Rethinking Black Panther

I remember going to the theater to see Black Panther with a friend; both of us being African-American. There were people dressed in traditional African clothing and it was something truly beautiful. People were proud of being African or of African descent for the first time in a while. I was never so much a contrarian to think the movie was bad but there were parts that I found deeply problematic and unsettling. But with the pandemic, too much time to kill and my friend’s generous access to her family’s Disney+ account, I’ve rewatched Black Panther several times recently. This rewatch has been affected by a few things that have changed in the world and in my world since the movie’s original release in 2018; namely the death of lead actor Chadwick Boseman and the continued pressures of racism and racial violence in the U.S. So we’re gonna talk about it. 

Let’s start with a major gripe I had about the movie at first which was pan-Africanism and cultural appropriation. At first I was very bothered by the picking and choosing of various African motifs and clothes for Wakanda. You see various African cultures represented during the first trial scene and at first watch, that bothered me. Many of those cultures and traditions had nothing to do with each other but to show them off as all related and to a fictional land in Africa just bothered me as lazy costume design and story-telling. Not to say that the outfits weren’t executed with care: everyone looked great but it just sat wrong with me. On the third or so watch or so, I cared much less and was mostly just glad to see nice costumes. Now as far as the cultural appropriation goes; I still have an issue with it and it’s one that may shock some readers and is an instance hiding in plain sight. Hanuman is a real Hindu deity and while I do love M’Baku, his is using a god that is still worshiped by millions. Now, I don’t feel that strongly about the movie’s appropriation of Baast mostly because while she is worshiped by some pagans; the religion of the ancient Egyptians is not one still commonly practiced. The cultural appropriation still sits a little raw with me but I’m less willing to openly show displeasure about it: maybe I’m getting old. 

Next up has to do with one of the biggest changes in opinion I’ve had on the film and that has to do with Chadwick Boseman. Now, the first time I saw the movie and the other MCU films that had Black Panther in it; I was always a little put off by Boseman’s almost sleepy performance. To quote a conversation I had with a friend: “It looks like he’s delivering every line with his dick being cut off.” I was really concerned about the utter lack of charisma the King of Wakanda had and that stayed with me until late last year when the news hit. Chadwick Boseman passed away after a lengthy and secret battle with cancer; meaning that all the roles he did for the MCU, he was in treatment for and dealing with a serious medical condition. It put things in perspective for many who had looked at Boseman as someone who just never seemed to match the energy of the other big personalities in the room when playing T’Challa. Even if your canon version of the King of Wakanda was one of the more regal and stoic types, Boseman to many (myself included) just seemed particularly low-energy without the context of a man who was battling disease and mostly suffering in silence. When the news of his death reached the masses, I felt like an immediate jerk: I was determined to take back every mean thing I had ever said because death tends to make saints of men but upon watching Black Panther a few more times I’ve come to a more balanced conclusion. Yes, the performance is subdued in comparison but really, everyone is except for Shuri who…we’ll get to. It’s a mostly laid back movie despite the stakes and message of the film. In his own movie, Boseman’s more flat affectation as T’Challa makes sense and though it does still stand out in other movies where he may not match the charisma of RDJ or Chris Evans: it’s still a good performance. 

The battle in the climax of the film does nothing for me as it is still just CGI blobs fighting in dark CGI nothing-scape. Angela Bassett is literally wearing baskets on her head. Everyone’s accents are inconsistent and weird. Andy Serkis is…I suppose, happy to be a human being on camera? The movie has flaws still but upon many rewatches, I find it more and more enjoyable. We’re not done yet; we’re finally going to tackle who may replace Killmonger as “Character I Wish Would Fall into a Pit” the most: Shuri. 

At first, Shuri was a funny character to me. I liked how funny and charming she was and she acted as a good foil to T’Challa’s more traditional and subdued personality. I was okay with her and her memes and the nonsense technology Wakanda has with its let’s say loose use of vibranium but after watching the movie a few times again; Shuri began to wear on me the most. She just knows too much in the way that many characters that are not written that well are. She has an answer to everything, a solution to everything; she’s very much written like a Mary Sue insert character. Now, I get that canonically she’s meant to be very smart and there’s a way to show that. Shuri is no Tony Stark, there’s just something about her that makes her quickness to correct people irksome (it’s probably internalized misogyny). 

Now onto the character I had the most issue with on my first watch and still have issues with now: Killmonger. Killmonger is touted as one of the most complex, most right and best villains in the MCU and while yes, his motivations are, I suppose, better than Klaue’s or Ultron’s; I don’t think he’s all that right. Being black, I’ve seen his rhetoric. I’ve seen the class of ideals between peace and violence. Being the PR savvy person I am, I’ve always chosen peace. In my opinion, oftentimes, violence makes an entire group look bad and has rarely been a good way to get a point across. Exceptions exist for sure but on a whole I’ve never supported revolution that way. And Killmonger’s idea to just arm random black folk and hope that it will be a big enough show of force just turned my stomach. However, after seeing the horrific backslide we’ve made in the last few years when it comes to police brutality, racism, acts of violence and domestic terrorism: maybe he has a point. Maybe being nice isn’t getting us far. I still won’t ever advocate for violence on the scale he planned but after seeing so many unarmed black men die at the hands of the police who are meant to protect us: yeah, fuck up that Target. 

I’ve had plenty of time to think about the media I ingest and why I ingest it. I can’t and won’t deny the impact Black Panther had on society and for black people. It was empowering to see an Africa not in strife and to see black excellence. It was empowering to see people use the Wakandan salute in real life to greet each other as a show of respect. I personally wouldn’t mind calling more white people “colonizer” when they speak out of turn or barking at them like M’Baku does. If this movie gave black kids someone to look up to, aspire to be, admire; then I’m not here to harsh anyone’s yums. I’ve had time to let my opinions mellow and change as the times have changed and because of that I’m still happy to say: Wakanda Forever. 

On the Avengers Suite

I’m a bit of a score nerd. You may know this about me considering that I have talked about musicals a fair amount here on this blog. But score is different. Score is the part of a movie that is typically the thesis of the film in song. Think of the music in Star Wars, you can probably hear it. Think of the Jurassic Park theme, yes, it’s a classic. You probably think of score and themes more than you know because at least since the rise of the Summer Blockbuster they have been a ubiquitous part of pop culture.

I’m an anime fan so theme songs and character theme songs have always been important to me. I’m also a huge musical theater nerd so my brain tends to cling to themes and score quite easily. Big movies tend to have themes still, especially fantasy and sci-fi ones; because as you know, I am a huge nerd. Harry Potter has a brilliant score that when played still makes me feel like I’m just about to hop off the Hogwarts Express back to school. The Lord of the Rings has many themes because that’s what Tolkien would have wanted and if you want to ask me about musical theater, well, let’s just say recently I was in the kitchen baking whilst holding a chef’s knife and singing “Pretty Women” from Sweeney Todd

But I also love superhero movies and if you read the title and you’re a very smart cookie then you know why we’re here. Let’s talk about The Avengers Suite.

 
I’m still emotionally recovering from Avengers: Endgame because of course I am but out of all the scenes that didn’t do it for me, the very end which I won’t spoil has a resurgence of a piece of musical score that I’ve now spent over a decade with. We’re getting ahead of ourselves, let’s talk about Marvel’s Avengers

To paraphrase Lindsay Ellis’ feelings on The Lord of the Rings: Marvel’s Avengers is good that I hate it. That first movie directed by Joss Whedon was such a perfectly imperfect adaptation of decades of comic book lore into a movie that made me happy to be a comic book fan for the first time in my life. And while I have gushed about the film, the love seemed to run out as the films pressed on and Whedon’s enthusiasm was replaced by the Russo Brothers’ mostly okay filmmaking. 

In prep for Avenger’s Infinity War, I went down the Road to Infinity in which you trot through all the MCU films that lead up to what was the second to last film in a decade’s long saga. My opinions on the MCU movies range from pretty dang good to wow, I wish I could erase that from my mind but I want to praise especially Joss Whedon for one thing and that was his ability to frame shots that felt like they belonged in a comic book. I’m not the only person to say this but I am especially grateful for it considering my history with comics. The Russos have tried to frame such shots as well but it really just feels like they’re doing it because Whedon had set the bar so damn high.

And through all the movies, the tears, the comments about Captain America’s butt and the jokes that failed and the CGI that seemed spotty there was one thing that stuck with me and that was the score. The Avengers Suite as its called is the piece of score that accompanies all the superhero shots in the entire MCU relating to, well, The Avengers. So let’s really analyze a scene and that the Battle of New York in the first Avengers movie.

All the heroes return to New York, the dumb CGI army is about to attack. Loki is being angry and needs dry shampoo. All the heroes are together and are doing their best and we get this amazing low angle circular shot of all of them sort of posing and mugging and over it is the triumphant overture. The drums build drama. The strings add lift. The brass adds this larger than life element and even though there are parts of that shot that are objectively silly (like Black Widow just cocking a gun) it feels grand. It feels important. It feels like these guys are your heroes and they can do it. It’s inspirational, honestly.

What I love about score is how it builds. The softer notes that multiply and grow into a bombastic refrain. Good score is like a thesis statement to the film. Duel of the Fates shows you exactly what the stakes are between the Jedi and the Sith.

The Jurassic Park theme shows you that these marvelous and beautiful creatures are awesome and wondrous.

The music, the score is the pulse of the film and tells you, the audience, what you should be thinking or feeling in a brilliant trick of audiovisual shorthand. 

In instances when score is used correctly, it’s magical. Some of the Jurassic Park sequels have mistreated the iconic score by not placing it in shots with the dinosaurs but in shots of the new park because these movies have a budget now. In Star Wars: The Force Awakens, J.J. Abrams is very smart in his use of score because he so badly wants you to think good things about this movie. Score is a powerful tool and when used wisely, it can make or break a scene.

When I saw Avengers Endgame in theaters, despite my current ennui towards the film in the moment when Captain America summons Thor’s hammer and says those magical words and the music swells and for one beautiful moment you feel just on top of the world. You feel energized and a part of this giant team of heroes determined to save the world. In that moment, I was an Avenger. 

I’m always shocked that in film discourse, that more don’t talk about score. It’s such an important aspect of film and scene craft that I am surprised that more don’t think about just how vital that music in the background is. 

What’s your favorite piece of film score? Let me know in the comments below. 


The Media Life, Unexamined

“There is no sin except stupidity.”  ― Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist.pngIt started with a rather backhanded comment about movies after what was a days long dive into why I come off so ambivalent about everything in the office. I was commenting on the rape allegory in Maleficent and an acquaintance said proudly:

“I didn’t read that subtext.”

Subtext. SUBTEXT?

I was outraged. I flat out replied “I had a bloody nose from how aggressively that movie punched me in the face with it.” and it led to a conversation that when I think about it, still brings bile up my throat.

I want to talk about being critical and the epidemic (yes, epidemic) of non-critical thinking when it comes to media.

I’ve had run ins with folks more than once about how I feel about movies, television and more. I normally say “It’s fine.” as a shield. It’s an insurance policy that means “I do not actually want to talk about this movie because any conversation about it more than just ‘pew pew pew action, hot actress’ will fall apart faster than a Kardashian marriage and I’m not here for that.”

I’m fortunate enough to be surrounded by brilliant and critical people in my life. When we leave movies, we discuss agendas, biases, hidden messages and more. We also talk canon and how this piece lives up to its name ( Because every movie now is just based on something. Originality, be damned.). So I come off as intensely ambivalent to the untrained eye. And that is just not true. I have wildly strong opinions and the receipts to back them up. If I say:

Avengers: Age of Ultron is a farce because of the way it neuters Ultron’s storyline for the sake of a decades’ old grudge against Hank Pym as a character.

I know what the hell I am talking about. And back in my day of being a fan (when the buffalo roamed), being critical was a major asset. We broke down plot and story and motivations. And that never meant I didn’t enjoy something. The things I love the most, I am the most critical of.

Which brings us to the oh so common phrase of: “Just turn off your brain.”

I’m going to say the strongest statement ever on this blog in 5 years…turning off your brain is how we got Trump as president. Turning off your brain is how we have 5, yes 5, Transformers movies. Turning off your brain is why we have the casual racism, sexism and homophobia in film  to this very day because no one, no one has the audacity or courage to challenge their media and demand more.

I’m an English major, writer and longtime fan. It is my job to be critical of everything I see. I spent conservatively 4 years learning how to train my brain to be aware of what the things I consume are trying to tell me. Comics have always been political and people who say they shouldn’t be or aren’t are wrong and I hate them. Media has always been political, everything is political. Everything, every choice, every aspect of what we do, buy and see is trying to sell you something, even if it’s just an idea. And turning off your brain means you don’t see that and thus you are likely to fall victim to vapid thinking that is damaging to you as a person (i.e. internalized sexism and casual racism) and thus existence as a whole. Critiquing media has given us better representation (most of the time) and forced us to look at the status quo of our current media landscape and demand better.

The people who know me, know my heart and soul know that I am enthusiastic and passionate about media. I have strong opinions and I love what I love and hate what I hate. But in this modern media and culture landscape only emphatic zeal is accepted and nuance goes to die, I must look horribly negative. To an uncritical mind, I must seem like I hate everything. And vice versa, I don’t understand how you can “turn off your brain” and not be critical. I don’t think of it as a stretch to consider a movie what it is, a piece of art. We don’t shame people who critique art pieces. But for some reason, I’m a bad person for demanding more out of my movies. I’m a curmudgeon for wanting complex storytelling. Oh, the hobgoblin I am. How dare I want something from a film or a television series. Shame on me. Shame the non-believer.

Here is where I’ll pause for folks saying:

“Well, if you over-analyze a movie/television show/anime/comic book/manga, you ruin it.”

Sure, it’s why I stopped watching CinemaSins. If you do nitpick on stupid things, you will ruin a movie. I have zero questions about how Captain America and squad got from Scotland to Wakana in zero time at all in Infinity War; I do, however, have questions about how Black Widow can take down Proxima Midnight because I have read at least one comic book in my life. I’ve never been one to over-analyze and it’s never done just to be “that person” (which is only included because I had someone accuse of being a contrarian). If I don’t like something, it’s for a reason. I always give something a chance. And again, having one negative thing to say about a thing doesn’t mean I don’t like it. I rip to shreds the things I love because I have to. I am obligated to as a consumer of media. And if something influences me, I have to be doubly critical of that thing because it then becomes baggage that I carry with me everywhere I go. I carry the media I take consume in a little bag with me and that bag leeches out bias into the things I write, I say and I do. I internalized misogyny for years because of the media I was ingesting. I accepted the casual racism in movies in everything I did. I dealt with how religion is depicted in media. And I don’t ever want to go back to not being aware of the messages being forced down my throat. 

All of this is exhausting. I miss conversation. I miss discourse. I miss and  do welcome thoughtful conversation.

 

The Burden of Knowledge

“Burdens are for shoulders strong enough to carry them.”   ― Margaret Mitchell  Gone with the Wind.png

It was after discussing Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: The Crimes of Grindelwald with a few mutuals that I realized something: I was the only one in the room bothered by a few things that the trailer brought up and made me even more angry than usual at Jo Rowling.

This post is going to be a little self-indulgent and may even come off as a little narcissistic but I want to talk about critical conversations about media when you’re the only person in the room concerned about it.

I’ll preface this by saying I am a well-intending idiot. I’m proud of my education but when it comes to the people I choose to spend my time with, I am the dumb one. Amber can talk circles around me in a dialogue, I am nothing as far as trivia goes in comparison to Victoria and Carlos.

I’m proud of my education and proud of my level of intellect but I am far from remarkable as far as I see it.

That being said, I’m also willing to cope to the remarkable amount of privilege that I have with my ability to be pedantic about comic books.

All of that aside, let’s get back to the topic.

My issues with Jo Rowling’s recent romp are numerous and the most recent trailer only pushed me over the edge with disappointment for Good Ol’ Auntie Jo. Choosing to make Nagini an Asian woman now held in animagus and bondage is vile and a perpetuation of the submissive Asian trope on a Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 level and continuing to allow Johnny Depp to be in anything is a vile cash-grab. Additionally, the continual teasing of “finally getting a gay Dumbledore” have proven to be mostly a queer-baiting PR stunt. I had plenty of new reasons to be disappointed with this movie on top of the foundation of reasons I had to be disappointed with this movie.

And when pressed about my issues and explaining that I was tired of the mystical Native American trope and a world where it’s the 1920s and racism isn’t real but discrimination against non-magic users is a thing, I realized something. I was the only person who seemed to care about these issues.

I was the only person in the room that seemed concerned about perpetuating damaging stereotypes and authentic representation.

And that bothered me.

Time and time again I’ve been told that I’m too critical of media. That I should just turn off my brain.

Let’s kill that in its crib immediately.

I am an English major, literary student, research scholar, writer, reader and more.

My brain is hard-wired to be critical of the messages I see via the media I consume.

Turning off my brain is not something I think I’m capable of. I was even dissecting casual movies like The Hitman’s Bodyguard because yes there was stuff to dissect in that raging garbage fire of a movie.

Keep in mind, I am a huge nerd. Well, not huge. I’m a very petite nerd. I have YEARS of canon knowledge and trivia. I am also an avid reader who tries to fill the void of existential dread with books and literary criticism. I know my references. And I’m passionate about knowledge and learning more.

And considering that literally every piece of media is trying to push an agenda, it’s vitally important to be aware of what comics, movies, television and more are trying to sell you.

Besides, being critical is sort of my thing. Never in a contrarian sort of way but being more “aware” and “critical” of the media around if has helped me carve out a niche that I’m quite proud of.

Let’s take a moment to remember that being critical doesn’t mean hating everything. Which brings us to the other part of the uncomfortable conversation I had:

Well, do you like anything?

Dear reader, I love many things. That doesn’t mean that anything is perfect. I love John Constantine as a character but he is a tire fire and I am empathetic to anyone who wants to punch him in the neck. I love most comic books but I also absolutely understand that the Marvel movies are just a scheme to funnel cash into Disney’s gaping monopoly. I tear apart the things I love because that’s what a critical reader and viewer does. Nothing is perfect, everything has flaws, everything has an agenda.

And there are times I can be highly critical of a piece of media while still mostly enjoying it. Deadpool 2 is a mostly forgettable superhero sequel with huge problems like another shocking instance of Girlfriend in the Fridge but for the most part, I really laughed during that film.

There are other times, however, where a story’s issues are too distracting like with Black Panther where I was so overcome with disgust at the misuse of words and verbage actual militant African-Americans used that I struggle to get through the second half of the film without a stomach ache.  

And again, I’m surrounded by folks who echo similar feelings to mine. We may not all share the same opinions but Amber and I left Black Panther and talked about race relations for literally about an hour. I walk out of a movie and immediately have a call with Carlos. I get to talk with the other writers of FanGirl Nation and chat about tropes and more. I am surrounded by brilliant human beings who are just as critical, if not more so, than I am and I am a better person for it.

I do sometimes wish I could “turn off my brain” and come down and talk about a movie for just what it is. Increasingly, critical reading and watching is a rarity, kept in niche communities. I do wish I could talk about feminism in movies more and political themes in pop culture more but many just want to “turn off their brains” and enjoy their media.

I sometimes wish I wasn’t aware of how grossly sexist, racist, transphobic, homophobic and harmful popular media can be.

But I am.

And with that heavy burden I will continue to call those things out for as long as I am able.

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.

 

Spirited Away and Westernization: Is It All Disney?

The film Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki is the coming of age story about a girl named Chihiro and her magical journey through a land of spirits, demons and monsters.  This is thought to be a quintessential Japanese story of determination and strength through what is to most a very exotic and foreign land but upon closer inspection one can see that this film has deeper Western influence within it than at first glance despite this being Miyazaki-senpai’s fabled “return to Japan”.

Westernization as defined by the dictionary is “the influence of Western culture on non-Western cultures”. This can also be called the imposing of Western ideals on non-Western cultures.  Westernization in Japan began in the Meiji Era in the late 17th to 18th century when American traders forced the Japanese to open their ports and flourished again during and shortly after World War II and has since gained speed with globalization. Westernization can be seen not just in the culture and language but in various films and publications from Japan. Everywhere from McDonald’s to hearing more and more people in Japan speaking English, Western influence has been the battle we seem to be losing as we struggle to preserve cultures outside of our own.

I’ve watched this film countless times and never gave it any thought, I always assumed it was just to appease American audiences and must have had something to do with the Disney influence but further investigation revealed that it is not only intentional but original to the film.  It all started with a moment of watching the film with friends and keying in on one key line. “Don’t worry, Daddy’s got credit cards.” Chihiro’s father went on in the key scene at the café for the spirits with Chihiro’s parents who up until then I never considered to be overly Westernized but that sort of flaunting of wealth and money and then the overly pluralized capitalist remark from her father just sealed the deal, this film has more Western influence in it than I think anyone knew.

The first place this is apparent is in Chihiro herself. She spends most of her time in the film yelling, whining or complaining.  These are very non-typical traits of a Japanese character of firstly her age being that of ten years old and of her gender, being female. The typical Japanese girl is even in this modern era meant to be quiet and respectful, polite, considerate and respect her parents. Even with the slight influence the West has provided in modern Japan, Japanese children even up until young adulthood maintain a level of respect that is uniquely Eastern.  Chihiro was unlike any character I had seen in a Japanese film before.  This is meant to show the duality of characterization and she was meant to provide a foil to the traditional background of the film but she seemed to be a more basic example of Western influence than a mere foil to the tradition of the film.
The second place is in the main setting itself, the Bath House of the Spirits. The Bath House is run by the witch Yubaba, who is a greedy, sinister and selfish character who runs her bathhouse strictly and with an iron fist. Firstly the bathhouse in Japanese culture is a mostly male dominated realm not to be owned by a female. And a female with such strong Western ideals. Though this is one of the more traditional parts of the story, most often in Japanese myths women that as wicked and greedy are shown as grotesque as Yubaba and are often the villain of the story as with Yubaba.  She is also dressed surprisingly in a Victorian outfit that seems to be a nod to 19th century England; her clothes are tight-fitting and show off her large broad body which shows strength and ferocity, traits that are uncommon for even villains of Japanese myth. Such capitalistic greed and concern for money and self-preservation as Yubaba shows are surprisingly common for Japanese myth but her clothing, style of speech are distinctly Western. But there is one key that does tie her back to tradition, she takes Chihiro’s name, this is a very Eastern concern, the tie between the soul and the name. But in a moment of Western concern Yubaba takes Chihiro’s first name and not her family name which even for girls is of more concern than their first. Between her pipe smoking and over-concern with her gold stash she reminded me more of a female brothel owner in the South than a Japanese villain.

Within the bathhouse’s work structure we also see another shout back to Victorian England and to factory life of the Industrial Revolution. The workers at the bathhouse seem to be of a lower class and cannot afford to actually enjoy the bathhouse’s luxury but are resistant to change when the human girl Chihiro is offered a job. Each department refuses to take her and such specialization within the workplace seems more at home in a factory in London than a bathhouse in Japan. Also the poor treatment in which they are treated, and conditions they work are of poor standard, crowded and very busy. Not serene at all or zen-like similar to how we believe and have record of most bathhouses being run.
The foremen are cruel and make harsh comments to the female workers, the female workers often girls and young women have to work very hard. In traditional bathhouses women were only allowed to work as geisha and could not even do any of the actual work of the bathhouse and that was relegated to the workers of the bathhouse who were usually male and they worked in what were considered to be normally very equal and fair conditions. These factory conditions did not appear in Japan until well after the Meiji era and the beginning of World War II and is by no means traditional.

The third distinction made was with the boiler man and the overall industrial feel of the film. Despite the film’s backdrop being a very traditional Japanese bathhouse that could have been plucked out of a Meiji Era picture book, the boiler room is a testament to steam era technology that seemed to bypass Japan and seemed to come more from Victorian England than late Tokugawa Japan. Coal power is distinctly Western and the more traditional form used to power bathhouses came from manpower or natural geothermic reactions.  The skyline also in the film is very modern and Western, though it does seem to seamlessly meld with East and West, skylines and dragons, myth and reality, old and new.

Another place we see a near overly Western influence comes with some of the items dotting the landscape in the film. A New Orleans-style paddle-boat brings weary spirit guests to the bathhouse a one-way San Francisco-style trolley car rolls along the stops of the spirit world. These things are almost never seen in Japan outside of theme restaurants and in pictures from the United States. What are they doing playing background image to a traditional bathhouse?

The interpersonal relationships of the film are another mark of Westernization. It is not just Chihiro’s pessimistic and disrespectful attitude but also her forwardness with other authority figures. Her parents are near oblivious to their daughter’s needs and shoo her needs away and her growing concerns about entering the terrifying abandoned amusement park. Her parents are not as attentive as we are accustomed to seeing Japanese parents especially ones that have a young daughter.  We are quick to shove that to the side and assume it is a plot device; if they had listened to her more intently the plot would have never moved forward. Yubaba’s relationship with her foremen and workers is more like that of a factory owner than the traditional respect of an Eastern bathhouse.

Another key fact that gets the plot moving is Chihiro’s family moving, this is actually fairly uncommon even in modern Japan where jobs are very stable and families have not moved from prefecture to prefecture in years even if they do work in the more industrial regions of the country like the Aichi prefecture where there is a great deal of auto manufacturing. The behavior of the characters cannot be simply chalked up to devices of the plot of slaves to moving the story along, there is a deeper Western influence within that perhaps served the purpose of making them more relatable to a growing American audience.

Now, the film has plenty of traditional elements to it. The idea of a bathhouse for the spirits and Yubaba’s odd concern with respect and maintaining her guests’ happiness. The closeness to the spirits is one that is only seen in the US in regions like New Orleans where voodoo is practiced and there is a closeness and concern for the dead there; that is the only other place outside of Eastern myth that I have found the living and the dead communing so casually together. The theme and concern with mythology is one that is uniquely Eastern. Also the great interjection of mythological characters and creatures of folklore that have survived for thousands of years in Japan like the dragon and water spirits, river spirits, demons and monsters that seem to encompass the landscape of the film.

Spirited Away was as Miyazaki-senpai said his “return to Japan”, the film’s exotic setting, mythical creatures and whimsical spirit was very unique and unlike the average film to the average American movie-goer. What did tie the film back to Japan was something Miyazaki does consistently throughout many of his films and it is doing his best to when he can preserve Japanese culture and the dying way of life that is the traditional Japanese way, in a way the Bushido code provided the guidance for the samurai up until the early Meiji with its brief resurgence during World War II, Miyazaki strives to bring that time back, to a simpler time where man lived and respected nature, and therefore respected others. Where myth and legend lived not just on paper but in the hearts of the people. Where honor was key and the most important thing to a person and not money or socioeconomic status.

These more traditional aspects come from another key scene and that is the stink spirit. We come to find that it is not a stink spirit at all but an old river spirit but due to neglect and pollution he has become gross and dirty. It takes outside help from Chihiro and the other workers at the bathhouse to clean him up and discover his true nature, a clean and healthy river he is grateful and leaves powerful medicine behind. This story is one that we see more commonly in the West but we are beginning to see in Japan as the Japanese become suddenly very concerned with preserving their rich natural habitats and local rivers and streams that were the lifeblood of the ancient Japanese and became neglected shortly after industrialization and pollution came to Japan.

The other key place is within Haku. He is one of the only characters to maintain traditional dress and for the most part formalities and respect for others including authority figures. Despite him being a mythical creature his story is also fairly similar to other Japanese stories. River spirits often communicate with humans and form close bonds with mortals, that being the reason why so many rivers in Japan have human names, they were thought to have real human embodiment that could feel and move just like humans could. Haku’s relationship with Chihiro then isn’t just to be chalked to do plot device, this is something that was seen as rather conventional if this story was being told hundreds of years ago in Japan.

Music and dance are other key places where we see the traditional creep back in, the soundtrack to the film is filled with traditional instruments like the samisen and koto, instruments used most commonly by geisha or Shinto priestesses. Also the various fan dances that happen throughout the film, though this even could be considered more a gesture in some instances. Fans are a highly traditional part of Eastern culture including Japanese, Chinese and Korean. Depending on the occasion they can symbolize elegance and grace or signal death and doom depending on the usage and occasion.

Amid criticism that Disney’s influence had been negative on his films, Miyazaki assured his fans that he worked very closely with translators and made sure they did their best to maintain the integrity of his works. This poses the question further. If it wasn’t Disney’s fault, why are these films so filled with Western ideals and images? It would be easy to just blame Studio Ghibli’s partnership with Disney on the Westernization and say this is just what Disney does to these things but since Miyazaki signs off on each film personally that means he either add these things intentionally or he still isn’t quite catching them before the film’s premiere.

Perhaps it is to widen his audience, for many years Miyazaki’s films had only been known to those who could fluently speak Japanese and had subject matter that was odd to the average American including pigs in WWII Italian planes and a secret society of talking cats. These films geared at young adults were highly sociopolitical with references that not many understood. It was not until some of his middle works like KiKi’s Delivery Service and Nausicaa of the Wind Valley that his works became more easily digestible to American audiences and as American audiences asked for more the more Western the films became and the easier it was to relate to the characters and story lines but at what costs? The end result for a while became a film that began in Japan and that at times was in Japanese but was basically the same as any other American cartoon.

In the end Spirited Away may have been Miyazaki-senpai’s fabled return to Japan and to the untrained eye, it’s easy to get swept up in the exotic location, mysterious plot, mythological creatures and intriguing yet relatable characters. But upon closer inspection one sees that this film is far more influence by the polarizing world around Miyazaki-senpai. One that does not know when to be old or new, when myth and legend are appropriate or when they need to be pushed to the side where contrast isn’t just a comment on the inside of a travel brochure it is a legitimate concern. When fans are concerned about the Japan in the texts books fading away forever as the new building encase old pagodas, where will the films be when the battle is decided as East becomes a growing part of the West.


Works Cited

Napier, Susan. “Matter Out of Place: Carnival, Containment, and Cultural Recovery in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.” Journal of Japanese Studies 32.2 (2006): 287-310. EBSCOhost. Web. 21 Nov. 2011. <blume.stmarytx.edu/ehost/detai…>.

“Westernization of Japan – International Business – a Wikia Wiki.” International Business Wiki. Web. 22 Nov. 2011. <internationalbusiness.wikia.co…>.

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.

All That is Old is New Again

juvenoia (uncountable)(neologism) The fear or hostility directed by an older generation toward a younger one, or toward youth culture in general..jpg

I was born in the glorious 90s. And because of that, I am nostalgic for the late 90s and the early to mid 2000s. And while I’ve talked before about how important being a 90s kid is to me, I wanted to talk about the generational divide and why it’s strange being stuck in a nostalgia-loop.

From television, to movies to music: it seems like we’ve been stuck in a perpetual loop that glorifies the 1980s and 1990s. And that makes sense: many of the media creatives that are major producers now were born in the 1980s: it would make sense for them to want to look back to a simpler time that meant a lot to them.

There’s this thing called a nostalgia cycle: it’s a funny sort of thing. It essentially states that the media that is popular reflects an era that’s either 10, 20, 30 or 40 years from the current year. Think of the 1990s being nostalgic for the 50s and 60s. And I’m far from the first essayist to comment on this nostalgia cycle but it’s worth mentioning because it does seem to be never-ending. But there’s one aspect of it that I think we’re missing when we talk about weaponized nostalgia: it’s been surprisingly forgetful of the past while claiming to be doing something new.

I’m writing this right before Black Panther hits theaters here in the U.S. and for many this is the first black-led superhero movie. [update: I did see Black Panther and the movie is out and successful!] To which, many and all comic book fans roll their eyes. Blade is hilariously underrated and fantastic and was a black-led superhero movie in the 1990s. Not to say that I am not excited about Black Panther nor do I hope to quell any of the hype any folks may have for this film: it is a big deal but it isn’t the first anything right now.

Similarly, almost all the music that is popular nowadays seems to sound just like music did when I was growing up. Lots of house beats, tons of 80s synth influence and way too many songs that never end and just repeat lyrics. Not to mention that fact that we have yet to seem to get rid of the girl/boy band.

I think I’m most struck by this because I have a younger cousin who stands in as the avatar straw-man of all the reasons 90s kids are at odds with Gen Z and why Baby Boomers must hate us damn millennials. When I was home for Christmas, I got to sit and watch the yearly ritual of him receiving hundreds of dollars in gifts because he is an only child like I am and thus is spoiled rotten as I was. This year, he received an outfit that I’m almost certain my elementary school classmates wore from the sunglasses to the dark khaki joggers and a very retro looking smartwatch: hell, I think it still had a calculator on it. And in a brief moment of time that was only the two of us: I could hear him reciting the lyrics to Good Morning, a song from Kanye West that I love and is now nearly 10 years old. Everything from the yuppie fashion to the questionable music choice made me think of myself when I was his age now almost 15 years ago.

I’m also very torn by how sanitized the narratives are for this new wave of nostalgia. Sure, the 90s and the 2000s were great but they weren’t perfect. We had racism, school shootings, terrorism, inequality and all the things we still have just with more Spice Girls and legitimate battles over which boy band was better. But if you look at Stranger Things, a love letter to the 1980s, you’d think the 80s was a magical time where nothing bad happened and racism wasn’t a thing and political correctness existed. But we’ve been bad about that for some time. I’m reminded of the Johnny Rocket’s franchise, which begs you to think of the 1950s as a time for sock hops and milkshakes and not Civil Rights battles and police brutality.

It’s especially troubling considering that we’ve taken nostalgia to it’s only logical place which is to make huge profits off it.  F.Y.E. just had a huge promotion selling Reptar Bars, a part of my childhood from Rugrats that I always wanted to eat but never could: they also briefly sold Reptar Cereal and while the sale went over great: it did seem out of place. I hadn’t given thought to Rugrats as a show for years: I’m pushing 30 and that was  T.V. show I watched as literal child.  There seems to be no end to the things that want to push anniversaries and the nearly endless stream of reboots, remakes, sequels, prequels and more that make it seem like all the things I knew as a child never really left.

If you asked me at 16 if I’d still be playing Pokemon, Street Fighter and still listening to Kanye West and The Killers while there would still be Star Wars movies: I would have first had a lot of questions about how time travel works and then probably say that such a thing wouldn’t make sense. One would assume that media would move on, one would assume that as technology progressed: we’d make progress and not just nicer versions of old things we loved. Now, don’t get me wrong, it was lovely getting a stylish Castlevania anime but I’d also love that energy placed into something new and original.

I’ve talked about nostalgia before when it comes to Pokemon: Sun/Moon and Pokemon: Ultra Sun/Ultra Moon and how its marketing and gameplay centered around the nostalgia of late 20-somethings like me who had been playing the games for all these years and understood and respected such callbacks. But is the game so enjoyable if you don’t know these references: my little cousin likely get through the game but he wouldn’t have the gut punch I did seeing Red and Gary show up like traveling boyfriends asking about this new Hawaii-like region. So why put them in there? If the average actual player of a Pokemon game isn’t likely to get that reference: why put it there? And that’s the issue with our current weaponized nostalgia. It isn’t done to teach, improve or just enjoy: it’s there because it’s there.

And the sad thing is:  we keep buying into it. I’m not sure if you are aware but at least here in parts of the great old United States, things are a hot hot mess: we’re using media to escape our current realities more and more as we refuse to face the current situation of an orange-tinted warmonger in office and issues like racism, homophobia, violence and the threat of terrorism, war and natural disasters. And this isn’t new: we’ve been escaping reality for as long as we could through story, substance and more but at least when I was younger: all of this was new. When I was 12 and saw InuYasha for the first time, it was radically new and different. When I was 10 and arguing with friends over which Boy Band was the best: it was because music like that hadn’t been explored in such a way. When I was 9 playing Pokemon, no game like that had been crafted and distributed for American children. And that’s what this nostalgia cycle is leaving behind: sure, the 1990s were cool and the 2000s were the best: but what made them great was innovation: we didn’t stay stuck thinking of how cool the 1950s were. We did meditate on those things briefly while still continuing to move forward.  

The Case for Gatekeepers

We build too many walls and not enough bridges. (1).png

I come from a darker era for comic book fandom and really, general nerd-kind. I remember being told over and over again that I wasn’t a real fan because I was biologically female. I was told that I couldn’t be that into comics. I was clearly just doing it for attention. I was clearly just there because I only thought the covers were pretty. And psychologically, that’s really hecking damaging. It’s frustrating having to constantly prove that you are a fan of something. I was quizzed, questioned and dismissed so many times that I just came to accept it and now that we are in a halcyon era of comic book movies and nerd acceptance but maybe… just maybe gatekeeping wasn’t so bad in places.

Let’s take a minute to go over some vocabulary. Gatekeeping is a sociology and recently appropriated fan term that essentially means more “experienced” fans act as, well, gatekeepers and use their knowledge in a certain property or fandom to keep novice or newer fans out. We see this sort of phenomena in a lot in the cringe-inducing comic book guy in most television shows. Think The Simpsons or the literal entire cast of The Big Bang Theory or literally any other popular thing. They all have the same comic book dude who can’t hold a conversation about anything real but will be mad at you if you don’t know exactly what shade of pantone pink the Star Sapphire uniforms are. The normal avatar for this sort of person is usually a white, cis, hetero male and because of that, the view of any other fan that is of color, queer, or female (or a combination of any of those things) is somehow immediately less of a fan. This is also sometimes called fan-gating but that term makes me giggle so I’m just going to use gatekeeping.

The problem is that Gatekeepers think they’re doing a good thing. They think they are protecting their beloved media and often times, they are. Comic books were not always as mainstream as they are now and the knowledge so many comic book fans had (have) was not always valued and was often a source of ridicule and persecution. I was often teased for being able to recite Etrigan’s spell from memory. (I still can, don’t judge me.)

Now, let’s be clear. I am in no way advocating for the gatekeeping of ye olden days. That gatekeeping meant to keep women, queer folks, POCs and others out of comic books, videos games and the like because it was a white man’s hobby. And while, no, that isn’t the view of every comic book fan or generalized nerd human it certainly was the driving force for many of them in the comic world in the 90s and early 2000s (when I was a young impressionable comic book reader). To this day, there are still men who insist that girls only read comics for cosplay and that POCs simply don’t read comic books (It’s almost like black people didn’t make their own comic book line or anything like that…).

Here is also where I’ll pause for all the folks who think that me being quizzed over the canonical order of the Robins in Batman is a valid thing to do as I try to purchase a comic book from a store. (Real thing that happened: ask Carlos.).

I’ll wait.

Glad to have you back. This chapter in Moon Knight was getting a little intense.

So after all that talk about how dehumanizing, exhausting, racist, sexist and miserable gatekeeping was and is…why would I possibly ever say that maybe it isn’t so bad?

Remember that statement I made about comic books and other geeky, nerdy things now coming into mainstream popularity? That was not a thing even 10 years ago (back when the first Avengers movie was barely a concept and we were all still angry at Joel Schumacher for ruining Batman.). And there were plenty of people (me included) who have now found themselves in a curious place. Suddenly, the things we love(d) are now very popular. And that means those folks that teased many of us (me included) now suddenly very en vogue. I’ve had old high school friends suddenly claim that it’s so cool they know a cosplayer: the same folks that 10 long years ago was a sore subject and the butt of many jokes towards me. Now the jock that used to make fun of me for liking The Green Lantern is very excited about Guardians of the Galaxy movies.

Now, can people change? Sure. Am I being a little petty? Always. But I think it brings up a valid point. With the influx of new fans, the conversations can be a little strained now. Now we have plenty of folks who say they know comics based on the movies but likely couldn’t tell you much beyond that. Now, casual fans are fine and I love them but most casual fans don’t claim to be experts. It’s the folks that will step to other fans and say they know comics but only do because they’ve seen Captain America: Civil War three times. In so many other fields, I am a dirty casual. I’m a casual gamer, pretty novice with RPGs and while I used to be a strong tournament contender in a few things, I’m by no means as good at Street Fighter as I used to be.

“Stay in your lane.” is a shorthand for that kind of thing I use a lot and a few of my friends have picked it up, too. When Carlos and Ricky are talking stats in Tekken, I tend to shut up and let them. If they ask about stitches, well, it’s my time to shine then.

Another aspect of gatekeeping is one close to my heart and a topic we’ve tackled before. It’s the topic of having convictions, discussions and not being reduced to name-calling when someone doesn’t agree with your ship. During many a gatekeeper’s conversation, I’ve had to defend which Lantern Corps I was in. Which Harry Potter house I was sorted into. I had to explain why I liked a comic and had to prove my knowledge of it frequently. And sure, it was demoralizing and exhausting but it made a fan with iron-clad convictions. When I was on my dear friend Heather’s show ( seriously, listen to it and enjoy several minutes of us fangirling over each other. ) we discussed this sort of phenomena and it comes down to attachment styles. Because I had to constantly fight and prove what I loved an why I was a fan: I have now been able to form secure attachments to my fandoms. Newer fans that have not had to constantly prove themselves have formed insecure attachments often times because they are not being challenged. Because of that, any challenge is perceived as a threat on their person rather than an often times valid criticism of the piece of media they wish to defend.

Now, that doesn’t mean that I wish for the same horrible experience I had as a fan to happen to newer and casual fans. No, not at all. But there is something to be said about challenging a fan. I have this problem a lot with recent film criticism where Internet critics will bash a thing from a comic book movie even though it is likely the most authentic part of the film.

There’s something to be said about being challenged from time to time. There’s something to be said about having to defend your ship. There’s something to be said about being proven right or wrong. And there’s always room for a good, spirited conversation that doesn’t devolve into racial slurs and casually calling someone a homophobe.

In the comments: I’ll be answering questions and ranting about how amazing Damien Wayne is.

Thanks for reading!