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.

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.

A Review of “Captain America: Civil War”

7324239866_785eb0d421_mSometimes, you go into a long-awaited movie wondering if you’ve already seen the best it has to offer in the trailers. Certainly, this thought occurred to me as I stood eagerly in line for Captain America: Civil War on opening night. In true geek fashion, I had been anticipating this movie since before Age of Ultron, and had devoured every hint, rumor, teaser and trailer in the preceding months. I had discussed theories and possibilities with friends and colleagues, and still felt as though I was unprepared for what I was about to witness. There were so many possibilities here, my head was swimming, giddy with what could be about to take place.

As it turns out, the trailers were as carefully composed as the film itself, because they led you to believe that you knew what would happen, giving you just enough to inform, yet still leave you gasping with shock in the theatre.

Civil War is the third MCU installment for Captain America, and the thirteenth Marvel film in its modern universe. I have, as I suspect have most fans, entered a bit of a comfort zone with these movies. That is, I’m not nearly the kid in the candy store as when I waited in line, pre-purchased ticket in hand, for the first Avengers movie. That’s not to say that I love these movies any less…if anything, the opposite is true. The reason is because I love the characters. Having read their adventures for most of my life, of course, helps, but I think that every viewer who has engaged in this genre since the first Iron Man movie all those years ago has become emotionally invested in these characters. We’ve watched them grow and develop, lived through their struggles and (sometimes Pyrrhic) victories with them, and, while we’ve come to awe at their heroism as they confront the evils over which we could never possibly hope to triumph, we’ve also come to appreciate their humanity.

That’s what I walked away introspective about at the end of Civil War, and, while it’s what I expected, it’s not what I expected.

The tone of the Civil War story arc in the comics, upon which this movie is based, was highly political in nature. Certainly, the character of Captain America is uniquely positioned to explore questions of politics and national identity, and we’ve seen that used to great effect in previous films. I expected that, not the emotional weight of the way in which we see each character struggle. The struggles are not just external, although there’s plenty of that, and the fights are not the fun, fanboy match-ups from the early minutes of the first Avengers. This is what you feel when you watch loved ones fight, when you can see from the outside that both are right in their way, that all motivations are honorable, and that no one is going to win while everyone will lose.

The internal struggles are just as real, with deeper implications. Steve Rogers has been attempting to find his identity since the truth that he assumed he fought for collapsed in the Winter Soldier. He is refusing to follow logic because his first allegiance is to his best friend, the one friend who can begin to understand what he has survived. He wants to do what’s right, and isn’t certain what that is any longer. Tony Stark continues to battle against his past, to try to make up for the horrible mistakes that he seems to continue to make even while attempting to atone for other mistakes. Bucky Barnes struggles to undo the evil into which he was made against his will. Wanda Maximoff struggles with her identity, wondering if she is still who she was in a more innocent time. The Vision struggles to find what it is to be human. Natasha Romanoff struggles to balance pragmatic survival with loyalty to the closest family she has known. And these struggles are only some of what are carefully developed and tracked throughout these two hours as these characters whom we’ve come to love, this family to which we feel we’ve become observers, split as their own best intentions consume them.

Civil War is never meant to have a happy ending. The implications of this movie have rightly been predicted to forever alter the Marvel Cinematic Universe moving forward, and that’s a fair assessment. Just as in the conclusion of the same story in the comics, there is no going back. Just as in the arguments that we wish we had never had, those words can never be unsaid, their wounds never reversed, only, hopefully, healed.

So, the political inferences are there in Civil War, if you want to see them. Certainly, though, they are not the focus. The characters are, and that is a wonderful decision on Marvel’s part.

There is humor interspersed at just the right times during the fights, keeping the script from becoming too weighty while simultaneously adding to the tragedy of these events. The movie introduces new characters, of course, and unless you have no idea what was coming, you were as excited to see Spider-Man done well as the rest of us.

Spider-Man was my big disappointment in the movie, though, I have to confess, mostly because a young Aunt May is something that I’ve never seen in any incarnation of this iconic hero. It makes sense to focus on a teenage Peter Parker, though, because this gives much more room to develop the character as we move forward, and I have no doubt that the writers will continue to take as great care with this as they have to date. Visually, of course, Spider-Man’s great, and, even with his flaws, we’re already exponentially better off that the last tragic attempt to put the Web-Slinger on the screen.

The Black Panther could not be introduced in a better way. T’Challa grounds the film. He serves as the center of gravity as both sides spin further out of control, an outsider who brings clarity to the conflict in a very unexpected way. His monologue at the end as the climactic battle wages nearby is simple but unbelievably profound, and brings out what we as the viewers know, a quiet but powerful expression as we are screaming for the fighting to stop.

If you’ve paid careful attention to the previous films (and I mean careful…there are details in the Winter Soldier specifically that are critical to know), you’ve seen this conflict coming. Still, while we want to see our heroes in action again, we don’t want this, and that makes Civil War dramatically different from every other film to date. These are events that we didn’t want to see happen, a conflict in which our heroes do not win, and, in fact, a conflict in which no one else wins, either, especially not those who depend on them.

When heroes are proven as weak as we are in important ways, it damages our view of them. Their power and dedication seem unimportant when built on the same emotions and experiences that the rest of us have. Perhaps that’s unfair. Perhaps their humanity makes them even more heroic, knowing that they overcome it far more than they succumb to it.

Perhaps we have cause to fear them, however, when they fail in their responsibilities.

Perhaps we all fall down if we don’t learn to talk to each other instead of fight.

Civil War leaves us wondering where we go from here. Make certain that you watch this film.

Image attribution: Andrew Buckingham under Creative Commons.

A Review of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”

Batman vs Superman. Image used under Creative Commons.I was sort of numb.

Really, that sums up my entire journey with this film, from the first teaser all those months ago, to leaving the theatre this week. To be honest, it began with Zack Snyder’s less-than-impressive Man of Steel, the entire purpose of which seemed to be “how dark and brooding can we make Superman?” Superman isn’t a character that’s particularly dark and brooding. In fact, while recent incarnations of the character have made good efforts toward the sorts of questions with which someone with his level of power would struggle, he remains sort of the antithesis of darkness.

Really, that’s what should position him opposite of a character like Batman, who, when written well, is always walking a very thin line between hero and vigilante, at times not in full possession of his faculties, struggling with a trauma that would overwhelm someone without his sense of purpose.

And, when permitted to develop, those sorts of distinctions can be fascinating. There was none of that after this movie, though. I was just numb.

The numbness wasn’t born simply of the overwhelming darkness of this 2-and-a-half-hour mess (many critics have noted, with some exaggeration, that no one smiles in this entire movie. In Snyder’s defense, there is one scene where Lois Lane laughs with Clark Kent, but that’s just to relieve tension from his brooding). The numbness was caused equally by the sheer speed at which this film moves.

Comics have a phenomenon called the gutter. That is, something often happens between the image in one frame and the image in the next. The reader’s imagination fills in the gutter. In order for this work, one must be aware that there’s a gutter to fill.

Superman’s adventures, both in rescuing Lois Lane (a perpetual damsel in distress instead of the strong character that she should be) are disconnected. Only knowledge of the previous movie leaves any idea for the viewer as to why he’s struggling (or, for that matter, why the public is struggling) with who he is and what he can do, and even that is fragmented. Superman is just generally unhappy with life, here, and we can only guess why.

Still, Superman is developed extravagantly compared to Batman.

Now, let me say up front that I have always been a huge fan of the Dark Night Detective. His is a character that has so many possibilities when done well, so I’m even more sensitive to a poorly written adaptation of Batman than I am of Superman. That personal issue aside, though, let’s understand something about comic books that makes what Snyder did with the character incredibly risky and, in the end, an incredible failure.

In comic book literature, there’s an event called a retcon, or “retroactive continuity.” In a retcon, characters are taken in dramatically different directions, and writers often explore various “what-if” scenarios and facets of a character that would otherwise be left undiscovered. Retcons, when done well, are really interesting journeys. In 1986, Frank Miller, arguably one of the greatest writers in comics, published a miniseries called The Dark Knight Returns. In this retcon, set in a future Gotham City, Bruce Wayne has retired as the Batman, and he’s gone a bit insane. Batman has become a second personality, clawing to get out, with Wayne holding him at bay. Eventually confronted with a horrendous crime wave in Gotham where unspeakable acts of violence are taking place, Batman resurfaces, except, this time, he hurts people. He uses firearms (something that he swore never to do because of how his parents were killed). Superman is essentially an agent of the government in this story, and is sent to bring Batman under control. The battle ensues.

Dark Knight Rises was also influenced by this miniseries, but didn’t alter the character to fit.

The issue here is that a retcon never works in the mainstream continuity, and this movie is supposed to launch the Justice League franchise for the DC Cinematic Universe. This is to DC what the Avengers have been to Marvel. This movie defines the mainstream universe for the film, and it was written based on a retcon. By definition, this doesn’t work.

So, I expected to not be impressed.

Let’s suppose, for argument’s sake, though, that this could work. One of the reasons that Miller’s story was so compelling is because we see how Batman ended up as angry and disturbed as he is. Snyder gives us no such reason. There is a brief glimpse of a Robin costume in the Batcave with words scrawled across the front. Batman readers will assume that this is indicative of a well-known event in Batman’s past where the second Robin is killed by the Joker. We don’t know for certain, though, because this is never explained. There is also a brief line of dialogue by Alfred (who is something other than a butler, here…who knows…) about cruelty resulting from a feeling of powerlessness. Certainly, Batman has felt powerless as the conflict between Superman and Zod in Man of Steel left many of his friends dead, and this would be more compelling if we weren’t pushed through the memory so quickly. These events, though, are the only explanation we have as to why Batman hates Superman, why he wants to kill him, and why he is vindictively harming criminals, and they seem to somehow fall short of the end result.

A hate-filled character with such little backstory…particularly when that hatred is superimposed on a character that we know is not normally possessed of this trait…is more than difficult to accept. It just doesn’t work.

This is to say nothing of the machine guns on Batman’s vehicles, or his willingness to use villains’ firearms against them, one scene of which nearly made me walk out of the theatre I was so disappointed. This is tremendously out of character. Adapting a character and re-writing a character are two different things. Snyder apparently felt justified to do the latter.

The fast-paced disconnection doesn’t stop, there, however. There are dream sequences that are bordering on delusional and add nothing to the film except an excuse to portray Superman as a warlord and Batman as a gun-wielding purveyor of vengeance. Batman’s sudden change of heart in the end of his conflict with Superman is so abrupt and without motivation that it leaves one with emotional whiplash.

The film isn’t without positives. Eisenberg’s performance as Lex Luthor, which I expected to be disappointing, was gripping and a pleasant surprise. The combat sequences were well-paced, making for the sort of fan-boy matchup that a large part of the audience was expecting to see. Certainly, Snyder excels in visual storytelling. If only a fully-developed plot and fully-developed characters had been there to accompany his visual acuity.

Of course, one of the aspects of this movie that fans were eagerly awaiting was the appearance of Wonder Woman. I’ve talked before about how important a character Wonder Woman is, and I wasn’t impressed with the choice to cast Gal Gadot in the role. This was another pleasant surprise, however, as Gadot brought a good performance. Still, there wasn’t time for her to do anything other than fight for the brief five minutes in which we see her as Wonder Woman. Again, this moved too fast. Of course, the over-arching problem with Wonder Woman here is that she is one of DC Comics’ three most important characters. Introducing her in a minor role in someone else’s film is simply unacceptable.

There has been a conscious decision here move in the opposite order from what Marvel did with the Avengers. That is, the Justice League is beginning with a team film, and moving forward from there, without giving most characters their own films to begin with. This is a great idea, but it isn’t working in execution, because there simply isn’t time to develop major characters in a team film. Our glimpses of the rest of the Justice League here happen…you guessed it…very fast, in one case condensing an origin story into about 30 seconds, and leaving a good deal of the audience confused, I imagine.

(Warning: Spoilers!)


 

By the time we see Superman’s rushed death in the end, I wasn’t just numb, I was completely numb. Partly because it was so rushed as to feel fake (although fans really should have seen this coming knowing that Doomsday is the villain), and partly because we know that a Justice League film can’t be made (I certainly hope they don’t try) without Superman. So, this was an emotional stunt to bring back viewers.

I left the theatre feeling nothing at all, hurried to a state of being completely anesthetized. After a couple of days, I felt profound disappointment. I’m a big fan of these characters, and I really wanted to see them done well. This film places the entire Justice League franchise on extremely shaky ground.

I hope it recovers.

Image attribution: a_marga under Creative Commons.

A Review of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

Photo of Star Wars: The Force Awakens poster. Used under Creative Commons.Permit me to set the stage.

I was just old enough to accompany my parents to the movie theatre when Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back made its debut. The sweeping, epic nature of that story…larger than anything that I had ever seen, more captivating in its imaginative scope than I anything of which I could have dreamed…made me forever a fan of Star Wars. I read a novelization of the first film then, of course, because I wanted to know what led up to it.

One of my first recollections of devouring a trailer for hints of the future was Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. I had waited far, far too long to learn what had happened to Han Solo, to consider the revelations made by Darth Vader, and simply had to know what happened next to these characters.

While my mother was a Trekkie, I grew up a devoted Star Wars fan, and I always divided science fiction (really what we would later call the Space Opera flavor of science fiction) into two camps:  the ordered universe of Star Trek, and the swashbuckling adventures of Star Wars.

Nothing else was like Star Wars. Even years later, and despite the fact that Han did, indeed, shoot first, I eagerly awaited the re-releases of the original films.

I was hesitant, then, of the so-called prequels…episodes I, II, and III, respectively, because episodes IV, V, and VI told a complete story. Yes, the idea of seeing the history was intriguing, but I feared that the story would not be treated with respect, that artificial additions would be crafted in order to sell to an audience. Telling a different part of this epic story would be acceptable, but attempting to add onto it would not be. Certainly those three fell short, but I enjoyed seeing the Jedi in their prime, and I appreciated the fact that I felt sympathy for Vader in the end. As much criticism as these films drew, and despite the fact that they were in no way equivalent to the original, I found them generally acceptable because they were there to frame a story that had already been completely told, to add to our appreciation of it.

When a story is complete, when the story-teller has said all that needed said, then to attempt to add to that story is to cheapen it, to ultimately detract from it. The only greater insult to a grand story that I can think of is to re-purpose it, to attempt to spin the same tale again in order to attract viewers, to make it somehow more relevant to them, or to (and this would apparently always be the ultimate goal) make money.

A few days ago, I sat through the Force Awakens with the nagging feeling that I knew what would happen next, that I had seen this somewhere before. Of course, I had, because the best the film-makers seemed able to do was to recycle the original story arc with different characters, and without the epic scope. Not only did it completely disappoint in every way, it does violence to the original story with which we’ve all fallen in love by reducing it in scale to a few characters, stripping away its complexities and nuances (even, I would argue, its impactful themes of good vs.evil), and allowing a largely unbelievable story which is discontinuous of where we are left at the end of Return of the Jedi to rest on the strengths of some good casting and a strong female lead.

A female lead who, incidentally, is for some reason able to do things with a dormant Force that has taken every other Jedi significant training to accomplish. But, it’s awakened, I suppose.

This is a story with no pacing, with a single unique character amidst a sea of clever re-writes, struggling to piece together a map (the existence of which makes no sense), rolling with events that occur suddenly with no lead-in, and, oh, to make it compelling, a major character dies in the end. This is a rushed story, a predictable story, and story that relies on the staggered appearances of old characters delivering poor dialogue to carry the audience through. This is to be the next chapter in the Star Wars mythology. This is to be the beginning of the next part of the story. This is where Star Wars is now.

Which essentially means that its dead, the victim of unoriginal writing and a studio too interested in revenue to care about good art.

The Force Awakens is a tragic, tragic mistake. There have still only been three Star Wars films. I likely will never go see another.

Image attribution: wcm1111 under Creative Commons.