and why he thinks answering to the United Nations is bullshit.

Personally, I still think Iron Man has a better argument, but Cap is cooler… which is weird to say. But he is. And this whole movie – while presenting thoughtful moral dilemmas – is really about the airport scene. About 2/3 of the way through, a massive fight between every member of the Avengers (minus the two who could single-handedly turn the course of the fight) completely takes over the film. And what a battle it is. Every character gets something to do. There’s humor, pathos, and amazing action. It may feel a bit like fan fiction – but it’s really GOOD fan fiction.

Hits: One of the best movie fight scenes ever, a legitimate discussion of superhero collateral damage (you listening DC?)

Misses: There are a lot of characters here, and some are underdeveloped

5.) The Avengers

The Avengers was the culmination of what was known as “Phase One” of the MCU. Iron Man, Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America set it up, and The Avengers tied it all together.

And it was a near-masterpiece.

A mysterious… cube thing called the Tesseract is… well, not quite a Macguffin, but also not really the point. But it does help get the ball rolling as Thor’s asshole brother Loki agrees to steal it from Earth in exchange for an alien army that he’ll use to invade Earth.

Bear with me here, it still turns out great.

Nick Fury, director of SHIELD, puts together all of the most powerful people he can find into a team to fight Loki and his soon-to-arrive army. And that’s pretty much it. The final 40 minutes or so involve the invasion and the team finally putting their squabbles aside to repel it. Joss Whedon wrote and directed it, and it’s definitely the Buffy creator at the absolute peak of his powers. The dialogue is sharp and clever, and the plot manages to work despite a weak opening 20 minutes and a blue sky beam finale. It puts together the characters developed (rather unevenly) in prior installments in a way that makes sense.

And that final action sequence – yeah, it’s heavy on excessive collateral damage, it’s full of easily dispatched, disposable infantry, and again, it ends in a blue sky beam… but great dialogue, solid directing, and well-developed characters enable it all to work.

The Avengers could easily have been a mess, but instead, it’s one of the best superhero films ever made.

Hits: Action, humor, characterization, dialogue, Loki!

Misses: Tropey ending

4.) Iron Man

This is where it all began. Tony Stark snarked his way into the public imagination, and made the idea of a “cinematic universe” feasible. Everything that happened since only happened because this movie was both a critical and commercial success.

Robert Downey Jr is perfectly cast as Tony Stark, a youngish gazillionaire industrialist celebrity who is a Bill Gates with sex appeal merged with Howard Hughes, minus 90% of the emotional issues. He’s all wit and ego and brilliance. He happily parties, drinks, schmoozes with celebrities and the military, and, oh yes, builds weapons for that military. While demonstrating his newest toy in Afghanistan, Stark is captured by a fairly generic terrorist organization. He’s badly injured, and forced to recreate his new weapon for the group, while trying not to die in a cave.

The original comic had pretty much the same origin story, except it was in Vietnam. Updated times, same old story. Anyway, Tony decides to use his brilliant mind to do something different. He builds a suit of armor powered by a miniaturized fusion reactor (basically), and fights his way to freedom.

Seeing his weapons used by terrorists in bloody conflicts halfway around the world causes an epiphany. Tony decides to rebuild his suit of armor, this time sleeker and shinier, and uses it to do good – primarily by ridding the world of his weapons. At the same time, as the official head of his company, he has decided to change its focus away from weapons, which doesn’t sit too well with his number two man, a surprisingly menacing Jeff Bridges.

Bridges plays Obadiah Stane (I love these names), who figures out what Tony is doing with his spare time, and ends up stealing the reactor that’s keeping Tony alive from those wounds incurred back in Afghanistan. He builds his own suit of armor, and we get the inevitable final confrontation.

I’ve seen some rankings where Iron Man is acknowledged as the MCU OG, but then demoted, arguing it doesn’t hold up all that well anymore. I can’t get behind that. I think this flick is still one of the very best superhero films ever made. The dialogue is still sharp, the plot is well-executed, the villain is underrated, and Robert Downey Jr owns every inch of the screen for every second he’s on it. This film was released around the same time as The Dark Knight, and while it’s very different in tone and style, I think it’s just as well-made, and probably more entertaining.

Hits: RDJ, great villain, great character arc for Stark, well-written

Misses: Not much… maybe the terrorists come a bit too close to stereotype for comfort.

3.) Avengers: Infinity War

Well, here we have it… the culmination of 19 films stretched over 10 years, with dozens of characters and plot threads that eventually wound their way to this point. A movie like this can only be pulled off if the world building and character development leading up to it has been executed thoughtfully and carefully. We need to care about these characters, and about the world(s) they inhabit. And then, if that hurdle has been cleared, the movie itself needs to be able to tie up these ends in a worthwhile manner.

I can say that the first step has definitely been accomplished, especially in the larger sense. The fact that these movies warrant rankings and retrospectives is proof that the world has been developed successfully.

As for the second requirement – I can say that Infinity War does succeed, but with a few caveats. Most of the film’s flaws are structural and almost impossible to avoid. The MCU has already had three good-sized crossover events, but this one was the film to tie all of the other elements together, including characters and threads introduced in the other big crossovers. Melding these threads in a satisfactory manner without neglecting certain characters and ideas was next to impossible. Indeed, a handful of characters don’t even make the film (Ant Man, Wasp, Hawkeye, Valkyrie), and a few others don’t have much to do. Thor, Doctor Strange, and Iron Man seem to have the most going on, with strong support from Spider-Man, Star-Lord, Nebula, Vision, Scarlet Witch, and Gamora.  Everyone else is just there for a few lines and some punching. So distribution is uneven, but some of that may have been intentional.

Part of the problem is that this movie was set up as the first part of a two-parter, and much of its success rides on the success of the sequel. We’ve seen plenty of situations where that sort of gamble failed – would we have looked at Matrix Reloaded more kindly if Matrix Revolutions wasn’t such a mess?  Of course, Infinity War is a far stronger movie than either of The Matrix sequels, but it’s still difficult to gauge on its own without knowing what happens next – since it is directly tied to a sequel. As it currently stands, it feels incomplete as a standalone movie, which is the primary reason it doesn’t vault to number 1 on my list. That said, it speaks highly of the positive aspects of the film that it still deserves consideration for the best of the MCU. Indeed, I struggled exactly where to place it, considering all spots from 1 through 5. If it weren’t set up as a cliffhanger reliant on another film to resolve the plot, then it may have even been better than 1 and 2 on my list.

As for the good stuff – there’s plenty. As I mentioned, it does ably tie together dozens of threads and ideas. It creates interesting team-ups between characters who’ve seldom or never interacted before. And it gives us the backstory to what may be the most complex and interesting villain in the MCU. Certainly the most formidable. Early in the film, the single most powerful character – the Hulk – goes toe to toe with Josh Brolin’s Thanos – and is beaten to a pulp in seconds. This helps set the tone early that this threat is a serious one. From then on, it becomes a race between Thanos and the heroes of Earth (and a few other planets) to prevent Thanos from acquiring plot devices – er, Infinity Stones – from earlier films, and obtaining his true goal. We gain insight into his backstory with Gamora and Nebula from the Guardians of the Galaxy films, and while his side is never presented as “the good” side, his motivations come from an understandable place. It’s the conflict between the pragmatism of Thanos and the “we don’t trade lives” mentality of the painfully noble Steve Rogers that really makes this film.

The very best MCU films had a moral or philosophical debate at their core. They were “about” something deeper than strong people punching each other. Black Panther contained musings about race and class, as well as debates about isolationism, imperialism, and glasnost. Avengers: Age of Ultron discussed hubris and scientific overreach. Captain America: Civil War debated the need for government oversight and public accountability. Captain America: The Winter Soldier argued over the excesses of the national security state. The conclusions were not always clear, and the debates were sometimes unsubtle, but the discussions were definitely there.

That’s where Infinity War joins the best of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This Vox article summarized the debate quite well, but in short, it’s Kant versus Bentham. The Kantian ethos of unwavering moral principles versus utilitarianism. Thanos has seized on the idea that sacrificing half the population of the universe will end up improving the quality of life for everyone else. The heroes of the story obviously oppose this idea, but the “leader” of at least one segment of the Avengers – Captain America – goes to the opposite end of the spectrum – no lives shall be sacrificed, even for the greater good. I have the feeling he’s not counting himself in this equation, which may be a major plot point with Avengers 4 – but that’s another discussion. Infinity War doesn’t discuss the philosophy in such explicit terms, but the ideas are there. And it’s quite fascinating.

Avengers: Infinity War handles a nearly impossible task about as well as it can. It shoehorns in almost every character that matters, it has the most impressive villain in the series, it sets up the inevitable sequel, and it’s forced to neglect some of the other major characters in the process. It manages to be the bleakest Marvel film to date, but with plenty of humor and wit woven throughout the pain. Its structural limitations prevent it from being the number 1 on this list, but everything else is so good that its still close.

Hits: Best MCU villain yet, real emotional and physical stakes, epic scope, dazzling action

Misses: Necessary short-shrift for some characters, feels incomplete.

2.) Black Panther

Believe the hype. This is a damn good movie. Black Panther was released with enormous expectations, and by and large, it delivers. Most of the film takes place just weeks after the events of Captain America: Civil War, but there are also flashbacks to 1992, and to thousands of years ago, during an inventive animated opening sequence.

Black Panther manages to juggle so many concepts – race relations (in the United States, but also in Africa, and around the globe), international politics, imperialism, technological advancement, vengeance, justice, and honor. But it is also a superhero movie that has to fit within a larger universe. And then, it’s also an introduction to Wakanda – a nation that the prior MCU films hinted at and referenced, but we now get to see in its full glory.

Following up on the events of Civil War,  T’Challa, son of T’Chaka, the recently-assassinated King of Wakanda, returns home to take the mantle of leadership, There’s so much to cover here, that in this short capsule I cannot properly do it justice. But there are debates at home, where Wakanda has been in self-imposed isolation from the world, enjoying social and technological advancement decades ahead of the rest of the world (maybe save for Stark and SHIELD, but that’s a whole different discussion). T’Challa wants to use their advancements to help the other nations around the globe. Others in Wakanda want to remain isolated, and still more want to give the imperialists and colonizers around the world a taste of their own medicine. It’s thoughtful, nuanced debate, and it continues when the villain, Erik “Killmonger” Stevens shows up. He’s T’Challa’s cousin, raised in California, trained as a special forces soldier, and brought up to believe that people of African descent around the world should directly benefit from Wakandan technology, and use it… well, it ends up being for conquest, although justified in terms of liberation. His origin and beliefs are complex and sympathetic, and his mission is highly personal, which are the essential ingredients for a great villain. As far as he’s concerned, he’s the hero. It also helps that Michael B. Jordan does an excellent job with the role, making for a fun contrast with the serene and wise-beyond-his years air of Chadwick Boseman, in the title role.

I also shouldn’t fail to mention the group of women who make these adventures possible. Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia, a Wakandan spy (and T’Challa’s ex), Danai Gurira as Okoye, the head of the Wakandan elite security forces, and Letitia Wright as Shuri, who is basically Q from the Bond movies and Tony Stark rolled into one – she designs the technologies that help make Wakanda such a paradise, and also happens to be T’Challa’s younger sister. Angela Bassett also plays a key role as Ramonda, T’Challa’s mother. All are interesting, well-developed characters that are important to the story. Not one is there to be saved by the male heroes, and indeed, the reverse happens more than once.

I had some trouble deciding exactly where to place this. It is truly an excellent movie even without the deeper themes… but those deeper themes are what elevates it above most other Marvel fare – even some of the really good ones. I ended up placing it just above Iron Man, because while they both involved a scion of technological advancement coming to terms with the role of that advancement in the larger world – Black Panther went deeper.

It’s not a flawless film, but sort of like the only MCU film I ranked above it (and the one below), the nitpicks were just that – nitpicks. Minor issues only. The pacing was a little rough during the final third, and some of the action sequences suffered from the same quasi-weightlessness that has bedeviled CGI action for years. Also, the big reveal at the Jabari mountain felt a little too easy. But other than those minor quibbles, this was about as good as it could possibly be.

Hits: Excellent direction, superb performances, more nuanced themes than most superhero movies, gorgeous scenery, one of the two or three best MCU villains ever.

Misses: Very little. Slightly bloated final act, odd physics in some action scenes.

1.) Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Here we go. The number one movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Where “Captain America: The First Avenger was a period piece and war movie, “Winter Soldier” is a spy movie mixed with a heavy dose of political thriller. It’s smart, thoughtful, and exciting. It continues Steve Rogers’ character arc, and continues the feat the first installment pulled off – making a nearly ideal person interesting.

It’s been over a year since the events of The Avengers, and about three years since he became Unfrozen Super Soldier. Captain America is now an agent of SHIELD, commanding teams around the world, kicking ass, taking names, and slowly feeling more and more disillusioned with being a part of the modern national security state. He works with Natasha Romanoff, who is the Black Widow from Iron Man 2 and The Avengers. She develops well as a character here, both on her own merits, and in her friendship with Steve. She’s more jaded than he is, but her outlook is rubbing off on him. And she is clearly charmed by his honesty and decency. Also joining the team is Sam Wilson, a former paratrooper who has access to a winged jet pack that has all sorts of fancy toys on it… basically he’s Iron Man without the armor.

Then the plot gets going. SHIELD falls apart from within, while Cap tracks a mysterious operative with metal arm who seems to be as fast and strong as Cap himself. Nick Fury is apparently assassinated after a fun car chase through Washington DC. The coup within SHIELD is a long time coming, it seems, and Fury’s boss is behind it. Robert Redford is excellent as Alexander Pearce, a government bureaucrat who’s been a bad guy all along.

Eventually, Cap is able to connect the upheaval at SHIELD with the metal armed operative, who turns out to be his brainwashed best friend, Bucky. A slightly convoluted scheme involving a new kind of helicarrier is put into motion, and it’s tremendously exciting watching Steve, Natasha, and Sam work together to try to foil it. The movie moves right along, and doesn’t feel like there’s much fat on it, despite its 136 minute runtime. There are some rather convenient moments for our heroes, and the takeover of SHIELD was never set up by prior films, but otherwise, this is superbly crafted film. It’s serious, dark, and cynical, but with enough humor to keep it from becoming bleak.

Hits: Chris Evans is excellent, the action is fast, but filmed clearly – not too many Bourne-style quick cuts. Compelling villains, good chemistry between the leads, and a mature tone for a comic book movie.

Misses: Not much. The SHIELD collapse kind of came out of nowhere, and the Strucker reveal was a bit far-fetched, but otherwise, there was little wrong here.

So there you have it. Until Ant Man and the Wasp and Avengers: Infinity War are released later year, this is it for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’ve included below links to several other rankings of the same universe, just as a point of comparison. I’m sure there will be many who don’t agree with me… indeed, my list varies from several of these others. But I know what I like, and I believe I’ve supported my positions.

Now, I suppose I should get back to the real world. Well, maybe after I watch Winter Soldier one more time…












Marvel Cinematic Universe Movies Ranked — From Worst to Best


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Them Too, Mr. President

If one wants to know why women often take years to come forward after being sexually harassed or assaulted, Exhibit A currently resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, Washington D.C., 20500.

But let’s backtrack briefly.

There’s a social wave occurring in the United States right now. In the worlds of the famous – politics, entertainment, media – scores of women are publicly taking a stand. They’re telling their stories to the world, detailing the ways that men of power and privilege have harassed, insulted, threatened, intimidated, and assaulted them. And these stories are finally beginning to have consequences.

  • Bill Cosby’s career essentially ended when the accusations against him became widely known. Criminal proceedings started this year, though they have stalled for the time being.
  • Harvey Weinstein was fired from his own company, and has become a pariah in his industry. In addition, criminal investigations are now beginning.
  • James Toback will likely not be making any films ever again after literally hundreds of women accused him of sexual harassment and assault.
  • Louis CK had to step away from promotion of his new film. Support and work has dried up for him, after allegations of sexual harassment were publicly released.
  • Charlie Rose, Garrison Keillor, and Matt Lauer all lost their jobs.
  • Al Franken agreed to an ethics investigation into allegations about him from before he was a Senator. Subsequent allegations included incidents from after he was elected.

There are so many others. Prominent men in positions of influence and power are finding the ground underneath their pedestals of privilege crumbling.

There is, however, one glaring exception. Allegations against this particular man have been publicly known longer than most of the aforementioned. But for some reason, this specific man not only continued in the public sphere despite these allegations, he thrived.

I am, of course, referring to the current President of the United States, Donald Trump.

In fact, he became President AFTER video and audio evidence of him was released, cheerfully telling Billy Bush specifics about his crimes.

He literally bragged about committing sexual assault with impunity.

Yes, there was some immediate backlash, but it faded swiftly. After all, admitted sexual assault is bad, but a Democratic woman is much scarier – at least, to 63 million Americans.

Donald Trump hasn’t exactly faded out of the news since the infamous Access Hollywood tape was released. Obviously, becoming the most powerful non-Russian on Earth would guarantee that. But despite the turbulence of the Trump presidency, as well as a sudden cultural shift in favor of women pushing back against systemic misogyny – Trump’s own sexual misdeeds have largely faded from public memory.

They shouldn’t. Indeed, they can’t.

Not just for the individual women themselves, although their justice is paramount. However, also important is justice for women, period. If the American President is allowed to assault and harass more than a dozen women (at least), and face no retribution, no inquiry, no serious investigation, then injustice has been done to ALL women.

Donald Trump has a myriad of other issues right now, many of them unrelated to his treatment of women. And it’s possible he may find himself out of office early, and possibly even on trial – thanks to those issues. But even in that event, it would do a massive disservice to those he mistreated to forget about them, or they stories they’ve told.

I would like to provide a reminder that the current President of the United States has been accused of committing sexual crimes against the following women:

Jessica Leeds
Some time in the 1980s, while sitting next to Donald Trump on a flight, he groped her repeatedly, including reaching under her skirt, while she sat frozen in terror.

Jill Harth
In 1993, she alleged he cornered her in an empty room at Mar-a-Lago, and groped her, while trying to reach up her dress. This was after several months of repeated and declined advances by Trump.

Ivana Trump
While married to Donald, in 1989, Ivana told friends that Donald attacked her after he had a painful surgery on his scalp. He pulled hair out of her head and then raped her. Years later, she walked back the phrase “rape,” but she never denied the actual events (which clearly described rape) happened.

Kristin Anderson
In the early ’90s, at the China Club in New York, Trump sat next to Anderson – who was a stranger to him – and reached up her skirt, touching her genitals through her underwear. She and her friends left quickly after that. She and those same friends were able to identify the groper as Donald Trump.

Lisa Boyne
Boyne attended a dinner at a restaurant in the mid ’90s with Trump, several men, and a group of models. She said that Trump had the models walk around on the table above him, where he looked up their skirts and commented on what he saw. He also spent much of the time bragging about his sexual exploits directly to Boyne.

Temple Taggart
During rehearsals for the 1997 Miss USA pageant, Trump forced an unwanted kiss on Taggart’s lips, not once, but twice.

Mariah Billado
Billado was a contestant in the 1997 Miss Teen USA pageant. She and four other contestants all confirmed that Trump walked into their changing room while they were in various states of undress, including completely naked. The contestants aged between 15 and 19 that year, which meant he was invading the privacy of numerous minors.

Cathy Heller
In the mid ’90s, Heller said that during the one and only time she met Donald Trump, he immediately tried to kiss her on the lips without any warning. He then yelled at her as she twisted away.

Karena Virginia
In 1998, while waiting for a car outside of the US Open tennis tournament in New York, Trump approached her. He made objectifying comments about her appearance to the group of men he was with, then reached out and grabbed her breast. He smiled at her and asked, “Don’t you know who I am?”

Bridget Sullivan
Similar to the testimony of Mariah Billado at the Miss Teen USA pageant, Trump was accused of walking into the changing rooms at the Miss USA and possibly Miss Universe pageants as well. Sullivan, the former Miss New Hampshire attested to this. In addition, Trump himself had bragged about walking into the changing rooms with impunity. This has been recorded during interviews with Howard Stern.

Tasha Dixon
Former Miss Arizona Tasha Dixon also confirmed the stories of Trump walking into the changing rooms while contestants were in various states of undress.

Natasha Stoynoff
Stoynoff, a writer for People Magazine, alleged Trump attacked her in an empty room at Mar-a-Lago in December 2005, when she traveled there to conduct an interview with him. He forcibly kissed her, and stuck his tongue down her throat. A butler interrupted them, but later in the day, Trump told Stoynoff, “You know we’re going to have an affair, don’t you? Have you ever been to Peter Luger’s for steaks? I’ll take you. We’re going to have an affair, I’m telling you.”  Six witnesses later corroborated Stoynoff’s account of the incident.

Rachel Crooks
In 2005, Crooks worked as a receptionist at a company located in Trump Tower. One day, Trump approached her outside of an elevator. He shook her hand, but then refused to let go. He started kissing her cheeks, then kissed her on her mouth as she struggled to escape. She eventually ran back to her desk, badly shaken by the assault.

Mindy McGillivray
January 2003, at Mar-a-Lago, McGillivray was working as a photographers assistant. While standing in a group of people photographing Ray Charles, she felt someone grab her buttocks. She turned around to see Donald Trump standing there, smiling.

Jennifer Murphy
As a contestant on the Apprentice in 2005, Murphy interviewed for a job with Trump. At the end of the interview, Trump kissed her, uninvited, on the mouth. It should be noted, unlike the other accusers, Murphy has admitted she was “okay with it.”

Jessica Drake
In 2006, at a golf tournament, Trump grabbed Drake, along with two other women, and kissed each one on the mouth without permission. He then contacted Drake repeatedly after, offering $10,000 in exchange for sex – which she declined.

Ninni Laaksonen
The former Miss Finland was groped by Trump during a group photograph in 2006, outside of the building where the Late Show with David Letterman was filmed.

Summer Zervos
Zervos was a contestant on Trump’s reality game show The Apprentice in 2007. She has stated that on two occasions, he forcibly kissed her on the mouth while meeting her privately. And during the second incident, he groped her breast, and tried to coerce her into joining in him a bedroom. He reacted angrily when she spurned his advances.

Cassandra Searles
Searles contends that as a contestant in the 2013 Miss USA pageant, Trump groped her several times and asked her to go back to his hotel room. She declined his requests.
These women do not personally benefit by coming forward and telling their stories. Even now, a year after most of these complaints came to light, there still is a frequent backlash against accusers. The claim that false accusations are common, and occur for money or publicity, ring hollow. This is true especially when one looks back at the last few months, and the waves of women stepping forward to tell the world what happened to them, at the hands of powerful and prominent men. These women are often suffering, reliving horrible experiences, all while being called liars by the men themselves, their lawyers, and their supporters. There is no glory here. Only pain. And maybe the hope that these revelations will eventually spark societal change. Already there’s been some evidence of that. But any major social shift is painful, and will likely involve further ugly backlash. People in positions of power and privilege tend to fight to maintain that privilege.

And nowhere does white male privilege put itself on full display more prominently than Donald Trump.

Go back through that list I wrote above. Read about these women. Follow the links I provided, and look at their stories. There are more detailed overviews of his crimes against women here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. And listen to what Trump has admitted during interviews. And of course, read what Trump himself has said.

Referring to Nancy O’Dell, he stated, “I moved on her, and I failed. I’ll admit it. I did try and fuck her. She was married. And I moved on her very heavily. In fact, I took her out furniture shopping. She wanted to get some furniture. I said, “I’ll show you where they have some nice furniture.” I took her out furniture—I moved on her like a bitch. But I couldn’t get there. And she was married. Then all of a sudden I see her, she’s now got the big phony tits and everything. She’s totally changed her look.

And in the same conversation, now about Arianne Zucker,  “I better use some Tic Tacs just in case I start kissing her. You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful—I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”

These comments, recorded during the infamous Access Hollywood tape, confirm many of the behaviors described by his accusers.

Donald Trump has shown himself, through his words and actions, to be a sexual predator. It seems like Americans are now beginning to give up on the idea of giving power men a pass on these behaviors. At least, they seem to be in the entertainment and media fields. Yet, in politics – partisanship may still be protecting them for a time longer. Al Franken and John Conyers have not yet resigned. Roy Moore is still even money to win his current Senate race. Bill Clinton still holds a position of respect in the Democratic Party. And… Donald Trump is still President.

We’ll know the societal shift toward supporting women over predators is taking universal hold when it starts to triumph over political power. Until then, I intend to remind people about these accusations as often as possible. Supporting Donald Trump means complicity with his behavior. These are the same behaviors that have brought down Harvey Weinstein. Is loyalty to one person or one party worth the suffering of – at least – 19 women? When will it be enough for his supporters to turn away from him?

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