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The Real Reason You Use Closed Captions for Everything Now

In this moment, there is only one thing I wish to know, and those are the words coming out of Sylvester Stallone’s mouth—if indeed they are words. I’m watching Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Incomprehensibly, Stallone has a small part in it, speaking, as he often does, incomprehensibly. But, gosh, he looks very important. Therefore he must be saying something important. Probably the whole of this film depends on it.

So I rewind Netflix, one of life’s more torturous little rituals. Then I squeeze my eyes shut—the better, I believe, to open my ears. Don’t anyone move, I mind-command the empty room. When Stallone speaks again, I’m prepared, my breath held tight. This is what I hear: “In Santo which is warmer but I ain’t got married and I said let me oh I know the girl.”


Stallone’s a special kind of mumbler, obviously. But this is not some rando-Rambo exception. I find myself rewinding constantly in the modern era, straining to hear. Auditory breakdowns repeat, loop, divide. Movies and TV are, it seems, simply harder to hear in general these days.

Part of it is relative: When you watch more TV, you miss more TV. This very second, in living rooms nationwide, innumerable couch-bound bingers are failing to synthesize a piece of dialog emanating from their new-age sound bars, and it pains them. Whether it’s Bernard in Westworld or Jon Snow in Game of Thrones, the lines are not cohering into meaningful English. “What did he say?”—already the most uttered (and annoying) question in the history of talking pictures—is by now a nightly interrogation, yanny/laurel times a million.

Some of it might be the happy result of ever-globalizing TV options. As the world shrinks, more people of every background are losing themselves, via the hottest new escapisms, in foreign dialects and cultures. Chewing Gum, the British comedy set on a council estate in East London, sparkles with slang that blows right past most Americans. Without the right context, we don’t hear it.

But that’s an issue of comprehension, of understanding. My concern here is more the failure of literal, physical hearing. (Bernard speaks very slowly in Westworld, yet I hear very little.) You sense it, don’t you? More “Huh?” in conversation, more “Say again?” and “Beg pardon?” What’s so frustrating at home, in front of the TV, is that actors won’t repeat themselves. The problem is more acute.

Maybe the problem is our ears. Maybe, jabbed and stuffed as they are with so much sleek contemporary accessory, they’re simply overburdened. Except mine, I dare say, are not. I protect them from the oontz-oontz of so-called music, along with any other unwelcome invasions; earbuds have been pressed into their softness maybe three times. (So pristine is my hearing, in fact, that I can count among my favorite sensory experiences the sound a semi-sautéed mushroom makes after it slips out of a French skillet and falls, by gravity’s good grace, to the kitchen floor. If the linoleum is just right and the room sensibly hushed, you’ll perceive a wet, perky slap—bpuhk!—as though some tiny winged creature with tinier hands has popped an interdimensional bubble. Hearing something so small enlarges your soul.)

Even aurally gifted as all that, however, I still find myself constantly asking of the television set: “Eh?”

Here’s what Stallone really says in Guardians 2: “After going around in circles with this woman I end up marrying. I said, ‘Aleta, I love you, girl.’” Of course, I only know that because I cheated. Clicked Menu, clicked Subtitles, clicked English CC. When I turn on those words, my body untenses. Not even the most inconsequential bit of throwaway dialog is safe from the rigorous, trustworthy pen of closed captioning. At last, I can hear everything.

Subtitles have been around since the early ’70s. (Julia Child was one of the first beneficiaries, her joyful warble rendered in sentences her audience of “servantless American cooks” could follow, both linguistically and culinarily, with ease.) Essential for deaf people and English language learners, and scientifically shown to promote reading comprehension and retention, subtitles have only recently become essential for many TV watchers, period. A smattering of online encomia tell you it’s the only way to watch. One Redditor asks in r/movies, “I like having subtitles with everything I watch. Anything wrong with this?” Almost everyone responds supportively, including this person: “I cannot fully enjoy any video without subtitles. At all.”

Many people I know IRL can relate, from bankers and meditators to jocks, UX designers, and writers. My anecdata turns up no gender preferences. Couples seem overrepresented, presumably because one influences the other. “Well, they insist on watching everything with subtitles,” one says of their partner. “But now I like doing it too.” Great, fine! But uh, why bother making excuses?

Because—there’s still something not quite right with the idea, is there? It doesn’t sit well, watching everything this way. Last year, Refinery29 ran a piece, “Get Over Your Fear Of Subtitles, Please,” in which the writer extols the benefits: you can appreciate the script, you know whose off-screen voice you're hearing, you can chuckle at the poetic attempts by caption writers to convey background noises (“[bestial squall]”). To those others have added: you can watch at low volume, you can clean or eat or otherwise make general ruckus while watching. Inside the screen, diegetic minutiae—passerby conversations, a snippet of a TV news story—takes on new clarity, giving shape to the world of a story. The fuzziness solidifies, control overlaying chaos.

Thus the modern condition asserts itself. If there is something we can know, we do everything in our power to know it, regardless of our actual level of investment. When someone at the dinner table idly wonders, say, what Memorial Day memorializes, it’s a game of fastest Google-finger. Uncertainty causes gas; search is Tums. Now we can keep eating.

Except these are quick fixes. They provide only momentary relief. They also upset natural rhythms. The same is true of captions. They ruin anything dependent on timing, like jokes or moments of tension. (Imagine reading “Luke, I am your father” a half-second before hearing it.) We end up staring more at actors’ torsos than at their faces. As in life, we make less and less eye contact. Small bursts of text are how we comprehend the world now. We must see the printed words in order to believe them. Look, can you believe he said that? Yes, it’s right there!

Just as quickly, though, the words are gone, comprehensively forgotten. “After going around in circles with this woman I end up marrying. I said, ‘Aleta, I love you, girl.” What even is that? None of that filler matters to the Guardians 2 plot (such as it is). Half of those words are spoken off-camera. In a very real way we were not meant to know them, merely to register their hum. But like Google, closed captions are there, eminently accessible, ready to clarify the unclarities, and so, desperately, we, the paranoids and obsessive-compulsives and postmodern completists, click.

No, subtitles are not the solution. They flatten our perception. Sounds are more muted these days because there are too many of them, every utterance equally weighted and demanding of us total comprehension. Look at the words themselves. All too often they are meaningless. Yet we painstakingly rewind Netflix anyway, backward, backward, backward, stuck in a garbled loop. Bpuhk, pop—get me out.

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Marvel’s ‘The Defenders’ premiere episode went over really, really well at Comic-Con

Someone please explain to Daredevil that wrapping a cloth around your eyes actually makes you MORE conspicuous.
Image: Netflix

The world at large will have to wait til August 18 to check out Marvel’s The Defenders.

But a few thousand lucky fans got an early peek at Comic-Con’s Hall H on Friday.

Netflix played the entire first episode of The Defenders to an enthusiastic crowd including your faithful movies reporter from Mashable. Here’s everything you need to know.

1. The first Defender you’ll see in The Defenders is … Iron Fist.

I know, guys, I’m upset too.

Image: Netflix

Womp womp.

And he still doesn’t know how to onscreen-fight worth a damn, at least based on his first scene a fight sequence set in a series of wet, dark tunnels that conveniently make it real difficult to make out what’s going on.

In defense of Finn Jones, he’s also saddled with the worst dialogue. Like: “My name is Danny. I’m hunting members of the Hand.” Groan.

2. The first episode feels like four different shows.

Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist all had their own distinct tones and visual flourishes, which makes us curious to see how they’ll all meld in The Defenders. But in the first episode, the answer is that they don’t, really.

The Defenders feels a bit like four different shows, each with their own color-coding, stitched together through clever editing. In fact, make that five. Sigourney Weaver’s Alexandra has her own color, and it’s white.

Oh, hey, and speaking of Sigourney Weaver …

3. Alexandra’s such a badass bitch that she intimidates Madame Gao.

Be afraid, Defenders fans.

4. Luke Cage and Claire Temple are still going strong.

I swear to God if anything happens to Claire Temple I’m going to throw my computer out the window.

Image: Netflix

The first thing Luke does when he’s let out of prison is speak briefly with his attorney, one Franklin Nelson. (“Actually, people call me Foggy.” “And you let them?”) The second thing he does is head straight into Claire’s arms, and then back to her apartment for some makeup sex. Aww.

5. Matt Murdock’s out there pretending he doesn’t miss Daredevil-ing.

Matt’s trying real hard to just be a regular lawyer, and not a lawyer who moonlights as a vigilante. It’s not going well. His interactions with Karen are painfully awkward, and he doesn’t sound halfway convincing when he claims he doesn’t miss his old life.

6. Jessica Jones still gets all the best lines.

Trish might just have to take this whole “superhero” thing into her own hands.

Image: Netflix

Or maybe it’s just the way Krysten Ritter delivers them. Anyway, I won’t ruin them for you. Just watch the show.

7. Colleen Wing definitely deserves better.

Here’s what actress Jessica Henwick had to say about Colleen at the Comic-Con panel beforehand:

Colleen’s really had her whole life ripped away from her at the end of Iron Fist her father, her religion, her family, even her dojo. When we catch up with her and Danny, she really hasn’t come to terms with what’s happened emotionally and mentally.

Here’s what Colleen does in the first episode of The Defenders: Be really concerned about Danny and his guilt over abandoning K’un-Lun. Dude, maybe stop wallowing in your own angst for a second and see what you can do to help your girlfriend? Maybe that’s coming in episode two.

8. Misty, Malcolm, and Trish are still around.

The Defenders premiere makes pains to check in with basically every major returning player from the four shows. Turns out Misty’s been assigned to a citywide task force, so she’s not just covering Harlem now. Something tells me she’ll end up spending a lot of time in Hell’s Kitchen.

Meanwhile, Malcolm is looking much, much better than he did in Jessica Jones season 1. Trish looks the same. Both are trying to convince Jessica that she is, in Trish’s words, “a full-blown superh”

“Do not say the h-word,” Jessica interjects.

(I know I told you I’d let you discover Jessica’s best lines for yourself, but I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

9. Brace yourself for lots of talk about “the city.”

That, my friends, is the face of a woman who’s about to launch into a whole spiel about “the city.”

Image: Netflix

At the Hall H panel, Sigourney Weaver described New York City as “the fifth Defender.” Sure enough, there’s lots and lots of talk about “the city” whether it’s a better place without Daredevil, what it mean to Colleen and Danny, how much the Dutch paid for the island of Manhattan, what it’s like to watch it fall apart.

10. It might be a while before all these crazy kids come together.

As of the end of the first episode of The Defenders, none of the Defenders are hanging out yet. Strap in, guys, this might be kind of a long ride.

The Defenders hits Netflix August 18.

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