Staring Into INFINITY WAR, Part 1: Sympathy For The Devil (w/spoilers)

I know what it’s like to lose. To feel so desperately that you’re right, yet to fail nonetheless. It’s frightening. Turns the legs to jelly. I ask you: to what end? Dread it. Run from it. Destiny arrives all the same.

Now, you might be wondering (probably not) why this isn’t part of my “Pop Culture Heresy: Marvel Studios is Awful” series.

I’m done with it. It was the wrong way to frame my analyses of these movies, TV shows, and who makes them — to alter my approach of Art criticism a bit and see how it goes. I’ll keep my previous entries up for both the sake of transparency as well as to remember what not to do in the future. However, that is not due to having some newfound love for the studio and its practices (which I absolutely don’t — I’ll deal with that elsewhere — though I apply more blame to Disney nowadays), but rather the fact they’re taking the creative risks I’ve been dying to see forever now. It should not have taken this long but, given the short-sighted entertainment industry avarice, we’ve been given nothing but an elongated set-up to something that should’ve started far sooner.

I don’t know how much sooner exactly — but, again, it should not have taken slightly less than a decade. Perhaps, given the set-up at the end of The Avengers, it’d of been soon after that film. Here’s the thing though: you don’t need to watch any of the other movies beforehand. It’d almost be a disservice to just how well this film understands self-contained storytelling. If you want to go see them, you can — there are plenty of things to like within each (like the always magical Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie in Ragnarok) — but one can simply read the plot synopses on Wikipedia to fill in some of the blanks. I’d still highly recommend Captain America: Winter Soldier as I have before, but that has less to do with lore-building than just as a damn good movie by itself. It expands on the previous installment and many of its themes while dealing with contemporary socio-political issues (as best as one could with an expensive blockbuster, anyway — still an admirable feat compared to most) more evocative of 1970’s conspiracy thriller and less like a superhero film. Funny, considering the Russo Bros. also directed that one…

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“You want the moon? I’ll give you the fuckin’ moon!”

With Infinity War? Just reading about it wouldn’t work as almost everything that is said and done in this movie is shown, with as little exposition as necessary. But even then, they still use such for further characterization than simply getting information across. The film is what I’ve wanted to see more of from this franchise since Winter Soldier because, along with those elements, it subverts all expectations that’ve come from the continual iteration as well as an over-budgeted and bizarrely aggressive marketing campaign that weaponizes its fandom. More importantly, so many plot points within it recontextualize certain aspects from those other movies to the point they practically feel ret-conned. As if to make up for lost time…and I love it.

DESTROYER OF WORLDS

Anyone who knows me well enough should be aware of my sentiments on the villains of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with the obvious exception of Loki (Tom Hiddleston). There’s always this great storytelling potential with each one, especially if allowed to stay alive, but they’re often reduced to one-dimensional baddies who “need” to die as if we’ve never moved on past action movie tropes of the 1980’s. They’re occasionally given legitimate grievances or personal issues to deal with — whether it’s Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth), Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), Hela (Cate Blanchett), or Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) — but end up getting swept under the rug in order for them to be demonized and defeated gloriously by the hero, in a half-baked and tensionless action sequence that may as well’ve been from G.I. Joe.

Erik Killmonger is particularly egregious because, as someone who was both witness and victim to anti-black discrimination in the United States and rightfully aggrieved that Wakanda’s isolationist policies allowed it to continue, he still “needs” to be some woman-hating gangbanger prick to make his death (at the hands of his cousin nonetheless) seem justified. Keep in mind that T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) not only forgave the man he thought killed his father and their accomplice, but saved the life of the man who did kill his father — yet it’s not considered that he allow Killmonger to live and make amends with him as family. Even James Wan’s recent Aquaman acknowledges that as an option within its main conflict.

None of them can really live up to Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson “The Kingpin” Fisk in Daredevil nor able to, what with the difference in format, but that doesn’t mean they’re incapable of being more layered as characters within a feature-length film (plus some) as Loki is highly indicative of that.

But now? I have Thanos (Josh Brolin) along with his Children…

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The Family That Slays Together, Stays Together

Thanos — unlike Killmonger — is not right. He is most definitely wrong. A person who thinks that mass genocide across planets is “saving” them from a painful existence simply cannot be correct, when such situations are far more complicated and need nuanced answers to be resolved. Yet, at the same time, I think Thanos knows this and still does it regardless. Unlike so many other Marvel movie villains — neither he nor anyone else ever state such outright. It’s all implied through cryptic lines that could mean many different things depending on how one wishes to interpret them (I’d call him “The Dark Souls of Marvel Movie Villains” if that phrase wasn’t so obnoxiously, and erroneously, overused).

As far as my interpretation of the character goes? He wants to die.

He lived through seeing his civilization and people become extinguished before his very eyes, to be the only one left of his kind, and it broke him so much that — upon observing so many other civilizations were in the same state — he just couldn’t let it happen again. It’s difficult to not think, on some level, he wanted people to fight back and be victorious in order to prove him wrong and finally put out of his misery. Throughout the film, he’s partial to those who challenge him — even as he torments and tortures them — as if to act as an obstacle for them to overcome. The best evidence I can give for this is a single line, near the very end of the film, where Thor (Chris Hemsworth) decides to pull an Oberyn Martell (hey, Peter Dinklage is here too!) and Thanos responds:

You should’ve gone for the head…

He doesn’t gloat of his superiority or personally belittle the hero who struck a blow against him, but instead pointing to his failure to finish the job properly and make him remember what to do next time they met in battle.

Thanos isn’t just an oddly religious alien warlord. He’s a force of nature. He’s an atom bomb with arms and legs. He is a Hindu god.

I don’t make that last comparison lightly but instead of using the terribly translated and outdated version that asshole J. Robert Oppenheimer quoted, I’ll go for a better-written and more recent variant (emphasis mine) by Paramahamsa Sri Swami Vishwananda:

I am death, the mighty destroyer of the world, out to destroy. Even without your participation all the warriors standing arrayed in the opposing armies shall cease to exist. I am Time, the mighty force which destroys everything, fully Manifesting Myself, I am here engaged in destroying the worlds. Even without you, none of the warriors arrayed in the enemy ranks shall survive.”

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Thor and Thanos. Kinda (but not really).

Thanos is something else and it’s perhaps more integral to the film’s plot — a trait he shares with the legendary Darth Vader of Star Wars fame: he’s a father, though not a very kind one, of course…

THE PRODIGAL DAUGHTER

One of the (many) things that made the Guardians of the Galaxy films incredibly disappointing for me — despite James Gunn’s skill as a director and writer (prior to being erroneously fired by Disney over an obviously manufactured controversy but has since been rehired, hopefully because Disney was shamed into submission) as well as a top-notch cast and soundtrack that almost rivals the musical selections in a Edgar “He Should’ve Written & Directed Ant-Man Goddammit” Wright film (“The Chain” is my favorite Fleetwood Mac song…)— was how the relationship between Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) felt like all tell and no show.

When first introduced, they both verbally remind each other that they are sisters, which is odd given most siblings (whether they’re biological or adoptive) don’t need to do such as they’re already quite aware of this fact. Despite the second film’s pretense of supposedly being about “family,” it doesn’t actually bother to explore Nebula’s stated grievances and why she’s so fratricidal towards a sibling she seemed to get along with otherwise. I mean, sure, she has an expository monologue — all of which would’ve been more interesting to see as a flashback — that’s about as natural as a botox injection and little more than set-up for a lame punchline. In the end it was all just an excuse for an action scene to keep things “exciting,” much like the other subplots that only make the whole film a less cohesive piece. It’s hard to really care about events when they’re so dissonant to one another and characters have to tell you, the audience, how to feel as opposed to getting it across with more subtlety either in the visuals or writing.

As I said before, Infinity War does a commendable job recontextualizing and certainly does so with this relationship by finally giving us both a glimpse at Thanos’ relationship to both Gamora and Nebula along with better idea of them as rival siblings.

Despite initially coming off as another generic “strong (but still sexually objectifiable) female character” these movies keep on using — with exceptions like Shuri (Letitia Wright) or Okoye (Danai Gurira), who are actually strong female characters — this film informs us that she is instead little more than a spoiled kid who ran away from home to make her Daddy mad. She and the other Guardians ride around like a mercenary Scooby Gang who don’t take anything seriously and, even when coming across a scene of wanton slaughter, can’t keep from thinking about how they’ll enrich themselves from it. I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising given they’re all lead by a pop culture-obsessed man-child who’s first shown kicking animals, none of which endangered him or even impeded his movement, for fun while dancing to music on a Walkman (how charming! Well, not really…especially if you replaced them with puppies).

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The Guardians of the Galaxy. Kinda (but not really).

Though ostensibly a villain, no thanks to a visage that exudes malevolence (which is surprising given it’s Amy frickin’ Pond with her beautiful red hair and lovely Scottish accent — like Kelly MacDonald before her…), I can’t help but think Nebula was the true hero and we were manipulated into thinking otherwise due to a skewed perspective of these events. Both she and Gamora were plotting an insurrection as seen in the first GotG installment and eventual assassination of their adoptive father, but only Nebula stuck to the plan — changing it when need be — simply to fail in the end…all because her sister, either out of cowardice or indecisiveness or (in my opinion) still being emotionally co-dependent on Thanos. Gamora just went A.W.O.L. and off to play with her new group of opportunistic drinking buddies (Groot (Vin Diesel) being the exception — he’s pure, like Spider-Man (Tom Holland) — but Rocket (Sean Gunn/Bradley Cooper) is getting better about it…) until Pops got sick of waiting for her to make a check-in call before the clock hit 12:00 A.M.

But Nebula? She continued on, despite all the strain she went through to accomplish what would ultimately be a botched job, only to be tortured and implied to have been sexually assaulted (Thanos’ torture chamber attendant seemed rather…handsy, like some Japanese chikan). Yet, unlike her other siblings, she is a survivor. She’s one of the few left in an otherwise half-empty universe and given the tenacity she has shown through all the turbulence that has befallen her, I doubt she’ll stop moving until she’s dead…while still on her feet.

Perhaps she’s more like her father than her other brothers and sisters — especially Gamora — could ever be.

Though it would be remiss to not bring up how, on some level, there is something bittersweet about Thanos and Gamora’s relationship when — in a rare instance — a brief flashback sequence, rather than an expository monologue, tells of how they first met:

The subsequent scene wherein they have a heart-to-heart, much of which hit rather close to home given my own parental experiences (“I never taught you to lie…that’s why you’re so bad at it!”), reveals that — even with all her belligerence and the inconvenience it has caused him — she is definitely his favorite child and whom he wishes to carry on his legacy once passed on (all despite being one of the youngest and most rebellious). She yells and screams about how much she hates him and what he represents, as Thanos sighs with great restraint, before responding with the reminder that she could’ve easily absconded and never come back before, but nonetheless did, only to support his omni-genocidal galactic crusade upon return for two decades. Eventually this interaction devolves into an act of abuse that — though physical for Nebula, all too familiar with it — tortures Gamora psychologically enough to break down what little resistance (if there was really any to begin with, as much as avoidance) she had left in her being.

It occurred to me during these scenes that — though played by actors largely in their 30’s and 40’s — Gamora acts more like a girl than she does a woman and this applies to many other characters including fellow Guardians Drax (Dave Bautista) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) as well as Thor, Loki, Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) — whether or not he is The Hulk — and Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr). They’re all children in the bodies of adults. Even Gamora’s “will-they-or-won’t-they?” shtick with the unflatteringly aforementioned Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) comes off less like two platonic grown-ups dealing with sexual tension now than curious children about to lose their innocence, both on the verge of full-blown puberty and trying to process all these weird new feelings they’re unfamiliar with. Thanos himself practically symbolizes adulthood, as it comes relentlessly out of nowhere and one is given little breathing room for recovery, to render unto them all the rudest of awakenings. It won’t be pretty — it never is, but perhaps should be.

INTO THE SOUL OF DARKNESS

“I am Time[…]fully Manifesting Myself

Earlier within this piece, as an aside, I mentioned being loathe to describe Thanos as “The Dark Souls of Marvel Movie Villains” and that wasn’t as frivolous a statement as it may’ve seemed. To briefly clarify, for any unfamiliar with the phrase or its origins, before going further…

Dark Souls is a videogame series made by Japanese developer FromSoftware that gained what you’d call a “cult following” due to its oppressive atmosphere, punishing gameplay difficulty, and purposefully opaque storytelling. “The Dark Souls of [X],” when not simply observing similarities between it and another title (such as The SurgeandNioh), almost always references the second of those three aspects as its most defining quality — of being the most harsh or challenging, regardless of the activity or medium involved — with the other two seen as “optional” by many despite being integral to the experience. All of which I find completely wrong-headed.

I’d not only apply all those qualities to Thanos as a character but to Infinity War itself as a film. Their tone, even with those moments of light-hearted relief, is overwhelmingly grim. Both challenge the protagonists — emotionally, existentially, and physically — in ways they have not before and even questions their competency as heroes. Neither will bore you with an abundance of minute details espoused at length, the basic essentials kept succinct, but rather make inferences and leave others pondering what may be going on inbetween the lines.

It was rather surprising for any of this to be the case in my experience watching the film. Expectations were set low and my dwindling interest in the Marvel Cinematic Universe were part of that — to expect great disappointment and end up unexpectedly ecstatic— and then there’s this visual clusterfuck:

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It looks like a toy box violently puked action figures onto a pile of neon signs, causing a migraine in the process, and represented my worst fears about the movie. A bloated, indulgent mess full of bells and whistles with nothing else rattling around in its skull regardless of whatever pretenses are made. Another exercise in empty spectacle, which we have an overwhelming surplus of already.

But…it’s all misdirection. A red herring. A sleight of hand. This poster, however, is better representative of the subject material and tone of the film:

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Infinity War isn’t just any horror film — it’s a cosmic horror film.

I’ve already spoken of Thanos at length as well as Loki, Gamora, and Nebula to a lesser extent but have yet to speak of his other Children that’ve gone unnamed so far. They are Ebony Maw (Tom Vaughn-Lawlor), Proxima Midnight (Monique Ganderton/Carrie Coon), Corvus Glaive (Michael James Shaw), and Cull Obsidian (Terry Notary…I also prefer to call them “Obsidian Cull” ‘cause it sounds better). Very much unlike their younger siblings, each acts as an extension of their father’s will to some degree or another — almost like avatars for a Hindu god, actually!

As someone who cared little for Thanos’ comicbook counterpart (‘cause why do you need him when you have Darkseid?) I wasn’t aware of the Black Order, whom the Children of Thanos are based upon. Viewing Infinity War, it was refreshing to find villains who I knew so little about but managed to be intriguing — especially due to their excellent visual designs — and wanted to know them more as people…though they aren’t really people, when you think about. They’re humanoid in form and inexplicably speak English, yes, but they’re still extraterrestrials. The way they perceive the material world may not coincide with the way we, as homo sapiens of planet earth, do and makes it practically impossible to fully comprehend them as beings.

The true Marvel Souls starts here…

You know less about them than Thanos but, as inferred by Gamora’s backstory, it’s easy to deduce they’re each from a world he had conquered while culling half of the sapient population. Proxima and Crovus only have about six lines between them while Obsidian Cull (I told you it sounded better!) is reduced to unintelligible grunts, but— given his namesake — Ebony Maw is the most talkative of the four. He is both Thanos’ herald and (presumably) eldest Child, the film itself opening as he gracefully steps around corpses while evangelizing his adoptive father’s morbid spiritual philosophy with the calm of a Buddhist monk and eloquence of William F. Buckley. His appearance, though off-putting, is nowhere near as intimidating as his siblings coupled with a lack of signature weaponry in hand. That’s because Ebony Maw doesn’t need one as he is the weapon. Telekinesis, when used elsewhere, is often amusing or goofy but rarely is it ever as fucking terrifying the way Ebony Maw applies it during Infinity War next to the way Rainmaker does in Looper. It goes beyond making objects float in midair or pushing things out of the way — with an eerily acute perception of his immediate surroundings, he uses the very environment against the protagonists. He doesn’t just shove glass filaments into Dr. Strange’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) face, but makes a wall swallow him while upside down. Then there’s turning rubble into flying spikes of death, causing a fire hydrant to burst open and temporarily incapacitate Wong (Benedict Wong), or chopping a car in twain a half second before it hits him. Made all the more unsettling by how slight and effortless his gestures are to make any of this happen, when it’d be portrayed with heavy-handed dramatics like arms flailing about or intense bodily tremors elsewhere.

In case it wasn’t already obvious (which it should be), I find the character absolutely delightful. Vaughn-Lawlor’s every utterance is pure gold and, next to Thanos himself, is what I wish more of in Marvel villains. At least, insofar as making them viable as threats rather than coming off as performative and largely ineffectual. Unfortunately, much like an ouroboros, this circles back to an issue stated earlier on in this piece…

FALLEN ANGELS

It is bad enough when the film kills off some of the most interesting, imposing antagonists within the setting — but it’s worse when their deaths are treated as part of a joke or simply rote in execution. Especially when, purely out of convenience, these indomitable warriors from space who’ve likely slain thousands (if not more) by hand and able to fight superhumans to a standstill suddenly lose their competency. All of this is done in order to give one of the many heroes an easy “win” that, with everything else suggesting their only victory would be a Pyrrhic one, feel unearned and only means there are now three less villains to use within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I generally despise resurrecting characters as a rule (comics are terrible about it) but this is one of the exceptions where I wouldn’t mind it.

Notice how I said “three” and not “four”? That’s because, given his personal arc within the film (which I shall explore next time!), I didn’t mind that Bruce Banner defeated Obsidian Cull by flinging him into a force field and getting disintegrated in the process. He’s a big, dumb lizard man who only makes guttural noises and whose entire existence is to get embarrassingly beaten up by the heroes with no semblance of personality as the other Children. His loss is not one that leaves an intense absence. I could even get past how his death was downright slapstick, but it’s tough to tolerate when Proxima being flung into a War Wheel by an ill-defined, inconsistently-powered character (I hate Wanda so much) is equally comedic.

Good riddance to reptilian rubbish!

Keep in mind that, in their previous encounter, Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) was retreating most of the time and easily overpowered when dealing with Proxima directly. She could’ve been killed were it not for the intervention of Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson…and why do these movies keep forgetting she’s just a normal — albeit highly trained — human?), and Falcon (Anthony Mackie…who at least has a rocket-launching jetpack with metal wings) but, now, the cosmic Amazonian mass murderer of planets is careless enough to be defeated with…whatever Scarlet Witch’s powers are supposed to be. It doesn’t matter since her abilities are derived from how convenient it is for the plot at that very moment, like an anthropomorphic Sonic Screwdriver, than based on any kind of internal logic presented by the narrative (because there is none) just like they were in the comics.

Similarly, Ebony Maw’s death functions as the punchline to a joke set up by Peter Parker referencing Aliens as a “really old movie” (okay, that was hilarious, I’ll admit) — getting vacuumed into the celestial abyss after the most obvious of tricks, becoming an oversized popsicle. Which, just like Proxima, doesn’t make sense given his prowess as displayed in prior scenes. It’s just there to make Parker and Stark look all the more amusing, as if that was really necessary (it wasn’t). Corvus Glaive’s death may’ve been forgivable, given the injury sustained in a previous battle acted as potential foreshadowing, were it not for it being so bland as getting stabbed from behind by another character off-screen as if it was a surprise (it wasn’t). Only made nonsensical by Vision (Paul Bettany) being broken to the point he’s barely functional, though he could’ve as easily distracted Corvus enough for him to be injured once more and fall back to fight another day in Endgame.

I’d ask “why?” if the answer wasn’t so obvious: there is none, save for habit and expectation via well-worn fictional tropes. To stick to a formula that has only wasted further potential under the fallacious notion that “the bad guy must die because the bad guy must die.” It’s not a rule set in stone, just like the insertion of useless love interests, but they keep doing it despite the lack of demand or obligation for it. I’m not saying these characters should never die (as that’d be awfully boring) but this is ending something as it is just beginning. Superheroes are often defined by their nemeses, to force scenarios that put their skills or abilities or own morality to the test, making this dismissive expendability detrimental to storytelling possibilities as time goes on and the roster shortens with each insipid death.

Hell, Mystery Men made that point back in 1999 — almost nine years before Phase One of the Marvel Cinematic Universe occurred. Wish that lesson was taken to heart…

That is not to say, as much as I still take issue, this is a deal-breaker of any kind nor is it the only problem I have. Yet none of them have ruined my fondness of Infinity War even with subsequent viewings — a great deal unlike most other Marvel films. Thanos and his Children aren’t my favorite thing about the movie, they’re just one of my favorite things about it. I mentioned Bruce Banner’s arc before and there’s plenty more. That is, for next time…

[Originally posted on 3/25/19 @ Medium.com]

Pop Culture Heresy: Marvel Studios Is Awful, Part 3 — My Likely Unpopular and Misunderstood Review of BLACK PANTHER (or, The Marvel Cinematic Formula)

For anyone who is curious (though I doubt it): the reason I haven’t put up anything in the last several months is I’ve been suffering from Mitchellesque writer’s block and Shinji Ikari-level clinical depression. Along with that combination, there’s the job I’m actually paid to do and that takes priority over my hobbies. I write largely out of personal interest and, as much as I’d like to be paid for it, I’d rather put out something that feels right to me — even if it takes some time — since I’m doing it for free anyway.

The issue I had, to discuss the Marvel Cinematic Formula, was how to frame the subject. Previous attempts had either been too long or too dry in execution for my own liking. Thankfully, with the release of Black Panther, I’ve been given just what was needed…

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Japan’s answer to Charlie Brown. God help us all

It doesn’t surprise me that the film had such an emphatic reaction among audiences, but that isn’t because it’s a Marvel movie. Unlike the increasingly interchangeable, mediocre spectacles that is their oeuvre — a live-action adaptation of T’Challa, the Black Panther of Wakanda, holds far more cultural significance somewhat similarly to Wonder Woman. I absolutely get all the hyperbolic praise, unlike every other release from Marvel these days, as the cast and setting are an extreme rarity in the world of big budget studio films run and almost entirely populated by white dudes.

However, I didn’t love Black Panther like others have despite my fondness of King T’Challa and his home (it’s the only fictional location I’d want to live in!). Though, to my surprise, it was a far less annoying and disappointing experience — I actually ended up enjoying myself from time to time. I’d go as far to say it’s closer to my favorite (Captain America: Winter Soldier) than my least favorite Marvel movie (a two-way tie between Iron Man 2 and Age of Ultron). It’s nonetheless hampered by the Marvel formula which is (aggravatingly) adhered to a slavish degree, despite not needing to anymore, and makes a few perplexing creative decisions as a result. Of course, that would involve going a bit more in-depth…

*THERE BE SPOILERS, FROM HERE ON*

The most distracting element of Black Panther overall, and I’m sure this may sound confusing to some (or many), is that it comes off like the second entry of a trilogy than its initial chapter. Despite taking place chronologically right after the events of Captain America: Civil War — there are aspects of the narrative, especially characterization, done less as an introduction to the material than as a reintroduction.

A portion of the main cast — Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), M’Baku (Winston Duke), and Zuri (Forrest Whitaker) — feel as if their character arcs began in a non-existent previous film, with many of the events relating to them in this film acting as pay-off. We’re told that Nakia and T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) are former romantic partners, for example, but it’s never adequately explained why they broke up. More importantly, the performances by Nyong’o and Boseman don’t indicate a strained relationship — they’re charmingly adorable around one another — so why not just omit the detail entirely? It could be argued that’s giving the characters these internal lives outside of the events of the film, but that’s hard to believe when the characters — explicitly through conversation — keep bringing up the importance of those past events in relation to a current one. Then there are the motivations of W’Kabi having occurred off-screen but driving him throughout, to the point of betraying T’Challa, as well as how both T’Challa and M’Baku are inferred to be frenemies but never elaborated upon despite being integral to the third act.

Zuri, however, is the most egregious given he’s introduced within this film as a surrogate father figure (was Angela Bassett as T’Challa’s hot mom not enough? I mean, Rene Russo was one of the best things about Thor 2…) but is killed midway through the film and assumes you should somehow care. Much like Quicksilver in Age of Ultron, I wondered why they involved him at all if he wasn’t going to be sufficiently developed as a person and simply killed off to artificially ramp up tension. He’s as underdeveloped and pointless as Whitaker was in Rogue One — the film’s cast is already overstuffed for a first installment and I’d of preferred they held off on using him altogether. He’s definitely not Obi-Won Kenobi from A New Hope and there could’ve been some much-needed breathing room without his presence.

Speaking of artificially ramping up tension: Black Panther is a prime example of how Marvel films make their protagonists far too powerful and seemingly invulnerable — causing so many of the action sequences to become redundant as result. The filmmakers seem aware of this, to some degree, and have to contrive ways in which the character is made vulnerable in order to experience adversity of any kind. The film literally starts out with T’Challa dropping in from the sky and neutralizing a bunch of Boko Haram members, which would’ve been fun or amusing if it wasn’t done so effortlessly on his part. Their bullets just bounce off his suit like small pellets, with no sense of impact whatsoever, and makes one wonder if there’s ever going to be a viable threat for him to face.

Well, he does — in a very forced way.

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It’s telling the two best fights involve a ceremonial death match wherein T’Challa — apparently granted superhuman strength and speed from a mystical plant — has to depower himself with a concoction for combat to be on equal footing. Just think about that for a moment; if T’Challa didn’t handicap himself, there is no doubt he’d win without issue and the ceremony would be unnecessary in the first place. I get these are larger-than-life characters who have epic conflicts but, goddamn, you want them to be naturally vulnerable on some level so they can be challenged and persevere. This problem is exacerbated when Shuri (Letitia Wright), who is basically Q to T’Challa’s James Bond as well as his teen sister, gives him a new suit that is more advanced and powerful than his previous one. Along with also being bulletproof, it all fits within a necklace as nanomachines and has a defensive shockwave function after absorbing enough kinetic energy. Like, couldn’t they have those added features and made it less bulletproof, just to entertain the possibility he could be killed if he got too reckless? If it wasn’t for the fact vibranium just so happened to be stored and transported by some pseudoscientific mechanism that made their super-suits malfunction, the final confrontation between T’Challa and Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) would’ve just been them hitting each other continuously with no progress being made either way. Gee, that would’ve been totally fucking dull!

I’ve been noticing this about the Marvel films for a while now and probably why I lack much of any emotional investment in the characters or events. I mean, why care when you know these people won’t be significantly harmed or even die? Sure, they’ll kill off supporting cast members and the villain-of-the-week to make it seem like shit’s gotten real but never one of the heroes. They treated War Machine being blown out of the sky in Civil War as if it was this momentous occasion…except he didn’t die, simply injured and shown to be recovering just fine. Even after falling hundreds of feet back to earth, in a broken metal shell that likely would’ve further injured than protect him. When characters are put into a truly dangerous situation that requires them to be unconventional in approach, like in Iron Man 3, the ending will likely involve a deus ex machina that renders it moot. Well, that and having it done as a ludicrous battle instead of a more subtle confrontation that isn’t entirely predicated on fisticuffs. It’s impossible to be surprised or excited anymore when you’re given almost no curveballs whatsoever.

The best compliment I can give the film is that, like both Guardians of the Galaxy installments, it is far more self-contained than anything else under the Marvel Studios brand. Outside of referencing the death of T’Chaka (played by father-son team John and Atandwa Kani — which was a brilliant casting choice) from Civil War and a post-credits scene with a Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) cameo, everything that happens in the film is specific to Black Panther as a character and his world. It isn’t like Spider-Man: Homecoming where they bring in Michael fucking Keaton as the antagonist and waste a potentially interesting plotline involving him as a corrupt surrogate father figure, all so Robert Downey Jr. can take up a third of the run time to remind us Iron Man exists (as if we needed that — and we really don’t). One can only hope it continues this trajectory and the sequels won’t end up being one half of another character’s movie or just another ensemble piece like, well, Civil War.

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Groot had all the best lines!

The other best compliment I can give the film is that, unlike both Guardians of the Galaxy installments, the interpersonal banter between characters is more naturalistic. It lacks this eager-to-please, overly quippy approach that just gets grating and feels as if written by a teenager who just learned the concept of “self-aware humor.” Certainly helps that T’Challa and his family, including Killmonger, actually come off as a family due to how they act towards each other. They don’t need to vocally remind us, in a patronizing fashion, that they’re “family” even when all their behavior indicates the exact opposite. There’s an attempt at subtlety that is best exemplified by the criminally underutilized M’Baku (and, by extension, Winston Duke) after his initial macho posturing and begrudging defeat in the first ceremonial duel. Having saved T’Challa when mortally wounded in a similar bout with Killmonger which, along with having yielded to him in combat before (due to a compliment nonetheless), suggests a deeper connection — he’s surprisingly casual, no bluster whatsoever, when speaking to him or other members of his family as if he’s known them personally for years. Despite the antagonism present in his mannerisms, it is difficult to not think he and T’Challa are the best of friends in an odd way. If there was just another scene explaining why he chose to assist T’Challa against Killmonger with the rest of his tribe, rather than being another deus ex machina, would’ve made it the movie’s biggest highlight. It falls short, of course, but remains the most interesting interpersonal dynamic presented in the whole narrative.

Though it’d be remiss to not admit that Erik Killmonger is the closest Marvel Studios has gotten in creating a consistently dimensional villain for any of these movies. He’s still nowhere near as good as Wilson Fisk was in the first season of Daredevil (I’m pretty sure no one else can be, at this point) — but at least he’s given grievances that, unlike Ivan Vanko in Iron Man 2, are presented as legitimate throughout. Even T’Challa outright admits that the guy has a point and he did kind of win despite dying, given his own cousin’s change of heart. It’s always nice to have some hint of moral grayness in stories that are otherwise far too black-and-white, because it’s verisimilitudinous than cartoonish and reminds you the “hero/villain” dynamic is often an issue of perspective than a law of nature.

It’s just unfortunate that so much of his background, per usual, isn’t shown to us as much as told. Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) does an info-dump explaining he was in the military and how it prepared him to take over Wakanda — but I was wondering why, y’know, they didn’t use flashbacks to get the same information across visually. Marvel Studios seems to only use such a helpful storytelling device with chagrin and would rather have characters literally spell things out for the audience, though no one talks that way even when informing someone else in reality. So, what? They’ll have a dream sequence where Killmonger talks to his late father, but not remember his experiences in the military? If they did, it’d of been a great way of reaffirming why he thinks starting a worldwide race war is the best route for social revolution. It’s too bad that, unfortunately taking a note from Luke Cage, the film bends a knee to respectability politics by the end. T’Challa chooses to be more diplomatic in his approach, while never entertaining the idea that revealing Wakanda to the world — especially mostly white, neocolonialist nations — might still end up reacting with hostility and violence.

There’s another problem though: Erik Killmonger shouldn’t have been the first antagonist for a Black Panther movie. As I had stated earlier, this film would’ve worked better as a second installment and stand by that. The main antagonist should’ve been Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) but, more importantly, they should’ve adapted the Reginald Hudlin-written and John Romita, Jr.-illustrated comicbook storyline — “Who is the Black Panther?”

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[Cue the BET series theme song]

I’m sure it wouldn’t happen, given how much Marvel Studios goes out of its way to not call out racism — which makes so much of its “progressive” cred come off as disingenuous — and the storyline involves a cadre of white supervillains lead by a totally racist Klaue to invade and take over Wakanda. This is all done on behalf of national Western interests, including France and Belgium, known for their colonialist pasts (or neocolonialist present) as well as the Vatican. I shit thee not, that is the actual premise and it’d of been magnificent live-action cinema. But, again, Marvel Studios likes to play it too safe and scared to imagine ever doing anything even slightly challenging — even their depiction of Ulysses Klaue is one that leaves any hint of being a white supremacist to a couple lines and the fact he’s an Afrikaner now (you know why…). Sure, he calls Killmonger a “savage” at one point despite knowing he’s Wakandan — suggesting he believes them to be too primitive to “deserve” their scientific advancements — but it’s completely tangential to what’s essentially a familial conflict. Also, like far too many Marvel villains, he gets killed off after barely being used.

At some point, Marvel Studios will end up in the same situation as Captain Amazing in Mystery Men where — due to all their decent villains being put out of commission — they’ll end up having to grasp at straws and just bring back the Average Joe version of Helmut Zemo or Tim Blake Nelson as The Leader (bet you don’t remember that!).

The welcome improvements certainly make it one of the better movies in the studio’s catalogue but they’re nonetheless marginal improvements — the same ones in Thor: Ragnarok that are attributed all this hyperbolic praise that’s downright misleading when considered further. Oh, Hela brings up Odin’s dark imperialist, bloodlust-driven past and her grievances for being locked away? It’d of been nice — just like with Killmonger — to actually see that as flashbacks than just pay lip-service. It’s always lip-service. There’s a saying that actions speak louder than words and that perfectly explains the ultimate problem with these films; so much of the plot and characterization isn’t driven by the subtleties of behavior and interpersonal interaction, in its many varieties — but almost entirely by what comes out of a character’s mouth. You have to assume what these films are supposedly about not based on the events that occur and the physical actions taken by characters, but because someone stated it outright.

I can’t be the only one who notices all this, right? That the concrete actions taking place in these movies are almost entirely about these characters either having extended exposition-laden dialogue or punching things ‘cause reasons? I’m pretty sure Alfred Hitchcock had a lot of events happen in his movies and rarely ever involved info-dump monologues or long bouts of pugilism. Drama, throughout its existence, had characters involved in numerous activities where neither verbose exchanges nor feats of combat occurred. Much like watching Game of Thrones or any of the overly-talky HBO dramas — you can’t help but wonder if these audio-visual mediums have regressed in form. It’s turning films and televised/streaming series, both which tend to lack and transcend the limitations of traditional drama, into glorified stage productions. Worst of all, they’re starting to feel like the same glorified stage production.

It’s probably why the Phase 1 releases were my favorite (except for one film) over those that followed, and I’ll explain why next time…

[Originally posted on 5/8/18 @ Medium.com]

Pop Culture Heresy: Marvel Studios Is Awful, Part 1 — An Introduction

Several weekends back, I had the displeasure of watching The Defenders from Marvel Studios on Netflix. It had been a while since I watched a TV show or streaming series that left me furious due to its lack of quality. The writing, acting, lighting, cinematography, and fight choreography are so bad that it’s offensive to all the senses. But, to be honest, it wasn’t surprising it turned out terribly. Not just because of the travesties that were Daredevil’s second season (or at least the non-Punisher half) or Iron Fist — Marvel Studios has been awful for a while now.

Let me repeat that: Marvel Studios is awful. They have been for a long time already.

Online film reviewer Confused Matthew once had a video that, save for some particularly mean barbs directed at director James Gunn, was spot-on when it came to a lot of their dubious creative decisions and behind-the-scenes behavior. Unfortunately, he later took it down. Why? He hopped aboard the same bustling bandwagon that continues to beat the putrid, decaying dead horse that is Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Even as the flesh has fallen off the bone, almost threadbare at this point, after being angrily pummeled with a truncheon one too many times.

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Yep, looks about right…

I agree it’s not a good movie in the least — far, far from it — but part of me wants to be contrarian and defend it or the somewhat entertaining but still awful Suicide Squad. They’re not just failures that future filmmakers can learn from, but they’re memorable as failures. Marvel Studios’ overall output is both obsessively formulaic and so easily digestible that the films are becoming interchangeable with one another — they will not stand the test of time. To me, that’s worse than being bad. Mediocrity never warrants a second thought the way something truly amazing or haphazard does.

One might make the assumption that I must not like the comicbooks or had a hatred of Marvel Studios from the get-go, based on my current distaste with them. Well, you know what happens when you assume? It makes an ass out of you and me (but mostly you). I’m quite fond of the comics though I don’t follow them religiously like others do — I tend to prefer the non-superhero work you see from publishers like Image (seriously, read East of West or Black Science) or Oni Press (seriously, read The Sixth Gun or Letter 44)— and I love cinema even more. Having a father who worked in the film and television industry, reared on the stuff since I was born, has made me far more partial to that medium and the format that has been used for decades already. I’m always excited to see something new or interesting, something that hasn’t been done before, something that may make movies better as a medium both technically and creatively. If anything, I was ecstatic to see these comicbook characters come to life — the storytelling potential, making such material live-action, was unimaginable.

Thing is, though, Marvel Studios couldn’t give less of a shit about creative integrity or has any interest in evolving cinematic storytelling. Its interests are the same as every other creatively bankrupt, vapid studio executive in Hollywood: more money to line their already overflowing pockets and justify another unsustainably large budget for the next over-bloated, homogenized piece of fluff that no one will remember a decade or two from now. They’re continuing the worst kind of practices in the industry and, yet again, almost no one seems to notice this as they wear the rose-colored shades sold to them.

It isn’t just Confused Matthew, several others critics whose work I’ve enjoyed immensely over the years — that include Robert Chipman and the guys at RedLetterMedia — seem to soft-ball these Marvel movies than give the acerbic criticism that came with the aforementioned BvS or Suicide Squad or, well, any other movie. It’s as if their critical faculties had been overpowered by some form of powerful hypnotism, to become as gullible and rabidly consumeristic as gamers drunk on hype after another masturbatory E3 convention (but aren’t they all?). Like the AAA videogame industry and its underhanded methods, Marvel Studios knows how to condition an audience to become addicted in order to fork over money for each and every installment of theirs’ — no matter how middling or subpar it actually is — convinced that they want or even need it. This isn’t a revolutionary change in narrative structure, as wonderful as that’d be, but a modernized version of selling snake-oil. Do you know why con-men are called “con-men”? It’s because they make you feel confident enough to let your guard down and fall for their bullshit…

If you think that sounds far-fetched, I have some unfortunate news: you are already under the sway of advertising and may not even realize it.

We like to think advertisements don’t affect us, that having some product pushed onto us with a TV spot or internet pop-up or billboard is something we’re immune to, yet being inundated with enough ads still make people buy products they don’t want or need but nonetheless feel they should purchase anyway. What makes advertising so insidious is being ostensibly innocuous — all while planting seeds of interest into your subconscious. Maybe, after some time, you’ll have the sudden urge to eventually buy those products and not quite sure why you did. If you’re perceptive enough, you’ll recognize those ads had an effect and kick yourself a few times over it. Others lacking such observational skills, on the other hand, will convince themselves they “chose” to buy those products of their own “volition.” Much like a puppet who simply ignores the strings attached to them, avoiding the sad realization their individuality is just an illusion within this capitalistic society…

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“There are no strings on me!”

As Mad Men had pointed out several times, advertising firms have a keen eye for small details and their effectiveness along with an understanding of social psychology. They know what sells a product isn’t the product itself — it’s the sense of personal validation that comes from buying that product. Advertisements are meticulously crafted to invoke a sense of want or need, with use of certain imagery or subtle musical cues that make you feel all warm and fuzzy on the inside when thinking about that product. If not that? They’ll make you feel like a pathetic piece of shit for not having already bought it.

This That Mitchell and Webb Look sketch, from years back, summarizes it pretty well too:

That’s what makes me hate Marvel Studios: their films aren’t really films, not anymore anyway — they’re in-house ads that sell their next product under the ever-thinning veil of being entertainment. Much in the same way almost every U.S. military film, as once stated by David Sirota in Back to Our Future, effectively functions as pro-military propaganda in order for a production to be given any kind of consultation or support. It took me a while to notice because, like so many others, I wore those rose-colored shades. I fell head over heels for the hype. I chased that carrot dangling at the end of the stick and, at this point, it’s made me weary. I gave Marvel Studios the benefit of the doubt for years, I continued to give them leeway under the promise they’d take chances and yet they never have despite having every opportunity to do so. They have grown so successful that taking risks would still yield some kind of return, and would be somewhat refreshing, but they are far too craven to give up their method of endless iteration.

But that’s just the tip of this sordid iceberg!

I found it impossible to explain everything I find wrong with Marvel Studios within a single essay — the issues attached to them go beyond simply being avaricious or creatively lazy. Were those my only issues, I may as well talk about Michael Bay’s Transformers series but even those movies seem inconsequential compared to the damage Marvel Studios has done and still doing. It contributes to the lowering of standards for quality narrative and corroding the concept of self-contained storytelling.

Over the next few weeks (or months) — I will write one essay apiece detailing, convincingly I hope, a specific problem with Marvel Studios as an entity. While most will deal with their creative decisions, which can be downright stupefying, I will occasionally delve into the behind-the-scenes tomfoolery they’ve done that (for example) left us without an Edgar Wright-directed and -written Ant-Man. Much of which, to my dismay, I’ve barely heard from anyone else of note. Maybe they were too busy creaming their pants over Scarlett Johansson’s ass in skin-tight leather or something.

Next time? I’m talking about Luke Cage

[Originally posted on 10/28/17 @ Medium.com]