Top Gun: Maverick vs Lightyear: How Two Aviation Films Emblemize the Culture War

Apparently conservatives are thrilled by Top Gun: Maverick and eager to gloat at the box-office shortcomings of Pixar’s Lightyear. 

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At the surface there’s something laughable about adults aggressively pitting an adult-action movie, against a family-cartoon: especially when the reason for the negative comparison is not at all compelling. The accusation that gets levelled at films like Lightyear is that they use “forced diversity.” 

While I would agree that there’s something forced about having an openly-lesbian, black commanding officer, in an action movie that pretends it was made in the 1990s (Lightyear is supposedly the favorite movie of Toy Story character Andy Davis), it is not something worth complaining about either. Representation is good, even if Hollywood can’t figure out how to do it in a way that doesn’t feel phoney and self-congratulatory.  

Yet as much as I would like to think I’m above the fray of culture-warring over two blockbusters about pilots, I think there’s something to be learned from the comparison. While the films themselves are not particularly political projects, the values they do embody make them decent proxies for conservatism and (modern) liberalism.

Top Gun: Maverick

Tom Cruise doesn’t look like a stereotypical sixty year-old.He doesn’t act like one either. He stars in action blockbusters and does his own stunts. Yet despite Cruise’s personal attempts to evade Father Time, Top Gun: Maverick nonetheless seeks to remind us that decades have passed since the first Top Gun movie, and that Tom Cruise’s world has aged rapidly around him. 

The film opens with Cruise’s character, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, test-flying a plane. Compared to the aircrafts of the first Top Gun film, this aircraft looks like a starship. As Maverick takes it on a daring flight through a purple sky, the aesthetics of Top Gun: Maverick and Lightyear become one.

Maverick emerges from this test-flight triumphant. He can’t quite believe it, but all these years later he’s still at the top of his game. 

But despite his successes, Maverick receives almost no respects from his commanding officers. The movie sets up Maverick as the subject of a compelling, cyclical tragedy. 

Maverick spent the first Top Gun movie persuading his fellow soldiers, such as Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer) that he is not a trouble-maker, but a hyper-talented, big-hearted pilot whose free-thinking is always for the greater good. The tragedy of Top Gun: Maverick is that none of that progress from the first movie mattered. Sure, a now dying Iceman trusts him, but it seems with every new commanding officer he meets, Maverick has to start from square one, and prove his value all over again. 

The opening scenes of Top Gun: Maverick have a lot of potential. They could be the set up for subtle critiques of military-culture; implying that the military is so rigid that it cannot even give due credit to one of its most devoted servants. I also read Maverick’s story as a metaphor for being neuro-non-normative. Maverick doesn’t see himself as a maverick at all: he is soft-spoken, tries to follow orders and is kind to all around him. Yet his commanding officers treat him as if he is rude, rebellious and egotistical. The world Maverick perceives is entirely inconsistent with the world as seen by his commanding officers.

The opening scenes also hint at an even more radical critique of militarism. They imply that pilots like Maverick are about to become obsolete, as (pilotless) drones do more of the military’s work. Top Gun: Maverick could have been a modern retelling the legend of John Henry vs the Steam Train. It could have made an argument that being able to kill enemies from the safe distance of a drone’s control screen takes the immorality of war to an unacceptable level. 

But Top Gun: Maverick didn’t go there. Instead it simply follows Maverick as he learns to be a teacher and re-earns the trust of “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of his former squadron mate, “Goose” Bradshaw. 

Despite the claims that Top Gun: Maverick represents an antidote to Disney’s “forced diversity,” the film actually depicts a military unit that is less white and male than the one from the original Top Gun. In a way, one might argue Maverick’s diversity is far more tokenistic than Lightyear’s. Despite choosing to depict Black and Mestizo soldiers, the film doesn’t give any of these characters a chance to suggest that perhaps their military careers started as a pathway out of poverty. Nor do any of these characters suggest any ambivalence about killing on behalf of a government that keeps people in third-world countries from asserting their right of self-determination. In short, the Top Gun universe addressed its surface-level diversity problem without thinking about the bigger ideological question of why military-action movies are so white and male oriented.

Now granted, proponents of Top Gun: Maverick would say, its just supposed to be a fun movie about planes: not everything has to be scrutinized for political-moral purity! And for the most part I would agree. The original Top Gun did a good job of avoiding real world political references, and making its mission purely about flying planes rather than directly targeting an enemy. 

The sequel, by contrast, pushes a tad more towards real-world militarism. There are a few (albeit brief and sanitized) depictions of dogfights with enemy soldiers, and the mission itself is about disabling the nuclear proliferation of a mysterious country (an interesting choice in an era where Donald Trump pulled the US out of the Iran-Nuclear deal, favoring sabre-rattling over diplomacy). Sure, Top Gun: Maverick was not hardline, American-military propaganda, but the filmmakers did not seem to have issues about going in that direction when given the chance.

Near the end of Top Gun: Maverick, one of the Top Gun program’s star recruits, Lt. Natasha “Phoenix” Trace, exclaims that Maverick had now shot down five planes, earning the title of “Ace.” So once again, Maverick proved his doubters wrong: he triumphed for a military that refused to believe in him. But given that the movie opened with such a compelling portrait of Maverick’s humanity, it was unfortunate that it had to end with an “accolade” that reminds us of the military’s inherently anti-humanistic nature. 

Lightyear

Prior to seeing Lightyear I came across an interview with Tom Hanks. He expressed disappointment, that Tim Allen was not invited to reprise his role as Buzz in this new Lightyear movie. While I was happy that Hanks stood up for his longtime co-star, I felt like he had missed the point. The Buzz in Toy Story and the Buzz in Lightyear are not the same being. The Buzz that Allen voiced is a toy who is under the delusion that he is a “real” Space Ranger. The Buzz in Lightyear, by contrast, is supposed to be the “real” Buzz, a “real” Space Ranger.

After seeing Lightyear, however, I became a tad more sympathetic to Hanks’s argument. While in theory this version of Buzz (voiced by Chris Evans) was a different character than the one in Toy Story, I’m not sure the screenwriters really appreciated that. 

In Toy Story, Buzz is an amusing caricature of a sci-fi hero. He speaks and narrates his adventures like William Shatner’s Captain Kirk, all the while dressed up and ready to kill like Star Wars’s Boba Fett. In the Toy Story universe this makes him a ridiculous figure. He is essentially Don Quixote: thinking he is a mighty knight, all the while being an ordinary man (or in this case, an ordinary toy).

One might think in the context of Lightyear, Buzz’s grandiose mannerisms would seem less absurd: he would be a natural resident of a vintage-sci-fi universe.

Yet right from the get-go, Lightyear makes fun of Buzz’s bravado. His Commanding Officer, Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Adiba), regularly calls him out for his melodrama, and tells him his mission logs (a reference to the iconic narration sequences from Star Trek episodes) are a waste of time. 

Commander Hawthorne is the aforementioned black-lesbian, who has drawn of the wrath of Lightyear’s right-wing critics. I can’t say I share in this wrath. Commander Hawthorne’s relationship to Buzz is genuinely touching, and there’s nothing wrong with her ethnicity or sexuality. Nonetheless, one does not have to be a conservative bigot, to question the specific way in which Pixar incorporated diversity into this storyline.

Commander Hawthorne is not the only “diverse” character in Lightyear. As the story proceeds, Buzz gets stuck with a crew of untrained-recruits: Hawthorne’s granddaughter, Izzy (Keke Palmer), the nervous Mo Morrison (Taika Waititi) and Darby Steel, an elderly, woman out on parole (Dale Soules). And much like General Hawthorne, these characters do not share Buzz’s vintage-sci-fi feel. Instead, they talk like ordinary, real-world people, teaching Buzz lessons about how to be a better friend and leader in the process. 

Buzz Lightyear’s plot-arc is about the perils of being stuck in the past: of not embracing change. And in our current cultural climate, it hardly seems a coincidence that the character who struggles with being stuck in the past is white-male action hero, Buzz. The women and minority characters, meanwhile, are comparatively down-to-earth, and model to Buzz how he should change his ways. For some this might seem progressive. To me, it  actually robs women and minorities of the chance to actually participate in a beloved piece of lore. Imagine finally being included in a space epic, only to be told your role is to be down-to-earth

Two Frustrating Sides of the Culture War Coin

So in short, Top: Gun Maverick is a story about a white-man who proves he doesn’t have to change, whereas Lightyear is the story of a white-man who accepts that he does. Thus one represents a conservative, and one a liberal position in the current culture war. 

As someone who identifies as neither a conservative nor liberal, (but a socialist), I frankly think both positions are unhelpful. Contemporary liberals fetishize certain elements of left-wing politics (ie racial and gender-justice) without thinking in the big picture about where inequalities and injustices ultimately come from. Conservatives, meanwhile. glorify the past and its power-structures, no matter the moral cost. 

In my eyes Top Gun: Maverick is a movie that resisted change in a context where change was absolutely needed. The military is a real thing that carries out real violence. We do not need another generation of boys (or women or non-binary people for that matter) aspiring to be fighter-pilot Aces. (Emulate Hayao Miyazaki’s pacifist fighter-pilot, Princess Nausicaa, instead!)

Buzz Lightyear, by contrast, was not a character who needed to change. Was he an old-fashioned, macho-man? Sort of, I guess, but he was also a cartoon character. Campy fights between a sloganeering, spaceman who shots lasers out of his wrists, and his Vader-esque enemy Emperor Zurg, can hardly be seen as a cause of or even inspiration for violence and patriarchy. I’m glad that Disney brought racial, gender and LGBT representation to the Buzz Lightyear universe, but why couldn’t those diverse characters been genuine citizens of a Vintage-SciFi universe, and not mere conveyors of vapid social messaging? Star Trek did this in the 1960s, and did not feel the need to have Uhura tell Kirk that his mission logs were a waste of time.

In short we got one story that championed change when it really didn’t need to, and one story that defied change, slipping valid moral questions under the rug. Do you feel like you don’t have a dog in this fight? Me neither.  I enjoyed elements of both Maverick and Lightyear, but from a political perspective, let’s just say I hope Boots Riley makes another movie soon. 

An American Pickle (2020)

Directed by Brandon Trost, Written by Simon Rich:

Based on: “Sell Out” by Simon Rich

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What does it mean to be Jewish? What does it mean to have any sort of ethnic “identity” for that matter? This is the question at the core of the 2020 comedy, An American Pickle. The film stars Seth Rogen as Herschel Greenbaum, a 19th century Jewish immigrant from the country of Schlupks, and (the very same) Seth Rogen as Herschel’s great-grandson, the American web developer Ben Greenbaum.

The film draws in its audience by introducing us to Herschel’s world: a goofed-up rendition of Fiddler on the Roof’s Anatevka. Herschel then immigrates to America, falls into a vat of pickles, and remains preserved in brine for 100 years, allowing him to resume his life in the 21st century and meet his adult, great-grandson.

I (and I imagine many other North American Jews) have long understood the story of my identity as the one represented in the Ralph Bakshi animated film American Pop. In that film, the modern identity of Jews as central figures in America’s cultural and political scenes originated with Jewish persecution in Eastern Europe. Needing a way to make ends-meet in his new country of America, the film’s first protagonist takes up a job as a street-entertainer. His descendants then follow in his footsteps, becoming passionate members of America’s musical and counter-cultural traditions.

But while there may be a lot of truth to this version of the American-Jewish origin story, it also lends itself to comedic skewering. Many of the Jews who fled Eastern European progroms were undoubtedly religious: they likely saw themselves as the victims of militant Christianity, rather than White-Supremacist persecution. Many of these Jewish refugees were also likely tough, traditionalist farmers: not comedians, artists and intellectuals. 

An American Pickle gives only fleeting mention to Herschel’s son Mort (he is dead when the film takes place). Mort’s son David has also died. Therefore, An American Pickle stands in stark contrast to American Pop. While the older film shows the gradual evolution in Jewish-American identity over generations, American Pickle emphasizes the vast departure between a religious, immigrant great-grandfather and a secular, American-born great-grandson.

In a negative review Owen Gleiberman described an American Pickle as “too cantankerous to be funny and too preposterous to believe.” I assume his comment about the film being “too cantankerous” is a reference to the film’s second half where circumstances turn Ben and Herchel against each other. In Gleiberman’s view, the near impossible tension between hipster-Ben and the Shtetl-strong Herschel is more a series of gags than the substance of a coherent story. But I would argue that that’s kind of the point. 

Benedict Anderson famously called nations “imagined communities.” An American Pickle is a thoroughly-Jewish movie, but it nonetheless calls on Jews to look ourselves in the mirror. The movie screams: we are an imagined community! Most of us have nothing in common with our Shetl dwelling ancestors!

Or do we? 

Herschel is a unique character in modern American cinema, because his being a 19th century man renders many of his views conservative. Yet his Judaism and immigrant-experience, nonetheless, makes him an other. The progressive, pluralistic Jew of today exists, in large part, because of the memory of how our ancestors were treated. We don’t need to have that much in common with our ancestors to recognize that the world that excluded them was a cruel one. We became progressives to fight the harms once enacted against our conservative ancestors, and still enacted against the immigrants of today.

Also important to the film’s thesis is the fact that ancestors are still family-members. And family-members have a tendency to strive for unconditional love amongst one-another. 

The film features two scenes where Herschel and Ben visit the grave of Herschel’s beloved wife Sara. In the first scene, Herschel prays, while Ben sneaks a look at Buzzfeed articles on his phone. In the second scene, by contrast, Ben stands respectfully by Herschel’s side.

In a slightly different kind of movie, Ben would have explicitly prayed alongside Herschel (it’s even revealed in an earlier scene that Ben does in fact have some memories of practicing religious Judaism with his parents). But such a scene would go against the message of An American Pickle: it would suggest that there is a single, coherent thing called “Jewish identity”; that modern Jews can self-actualize by trying to be more traditional

An American Pickle does not, however, subscribe to the idea that there is a coherent Jewish identity. It accepts that Herschel and Ben have been, and will continue to be, two very different kinds of people. But that doesn’t matter very much. Their shared love for each other as family, and their (largely) shared opposition to injustice, is enough to bring them together. Such simple values are far more powerful than any rigid identity could ever be. 

My 2021 “Oscar” Picks

Best Actor in a Supporting Role

Sadly, the Oscars largely ignores non-English-language films outside of the best International Film category. As far as I’m concerned, that’s part of why the Oscars risk irrelevance. The awards already don’t cater to “average-Joe” movie goers, by ignoring blockbuster releases. By failing to pay attention to small-indie, and non-English films, the Academy also gives the middle-finger to people are actually invested in the cinematic art. 

I would argue the year’s most compelling “supporting” performance came from French actor Vincent Lindoln. Julia Ducournau’s film Titane starts out as a surreal, Tarantino-esque gore-fest, based around leading actress Agathe Rousselle. Lindoln, plays the important role of turning the film’s tone on its head. He portrays a tough, middle-aged fire-fighter, whose sensitive side comes out when he’s made to believe his kidnapped son has been returned to him after ten years. 

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It would also be fun to have Don Cheadle given an Oscar nomination for his role in Space Jam 2. Cheadle’s character is an evil, personifed algorithm that tries to trap Lebron James in the internet. Space Jam 2 has a tragically mediocre script, but that doesn’t make Cheadle’s portrayal of a corny, yet sinister villain any less engaging. Talent can thrive in all kinds of contexts, and it’s a shame that The Academy doesn’t have the nuance to recognize that.

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Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Yet another of my gripes with the Oscars is the narrow meanings of the categories “leading” and “supporting” role. The awards twist these words to (usually) mean “actor with the most lines/screen time” and “actor with slightly less screen time than the leading actor.” Thus, Brad Pitt won an Oscar as a “supporting actor” in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, despite being just as much the film’s protagonist as Leonardo DiCaprio.  

Diana Rigg, does not enter Last Night in Soho with the bravado of a Brad Pitt. No. She enters the film as a character-actor, playing a well-defined, but seemingly insignificant landlady. Her character gradually takes on more importance in Edgar Wright’s film, but Rigg, who would die before the film was released, ensures that her character’s development is perfectly executed. 

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Best Actress in a Leading Role

Musician Alana Haim made her Hollywood-acting debut in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza, and got to play a 25-year old character who struggles, to a fault, with immaturity (the most extreme manifestation of this being that she regularly hangs out with a 15-year old actor who is determined to make her his girlfriend). 

While cinema has no shortage of immature figures, Haim’s character is unique. She’s not the kind of obnoxious, buffoon you see in Adam Sandler movies; her immaturity is not a source for cheap laughs. Instead, she struggles with an insecurity. She is unable to find a fulfilling job, or relate well to her family. Haim’s performance strikes a good balance between outer-strength and inner weakness, making it one that’s not easy to forget.

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Best Actor in a Leading Role

Nicholas Cage is known for his melodramatic acting: a skill he couples well with scripts that give him the chance to say absurd things. This formula makes for entertaining performances, but doesn’t always pass the eye-test for “good acting.” Pig, the story of a reclusive chef whose beloved truffle pig is kidnapped, gave Cage the perfect role. A recluse singularly obsessed with a truffle pig sounds like a cartoon character: and indeed the character is eccentric. But Pig’s script creates a context where this eccentricity is sincere and heartbreaking, making it a defining performance in Cage’s already iconic career.

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Best Adapted Screenplay

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While I’ll admit I haven’t seen the previous Candyman films, I can at least say that I was highly entertained by Nia DaCosta’s 2021 contribution to the series. Candyman is an aesthetically pleasing horror film that both does and doesn’t play to our current cultural-political moment. The film is the story of a diabolical “Candyman” who is rumored to have risen with a vengeance from the pain of his impoverished and over-policed black neighborhood. 

What makes the film interesting is that rather than simply relying on the easy political messaging of drawing attention to inequality, it becomes a psychological study of its black main characters. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II stars as Anthony, an artist whose struggle for relevancy, leads him to explore just who the Candyman is, and whether he and the Candyman are meaningfully on the same team. The film presents a nuanced exploration of identity as something that is both chosen by and imposed upon its subjects, and that nuance translates to exactly the kind of suspense a horror film needs.

Best Original Screenplay

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Often I go to a film and am awed by the general experience of it, but struggle to retell what I saw after the fact. That’s not the case with Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho. While like many auteur-films Wright’s work is partially defined by its aesthetics (Soho celebrates the visuals and (non-Beatles) music of 1960s London), it’s real effectiveness comes from its coherence and unpredictability as a piece of storytelling.

Best Director

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Julie Ducournau’s Titane, is the opposite of Last Night in Soho: it’s less a piece of storytelling and more an enticing, shocking spectacle. But the fact that it manages to sew its disparate settings and moods together is a testament to Ducournau’s skill as a director. The film is visually striking, and mixes pulpy horror, with family drama and science fiction. It may be a disturbing pile of nonsense, but Ducournau’s auteurship makes it one of the best films of the year: and perhaps of all time.

Best Picture

Maybe one day the genre of screwball-society-satires will tire on me. Maybe, but not yet. My favorite film of 2018 was Sorry to Bother You, My favorite film of 2019 was Diamantino, and my favorite film of 2021 is Don’t Look Up

Am I biased because Don’t Look Up was co-conceived by the leftist journalist David Sirota? Absolutely. But that’s in part because Sirota brings a perspective, that liberal Hollywood sorely lacks.

And given how many critics seem to have their own unfortunate biases about the film (lazily describing it is a “Netflix comedy” with an all-star cast, rather than the latest work by a politically-conscious writer-director), I hardly feel a need to apologize for my own.

Don’t Look Up uses its plots twists to show that what we think of as wrong with American politics is only the tip of the iceberg. At the beginning of the film, a trio of scientists (Leonard DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence and Rob Morgan) are left hopeless because a Trumpian president (Meryl Streep) refuses to listen to their warnings that an apocalyptic comet is coming. This President, however, turns out to be less Donald Trump and more Kyrsten Sinema. In a shocking turn of events, she decides to listen to the scientists and stop the comet: alas, that is not the end of her story.

Don’t Look Up features lots of interesting little performances. Streep (who apparently did some great improv work on set) is great, as is Jonah Hill as her minion of a son. DiCaprio’s character has all the quirk of a TV nerd (particularly the Big Bang Theory’s Leonard Hofstader), while still coming across as being sincerely portrayed. Mark Rylance steals the show by playing a fusion of Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, while speaking like Jordan Peterson. Timothee Chalamet makes the most of his limited screen time, playing an assertive street kid, with an unconventional affection for Evangelical Christianity. And Melanie Lynskey, playing a relatively mild mannered character, nonetheless brings humanity to a script, that’s just as much about coping with misery, as it is about trying to defeats its causes.

A weird combination of clever jokes and unsettling tragedy, Don’t Look Up makes for a unique and poignant viewing experience. It may not be the kind of thing to win over conservative (and by conservative I mean blasé-liberal) academy voters, but it should serve as a model of political satire and comedic world-building for years to come.

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The Batman (2022): The Challenge of Making a New Batman Film

Directed by Matt Reeves, Written by: Reeves and Peter Craig

I recently watched a video essay on the Star Wars sequel trilogy. The video argued that the trilogy failed because J.J. Abrams (who directed the first and third film) didn’t want to do anything new, and Rian Johson (who directed the middle film) didn’t want to keep anything old.

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It was a fair argument, but it missed the far more fundamental predicament that Abrams and Johnson both faced: what does it mean to “succeed” at adding to a story and lore that had already been told to completion?

This was the dilemma that Matt Reeves faced when he took on the challenge of making a live-action Batman movie. Modern, live action Batman movies had already been made, directed by the likes of Tim Burton, Joel Schumacher and Christopher Nolan. The Batman universe was in fact revisited as recently as 2019 in Todd Phillips’ Joker

Matt Reeves, it appears, did not want to be a J.J. Abrams or a Rian Johnson. On the one hand, his film is largely consistent with the norms of prestige Batman movies. Gotham City is portrayed as a dusky place. Batman (Robert Pattinson) is a menacing hero, who is secretly the billionaire, Bruce Wayne. And, Batman’s hero-work involves fighting crime alongside friendly elements in the Gotham City police force (Jeffrey Wright). 

Yet on the other hand, we live in a world where films are increasingly criticized on political grounds (usually from the centre-left). The idea that a billionaire crime-fighter can simply be “a hero” is not entirely consistent with the demands of our post-George Floyd political climate. 

So what kind of story did Matt Reeves tell in The Batman? Well, Reeves’ storytelling rests on two key pillars. One is having The Riddler be the film’s primary antagonist. The other, as previously mentioned, is striking a balance between subverting and reproducing the conventions of cinematic Batman. 

The choice to work with the Riddler was a good one. The Riddler is a unique nemesis, because his obsession with leaving riddles means he intentionally enables his own capture. In crafting a serious version of The Riddler, Reeves was forced to come up with a plausible reason for why a criminal might engage in such self-destructive behavior. And Reeves’ hypothesis is a compelling one that builds up the Riddler as a three-dimensional character.

By having a Riddler story, Reeves also enabled a Batman film that wasn’t oversaturated with action. While the Riddler’s riddles aren’t accessible to the audience per se (save for the good pun at the beginning about dead liars), they at very least give the film a unique narrative, focused more on contemplation than on brute-force. 

Finally, the challenge of the riddles, and the moral grayness of the Riddler’s scheme, allows the film to have a complex yet still digestible storyline. The film’s length, complexity and dark-palette make it not unlike The Godfather. A sinister mob boss (John Turturro) even plays a crucial role!

THE CHALLENGE

Where the film is less successful is in its (admittedly not easy) attempt to juggle familiarity with subversion. Like the majority of “serious” Batman films, The Batman does not bring the brightly-colored sidekick Robin into its lore. Instead, the film casts Catwoman (Zoe Kravitz) as Batman’s righthand woman.

The film’s version of Catwoman, like the comic book character, has a past as an elite burglar. And it uses this past to question the morals of the established Batman lore. Catwoman tells Batman he “must have grown up rich,” when at first (and only briefly) he seems unable to empathize with her life choices.  

But the actual Catwoman subplot does not revolve around her skirting the lines between petty-crook and potential hero. Instead, she is portrayed as a basically-good character driven by the desire to avenge a clearcut injustice. 

By making Catwoman just another superhero (albeit one who says the word “white-privilege(d)”) Reeves tries to have his cake and eat it to. Catwoman, in theory, exists to subvert the archetypal superhero story of capitalism and law-and-order being inherently good. But in practice, she just becomes another cape in the DC-Marvel-megaverse. 

This question of whether to subvert or not subvert also affects the writing of Batman himself. At one point in the film Batman is tormented by the Riddler’s revelation that Batman’s father, Thomas Wayne, orchestrated a mafia hit. Both Riddler and Catwoman’s dialogue sets up Batman to question whether he was right to see his oligarch family as inherently noble. Such a revelation could be an absolute game changer. 

But in fact, the devastation of this revelation is dealt with relatively easily. Alfred (Andy Serkis) explains Thomas Wayne’s thinking and motives, and Batman comes to see his father as having made a mistake but not being fatally flawed. 

The underwhelming handling of the Thomas Wayne revelation again speaks to Matt Reeve’s challenge: how could he make a film that answered to the concerns of modern social-conscientiousness, without fundamentally upturning the Batman universe? The truth is that there is no easy answer. So Reeves essentially depicts Batman as he has always been depicted, while throwing in a few lines of virtue-signalling dialogue.

THE SHADOW OF THE JOKER

In determining how “socially-conscientious” to make his Batman movie, Reeves had another challenge. The issue of inequality and austerity had already been bluntly handled in 2019’s Joker. If Reeves was going to be socially-conscious, he would have to do so in a way that didn’t feel derivative and repetitive. 

It might be because Joker exists, that Reeves was forced to avoid the route of out-right vilifying Thomas Wayne. In Joker, Thomas is essentially depicted as Michael Bloomberg: a tough-on-crime, fiscal conservative whose ideology and wealth produce elitist cruelty. Reeves’ Thomas Wayne, by contrast, is far less defined. He’s a billionaire philanthropist who may have wielded his power irresponsibly at one point. But the question of whether being a moral billionaire is itself possible is left off of Reeves’ table.

At another moment, however, Reeves weirdly repeated a trope from Joker. Both Todd Phillips’s Joker and Reeve’s Riddler lack super-powers or cartoonish technology. As such, they attain superpvillain status not through their singular acts, but by inspiring others to don Joker/Riddler masks and build on their progenitor’s mission. While this choice made sense in the context of Reeves’s storytelling, it nonetheless lost some of its pizzazz, due to its blatant resemblance to the action of the former film. 

THE SHADOW OF MARK CHAPMAN

For the most part, Reeves’ film differentiates itself from Joker, because it is a Batman story. The film’s depiction of under-class-vengeance is unraveled through a long investigation; not a direct character study.

But towards the end of the film, another important difference comes out between the characters portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix and Paul Dano. 

Joker is essentially a depiction of the idea that “riots are the voice of the unheard.” Phoenix’s Joker isn’t “crazy,” he just comes to conclude that life itself is “crazy” and the only way life allows him to free himself from bullies is by brutally murdering them (contrary to the notion that Joker is a right-wing or incel movie, Phoenix’s character is consistently compassionate towards the vulnerable, and only brutal towards those who bullied him). 

Joker’s twisted purity, makes him  more of an archetype than a real human character. The same cannot be said of Dano’s Riddler, whose ideology is nuanced with incoherence. Like Phoenix’s Joker, he is not without a sense of righteousness. Unlike Joker, his motives are dispersed. He likes to play games. He wants to kill Bruce Wayne and admires Batman, yet he seems to know that they are the same person. He also aspires to be famous. 

With his big-glasses and round face, Dano’s Riddler bears a vague resemblance to Mark Chapman, the man who shot John Lennon. Like Riddler, Chapman railed against “phonies.” He simultaneously saw himself as a fan and enemy of John Lennon, having received an autograph from Lennon hours before re-finding and killing him. Chapman also shared the Riddler’s aspiration for fame. 

Heath Ledger won an Oscar for playing a Joker who was a villain in the traditional sense: he was pure evil and “just wanted to see the world burn.” Phoenix played the opposite: a criminal who, in his mind at least, is a righteous rebel against a cruel order. Dano’s Riddler strikes the perfect balance between these two extremes: he is twisted enough to make his descent into supervillainy realistic, while being virtuous enough to be a three-dimensional character.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

Watching a Batman movie, just like watching a Star Wars or Spiderman movie, isn’t like going to another film. Fans go into them with expectations: expectations that certain norms will be upheld, and a minimum number of beloved characters will be revisited (thus every Batman and Spiderman movie seem to feature multiple super-villains). 

Were I watching a standalone movie, for instance, I might have simply enjoyed the subtly comedic depiction of side-mobster Oswald “The Penguin” Cobblepot. Because this was a Batman movie, however, I was left confused as to why the character didn’t factor into the film’s climax.

 (It also didn’t help that I knew the penguin was played by Colin Farrell. I kept expecting it to be revealed, therefore ,that the character we were initially told was the penguin (who thanks to prosthetics looks nothing like Farrell) was not the real Penguin, and that a skinnier, younger, less-bald, Irish-accented penguin was operating somewhere behind the scenes (kind of like how the character of the Mandarin was handled in Iron Man 3)). 

Matt Reeves story is a compelling one that keeps viewers hooked, despite its three hour run time. As a film it should largely be viewed as a success. But because it is a Batman film, it is impossible to simply be experienced as a standalone work. I left the theatre satisfied, but also full of questions about Reeve’s choices. I suppose as film reviewer, that’s the ideal way to live a film. 

The Spectre of Social Rigidity Haunts new films by Almodovar and Joachim Trier

The Worst Person in the World (TWPITW) has a playfully melodramatic title. It’s protagonist, Julie (Renate Rinsve), is “the worst” in the sense that at thirty-years old she is not prepared for a life of domestic mundanity. Once an ambitious medical-student, Julie now finds herself a staffer at a bookstore, and at odds with her older partner, Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), over whether they should have kids or not. 

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Not willing to settle for her current circumstances, a bored and anxious Julie starts an affair with a man she meets while crashing a party. And after some reflection, she decides to end things with Aksel.

Julie’s breakup with Aksel is painful, and it has a ripple of consequences going forward in the film. Yet it is in part the result of an unstated subtle convention. Julie is defined by not wanting to be put in a box. She is a type-A student who refuses to complete her type-A degree when it bores her. When she is unhappy in her relationship, she cheats. Yet there’s one rule she cannot break: the assumption of monogamy.

What if Julie had asked Aksel how he felt about her seeing other people while she remained in a relationship with him? It would be an extremely uncomfortable question to ask, but surely no more uncomfortable than telling Aksel, a man who called her the love of his life, that she needed to end things completely. 

TWPITW is a film shaped by the horrors of ambivalence. Julie loves Aksel and she doesn’t. She doesn’t want to have kids, but is not entirely hostile to the idea.  In her world this ambivalence makes her “the worst.” She assumes there is way to live that is true to the true complexity of her feelings. Society says she must pick one side of her feelings to unambiguously act upon. That’s the rigid rule.

Just as TWPITW hit my local theatres, another European film, Pedro Almodóvar’s Parallel Mothers was also hitting the big screen. The film takes its time in setting up its premise. It introduced Janis (Penelope Cruz) a photographer determined to find the bodies of her ancestors murdered in the Spanish Civil war. Janis falls in love with the Arturo (Israel Elejalde), the man leading the investigation, ends up pregnant with their child, shares a maternity ward with a teen mother named Ana (Milena Smit) and then has a fall out with Arturo.

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By this point, it is already agreed that Arturo, who is married, will not be a co-parent with Janis. But he  nonetheless manages to insult her further when he insists her baby, Cecilia, does not look like him, and thus has a different father. Janis then tests the baby’s DNA and a chain of unpleasant events ensue.

Arturo’s reaction to the newborn reminded me of a gripe I’ve long had with the Maury Povich Show. Povich, is famous for hosting warring ex-couples on his talk show. He commissions DNA tests before telling the hostile individuals on live TV whether one of them is or isn’t “the father” (followed by either the mother or non-father gloating the “defeated” party). Part of the problem with this show is that it exploits the misery of real, struggling people. But that aside, I find the moral weight the show puts on paternity-tests themselves to be kind of strange

Pregnancies are not a random occurence. They are the result of having (a certain kind of) sex without using protection.  Therefore, it is largely beside the point what a paternity test says. If you had sex with a person, and did so without taking the basic precautions that all but guarantee a pregnancy won’t happen, then you are just as morally culpable for that pregnancy as any other person who engaged in the same actions.

The technicality of whose sperm  hit the egg, by contrast, is a matter that is beyond our control as humans. Such a meaningless fact should not be the deciding factor in the meaningful question of whether a given man has a duty to care for a child.

Pedro Almodóvar is very much a visual filmmaker. His film’s are populated by people in brightly colored outfits, living in brightly tiled and wall-papered houses. It is thus hardly an accident that his camera lingers on the long cotton swabs used to perform DNA tests. The idea of DNA-determined “real” mothers and fathers casts an overwhelming shadow over his story.

The subjects of Parallel Mothers are free spirits, just like Julie in TWPITW. Janis, named for Janis Joplin, is the child of anti-fascist resistance, and the film, much like other Almodóvar works, works LGBT themes into its storyline. It is a film that, argues that relationships and social roles need not be traditional, but is nonetheless viciously molded by unflexible “truth” of its DNA swabs. Decisions that might otherwise be the result of empirical and nuanced reflection, are surrendered to the dictatorship of the DNA.

So why is it that TWPITW doesn’t explore ethical non-monogamy? Why is it that parallel mothers doesn’t champion the idea that parent-child relationships are about lived practice and not who has whose DNA? The obvious answer is that without these tensions in place, these films would lack the drama necessary to exist. 

But I’m not sure I buy that. As is, the tensions in both these films aren’t nearly as strong as they would have been had they been written by less-progressive filmmakers, working in less-progressive eras. TWPITW’s final chapters are enabled by the fact that Aksel doesn’t resent Julie for leaving him: her pain comes from her own guilt, not any criticism she receives from others. An equally engaging film in which Julie does not leave Aksel, but just becomes non-monogamous, might very well be possible. 

On a similar note, Almodóvar’s characters are also not un-nuanced in their morality. They are not ultimately cruel towards one another. It’s just that their nuance is limited: it exists alongside a rigid belief in the DNA tests.

So rather, the theory I wish to champion, is that both Trier and Almodóvar’s films are commentaries on the very real characteristics of our present world.  Arbitrary social rigidities are everywhere, and even radicals and free-spirits uphold them. In a more ideal world, much of the pain in TWPITW and Parallel Mothers would not be necessary. But that is not the society we live in, and therefore, it is not even something from which cinema can offer us refuge. 

Snowpiercer (2013): On a Contradiction Between Entertainment and Meaning

Directed by: Bong Joon-ho Written by: Bong and Kelly Masterson

Is it a coincidence that two of the Korean-helmed films to have made it big in North America are about trains?

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Perhaps not. Trains are a compelling, global symbol. They are at once a piece of advanced technology, and a portal back to the nineteenth century. They are serious pieces of infrastructure, and the subject of timeless children’s toys.

But the reason why both Snowpiercer auteur Bong Joon-Ho and the creators of Train to Busan seem to have been inspired by trains, is the association between trains and social hierarchy. Trains through the ages have been known to offer first-class compartments for higher paying customers. And unlike planes, which are similarly segregated, trains are broken into discrete cars, meaning their social classes truly exist in connected, yet isolated worlds.

Snowpiercer was a hard film for me to get into. I picked it off the shelf at my local library because, like many, I was entranced by Bong’s Oscar-winning film Parasite. But in the first half of Snowpiercer, the two films feel like distant cousins at best. Whereas Parasite is an intriguing multi-genre piece from the start, Snowpiercer starts as a (seemingly) generic action movie. The lighting is dreary, the characters are all covered in dirt, and we spend less time getting to know them than seeing them squabble and fight. The only shade of quirk is Tilda Swinton, who plays a whimsical villain who could come out of Miyazaki film.

In fairness, there are many viewers who would be happy to see a cast led by Chris Evans go through a gritty, dystopian brawl. But from my perspective, the first half of Bong’s film is not so much entertaining, so much as it is purposeful. The film’s dark opening stands in contrast to a quirky second half. Curtis Everett’s (Evans) band of revolutionaries (a surprisingly eclectic cast of Octavia Spencer, Jamie Bell (from Billy Elliot), Ewan Bremner (from Trainspotting) and John Hurt), break out of their dreary train compartment with the help of a father-daughter pair of hallucinogen-addicted engineers (Song Kang-ho from Parasite and Go Ah-sung). This leads them through a series of visually enticing train compartments: a greenhouse, an aquarium and a candy-colored, propagandistic classroom.

Snowpiercer and Train to Busan both incorporate trains and fantasy into their stories, but they do so in profoundly different ways. Train to Busan is a zombie movie, in which the train itself is a very real piece of technology: the train is not cartoonish, even as its characters are. Snowpiercer’s train, by contrast, is itself a science-fiction vision, one that exists within the greater context of  a world that has been frozen over in a desperate human bid to stop climate change.

The difference in what Bong and Train to Busan chose to imagine, connects to the different ways in which the films explore class society. Train to Busan’s protagonist is your typical Hollywood-movie business dad. He wears a suit, exists in the business world,  and works too much to maintain a good relationship with his family. But, despite his corporate ambitions, he is still a member of the middle class, and ove the course of the film morally distances himself from both his past conduct, and the reprehensible behavior of a megalomaniac, train CEO.

Bong’s story, by contrast, rejects reducing class warfare to a battle between individuals: an evil boss, and an upper-middle-class every man. While his story does contain a megalomaniac boss (Ed Harris), his heroes are not individuals, but a collective. And that collective comes from the train’s ugly depths, where they lived in crammed, dirty conditions, and are all but deprived of food.

Many of Snowpiercer’s heroes are underdeveloped, but that’s kind of the point. They are heroes not because they grow morally, or make the brave choice to fight zombies. No, they are heroes because they are oppressed and have the right to resist their oppression. For that matter, Bong is unafraid to make his heroes near morally unpalatable at one point. While I won’t directly spoil Curtis Everett’s devastating, late-film monologue, let’s just say it invokes the misadventures that happened aboard a certain Nantucket Whaling ship.

Trains aren’t the only thing Snowpiercer and Train to Busan have in common. The two films have hauntingly similar endings in which young, female characters bravely walk out into mysterious worlds. In both cases, these girls are not the protagonists of their films. But despite this obvious similarity, the difference between the films remains even in these final moments. The emotional arc of Train to Busan is such that its protagonist’s spirit is honored through the persistence of his daughter. In Snowpiercer, by contrast, the girl from the conclusion is a comparatively minor character with limited ties to protagonist Curtis Everett. She is, however, an apt metaphor for the film’s oppressed class: resourceful, and optimistic in the face of suffering, she emblemizes the hope that even in the most dire of situations, the flame of resistance can burn on.

If given a choice between rewatching Train to Busan or Snowpiercer, I’d probably pick the former. The 2013 film is a compelling story, that entertains throughout its runtime. But what Snowpiercer lacks in entertainment value, it makes up for in political astuteness. Even the film’s sideplot about the engineers relying on the the hallucinogenic drug kronole is politically astute. Echoing the perspective of neuroscientist Carl Hart, Namgoong and Yona may appear inept stoners at some moments, but can become lucid and insiteful at the snap of a finger. Their substance “abuse” is a calculated response to their miserable circumstances, but does not suggest they are otherwise weak in body or mind. 

Connecting the real world with the magic of cinema can be a real challenge. We have been trained to want to see stories of charismatic, well-define heroes, not trouble masses, messily looking for an escape from their misery. Snowpiercer is full of cinematic magic, but its unique commitment to this afforementioned realism, for better or worse, is its defining feature.

Space Jam: A New Legacy (2021)

Directed by: Malcolm D. Lee Written by: Juel Taylor, Tony Rettenmaier, Keenan Coogler, Terence Nance, Jesse Gordon and Celeste Ballard

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It’s been thrilling for me to return to theatres, as the COVID pandemic has cooled down. My love for film has returned. I guess there’s something to the theatre environment that truly wakes up the senses.

In recent days I’ve seen the quirky, but largely serious drama Pig and the intriguing M. Night Shyamalan horror film, Old. I enjoyed both. Yet it was the third film I saw, the least prestige-y of the three, that left my mind racing with thoughts. That film, was Space Jam: A New Legacy.

And because my thoughts on the film are so chaotic (much like the Looney Tunes themselves), I figured it was best not to write a straight essay, but just to provide a list of quick thoughts. 

  1. The Film Tries to Be Something Different

Space Jam: A New Legacy really could have been a pure fan-service project. It could have taken the same story from the original film, and simply updated the visuals, while replacing Michael Jordan with Lebron James. But Space Jam 2’s creators decided  to take things in a more ambitious, more apocalyptic direction.

Whereas the original Space Jam starts with the Looney Tunes cast being faced with too-silly-to-be-scary villains, paving the way for Michael Jordan to be a cartoon savior, Space Jam 2 takes its time in introducing its cartoon elements. The movie begins with a focus on James and his son Dom (Cedric Joe), and only after truly sending them down a dark path does it bring Bugs Bunny et al. into the fold. 

Space Jam: A New Legacy’s overall quality is very much up for debate. But at very least, its heartfelt experimentalism justifies its existence.

2) The Writing is Not its Strong Suit

“Show don’t tell, show don’t tell!” This mantra is hammered into our heads in high school English and drama classes. Yet time after time, blockbuster movies don’t want to bother with subtlety and burden their characters with overly expositional dialogue.  Prior to going to Space Jam 2, I heard some negative comments about Lebron James’ acting. I don’t think that’s fair: he more than rose to the occasion when he featured in Trainwreck. But simply put, no one is going to look like a good actor when all they’re allowed to say are expositional lines, that no real human would ever say in a serious conversation.

3) The Film is Confused About its Message

The original Space Jam has vague messaging about believing in yourself and supporting your friends and family. The messaging is bland family-movie fodder and it doesn’t pretend to be otherwise. 

When Space Jam 2 opens, it seems to aim for something a bit more controversial.  A young Lebron James is shown throwing out his gameboy, to prove to his coach that he is willing to put all of his time and effort into becoming a basketball star: possibly lifting himself and his mother out of poverty in the process.

When the film jumps to the present, adult Lebron is contrasted against his sons who despite being strong basketball players, have more of a sense of humor about the game than their win-at-all-costs father.

Whereas the ethos of Michael Jordan was simply: work hard and be the best, for a moment it seems like Lebron James (or at least the film about him) is trying to send a more nuanced message. The film is saying, as great a game as basketball is, one shouldn’t aspire to be like Lebron. One should be able to play the game for fun and maintain a range of hobbies; not fixate on a narrow pursuit of greatness.

But while the film hints at this bolder messaging (which coincidentally compliments the recent discourse about Simone Biles’s backing out of Olympic competitions), it ultimately backs into messaging as bland as that in the original film. Instead of being a critique of sports-work-culture, the film waters down the conflict between James and Dom into whether Lebron respects that his son prefers programming to basketball: whether he can let Dom be himself.

I suppose it would be naive to expect Space Jam 2 to engage in deep social commentary. Yet it still irks me that the story-tellers decided the lesson Lebron had to learn was to respect his son’s different interest. The truth is, many kids wish they could be Lebron James, but by the time they develop that wish it’s too late: some other kid’s parents have been sending him to basketball leagues and having him train non-stop since he was five. If monomaniacal focus is the only way for sports dreams to come true, than Lebron can hardly be blamed for being harsh with his sons as a necessary means to an end. One can and should critique such parenting tactics, but Space Jam 2 does not rise to that challenge. 

4) Nonetheless, The Film has Some Real “So Bad its Good” Moments

As much as I hate the film’s expositional dialogue, it’s genuinely funny when it comes from the mouth of the film’s villain, King Al-G Rhythm (Don Cheadle). Cheadle, fresh off of playing one of the more mild-mannered avengers, does not have a natural villain’s presence. He does, however, have a lot of fun playing the scheming digital villain, who wants to imprison Lebron James in cyberspace, and use him to develop films for Warner Brothers. Al-G Rhtythm also has great style: a sparkling silver suit, and comes with an adorable villain-sidekick.

5) The Looney Tunes Want to be the Muppets

Once Lebron James enters the Warner Brothers computer system, he is introduced to the Looney Tunes: well, one tune. Bugs Bunny lives alone in Tune World, with the other characters having supposedly been tricked into leaving, and trying to establish themselves within other Warner Brothers universes. Bugs Bunny is saddened by this, and teams up with James to get the gang back together.

By telling a nostalgic story of a multiverse populated by a plethora of Warner Brothers characters, Space Jam 2 capitalizes on the success of a number of recent films: 2018’s Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse, 2014’s The Lego Movie and, most notably, 2011’s The Muppets.

The 2011 Muppet revival saw Kermit the Frog, like Bugs Bunny, having fallen upon hard times and having fallen out of touch with his old gang. Both films tug at audience heart strings, by painting their ensemble-characters as relics of a lost age. And indeed, in the case of Space Jam 2, this was emotionally resonant. It never would have occurred to me that characters like Bugs, Daffy and Tweety would disappear from the pop-culture landscape, but then again, they do not really hold much ground in today’s media-space.

But try as they may, The Looney Tunes cannot be the Muppets. When the 2011 Muppet movie was written, it could follow up on a long cannon of Kermit having genuine, heartfelt relationships with his fellow Muppets. The Looney Tunes, by contrast, do not care for one another. In fact, with the exception of the first Space Jam movie, they are not a gang at all: just a collection of loosely associated enemies. Bugs and Daffy antagonize each other. Wiley Coyote tries to eat the Roadrunner. Sylvester tries to eat Tweety, etc.

The promise of both Space Jam movies is that they offer the cool-factor of basketball, and the laugh factor of Looney Tunes. But unfortunately, The Looney Tunes brand of comedy is not one built upon a big ensemble working together. As such, while both films have their funny moments, they are not nearly as funny as the presence of the Tunes would lead one to suspect. 

6) The Film Knows its Own Limits

Space Jam 2’s messaging may be underwhelming if one only looks at the Lebron-Dom side of the story. But the plot that takes place within the cyber world is in fact, quite subversive. In making the film’s villain an algorithm who wants to commercialize Lebron James, and mix him into Warner Brothers’s other mega-franchises (like the Looney Tunes and Harry Potter), the film takes a jab at film studios who prioritize profits over thoughtful storytelling. Films such as All the Superheroes Awkwardly Forced into One Movie (aka Avengers Infinity War), might be good, bad or mediocre, but the fact is they sell tickets, not because of their quality, but because of their superficial attributes.

Space Jam 2 is not naive. It knows that you are going to see it because it is a sequel to a popular movie, and because it has Lebron James in it. But while the film absolutely capitalizes off of that mindset (and really leans into it in its visually epic, climactic basketball game), it seeks to remind its viewers that the Looney Tunes are best enjoyed, not as the subjects of a corny melodrama about a basketball player, but from within their own, 2-D animated, light-hearted tune world.

And I mention the animation style, because that is another important feature in Space Jam’s commentary. It always struck me as odd that Disney jumped to the conclusion that people would rather see 3-D animated movies than 2-D ones. Other franchises have followed suit, such as Spongebob, which went for the 3-D approach in the movie Sponge on the Run. In Space Jam 2 the Tunes are briefly presented in 3D. Rather than presenting this as an upgrade, the script makes clear that Bugs and company find this visual alteration deeply unsettling.

Space Jam a New Legacy has its downsides. The writing is a bit wooden, the humor is a bit lacking, and  corny messages sometimes drown out more interesting ones. But it nonetheless was a key part of my triumphant return to the theatres. The film’s ambitious visuals and surprisingly unsettling horror elements make it a thrill ride from start to finish. Going forward, I’d like to see Lebron get some better acting roles, and Bugs stick to slapstick. But I’m glad this movie was made, and I will absolutely be cheering for Don Cheadle’s long-shot, best-supporting actor campaign.

Black Widow (2021)

Directed by: Cate Shortland Written by: Eric Pearson

In Black Widow the Marvel Cinematic Universe finally tells a story it feels like it should have told a decade ago. When Marvel first depicted the Avengers, an All-Star team of superheroes (who somehow became the subject of the franchise, and not a mere side gimmick), it had four male superheroes to work with. Presumably wanting the team not to be a pure boy’s club, the Avengers awkwardly incorporated a non-super-powered, secret-agent, Natasha “Black Widow” Romanoff into the team.

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Lacking the glamour of a true superhero, Romanoff did not get her own movie: well not until now, after twenty-three film long, original Avengers film series was completed.

Because Romanoff  (Scarlett Johansson) already received a seemingly complete story arc in the original Avengers films, Marvel had no choice but to go for a prequel in telling her story. So Black Widow (2021), starts with Romanoff’s childhood. Her parents (David Harbour and Rachel Weisz) are Russian secret agents, posing as a suburban Ohio family (an explanation for Romanoff’s unaccented English, and affinity for America). When the family is suddenly ordered to return to Russia, mother Milena (Weisz) is near-fatally injured, which leads to her two children being separated from their parents.

The film than circles to near-present day. Romanoff and her sister Yelena (Florence Pugh) have been separated for years, but are both working as elite secret agents. When both are imperilled by their former boss, General Dreykov (Ray Winstone), they band together, and reunite with their parents in the process.

One of the strengths of Marvel films is that they are not built on pure action or darkness. Their heroes tend to be cocky (eg Iron Man, Thor) and/or naive (Captain Marvel, Spider Man), in a way that ensures their stories have a healthy dose of comic moments. Of course no formula should be repeated endlessly, but this lack of humor was quite apparent in Black Widow’s first half. Maybe because Romanoff is not a new character, nor one who suddenly acquires over the top superpower, the writers felt no need to introduce with her the same flare they gave to Tony Stark or Peter Quill. Instead, we are thrown right into the fast-paced convolutedness of Marvel’s action-ambitions.

But while Black Widow grants no-humor to Natasha Romanoff’s characterization, the movie as a whole is not without its comedic charm. The film’s second half, in fact redeems it as Alexei aka the Red Guardian (Harbour) and Milena are reintroduced to the film. 

One of the film’s best comic touches is that in its opening scenes, Harbour and Weisz speak with American accents. Once, however, it is revealed to the audience that they are  in fact Russian, they, along with Pugh reemerge with (fake) Russian accents.

And this isn’t the only transformation Harbour and Weisz’ characters undergo. Harbour goes from seeming like a generic, but brave father, to a semi-Quixotic superhero. Yes the Red Guardian does in fact have super powers, having been given the Soviet version of Captain America’s soldier serum. But despite having these abilities, the Guardian nonetheless finds himself being tricked into spending years in a prison, bragging to the much weaker inmates about his glory days, and a (probably non-existant) fight he had with Captain America.

Weisz’s character, Milena, meanwhile, is a strange mixture of mother-figure, sinister-scientist, and that naive-villain-sidekick who doesn’t know whose side she is on. All of these features come out when you see the scenes with her unusual pets.

I regularly find myself revisiting Martin Scorsese’s comment that Marvel films are more like theme parks than real cinema. Some might hear that comment as highly negative: and indeed a used the “theme par” analogy in quite a negative way in my commentary on A Quiet Place Part II.

But in the case of Marvel films, and Black Widow, in particular, the theme park remark can be true but not particularly damning. Marvel films are well made. A few are more than well made and feature memorable acting and storytelling (Black Panther, Guardians of the Galaxy II and Captain America and the Winter Soldier were standouts for me).  But at the end of the day, what makes them theme parks, is that these films are made to depict a vast universe of pre-imagined characters and do as much with them as viable. 

As a piece of storytelling Black Widow has a number of holes. The first act is a thrill-ride, but is more chaotic than entertaining. Red Guardian and Milena (in particular), meanwhile, are highly entertaining and likeable, but the nature of their loyalties doesn’t really add up. And of course, there’s the weird way in which the film both is and isn’t about Russia and the Soviet Union. Sure, one of its characters is essentially Captain U.S.S.R., but the film is set after the Soviet Union’s collapse, and the central feud is not with any state actor, but a seemingly rogue general (as a leftist I suppose I’m grateful for this. If Marvel felt compelled to weigh in on the cold war, I doubt they do so in favour of socialism).

Black Widow has its average moments, and its good moments. Is it the rare Marvel film that can or should stir Oscar buzz? No. But its second half should make it a great experience for most movie goers. Perhaps you too will decide that The Red Guardian is your new favorite superhero.

Critics Failed Us with a Quiet Place Part II (2021)

Written and directed by: John Krasinski

I mostly enjoyed A Quiet Place. It was thrillingly scary and centred around an uncomfortable, yet ultimately well-depicted family conflict. My one qualm with the movie was how it ended. The film sets itself up as a piece of highbrow horror: a film that is more about interpersonal challenges than some monster-in-the-closet. Yet at the end of the film, the monster revealed itself in the flesh, and the characters fought it, not thanks to some clever epiphany, but by shooting it with a  good, old-fashioned gun. 

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A Quiet Place II is essentially the one moment I didn’t like in the original, drawn out into a whole movie. The family from the first film return, this time on the run from those same monsters. And this time, instead of their being one climactic fight at the end, the monster-versus-gun battles are a recurring feature. 

To be clear, I do not entirely blame writer-director John Krasinski for this defect. While it is notable that the original A Quiet Place had three writers, and this time, Krasinski (who’s gone from being recognized as the likeable sitcom everyman from The Office, to the star of the militaristic Jack Ryan series) handled the writing on his own, there’s a structural factor that led to A Quiet Place II being produced. Namely, the first film was a financial success and Krasinski was asked to make a follow up.

Some films are better suited for sequels than others, however. Toy Story spun three good sequels, because Woody’s anxiety about being replaced was able to be spun in several distinct directions. Finding Dory, by contrast, was not a particularly successful sequel. A big part of that, was that Marlin and Nemo’s main neuroses were largely dealt with in their first film. All the sequel could give was a watered-down, underwhelming revisit of their initial, tense relationship.

The first Quiet Place film convincingly tied up its sources of tension. Its protagonist, Reagan (Millicent Simmonds) is a deaf girl, who faces unique challenges due to her disability, and also struggles to assure herself that her father (John Krasinski) loves her.

What does she have to overcome in the sequel? Those same challenges, only they are less intense, as the monsters are exactly the same as before, and this time its not a father, merely a father-figure (Cillian Murphy) that she has to win over. 

Toy Story was able to spawn three sequels, because the original film’s defining feature was simply that it was about the secret lives of toys. A Quiet Place, was about something far narrower: a family surviving personality-less creatures that attack humans when they hear noise. When told to make a sequel, it seems Krasinski had little choice but to drag the original out.

When I finished watching A Quiet Place II, I felt annoyed with its producers, and wished I had read reviews of the film in advance. Unfortunately, a quick scan of the critics’ reviews led me to be even more disappointed with the profession, than I was with the film.

“The Abbotts venture into the unknown in a meticulously crafted monster movie that leaves us wanting more,” writes Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times

“Krasinski presents these and other such details with lucidity. His direction is so efficient and assured that the three or four rather ridiculous plot elements go unnoticed until well after the movie’s over. That’s how absorbing “Part II” can be.” writes Mark Feeney of the Boston Globe. 

“There are nitpicks – some small, some a little bigger – but mostly, “A Quiet Place Part II” does its job by giving viewers more and leaving them wanting even more. That’s the modern franchise way.” writes Adam Graham of the Detroit News.

“Krasinski is skilled at winding up the tension and not rushing through the moment – he loves a slow push-in shot – and then quickly switching to a high-octane action set-up,” writes Wenlei Ma of News .com Australia

To Ma’s credit, her last passage notes that A Quiet Place Part II is “not as fresh or surprising as the original” but she doesn’t expand upon what this means. And therein lies the problem.

As a critic I generally try to see the bright side in movies: in the past I’ve criticized writers for their bombastic negativity. But my issue here is not with the fact that critics like A Quiet Place II far more than I did. It’s that they seem unwilling to say what should be considered an objective truth. The first Quiet Place film was multi-dimensional, drama. Its sequel is pure-action: it is purely for adrenaline junkies. 

I realize that my disinterest in such adrenaline flicks is not universal. I tried to watch George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead understanding it to be a classic, and halfway through turned it off in boredom. 

Clearly there’s something about Romero (and Krasinski’s) style of filmmaking that appeals to a lot of critics. It’s fine for critics to embrace this in their writing. But they should also realize that there’s a very good chance that many people who enjoy films about character drama, are not also going to like filmed-depictions of wild goose-chases. To paraphrase Martin Scorsese, “theme parks” and cinema are fundamentally different art forms. If you like theme parks, that’s fine, but please disclose that it’s a theme park and not a film you are writing about.

So let me be clear. A Quiet Place II may be a well made horror movie. But it’s not one I would personally recommend: and I suspect many of my readers would agree.