“Avengers: Endgame, Iron Man, and America”

Avengers: Endgame, Iron Man, and America”
by James Rovira

A revised version of this article now appears on Sequart.org.

Disclaimer: this commentary includes major spoilers starting with the second sentence of the third paragraph, so I wouldn’t read too far if you haven’t watched Avengers: Endgame yet. It also won’t make much sense if you haven’t watched Endgame and the Iron Man, Captain America, Avengers, and Captain Marvel films.

With the release of Endgame the weekend of April 28th, 2019, Marvel Films completed a remarkable achievement: the conclusion of a story that took 22 films to tell. Endgame itself is virtuoso storytelling, wrapping up multiple story and character arcs in a single, deftly told, gripping film. There is no wasted screen time beyond some needed comic relief, and the film is three hours long. I think it’s fair to say that Endgame is this generation’s great epic film, its Ten Commandments. Given the resources and time invested in this eleven-year film cycle, I think it’s worth a little bit of time thinking about what the MCU has been saying to us all this time. I think the MCU is telling us that we still, collectively, haven’t overcome the trauma of the Holocaust, and it’s pointing to a possible way that we might do so.

IronmanposterImmediately after watching Endgame I went back and rewatched the first MCU film, Iron Man (2008). While the MCU encompasses twenty-two films (so far) and dozens of characters, many of whom have their own stories and character arcs, the only characters with completed story lines from origin to end of life are Tony Stark, Captain America (to old age, though, not death), Vision, Black Widow, and Thanos. Of these, Tony Stark/Iron Man and Captain America are the focal points of three films each, unlike Vision and Black Widow, and Thanos is the chief antagonist within the MCU, so this twenty-two film story arc is best understood as a contest between Iron Man and Captain America, on the one hand, and Thanos on the other. But since the MCU begins with Iron Man’s origin and Endgame concludes shortly after Tony Stark’s funeral, this series of films is fundamentally about Tony Stark vs. Thanos. Captain America is important to the series as he represents a different kind of foil for Tony Stark, taking the form of a different way of being a hero, but occupying that position makes him a secondary character in relationship to Stark, who in the end, as the MCU series protagonist, is the one who defeats Thanos.

The question, “Who is the protagonist of the MCU series?” seems silly and academic, a fun exercise for a high school English class, especially given the range of characters and number of films, but I think we need to take seriously the fact that the Infinity Stones story, and the MCU itself, for that matter, begins with Iron Man’s creation and ends with Tony Stark’s death. The central image from Stark’s funeral, his first miniature arc reactor encased in a ring that said, “Proof that Tony Stark has a heart,” originated in the first Iron Man film as a gift from his future wife, Pepper Potts. It was a wry joke at the time, the idea that Stark the billionaire playboy weapons manufacturer needed proof he had a heart – and that this proof would take the form of a high-tech gadget in a case – but the centrality of this device I think encapsulates the MCU universe’s commentary on the real nature of the contest that it’s representing.

Tony Stark is America after World War II: weapons, tech, war, and hedonism. The MCU is assessing not the greatest generation, the one who beat Hitler, but the Baby Boomers, their children, what we did with our parents’ and grandparents’ legacy, and how we inherited their fears and managed them. I mean this “we” literally. I was born in 1964, so was among the last of Baby Boomers, and Robert Downey, Jr., who plays Tony Stark, was born about eight months after me in 1965. In the MCU, Stark himself was born in 1970. People our age are of the second generation after World War II: our parents didn’t fight in the war, but our grandparents did. My grandfather served during World War II while my father was in the Army during the Korean War. So the MCU represents our grappling with the legacy of World War II and the Holocaust from an American perspective, documenting two different responses to this legacy distributed across two to three different generations.

Thanos_AvengersThe first response is Thanos’s, who is driven by his own personal holocaust, the literal loss of his world, and how he sought to prevent that loss from happening on a cosmic scale by wiping out half of all life in the universe. His thought was that with less competition for resources life could thrive again. When he realized life couldn’t move forward after such cataclysmic loss, his plan B was to wipe out all life completely and start again. I think we need to come to grips with this psychology of death. The trauma of Thanos’s holocaust was so internalized by him that he sought to repeat it. His desire was never to preserve life, but to be the controller and distributor of death, to be the source of the next holocaust rather than its victim.

Tony Stark, on the other hand, illustrates how our desire to build a shield around the TheAvengers2012Posterworld to keep the Holocaust from ever happening again is what is killing it. His first shield around the world was Ultron, who nearly destroyed all life on Earth in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). In the next Avengers film, Avengers: Infinity Wars (2018), Stark and the Avengers failed to stop Thanos, who succeeded in wiping out half of all life in the universe by finally acquiring the Infinity stone that Stark placed in Vision, whom he built to stop Ultron. In effect, our powerful defensive measures in themselves created the repeat holocaust they were intended to stop. Therefore it’s no coincidence that Stark is a defense contractor. He embodies the profits and hedonism of this industry, its love of tech and power, a love that is disseminated throughout American culture, embodied in superhero movies themselves, and extended across the globe through US foreign policy. The MCU’s Iron Man originated in the Middle East with Stark’s discovery that his weapons, which were intended for the defense of the United States and its allies, were being sold to terrorists. Our real shield around the world, we should learn from the MCU, started out with a desire for protection and has descended into the naked pursuit of profit at the expense of all principle.

Avengers_Infinity_War_posterStark’s other foil, I have observed, is Captain America. Captain America/Steve Rogers represents the imaginary form of our uncorrupted ideals, the Greatest Generation itself, who in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) was frozen in time in 1945 to be later resurrected in the present generation to battle evil once again. But his presence alongside Stark led to a civil war among the good guys in Captain America: Civil War (2016). Stark, on the one hand, wanted to bring the Avengers under the control of world governments while Steve Rogers, on the other, seeing how Hydra had infiltrated the top levels of governance – further commentary on what we have become – no longer trusted the system with that power. A civil war among the good guys was inevitable because both sides were right. Superhero power, if it existed, would need to be held accountable to governmental oversight, but those who would provide this oversight can’t be trusted. The MCU only resolves this dispute but pitting them against a common enemy that represents nothing less than universal death itself, Thanos, the embodiment of our own death instinct.

Thanos_with_Infinity_Gauntlet_and_Stones_(MCU)But Stark was the one who defeated Thanos in Endgame, not Captain America. I think we should consider carefully just what the Infinity Gauntlet, powered by all of the Infinity stones, really represents. It’s a cliché: if you could snap your fingers and change just one thing, what would it be? Thanos would snap his fingers and wipe out half the life in the universe, and then, when frustrated, all life itself to start over. Stark snapped his fingers to wipe out Thanos and his forces. The problem is that both sides still think the only way to win is to kill everyone on the other side. Worse than that, even Captain America thinks like Thanos: early in Endgame, Captain America says that if we can’t move forward from the massive loss of life experienced at the end of Infinity Wars, then Thanos should have killed us all. When Thanos realizes that life won’t move forward from the loss incurred at the end of Infinity Warshe reasons exactly like Captain America: if they can’t get over it, kill them all and start over.

Captain_Marvel_posterSince the Infinity Wars plotline is about the prevention of a holocaust, I think that the MCU cycle of films reveals to us how much the Holocaust, the real one we suffered in World War II, continues to scar us all: we beat the Nazis but have become them in that we think killing all the bad guys is in the end the only real solution to our problems. If you don’t believe we think the only way to win is kill off all of our enemies, why all the nukes? What better way to kill them all, how more efficiently, than with nuclear weapons? Why do you think we have so many? Do you think it’s a coincidence that the real villains of Captain Marvel (2019) wound up being the Kree, an intensely technological, highly diverse federation of planets? Do you think it’s a coincidence that the “terrorists” in Captain Marvel were minority victims of the Kree? Who here most resembles the United States? But more importantly, what a massive failure of the imagination it is to think that the only solution to our problems is mass death. Why couldn’t Thanos snap his fingers and make all life consume only half as much resources to survive? Why couldn’t Stark snap his fingers and change Thanos’s mind, maybe by showing him a different future? Why can’t we snap our fingers and keep the world safe in a way that doesn’t involve bigger and faster planes, missiles, and troops?

PeggyCarter2A new way of thinking is needed here, a way that the MCU teaches us we haven’t learned yet but, maybe, Captain America did. At the end of Endgame, Rogers completed his mission, returning all of the stones to their original locations in time, but then he didn’t come back. He stayed in the past, married the love of his life, Peggy Carter, and lived a full life with her. Captain America’s character in the MCU teaches us that we don’t move forward until we learn the solution to our problems won’t be found until we stop killing.

As an aside, we should note that Captain America returning the stones to their original locations at the end of Endgame didn’t solve the problem of creating an alternate reality, as Thanos’s time travel forward created two timelines: one of the current Infinity Wars/Endgame chronology in which Thanos lives until 2019 until he is beheaded by Thor, and an alternate one in which Thanos leaves that timeline in 2014, before recovering any of the stones, and never returns to it, to be finally defeated later in 2019 by Iron Man. Steve Rogers stayed in this alternate reality, married the woman he loved, and then caught up with the Infinity Wars reality as an old man. I think Rogers just appearing naturally in the Endgame timeline, showing up on a bench, was a mistake as well. He lived his life in the alternate timeline. He should have only been able to return to the Endgame timeline in a quantum travel suit.

Either way, while the MCU teaches us that we haven’t learned, the MCU also teaches us that we really learn when we quit being soldiers and start having a life. The best of us, the Greatest Generation, did that for the most part, but it also gave birth to the modern military industrial complex. Their children and grandchildren picked up that complex and ran with it. Our grandparents beat the Nazis, but as a culture we’re still like Tony Stark, partying on war profiteering. We should learn from these films that as of right now, on our current course, in our real history, we’re racing toward the next holocaust. The MCU also teaches us, however, that we have other, better examples before us, so in the end asks this question: will we follow our better examples, or will we stay on this path until we cause another holocaust?

Using Turnitin.com: Pros and Cons

I recently had an interesting and productive discussion on Twitter with some of my colleagues about the use of turnitin.com, and since I’ve been a turnitin.com user for about ten years now, the discussion prompted me to think again about my use of this educational technology and to make explicit, at least to myself, my reasons for using it.

I also think this discussion is important to higher education in general in that turnitin.com is one of many vendors associated with the higher education industry, and it’s a significant one. As of the time of this writing, it boasts being used by 15,000 educational institutions and thirty million students on the front page of its website. Turnitin.com, like many other vendors, provides products or services designed to support higher education in a number of ways (not all are directly related to instruction), and they all work on a for-profit model.

Since higher education is for the most part non-profit, sometimes these partnerships can be uneasy, sometimes exploitative, sometimes at cross-purposes for student service, but also sometimes beneficial to varying degrees. Some vendors provide excellent products. So if a university chooses to use a vendor to serve its students in any way, it needs to pay close attention to its own reasons for doing so, to the quality of that service, and to how much reliance on this vendor actually benefits students and instructors.

First, it helps to know how turnitin.com works. Turnitin.com is a web-based “student paper processing service” that runs externally to a college or university website. Colleges or universities who use this service have to contact the service to receive a customized price quote, so there aren’t any solid figures on how much the service costs. Financial Times, however, estimated in 2012 that it costs about $2.00 per student per year. Other articles have since indicated significant price increases over the last couple of years, so let’s assume, for the sake of discussion, that the service now typically costs $4.00 per student per year. I don’t know how much it costs my own institution, and I suspect institutions sign non-disclosure agreements about their specific costs, so if I did know its actual cost I probably wouldn’t be allowed to report it.

Turnitin.com can now be integrated with learning management systems (LMS) such as Moodle so that it will appear to be fully integrated into the online component of any student’s course. Despite that appearance, however, it’s still an off-site service. When it is fully integrated into an LMS, students just click on a link and upload their papers. When it is used off-site, instructors have to log in to the service, create a course, create a course-specific password, and then either share that password with their students or upload a list of student email addresses to enroll students in their specific course.

What happens once a student’s paper is uploaded? The instructor can use the service for a number of purposes:

  1. Plagiarism detection. Turnitin.com was originally created for this purpose. When a student’s paper is uploaded to the turnitin.com website, the student’s paper is saved in a repository with other student papers and compared to all other student papers in that repository. It is also compared to journals, periodicals, publications, and to readily accessible material on the internet.
    1. What does it do when it makes this comparison? It generates an “Originality Report” score in the form of a percentage of material on the student’s paper that matches other sources. Matching text is highlighted in different colors by source. Links back to the original sources are also provided.
    2. What it does not do: tell instructors if the student plagiarized. Remember, we are allowed to quote other people’s works. How we signal those quotations determines whether or not we’re plagiarizing, so a match by itself is not plagiarism. Determinations about plagiarism are always made by the instructor, not the service
    3. Is plagiarism checking optional? Yes. It’s possible to use the service and opt out of storing student papers, and to opt out of checking them against any specific type of source (such as the repository of student papers, the internet, and publications).
    4. Instructors can also ask the service to ignore small matches, such as three words or fewer, and they can set the number. I always ask it to do this.
    5. Instructors can also ask the service to ignore the paper’s bibliography, which will always come up with matches when many students are writing about the same material from the same texts. I set this up too.
      1. How does this part of the service work? Spotty, but not bad overall. There are problems with false or irrelevant matches fairly regularly. These can be caused by the use of block quotes, as the service seems to look for quotation marks to exclude matches, by the use of long titles (more than three words), and sometimes even by the student’s own header information. If a student puts an incorrect space between a quotation mark and quoted material, the quotation might be read as a match. Overall, it’s very important that the instructor not just read the originality report score, but actually read the student paper before making a determination about plagiarism.
      2. It also provides the unexpected benefit of telling instructors how much of the student’s paper is quoted, which can be useful pedagogically as well.
  2. Providing feedback on student papers. This is the reason why I use the service, which can perform the following tasks. Take note, though, that some of these services are only available through the external website, not the LMS embedded version:
    1. Allow instructors to provide recorded voice comments.
    2. Allow instructors to provide their own custom comments directly on the student paper in the form of little bubbles. Students mouse over the bubbles to see instructor comments.
    3. Allow instructors to pre-set paper comments and drag and drop them onto the student’s paper. The service comes with three or four dozen preset comments, and instructors can create their own as well.
    4. Allow instructors to set up any number of rubrics and score and grade the paper using this rubric.
    5. Link instructor comments to rubric measures. When you do this, the rubric will show the number of instructor comments linked to each rubric point.
    6. Allow instructors to provide long text feedback in a sidebar.
    7. Allow instructors to set up peer review assignments — students submitting a peer reviewed assignment will have their paper emailed to two peers, have two of their peers’ papers emailed to them, and they will be able to leave comments on their peers’ papers just like their instructor.
    8. Keep the student grade book.
    9. Keep a course blog.
    10. Allow access for teaching assistants to grade papers.
    11. Built-in grammar checker. Every time I’ve used it, it’s been awful, but it’s still there. I quit using it because I spent more time eliminating bad comments than adding good ones on my own.
    12. Download feedback and originality reports in the form of .pdf files.
  3. What are the drawbacks to this service? Here’s where we get into the details of my Twitter discussion. Some of these points have also been raised in other discussions of turnitin.com around the web.
    1. The service creates the impression that students aren’t to be trusted.
      1. This concern is legitimate, but I think it varies by institution. I have seen places where high premiums were placed on student course evaluations, and as a result many instructors got into the habit of looking the other way at plagiarism. These very dysfunctional institutions worked on an implicit agreement between students and teachers in which teachers looked the other way at cheating and students gave these teachers stellar course evaluations in return (a situation which by itself justifies the tenure system, as this institution did not have tenure). Some students at this institution plagiarized on every paper and then just rewrote it when they got caught — which means that since they were only made to do the work initially assigned, they always came out “ahead” by plagiarizing in the sense of getting a grade for a course without doing any real work. This is an environment devoted to breeding criminals, and its students are stealing from themselves with the institution’s help.
      2. But what about better institutions? Even there, some students will plagiarize, but I think instructor dialog with students about the service is very important. I really do use it primarily for grading. I’m teaching a 5000/400 level English course right now in which I can honestly say I have no fear of a single student plagiarizing: I trust each one, personally, that much. But I still use the service because of all of its feedback functions, and I tried to let my students know that. I prefer it to Google docs or directly emailed Word files.
      3. For the record, I’ve taught 50-100 students per semester since I started using the service in 2006, and I never catch more than three to five students plagiarizing across all of my classes. Most students aren’t plagiarizing, and use of the service may discourage it.
      4. What about purchased papers? The people selling “custom written” papers aren’t particularly honest themselves, so usually do not sell clean product to their customers. These will show up with massive amounts of patchwriting, or copying and pasting numerous sources, without attribution, into a single paper. The service will often catch these papers.
    2. The service makes instructors grade to the comments. This concern is about instructors only looking for items defined by pre-written comments rather than truly providing individualized feedback based on student need. I think this concern is 100% legitimate, and anyone who chooses to use the service needs to watch out for letting the service take over his or her feedback on student papers. Now that I’ve had this idea planted, I’m going to watch myself grade.
    3. The service exploits students. The argument here is that the service has value only because students are contributing papers to it, and then the service charges students to use it (through their institutions, of course — once the institution pays for a subscription, instructors and students use it for no additional charge).
      1. Defining “exploitation” as uncompensated or under-compensated labor, I think this argument doesn’t quite work for the following reasons:
        1. Student papers typically have no economic value apart from the service except to be sold to other students (so a dishonest one). The service itself therefore creates the economic value of student papers for the service, so it’s hard to say that students are being exploited.
        2. If a student’s paper does have monetary value (e.g., can be sold for payment by the student for publication), the service does not prevent students from realizing that value. Turnitin.com doesn’t own student work. Publish away. Get rich.
        3. The service provides value to student users in the form of a permanent, informal copyright on their work: once a student uploads a paper to the service from a turnitin.com account linked to their own email address, the student’s work is protected as their own. I uploaded my dissertation to turnitin.com for this very reason.
        4. Uploading student papers to turnitin.com’s repository is optional, as is plagiarism detection, therefore there’s no necessary link between using the service and uploading a student’s paper to the repository.
        5. The service provides many useful tools apart from plagiarism detection.
        6. The service provides a service in exchange for pay, so it isn’t exploiting students. If we reject this argument, we also have to affirm that teachers are exploiting students by taking a salary for their work. Since everyone deserves to be paid for their work, this service is non-exploitative.
        7. The service only costs students a very small amount: maybe $2.00 to $4.00 a year. If we’re really worried about student exploitation, maybe we should look at sports programs instead.
        8. Students don’t have a choice about use of the service. Yeah…so? They don’t have a choice about writing papers, getting graded, showing up for class, etc. What matters is whether or not these required activities benefit the student. What matters most of all is explaining to students the benefits of required activities. All of them.
        9. You might find it interesting that there have been lawsuits against turnitin.com making a similar argument based on copyright infringement. Two. Both of these lawsuits failed.

That’s my overview of the service. I intend to keep using it for many of the reasons described above. But I want to emphasize — we should use it deliberately, carefully, and consciously. It is not perfect. The bottom line is that turnitin.com is just a computer system, and computer systems don’t know how to read. They don’t understand meaning or context. Only instructors can do that. As a result, it’s a supplement to an instructor’s work and care with student papers, not a replacement for instructor care and attention.

Any comments? I’d love to hear from you.

Reporting this Week on Electric Cars

Here’s the problem with reporting on electric cars: According to the infographic below, there are about 6 million car accidents in the US every year, while 3 million people die in car accidents every year, but if one thing goes wrong with one electric car, it’s national news.

Tesla started collecting data on its users’ driving habits in October of 2014 and in November of 2015 activated its first Autopilot feature on these cars. Tesla has now released its first truly self-driving car. These cars have logged millions of miles of driving time since their release, and the first accident caused by autopilot just occurred April 29th when a Model S started itself up and drove under a trailer. One recent headline introduced the story this way: “Tesla’s first self-driving accident just happened: it’s time to start a serious discussion.”

So, 3 million people die in about 6 million regular car accidents every year, and no one questions that, but when Tesla’s product has one crash, we need to have a serious discussion. Similarly, there are about 152,000 car fires every year resulting in about 200 deaths and tens of millions of dollars of property damage (and never mind that these occur in cars carrying around its own thermal bomb in the form of a gas tank), but the handful of car fires caused by the lithium-ion batteries in electric cars — including about three Tesla cars (three total) — cause some people to question the use of electric cars and lead to demands for a federal investigation.

Tesla and other EV car makers do of course have an obligation to make their products as safe and as mistake-free as possible, even dummy-proof, but reporting on isolated or minimal safety incidents related to electric cars seems to lack a reasonable sense of proportion. Just look at the infographic below. That is what we’re willing to live with every year. We should be questioning that first.

car-accidents-infographic.jpg

Latest Article on Sequart: Ex Machina

I just posted my latest article to Sequart: “Ex Machina: Girlbots vs. Geekboys and Creation Anxiety in the New Frankenstein.” Check it out.

Creation Anxiety in the Early Twentieth Century

Matt Novak’s “A Robot Has Shot Its Master: the 1930s hysteria about machines taking jobs and killing people” is an engaging Slate article from 2011 that attempts to explain the fears of robots, robotics, and mechanization in depression-era Europe and the United States. It exactly covers the topic of my book, Blake and Kierkegaard: Creation and Anxiety (2010 hardcover, 2011 paperback), which asks the question, “Why do we fear what we create?” I locate the origin of this questioning in English literature in William Blake’s The [First] Book of Urizen (1795), an important predecessor to the godmother of all such literature, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818, 1831). What’s particularly interesting is that Novak’s article cites Frankenstein as a common reference point for the expression of these fears, though probably by way of James Whale’s 1931 film version of Frankenstein, which is probably a more immediate reference point for most people than Shelley’s novel. I’d especially like to encourage you to visit Novak’s article for the 1930s art and advertisements relating to fears of the robotic that are featured in a slideshow on that page. The featured image for this page is a sample of the slideshow, which could be an ad for a 1930s version of any one of the Terminator films. The work that needs to be done now is an exploration of the differences in eighteenth/nineteenth century creation anxiety and the creation anxiety of the early twentieth century, a difference I seek to explore and historicize in a future monograph.

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