Captain Marvel: The rules of engagement

Happy one week anniversary of one of my favorite recent superhero movies. Let’s talk about Captain Marvel.

I’ve said before and I’ll say again that I’m not a reader of the Marvel comics. I’m not much of a comic book reader in general. So my introduction to all Marvel superheroes is generally the one I get with the movie. I’m not averse to that – I think that, consistency aside – some of these movies have been absolutely excellent from a storytelling perspective, and that’s what I talk about when I do reviews of them. This movie was one of those movies.

Spoilers, goes without saying.

Continue reading “Captain Marvel: The rules of engagement”

It’s movie time!

Guys, I’m starting to get excited about movies in 2019. I haven’t felt excited for any movie releases for months, keep in mind. Then I saw this:

How did I not know?

If there were two people in this world more worthy of taking up the mantle of MIB, I cannot think of them. The movie is coming out in June, and I think it’s going on my most anticipated films of the year list already. I’m hoping it has everything I like about Thor: Ragnarok

Also a thing I’m looking forward to? You probably don’t have to guess. This trailer dropped a few weeks ago and…. I’m cautiously hopeful?

Like admittedly I’m only hopeful because the narrative weight seems to be being placed on Iron Man and the Cap/Black Widow duo (my favorite Avengers movie is actually Captain America: Winter Soldier, followed by Ragnarok, followed by all the Iron Man movies because I can’t pick one? But Natasha and Steve play so well, I love them.) I’m a little nervous about what they’re going to do with Thor because honestly I feel like he ranked as the Most Shafted Character in terms of overall development in Infinity War. Also have I mentioned that if that’s really how they killed Loki I’m never going to forgive anyone?

I am slightly less excited about Captain Marvel mostly because I am just…Marveled out. The continued introduction of new heroes is exhausting. I need them to chill. That said, I will definitely be in the theater for a woman-led superhero movie. I do not like the actress’ voice, though, and I hope that it will grow on me.

Other movies I am probably going to keep an eye on, though I haven’t decided if I will see them yet, include the Terminator Reboot, Charlie’s Angels, Zombieland 2, Aladdin, and Dark Phoenix.

The New Mutants is the last movie on my tentative list. I’ve not been seeing most of the recent X-Men titles in theaters, mostly because I’m just not that excited about them. But this seems like an example of taking a franchise idea and doing an original spinoff with it, so I will see how future trailers go, despite the rumors about delays. It looks a lot more horror focused, which is not my usual cup of tea for movies, but the premise seems really interesting. Plus a couple of the actors are ones I like.

Are there any movies you’re looking forward to? Let me know in the comments! If you want to read my previous movie reviews and analysis, you can do that at the Movies tag.


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Revisiting old loves: Van Helsing

Have you ever rewatched a movie and realized how much it shaped you?

For Halloween, the S.O. and I were looking for a spooky watch. I don’t really like horror in the gory sense, but I am into anything with vampires, werewolves, and monsters of various stripes, especially if there’s some good action involved. While we were zooming through Netflix options, the S.O. mentioned he had never seen Van Helsing. I gasped, grasped my wounded heart, and immediately demanded that we rectify the situation.

For those unfamiliar with the title, Van Helsing is a pulpy, ridiculous, lovely movie that is riddled with issues. It is not a feminist work by any means, despite featuring several named female characters with distinctive personalities. It’s got fridging, and my least favorite trope of sex-in-exchange-for-being-saved. But it remains one of my favorite movies from my teenage years. The S.O. hated it, which I kind of expected. And I, upon watching it as an adult, realized that I had been profoundly influenced as a writer by this film.

There’s a wonderful scene in this movie where Van Helsing is attempting to rescue Anna Valerious from the clutches of Dracula. You know the one – the ball, the dance, the bright red dress. The moment when Anna looks in the mirror and realizes that everyone you see, all the beauty and glitter, is a lie – no one will help her.

van-helsing

I realized that some iteration of that moment happens in one of my books. The red dress, the powerlessness, made it into a scene in Child of Brii. The sense of disorientation I felt in that moment was shocking. Sure, I loved this movie, but that bit of inspiration wasn’t a conscious decision. The red dress, I would have said, was based off of any number of other things. But in that moment I realized that the red dress came from this film.

Recently, I read an article by Kameron Hurley for Locus Magazine, where she said:

I found myself sharing the many real-life stories, anec­dotes, experiences, and other things I’d read over the last 30-some years that went into building the worlds and people and concepts for this single piece of fiction. I was fascinated at the reminder that I was the only one who could have written this story in just this way. These were pieces of my life, all bundled up and remixed. It’s this unique blend of experiences that helps make up a writer’s voice.

For better or worse, Van Helsing and every other pulpy, delicious thing that I love is part of my voice. For a long time, I wrestled with feeling ashamed of wanting to write things that weren’t “heavy” enough, that held romance as an element, that featured women in fancy clothes or with female friends – and of writing stories that contained werewolves and demons purely for the delight of them. Maybe getting older has changed my tastes, or maybe I just don’t care as much anymore. Either way, I think the kinds of stories I’m willing and able to tell are becoming more balanced.

I still want to write works that show women as more than just pretty baubles, and I no doubt will. But I don’t think the red dress is a bad decision either. The glitter is worth writing as much as the gore. I need both. So I’ll take to heart this lesson from my old problematic favorite. They say to steal like an artist. I’m happy to steal from the stories that have shaped me, and to make those stories my own.


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Marvel’s Infinite War, Part 2

This blogpost finishes up my analysis of Infinity War, previously started last week. Here we’ll be taking a look at the stakes and the level of uncertainty in the film. Let’s proceed.

In the last blogpost, I talked mostly about characterization that needed to be beefed up to have made Infinity War connect for me. I also outlined the following lovely list of things that made me really check out of the movie. The list included:

  1. Emotional engagement, defined as connection to the characters and investment in what happens to them.
  2. Believability or digestibility of the stakes.
  3. Uncertainty in what would happen.

SPOILERS for Marvel’s Infinity War, if you haven’t guessed.

Continue reading “Marvel’s Infinite War, Part 2”

Marvel’s Infinite War Part 1

I finally got around to seeing Avengers: Infinity War. This movie is the latest Marvel installment in their current franchise reboot. They’ve done some really fun and amazing ones recently, but there have also been some major flops for me, including Dr. Strange and Guardians 2. For me, Infinity War fell closer to these two movies emotionally than it did to some of the best recent films (Black Panther and Ragnarok, I’m looking at you). I want to unpack that because anytime I don’t connect with something that otherwise is not a total trainwreck, I like to understand why as a writer so that I can watch for similar mistakes in my own creations. My conclusion about Infinity War is that multi-faceted and mostly to do with the difficulty of trying to handle all of the various characters and plot threads they were putting together. Let’s dive in.

(Spoilers for Infinity War and possibly other Marvel movies.)

Continue reading “Marvel’s Infinite War Part 1”

Thor: Reconstructing empire

So here’s a weird thing. I was really sick and high on cough medicine a few weekends ago and I happened to finally watch Thor: The Dark World (hereafter Thor 2 or The Dark World). Obviously, I was watching this movie well after having seen the glory that was Thor: Ragnarok, and it gave me some perspective.

First, let me disclaim. I did actually like Thor 2. This does not mean that I was blind to its flaws. We’re actually going to dive into some of those, sort of sideways. I was, however, pretty strung out sick, so if you are looking for a low-brain-power sick movie and like staring at Thor, this may be a good pick. If not, well, your miles may vary. But while Thor 2 may indeed be higher on my Marvel ranking list than Dr. Strange (let’s be honest, what isn’t) I’m not actually intending to talk about that today. I’m more interested in talking about Thor 2 within the context of the primary theme of Thor: Ragnarok – the critique of empire. Specifically, Asgard.

asgard

What is that you say? Ragnarok had a theme that was that political? Far be it from me to point this out to you so many months later, but yes, it did. Taika Waititi is a brilliant maniac, and he very clearly constructed a story that dealt with some major issues that don’t often get taken up in big budget superhero films in a critical way. I would argue that his work paved the way for Black Panther to be as political as it was, actually. If watched in a continuum, Ragnarok becomes the swing towards self-awareness of what empire means and its bloody history, while Black Panther deals with the equally destructive issue of isolation. These are two sides to the same technologically-advanced coin. Add to that Black Panther‘s own complicated relationship with colonialism, and you get a profoundly politically charged shift in these two films.

But how do previous Marvel films play into that? Specifically, how do previous Thor films play into that?

Thor: Ragnarok makes clear that no empire rules cleanly, because empire requires conquest. This is the dirty secret of Asgard, the secret that assures its eventual downfall from a technologically advanced civilization to a society of refugees. Except it’s not really such a secret, is it? In The Dark World, and in the original Thor, we saw our share of violence, often of the genocidal kind. The Asgardian’s history with the Dark Elves, with the Ice Giants – it’s an open book. Once, a people lived here. Once, there was a world. Then the Asgardians came, for one reason or another, and wiped it out. In these stories, we are led to believe that these other people were inherently evil. In The Dark World, the Dark Elves are specifically trying to wipe out the whole universe of stars because they apparently don’t like light or something. They’re not good people, or at least we’re told they’re not.

thor dark evles

But what led them here? What led to this? Was it merely the inevitable result of one empire’s clash with another? Is that an excuse?

The movie The Dark World was constructed to appeal to our narratives of good and evil, and of whiteness, a certain Western European cultural nostalgia. The soundtrack evoked the Lord of the Rings to the point where it could have honestly been stolen. The characters on screen were, for the most part, white  (with the notable exception of Heimdall and Hogun, who unfortunately had little screen time) and human-looking. Scenes in Asgard were golden and clean, evoking righteousness. The Asgardians were being attacked. The last conflict was ages ago, and really none of their concern. Why couldn’t they be left to subjugate the orc-looking dudes on their planets (I really have to question that director choice, by the by) in peace? They were the good guys.

golden thor

Then the Dark Elves had to revive their centuries-old vendetta and try to wipe out the universe.

Perhaps what was most interesting to me about this movie was the way that it continues to reflect the empire’s fascination with being attacked on its own soil. By their nature, empires are sprawling. We see that the Asgardians conquer several worlds, and control those territories. Yet the Dark Elves do not attack them on those worlds. They attack them at the heart – killing their queen, destroying their throne, the symbol of Asgardian power. They are unstoppable – just as the Asgardians have been unstoppable on so many other worlds, with their relative might and skill.

Taken within this context, Thor: Ragnarok is an even more subversive movie than first supposed. Not only does Ragnarok deal directly with the evils of empire – it does so in the quintessential empire, in the home of what, in The Dark World, has been structured off of our own ideas of the golden (white/Western/patriarchal) society.

Impressed Loki

Honestly, having that context made me love the Thor oeuvre even more.


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Annihilation: I’m still disappointed in Alex Garland

I’ve been looking forward to the movie adaptation of Annihilation for a long time, largely because I really enjoyed the book and also because of one specific reason: the cast of the book is, with one exception, entirely female. This is a big deal, since the story revolves around a bunch of highly-educated, idiosyncratic scientists going into what is essentially the Everglades if the Everglades were a haunted house. I was disappointed to see such a big name as Oscar Isaac cast in the movie, though I enjoy him in most things, because I knew that would mean that his role as the husband was intended to be expanded. I rationalized that this was probably a good thing. After all, his death in the book is the entire emotional impetus for the Biologist’s entry into the psychotropic-murder-swamp that is Area X. It made sense that he would have a bigger role.

That impetus, at least, did not change.

(SPOILERS, if you haven’t figured that out yet.)

The movie kept a lot of things to love about the book, including the general creep-fest that is Area X. It jettisoned a lot of other things. Some of this was good. All of the characters got names, for example. There was no magical hypnosis to control their minds, and Area X was a bit closer than I expected, but overall they made some good decisions with that. I was also gratified that, when the husband – called Kane in the movie – did show up, the awkward sex scene didn’t happen. I was not particularly into that sex scene, for obvious reasons to do with consent, though it worked in the book in ways it would never have been able to work in the movie.

That’s about the end of the good changes, I think.

As a whole, the narrative the movie went with was not terrible, but it was not exceptional either. While there was no way that the movie could have stayed entirely true to the book – different mediums being what they are – my dominant feeling coming out of this movie was a sense of disquiet. That disquiet had nothing to do with the giant monster-animals eating people’s throats out to steal their voices, though that was creepy. It had a lot more to do with the fact that Oscar Isaac had such a central role in this film, as I had suspected. In the book, the Biologist goes into Area X to find her husband, or at least find out what happened to him. It is clear from early on that the doppleganger that returns is not him, but a copy, and a malformed one. The Biologist is an ecologist, and she relishes the diversity and fecundity of the newly reclaimed landscape, free of human contamination. Her connection with Area X is almost as personal as her relationship with her husband by the end, who, by the way, she does not find in the first book. Instead, we are left to guess at their story. Did she drown? Did she meet him on the island? Are they living together, still, or dead together, their ghosts haunting this new world?

In contrast, the doppleganger of Kane survives. Lena, the biologist, sets out to eradicate the thing that has threatened her love with her hard-earned military skills. She finds video of her husband at several places, including video of his death. Because of the loss she has experienced, she treats Area X like a cancer, not a cleansing. She burns it. And when she comes home she gets a happy-ever-after with Kane’s echo, miraculously alive.

Kane’s fate remains central to Lena’s story, but not in the way that the husband’s fate is central to the story of the Biologist. There are relatively few points of dialogue in the movie that do not center around Kane or Kane’s all-male team. (I cannot think of an instance of dialogue that does not at some point mention Kane or Kane’s team once they have entered Area X, excepting perhaps the scene with the alligator.) There are also three named male characters in this adaptation, one of whom was invented from whole-cloth to cast Lena as an adulterer, a confusing decision at best. I believe this was supposed to be a way to rationalize Kane’s decision to enter Area X, but it felt like an excuse to show Natalie Portman naked. Keep in mind that this is an adaptation of a book told entirely from a female scientist’s perspective, one whose central themes include a profoundly ecological bent (entirely removed in this on-screen iteration), and where the only male character dies within the first two chapters and lives primarily as a ghost in the narrator’s head.

20-annihilation.w710.h473.jpg

It is disappointing to watch a movie that might have, in a better world, taken a diverse female cast and given them a gripping, cerebral storyline that didn’t revolve around men – and which fails to do so. Annihilation was not a terrible movie, taken out of the context of the source text. I do not hate it. But there was so much potential for what it could have been. And despite numerous things done right, the movie fell short of that potential.


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Artificial intelligence in Blade Runner 2049

I’ve been thinking a lot about AI lately, probably because someone pointed me at Janelle Monae’s Metropolis-themed albums. You may remember I did a whole blogpost in response to Ex Machina, comparing it to Metropolis. The latter movie is a fascinating piece of cultural history to me, as a woman and a speculative fiction author, so no doubt it will come up again. (You may also check out this post comparing depiction of AI.)

One of the things that fascinates me about the trope of a built artificial intelligence is the reasons that the creators (in narrative and of the narrative) code specific AIs as feminine. The feminine AI is, typically, a source of comfort, comfort that generally involves sex work but may not always. We see this very clearly in Metropolis, where the scientist creates a robot in the image of a woman he desires, and in Ex Machina, where the scientist creates multiple women, often voiceless, purely for the purposes of sex and a stunted type of companionship (though he rationalizes his inventions as more than that). But this narrative choice is simultaneously most poignant and most disturbing in the more recent Blade Runner 2049.

I posted about this movie when it came out, and I loved it. But I didn’t get into my exact emotional responses to the relationship between Joi and K because there was so much going on with the movie. K believes that he loves Joi, and Joi believes (as much as she can believe, which is left up to the viewer) that she loves K. But in the end, Joi is created to believe that she loves K. She is created to serve him. Can love that is not chosen be love?

What is fascinating to me about Joi’s character is how she is built to fulfill the idea of what a woman is. Unlike the replicants, who are largely shown behaving with clear autonomy and are able to affect change in the narrative, Joi is utterly loyal – and utterly powerless. In no scene is this more apparent than when K crashlands in the junkyard. Joi, experiencing a system error, is trying to wake him up, trying to help him in whatever way she can. But she cannot help him. She cannot even help herself.

Joi

Joi needs another woman to be able to even touch K in the way that she wants to. She needs a flesh-and-blood woman’s active participation to be intimate with K, and it is debatable how much control of that interaction she has, forced to sync each of her motions with Mariette’s own to maintain what is, in the end, an illusion. Whatever Joi feels, however she has been allowed to be an individual in her motivations and emotions, she is functionally without agency. Her existence is even more pitiful than K’s. At least he can kill those who hurt him. Joi can only be erased.

What is so powerful for me about the narrative role that Joi plays is that she does seem to care. In an article on Animation World Network, VFX supervisor Richard Hoover says this about the junkyard scene: “It was important to depict her attachment to K as her systems were failing. She tries to save K, but she can’t touch him or pull him from the wreckage. It was an emotional scene.” I respectfully disagree. It wasn’t just an emotional scene.

It was a horror movie.

There’s a popular concept in feminist critique called “fridging”. As defined, “‘Fridging’ (Short for ‘Women in Refrigerators’) Refers to an act where the villain kills, maims, depowers, or rapes someone close to the hero in order to break the hero’s spirit and attempt to make the hero chase him.” It surprised me not at all when Joi met her fate later in the movie. Joi was an idea of what women are, from the beginning. She was an idea of a housewife, of a companion, of a lover. She was, in the end, none of those things. She was a lie that K was told, that he let himself be told, by systems of power.

And that is what is so interesting, for me, about Joi’s character. Joi is a lie told about what women are, or perhaps about what it is desirable for women to be. But in the end, her vulnerable and truly self-less nature causes K nothing but pain. Just as systems of patriarchy often do not benefit individual men when enforced upon partners they rely on, K is not benefited by the lie of Joi’s character. He becomes dependent, and, later, lost. The lynchpin of his life was, after all, so easily twisted and stolen.

Unlike many viewers, I don’t think that Joi lacked feelings. I think that Joi was so stripped of agency as to have those feelings be fundamentally meaningless or harmful. And this reading is the horror movie, for me, because it is the horror of the narrative of womanhood that we are told, day after day. Powerlessness corrupts, and in Joi’s case, powerlessness erases.


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The Shape of Water: women and sex

I’ve had some time to think about The Shape of Water, which I saw a few weeks ago, and I have decided the thing that most impressed me about the film was not the beautiful composition, nor the aesthetic, nor, even, the commentary on how society attempts to break the outsiders among us into something palatable and how wrong that is. It was the way del Toro treated sex. Specifically, a woman’s sex.

Mild spoilers to follow for The Shape of Water.

shape of water

The movie, for those who haven’t seen it, opens with a sequence of the main character, Elisa, getting ready for her day at the super secret oceanic labs which are going to house the much-advertised fish-man. A very important part of Elisa’s evening is one that is most certainly not shown in film. Each evening, Elisa makes her lunch, runs a bath, climbs in, and masturbates. She does this one screen twice during the film, and each time the shot is framed in such a way as to do two things: to make it clear what she is doing, and to make it clear that you are not the target of it. This scene is not designed to titillate you, not exactly. It’s designed to make you acknowledge the complexity of being in a female body, a female who likes sex.

That last part is a very interesting aspect of Guillermo del Toro’s last two films, Shape of Water and Crimson Peak. In both of these films, the protagonist has been an adult woman. In both of the films, the protagonist has been in sexual situations – a romance arc being integral to the plots of both.

In neither film is the main character sexualized in the way that we, the audience, expect.

Crimson Peak is a good example of this. As the Bustle points out, at no point is Edith Cushing portrayed in any of the ways we expect women to be portrayed during sex. For one thing, she remains mostly out of view, her nakedness taking second fiddle to Thomas Sharpe’s. For another, she is clearly consenting, and her pleasure is accounted for. Del Toro manages to strike a careful, tender balance in this film. Edith is not the wide-eyed virgin, nor is she the ravenous whore. She is a woman, and Thomas is a man, and they are learning and experiencing together.

While the Bustle article crows that this is a new age for Hollywood, I for one have not noticed a sudden dearth of movies featuring the male gaze. I still find, far too often, moments in film that leave me lost and frustrated as I watch a rounded, interesting character become heavily objectified by the camera lens, or worse, a single woman installed as sexual window dressing to men’s struggles. (Kingsman is a terrible example of this, but I digress. We’re not here to talk about people who do this wrong. We’re here to talk about how del Toro does it right.)

Elisa’s role in this film could have easily been one of being unnecessarily sexualized. There were several moments that played off of the viewer’s expectations by skirting close to this but refusing to give into it. Aside from the initial masturbation scenes, one of the most notable ones is the scene where Richard Strickland traps Elisa in his office and makes advances towards her which are decidedly unwanted. This situation could have easily devolved into physical sexual violence. It does not.

In another notable scene, Elisa and her fish-man, unnamed for the duration of the film, have sex and are interrupted by her neighbor, Giles. While in many monster movies, the virginal female lead is the unwilling victim of the monster, in this case Elisa intentionally seeks out, befriends, and then seduces her monster. She is always the one in relative control – the fish-man cannot survive without her help. When Giles walks in on them, he sees a vision – Elisa embracing the fish-man, making clear, unashamed eye contact. Her naked body is not shown, and her position is not obviously erotic outside of that nakedness. The fish-man’s own form hides her, just as Thomas’ form hid Edith. It is not that we haven’t seen her skin before. It is that we see her, in all of her erotic glory, without any attempt at shame or degradation. Elisa is here because she wants to be. You will get no blushes, no guilt, from her.

There were several other things to love about this film. The decision to have a mute protagonist was something I worried about initially, but found myself very much enjoying. I love watching ASL, though I don’t really speak it. And my absolute favorite scene of the movie was also one that was heartbreaking – Giles being rejected at the pie shop was a well-functioning piece that drew clear parallels between the struggles of LGBTQ+ folks and racial minorities within society, with Giles finally speaking up in the face of racial injustice when he realized that it came from the same hegemony that had made his own life so miserable. There’s a lot that can be said about that, and I’m not the person to write it. And of course, as with every movie, there were flaws. I won’t list them here, but I recognize there were things that might have been done better.

All that said, I enjoyed the film, and I look forward to Guillermo del Toro’s next work, and his portrayal of the women in it.

 

 

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