MCU Retrospective: Black Panther

Written by Anna Harrison

In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. Finally (?), Marvel gets a Best Picture nomination! 

70/100

Black Panther was a long time coming. Wesley Snipes almost played the character in the 1990s, but the movie stayed on the backburner for years as Marvel Studios adapted and shifted; once the MCU was spawned, Ike Perlmutter dragged his feet as he thought a movie with a black lead wouldn’t sell (though Kevin Feige pushed for it), a move he would also pull with Captain Marvel. When Chadwick Boseman was finally announced as T’Challa, King of Wakanda and the Black Panther, there were issues finding a director, with Ava DuVernay publicly passing on the movie, until Marvel finally settled on Ryan Coogler after his success with Creed. And so at long last, 25 years after Wesley Snipes first announced that he would make a Black Panther movie (and 11 years after Snipes’ IRS issues came to light), Black Panther arrived on our screens.

And what an arrival it was. Black Panther became the top-grossing film of all time in the United States, surpassing The Avengers, and became the ninth-highest-grossing film of all time for a while, before it would be pushed to number 12. It spawned thinkpieces, it spawned memes, it garnered Marvel’s only Best Picture nomination. In short, Black Panther was a cultural reset.  

It’s easy to see how Black Panther sparked such conversation. It breaks the monotonously white landscape of superhero films, but Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole don’t just stick Boseman in a role that could have been played by yet another Chris: Black Panther is “steeped very specifically and purposely in its blackness,” as Carvell Wallace writes, but not steeped in the misery porn that so often populates movies about underrepresented groups. It’s a story about a very isolationist African country called Wakanda that went untouched by colonialism and was able to flourish due to the abundance of vibranium, the same metal which made Captain America’s shield, and, most notably, the absence of Europe and slave traders. Wakanda is a veritable paradise, one where there is no diaspora and where the royal line has ruled for years and years without being trampled by the white European world, a tantalizing “what if” scenario playing out before our very eyes in vibrant color.

Legendary costume designer Ruth Carter and production designer Hannah Beachler, both of whom would go on to net Oscars for their work, give Wakanda a rich, vibrant, Afrofuturist aesthetic that immediately sets it apart from its Westernized contemporaries, and Carter seamlessly integrates traditional African dress with Wakanda’s advanced technology. Wakanda’s advancements do not leave their origins behind, but rather they bring tradition with them, and those traditions are never otherized or looked down on as they so often are in other Hollywood movies—instead, they’re celebrated. Black Panther is infectiously and joyously rooted in Africa.

Yet all is not happy in Wakanda. After King T’Chaka’s (John Kani) death in Captain America: Civil War, his son, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), must ascend to the throne and accept the mantle of both king and Black Panther—and the responsibilities that come with both. This involves ritual combat, which seems an odd thing to linger in a country so many light years ahead of anywhere else (Wakanda’s monarchy, too, seems outdated, but playing around with a royal family is always good fun, and it’s a lot easier for scripts to have one leader with a few councilors rather than deal with the hassle of politicking elections), but allows for the introduction of a plot point that will come back later as well as the character of M’Baku (Winston Duke), leader of the reclusive Jabari tribe, who is an absolute scene-stealer—no small feat, seeing as he gets surrounded by veteran performers such as Angela Bassett as Ramonda, the Queen Mother, and Forest Whitaker as Zuri, an elder statesman.

Of course, at the heart of Black Panther lies the late Chadwick Boseman, whose magnetic performance as T’Challa made him—both the character and the actor—an iconic beacon of hope that continues to shine after Boseman’s passing. His supporting cast get their due as well: there’s Shuri (Letitia Wright), T’Challa’s sister and scientific genius, who provides most of the comedy; there’s Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), T’Challa’s ex and also a competent spy in her own right; and there’s Okoye (Danai Gurira), leader of the Dora Milaje, a group of women warriors who protect the king. These three vibrant women all have distinct characters and inner lives despite their supporting roles, something which cannot be said for other MCU ladies (Sharon Carter, Betty Ross, Natasha Romanoff at various points, the list goes on), and Shuri and Nakia both have had their names thrown around as the next Black Panther; it’s refreshing to see such a varied group of women where even the “designated love interest” has agency and goals of her own.

T’Challa defeats M’Baku, securing his crown, but another problem soon rears its head: Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), who first appeared in Avengers: Age of Ultron, has resurfaced in Korea with some stolen vibranium. T’Challa goes to stop Klaue with Nakia and Okoye in tow (their color palette—Nakia green, T’Challa black, and Okoye red—represents the pan-African flag), but Klaue is rescued by a certain someone bearing a ring identical to T’Challa’s. But tenuous ally Everett Ross (Martin Freeman, reprising his role from Civil War) gets shot, which grinds the mission to a halt as T’Challa brings Ross back to Wakanda to heal him, despite Okoye’s protests that bringing an outsider to Wakanda puts them all at risk. 

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

The certain someone responsible for Klaue’s escape goes by the name of Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan with a remarkable mix of ferocity and vulnerability, and from his opening scene accosting a museum worker (“How do you think your ancestors got these? Do you think they paid a fair price? Or did they take it, like they took everything else?”), he cements himself as not only one of the MCU’s most iconic villains, but one of its most iconic characters. 

Killmonger is also the MCU’s most political creation. Born N’Jadaka, Killmonger is the son of Prince N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown, shown in flashbacks) and the cousin to T’Challa; when N’Jobu was on assignment as a spy in America, he had a child with an American woman, and so Wakandan royal Killmonger was born in Oakland (where Coogler hails from). When N’Jobu came face-to-face with the realities of life as a black man outside of Wakanda, and especially in America, he became angry at his brother’s isolationist policies and so worked with Klaue to help arm dispossessed black people around the world to revolt and overthrow their oppressors. T’Chaka, determined to maintain Wakanda’s peace and isolation at all costs, killed his brother, leaving Killmonger behind in Oakland while he returned to his palace and lied about what happened to N’Jobu. It’s a harsh backstory, exposing the flaws in both Western and Wakandan society: America treats black men like N’Jobu with hostility, but Wakanda remains so determined to protect its own it damages those in less welcoming places.

Killmonger, now all grown up, has the same goal as his father with an added bonus: “I want the throne,” he says, as the throne is the most direct way to enact change. “You are all sitting up here comfortable. Must feel good. There’s about two billion people around the world who look like us, and their lives are a lot harder. Wakanda has the tools to liberate them all.” The mere existence of Killmonger’s radicalism is a pretty damning condemnation of the way the world outside Wakanda, and in particular America, treats black men. And, the thing is, he’s not wrong—in fact, there was a whole lot of “Killmonger was right” sentiment floating around after Black Panther’s release. 

Killmonger is simultaneously Marvel at its most finessed, but also at its most blunt: as with Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming, the movie has to work overtime to establish Killmonger’s villainy so the audience doesn’t root for him. This is most obvious when Killmonger shoots Klaue through his girlfriend (Nabiyah Be): this girlfriend adds nothing to the story, existing only to be killed so Killmonger officially becomes a Bad Guy whose aims might be good but whose methods are decidedly not. He even challenges T’Challa to ritual combat, tosses him off the side of a cliff, and seizes the throne, in case you were still feeling sympathetic to this guy.

Killmonger then imbibes the heart-shaped herb which gives the taker the strength of the Black Panther, and while he undergoes this ritual, he gets transported to the Ancestral Plane. When T’Challa did this exact same thing earlier in the film, his Ancestral Plane looked like the African savannah; when Killmonger takes the herb, he gets transported to his childhood apartment in Oakland, showing how his diasporic existence cut him off from his home and left him stranded between two worlds, neither of which accept him. It’s a powerful scene showing the traumatic effects of the African diaspora and how its effects linger even for those born outside, like Killmonger, and that inescapable pain reduces the killer to a child (literally, as Seth Carr steps in for Jordan). 

Yet the potency of the scene fades as Killmonger, with very little resistance, begins to send out vibranium weapons to Wakandan war dogs around the world so that the oppressed become the oppressors. The movie weakens here as it heads towards its climax, a visually nondescript brawl between various Wakandan factions that reinforces how utterly baffling it is that the world’s most advanced country still has a monarchy able to be overthrown without a moment’s notice with no infrastructure in place to prevent a tyrant from taking over. T’Challa comes back after being rescued by M’Baku and the Jabari tribe, there’s an unconvincing heel turn from his friend W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya, astoundingly underused), and everything snowballs towards a manufactured civil war (civil skirmish, more accurately) that, like in Captain America: Civil War’s airport fight, lacks a strong logical reason and only exists so the audience can see people beating each other up. It would have been far more interesting and effective to work to bring down Killmonger in a way that does not involve ritual combat, instead focusing on espionage and spy tactics, but I guess we have to get that bombastic Marvel ending. (To the battle’s credit, it involves war rhinos, which is absolutely absurd and absolutely amazing. War! Rhinos!)

Luckily, after the battle, introspection returns. “Bury me in the ocean, with my ancestors that jumped from the ships, because they knew death was better than bondage,” Killmonger says before he dies, a harsh line that snaps everything into perspective for T’Challa. He recognizes the truth in Killmonger’s words, and the movie ends with Wakanda stepping out of the shadows. Killmonger was so wracked by pain and anger that he became his oppressors (like, not really though, but that’s what the movie wants us to think), but T’Challa recognizes that, “In times of crisis, the wise build bridges while the foolish build barriers.” So Wakanda helps achieve equality not through radicalism, which is Evil, but through working with U.N. bureaucracy, which always works.

Upon rewatch, when the hubbub around Black Panther’s impact has died down, its weaknesses become more apparent. It’s a film whose cultural impact has overshadowed the flaws in its script (and its CGI, as has been discussed at length elsewhere, so I won’t linger on it except to say that for a studio with so much money, Marvel can really miss the mark with their VFX: for every Thanos, there’s a Killmonger/T’Challa fight in the vibranium mines), which goes for function over character. 

The best scenes come when the movie can combine these two—when Black Panther focuses on the here and now instead of the next scene, its emotional power in the MCU is hard to match; unfortunately, that happens rarely: most lines serve only as gateways to the next scene and tell the audience what will happen before it does so, feeling clunky and awkward. When the marriage of function and character does happen, you have strong scenes like Okoye and Nakia arguing the different ways to protect their country (a scene which also stands out as one of the few MCU scenes, at least until Captain Marvel, that features two women talking on screen with nary a man in sight), or Killmonger facing his father, or T’Challa facing his father and acknowledging how Wakanda’s isolation hurts others. 

Even with its flaws, though, nothing can take away the success of Black Panther—not necessarily as a movie in and of itself, but as a cultural moment that sparked a reassessing of not only the movie landscape but the social one. “Wakanda forever” became a common saying, and it wasn’t unusual to see someone with their arms crossed over their chest in a Wakandan salute. Here was a huge, tentpole movie, and from a studio that tends to tiptoe around political issues to boot, that addressed ideas of racism and isolationism while giving the world an inspiring black superhero who could go toe-to-toe with any of the largely white pantheon of superheroes. Black Panther might not be Marvel’s best film (and didn’t deserve that Best Picture nomination, let’s be honest), but it digs into the unsavory aspects of our world in a way that no other MCU feature even attempts to, and the way it resonated with viewers was, perhaps, a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence—and nothing can take away from that.

Groundwork and stray observations: Marvel has no big master plan; rather, they plant seeds wherever they can in the hopes that some of them might one day germinate. None of these were planned from day one, lest the whole ship sink, but the seeds germinated nonetheless:

  • Bucky (Sebastian Stan), aka “broken white boy” number one, shows up in the credits like he’s going to be a key player in Avengers: Infinity War. He is not. 
  • Shuri exclaims, “What are thooooose!” in reference to this Vine, which is very much in-line with what a 2017 teenager would do, but also immediately dates the movie. Like, really dates it. 
  • The so-called Museum of Great Britain is the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, which is one of the more obvious Atlanta landmarks and very funny to see when it’s supposed to be London.
  • For what it’s worth, M’Baku and Nakia are my top picks for the next Black Panther. (With the multiverse now opened, people are vying for a variant Killmonger to take up the mantle, but What If…? seemed to put a nail in that coffin by having their own variant Killmonger who showed up and immediately started murdering people.)

Anna’s Favorite Scene: Killmonger has a talk with his dad, N’Jobu, in the Ancestral Plane. Sterling K. Brown, though he has limited screentime, is absolutely superb, and brings immense depth to this relationship within the span of a handful of minutes. (Close second: T’Challa on the Ancestral Plane, round two, where he confronts the flaws of Wakanda more closely.)

MCU Ranking: 1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 2. Captain America: Civil War, 3. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, 4. Thor: Ragnarok, 5. Guardians of the Galaxy, 6. The Avengers, 7. Spider-Man: Homecoming, 8. Captain America: The First Avenger, 9. Iron Man 3, 10. Iron Man, 11. Black Panther, 12. Doctor Strange, 13. Ant-Man, 14. Thor, 15. Avengers: Age of Ultron, 16. Thor: The Dark World, 17. Iron Man 2, 18. The Incredible Hulk

Black Panther Trailer

Black Panther is currently available to rent and purchase on most digital storefronts, and is streaming on Disney+.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Jennifer’s Body

Written by Anna Harrison

70/100

You would be forgiven for assuming that Jennifer’s Body, written by Juno’s Diablo Cody and directed by Karyn Kusama, is just your average slasher movie populated by attractive women in progressively skimpier clothing; after all, most of its advertising focused on titular Megan Fox’s sex appeal as the titular Jennifer, truly taking the title of Jennifer’s Body to heart and making it all about, well, Jennifer’s body. Fox’s stardom was still at its zenith, but it was all based on her appearance: whenever she tried to be anything other than a vapid sex symbol, the press vilified her, and so the marketing for Jennifer’s Body was all about sex, sex, and more sex in an attempt to appeal to the young men that frequented the horror genre.

When Jennifer’s Body turned out not to be, in fact, a sex romp through slasher territory, it fared poorly. Mediocre reviews, bad box office turnout, and online ridicule, often misogynistic in tone. But over a decade later, as the assessment of women in Hollywood has evolved, so have the views on Jennifer’s Body, and its gifs and quotes can be found regularly making the rounds on Twitter, often tweeted by the young women whom the original marketing campaign so obviously excluded.

Despite its horror elements, Jennifer’s Body is squarely aimed towards young women, using its genre to explore all the treacherous ups and downs of being a teenage girl. Needy (Amanda Seyfried), as her name suggests, clings to her best friend Jennifer, the hottest girl in school. When Jennifer suggests that they go to a bar to see the indie band Low Shoulder (whose frontman Nikolai is played by Adam Brody), Needy ditches her boyfriend, Chip (Johnny Simmons), and goes with Jennifer. The bar catches fire, and Jennifer, in shock, gets led into Low Shoulder’s van over Needy’s protests; when Jennifer comes back, dripping in blood, she’s changed. She’s more callous, more demanding, and also likes to eat people, usually men.

Jennifer becomes a devilish seductress, tempting because of the danger she poses and the beauty she possesses, but this isn’t simply your classic succubus tale wherein the hot temptress gets killed as punishment for being a hot temptress—it’s much smarter than that. Jennifer reveals that Low Shoulder sacrificed her to Satan in order to find success (“Do you know how hard it is to make it as an indie band these days? There are so many of us, and we’re all so cute and it’s like if you don’t get on Letterman or some retarded soundtrack, you’re screwed, okay? Satan is our only hope,” Nikolai explains), but the sacrifice goes awry because Jennifer wasn’t a virgin. Suddenly her killings become part of a revenge fantasy: a group of men abuse Jennifer with a lighthearted airiness at odds with the muffled screams of Jennifer herself, and then she is immediately discarded as they climb the ladder of success. It’s a story particularly resonant for Hollywood in the post-#MeToo era.

It also in many ways parallels Fox’s own career. Everyone either wanted to fuck her or be her (or both), and when they couldn’t do either of those things, they turned hostile, so at the same time that Fox became lauded for her sexuality she was simultaneously punished because of it. Fox, like Jennifer, was left stranded for little more than being hot and a woman—a woman who, admittedly, often put her foot in her mouth. Her comments comparing Transformers director Michael Bay to Hitler got her fired from the third entry in the franchise, with Steven Spielberg calling for Michael Bay to fire Fox. At the time, public opinion sided with Spielberg and Bay; now, it seems to have become a bit more nuanced: Spielberg, himself Jewish, deemed her behavior unacceptable, and while that is and should remain important, the media has been more forgiving to Fox as of late, considering that Transformers spends all of her screentime ogling her legs, her stomach, her breasts, her ass, and Bay, over twenty years her senior, had all the power on the film sets (the two have since made up). Fox was simply a thing to be looked at, and if she raised a complaint it immediately rebounded and became her fault—and while she bears responsibility for her words, the media should also bear responsibility to examine the surrounding circumstances, something that did not seem to happen in 2009.

The relationship between Needy and Jennifer also became a victim of poor marketing and bad timing: their much-hyped kiss is more nerve-wracking than anything, and while it’s certainly still framed as erotic, there’s a bit more going on to it than just titillation. Instead of a scene simply existing for the pleasure of the straight men in the audience, it is a tense, complicated moment between two girls who have become trapped in an unhealthy, codependent relationship as they try to navigate what it means to be women in a society that tries to hinder them at, if not every turn, then certainly quite a few. One of the film’s most telling scenes parallels Needy and Chip having sex with Jennifer seducing and then ripping out the intestines of Needy’s friend Colin (Kyle Gallner), and Needy sees Jennifer in her mind’s eye as her boyfriend awkwardly goes to town; Needy and Jennifer could be a love story thwarted by a patriarchal, heteronormative world. Or maybe they’re just unhealthily codependent.

Yet for all its different interpretations and commentary, the context of Jennifer’s Body remains more interesting than the content. The commentary generated from the film proves deeper than what the film actually gives viewers to work with; the premise of a young girl (especially one who says, “I go both ways”) being sacrificial lamb for an otherwise-normal-seeming group of young men intrigues, but the follow up doesn’t do as much interrogating as it should, opting instead for standard horror beats (and an infusion of high school comedy) with all-too-brief moments that reveal something more lurking underneath. It’s not quite enough of a horror film and it’s not quite enough of a comedy, though all the seeds are there.

But while it may not be profound as its cultural reassessment purports, Jennifer’s Body is a fun excursion with strong performances (and J.K. Simmons with a hook for a hand!) whose ideas at least spark conversation outside of the film, if not from within.

Jennifer’s Body Trailer

Jennifer’s Body is currently available to rent and purchase on most digital storefronts, and is available to stream on Amazon Prime and The Criterion Channel.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

MCU Retrospective: Thor: Ragnarok

Written by Anna Harrison

In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. And now, for something completely different (again).

80/100

The Thor movies, historically, have been weaker entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: the first, while very near and dear to my heart, was uneven and showed the MCU’s growing pains, though it certainly had standout moments and performances; the second is widely regarded as one of the worst movies in the MCU. (For what it’s worth, director Alan Taylor doesn’t like it either, saying, “The Marvel experience was particularly wrenching because I was sort of given absolute freedom while we were shooting, and then in post it turned into a different movie,” which seems to be a common refrain among Creative Committee-era Marvel.) Even Chris Hemsworth was feeling burnt out, worried that his character was becoming static and uninteresting. Things were looking, if not dire—by this point, it would take a hell of a lot for any MCU movie to be in truly dire straits—then at least unexciting.

The solution, as it turned out, was to hire a New Zealand director best known for his wacky vampire mockumentary (yes, that’s correct) What We Do in the Shadows, which had a budget of about $1.6 million. Taika Waititi came in with a sizzle reel featuring Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” and suddenly found himself at the helm of a $180 million movie, where he gave the Thor franchise a much-needed makeover and suddenly found himself a bonafide celebrity in the process. Thor: Ragnarok serves as a soft reboot of the franchise, poking fun at its over-dramatic past exploits, introducing new characters for future stories, and injecting an enormous of humor and color into one of the more dour MCU series—to say that Waititi revived Thor both as a character and as a series sounds dramatic but would be entirely correct.

The tone shift becomes apparent from the first moment Thor opens his mouth. Trapped in a cage above a floor of lava, he says, “Now, I know what you’re thinking. Oh no! Thor’s in a cage. How did this happen?” This is a far cry from the exposition-heavy openings of Thor and Thor: The Dark World, which utilized ponderous flashbacks to explain their MacGuffins; instead, we are greeted with Thor talking to a skeleton and offhandedly mumbling about “Infinity Stone things.” No more flowery language, no more self-serious talk of duty and kingship: Waititi wisely lets Hemsworth play to his considerable comedic strengths, and the result is a movie that never lets up on the gas pedal of humor while leaning heavily into Waititi’s off-kilter Kiwi sensibilities. 

And so after Thor gets out of that cage and defeats fire giant Surtur (Clancy Brown), and after he receives ominous warnings about the impending doom of his home from Ragnarok, the apocalypse in Norse mythology, Thor arrives back on Asgard to chat with his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), whose mannerisms—and the fact that he’s staging a rather melodramatic play singing Loki’s (Tom Hiddleston) praises—tip off Thor to the fact that this isn’t his father but is, in fact, his adopted brother, who faked his death in The Dark World.

How fitting that Loki, who all his life longed for affection and acceptance he never got, would spend his time as king of Asgard running a PR campaign to make himself look like a hero, all so he can bask in adulation from the masses. As Tony Stark says in The Avengers, “And Loki, he’s a full-tilt diva, right? He wants flowers, he wants parades. He wants a monument built to the skies with his name.” Or, as Mobius puts more succinctly in Loki, “What an incredible seismic narcissist!”

If Thor’s confrontation with Surtur already toed the line of absurdity, we’ve now merrily leaped to the other side: Loki-as-Odin merrily eating grapes as he watches his own death, cameos from Luke Hemsworth, Sam Neill, and Matt Damon as actors in the play, and, as Matt Damon-as-Loki dies, a solemn choir singing Brian Tyler’s score that played as in Thor: The Dark World as the real Loki “died.” It’s fantastically different from anything that came before in Ragnarok’s predecessors: this is not your average Thor movie, and it’s much better for it.

Thor reveals Loki’s trickery, and the two go off to track down Odin with a little help from a certain Sorcerer Supreme (Benedict Cumberbatch in a fun and quick cameo). Odin has been laying low in Norway, his age catching up to him. Atop a stark cliffside, Odin blindsides his sons by revealing that they have a sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett), whom he locked away when she got too bloodthirsty, and then after this revelation, Odin promptly perishes.

It’s a small, intimate scene with beautiful visuals and strong performances, and it’s a good sendoff for Odin as he reminds us that he can have moments of kindness with his sons while also being the shittiest father in the MCU. He includes Loki when he says, “My sons,” which is nice considering that the last time he saw Loki he said, “Your birthright was to die,” but in the same breath divulges that he imprisoned his firstborn and never told his other children. Where the other Thor movies typically tried to pretend that Odin was a good father and a good king, Waititi mostly strips the veneer off him, laying his flaws on thick (though still never quite interrogating them enough).

So Odin dies, but his legacy does not: Hela immediately arrives in all her glory—and there’s a lot of it. Blanchett looks absolutely fabulous, and she chews on scenery with relish; there’s little complexity driving Hela, who simply wants to rule through bloodshed, but Blanchett has such a blast in the role (and, seriously, she looks amazing) that she vaults Hela up into the upper echelon of Marvel villains. If you squint, you can see a commentary on colonization—Waititi himself is half Maōri as well as the MCU’s first non-white director—in Odin and Hela’s conquest of the realms and the subsequent burial of Odin’s sins, and the way Odin and Asgard let the problems rot and fester so they are unprepared when they rears their ugly heads, but as has happened before, audience members are left with only breadcrumbs to form commentary from, though these breadcrumbs are pretty tasty. 

Hela handily destroys Mjolnir, Thor’s hammer, which sends both Loki and Thor into a tailspin; Loki, panicking, calls for the Bifrost to take them back, but Hela grabs ahold and tosses both Loki and Thor out of the Bifrost while she gets taken to Asgard. From there, the story becomes bifurcated: we cut between Loki and Thor navigating the colorful world of Sakaar and Hela beginning her reign of terror on Asgard. 

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

While in both Thor and The Dark World the scenes on Asgard stood a step or two above the scenes set elsewhere, here it’s the opposite. The time spent on Asgard with Hela is certainly still enjoyable due to both Blanchett and the addition of Waititi’s fellow Kiwi Karl Urban as Skurge, a lackey who gets roped into Hela’s bloodthirst rather unwillingly. It’s just that there’s not much to do other than reveal once again that Odin was terrible and summarily dispense with the Warriors Three (Zachary Levi, Ray Stevenson, and Tadanobu Asano)—Sif (Jaimie Alexander), it seems, was too busy filming Blindspot to attend the reunion. 

It’s not exactly a heartbreaking moment, as the Warriors Three had precious little screen time before (though Levi certainly hammed up his two minutes in The Dark World), and Hela dispatching them so easily establishes not only her threat but also Waititi’s willingness to turn the Thor world on its head. This disregard for the past is refreshing, and in some cases needed for this particular franchise, but the deaths of three of Thor’s closest friends perhaps should carry a bit more weight. Levi’s Fandral and Stevenson’s Volstagg barely get a word in edgewise before getting stabbed, and Asano’s Hogun fares only a little better before Hela promptly skewers him; Thor, when he does return to Asgard, does not acknowledge any of this, and so the inclusion of the Warriors Three simply to get killed in a very nonchalant manner sits a tad uncomfortably. To quote a different Disney franchise, “Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to,” but maybe not this quickly.

While Hela has been killing his friends, Thor has been having a hell of a day on Sakaar. First, a space wormhole deposits him in a pile of interdimensional trash. Next, an ex-Asgardian Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) shows up and captures him with zero regard for his social standing. Then, he is ushered to the being known as the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) as an instrumental, hellish version of “Pure Imagination” plays in the background. He learns that he has been dumped on a planet known as Sakaar, where the Grandmaster keeps everyone entertained by having slaves (though he prefers the term “prisoners with jobs”) fight each other to the death, à la panem et circenses; Thor, full of bluster and looking extremely ripped, has the honor to become the Grandmaster’s next pet fighter. Also, Loki has been there for weeks and has already ingratiated himself with the Grandmaster, being the sly trickster that he is, and he declines to assist Thor.

It’s a lot to take in, so Thor is understandably euphoric when he realizes that the ominous “champion” the Grandmaster has been praising and whom he has to fight is none other than the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). But Thor’s “friend from work” has no interest in playing nice, it seems, even smashing Thor up the way he did Loki in The Avengers (“Yes! That’s how it feels!” Loki holleres), though Thor puts up enough of a fight that the Grandmaster has to interfere lest his precious champion lose and become unpopular.

This Sakaar storyline, adapted from the Planet Hulk comics, is immense fun. It’s got Jeff Goldblum melting people with sticks and improvising jazz on an alien piano—what more could you possibly want? It also adds a dash of bright color into the MCU, and while its visuals don’t quite match Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, it’s a refreshing change of pace and shows the dividends that pay when Marvel plays outside its typical sandbox. Waititi’s voice can be heard loud and clear throughout Ragnarok (and not just because he does the voice and motion capture for Thor’s fellow gladiator Korg) in a way that’s hard to imagine happening while the Creative Committee was still around. Large chunks of the movie were improvised, allowing the actors’ natural humor to shine, and directorial freedom was nearly absolute. Oh, it’s definitely a Marvel movie with all the requisite fights and whatnot, but it’s definitely a Taika Waititi movie, too.

The Thor/Hulk buddy comedy that unfurls after their fight is a happy marriage of two characters who have had precious little previous screentime together despite sharing two Avengers movies. Thor tries to badger and pester Hulk into turning back into Bruce Banner, but Hulk, finally having found a group of people that accept and even adore him (as opposed to Earth’s frosty reception after he destroyed Johannesburg in Avengers: Age of Ultron), resists. Hemsworth and Ruffalo spit childish insults at each other with glee, and though the dynamic shifts when Hulk inevitably turns back into Bruce Banner after seeing a clip of Black Widow, it only increases in fun as Ruffalo gazes wild-eyed around at the chaos and stress of Sakaar, marveling at their love for his alter ego.

Thor and Bruce set off to go back to Asgard, and on the way, run into Valkyrie, who’s had a change of heart. She had left Asgard after Hela, years and years ago, slaughtered all her fellow Valkyries; disillusioned with Asgard and lamenting the loss of everyone she loved, this Valkyrie retreated to Sakaar to drink her remaining days away. But, as she says, “I don’t want to forget. I can’t turn away anymore. So, if I’m going to die, well… it may as well be driving my sword through the heart of that murderous hag.” Thompson is a fantastic addition to the MCU, and she and Hemsworth have great chemistry, though thankfully not of the romantic kind. (There is a deleted scene somewhere that reveals Valkyrie to be bisexual, as she is in the comics, and it adds another reason for Valkyrie to hate Hela so vehemently, but it was cut for, uh… reasons, I guess. Sure.)

The unlikely trio dub themselves the Revengers, snag and then lose a certain trickster god after another betrayal, start a revolution in the gladiator pits, steal the Grandmaster’s orgy ship, and head back to Asgard through the Devil’s Anus to stop Hela (imagine saying that sentence back in Phase One!). The confrontation between Hela and Thor in the throne room gets the film tantalizing close to truly dissecting Odin’s faults—“It would seem our father’s solution to every problem was to cover it up,” Hela comments—before brother and sister, the warring sides of Odin’s legacy, duke it out and leave conversation by the wayside.

Hela easily lays waste to Thor, blinding him in his right eye like his father before him, and things seem to be looking very dire for our seductive Lord of Thunder and his fellow Asgardians, who are trapped between Hela’s forces. Luckily for them, Loki, in his fully horned glory, reappears with a ship that dwarfs the Grandmaster’s, proclaiming, “Your savior is here!” It’s a move that redeems Loki while never letting him become a good guy: he’s still devious and narcissistic, but he cares for his brother and he cares for his people at the end of the day. (Of course, the completion of his redemption arc makes him excellent cannon fodder for Avengers: Infinity War.)

“What were you the god of again?” she sneers as her knives pin Thor to a balcony railing. As Thor’s bravado fades, his mind transports him back to Norway, where Odin waits. Falling to his knees, for perhaps the first time in his life Chris Hemsworth looks small(ish). He feels hopeless without Mjolnir and without Odin, but then his father asks him, “Are you Thor, god of hammers?”

What follows is just so damn satisfying. “What were you the god of again?” Well, Hela finds out, and quickly too, as Thor lets loose. Fireworks go off, Hulk fights a giant wolf, Loki flips his helmet in a cool way, and Thor proceeds to absolutely wreck Hela’s minions as Led Zeppelin plays in the background. Other MCU movies play up Thor’s physical strength, and so does Waititi, but he also allows his titular character to run wild with the true power of a god, and hot damn does it feel good. 

This is Thor as we have never seen him: battered and bloody, sans an eyeball, but at the height of his power with lightning crackling all around him, no hammer necessary. Finally, finally, Thor stands on his own two feet as a dynamic character in his own right, stepping out of the shadow cast by his charismatic, scene-stealing brother. It took six years to get there, but what a hell of a payoff.

But his newfound power still isn’t enough to defeat Hela, and Thor realizes that he has to destroy Asgard in order to destroy her, bringing about the Ragnarok he was trying so desperately to avoid. But, as he says, “Asgard is not a place. It’s a people,” and so Loki dashes to Odin’s vault to free Surtur (and steals an Infinity Stone in the process), all the remaining Asgardians are loaded onto a ship, and we all watch as Surtur and Hela obliterate Thor’s home and all its riches, technology, and history. But perhaps, given its bloodied history, it’s “easier to let it burn,” as Loki says earlier in the film. The past caught up, Asgard had to reckon with it, and in this reckoning it gets reborn looking very different, but now free of its past sins.

And then… Korg makes a joke about it, and so we arrive at the crux of the problem with Ragnarok, and why it doesn’t crack my top three: it’s too funny. “Wait,” I hear you clarmoing, “Anna, what’s the problem with that?” The jokes almost always land, after all, and they make Ragnarok one of the most memorable MCU entries with such lines as the improvised, “There was one time my brother transformed himself into a snake, because he knows how much I like snakes, and so I picked the snake up to admire it, but then he turned back and went, ‘Blergh! It’s me!’ And then he stabbed me. We were eight, at the time.” That is an absolute classic.

The problem, however, is that the abundance of jokes hampers the film’s burgeoning commentary on colonization and legacy because it all becomes couched in humor, which can certainly be effective at conveying messages but needs space in order to be so, and Ragnarok has precious little of that. When Waititi goes for the more serious moments, he can land them—both scenes with Odin on the cliffside, Loki saying, “I’m here” at the very end of the film—but the balance here skews far more towards humor, undercutting the emotional impact of, say, your home world getting destroyed by your secret imperialist sister. Waititi can certainly balance comedy with drama, and would go on to take home an Oscar for exactly that skill in Jojo Rabbit, but here the balance is off. There is no time to process anything: the Warriors Three get killed within seconds, a pedestrian reveals that Jane broke up with Thor in an offhand line. None of the mayhem promised by the revelation in The Dark World that Loki is now posing as Odin happens, and instead that and most of his deep-seated family issues get turned into jokes. Asgard gets destroyed, joke. Thor finally takes the throne as his theme from the first Thor movie swells, joke. 

As Marvel movie sins go, this is far from the worst one, and it’s no small feat to go from New Zealand indie movies to successfully revamping the image of one of the world’s most famous superheroes. But just a little more breathing room, just a little more time to get messier with the characters and give the emotional beats all the weight they deserve, would have been nice.

Groundwork and stray observations: Marvel has no big master plan; rather, they plant seeds wherever they can in the hopes that some of them might one day germinate. None of these were planned from day one, lest the whole ship sink, but the seeds germinated nonetheless:

  • Not much groundwork, since the whole point of Ragnarok is to blow up the Thor franchise and start over. The mid-credits scene does nicely set the stage for Infinity War’s opening, though. 
  • Natalie Portman does not appear in this film, presumably because her experience during The Dark World left a bad taste in her mouth, but Waititi’s remodeling of the franchise lured her back in for Thor: Love and Thunder, where she’ll be playing Thor, but also Jane. Jane gets cancer, but she can wield Mjolnir and get superpowers, but then that accelerates her cancer… it gets a bit weird in the comics, but it will be nice to have Portman back and not simply relegated to “love interest.”
  • I didn’t mention Heimdall (Idris Elba) in the bulk of the piece, but it’s very nice to see him get to do something other than ominously judge from afar. Elba is great.
  • When Thor sees Odin in a vision towards the end of the movie, Odin says, “Asgard is not a place. Never was. This could be Asgard.” The “this means Norway, a place which will in fact become Asgard come Avengers: Endgame, with Tønsberg (seen in both Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger) becoming New Asgard.
  • A statue of Beta Ray Bill’s head is on the outside of a building in Sakaar; when Christian Bale was cast for Thor: Love and Thunder, there was a lot of speculation he would play Beta Ray Bill, who has wielded both Mjolnir and Stormbreaker, the axe Peter Dinklage makes for Thor in Infinity War. Bale will instead be playing Gorr the God Butcher.
  • I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the only good thing to come out of Bruce and Natasha’s “relationship” in Age of Ultron is Thor attempting to calm down Hulk in this film by saying, “Sun’s getting real low.”
  • Fun fact for any What We Do in the Shadows fans out there: Carlo van de Roer, who played absolute legend Stu in the movie, helped create the lighting rig that makes this Valkyrie scene so cool.

Anna’s Favorite Scene: I mean… come on, it’s Thor absolutely wrecking shit while “Immigrant Song” plays. Can’t beat that. 

MCU Ranking: 1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 2. Captain America: Civil War, 3. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, 4. Thor: Ragnarok, 5. Guardians of the Galaxy, 6. The Avengers, 7. Spider-Man: Homecoming, 8. Captain America: The First Avenger, 9. Iron Man 3, 10. Iron Man, 11. Doctor Strange, 12. Ant-Man, 13. Thor, 14. Avengers: Age of Ultron, 15. Thor: The Dark World, 16. Iron Man 2, 17. The Incredible Hulk

Thor: Ragnarok Trailer

Thor: Ragnarok is currently available to rent and purchase on most digital storefronts, and is streaming on Disney+.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Toronto International Film Festival 2021 Review: I’m Your Man

Written by Anna Harrison

70/100

German director Maria Schrader’s I’m Your Man joins the endless ranks of movies grappling with artificial intelligence that have populated the cinematic landscape for decades, though this time it’s a romcom focusing on the connection between cuneiform expert Alma (Maren Eggert) and Tom (Dan Stevens, speaking German and executive producing), a robot perfectly designed to be Alma’s soulmate. Alma, ever practical, doesn’t actually want a perfect robot boyfriend—even if he looks like Dan Stevens—but is part of a trial group testing out the implications of this new invention. She approaches the whole thing with an air of skepticism, her mind having already been made up before she even meets Tom.

Of course, Tom was designed to be her soulmate, and even as Alma grows frustrated with his attempts to woo her—cleaning her messy apartment, throwing rose petals in a bath, making coffee—she finds herself drawn to his childlike wonder at the world, so at odds with her own cynical outlook. And how could she not fall for Tom, when he’s played with such charm and enthusiasm by Stevens? He adapts quickly to Alma’s prickliness, and even rebuffs her attempts at sex with a cheeky smile after she had previously said that relationships need friction. (In case you were wondering, he’s programmed to get an erection after a kiss, and no, he doesn’t get any physical pleasure from sex.) 

Toronto International Film Festival 2021

Schrader’s gentle romcom slant to such a thorny, complex issue by no means dodges the questions of humanity that inevitably arise when dealing with artificial intelligence; if anything, her more grounded viewpoint only makes the issue more approachable: I’m Your Man isn’t as highfalutin or intellectual as some of the other entries in the genre, but it tackles the questions inherent in its premise with just as much grace and intelligence.

Even as Alma lets her guard down around Tom, there remains a barrier between them, as she’s too aware of the lies she’d have to buy into if she let herself be wooed. Is Tom truly developing humanity, or is his algorithm just adjusting to Alma’s desires? Is there a difference? Alma studies the poetry found in ancient laws written in cuneiform, but refuses to let herself see the poetry and beauty in her relationship with Tom, too frightened of the possibility of getting suckered in by its ease. 

It’s a deceptively smart movie, lulling you in with easy chemistry and light laughs, and then unexpectedly worming into both your heart and your mind. The ending in particular stands out, not only for its ambiguity but the places it puts its characters in. Schrader never opts for an easy answer or resolution, even when one presents itself, and so while the rom and com elements are ever present and quite effective, there’s a deeper interrogation running under the surface that gives I’m Your Man an enthusiastic spark of life to it.

I’m Your Man Trailer

I’m Your Man was screened as part of the Toronto International Film Festival.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

VIFF 2021 Review: The Electrical Life of Louis Wain

Written by Anna Harrison

75/100

Will Sharpe’s The Electrical Life of Louis Wain has all the features of a typical biopic: a cast of well-respected British thespians, including Benedict Cumberbatch as the titular Louis Wain, a clear life trajectory for our subject to follow, and some nice period costumes to boot. Yet The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, like its protagonist, has something else, too—a certain spark, an unwillingness to entirely play things by the rules—that elevates it above your standard, stuffy British fare.

Louis Wain would go on to become known for his paintings of cats, both anthropomorphized and not, but starts the film doing illustrations of livestock shows for Illustrated London News’ editor, Sir William Ingram (Toby Jones), trying to stretch what he earns far enough to provide for his mother and five sisters while paying the salary of their new governess, Emily (Claire Foy). Louis, whose mind is rather more preoccupied with his illustrations, pending patents, and opera librettos than with the family finances, finds himself drawn to Emily, and Emily likewise to Louis. Their courtship is bumbling and awkward, sweet and charming, but it causes eldest sister Caroline (Andrea Riseborough) to seethe at the impropriety of it all.

Vancouver International Film Festival 2021

The two nonetheless get married and settle into a blissful married life—so blissful, in fact, that many moments of their life rather resemble paintings, and the line between reality and fantasy blurs. Cinematographer Erik Wilson adds to the whimsy, and so despite Louis’ recurring nightmares and troubled mental state, things are cheery and beautiful; however, when Emily finds herself diagnosed with breast cancer, that whimsy begins to fade. To cheer his wife’s spirits, Louis takes to painting pictures of their adoptive stray cat, Peter, and at Emily’s urging, shows his work to Sir William, who takes an immediate liking to the art. Louis’ art begins to take off, but his financial state and mental health decline. 

Cumberbatch plays to his strengths here, though the frequency with which he plays other tortured geniuses means that some of his good work as Wain threatens to become routine or familiar, only because he’s done it so often before. That doesn’t mean he becomes complacent by any means; in fact, he also serves as executive producer, and the passion for this project is palpable. Foy gives an equally compelling performance as Emily, and the rest of the cast proves up to the task as well; simply sit back and watch the rest of the cast, from Nick Cave to Taika Waititi to Olivia Colman, do their work.

Where other biopics might resort to overwrought melodrama as Louis’ circumstances begin to change for the worst, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain keeps no small amount of charm; Louis begins to imagine his cats talk to him, and Sharpe and co-writer Simon Stephenson add subtitles to voice the cats’ thoughts, which are appropriately cat-like in their humor. The film approaches Louis’ worsening mental state with kindness—a change from many Oscar bait biopics, which wring every ounce of misery possible out of their leads—and, while the interludes in which the audience is transported into Louis’ dreams and nightmares might have varying degrees of success, Sharpe always treats his subject with tenderness. It’s this sincerity that picks the film up when it might otherwise stumble; like its protagonist, while it’s not perfect, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain offers something to the world that’s worth having.

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain Clip

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain was screened as part of the Vancouver International Film Festival 2021.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

VIFF 2021 Review: The Beta Test

Written by Anna Harrison

75/100

“Everybody still wants to be Harvey.”

This sentiment isn’t explicitly expressed in The Beta Test until the end of the film, but nevertheless makes itself felt from the get-go as we follow Hollywood agent Jordan Hines, who is inching ever closer to the end of his fraying rope as he struggles to maintain some semblance of control in his life, grasping for the days where his white male ego meant something more. As played by Jim Cummings, who co-wrote and directed The Beta Test alongside PJ McCabe, Jordan is a compulsively watchable snake, his manic smile never quite reaching his eyes, his laugh just a little too forced, all of these sociopathic tendencies underpinned by a real sense of anxiety and dread and the knowledge that Jordan is one moment away from unraveling completely and having a nervous breakdown. 

But he can still pretend with an unnerving ease, smiling at clients and offering his assistant networking help, giving a better performance than his actor clients. He pretends to like his job, pretends that he has power and control, pretends to be thoughtful and attentive to his fiancée, Caroline (Virginia Newcomb).

So when a mysterious letter in a purple envelope comes along inviting Jordan to a no-strings-attached sexual encounter at a hotel, Jordan goes, eager to finally get some sort of real thrill in his life. Jordan—blindfolded—has sex with this unknown woman—also blindfolded—and intercut with this are scenes of Jordan elsewhere plastering his fake smile on and saying various iterations of, “That’s exciting.” (“The audience for television is so much larger than independent film,” he says, in a none-too-subtle meta moment in a film littered with them; unsubtle, but not ineffective.) But in this hotel room, free from pretending, it actually is exciting for Jordan. 

And that’s it. No more letters, no more anything, just the lingering memory of brief few moments of bliss, and so Jordan becomes increasingly paranoid to the point of hallucinating, or at least mishearing innocent remarks from his assistant and snapping at her. Losing his grip on reality, Jordan confesses to his only friend, PJ (fellow writer and director PJ McCabe), and they begin to track down where the envelope came from.

From here, McCabe and Cummings weave together various disparate threads, some not given enough weight or thought to be as substantial as they ought to be, but all coming together to illustrate the rapid loss of control and identity occurring in Jordan’s life. Much of it comes together in a critique of the Internet that is simultaneously both too on-the-nose and not developed enough, largely tacked onto the end and stated rather than shown; luckily, anchored by such a strong performance by Cummings—by turns pitiful and repulsive, but always electrifying—The Beta Test never loses your attention.

Even if The Beta Test doesn’t quite reach the height of its lofty ambitions, it remains a gripping narrative and a searing indictment of Hollywood and its (our, really) warped masculinity. #MeToo didn’t end sexual assault, or adultery, or any of it, it just made people get more creative about hiding it, as The Beta Test shows. “I think the world’s about to become a fucking horrifying place,” Jordan says. “I think I just watched it happen.” But hasn’t it always been one? It’s just wrapped in a different package now.

The Beta Test Trailer

The Beta Test screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Vancouver International Film Festival.

Watch Anna’s Interview with The Beta Test Producer Natalie Metzger.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

MCU Retrospective: Spider-Man: Homecoming

Written by Anna Harrison

In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. Are we sure this isn’t a John Hughes movie? (Yes, we are.)

80/100

Spider-Man: Homecoming is the sixth live-action Spider-Man movie to be produced since 2002. A decade after the original Sam Raimi Spider-Man, and only five years since Spider-Man 3, Marc Webb directed The Amazing Spider-Man, closely followed by The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which performed well below expectations and quickly tanked the burgeoning Sony Spider-Man universe. (For a refresher on Spider-Man rights and Sony, click here.) So, finally, we wind up here: Spider-Man: Homecoming, directed by Jon Watts and starring Tom Holland as the titular web-slinger, finally a member of the MCU. It really did feel like a homecoming, and to have Spidey folded into the MCU proper seemed a much better use of his character than Sony’s floundering attempts to make their own universe (though Marvel being forced to rely on their lesser-known characters such as Iron Man to kick things off certainly helped keep them on their toes as they started this endeavor). But how to differentiate this Peter Parker from Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield?

The first answer: ditch the origin story. Have Peter’s parents and his uncle Ben be long dead. There’s no “with great power comes great responsibility”—we got our version of that in Civil War, but from Peter himself: “When you can do the things that I can, but you don’t, and then the bad things happen, they happen because of you.” Everyone had been inundated with Spider-Man origin stories for a decade-and-a-half. Everyone knew Peter Parker’s parents died in a plane crash, and that Uncle Ben bit the bullet afterwards. By respecting the intelligence of his audience, Jon Watts trimmed any excess fat so we could jump right in with Peter (of course, Peter’s appearance in Captain America: Civil War helped, making doubly pre-established by both pop culture at large and the MCU). 

Who is our Peter, though? His origin story might be cut, but is he just going to go through the same plot beats as his predecessors? And so we arrive at the second answer: have this Peter actually act like a 15-year-old. Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield were 26 and 27, respectively, when they first played their Spider-Man, and by their later entries they were 30 and older. Tom Holland was 19 when he was first cast in Civil War, and his small stature and bit of a baby face let him pass as a high schooler much more easily than Maguire or Garfield. But it’s not just his appearance that makes MCU Peter seem so much younger than his counterparts: it’s him getting excited over a LEGO Death Star, jumping on the bed, awkwardly trying to impress the girl he likes, struggling to look intimidating to criminals, walking down the halls and seeing excruciatingly awkward student news, making a jumprope out of web when he gets bored.

He even starts the film by making a vlog about his time in Germany during Civil War, and if his overeager, fast-talking nature doesn’t immediately win you over, then I don’t know what to tell you. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, Peter jumps at the chance to be an Avenger, and even after months of no contact from either Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) or Tony’s head of security, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), he still bolts to get into his suit after the last bell rings and leaves long voicemails for Happy detailing the bicycle thefts he stopped that day. The realization that he’s just a kid is almost overwhelming, especially when he’s silhouetted against the enormous backdrop of New York City.

His interactions with Tony and Happy provide the third answer on how the MCU sets their Peter apart: have him immediately connected to the universe at large. This is a solo movie, but it’s one that never lets you forget you’re watching an interconnected world, as Peter spends so much of his time trying to live up to Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). Grappling with the expectations of the adults in his life not only gives Peter a good arc and characters to butt heads with, but also reminds everyone that there is a world outside. (Chris Evans also makes a cameo in his ridiculous, ear-less suit from The Avengers that perhaps eclipses even his Loki impersonation in Thor: The Dark World.)

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

Peter has been spending a bit too much time thinking about the world outside, though, to the point where he even quits his last remaining extracurricular, the academic decathlon, much to the chagrin of his friend, Ned (Jacob Batalon), and the team captain, Liz (Laura Harrier), whom Peter has a raging crush on. Luckily, the MCU has never been one for secret identities and the long, drawn-out dramatics they entail, and so Ned finds out very quickly about Peter’s double life, though it’s still hidden from Peter’s aunt May (Marisa Tomei) and the rest of his classmates, including bully Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori) and loner Michelle Jones (Zendaya). 

Despite Tony’s advice to be a “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man,” we can’t watch Peter eat churros on rooftops all day, and so Peter soon stumbles upon a weapons deal between Jackson Brice (Logan Marshall-Green), Herman Schultz (Bokeem Woodbine), and Aaron Davis (Donald Glover); however, these weapons are no ordinary guns. Peter confronts Brice and Schultz after they pull their weapons on Davis, and a merry chase ensues that lovingly rips off Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

Soon, however, a Vulture sweeps down from the sky, and Peter gets introduced to the film’s villain, Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton, who loves playing his bird-inspired roles). Toomes, as with so many Marvel villains, owes his origin story to Tony Stark: he and his salvage company were hired to clean up New York after the events of The Avengers, but when Tony partnered with the U.S. government to assist the efforts, the Department of Damage Control came in and seized Toomes’ job, leaving him high and dry. Toomes managed to steal some Chitauri technology and create weapons with it, and soon found himself wealthy, with high-powered weapons and a big bone to pick.

Peter only makes it out of this confrontation alive because Tony sends one of his suits to help, but he insists on taking down Toomes himself to prove his worth as an Avenger; after various fun sequences, including a delightful montage of Peter discovering all the high-tech things the suit that Tony gave him can do, he follows Toomes to a weapon deal on the Staten Island Ferry. His overeagerness proves his undoing, however, and in his rush to stop Toomes, he foils an FBI raid (one called by Tony) and fails to stop a weapon from slicing the Staten Island Ferry in half, yet again needing to be saved by Iron Man.

The ensuing verbal beatdown between the two is a fantastic little scene, with Downey making the most of his very limited (and very expensive) screentime. When Tony calls Peter 14 and he weakly protests, “I’m fifteen,” he absolutely feels 15 in a way that no other onscreen Spider-Man has. He feels very, very small. “This is where you zip it, alright? The adult is talking,” Tony snaps. 

Much of Homecoming’s strength lies in its willingness to not only be a superhero film, but a coming-of-age dramedy; Watts does a tremendous job integrating the life-or-death stakes of Spider-Man’s world with the high school drama of Peter’s world (after all, high school certainly feels life-or-death at the time), and the resulting balance is by and large superb. The MCU is at its best and most creative when it stretches the superhero genre and fits it into new shapes, such as Winter Soldier’s political thriller and here, where Homecoming takes a cue from John Hughes. While the other Spider-Man movies were set in high school, they seem only to acknowledge the fact obliquely; here, Watts neatly marries Peter’s coming to terms with his newfound power with his coming-of-age, making them one and the same. They don’t just happen to coincide, they’re entangled with each other, and it makes for a well-structured, more engaging story. (One that even gives Tony some more depth, too: Peter says, “I just wanted to be like you,” and Tony replies, “And I wanted you to be better.” Tony, go to therapy, buddy.)

And so Tony scolds Peter like the child he is and takes away Peter’s suit. Peter, with nothing else to do, begins to pay more attention to his high school life—he even works up the nerve to ask Liz to the homecoming dance, and she accepts. Things seem to be looking up, if not looking as exciting, for our hero. Until, that is, he goes to pick up Liz for the dance and discovers that her father is none other than one Adrian Toomes, a twist that blindsides both the viewers and Peter himself.

The resulting car ride to the dance, as Peter tries to keep his cool and figure out how much Toomes knows, and as Toomes slowly begins to realize that his daughter’s date isn’t just a nervous 15-year-old, is among one of the tensest scenes in the MCU. Keaton is fantastic, and cements himself among the best Marvel villains (the bar is middling, but still): he easily switches from loving father to merciless killer in seconds, and the flicker in his eyes as he realizes Peter’s true identity—and the stoplight changes from red to green—is eerie. He gives Peter one last chance, though, and offers to let him go if he promises to leave Toomes alone. But with great power comes great responsibility, and so Peter ditches the homecoming dance and goes after his date’s father. (We have pretty firmly left John Hughes territory at this point.)

Vulture, like Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger in Black Panther, is one of those Marvel villains whom the movie has to go out of its way to establish as a murderous bad guy, because otherwise we would sympathize with them too much. When Peter points out that “selling weapons to criminals is wrong,” Toomes retorts, “How do you think your buddy Stark paid for that tower, or any of his little toys? Those people, Pete, the rich and the powerful, they do whatever they want. Guys like us, like you and me… they don’t care about us. We build their roads and we fight their wars and everything… We have to pick up after them. We have to eat their table scraps.”

Everything Vulture says is true. Were he not been attempting to kill a 15-year-old kid, he would be quite reasonable; in fact, he might even be likeable. Yet the validity of his points goes undiscussed—at least in Black Panther, Wakanda found a way to help execute Killmonger’s dream, just in a different way (though the effectiveness of that way—through United Nations bureaucracy—could certainly be questioned, and how exactly they plan to eliminate oppression remains vague and politically formless); here, neither Tony nor Peter acknowledge the root of Toomes’ grievances. They make him a compelling villain, but it would make for a more compelling film if Toomes’ motivations had any effect on Peter. As it happens, they glance off Peter even though they should force him to do some serious self-reflecting on his mentor, especially as Peter himself comes from a lower socioeconomic background, something which typically informs much of his character. But the MCU version of Peter Parker, helped by wealthy benefactors, largely skates around this issue and never disrectly addresses his financial state; in fact, Civil War does a better job at this than Spider-Man’s titular movie, so what could and should cause inner conflict for Peter only serves to make Toomes a more interesting antagonist, doing nothing for his heroic counterpart.

Even if this dynamic gets underexplored (a frustratingly common theme with Marvel films and their villains, but alas), the mano-a-mano beatdown between Spider-Man and Vulture is exhilarating and anxiety-inducing—perhaps even tear-inducing as Peter, having been buried under piles of rubble by Toomes, cries out for help, and we are once again reminded of just how young he is. If Tom Holland was superb at playing the comedy towards the beginning of the movie, he’s even better here: Peter hyping himself up to push away the rubble by yelling, “Come on, Spider-Man!” is not only a reference to this comic scene, it’s a beautiful encapsulation of his character arc in this movie. Even without his fancy suit, even in glorified pajamas and buried under a mountain of concrete with blood caked everywhere, Peter is a superhero. “If you’re nothing without the suit, then you shouldn’t have it,” Tony tells him earlier in this movie. Well, he certainly isn’t nothing, not anymore. (And yes, it’s very interesting that Tony, who relies so heavily on his suit, is pushing his protégé to be more than one. “And I wanted you to be better” indeed…)

Though charged with the unenviable task of reinventing Spider-Man for the third time within 15 years, Spider-Man: Homecoming rises to the occasion with aplomb, bolstered by a damn good performance from Tom Holland—though the franchise and character comes with a hell of a lot of baggage and expectations, Homecoming meets all of them beautifully, smoothly introducing Spider-Man to a new generation of moviegoers while simultaneously setting itself apart enough to appease older fans wary of another rehash. It’s a Marvel movie comfortable enough in its own Marvel-y skin (and free enough of behind-the-scenes drama) to tinker with the formula a bit, and the result is a joyous romp through adolescence with the added bonus of superpowers. What’s not to love?

Groundwork and stray observations: Marvel has no big master plan; rather, they plant seeds wherever they can in the hopes that some of them might one day germinate. None of these were planned from day one, lest the whole ship sink, but the seeds germinated nonetheless:

  • The “8 Years Later” title card at the beginning of the movie caused a lot of head-scratching when it first came out. Adrian Toomes was cleaning up after the events of The Avengers, which was in 2012, and so eight years later would mean Homecoming takes place in 2020, which makes zero sense as it’s supposed to pick up right after Civil War, which came out in and was set in 2016. It was only years later that this was rectified (sort of), and even then… why don’t you just retroactively change the title card to “4 Years Later”? Is it that hard? How did this happen when you have so much money? I could have fixed it, if only Kevin Feige would hire me! I am available, Kevin!
  • The principal of Peter’s high school, Principal Morita, is the grandson of Howling Commando Jim Morita from Captain America: The First Avenger, whose picture is on the wall in the principal’s office; both are played by Kenneth Choi.
  • A painting of Howard Stark (the John Slattery version, not Dominic Cooper) is seen in a mural at Peter’s high school, and a picture of Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner hangs in his science classroom.
  • The guy (Zach Cherry) who yells at Spider-Man to “do a flip” appears in Shang-Chi during the bus fight and busies himself with livestreaming the fight around him.
  • Aaron Davis is known as the villain Prowler in the comics and is the uncle of future Spider-Man, Miles Morales. (Donald Glover’s appearance is likely a nod to his campaign to become Spider-Man in The Amazing Spider-Man and his voice role as Morales in the animated Ultimate Spider-Man TV series. Here’s hoping the MCU Spider-Man movies bring him back and don’t let Donald Glover go to waste.)
  • Jennifer Connelly voices Karen, Peter’s “Suit Lady,” and is married to Paul Bettany, who of course got his MCU start by voicing J.A.R.V.I.S., Tony Stark’s “Suit Man.”
  • Martin Starr plays Peter’s teacher Mr. Harrington, who apparently went to Culver University in The Incredible Hulk. (This is definitely just one of those coincidences that the Marvel heads just kind of rolled with and said that Starr’s character in The Incredible Hulk was just a young Mr. Harrington, just like how Marvel said that of course that kid in Iron Man 2 was Peter Parker all along. Sure, why not?)
  • Michael Mando’s Mac Gargan, known as Scorpion in the comics, has a rather sinister (ha ha ha) post-credits scene, but nothing’s come of that (yet).
  • Angourie Rice plays Betty Brant, though I don’t believe Betty’s name is ever said in the movie, but she’s important in the comics.
  • My friend Hannah is clearly visible as an extra in the gym and homecoming scenes. She probably won’t ever read this and will never know I name-dropped her, but I did.

Anna’s Favorite Scene: I’m cheating and saying three: the Tony and Peter confrontation after the Staten Island Ferry incident (“Oh my god, it’s Robert Downey Jr.!”), Vulture driving Peter to Homecoming, and the “Come on, Spider-Man” scene.

MCU Ranking: 1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 2. Captain America: Civil War, 3. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, 4. Guardians of the Galaxy, 5. The Avengers, 6. Spider-Man: Homecoming, 7. Captain America: The First Avenger, 8. Iron Man 3, 9. Iron Man, 10. Doctor Strange, 11. Ant-Man, 12. Thor, 13. Avengers: Age of Ultron, 14. Thor: The Dark World, 15. Iron Man 2, 16. The Incredible Hulk

Spider-Man: Homecoming Trailer

Spider-Man: Homecoming is currently available to rent or purchase on most major VOD platforms.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Toronto International Film Festival 2021 Review: Drunken Birds

Written by Anna Harrison

60/100

Ivan Grbovic’s Drunken Birds is many things. It’s a love story about a man named Willy (Jorge Antonio Guerrero of Roma) and a woman named Marlena (Yoshira Escárrega), who is the girlfriend of Willy’s cartel kingpin boss. When they declare their love for each other, both are forced to go on the run, and so Drunken Birds also becomes a commentary on the experience of migrant workers as Willy flees to Montreal. 

In Montreal, Willy and several other men, all of whom are also Mexican, share rickety mobile homes, where they wake up at 5:30 every morning to go harvest lettuce under the hot sun. They have the rare excursion to the public library, where they video chat with their families or, in Willy’s case, try desperately to track down Marlena.

The workers are working on a family farm inhabited by Richard (Claude Legault), his wife Julie (Hélène Florent), and their daughter Léa (Marine Johnson), and their dysfunction ripples out into the lives of the workers they hired on. Last summer, Julie had an affair with one of her employees, and family dinners have become unbearable. Richard has sunk into passivity and Léa longs for a way to escape this mundane, broken life, and thus Drunken Birds serves also as a portrait of a fractured family falling apart.

Toronto International Film Festival 2021

Drunken Birds is so many things, in fact, that it fails to congeal all its spinning plates, and each story thread on its own isn’t given enough weight to hold its own narrative. Guerrero is magnetic, though little screentime is given to Willy and Marlena together, sapping their romance of power; still, he effortlessly conveys Willy’s longing as he searches for home—not a house, not a place, but a person. There are hints of Willy’s less-than-ideal situation as a migrant worker, and as a Mexican in amongst a sea of white Canadians, but the film seems hesitant to commit fully to this idea and instead dances around it; the film’s climax ostensibly hinges on unspoken racial tensions, yet carries less gravitas than it should. The family drama that spills out into Willy’s life, especially as Julie finds herself increasingly drawn to him, feels like an unnecessary addition to the movie up until the final act, where it all crashes together.

Where Drunken Birds soars, though, is its visuals. Cinematographer (and co-writer) Sara Mishara creates simply beautiful compositions, often employing the use of very long takes to track characters as they wind their way through the corn fields, through the streets of Mexico, or through a thrumming night club. Wisps of magical realism make their way into the film, and everything feels slightly otherworldly; Léa’s expedition into the world of sex work and her resulting rescue by Willy in particular stand out. If the story is stretched too thin to entirely hold itself up, the lush cinematography will keep your gaze occupied even if your mind wanders, and the score by Phillippe Brault stands out as well. With a little bit of a tighter focus, Drunken Birds could have been a triumph; as it is, it keeps itself afloat through strong performances and stronger visuals, but never truly flies from the ground.

Drunken Birds was screened as part of the Toronto International Film Festival.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

MCU Retrospective: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Written by Anna Harrison

In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. The a-holes are back!

85/100

Like its predecessor, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 opens with a bang. After a brief sojourn with Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) parents back in 1980, with Laura Haddock reprising her role of Meredith Quill and a de-aged Kurt Russell making his debut as Peter’s father, we get treated to an opening credits scene that rivals even Vol. 1’s highs: Baby Groot (the voice of Vin Diesel) dancing around to the Electric Light Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky” in one long tracking shot as the rest of the Guardians get ravaged by an interdimensional beast in the background. It’s an absolutely joyous beginning, one that sets up the strengths of the movie to come: an abundance of humor (Dave Bautista as Drax very seriously intoning, “I have sensitive nipples”), a more comfortable—if still prickly—team dynamic between the Guardians, top-notch music choices, and a bright color palette that is a welcome change of pace from the monochromatic norm for Marvel. Director James Gunn takes what worked in the first film and amplifies it, though the paths he treads still feel fresh.

The Guardians, consisting of Peter Quill, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), Groot, and Drax, have been dispatched by the golden Sovereign race to deal with this interdimensional beast in exchange for their prisoner, Gamora’s adopted sister Nebula (Karen Gillan). The exchange seems to have gone smoothly until it’s revealed that Rocket stole some valuable Anulax Batteries (“Harbulary Batteries,” Drax confidently declares), and so Sovereign leader Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) sics a fleet of ships on the Guardians.

With the help of a mysterious man in a pod-like ship, the Guardians destroy the Sovereign’s fleet before they crash land on a planet. The man from the pod, looking like current Kurt Russell, meets them and introduces himself as Ego, Peter’s father. He offers to take Peter to his planet, and so the Guardians split up: Drax, Gamora, and Peter go with Ego, while Rocket and Groot (and Nebula) stay to fix the ship. It’s a classic sequel move, à la The Empire Strikes Back: the gang gets separated and thus are forced to grapple with their own demons.

These inner demons are the driving force of the movie. Peter, having been plagued all his life with daddy issues, has to face the father he feels abandoned both him and his dying mother, only to discover that maybe his father isn’t all that bad. The movie never fully tricks the viewers into believing that Ego’s a good guy, but it gives us enough to fully understand why Peter—who’s spent so much time longing for a bit of kindness from Dad and a sense of belonging—would buy into Ego’s shtick. (And there is a hint of genuine sadness in Ego’s voice as he discusses how lonely he is.) It’s not just that Ego shares a bit of Peter’s humor or that he has a beautiful planet to himself, it’s also that on this planet, Peter suddenly has access to superpowers and immortality. They feel like signs he’s finally home. 

And what a beautiful home it is. Ego’s planet is introduced with the sweet sounds of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord,” and it stands out as one of the most colorful sequences in the MCU. In a franchise that succeeds based on a certain level of predictability, Vol. 2’s array of brilliant colors present throughout the movie stand out, and Gunn puts a unique visual stamp on his film which few other Marvel films possess. The cinematography by Henry Braham similarly remains consistently impressive and stands far above most other Marvel films, representing what beauty can be found when the films are allowed to have a bit more character and individuality. Gunn, for what it’s worth, said that he had the utmost creative freedom when shooting Vol. 2, and while he might have been exaggerating due to the Marvel sniper aiming at anyone who speaks out of turn, it’s worth it to note that this was likely the first Marvel production completely free from the Creative Committee’s control, and Gunn’s voice is clearly heard throughout Vol. 2 in a way only rivaled by Taika Waititi in Thor: Ragnarok. It looks like a proper comic book, bright and colorful and sometimes a bit chaotic. Glorious.

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

Gamora, meanwhile, while initially urging Peter to get to know his father, quickly changes her tune once she begins to suspect Ego of malintent—she’s had a lot of trouble with her own family, most notably Nebula, and now that she feels a member her newfound family beginning to slip away from her and towards someone else, she reacts poorly. Drax spends a hefty chunk of this movie as (very effective) comic relief, but his friendship with Ego’s servant, Mantis (Pom Klementieff, an absolutely excellent addition), produces one of the most touching moments of the film: as Drax describes a day spent with his now-dead daughter, Mantis—whose empathic abilities let her feel what others do—lays a hand on his shoulder and begins weeping as she experiences the pain that Drax carries with him wherever he goes. 

Back on the ship, Nebula is filled with thoughts of revenge on Gamora, and Rocket stews with rage after he and Peter grate on each other’s sizable, fragile egos. (Baby Groot just looks cute.) They aren’t alone with their thoughts for long, however, as Yondu (Michael Rooker) has been hired by Ayesha to seize the Guardians; despite Rocket’s best efforts (and a wonderful setpiece to Glen Campbell’s “Southern Nights”), Yondu apprehends the three Guardians and Nebula. But then Yondu’s crew mutinies, and so he’s thrown into the ship’s brig alongside Rocket, Baby Groot is left to his own devices after getting manhandled, and Nebula flies off to go kill her sister. 

It sounds like a lot of spinning plates, and indeed it is, but Gunn balances them all well and allows each character to get their due without the movie feeling too overstuffed (but maybe just a little). Despite the balancing act going on, however, there’s not much plot actually happening: Peter and company go to see his father, Rocket and company get captured, and that is about it. Vol. 2’s plot doesn’t truly kick into gear until the third act, and for the first two-thirds of the movie, we are left to ruminate with the characters and a building sense of unease surrounding Ego. This kind of lulling story may not work for everyone, especially as it represents such a marked departure from the general shape of an MCU storyline, but coming off the heels of the disappointingly rote (though still fun!) Ant-Man and Doctor Strange, Vol. 2 feels like a breath of fresh air. The film is largely driven by character rather than simply going through the motions of the plot to get through it all, and as we know, character focus in the MCU will win out over plot almost every time for me. Vol. 2 lets its characters breathe, something that few other MCU movies seem able to do as they instead breathlessly rush from one action sequence to another. (Not to say, of course, that there aren’t action sequences in Vol. 2. There are still plenty.)

Part of the reason Vol. 2’s plot may seem thin is that there’s no clear villain until the third act. Ego, while obviously suspicious, is played with enough charm by the ever-great Kurt Russell that you find yourself wanting to believe his intentions are good, and so instead you can focus on the great character beats that happen in the leadup to Ego’s villainous reveal.

Gamora and Nebula, in particular, get standout moments in Vol. 2, and Saldana and Gillan’s performances make up for their stilted deliveries in their first Marvel outing. Where their awkwardness in Vol. 1 felt as though it came from the layers of makeup and odd dialogue that goes hand-in-hand with sci-fi and fantasy, here the two performers play their characters more comfortably: the awkwardness comes from Gamora and Nebula’s turbulent childhoods and lack of social skills rather than lack of acting prowess. The two rarely interacted in Vol. 1, but here their fraught relationship comes to the surface as both Nebula and Gamora find themselves without daddy Thanos to impress this time around. 

Nebula’s intense resentment towards Gamora, Thanos’ favorite, results in a fun sequence clearly inspired by North by Northwest as Gamora tries to outrun her sister’s ship and Nebula attempts to blast Gamora to bits. Though neither ends up dead, they do finally talk. It turns out when they were younger, Thanos would make the two of them fight together; when Gamora inevitably won, their father would replace some part of Nebula with a machine, so it’s no wonder Nebula’s got a bone to pick. “You were the one who wanted to win. And I just wanted a sister!” For a character who barely existed in Vol. 1, she works wonderfully here, and Gamora too becomes a much better character. (Her “unspoken thing” with Peter also succeeds where it was middling in Vol. 1, helped by the fact that it’s unspoken rather than acted upon in a rush.)

But it’s Rocket Raccoon who gets the biggest arc in Vol. 2, helped along by Yondu. Gunn perfectly bounces this pair of acerbic loners off each other as they reckon with the damage they have caused. Yondu, with his crew having mutinied against him, is ready to accept what he thinks he deserves and die, but Rocket is determined to get out of there. With the help of Baby Groot and Yondu’s right-hand man Kraglin (Sean Gunn), they escape, assisted by Yondu’s enormously cool flying arrow and “Come a Little Bit Closer” by Jay and the Americans. (The song choices in this one might even eclipse those of Vol. 1—they’re just so good.) When Yondu reveals that Ego wants to use Peter as an amplifier to take over the universe so that he, Ego, literally becomes everything, they set off to save him. Ego is a very literal name, apparently. 

Yondu and Rocket work so well together because they see themselves in each other, and that forces them to do some self-reflecting, even if they don’t want to. “I know everything about you,” Yondu growls to Rocket. “I know you play like you’re the meanest and hardest but actually you’re the most scared of all… I know you steal batteries you don’t need and you push away anyone who’s willing to put up with you ’cause just a little bit of love reminds you of how big and empty that hole inside you actually is… I know who you are, boy, because you’re me!” It’s one of the MCU’s most in-depth examinations and gives a raccoon more character than many of his human compatriots in other films, which says something about the strengths of this movie (and the weaknesses of the other ones). 

So, finally, as Yondu, Rocket, Baby Groot, and Kraglin go off to save Peter, Drax, and Gamora, who all finally accept each other as true family, flaws and all, the villain of Vol. 2 emerges, and to no one’s surprise, Ego the Living Planet turns out to be a massive narcissist. He meant it when he said he was lonely, but he’s only lonely because he thinks so highly of himself and his godhood that he couldn’t deign to spend his life among mere mortals. Meredith Quill got close to bringing him down to earth, and so he put a brain tumor in her head to avoid that fate. When Peter, whose love for his mother proves stronger than his desire to belong with his father, rejects his Celestial powers, Ego’s mask of kindness drops and we are submerged in the typical Marvel world-ending battle. 

The third act is the most unwieldy of the film as all the different players established earlier collide in one big messy heap, though it’s certainly not the most egregious Marvel finale. The bright colors that saturate Ego’s world make for an eye-catching final battle even though it begins to get a bit out of hand and go on for too long—but, again, it’s certainly not the first Marvel film to do that, and its offense is much smaller than Avengers: Age of Ultron or even the original The Avengers. Plus, Ego makes a a pretty compelling villain to watch, far more so than Lee Pace’s Ronan the Accuser from Vol. 1 (no offense, Lee, it wasn’t your fault). 

Even with the cluttered nature of the Ego vs. Peter showdown, it still manages to squeeze in affecting character moments and rollicking humor (mostly via a quest to find tape and Baby Groot, who was the cutest baby alien ever until Baby Yoda came along), and Yondu’s death as he sacrifices himself to save Peter is one of the most gut-wrenching moments in the MCU—and that’s no small feat, considering how ugly they make his teeth look (and the fact that he was basically sending kids to their deaths, of course)—and the resulting funeral with “Father and Son” playing is a hell of sendoff. 

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 isn’t the neatest Marvel film. It’s a bit messy and rough around the edges in places, but when it does succeed, it easily sets itself apart from its peers—even the original Guardians of the Galaxy, though it’s not quite the shock to the Marvel system that its predecessor was. But it’s still a feast for the eyes and full of an odd, thorny kind of heart that just beats stronger when you get to its core, much like its protagonists, and it serves as a reminder that while Marvel can sometimes get a little stale, there is something special to be found there every so often.

Groundwork and stray observations: Marvel has no big master plan; rather, they plant seeds wherever they can in the hopes that some of them might one day germinate. None of these were planned from day one, lest the whole ship sink, but the seeds germinated nonetheless:

  • Ego is a Celestial, beings which were mentioned in Vol. 1, as the mining colony Knowhere was situated within a Celestial’s skull, but will have much bigger roles to play come Eternals.
  • The “Adam” that Ayesha teases in a post-credits scene is none other than Adam Warlock, who will presumably show up at a future point in time. (Though not Vol. 3, apparently.)
  • Stan Lee’s cameo involves him talking to a group of Watchers, an alien race that, as their name suggests, watch over everything but don’t interfere. The Watcher named Uatu has become prevalent in What If…? and is played by Jeffrey Wright, though it remains to be seen if we will get further live action Watchers (Nick Fury sort of becomes one in the comics and chills on the Moon; it gets pretty wild.)
  • Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster from Thor: Ragnarok shows up in the credits.
  • The group at the end of Vol. 2, consisting of Sylvester Stallone’s Stakar and cameos from Michelle Yeoh, Ving Rhames, Miley Cyrus, and Michael Rosenbaum, is a nod to the original Guardians lineup from 1969.

Anna’s Favorite Scene: Yondu’s funeral + Cat Stevens. Instant waterworks. 

MCU Ranking: 1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 2. Captain America: Civil War, 3. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, 4. Guardians of the Galaxy, 5. The Avengers, 6. Captain America: The First Avenger, 7. Iron Man 3, 8. Iron Man, 9. Doctor Strange, 10. Ant-Man, 11. Thor, 12. Avengers: Age of Ultron, 13. Thor: The Dark World, 14. Iron Man 2, 15. The Incredible Hulk

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Trailer

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is currently available to stream on Disney+.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings: A Conversation hosted by Patrick Hao

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, 2021

Patrick Hao: The latest Marvel release, Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings, has been called groundbreaking and monumental by featuring an Asian American superhero with a predominantly Asian-led cast. It certainly did phenomenally at the box office by making $94.4 million during the four-day Labor Day weekend, shattering the previous record from Rob Zombie’s Halloween (30.6 Million). Mind you, we are still in a pandemic. 

As Marvel/Disney is wont to do, they, and the media covering them, have been quick to celebrate the achievement that they themselves have perpetuated by not casting Asian led superheroes and leads. Marvel/Disney has had a history of doing this representational checklisting with their constant trotting out of “exclusively gay moments” and female empowerment.

All of this discourse around Shang-Chi and the importance of representation in Hollywood films has made me, a first-generation Asian American and lover of media, feel very ornery about the whole thing. And this is not the first time. I have felt this way during the discourse around the release of Fresh Off the Boat and Crazy Rich Asians. While I acknowledge that it is a big deal that this movie is as successful as it is, I prickle at the fact that it takes a major studio superhero movie to validate our (Asian Americans) existence in order to feel seen.

So I thought it would be great to have a running dialogue to explore these feelings about representation and media, and what better person to do it with than Drink in the Movie’s resident Marvel expert and overall great mind for media, Anna Harrison.

Anna Harrison: Thanks, Patrick!

Representation is a thorny issue to begin with, and then add on that Disney’s tendency to self-congratulate and tout things like LeFou dancing with a man in Beauty and the Beast as uber progressive and it can be tricky to tackle. Marvel has certainly diversified in recent years and continues to do so, but like you said, most of the time they will tout what should be commonplace as an artistic and personal triumph for them, the most recent example being the discussion around Eternals having an openly gay character kiss his husband.

I think there is something to be said, however, for seeing representation as a superhero. When I saw the original Wonder Woman’s No Man’s Land scene, I teared up in the theater. When I saw Wonder Woman charge across the trenches, I was touched in a way that I was definitely not expecting—I’m normally the very unsentimental type, and so my reaction caught me by surprise. Superheroes have such a mythic status in our culture: they’re supposed to represent the best of humanity, they’re the strongest, the bravest, the smartest, etc., and to see one of those superhumans on screen that reflects you to after so many years of the same can be quite affecting, as I found out. (Captain Marvel would not inspire such a reaction in me, I’m afraid.) It’s a bit like proof that you, too, could be an Avenger/member of the Justice League/whatever, and that it’s not just for hot white guys named Chris. Projection is what superhero movies are all about, after all. I think their prevalence in pop culture and the idealized nature of the heroes themselves makes it mean a little bit more when you finally see a superhero that reflects you. (Whether said prevalence is a good thing is a whole different conversation.)

Read Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series

Patrick: There is no doubt that there is emotional power in representation. I still pump my fists in the air every time the theme song from The Nanny namedrops Flushing, Queens (my hometown). But I’ve been thinking a lot about this tweet from Tao Leigh Goffe recently: “when representation is the only aspiration, it ensures that all firsts will be lasts.

And I wish Tao Leigh Goffe would expand a little bit more on this thought but I interpret this to mean that representation in and of itself is not enough. What matters more to me are the narratives involving diversity. Asian Americans are in a complicated space in American culture. Firstly, the term encompasses a large number of people, races, and countries—many of which are vastly different in terms of cultures and social hierarchy. But, as a social group and monolith created for ease of narrative, Asian Americans fall somewhere between white and black. When it suits the narrative, Asian Americans are used as the “model minorities,” an example to other POCs to the myth of “pull yourself up by your bootstrap” success in America. And then in an instant, xenophobic racism even in predominiantly Asian ethnic enclaves. And from that trauma and contradictions, I think a lot of Asian Americans and culture would like to fit into the former than the latter fueling a lot of anti-POC sentiments within the Asian American community itself. 

I think mainstream Asian American art reflects this desire to be accepted by mainstream audiences (really what I am saying is white America) in a way that irks me. I think there is an interest in creating a universal experience which is great, but what that does is sand off the edges and problems of the diaspora in America. Eddie Huang, the author of Fresh Off the Boat in which the sitcom is based on, famously complained that the show creators of Fresh Off the Boat adapted his memoir of a complicated, angry childhood into a “universal, ambiguous, cornstarch story about Asian Americans.” And watching that show, I too was frustrated by how easy assimilation was for this Taiwanese family to crack wise so easily with White Orlando neighbors. 

Getting back to Shang-Chi, it seems fitting that the ultimate conflict I felt within the movie is a story of fitting into the expectations of success of your parents. Shang is escaping the shadow of his father and starts as the lovable schlob who is perfectly content with partying and karaoking while being a valet attendant. Similarly, Katy (Awkwafina) is in a similar situation with her more normal immigrant parents. The movie contrasts this early on with a conversation with their other Asian American friend who followed the traditional path of becoming a lawyer. This trope of first and second generation Asian Americans not living up to parental expectations seem to be the most palpable Asian American story to tell. I suspect it could be because it is cultural but universal in a way that does not necessarily have to deal with the thorny complicated issues of diaspora. To have even the superhero story be about that felt pandering.

Anna: I’ve never seen that tweet before but I think it brings up a great point. Often there’s so much hype around something like Shang-Chi, Black Panther, or Captain Marvel that any missteps they make get lost, and attempts to criticize get shouted down because everyone is so caught up in the idea that we finally have an Asian/Black/woman-led movie it simply becomes enough that the movie exists at all, when really you should be able to level nuanced critiques at them. This, of course, excludes anyone who review-bombed these films; I’m talking more about criticisms like yours. One thing that irks me a lot when people bring up valid criticisms surrounding representation is that often the response will be something like, “Just be grateful you got representation at all.” People shouldn’t have to choose between no representation and subpar representation—that’s not an either/or situation, though some people often act like it is, and mere representation isn’t always enough.

With Shang-Chi specifically, from my standpoint, I think the conflict was less specifically about parent/child relationships—though it’s certainly a part of that conflict—but about reconciling all the disparate parts of yourself and the struggle with identity. There was a lot of focus on Shang-Chi being pulled between two worlds: he ran away from his father to America and Anglicized his name, and resists getting pulled back; he tries to avoid being like his father, but is always reminded that he’s both a product of his mother and his father; in the end, he accepts the Rings and his father’s legacy while still maintaining his sense of self and finding that balance. Of course, it all gets settled easily enough over the course of this one movie (and my commentary is coming from someone who’s descended from a long line of white Americans, so grain of salt!), and, like you said, is all made pretty palatable/monolithic for non-Asian audiences and doesn’t go into specifics. 

Oftentimes when movies that bill themselves as being representative of X race, Y gender, Z culture come out (and allow their producers/distributors to cross off one more spot on their representation bingo card), they run into the issue where one camp will say they wish the movie had been more authentic in showing the struggles that a certain group faces, and another camp will want simply to watch the movie and not be reminded of their own issues they face outside the theater. I think Shang-Chi tried to straddle the middle of that and throw bones to both sides. I personally don’t really know which “side” I fall on, as I think both have merits—and I also think it’s another issue where it doesn’t have to be an either/or situation; rather, they can be threaded together. I was wondering what you thought of that conundrum (and if it’s a conundrum at all or I’m just making it up in my head).

Read Anna’s full Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings Review

Patrick: I know, personally, that I feel anxiety whenever I criticize a “seminal project” like Shang-Chi. I believe the phrase for this right now is called “rep sweats,” or, as that article defines it, “the feeling of anxiety that can come with watching TV shows or movies starring people who look like you, especially when People Who Look Like You tend not to get a lot of screen time.”

I do wonder if I would feel any differently if I truly believed in Shang-Chi’s arc in the movie. Trying to avoid spoilers, I never felt him coming to terms with his identity and father issues, which deflated his self-realization at the end. To give positive notes on Shang-Chi, the opening wuxia ballet between Wen Wu (Tony Leung) and Ying Li (Fala Chan) might be one of the best scenes in a Marvel film. What a brilliant move on their part to cast Leung and his devastatingly sad eyes to give the film instant gravitas. 

Speaking of the conundrum you were speaking of—representation of struggles or escapist entertainment—I often feel like, unfortunately, the movie industry has made things feel like one or the other. Either it is Minari or Tigertail in which it feels so oppressively about the struggles of recent immigrants or it is Mortal Kombat, Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins, and Shang-Chi in which there are Asian leads in blockbusters as prior properties and kung fu/karate ninjas. 

That’s why I felt so attached to movies like Lucky Grandma (dir. Sasie Sealy) and The Half of It (dir. Alice Wu) from last year. Both are not perfect movies, but there is a liveliness—one is a comedy and the other is a coming of age romcom—to these films that felt true to the experience without feeling like “oppression porn.” Authenticity is a hard thing to define but you can immediately feel the difference. 

Anna: I do appreciate that this movie has brought Tony Leung so much international recognition—I even got a friend to watch Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love and now I’m getting sent daily TikToks about how hot Leung is (which… yeah). He’s just so good. I do appreciate that Shang-Chi pays homage to its roots with that wuxia scene and by casting legends like Leung and Michelle Yeoh (though almost all her dialogue was exposition), and it was helmed by Asian creatives, which is something that Marvel’s failed to do in the past. (Iron Fist immediately comes to mind, which was problematic in a lot of ways; Daredevil and Doctor Strange also appropriated certain Asian cultures and used them as either a threat to their main white character, as in Daredevil, or some vague mystic power to heal their main white character, as in Doctor Strange.)

“Oppression porn” is a great phrase. I think there’s also a sense that, by watching those oppression porn movies, you (white people or people whom the movie isn’t about) gain “woke points” for being so supportive of minorities. Disney’s definitely given themselves woke points, not for oppression porn necessarily, but for making any movies involving non-white casts. I think that’s the hardest thing about representation today—it’s so tied up in profit that, even if it starts from a genuine place, it inevitably starts to be seen as a cash grab or a way of courting a new market. It’s really hard to separate the intention of the individual creators from the intention of the huge corporation trying to score brownie points with certain audience segments.

Patrick: Listen, we can easily make this whole conversation about how hot Tony Leung is. It is very heartening to see people discover the power of “Little Tony.” 

In terms of the homages to wuxia, something about it feels affected as well. This results in vague cultural things like the mythical village of Tae Lo, which was very Shangri-La and orientalist—more Panda Express or PF Chang’s than something “authentic.”

I think a lot about this scene from Do The Right Thing where Mookie talks to Pino about how his favorite actor, musician and sports athlete were black, yet he still used the n-word and has racist views. This year the most popular movie has been Shang-Chi, the most popular baseball player is Shohei Ohtani, and BTS is regularly on the radio. Yet this is the same year that Robert Aaron Long killed six Asian women in a spa in Atlanta along with a slew of other Asian hate crimes. Thinking about my childhood, Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan are the coolest movie stars. Yet when I was called Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan on the playground, it did not make me feel cool. Even if Shang-Chi makes a lot of Asian kids feel proud, being called Shang-Chi won’t make it better. 

That is why I am frustrated by representational checklisting as an end. We hold these works in high regard in the cultural discourse because it feels anointed by a big studio. Yet there are lots of Asian American art that are undervalued and underseen that have been doing the work. I started my time at Drink in the Movies after not writing about film for a long time because I felt so inspired by Drink a Bowl of Tea. This was a 1988 movie directed by Wayne Wang about the problems of diaspora in Chinese communities in the late 1940s. Wayne Wang has continued to make interesting work about diaspora since then, yet it felt like it took a while for people to come around to talking about his work as a filmmaker. Same thing with the previously mentioned Alice Wu, whose first film Saving Face is a cult classic LGBTQ+ film, set in the Asian community. Yet it took her 15 years between that film and The Half of It. When people express appreciation for Shang Chi as it is a savior for representation, as a first of its kind, it feels diminishing to other pieces of valuable art. I do not wish to make this an either/or situation, but Marvel has sold itself as that and continuously fuels that thinking by taking money from mid-budget films and theater space.  

There is a great book by Cathy Hong Park called Minor Feeling: An Asian American Reckoning and in it she presents a lot of ideas of discomfort of Asian American identity in America. She has a passage about Crazy Rich Asians in which she says of the opening scene in which Michelle Yeoh decides to buy the hotel that would not house them because of discrimination: 

“The takeaway from the crowd-pleasing opening scene… if you discriminate against us, we’ll make more money than you and buy your fancy hotel that wouldn’t let us in. Capitalism as retribution for racism. But isn’t that how whiteness recruits us? Whether it’s through retribution or indebtedness, who are we when we become better than them in a system that has destroyed us?”    

In many ways, I feel like the celebration of Shang-Chi is rooted in the idea above. There is a desperate need to be accepted by a system that so easily discriminates. Look into the behind the scenes controversies behind three of the biggest Asian American mainstream works: Fresh Off the Boat, Kim’s Convenience, and Crazy Rich Asians. Despite being prominent shows and movies about Asian Americans, power imbalance continues to brew and racist tendencies appear. 

So my question is, what does Shang-Chi ultimately solve? Do we need an Asian superhero? Well, we have Detective Dee, Bahubbali, Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, all of anime. 

Do we need more Asian Americans on screen? Sure, but at what costs are we bending over backwards to a certain ideal to plead to people to look at us as people?

I am not sure if Shang-Chi is the salve that people declare it as—that Disney declares it as.

If you enjoyed this conversation you can follow Patrick and his passion for film on Letterboxd and Twitter and you can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings Trailer

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is currently available in wide theatrical release and will be available to stream on Disney+ October 17th.