Cawnpore and Perseus in Print. Buy a Book, Get the eBook Free from Amazon

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Cawnpore and Perseus are now available in the Createspace eStore and on Amazon.com (and other bookstores.) Buy a physical copy of either from Amazon, get the eBook free.

Coming soon: Hercules, the not-a-sequel to Perseus.

Islam Doesn’t Need a “Reformation”

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It’s a common cry from “educated” folks that know bupkis about Islam — “What Islam really needs is their version of the Reformation…” I’ve heard it from Muslim friends who are actually Progressives (and trust me, the latter is a religion, as much as a political ideology…and it is antithetical to the teachings of Islam.) It also shows a distinct lack of understand of Islam, and of Christianity and its history.

Mehdi Hasan has an great piece on the subject over at The Guardian that you should read, if this is your mantra. Go do it now, before you read the rest of this…

Welcome back. A few points to address here — Hasan is right that the Reformation spurred a series of religious wars from 1518 to about 1715. His numbers are a bit inflated — over the course of this period, perhaps 10 million might have been killed, and the majority of that in the Thirty Years War of the early 1600s. Even with that correction, it’s a pretty impressive bit of blood-letting, and it had a big enough impact that the American Founding Fathers specifically attacked the cynosure of religion and politics with the First Amendment.

But there is a more important element at play here that Hasan doesn’t address. He’s got part of it:

Islam isn’t Christianity. The two faiths aren’t analogous, and it is deeply ignorant, not to mention patronising, to pretend otherwise – or to try and impose a neatly linear, Eurocentric view of history on diverse Muslim-majority countries in Asia or Africa.

Islam has diverse traditions, sure enough, but underlying all of that is a religious text that is completely different in character from that of Christians. Even Christians rarely realize that their text is actually a series of text stapled together, and badly so. The Old Testament is much different in character than the New; the Old Testament — the “Jewish” part of the Scriptures — has a few references to war and bloodletting, but they tend to be focused on God getting the Jews to their rightful lands and keeping it. God is an angry, somewhat petulant father figure that expects undying devotion, even when he’s screwing with you. In the New Testament, Jesus has a much more benign take on God — he is a loving creature that would prefer you do the right thing. Try finding calls to violence in the New Testament…I’ll wait.

The Quran, on the other hand — and I’ve read it in English and Arabic — is completely different animal. Unlike the bible, which is a collection of authors translated, often at a temporal remove, by a host of other authors, all with differing politics and intents, is more messy in its canon that Star Trek. The Quran is the work of a single mind and is focused around submitting to the will of a single God that has some definite ideas — conveniently similar to Muhammed’s — on how you should act. Those who do not believe are to be coerced to it, preferable through violent struggle. The world is split into Dar el’Harb (the House of War), and Dar al’Islam (the House of Submission). It is a Manichean world; you are one of us, or you are the enemy. Worse…you are barely human, until you have received and submitted to God’s word. You can lie to, cheat, rape, kill, enslave a non-Muslim — it’s all cool with the man upstairs.

Politics, society, and religion are all folded into each other in Islam. You cannot separate them and be a good Muslim. The different people and cultures that Islam has encountered are irrevocably changed by their submission. Some mores and folkways might survive, but they are subsumed and modified to fit Islam.

Christianity, on the other hand, began as a solely Jewish sect, but quickly distanced itself from its parent religion as it spread quickly among the poor of the Roman Empire. When Islam changed the cultures it encountered, Christianity molded itself to the audience, borrowing from the Greek philosophers, Roman social mores, German and Celtic holidays, etc. Where Christianity was sold to the indigenous populations, it was tailored to fit those people’s beliefs. A single religious leadership did not exist until the religion became the official state belief of Rome, and in that moment, Christianity became tied to political forces which would use it to their benefit.

Whereas the benign message of Jesus is often discarded for the more authoritarian themes of the Old Testament, and chameleon-like quality of Catholic Christianity prior to the Reformation, allowed the religion to be used for political purposed of the various rulers. I would suggest that Islam is — in some ways — much more pure. The requirement that Muslims turn their aggression toward infidels over their fellow believers was never well received by political leaders who were in conflict, and there is plenty of internecine violence in places where Islam was quickly established…but by and large, the faithful were able to focus its aggression on Christian Europe because they were Other, and thanks to the teachings of the Quran, this was a holy mission.

The Reformation began as a simple plea by a well-placed monk for the Church to get out of the business of religion, out of politics, and focus on the spiritual mission of the Church. As should have been expected, it was not well-received by the Papacy. However, the political leaders of the small German states that were in constant competition to be the Holy Roman Emperor saw this as a political not a religion event; one which would allow them to slip the bonds of the Church. Religion was a superb motivator for people to engage in carnage, but the goal of the leadership was political. Kings and dukes, princes and pontiff sought to best each other and secure their own rules. The bloodshed of the Reformation would have been as likely, had Christianity been simply removed from the picture and replaced with Celtic, Nordic, and other ancient belief systems.

A Muslim reformation is unlikely precisely because cultural differences are less extreme, the religion has a rich litigious history through the hadith that can be tossed or kept as needed, and Islam does not have a central political entity. If anything, the growth of violent, fundamentalist Islam represents exactly what critics of the religion have been asking for, and what Luther was asking Rome for — a return to a more pure version of their religion.

 

Are Students Really Victims of Higher Education?

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Jeffery Till has an excellent piece over at Liberty.me regarding the current, burgeoning issue of college students and graduates who have gone to school for useless degrees and crushing debt.

This is becoming a common story with students and college. They go automatically. They sign up for ridiculous debt that will cripple their livelihood for decades. They don’t get the job they think they are going to get. And many have wasted their time while there.

It would be simple to say to one of these grads “Wow. Look at that terrible, stupid decision you made.”

And if it were something else besides college, people would be saying it. If an 18 year old went into debt to buy a $100,000 car that didn’t work, one might want to call them stupid, especially if they didn’t think it through at all.

But maybe we should look at them as victims.

Did they make a stupid decision..? If you went for math, or an applied science, no — you most likely, even with a BS, have a shot are a pretty good income with a reasonable debt ratio. (A good rule of thumb, kids, is not more than half of what you expect to earn annually…) But for those that took a Ph.D. in history (like yours truly) and racked up over $50,000 in debt — yes, you screwed up. You made a decision only slightly worse than that expensive tattoo you got ’cause it “really is an expression of my [enter stupid sentiment]…”

One of the main issues, Till shows us, is not just that the students made bad decisions regarding their education, but were almost powerless not to. From the moment you squirt out into life, parents are often badgering their kids to go to school. (Well, since the 1950s, and only those that understand an education can be worth something…) The schools push you to it — go to college, you’ll get a good job. The politicians push it, especially now that the government is the main beneficiary of your student loan interest. The banks pushed it for the same reason. The universities and colleges are desperate for the government cheese that comes with students, and they don’t much care if your succeed or fail, and will often stall your graduate studies the best they can, to wring every last dime out of Uncle Sam and your lender…all while decrying private, profit school for doing the same bloody thing.

He points out, rightly, I think, that much of your early life the need to make good decisions, to take responsibility for your actions, is mostly removed from kids in the developed world. You don’t decide if or when to study or do your homework. (Unless you’re a rebel, then more power to ya!) You don’t choose what you study until maybe that elective or two in high school. You’re unlikely to have learned how to read a stock page, or how compound interest works, or that there’s no money fairy that swoops into your parents’ room at night to provide a never ending source of cash for your video game subscriptions. There’s no learning how to manage your time to do what you need to to succeed in school.

So before you start looking at that Ivy League school ” ’cause it’s the best, dude!”, you might want to consider if you are 1) ready for the responsibility of self-motivation, 2) you know what the hell you want to do for your life (then have a plan B, because Plan A isn’t going to survive contact with real life…), 3) you really understand the burden of debt and how badly humped you will be if you take on too much. The banks are protected by the government; you cannot discharge the debt other than paying it off or going into indentured servitude to the government through military service or service in underprivileged areas (and the latter only pays off some of the debt. Oh, and it’s taxable income.)

A (Not) Quick Review — Mad Max: Fury Road

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1981 was a good year for movies. I was a young teen, and movies were increasingly my escape from the real world, if only for a few hours. That summer saw some of the best movies of their genres hit — Raiders of the Lost Ark brought me to the theater eight or nine times; For Your Eyes Only gave us the best of the Moore-era Bond movies (holy s#!tsnacks, he’s acting!), Excalibur hit the D&D spot but I found the movie overly stylized and not particularly engaging, Escape from New York and Outland were solid sci-fi fun. But there was one movie that crept in under the radar that summer and thrilled me — The Road Warrior.

At the time, I hadn’t seen Mad Max, and I only got to see The Road Warrior one time that summer, but the cars-in-the-desert theme became my go-to idea of the apocalypse. F@#k that pushing a shopping cart crap of The Road, the end of the world is deserts, highly modded hulks of cars, leather and PVC, and hair care products (there must be some — look at that damned mohawk!) Later, Beyond Thunderdome — while inventive — lost that essential, core trope of a Mad Max movie…cars! Director George Miller had first crafted the original film as an examination of the Australian car culture, and was a response to his work as a traveling trauma doctor who saw the numerous ways that people get dead in vehicles. Without the cars, the apocalypse just doesn’t work.

Thirty years and some dancing penguin movies later, Miller returns to his creation with Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s a reboot, no matter what the director was claiming — the essentials are there: Max Rockitansky was a police officer who lost his family, and in this picture is frequently suffering PTSD flashbacks involving his daughter (not a son, this time) who he could not save. He’s blasting around the wasteland of maybe Australia/maybe someplace else in his Australian 1973 Ford Falcon XB GT so beloved from the first two movies. He’s a nomad looking for a reason to exist, and will, as in The Road Warrior, act more as a catalyst for the events.

The first act is curious — Max is captured about two minutes into the film and spends much of it caged or tied to the front of a warboy’s wagon. He’s a “blood bag” for the radiation sickness-suffering Nux, and is valuable only for his O+ blood. The world-builing is fast and crammed into the action well; a lot of action directors could learn from Miller on how to build characters and a world by showing, not telling. (For another superb example of this, see John Wick.)

There’s a grotto of green and water in the desert ruled by Immortan Joe, a horrific picture of ancient, radiation damaged man who is encased in clear plastic “armor” and wears a breath mask fashioned to give him a leering grin. He’s played by Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played Toecutter in the original 1979 Mad Max. He’s holding the survivors hostage by controlling access to water, and his army of warboys are a cult of sick and deluded young men who expect this “immortal” to bring them to Valhalla, if they are worthy. The subcultures Miller creates in this movie are inventive and believable — from the glory above all warboys, to the “we do what we have to” of the all-femael Vuvulan nomads we meet later. There’s load of grotesque character imagery — the Bullet Farmer who gets blinded in the movie and is randomly firing guns from his dune buggy while blindfolded; there’s the gas lord with his ornate metal nose replacement — Tycho Brahe would be jealous; Nux has ritual scarification on his chest and tumors he affectionately calls “his mates — Larry and Barry…they’ll kill me one day…”

The hero of the piece is not Max, and that seems to be a big point of contention for the reactionaries who don’t like seeing a woman displace their mighty Road Warrior…but even in that movie and Thunderdome he was a sidekick in many ways, the ronin that helps the Feral Kid and his tribe escape, or saves the kids from whateverthehell Tina Turner was playing. Here, it’s Impertor Furiosa, played brilliantly by Charlize Theron. Like the others, she has some level of disfigurement — she’s missing an arm and has a claw-handed prosthetic. She has kidnapped Immortan Joe’s prized “breeders” — a bevy of good-looking young girls that are his “wives” and whom he hopes will provide undamaged children — and is taking them to the home Furiosa was stolen from…”the green place.”

Queue two hours of cars chases and fight sequences. Miller never really lets up in these scenes, they’re well over the top, but in a world so grotesque and weird! as this, they never seem as ridiculous as they clearly are. The Road Warrior was a restrained piece, compared to this — the action sequences extreme, but well inside the realm of possible; some of the stunts (and Miller still did mostly practical stuntwork for this movie) should be laughable, but after a few minutes in, you’re in. One of the most defining images of the movie is Joe’s warband — a quartet of drummers on gigantic taiko drums on the back, and a blind guitarist in bright red jumpsuit bungee corded on the front, of a vehicle that is 90% a wall of speakers. The guitarist plays the beat of the action pieces on a double necked guitar that shoots f#$king flames ferchristsake!

There’s a lot of pixels being spilled about the feminist nature of the story, and it’s certainly got that in spades. Women are strong, capable characters that don’t need men like max to save them…just aid them. Furiosa and Max never get romantic; he’s also not in charge…it’s her journey, he’s just heling her get there. Women aren’t maternal, save the world characters. Furiosa and her tribe are violent, but they do it to save the breeders, who aren’t wilting flowers, themselves. Max and Nux represent masculinity in a way that is violent — it’s the end of the world and it’s a brutal setting; they have to be violent — but they do it in the service of defending people. Immortan Joe and his crew represent the acquisitive, coercive masculinity of bad guys, clergy, and politicians. But you can pack all that away for two hours and watch a great action pic, if you want to.

Visually, this movie is stunning in a way I haven’t seen since probably Avatar, and it’s better because this isn’t CGI. The action is occasionally ridiculous, but you’re unlikely to notice. The cars — they’re glorious mutants of metal. There’s one group where their vehicles are covered in porcupine-like quills…it’s  bloody brilliant! The warband — you will leave wanting to have a big ass truck with your soundtrack, played by a lunatic shooting fire from his guitar, following you everywhere you go.

The worldbuilding is wondrously inventive.

The acting is generally very good from the leads. This is Theron’s movie and she owns it. Nicholas Hoult (the Beast in the retro X-Men movies) steals almost every scene he’s in. Tom Hardy is solid, if underused, as Max; they never really let him off the leash, and that is a good point of contention some have with the movie. Max is almost a spectator in his own film. The brides are all developed well in bits of dialogue and action that give them all simple, but recognizable, personalities.

Go see it. It’s everything we wanted Thunderdome to be in 1985. It’s a movie I saw for a matinee price, but I wouldn’t have felt gypped at full price.

Quote of the Day: Freidrich von Hayek

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The power which a multiple millionaire, who may be my neighbour and perhaps my employer, has over me is very much less than that which the smallest functionaire possesses who wields the coercive power of the state, and on whose discretion it depends whether and how I am to be allowed to live or to work. 

— Friedrich von Hayek , The Road to Serfdom

Quote of the Day: Alexis deTocqueville

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I think that the species of oppression by which democratic nations are menaced is unlike anything that ever before existed in the world.… The supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small, complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd. 

— Alexis deTocqueville , Democracy in America

The Problem Isn’t Polling, It’s the Pollsters

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In the wake of several failures of political polls to predict large wins for Republicans in 2014, for Likkud in Israel, and for Conservatives in the UK’s general election this year, pollsters are wondering what could possibly have gone wrong. Even Nate Silver over at FiveThirtyEight is calling for “reform” of polling.

The assumption is that there is something wrong with their methodology, but they are only partly right…the problem is the pollsters and their expectations. I would suggest that most pollsters, being tied to Big Media, tend to be, by and large, progressives and “left” in their political beliefs. Their desperate desire to win has led them to skew polls, hoping that they can “make it so.” Perhaps by beefing up Labour or Democrat numbers they can encourage their side to go to the polls, or discourage their opposition. This is, however, a very dangerous game — too much good news might cause folks to be complacent and not head out to the polls, or might engender a greater response from the opposition.

Then there’s the real danger…perhaps your ideas are losing in the market of ideas?

Congress Demands They Be Held to a Different Standard on Insider Trading

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The wannabe aristocrats of the House of Representatives are terribly upset that the Securities and Exchange Commission wants to hold them to the same standards as other investors, and have launched a suit to be given an exemption from the law regarding insider trading, because don’t you people know who they are!?!

John “Crybaby” Boehner through the House’s lawyers claimed in 2011 that an investigation of Congressional criminality is outside the purview of the executive branch due to separation of powers. Even though Congress passed the STOCK Act, which is supposed to prevent Congresspeople from benefiting directly from inside knowledge of legislation, but it doesn’t (apparently) stop them from sharing out information to allow others to benefit…and of course, they wouldn’t be compensated indirectly from these actions, would they..?

What’s the Point of a Professor?

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Mark Bauerlein of Emory’s English department has an interesting piece in The New York Times, entitled “What’s the Point of a Professor?”, but interesting not necessarily for the reasons he might have intended… In it, Bauerlein — rightly, I think — decries the lack of engagement between student and professor, and how that paucity of contact could reduce the impact the instructor has on their students.

However, the rest of the piece shows how academics misunderstand their position, and the product which they are providing. That last comment will immediately bring an emotional response from professors, I’m sure: “We’re not providing a product! We provide knowledge and wisdom!” Here’s Bauerlein:

When college is more about career than ideas, when paycheck matters more than wisdom, the role of professors changes. We may be 50-year-olds at the front of the room with decades of reading, writing, travel, archives or labs under our belts, with 80 courses taught, but students don’t lie in bed mulling over what we said. They have no urge to become disciples

…most undergraduates never know that stage of development when a learned mind enthralled them and they progressed toward a fuller identity through admiration of and struggle with a role model

You can’t become a moral authority if you rarely challenge students in class and engage them beyond it.

[Emphasis mine]

A quick look over the anecdotes about how professors changed, enriched, or “progressed” the minds of students shows something…they’re all academics. What Bauerlein misses, and academics have missed since the GI Bill rolled out, is that college has been — to the majority of people — an exercise in certification, not sitting at the knee of the “Great Man” and taking on his wisdom. Careers and paychecks, for those people outside of the coddled cloister of tenure, where you “live in a world of ideas”, is absolutely more important than ideas and wisdom. You can’t eat ideas. Wisdom doesn’t keep you warm on a cold night.

Moreover, the explosion of access to knowledge via the internet — this age’s printing press — allows those who just want to know, who want wisdom, to look for it without an interlocutor. Just as the printing press allowed the layman access to the word of God without the intervening opinion of a priest, the internet allows the curious skeptic the opportunity to trawl through most of humanity’s knowledge without the political framework of the professor. They can make their own context; they don’t need yours.

Worse is the idea that academia, of which I have been a part — on and off — for fifteen years, has real wisdom to impart! Look at the quote: decades of reading and writing, travel (usually to very nice, safe sections of the locales they go to), archive and labs… When your wisdom comes solely from a book, when you have no real need to engage with everyday economics, you don’t have to make a payroll, you don’t have to help build a small hospital in a rural location, you never had to jump out of an airplane so people could shoot at you in some awful part of the world, never had to learn a trade…what the fuck do you have to offer the average person that comes to college to grab a bachelor’s degree so they can get a management position in a small company?

If someone is going into business, do you think your well-read but completely inexperienced critique of capitalism is going to enrich them? (They do…that was rhetorical.) Are the poems of Wordsworth and a basic overview of Buddhism going to help a guy troubleshoot your network, or do a tactical reload while under fire from some soldier who wants you dead? No.

This “wisdom” is the purview of the wannabe elite, sheltered from real work, competition, expectations of performance, or the hard edges of the world. They might see this from a remove, but they are hardly in it. Theirs is the wisdom of the observer, not the doer. Their complaints are those of the monopolist whose product is no longer the only one on the market.

That said, his critique of grade inflation is certainly valid. Professors who feel the need to conform to students’ demands of better grades do not provide a better product by making things easier on their clients. Expectations of quality are still essential to providing a degree, a certification, that are actually worth something. By lowering standards, you debase your product, which in turn lowers the demand for what you are selling. The steady decline over the last few years in college enrollment is a symptom of this — there are now so many people with degrees that have little utility to their employers, and these students have been allowed to perform at substandard levels, that a college degree now has a higher cost than benefit for many people (outside of technical and science-related degrees, of course.)

Engaging with one’s students shouldn’t be an exercise in self-aggrandizement, but rather customer service, an attempt to suss out what it is the student needs. Is a bachelor’s in psychology or philosophy really advantageous to the student? Might they be better suited in a vocational program, or perhaps another area of academia? Maybe school isn’t really what they need. No matter what the academics might wish their position to be, they are service providers who must meet the demands of their clientele.

That’s what the real world looks like.

Quick Review: Avengers 2

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Finally got around to seeing Avengers 2 (Finally..? It’s only been open a week!) last night with the wife. I have to admit, I’d seen a few of the trailers and something about them made me think I was going to be disappointed by this one. I’d watched Avengers a few times after the theater experience and the one thing that kept bothering me — other than the “I got captured as part of my master plan thing”, and really Hollywood…stop it — was the need for better editing. The final battle in New York is almost 40 minutes long! That’s waaaay too long for a final action sequence; there is a point where the audience has been amped up for so long that they actually get bored in very long action sequences.

So when the film finally started, I was actively trying to keep an open mind. The pacing this time was much better than Avengers — Whedon gave the audience down time for character development, the most of which was aimed at Hawkeye, Banner, and Black Widow. We learn some things about Hawkeye that make him the most human of the bunch, and even he is having troubles fitting himself into a team of “gods.” There’s the Banner/Romanov romance subplot that is pissing off the crazy wing of the interwebz, and I found I didn’t mind it…I just didn’t think it added anything to the film. The wife thought it was lazy — “Why can’t  movie have a woman develop in a way that doesn’t involve romance or a baby?” Fair enough…but I didn’t find some of the criticism to be valid.

The first action scene is well done, have the Whedon humor to it, and has a nice Captain America: The Winter Soldier tie-in and carries that spy meets sci-fi tone that Cap 2 and the first movie hit. It seems the Avengers have been hitting Hydra since the events of Cap 2. We meet the new bad guys soon to turn good, Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). The former I found annoying, but thought the performance was quite good…especially since I started to like the character by the end. And this is a Whedon movie, so you know what happens to the second string character you start to like… Olsen’s accent is atrocious and fades in and out throughout the show, otherwise she’s passable. As for the rest of the cast, they’ve been living these characters (save Ruffalo) for a half dozen movies each — they’ve got the characters down. They also let War Machine, Don Cheadle’s character, in on the action, and there’s a cameo of Falcon.

The bad guy is not an AI created by Stark, but rather some kind of AI that was living in one of the Infinity Stones in Loki’s scepter (it’s a “mind stone”, we are told later.) It’s released, doesn’t adapt too well to the program they try to impose on it, and you get James Spader voicing Ultron, an angry, genocidal machine that wants to evolve. This apparently involves destroying Mankind. Ultron is both interesting for not being the stereotypical megalomaniacal baddie — he’s got a great “Oh, I wanted to take this opportunity to tell you my master plan” moment…where he doesn’t. But he’s also not truly menacing, as he was in the trailers; if anything, he comes off as a petulant, confused child. It makes him interesting, but not frightening.

There’s some very nice spy movie action in this one — there’s the raid on a Hydra base in the start of the movie, some investigation stuff that leads to a South African arms dealer in beached ships (very cool) and rampaging through an unnamed town that looked like Johannesburg. (Just checked it…yup!) There’s more trying to stop Ultron’s master plan in Seoul, including some very cool vehicle chase sequences that feature the new Harley-Davidson electric motorcycle. It’s good stuff.

The final battle returns to the Hydra base of the beginning of the film and the heroes must battle hundreds of instantiations of Ultron, save the population of a ton, and ultimately stop Ultron from destroying all life on Earth. The battle sequence is most likely very close to half an hour long, but I didn’t think it lagged as much as the New York denouement. It might on later viewings. Notable was that while Thor got to kick a lot of ass, and got some of the good lines, he felt very flat and there was little real development for him, I thought.

The end has the team reforming with Scarlet Witch, Falcon, and War Machine as part of the team, and a few of the old guys bowing out…the end credits show Thanos busting out the Infinity Glove with a “Fine. I’ll do it myself…” So now we have the villain for Infinity War, I suspect.

Overall, it’s a good follow up to Avengers and in some ways it’s a superior film. It’s well paced and balanced, it has a solid tone, the characters all get time in the spotlight — even the B team — and the dialogue is up to Whedon standards. It’s definitely a “See it in the theater movie” and I didn’t feel gipped at full price with no 3D.

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