Aquaman (2018)

Directed by: James Wan Written by: David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beal

aquaman_poster“Everything’s better down where it’s wetter,” sings Sebastian the crab in The Little Mermaid. While the crustacean may not have realized it, his words were anticipating Aquaman the latest release in the new DC Comics cinematic universe. Going into Aquman I’d long been frustrated with the notion of the 3-D movie. In my ideal world 3-D would be an occasional novelty: an effect that would make the rare movie special. Unfortunately, in our free market society, once someone adopts a marketable innovation, everyone’s got to do it. Now I’m regularly stuck going to 3-D movies, and I regularly don’t care: I often cease to remember the effect is there a couple of frames in. Aquaman, with its repeated dives into shimmering depths, is a work that, for once, made me appreciate the 3-D experience. So I suppose credit should be given to director James Wan and his technical team for making this uniquely beautiful superhero movie. But, to go back to our friend Sebastian, there is undoubtedly something innately majestic about water itself: a colorless substance that mysteriously adopts blues and greens into its sparkling, viscous matrix. Aquman takes this natural canvas and paints ecosystems both biological and fantastical. To top things off, Aquman also sometimes breaks the surface, presenting viewers with pristine seaside sunsets, and a pinch of a Wes Anderson-esque boat scene.

I’ve repeatedly heard that the D.C universe has failed to live up to the standards set by its Marvel rivals. Admittedly, I’m not the biggest Marvel fan and, outside of Wonder Woman, I haven’t given D.C. much of a shot. So while, I cannot comment on whether this trend continues, I can make two relevant points.

Firstly while Aquman’s shortcomings as a script are apparent, it nonetheless offers a sensory experience that should keep many happily in the theater. I speak primarily, of course, of its aquatic visuals, however, I also found its combat scenes enjoyable as well. Aquman (Jason Momoa) and his rival King Orm (Patrick Wilson), wear shimmering outfits that make them look uniquely like action figures (particularly two (unrelated) figures I grew up). This, and the fact that they fight with tridents and bodies (not bullets), gave me a degree of investment in their fights I might not have felt in another superhero movie piece. Perhaps there was something appealing about the intimacy of the combat style, and/or perhaps it tapped into my memories of making my action figures fight as a child.

The other is that Aquaman resembles, and falls short of the standards sets by two of Marvel’s other creations: Black Panther (without the politics) and Thor. Aquaman is  a half-surface-dwelling, half-Atlantean person, who is called by his supporters in Atlantis to challenge his half brother Orm for the Atlantean throne. The film thus resembles Black Panther in that it depicts an isolated society that, despite looking down on the technological backwardness of others, maintains an oddly violent and autocratic system of governance (Aquaman’s Atlantis, however, lacks the generally peaceful and redeeming air of Black Panther’s Wakanda). The film, meanwhile, resembles Thor in that it’s about a struggle between two brothers, torn apart via issues with their parental lineages, struggling for control of a mythological kingdom.

Aquman doesn’t quite hold the candle to these two franchises, however. This is partially because both of the aforementioned movies are defined by their having memorable central-antagonists. Thor’s Loki built a fan-base on his being an anti-hero more than a villain, and ultimately embracing his identity as the Norse god of mischief. He exists to be a memorable member of the Marvel universe in his own right, and not merely a source of darkness for Thor to vanquish. Black Panther’s villain, meanwhile, is also unique in that he is not simply morally complex, but in fact completes a yin-yang relationship with Black Panther: both, it becomes apparent, must learn from the other.

While King Orm is not uncomplicated, he is denied the depth of Loki and Killmonger, due to Aquaman’s general paint by numbers approach. The film never digs deep into its sibling conflict or its environmentalist themes, because it seems these details are only their to check off boxes: villain origin story (check), motivation for civilizational conflict (check), a mentor character who vaguely resembles Forest Whitaker’s character from Black Panther (played in this case by Willem Defoe) (check), a love-interest for Aquaman who also fights, so she’s not a dated-damsel-in-distress trope (played by Amber Heard) (check) . The underdevelopment of these various plot elements is accented by unsubtle dialogue. The script throws in a number of shockingly abrupt conversations that spell out exactly where the plot is going.  

That said, there is one part of the film that did resonate with me on an emotional level. Fairly early on we are introduced to Aquman’s arch nemesis-Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) when he is a mere pirate working with his father (Micheal Beach). Though the characters are portrayed as violent villains, the relationship between Black Manta and his father is undeniably tender. The tenderness, however, is so well portrayed that it felt frustrating that it was not elaborated on. There is no doubt we can expect a future movie which will build on the Black Manta story-line since, in this film, he is abruptly pushed aside to allow Orm to serve as the primary villain. I thus suppose I’ll have reserve my judgement of that particular character arc for the future. In short, the portrayal of Manta and his father is simultaneously satisfying and frustrating, and makes me wish superhero filmmakers were more concerned with producing individually, excellent movies rather than simply building franchises.

In the long run I won’t remember Aquaman as one of my favorite movies of 2018. Nonetheless, it provides excellent reason to go to the theaters. Aquaman offers a rare chance to be excited about putting on those 3-D glasses: so go ahead, your adventure awaits “Under the Sea.”  



Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

Written by: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely

Directed by: Anthony and Joe Russo

Avengers_Infinity_War_poster[1] When I first saw the trailer for Avengers Infinity War, I mentally sorted it into the so-bad-it’s-good category of film. In other words, it was the kind of thing I secretly desired to see but would make fun of in respectable company. Its trailer reminded me a classic viral video called Too Many Cooks (which you should watch, but in case you don’t the joke is…well…too many characters). The film seemed like the kind of thing that was parodying itself. Surely, I thought, no wise writer would try and fit that many main characters into a story. How, for instance, I asked could they find screen time for the eighth most important character in Black Panther? How, I asked, could they justify bringing in all six Guardians of Galaxy characters, when their’s feels more like a sci-fi than a superhero franchise?

In short, going into the film, part of me knew it had too much going on to be well written and as such I was willing to dismiss it. On the other hand, part of me wanted to believe that the writers were aware of this absurdity, and as such would brilliantly weave all of those fates together into a masterpiece (or at very least present a self-aware piece with Too Many Cooks style humor). Unfortunately, it was the first of these statements that proved true.

Avengers: Infinity War opens with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) confronting Thanos (Josh “I’m having a very good Marvel Month” Brolin). This is the point where I have to admit I’m no comic-book-nerd nor have I systematically seen each Marvel film. That caveat noted, I found this introduction oddly direct yet simultaneously very confusing. We are not introduced to Thanos, we are just expected to know who this purple giant is and somehow make sense of the complex dealings he has with Thor and Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Thanos, it turns out, is a solid villain. His ambition is to save the universe by wiping out half of its population. He is a twisted idealist, who despite being incredibly powerful, makes himself sufficiently vulnerable to regularly engage with, and even take a punch or two, from the film’s heroes.

Following the opening confrontation, the Avengers (an all star team of Marvel heroes) are gradually brought together. This allows for some pleasant comedic moments. Marvel heroes tend to be at least mildly funny, allowing for banter between Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) and Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) or Thor and Star-Lord (who, in my Marvel naivety, I briefly confused for the Iron Giant (now that would be a cool, Too Many Cooks-esque cameo)) to be somewhat entertaining. From then on  the film gradually re-introduces characters including The Hulk (a funny, if, inevitably underused, Mark Ruffalo) Spider Man (Tom Holland) Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), and Captain America (Chris Evans), leaving time for funny banter, as well as some compelling drama (particularly in Thanos’ relationship with Gamora (Zoe Saldana)).

Infinity Wars’ problem, however, is that its humor peaks too early, giving way to dull action scenes. Its comedic style is also off-putting when it comes to its portrayal of Spider Man. That Marvel’s most famous superhero is left fairly one-dimensional (his one personality trait being that he seems to constantly, and nervously seek the approval of Iron Man) rings somewhat hollow. I could rant now about how hollywood needs to get over its intellectual-property bullshit and just accept that there were already good Spider Man movies made in the 2000s and there was no need to reinvent the character, but I suppose that’s going off topic.

Infinity Wars’ drama meanwhile, suffers from being too spread out, due to the film’s dearth of protagonists. Numerous characters die in the film, but these deaths lose their dramatic effectiveness due to our understanding that they exist in a cinematic universe. In some cases we know these deaths to be temporary: some characters die way too quickly and unmarkedly given their importance in the franchise (also we know some of these characters are slated to appear in future movies). I understand that the writers had their hands tied when it came to writing these “deaths.” More frustrating, however, is the death of one character which is stylistically distinct enough from the others to give off the impression that it is a permanent.  This death scene is nonetheless,  so rushed and early in the script that it does no justice to its target. This character (who I will not name) is a sad casualty of Marvel’s Too-Many-Cooks foolhardiness that simply left them without enough screen timing to meaningfully tend to all the characters they chose to depict.


Perhaps Marvel nerds will love Infinity War. It certainly takes the Avengers’ struggle to a new level. Nonetheless, I suspect casual fans (especially ones like me who don’t watch the movies for their action scenes) may be disappointed by the film’s narrative structure. Thanos is an engaging villain, and Thor, The Hulk, the Guardians and perhaps some of the others are fun protagonists. Unfortunately, the film seems too rely to heavily on the premise of “look at these cool characters fighting,” rather than truly considering how best to make their narratives collide.

Black Panther (2018)

Directed by Ryan Coogler: Written by: Coogler & Joe Robert Cole

Black_Panther_film_posterThe one subset of action movies I’ve reliably enjoyed over the years has been Star Wars films. There’s probably more than one reason for this. Part of it may just be how much it’s drilled in to our heads that we’re supposed to love Star Wars. That may explain in part why I was able to enjoy the later fight scenes in Black Panther that bear some aesthetic resemblance to the final battle in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menaces.

Another piece of the puzzle here is that Star Wars, unlike most superhero media, tries to make its characters appealing beyond their tendency to fight. While this trait is most apparent in R2, C3-PO and Yoda, it extends to the franchise’s humans too.

Black Panther doesn’t really have droid equivalents. All of its characters are intelligent, fully capable fighters. The partial exceptions to this logic are Everett Ross; (Martin Freeman) a CIA agents, whose loveable loser affect is simply an illusion of his being overwhelmed by Wakandan society; and Shuri (Letitia Wright), Black Panther (aka T’Challa)’s little sister whose competence comes across as comically exaggerated (she’s a 16 year-old who seemingly singlehandedly invents every high-tech gadget in Wakanda). Nevertheless, Black Panther shares Star Wars’ ability to make you care about its characters beyond their ability to pull a punch.

The result for both films is that even non-action fans can be made to love their action scenes. Why? Because viewers can really appreciate the tension: revelling in a conflict between strong-willed characters while wanting neither to die. This is the feeling I get when watching Rey fight Kylo Ren, and the feeling I get when watching T’Challa face Killmonger.

So for those with no idea, what is this Star Wars of Marvel movies all about? It’s the story of T’Challah (Chadwick Boseman) as he ascends to the throne of Wakanda, a fictional African country. The film follows loosely from events in Captain America: Civil War, giving its beginning a bit of a chaotic feel. Rest assured, however, one need not remember the original film (or have any appreciation of the many facets of the Marvel universe) to enjoy Black Panther. Wakanda is believed by the outside world to exist in dire poverty, but that’s because it is highly secretive about its voluminous access to an all-purpose metal known as vibranium, which in fact makes Wakanda a global technology leader.

Wakanda, however, also maintains a form of government that many of might view as dated. It is ruled by what appears to be a hereditary, male-centric monarchy. The line of royal descent can be interrupted, but only if the heir to the throne/monarch is challenged to participate in combat on a waterfall’s edge. The first depiction of one of these fights is as visually stunning as it is terrifying.

The film’s plot is ultimately driven by fights over vibranium access. T’Challah, along with his lead guard Okoye (Danai Gurira) and Wakandan spy/his ex-girlfriend, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), leave Wakanda in pursuit of Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) a South African arms dealer who has irked a desire for vengeance from Wakandan guard/rhino trainer W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya). The pursuit of Klaue, however, brings Wakanda face to face with Killmonger. The latter villain is more dangerous than Klaue both because of his raw strength and because he actually has convictions (for what it’s worth, Serkis describes Klaue as being motivated by a desire to expose Wakandan hypocrisy, however this is a level of nuance that doesn’t really make it into the story).

Black Panther is in some ways a political movie, a narrative that has broken into the world of social media. Some have argued that its problem is that its heroes, the Wakandan rulers, collaborate with the CIA, unlike Killmonger who as an anti-colonialist is the true hero. This critique in its simplest form is exaggerated. Firstly, the CIA character largely comes across as a feeble tool. Only his fleeting appearance at a UN meeting at the end of the film can be said to legitimize his political work (one could also argue the film creates a problematic good-white, bad-white dichotomy between South African Klaue and American Ross, but that’s a stretch). Secondly, the film makes it pretty plain that one is supposed to sympathize with Killmonger, and even more so with his ideals, regardless of the fact that he fills the antagonist niche. Marvel has already given us a likeable villain in Loki.  Killmonger can easily be understood as a reapplication of this concept, albeit in a more serious context. Thirdly, the film is not as political as some descriptions make it out to be. Both Killmonger and T’Challah have inherited their politics via a game of broken telephone with older generations. Therefore, their ideologies are not fully coherent, meaning their political battles aren’t so much clashes of ideas, but heartbreaking wars between two idealistic human psyches.

In so far as Black Panther is political, however, it raises some interesting issues. One way to describe its political clash is as being between identitarian leftists (Wakanda) who fight for their ability to express their distinct way of being as a people, and universalist leftists (Killmonger, to an extent), who see liberation as coming through global collaboration against colonialism. The film also evokes a similar idea to Ta-Nehaisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power (I refer to the title/broad idea of the book, I haven’t actually read it). Coates’ book speaks to the idea that even having a black president couldn’t end racism in America. Coogler’s film takes that idea to the next level by positing that even in a world with a black superpower, global black oppression may not be brought to an end.

Finally, there’s another political question that may not be appropriate to ask, since Coogler and Cole may simply not even have considered it in creating the film. Every Wakandan we see knows the royal family personally. This begs the question of whether Wakanda is in fact a wealthy country, or whether it is yet another case a third world state with a very comfortable, and perhaps blissfully ignorant, ruling class. While I believe Black Panther is supposed to be viewed with the assumption that T’Challah and his comrades are well-meaning in their approach to governance and social-justice, it is certainly possible that Wakanda’s idealistic shortcomings are the result of it being a feudalist and/or capitalist society.

Black Panther has a lot going for it including a diverse visual pallet, gripping tension, and a good range of characters (I’ve neglected to mention appearances by Angela Basset, Sterling K. Brown and Forest Whitaker). Perhaps most importantly, the film features not just one, but two compelling villains (a quality lacking in films such as Thor: Ragnorak). While Killmonger particularly stands out, Klaue is no place filler either: there is something unique to his giggly-murderousness. If you are a Marvel fan, I think its safe to say that Black Panther lives up to the hype. If you’re not, this Marvel-meets-Star-War-meets-Afro-futurism-oeuvre may pleasantly surprise you.