A Review of “Black Panther”

Movie poster for Black Panther. Image used under Creative Commons.I knew before entering the cinema this weekend that Black Panther would be a very different movie for Marvel, but hadn’t predicted how different. Until now, every character in the cinematic universe has been seen through the lens of a hero, albeit, at times, reluctant or unintentional heroes. This isn’t the story of a hero, but rather the story of a king.

T’Challa rises to power, as you’ll remember from Captain America: Civil War, through tragedy. Thrust into wearing the mantle of king, he is now trying to do what is right for his country, struggling against a history of violence and revenge. His sudden rise to power is marked by living in the tension between honoring their way of life and doing what is right with the power that his country holds.

What immediately struck me about Black Panther was the quality of the world-building. Wakanda here finally fulfills its potential in the Marvel Universe. We see a fully developed nation, honoring and maintaining its ancient traditions all while embracing a technological superiority surpassing any other nation on the globe. The balance that the Wakandans maintain between these two extremes is completely believable and profoundly thought-provoking. The visuals are stunning, especially the dream and hallucination sequences. Both the sweeping shots of the African landscape and the digitally constructed sequences of the high-tech bunkers beneath the city are equally impressive. I also particularly liked the Bond/Q sort of relationship between T’Challa and his sister.

Speaking of Shuri, we should not pass over the fact that T’Challa’s closest advisors and confidants in this film are women, strong female characters that make up the backbone of his government. This is a subtle triumph for the writers that does a great deal to contribute to the strength of the film as a whole.

Interestingly, Everett Ross’ character  truly comes into his own here as we continue to see hints of the as-yet-unrealized fallout from Civil War. Their paths cross as T’Challa’s adventures in the beginning of the film are more like an espionage adventure than a super-hero one. This initially felt slightly out of place, but the director ultimately made it work.

The film offers a powerful social commentary, as well, perhaps the most powerful we’ve seen in a Marvel film since Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The fear of having one’s country legally taken over by an unstable dictator is very real (and oh-so-relevant today). The recognition that violence doesn’t solve this problem, but rather does working to strengthen the system, is equally apropos, and needs to be said to as wide an audience as possible.

The Black Panther is not a costumed hero, at least not yet. He is a warrior attempting to protect those he loves, a leader attempting to make atonement for the past sins of his country.  He sees the wisdom of using violence only as a last resort, and sees the humanity that connects us all. This is possibly T’Challa’s most heroic trait.

In the end, the Black Panther extends Wakanda’s hand, recognizing the folly of not helping others in need when one has the power to do so.  Wakanda coming out of isolation will have a profound impact on the Marvel Universe, and I’m fascinated to see exactly what that impact will be.

Black Panther is a celebration of African culture, and an exploration of what that means. I can’t pretend to understand that, but I think that I am closer to understanding it after seeing this film. Every actor gives a stunning performance here, building on top of a strong screenplay. This is quite possibly the best movie that Marvel has made so far, certainly a relief after the disaster that was Ragnarok. Here is a Silver Age hero brought to the screen as a new type of character for the cinematic universe, taking us in a very different direction. T’Challa will play an important role in the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  I can’t wait to see what that role will be. This film is not to be missed.

Image attribution: junaidrao under Creative Commons.

Dr. Who and Girl Power

TARDIS from Dr. Who. Image used under Creative Commons.As a rule, “gender-swapping” characters really annoys me. Marvel comics has been the worst about it of late, finding annoying ways to make characters like Thor and Wolverine female, and then wondering why they aren’t playing well with audiences. Surely audiences want strong female characters, right? As someone with two daughters (one of whom loves Wonder Woman), I can answer resoundingly yes, but re-purposing a male character into a female character does not a strong female character make. Rather, it shows a complete lack of creativity and belies the heavy hands of marketers relying more on their data than on common sense and dedication to the art or the medium.

I grew up with Dr. Who. My family watched it on PBS every Saturday night for as long as I can remember. The recent announcement that the Doctor will be regenerating as woman (while it was set up sloppily in the dialogue of this most recent, poorly-written season) makes sense to me, though. Is that symptomatic of a cognitive dissonance on my part? Not really. I actually think these examples are two entirely different things.

The Doctor was an ingenious character when written decades ago in what is now referred to as the “classic” series, in that a Time Lord‘s regenerations make him infinitely adaptable. Subtle quirks and personality shifts in each regeneration make for endless possibilities. The Doctor (or any other Time Lord) remains who he is at his core, but is a slightly different person each time, accompanied by a completely different physical appearance with each regeneration (although, to be fair, David Tenant and Matt Smith always looked remarkably similar to me, but I digress). The key to what this imaginative, fantastic twist to the world-building accomplishes is the perpetual opportunity for a writer to explore “what if,” to ask what it would look like for this character to have a different set of personality traits while still drawing on the experiences of being impossibly old, to show us what would be different if this character were an old man or a young Millennial. There are a nearly infinite number of possibilities in the Doctor, and this has made Dr. Who one of the most original concepts in science fiction, as well as one of the most enduring.

So, if the Doctor can regenerate from young to old, why not regenerate as a woman? This sort of just makes sense, as a Time Lord (and pardon my descent into geekery here) is essentially a shape-shifter at the time of his or her regeneration. The writers have even more possibilities to explore now as they can enter into the question of what a feminine dynamic will bring to the character. We’ve seen something similar done creatively (if not explicitly) in good science fiction before, after all. The character of Dax in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine springs to mind.

These sorts of spins are the result of creative pursuits of the story, not poor editorial direction, as is the case with Marvel’s recent gender swaps.

Even DC Comics’ more traditional take on strong female characters is wanting in comparison. Characters such as Supergirl or Hawkgirl were often afterthoughts, a forced editorial choice to make a female version of a male character in order to gain readers. Not that this doesn’t ever work (I personally have always loved the strength of the character of Batgirl), but, in comparison to an original, strong female character such as Wonder Woman, the efforts fall short.

My point is that, if the writer’s intention is to create a strong female hero or protagonist (something more of which our literary landscape desperately needs), then do just that: write a new character. The genius of the Doctor is that he now has the ability to be an example of how this is done well, while drawing on decades of other great writing to build upon.

My hope is that this will be approached as creatively as the BBC has time and again displayed it’s ability to accomplish, with the notable exception of the tragically poor writing of this most recent season. I say that this is my hope because if this decision is reduced in practice to merely a gender-equality move…more “girl power,” as it were…then it won’t work. It will last perhaps a season, and be remembered as an ill-fated blip in the history of the Doctor.

If, however, it is left alone…if the story is served and the creative legacy of Dr. Who honored…then these nuances will occur naturally, and we’ll be left with an even richer speculative universe, asking all of the questions about ourselves that such a universe brings.

Here’s to hoping.

 

Image attribution: Mike chernucha under Creative Commons.

A Review of “Spider-Man: Homecoming”

Spider-Man. Image used under Creative Commons.In the Marvel comics universe, you really don’t get much more iconic a character than Spider-Man. He is simply the character that most people think of when they think of the Marvel universe, as though the two are synonymous in many ways. His web-slinging heroism through the streets of New York City made for a solid cornerstone of my comics reading as a child. However huge and unpredictable were the adventures of the X-Men or the Avengers, Spider-Man was grounded, a street-level hero who helped the everyday urbanite in his time of greatest need.

That’s what the Marvel cinematic universe has captured correctly about Spider-Man since the legalities were worked out for him to appear in what is now the canonical set of films (and a relief, as true fans just sort of pretend that his most recent two big screen adventures didn’t happen), from his first appearance in Civil War when he tells Tony Stark that he’s “looking out for the little guy.” I was thrilled to finally see Peter Parker alongside his fellow heroes, and entered this movie with a lot of excitement.

Let me say up front that I really appreciate that this was not yet another re-telling of his origin story. However, the challenge of not having Spider-Man’s (or any other character’s) origin story up front is maintaining that character without it, working with the assumption that the audience knows as much as the writers about what events made the character who he or she is. Now, with a character this popular, that’s a fairly safe bet. Still, without even a reference to Uncle Ben in this slightly-over-two-hours film, it’s difficult to have solid footing for Peter’s motivations as we suspend our disbelief. Has Uncle Ben’s death even happened in this universe? Although it is difficult to grasp Spider-Man without that crucial event, we’re just not certain. Peter’s heroic nature was set up well in Civil War:

“When you can do the things that I can, but you don’t, and then the bad things happen, they happen because of you.”

Still, we’re lacking what is arguably the most important motivator of his character without even a reference to the events leading to his uncle’s death.

This version of Spider-Man, though, is obviously keeping in line with more modern writings of the character than the classic stories that many of us remember, which is fine, and is staying true to the Civil War story arc in which Tony equips Peter with a lot of cool gadgets, which completely works given where in the storyline he has entered. While the cool gadgets are a really fun addition to the story, though, the “insta-kill” in his costume feels like comic relief that is forced too much to be in character (keeping in mind that we saw Tony Stark order JARVIS to “terminate with extreme prejudice” in Iron Man 3, but that also felt questionable for his character).

This film, incidentally, is a great continuation of the development of Tony Stark, keeping with lessons learned from Iron Man 3 (“If you’re nothing without the suit…”), as well as from Civil War, as he carries the burden of what could befall Peter during his adventures heavily. This adds Marvel’s signature continuity to the arc.

Let’s not get distracted, though. This is Spider-Man’s story, and it feels like his story as a YA novel. I say this because the coming-of-age theme is inescapable, and, as Peter deals (in well-written form) with the struggles of every high school student to fit in and date the popular girl, we see the Avengers through a teenager’s eyes…an teenager intoxicated with possibility as Peter deals with his budding perception of a hero as being a member of this larger-than-life organization. We watch him discover and begin to live out the true nature of his heroism, placing others before himself, and dealing with turmoil and disappointment as his heroism must seemingly always prevent him from living the normal life that any teenager wishes they could have (homecoming dances, after all, bring back all sorts of memories for most of us). In that sense, this movie was successful in bringing our friendly-neighborhood hero into his own.

We don’t arrive there without some issues, however. First off, notably absent through the film is Peter’s spider-sense. The story would have been better served avoiding some of the technology and focusing on this, a central of part of Spider-Man’s abilities.

Secondly, something that Marvel has not always done well in it’s films is allowing the villains to live up to their evil natures. We see that in this movie, as well. While this is a really interesting take on the Vulture (and Keaton turns in an excellent performance, here), the Shocker is flippantly introduced and dismissed. Short-changing the villain ultimately hurts the story, and beginning with only a single villain from Spider-Man’s rogues gallery would have been more than sufficient.

Perhaps this is more an issue of personal taste, but this movie is quite funny, as comedic as was Guardians of the Galaxy 2 and as Thor: Ragnarok promises to be. I wonder if it too much so, if Marvel’s tone has become too light-hearted in compensation of the necessary weight of Civil War. Time will tell.

As we end with Peter’s decision to stay grounded, I think we’re seeing a great balance being emphasized in the Marvel canon…moving away from the “larger than life” heroes, and (especially with the Netflix offerings) seeing the heroes who are closer to what most of us would encounter. Peter Parker is content to be the friendly-neighborhood hero, having grown to see this as just as valuable as being part of a globally-recognized team of adventurers. He chooses to not be global and famous, but instead to keep watching over the city he knows best, to watch out for the little guy.

And that, perhaps, is his most heroic choice.

 

Image attribution: Pat Loika under Creative Commons.

First Day at the Theatre

There’s very little that I remember with any degree of clarity from my early elementary school days. 4th and 5th grades, sure, but prior to that, not so much. That’s why the vivid recollection of one specific field trip is such a notable exception.

I remember looking forward to the trip with so much excitement as my parents signed the permission forms in the days preceding the event. I remember boarding the bus with my friends and driving the short distance to the nearby college in the adjacent town. The college had a quality theatre program, and I was going to see my first play.

Now, I can’t say that I remember the plot of the show. I remember being quite unsettled by the villain, and one line in particular as he prowled the front row, cracking through what I now know to be the fourth wall as he questioned:

“Do you know what’s in my secret formula? Well, of course you don’t!”

In short, I returned from that trip with a sense of magic. I had never seen anything like live theatre, and, obviously, it stayed with me as I’ve pursued that calling in various professional avenues from college forward, even though I’ve never made it my living exclusively. I’m so thankful that I was afforded the opportunity to experience that show. My experiences with the theatre have been amazing ever since.

This week, I was given an even more profound opportunity, a more amazing one. I had the opportunity take my daughter, with her pre-school class, to her first play.

The show was Peter Rabbit Tales, and she is already quite familiar with the original work of Peter Rabbit. She was thrilled, so excited as we counted down the days. I drove her to school, joined the caravan of vehicles that went to the arts center, and watched the traveling theatre group’s performance. Even more than the show, however, I watched my daughter’s face as she sat, literally on the edge of her seat, her eyes almost unblinking, never wavering from the stage.

I wonder if the enrapt expression on my face was similar that day so many years ago when I watched that play. I wonder if this experience will have the impact on our daughter that day had on me. I know that she has been impacted by experiencing this art in person, and I know that it was an enormously positive experience for her.

An experience in which I was able to take part.

This was one of the most amazing experiences that I’ve had as a parent, more impactful even that my first play. I am thrilled to have been able to join my daughter for her first play.

A Review of “Jennifer Government”

Jennifer GovernmentI had marked another of Barry’s novels to read some time ago and never gotten around to it, and the premise of this book was even more compelling. I’m generally a fan of dystopian science fiction, though, so this was almost guaranteed to be an enjoyable read. Still Jennifer Government provides a compelling…and extremely timely…story.

The setting is a near future in which America has overtaken a number of other countries and thus spread the dominance of a handful of major corporations through most of the world. Taxes in American countries are no more, and an impotent government that relies on fundraising struggles to police the law against corporate forces, such as the ubiquitous NRA, which have the freedom to do whatever they like in pursuit of profit, including murder. In this future, people are born with no last names. Their identity is entirely associated with the corporation for which they work, and they take on the company’s name as their last name upon employment. Children take on the last name of the corporation sponsoring the school which they attend. Being un-employed, or self-employed, leaves one with no name, no identity. One’s life is entirely dependent upon being consumed by a corporation.

I should point out that, while dystopian, this is a comedy, and Barry’s dry wit is present throughout the story. Characters, such as Billy NRA, find themselves in outright hysterical situations that leave the reader laughing while unable to escape the nagging through-line woven into the setting of every scene.

Not that the through-line is at all subtle. And, as comedic are the scenarios in which our characters find themselves, the development and internal lives of the characters are often flat, and certainly secondary to the story. The point of this novel isn’t the characters, nor is it so much the plot, but rather the world which is its setting, and, while this sounds as though it would be completely dysfunctional and without any chance of working, it keeps the reader turning the pages with a surprising amount of engagement.

Barry’s writing style is quick, overly abrupt in places, and this is one of the most prominent criticisms that I’ve read in other reviews. As this is the first of his work that I’ve read, I can’t speak to whether or not this is his writing style, but it seems as though it’s a device in itself to place the reader into this comically frightening world.

Many would discard this novel as an anti-capitalist diatribe, but doing so misses something deeper going on here. The future in which Barry places his reader is one in which there is no room for thinking against conventional wisdom. Critical thought has been over-run by marketing. Taking time to think, or to live or care for one’s loved ones, means that one is not being productive in one’s employment. Propaganda rules, and different ways of thinking are not tolerated. In its absolute freedom, society has paradoxically given up its soul.

This is a light and quick read, but one that will continue stay present in your mind, and in your perception, in troubling ways long after you’ve finished laughing your way through its pages. Considering the climate in which we live, the setting of this novel, which becomes its own character in many ways, is a warning not only of what is to come, but of what has already arrived. While a bit heavy-handed at times, this is still a worthwhile read for anyone who would like to have their thoughts provoked.

Jennifer Government by Max Barry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars