Category Archives: movies

10 Things I Thought While Watching “Spectre”

The new James Bond movie “No Time to Die” promises a number of changes that upend Daniel Craig’s portrayal of the British superspy. It’s out soon, so it’s an ideal time to go back to Craig’s last foray into Bond and figure out what that mess was. The two movies link together, after all, with several key characters returning. How was re-watching “Spectre”?

1. Sam Smith or Radiohead?

That Sam Smith theme song. Oof. I have no idea why producers went with that over Radiohead’s version. I like Smith, but their version is about as safe as you can play it. Given that the rest of “Spectre” has very little interest in playing it safe, it’s hard to tell why producers chose that over something far moodier and more foreboding.

Here’s the opening credits edited with the Radiohead theme instead of the Smith one:

2. This is a Different Character

One thing I liked about the new Bond in “Casino Royale” and “Quantum of Solace” is that he did the calculations in his head. If he could get the bad guy but too many civilians were at risk, he’d back off and wait for another opportunity. You felt he had a duty, and that was often to be a wall between himself and the deaths of others. He’d risk one or two people and consider that the price of business, but never an entire crowd.

The tension lay in watching him back off and seeing how he found a way to create a new opportunity. That took good writing that sometimes established a set piece and then denied us that set piece, making us wait and wonder about how a confrontation would evolve.

It’s completely nonsensical then that in the film’s opening scene Bond chooses to have a fistfight that sends a helicopter wheeling about and nearly crashing into a crowd of hundreds. It doesn’t feel like I’m watching the same character. Or rather: it feels like the character is servicing the script rather than the other way around.

3. The Political Statement is Window Dressing

You remember the problem everyone had with the “Star Wars” prequels? That they focused on trade wars and the Galactic Senate and political machinations you could read a mile away, but you still had to wait and wade through them when they finally happened exactly as you predicted?

My problem isn’t that they felt Bond needed more of that – it’s fine to make political statements. The problem is that the political statement is made so clumsily that whole stretches of the film are devoted to a simple idea. Remember “The Dark Knight” for a second – Batman develops a tool that hacks into every cell phone in Gotham. He puts it into the hands of Lucius Fox, along with a way to destroy it when it’s served its purpose. We see a political commentary made, it’s employed into the plot, and then a solution for how to handle it is given. It doesn’t take over the movie.

“Quantum of Solace” had some problems, but one thing it did very well is it created an effective and moving plot around water rights in developing countries. It did this by asking us to inhabit that world and that experience for a time.

The political statement in “Spectre” is never inhabited. It’s part of a set, it’s a backdrop. Nothing is taught, nothing brave is said about spying on citizens beyond, “This is wrong.” Even then, it’s stated only in the broadest sense. There’s no nuance, there’s no real world impact to its existence or lack thereof. I agree with the film’s broad argument wholeheartedly, but we’re told spying on citizens is wrong by a spy who can defeat the plan to spy on citizens because he’s so gosh darn good at spying on citizens.

The good guys believe it’s wrong, and since they’re good guys and it’s a Bond movie, you know they’ll be OK…but the good guys never defeat what’s most important when making a political statement – they never defeat the argument or the ideal that they’re fighting, since the movie itself never bothers to fight it.

4. “Hudson Hawk” Editing

There’s a scene in “Hudson Hawk” where characters are saved from a fall because they literally fall into the next scene. Then they pick up the scene as if it’s perfectly natural for them to be there.

“Spectre” feels a lot like this, except it’s not supposed to be a spoof. The most basic elements of how Bond gets from place to place, and more importantly why he goes from place to place, are either mumbled, dropped out of conversation, or never explained in a context. Bond’s in an entirely new country, in a new climate. Why? Cause we’ve had an action scene in two other climates but we haven’t done one in the mountains yet.

“Casino Royale” and “Quantum of Solace” had intricately winding plots, but they were made exquisitely simple by the scripting and filmmaking. The plot of “Spectre” is on rails the entire time: A to B to C. Yet you can hardly ever follow why something is happening.

Compare this especially to the last four “Mission Impossible” movies, which have delivered spider webbed spy plots and globetrotting set pieces, yet somehow managed to make these complications extremely sleek and accessible to the point of elegance. “Spectre” can barely get a scene change right.

5. Perfume Commercials

There’s a compact and far more entertaining hour and a half movie in here somewhere. I usually want my movies winding and long, but interrupting your spy action for sequences that feel like perfume commercials every 15 minutes makes zero sense.

There’s endless focus on the sets, the locations, and the atmosphere. It all forgets to keep the plot moving. You expect Daniel Craig to turn around at any moment and whisper, “Wingardium Leviosa by Calvin Klein” before spritzing himself with a bottle – and honestly, that would make more sense because it would at least fit the tone of what’s presented throughout the middle of “Spectre”.

6. James Bond is Bad at Sex

“Hi, I’m Bond. James Bond. I just killed your two assassins.”
“We literally only have five minutes before more come to kill me.”
“Let’s have sex.”

These aren’t direct quotes, but it’s pretty much how the Monica Bellucci scene plays out. Look, you see each other and want to jump each others’ bones, that’s fine. But there’s no chemistry here, there’s just a sort of borderline “Is this about to turn into a sexual assault?”

It doesn’t, she’s into it, another “Skyfall” moment barely dodged – although it’s worth noting that he killed her husband and she might be terrified of him. I’ll take it on faith that this is a consensual moment the movie communicates really badly.

There’s not an ounce of chemistry anywhere to be seen, but that holds true for any two people sharing a scene in “Spectre”. I’m not even going to address that mess. What I’ll address is scripting. Scripting, guys. Scripting. Get it together. You’re essentially telling us Bond gets off in, like, 90 seconds. That doesn’t seem that, uh…I mean, ignoring the 70s Roger Moore, misogynist claptrap a scene like this hearkens back to (which you shouldn’t, though), let’s be purely logical about what Bond’s communicating:

Bond’s supposed to be like the Superman of sex, and you’re telling us through your scripting, “Don’t worry, Bond literally takes less than five minutes.” Sounds, uh…I mean, it doesn’t seem like Monica Bellucci’s going to be having that much fun in this equation.

Sean Connery’s Bonds weren’t exactly forward-thinking about gender equality, but at least he’d ditch work for the day to take women on picnics. Daniel Craig’s just like, “All I need’s a minute, ninety seconds tops.” That’s not encouraging, James.

7. This is Severely Miscast

Rarely have so many strong actors been wasted. Christoph Waltz is doing a B-grade version of what we’ve seen him do better in other films. Bellucci’s there for five minutes and barely does a thing. Craig seems routinely disinterested (especially in his co-actors). Lea Seydoux is a far more enigmatic actress than just playing the straight-up Bond girl who falls in love. Dave Bautista isn’t a natural actor, but at least he showed he has charm for the screen in “Guardians of the Galaxy”. Here, they don’t even let him speak.

Yet the most inane casting choice in this whole mess was made in the last film – replacing Judi Dench with Ralph Fiennes as M. Fiennes is an actor whose specialty is hiding his characters, protecting them from the audience. He can create very real, very troubled characters that way, characters who draw you in because of the walls they’ve built to keep you out. In fact, he would’ve made a phenomenal villain for this. Yet as a bureaucrat with a gun, Fiennes is boring. We’re not tempted to draw in because the archetype he’s playing is intentionally uninviting.

So you end up with an actor protecting his character from an audience who’s not interested in penetrating the depths of that character. This creates a narrative wall in front of a character who’s already being performed with walls, meaning you could pretty much replace Fiennes with a wall and nothing about the film would change.

8. You Came for a Gunfight, but Have You Seen our Set Design?

That first climax. No, not the one that took Bond only ninety seconds. I mean the one in the desert that…also takes Bond only ninety seconds. Maybe if you spent less time showing off the production design for the perfume commercial you’re going to shoot right after this, you could have left the space for an actual gunfight, or fistfight, or anything more than Bond shooting a few people who – as the gunfight escalates – increasingly stand still doing nothing, and then magically destroying the entire base with one shot.

9. Time to Save the Wor- ooh, a Maze!

That last climax. The Sam Mendes Bond films are built around the villain planning for Bond to escape traps directly in front of their elaborately designed maze. This then requires Bond to completely ditch his plan to save the world and instead decide, “Ooh, a maze! This looks fun!”

10. Retcon Theater

The tie-in to what “Casino” and “Quantum” established with the Quantum group isn’t fleshed out. It just so happens Bond killed all of Blofeld’s Lieutenants in the previous movies by complete chance, even though the first one was basically about some schmuck who owed a warlord a lot of money and needed to win it back in a poker game. Seems that if Le Chiffre were secretly one of the most powerful people in the world, he wouldn’t need to do all that, he’d just be like, “Fuck it, I’m part of Spectre, I’ll just blow that guy up with a drone or send Dave Bautista after him.”

“Casino” and “Quantum” were about Bond working his way up the line of a powerful organization through villains who that organization considered expendable, not tripping over the key bad guys like he’s Chris Noth falling over evidence in “Law and Order: Criminal Intent”.

To retcon the villains of those movies into Blofeld’s top Lieutenants isn’t just dismissive of Bond’s work and the story evolution of the first two Craig films, it also just doesn’t make a lick of sense for anyone paying attention. Of course, that’s kind of a running theme for “Spectre”.

With “Skyfall” and “Spectre”, Sam Mendes has taken the much-needed re-invigoration and modernization of the Bond movies “Casino Royale” and “Quantum of Solace”, dismissed everything successful they did, and dialed their sensibilities back by decades. We’ve traded off complex characters, layered mysteries, and meaningful consequences (even for Bond’s sexual escapades) for set pieces that occur with the haphazard logic of a “Transformers” movie, and trivial titillation that doesn’t even seem to understand the most basic fundamentals of what human sexuality involves.

In the first two Craig movies, Bond was a globe-trotting superspy who had to prove his chops and was tempted by trauma and the sociopathy of revenge. He lost people close to him due to his single-mindedness and high opinion of himself, yet eventually found some brief access to peace and balance by turning someone else away from the path he’s taken. That’s compelling. That’s a reason to keep watching. For whatever other issues “Quantum of Solace” had, what it added to his character was complex and moving.

Mendes has taken that and made Bond into a sometimes-efficient, sometimes clumsy braggadocio who lucks into plot points and dei ex machina instead of uncovering them through any skill. He’ll risk hundreds of people for a fist fight, he takes 90 seconds to have sex, and villains can effectively distract him from saving the world by presenting him with a lame maze he has to solve for no reason.

Mendes took a revolution that made a character compelling who hadn’t been for a very long time, completely failed to understand it, and thought spending lots of money on cinematography and production design was a good replacement for a plot.

I’m thankful that the franchise has been handed off to a new director in Cary Fukunaga and the screenplay’s reportedly had a proper thrashing by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, but my excitement for “No Time to Die” is tempered by the fact it has to build atop the structure Mendes so completely broke.

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What “The Spy Who Dumped Me” Shows about Kate McKinnon’s Comedy

I nearly always make a snap judgment about Kate McKinnon in a movie. I’ll feel like she’s over-the-top or cringy in those first few seconds. Then I’ll feel like an ass for that snap judgment. Feeling like an ass is appropriate in this case. This is the exact same path I followed in her first few moments in “The Spy Who Dumped Me”.

It’s appropriate to have that moment of calling myself out because Kate McKinnon sets a lot of men off. Even if I’ve worked on undoing elements of toxic masculinity, there are still in-built reactions that need confrontation.

Nobody ever really stops every single impulse of sexism, or racism, or ableism (the list goes on). You can unlearn some, and others that are more ingrained you have to learn to recognize so that you can confront yourself about them. It’s constant work, not something you magically get over, and McKinnon leans on a place where a lot of men still need to do that work.

The same brashness that at first might set me off is one of McKinnon’s greatest strengths. Her comedy often calls me out for judging her characters, and it’s a reliable talent because it feels like her characters are judging themselves at the same time. Whatever ingrained bias I might be recognizing and confronting ends up directly at odds with my empathy. Because her characters often confront the impact of that bias, and show the emotional scars it can create in someone else, she doesn’t just evoke it; her comedy converses with you about it.

The limit of McKinnon’s characters is only the medium in which they appear. Her characters that get full movies can be broader than what’s allowed in a 5-minute sketch on “Saturday Night Live”. She welds a massive amount of heart into every character she plays, and she knows how to lend it to other actors who share scenes with her. When she’s invested in someone else, you get invested in them, too. She knows how to be 90% of the energy on screen, and still make that scene orbit someone else.

“The Spy Who Dumped Me” is one of the best examples for how well this can make a comedy work. McKinnon is paired with Mila Kunis. Essentially, Kunis’s Audrey discovers her ex-boyfriend was a spy who’s gone missing. Assassins come after her and her roomate Morgan (McKinnon). The pair escape to Europe in search of answers, and get increasingly involved in spy shenanigans.

Is it the best movie? A few elements fall flat, but it works as one of my favorite recent comedies for one major reason. To describe it requires a bit of a tangent:

I once read an article that described Ralph Fiennes as the actor who guarded his characters from the audience and never let anyone into them. There’s ego associated with that, and that fuels characters in a very interesting way. It intrigues and enraptures an audience that invests in wanting to see past those barriers.

I bring that up because McKinnon’s the exact opposite. She doesn’t guard her characters in any way. She gives performances that imagine there’s nothing worth guarding. The seemingly brash ego that announces itself in that first minute is often the result of a fear that you learn about throughout the rest of a performance. That can be heartbreaking, but then you see how fiercely she guards the people around her in movie after movie – not just as a character, but as a performer.

It’s not that McKinnon’s incapable of guarding her characters, it’s that she reliably guards the characters around her while opening her own up to vulnerability. That’s a difficult and pretty thankless task, and it makes incredibly modern, relatable characters.

McKinnon’s characters are sometimes over-the-top as a distraction to herself, to escape that self-judgment. She doesn’t need to guard herself if she can shift attention onto anyone else. In that way, as over-the-top as her performances can be, they communicate something very real, restrained, and down-to-earth.

The rest of the movie around her in “The Spy Who Dumped Me” is pretty good. It’s not great, but it’s elevated into higher territory because of the comedic pairing. Mila Kunis has performed a lot of B-characters and sidekicks over the years. She’s not the comic lead that McKinnon can be, but she doesn’t need to be. She may not be able to step outside complementary roles the way McKinnon can, but Kunis is extremely solid within them. She can be the straight man or the over-the-top performance, and she’s especially good at creating space that highlights other actors.

The magic in “The Spy Who Dumped Me” is that these are two actors who give to each other constantly. It’s not just their characters placing value in each other. In every scene, their performers keep elevating and valuing the other in that scene. The list of comedy pairings where two actors could lend attention to each other so completely is very brief – it mostly includes combinations of Madeline Kahn, Cleavon Little, Richard Pryor, and Gene Wilder, as well as the Marx Brothers. (I’ll come back round to Wilder in a second.)

We’re not used to comedies where the protagonists build each other up instead of constantly undermining each other. It’s strange for a comedy to bypass schadenfreude for 90% of its runtime.

“The Spy Who Dumped Me” shows that a comedy can still be very successful without it. More than that, the laughs come from a wider range of places. There really aren’t many recurring jokes in this. Recurring jokes aren’t bad, but many comedies like this can lean on them to supply the bulk of the humor. This avoids that pitfall.

It also doesn’t over-rely on either actor shouldering entire comedic bits entirely on themselves, such as in a Will Ferrell comedy. Sure, that can be funny, but it usually means a scene’s story and stakes have to stop in order to show the actor off. If one person is carrying the comedy, the comedy becomes reliant on that one person. It becomes about what they do in a scene, not what the scene does in a movie. That can be successful, but I tend to like comedies that take other approaches. They feel more substantive and stick with me. They’re comedies that I find myself wanting to re-watch.

If everyone’s carrying the comedy like in “The Spy Who Dumped Me”, you don’t have to veer away from the narrative in order to be funny.

I don’t imagine either that it’s a coincidence a film like this comes along co-written and directed by a woman (Susanna Fogel) and starring two women. If the film starred Adam Sandler and Kevin Hart, for instance, the narrative would be stopping to make its jokes five times a scene. The characters would never build each other up until they were capable of navigating the climax. Instead, they’d be tearing each other down until they lucked through it. There’s a place for comedies like that. There should be more of a place for comedies like “The Spy Who Dumped Me”.

McKinnon’s comedy is a mix of loud left turns and dry observations. It can mix the interruptive with the deeply complementary within moments: She can be a central figure one moment and then step back to raise the entire cast around her the next. It’s an undervalued quality and range in comic actors and it’s ideal for a good buddy pairing or ensemble work.

A number of other actors have done this over the years. Gene Wilder comes most prominently to mind and it’s one reason he could work so well spoofing so many different genres, and paired with so many different actors. You trusted him to take you down otherwise ridiculous plot developments one moment, and the next he could background himself and direct your focus to those around him. McKinnon has that breadth, and I’d love to see her given vehicles across genres like Wilder was.

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10 Things I Thought While Watching “Speed Racer”

I was supposed to appear on some panels at a convention this last weekend. I wasn’t able to and had to bow out at the last minute. One of the panels was called “Box Office Bombs That are Better Than You Think”. Early discussion before the con cited one beloved box office bomb above all others: the Wachowski sisters’ “Speed Racer”.

Even if I had to miss the panel, it’s something I still want to write about.

1. We Weren’t Ready for “Speed Racer”

“Speed Racer” is exceptionally good. You may not remember it that way. It was the first film after the Wachowskis’ “The Matrix” trilogy. People expected something dark and gothic, full of dour characters enacting sleek violence on each other. What they got was a sugar rush of color in a live-action cartoon that relied on sight gags and long set-ups to bad puns. In other words, an ideal movie. Just not one we were ready for. Imagine expecting something akin to “The Matrix” and then seeing this:

It also featured one of the best casts assembled that no one will ever think of that way: Emile Hirsch as ambitious racecar driver Speed, Christina Ricci as mechanic and spotter Trixie, John Goodman and Susan Sarandon as his parents, Matthew Fox as the controversial Racer X, and the deceptively rangy Roger Allam as villain Royalton.

The supporting cast was both eclectic and diverse, featuring Korean pop heartthrob Rain, original “Shaft” actor Richard Roundtree, and German TV actor Benno Furmann.

2. The Editing is Incredible

This isn’t a perfect film, but one thing I will argue is that the opening 17 minutes is one of the best edited sequences ever put to film. There’s a really magical alternate universe where pop filmmaking looks and feels like this. It didn’t die off with Tim Burton’s taste or get relegated to the Barry Sonnenfeld made-for-TV circuit.

The Wachowskis are two of the few directors who have really taken on this mantle, where CG doesn’t serve to make something look more real, but less so. One of the reasons I love “Speed Racer” is because it looks like it was lifted from someone’s imagination. It’s silly, it’s fun, it’s ridiculous. It has zero interest in telling you how important it is.

The Wachowskis consistently impress because they want to show you what’s sprouting out of their imaginations. We were happy to praise it when it connected to our angst, wore black trench coats, and whipped out guns for slow-motion shootouts. Yet we routinely reject it when it wears bright colors and tells us to be hopeful.

Editing and CG shouldn’t just be used to push the technical limits of the reality we can present – it should also push the imaginative limits, and that’s something that studios haven’t often prioritized in event filmmaking.

3. Rain & the Tragedy of “Ninja Assassin”

A bit more about Korean pop sensation Rain is in order. He plays a racer and an inheritor of a car company that rivals Royalton’s. Unfortunately, this is probably the movie that got him the lead role in James McTeigue’s “Ninja Assassin”. McTeigue is a frequent collaborator with the Wachowski sisters. He was the first assistant director on “The Matrix” trilogy, and a second unit director on “Speed Racer”. His own debut was the surprisingly good “V for Vendetta”.

Here’s what we’re talking about when it comes to “Ninja Assassin”.

The trailer makes it look like the film is constructed entirely of perpetually underlit scenes of bullet-time style throwing stars. It is. It’s actually a really accurate trailer. That trailer just saved you 99 minutes of your life.

The same patience for storytelling and skill for suspense in “V for Vendetta” was not replicated in “Ninja Assassin” (nor in any of McTeigue’s other films). Since it was Rain’s crossover attempt at Western stardom, the film shot down any real chance he’d have at additional lead roles in American films.

4. One Wachowskis Batman, Please

I’d watch a Wachowskis-directed Batman. Just saying. (I once would’ve suggested Matthew Fox for the lead, but am uncomfortable with a past allegation of violence he’s faced.)

The Wachowski sisters know how to build an atmospheric universe and direct a range of fast-paced fight choreography, and they have a wicked sense of casting that would fit the rogues gallery well. “The Matrix”, “Cloud Atlas”, and “Sense8” all prove they know how to make the kind of Batman that would continue to evolve the character and make him relevant, unlike the overstuffed meandering Zack Snyder did with it.

I have confidence in director Matt Reeves (and Robert Pattinson is an inspired choice as his upcoming Batman). I also can’t imagine producers would feel entirely safe trusting the Wachowskis with DC’s most reliable franchise. Still it’d be something I’d like to see.

5. Mini-John Goodman

Paulie Litt’s work in “Speed Racer” is really overlooked. He’d have been 12-ish when this was filmed. Litt plays Spritle Racer, Speed’s little brother, but damned if he’s not doing a spot-on impression of John Goodman at times. He’s doing the cheesy comedic sidekick role in a film overstocked with cheesy comedic sidekicks, and he might be doing the most effective work.

6. There is No Better Dialogue

“Inspector Detector suspected foul play.” Line of the century.

Dialogue of the century?

Trixie: Oh my god, was that a ninja?
Pops: More like a non-ja. Terrible what passes for a ninja these days.
Trixie: Cool beans.

Behold the greatest moment in modern cinema:

What’s best about this is that there’s an entire two minute fight scene that leads up to it. The fight scene is more Three Stooges than Matrix, and it doesn’t ramp up in choreography. It basically exists for a few sight gags, and to create a super-lame pun at the end. In other words, the perfect film does exist.

7. Trixie Keeps Bailing Everyone Out

The part doing the most to make this all work is Christina Ricci’s Trixie. It would have been remarkably easy to just have her there as eye candy, which is where you think her character’s going at first. Then it turns out she’s the most capable person in the film. She’s a helicopter pilot who spots for Speed in his races. She takes over as a race car driver in a death-defying cross-country rally when one driver is incapacitated. She breaks out kung fu skills and beats up henchmen in the middle of a larger brawl. And when the team needs to build a new car in less than a day-and-a-half, she’s front and center welding the thing together.

8. Christina Ricci is Overlooked as Hell

It helps a lot that Ricci has an incredible amount of experience in films that don’t take themselves overly seriously. Her career started with movies like “The Addams Family” and “Casper”, and she’s blazed a trail of leading roles in independent films that challenge the way audiences are used to watching movies. Emile Hirsch was so disgusted with the box office performance of “Speed Racer” that he fired his agent. He never understood the value of a film like this; he only saw it as a career opportunity. That’s ironic, given the theme of the film.

What’s even more ironic is that he starred next to a woman who’s built a successful career out of films that don’t fit particular molds, with box office surprises and failures. Ricci’s done so across a wide range of genres, at a time when it’s been nearly impossible for a woman to put together the resume of leading roles that she’s had.

It occurs to me she doesn’t get near her due when it comes to talking about the greatest actors of her generation. She should be in that conversation. Come to think of it, the same discipline for gaining and losing weight for roles that we routinely celebrate Christian Bale for is something that’s been used against her as a criticism. I can think of only a handful of actors alive today – of any generation – who can so deftly step back and forth between dramatic, indie, comedy, and B-movies with as sure a sense of what to bring to each.

9. A Balanced Gaze

Ricci does serve the male gaze now and again in the film, but they don’t overdo it. The film isn’t too interested in making anyone particularly sexy, but at least there’s equal opportunity here. Rain, Hirsch, and Fox all bare far more skin in this than Trixie does in the occasional mini-skirt. It’s important for films to show this kind of balance.

10. This Editing, Though

I keep thinking of that opening, that first 17-minute sequence that swoops through time and space to introduce us to the major protagonists and their emotional stakes. The Wachowskis do for editing in “Speed Racer” what they did for visual effects in “The Matrix”. The only difference is that it didn’t set the industry on fire. It’s a shame, because their approach is inventive, emotional, and energetic in ways that more traditional editing isn’t. It also challenges the way we’re used to watching movies. I wish I’d seen it inspire others to follow their example. I wouldn’t want all editing to look like this, but I think filmmaking would be a more exciting place if some of these lessons had grown roots and found their way into other projects.

If nothing else, it would take a marketplace where everyone’s trying to create their own connected universe and it would make it feel more aesthetically varied. We’ve got Marvel, DC, X-Men, Star Wars everything, Universal making a mess of its monster properties, LEGO, Hasbro, the Transformers shared universe idiocy, Sony still working on their Valiant Comics thing, and Tom Holland playing therapist between Sony and Disney to hold the Spider-Man universe(s) together by the seams.

Instead, we’re left with most of these franchises trying to do what the last did, with the bar for acceptance being “good enough”. I wouldn’t mind a few more films like “Speed Racer” challenging the sameness and middle ground so many of these franchises fall into. “Speed Racer” may have been a box office bomb, but at least it developed new cinematic language. There are a lot of franchises that haven’t done so much in half a dozen films, let alone one.

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The MCU and Genocide — Storytelling Negligence

Please be aware there are spoilers for various films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in this article.

Everything I read about upcoming MCU shows is that this character didn’t really die, they’re coming back, etc. I realize one of those shows may take place inside someone’s head, or in an alternate reality, or depend on the timey-wimey bits of “Avengers: Endgame”. It just makes a lot that’s come before it feel even more questionable.

Who Stays Dead in the MCU?

Characters coming back to life simply because we like them, enjoy their performers, and want to see more of them begs a very obvious question:

Who did die in the MCU and will really stay dead?

A lot of people in Sokovia who died in “Avengers: Age of Ultron” are still dead. That’s a nation coded as Eastern European.

Most of a group of fleeing refugees whose homeland was just devastated in “Thor: Ragnarok” are still dead. That made a noteworthy opening for “Avengers: Infinity War”, but it stomped all over one of the chief takeaways from “Ragnarok”.

Later in the film, thousands of soldiers in the African nation of Wakanda protect an android. They die simply because the heroes are unwilling to give up one life. They’ll give up thousands of African lives, sure, but heavens no – not an android who wants to sacrifice himself in order to save others.

Oh, and countless planets we’ve only seen in passing and are unimportant have been annihilated. They’re not important because they’re coded as “other”.

Iron Man got more of a sendoff in “Avengers: Endgame” than all these groups combined.

Risk Management

Superhero movies work with the notion that people are at risk. They have to be saved from something that threatens them – without that precept, there wouldn’t be a need for superheroes. The MCU deserves some credit for wanting to explore what happens when the superheroes fail. Yet that failure is only ever used as window dressing, or a plot device. Nothing is revealed from it.

What happens in Sokovia is the fuel for a plotline in “Captain America: Civil War”. Should superheroes be regulated with international oversight? That’s an interesting question. I do get that exploring it in greater depth doesn’t put butts in the seats the way that car chases, great fight scenes, and Chris Evans benching helicopters does.

Yet the imperative to make money in these movies doesn’t excuse them from using mass killings simply as a plot device to get superheroes to face off. The ultimate question of whether superheroes should be regulated and have oversight really ceased to matter after that movie.

Theoretically, it still would have been an issue – especially after all they do across two-thirds of “Civil War” is destroy large chunks of major cities. Yet aside from positioning certain characters (Captain America and friends stay in hiding, Iron Man and his cohort dorm up together), that fight about being accountable to their destruction never again matters.

Scarlet Witch Deserves Better

When a group with power does something negligent in the real world that causes death and impacts lives, we generally favor their being held accountable in some way. Take the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in 2010 or any of a dozen other corporate disasters. Whether that accountability is ever enacted is another question. We do want our leaders to seek it out in the first place, though.

Certainly, the creation of a rogue A.I. and robot army that levels an entire city (and portions of others) is pretty dang negligent. It causes deaths, refugees, ruins an economy, and impacts hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of lives. Oh, and the city was almost used as a giant meteor to wipe out the human race.

“Avengers: Age of Ultron” does give us two survivors of a war to root for in Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver. She blames Iron Man’s alter-ego, Tony Stark, for selling weaponry that contributed to her and her brother being orphaned. Yet the onus in that film is never on the audience to have a problem with Stark. We’re told he’s already changed and that’s good enough. Instead, the story focuses on Scarlet Witch getting on board with the program so that she can help save Sokovia. What’s she saving it from? From mass destruction that’s once again the fault of Tony Stark.

The story treats Scarlet Witch as the one who needs to evolve, not Stark. The story fails to treat Scarlet Witch as someone who’s so right about something that she’s right about it all over again now. The entire plot of the movie is that she was right about Tony Stark, yet the storytelling treats her as someone who needs to get over it in order to clean up after him.

She discovers the magic of forgiving someone for helping destroy her country even as his actions destroy it again. That’s certainly a fairy tale I’m sure many powerful leaders tell themselves.

Two Early Places They Got it Right

I get it. It’s hard to turn on the people who saved humanity from Loki and aliens and tell them that act doesn’t mean they have a blank check to do whatever they please. That’s not really what I’m asking, though. What I’m asking is that the filmmakers treat mass killing equally.

I think about “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” a lot because even the threat of genocide was treated extremely seriously there. It wasn’t the whole world being threatened in that film, it was people selected out through mass surveillance for their political beliefs and likelihood to resist. “Winter Soldier” had jokes and stellar action scenes, and it also treated the subject matter they were engaging as if it was worth examining more deeply.

The first “Guardians of the Galaxy” absolutely used the potential destruction of a planet and its people as an excuse for action scenes (the way nearly all superhero movies do). Yet it also examined characters who were each either exiled from their race or the last of their kind. They were survivors of genocides. It treated what they’d been through and the trauma that it caused seriously.

Atrocity as Window Dressing

Then the second “Guardians of the Galaxy” came along and ended with a big funeral for Yondu, who we find out early in the film was disgraced because he was once a child trafficker. Nobody ever deals with that, but it’s apparently OK because the protagonist saw him as a father figure. Everyone’s happy! Except all those kids he trafficked who are dead now.

“Avengers: Endgame” uses a range of Holocaust remembrance imagery, chiefly delivered through Ant-Man coming back into the world without knowledge of Thanos’s genocide. He has to discover what’s happened through the iconography we put in place to remember half of the world’s population being erased from existence. He then has to race to find if his daughter is still alive. It’s a fairly panicked and serious set of scenes.

Meanwhile, Captain America leads a trauma support group. For perhaps the first time in the wake of an MCU genocide, the tone of everything is appropria– oh wait, Hulk gets recognized by kids in a diner because he’s famous and Ant-Man’s not.

And just like that, the somber tone is over and the meaning of it all is yanked out from under us because we have to get back to being a Marvel movie. What about the remaining Asgardian refugees? Who cares, Thor’s fat now! The genocide is window dressing, the refugees are set-up for a joke.

It goes beyond the screen, too. The only two directors of color in the MCU’s first 23 movies told stories that asked serious questions about colonialism and racism. Ryan Coogler gave us a situation that was impossible to judge or find a right side to in “Black Panther”. He delivered imagery of African superheroes that we haven’t seen on-screen before.

Taika Waititi gave us the best comedy in the entire MCU when it came to “Thor: Ragnarok”. At the same time, he examined accountability to colonialist histories. He also used that comedy to turn a Norse mythology that’s often appropriated by white supremacists into a story about those mythological figures becoming refugees.

Of course, “Avengers: Infinity War” then sacrificed thousands of Wakandan soldiers and those refugees for the purposes of…action scenes, basically. Neither scene was particularly important to the plot beyond the need for a shocking introduction and a set-piece.

Then “Avengers: Endgame” decided it finally wanted to include the Asgardian refugee crisis by jump-starting our first-in-the-MCU line of fat jokes.

The Hierarchy of Death

Genocide in storytelling is something we should be pretty consistent about addressing. That’s not a big ask or a magically high expectation. It’s pretty reasonable to ask that from our entertainment.

We see New York City is worth risking everything to save. Even if it means risking the lives of our superheroes, the story tells us that’s what we need to do.

Sokovia and its Eastern European population is worth saving, too, but the cause of the destruction is absolutely the negligence and carelessness of superheroes. At least they risk themselves to save some of its people in the end, but at the same time it’s suggested those people forgive our heroes their negligence.

“Avengers: Infinity War” tells us Wakanda isn’t worth saving. It’s not worth risking the lives of superheroes to save. In fact, the sacrifice is inverted. We’ll ask Wakanda to risk thousands of African lives for one superhero.

Iron Man floating in space can be saved, but not an entire ship of refugees. That ship of refugees exists to challenge viewers about their perception of who refugees are. Yet we’ll throw that out the window if it means Thanos can give a quick expository monologue that gets us caught up on the plot.

I don’t hate the MCU. Far from it. I like seeing things blow up in pretty colors as much as the next viewer. Yet too often after an MCU movie, I can’t get a quote from Naomi Klein’s “Fences and Windows” out of my head:

“This, it seems, is the ‘civilization’ we are fighting for: battles of who is allowed to bleed. “Compassion,” a friend wrote to me last week, “is not a zero sum game. But there is also undeniably something unbearable in the hierarchy of death (1 American equals 2 west Europeans equals 10 Yugoslavs equals 50 Arabs equals 200 Africans), which is one part power, one part wealth, one part race.

As media makers we need to look deeply into our own work, and ask ourselves what we are doing to feed this devaluation of human lives and the rage and recklessness that flow from it. Traditionally, we are far too used to patting ourselves on the back.”

The MCU generally supports that math. The MCU has developed a tendency to rely on it as a storytelling shortcut rather than challenge it. We need to look more deeply into why some tragedies touch our souls when others are just plot and window dressing.

Yes, it’s escapism, and escapism in turn shapes many of our norms. It influences us. It’s OK to hold it accountable. It’s frightening to do with the things we love precisely because we don’t want to question our love for them – but it’s not just the things we hate and loathe that shift our norms and make us overlook the intolerable. The things we let in and identify with also require that accountability.

Will the MCU Fix This?

We can still identify with one part of something and enjoy it, while also discussing what it can do better. The answer to much of this is finding a greater diversity in the voices contributing to the MCU. On that front, I do have some cautious hope.

The next slate of seven films include two women directors. They’re Cate Shortland for “Black Widow”, and Chloe Zhao for “The Eternals”. Two in seven still isn’t enough, yet it’s twice as many as the first 23 films had.

Those same next seven films include four directors of color. They are Zhao, Destin Daniel Cretton for “Shang-Chi”, Taika Waititi returning for “Thor: Love and Thunder”, and Ryan Coogler returning for “Black Panther 2”. That’s also twice as many directors of color as the first 23 films had.

I enjoy the MCU. I see every film. I’ll see all the new ones. Yet the franchise as a whole needs to get over using genocide as plot shorthand. I’m tired of walking out of those films contemplating what they teach us about throwing away lives of entire populations because we value a superhero more highly.

The featured image comes from Screen Geek here.