Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

More than even Infinity War and Endgame, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness feels like the culmination of the whole MCU (for better and worse)

I really enjoyed Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and I liked too much about it to be able to pick just one thing. It’s big, loud, and overstuffed, but for every criticism I have, I’m even more amazed that it works at all.

It works as a blockbuster franchise movie that must’ve had to answer to dozens of different stakeholders, but still has enough flourishes to make it unmistakably a Sam Raimi-directed movie. Like Captain America: Civil War, it works as a big super-hero team-up movie and a tentpole entry in the MCU, but it’s also a surprisingly good sequel to the first Doctor Strange. And I’d say that even more than Infinity War and Endgame, it shows what can happen when you’ve got all the various parts of the MCU laying the groundwork to culminate in a huge, weird story.

First: the Sam Raimi effect. As somebody who always liked the Evil Dead movies but couldn’t really love them, my two favorite sequences in Raimi-directed movies are:

  1. In Darkman, the shot of Frances McDormand looking at the explosion in disbelief that perfectly cross-fades to her at a funeral.
  2. In Spider-Man 2, the sequence of Doctor Octopus coming to life on the operating room table.1For whoever’s keeping track of these things: number 3 is the seance/summoning/exorcism sequence in Drag Me To Hell.

The thing that both of those have in common is that they’re perfect translations of comic book aesthetics to filmmaking. Plenty of filmmakers have tried to translate comics to movies, either getting the “spirit” of comics or doing a too-literal direct interpretation, but nobody’s ever been as successful at it as Raimi.

So I had a blast seeing Raimi getting the reins of the full power of the MCU dreadnaught, but still be able to make enough of it in his own style. There aren’t any sequences that quite reach the level of that Doc Octopus scene in Spider-Man 2 — although a scene with a character getting caught in a prison of reflections and busting their way out was gloriously creepy — but there were so many camera spins, zooms, and stylistic flourishes that you could probably recognize it as his work even before Bruce Campbell showed up.

It’s funny that the sequence of Strange and America Chavez sailing through different universes is the one that made it into the trailer as an indicator of how weird the movie gets, because at this point, it’s almost tame and predictable. The bar for CG has been raised so high at this point that I just assume that effects houses are capable of doing anything a filmmaker can think of, so the effect in the movie kind of ends up feeling just like a demo reel. The shots in Multiverse of Madness that really stood out to me were the ones that felt old-school, teetering on the edge of cheesiness: there’s at least one shot of characters’ heads superimposed over the frame that actually reminded me of The Night of the Hunter more than anything else. These movies have to check off so many boxes that it’s nice to see filmmakers like Raimi and Taika Waititi getting to have some real fun with it.

But the entire movie was thoroughly and gloriously a comic book movie in subject matter, tone, and frequently aesthetics. More than anything else in the MCU, this seemed to embrace its comic origins even more than its cinematic origins, or even broader “genre fiction” origins. It’s the first that didn’t seem to be bringing comic book source material to a movie-going audience, but rather making movies for comic book audiences. There’s a background character who’s a sorcerer and a talking bull, for instance, and nobody comments on it or even seems to think it’s that remarkable.

As a result, there’s a kind of respect for the audience throughout, and I loved it. A tone of “you get this, you understand why it’s cool, we don’t need to spell it out for you or have characters spending too long gawking at the spectacle of it.” When a cameo happens — and there are several, one of which actually had me spontaneously yelling out “Yaaaayyyy!” in the middle of a packed theater, against my more reserved impulses — it’s not milked for surprise, but treated more like, “Yeah, you all knew this was coming, but it’s cool as hell anyway.”2Contrast it with Moon Knight, which frustratingly seemed to be operating with no awareness of how the rest of the MCU works. One of its big reveals in the finale was of a character who’d been conspicuously absent the entire series, not just to fans of the comics (which I’m not), but to anyone who’d seen a “Who is Moon Knight, anyway?” explainer video (which I am).

Which isn’t to say that it didn’t surprise me; even though most of the surprises were of the “satisfying reassurance of something I already suspected” variety, the whole story went in a direction that I hadn’t suspected at all. (More on that in the spoiler section below).

And even though it was so relentless that I kept finding myself thinking, “Anyone who isn’t exactly me would be exhausted by all of this,” it actually managed to give its major characters genuine character arcs. I compared it to Civil War, but I’d say it works even better as a sequel to Stephen Strange’s story than Civil War was for Steve Rogers. It’s not as surprisingly funny as Doctor Strange was, but it did further the story of Stephen Strange becoming a better person. The arc from the first movie had only gotten him part of the way there.

Since I’d expected it to be all spectacle with little substance, I was actually surprised that Strange’s storyline had essentially the same overall message as Everything Everywhere All at Once: instead of obsessing over what could have been or even what could be, learn to accept with gratitude and humility everything that is. I don’t think it was anywhere near as insightful or as moving as Everything Everywhere, but then, that wasn’t what it was aiming for. It was more focused on super-hero fights and less on the personal implications of the multiverse.

As for the thing that most surprised me — and is in my opinion the strongest example yet of how the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe is paying off in storytelling terms, not just box office — that requires me to spoil the whole story. I think not everybody’s going to like it as much as I did, but it’s still a lot of fun and one of the best entries in the MCU.

Continue reading “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness”
  • 1
    For whoever’s keeping track of these things: number 3 is the seance/summoning/exorcism sequence in Drag Me To Hell.
  • 2
    Contrast it with Moon Knight, which frustratingly seemed to be operating with no awareness of how the rest of the MCU works. One of its big reveals in the finale was of a character who’d been conspicuously absent the entire series, not just to fans of the comics (which I’m not), but to anyone who’d seen a “Who is Moon Knight, anyway?” explainer video (which I am).

May the 4th and Always Two There Are

Reconsidering the prequels in honor of May the 4th

I frequently forget that there are tons of Star Wars fans who saw the prequels not as the embittered adult I was, but as kids, who were primed for Naboo and pod races to be their formative experiences just like the Tatooine and trench runs were formative for me.

Even when I’ve been able to acknowledge that, though, it hasn’t made me actually like the movies any more. I’ve been stuck with the least charitable interpretation possible: they’re the product of someone who is an indisputable genius at world-building, and at re-interpreting and building on film genres so that they don’t feel like simple homages or re-hashes1The film noir influences on Attack of the Clones are still about the only thing I genuinely like from that movie, and of course at assembling teams of the most talented filmmakers in the industry — but was either unwilling or unable to acknowledge that the scripts and pacing were undermining all that work and turning it into a mess. As a result, all three of the movies have some standout moments (the pod races and the Duel of the Fates in The Phantom Menace in particular) that never coalesce into something that resonates.

But! This video from Ben Chinapen (frequent editor of the Mr Sunday Movies videos) is the first defense of The Phantom Menace that’s convinced me to reconsider it at all.

In particular: I was one of the big, angry, adult nerds who was extremely put out by the whole business about midichlorians2And Anakin’s virgin birth story, for that matter, which is somehow even less tonally appropriate, but somehow didn’t generate nearly as much nerd rage. To me, it seemed to violate everything that makes Star Wars what it is: it offers a pseudo-scientific explanation for something that not only needs no scientific explanation, but is actively undermined by one. It retroactively undermines the universality of the first trilogy, reminding you that it wasn’t actually a story of plucky underdogs overcoming powerful fascists, but a story about princesses and heroes who inherited their places in the story. (Which is something Rian Johnson tried to counteract in The Last Jedi, before that got stamped out in The Rise of Skywalker).

Even worse, it added a creepy layer of eugenics on top of that, suggesting that it wasn’t just fate that was calling these heroes into action, but actual biological differences that made them better suited to be heroes than commoners like you and me.

Again with the least charitable interpretation: Star Wars seemed to say that even a young person who was really into cars and spaceships from an out-of-the-way place like Modesto I mean Tatooine could answer a call to adventure and be capable of great things. The Phantom Menace seemed to retcon that into saying that that young person was predisposed to greatness all along. It felt like another case of a talented person achieving success and then making art to assert that their success was no accident, or even the product of hard work, but the result of their being “born better.”

But what if I were overthinking it, and being unfairly uncharitable? One thing that only became clear after years of nerd rage was that George Lucas doesn’t take Star Wars as seriously as fans claim to.3I admit I’ve also been gullible enough to take Harrison Ford’s “grouchy old man who hates Star Wars” character seriously, instead of recognizing that he’s basically doing a bit. What if Lucas wasn’t as obsessed with building onto the universe as I’d assumed, and was instead more interested in using this set of movies to explore a different set of ideas? Not just exploring new methods of making movies with 21st-century technology — which was always evident in the prequels, even to the angriest fans and the people least impressed with all the CGI and green screens — but in using this framework of fantasy science fiction based on old movie serials to present a different set of parables about universal themes of good, evil, and responsibility?

If you’re not as fussed about “canon” as the people making fan pages and wikis — in other words, if you don’t care as much about how Star Wars “works” as you do about what it “means” — then the midichlorians can exist almost purely as metaphor. Then, as Chinapen suggests, the entire first movie is about interconnectedness and interdependence. It actually becomes the opposite of my initial interpretation. It is, unexpectedly and more than a little confusingly, a story about a “chosen one” destined to change the nature of the entire universe, that rejects the whole notion of a chosen one. It asserts that we’re all influenced by each other, and that we all rely on each other.

I still don’t think the movies are all that deep, and I honestly can’t say that I like them that much more now than I did before. But I am starting to suspect that I was coming into the prequels with arrogance, and so much of what I found to be muddled and “anti-Star Wars” in them — why are they talking about interdependence in one scene, and then in the next scene asserting that our heroes are heroes because of cell parasites that let them do magic? — isn’t necessarily the result of poor storytelling, but my own assumptions about what these movies are supposed to be.

And I mean, that’s on me, because Lucas warned us all way back in 1980 that Anakin’s story was going to be a tragedy. But now it seems less like “a bunch of random and occasionally contradictory things that happen and then end badly, all because the conclusion of the story was already written 20 years previously,” and more like a consistent through-line. The key moments that turn Anakin into — spoiler! — Darth Vader are the result of everyone around him telling him that he can do anything.

Palpatine’s whole scheme of corruption works, not just on Anakin but the entire Republic, not simply because he’s secretly an evil wizard, but because he knows how to manipulate people’s desire to do the right thing, and their desire to have control over things outside of their control. Meanwhile, the Jedi are telling Anakin that he alone has a special gift as prophesied by the ancients, and also that personal attachments are a weakness that can be manipulated, instead of a strength. Maybe if he hadn’t spent his whole life getting such bad advice, he wouldn’t have become convinced that he alone is the arbiter of right and wrong, and he wouldn’t have flipped out and murdered a bunch of Tusken Raiders and children. Who’s to say, really?

Again, none of this was ever hidden in the movies; it just never made sense to expect that level of dramatic irony in a series so dependent on farting and slobbering aliens. That’s why I appreciate Ben Chinapen’s video so much: it hasn’t turned me into a fan of the prequels, but it is a good counter to the whole notion of “Star Wars is just for kids, stop taking it so seriously,” which is too often used both as a condemnation and a defense. (And has been since 1977). Like it or not, the whole series has become one of the most ubiquitous and most accessible set of stories there is. Even people who don’t take it seriously, or even like it, still have it as a cultural touchstone. That’s why it’s worth interpreting and re-interpreting.

That’s also why it’s reassuring that such a ubiquitous cultural touchstone that’s so important to so many people can be interpreted to have a more positive and consistent philosophy. It’s not just a story about genetically gifted space wizards fated to save the universe, that also gives occasional lip service to the “interconnectedness of all things.” It’s a set of parables about the nature of good and evil and our responsibility to be agents of good, not only by answering a call to adventure, but also by recognizing that no matter what our talents are, we’re all a small part of something greater.

  • 1
    The film noir influences on Attack of the Clones are still about the only thing I genuinely like from that movie
  • 2
    And Anakin’s virgin birth story, for that matter, which is somehow even less tonally appropriate, but somehow didn’t generate nearly as much nerd rage
  • 3
    I admit I’ve also been gullible enough to take Harrison Ford’s “grouchy old man who hates Star Wars” character seriously, instead of recognizing that he’s basically doing a bit.

Everything I Love About Everything Everywhere All At Once

Refusing to choose one thing I love in a movie that celebrates living in the best of all possible worlds.

The featured image on this post is my poorly-cropped version of the beautiful poster by James Jean on the A24 Films site.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a flawless movie, and the only negative thing I have to say about Everything Everywhere All At Once is the gentlest of criticisms: it has a perfectly understated vulgar gag early in the movie (involving a trophy on someone’s desk) that it then stretches out into an extended fight scene later on. The fight scene is very funny and hilariously juvenile — especially for committing to judicious pixellation over the entire fight — but I can’t help but wish they’d shown a little bit more restraint and just left it as a one-off.

But then, this movie isn’t about restraint at all. It’s about multiverses in the purest possible sense: every moment is filled with the spirit of We can do anything we want! The official synopsis is “the film is a hilarious and big-hearted sci-fi action adventure about an exhausted Chinese American woman (Michelle Yeoh) who can’t seem to finish her taxes,” which is about as good a description as Rotten Tomatoes’ listing the genre as “Sci-Fi, Comedy, Adventure, Fantasy.” It really is about everything, and choosing any one aspect of it seems too reductive.

One of the things I tend to love the most in narrative art is when the artist uses the form of the work to reinforce the theme of the work. Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, for instance, which changes voice from wonder and discovery to melancholy to express an otherwise inexpressible sense of loss. So I’m especially impressed by how Everything Everywhere All At Once uses a genre-defying story of multiverses as a rejection of the idea of the multiverse. Or at least, how science fiction and fantasy stories tend to present the multiverse.

After it establishes its premise, it seems to explode into a story of infinite potential, with the freedom to do anything, show anything, and be anything. And even as it’s making full use of that freedom — combining family drama with slapstick comedy with superhero action adventure with martial arts with anime with science fiction with vulgar comedy with Wong Kar Wai romance with zombie movie — it’s asserting that it’s futile to value infinite potential over concrete reality. It seems to use the entirety of decades of global pop-culture, smashed together with chaotic excess, to present a simple idea about the value of simplicity, contentment, and kindness.

Of course, that’s reductive, too. The simplicity of that message becomes profound, rather than trite, only because it’s carried across layers of absurdity and action. The movie’s chaos never evaporates as nothing more as absurd excess, because just about every one of its bizarre ideas is given a simply beautiful twist. I never would’ve expected to find myself in tears at the sight of two women with hot dog fingers consoling each other, or a woman carrying a man on her back in order to rescue his magical raccoon.

I was in tears for most of the movie, thinking of lost potential, lost loved ones, and regrets over missed opportunities, but then it deftly reassured me that everything would be okay. We spend so much time focusing on what could have been that we lose sight of what was, and what we have now.

Everyone in the cast is brilliant, which is astounding considering how much it requires the cast to get it down to the atomic level. Ke Huy Quan and Stephanie Hsu in particular are amazing, never letting a moment feel false even as they’re surrounded by absolute absurdity. The movie seems to have been made for Michelle Yeoh, though, finally giving her a showcase for everything she can do. I’ve been a hopeless fan of hers ever since I saw Supercop, but it’s always seemed like even her best movies — and even movies like Wing Chun, which seemed designed to show off her talents — that they weren’t capturing the entirety of what makes her spectacular.

I also loved the soundtrack by Son Lux, which felt as free as the rest of the movie to incorporate anything and everything it had on hand. The music was rarely predictable but never drew too much attention to itself. I most appreciated how it incorporated hints of Debussy throughout, sparking a flash of recognition that swirled around before combining with everything else.

Barely related: I was completely unfamiliar with the work of the Daniels before this movie, and had never seen their amazing video for “Turn Down For What.” (Which features Sunita Mani, who has a recurring cameo in Everything Everywhere All At Once). It’s oddly relevant, because they both have performers who have to be game for anything in order to show us something we’ve never seen before.

I’ve never been as emotionally devastated nor as cathartically reassured on a moral, philosophical, and existential level by a movie with so many dildos and butt plugs.

One Thing I Like About The Lost Boys

I’m glad I waited until I was 50 to watch this teen vampire movie.

I was a junior in high school when The Lost Boys came out, but I never bothered to see it until tonight. It had such a heavy marketing presence — and general pop cultural presence — that I knew enough about it to get references to it, and I thought I knew the basic premise: what if St. Elmo’s Fire but vampires?

So I was surprised to see that it’s not quite that. It’s more like: what if you mashed together St. Elmo’s Fire, The Goonies, and Fright Night, and made it 10 times hornier and cornier?

I should mention that I’ve never seen St. Elmo’s Fire, either, and I don’t plan to. I didn’t see The Goonies until a few years ago, and I’m convinced that you have to have seen it as a kid to appreciate it, because I thought it was dismal. I’m glad I waited until I was 50 to watch The Lost Boys, though, because I don’t think I would’ve been able to appreciate it back when I was in the target audience.

For one thing, I would’ve been hopelessly confused by how gay it is. I admit that at the time, I had kind of a confusing crush on Kiefer Sutherland without even a hint of irony, so I would’ve been convinced that it was all in my head and that I was “watching it wrong.” Now, it seems so obvious that they barely even bothered to make it subtext.

Ostensibly, Sutherland’s “David” and Jason Patric’s “Michael” were in a love triangle with Jami Gertz’s “Star,” but the movie’s really only interested in the chemistry between David and Michael. Star is barely even a character — not at all Gertz’s fault, since she’s not given anything to do besides be fought over and have vague, 80s movie euphemistic sex with. Meanwhile, David is constantly calling out for Michael and inviting him to get an earring and join him in his lair with his giant shirtless Jim Morrison poster and to become like him and to find out “what he is” and drink his blood and come party with him and sheesh get a room already, guys.

It’d be too simple-minded to see that Joel Schumacher directed it and just declare, “Welp, he made it gay.” There’s something a little more subtle in the tone of The Lost Boys that actually makes me respect Schumacher more than I did. The Lost Boys is absolutely not a good movie, but it does strike me as shameless, in the best possible sense of the word.

The movies I always associate with Schumacher are Batman Forever, which is just awful, and Batman and Robin, which is somehow even worse. There’s plenty to hate in those movies: nipples on the bat suit, the gratuitous shots of Robin’s butt, the Bat credit card, the roller skating, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr Freeze, Alfred Headroom, and I’m sure a dozen other things my brain has mercifully allowed me to forget. But the two things that I always found completely intolerable were Jim Carrey’s performance as the Riddler, and Uma Thurman’s performance as Poison Ivy, for reasons I could never figure out until I saw The Lost Boys tonight.

All the other stuff is awful, tone-deaf camp, but at least it’s sincere. The only charitable thing I’ve ever been able to say about those two Batman movies is that they seem like movies that Schumacher genuinely wanted to make. He thought Batman and its characters were silly, campy, brightly colored, full of bafflingly repressed sexuality, and outright rejected the idea that there was anything serious and gritty to be found in such an absurd premise. But Carrey and Thurman were both trying to go over the top of a movie that was already over the top. There’s an inescapable sense that they need you to know that they’re in on the joke, and they’re aware of how silly the whole thing is. It especially bugs me with Thurman, because I think she’s so great in Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, going all in with complete confidence that the audience is going to get it.

Sincerely awful is still sincere, and I think that deserves more credit than I’ve been willing to give. Even if the execution is painful, the basic idea is valid: movies are fiction, and we don’t have to take everything so seriously.

There’s one episode of Batman: The Animated Series where a bunch of kids are telling stories they’ve heard about the Batman, each story representing a different incarnation of Batman from the movies, TV, or comics, and each story presented in that incarnation’s style. One of the kids is a flamboyant boy who gets cut off by the other kids with a line something like “Nobody wants to hear your version, Joel.” At the time I saw it, I thought it was a clever, self-aware dig at the campiness of Schumacher’s movies. Now, though, I think it was just unfairly mean-spirited.

Back to The Lost Boys: it seems odd to say that it’s “its own thing,” since it’s so derivative of other 80s movies, and so much of it is formulaic. But it’s just weird in ways I didn’t expect. It bounces between genres, with each actor seeming to have a different idea of whether they’re in a horror movie, a romance, a family comedy, a teen coming-of-age story, or an action/adventure. The comedy bits aren’t particularly funny (the only genuinely funny line in the whole movie is the last one), the scary bits aren’t scary, and the sexy bits are hilariously un-sexy, but I respect what a swing it was to try to mash them all together. There’s nothing grounding it, but there’s also no sense that it needs to be grounded. It’s silly, but it doesn’t come across so much as camp as it does a confidence that movies are allowed to be stylized and silly. They don’t always need to be taken seriously.

So the one thing I like about The Lost Boys is that it gave me a new respect for Joel Schumacher. I still don’t really like what I’ve seen of his movies, but I respect that he was working within a formula but still managed to make movies that feel like movies he wanted to make.

One Thing I Like About Encanto

Encanto managed to tell a straightforward story without feeling too simplistic

First of all, I’m proud of my joke, which goes like this: Will I still enjoy Encanto if I haven’t seen 1 to (n-1) Canto?

Anyway, one thing I like about Encanto is that I got to watch it on Disney+. I was wrecked by the end of this movie, and I’m kind of tired of having emotional breakdowns in public movie theaters. Magic of cinema, sure, I’m all for it I guess, but I’m 100% behind home streaming for first-run movies1As long as the studio takes that into account when negotiating contracts with their actors who’ve been a prominent part of several of their films for almost a decade, instead of, say, being a multi-billion dollar company hypocritically trying to shame actors for being greedy during a pandemic..

But that’s not the main thing I liked about the movie. There are actually two more things about Encanto that I liked a lot, and I was having kind of a hard time choosing which one was the most worth writing about. Then I realized that they’re both aspects of the same thing: the storytelling is straightforward, direct, and earnest, but without feeling simplistic, maudlin, or juvenile.

One example of that is the song “Surface Pressure.” I came into the movie after missing the first 30 minutes or so (I since went back and watched it), right as that song came on. I knew the basic premise of the story, and I already knew a surprising amount about the characters just from being on The Internet. I’d seen videos of people doing covers, and I was aware that the song “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” had become a meme, and I’ve seen lots and lots of musicals Disney and otherwise, so I thought I knew what the structure of the movie was. A song as confessional as “Surface Pressure” must come late in act 2 or so, after we’ve gotten to know the characters but then — twist! — we go deeper and learn more about the characters’ mental state.

So I was pleasantly surprised to see that this was more or less Luisa’s introduction. Or at least the most dialogue she’s had in the movie up to that point, by far. She goes from being “I’m the sister who’s strong” to having an entire song explaining exactly what stresses she’s under. The question “what’s bothering Luisa?” only lingers for about 5 minutes, tops.

The reason that pleasantly surprised me is because movies so often treat that kind of directness, even in musicals, as being too on-the-nose or too simplistic. You can’t just have characters who are self-aware; that’s basic! You’ve got to let the mystery and intrigue stretch out, so the audience can see the character’s arcs playing out as they happen. But here, Mirabel talks to characters, and they immediately tell her exactly what’s on their minds, what their crises are, what they’re dealing with.

It’s almost as if Mirabel’s magical gift is being able to listen and understand what other people are going through.

The other example is that the movie has no villain. Family animated movies have evolved past fairy tale storytelling — and even when they do tell fairy tales, they can focus on aspects of the story that make them feel contemporary — but they still often feel juvenile because of their need to make every conflict about good guys vs bad guys. I still say that the one thing that keeps Up from being a flawless movie is that it spends so much time building its characters and organic, interesting conflicts, then just turns it into a movie about defeating the villain.

Encanto does have an antagonist, but they’re not motivated by greed or evil; they’re motivated by love. The reason the characters can be so direct about their internal struggles is because the movie isn’t about finding out what’s wrong. Everybody knows what’s wrong, and they just don’t know what to do about it. The conflict is driven by the completely understandable belief that it’s the family’s duty to be stewards protecting the miracle, forgetting that the entire reason the miracle exists is to protect the family.

Even though Encanto is full of characters saying explicitly exactly what they’re thinking, that doesn’t mean that there are no layers to it. It has three metaphors that are carried throughout: the casita itself, the candle representing the family’s magic, and the butterfly. I really like that the first two are made explicit as soon as they’re introduced — another case of being direct and skipping any unnecessary obfuscation — while the butterfly quietly lives on Mirabel’s shoulder until the climactic song about finding protection in each other and then needing to break out of that cocoon.

Tangentially related: I keep going back to all of the internet memes about “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” and videos covering “Surface Pressure,” and realizing how I’m at least a couple of decades too old to be able to navigate modern social media. I can’t imagine being able to set up a camera and earnestly sing into it and then release it to the public without cringing. I can’t watch the short videos without being suspicious of exactly how many of them are “genuine” and how many are just part of a viral marketing campaign. Don’t people worry that they’ll look gullible or foolish for being taken in by Disney marketing?

But then, worrying about being taken in by marketing is an extremely Gen-X anxiety to have. I find it reassuring that there are people who don’t particularly care whether something they enjoy is coming from a “paid influencer” or not; all that matters is that they’re enjoying it. And there’s nothing to be lost by being fearlessly earnest and direct. The people who would turn up their nose at it were never going to like it in the first place, and as for the people willing to engage, telling or showing them exactly what’s on your mind and what you love is the best way to engage with them.

  • 1
    As long as the studio takes that into account when negotiating contracts with their actors who’ve been a prominent part of several of their films for almost a decade, instead of, say, being a multi-billion dollar company hypocritically trying to shame actors for being greedy during a pandemic.

One Thing I Like About Eternals

Eternals is a defiantly humanistic adaptation of cosmic-powered source material

I didn’t like Eternals. It was overlong, meandering, and ponderous. Its action sequences were weightless in multiple senses of the word. It made baffling story decisions from the opening text crawl to the post-credit sequences.

I’ve lost interest in picking apart things I don’t like, not so much out of any vague push for “positivity,” but because there’s just too much good stuff out there I’d rather be concentrating on. But unlike some other high-profile projects that more or less evaporated after failing to live up to expectations1See: The Matrix Resurrections. Or better: don’t., Eternals left me with something. It was a hazy sense of well-being, a faintly optimistic feeling of global community and shared humanity. (More than just the general light-headedness that came from still being up at 3 AM after foolishly starting the movie at midnight).

In short: Eternals took a part of the Marvel library that was designed from the start to be grand and cosmic, and defiantly turned it into a gentler, more humanistic story. I might not think it was successful, but I can respect that it was so full of intent, especially considering the weight of the MCU machine behind it.

Because I’ve recently read Jack Kirby’s original The Eternals comics, and then Neil Gaiman and John Romita, Jr’s 2006 update, I can’t help comparing them with the movie version’s adaptation2I haven’t read any of the other Eternals comics, so I can’t really comment on the aspects of those that were used in the movie version.. In particular, there are two aspects of the comics that are done differently in the movie, and they end up saying a lot about what the movie was trying to do: one aspect is representation, and the other is the audience’s entry point into the story.

Continue reading “One Thing I Like About Eternals”
  • 1
    See: The Matrix Resurrections. Or better: don’t.
  • 2
    I haven’t read any of the other Eternals comics, so I can’t really comment on the aspects of those that were used in the movie version.

One Thing I Love About Spider-Man: No Way Home

One scene in No Way Home articulates what I love about the MCU, and also the One Thing I Hate about the movie. Lots of spoilers!

Pretty much everything that happens in Spider-Man: No Way Home is a spoiler, so I recommend avoiding reading anything like this until after you’ve seen it!

There’s one scene midway through No Way Home where I was taken out of the action for a second, and I had a minor epiphany, recognizing a huge part of what’s made me become such a shameless fan of the MCU, and why I think the formula works so well with this incarnation of Spider-Man in particular.

The set-up: Spider-Man has gone into a wooded area, tracking down a villain who’d been teased in an earlier fight scene. (And in the trailer). Because I can recognize the pumpkin bombs from the Sam Raimi movies, I know better than Peter Parker does what is about to go down. He’s got his friends talking to him and watching what’s going on via a cell phone duck-taped to his chest (a brilliant touch), and they have even less of an idea what’s about to happen. It’s a nice twist on dramatic irony, since it’s based not only on stuff that’s happened in the movie so far, but on the audience’s general pop cultural knowledge.

But then the scene subverts those expectations. And then keeps reinforcing and then subverting them, pulling in stuff we’ve seen from the trailers, previous movies, ideas foreshadowed by Doctor Strange, a general idea of how movies work, and so on. The whole sequence works a little like a horror or suspense movie, with that call-and-response of expectation and subversion. It ends up feeling like a dialogue between the filmmakers and the audience, relying not just on the story so far, but everything the audience knows.

Entries in the MCU are rarely just a live-action interpretation of a comics story, and rarely an entirely new story based on familiar characters. Instead, they’re more like remixes, taking multiple aspects of existing characters and existing storylines, and then recombining and rearranging them, to keep giving the audience that flash of recognition before turning it into a flash of discovery.

Even with characters that aren’t as universally known as Spider-Man, like the Guardians of the Galaxy or Shang-Chi, it still works, because it’s never drawing only from the comic books. It assumes that in addition to comics, the audience is also familiar with science fiction, martial arts movies, other entries in the MCU, and pop culture in general. In fact, it doesn’t assume that; it depends on it. A side effect of that is that the storytelling can’t be condescending, or too smug about its secrets and reveals. It always has to assume that the audience understands this stuff, and we’re on board with seeing it expanded and reinvented.

Explaining more of how that relates to No Way Home requires explicit spoilers, so I’ll put my short review here: it’s extremely well-done and surprising, and it’s a solid finale to the three standalone Tom Holland Spider-Man movies. I’m not as happy about what it means for the future of the character and the MCU in general, but even the parts I hated were well-written, performed, and perfectly integrated into the story. In other words: I hate what it did, but I like the way it did it. Now stop reading unless you’ve seen it.

Spoilers Below!

Movie List Monday: Unnecessary Animation

My favorite animated movies with details that don’t need to be there

When I mentioned trying to make “a Nick Park-style robot,” I’m not sure the reference worked, because I was specifically talking about the robot from A Grand Day Out. It’s one of my favorite animated characters, and the sequence where it wakes up and discovers Wallace’s picnic site might be my favorite moment in any animated movie.

It’s incredibly expressive, using only its hands. And it’s burned into my brain as the image of “endearing robot”; even though I haven’t seen A Grand Day Out in years, I was just futzing around with a modeling program and subliminally tried to copy a pose from that character exactly.

What I like best about that whole character, though, is that everything that makes it special is so unnecessary. It could’ve been a more conventional retro-sci-fi-robot design, and the story would’ve worked just as well. It was a choice to make it a completely silent coin-operated robot, and it’s never explained because it doesn’t need to be. Any more than it needs to be explained why the villain in The Wrong Trousers is a penguin.

The thing that made me aspire (and fail) to become an animator was that the best animated projects have a density of imagination and design that you don’t get in live action. Of course there are meticulously-designed live action movies, but with animation, it’s a necessity. There’s not a single thing on screen that hasn’t had at least one person spending hours thinking about it.

As much as I love Frozen, for instance, I still think it’s part of a trend of modern animation in which efficiency is key. By that I mean that everything on screen is in service of the story, or at least in service of a particular gag. The stories are pretty great, the gags are funny, and the character designs are appealing and often perfectly animated. But I rarely get the sense that there’s a detail or a moment that’s unnecessary, that exists solely because an artist wanted it to.

Here’s a list of some of my favorite animated movies, and the moments of unnecessary imagination that make them stand out. (Note that I’ve mostly lost track of animation in the past several years, and I still haven’t seen most of the Laika movies, Kubo and the Two Strings in particular. They tend to feel more free than the tentpole Disney movies in including details just for their own sake).

Continue reading “Movie List Monday: Unnecessary Animation”

One Thing I Like About No Time To Die

Daniel Craig’s last Bond movie makes self-reference into a celebration

Back when I begrudgingly picked Spectre over Skyfall as a better James Bond movie, I hadn’t seen No Time to Die. I said that I’d heard that the latest movie was even more self-referential than Spectre is, and I couldn’t imagine how that was possible.

Now that I’ve seen it — I made sure to watch it a couple of months after its theatrical release, so that I both missed seeing it on a big screen and had the privilege of playing big-screen prices to rent it — I’d agree that it is even more self-referential than any of the others. But instead of just going through the motions, it feels like a celebration of the franchise.

I think No Time to Die is the easily the second best of the Daniel Craig Bond movies, after Casino Royale. The problem is that the first half was on track to be my favorite of any of the Bond movies. It’s two hours and forty-five minutes long, and it really does feel like two Bond movies smashed together: the first is absolutely fantastic, but the second just descends into the same kind of muddled mess as the last three. Repeating the same old story beats to try and bridge the way into the final act, which is a journey into a supervillain lair filled with plot developments that just don’t make sense.

But this is about the positives! And even as the plot starts to fall apart, the movie nails the tone throughout. It feels like the only one of the Craig movies that fully embraces being part of the James Bond franchise, instead of poking fun at it or trying to turn it into something deeper and more mature. There are stunningly gorgeous locations, impressively over-the-top stunts, three disfigured villains, beautiful women kicking ass, and double-crosses piled on top of double-crosses. Bond even (finally?) makes a lame quip after murdering a guy.

The movie’s front-loaded with great, genuinely tense action sequences: one in a flashback, a blockbuster of a sequence in Italy, and then another in Cuba bringing multiple agents together. That last one is the one that brings in Ana de Armas and Lashana Lynch, giving them guns and plenty of opportunities for stunts, so that it’s not just Craig getting all the action. Ana de Armas is just as great as all the buzz had led me to believe, but I wish Lashana Lynch had been given more to do. It mostly feels like she’s there for no reason other than to escort Craig out of the franchise.

Those sequences flow together so well that it had me thinking the entire series has been like a machine learning algorithm: iterating on the James Bond formula (and throwing the Jason Bourne movies into the dataset) repeatedly until it got everything right. No Time to Die seemed to be incorporating something from every incarnation of Bond — not just the cars and the “shaken, not stirred” martinis, but everything. The cars and the Caribbean locations called back to Connery, the henchman Cyclops to Roger Moore and Jaws, the doomed love affair to Lazenby, the sequence with Felix Leiter back to Dalton’s version, the over-the-top stunts back to Pierce Brosnan (I guess?), and the production design (plus the mentions of Vesper Lynd) to Skyfall and Quantum of Solace.

And those are just the references I picked up on. I got the sense that the entire movie was a celebration of the movies. Not just the culmination of Daniel Craig’s run, but of the entire series.

Best of all, it was the first one I’ve seen in forever that felt like it knew what it was. These movies have been so dour and so expensive for so long, that any time they embraced the silliness of the Bond franchise, it felt like a clumsy mis-step. No Time to Die seemed to get that the series is best when it’s clever, fun spectacle. When the movie is fully aware of its own absurdity, but Bond and all the characters surrounding him are treating it like the entire world is truly in jeopardy and that they’re all essentially super-heroes capable of taking care of it.

Also, the movie is so adamant about being contemporary that for the first time, I’m re-thinking my opinion that future installments should be set in the Cold War. Q isn’t just played by a gay actor, but specifically mentions having a man over for a dinner date. Paloma plays up her own naivete and enthusiasm (and is, obviously, preternaturally gorgeous), but is in absolutely no danger of being seduced by Bond. Nomi isn’t just presented as a competent agent with her own sense of Bond-like vanity and self-confidence, but her identity as a black woman isn’t just treated as incidental, either — a villain boasts to her that he’d be able to wipe out everyone of the “West African diaspora,” and it doesn’t go well for him at all. And Moneypenny has been completely transformed from a lovesick secretary to someone who respects Bond for being able to get the job done, more often than not.

No Time to Die feels like a series that’s finally matured enough to have fun with itself. It’s acknowledging that it can no longer treat homosexuals and non-white people as exotic oddities, or women as either sexy victims or femme fatales. But more important than that, it recognizes that Bond as murderous lecherous super-hero isn’t the core of what makes the franchise. It’s not just trying to re-hash the past, or over-correct for the past, or pretend to be anything that it’s not. Much of it has the spark that makes for the best Bond movies: spectacle, travel, memorable henchmen, and over-the-top action.

Star Wars and Focusing on the Wrong Thing

Getting closer to a Grand Unified Theory of what makes something “feel like Star Wars”

I like to think of myself as a reasonably well-adjusted adult, but every once in a while I get a flare up that reminds me I’m still an Extremely Online Nerd in my soul. Tonight’s episode: getting irrationally angry about Rogue One out of nowhere.

Okay technically not out of nowhere. I was trying to think of how to handle the issue of plugging cables into the Star Wars-inspired computer I want to build, which seemed like a distinctly un-Star Wars thing to be worried about. Everything in Star Wars just works — or more often, doesn’t work for dramatic purposes — without spending even a nano-second thinking about stuff as mundane as cabling or fuel sources.

Then I remembered that the climax of Rogue One has the team both trying to find a particular file in a file system, while simultaneously trying to get a cable to reach a socket. And I mean come on.

Over the years, I’ve settled into a more mature attitude towards Rogue One after my initial nerd-rage: accepting that it has both the best production design of the entire franchise, and the absolute worst plot and characterization of the entire franchise. (Except for K2SO, which I attribute mainly to Alan Tudyk). I’ve already complained about how the entire movie undermines its own protagonist, but if I’m being honest, the thing that bugs me more is that it doesn’t “feel like Star Wars” to me.

Which is also my main issue with The Last Jedi. That movie’s grown on me a lot, although I’ve still got some issues with how it handles the characters. But the biggest problem I have with it is that so much of it just doesn’t feel like Star Wars. The stuff with Rey and Kylo Ren is mostly fantastic, but the bulk of the plot is a pointless and futile digression onto a space casino, and the Resistance fleet running out of fuel.

The plot of a Star Wars story should never revolve around something as mundane as fuel. A broken hyperdrive? Sure! A lack of fuel? Garbage. Again, that’s Battlestar Galactica, not Star Wars.

A broken hyperdrive doesn’t make sense; the Millennium Falcon shouldn’t have been able to travel between planets without it. The reason it works in The Empire Strikes Back is because to the characters, it’s as mundane an obstacle as any other broken piece of equipment, roughly the equivalent of a flat tire or a broken air conditioner. But to the audience, it’s still fantastic.

JJ Abrams gets this, I think, but takes it too far. The Force Awakens built its climax around a “thermal oscillator,” which is nonsense, but is just enough of a McGuffin to drive the action. If anything, he spent too much time with a bunch of adults standing around a table, talking about nonsense as if it made sense. That’s Star Trek, not Star Wars.

And The Rise of Skywalker, along with all its other issues, takes it way too far in the other direction. It’s not that Emperor clones and thousands of planet-killing Star Destroyers, or even the “Force Dyad” or whatever they called it, need to be explained; they do need to be justified, though. There’s no sense of building up to it. It’s just thrown at you as an immediate threat, trying to raise the stakes without “earning” it.

Comparing all the good and bad Star Wars stories I’ve seen and read over the years, I think that the main thing driving the whole Star Wars aesthetic is that it’s impossibly ancient. Technology that’s thousands of years ahead of our own is already thousands of years old by the time our stories start.

It’s so ubiquitous that characters should rarely even comment on it. That’s my “in-universe” explanation for why none of the computer panels or spaceship controls have labels anywhere; it would be as absurd as putting instructions on door knobs or cabinet handles.1I admit I do like the theory that everyone in the Star Wars universe is so dependent on droids that they’ve become illiterate, though. It’s also why I think the Imperial aesthetic “reads” as evil and unsettling even when you don’t have Darth Vader walking around in it: it’s all so clean and shiny that it literally feels unnatural.

The reason I think it’s important, instead of just a source of Strong Opinions for Nerds, is that it forces (no pun intended) Star Wars stories to be about characters, along with ideas about spirituality and magic. They are, deliberately, silly fairy stories, but dressed in trappings that make them resonate. The sci-fi elements are there to make the fantasy stories feel contemporary.

Looking back on my reaction to The Rise of Skywalker, I’m surprised that my opinion hasn’t changed all that much. I did go back to the theater to see it a second time, and watching it as “Star Wars I can watch on a big screen” instead of “conclusion of a decades-long series that’s been hugely important to me for as long as I can remember” made it a lot more fun. It’s entertaining in the moment, but falls apart at any attempt to put it into a larger context. And whether it’s good or bad, it doesn’t change the enormous potential of Star Wars as a setting for stories.

Both officially sanctioned by Disney-owned Lucasfilm, and even better, the infinite number of stories not set in the Star Wars universe, but inspired by it. Star Wars is a specific aesthetic, and I’m no closer to being able to define it than “I know it when I see it.” But more valuable than that is the idea of freely picking and choosing from elements of pop culture — sci-fi, westerns, samurai movies, swords and sorcerers, WWII movies — to make stories that are about more than just their setting or their aesthetic.

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    I admit I do like the theory that everyone in the Star Wars universe is so dependent on droids that they’ve become illiterate, though.