The moral clarity of Spider-Man

A few times each year, a videogame comes out that’s so fun and engrossing that it takes over my life for a couple of weeks. Beating the game becomes my obsession — I find it difficult to re-join a story-driven game after I’ve taken a week or two away from it.

Recently it’s happened with Horizon: Zero Dawn. Then a few months back with God of War. And now it’s happened with Marvel’s Spider-Man for PS4 (hereafter simply abbreviated Spider-Man), whose 20-hour campaign I just completed after about a week of play time.

Spider-Man is a revelation. Where previous Spider-Man games have been uneven at best, Spider-Man probably does the best job of capturing what it feels like to be Spider-Man: The constant pressure to do good in a city where crime is thriving, the challenge of balancing the mundane life of Peter Parker with the outlandish adventures of his alter-ego, the freedom of having Manhattan as your playground as you whiz through the air at terminal velocity. The game does this all while telling an engaging story that arguably does a better job of capturing the spirit of Spider-Man than even Spider-Man: Homecoming.

One of the reasons I think this game is so appealing is because it’s a throwback to a simpler time of storytelling. Spider-Man has a moral clarity to him that is absent in modern day stories (even those in the Marvel universe). He fights crimes. He tackles supervillains that are literally cartoonishly evil. In side quests, Spider-Man finds missing persons. He recovers lost pets. The guy even tries to solve global warming.

There’s something refreshing and pure about a character that just wants to make the world a better place. I wouldn’t describe it as naive; I’d describe it as emerging from a different time. There are the good guys (Spider-Man himself, the police, journalists), there are bad guys (privatized paramilitary organizations, Electro, etc.), and there are those that can be redeemed (no spoilers for the game here). There’s no such thing as collateral damage in this world — a phenomenon even Homecoming and the Avengers films have tried to reckon with. You see Spider-Man obliterate a city block to stop a villain but you never need to worry about the consequences of those actions.

We don’t really see stories like this anymore, and for good reason: the world is more complicated and endlessly politicized now. Our storytelling has gotten more complex and nuanced to keep up with it. The media’s position as a force for good in the world is complicated at best, as is the role of police. These days, the idea of a vigilante with superpowers who feels that he alone can solve everyone’s problems is more likely to raise alarm than put people at ease.

Maybe that’s why Spider-Man is so appealing: it gives us a glimpse into a world where simply having the best intentions and the willingness to sacrifice was enough to make a difference. I think we’d all like to see that world return. But I don’t think it will.


Here’s some other stuff I’ve appreciated from this past week:

Apple announces new iPhones

This week, Apple announced the iPhones XR, XS, and XS Max.

The names of these devices are widely regarded as terrible. I think they were conceived and executed by Heath Ledger’s version of The Joker. How does Apple, the most valuable tech company in the world by market cap, expect to brand its flagship phone with two letters, the first of which is pronounced as a Roman numeral, and the second of which is pronounced as an actual letter? What are the rules anymore??

(That said I will say that the benefit of branding one device as the “XS Max” does distinguish it from being a “Plus” in previous years, where larger devices actually got better/more features. The new XS and XS Max only differ in screen size and nothing else).

As for the devices themselves, I’m really not sure if I’m going to upgrade from my iPhone 8 Plus. The screen looks great and the features are fine. But I’m still not sure if I want to make the transition to Face ID with all those new gestures — I still like to swipe up to get Control Center from the bottom of the screen, thank you very much — and the price of the new XS Max (the device I’d likely want to get) is punishing, starting at $1100 and going all the way to $1450.

At that cost, I now have to choose between getting one of the most advanced APS-C stills/video cameras ever made, or buying an iPhone that’ll probably make me want to upgrade again a year from now. It makes it a much more tricky decision.

Here are some interesting takes on this week’s announcement:

The jokes they most regret

Spectacular piece by Erik Abiss for Vulture about the jokes 13 comedians most regret telling:

As the discourse rages on about whether or not political correctness is destroying comedy (spoiler alert: it isn’t), these 13 comedians decided that self-interrogation is ultimately a good thing. They opened up about the material they’ve performed that hasn’t aged particularly well and how owning up to it has helped grow their comedic voices.

I found Emily Heller’s section to be particularly meaningful.

Sperm Count Zero

Daniel Noah Halpern, writing for GQ:

There has always been evidence that men, throughout life, are at higher risk of early death—from the beginning, a higher male incidence of Death by Mastodon Stomping, a higher incidence of Spiked Club to the Brainpan, a statistically significant disparity between how many men and how many women die of Accidentally Shooting Themselves in the Face or Getting Really Fat and Having a Heart Attack. The male of the species dies younger than the female—about five years on average. Divide a population into groups by birth year, and by the time each cohort reaches 85, there are two women left for every man alive. In fact, the male wins every age class: Baby boys die more often than baby girls; little boys die more often than little girls; teenage boys; young men; middle-aged men. Death champions across the board.

Now it seems that early death isn’t enough for us—we’re on track instead to void the species entirely. Last summer a group of researchers from Hebrew University and Mount Sinai medical school published a study showing that sperm counts in the U.S., Europe, Australia, and New Zealand have fallen by more than 50 percent over the past four decades. (They judged data from the rest of the world to be insufficient to draw conclusions from, but there are studies suggesting that the trend could be worldwide.) That is to say: We are producing half the sperm our grandfathers did. We are half as fertile.

Between the caging of immigrants and human beings losing the ability to reproduce, it’s clear that Children of Men has become a documentary.

Fuji announces the X-T3

Chris Welch, writing for The Verge:

Fujifilm has just announced the $1,500 X-T3, which is the latest addition to the company’s X Series lineup of APS-C mirrorless cameras. It’s the follow-up to 2016’s X-T2, a beloved camera — among Fujifilm shooters, anyway — that’s grown more powerful and capable over time thanks to a bevy of firmware updates. The X-T2 of today is an entirely different beast than when I first tested it. Its autofocus, video capabilities, and subject tracking have all been extensively fine-tuned. But having hit the ceiling for what it can get out of the X-T2, Fujifilm has decided that now’s the time for new hardware

The Fuji X-T2 is probably my favorite stills camera of all time. It’s light, powerful, and produces amazing images.

I doubt I’ll buy the X-T3 at launch because the improvements are so incremental. But once this puppy drops in price in a year or two, I’ll definitely be picking one up. If you are just dipping your toe into mirrorless cameras, I have no reservations about recommending pretty much anything in Fuji’s lineup.

Twitter bans Alex Jones

Yesterday, Twitter finally banned Alex Jones and Info Wars from its platform:

In a Twitter thread, Buzzfeed reporter Charlie Warzel explains why this banning took so long:

Twitter likely sees this decision as being consistent with its rules (despite the fact that many have complained about Jones’ behavior on the platform for years). In August, when deplatforming Jones gained momentum, Twitter will argue it did not want to appear reactive by banning. Nor, it appears, did they want to ban him retroactively for old violations (which is why when CNN and others provided old examples of violating tweets, they issued Jones a warning/made him delete the tweets). Of course there’s a *huge* disconnect between this vision (which Jack sees as transparent and consistent enforcement) and what other people felt (that Jones was constantly acting in bad faith and that he would continue to harass, etc). […] Twitter sees this as part of bigger way to gain user trust. Reality is that is likely a naive view. People will be mad Jack et al didn’t do this faster. Folks on far right will see this as yet MORE censorship. If this was all a way to gain trust…not sure you can say it worked.

I’m relieved that Twitter has made this decision and saddened that it took this long. That said, I’m back on Twitter. A few people have asked me if my newsletter will continue, given that it was created in the wake of me leaving Twitter. The answer short answer is yes. Expect regular updates via email/blog post for as long as I can keep doing them. (If you’re new here, welcome! Subscribe to my emails here.)

The long answer is that being away from Twitter has really made me realize the effects that Twitter had on my life, both positive and negative. There were many things I missed about being on the platform: the film community, the hilarious memes and turns of phrase by the witty people I follow, the feeling that I was constantly up-to-date with the news, the ability to promote my work to a large audience and get it seen by thousands.

But I also realized all the terrible things about Twitter. I spent so much of my days refreshing it constantly for no reason in particular. I saw how the site is designed to reward only extreme opinions. Every day was just a constant stream of people dunking on each other and getting hundreds of thousands of retweets/likes in return. (Just look at Twitter Moments during any given day to see how the site facilitates and encourages this)

Most importantly, I was dismayed at how the site completely eliminates nuance. There are heroes and villains. If you participate, you are either the person being annihilated, or you are the person behind the gun, joining into the dogpile.

I welcomed the opportunity to write these newsletters/posts. It gave me the chance to step back and try putting together a complete argument. It forced me to slow down and think more deliberately about what I put out into the world. It prevented me from instantly sharing every passing thought in my head.

I’m grateful that you’ve taken the chance to be on this list and let me communicate with you directly. I think it’s made me a better thinker and honestly, a better person. So, thank you.


  • The most extraordinary story this week was the publication of an anonymous op-ed in the New York Times seemingly admitting that we are witnessing an administrative coup in the White House.
    • I found the follow-up interview with the section’s editor to be a fascinating tight-rope walk. I was also stunned that he didn’t seem to understand how big of a deal this piece would be, and the intensity with which people (including reporters at his own paper) would try to uncover the author’s secret identity.
    • David Frum at The Atlantic captures my thoughts on this whole affair: “If the president’s closest advisers believe that he is morally and intellectually unfit for his high office, they have a duty to do their utmost to remove him from it, by the lawful means at hand.”
    • Pod Save America also has a good perspective on the op-ed: it feels extremely self-serving and accomplishes nothing.
  • I’ll be at XOXOFest in Portland this weekend. If you’re around, hit me up via Twitter/email/whatever and say hi!

The storytelling language of ‘Star Wars’

Patrick Willems has put together another insightful video essay, this time on the storytelling language of Star Wars. This essay eschews any talk of storytelling decisions, focusing only on how the craft informs the audience’s experience of the film.

One thing this essay made me realize is that each of the post-Return-of-The-Sith films (i.e. the ones made by Disney) has a vastly different style, yet a couple of them (Rogue One and Solo) have had a really troubled production history, requiring new directors to be brought in. It’s a small reflection of how Lucasfilm was willing to take chances on new directions for the series, but then discovered during the execution that maybe it didn’t want to do that after all.

Vimeo pivots towards being a tech company

Sara Fischer, writing for Axios:

Vimeo, the 14-year-old video service that started as a platform for indie filmmakers, is changing its business to focus on selling software tools to its community of millions of social creators, instead of being a video viewing destination, its CEO said in an interview with Axios.

The pivot allows Vimeo to go after a less competitive social “SaaS” (software as a service) market that focuses on stock images and video, as opposed to the saturated video viewing market, which is dominated by massive tech companies investing billions in original content to win eyeballs.

I think this is a great business move that makes a lot of sense for Vimeo. That said, it does make me sad that YouTube no longer has even a single plausible competitor that’s investing in high-quality video. Competition generally makes all platforms better, and the Vimeo viewing experience is still a great one.