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.

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.

MCU Retrospective: Ant-Man

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. Ants!

70/100

Avengers: Age of Ultron was an ambitious, scrawling, sprawling mess, so worried with setting up the future MCU that it left its own plot to limp along. Ant-Man, on the other hand, switches gears, introducing a new cast and a new story, one that is largely self-contained outside of cameos from the likes of John Slattery, Hayley Atwell, and Anthony Mackie, and it’s a breath of fresh air after Age of Ultron’s world-ending robot hordes. 

Yet for being such a breezy flick to watch, Ant-Man had a laborious birth. Edgar Wright was attached to an Ant-Man film as far back as 2006, though it was put on the backburner as Marvel began its plans for what would become the MCU proper and the leadup to The Avengers. In 2012, things finally got rolling: Wright shot some test footage, and by 2013 a script was ready. Casting soon became locked and loaded, but Marvel kept pushing back on the script; eventually, they even commissioned some in-house writers for rewrites without Wright’s knowledge, and this finally drove Wright away only two months before filming was supposed to begin.

“I think the most diplomatic answer is I wanted to make a Marvel movie but I don’t think they really wanted to make an Edgar Wright movie,” Wright said of the whole debacle. His firing is one of the nastier stories from the Creative Committee era; you can’t help but wonder what Wright’s film might have been like had he been given more creative freedom. Now free of Ike Perlmutter and his ilk, Marvel generally allows directors more creative control (to an extent, of course): Thor: Ragnarok very much feels like a Taika Waititi movie, just one with more action and starring the god of thunder, and Eternals is shaping up to closely resemble Chloé Zhao’s other directorial efforts, at least as much as a Marvel film can. Perhaps a post-Creative Committee Marvel would have been more willing to let Wright make an “Edgar Wright movie,” but who knows. (It would certainly make a great What If…? episode.)

Now with Ant-Man sans a director, Marvel had to scramble to find a replacement, courting directors such as David Wain, Ruben Fleischer, and Adam McKay before settling on Peyton Reed, previously a contender for the Guardians of the Galaxy gig. (McKay withdrew his name from directing consideration but helped out with the script enough to get a screenplay credit; he and Paul Rudd—also credited—used large chunks of Wright and Joe Cornish’s script, tweaking here and there but keeping roughly the same outline.)

Despite all the hullabaloo that occurred before shooting, the shoot itself was relatively smooth, and the finished product blends nicely into the rest of the MCU while still having enough merits on its own to make it a worthwhile, if slight, watch. It’s certainly a nice palette cleanser after Age of Ultron and gives everyone a bit of breathing room before the fisticuffs of Captain America: Civil War, the film which will kick off Phase Three.

In Ant-Man, our hero is just a dude: he’s Paul Rudd, America’s most likable everyman, funny and ageless but still a relatable guy. Scott Lang might have a master’s in electrical engineering, but he has to grind like everyone else. He’s not an uber-wealthy playboy, a genetically engineered super soldier, or a god from outer space. He’s… just a dude.

Well, not entirely. After blowing the whistle on embezzlement at his previous job, Scott hacked into his company’s bank account and distributed the money back to the customers, eventually getting arrested for his good deeds. Now out of prison and determined the walk the straight and narrow, he struggles to hold down even a job at Baskin-Robbins and is unable to see his daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Forston), as he can’t make the child support payments he owes his ex-wife, Maggie (Judy Greer). Parts of his backstory—the kid, the ex-wife, the struggle to provide for himself and his family—may be more relatable than, say, the playing Robin Hood and getting thrown in prison part, but Rudd’s charming presence makes it easy to pretend that a Scott Lang could be among us. After all, at his core, he’s just a man trying to be better for his family.

However, Scott quickly backslides and gets roped into a get-rich-quick heist as he becomes desperate to find a way to make his child support payments so he can visit his daughter. He joins ex-con and friend Luis (Michael Peña), along with Kurt (David Dastmalchian, who should be in everything) and Dave (T.I., as in the rapper, who should not be in everything with all his recent sexual assault accusations), and the four set out to steal from an unknown man’s safe while he’s out of town. There, Scott finds nothing but an odd motorcycle suit, which he takes home. 

Well, it turns out that motorcycle suit allows Scott to shrink to the size of an ant, and was purposely planted by Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) for Scott to find. Hank, it turns out, was the first superhero known as Ant-Man (in the comics, Hank is also the creator of Ultron, a role which was given to Tony in the MCU), and he’s been looking for someone to pass the mantle to so he can take down his rogue protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll). That someone happens to be Scott. 

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

Why Scott? There are the burglary credentials, of course, but there is also Hank’s desire to live vicariously through Scott. Hank too has a daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), though their relationship has become frosty ever since the death of Hope’s mother, Janet, and Hank seems to believe that if he can help Scott redeem his relationship with Cassie, then Hank can salvage his relationship with Hope. The father and daughter relationships in Ant-Man drive the film—specifically, the sins of the father—as both Scott and Hank try to live up to what they should be so they can have their daughters look at them with pride and love once more, though the order is taller for Hank, who has isolated himself from his daughter for nearly 20 years and all but driven her away completely.

Other than the Thor franchise, few other Marvel films have such a focus on family, and the complicated dynamics at play here elevate the character relationships in the film. The “overprotective parent (usually a father) wants to shield their child (usually a daughter) from the world so they inadvertently stifle them” trope has been done a thousand times before, but Douglas and Lilly do excellent work here and make Hank and Hope’s relationship more than the sum of its stereotypes. 

While Scott and Cassie’s relationship can’t have quite the same depth (she is a small child, after all), Cassie is just so damn cute that you might want to end up adopting her, and her presence succeeds in grounding Scott the way Whedon wished Hawkeye’s nameless spawn would have in Age of Ultron. Cassie isn’t just some random child inserted so we feel empathy for a character, she has a personality and plot function in her own right, and as a result this MCU family is one we actually care about. Take notes, Joss! (Also, as far as I know, Peyton Reed is a decent guy, so maybe take notes on that too, Joss…)

Hope, of course, will join Ant-Man as a titular character in her next film, Ant-Man and the Wasp, as the stinger at the end (pun intended) hints at. As she very rightly points out to her father in this Ant-Man, she has all the skills necessary to stop Cross from selling the Ant-Man technology to Hydra, yet her father won’t entrust her to do so. Finally trying to rectify the pain he caused his daughter, Hank eventually reveals the truth about Hope’s mom: Janet had been a compatriot known as the Wasp and, in order to stop a Soviet missile in 1987, had to go “subatomic,” meaning she was lost forever to the Quantum Realm (aka the microverse, but Marvel can’t say that for legal reasons, because nothing’s ever easy when you sold off a bunch of your IP to keep your company afloat), and so he never wanted his daughter to risk befalling the same fate. Now that she understands the reason behind Hank’s overprotective nature, Hope manages to forgive him.

Of course, as the sole female of the movie, Hope was bound to become romantically entangled with Scott, though this movie is more setup than payoff. And, to the movie’s credit, Hope stands far better on her own two feet than most other Marvel love interests, and she has relationships that are important to the plot other than the one she shares with Scott. Hope stands nearly side by side with our titular hero in Ant-Man and has her own grand ambitions outside of him, so it’s no surprise that she gets co-billing the next time around. It’s certainly a step in the right direction, even if Evangeline Lilly’s wig strains believability in certain scenes. 

But, of course, it’s not Ant-Man and the Wasp yet, so Hope stays largely on the sidelines of the action as everyone prepares to stop Cross. Like Captain America: The Winter Soldier before it, Ant-Man attempts to cross genres, but where Winter Soldier went for political thriller, Ant-Man goes for heist movie, and the results aren’t as grand or elaborate as an Ocean’s Eleven, but they’re fun sojourns nonetheless (though why you wouldn’t go as balls to the wall as possible with your heists when your hero can control ants and get up to all sorts of shenanigans is beyond me).

The inevitable Ant-Man vs. Cross-in-the-Yellowjacket-suit showdown that we march towards is bolstered by the fact that it involves two men who can shrink to the size of insects, which results in some great set pieces and one excellent Siri joke. While he doesn’t play an overly memorable villain, Corey Stoll is quite good at creating a manic glint in his eye, and it’s enjoyable enough to watch his sanity slowly slip. (Does that make me sound psychopathic?) Gone are the masses of indistinguishable bad guys from the two Avengers movies so far; instead, we have two grown men running around a Thomas the Tank Engine playset, the life and death stakes with which they battle looking pretty meager when the camera zooms out and all we see is poor Thomas quietly falling off his tracks, accompanied by some pitiful sparks. The MCU has, historically, not been known for its creative fight sequences, so Ant-Man’s playful action provides an excellent dose of fun and makes full use of its hero’s unique and rather bizarre superpowers.

That said, Ant-Man is certainly not the most memorable Marvel movie, and falls pretty squarely in the middle. It’s certainly a good deal tighter than Age of Ultron’s unwieldy mess and the burgeoning relationship between Scott and Hope has more going for it than, say, Natasha and Bruce’s ogling of each other, but you’d be forgiven if you don’t remember specific plot details from the movie. This review isn’t as long as the others for a reason: there’s just not as much to discuss.

Ant-Man is perhaps the best example of your typical Marvel movie post-Phase One: it’s inoffensive fun bolstered by a game cast (Peña provides some of the best humor in the MCU) and an easy way to spend an afternoon. Like, really, it is a whole lot of fun. Marvel has finally become a well-oiled machine, and so Ant-Man comes off the assembly line ready to drive exactly how you expected (and how you like), but it’s not going to be winning races anytime soon. (Is that how car metaphors work? I don’t know.) For some, that’s an indication that Marvel is too stale, that it lacks creativity and too often plays it safe. And to a certain extent, that’s true: they’ve found a formula and they’ve stuck to it. But for others, that formula works even when it’s not firing on all cylinders, and maybe that’s enough. 

If that’s good for movies as a whole, well, let’s wait until Avengers: Endgame to unpack Marvel’s prickly cinematic legacy.

Groundwork: 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:

  • “Tales to astonish!” Cross says at one point, mocking the tales of Hank Pym’s time as Ant-Man. Tales to Astonish was the comic series that introduced Ant-Man. Not groundwork, but fun.
  • If Scott returned from the Quantum Realm/going subatomic, it stands to reason that the presumed-dead Janet van Dyne could too, no? And we see a shape that looks suspiciously like the Wasp while Scott’s in the Quantum Realm.
  • In the comics, Cassie Lang becomes the superhero known as Stature. With the casting of Kathryn Newton as an older Cassie Lang, it seems inevitable that Stature (and the Young Avengers) will soon make her MCU debut. (Kathryn Newton has consistently rubbed me the wrong way as a performer, and it was shitty of Marvel to recast Emma Fuhrmann—the older Cassie in Endgamewithout telling her. But I should withhold judgement until Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania… I guess.)
  • Hank talks about how he never wants his work falling back into the hands of a Stark. Well, I hate to break it to you, buddy, but… that’s exactly what’s gonna happen in Endgame
  • There was a whole theory that the TVA in Loki was actually located in the Quantum Realm. Technically that hasn’t been disproven yet, but it seems unlikely. Still… 

Anna’s Favorite Scene: The Falcon vs. Ant-Man. The cameo is brief enough not to overshadow everyone else in the movie and keeps the MCU connected even when it’s not an Avengers movie, plus it’s funny to watch Sam get dragged around a bit.

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

Ant-Man Trailer

Ant-Man 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.

Jungle Cruise

Written by Taylor Baker

55/100

Disney’s new theme park ride inspired film Jungle Cruise is a tale of two films, something not all that surprising when you factor in that 7 writers worked on the film. 4 writers for the story, 3 more for the screenplay. We start out the film with a run of the mill exposition of the MacGuffin–a magical flower in Brazil–that morphs into an imploring speech by Jack Whitehall’s McGregor. Requesting that he be allowed to inspect a recently unearthed treasure from a learned men’s society. The speech he’s delivering was in fact written by his sister, Lily played by Emily Blunt. Hijinks ensue, leading to a chase sequence in which a maniacally accented Austro-Hungarian Prince played by Jesse Plemons has our modern Mary Poppins dangling precariously from a ladder outside a window, with the now stolen arrowhead she so desired safely tucked away. Rather than hand it over to him in exchange for her safety she opts to drop down onto a double-decker bus parked just beneath her, courtesy of her brother, and we’re off to the races!

This first introduction is reminiscent in multiple ways to the 1999 classic The Mummy. Whether period, the charming brother side character (John Hannah), and the heroine who seemingly knows more about the legend than anyone else Evie (Rachel Weisz) the makings of a good well rounded adventure story all seem to be here. But before we go too far down that bend in the river, there’s another apt comparison and one that had me sold on the premise of the project long before I ever saw a trailer, the idea that it was a modern riff on a storied classic, The African Queen. As similar as Emily Blunt’s Lily feels to Weisz’s Evie from at least that introduction the actual character of Lily that Emily continues to inhabit feels directly informed, if not lifted from Katharine Hepburn’s fantastic turn as Rose Sayer in the 1951 classic. Strong minded and unflappable, Blunt’s character finds a natural evolution to Hepburn’s Sayer in adorning herself with breeches rather than dresses. And dressing down The Rock’s Frank for his behavior and jokes rather than his alcoholism. Which Frank demonstrates plenty of.

Eventually Lily and McGregor make it to Brazil while old Frank is trying to get his engine back from Paul Giamatti’s gold toothed crony Nilo. Hijinks once again ensue and once everyone arrives in place to the character situations we were prepared for in the trailer Plemons’ Prince Joachim erupts from the water and begins shooting. They get away as expected, there’s too much runtime left for a quick offing, for those of us checking our watches, and we get 30-40 minutes more of dad jokes(a personal favorite of mine), character development that isn’t sloppy, and fun asides. Then it begins to slip, the sexless heap of a man that is Dwayne Johnson begins to visually long toward Blunt, the joviality of very flawed crazy human characters is eschewed for CG conquistadors that make one long for the old days of Davy Jones’ lifelike depiction in the Pirates series 15 years ago, and the charm of it all evaporates the further down the river we go.

The legend we’re introduced to in the beginning of the film turns out to be real. And it appears our characters goose is cooked. Character secrets get revealed. We hear the full legend of Aguirre, and it’s pitifull when mentally compared against the Herzog classic. Magic flowers(our MacGuffin from the beginning) that may grant eternal life/heal all ailments/lift curses are now every characters absolute goal. The eyerolling romance between Blunt and Johnson is forced. Disney isn’t backing down though, and rather than let any relationship between the two megastars simmer just out of frame they opt instead to give us a tropey underwater sequence where they *have* to lock lips to exchange oxygen(Really? This took you 7 writers to figure out?). It’s a boorish character choice, and one that stands in stark contrast to the self aware dialogue spewed by both Johnson and Whitehall the first half of the film. I won’t give away the finale, but I will say the cruise does indeed come to an end. For now at least the Jungle Cruise ride has a story. Let’s hope the next time Disney puts a portion of their theme park on the big screen they use half as many writers, and keep things more on the rails.



Jungle Cruise Trailer

Jungle Cruise is currently screening theatrically and on Disney+

MCU Retrospective: Thor

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. Time for space shenanigans.

70/100

So far, the burgeoning MCU has remained grounded—relatively speaking, of course, as they feature a man flying around in a gold-titanium alloy suit and another man who turns into a big green rage monster if he gets angry. However, Thor marks the first time that Marvel ventures off-world, and even if the movie tries to explain away the magical elements by quoting Arthur C. Clarke (“Magic is just science we don’t understand”), the film still represents a marked departure from the three previous entries, serving as a litmus test for the MCU’s burgeoning audience. However, the departure that occurred with Thor wasn’t entirely clean: to ensure that the film didn’t get too otherworldly and alienate its audience, a large chunk of the movie is spent on Earth, which ironically ends up as the weakest portion of the movie. The result is a decent first outing for our God of Thunder, but one hampered by its tethering to reality. 

It is helped, though, by excellent casting in Chris Hemsworth as Thor and Tom Hiddleston as Loki. Hiddleston had worked with director Kenneth Branagh before, and, as is well-known by now, initially auditioned for Thor before getting the role of Loki, and the titular hero went to Hemsworth. Both of these actors have become mainstays of the MCU, and for good reason; even before Hemsworth could flex his considerable comedy chops in Thor: Ragnarok (and before his eyebrows were unbleached), he was exuding charisma, and Hiddleston is, for my money, one of the best actors in the entire franchise. 

It’s a good thing these two are so talented, because both characters could have easily been annoying had they been in the wrong hands. Thor, as presented initially in this movie, is overconfident, cocky, and unwise, but even so Hemsworth manages to make him charming (it helps that he is just ridiculously, superhumanly attractive). When Thor’s coronation day on Asgard is interrupted by Frost Giants from Jotunheim, Asgard’s greatest enemy, Thor immediately rushes off to fight Laufey, king of the Frost Giants, and get revenge. He is accompanied by Loki and Lady Sif (Jaimie Alexander) and the Warriors Three: Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Hogun (Tadanobu Asano), and Fandral (Josh Dallas). Together, this merry group threatens to destroy the fragile peace between Asgard and Jotunheim, as well as get untold numbers injured or killed, until Odin shows up and prevents further catastrophe.

Apoplectic with rage, Odin casts Thor out, banishing him to Earth. “You are unworthy of these realms, you’re unworthy of your title, you’re unworthy of the loved ones you have betrayed!” he roars before stripping Thor of his powers and sending him away from Asgard. Finally, right before he throws Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir, after its owner, Odin murmurs, “Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor.” A challenge, then, for Thor to rise towards: become worthy of Mjolnir, of his father, of Asgard.

Now stuck in New Mexico, Thor has to adjust; luckily, he conveniently runs into Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), a scientist studying atmospheric anomalies, unaware she is chasing the Bifrost, the Rainbow Bridge that allows Asgardians to travel between worlds. Jane is joined by Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) and intern Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings), and the trio take in a very dazed and confused Thor. Branagh mines this fish-out-of-water scenario for some good moments (Thor smashing a coffee cup on the ground and crying, “Another!”, Thor going into a pet shop and asking for a horse, Thor repeatedly getting hit or almost hit by cars because he has no idea what they are), but New Mexico drags compared to Asgard and all its cool costumes, production design, and royal intrigue. On top of that, the romance that brews between Jane and Thor is far too rushed to be believable (remember how I praised Marvel for going somewhat slowly with Pepper and Tony? Yeah, this is the opposite of that) and stunts Jane as a character by immediately saddling her with Thor. She certainly has potential (and is certainly more of a real character than, say, Betty Ross was), and Natalie Portman is good as ever, but stick her in the most boring aspect of the movie and immediately force her into the “love interest” box and you are heading towards failure.

Thank goodness for Asgard and Loki, then. Production designer Bo Welch had his work cut out for him, as he is tasked with the unenviable task of translating Asgard from page to screen, making it seem advanced enough to belong to gods but familiar enough not to alienate the audience, but he succeeds, making Asgard one of the most recognizable locations in the MCU and deftly straddling the line between the fantastic and the plausible. Frequent Marvel costumer and Oscar winner Alexandra Byrne manages a similarly impossible feat, clothing the Asgardians in regal fashion and crafting iconic looks that will last throughout the movies. This isn’t just a trip to the 1940s, as will happen in the next Marvel film, but a trek to an entirely new, alien world, and thus a lot hinges on its aesthetics; at this somewhat tenuous point in Marvel’s trajectory, a failure on the design fronts could have been catastrophic.

Back in Asgard, Loki finds out that he is adopted. What’s more, he is actually a Frost Giant; on top of that, he is Frost Giant King Laufey’s son. Understandably perturbed, he confronts Odin, who… falls asleep? Odin falls into the “Odinsleep,” a vague concept never truly explained, but essentially Odin gets very tired from all his troubles and must rest in a coma-like state to regain power. While the concept of Odinsleep is a) ridiculous and b) very convenient, the confrontation scene in the throne room stands out as one of the most affecting scenes in the whole film.

Marvel brought on Branagh partially due to his experience with Shakespeare, as the studio wanted to emphasize the family drama of Thor in order to make it more relatable, and no one does family drama better than Shakespeare, and no one does Shakespeare better than Kenneth Branagh. This scene shows why Marvel chose Branagh, and why Branagh sought classically trained actors like Hiddleston for this film. Hiddleston puts in the work here, cycling between rage, betrayal, jealousy, hurt, rolling a hundred different emotions into one performance. It’s good stuff.

As Odin has been knocked out of commission, the throne falls to Loki; with the added baggage of his backstory, Loki treks to Jotunheim, reveals that it was he who sabotaged Thor’s coronation, and agrees to let Laufey and his fellows into Asgard to kill Odin. Sif and the Warriors Three go to retrieve Thor from Earth to stop Loki, but Loki sends some faceless robot thing to kill Thor before he can come back. The faceless robot thing, called the Destroyer, nearly succeeds, but because Thor was ready to sacrifice himself to save innocents, he becomes worthy of Mjolnir, destroys the Destroyer, and heads back to Asgard to confront Loki. 

Well, it turns out that Loki only invited the Frost Giants to Asgard so he could kill them in front of Odin to make himself look heroic, and then Loki tries to destroy all of Jotunheim by using the Bifrost’s power. Thor, now against genocide (good job), prevents Loki from doing so, in the process destroying the Bifrost and preventing him from traveling back to Jane (the Bifrost is fixed with zero problems in the sequel). Thor is now worthy to be king, and Loki has fallen into the abyss of space.

The story beats in Thor trace a familiar arc dating back centuries: the unsuitable heir must go on a quest to prove himself worthy. The younger brother schemes to get the throne. So on and so forth. Even with Hemsworth’s winning performance (and Patrick Doyle providing one of the more memorable Marvel scores), were it not for Hiddleston, Thor would have easily been forgotten. 

Loki goes through far and away the most interesting arc in the film, an arc that has continued to this day with his titular Disney+ show, and one that very quickly captured the hearts and minds of Marvel’s audience. Marvel’s greatest strength lies with its characters; there are many instances where a weaker entry has been elevated by character work (see: Iron Man 2), and Loki is certainly a very strong contender for the title of “Most Psychologically Complex Marvel Character” even from his very first outing, boosting every film he appears in. The discarded son, never meant to rule but always feeling as if he is worthy of it—and in a family where “worthiness” is everything, of course that would twist him up inside. Then to discover that you belong to a different race entirely, a race hated by your home, your family, by everyone around you, and what’s more to learn that the only reason your so-called father adopted you was to use you as a pawn to broker a peace treaty? That would drive anyone to madness. (“Is it madness?” Loki asks, tears swimming in his eyes. “Is it? Is it?”) But instead of going after the father that lied to him his whole life, Loki only doubles down to prove himself a worthy son. (There’s that pesky “worthy” word again—it’s everywhere in this movie, haunting both Thor and Loki like shadows, always just out of reach. You have to be worthy of your hammer, of your throne, of your father. You have to prove yourself worthy of respect, even of love, even to your apparent family.) 

Of course, he tries to do this by committing genocide, which is admittedly not great—genocide against his own people, no less. You could easily dub Loki narcissistic, and in many ways he is, but at the root of all his posturing and peacocking runs a very deep thread of self-hatred, strong enough so that Loki is willing to kill his own race. Then, to cap it all off, the infamous exchange: “I could have done it, Father! I could have done it! For you, for all of us!”

“No, Loki.”

What a terrible thing to say to your son as he dangles off the edge of a bridge, the void of space yawning behind him. No wonder Loki lets go. Odin, in a cinematic universe full of bad fathers (Ego, Vulture, Howard Stark), might well take the cake, a sting made all the worse by the fact that Marvel has tried to paint him in if not an ultra-flattering light, at least a decent one. 

In the hands of a studio willing to get darker than Marvel, there is a hell of a lot to work with for Loki; even with the staunchly family-friendly MCU, it’s substantial. Thor only works as a character here because he has Loki to bounce off, and Thor only works as a movie because Hiddleston works overtime to make up for the boredom of New Mexico and the excessive Dutch angle shots that Branagh uses. Is this an exaggeration? Frankly, no. The movie might be called Thor, but it’s Loki’s show—and it’s a good thing, too, coming off the dull affairs that were The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man 2

Groundwork: 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:

  • Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) is here, I guess. Cool.
  • And there’s an after credits scene with the Tesseract, which contains the Space Stone, and will make its first chronological appearance in Captain America: The First Avenger, the next MCU movie. (In that film, the Tesseract appears in Tønsberg, Norway, the site of a Frost Giant attack in Thor and New Asgard in Avengers: Endgame.)
  • Speaking of Infinity Stones, there’s a (fake) Infinity Gauntlet in Odin’s vault. Hela knocks it over later in Ragnarok and makes a joke about it.
  • This marks the first appearance of S.H.I.E.L.D. agent/Hydra spy Jasper Sitwell (Maximiliano Hernández), who pops up in The Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Avengers: Endgame (and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.!).
  • Dr. Selvig makes unnamed references to both Bruce Banner and, more importantly, Hank Pym; the latter doesn’t show up in the MCU until Ant-Man 2015.
  • Not groundwork, but the nametag on Thor’s borrowed shirt belongs to Donald Blake, Thor’s human alter ego in (some) comics. Cool!

Anna’s Favorite Scene: The confrontation between Loki and Odin in the throne room, purely because it cemented Loki as one of the best and most interesting characters in the MCU and because it cemented Tom Hiddleston as one of best performers in the MCU.

MCU Ranking: 1. Iron Man, 2. Thor, 2. Iron Man 2, 3. The Incredible Hulk

Thor Trailer

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

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

MCU Retrospective: Iron Man 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. Next up is Iron Man 2, which made the first Iron Man seem like a one-time stroke of good fortune.

60/100

If the MCU started with a bang with the first Iron Man, its two immediate follow-ups more closely resembled whimpers, making this burgeoning cinematic universe look like a flash in the pan rather than something that could stand on its own two feet. While Iron Man 2 is less laborious than The Incredible Hulk and possesses some of the wit that made the first Iron Man soar, its overstuffed plot and boring action set-pieces make it land with a bit of a thud, moving the MCU to rocky ground.

Where Iron Man’s opening act—Tony Stark in a cave with a box of scraps—is careful and meticulous, stripping our hero of everything but his wits and thereby giving him humanity, Iron Man 2 opts for a more haphazard approach even as it consciously tries to echo those opening moments from its predecessor. Instead of Tony in a cave, we have Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) in a derelict building in Russia, but he too has a box of scraps—and a thirst for vengeance upon Tony Stark for some unknown wrong done to Ivan’s dead father, Anton (Yevgeni Nikolayevich Lazarev). All of this is truncated into the span of about five minutes, so where Tony’s grief at Yinsen’s death in Iron Man lands, Ivan’s overexaggerated howl at his father’s passing comes off as satire even as the movie tries to play it straight.

But, thankfully, we still have Robert Downey Jr. as our anchor, and Tony Stark continues to be endlessly frustrating and endlessly charming. As we reacquaint ourselves with our hero, we learn that the palladium core in Tony’s arc reactor that keeps him alive is also killing him, something that has sent Tony into a depressive spiral. 

Since the beginning, Tony has had a rather self-destructive streak; he can never let himself rest, and instead keeps pushing and pushing. He gets obsessive. He talks about using the Iron Man suit to protect the world, but often it’s really to protect himself from the guilt he feels over his parents’ deaths, the guilt he feels from Stark Industries’ murky legacy, always the guilt over something. His impending doom in Iron Man 2 accelerates this, his suicidal tendencies making him even more reckless than normal and sending him back to his old, pre-Iron Man self: he drinks, he parties, he ogles new assistant Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson), and generally acts like a prat, though we know him enough to know that he’s faking it and putting on a front—at least to some extent. However, his actions result in Rhodey (Don Cheadle, replacing Terrence Howard) confiscating one of Tony’s suits after a mano-a-mano beatdown. To cap off his string of bad decisions, Tony decides to compete in the Monaco Historic Grand Prix, where Ivan is lying in wait for him. Aside from a great suit-up (and Pepper and Tony’s back-and-forth while director Jon Favreau’s Happy Hogan tries to run Ivan over), the fight is largely dull.

Tony learns that Ivan is seeking revenge on behalf of his father Anton, whom we learn worked on the original arc reactor project with Tony’s father, Howard, before Howard had him deported after Anton leaked secrets. This sets up the central idea of the movie: legacy. The legacy of Anton, the legacy of Howard, the legacy of Tony’s suits and Tony himself. (“If you could make God bleed,” Ivan says, “people would cease to believe in him. There will be blood in the water, the sharks will come. All I have to do is sit back and watch as the world consumes you.”)

Again, the movie tries to play up the parallels between Tony and Ivan: they both create suits with the technology their fathers built, they both wrestle with their fathers’ deaths—the movie almost suggests that the only difference between the two is money. Tony has it, Ivan does not. Unfortunately, Mickey Rourke cannot give Ivan the same nuance as Tony, due both to the script and to Rourke’s own acting, so this concept—one that could have been potent in the right hands—largely fizzles.

However, to Rourke’s credit, not all of this failure rests on his shoulders; in fact, according to Rourke himself, studio interference resulted in much of his performance getting left on the cutting room floor, stripping Ivan of any complex interior life in favor of a run-of-the-mill baddie made to sell cool toys (more on selling toys when we get to Iron Man 3). The production of Iron Man 2 was rushed and frantic even outside of Rourke’s complaints, with Marvel trying to capitalize too quickly on its initial success and rushing production in order to churn out another film, and it shows. Coming off an Oscar nomination for The Wrestler, it’s not as though Rourke had suddenly lost any acting abilities, and comments similar to Rourke’s would be made down the line by other directors and actors who worked with Marvel, though largely before 2015, when the so-called “Creative Committee” was disbanded and Marvel allowed directors a looser rein (more on studio meddling when we get to Age of Ultron).

Where Rourke—or, rather, the studio—fails, though, Sam Rockwell swoops in to save the day. As Tony’s rival Justin Hammer, Rockwell (who was originally in the running to play Tony himself) hams it up, clearly having a blast as he struts around and breaks Ivan out of prison. Hammer wants to use Ivan to make his own version of the Iron Man suits to sell to the US military, failing to consider the consequences or the fact that other people like Ivan have their own wants too. (Here’s another underexplored parallel that never goes beyond surface level: Hammer is the greedy corporate man who throws morality out the window in favor of profits, a path that Tony was going down until the events of his first movie. But the movie opts instead for a shallow comparison, portraying Hammer merely as a peacocking Tony-wannabe rather than a slightly warped mirror image.)

Luckily for Tony, S.H.I.E.L.D., in the form of Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury and Clark Gregg’s Phil Coulson, shows up again to save him from himself. Turns out that Tony’s new sexpot assistant, Natalie, is also S.H.I.E.L.D., and her real name (most of the time) is Natasha Romanoff. Scarlett Johansson has spoken out against the sexualized nature of Natasha’s first MCU outing, and these missteps are glaringly obvious upon rewatch: multiple shots of her derriere, a completely unnecessary scene where she changes in the car while Happy tries to sneak a peek, et cetera. It feels like a very 2000s approach to gender equality: she’s sexy and the movie very overtly draws attention to this, but she can beat up people and is smart, and therefore it’s really a win for feminism. (It’s not.) As the MCU has gone on, Natasha has become one of the more interesting characters—and not because she has a nice ass—however, her introduction has aged poorly. 

S.H.I.E.L.D.’s arrival not only reveals the truth about Natalie, but also about Howard Stark—turns out he was its co-founder. S.H.I.E.L.D. is part of his legacy, but again, Iron Man 2 drops the ball by barely addressing how blindsided Tony is by this revelation, leaving it up to Robert Downey Jr. to do the heavy lifting here. He’s more than able, but he should have a script that backs him up as well. 

With the help of his dad from beyond the grave, Tony fixes his arc reactor, which is good news because Ivan has double-crossed Hammer (color me surprised) and rigged his Iron Man drones to run amok and destroy Tony and his legacy. What follows is a mind-numbingly boring and tediously long affair where various featureless iron suits shoot lasers at each other. It’s the Iron Monger fight from Iron Man, but longer and without any personal stakes because the movie never took the time to build up any sort of relationship between Ivan and Tony (unlike Tony and Obadiah), even though the seeds of something more interesting were right there.

The seeds of something more interesting seem to be always just out of reach for this MCU entry. Much of the film concerns itself with who gets to make and have the Iron Man suits, which raises many thorny moral questions: should technology be in the hands of only a select few? Should the American military have access to this, and if so, what does that mean for the rest of the world? Tony proclaims, “I have successfully privatized world peace.” What dangers could arise from this? Is this really something to aspire to?

But Marvel skates over these questions, giving them less than even a cursory nod. Tony is our hero, and therefore he as an individual should have the suit because he is the main character and thus deserves it. Rhodey can get a suit because he’s also a good guy, and he can use it for the American military because freedom, hell yeah! Comics have always been slightly better at handling weightier themes because they are less beholden to investors and have a smaller audience (for example, the “Demon in a Bottle” comic arc featuring Iron Man delves much deeper into Tony’s alcohol issues than Iron Man 2 does), but to have all this discussion on the military-industrial complex via Stark and Hammer Industries, to set up this proto-Cold War between Tony and Ivan, and then to ignore the complications that arise from these ideas feels disingenuous.

Iron Man 2’s saving graces are found within its smaller moments, in the relationships it builds upon from the first movie and in the easy rapport of its cast—at least, other than Rourke. Cheadle smoothly slides in to replace Terrence Howard, his Rhodey a little less down to party than the prior version but a better character for it. (To help the audience get over this speed bump, Cheadle’s first line as Rhodey is, “Look, it’s me, I’m here, deal with it. Let’s move on.” Guess the movie didn’t listen to Ike Perlmutter’s claim that no one would notice the replacement because all Black people “look the same.”) Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert Downey Jr. continue their chemistry from the first movie, making Pepper and Tony’s first kiss at the end feel earned, especially in comparison to some of the rushed Marvel romances that would come after; Clark Gregg and Samuel L. Jackson’s inclusion, however brief, points to the bigger universe that Marvel is building to. Sam Rockwell, as stated before, owns. For a movie with such boring action sequences and an overly convoluted plot, Iron Man 2 manages to have (mostly) good performances and strong character work.

Yet Iron Man 2’s failures mean that Marvel is, so far, only one for three. Not exactly a great ratio. They are balanced on a precipice, liable to tip either way depending on the success of the next several movies, and while we now know how they land, Iron Man 2 did not do much to help at the time.

Groundwork: 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:

  • If there is any justice in the world, Justin Hammer will show up in the new Disney+ show Armor Wars. (It’s only a rumor right now.)
  • Senator Stern (Garry Shandling) appears again in Captain America: The Winter Soldier as a Hydra agent.
  • The movie all but states this outright, but the issue in New Mexico that Fury and Coulson deal with ends up being Thor. Here’s something fun.
  • Howard Stark is dead here (obviously). Later, it’s revealed that Bucky Barnes as the Winter Soldier killed him, though Marvel didn’t know that yet. A young Howard will show up in a couple movies, looking nothing like John Slattery.
  • There really isn’t much groundwork laid in this movie, honestly—or, rather, no groundwork that just isn’t part of the plot already (like introducing Black Widow). 

Anna’s Favorite Scene: “If you try to escape or play any sort of games with me, I will taze you and watch Supernanny while you drool into the carpet,” Coulson tells Tony. Not really a scene, more of just a single line. (Scene-wise, it’s probably when Tony apologizes to Pepper by bringing her strawberries—which she is allergic to.) Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is great and everyone needs to stop sleeping on it. I don’t care it’s not really canon anymore, the Framework arc is damn good television.

MCU Ranking: 1. Iron Man, 2. Iron Man 2, 3. The Incredible Hulk

Iron Man 2 Trailer

Iron Man 2 is currently available to rent and purchase on most digital storefronts, and is streamable on Disney+.

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

Tribeca 2021 Film Festival Review: Wolfgang

Written by Taylor Baker

57/100

Wolfgang is a retrospective portrait on the life and work of famed chef Wolfgang Puck. The documentary is directed by David Gelb who notably directed the cult classic and critical darling documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi of which Jiro Ono Japanese chef is the subject. Fast tracked for a digital release on Disney+ on June 25th, Wolfgang is arranged between staged shots, staged interactions, scripted and unscripted narration, and insert images alongside historical footage of different dishes being cooked. It provides a cursory look, but as one would assume with the 82 minute runtime and being on Disney+ it doesn’t get too deep and teases the more interesting facets of Puck rather than digging in. The moments I enjoyed most were seeing how he ran his kitchen and interacted with staff, like the master of a well oiled machine. There is a clear sense of respect, and deference to the leader of not just the kitchen, but the restaurant itself.

The personal interest and love for food Puck is known for takes it’s time arriving. We hear various talking heads lay out his historical accomplishments and learn that the open exposed kitchen through glass windows was apparently a Puck innovation well before we dig into his schooling and climb from rags to riches. Much more time than necessary is spent on the various celebrities that came to Spago rather than the cuisine that specifically brought them there. Even after the film is over it’s unclear how much his constantly booked restaurant was filled with patrons who love the arrangements of the kitchen, and how many customers merely wanted to elbow to elbow with hot shots if not the famed Puck himself. The film attempts to correlate the value of Puck as directly proportional to the amount of celebrities in his orbit early on, thankfully this is eschewed in the last leg of the film as his ascent to television chef is detailed.

We spend various chunks of time on Puck’s family throughout his life, following his run from Austria to France. We continuously hear of his rabid dislike of his stepfather, but without details we can only imagine what his home life was like. His sister never addresses the topic in her various scenes. His marriage to Barbara Lazaroff and the children they shared are depicted, but we never hear mention of his first wife Marie France Trouillot, and see but a scarce moment of Puck alongside his current wife Gelila Assega. Which gives off the feeling that this is more of a commissioned and authorized promotional video by Puck for Puck, than a serious effort to appreciate an artist. For anyone looking for a documentary that celebrates cuisine, artisanal cooking, and a personal introspection of Puck as a chef this will whet your appetite, but the seminal and summary work one would assume will arrive likely after his passing occurs is not yet born.

Wolfgang Trailer

Wolfgang is streamed as part of the Tribeca 2021 Film Festival thru Tribeca at Home. Wolfgang will be available to stream on the Disney+ Streaming Service on June 25th.

Cruella

Written by Alexander Reams

89/100

Cruella is the latest film from critical darling Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, I,Tonya, and Fright Night). The film follows a young Cruella de Vil as she attempts to leave her young life of crime and enter the London fashion scene. All the while discovering revelations about her past with her companions Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) and Jasper (Joel Fry). 

Emma Stone took this iconic character and truly made it her own. She delivers a nuanced, extravagant, and heartwrenching performance in the film. Her performance has already been compared to Joaquin Phoenix’s in 2019’s Joker, and rightfully so. The main difference for me is that Stone is far superior in her role than Phoenix was. She exudes joy and menace at the same time. 

With this film being about fashion, you would expect that the costume and production design are nothing short of brilliant, and you would be right. Jenny Beavan and Fiona Crombie do excellent work as the costume and production designers for the film, fully immersing the viewer in 1970’s London. Gillespie brings back his usual editor, Tatiana S. Riegel, to edit the film. She does a marvelous job, knowing just when to let the shot continue and when to do quicker cuts. Nicolas Karakatsanis returns to work with Gilespie after their collaboration with 2017’s I, Tonya. His tracking shots are very frenetic and beautiful. 

My issues are very few with the film but still issues. One scene in particular that sticks out was either lit very poorly which made it look like a green screen, or the VFX was done very poorly, but either way it just does not look right and sticks out like a sore thumb. Despite that the film still has so much going for it. Emma Stone’s performance, Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser being comedic revelations, the editing and cinematography, and Gillespie’s direction. All of this made for a very fun time that is well worth a watch.

Cruella Trailer

Cruella is currently playing in Theaters and on Disney+ with a 29.99 surcharge.

You can connect with Alexander on his social media profiles: Instagram, Letterboxd, and Twitter. Or see more of his work on his website.