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PopCult Reviews is place to take deep dive into media & culture from a Left perspective. This isn’t content coming from a lofty, complicated, academic point of view but accessible reviews and analysis. We’re here to celebrate the good stuff and put a critical lens to the media that has saturated culture. Patreon is the best way to show your support for the work we do here. More details are below.

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Movie Review – Serpico

Serpico (1973)
Written by Waldo Salt and Norman Wexler
Directed by Sidney Lumet

All Cops Are Bastards. That was the commonly accepted stance in most of America for quite a while. Then 9/11 happened, and it was used as an opportunity to militarize police in America to the degree that had never happened before. That was simultaneously happening as cultural worship of first responders was seeded. I definitely think firefighters and paramedics do vital work, but they were pushed aside in the ensuing years or mashed into this current insane “Back the Blue” cult mentality. Information in America is delivered in bursts of overwhelming amounts that no average person can process & parse. This is why most Americans don’t even know about DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services (1989), where the Supreme Court ruled that “police have no specific obligation to protect.” But for people that have been awake for a while, they didn’t need that ruling to explain it to them.

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PopCult Movie Giveaway!!!!

For the first time ever, I am doing a giveaway. 

What’s the prize? 

A physical copy of or digital code for any film I’ve reviewed on the blog in 2022 (January – July) if it is available.

If the film is out of print I won’t be paying $100 for some rare copy. It’s got to be currently in print. The price of the film must be under $100 to qualify.

How do you enter? 

I’m so glad you asked. If you are a Patreon member on July 31st 2022, then your name will be entered into the random drawing. You must be a member at the “Sneak Previews” or higher level to be entered. 

You must be a resident of the United States to enter, I cannot do international shipping. 
You must be 18 years of age or older. 

Visit the PopCult Patreon page to enter today!

Movie Review – The Effects of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds

The Effects of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds (1972)
Written by Paul Zindel and Alvin Sargent
Directed by Paul Newman

Americans are haunted by their alienation. It begins when you are a child, as your natural inclinations towards curiosity and play are effectively beaten out of you on all fronts. School is one institution that does much of the beating in conjunction with your parents and the Church. Most people learn how to conform and gel with the group so that every chugs along without a hitch. However, there are always some, the ones with the most cruelty visited upon them that they can’t get past it, that remain sunk in the mire of human development. That number grows in times like these, as people increase the rate of everyday cruelty. The callous way so many want to “return to normal” while COVID-19 is still a threat to health, those with disabilities and autoimmune issues are ignored. The increase in public outbursts is another sign of people losing their minds over inconveniences because that’s the only thing they demand out of life, that their treats be easy to access. It’s enough to make you grow to hate the world.

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Comic Book Review – Thor by Walt Simonson

Thor by Walt Simonson Omnibus (2011)
Reprints Thor #337-355, 357-369, 371-382, Balder the Brave #1-4
Written by Walt Simonson
Art by Walt Simonson and Sal Buscema

I can’t say I was a fan of the Thor comic books growing up or even as an adult. I loved mythology as a child, and D’Aulaire’s Book of Norse Mythology got me hooked. But something about Thor just didn’t hook me. I was certainly intrigued by the art I saw, but the stories, with their very austere manner of speech, were a little much. Every time a new creator comes onboard the title, I will give it a chance, only to find myself growing bored. I wish I could tell you I fell in love with Walt Simonson’s legendary Thor run, but I can only really say that I respect it, and there were parts I enjoyed a lot. He’s undoubtedly a lover of Norse myths and infuses the series with it from the first issue.

Simonson had done pencil work on Thor when Len Wein wrote the title. He worked on Thor for about a year in the late 1970s, but by the time Simonson took over as both writer/artist, he’d intentionally worked to change his style. I don’t know how to fully describe Simonson’s artwork, but it’s not like much else I’ve ever seen. It has traces of styles present in illustrations from the 1960s and 70s. Male characters are often “chunky,” square in shape, and broad-shouldered. Female characters are smaller but still powerful, agile, and muscular. That’s really just describing the heroic and villainous characters. Supporting characters come in a wider variety of shapes. Volstagg and his wife are both very plump and round but not drawn for comic effect, instead presented as just who they are. Movement feels fluid due to Simonson’s line work; there’s a visual path used to show characters flying through the sky or bringing a weapon down on an enemy.

Simonson opened his run by shaking things up. He introduces Beta Ray Bill in #337, a figure who, for people outside the comics, will sound insane. Bill is an alien, specifically a Korbinite. His people have been displaced from their home in The Burning Galaxy and have a massive space ark working its way through the universe to find a new home. The Korbinites use their technology and willing test subjects to create a champion. Bill is the one who passes the tests, and he is transformed into a fierce cybernetic warrior. SHIELD detects the ship crossing through our solar system, and Nick Fury calls on Thor to help investigate. Thor loses his hammer during the fight, and Bill can lift it, transforming him into a variation on Thor. Eventually, Bill and Thor become friends, and Odin is able to forge Stormbreaker, a new hammer just for Bill.

Thor had always been one of the more Jack Kirby-influenced Marvel comics, so blending high fantasy and mythology felt like a natural fit. Beta Ray Bill is also such a unique character that throwing him on the cover of that first issue felt like a declaration that Thor was getting a major shake-up. During Simonson’s run, Bill is paired with Lady Sif, one of Thor’s potential paramours, and I found their dynamic to be far more interesting than any relationship the title character ever had. Bill’s story also ties directly into the central story arc that makes up the first big chunk of Simonson’s run. His homeworld was overrun by fire demons who ended up being the acolytes of Surtur, a devilish figure in Norse mythology. 

Simonson had previously done art for the immensely popular Star Wars title Marvel published at the time, which is where his art style was really reinvented. When he gets Thor, he’s employing those skills to present large-scale space battles and showcase the scope of the mythology that runs through this pocket of the Marvel universe. Throughout the first year of issues, we’re constantly teased that something is happening in the background that will tie these stories together. A shadowy figure forges a large sword on an anvil, and the narration frames this as more than just a blacksmith. Making this weapon is a cosmic act; the hammer working the metal is cosmic thunder. Eventually, we’ll see this sword being wielded, and its swing will rent a chasm through the Nine Realms. It’s not a sword; it’s a manifestation of ancient dark power. 

While Simonson ties his epic stories to events on Earth, this run was the one where Thor’s human ties were quietly pushed into the background. Previously, Donald Blake had been Thor’s human form on Earth. It’s relatively straightforward that these are two separate entities, and Simonson has Blake disappear, and Thor simply never turns back into him. Instead, the hero establishes a secret identity of Sigurd Carlson, rents an apartment in NYC, and gets a job as a construction worker. Unfortunately, the Carlson identity doesn’t seem to be an element Simonson loved dearly, as it is used as a plot device and then discarded for most of the run. 

Thor having a mortal persona has just never made sense to me. It makes sense for Spider-Man or Iron Man; they were someone before they became the superhero. Thor is just Thor; that’s who he was born as. On the other hand, Thor had been handled a little like Captain Marvel/Shazam in his creation. Blake would smash his wooden cane down and, in a blast of thunder & lightning, be transformed into the hammer-wielding Norse god. By discarding Blake, it would be as if Billy Batson shouted Shazam and never went back. In Donny Cates’ current run on Thor, he’s had a storyline that addressed the abandonment of Donald Blake. If you are a fan of that aspect of Thor, I do not think you would enjoy how that story turns out.

Simonson also clearly loves the character of Balder the Brave, like a whole lot! Balder doesn’t exist in the MCU; maybe in the future? In Norse mythology, he plays the role that Thor has been thrust into in the movies. Balder is the golden child of the Norse pantheon; he’s the God of Light and, therefore, deeply beloved by Odin. In the myths, Thor is a cantankerous moody figure. It makes sense as he’s the God of the Storm; they pop up and are destructive, and suddenly everything is calm again. Balder is having an existential crisis when Simonson’s run begins. In the comics, he goes through the story of a myth where Balder is betrayed by Loki and dies. Balder is back in the land of the living but shaken up by that experience, growing overweight from depression and just hanging around Asgard doing nothing.

Balder’s story happens with small connections to Thor’s and feels like a separate comic book inside Thor’s title. Balder encounters the Norns, the triplet goddesses of destiny. They show him a vision of what will come for Asgard, which sets him off on a redemption arc. He transforms himself into the hero he’s supposed to be and fights entities from throughout Norse mythology. Simonson does some deep cuts to build out the world of the Nine Realms. Thor & Balder’s great-grandfather Buri shows up for a bit to cause problems while Odin is experiencing one of his many deaths. To his credit, Simonson brings out a lot of humanity from characters that so easily could have been written as distant from human experience.

Some new elements are also introduced, and I don’t think they are great. Malekith, the Dark Elf, is introduced here, and I was surprised at how inconsequential he feels. He’s certainly a threat, but one that is overcome easily to make way for the war with Surtur. Lorelei is the little sister of The Enchantress, and she just feels like a repetition of that character but less interesting. There’s also Kurse, a character that the writing seems to want you to believe is a possibly amnesiac Thor, but of course, isn’t. I like how Simonson took the Dark Elves of Svartalfheim and made them one and the same, essentially with the Faerie. I don’t think The Wild Hunt storyline here is entirely coherent, but I get what Simonson was going for. Also, I think this run does some interesting things with The Executioner, and I wish Simonson had used him more.

I can’t say this earned its spot as one of my favorite Marvel runs of all time. I think it was essential to read it as one of those benchmarks in the history of the comic medium. This clear vision remade Thor and influenced everything that has come after. It could be argued that almost every creative team that came after Simonson is actively repeating the stories & themes he told or pushing back against them with a deep awareness of how they transformed the book. If you are a fantasy fan or someone who enjoys the big, bold action-oriented stories that comics can tell, this omnibus will pack a mighty punch for you.

Movie Review – Dirty Harry

Dirty Harry (1971)
Written by Harry Julian Fink, R.M. Fink, Jo Heims, and Dean Riesner
Directed by Don Siegel

We are incredibly easy to manipulate. If you go up to a random person in the United States and ask them about crime in the country, they will inevitably say that crime is on the rise. In general, that isn’t true. Crime has been plummeting throughout the U.S. since the 2000s. If you narrow it to specific crimes, you’ll get spikes in thefts & robberies, but violent crime is declining. That said, the United States still ranks #1 globally in violent crime and incarcerated citizens (there’s a cyclical connection going on there). But we must also consider what is categorized as a crime and what is not. Corporate wage theft is not considered a crime, and it is rampant in every corner of the country. Police violence is placed as the opposite of “crime” when it is one of the most egregious, naked displays of state-sponsored organized crime. The 1970s was an era of high crime, and in typical American fashion, reactionary thought led to dreams of “blow the brains away” of “sniveling punks.” The avatar of this shoot first, don’t even ask questions after mentality is, of course, “Dirty” Harry Callahan.

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Movie Review – The Last Movie

The Last Movie (1971)
Written by Dennis Hopper and Stewart Stern
Directed by Dennis Hopper

When I was growing up, Dennis Hopper was King Koopa from Super Mario Bros or the eyepatch-wearing villain from Waterworld. I knew about his role in the 1970s American film scene extremely tangentially and without really realizing it. I think of Eek the Cat’s Apocalypse Now parody (Eekpocalypse Now), where Mittens recreated Hopper’s manic photog. It can’t be glossed over that Dennis Hopper was a Republican at his death, a political view that seemed to clash with the persona audiences came to know. At the time of Easy Rider’s release in 1969, in Hopper’s own words, he was “probably as Left as you could get without being a Communist.” However, by the 1980s, the actor became a Republican and claimed to have strong support for Ronald Reagan and the ensuing Bush regime. In 2008, Hopper openly endorsed Barack Obama’s run for president on the Democratic ticket in yet another seemingly contradictory moment. He would cite the inclusion of Sarah Palin as VP for John McCain as his chief reason for switching. In 2010, Hopper passed away, leaving his body of film work and a lot of confusion over who this man really was. 

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Movie Review – Five Easy Pieces

Five Easy Pieces (1970)
Written by Carole Eastman & Bob Rafelson
Directed by Bob Rafelson

The 1970s were a time of significant change and difficulty in America. It was the decade when marginalized groups throughout the United States built on momentum that started in the 1950s expanded civil rights to levels the country had never seen. There was also a lot of disillusionment within America, especially regarding the numerous institutions that had fairly regularly experienced blind devotion from the masses. Despite the recognition of women, LGBTQ people, BIPOC, and other groups, the film industry was still extremely white male-centered. As you’ll see in this series, there’s almost always a white male protagonist. I still believe the themes and sentiments of these movies apply to people who aren’t white and male, but that consistent presence does keep these pictures from sharing the diversity of voices they should have. While the media today is much more diverse on the surface level, it often comes with a catch that BIPOC or LGBTQ representatives espouse the ideals of the status quo, often presenting characteristics from the “dominant” culture; they have to be exemplary rather than just who they are. 

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Book Update – May/June 2022

Darryl by Jackie Ess

The titular Darryl is a man living in the Pacific Northwest who is going through a profoundly chaotic and confusing period of his life. Due to a healthy inheritance, Darryl doesn’t work and spends his days abusing GHB and watching his wife have sex with other men. He claims he’s a cuckold, but the other cucks on the message board he follows don’t see it that way. There is something deeply wrong with Darryl, and he doesn’t seem to realize it. Like devils & angels on his shoulder, two other men play formative roles in Darryl’s sometimes sad, sometimes hilarious revelation. Bill is a longtime friend, someone who has sex with Darryl’s wife but seems genuinely worried about our protagonist. Clive is a “therapist” brought in by his wife, who turns out to be another man just interested in fucking her. He drugs Darryl, who is more than happy to be numbed to life. Author Jackie Ess has written a brilliant, short novel about such a distinct voice. There are few books like this one, and even if you aren’t very knowledgeable about kink culture (like me), it’s a very approachable text that confronts the good & bad in people.

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