Thoughts on Black Panther II: Wakanda Forever

When someone passes, they leave a void in the lives of those around them. When that person is a performing artist, and they are known for a role that was deeply impactful to a huge audience, that void is magnified exponentially. That was the case when Chadwick Boseman, who played the role of T’Challa, a.k.a. the Black Panther, passed away in 2020. He drew us into a classic character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe before appearing in his own film, Black Panther, which I would argue is possibly the best film that Marvel has produced. As fans around the world reeled at the news, many of us wondered what would happen to the character, to the story arc?

The worst thing that directors can do in a circumstance in which an actor, especially an actor who has mastered such an important role, passes, is simply re-cast the role and continue the story arc as-is. With few exceptions, audiences just won’t be on board. The beauty of the art form is that the character has now come alive for us, embodied in this actor, and, Time Lords aside, new faces might be accepted, but they just don’t work in the long run.

That’s why I think that Wakanda Forever is exactly what the story needs, and what audiences need, as the MCU moves forward. This story is about the void. It’s about those left behind. It’s about a nation and a people that still need a hero, but find that hero to be suddenly taken away from them. This is a story about mourning. It is a hero story without a hero.

Accordingly, the movie begins letting the audience experience the grief of the loss, giving us a few moments…not rushed…to mourn with the rest of the characters on the screen, before being thrust into the aftermath of T’Challa’s death. The central character here is Shuri, T’Challa’s sister, and, while we’re introduced to new characters such as Namor the Sub-Mariner and Ironheart, this is very much her story. The through-line is her grief, and the nation-state conflicts and political power-struggles between Wakanda, Talokan, and the United States are really just vehicles to walk her character through the grief process. The action sequences mostly concede (final climactic battle excepted) to character development, especially the Wakandan characters that we’ve seen in previous films, which really gives the audience something to digest. It is difficult to watch a hero film without a hero, difficult to sit with that emptiness of grief, but it is the only way to give this story arc the treatment that it deserves and, given other recent catastrophic failures in this phase of the MCU, I’m both relieved and respectful that the writers did so.

This film is more, though. It deals with the natural human reactions to trauma: confronting the collision of faith and empiricism in un-answered prayers, and the desire to strike back at the world in anger. More than grief explored, Wakanda Forever is a story of faith vs. uncertainty, and, perhaps most of all, a morality tale on the dangers of seeking revenge.

It’s not that I didn’t have problems with the film. While I think that the depth of not only African but Aztec cultures are beautifully presented, the decision to make Namor and his people not be from Atlantis just didn’t work for the comics purist in me. I can see why the decision was made from a writing standpoint though, as it wouldn’t be seen as original given that DC got there first.

All in all, though, Wakanda Forever stands out for me in a Phase 4 that has been, at best, about 50% worthwhile. This was a fantastic film with which to end this phase, and, above all, it pays respect to Boseman’s legacy with the character, while building a solid foundation for where the new Black Panther will take us. I highly recommend this film.

A Review of “Thor: Love and Thunder”

I’ve been unpacking the realization that the MCU has been declining in quality lately. I don’t think that this is because of the quality of acting (most of the actors have been outstanding), or lack of aspiration. I can see the desire to fold in the many aspects of the comics history, and there is brilliance…even if it is a bit of a deus ex machina…to utilize the multiverse as a device to do so. And while films like Spider-Man and the most recent Dr. Strange have been exceptions, I’ve felt let down by most of the other films and series over the past few months. Moon Knight and Ms. Marvel both failed to achieve their potential. Eternals was the first Marvel film that I couldn’t bring myself to even finish it was so bad.

I had no respect for Ragnarok, but I also hoped…naively…that even Taika Waititi couldn’t destroy Thor worse than he had in that film. My hope proved it’s naiveté. Ragnarok did so much violence to the character and displayed such a blatant disrespect for the genre that, had I not been seeing it with a friend, I would have walked out. Love and Thunder continued that pattern.

What confuses me most about these travesties of films is, why would the powers that be for the MCU, who have shown such a dedication to quality, continuity, and good art up until this point, allow someone who obviously has no respect for the genre to write and direct? And to continue to write and direct one of their most popular characters, at that? Both of these films are taking a character that was developed in a deep and compelling way in previous films, and using that character to openly mock the storyline and the genre itself.

What disappoints me the most about these films is that Thor is one of my favorite characters, and we finally had the opportunity to see Jane Foster take on the mantle of Thor. We could have had a brilliant film about Jane, her struggles, her desire to be, and her growth into, a hero. Instead we have…whatever this film was.

In Ragnarok, Waititi casually and carelessly disregarded previous continuity. He broke Thor’s speech patterns, altered his character by stripping away his bravery and ethical code, and cast characters as gods that had been previously been considered only aliens, thus altering a fundamental foundation of the cinematic universe. Because the other directors and writers of the MCU are still committed to continuity, they had to work with the mess Waititi had left them (which is why so-called “fat Thor” was such a blight on the otherwise fantastic Infinity War and Endgame films). These fracture lines continue to weaken the other films in painful ways.

In Love and Thunder, the passionate dislike for the genre that is evident in the storytelling extends to a more general irreverence for everything, but particularly for religion. As much as Waititi obviously dislikes the genre, he seems to hate religion even more, and has presumed to re-write the characters here to fit his vendetta. There’s nothing worse than art with an agenda, and, as terrible a film as Ragnarok was, this makes Love and Thunder even worse. Essentially, the bulk of the film is so-called comedy with the intention of callously mocking absolutely everything.

The scenes that aren’t comedy are melodrama, over-the-top emotional events that aren’t earned. They throw the audience into a confused emotional spiral because there has been no lead-up, no explanation aside from a few lines thrown in as after-thoughts. It’s painful, emotional whiplash, and I suspect that the laughter I did hear in the audience was as much confusion as anything else, because it was difficult to track anything over these 2 hours.

I really wanted to like a move with a Guns N’ Roses soundtrack, and, if I’m to find anything positive in this mess, it’s that I have respect for scoring an action sequence to Slash’s guitar solo from “November Rain.” Soundtrack excellence notwithstanding, the action sequences were chaotic, and chaos seems to have been the goal.

Love and Thunder continues to perpetuate the damage done in Ragnarok, potentially to an un-recoverable point. The film doesn’t know what it wants to be, other than to be over-the-top at the expense of quality. Its purpose is to get a cheap laugh or tear at any cost. After seeing the (un-earned) death of a character we care about, we’re told in the end credits that “Thor will return.” I almost wish that weren’t the case at this point. I sincerely hope that, if he (or she) does, it will be with a different artistic direction, because that is all that will save this particular franchise.

If you haven’t seen Thor: Love and Thunder yet, save yourself the pain and read a synopsis. Believe me, that will be bad enough.

Image attribution: edenpictures under Creative Commons.

A Review of “Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness”

These are different times.

As much as I love superhero mythologies and as much as I could talk about them forever, it seems out of step that it’s taking me this long to write a review about a movie that opened nearly a month ago. Before the world broke, I wrote about these films on opening weekend because we had scheduled everything else around seeing them. For the last two years, it’s been rare for me to sit in a theatre (the last time was Back Widow), and writing out my thoughts has seemed…less important. So, seeing this in person was a mark of returning normalcy. Given how late I am in writing this, though, I’m not going to avoid spoilers.

First off, let me say that there are some prerequisites for this film. If you’ve been following the Disney + series, and have seen Spider-Man: No Way Home, you should be good. In case you haven’t though, you should (in order) watch WandaVision, What If?, Loki, and Spider-Man. Otherwise, this might not make much sense to you, because the last time you saw Wanda Maximoff, she would not have been the villain.

Yes, you read that correctly.

What slapped me in the face for this movie is that everything that you thought you knew from the trailer is turned on its head in the first 15 minutes. Dr. Strange made some difficult decisions in order to defeat Thanos, and those choices introduced even more loss for Wanda. We saw her grief overtake her in WandaVision, walked through that grief with her, and when we last saw Wanda, she was growing into her own abilities by entertaining the Darkhold. Remember that Wanda is a Scarlet Witch, a wielder of chaos magic, and, as such, has become an incredibly powerful being almost overnight. Also remember that the Darkhold corrupts those who read it. Here we discover that she has learned of the multiverse, and is searching for a way to bring her children into the universe we know as canonical in the MCU (numbered 616). Moreso than when we left the end of WandaVision, we discover the Scarlet Witch quite literally mad with grief.

As an aside, I think a good deal of inspiration for this plot was taken from the Avengers: Disassembled story arc, if you’re familiar with the source material.

For the geeks among us, we also find that the MCU is differentiating heavily between sorcery and witchcraft. Wong confirms that a Scarlet Witch is a being of unspeakable power, who can re-write reality at will. In Avengers: Disassembled, Dr. Strange points out that Wanda, as a mutant, had an enormous amount of magical power thrust onto her without ever learning the discipline necessary to control it. Of course, we haven’t been able to have mutants in the MCU until now because lawyers, but it provides interesting context.

That said, what Marvel seems to be doing here is finding a creative way to bring in not only popular previous films (i.e.: other Spider-Man incarnations), but also to explain why we haven’t had mutants to begin with now that the legal walls in the real world seem to be coming down (hence, we see Charles Xavier in this film). There are simply different universes in the multiverse, and we now know that there can be potential incursions from one to the other due not only to the magic wielded in this movie, but also by the actions of Kang in the Loki series. I think the viewers stand to see a lot more variety due to this.

The visual effects in this movie are nothing short of spectacular, particularly the initial action sequence in which Dr. Strange is fighting a monster rampaging through the city, as well as later jumping between universes. Also, introducing Professor X and Mr. Fantastic into the MCU was accomplished so unexpectedly and almost with a backward wave that the viewer is left in a sort of stunned silence. I want to re-watch the movie now because I’m certain I missed something important here as I was processing what I had just seen.

What I found to be the most thought-provoking part of the story of this second installment of Dr. Strange is watching how other heroes interact with Stephen Strange. As he makes continued, apparently callous decisions in an effort to preserve countless lives across universes (similar to what we saw in Spider-Man: No Way Home), his actions have enormous consequences on his fellow heroes. While Peter Parker rejects this outright and fights to save as many people as he can in the previous film, Wanda turns inward, propelled by grief, holding Dr. Strange responsible for the death of Vision and the loss of her children, and lashing out with violence.

Speaking of violence, there’s a good deal of it in this movie…more than in previous Marvel films, which, while not enough to be off-putting, was enough that I noticed. I haven’t found Disney to be interested in gore in any way, but some scenes of this movie manage to get close.

There are definitely things that I dislike about the film, though, and one of them is the ending. Dr. Strange turns to dark magic, in fact to the Darkhold, using necromancy to win the battle in the end. And, while Wanda ultimately sees the error of her choices and chooses to sacrifice herself for the greater good as a hero, I’m concerned by watching heroes cross the line into dark choices and leaving the audience with the impression that this is a heroic decision. I found this part of the plot disappointing, as Dr. Strange defies the nature of a hero. I also feel like Wanda’s sacrifice happened so quickly that it’s almost missed. I didn’t truly unpack the emotional ramifications of that scene until days later, and, while few characters really die in the comics, I still grieve over the end of a tragic character we’ve grown to sympathize with so deeply.

Overall, I was impressed by Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, even though I wish the ending had been handled better. This takes the story in the only direction it could truly go as the MCU continues to reinvent itself after the Snap, and we see the character development here that keeps us returning to these movies. This is definitely a movie worth seeing, and I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Image attribution: Luka Zou under Creative Commons.

Thoughts on WandaVision

I know, I’m slightly late to the conversation on WandaVision. This isn’t because I watched it late, but because it took a while to unpack this series. Like most viewers, I found it a bit mystifying from the trailers, but I was intrigued from the first episode. This, I thought, is by far the quirkiest thing that Marvel has put on any screen, large or small, and yet held a sense of foreboding that something was just around the corner, something ominous. What I found as the series progressed, and as I’ve had time to ruminate on it a bit, is that there is a deeper theological undercurrent to this series than I’ve seen in any of the MCU to date.

Let me cut to the ending though: I loved WandaVision.

Comic book literature is sort of naturally given to feature length films, because it tends to contain huge battles between good and evil that are epic in scale. Arcs like Captain America’s backstory, or the Avengers, are well-suited to a series of large-screen films. We’ve followed them, loved them, found ourselves invested in them. If you’ve read comics at all, though, you’ll know that there’s more to the characters. Comics give space for the backstory of the characters, as well. They at times devote entire issues to conversations between incidental or secondary characters, developing not only those characters but others in the process. There’s room for dialogue, for the heavy introspection of someone’s thoughts. Were the screenplay writers to include this in every film, they would all easily exceed two hours. What we’ve seen with Marvel’s series at large, though (think of the Defenders series on Netflix) is that their episodic nature provides the writers with the room to unpack backstories, develop characters, help us to know these heroes (and villains) better. Think of the entire episode of Daredevil devoted to Matt Murdock revealing his secret identity to Foggy Nelson. That was incredible dialogue, and the viewer was so much more invested in both Murdock and Nelson after.

That sort of space is something that both Vision and the Scarlet Witch have been in need of since they debuted in Age of Ultron. Wanda Maximof’s story of one of trauma. Repeated trauma. She watches her parents die. She chooses to become an Avenger, and then her brother dies. She still tries to do what is good, and manages to find a strange an unusual love in the Vision, not only to watch him die as well at the hands of Thanos, but actually is forced to be the one to kill him. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Wanda is one of the strongest characters in the Marvel universe at this point, not just in sheer power level (we’ll get there), but in the will to even get up each morning and keep going after that amount of trauma. I’m not sure I would make the same decision.

Wanda, however does. The complication is that she is endowed with a level of power that she can’t even comprehend prior to this series, and, when her mind finally breaks under the pain of grief of loss, that power alters reality. The writers riffed on the House of M story arc from the source material, and walked the thin line of introducing the complexities of this scenario without ever allowing Wanda to become a villain. Because, at the end of the day, it just isn’t that simple.

What fascinates me about WandaVision is the theological implications of the story. This is ultimately a story of what happens when any one of us tries to play God. Wanda just wants an end to pain. She has no ill intent. So, she does exactly what any of us would do if we found ourselves in possession of an enormous amount of magical ability to alter reality to fit our will. Wanda departs the realm of hero, but never becomes a villain. She just wants a respite from her grief but, because she’s only human after all, creates a disastrous scenario when she takes matters into her own hands, even though (and this is important) she does so instinctively rather than intentionally.

I don’t want to throw out a post full of spoilers…you really need to watch this series if you haven’t. To continue the theological discussion, though, the best part of the story is that, in the end, when confronted with the decision to maintain the relief from sadness that she so desperately wants and deserves, or to let Vision, her one love, die yet again in order to free the innocent people around her from the prison that she’s inadvertently created, Wanda displays the nature of a hero and places the good of the many before her own. The pain that she’s feeling we cannot fathom, but she repents of her wrong doing and makes an effort to save the lives of others.

There are far more themes introduced in this series than I can explore here. We see an image of temptation by the evil one in the Garden in Agatha Harkness. We’re given a bit of time to ask the question, can a machine love, if we can create as we were created, and what the ramifications of such actions might be. There is so much going on in WandaVision.

WandaVision is the most original idea that Marvel has tried to date. Each episode is superbly written, perfectly performed, and full of layers of significance that one just doesn’t find in any series created in the U.S of late. If you’re a comics fan, and especially if you’ve followed the MCU at all, this is a must-watch. I wouldn’t recommend that this be a jumping-on point to the MCU if you haven’t, though. The good news there is that you have a lot of great material on which to catch up.

Thoughts on Avengers: Endgame

Photo of what looks like a theatre display for Avengers Endgame. Used under Creative Commons.I’ve waited a week since Karen and I went to the opening night show of Avengers: Endgame to write this. I don’t want to call it a review, as I normally do, I think because of the finality of this film, of the experience of seeing the film. Because I’ve known these characters for so much of my life….ten years on the screen, and many, many years more than that in print…I experienced a period of mourning after Endgame. The heroes won…we knew that they would. I don’t think we knew how costly that victory would be, or at least hadn’t let the suspicion take root.

The fact that I’m walking away with this level of emotional response is, of course, indicative of the quality of story-telling. This is an epic that concludes an epic, and it pays so much respect to the films that have come before. The heroes reconcile old schisms, make sacrifices, and recall what it is to be heroes, all while dealing with an apocalypse.

I suppose I am doing some reviewing here, because I need to mention that the storytelling is even broader in its expanse than Infinity War, diving into time travel and alternate outcomes in true comic book form. This is predictably necessary for a film of this scope, to do justice to what we’re seeing, larger than our minds can even take in at first. That said, I felt like it became beholden to a sort of genre convention of a “final episode” at times, which led to some contrived moments.

My biggest issue with Endgame is that the inexcusable destruction of Thor’s character that began in Ragnarok continues, which is unfortunate. Thor would have been a fantastic addition to Endgame, but instead there is another character here masquerading as Thor. I think that, in order to preserve the continuity of the universe, the directors had limited options other than to perpetuate the disservice that Ragnarok’s director did to the through-line, but still…it detracts enormously from the movie.

The heroic sacrifices of our heroes at times leave me understanding…this truly was the only way that it could end…and at times left me angry, entering a first stage of grief. I’m also left with hope, ordering events from the time travel exploits in such a way in my mind that I can conclude that maybe, just maybe, someone that we’ve lost might return (rarely does any character stay dead in comics, anyway).

Of course, I’d be remiss to not tell just how much I love the final battle between good and evil, which in so many ways is what a super-hero story is about. The audience in our theatre cheered, applauded, and when we finally heard “Avengers, Assemble!” nearly responded with a standing ovation. This is the bigger universe that Tony Stark had found himself a part of all those years ago, and now, rising above all mistakes and personal failings, the one several of our heroes give everything to protect.

To be honest, my mind has been spinning as I unpacked this three-hour adventure so much that I almost didn’t write this. Because I reviewed the first Avengers film though, I wanted to review the final one. This was the ending, a true ending. Notably absent from the end credits is any mention of “The Avengers will return.” This was their final battle. Steve has received his much deserved leave and passed his mantle, and Tony can rest…the world is safe. I can recall seeing each movie leading to this, though…recall every theatre that I sat in, devouring analysis after and looking for hidden gems that hinted as to what was coming. This has been years of masterful storytelling, and I think we’re all grateful. Everything, though, must come to an end. We’ll always remember this ten-year adventure with excitement, knowing that it ended the best…the only…way that it could. For one final time, the Avengers fought the battle we never could. As Fury predicted at the close of the first movie, they were there because we needed them to be.

Image attribution: Brendan C under Creative Commons.