Tag Archives: Marvel

Can We Nerd Out about the Visual Design of “Werewolf by Night”?

I did not have Frasier’s agent becoming the best MCU villain, but here we are. If you haven’t heard of it, “Werewolf by Night” is one the most under-advertised entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – or maybe the only one. It makes sense why. Marvel’s superhero films are extremely adaptable to different genres so long as they keep a colorful core visual style and comedic timing intact. There’s no place in that for a stylistically unique black-and-white, occasionally gory horror experiment that recalls classic monster movies.

The Halloween special seems to be an outlier that Disney doesn’t know how to quantify. At an hour long, it’s neither a series nor a movie, though I’ll call it a movie because it has the heft of one. It ties into no pre-existing MCU franchises (that may be a bonus for some). Yet it’s still canon and may introduce a few new heroes who’ll return later.

I will never tire of Laura Donnelly being mildly perturbed someone had the gall to run into her fist over and over again. A natural action hero and star of “The Nevers”, here she plays Elsa Bloodstone. She’s returned home to a gathering of monster hunters in order to challenge them for her late father’s powerful, stat-boosting gem. Gael Garcia Bernal is an arthouse legend who’s starred in “Mozart in the Jungle” and “Babel”. He has that rare quality of being able to infuse a film’s worth of character work into just a single scene. It works beautifully for him as an enigmatic and empathetic monster hunter.

Who’s the villain, though? Elsa’s mother Verussa, played by Harriet Sansom Harris. She steals the show, doing a legendary job of gnashing teeth at actors, scenery, and the human vocal range alike. Not that the MCU has a stable of tremendous villains (it still has to import its best over from 2000s Spider-Man), but she almost immediately becomes the best. Her and Killmonger, pretty much. I’d watch that show. And I knew I recognized her, but from where? She was the titular character’s diabolical temptress of an agent on “Frasier”. Naturally.

“Werewolf by Night” is phenomenal. One reason I don’t have a problem treating an hourlong like this as a film is because I think it immediately becomes one of the MCU’s best. As good as many Marvel projects are, their movies and series often have massive pacing issues. “Werewolf by Night” feels lean and effortless, which is pretty astonishing considering how much effort must have gone into achieving its visual design.

This is an exercise in style, but not an empty one. “Werewolf by Night” is built to pay homage to the dozens of black-and-white Universal monster movies of the 30s and 40s (“Dracula”, “Frankenstein”, “The Mummy”, “The Wolf Man”, just to name a few). Though they may have frightened moviegoers at the time, watching them today isn’t necessarily a scary experience. Instead, they bring deeply moody atmospheres, a patient sense of storytelling, and a comforting level of thrill. They don’t offer the terror of horror movies since, but they can feel like an autumn walk on a gray afternoon: atmospheric enough to want to slow down and imagine a world where what scares us is still fun. “Werewolf by Night” captures this so well. I didn’t find it scary, but I did find it soaked in atmosphere and that sense of thrill at falling in love with its world.

Some might be put off that it moves like a modern film. There are tracking shots, quick edits, and some of the clipped dialogue that reflects a typical MCU movie. There aren’t long takes, the classic two shots, or the kind of vignetted close-ups that helped define genre cinema of the 30s and 40s. “Werewolf by Night” draws lessons from a different era of horror, but it’s still not a modern one.

The black-and-white cinematography is impressively done, with unique and well-coordinated production design. There’s a focus on a tremendous amount of light sources on every set and in every shot, but the whole effect still feels very dark. It never is, the whole thing’s overwhelmingly lit, but by using so much light in concentrated places, any other texture feels dark simply by being in negative space. This is where the actors tend to move and be framed, so everything they do feels like it happens in darkness despite being so well lit. The whole thing feels like night when you can see everything with crystal clarity (many current fantasy efforts could learn from this).

This is an effect that’s not often used in black-and-white film. Those Universal monster movies tended to rely on brightly lit foreground spaces holding the actors. The approach was theatrical. Backdrops were dark and lighting was foregrounded to provide sharp contrasts. Look at this shot from “Dracula” for a famous example of the actor clearly highlighted against a dark backdrop.

The approach in “Werewolf by Night” is much closer to that used in a style of European horror called giallo. The hyperviolent and sometimes supernatural detective stories weren’t shot in black-and-white, but they often relied on placing the actor in the darkest of two unique tones. “Suspiria” alone utilized blue-and-red, green-and-black, lavender-and-blue, yellow-and-brown, the list goes on.

A brightly lit shot can be made to seem dark in any two-color scheme, so long as the actor exists in the “negative space” of the lighting – the part that’s underlit. That sounds pretty easy, but it means every shot has to be precisely coordinated with the production design. Any light or shadow in the wrong place, or any backdrop that’s light or dark in the wrong place, and the effect fails.

Giallo is hardly the only genre that uses this. Most of 80s horror owes a huge debt to giallo, and it’s almost certainly influenced American filmmaking more. And of course, early 2010s spy and action movies decided the visual effect could take the place of a screenplay. Yet each time it’s replicated, the effect gets watered down.

It’s surprising to see it embodied again so fully and originally. This is director Michael Giacchino’s first directorial effort after his considerable work as a film composer. He nails this visual style, thanks in large part to cinematographer Zoe White and production designer Maya Shimoguchi. They shoot the entire film translating this exacting design philosophy to black-and-white.

Moreover, it’s not the same trick over and over again. Highlights in the texture of a coffin feel velvety. Lights in the garden where the hunters track their prey are shown in several small globes or individual large cubes, whereas indoor lighting is concentrated in distant horizontal and vertical bars. The amount of coordination to constantly overlight in this variety of ways yet achieve the feeling of foregrounded darkness is exceptional.

There is one nitpick I’d bring against “Werewolf by Night”. The fight choreography is straightforward and grounded for both an MCU film and a monster movie, which I like, but I am done with the MCU’s addiction to having women do flying scissor leg takedowns instead of just kicking someone. At least the werewolf joins in on dodge-rolling like he’s playing “Dark Souls”. What gore there is (a lot for an MCU film, very little by horror standards) could have felt more impactful if joined to more deliberate fight choreo. That’s really my only quibble.

Among other things, “Werewolf by Night” highlights just how completely Universal mishandled their venerable classic monster franchises. Remember, “Dracula Untold” was the start of their shared Dark Universe, until it bombed, at which point the Tom Cruise “The Mummy” remake was the soft reboot of their shared Dark Universe, until that bombed and they realized the Dark Universe was a terrible idea, at which point they scrapped it until the excellent Elisabeth Moss-starrer “The Invisible Man” was a critical and box office success due to the freedom of its standalone nature…so they immediately made noises about the Dark Universe being back on. To think, they killed Guillermo Del Toro’s “Frankenstein” for all that.

I’m more impressed at the ability of “Werewolf by Night” to create and land its exacting visual design than I’ve been by any CGI feat in the MCU. Yes, they’ve done things that are more technologically impressive, groundbreaking, and much more expensive, while this is an approach mastered in the 70s through cinematography and production design. Yet it’s also an approach rarely achieved in such a qualitative way, let alone translated into black-and-white. “Werewolf by Night” is impressive for how incredible an artistic feat it is to nail that look not just for a scene, but for an hour straight in so many different yet consistent ways. It wouldn’t mean much if the film around it wasn’t good, but that 1970s design philosophy is utilized to bring the joyously thrilling feeling of those 1930s monster movies alive again. I think a lot of the MCU’s work is good, but it’s rare I walk away from one of its two-and-half hour movies or six-plus episode series thinking, “I want more”. I want more of “Werewolf by Night”.

You can watch “Werewolf by Night” on Disney+.

If you enjoy articles like this, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon! It helps with the time and resources to write more like it.

Is the Anger at “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law” Accurate?

Nope. Good read, very efficient.

If you’re wondering what I’m referring to, I mean the rising anger and review brigading orchestrated by men on popular sites’ user reviews. “She-Hulk” Attorney at Law saw more than 40% of its reviews on IMDB hit 1-out-of-10 before it even premiered. The bulk of reviews overall came from men, but those who were registered on IMDB as 30-or-over were particularly negative. Right now, the show holds just a 5.5 after a perfectly good first episode.

I went over negative user reviews on Metacritic on Friday. There, it holds a 4.4. I’ll feature some of the choice quotes here again. See if you can find a theme: “feminist crap”, “constant misandrist whining”, “hatred of men”, “push social agendas”, “activist BS”, “overly feministic”, “a window into the feminists narcissistic and ungrateful, petulant brain”, “feminazism trash for the M-She-U”.

What’s the anger about? After lawyer Jennifer Walters accidentally gets an infusion of cousin Bruce Banner’s Hulk blood, she turns into a hulk. The thing is, she’s good at it. “She-Hulk” makes a point of the fact that she can manage her anger better than Bruce because – as a woman – she has to live with anger and fear every day. Whereas Bruce has struggled for a decade to mesh the dual personality of Bruce and the Hulk, getting stuck as one or the other for long periods of time, Jennifer is immediately good at fusing the two. Why? Because Bruce has struggled to control his anger, and Jennifer has learned to live with hers.

“Activism! Feminist BS!” Allons, to the fainting couch! Yes, Mr. BranFlakes5000, tell me in as angry a tone as possible about how ungrateful and petulant women are. I can’t imagine where anyone could have possibly drawn the conclusion that men have problems controlling our anger. 1-star reviews before it even premieres? You certainly don’t lash out in any way.

How could Marvel change the comic where Jennifer maintains her personality, emotional control, and breaks the fourth wall for jokes into a series where Jennifer maintains her personality, emotional control, and breaks the fourth wall for jokes? If your argument is that the MCU is ruining Marvel Comics by being accurate to Marvel Comics, and they need to stop being accurate to Marvel Comics and start being accurate to Marvel Comics, then you’re not actually reading this, you’re in a Christopher Nolan movie where you’ve found the tangible representation of a Schrodinger’s emotional state. It’s nothing but your childhood bedroom and if you go through the door, you’ll only find yourself in your childhood bedroom again. You fall forever. Turn back to page 1.

One of the more insidious criticisms of “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law” has to do with the treatment of Bruce Banner’s Hulk. You see, they’ve turned him into a beta male, because the alpha-beta relationship is a thing biologist L. David Mech theorized about wolves in the 1980s before realizing oh shit, whoops, that theory didn’t pan out. Now, men’s rights con artists and incel MLMs will tell you that alphas and betas are a thing because apparently we all live in movies about Wall Street bankers set in the 1980s.

To fast forward, Bruce Banner has been turned into a smug, narcissistic beta who’s just there for comic relief. To which I ask: have you seen any of the MCU films? That’s his secret. He’s always smug. The worst scene (by far) in “Avengers: Endgame” was about Hulk not listening to Ant-Man trying to save everybody because Hulk was too busy taking selfies with adoring fans. Before that, he stood in Tony Stark’s way as he tried to double down on a prior mistake that had created Ultron and put the world at risk, until Tony appealed to Bruce’s ego and they tried again. Because Bruce is smug. Sure, he’s empathetic and complex and has anger issues, but he also has a strong dash of smug narcissist that has been present throughout Ruffalo’s portrayal of him.

But Tatiana Maslany’s Jennifer is a Mary Sue, who’s good at everything immediately? I’m sorry, let me call up “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist” Tony Stark, who says that about himself to Captain America, who was the goodiest two-shoes to ever good a shoe but just needed a dose of Mary Sue juice to go full Sky Captain. Or should GBPP and America’s Ass rope Thor in, whose major character flaw was being too smug and got an entire “Henry IV” adaptation about how if he faces his smugness, he’ll be rewarded with Natalie Portman. All the Avengers are is smug, except maybe Hawkeye, and that’s because Jeremy Renner is too busy chasing his dream role as Droopy Dog.

Someone’s lecturing someone else in an MCU property? Stop, don’t, come back. The movies would amount to one season of hourlongs if you cut out the lecturing. At least it’s about something now. It’s about how women control their anger better than men? They do. How is that even a conversation?

Every tupperware party of incels wants to sell that men are more aggressive, more violent, that other men need to fear their violence to know where they stand in the hierarchy, but also that men are super totes self-controlled and don’t act out their anger at all. Like, fucking choose one. Are you so uncontrollably violent other people need to fear you so much they “know their place” or can you control yourself like an adult? Which one is it? Insert Christopher Nolan’s Schrodinger’s Funhouse here, turn back to page 1.

Hell, look at this article. As a dude, I can use my anger to point out how ridiculous we as men are being about things like “She-Hulk” (and “Ms. Marvel” before it, “Captain Marvel” before that, the list outside the MCU is never-ending – see last week’s “A League of Their Own”.) There’s an entire language for male anger. I can write in it about others who have written in it. I can be condescending and snarky and make jokes and translate the ridiculousness of male anger by drawing on male anger itself, because so much of the language in which we write both fiction and criticism is based on dealing with male anger. This article is angry because male anger is so privileged that we can just write in it as the default. Male anger is how our culture is defined and described.

That’s why a portion of men get so angry about something like “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law”. The things that don’t just argue for women, but that sit entirely outside our description of the world through male anger? They threaten our worldview as men, don’t they? They threaten an entire universe of storytelling and writing that’s fundamentally based off of male anger: The Iliad, Beowulf, The Tain, the foundations of Western literature directly deal with the fallout of male anger and ego and have been translated over time to prize that anger, simplify their stories, and excise the criticisms that once existed as part of those tales. We’ve been trained in bastardized versions of our myths that champion anger. The Odyssey was once about PTSD, but read most translations today and it’s stripped down into a simple episodic adventure.

If superheroes are our modern mythology, they’re streamlined with the modern priorities we’ve used to overwrite that mythology. Some men feel threatened when they aren’t the only ones who get those worldviews confirmed by this modern foundation. Some men feel threatened when women or people of color assume any level of access to how that modern mythology is told. Incel Tupperware Party is out here upset that a woman briefly talks about having to control her anger when she’s sexually harassed or threatened, because her life often depends on her ability to remain calm throughout the situation. At the same time, Incel Tupperware Party wants to sell you on the idea that men somehow have a right to women and women just don’t know any better. They argue for a lack of self-control on men’s part that puts women at risk, and then get upset when women say they need to keep their heads to navigate the risk.

There is no greater critical achievement than to be brigaded with one-star reviews from incel movements. A lot of series are successful on-screen, but to be so successful on-screen that you can extend that success to pissing off the right people off-screen? Few things are that brave or that successful, and they deserve support and normalization. “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law” says nothing untrue. My biggest problem with narrative consistency is that when Bruce hulks out, his wavy hair turns curly, yet when Jennifer hulks out, her curly hair straightens out. That’s the immersion breaker for me. First MCU plothole ever, I’m sure. Otherwise, “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law” strikes every goal it aims for, both on- and off-screen.

You can watch “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law” on Disney+.

If you enjoy articles like this, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write more like it.

“Ms. Marvel” and the Order of the Fainting Couch

Let’s talk about conservatives, how we measure viewership, and “Ms. Marvel”…by talking about an extinct creature that once roamed the earth: the newspaper. For a long time, newspapers followed a rule. You needed regular features to keep your subscribers happy, and you needed fresh headlines to accumulate rack sales – people buying at newstands and in checkout lines. As print media has faded, you might say that this guideline no longer matters – and what could it possibly have to do with the MCU? Well, look around.

Do you read news online? You probably have a few regular sites you frequent, but you’ll still click on big headlines – sometimes even before checking the source. 24-hour news networks balance regular features and weekly programs with breaking news and specials. Even something like ESPN has their daily shows – usually all talking about the same few stories over and over again – balanced against unique documentaries and timely interviews that will speak to narrower bands of their audience.

That’s all legacy media, though. OK, the biggest streamers run regular, familiar content at the same time each week, but create and jump on other special events. Many devote time to playing one game they’re working through one day each week, and then leave other days up to new games and IRL content. YouTubers balance recurring features on a regular, predictable basis (usually weekly or monthly) with forays into new content to see what material hooks (and can eventually become the next regular weekly content).

Why should the MCU be any different? Reaction to “Ms. Marvel” has been both wonderful and horrible. Many viewers love it, and my Muslim friends have been speaking out about mainstream representation in a way they’ve rarely been able to discuss in the U.S. At the same time, reviews are being brigaded by racists pulling scores down and complaining about woke casting shoving diversity down their throats.

Let’s be real: Islam accounts for 25% of the world’s population. We’ve had 28 films and 18 series in the MCU. “Ms. Marvel” means that one of them has centered on a Muslim character. That’s about 2% of all MCU films and series. Two-percent to represent 25%, and this is somehow overrepresentation? It’s too much for you? Are you a Great Gatsby character – you need a fainting couch and some pearls to clutch? The only amount of representation that is less than one out of 46 is zero out of 46: complete erasure.

Let’s be clear what that argument really is. The complaint isn’t about overrepresentation, it’s about hate. It’s about being angry a group of people has been made barely visible. It’s about fearing that they are happy and feel represented, when before you could enjoy some small emulation of self-importance making them feel unseen. One out of 46 and your shit has been lost because some people feel seen.

If white replacement theory is scandalized by the notion that the quarter of the world that is Muslim is represented two-percent of the time, then I can’t imagine any way of thinking that’s smaller, more fragile, or more cowardly.

Ah, but the news about viewership proves them right, right? Full steam to the S.S. Fainting Couch, bowtied conservolads! “Ms. Marvel” is the least viewed MCU debut on Disney+. While Disney+ doesn’t release numbers itself, TV analytics companies assess a viewership range based on a lot of other data. According to SambaTV, “Ms. Marvel” only got 0.8 million viewers compared to the next least-watched of the Disney+ MCU shows: the 1.5 million of “Hawkeye”. Of course, those other shows are being produced at $25 million an episode – I’d be shocked if this were the case for a YA series like “Ms. Marvel”.

Oh look, I’m on the defensive already! I’m making excuses! You’ll steal my fainting couch for yourselves yet! So let’s talk about subscription vs. rack sales in terms of the MCU.

Chris Hemsworth is 38. Sebastian Stan is 39. Tom Hiddleston is 41. Chris Pratt is 42. Oscar Isaac is 43. Anthony Mackie is 43. Benedict Cumberbatch is 45. Paul Bettany is 51. Paul Rudd is 53 going on 30. Jeremy Renner is 51 going on 140. Hemsworth, Stan, and Hiddleston could be doing this another decade, but if Robert Downey Jr. was getting too old for this at 54 when most of his action scenes were being done through CGI, then how long are some of those actors going to be able to keep playing these roles?

And as much as we’d like to think that Brie Larson at 32, Elizabeth Olsen at 33, and Evangeline Lilly at 42 have plenty of time left, the franchise was willing to cut bait with Scarlett Johansson – the biggest star left in the franchise – when she was 36. It’d be great if the MCU sees women heroes return into their 50s the way it lets men, and it’s something we should insist on seeing, but what we’re fighting is a long precedent for major franchises retiring women a lot younger than they retire men.

The MCU needs more than Tom Holland, Simu Liu, and Hailee Steinfeld. It’s got the subscribers – Gen X and Millennials. We’re hooked in, by fandom or by sunk cost fallacy. If we’ve devoted this many hours of our lives to the MCU, I guess we’ve got to see what happens next. Sure, “Spider-people vs. Lokis” is just going to be 25 stunt-castings of each re-enacting the battle royale from “Anchorman”, but what else is a Millennial like me going to watch? A “Game of Thrones” spin-off? “Halo” season 2? I’m 20 movies and a dozen series deep into the MCU, I’ve got to see how Rob Schneider-man fights off Kevin Hart’s Loki #5.

The point is that the rack sales don’t make up the core of your audience. They won’t match the spending or numbers of your subscribers – but a subscriber base that never adds new subscribers will dwindle and fade. It can only be kept up so long. It’s those rack sales that convert new audience into subscribers. To convert them into subscribers, you’ve got to give them new reasons to show up.

The MCU isn’t going to get much more penetration into white America than it already has. It’s not going to get more Gen X and Millennial viewers, especially in terms of topping out its male viewership. It’s hit the point of diminishing returns on both.

SamboTV is saying “Ms. Marvel” doesn’t have the audience of the other Disney+ shows. So? The other thing they’re saying – that gets conveniently left out of The Fainting Couch Report – is that its audience is very different from those other Disney+ shows, with a much higher rate of Gen Z viewers and viewers of color. That’s new audience. That’s the group that’ll keep the MCU viable over the next decade-plus. That’s the audience you need to start showing up reliably in the way Gen X and Millennials have if you still want an MCU at this scale in a decade.

Some defenses rightly cite that there’s resistance by viewers who won’t watch a Muslim superhero. I’m sure that impacts the viewership numbers and needs to be talked about, but it’s not some proof that’s going to make a point to Disney. Disney isn’t sitting there saying, “Oh boy, our profit margin on ‘Ms. Marvel’ really depends on racists liking it!”

Others say that MCU shows on Disney+ weren’t released at the same time as a new Star Wars show, as “Ms. Marvel” is debuting opposite “Obi-Wan Kenobi”. I’m not sure that defense is accurate. Disney+ may see a spike in subscribers at this time, and the streaming service’s paid subscribers had already grown 33% year-over-year by early May – before either show debuted. More to the point, I’m not sure this defense is needed.

Here’s what I think is more relevant. Paul Rudd’s Ant Man has the 21st and 25th highest ranking movies in the MCU. Both films combined don’t reach the box office of 7th ranked “Captain Marvel”, but I don’t hear anyone arguing it’s proof Paul Rudd shouldn’t be part of the MCU.

Chris Hemsworth’s three Thor films rank 16th, 22nd, and 24th in the MCU. Why aren’t the review brigading fans insisting this is proof he shouldn’t be included?

Rudd and Hemsworth are by far the two worst-performing leads remaining in the MCU, unless you want to include mid-pandemic debuts. But they’re fan favorites. Odd how that works.

Rack sales convert into subscriptions, and you can’t make rack sales to an audience that’s already subscribed. You need new viewers. You need new types of viewers. You can’t produce either out of old viewers.

The MCU’s been going for 14 years, since “Iron Man” came out in 2008. I’m sure it wants to keep going for another 14. Are they going to trot out Benedict Cumberbatch at 59? Paul Rudd, vampirishly young as he stays, at 65? Are we going to be watching 55 year-old Tom Hiddleston re-unite with a 52-year old Chris Hemsworth? Some of them may still exist in the franchise, but I have my doubts most will be leading films or series. Are we going to stick with a 40 year-old Peter Parker? Will those actors even still want to play those roles at that age? And as great of a decision as it would be – as needed as it would be – if the MCU is groundbreaking enough to center movies on a woman superhero in her 50s, I will eat some kind of hat.

“Ms. Marvel” lead Iman Vellani is 19, making her the youngest superhero lead in the MCU by five years. A more diverse, younger audience is more important to the next 14 years of the MCU than a bunch of Millennials who’ll be in our 40s and 50s come 2036. The show has half the audience of “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier”, but I guarantee you that the MCU isn’t banking on Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, or their primary audience 14 years from now. It’s not even banking on Holland or Steinfeld at that point. It’s banking on actors like Vellani and a number of people we haven’t even heard of yet. It’s banking on characters they’ll need to build up before they judge the current ensemble has aged out. It’s banking on a broader range of viewers so that it doesn’t need to rely on pleasing a narrower range. The more aggressive and demanding that narrow range of viewers is, the more it just proves how quickly the MCU needs to diversify its viewership.

“Ms. Marvel” is good, too, by the way. I’m enjoying it a lot more than some of the MCU series and movies that’ve preceded it and that just keep on doing the same things. A “Where’s Waldo” of Spider-men may engage me now, but new perspectives, new voices, and new storytelling will contribute much more to keeping me interested over the next decade. The MCU is one of the few things that plan that far ahead, and that’s how its series and films should be measured. They’ve got countless projects to slow down current viewers from leaving – maybe too many. If you wonder why they’re making series like “Ms. Marvel” and the upcoming “Echo”, it’s because they need to start getting new audiences in quickly if they hope to convert them into diehard MCU fans a decade from now.

You can watch “Ms. Marvel” on Disney+. I highly recommend it.

If you enjoy articles like this, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write more like it.

A Difference, but Not a Departure — “Eternals”

I like “Eternals” because it’s different. I might be more critical if it were part of another franchise, but the MCU desperately needs entries that are different. That may seem like a strange claim after the last year of fresh choices Marvel has made, but after 27 movies and 17 series, that renewed creativity can feel as much like a survival mechanism as an artistic choice. Too many of these still boil down to fistfights and fireballs. I once thought I could never get enough of those two things, but the MCU can hit the repeat button too often.

This may be one of the factors that informs whether you like “Eternals” or not. Do you want something different out of the MCU? If the answer’s yes, then this may be the place to find it. If the answer’s no, you may find “Eternals” shifts too many of the narrative priorities you’re seeking, or even tackles too many at once.

The film follows 10 alien superheroes called Eternals. They’re sent by a Celestial (a member of an ancient race) to protect Earth from Deviants, a species that feeds on sentient life. Thankfully, that’s where the homework ends. In almost all ways, the story of “Eternals” happens separately from anything having to do with the Avengers and pre-existing MCU properties. That means you can watch and understand the film without having to know the interpersonal drama of two dozen brand names.

The Eternals spend thousands of years helping humanity to advance and protecting us from Deviants, eventually wiping out Deviant presence on the planet. Without a mission the last few hundred years, they’ve gone to separate corners of the world to live. Some choose quiet, unassuming lives, others become celebrity dynasties. Some take part in society, others isolate themselves from it. That is – until a surviving Deviant attacks two of them in London.

Now the Eternals have to get the old team back together, all while unraveling a deeper mystery as to their own purpose. This last part is really the film’s core. “Eternals” has action, but at its heart it’s a conversation between these characters about whether they should fulfill a divine purpose or use their personal morality to determine their own. The contrast between the never-changing Eternals and the always-adapting Deviants highlights this.

Director and co-writer Chloe Zhao has spoken about how “Eternals” engages Taoist concepts, and in many ways the film acts as a conversation between Taoism and Buddhism. Do the Eternals trust in the path of the universe they’ve been assigned, or do they treat what they find as an opportunity for rebirth? Can these things co-exist? Can the answers be different for different characters? Both ethical and unethical decisions are shown being made out of logic, and both are shown being made out of emotion.

OMG, what’s this all doing in an MCU film? Please. Captain America is half-Jesus allegory, half a season of “Daredevil” takes place in the Confessional, and Kenneth Branagh got a cool $150 million to make Henry IV, Part 1 but with more capes. Every infusion of meaning has been a good one, so let’s not be upset something non-Western finally makes the cut.

There’s also an underlying conversation happening between feminism and toxic masculinity here. Free of their mission for hundreds of years, how have the Eternals chosen to fill that void of purpose? One chooses empathy and community. One focuses their connection to humanity on only their partner, one social link who now bears all their emotional burdens and processing for them.

Does the nature of this change when someone focuses on another by choosing sacrifice and care; rather than expecting sacrifice and care be provided them from someone else as a burden? It’s not the focus of the film, but it guides characters’ motivations in important ways.

This range of perspectives makes for a unique and intriguing personal dynamic, especially in a film featuring Gemma Chan, Angelina Jolie, Richard Madden, Salma Hayek, Kumail Nanjiani, Brian Tyree Henry, Ma Dong-seok, and more.

I’ve seen these concepts engaged more complexly, but certainly not in a superhero movie. “Eternals” has some of the most interesting conversations because it sets aside many of the MCU’s cliches. The witty banter was great for the first 30+ projects, but it’s become awfully plug-and-play. For instance: I really enjoyed “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” and what it had to say, but the Sam-Bucky back-and-forth felt awfully similar to Steve Rogers-Tony Stark, Thor-Loki, Natasha-Clint, Doctor Strange-Spidey, the list goes on.

There’s a mix here of that banter alongside more deliberate jokes, a splash of prop humor, and Jolie delivering superb one-liners. Not all of it works, but all of it does help “Eternals” establish its own space instead of feeling like the Avengers rehash it could have been.

It also might be the most beautiful MCU film. Its storytelling hops around history to fill in backstories and realizations, and fuses together a history of sci-fi imagery. Zhao draws from Golden Age sci-fi, 60s B-movie, 80s horror, today’s superhero cinema, and anime. The result is pretty cohesive.

I liked the action because each Eternal has one or two superpowers and is otherwise pretty limited. They have to function as a team. When they don’t, they fail. The tension of the action scenes is less about whether they can out-punch the Deviant and more about whether they can agree on tactics when they’re otherwise not communicating well. That echoes the core conflict at the center of the film and allows these disagreements to be communicated by the action itself, without the traditional in-suit cutaways of heroes pausing fights for a debate. It also enables the action to help tell the story, rather than waiting until the set-piece is done.

Even if I thought a few of the powers are kind of silly, it still makes the action scenes smoother and better-paced when they’re chiefly about action instead of bickering. More importantly, it grounds me in the consequences of that moment.

Some of the Avengers team choreography feels like it’s made to be an impressive visual, and it succeeds at that. Because it succeeds so well at that, I’m rarely concerned about whether the Avengers will out-rocket, out-punch, and out-magic their foes. Hell, they’re doing so well they can pause for multiple team photos; they’ll get there in the end.

In the “Eternals”, we get an ebb and flow of messy vs. controlled, interspersed with one character’s ability to transform objects in ways that become a sort of fighting by way of magical realism. It’s a cool blend, albeit one that requires more suspension of disbelief. We know how rockets and shields and punching hard works. We don’t so much know how turning a bus into flower petals does.

There are also visual moments influenced by French cartoonist Moebius, Stanley Kubrick, David Lean, the Wachowski sisters, Kenji Misumi, and – my personal favorite – a gorgeous homage to one of John Carpenter’s most shocking creations. This is melded within Zhao’s own meditative style, a patient and incisive visual approach that recalls Terrence Malick, Byambasuren Davaa, and Zhang Yimou.

All this put together should make “Eternals” the best film in the MCU. In some ways, it may be, but there’s also a sense that it needed to pull even further away than it has to truly become what it wanted to be. It can feel like a large number of priorities mashed together at times, and that can sabotage pace. “Eternals” is two hours and 37 minutes. What could it have been as a three hour-and-ten minute meditation? That might test an audience’s patience, but so does a film that doesn’t entirely get where it wants to go.

At some point, much like its Hal Hartley-meets-Wong Kar Wai styled Netflix shows once did – and some of its Disney+ series start to before getting scared – the MCU’s got to deliver something that’s truly of another genre and approach. “Eternals” is maybe 70% of the way. It’s a different take on the MCU aesthetic and narrative philosophy, and that’s what I love about it most. Yet what the MCU needs a film like this to be is a complete departure from the aesthetic and narrative philosophy that can still exist within that cinematic universe.

The differences in “Eternals” are its strengths, but those strengths can also feel like a limitation’s been put on them. It feels like there’s an MCU ceiling of “this is how different you can make it, but no more”, regardless of whether that’s a studio decision or Zhao’s own. The result is a film I like and place among the better MCU movies but stop short of putting in that elite few. Nonetheless, it’s one I may be more interested in revisiting than a “Guardians of the Galaxy” or “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”, simply because “Eternals” hasn’t had a dozen semi-faded copies of it made yet.

You can watch “Eternals” on Disney+.

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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.

“Big Hero 6” is This Year’s “Frozen” (and might be even better)

Big Hero 6 flying

by Gabriel Valdez

There’s a moment in Big Hero 6, Disney’s new animated superhero film, when I was reminded why I like watching movies with live audiences instead of in critic screenings. Young Hiro has just flipped the switch on his sweet, rotund, inflatable robot Baymax, turning him from a friendly caretaker into a killing machine. In order to exact vengeance, Hiro momentarily erases any conscience the robot has. The next time Hiro tries this, Baymax refuses. You see, Hiro’s lost someone very close, and Baymax tries to teach Hiro to cope in a healthier way than just getting even.

It’s a touching scene that offers a glimpse into how deeply emotional something as silly as a computer-animated superhero comedy can be. I glanced around the theater. Critics would have been furiously scribbling in their notebooks. Instead, I saw a mother wipe away tears and a father badly pretend not to. I looked further and saw this reflected across the entire theater. Families leaned a foot closer to a screen 80 feet away and cried. I’d already given up on wiping away my own tears.

As an adaptation from a Marvel comic, Big Hero 6 is hilarious and full of creative action. It’s colorfully, brightly animated, written for both children and adults, and let me repeat: it is incredibly funny. It’s also a tremendous film about coping with loss, one of the most difficult subjects to talk about with children.

Big Hero 6 mid

Hiro is a child prodigy. He invents robots in a California-Japan mishmash of a city called San Fransokyo. He’s content to hustle robot fighting leagues until older brother Tadashi inspires him toward college. Hiro is putting it all together until one key cog comes loose, and everything is taken from him. All Hiro is left with is a clue about the man responsible, and his brother’s robotic personal healthcare assistant Baymax, as large and squishy as he is well-meaning.

The two follow the clue, recruiting help from Hiro’s inventor friends and, once they realize they’re out of their depth, recasting themselves as a team of superheroes with Baymax at the center.

If you’ll follow me on a tangent, Disney (like Pixar) runs a short animated film before each feature. Big Hero 6 gives us a treat with “Feast.” It’s the story of a dog rescued off the street who changes the direction of a man’s life. It is easily the best pairing of animated short and feature film either Pixar or Disney has ever made – “Feast” sets the theme and level of emotion for the bigger film that follows. What is Baymax, after all, if not a rescue? Take away the central mystery and the villain and the superheroics, and the emotional effect Baymax’s innocence and unconditional loyalty have on Hiro’s life are much the same.

Big Hero 6 hairy baby

Let’s get to that headline, though. How is superhero adventure Big Hero 6 like fantasy musical Frozen? There’s no singing, there’s no dancing, no talking snowmen or ice palaces. And yet, I felt the same way coming out of both of them. Endorphins had been kicking in the whole movie, I felt happier coming out than when I went in, and I’d been taken on a very complete emotional journey. I’m still feeling overwhelmed and incredibly charged by Big Hero 6 even as I edit this a day later.

Neither Disney film is a cinematic marvel, and they each lack the polish of a Dreamworks (How to Train Your Dragon) or proper Pixar (Brave) movie. Yet Big Hero 6 and Frozen are both more rough-and-tumble creative propositions, less finely tuned and more willing to make mistakes. They each bite off more than they can chew, yet find a way to rise to the occasion. They each make up for some occasionally simplified animation with well-defined characters, improvised elements, and plots that are incredibly full of heart. If there were an Oscar for Best Crowd Pleaser, the two Disney animations would walk away with it two years running.

The Big Hero 6 by the way? That team consists of African-American, Caucasian, Japanese, Korean, Latin-American, and robot characters. Three men, two women, one robot. Including more diverse casts of characters not only provides a wider range of role models for children to look up to, it’s also one of the easiest ways of making the world of a film feel bigger and more real. It’s one less suspension of disbelief rested on an audience’s shoulders. Given the response I saw, I’d say it works.

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.

1. Does Big Hero 6 have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Two of the heroes are GoGo, voiced by Jamie Chung, and Honey Lemon, voiced by Genesis Rodriguez. (They all have silly names like that. The hero’s name is Hiro, for godssakes, although that’s lifted from Snow Crash). There’s also Hiro’s guardian, his Aunt Cass (Maya Rudolph).

2. Do they talk to each other?

Yes.

3. About something other than a man?

Yes. They talk about science and technology, plan how to foil a villain, and argue over whether they’ll make it out of precarious situations. They also engage in group conversations in which women and men address the group at large.

As I was researching the film, I found an early interview indicating GoGo and Honey Lemon would have a petty rivalry over the boys’ attentions. Somewhere along the line, that got ditched, and I couldn’t be happier. Who are they without that petty rivalry? They’re both inventors, geniuses, technically apt, and good in a fight. GoGo is a laconic daredevil, Honey Lemon a stylish nerd.

When they become superheroes, GoGo uses magnetic levitation roller blades and hurls discs at enemies as if she saw Tron and took it as a challenge. Honey Lemon enters chemical formulas onto a keypad on her purse, which then dispenses the correct concoction. She can toss a ball of ice, sticky goo, or hardened shields at a moment’s notice.

As for the men, Wasabi has energy swords and Fred can jump high and breathe fire. That’s fun and all, but the women are far more exciting. GoGo’s scenes offer a lot of high-speed movement and stunts. Since Honey Lemon uses chemical reactions to fight, you don’t exactly know what she’s going to do – that always makes for an intriguing brand of action. Yeah, she uses her purse, but a purse that creates chemical reactions at will to let you fight as you want? Hell, I walked out of the theater wanting one of those.

Big Hero 6 GoGo

I’ll admit, GoGo is now one of my favorite superheroes. At one point, she tells a fretting Wasabi (Damon Wayans, Jr.) to “Woman up.” This later becomes a catchphrase she uses when she does something especially superheroic. I imagine my niece running around and shouting, “Woman up,” treating the phrase as the absolute essence of toughness and bravery. That is an incredibly big deal.

Additionally, on that diversity I mentioned earlier – Big Hero 6 is based on a Japanese comic in which nearly all the characters are Japanese. Obviously, that’s going to change in an American adaptation. It’s just what happens, and the same thing happens in reverse when American material is adapted in other countries. There’s nothing wrong with that. Cultures adapt and cast specifically to speak to their own demographics.

In this adaptation, however, Hiro’s family is Japanese, GoGo is Korean, Honey Lemon is Latin-American, Wasabi is African-American, and Fred is Caucasian. Where Frozen tackles issues of gender equality head-on and makes it an issue for certain characters, in Big Hero 6, no one ever has an attitude that someone can’t do something because of ethnicity or gender. It’s never even mentioned.

Both approaches are valuable. Frozen forces audience members to confront the way in which traditional media presents women as weak, helpless, and in need of saving. In Big Hero 6, equality just seems an everyday normality, and you get to spend two hours experiencing what that world is like.

That in itself is a powerful statement, and I can’t applaud the multitude of writers, directors Don Hall and Chris Williams, and casting director Jamie Sparer Roberts enough for how they designed this cast and these characters.

As moving as the film is itself, it’s even more extraordinary when you take into account how rare an approach to casting and character treatment this is in something that cost $165 million to make. I can’t recall a big-budget film ever doing diversity this well. Period.

Big Hero 6 team