X Men, Avengers, and Titus Pullo

In the 2016 film X Men Apocalypse, the villain, actually named Apocalypse, recruits a cadre of disgruntled mutants to destroy the world. As anyone may guess, the X Men set out to stop him and there follows a climactic battle between disgruntled and gruntled mutants. Apocalypse is enormously powerful, as are the mutants arrayed against him, and he easily disposed of the world’s nuclear arsenals and then nearly wipes out all life on the planet. This plot has become a familiar one, but this movie in question is a particularly blatant example. The scale and the stakes involved are ramped up to the highest level possible. The issue is the eradication of all life on the planet, and yet the struggle is kept between the two parties of mutants alone. Despite facing their own extinction, none of the leaders, governments, or armies of humankind take any part in the fight, and stopping Apocalypse is left to the superheroes. Everybody who isn’t enhanced is strangely and unpardonably passive throughout. This passivity shows itself in the X Men and the Avengers movies, and it has become one of the principal features of the whole genre. These movies make it clear that ordinary humans are hopelessly overmatched and it’s best for everyone that the world’s militaries and law enforcement agencies stay out of the fray and leave the work to beneficent superhumans.

In the final acts of these films, the laws, courts, governments, and armies of mankind disappear for all narrative purposes, while the demigods fight it out. The stage is emptied of everything except famous monuments which are left to be wrecked in computer generated spectacles. This void is conspicuous and it precludes any interactions between the superheroes and their ordinary allies. The series of Marvel comics shows on Netflix seem aware of this drawback and they try to avoid setting their final acts in a global vacuum. To keep some sort of context, they’ve scaled back the scope of the conflict and the stakes involved. The amphitheater is now one neighborhood in New York rather than the entire globe, and the villains aren’t out to destroy the world. Kingpin wants to run Hell’s Kitchen, not unleash Armageddon. KIllgrave wants to eat at fancy restaurants and play house with Jessica Jones. This allows the show writers to keep the institutions, players, and settings of ordinary life: courts, politicians, lawyers, journalists, prions, and they all can play an integral role in the story, which can then be more complex and be made up of more moving parts. Kingpin’s empire is threatened by a newspaper reporter. Jessica Jones can’t simply assassinate Killgrave because she needs to exculpate the girl he made kill her own parents. Netflix has cut down the stories and made them smaller, but by doing so, they can tell stories where crooked politicians, district attorneys, cops, journalists, and lawyers can be prominent in the action. The whole world doesn’t need to vanish during the final act, and the ending can unfold in the same world we ourselves inhabit.

This restriction in scale seems to be worth the sacrifice if the payoff is a more complex and interesting narrative. Yet is the reduction really necessary? Must the setting become parochial, and the struggle lessened in its importance? Can’t a larger superhero story keep its human context and not become a saga of titans battling in an empty firmament? There is an approach that will achieve all of this but the narrative vehicle isn’t found in comics but instead in the HBO series Rome. Like Matt Murdoch and Jessica Jones, Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo are formidable without being invulnerable or all-powerful. Yet the actions is spread over a wider scene, and Caesar, Pompey, and Mark Antony are fighting for control of the entire known world. And like their Marvel counterparts, they must contend with rules, laws, and figures of authority. And like their Marvel counterparts, they’re citizens rather than demigods. Matt Murdoch went to university, took and passed the bar exam, argues cases in a court of law, rents offices in one building an apartment in another. Jessica Jones is arrested by the police and is held pending trial. They have Social Security numbers, driver’s licenses, credit histories, bank accounts, and the myriad other connections with the organizations and institutions of the modern world.

Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo are members of the Thirteenth Legion, and as such they are subject to military discipline and regulations. On the social ladder, they sit near the bottom and they are far below many of the other characters. Not only in their dealings with Julius Caesar, but even in interactions with lesser characters, they must remain deferential and obedient. Dangerous men and capable killers, they are nevertheless figures of little importance. In the very first episode, they come to the rescue of a very creepy Octavian, a boy with the mind of Tywin Lannister in the body of Joffrey, winning themselves the gratitude and patronage of his reptilian mother, Atia who herself closely resembles Cersei. When taken out of the urban setting and marooned in the wilderness, these constraints of caste and birth are removed. Pompey is surpassingly and unquestionably their social superior, but far from Rome, away from its mores and its laws, acting on their own, they kill his captors and set him free. Yet once they return to the world and report back to Caesar, they must confess their effrontery in taking it upon themselves to save and then release his archrival and suffer the consequences. In their lowly station, they must be humble and biddable, doing as Atia bids and defying her only at the behest of someone yet more powerful than she.

Not only must they obey their aristocratic betters, the two men are also at the mercy of forces more powerful than they are. Vorenus follows Mark Anthony out of duty but he’s incapable of deciding or even of significantly influencing their shared fate. He sees his leader giving way to dissipation, losing his fighting skills, and leading them both down a path that will end in their death but he’s powerless to do anything about it. He doesn’t have the rank or the power to alter the outcome and he can only keep his word and faithfully attend his master as Anthony sets about getting them both killed. Neither he nor Pullo are in control and they’re borne along by irresistible tides of history and destiny. They aren’t strong enough to save the world all on their own.

 

They’re not simply spectators, but they’re also actors in the greatest events of their time. They stand at the elbow of the high and mighty, and they are pulled into the biggest happenings of their age. In this respect, they’re much like Forrest Gump. Like the affable Alabaman, they’re in the right place at the right time, or in the wrong place at the wrong time, and they’re in the thick of things as history is made all around them. They encounter and serve JFK, John Lennon, LBJ, Elvis, Octavian, Caesar, Cicero, and Pompey. Rome shows us both ends of the social spectrum, queens, imperators, and consuls, and their lowborn bodyguards and assassins.

One of the earlier episodes is entitled “How Titus Pullo brought down the Republic” and it recounts how one small action of Pullo’s has enormous repercussions. Pullo didn’t set out to bring down the Republic but he inadvertently touches of a series of events that change the world forever. He doesn’t turn the course of history because he has godlike powers, but through the butterfly effect. One step leads to a cascade of mistakes, chances, and accidents which results in the collapse of the Republic. This was one deed of one small actor among many, rather than the colossal heroics of a tiny number of nearly omnipotent saviors. Titus Pullo inadvertently destroyed a system of government, and in much the same manner a protagonist might save a life, avert a disaster, or diffuse a crisis and end up saving a country or the world.

Rome HBO DVD Polly Walker Kerry Condon Kevin McKidd Ray Stevenson James Purefoy

Tyrion Lannister and three other Silenuses

For most who watch Game of Thrones or read the books, Tyrion Lannister is their favorite character. A dwarf, with a jutting forehead, a squashed in face, and mismatched eyes, Tyrion is often disliked or mistrusted by the other characters because of his ugliness. George R. R. Martin does everything he can to sharpen the contrast between the hideous face and the great mind behind it. In much the same manner, Plato wrote of Socrates in The Symposium:

I shall try in this way, men, to praise Socrates, through likenesses. Now he perhaps will think it’s for raising a laugh; but the likeness will be for the sake of the truth, not for the sake of the laughable. I declare that he is most strictly like those silenuses that sit in the shops of herm sculptors, the ones that craftsmen make holding reed pipes or flutes: and if they are split apart and opened up, they show that they have images of gods within. And I declare, in turn, that he bears a likeness to the satyr Marsyas. Now, that you are like them at least in looks, Socrates, surely not even you would dispute;

Like Tyrion, Socrates was remarkably ugly, and if we are compiling a list of great men with unsightly faces we must not omit Abraham Lincoln or Henry of Navarre. Lincoln characterized himself as the homeliest man in Illinois, and Henry was the ugliest man in the French court. All these men have come to be revered for their wisdom and compassion. When the generals had returned to Athens from the Battle of Arginusae and were going to be put on trial for the lives lost, Socrates serving as president of the assembly for the first and only time in his life, stood against everyone and refused to put the measure to a vote, and the generals were unconstitutionally and illegally tried and executed in spite of his opposition. Lincoln was famous for pardoning deserters who were to be shot, and Henry went so far as to pardon men who’d just tried to assassinate him.

The four men are also alike in being unfortunate in their marriages. Xanthippe is reported to have been a termagant. Neither Socrates nor his wife ever wrote anything down, but Plato and Xenophon wrote a great deal about them and the picture handed down is of Socrates as the patient, afflicted husband and Xanthippe as the shrew. The Greeks believed that a good wife should be submissive and perhaps Xanthippe was merely forthright and independent but she’ll never get to tell her side of the story.

We know a great deal more about Mary Todd Lincoln and while we must feel pity for a woman coping with mental illness and suffering the loss of a child, her fits of rage and prodigal spending were hard to bear.

Tyrion so repulsed his second wife, Sansa, that, too proud to endure her revulsion and too kind to force her to submit to a touch she found so distasteful, he gallantly forewent his conjugal rights. Despite his intellect, wit, wealth and station, he’s always been denied any female affection or intimacy. Never knowing the tenderness of a mother, sister, or lover, he’s always resorted to prostitutes.

Henry became estranged from both his wives, and Marguerite of Valois and Marie de’ Medici hated him in the end, but he was a faithless husband and the fault was his own. An enthusiastic, in fact a compulsive philanderer, he adored beauty and many of the most ravishing women in France welcomed him in their beds. Even if he were not a king, it’s hard to believe that a man with his wit and charisma would stay lonely for long.

Socrates, the ugliest man in Athens was pursued by Alcibiades, the most beautiful man in Athens. In another part of the Symposium, Alcibiades tells of his flagrant yet unsuccessful attempts to seduce Socrates. The other Silenuses found love, and it’s hard to believe that some woman won’t come to love Tyrion for his wisdom and kindness and see past his grotesque appearance. Perhaps Sansa will come to appreciate him for the man he is and they will reunite to live as man and wife. Millions across the world fervently wish for Tyrion to find the love and happiness he so richly deserves.

There is one respect in which Tyrion is very different from the other three men. Socrates, Lincoln, and Henry all enjoyed good health and were gifted with great bodily strength. In his youth, Lincoln worked as a rail splitter and legends abound testifying to the tremendous strength of his long arms. Socrates was famed for his indifference to cold and fatigue, and it is said that he never became drunk no matter how much wine he drank. It is difficult to credit that he was unaffected by alcohol, but his vitality and endurance were obviously exceptional. Henry was renowned both for his prowess on the battlefield and in the bedroom. In contrast, Tyrion’s stunted body brings him terrible pain and he walks long distances and climbs stairs only with great difficulty and discomfort.

As we review the great benefactors of mankind down through the ages, not all the saints and sages of history are physically repulsive. Galileo, Ashoka, FDR, Pasteur, Hillel, and many others are unexceptional in looks and indeed some are quite handsome. Yet as a rhetorical species, we delight in paradox and antithesis, and for this reason were fascinated by the idea of a Silenus, a twisted, grotesque figure hiding something wondrous and divine within.

Why it was Sansa Stark who won the Battle of the Bastards

Sansa Stark has been criticized for her conduct leading up to the battle fought between an army of Free Folk and the forces of House Bolton, commonly known as the Battle of the Bastards. The action is named in honor of the opposing commanders, natural sons of Ned Stark and Roose Bolton respectively, but it is the timely intervention of Sansa Stark that decided the outcome. This is the most highly rated and regarded episode of an extremely popular, almost ubiquitous and inescapable, television show and the events are well known to most. The Stark forces were outnumbered, but having no choice, they fought a larger, better equipped, and better trained army to retake the northern fortress of Winterfell, ancestral seat of House Stark. Jon Snow accepted battle on these unfavorable terms because he believed he had no other choice. Sansa, however, did have recourse to a large contingent of heavy cavalry, the knights of the Vale. She said nothing of this, and Jon went into the struggle with nothing but his outmatched Wildling infantry, many of whom perished in the fighting.

It’s thought that her silence lead to the unnecessary deaths of many of these brave Free Folk, and that if she’d told Jon the truth, she could have saved many lives. Why did she keep the coming of these allies to herself? Although she must have sent for them much earlier, she may not have known if they were going to come. She had to trust the treacherous Littlefinger, a man who’d betrayed her and her family in the past, to act as her envoy. Will they arrive in time? Will they come at all? If he does bring these troops, on whose side will they fight? It was Littlefinger who suggested using these knights against the Boltons, mentioning the possibility of such a step during their chilly encounter at Molestown. It was Littlefinger again who convinced Sweetrobin to join Sansa’s cause. It is unlikely that Sansa was certain of these knights joining them, and that mentioning such a hope to Jon and the rest only to have it disappointed would be ruinous for their already shaky morale. This is a generous construction and not at all improbable but I’m going to assume the opposite. I’m going to assume that Sansa was certain but that she didn’t trust Jon with that knowledge. I’m going to assume that she hid the imminent advent of the cavalry Jon so desperately needed.

How would Jon have reacted to these tidings? He would certainly be cheered. He would have waited and later confronted the Bolton army on terms of parity, or perhaps even superiority. He wouldn’t have sent his meagre force of infantry into a fight it couldn’t possibly have won. And that is precisely what he needed to do if they are to destroy the Bolton army and retake Winterfell. If they had assembled their combined host of Wildling infantry and Vale cavalry, the accession of the knights of the Vale to the Stark army would no longer be a surprise. Ramsay would have altered his dispositions, or more likely, refused battle and retreated into the fortress. Afterwards, the Free Folk and their giant were able to breach the gate and take the castle because it had already been denuded of its garrison. If Winterfell were fully manned and properly prepared, any assault was unlikely to succeed, and an army with no provisions, hungry and already close to starving, cannot undertake a siege. Mance Rayder had an enormous host and several giants, but he was repulsed in his attack on Castle Black. To recapture Winterfell, the Starks must destroy the Bolton forces in the field. They need an overwhelming battlefield victory.

How do you win an overwhelming battlefield victory if your men and resources are about equal to those of your enemy? Throughout history, the great captains have won their signature victories by thinning their ranks in some places to strengthen their reserves. The fight is joined, and these weak spots have bent but not broken. Great battlefield commanders are gifted with the coup d’oeil (it should be noted that this is a French term), an ability to watch a group of men fighting for their lives and tell, even from a distance, whether they will hold or if they are about to break and run. They may feel betrayed, they may fall, but so long as they keep fighting, that doesn’t matter. Their leader sacrifices their lives to win the battle. No one likes to fight against impossible odds. The leader of these overmatched forces will plead for help. He will beg for reinforcements. These pleas must be ignored. To lead men into battle, you must be willing to let them die. This is cold; this is hard; but that’s the price that must be paid. Many Free Folk died in the Battle of the Bastards but they didn’t die because Sansa kept it a secret that they were soon to be joined by a troop of heavy cavalry. They died because they fought a battle against a large, well-armed, and well trained, force of experienced professional soldiers. Sansa kept her secret and because she did, that enemy force was annihilated.

Most battles are won by the side that can pitch in the last reserve. This means that this reserve must be held back until the very end. At Austerlitz, Napoleon weakened his right flank, and although his men were under terrible pressure, facing onslaught after onslaught, he waited until the enemy moved their troops off the Pratzen Heights in the center to join those attacks. Only after the enemy had thrown their last reserve troops into the fight, did he strike his final blow. The timing is everything. Had he launched his assault against the center too soon, there would be troops still present to meet and repel the attack. Had he waited too long, the overburdened right would have given way and he would have lost the battle before he could put in the killing stroke.

At the Battle of Issus, Alexander and his best cavalry were deployed on the right wing, and Parmenio was assigned auxiliary troops to hold the left wing against the Persians who were far superior in numbers and quality. The Persians hit Parmenio again and again, and his wing was pushed back. His Thessalian auxiliaries gave ground as more and more of their number were cut down. They bent but they didn’t break. They fought and died to buy Alexander time, and he used that opportunity to unleash his own charge on the other end of the field, and this charge frightened Darius into fleeing and won the battle. Were they happy? They won the day but they must have felt aggrieved that their lives were treated as a commodity to be bartered for a foreign king’s triumph.

When the Army of the Potomac was coming against him in overwhelming strength, Lee broke up his own army into pieces. The smallest of these pieces was given to Jubal Early to hold off Union forces much stronger than his own. He was given a fight he couldn’t win but he wasn’t supposed to win. His defeat was inevitable but he must make sure that he fights long enough for Lee to win a much larger battle miles to the west. A thankless job to be sent into a certain defeat, but the greater victory is impossible without this sacrifice. The Confederates lost the minor Second Battle of Fredericksburg, but won the Battle of Chancellorsville and that decided the entire campaign.

The knights of the Vale mounted their charge only after the Bolton army had surrounded the Wildlings and were crushing the life out of them. The Wildlings had fought valiantly, but the arms, the weight, and the discipline of their foes were too great. The Bolton men interlocked their shields, couched their spears and advanced in an impenetrable shield wall. The Wildlings heedlessly and savagely rushed the enemy trying to break through, but not even Wun Wun could shatter their formation. Ramsay threw everything into the fight, holding nothing back, and all his men were committed, and that is when the knights of the Vale were unleashed. As far as timing goes, the moment was perfect. The Bolton deployment was much like a Macedonian phalanx, and at the Battle of Cynoscephalae a Macedonian phalanx was slaughtered when Roman legionaries managed to get in behind them. It was just the same for the Bolton army. When the wave of heavy cavalry hit them, their entire army was swept away. The Free Folk suffered losses but the Bolton men were nearly extirpated.

 

Am I saying that Sansa Stark is a superb battlefield commander, like Caesar, Frederick the Great, or the Duke of Marlborough? I like the girl and take up cudgels to defend her, but I won’t make such a ridiculous claim. It’s clear that while Arya reads about Nymeria and Visenya Targaryen, Sansa reads about Jonquil with flowers in her hair. But it wouldn’t be out of character for Littlefinger to have familiarized himself with battlefield tactics in his reading. Maybe the knights had been on the march throughout and entered the fray as soon as they came up. Whatever the case, whether deliberate or inadvertent, things could not have worked out better for the Starks. The Free Folk suffered and died on the field, but most of them survived to fight again in the wars to come, and it was their enemies who perished nearly to a man. It was Sansa who called on the knights of the Vale; it was Sansa who won the battle; and it was Sansa who retook Winterfell.

 

Of Fear, or why Rickon Stark didn’t Zigzag

Thomas Hobbes defined fear as aversion coupled with the belief that the object of our fear will hurt us. Evolution instilled fear in our species, and in other species with a highly developed nervous system, to enable us to survive. Fear is the apprehension of danger followed by an impulse toward fight or flight. A vestige of a more brutal and also a simpler past, fear gives us a burst of strength and speed but at a cost. We are spurred to tremendous exertion but rendered incapable of deliberation. Mr. Spock was right; the adrenal gland can be most inconvenient in our modern world.

Horses will often run into a burning barn, and it isn’t only animals that become misdirected when frightened. Montaigne recounts:

When Monsieur de Bourbon took Rome, an ensign who was on guard at Borgo San Pietro was seized with such a fright upon the first alarm, that he threw himself out at a breach with his colors on his shoulder, and ran directly upon the enemy, thinking he had retreated toward the inward defenses of the city, and with much ado, seeing Monsieur de Bourbon’s people, who thought it had been a sally upon them, drew up to receive him, at last came to himself, and saw his error; and then facing about, he retreated full speed through the same breach by which he had gone out, but not till he had first blindly advanced above three hundred paces into the open field.

The discombobulated ensign is not alone. Panic flings us into furious action, but into courses which will often kill us rather than save us. Nearly every swimmer has been told what to do when caught in a rip tide but when they’re being swept out to sea, so many of them try to make directly for shore, vainly thrashing and struggling as they’re borne away. Moving bodies that follow a set track independent of impinging forces aren’t found in nature, which is why animals never understand that to avoid a car they must stay off the road, and why so many creatures will run right under the wheels of an oncoming car. The flight responses that evolution has instilled in our brains will put speed ahead of everything else and set us to running in a straight line.

Most of us are acquainted with life or death situations by watching them in movies or on television. We become very impatient with characters when we see them fall into panic. We had wanted them to survive but in our disgust, we conclude such stupidity merits death. At the end of Prometheus, Charlize Theron is running away from a huge rolling disc, and she runs straight, falls, and is crushed. The viewers become very angry with her. From their couches, they work out the geometry of the situation and they calculate the angle optimal for escape. The answer lies somewhere between ninety and forty-five degrees, and perhaps only a physicist can know for certain.

Our viewing culture has become reflexive, and it can be more instructive and entertaining to watch people watching a show, than watching the show itself. Everyone who’s watched The Battle of the Bastards, episode 06×09 of Game of Thrones, reacts in the same manner. We see Rickon Stark led to the front of the Bolton forces, we see the knife drawn and held up, but then used to free and not to kill the prisoner. The more observant have noted the finger tabs Ramsey’s wearing. We call out to Rickon as he starts running, we implore him to zigzag. He doesn’t hear. He runs straight. Ramsey misses on purpose until Jon has nearly reached him, and then he sends the last arrow through Rickon’s back. We see him fall with a cry of anguish.

Another Stark is lost. They’re so noble and so utterly hopeless. Why do David Benioff and D.B. Weiss make them so incredibly stupid? Why does Arya allow the waif to come up behind her and stab her? Nobody can be constantly keyed up and vigilant. The human nervous system can’t be put on high alert indefinitely. Why does Rickon run straight? Because the shortest distance between two points is a straight line and panicked human being in flight wants to put as much distance between himself and danger as possible. Perhaps it would be instructive to watch a character who did everything right, who stayed calm and thought matters through, who followed the steps most likely to result in survival and didn’t make any mistakes, and who died anyway. Such an exploration might be intriguing; it would certainly be sobering. Perhaps after watching this exercise in futility, we’ll conclude that we prefer that our protagonists blunder into their untimely end. A sorrowful death we can bear, but an inescapable one may be too bitter.