Quentin Tarantino’s Revisionist History

Over the weekend I saw Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which is supposed to be director Quentin Tarantino’s last film (but he keeps signing on for more films). This experience was different for a few reasons namely that it was my first time going to a theater on my own and secondly that it was one of the first times in a while that I had gone to see a Tarantino feature in theaters. I’ve long since said that Tarantino is my favorite director but I skipped recent theatrical releases of his last two films; but I had a free ticket from Alamo Drafthouse to celebrate my birthday so I decided let’s see a movie and let’s see a movie that I had some mild hype for. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood centers around a mostly washed up actor (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his somewhat sketchy stuntman/friend (Brad Pitt) and it’s all set in the backdrop of Hollywood in the late 1960s. It’s a movie about not being as good as you used to be, an ode to cinema and film-making and a glorious, damn near mastabatory look at the late 1960s through fashion, places and making us all see that apparently you could smoke on airplanes and honestly, everywhere for that matter. As far as the movie goes: I liked it. It’s far from my favorite Tarantino but still is an enjoyable romp with some damn good action. Tarantino is nearly meta in his fetishization of feet (almost like he’s in on the joke now) and the soundtrack is solid and the shots are beautiful. But there are a few things in the movie that kept going back over in my mind and that means I’m going to spoil this movie so here’s your warning but the thought was: wow, Tarantino has a hard-on for changing history. Let’s go over Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s attempts at revisionism first. So there’s one thing about the movie that’s hard to put into words and that is the tension in this film: another character that is heavily featured is Margot Robbie’s version of Sharon Tate. For anyone who has put the pieces together of Sharon Tate, late 1960s and California then cool, you’re thinking what literally everyone else was thinking. Manson and Manson Family nonsense runs rampant through the film, it’s honestly a little distracting and it made me very anxious. At every moment I was concerned about the hippies that may be murderers and as Sharon Tate becomes a more important character I felt like watching a Death Note background character, just sort of waiting for her to be brutalized but she doesn’t. She’s okay. She survives. In fact, the two male leads of the movie kick some serious cultist ass in this weird violent fever dream of a conclusion. It was a shock for sure and it was surreal to think of a scenario where Sharon Tate walked away okay. The movie also indulges in a little bit of great white man fantasy by having Brad Pitt kick the ass of an at his prime Bruce Lee (who honestly in this movie is a bit of an asshat) which is just a little insulting but hey, power fantasy gotta power fantasy. 

In isolation, this movie is a love letter to a bygone era but if you take this movie as part of the Tarantino filmography then a pattern emerges: Tarantino hates history so much that he has to write fanfiction about it. Hot take aside, it would seem like Tarantino has a thing for revising history. Two of my favorite of his films both take a strange power fantasy approach to two of the worst times in human history: World War II and Slavery in the Antebellum South. Inglorious Basterds is entirely about Jewish-American soldiers taking revenge against Nazis and Django Unchained is the story of a black man who takes revenge against the white systems of oppression in place.  

I think this form of revisionism is fascinating because it feels a little like fanfiction. It feels like Tarantino as a director being able to comment or change an aspect of history that is shameful and subverts expectations by giving power to those who typically in those historical situations were powerless. That was what was so brilliant about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was sort of waiting for Sharon Tate to perish and especially in a post #MeToo-era, I was worried about seeing nothing but an excuse for Tarantino to work out some sexual violence against women (which he seems to enjoy) and honestly, I was happy to see a story where things turned out okay for Sharon. It’s a radical moment and one I didn’t respect to find so empowering. By taking the power away from the Manson Family, Tarantino; like he did in Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained takes away power from those who are at this stage mythological as far as terror goes.The last battle of frantic, sloppy and insane and takes away some of the legend and horror from a force so monstrous that when I said that I was listening to I Am the Walrus when I was in high school, my aunt told me that I could not listen to that song and I saw fear in her eyes for the first time in my life. 

Restraint is not something I’d expect to say about Tarantino but his choice to have a fairly happy ending at the end of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was shockingly touching and I was able to release my held breath when Sharon spoke over the intercom of her gated driveway asking if her neighbor was okay as she was not the victim of the Manson Family’s violence but her neighbor, DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton and his stuntman Cliff Booth are the recipients of that violence and they do in fact conquer over the darkness that would cloak Hollywood for decades in paranoia and fear. 

I liked this movie. This isn’t my favorite Tarantino as it is a slow burn and I am bored and want more hyperviolence but it’s good. It’s a masterclass in set up and pay off that should honestly be studied in film classes as well as some of the best character acting and cinematography I’ve seen in awhile. It’s a good film and I’m glad I saw it and I’m glad that in this reality that Sharon Tate is okay. 

Before we go, there’s one scene that to most would be a throwaway but as I talked about it with Carlos, it really ended up being poignant. In the film, Sharon Tate visits a theater where one of her movies is showing. She’s asked to pose next to a poster and sits in with the audience and watches her own feature. She smiles as people smile and comment about her performance and she laughs when the audience laughs. But in the film, it isn’t a weird Margot Robbie clone as Sharon Tate in the movie, it’s actually just the film she’s in: The Wrecking Crew. And if you think about it, if you didn’t grow up during this time or if you were a kid during this time, you may never know Sharon Tate as an actress, just as a victim. You know her as a notch in Manson’s belt, not a vibrant and brilliant and talented woman who was lost too soon and that choice to humanize the real Sharon Tate was wonderful and I cannot thank Tarantino enough for the chance to truly see Sharon Tate as she would want to be remembered: not as a victim, but as a star. 

Don’t Cry For Me, Akira

I didn’t want to do this.

I didn’t want to watch this series. This is entirely Carlos’ fault and please address any further complaints with him.

But I did the thing. I died on the hill. I watched all of Devilman Crybaby and now we’re going to talk about it. Why? Because I refuse to die on this hill by myself.

This post is gonna cover all of it. Everything that comes to mind will be discussed so that means I’m gonna be talking about blood, neon sex, technicolor nightmare demons and more. It’s gonna get weird, y’all, and it’s gonna get dark. I’m also spoiling the whole damn thing so if you aren’t into that, here’s your chance to back out. If all of this is going to be too much for you…please enjoy this video of a sloth and we’ll see you in the next post.


Now, welcome to the inner darkness created after binging an anime in the dark by myself late at night about devils, demons and one boy in all white you shouldn’t trust under any circumstances.

Immediately, this show did a lot for me in the beginning. Useless boy, Akira, does his best to defend those around him but is weak and is useless. He is assisted by incredibly competent but also probably should in no way trust, Ryo and a sexy running lamp as a love interest, Miki.

The premise is quite simple: Akira becomes Devilman because he gets infected (taken over, possessed: somethin’ like that) by a demon (due to Ryo making an incredibly bad call) but retains his human heart. So a demon…with emotions…it gets pretty standard shonen for a little while with that premise. And that makes sense, the creator of the series also did one of my all-time loves Cyborg 009. But Crybaby is different in so many ways and the way it so expertly subverts expectation…well, it left me with a lot of feelings.

The first few episode are mostly Akira figuring out his powers, we meet more demons and see more technicolor neon boobs because Netflix gave them an MA rating, might as well use it. And all the while you think things will go like a normal shonen. Akira will save the girl, Ryo’s not great but he has good intentions and Miki’s still a lamp and will fall for Akira and all will be well.

I’m here to go ahead and end that delusion for you. Nothing ends well. If you picked this up thinking: I know exactly where this is going. you are probably wrong.

I’m gonna praise this series for having a somewhat large cast that feels entirely important. No one is wasted and that’s hard to do with a cast of this size in an anime. I also love that there’s a ton of internal logic (most of the time) like Akira’s transformation after becoming mostly demon is STRIKING. He literally is basically a different person physically and personality wise and everyone in the show comments on it. They don’t care but they do admit that the pale, small and put upon kid is now taller, tanner, buffer and is watching porn in the A.V. room. 

But I’ve praised it too much for now, let’s go over a few places this show didn’t work for me.

The way the demons run is stupid to me. I’m sorry, there’s no greater way to say that, it’s just dumb to me. Like those McDonald’s toys that you wind up and all the legs move independently to skitter across the kitchen table only to flail miserably until the thing is kicked under the fridge. The animation also gets very sketchy in places. There are parts where perspective is off and character designs lose detail and with characters that are as basic in design as Ryo and Akira and Miki if you lose a single detail in their design, you lose them a little.

There’s a dumb girl fight between Miki and her rival track runner also named Miki (folks call her “Miko” because you can’t have two “Miki”s in Japan where it isn’t uncommon to go by your last name at all) and it’s just there…it’s dumb girl drama to give Miki more legs as a character rather than Akira’s Love Interest.

And while we’re on the topic of Akira…let’s talk about Akira and Ryo.

From episode one, anyone who looks at Ryo should see he is not a good person. Immediately, I messaged Carlos and said “I don’t think I should trust the blonde kid with the boxcutter.” and I was right. Even though Ryo and Akira grew up together for everything bad that Ryo does it makes zero sense that Akira ignores it for as long as he does.

I can analogize it to a series that handled this (in my opinion) a little better: Death Note with the relationship between Matt and Mello. Mello is in many ways a much worse version of L. Not that he isn’t intelligent or deductive, he’s just willing to make an omelette by holding a chicken hostage and shooting the farmer for the eggs. He is raised with Near and Matt but bonds with Matt and sticks up for Matt over and over again. So when Mello returns home covered in blood and bad decisions, you understand why Matt doesn’t question it and cleans him up. You understand that Matt is willfully ignoring that Mello probably did something illegal and is just happy Mello is home.

You see moments where Akira tries to question Ryo but it all feels like a soft lob at someone who fundamentally (even before the big reveal) you should not trust. Even if we take out the huge reveal about Ryo if you take him at face value as a blonde murder boy running around with too many guns, it’s hard to rationalize how he is trying to achieve his goal of outing all the demons on earth.  Which means as a character Akira is either an idiot or a doormat and both of those are somewhat unsatisfying for me. 

This anime also gets weirdly topical with an entire theme of judging people by their hearts and not what they are. Akira’s whole thing is that he still has a human heart and even though he makes play as a demon, he shouldn’t be killed like a demon because he’s the one saving humans from the bad demons (yes, it’s shonen, relax). And that gets preachy really quick. Towards the end, the anime goes full Beauty and the Beast with war and mobs and military violence all to rid the world of demons and continue to perpetuate mistrust between humans.

It feels all too real in an anime about angels, devils and blonde murder children.

It’s also towards the end where things get dark. And it’s a dark anime, from episode one there had been copious amounts of blood and death and destruction but around the later half of the series, the deaths begin to mount and become important to the cast.

Let’s talk about Miki’s death.

I dedicated a lot of words to how angry I was with Miki’s character being literal shonen lamp number 24601 but she was kind and pure and what we needed in an anime about devils and demons. She dies…horribly. And I so badly didn’t want that to happen. And it isn’t just that she dies; she is dismembered, turned into a trophy by a band of marauders who sought to end her for defending Akira. And that image of Miki’s head on a pike as folks dance with it around the burning remains of her family home broke something in me.

I told Carlos about it later saying it was like those moments when anime characters lose the color in their eyes after witnessing something horrible. Just something sort of broke inside of me. I had already felt it some when Miki lost her family in one of the most tragic sequences in anime ever and for her, for myself I so badly wanted her to find some redemption in this narrative.

She didn’t. She found death.

And just when you think things cannot get worse and Akira loses literally everything and everyone that he has ever loved, we’re faced with a reveal that in hindsight is incredibly obvious but is still in the moment shocking.

Ryo is literally Satan and this whole ordeal is orchestrated just so he can do what Satan does best: get his way.

I wish it had ended there…but no, I don’t deserve that. We don’t deserve that. We’re treated to a very shonen final boss battle where Akira summons more of the creatures like him, more demons with human hearts, and you think that it’s going to be like Naruto where good fights evil and good wins and there will be no pain and only joy because you can totally punch evil out of someone.

No.

That’s not how it ends.


Ryo is wonderfully written, it may be why I defended him for so long even up until the final moments that I was referring to Satan as “my son”. But that last scene of him talking to Akira only to realize that Akira is well…only a torso now, really and then weeping bitterly over his own victory and the subsequent death of the only person he bonded with broke me entirely. I so badly wanted this to be Naruto. I wanted Akira to face Ryo and there be some sort of conclusion that would satisfy me. But that simply didn’t happen.

There was only bitterness, death, loneliness and divine retribution.


I watch media (especially anime) to escape. I bonded with Fullmetal Alchemist so much because watching Ed wander through his grief and struggle with God and do what he could to overcome his demons and his past helped me overcome mine. I needed to see Edward get back up each and every single time he stumbled because it encouraged me to do the same.

At my core, I like to think of myself as a jaded cynic. I like to think that endings like this are really what I want. But when I am confronted with them, I become tragically aware that I am desperate to see the good in people. I am naive and I do what I can to believe that people can be more than devils and I am bitterly disappointed each time I am proved wrong. Cynicism is the act of ruining something for the self so no one else can ruin it for you. I wanted redemption, closure, bonding…and I got blood, death and salt.

The ending left me sort of just shaking and incoherently babbling between English and Japanese (a side effect of watching the anime subbed, I’m sure). If you were to look at the messages I was frantically sending Carlos as I watched the last episodes, it’s like watching a horror movie from a webcam just helplessly trying to process it all. It was just me desperately venting my emotions that all managed to collapse in on itself with me repeating:

This is your fault.
I hate you.

Carlos and I talked for a while after the anime ended. I couldn’t go to bed that wired. And even after we finished, I was still left alone with my thoughts for too long. I could still hear lines of dialogue in my mind and I could still hear Ryo crying and calling out for Akira to answer him knowing fully well he never will answer again.

Those were the things I thought about before going to sleep last night.


I can’t in good faith recommend this series. It’s masterful, beautiful and every part of it is fantastic. But this did something to me that very few series get to do. Devilman Crybaby left me raw, haunted and hollowed out and reaching for closure that I will never get. If that is your persuasion, I’d love to know what you think of it.

Thank you for sticking with me in this entirely too long of a review for an anime of only ten episodes.

Next time, we’ll cover something a little lighter.

 

The Problem With Charm

“Charm was a scheme for making strangers like and trust a person immediately, no matter what the charmer had in mind.” ― Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions.png

We’ve dedicated a lot of words to discussing how framing, writing and other magic tricks can manipulate readers into liking characters they shouldn’t. And we’ve done so because I am clearly a villain and it’s important to understand my people. In all of these discussions, we’ve almost ignored one key aspect that can truly sell you on a bad guy: charm.

It’s what makes Negan from The Walking Dead  so damn good. He’s a sly bastard. You may have dated a guy (or several) like him. He’s positively exuding in a certain sort of energy that almost makes it okay that he’s for sure a murderer.  

And while I could have an entire blog just dedicated to charming villains (perhaps an anime tie-in or two, as well) I wanted to use this time to talk about one of my favorite directors: Quentin Tarantino and how he effectively mastered our brains into liking two of the worst possible people and I get to discuss two of my favorite movies of all time: Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained. Is this self-indulgent? Yes. Will you continue to join me for this ride? I certainly hope so.

We’ll start with what may be my favorite movie right under another Tarantino classic (the answer to number 1 is Kill Bill), Inglorious Basterds. This movie. This powerhouse of a movie centers around a group of Jewish-American soldiers during WWII who heroically (and in a blood-filled fever dream) fight against actual Nazis and aim to take out Hitler. It’s Tarantino at his best, having fun with an all-star cast and plenty of fake blood and glamour shots of feet. But this movie features one of the most charismatic bad guys in film in Hans Landa (expertly played by Christoph Waltz). Now, here’s the problem with Hans Landa: he’s just so fun to watch on screen. Each of his lines is fun and dripping with danger and Waltz chews up every scene he’s in. I’m leaving out a key detail which is that Colonel Hans Landa is a Nazi and this isn’t a euphemism, he’s an actual German soldier and a very proud one at that. He will tell you that he’s only doing his job when he has to perform violence. He will explain the “reasons” he is a racist and he will do so quite well. He will tout the experience of his fellow German soldiers and how proud he is of Germany and the leader he serves. And if you keep listening, you start to like him.  He’s fun when on screen, a damn near delight. He’s well-spoken, seems to know everything (which is scary) and when he’s excited about something; it’s damn near infectious: one of his last scenes where he marvels at his own use of the word “bingo” is a delight even though he is essentially holding our actual protagonists hostage. It’s a scene that I use a lot as a GIF set because it’s fun. Nazis shouldn’t be fun. Really, the entire movie has a tone problem with that but it’s Tarantino so most give him a past. Many of the German soldiers are more fleshed out characters than our actual protagonists and we spend a great deal of time with many German soldiers. We build a rapport with them so even though the movie is great about not rewarding them for being actual Nazis, we spend entirely too much time with them for there not to be a bond formed. It’s sad when Frederick Zoller dies at the end, we’ve spent so much time watching him woo a married woman. It’s sad when Wilhelm dies, he was a new father and a soldier who was doing his best. In this instance, it isn’t framing that wrongs us, it’s just the charisma of a great actor playing a terrible human being.

The best example of this is in our second example taken from a Tarantino movie: Calvin J. Candie. Oh, Mr. Candie. It’s really a shame that Jamie Foxx is so good in this film and he is still completely overshadowed by DiCaprio who really only appears in the last half of the entire film but the spotlight is on him as soon as he is on screen. That’s the power of DiCaprio. But in addition to a very charming man, Mr. Candie is also given some of the best lines in the damn film. He dresses well, is funny, is smarter than most of the antagonists of the film. He has a lovely plantation: CandieLand (yes, actually the name of the place) and almost all of those he “employs” (they are slaves) seem happier and better taken care of than the other slaves we’ve seen in Django Unchained. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The long and short of Django Unchained is a revenge fantasy centered around a slave named Django and his desire to get revenge on those who have wronged him. He teams up with a white dentist named King Schultz (not joking, this is a Tarantino movie so subtly be damned) who is played by Waltz (because he can only play German characters) and they go on doing what they can to disrupt the accepted reality that is slavery and to get back Django’s wife, Broomhilda (again, be damned subtly). Broomhilda had been sold off to Mr. Candie’s plantation which brings us back to our favorite Southern racist. Yes, I’m getting to that part. Calvin Candie is a slave-owner. He’s a racist. He’s every Southern stereotype wrapped up in a silk bow. And Tarantino does all he can to frame Candie as a bad guy. We first meet him running an illegal Fight Club with African slaves as bartering chips. He’s a monster who does not see the humanity in enslaved Africans. This is even more damaging because he uses rhetoric and “logic” (with the biggest possible quotes I can possibly generate). During Mr. Candie’s most powerful scene he explains quite plainly that he has every right to enslave Africans. To him and his “science” (again with giant quotes) of phrenology, they are lesser than he is. And he’s very quick to discuss just how strongly he feels about the whole slavery situation. And even though framing and his eventual death do highlight how awful Calvin Candie and the rest of his family is, DiCaprio is electric in this role. Hell, I miss him as a character as I watch the rest of the film: upon other watches I’ll tend to stop shortly after his character dies and then resume the film just to get to one more scene. And I should not miss a racist. I should not miss a slave owner. I should not miss Calvin Candie. But because of writing and a masterful performance: I do.

And this isn’t a problem Tarantino seems to have in other films. We don’t go through Kill Bill thinking Bill is in the right despite an excellent performance from David Carradine (rest in peace). We spend so much time with The Bride and we learn so much about her revenge mission that no matter how good the performances are in the movie, we hate every single obstacle in her way. The same can be said for Hateful Eight which is a very appropriate title because this movie is devoid of anyone you can empathize with.

Charm is a part of the wider framing of baddies discussion because of the way it hijacks the brain’s logic center and creates a false connection to objectively terrible characters. And we could do an entire post on this just talking about anime (because, really, that’s my wheelhouse and you do not want to get me on that soap box…[Unless, you want me to. Leave a comment if you’d like for there to be a follow up to this just talking about anime.]) Charm is used to make you like a bad character and even though the frame around that character may still tell you this character is bad, it’s hard to hate someone who is so confidently evil.

It’s summed up by a line Negan gives us in The Walking Dead:

“I just slid my dick down your throat. And you thanked me for it.”

That’s it. The blog post could just be that line but I would like ad revenue one of these days and the current algorithm doesn’t like the profanity. But it’s exactly that swagger that made me want to cosplay Negan. It was that exact confidence and bravado that made me want to build a bat and made me walk with a little more power in my step. The moment I put on that jacket and zipped up my boots, I felt strong despite knowing that fact that Negan is a monster and wanting to be like him means becoming a monster.

Charm makes Ozymandias seem like a normal business man in Watchmen. Charm makes a racist lovable. And charm makes a literal Nazi a rooted for hero.

Charm is a skill good actors should have and really does separate the good from the great. The performances mentioned in this post are masterful and some of my favorites of all time and that is what makes them so damn insidious.

 

Sympathy vs. Empathy

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” ― Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird.png

If there was one concept I could just magically teach people when it comes to the matter of how to be more critical readers and more skilled writers, it would be understanding the difference between sympathy and empathy. And it’s a lesson that it took me a while to learn as a writer and reader, myself. There are apparently very few sage teachers in such a discipline. The two words are used pretty interchangeably in common speech but they are not the same at all and understanding that key difference makes for richer reading experiences, better movie watching and a better understanding of the real people around you.

Let’s firstly go over some basic vocabulary.

  • Sympathy
    • The fact or power of sharing the feelings of another, especially in sorrow or trouble; fellow feeling, compassion, or commiseration.
  • Empathy
    • The psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.

These definitions seem very similar, hence this little discussion. We’re going to boil things down here: sympathy is understanding a feeling while empathy is feeling that experience as well. I can sympathize with a person and not empathize with them and vice versa. I can sympathize with Erik Killmonger in Black Panther with his feelings of anger after the loss of his father, but I cannot use his grief to rationalize him being genocidal. I can empathize with Edward Elric from Fullmetal Alchemist, his use of pragmatism and cynicism to cope with the loss of his mother is almost exactly how I dealt with the loss of my own father and I could even sympathize with his decision making, even when it was less than ideal.

By now, you may be asking: well, why does it matter if these two words seem so similar?

It goes back to the theme of this year’s blog posts: framing.

Framing gives form and shape to empathy and can influence, force or even create sympathy.

Let’s take an example that I’ve beaten nearly to death: Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War.

Thanos’ motivations seem so rational, so easy to understand, his pain so real. Because Josh Brolin is an amazing actor and there’s fantastic writing behind his portrayal of The Mad Titan. And that is a huge problem. Thanos’ point of view is insane but clever writing made him seem like the most rational character in the damn film. That feeling of looking down the road and seeing only one crazy choice is one many feel now and for some reason in our hellscape of a current world: The Mad Titan’s plan doesn’t seem so mad. And that is bad.

Here’s one of the most interesting parts of this discussion: for the most part, it’s entirely subjective, too. I have the background of the average anime antagonist, so it’s easy for me to empathize with them and thus sympathize with them. It’s harder for me to wrap my head around characters that are more outgoing or optimistic; their motivations are foreign to me and thus, it’s difficult to build a sympathetic bridge to understanding them. Your world view changes how you feel about characters and narratives and it absolutely can change and grow over time. Characters that I looked to with great admiration when I was younger suddenly seem entirely too impulsive and egotistical now as an adult.

One of my favorite things is looking at a movie from my admittedly jaded worldview and listening to a friend who didn’t see or feel the same thing that I did during a movie. I may gloss over an issues that is morally repugnant to others. I may take immense umbridge with a scene that others think is fine. Our experiences shape how we view narrative but there is where writers and creators also have to be careful: writing is a powerful tool and a good story line and likable characters can turn evil into something not so deplorable.

I’ve used this example before but he really illustrates the point: Richmond Valentine from Kingsman: The Secret Service. Valentine’s motivations are straight up genocide but Samuel L. Jackson is so charismatic and his plan almost doesn’t seem like it’s so bad: hell, he seems logical and rational with his plan to wipe out a majority of the population and let the cream of the crop reign over a newly mostly emptied world.

That’s a problem.

Anime historically had a problem with making bad ideas sound great, Death Note despite being one of my favorite series has a major sympathy and empathy problem. If you were anything like me: too smart for your own good, cynical and bitter and angry at the entire world; Light’s plan of wiping people out using a magical murder diary sounds excellent. I was proudly Team Kira during most of my high school years. The work however does all it can to show that Light is the bad guy. We almost immediately meet L who calls Light exactly what he is: a murderer. And that shift in framing greatly dampens how easy it is to empathize with Light’s murder plan but by the time it tries to establish Light as a bad guy, many have already gotten on board with his delusional idea.

Let’s use a really tricky example and one that actually touches my personal life: Tony Stark.

Stark as a hero is complex. He’s the first to say he isn’t actually heroic but his story is more universal than I think many give credit for. His descent into substance abuse and excess is not too uncommon for many who lose their parents and have the world in their hands. While we all may not be billionaires many of us who lost the thing that keeps them grounded are playboys and are addicted to something be it a substance or to a person. But many can see themselves in Stark, even if their pasts are not as dark or extreme as his. He’s charismatic even when he isn’t likable and there are rationalizations even when he makes the most reckless decision (another good comparison on that front is Peter Quill but I dislike the Lord of Stars so I rather not talk about him). And we see this come all to a head during Age of Ultron the hot hot mess that it is. Stark’s choices are the reason we have Ultron in the MCU (which is a whole other can of worms but back to sympathy I go) and he’s made bad choice after bad choice in the comics. But dammit it’s easy to let him off the hook because we can either  personally understand how grief affects judgement and decision making or we are willing to give him a pass because he’s just so damn smooth.

This liberal dosing out of passes is especially problematic when more troublesome matters in media are perpetuated. Comic books still have a major issue with trivializing trauma and exploiting the death of women as a plot point (looking at you, Deadpool 2), modern romance movies often end up being a series of stalking or downright blatant examples of harassment (looking at literally most of the romances Chris Pratt has been a part of film-wise [we’re touching on that, don’t worry]) and television continues to perpetuate a casual level of misogyny that is just gross (looking at you, Big Bang Theory, you loathsome toad).  But oh, those likable characters. It makes it so easy to gloss over their nonsense.

Speaking of Mr. Pratt…I want to use this time to explain just how much I can’t stand the movie Passengers and how we ultimately are held hostage by not only Chris Pratt but how passable movies and tricky writers can manipulate you into caring. If you haven’t seen Passengers, there’s a spoiler warning here. So long and short is Pratt plays a guy who is on an interstellar cruise from Earth to find a new planet. He’s in a stasis pod and suddenly, he is woken up years (hundreds of years) before he is set to. He is alone. No one else is awake on this cruise ship version of the S.S. Enterprise. He has a weird robot bartender friend but no other companion. All his physical needs are met by the ship and the ship’s robots but no one else to talk to. He spots a woman (played by Jennifer Lawrence at maybe her laziest) who is still asleep as she should be. Pratt wakes her up. He destroys her pod and wakes her from her beauty nap but he doesn’t  tell her that he did it. When Lawrence comes to, she asks what happened. Pratt lies. They spend blissful time together and try to solve the “mystery” as to why they woke up. And in the end, it is revealed that it wasn’t an accident that woke Lawrence and damned her to frightful mortality, it was Pratt and his selfish loneliness. She forgives him because movie has to movie and I left fuming at this. Pratt’s character ruins any chance Lawrence has at making it to the planet they are spiraling in space towards. His act removes her agency and choice but because Chris Pratt is such a nice guy and we spend so much time with him and we watch him struggle with being alone: it’s okay that he damned a woman to die because his sassy queer robot from wasn’t enough companionship for him.

That’s where sympathy fails us as an audience. Pratt is the villain of this narrative and any other re-telling of the story is irksome and troublesome. Sympathy bypasses the logic centers of the brain and allows characters to murder, rape, assault and more under the guise of romance or charm.

It’s why I much rather have an empathetic character. One that I can absolutely feel for but still can disagree with. I love Light’s world view in Death Note but I can agree that the way he wants to craft his new world is awful. I can admit that Samuel L. Jackson is the second best part of Kingsman but still say that his plan is terrible and also genocidal. I can feel Edward Elric’s loss and not let him off the hook for being abusive to those who care about it.

Empathy is just as subjective as sympathy but it brings with it the wisdom of hindsight. I get where Bruce Wayne is coming from as far as using trauma and grief to be the best version of one’s self and knowing that feeling from my own personal life means that when Bruce Wayne is a garbage fire of a human that I can recognize it even faster because during those times I was also likely a garbage fire of a human.

Strive for empathy in your critical watchings and writings. Strive to understand motivations while also being able to admit something is troublesome. Call out troublesome things in media: things only get better the more we express being tired of stalking as romance and the girlfriend in the fridge. Be critical of everything you ingest media-wise and hold your characters accountable, even the ones you didn’t create yourself.

 

The Trope Trope

“A strong woman who recklessly throws away her strength, she is worse than a weak woman who has never had any strength to throw away.” ― Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D'Urbervilles.png

When I was little and watching the Star Wars prequels (yes, I grew up with the prequels) I didn’t question Senator Amidala and her power. I didn’t question the waffling between her being a queen or a senator or even really when she just became arm candy to Anakin. What I saw was a woman with a blaster who, when the movie let her, was a badass. And when I later saw her daughter, Leia, in the movies; I found an equally powerful and strong woman on screen. But her transition from Princess Leia to General Organa was one that was met with cynicism by me.

Today, we’re going to discuss why I still sometimes bristle at the “strong female character”.

I’ll pause here for the immediate cries of misogyny.

I’ve been humble enough to mention that many female narratives haven’t captured me. Often times, it’s because the writing just isn’t strong, a lot of it is personal bias. But I also grew up in an era of some of the weakest written female characters. That’s one of the biggest reasons I turned to anime, even though many of the female characters were still insufferable, they were insufferable in a different way. But Western media stayed rather stagnant with how it portrayed female characters. That was, of course, until the 90s. The 1990s were a strange time for media: female characters suddenly had to be very self-actualized.  I suppose hundreds of years of patriarchal writing has a systemic effect on women and how they see themselves based on the media they consume. In fact, you can watch an entire panel of me working through the angst of not having strong female role models in media in a panel and you get a bonus dramatic retelling of the story of Lilith.

The examples I had as a kid were Batgirl, Wonder Woman, and the token sassy female in every Disney cartoon. And for a while, that was great. It was just enough to still feel genuine. It was great having comic book characters that could hold their own while also having other females on television that didn’t have to sacrifice being girly to be strong: a lot of the late 90s and early 2000s Cartoon Network shows come to mind like Ed, Edd and Eddy and Codename: Kids Next Door.

But by that time, I had happily sold my soul to anime and I dipped out of Western media for easily 10 years and in those 10 years, a lot has seemed to change. Every show has an intensely self-actualized female character but there’s something missing in many of the newer examples of this seem a little hollow. I saw the pilot to the new Duck Tales and I was so annoyed by Webby being the smarmy know-it-all that writers assume that a hyper-competent girl must be. She wasn’t much better in the old version of the cartoon, but irksome is irksome and helplessness to me as just as damaging as dumbing down the rest of the cast to make the girl shine.

Speaking of Disney, I take particular umbridge with their sudden influx of “strong” and “independent” princesses that realistically began with Belle and culminates with a princess that I cannot stand, Tiana. Tiana is arguably the worst part of her own movie and she is so strict and self-actualized that Naveen’s immaturity seems very valid and okay. By the end of the movie, sure, she does loosen up a little but it wasn’t enough to make her easy to empathize with for the bulk of her own damn film. It’s their fault we have this damn trope to begin with, you can’t decide in the mid-2000s to suddenly have female characters that aren’t just sexy lamps. And the influx of Disney princesses who are “independent” and “strong” is not new. We started getting it in the 90s with Pocahontas who was a tan sexy lamp and Esmeralda who was an outcast tan sexy lamp and we didn’t get a genuinely independent strong female lead in a Disney movie until Lilo and Stitch and even more, Disney has yet to have a “strong” female character be in a relationship. Because remember, self-actualized means sexless.  

Very few examples come to mind of this trope working positively: one of them is Adventure Time. Princess Bubblegum is a complex character, more so than a little animated show about a boy and his dog can give credit for. Bonnibel Bubblegum is a scientist, monarch, warrior and more but she is far from flawless. Even though she is smarter than most of those in the Land of Ooo, her intelligence is often a hindrance, she lacks empathy at times and her overanalyzing leads to more complicated situations. Steven Universe is full of women (or female-appearing space rocks) that are almost too flawed for plot to even happen and while it’s easy to empathize and feel with them, it’s also somewhat damaging. Pearl’s lesbianism is damn near predatory, a trope that many lesbian women struggle with to this day.

And this brings us back to General Leia. I’m not here to rant about how I feel about the state of Star Wars, that could be its own blog post but I was one of the few folks who was not elated to have Princess Leia become a General. Is it because I hate women? No. It’s because I love strong storytelling and for me, Leia Organa was the canary in the coal mine. How many more characters would be leveled up like this just to keep up with the times? Now, Leia has earned it and we see this whole thing backfire with Admiral Holdo (who for the record, I do not hate). We don’t see Holdo do much of anything, at least with Leia, we grew up with her; her promotion makes sense. And because of that lack of feeling that Holdo “earned” her rank (a problem real women have) she is considered to be the worst part of an arguably bad movie.  

And while yes, women “earning it” is a sick and twisted aspect of the patriarchy (see the remake of Ghostbusters as an example), it’s an important part of making a character relatable. And that’s why so many struggle with “strong” female characters. To me a “strong” female character almost always is a Mary Sue. Let’s use Rey as an example because Star Wars. She is good at everything. She doesn’t have any questions about using lightsabers or the force or anything. She doesn’t get a training montage (until The Last Jedi and it would appear that she barely needed it) and she’s just supernaturally talented. Again, thanks to the patriarchy, when I female character has a linear arc, it’s bad while when Luke did the same thing in his trilogy, he was just “gifted” but I have to agree with some of the criticism of Rey being a Mary Sue. I think I would have connected with her much more if I saw her struggle even a little.

Now, dear reader, what have we learned? I’ll sum it up for you here. If we continue to dose out titles like this to female characters, it only stands to weaken the case as to why we need these characters to begin with. I got to look up to Storm as the leader of the X-Men and that was not a title she took laying down. I got to see Padme grab a blaster and do her best to hold her own against a sea of droids, clones and more. I got to see Leia take up arms and defend herself. It’s so much more powerful to see a female character be active in her narrative than passive. Simply blowing power into a female character does not make her strong: she has to do something with it.

My Top 10 DC Characters

“Why do we argue_ Life's so fragile, a successful virus clinging to a speck of mud, suspended in endless nothing.” ― Alan Moore, Watchmen

After Infinity War left me so burned, I found myself turning to DC for some comfort. I’ve been a comic book fan for decades and I’m strangely 50/50 when it comes to the two main houses: Marvel and DC. When people ask me which one I prefer I often give them a pretty blanket answer:

Marvel for the heroes. DC for the villains.

This is a pretty diplomatic answer but anyone who really knows me that despite my numerous times playing Tony Stark, DC has held my heart for a much longer time than Marvel can claim.

So to rekindle the forge of my heart that has been pillaged after Infinity War, let’s go over at least 10 characters from DC that mean the world to me. Just like the last time with my Top 20 Animes, this is in no real order but you are welcome to read whatever you like into the order that will inevitably form from the chaos that will be this list.

I think I have to put up a spoiler warning for some reason. Just in case I say something that blows your minds.

  • The Joker
    • Now, it’s irresponsible to have any DC list without mentioning Mister J. He’s probably listening and would be very offended if I left him off this list. Now, I have a love-hate relationship with The Joker. As one of the most iconic villains ever, he’s sort of the Crown Prince of Edgelords and folks who think they’re very dark and deep and post his comments and quotes on forums and social media. My attachment to The Joker is a little more personal. I fell in love with The Clown Prince of Crime in Batman The Animated Series where Mark Hamill’s voice allowed him to be equal parts threatening and hilarious. The Joker has come a very long way as a character. He was at first a mostly cartoonish troll to and now he’s mostly a snarling Hot Topic model. But what makes The Joker so good ties perfectly into the version that is my personal favorite: The Killing Joke. This is The Joker at his best and with enough Kierkegaard to beat any philosophy minor into the ground. The Joker’s main mantra of “Everyone is just one bad day away…” is a powerful one and one I connect to. As someone who (like Batman and Jack Napier) has had a series of bad days, I absolutely deal with the demon of using pain and trauma as a rationalization towards the darkness inherent in all of us.
  • Etrigan
    • Gone, gone, the form of man…God, are there more iconic lines? I love Etrigan the Demon. He’s an older than you think comic book character who was a demon in the time of King Arthur. He’s sworn to fight against Morrigan the Enchantress and oftentimes Klarion the Witchboy (one of my many sons) but he’s also just as likely to be enchanted by Morrigan and be used as a tool for destruction. Etrigan’s design and old-timey speech won me over easily and even though he’s not a well known DC character, I still love him and I have considered getting his little spell tattooed on my body somewhere.
  • John Constantine
    • Still no Batman. Sorry, we’ll get to Bruce but I have to talk about the Hellblazer himself. So John Constantine is a strange case. I wouldn’t be surprised if you didn’t know much about him before the wildly popular TV show and the mediocre Keanu Reeves movie that I don’t hate. His character is an interesting one. He’s one of the rare cases of a bisexual character but this was of course, back in the day when bisexual was just analogous for “whore” but Constantine was very proud and aware of his status as a tool. Constantine is a demon-hunter with literally every vice you can imagine and his design, brooding mood and his ability to play well with others made me cozy up to him very quickly.
  • Jason Todd
    • See? Getting closer to Batman. There will be Batman on this list. Just not right now. Jason Todd is a fascinating character study in a comic creator making a character that everyone hates and then immediately punishing the fanbase for hating them. Death in the Family broke me as a youth and his violent death a the hands of The Joker left a massive scar on the hearts of the fans, me and Bruce. And the timing of his death is so important it hurts just as much as a crowbar to the left cheek. Jason Todd dies just after The Killing Joke and Batman’s inability to kill The Joker was one of the biggest reasons The Joker escalated and took Jason Todd from Bruce. The Joker couldn’t break The Bat by taking out Barbara, so he went after his metaphorical son. Jason Todd died for our sins and came back as an even better version of Batman: The Red Hood. It’s all so metaphorical and meta and I love every part of Jason Todd’s journey from way too smart for his own good kid to a vigilante who is at times more effective at cleaning up the streets of Gotham than Batman is. Now, better is subjective. Depending on who is writing Jason, he’s almost like a proto-Damien Wayne (we’re getting to that little anger cinnamon roll). Jason’s often written as a stark opposite to the first Robin, Dick Grayson. While Dick was nice, talented and affable; Jason was snarky, moody and already had the jump on Bruce by their first meeting. We meet Jason Todd as he’s trying to lift the tires and rims off the Batmobile. Jason Todd is the anti-Dick Grayson and you love or hate him for it.
  • Damien Wayne
    • I’m really skirting around The Bat here, I know. We’re getting there, I promise. But first I wanted to talk about this little ball of anger, pragmatism and a little bit of Raas al Ghul magic. Damien is Bruce’s son by Talia al Ghul (even though this was stupidly ret-conned I will stay with this headcanon, fight me) and he is just as wonderful as you can imagine that combination of two angry people can be. Damien’s practical, blunt and emotionless but it all makes sense considering his background training under his grandfather. Damien’s past means that he is guarded and reserved and may be based on skill one of the best and most capable Robins that have ever served at Batman’s side. And with how reserved and confident he is, it’s wonderful to see him break down.I mean, come on, Damien was convinced his Father was too soft on crime so he sent the Court of Owls to kill his own dad! How intense is that?
  • Booster Gold
    • No context. Just love him. Don’t @ me.
      • Just kidding. There was no way I was going to leave it at that. Booster Gold is hilarious. He’s a time traveler from another dimension where he’s super popular but now wants to be even more famous and does all he can to self-insert his way into the narrative of popular storylines. Because of his knack for wriggling his way into other people stories, he tends to do more harm than good. Hell, most of the bad things that have happened in DC lore he has somehow managed to be part of. Also, Booster Gold is one half of the greatest bro-mance ever with Ted Kord, the original Blue Beetle. What’s amazing is that Booster Gold has zero super powers, he’s just the right amount of narcissistic, talented and confident that he just skates into any situation and has the right tool for the job when he isn’t the one setting the fire to get credit for it in the news later that day.
  • Hal Jordan
    • I’m sure many of you are surprised. I’ve always said how much I prefer Kyle Rayner as a Lantern and Earth’s sworn protector and many of you know that Green isn’t even my color when it comes to the Emotional Spectrum: I’m a very proud Star Sapphire.  But Hal’s just such a great character, especially since his post-Crisis and with some of his New 52 edge. The writers have leaned in a little to his naive, good boy attitude and as long as we ignore the movie that no one likes talking about, I think he has an interesting power set and the fun creative edge of the hero the U.S. often needed. Many folks give Jordan a hard time for choosing dumb constructs, but hey, he does his best. He takes a lot of the best parts from his predecessor, Alan Scott, and turns them into a genuine and authentic person who is just happy to be a real hero in more way than one.
  • Zatanna
    • This magical minx was really never meant to be center stage. Her costume at first was revealing, her powers were mostly for show and she never really got to shine much outside of being the plucky assistant and occasional magical expert Batman needed. But she’s still one of the rare instances of a female character that does anything for me. I do think post New 52 she’s a little overpowered but that comic books and it’s fine. I’ve always admired how fun she was during her appearances on Batman the Animated and while her time in Justice League: Dark paints her with way more melodrama, I’m here for it.
  • Raven
    • Another magical girl? Yep. She’s one of the few female comic book characters I can relate to. And no, not just because she’s a moody, edgy, all-black clad, super goth. I mean, sure, for lots of those reasons. But there’s plenty of other reasons there, too! She’s also very empathetic, but her empathy doesn’t mean that she’s always kind. I absolutely can relate to that. Her past is something she is actively trying to run from and hide, I can also super relate to that. And realistically, depending on who is writing her: she is absolutely on par with Superman just based on magic and ability alone. What’s not to like?
  • Batman
    • So as an angsty person, I’m contractually obligated to put Batman on this list. I don’t have a choice. Superman is not boring but he’s also not super relatable to me. He’s very aspirational, as in, I wish I had even a fraction of Clark’s anything but Bruce, despite how unattainable he actually is; there is something intensely human and vulnerable about him. And it’s only in realizing that maybe he’s not a great person that makes Bruce Wayne so compelling. He’s insanely flawed. He has a secret plan to be able to not kill but emotionally and physically break all of his friends in the Justice League just in case any of them were to go rogue. He’s paranoid, driven and his absolutely subjective moral compass punishes relatively low-level offenders while ignoring larger threats because he enjoys the game too much. He pretends that he has some great code about not killing but he’s doing more harm than good keeping The Joker alive and even when The Joker has taken so much from Bruce Way, The Bat refuses to, just on some false moral high ground, to end the Clown. And while we can all look to Superman to have the right answer and do the right thing, depending on who is writing Batman, he may be the biggest villain in all of Gotham. It’s one of the reasons Batman: White Knight has been such an amazing read, if you frame it from anyone else’s point of view, The Gotham Bat is no hero. But many people can relate to Bruce Wayne. I know I could. I lost my parents, did my best to be better than my past and did all I could to make sure that the world was a better place than the one that ensured that I become an orphan by 20. Bruce operates similarly, he wants the world to be a better place while also struggling with the weight of the name he was born into and uses more than one mask to hide years of pain, trauma and feelings of inadequacy. He’s the most human character DC has ever created. We’ve all in some way felt like Bruce Wayne even if we aren’t all billionaire playboys with genius level intellect, a hidden basement space full of bats and paramilitary weapons and an ability to connect the dots that would make Sherlock Holmes even say that some of the connections was a bit of a stretch. Batman is complex and he perfectly reflects the concerns of the eras he’s in. He stands in for a type of justice that many find more satisfying than waiting for proper police procedure. Sure, if the cops get the criminal, there may be a mistrial. If Batman gets him, we’ll that crook will never crime again. But also consider when I was introduced to The Gotham Knight. It was during the amazing Batman the Animated Series run where he was the most balanced he could be. Bruce was vulnerable, suave, capable but still was just skirting around the confines of the law. The animated run did a perfect balance of handling Batman lore from his Silver Age appearances and continues to inform how actors and writers now handle The Gotham Bat.

This was a fun Top 10 and honestly, if given more time, I’d likely have a very different list that better reflects the years of lore I’ve allowed myself to fall into DC has been creating characters and weaving stories that have touched the lives of millions for decades now and these comic books will always have a special place in my heart. This list is personal, highly subjective and is in no way an accurate representation of even all the characters I like but simply don’t have time to go into further detail. Drop me a comment below if you’d like for me to do a similar treatment to any other property or query!

Thoughts from Titan: Thoughts and Musings on Avengers: Infinity War Part 1

I didn’t want to do this.

I didn’t want to be this person.

But today, we’re going to do it. We’re going to talk about Avengers: Infinity War.

This will be a lot like my Black Panther musings and thoughts post. We’re just gonna spitball here a little. And I am not Promixa Midnight and Thanos does not demand my silence anymore. I have been silent long enough. I was not spared from this call to silence and this movie was relentlessly spoiled for me in several places.  

So let’s get ready. I’m going to spoil the whole damn thing.

But before we rip this movie open, let’s go over some history, shall we?

Thanos is a complicated character in Marvel history. He was at first a campy mustache-twirling villain of the Silver Age and he was more an antagonist to Spiderman and the Fantastic Four than anyone else. He wasn’t really a cosmic threat: Galactus was. Thanos’ history was ret-conned a little while ago giving us some of the more interesting aspects of his story and character. As a comic threat, Thanos may have eclipsed Galactus. He’s more charismatic, his goals for better or worse make more sense than he just exists and realistically, he’s a villain who, most of the the time, loves being a villain. He’s up there with Red Skull for me when it comes to Marvel villains and villain canon.

As far as the MCU goes; this is one of the most ambitious things done in film since the transition to color film. The MCU proper has spanned now for 10 years and the first Avengers movie is now a distant 6 year old memory. The movies have been mostly good and they range from movies that I love like Captain America: The Winter Soldier to movies that I hate with a burning passion like Avengers: Age of Ultron. As well as movies that I wish I could ignore like Ant-Man. Infinity War is the cinematic version of one of the most important comic book story lines in history and is the culmination of a decade of dedicated movie watching.

I was apprehensive when the Marvel movies starting getting cosmic. Cosmic Marvel is one of my favorites but I’m also an old comic book fan. I was worried that the cosmic stuff would alienate (puns) mainstream fans but I will say, I’m happy to see some of the most colorful and fun McGuffin devices in all of comics on screen.

With that being said let’s talk about this movie. And as I said before I’m spoiling the whole damn thing so now is your chance to back away.

Because I’m trying to be a better person, we’ll go over the positives first:

  • While I was apprehensive about how Marvel would handle the cosmic stuff for a mainstream audience, I think they did a really good job of explaining as needed weirder aspects of the Marvel canon. They did this by mostly not explaining anything at all and I think that’s one of the best ways to handle it.
  • Again, the cast is what shines as in all the Marvel movies. I don’t think anyone is a poor casting choice and even Brolin as Thanos is a delight.
  • I was really worried when Thor was appearing in this most post-Ragnarok that he’d go back to being the joyless Thor he was in the first Avengers and in any of his solo romps. I was pleasantly surprised to have back the Thor that made Ragnarok such a fun movie.
  • I wasn’t crazy about Dr. Strange as a film but I think the way this movie handles his powers happen to be some of the best I’ve ever seen or could imagine.
  • The fight sequences and battles scenes were some of the best in any Marvel movie and when the film lets these characters be as overpowered and intense as they are, it’s an absolute blast.
  • I wasn’t crazy about Spiderman: Homecoming but Tom Holland is a cinnamon roll and I worry about him and he was great in this movie.
  • T’Challa’s still great, not much has changed.
  • Gamora was always my least favorite part of the Guardians franchise: Zoe Saldana is a great actress, but she reminded me a little of Jennifer Lawrence in the X-Men franchise: just tired of being in that body paint. But Gamora absolutely shines in this movie even though I do not need literally any of the other Guardians except for Drax and Mantis.
  • The effects are pretty solid this movie but I think a lot of the budget went towards making powers and suits look good. There are some places of spotty effect work but we’ll get to that later.

I wanted to give Thanos his own paragraph. I think he deserves that.

Humanizing Thanos was the best worst decision possible. Thanos is a complicated character and we can never go back to the Thanoscopter days of comic books but giving him such an arc was strange, forced but powerful. But the problem I have with Thanos is very similar to the issue I have with Killmonger in Black Panther. His ideas in this movie are extreme but by no means insane sounding considering today’s climate both politically and socially. The Mad Titan is mad because his ideas should have never made sense but in this movie, he is almost entirely too human. You can, weirdly, empathize with a genocidal California raisin. And that’s a problem. 

Enough positive stuff; that isn’t why you’re here. Let’s talk about the parts I wasn’t so crazy about.

  • Peter Quill is still my least favorite part of any Guardians and while him being an emotional, reckless and annoying waste of space is very in character: I wanted to punch him in the mouth for ruining the flow of the film.
  • I also would love to know when and where between Guardians 1 & 2 did Gamora and Peter get to “I love you” status. The romance seemed rushed and awful considering how slow and deliberate the relationship had been up until that point.
  • Scarlet Witch is useless in this movie and if she simply vanished, I would not bat an eye. While her feelings are valid and emotional, her powers are so intense and strange that there should be zero conflict in this movie.
  • My biggest fear going into the movie was that this would be quips the film and it absolutely was. Quips and snark work in a lot of the standalone movies because it is often one offended to a room of straight men. Tony Stark is snarky and it works because Steve Rogers is so sincere and Black Widow is so tired that it works. It does not work having Star Lord and Iron Man and Spiderman and Dr. Strange all throwing quips. It emotionally undercuts how intense many of the scenes are.
  • This movie requires you having watched all the other movies. For comic book fans, that’s fine. I’m used to having to pick out every single detail but this is a lot for a mainstream fan. This movie was nothing but pay off and it matters a lot if you’ve been working through that build up for a decade but if you just started in Phase 2 or Phase 3 when many did this is an insane and punishing ride.
  • Thanos looks like an angry California Raisin. There, I said it.
  • Mark Ruffalo is one of my favorite actors to play Bruce Banner and he’s a great Hulk. He is hot garbage and waste of space in this film.
  • I checked out around giant “dwarf” Peter Dinklage.
  • Captain America is wonderful but he is a waste of space in this movie as well, really a lot of the Avengers are just not needed. This film is packed and I know it’s supposed to be but in the nature of writing, it’s hard to give each of these characters something to do.
  • If you had told me that a movie involving the Children of Thanos would end with them being mostly easily defeated by B-Tier Avengers, I would have punched you in the neck for lying.
  • The end credits scene made me swear under my breath.

And now, we’ve reached the end. Let’s talk about Death.

So many beloved characters die in a flash. Without mercy, without thought, without care. I wish I felt something. I wish I had cried. The audible gasps in the theater were enough. The countless posts on social media from friends I thought would be enough. But you know what? I felt nothing. Because here’s the thing. I am a long term comic book fan. Death means nothing. And that’s what I felt during the scenes of watching some of the characters I love more than some members of my own family fade into cold and unfeeling dust.

It felt hollow, disrespectful and cruel. For so many, comic books are a safe space. We find honor and meaning in the heroes we grew up with and facing such a existential threat and watching them fade away felt like I lost a part of myself.

But I survived Death in the Family, House of M and many more cataclysmic comic events. Hell, even by the standard set by the comic book Infinity Wars, this is tame. So why am I so upset this time around?

A lack of tension.

We know Tom Holland will be back. We know T’Challa is coming back. We know that many of these characters that vanished will return. I mourn Gamora. I even mourn Loki a little. But because of the slate of movies, I know at least a few of these characters will return and I know at least a few that are still alive as of the end of Part 1, will be gone come Part 2.

And that slap in the face is nothing more than a careful little insurance policy to make sure that my butt is back in the seat come Part 2. That is why I was so violently angry.

To put very bluntly, this is what I said in the car with Amber after seeing this movie:

Whatever bullshit they have to pull to make this all work out by Part 2, is gonna be some bullshit.

I left the theater angry, ranting, screeching but also somewhat hopeful. I cannot say this is a bad movie. I cannot say that I didn’t enjoy parts of this movie. But I can be disappointed in the cheap trick and the 3 hour long slog-fest of mindless payoff that was Avengers: Infinity War Part 1.

“But wait, Amanda!” someone I’m sure is going to say. “You’re a comic book fan, you should be used to this.” You know what, Straw Man? I am. I am used to this. But even in talking to friends about this, this level of death just feels unneeded. This was a Jason Todd level gut punch and I don’t think we deserved this as much as we did the death of Jason Todd (Rest in Power, Jason.). And knowing that children cried in theaters, that mainstream fans are confused and that long-term fans are just tired is why this whole movie exhausted me emotionally.

With a villain so overpowered, with a threat so big, it almost didn’t feel important. And I struggle to think of a movie where most of the main cast and without exaggeration, half of the people in that universe simply vanish into dust and it didn’t make me feel emotional at all; well, I think that film has a serious problem.

And now, after sitting and ranting about this movie for more hours than I like admitting, I feel mostly hollow. Do cool one-liners, fanservice beyond belief and awesome fight sequences a good movie make?

Does a plot with little sense if you haven’t invested 10 years of movie watching and/or decades of comic book reading, at times too intense violence and watching a villain “win” make a bad movie?

This movie was an emotional rollercoaster of cheering, screaming and bitter disappointment but also immense hope. With this clean slate, who knows where things can go. While my gut says this will end with some nonsense, it’s a comic book movie, it might just be fun nonsense. I know for sure I will be there to see Part 2 but whether I’ll be there happily or out of obligation is the bigger question.

 

Why I Still Love “Sweeney Todd”

Have charity towards the world, my petYes, yes, I know, my loveWe'll take the customers that we can getHigh-born and low, my loveWe'll not discriminate great from smallNo, we'll serve anyoneMeaning anyoneAnd to anyo (3).png

It’s a surprise to a lot of folks when I say that I’m not the biggest fan of Tim Burton. I don’t dislike him as a director but I think most of his film jaunts are mostly style over substance. I think Nightmare Before Christmas is fine but as someone who worked in a Hot Topic, I find it intensely overrated. And don’t get me started on his current run with the Alice in Wonderland franchise…but on a whole, I don’t think he’s bad or good. He’s perfectly serviceable and I understand that to the niche he proudly represents: his work is important.

That changed however, when I first saw Sweeney Todd. This movie came out when I was in high school and at peak edgelord. And really, at first the movie was way too violent for me. But in my later years, I’ve come to appreciate the soundtrack, the visuals and more. But this movie does have flaws and not just the lead actor (we’ll get to that…) but despite all of those flaws, here are the reasons I still love Sweeney Todd.

As a musical, Sweeney Todd has a tone problem. The musical centers around the eponymous Sweeney Todd (formerly Benjamin Barker and known barber) and his return back to vaguely Victorian London. Todd is a barber and was sent away by the evil Judge Turpin so the bad bad judge could seize Mr. Todd’s wife and family. Todd returns to find an odd woman living in his house and occupying his shop that he used to own. Her name is Mrs. Lovett and she’s a strange lady with poor cooking skills who despite those factors, still owns a pie shop. Together they devise a long-con plan to murder Judge Turpin after Mr. Todd discovers in his time away that Turpin had his wife killed and is holding his daughter hostage. Murder adventures ensure and the musical ends in a bloodbath of gore, puns and pie.

Most of the stage productions before the Burton version have a difficult problem of balancing the humor written into the screenplay and the immense gore that comes with a blood-thirsty barber and his pie-making lady friend. And oftentimes the stage show ends up choosing humor over drama and that’s difficult to handle a joke about a woman’s bust comes after an intensely bloody scene.

The movie does a better job of handling that. Burton’s distinct style manages the dark themes of a murder-barber. The movie is dark, brooding, mechanical and maze-like in its depiction of London. The overbearing score feels more at home in the dank, twisted London of a Burton movie.

The casting of the film is full of Burton standbys and they are all perfect in the film. Helena Bonham Carter is compelling, dead-eyed and brilliant. Alan Rickman, the treasure he was, is just fantastic and…well, let’s jump this shark early.

Johnny Depp is a garbage human. He’s a horrible human being and not just for the allegations (which I believe) that have surfaced. He’s a lazy actor now and what I assume is the human embodiment of Hollywood excess. We now have a difficult media environment where the sins of the past affect the things we loved now. We all have tough choices to make regarding the properties we love. And truthfully, I struggle with this as I struggle with many other beloved properties. And I respect anyone who is uncomfortable with me even mentioning Depp as a human person.

That unfortunately does not take away all of the things I loved about his performance in this film. He’s apathetic, listless and dammit almost asexual. Some of my favorite parts are the fact that he seems to be almost entirely disinterested in Carter.  Depp plays Todd as a man still wholly devoted to his wife and thus is almost put off by Mrs. Lovett.

In By the Sea, you get to witness a man who is broken but has to admit he somewhat owes the woman he is attached to. You see a mad, obsessive woman in love and a man who realistically would rather be anywhere else but with her.

And he is half of one of my favorite scene studies of all time. Pretty Women is a delicate dance of rising tension, intense chemistry between two actors and in each escalating moment of tension, you feel as though you are in the room with Depp and Rickman.

They both disappear into the role and end up providing form to a song that is sometimes played for laughs.  If you ever want to study how to properly film or depict tension: this scene, over and over again.

Speaking of chemistry, Depp’s relationship with Carter in the film is fascinating to me. It’s the most platonic I’ve seen in a depiction of Sweeney Todd. We see a mostly one-sided obsession and a broken man who is willing to appease the woman who is abundantly wanting to give him the time of day. And in the moments where there is more tension are wonderful.

A Little Priest is blocked, framed and shot beautifully and paced wonderfully. And I love that, if there is any relationship between Todd and Lovett, that it’s platonic. They have a respect for each other, even if it’s a twisted one.

Aside from Depp, this film does have other issues. It’s way too long for a movie. As a musical, with breaks,the length is perfectly fine. As a movie, it’s a bit of a slog that gets weighed down around the middle. You’ll notice I’ve ignored literally half the cast because Johanna is a wet dishrag. She is most of the versions of the musical but the movie makes it even worse. Her little boyfriend is also a wet dishrag and I can’t stand him. Sasha Baron Cohen irked me in this movie even though he wasn’t in the film for long. He’s fine for the role but I was not at all sad when a horrible death befell him. Additionally, the movie is gory as hell. While stage show versions vary depending on the actor and producer and director, the movie version earns its R-rating. I’ve seen less blood in Gladiator.

And the movie, due to its desire to be more serious, also have a serious framing problem. I’m a cosplayer. I see tons of folks saying that Todd and Lovett are Harley Quinn and Joker-like “relationship goals” and that’s troubling. During the musical, most adaptations play more with humor so their outrageous behavior made it easier to see them as foppish and silly albeit terrifying serial killers. The movie plays their arc as dead serious and important and almost romantic and people flock to that. And that’s scary. There’s a certain easy to relate to nihilism that oozes from A Little Priest and No Place Like London. Many of us have felt like this. Many of us have felt like we are owed something because the world is cruel but that just isn’t the case. But that’s not how reality works and many, (younger me included) romanticize Sweeney Todd as a tragic Jesus-like figure rather than the murderer he is. Yes, tragedy befell him. That does not give him the right to seek vigilante murder-justice out on the streets of London yet along to let his partner-close friend turn folks into pies. Forcing cannibalism on people is not a fair penance for an unfortunate circumstance.

Now, before we get too lost, I don’t want to ignore Burton’s distinct…style, let’s call it. Normally all those things play against him. He’s a surprisingly safe director. Hence why he sticks with the same trio of actors in almost every movie and almost the exact same themes. But here, as mentioned before, it does work. A cast very comfortable with their roles, so comfortable in fact, that many of them have been playing the same role now for years.

Sweeney Todd as a movie ages better for some more than others. For me, the movie aged better as I grew older and could more easily respect the themes. Those themes include ones that I find interesting in other beloved pieces of media. The film also features humans that are flawed but there is occasionally light in a person even after they have dealt with the slings and arrows that are a flawed past. And the most important lesson, horrible people are not to be rewarded. There is no redemption for Mr. Todd, Mrs. Lovett or Judge Turpin. They all die. They all earn their horrible deaths. There is no romance at the end. And that particular nihilism, vengeance and darkness may just be what makes the film so great.

 

Framing Is Everything

“The tyrant dies and his rule is over, the martyr dies and his rule begins.” ― Søren Kierkegaard.png

There was one aspect of Black Panther that settled in my stomach, rough and raw for weeks after I saw the film. It left a bitter taste in my mouth and left a haze of a film that I had mostly praised.  It was around the issue of Erik Killmonger. I mentioned it in my review of the movie so I’ll get straight to the point. The issue I have with Killmonger is a framing problem. His actions, his motives, his motivations, his everything is framed as “perfectly fine” and that is to be very frank, troubling as hell. Killmonger is compelling, heartbreaking, tragic, real and very valid. His anger is rational and he is very much a sympathetic character. So when Erik says radical things like “Hey, maybe we should make our own militant colonizing force.” and similar statements, he sounds like a rational, logical young man. How else would one expect for someone in his position to feel and act?

And in his final moments, there was the line that burrowed deep into my gut and remained there. “Death over bondage.” (Yes, I’m paraphrasing but in my horror, that was all I heard.). And that brings up to framing.

Framing in film language is how a thing is set up. We code (another film and sociology term) lots of things about characters and setting based on framing. A hero is a hero because of swelling music, bright colors, bright clothes and handsome looks. A villain is a villain because of dark music and tones and velvet and other things that make a villain a villain.

And framing done wrong is just as bad as framing done not strongly enough. Poor framing gives up the Victorian mustache twirling villain and the overly Jesus-like hero. Now, weak framing does a similar thing were a bad guy doesn’t seem so bad. Let’s take a scene from Rent that Folding Ideas and Lindsay Ellis both took umbrage with and that I mentioned in my post about Rent. There’s a scene in both the musical and movie during the whole No Day But Today thing where Mimi stands out in the cold with her posse that doesn’t know here while Roger remains in his ivory tower refusing to come down and play. But the framing makes it look like Roger is a stuck up mean guy for not wanting to leave his lonely life but really, his concerns are valid. Mimi is a known stripper and drug-user and Roger is a recovering drug addict with HIV. He has every reason to not want to be with her but the framing makes Mimi’s lack of care, concern or logic seem good and warm while Roger’s very valid logic and hesitation is framed negatively and that’s just not fair.

But plenty of films recently have had framing problems. A big example that comes to mind is actually both Kingsman films. We’ll use the first one mostly because it’s my favorite. Valentine is compelling, charming, charismatic and in parts of the movies just plain right. He has lots of ideas about how the Earth is going to hell and how to stop global warming. The problem is that his plan involves a violent mass genocide. But by the time he gets to the “I want a lot of people to die.” part, he just sounds like a pretty okay guy with a good plan to save the world. And that is a framing problem. The film around him has done a piss poor job of saying “Hey, watcher of this film, this man’s ideas are not good.”

Anime has had this problem for easily 20 years with antagonists and villains who are far more relatable than their hero mains. I’ve been paneling about this topic for literally almost 5 years. Many times, this is done to create more empathetic villains while also giving the hero/main something to do but again, it’s weak storytelling when your villain is more compelling than your protagonist.

Which brings up back to Black Panther. Erik’s sympathetic backstory makes it easy to ignore some of the venom that drips from his mouth. And in today’s current socio-political climate, I am sure that many see his vision as logical, sure a little radical, but surely sound. We’ve seen militancy fail over and over again for African-Americans. And while Black Panther does kill off Killmonger, his actions and words leave a heavy shadow over the film.

How do we correct such framing issues? Well, by simply not rewarding them. We’ve talked about characters getting what they deserve in a previous post and that is one of the best ways to combat poor framing. At least in Black Panther, Erik does not make it to the end of the movie but his message lives on and forces T’Challa and the people of Wakanda to think more closely about their isolationism. Not glorifying clearly horrible things is easy to do in real life but difficult to impose upon fictional characters. Consequences are vital. Erik’s rage rightfully makes him too unstable for this world and his exit is a pained sigh of relief. And those consequences don’t always mean death. Think of Loki in the rest of the Marvel movies: he is denied empathy at every turn despite his actions being mostly reprehensible. And movies are particularly fertile ground for framing issues. When you’re a handsome and well-known actor, you want screen time and being a mustache-twirling villain can be fun but often means that you are not on screen very long. Additionally, movies are a complex and visual media, creating sympathetic and likable characters is vital to keeping your audience’s interest. And I’m happy to see more complex characters, it has come at the cost of clearer storytelling. And I love morally ambiguous stories but those still have the stakes and consequences vital to keeping such narratives afloat. Valentine still dies at the end of Kingsman. Poppy for sure dies at the end of Kingsman 2. And if we’re talking anime then most of the time, the villain goes down with his or her overly complicated plan in a blaze of flames and glory.

Framing is a vital part of writing but an even more vital part of film and other visual media. How a character, scene and act are framed tells you a lot about how to feel about this character, the scenario and about the work. And when you frame a bad guy as a pious saint, you not only risk betraying your work but you risk muddying the waters of your own narrative.