One Thing I Love About Baymax!

The Baymax! series on Disney Plus proves that being positive, uplifting, and inclusive doesn’t require reducing yourself to a bland, deflated, mess.

(Note: I would’ve loved to include a screenshot from the series illustrating what I’m talking about, but someone at Disney or Apple or Google finally disabled the ability to capture stills from Google Chrome, just like it’s already disabled on Safari. It should be covered under fair use and is nothing but free marketing from fans voluntarily promoting stuff online, but hey, go off. You wouldn’t screenshot a car!)

I liked Big Hero 6 a lot, even though it always felt like an electric ball of potential energy that was never quite able to resonate with me. So much of what I liked about it was deliberately constructed to make people like me like it: the character design of Baymax, the cross-cultural future-present world-building of San Fransokyo, the action/comedy tone, all made to appeal to the part of me that’s still a teenage nerd1Which, let’s be honest, is all of me..

But even though you could already see the multiple variants of Baymax figures on toy shelves even while the film was still running, it didn’t feel crass or manipulative to me. Instead, it reminded me of the early “blue sky” phases of a project, when everyone is throwing out tons of creative ideas, all building on top of each other, with no obligation to streamline or focus. In fact, the attempts to focus all of that energy onto a Disney Animated Feature story are the parts that didn’t quite work for me. I vaguely remember an attempt to use family tragedy as the instigating event for the story, but even as someone hard-wired to respond to those stories, I didn’t feel like it was authentic. And to this day, I wouldn’t be able to give a synopsis of the movie’s plot. Ultimately I felt like the movie was so many fantastic ideas without enough heart to hold them all together.

So the new Baymax! series is essentially the opposite. Each episode is a charming story concentrated to its 11-minute-long essence. It uses all the world-building that’s been established, but doesn’t dwell on any of it — it assumes that you’ve either seen the movie or its action series spinoff, or maybe it just assumes that the audience will be able to get it without any lengthy explanations needed.

Instead, it takes a recurring premise — Baymax steadfastly helps someone who thinks they don’t want or need his help — distills the story down to its basic beats, mines as much comedy action as it can out of it, and then the kicker: delivers a resolution to the character’s story that feels completely earned.

None of it feels schmaltzy, maudlin, or formulaic, partly because the stories are too brief for extended moments of manipulation, but also because the series has the confidence that it can move you without resorting to tear-jerking moments.

And also because it so often treats Baymax not as the hero but as the antagonist. One episode about a food truck owner with an allergy is filled with shots calling back to the Terminator movies, with a panicked hero trying to escape a robot in relentless pursuit. That wry sense of humor is what lets the series be so relentlessly positive and inclusive, without its feeling trite or performative.

It’s such a brilliant idea to take all the components ready-made for an action-comedy adventure series and turn them into a series of charming and uplifting animated shorts. It feels to me like all of the creativity and imagination that went into Big Hero 6‘s world-building finally found the kinds of stories that work perfectly within its world.

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    Which, let’s be honest, is all of me.

Ms Marvel Super Follow-Up Issue 1

I’d already been enjoying Ms Marvel, but the finale episode knocked it over the top

The Ms Marvel series had already won me over on sheer charm, but the finale episode was so well-done that it knocked the show into my #2 favorite MCU series, right after WandaVision1Please don’t turn Kamala Khan into a villain, Marvel. The scene of Kamala revealing her secret identity to her family was enough to win me over just on its own.

My biggest complaint — my only complaint, really — is that once you show a villain firing weapons at children, you need to show them getting a bigger comeuppance than just losing their job.

Some of the middle episodes seemed to me to struggle with balancing MCU-level fate-of-the-entire-world action scenes with a series targeted at a younger, more family-friendly audience. I think the finale did a much better job with it overall2But the content warning at the beginning of the episode was a thoughtful and necessary inclusion, keeping it mostly at the those-wacky-teens-and-their-inventions level while still keeping the stakes high.

Best of all is that it managed to stay true to the series’ overall tone of joy, optimism, community, and family, without coming across as mawkish or tacked-on.3I think Captain America’s final speech in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was well-written and well-acted, but it still felt like an over-simplistic afterthought after the more mature and nuanced takes on it earlier in the series. The repeated idea of responding to aggression with empathetic resistance is a great one even for audiences that don’t fall into the “young adult” category. This is the first MCU series that I would love to see turned into an ongoing series4As much as I loved WandaVision, it absolutely didn’t need a second season, and I hope there is one after the movies.

A final spoiler note related to my wondering whether I’m in the target audience or not: We’d seen a comment online about Bruno’s last revelation in the finale (which was a big surprise to me, after so many months of speculation about how the MCU was going to continue!), mentioning the sound cue that played underneath it. We watched it again today, cranking up the volume and listening for anything unusual, but didn’t hear anything particularly odd — maybe it was a sound effect from one of the earlier movies that we didn’t recognize?

As a joke, I said that if they really wanted to drive it home, they would’ve included the iconic theme song from the 90s TV series that I’m still not trying to spoil for people who haven’t seen all of Ms Marvel yet. So we went back and listened to the scene again, even more closely, and there it was: that iconic riff, played barely audibly just underneath the theme music5Which reminds me: hearing Pakistani/Indian takes on the usual MCU themes has been just delightful through the whole series.. Which made me wonder: was it that subtle for everybody watching? Or just for those of us who are in our 50s and having to watch everything with the subtitles turned on these days?

Whatever the case, I’m squeezing myself into the target audience even if that wasn’t the original intention. I’ve been charmed by this series and I can’t wait for The Marvels.

  • 1
    Please don’t turn Kamala Khan into a villain, Marvel
  • 2
    But the content warning at the beginning of the episode was a thoughtful and necessary inclusion
  • 3
    I think Captain America’s final speech in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was well-written and well-acted, but it still felt like an over-simplistic afterthought after the more mature and nuanced takes on it earlier in the series.
  • 4
    As much as I loved WandaVision, it absolutely didn’t need a second season
  • 5
    Which reminds me: hearing Pakistani/Indian takes on the usual MCU themes has been just delightful through the whole series.

One Thing I Love About Ms Marvel

Apart from possibly the best casting in any MCU project, the thing I like best about Ms Marvel is the same thing I liked about Hawkeye

At the time I’m writing this, I’ve seen the first five episodes of Ms Marvel on Disney Plus1I believe it’ll be a six-episode series, so only the finale is left.. I’ve been surprised by how much I enjoyed it; I can’t really think of a better word to describe it than delightful.

I admit that I initially assumed that it would be little more than a victory lap for the MCU2Kind of like Rogers The Musical combined with some nods to Muslim-American culture that could either come across as pandering or inert. Instead, there’s a real feeling of enthusiasm, excitement, and pride that comes through.

It’s what makes the series work, since it would frankly be underwhelming if it were nothing more than an MCU super-hero origin series: the pacing is weirdly disjointed, as stuff just seems to happen instead of flowing together in a clear chain of cause-and-effect. But the disjointed pacing in most MCU projects seems to be the result of trying to cram in big action set pieces at predetermined intervals, while here it’s reversed. In Ms Marvel, it usually feels as if they’re trying to work backwards from a predetermined set of character moments, while fitting everything into a set of 30-minute episodes.

But those character moments work largely because the performances are so good. Iman Vellani as Kamala Khan is so perfectly cast that it’s almost absurd; Marvel has released making-of featurettes that describe how Vellani was at least as big a fan of Captain Marvel (and Ms Marvel, and the comics in general) as her character is, and it comes across as completely genuine.

I’m also really impressed with Zenobia Shroff’s performance as her mother Muneeba Khan. Her character is given so many opportunities to evaporate into clichés, but she manages to feel genuine and sympathetic throughout. Any story about a teenager coming of age is going to have scenes where the parents are antagonists, but even when she’s set up to be the main obstacle, there’s a sense that you can understand why she’s doing the things she does. It would’ve just come across as “hyper-protective immigrant mom” had she not been able to convey a genuine sense of compassion.

All of that works together towards what I think is the one thing I like most about Ms Marvel, which is essentially the same thing I liked about Hawkeye, which is that it has a tone and focus that go beyond just being a super-hero origin story. Kamala Khan is a character even more obsessed with super-heroes than Kate Bishop was, but these series don’t accept “super-hero” as a genre on its own. Hawkeye was an action-comedy that frequently called back to the MCU, while Ms Marvel is a coming-of-age story about a Pakistani Muslim-American teenager that uses the supernatural not so much as the focus, but as the thing that helps her define herself.

Part of that is knowing what the target audience is. This feels like a show about a teenager that isn’t necessarily targeted at teenagers, but designed from top to bottom to be something that teenagers can watch with their families. That means that the crises are kept mostly in the realm of things that a girl in high school in Jersey City would be concerned about, with the destruction of the entire world3Because this is still an MCU super-hero story, after all being treated as a backdrop for more personal stories.

I spent a lot of the series thinking that I was enjoying it, but I was just barely included in the target audience, but as the series has progressed, the more I’ve been convinced that it is at least partially aimed at people like me — white Americans who don’t know much about the experiences of American immigrant families, and only the most basic details about non-European history.4And distressingly little about non-European present. I don’t know how much, if any, of the series was actually filmed in Karachi, but seeing even the MCU version of it was more than I’ve ever seen of Pakistan in the media. I’ve picked up the barest hint of basic info about the separation of India and Pakistan, but I either never knew, or I’d forgotten, how much of the conflict was driven not just by British colonialism, but by divisions between Muslims and Hindus. Obviously I’m not claiming that I’m now an authority, but seeing even this much presented in an accessible format is more than I’ve gotten before.

I’ve read criticism from the original Ms Marvel comics writer, lamenting that the TV series chose to change Kamala’s powers from the body-stretching/shape-shifting ones in the comics to something “shiny and sparkly.” I can see both sides to the argument, as I understand it. I like the TV origin story much better than the comics I’ve read — even if The Inhumans hadn’t been such a disappointment, tying Kamala’s origin story to that instead of something more rooted in Islamic mythology would’ve been a huge missed opportunity. Also, even if the body-stretching imagery looked good — and it rarely looks good even on feature film budgets, much less in a TV series — it would make Kamala seem more like a junior Reed Richards than a hero inspired by Carol Danvers.

But there is an extremely important idea from the comics that has undeniably been lost in the TV translation: in the comics, when Kamala first gains her powers, she almost subconsciously takes on the form of a more Westernized version of beauty. It takes a while before she’s comfortable presenting herself as a Pakistani-American teenage girl with a big weird fist, because she’s spent her entire life being barraged with imagery that suggests she’s weird and different. Ironically it’s kind of a shame that the TV version of Kamala comes across as more confident than her comics counterpart — she’s often insecure, and often feels like an outsider, but in the TV version, it’s more because of her nerdiness than her ethnicity or heritage.

To be fair, the TV series does hint at that, with a scene in which obnoxious white kids give her alcohol at a party, but it’s pretty brief. Most of the series presents Kamala and her family as part of a sizable Muslim community that welcomes non-Muslims, instead of portraying them as an isolated enclave surrounded by people who see them as outsiders.

I’m obviously not qualified to say whether that’s an entirely positive change or not. It does have the effect of making me feel even more like I intersect with the target audience, though — the comics felt as if they were made to give Muslim and South Asian teenagers in general a character whom they could directly identify with, from someone who understands what their experiences are like. The TV series often feels more like it’s intending to show non-Muslims like me what a different culture is like. I do wonder if it would seem too simplistic, too juvenile, or too didactic for teenagers who’ve already grown up in that environment, but I can only say that I’ve loved seeing the portrayal of a culture that’s not my own, but inclusive.

  • 1
    I believe it’ll be a six-episode series, so only the finale is left.
  • 2
    Kind of like Rogers The Musical
  • 3
    Because this is still an MCU super-hero story, after all
  • 4
    And distressingly little about non-European present. I don’t know how much, if any, of the series was actually filmed in Karachi, but seeing even the MCU version of it was more than I’ve ever seen of Pakistan in the media.

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

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”
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    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).

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 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.
  • 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 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.”

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    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!

Hawkeye: My Life as a Franchise

I’m gradually warming up to a Disney+ series that seems like it should’ve been a slam dunk

At the time I’m writing this, I’ve only seen the first three episodes of the Hawkeye series. The third episode was a relief, because that’s where it all starts to come together. For the first two, I spent most of the running time wondering why I wasn’t enjoying it more.

In theory, this should totally be my thing. It’s the Disney/MCU behemoth pouring its resources into a light-hearted comedy/action series, largely based on a beloved comics storyline1Which I haven’t read yet but has been on my to-read list for years, starring one of the most charismatic actors working today — who totally should’ve won the Oscar for True Grit, because her performance in that role is still astounding. For someone like me, who’s a fan of almost everything the MCU has put out on Disney+ so far, it seems like the only thing working against it is that it features the Least Interesting Avenger. But not only do they work that idea into the storyline and the gags, but they already set a precedent with The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. I had less than zero interest in that series, but it ended up winning me over.

But so much of it feels like it should be charming and exciting to me, but it just keeps bouncing off. I’m also getting this weird, vague undercurrent throughout that it’s somehow already taken for granted that people are going to love it. Look at this, beautiful people and intrigue and fight scenes and the occasional explosion, it seems to say, of course you like it. What’s wrong with you? We even put in a bit of self-deprecating musical theater to show how much we’re in on the joke.

I’m not sure how much I was pre-disposed to dislike it after getting the impression that the creators of the My Life as a Weapon comic weren’t compensated or sufficiently credited by Disney, even though the entire graphic design and many of the characters come straight from that comic. But I saw that Matt Fraction is credited as a “consulting producer,” and he and David Aja are in the credits under “special thanks,” and I don’t know enough about the business to know whether any of that has financial compensation. Not knowing the business, I’ll try to keep from forming an opinion on topics where I’m completely ignorant. But on the whole, it does seem like Disney tries awful hard to hold onto money that would be insignificant to the company but huge to the artists helping them build a library of stuff to sell.

To its credit, it’s made Clint Barton’s Hawkeye the most interesting version he’s ever been. It’s tough to build a series around a character whose whole thing is that he doesn’t want to be there, especially when the character is supposed to be more world-weary and less yipee-ki-yay than John McLain in Die Hard.

And I don’t think that’s a knock on Jeremy Renner, who probably doesn’t get enough credit for making a thankless role feel like a real person. Because this series gives him more to do and say — and in the proper scale, instead of burying it in the midst of the destruction of the universe — it makes his understated (and frankly, often energy-draining) performance make sense. He’s got much of Black Widow’s baggage but has even less desire to be a “poser.” It’s more an obligation than a call to glory. Plus, here he’s given more of a chance to be dryly funny and flippant.

Which is a good example of how I’ve been weirdly frustrated by the series. In one episode, he has to go to a LARPing event, and he ends up having to participate against his will. The premise itself is just, honestly, lazy writing: based on the tired old haha lookit the funny nerds who take it too far unlike our perfectly mature and healthy decades-long devotion to super heroes. (It’s the attitude of the first X-Men movie, and its pointed sneer at yellow spandex costumes instead of the obviously much more mature and realistic adults walking around in full-body skin-tight black costumes). But to the show’s credit, it takes the lame premise and turns it into a believably endearing moment. Clint isn’t won over by the experience or anything — which would be unrealistic — but he ends up being pretty good-natured and patient about the whole thing. It feels like an action-comedy setup that is being played not as an action-comedy, but as the character would genuinely react to it. That makes it more believable and a lot more endearing, but also kind of inert.

(Also at the beginning of the scene, one of the LARPers offers him a helmet with attached wig to wear, but he refuses. As if he’s too cool for that, although come on. Everybody in the world saw you with that haircut).

It seems like this version of Clint Barton is just doomed to be kind of dull, because of a decade-long series of choices that were probably the right ones at the time. So it was a pleasant surprise to learn that the Hawkeye-just-wants-to-get-home-for-Christmas storyline isn’t really the focus of the series; it’s just a framing device for Kate Bishop’s insertion into the next phase of the MCU.

Often it feels like the show is just coasting on Hailee Steinfeld’s charisma, but that’s not so bad since she’s got tons to spare. It’s interesting seeing her and Renner play off of each other, since they seem to be coming from the same place but with different priorities. Both actors get the whole MCU concept, which is “realistic,” relatable characters grounding fantastic situations and acting as both super-heroes and audience surrogates. But I get a sense that Renner is playing it in terms of “who is Clint Barton in this situation?” while Steinfeld is more focused on “who is the protagonist of this MCU action comedy?” I don’t think either approach is wrong, and it actually helps their dynamic, in that she’s eager to break into the super-hero world, while he’s hoping to be free of it.

I also like this version of the Kate Bishop character, even though she’s frequently in circular conversations with her mother and with Clint, sometimes feeling like she’s going from scene to scene because the plot demands it. It’s great that they’ve established that she’s rich and essentially good at everything, but is far from flawless. It feels like a rejection of the Strong Female Character trap that the comics and movies too often fall into.

I think Robert Downey Jr’s performance as Tony Stark helped hide the fact that the character was pretty two-dimensional: his arrogance and over-confidence was the one note played over and over again in the stories, but his performance showed how someone that obnoxious could still be endearing and relatable. I think this version of Kate Bishop could be a more nuanced take on a similar idea: her over-confidence comes not just from arrogance, but from feeling invulnerable. This is the source of some of the best-written scenes in the series so far, with her mother saying pretty much this explicitly, and later with Barton and Bishop on a subway train talking over each other, since he can’t hear her.

So far, it seems like a character-driven series in the guise of a plot-driven one, with talented actors doing their best to make their characters seem real and believable. I do often feel like it’s aiming for 80% while I want it to be at 100%, but then it has a chase scene with all kinds of trick arrows (including the USB arrow!) culminating in a double-shot that creates a giant arrow that impales a truck. Which, I mean, is objectively rad, even if a bunch of Eastern European gangsters all calling each other “bro” isn’t quite as charming as it might’ve been several years ago.

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    Which I haven’t read yet but has been on my to-read list for years