A List of Things I Like About Thor: Love and Thunder

Because there haven’t been enough people posting their opinions about this movie online

  • I like it better than Ragnarok. I don’t think there are any moments in Love and Thunder that hold up to the best moments of Ragnarok, but I think it works better as a movie overall, largely because it feels more confidently silly instead of trying to balance pathos and heavy metal while proving “a Thor movie can too be funny.”
  • Russell Crowe as Zeus was clearly there to have fun and felt he had absolutely nothing to prove. Ever since Endgame, I haven’t been able to make up my mind whether the MCU as a whole and Thor in particular are making fun of fat people, or if it’s just acknowledging that a physique like Chris Hemsworth’s isn’t natural (or even attainable) to most people and is every bit an active choice. Love and Thunder makes it even murkier, but at least Crowe seems to be delighted to appear in armor that highlights his “post-divorce” body1Which is 10,000x hotter than he was in Gladiator, if you ask me.
  • Tessa Thompson as King Valkyrie had to underplay her performance — as she often had to be the straight man2Ironically surrounded by absurdity — but she still managed to be a distinctive character who fit perfectly into this bizarre universe. The result was that she was powerfully sexy and attractive in just about every scene, even for an actor who is usually the sexiest person on camera without even trying.
  • The lighter tone worked overall because it made the darker subjects feel less like maudlin manipulation. Jane’s cancer story in the comic felt cheaper to me because it tried so hard to give the subject the gravitas it was supposed to deserve, which was then undercut by introducing a magic hammer. I felt the movie was actually more respectful by letting her be silly and over-enthusiastic about getting to be a superhero. It spun the premise from “real-world tragedy given a supernatural spin” to one about a character choosing what to make of her life.
  • The screaming goats were overused and yet they still made me laugh every single time.
  • The girl using her stuffed animal as a weapon was a little predictable and obvious but still worked 1000%.
  • Gorr the God-Butcher’s story didn’t give Christian Bale any opportunities to be funny, but it worked perfectly as a counterpoint to the silliness of the rest of the movie, emphasizing how increasingly cosmic-powered and god-like superheroes become disgusting when they act without integrity and responsibility.
  • It also meshed surprisingly well with Jane Foster’s story, bringing the idea back from “who would win in a fight?” or “who will be first to reach the magic MacGuffin?” to questions about why we do the things we do, and why do we exist at all.
  • It’s my favorite of the Taika Waititi projects I’ve seen3Apart from maybe the TV series of What We Do In the Shadows, which I love mostly based on the performances of the actors. Every time I see a project where he’s a creative lead, I’m left with the feeling that I wish I liked it more than I actually do. It often feels like the sense of freedom that makes his projects so appealing is combined with a lack of restraint. So jokes that don’t really land are given way too much screen time4As much as I like Melissa McCarthy, I wish they’d cut the entire rehash of the play in New Asgard, since it was no longer making fun at the self-seriousness of the first two Thor movies, but just saying “Hey look at these famous and semi-famous people we got to do cameos”, and the stories often feel disjointed in tone and weirdly flippant5The scene in The Mandalorian with the stormtroopers punching the bag containing Baby Yoda is a perfect example. In Love and Thunder, I think the shifts in tone were used for good effect: the silly stuff felt like it was poking fun at targets who deserved it, while more serious subjects were treated with enough levity that they felt authentic instead of maudlin.
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    Which is 10,000x hotter than he was in Gladiator, if you ask me
  • 2
    Ironically
  • 3
    Apart from maybe the TV series of What We Do In the Shadows, which I love mostly based on the performances of the actors
  • 4
    As much as I like Melissa McCarthy, I wish they’d cut the entire rehash of the play in New Asgard, since it was no longer making fun at the self-seriousness of the first two Thor movies, but just saying “Hey look at these famous and semi-famous people we got to do cameos”
  • 5
    The scene in The Mandalorian with the stormtroopers punching the bag containing Baby Yoda is a perfect example

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.

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    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 Murderville

The new Netflix series is a semi-improv comedy that avoids almost everything I hate about improv comedy

I’m really enjoying the new Netflix series Murderville, which is surprising, because I don’t like improv comedy.

Actually, that undersells it: I hate improv comedy. It makes me profoundly uncomfortable. It combines social awkwardness with people desperately trying to be funny, creating a Saw-like nightmare scenario that I’d usually do just about anything to escape. And the fact that the people who like it seem to really like it just makes it worse. My discomfort over improv made me dislike The Adventurer’s Club at Disney World, which on paper seems like it should’ve been the coolest thing that ever was.

The premise of Murderville is that Will Arnett plays a hapless detective who gets paired with a new rookie detective each week. Everyone has a script except for the rookie, who’s played by a different celebrity guest star, and who has to improv their way through all the scenes and put the clues together to guess the killer at the end of the episode. None of the mysteries so far have been at all challenging, but the prospect of someone having to keep a scene going while simultaneously paying attention to clues is where the comedy lies. Especially when the scenes are constructed specifically to mess with the guest star — forcing them to eat hot sauce, do the Harpo Marx mirror routine, go undercover with an embarrassing name, or explain death and murder to a little girl.

It’s a combination of absurd comedy (I keep being reminded of Childrens Hospital, partly because of the tone but mostly because it’s the same production company, and many of that series’s actors keep showing up in Murderville), prank show, game show, and improv. It’s such a brilliant concept that I was disappointed to learn that it was based on a British series with the same premise.

Disappointed because I was imagining yet another case of a genius British TV series being clumsily adapted for US audiences in a way that robs it of everything that makes it special. Luckily I found this hilariously snobby review in The Guardian, which trashes Murderville for doing exactly that. The writer describes the Netflix version as “torturous cringe”1And few things make me cringe more than seeing an adult writer use “cringe” in that way., then goes on to list the aspects of the original that were changed for the US version.

And in every single case, it sounds to me like the change was infinitely for the better. For one thing, Murderville casts celebrities who are used to doing comedy (and Marshawn Lynch, who’s awesome in his episode because he seems game for anything) instead of B-list reality TV stars and pop singers — apparently, the charm of the original was in being able to mock “self-ironising” media personalities for being awkward and uncomfortable?2I have to say that the line “Perhaps, the US doesn’t quite have the same depth and diversity as celebrity Britain, so it can’t cast the sort of self-ironising, famous-yet-normal types who made Murder in Successville such a pleasure.” is just chef’s kiss in its pure insufferableness. The writer notes that both versions have sequences where the guest has to wear an earpiece and do everything that Will Arnett’s character tells them to do, but the US version fails because it’s done in front of other actors, instead of forcing the guest to embarrass themselves in front of people who aren’t in on the joke.

Most telling, though, is how the writer faults the US version for breaking the inviolable rules of improv. Guests look at the camera, Arnett tries to steer scenes back on track, and everyone breaks character and starts laughing “far too often.” Which I mention because that’s the One Thing I Like most about Murderville: it embraces the moments when the actors crack up.

I have to say I didn’t really notice exactly how well it worked until my favorite moment in the first episode, in which Conan O’Brien is having to improvise a story to a group of women in order to “maintain his cover.” The whole scene is set up so that the actor he’s playing against is feeding him lines to force him to slip up, and he’s clearly in his element, doing basically the same stuff that he did in the unscripted segments on his show, reminding the audience that he was a comedy writer long before he had a talk show. He delivers the punchline to his story, and it cuts back to the actor cracking up before immediately turning her head to hide her laughter from the camera.

That cut is what makes it stand out — if the point were to make a funny scene, they could’ve ended on the punchline and edited around the laugh, but they deliberately chose to include it. The point wasn’t just to construct a comedy scene; the point was to show the joke land. The series seems eager not to show people being embarrassed, but to show people having fun.

It goes both ways, too: earlier in that episode, Conan and Will Arnett are interrogating a magician played by David Wain. Wain keeps doing magic tricks, and Arnett keeps losing his shit over every one, which has Conan cracking up. I wouldn’t expect everyone to know who David Wain is, but if you do, it changes the whole feel of that scene: it’s not the prank show implied by the premise, but three comedians trying to make each other laugh. There’s a similar moment in the episode we watched tonight, where Kumail Nanjiani tries to goad Arnett into doing a racist impression of a Pakistani person, and Arnett seemingly side-steps it at the last minute.

Again, the setup makes it seem like the goal is to put Arnett in an awkward position to embarrass himself, but that’s not really the case. It’s actually just giving Arnett an opportunity to be spontaneously funny, to let audiences see that spark of creativity that’s impossible to get with heavily-rehearsed material. If nothing else, having such a heavily-edited format allows the producers to emphasize the moments they want to: either go the Reality TV route and assemble the show for maximum drama and embarrassment, or take the Murderville route and show everyone getting the gag and having fun with each other.

I get improv comedy well enough to know that that spontaneity is the whole appeal, and that trying to force spontaneous moments into happening is almost always a mistake — no appearance of Debbie Downer on SNL was ever as good as the first one, where Rachel Dratch was looking at her castmates in desperation, trying to keep things on track while simultaneously knowing that the sketch was turning out to be so much funnier than anything that could be scripted. SNL is always hoping for moments like those — with Bill Hader as Stefon having to read jokes he hadn’t seen before the live airing; or Kate McKinnon looking for signs that someone else on stage is about to crack up, and then doing everything she can to get them to break character — but the show is stuck just hoping those moments happen, because it’s not something you can force. SNL kind of has to pretend that the point of the show is to go smoothly, even though some of its most memorable moments have been the ones where something goes wrong.

So I really like that Murderville splits the difference between scripted comedy and improv, allowing for spontaneous moments while still having a script and editing to keep things from going too far off the rails or falling flat. I really like that everyone’s in on the joke, even if not everyone’s in on the script — the only people who are being put on the spot are people who chose to be. It seems like the entire show is built around seeing actors having fun, and hoping that rubs off on the audience. I’m sure that to some people, having everyone in on the joke would make it seem like Murderville is too safe or doesn’t have that edge that awkwardness and discomfort and embarrassment bring to comedy, but I hope those people will grow out of it eventually.

And in case it sounds like I’m being anti-British, I’m definitely not. I’m just ragging on that one writer for The Guardian. In fact, there’s a great example of what I’m talking about in one of my favorite moments from Taskmaster: I won’t completely spoil it, but early in the episode, the contestants are given a task to do on cue, but the cue isn’t given to them until much later, at the worst possible time. Greg Davies says that it seems like one of the moments in the series that made James Acaster genuinely angry. Acaster says, “Well at the time I was pretty furious, but I was also thinking: ‘Ah, this’ll be good.'”

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    And few things make me cringe more than seeing an adult writer use “cringe” in that way.
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    I have to say that the line “Perhaps, the US doesn’t quite have the same depth and diversity as celebrity Britain, so it can’t cast the sort of self-ironising, famous-yet-normal types who made Murder in Successville such a pleasure.” is just chef’s kiss in its pure insufferableness.

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”
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    See: The Matrix Resurrections. Or better: don’t.
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    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 Like About Hawkeye

The Hawkeye series is a reminder that “super-hero” isn’t really a genre all on its own. (Spoilers for the entire series and maybe Daredevil)

One thing I like about the Hawkeye series is that they committed to making it an action comedy. Sure, it’s got themes of trust and betrayal, and dealing with loss, and they’re given enough weight that they rarely feel like it’s just going through the motions. And the overall theme — that being a hero is about responsibility and sacrifice more than super-powers — is both stated explicitly and also carried more subtly through the entire series.

But more than that, it’s just unapologetically silly. What I’d initially thought was a vague undercurrent of “arrogance” turned out to be a quiet confidence that they were telling a lighter story, and they didn’t have anything to prove. It’s Christmas! It’s supposed to be fun!

Ultimately, it’s more like the buddy comedy that I’d been afraid The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was going to be. That series wisely veered into more serious questions of race and privilege. It definitely had its moments of humor, but it was really more about expanding on the MCU post-Endgame, re-contextualizing the past four-plus hours of cosmic-scale action into the effects it’d have on actual human beings.

Hawkeye has more the spirit of the Ant-Man movies, confidently transitioning between comedy and action and getting laughs out of both. The trick arrows are just fun. I appreciated that they spun Hawkeye’s ostensible status as “the least lethal Avenger” into a positive, using it for some hyper-violent slapstick they’d normally have to steer clear of. Lots and lots and lots of guys get impaled, poisoned, frozen, stabbed, or even devoured by an owl, but the series never feels obligated to undermine it with a token acknowledgement of either “no really they’re all fine,” or a moment in which the characters have to consider the Serious Human Costs of the Battle for Justice.

I was surprised, though, to find myself taken out of my detached “Yes, this is all quite charming” state and genuinely laughing out loud at the scenes with Kate and Yelena. It’s easy to think of the MCU’s 900-pound-gorilla-scale budget going into CGI, stunts, and pyrotechnics, and forget that it also extends to casting. Finding one actor who is good at drama and comedy and action is rare; finding two and being able to play them off of each other is unheard of. Not to mention finding actors who understand the tone down to the atomic level, recognizing all of the shifts required for something that’s supposed to be grounded and relatable and shamelessly nerdy at the same time. Hailee Steinfeld and Florence Pugh are both astounding.

It’s also easy to forget that this confidence in and commitment to tone is a huge part of what got me into the MCU in the first place. Infinity War, and Endgame are very much “super-hero movies,” and they loom so large that it’s easy to assume that’s what the entire MCU is. But the best entries in the franchise have all tried to add something to make them distinct. I’ve always thought of Iron Man as a romantic comedy that is also about a super-hero, The First Avenger as The Rocketeer-style WWII nostalgia, Captain Marvel as 1990s period piece, The Winter Soldier and Black Widow as two tonally different spy movies, Black Panther as bringing Afrofuturism to mainstream (i.e, white) audiences, etc. WandaVision was a showcase for genre-hopping, being the MCU’s first TV series that was also a meta-commentary on both TV and comic books.

A while ago I saw a tweet from somebody forgettable, responding to a photo of the upcoming slate of Marvel movies with something like “This makes me weep for the homogenization of cinema.” And I mean, it was deeply ironic, seeing someone complain about homogeneity with a comment that was completely indistinguishable from hundreds of other pretentious nerds who’ve been making the exact same complaint for a decade or longer. (Before it was the MCU, it was Harry Potter that was “killing cinema,” and before that it was Star Wars. I wonder if there were d-bags complaining about the preponderance of trains-coming-at-the-audience movies destroying the potential of the medium).

It annoys me not just because I’ve appointed myself defender of the multi-billion dollar media conglomerate, but because it’s just such a lazy and shallow way of approaching any piece of art or entertainment. For one thing, for all the whining people have been doing about how the MCU is destroying cinema, it didn’t seem to stop anyone from releasing The Green Knight1I still haven’t seen it, but even if it turns out not to be great, it’s visually amazing, or a movie about a couple who have a kid with the head of a lamb for some reason. But more than that, the MCU has rarely been content to just make another super-hero adaptation. The reason it’s resonated with audiences enough to become so dominant isn’t just that they’ve got a ton of marketing money behind them; it’s because they keep experimenting with the formula, incorporating more of pop culture — and culture in general — than just comic books. Nobody’s obligated to like super-hero stories, but to go pfft and declare that that’s all they are, is just stubbornly incurious.

It’s also dumb because it assumes a hypothetical audience of comic book movie fans that doesn’t actually exist. If there is a “typical” comic book movie fan, they’re a lot more likely to be alienated by Marvel’s experiments in tone and genre, instead of attracted by it. The perfect example is Hawkeye‘s version of Kingpin.

I really liked Netflix’s Daredevil series2At least, what I saw of it. I fell off around the time they started focusing on The Punisher., but it undeniably catered to an audience of comic book fans. Of course, it went beyond that, to attract people like me who’d never been a fan of Daredevil before, but it had everything that most comics readers wanted out of an adaption in live action: a mature story with real characters in a realistic-feeling world, with a villain brought to life with every single bit of his outsized sinister intensity in place.

Hawkeye has the same character, performed by the same actor, but played with a markedly different tone. He’s not a real-world version of a comic book character; he’s a comic book character brought into the real world. His size is exaggerated, his twitchy menace is no longer doom-filled suspense but outright villainy. He’s taking arrows to the chest without a second thought. He’s ripping the doors off of cars. He’s getting hit by a car and still overpowered next to our hero. Most of the comic book fans that I know would scoff at such a comic book character as being too over-the-top and unrealistic. The MCU’s approach requires the filmmakers and the audience both to understand the differences in tone and appreciate how they’re both valid. It’d be just plain inaccurate to declare they’re both the same, though.

I’m glad to see the MCU not just leaning into comedy, but staying broad enough to encompass multiple types of comedy: Ant-Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor: Ragnarok, WandaVision, and now Hawkeye. It doesn’t always work in Hawkeye; I still don’t like the LARPers, and I feel like their version of Rogers: The Musical wasn’t nearly as delightful as they seemed to think it was. But even that had a great line, when the singers are praising all of the super-heroes and the best they came up with for Clint Barton was “Hawkeye seems cool, like a really nice guy.”

  • 1
    I still haven’t seen it, but even if it turns out not to be great, it’s visually amazing
  • 2
    At least, what I saw of it. I fell off around the time they started focusing on The Punisher.

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!

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.

One Thing I Love About Dune

Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is the best adaptation of a book I only know via adaptations

I’ve never read Dune, but for years I’ve felt like I know enough about it to get the general idea. From the needlessly awful 1984 movie, from reading National Lampoon’s Doon, and just decades of nerd cultural diffusion, I had a rough idea of the overall plot, the major themes, and why it was so influential.

I also knew that it was impenetrable and basically impossible to adapt. It’s set in the far-off future, over-stuffed with lore about different cultures and future technology, heavily influenced by psychedelics and incomprehensible visions, and focused on grand-level, intergalactic, machiavellian political schemes. It’s all a melange (so to speak) of guilds, great houses, witches, prophecies, ornithopters, fremen, stillsuits, and sand worms. I was perfectly satisfied to stay safely on the outside: aware of it as a cultural landmark, but without the need to dig any deeper.

But I had some time to kill, so I saw the new adaptation directed by Denis Villeneuve, and I really, really enjoyed it. So now I’m left wondering if I have to become a fan.

There’s so much that it does well, and so much of that is interconnected: a bunch of wise choices that aren’t that remarkable on their own, but all work together to make this an excellent adaptation.

One moment in particular isn’t all that noteworthy in terms of the overall plot, but it encapsulates so much of what I like about this adaptation: Duke Leto and Lady Jessica are in their bedroom, not long after arriving on the planet Arrakis, sharing a moment together while surrounded with a sense of doom over what’s to come the next day. As Jessica massages his forehead to help him sleep, Leto says, “I should have married you.”

Here’s why I think that brief scene is so remarkable.

Continue reading “One Thing I Love About Dune”