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Terrible Reviews: Black Panther


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Black Panther is probably the smartest movie Marvel has made yet.

We saw it the other night. I’m writing this knowing that my review is going to be terrible, because I loved the movie so much. It’s too much fun, it’s too well done, it’s too socially savvy, for me to give it a thrashing. I spent most of the movie grinning like a maniac. So rather than “The Good, The Bad, The WTF,” I’ll just focus on a few points that the movie executes like an olympic figure skater on uppers, hopefully without spoiling too much.

So here’s what’s awesome about it.

black panther GIF by Marvel Studios

The Characters

The film is beautifully cast with characters to love, and to love to hate, all around. Sterling K. Brown turns everything he touches to gold. We didn’t even know he was in the movie when we bought our tickets — and he’s just a minor part. Here you’ve got the likes of juggernauts like Forrest Whitaker, playing a damaged prime minister type; Angela Bassett, the widowed queen and mother to the new king — and these, again, are only the supporting cast.

If you don’t leave the theater loving Shuri (Letitia Wright) and quoting her (“What are THOOOOOOOSSSSEEEEE??”), there may be something wrong with you. If you don’t leave the theater conflicted as hell over the fate and the idealism of Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger (horrible name but fantastic villain), there may be something wrong with you. If you don’t pump your fist and grit your teeth every time Danai Gurira’s Okoye puts the smack down on some hapless dude, there may be something wrong with you.

Of course, the titular Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) is dashing and conflicted and awesome. He’s believable and sympathetic, and he anchors the picture admirably. But the standout really is the supporting cast; especially:

The Women

Okay, so Black Panther is the figurehead, but the movie is less about the single superhero and more about the network propping him up. Of course, they can’t call the movie Black Panther’s Support Group, but trust me when I say that the real heroes of this movie are the women. Shuri is the Q to the Panther’s James Bond: her inventions have BP on the cutting edge of keeping bad guys down. His first lieutenant, Okoye, doles out enough beatdowns on her own to deserve her very own film. And his mother, the former queen, is the glue holding her family — and the country — together in the face of a series of national crises.

They don’t just support the hero, they do virtually all of the heavy lifting. If not for the women, the Panther would be beaten, killed or captured in the first twenty minutes, movie over.

black panther trailer GIF

But what’s refreshing about the way this movie treats its women is that there’s not a single moment of condescension or disbelief that the world of Black Panther works in this way. Of course Shuri is the head of technology in Wakanda; why shouldn’t she be? Of course Okoye is the first lieutenant — just look at her fight. (There’s a fantastic moment where one of the male warriors realizes he’s about to have to fight with Okoye, and he is visibly shook.) There’s not a whisper of any futzing about with the “but she’s a girl!” nonsense — from the people in the immediate circle, anyway — they just are what they are.

The Villain

So it’s sort of an understood rule in storytelling that a good villain can’t be a mustache-twirling, take-over-the-world evil bastard in black. The villain has to be sympathetic, their drives must make sense, there must be an element of there but for the grace of God go I. Every character, and every villain, is the hero of their own story, after all.

But unlike most movies, this villain is particularly problematic. Because if you flip the script around, and imagine that the story we follow is not the story of T’Challa, but is instead the story of Killmonger (god, what a stupid name), the story works just as well — just with a different ending. Killmonger’s goals are entirely sympathetic, and are particularly troublesome for T’Challa: so much so that the king actually has to change the way he thinks about the world.

Killmonger fights for what he knows to be right. He’s a villain only because of the forced perspective the film gives us. That’s good storytelling. And Michael B. Jordan’s performance is really something to behold.

The Social Side

It’s hard to read about the movie without hearing about the social commentary, but what I really love about Black Panther — why I think it’s Marvel’s smartest movie yet — is that the commentary is less sledgehammer, more dagger in your ribs. It’s so easy for movies “with a message” to come at you, guns blazing, with everything but a flashing neon THIS IS IMPORTANT marquee over the screen. Black Panther doesn’t do that. In fact, if you prefer your superhero movies divorced from social commentary, it’s entirely possible to enjoy Black Panther just as much. The meta level is just another layer in a billionty-layer cake of goodness: ruminate on it if you like, ignore it if you don’t. The movie will be just as sweet either way.

But assuming you’re like me and you don’t mind — you actually prefer — to think about what a story is trying to tell you, here’s a taste: Wakanda isn’t a backwater country in deepest Africa. It’s America. Technologically advanced beyond every other nation, yet mired (and maybe even hamstrung) by archaic traditions and religions. Turns a blind eye to the suffering of untold millions across the world in the name of self-preservation. Righteously nationalistic.

Then: the nation finds itself in turmoil when an outsider unseats the king and threatens to blow up the status quo. The second half of the movie is about the power struggle and the existential question of whether the country and its people must adhere to tradition and law or whether they must do what they believe is right.

So … yeah. Let me not spoil things any further.

The Verdict

Look, I love a good superhero movie. I even enjoy a bad superhero movie (I’m looking at you, Batman vs. Superman, which I did not hate). But even a guy like me, who theoretically cannot get enough superhero movies, is sort of suffering from superhero movie fatigue these days. Pretty soon we’ll be on our 5th Spider-Man reboot and Netflix will be launching its original series about Wolverine’s cousin’s daughter’s step-sister. It’s hard to ignore that Marvel is milking the current cash cow for all it’s worth.

But this is a movie worth getting milked over. It’s not just a good superhero movie, it’s a great superhero movie — and a darn good movie, whether it’s about a superhero or not.

black panther marvel GIF

Do yourself a favor and see it.

Final verdict: Five out of five cooler-than-you salutes.

All images are obviously the property of Marvel.

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Pareidolia, Foie Gras, and Guardians of the Galaxy 2: A (sort of) Terrible Review


Have you ever been in the midst of a dream, and then realized that you were dreaming? You’re there, and you’re standing naked in front of the class, or you’re taking the stage and you’ve forgotten your lines, or you’re soaring in the sky with psychedelic dolphins or whatever, and it clicks: this isn’t real. It can’t be real. The world doesn’t work this way.

Suddenly, the dream is a lot less convincing. Probably you wake up. Or maybe you turn into Neo and you’re able to change the dream to suit your whims or something. Either way, it’s like one of those pareidolia images of faces in everyday objects: once you see it, there’s no unseeing it. You can’t ignore it and go back to believing that the dream was real.

pew-pew-pew

What’s all this about, then? Well, the wife and I saw Guardians of the Galaxy 2 last night. And about halfway through the film, like Neo in The Matrix, I woke up. Not that I had fallen asleep — no, as is Marvel’s wont, the action is cranked to eleven in this offering. Rather, I looked around. Noticed the seams on the walls, the jagged edges at the periphery, the hidden patterns in the carpet. And the spell was broken. I wasn’t just watching a movie anymore, I was in a world that I knew had been crafted deliberately, created to work surreptitiously on my subconscious.

(Spoiler note: This isn’t exactly a review, and there’s nothing explicitly spoiler-ific here. But if you’re planning on seeing it, and want to be able to immerse yourself fully, you might want to don your peril-sensitive sunglasses now.)

Now, sure, movies are designed to do this to you anyway. Hell, so are stories. Creators craft these things to manipulate your brain from top to bottom: telegraphing some story elements to invite you to make predictions. Playing to well-known tropes to help you find your footing in a strange world.

And GotG2 does that. But this isn’t that. I wasn’t discerning the hand of the creator in the brush strokes. Rather, I was discerning the hands of the studio execs molding the story externally as it was crafted. A whole new matrix within the matrix.

Here’s what I mean: Marvel’s using a pretty simple formula these days. Stories get bigger and bigger. Crazier, wilder villains (see: Doctor Strange doing battle with a god). Savvier, snarkier self-satirizing heroes (see: the entirety of Deadpool). And a sequel is always measured against the yardstick of the original.

And how do you make a sequel better than the original? Easy, you take the same characers, craft an entirely new storyline that plays to their developing relationships and strengths that tests them in all new ways, encouraging more growth, more development, more feels from the audience. Right? HA HA HA no. The way you make a sequel that plays as well as an original is you take everything the original does well and you do it more.

Don’t sweat the storyline so much: you’ve already got viewers baked-in. Just ratchet up the things they loved about the first movie. Give the funny characters more funny. Make the romantic tension a little more taut. Make the explosions even more explodey.

What made GotG1 so much fun — what audiences loved about it — were a few things. The old-school music soundtrack laid over a futuristic world. The irreverence. The niche-ifying of every character (there’s the snarky central guy, the badass no-nonsense chick, the brick-joke, doesn’t understand sarcasm or interactions in general dude, the jerk-store a-hole raccoon, the mute monster with a heart of gold. See also: Five-Man Band.)

And about halfway through the film, I realized that this film wasn’t actually doing what a sequel should do. There was very little new development. Not much added to the larger universe of which this story is a part. Instead, this movie was focus-grouped to make me want to watch it by giving me more of what I liked about the first one.

Let me not drive this into the ground: a few examples will prove the point.

Musclebound Drax, whose brick humor was the cornerstone of his character development (what, again, does he actually contribute to the team?) is tossing out even more deadpan sarcasm-proof jokes here, at what felt like a ratio of twelve-to-one over the original.

Angry little ball of sentient fur Rocket, in GotG1, made his place by throwing out sarcasm and lashing out when people called him a raccoon and just general dickery. His character development here: he’s a total a-hole to everybody, with at least two characters specifically pointing the fact out to him along the way.

And of course, the soundtrack is just as jarring in its strange setting, but there feels like even more of it, and it even becomes a focal point of the story itself: the central villain spins one of the songs into a metaphor for his own development. It’s well done, mind you. What at first seems like this big, romantic yen about wanderlust morphs into a twisted, sociopathic rejection of humanity (and all lifeforms in the galaxy, actually — readers of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy will hear echoes of the denizens of Krikkit in the villain’s desire to wipe out everything in the universe that isn’t him).

There’s nothing wrong with any of the above. But once you hear the voice in your head — the voice that says “OH YOU ENJOYED THIS THING ABOUT THE ORIGINAL MOVIE? HERE HAVE MORE OF THAT THING” — you see it everywhere in this movie. Douglas Adams wrote brilliantly about humor that what makes it so lovely is its rarity. In the midst of a hot summer, you run out into a surprise thundershower for the joy of splashing around in the puddles, for the sprinkle of the rain on your face, because these things are rare and not happening every day. But when humor is everywhere — when it’s been raining for weeks and weeks, each day like the last, with no hint of the sun — the rain is a little less magical. GotG2 is like that: it’s a week-long deluge when what I really want is the surprise afternoon shower.

Put another way: they make foie gras by force-feeding geese until their stomachs explode. Having watched GotG2, it feels that I’ve been force-fed in the single aim of extracting more dollars from my wallet. And my stomach is near to bursting.

I say all that to say this: GotG2 is good fun. It’s perfect summer fare — lighthearted, action-packed. If you liked the first one, well, you’ll probably like the second one; not least of which for the reasons I’m talking about here. But if you miss the movie? Well, you’re not missing much.


Is Marvel Bloat Reaching Critical Mass?


I’m not going to give a full review on Civil War today, but I just want to pose a question.

Is Marvel bloat reaching critical mass?

The obligatory: There are spoilers ahead. Minor ones, but spoilers nonetheless. If you’re that type of person, make sure you see the movie before you read on.

Okay? Okay.

In recent years, the film franchise has been growing and growing in popularity, not just among comic books nerds or even geek culture at large, but among perfectly normal members of the perfectly normal populace. For example: my wife. She hates most nerdy things I love (Doctor Who, Orphan Black, Mythbusters) and can at best be said to tolerate geek monoliths like Star Wars. But she’s fully on-board with the Avengers franchise.

Problem is, the Avengers isn’t just about the Avengers movies. Now there are tie-ins with other films, shows running in parallel, characters appearing in other characters’ individual franchise films … okay, I get it, that’s how the comic books work, and that’s probably fine for comic books, but I don’t think the movie-going public is fully on board for the films bloating out in the same way.

The newest Captain America film has been billed as Avengers 3, and with good reason: it features the entire cast of Avengers 2 minus Thor and the Hulk. And the events of Civil War, without getting too spoilery, leave things in a pretty precarious place for the Avengers going forward. Which is … okay, great, but it basically means that if you want to get the most mileage out of your viewing of future Avengers flicks, you have to be up to speed on the Captain America films. And that leaves the door open for saying the same of all the other films.

Which is a problem, I think. Because until recently, you could enjoy the Avengers franchise without necessarily watching the Thor films, or the Captain America films, or whatever. But if a Captain America movie can be a canon tie-in, then a Thor movie can be necessary viewing, and a Black Widow movie (hey, I hear it’s in the works!) can be necessary viewing, and and and … hell, this movie brings Ant-Man and Spiderman into the mix as well, so … where does it stop? That’s a whole lot of ancillary films to watch, when all I really wanted was more Avengers.

Which brings me to a second point. It’s pretty clear at this point that Marvel is becoming a self-perpetuating nightmare machine, using its established films to drum up audiences for its lesser-known properties and vice-versa. As I said a moment ago, Civil War brings Ant-Man and Spiderman into the middle of an Avengers conflict. I’ll disclaim that I don’t know anything about the comic books, so I don’t particularly know or care whether this is accurate or justified. The problem is that in the story that the film tells, the inclusion of these characters is completely unjustified.

Captain America needs a bit of help, so he brings in a fanboying Ant-Man … for exactly one battle. Iron Man also wants a bit of muscle on his side, so he hunts down a somewhat reluctant Spiderman … for exactly the same battle. Now, I’ll admit that as far as that set piece in the film goes, it’s spectacular cinema. Tons of fun to watch. Great stuff. Problem is, if you remove Spiderman and Ant-Man from the film entirely, the narrative thrust of the film is completely unchanged. (Not to mention about fifteen or twenty minutes shorter, which wouldn’t be a bad thing.) Having a dead weight character in your book is usually narrative suicide, so why are they there?

CGI eyes were pretty creepy, though.

Easy. That one shot in the preview — Spidey with Captain America’s shield — was geek gold, and the battle with an enormous Ant-Man made an otherwise pretty stock battle in an Avengers movie unique and hilarious. It also doesn’t hurt that Spiderman has built-in cred as one of Marvel’s most well-known and well-liked characters ever, and Paul Rudd turned Ant-Man from a joke into a sort of culty curiosity.

And, oh, by the way, Ant-Man just had a pretty successful run this last year, and …  isn’t Marvel sending up some new Spiderman films in the near future?

It’s a little too convenient, a little too blatant, a little too obvious. Ant-Man gets shoehorned in because audiences really enjoyed Paul Rudd, and why not bring him in? Spiderman gets tossed in because audiences love Spiderman already, so let’s get them excited about the new Spiderman.

The first Avengers movie was a fantastic thrill-ride that stood entirely on its own without cameos by the X-Men or whatever other heroes or backstory from a dozen subsidiary movies. Avengers: Age of Ultron was much the same, though I felt a bit in the dark as to the whole SHIELD v HYDRA conflict (fleshed out in other properties, maybe?) at the beginning.

But if you go into the next Avengers without seeing this installment of Captain America, you’ll be completely in the dark as to what brought them to their new starting point. I didn’t dislike Civil War, but I don’t like at all the precedent Marvel is setting by not calling Civil War an Avengers movie. This is an Avengers movie masquerading as a Captain America movie. Which means any future movie featuring any one of the Avengers could go the same way.

Man, am I thinking too hard about this? These little hangups are ruining my enjoyment of what was in all truth a pretty good movie.


No Girls Allowed – Why Marvel Needs to Take the Next Step


My wife and I went to see Avengers 2 this weekend, which is unusual. It’s a rarity for us to go see a movie in the theater in the first place (young kids and all), let alone on opening weekend, but the hype was sufficient, we enjoyed the original. Further into the mix, we are both big fans of James Spader ever since his stint as the inimitable Alan Shore on Boston Legal a few years back, so… well, there we were.

And the movie’s great. Exactly what it says on the tin: a good time, tons of action, more than a few explosions, not too heavy on the brain. Good stuff. I pointed out, more or less in jest, to my wife after the fact that for all Marvel’s trying to make itself more female friendly (see the new Thor for example), their biggest franchise in the Avengers doesn’t pass the Bechdel test. (If you can’t be bothered, the Bechdel test is a rule-of-thumb, exceedingly low bar for a film to pass to qualify as not-entirely-chauvinistic-in-its-portrayal-of-women.) Now, you might argue, and you might be right, that the films’ primary audience is men. But you don’t have to look far to find female fans of not just the Marvel universe, but of comics in general, and of popular cinema for that matter. My wife and I are perfect examples; I don’t think I’ve ever cracked a comic book and I’d bet dollars to donuts that my wife hasn’t, but we love the recent spate of superhero movies nonetheless.

So we go home, and my wife discovers the “news” story that Mark Ruffalo tweeted at Marvel calling them out for the lack of gender equality in their Avengers merchandise. Not in so many words. He simply stated that it would be nice for his nieces and daughters to be able to find their favorite figures from the films in the toy stores and on the t-shirts they’re buying. Now, that surprised me, except that it didn’t. Because as much as Black Widow has become a face of the franchise, and as much as Scarlet Witch impacts the new story, they are still girls.

Right? Sure, you say, they’re girls, but only until a certain point. Black Widow single-handedly tames the Hulk, for example, and becomes one of the trainers for the newly reformed SHIELD unit at the end of the film. Not to mention the numerous asses she kicks along the way. Her kung fu is strong. Scarlet Witch manipulates the minds of virtually everybody in the film, including a demigod, for goodness sake, and then is solely responsible for the defense of the MacGuffin at the end of the film, dispatching baddies to the left and the right with little more than a flick of her brain stem.

And that’s awesome!

But.

Black Widow is still exceedingly feminine, in that she tames Hulk with the calming, gentle gestures that only a woman (in the world of this film) could effect. And her primary arc at the end of the film shows her as a lovelorn, heartbroken woman after the Hulk takes off. She’s a badass, but her badassitude is mitigated in no small part by the fact that she still plays into the roles we expect.

Scarlet Witch, too, as part of a genetically-modified duo together with her brother, falls into the same trap. You’ve got twins granted superpowers through some undisclosed don’t-ask-questions science thing. One gets super speed, the other gets the ability to manipulate minds… which one do you think goes to the boy, and which to the girl? You could have just as easily gone the other way and let the girl have the super speed for once (looking at you, The FlashSupermanNightcrawler, etc) instead of making her a master manipulator (and there’s nothing woman-phobic in that, promise), but no, we’ll make her eyes turn red and give her these mind powers.

Okay, okay. I don’t mean to deconstruct the film. Fact is, Marvel is trying, and the further fact is, they are succeeding in a lot of ways at giving their female characters depth, realism, dark sides, and the unpredictability that we expect from its male characters. They’re still women, but they’re not “women” the way women are women in movies.

But why, then, are they not embracing the female fans in their audience? Or the males who (rightly) think a character like Black Widow or Scarlet Witch has something admirable or worthy of emulation about her? Sure, we can put those characters front and center when it’s time to put together a promo spot, but let’s not monetize those characters. Who would want that?

Except they don’t even make the ladies front and center. Look at how far from center the women are in this promo! Not one, not two, but three slots away from the place your eye goes to when you look at the picture. They’re there, sure, but they’re so removed from top billing they’re almost an afterthought.

There’s a problem here, and it’s a self-fulfilling problem. The problem is that Marvel thinks they’re not going to make any money on the sale of merchandise that features its females (and let’s not argue that it’s about anything other than money; if they felt it would sell, they would be overflowing the shelves with it). So they don’t make the merchandise, which of course ensures that they won’t make any money on it. And they market the hell out of the male-centric toys and apparel, which ensures that girls buying the stuff are an outlier rather than a focus. But is the problem a real problem, or is it a problem they assume is true? Maybe the audience has evolved; maybe there’s more market than ever for female superheroes, but we’d never know it, because we’re holding onto an outmoded way of thinking. Make hulk hands and replicas of Thor’s hammer and Iron Man gloves so that little boys can pretend to be those guys, but if a girl wants to imitate her favorites, well… send her to the Barbie aisle, point her at the Disney Princess outfits.

I’m reminded of Field of Dreams. Guy gets the idea to build a baseball diamond in the middle of nowhere — and, yeah, the idea comes from a disembodied voice in a cornfield, but you know, roll with it — but nobody supports him because there’s no market for it. Nobody’s going to come to a rinkydink baseball diamond on a farm. But in true hollywood fashion, he builds it anyway, and lo and behold, people start to come. Sure, the ghosts of dearly departed baseballers coming to noodle around on the field helps. But the point remains: he didn’t accept the way things were, he insists on at least trying his idea before he’ll take no for an answer.

I have a feeling that we’re having that If you build it, he will come moment here, except it’s a lot bigger than one person — it’s a whole gender. The whole town (the existing industry) is telling Marvel that it doesn’t make sense to market the female superheroes, but I have a feeling that if they can have the courage to build a baseball diamond in the cornfield (roll out some female-targeted merchandise), the consumers will come. And let’s be honest. Marvel has the money for this gamble.

All they need is the courage to phone up a bulldozer and knock down some corn.


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