Operation Nobel

Obama arrives to claim his prize

It was raining, some will say fittingly, as Barack Obama arrived in Oslo this morning to receive his much-remarked-on Nobel Prize. So bad was the weather, in fact, that Obama was forced to make the trip from the airport to the downtown Nobel Peace Institute in convoy, the usually busy E6 motorway out of town being closed to allow smooth passage.

The Norwegians are used to awful weather, of course, but they aren't used to all this: the helicopters circling overhead, the roads blocked to regular traffic, the probing pat-down of security checks as they make their way around town. Their country has, on the whole, resisted the arrival of Starbucks and other trappings of American culture (Marshall aid excepted, perhaps) -- much more so than the UK, say.

Today, though, they are getting a real taste of America. "Ninety-two million Kroner extra", announced Dagsavisen recently about security arrangements for Obama's visit, only for the figure to be revised upwards by several million kroner a week later. That's the sort of money that would normally go into municipal works, such as district heating, in this part of the world. But today the Christmas market in the large open plaza that abuts the harbour has been closed (it was a security threat), a whole section of town has been cordoned off, and there are more police about than the country even knew it had. The daily Dagbladet has labelled all the fuss "Operation Nobel".

For this, and other reasons, the decision to give this award to the president of the United States of America in just his first year in office is no more universally popular in Norway than it has been around the world. In the lead-up to his visit, some have grumbled about how Obama has cut down on the number of activities the winner is usually expected to undertake. And more than a few have questioned the extra fuss being made about him. But this is what happens when a standing president wins. The Norwegians really have only themselves to thank.

Yet today, their problem is also Obama's problem, for what happens when a Peace Prize-winner announces a troop surge to a war zone, as Obama has done in Afghanistan, is yet to be established. The president was apparently working on that particular aspect of his speech on the flight over from Washington.

On arriving in Norway, Obama made the Nobel Prize Institute his first stop. There, he didn't just sign the book, he practically wrote an essay in it. I would hazard there was more than a penny for those particular thoughts. Left-handed Obama then handed over to right-handed Michelle as she, too, signed the book and he stood back, joking politely with Nobel Committee members.

For a minute, as he looked down, he appeared distinctly proud. But when he turned to the committee -- and perhaps an indication of the tone of the speech to come this afternoon -- he deflected attention from himself. It was their work promoting the cause of peace that he thanked them for.

Then it was off again, to Oslo's regjeringens kvartaler -- the government district -- where he was to meet the Norwegian prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg. Later (around 2pm UK time) Obama will formally receive his prize and give his acceptance speech. Perhaps the weather will have cleared by then.

 

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Marvel has moved past the post-credits teaser, and it's all the better for it

Individual stories are suddenly taking precedence over franchise building.

The lasting contribution of 2008’s Iron Man to contemporary cinema comes not from the content of the film itself, but in its Avengers-teasing post-credits scene featuring an eyepatch-sporting Samuel L. Jackson. While post-credits scenes were not invented by Marvel, their widespread adoption in other blockbusters is a testament to Marvel using them to titillate and frustrate.

Fast forward nine years and Marvel’s direction has significantly altered. Having moved to a three-film-a-year structure ahead of next year’s climactic Infinity War, their two releases this summer have featured less explicit connective tissue, using post-credits scenes that are, in typical Marvel fashion, self-reflexive and fun – but this time with no teases for films to come.

Where previous Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films have trailed characters donning superhero mantles, confrontations to come, or more light-hearted team ups, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 decided to lovingly poke fun at Marvel grandmaster Stan Lee, leaving him stranded on a godforsaken space rock in the outer reaches of the stars. Spider-Man: Meanwhile Homecoming targeted filmgoers who had stayed until the end in expectation of a tease, only to receive a Captain America educational video on the virtues of “patience”.

That isn’t to say that connective tissue isn’t there. Marvel seems to be pursuing world building not through post-credits stingers, but through plot and character. In the past, teasing how awful big bad Thanos is ahead of the Avengers battling him in Infinity War would have been done through a menacing post-credits scene, as in both Avengers films to date. Instead Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 uses character as a tool to explore the world at large.

Nebula’s seething rage is, rather than just a weak excuse for an antagonist’s arc, actually grounded in character, explaining to Sean Gunn’s loveable space pirate Kraglin that Thanos would pit his daughters, her and Gamora, against each other, and replace a part of her body with machine each time she failed – and she failed every time. It’s effective. Thanos’ menace is developed, and you feel sympathy for Nebula, something Marvel has historically failed to do well for its antagnoists. Her parting promise – to kill her father – not only foreshadows the events of Infinity War, but also hints at the conclusion of a fully formed arc for her character.

In the high-school-set Spider-Man: Homecoming, the stakes quite rightly feel smaller. The inexperienced wall-crawler gets his chance to save the day not with the galaxy at risk, but with an equipment shipment owned by Iron Man alter-ego and billionaire inventor Tony Stark hanging in the balance. While such a clear metaphor for widespread change in the MCU might be a little on the nose, the set-up is effective at plaing the film at street level while also hinting at overall changes to the structure of the universe.

Stark gifting Peter a new (and oh so shiny) suit is a key set piece at the end of the film, whereas in 2015's Ant-Man’s Hope Pym inheriting her mother’s own miniaturising suit it is relegated to a teaser. Peter’s decision to turn it down not only completes Peter’s transition past seeking the approval of Stark’s unwitting father figure, but it also leaves the Avengers in an as-yet unknown state, still fragmented and incomplete after the events of 2016’s Civil War. To anticipate Spider-Man joining the Avengers proper is to anticipate the forming of the team as a whole – keeping our collective breath held until we stump up for tickets to Infinity War.

With this happy marriage of the macro and the micro, individual stories are suddenly taking precedence in the MCU, rather than being lost in the rush to signpost the foundations for the next instalment in the franchise. It’s a refreshingly filmic approach, and one which is long overdue. To suggest that Marvel is hesitant to overinflate Infinity War too early is supported by their refusal to share the footage of the film screened to audiences at the D23 and San Diego Comic Con events in recent weeks. Instead, the limelight is staying firmly on this November’s Thor: Ragnarok, and next February’s Black Panther.

Stan Lee, at the end of his Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 post credits scene, cries, “I’ve got so many more stories to tell!”, a hopeful counterpoint to a weary Captain America asking “How many more of these are there?” at the end of Homecoming. With Disney having planned-out new MCU releases all the way into 2020, entries in the highest-grossing franchise of all time won’t slow any time soon. We can, at least, hope that they continue their recent trend of combining writerly craft with blockbuster bombast. While the resulting lack of gratuitousness in Marvel’s storytelling might frustrate in the short term, fans would do well to bear in mind Captain America’s call for patience.