Written by: Dylan Delaney
By Dylan Delaney
Bohemian Rhapsody is the 2018 biopic of rock and roll legend Freddie Mercury and Queen. It captures their initial formation, and the years leading up to their famous Live Aid concert appearance in 1985. Queen fans or really anyone who has heard their popular hits are going to love this film. Not only does it bring them back to life, but it also tells the story behind how they came to be.
Rami Malek’s portrayal of Freddie Mercury has been very well received considering the complexity of the character, and the skill level required to convincingly pull it off. Replicating Mercury’s unique demeanor and stage presence was no easy task. Malek said that he worked with a choreographer to master Freddie’s mannerisms and dance moves. The vocals were a combination of Malek’s and the original soundtrack. Malek has explained in interviews that he met Brian May and Roger Taylor, the remaining members of Queen, at Abbey Road Studio in London prior to receiving the role. He also took voice and piano lessons beforehand in preparation. The actual Queen members were involved with production, which added to the film’s overall authenticity. Another large attribute of becoming the character was his false teeth, which helped him understand that specific insecurity. Needless to say, he did a fantastic job.
Music defines this entire film, and emotionally unifies the members of the group who “don’t belong together”. Most of the popular Queen songs are incorporated into the film. If they aren't literally sung, then they are played as background music. Given that the film is well over two hours long, they could only highlight their major hits. Seeing the unique behind the scenes process of how the songs came to be is fascinating, and makes you appreciate them even more.
With any success story, there is always plenty of conflict. Controversy has surrounded the film related to how much attention would be paid towards Freddie’s sexuality. From the moment the trailer was initially released, only a brief shot of an intimate moment between him and another man was seen. Compare that to his relationship with Mary Austin, which is repeatedly shown, there was an apparent imbalance. Regardless, the film does a good job touching upon the various aspects of his career while still addressing other important areas.
The final sequence of Live Aid concert is truly spectacular. Live Aid was global initiative meant to raise one million pounds for the hungry affected by the Ethiopian famine. Every little detail was recreated, down to the Pepsi cups on the piano. There are a few shots in particular that left my eyebrows raised. Experiencing the film in IMAX is also incredible, especially during all of the concert sequences. It is extremely immersive, and simulates the viewer as being a member of the crowd.
From the fantastic visuals and performances, Bohemian Rhapsody beautifully recreates the iconic moments which shaped Queen's legacy.
Written by: Dylan Delaney
By Bill Friedell
Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Johnson, 2017) is the eighth film in the Star Wars saga of films. The movie picks up where Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Abrams, 2015) left off. Rey (Daisy Ridley) seeks the guidance of world weary Jedi Master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), both to train her and help the diminishing Resistance due to the destruction of the New Republic. Meanwhile, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) come up with a dangerous plan to save the Resistance from destruction at the hand of the First Order, with the help of Resistance engineer Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran). The Last Jedi may have been the most controversial of the Disney released Star Wars films, or possibly any. And while I don’t believe it to be perfect, The Last Jedi presents a more retrospective and contemplative take on the franchise through the themes and characterizations, reconciling the past of the franchise while finding the future path it should take.
The most compelling characters in the story are Luke, Rey, and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Daisy Ridley sells Rey’s confusion as she tries to find her place. She has this powerful connection to the force and she doesn’t understand it. Adam Driver also excels even more than in Force Awakens. His inversion of the hero's journey (the villain’s journey, if you will). Mark Hamill gives perhaps his best performance in this film. He was given the hardest role to sell to the audience, a Luke who has seen so much go wrong that he is in a crisis of faith in the force and the “Jedi religion”. This isn’t the same Luke we left at the end of Return of the Jedi (Marquand, 1983). But, Hamill brilliantly sells this idea, especially when he interacts with Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and R2-D2 (Jimmy Vee), where you can see the old Luke from the Original Trilogy emerges, showing his inner struggle his frustration with Rey and where he fits in her story. He has been through some of the greatest challenges and loses in his life; losing his Jedi Temple and being unable to prevent the turn of Ben Solo to Kylo Ren, tragically going through what his previous mentors went through when the Jedi first fell. Even Finn struggles with finding his place. He now has someone he cares for (Rey), but he still struggles with where he fits within the galaxy. He still wants to run away from the First Order, thinking the Resistance has no chance. But it is through meeting Rose, acting as the angel on his shoulder showing the injustice that permeates the galaxy, on a world that looks closest to Earth compared to other worlds, and D.J. (Benicio del Toro) acting as a devil on his shoulder, showing that the injustice is just a part of life, implying that Finn should live with it and even take advantage of it. To DJ, there are no good guys or bad guys.
Cinematography-wise, the movie is one of the best-looking Star Wars films, trying new techniques with the types of visuals such as the inventive use of mirror imagery when Rey enters a pit where the dark side resides. Its red motif offers distinction and danger, contrasting its various environments, such as in Supreme Leader Snoke’s (Andy Serkis) throne room and the brushed salt on the planet Crait, symbolizing the bleeding the Resistance is facing.Johnson also pays tribute to classic cinema . Its cinematography resembles the feel and scope of classic westerns and Korusawa-esque samurai films, both genres influencing the original Star Wars trilogy. While the Force Awakens brought more modern cinematography to table, The Last Jedi brings a more classical but still inventive visual look and camera penmanship, calling back to classic cinema like Wings (Wellman, 1927) in a tracking shot at Canto Bight’s casino. The influence of westerns and samurai films which were genres that influenced the Original Star Wars Trilogy, come to the forefront with a one on one duel that simulates the high noon feel of Luke’s decision to act as his wardrobe pays tribute to a samurai’s clothes as well as his own clothes from Return of the Jedi. In recalling these genres and homages to old films, Johnson returns to the past of movie genres to help understand and get at the heart of Star Wars.
Thematically, there is a treasure trove in the Last Jedi. The primary theme would have to be the relationship people have to the past and the future. A fundamental misreading of this film seems to come from people taking Kylo Ren’s viewpoint on the situation, “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to.”. Because of how certain perceptions have taken the movie to be completely irreverent to Star Wars traditions, it has become popular to site this as the point of the movie. However, it is relevant through Luke and Rey’s journey. Luke learns that the past is something to learn from, especially failure. To completely forget the past is to make the same mistakes as before. The First Order is a perfect metaphor for this idea, being a returning Galactic Empire. The past needs to be remembered, but we cannot be weighed down by it, like Luke had let the past temporarily defeat him when he failed Ben Solo (Kylo Ren). Luke and Kylo believe the past should die, but Luke learns through the ghost of Yoda (Frank Oz) that the past, especially failure is to be a teacher.
In many ways, this brings in a meta narrative aspect of the film. Johnson is looking at what the fundamentals of a Star Wars movie is. What does the legend of Luke Skywalker mean to the audience? Johnson displays through Rey and the final shot of the movie, where the legend of Luke Skywalker inspires the generation to come. Rey, like the audience, knew him both as a legend, and more importantly, as a human being.
Now like I said earlier, Last Jedi isn’t a perfect movie. While the exploration of the past and future worked well, there are times where the movie can become unfocused or muddled in its messaging. For example, the movie wants to make the point that it is more important to live and protect what you love rather than sacrifice everything, but it appears to be the right move to sacrifice. With Finn alone prepared to sacrifice himself to protect everyone else, but Rose stops him from doing so. The message gets muddled when the situation seems to contradict the message. Also, there can be awkward portrayals that if shot or framed differently, could work. For example, Leia gets shot into space, still within the ships shields and uses the force to return back to the capitol ship. It’s shot to make it look like she’s Superman or Mary Poppins. With perhaps a different approach, this would be easier to swallow, but in its existent form seems far fetched. Another scene that suffers from this problem is the scene where Luke throws away his old lightsaber, rejecting Rey’s initial call for help, asking Luke to help the Resistance. This could be a moment where audience members gasp, but the timing of the scene makes it humorous. I don’t believe the director meant it to be funny, but with the tone the movie sets, it can be mistaken for a joke. Speaking of jokes, the humor for some people may be hit or miss, but I overall thought the jokes were in character for each, the jaded sarcasm of Luke, General Hux’s (Domhall Gleeson) lack of self-awareness, and Poe’s distraction method, similar to his classic line in Force Awakens, “Who talks first?”
While The Last Jedi may rub fans the wrong way in certain moments and asks you to understand a Luke who has suffered his greatest failure, the movie gives fans the chance to see the farm boy we met in 1977 overcome perhaps his greatest hurtle and gives the galaxy an ideal to strive for in the way nobody expects, much like his victory in Return of the Jedi as he finds victory as a true Jedi would, as well as mirroring his former masters. The journeys of Rey, Finn, Poe, and Kylo Ren take their next logical progressions, both completing arcs from the previous film and setting for what’s to come.
Johnson, Rian, director. Star Wars Episode VIII The Last Jedi. Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, 2017.
Abrams, J.J., director. Star Wars Episode VII The Force Awakens. Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, 2015.
Wellman, William. Wings. Paramount, 1927.
By Bill Friedell
With the upcoming release of Avengers: Infinity War (Anthony and Joe Russo, 2018), I thought I’d look back at the previous Avengers film, Avengers: Age of Ultron (Joss Whedon, 2015). While it isn’t regarded as a terrible or bad film by most, many brush it off as being more of the same and bogged down in setting up future movies, as well as other complaints. While I agree it isn’t among the very best MCU movies, I feel like it gets dismissed too easily. Age of Ultron brings us further into the dynamics of the team and allows us to truly understand who the Avengers are. If Avengers (Joss Whedon, 2012) is about how "Earth’s mightiest heroes" can come together, Age of Ultron is an exploration of how the group operates afterwards. Avengers is the story of flawed “gods” from different creeds and backgrounds coming together for one shared cause. Age of Ultron is the story of monsters, as seen in the various members of the team, either creating monsters or being monsters themselves, as shown through these archetypes; the mad scientist and the monster continuing a cycle of violence that threatens everything.
The mad scientist has been a major figure of the horror and science fiction genre both in film and comic books. Typically, a mad scientist is a genius who wants to achieve something god-like, but end up creating something terrible. They create monsters. This goes back to Mary Shelly's classic novel, Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus. Victor Frankenstein, the protagonist is a genius who wishes to achieve something god-like, but ends up creating an abomination, or, a monster. The most popular version of the mad scientist in film, also Victor Frankenstein, was forever defined by Colin Clive in the 1931 adaptation, Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931), which defined the mad scientist as singularly driven to the point of raving madness, but realizes what he has created and tries to deal with the monster himself as best he can (Frankenstein). The influence of this movie has not only influenced movies, but comic books themselves. Originally, Lex Luthor, Superman's arch nemesis was introduced as a mad scientist (Siegel, Shuster). An even more direct translation is Dr. Bruce Banner, irradiating himself, whether intentionally or accidently, becomes both man and monster. Sympathetic and dangerous (Lee, Kirby).
But for Joss Whedon, most obvious “mad scientist” of Age of Ultron is Tony Stark, aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.). Tony Stark is a “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist” who has far from a perfect record. As said in Iron Man 3 (Shane Black, 2013), “We create our own demons”. Tony used to create weapons, demons of his own design and the reverberations of that have been felt even after he shuts down the weapons program at his company. Most, if not all of Iron Man’s villains in the MCU are the result of technology he created, especially his final weapon, the Iron Man suit. Iron Monger in the original Iron Man, (Jon Favreau, 2008) is made of the scraps of Tony’s original armor, and Whiplash in Iron Man 2 (Jon Favreau, 2010) creates the arc reactor technology he uses to make his whip weapons based on his father’s work as well as Tony’s. But not only did he create demons and monsters through technology; he also made monsters through his character. The primary example of this is Aldrich Killian, the villain of Iron Man 3. Tony brushing off Killian’s offer to join his think tank inspired his scheme to take over the war on terror behind the scenes. Tony has created countless problems and demons to face, which doesn’t end in Age of Ultron.
But Stark isn’t the only mad scientist of the group. Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) is unique in that he is both mad scientist and monster. He made himself into the Hulk to recreate the super soldier serum of Captain America and also assists Iron Man in scientific endeavors, such as creating Ultron. He is Jekyll and Hyde, Frankenstein’s monster, and Victor Frankenstein rolled into one. Captain America (Chris Evans) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) can also be considered monsters. Captain America is the result of experimentation. Now, pulled out of the 1940s, Cap is a man out of time. He doesn’t know where he fits in. In being a man out of time, he has become an outsider, as seen in the running joke of Cap pointing out Tony’s “language”, merely out of force of habit because of the time he came up in. Black Widow was taken to the Red Room, trained since childhood to become an assassin. She has no place in the world, she admits to her teacher, and is solidified in a “graduation ceremony” where Black Widow is sterilized, unable to bear children. Her entire self was violated and manipulated into making her a killer, a guilt she carries with her to this day. It's the “red in her ledger” she refers to in the first Avengers. Even Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is grappling with the idea that he is going to be a monster to his own people, having a vision of Ragnarok; the death of Asgard, brought about by him.
This is all best summarized by Ultron, saying, “Everyone creates what they dread. Men of peace create engines of war, invaders create avengers, people create… children, designed to supplant them. To help...end them”. Ultron sees himself as the child of Stark and that it is his duty to supplant him. This is particularly shown in Ultron’s personality, mirroring Stark’s quippy, smug, personality. Ultron is representative of this cycle of “creating what we dread”. Iron Man makes way for Killians, Ironmongers, and Ultrons. Hydras create Shields, which rebirth Hydra (Captain America Winter Soldier, Anthony and Joe Russo). \
The movie, particularly, the character of Ultron, employs many Biblical allusions. Ultron refers to Captain America as “God’s righteous man. Pretending that you can live without a war." He first meets the twins in a church, which was built in the center of the town, so that everyone will be equally close to God, and says he will “build his church” on vibranium (his chosen rock). He equates his plan with God flooding the world, which points to the fact that Ultron believes that he is God and that it is his duty to destroy humanity so that it will evolve and create peace. His sitting in the center of the church is like God sitting on his throne.
Let's go back to that line referring to Cap as the righteous man. Here, Ultron is pointing out that Captain America is a soldier, and without a war, he has no place. The Avengers gave Cap an avenue to continue the fight, to retain his sense of purpose. In many ways, this is what the Avengers are here for: to stop threats to the world. If there are no threats, no more Avengers. If there are threats, the cycle continues. This was why Tony wanted to create Ultron: to be the suit of armor to protect the earth from cosmic threats like the Chittari from the first Avengers. But in doing that, Tony created another threat. Another demon to dread.
So, we know this cycle: man creates monster, monster creates more monsters. How do you break the cycle? In the text of the movie, the answer is found in the character called Vision (Paul Bettany). While created by Ultron to be his final form, Tony and the Avengers put Jarvis (Tony’s personal A.I) into the body. Banner rightly points out that this is what exactly got them into this situation, which Tony replies, “We’re mad scientists. We’re monsters, buddy. And you’ve gotta own it. Make a stand. It's not a loop. It's the end of the line”. Tony has finally become self-aware of his actions. His preventative measures and ego have put themselves there. He is who he is, just as Banner is condemned to who he is. So, with Jarvis inside and Thor zapping the metal body with lightning (much like Dr. Frankenstein giving his monster life), Vision represents a being entirely new, referencing Exodus 3:14, “And God said unto Moses, I Am That I Am: and he said, thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I Am hath sent me unto you” (Exodus 3:14), saying “I’m not Ultron. I’m not Jarvis. I am… I am”. Vision doesn’t wish Ultron dead. But he knows he must be stopped to preserve life. A born Avenger. The cycle must be recognized and something new must form to stop the cycle of violence.
The cycle clearly hasn’t stopped in these movies, seeing how the MCU continues to this day. But there is acknowledgement of the failings and troubles of these characters we all come to admire. While we know from their own movies and even the previous Avengers film that these are far from flawless people, Age of Ultron addresses the idea the demons they create are a cycle, much like others in the superhero genre. Some villains are self-made; others are born of the heroes, or even exist merely to challenge them. But what makes the Avengers special is that they acknowledge the nature of this cycle and must understand that they must own up to what they have wrought, which is perfectly encapsulated in Hawkeye’s (Jeremy Renner) words to Wanda Maximoff, “Its your fault, it's everyone's fault. Who cares? Are you up for this? Are you? I need to know, because the city is flying. The city is flying, there’s an army of robots… and I have a bow and arrow. None of this makes sense… It doesn’t matter what you did, or what you were, if you go out there, you fight… but if you step out that door, you are an Avenger”. It’s up to us to own our mistakes and we can choose what to do next. Ignore the problem or stand for change. We are all responsible. We create monsters. We transgress against each other all the time. As Banner says and Ultron realizes, the biggest threat to people are people. As Vision observes, “Humans are odd. They think order and chaos are somehow opposites and try to control what won’t be. But there is grace in their failings. I think you missed that”. Avengers: Age of Ultron is an exploration of what it means to be human, like most all art, by capturing the worst and best of humanity.
Whedon, Joss, director. Avengers: Age of Ultron. Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, 2015
Whedon, Joss, director. The Avengers. Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, 2012.
Black, Shane, director. Iron Man 3. Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, 2013.
Favreau, Jon, director. Iron Man. Paramount Pictures, 2008.
Favreau, Jon, director. Iron Man 2. Paramount Pictures, 2010.
Russo, Anthony and Joe Russo, directors. Captain America: Winter Soldier. Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, 2014
Whale, James, director. Frankenstein. Universal Pictures, 1931.
King James Bible. Holman Bible Publishers, 1973.
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Frankenstein.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 27 Apr. 2017, www.britannica.com/topic/Frankenstein.
Siegel, Jerry (w), Shuster, Joe (p, i). Action Comics #23 (1940). DC Comics.
Lee, Stan (w), Kirby, Jack (p), Reinman, Paul (i). "The Hulk" The Incredible Hulk 1 (May 1962)
Auggie (Jacob Tremblay) and his mother (Julia Roberts) meet with the principal at his Beecher Prep orientation (Wonder, Chbosky, 2017)
by Megan Hess
R.J. Palacio’s debut novel Wonder – the story of a boy with Treacher Collins syndrome, a genetically inherited craniofacial deformity, attending school for the first time – has become an instant classic in middle-grade fiction, transcending its original audience. I read the book a year or two ago – before the movie came out, at any rate – and my feelings on it echo the personal and critical praise it has received. Palacio has a strong command of character and plot, and I keep Googling her, looking for news of the next project (a currently fruitless endeavor, but I hold out hope…) I didn’t get to catch the movie during its theatrical run, but I ended up seeing it twice in one weekend later on. My few critiques aside (we’ll get to them later on), I really applaud the Wonder cast and crew for retaining the spirit of the book. Adaptation is a tricky business, and, when the source material is well-loved like Wonder, it multiplies the challenges.
In the film, Auggie’s sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) uses an astronomical metaphor for her family structure: Auggie is the sun, and she and her parents are planets. This metaphor could apply to the structure of the book and film as well; Auggie’s perspective is supplemented by sections narrated by other characters in the book. I was pleased that the film took this same approach; I think it’s essential to the story structure. Although they scaled back the overall diversity in the characters, the film still had elements of racial diversity – at least a realistic amount for upper-middle-class\upper-class Brooklyn. There’s even an interracial relationship between two major characters.
Justin (Nadji Jeter) flirts with Via (Izabela Vidovic) as they walk home from school.
Overall, Wonder has a really strong cast. Based on this movie and the first installment of the IT reboot (Muschetti, 2017), I would label 2017 as “The Year of Stellar Child Acting.” Even though Jacob Tremblay played the main character, I’m not as interested in talking about his performance as much; he’s already had a lot of mainstream recognition for previous films, as well as this one. Noah Jupe brought spirit and heart into his portrayal of Jack Will, Auggie’s best friend at Beecher Prep. (At the time of this writing, you can currently see him in A Quiet Place (Krasinski, 2018)) Bryce Gheisar had a tough role to play as Wonder’s antagonist, Julian, a smarmy, two-faced trust-fund kid who instigates most of the teasing targeting Auggie. His character is imbued with complexity, so that that by the end of the narrative, he’s not as bad off as he seems. Palacio wrote a side story called “The Julian Chapter” which talks about some of the events of Wonder from Julian’s POV. Gheisar’s performance makes me wish they had included it in the film, even though it’s not part of the original book. The best moment between their two characters is their extremely satisfying fight scene - full of tension, character development, and even humor. Izabela Vidovic, who plays Auggie’s sister Via, has primarily worked in TV before Wonder, but she’s too good to be relegated to small-screen bit parts.
Besides their talent, one of the reasons I’m so impressed with the young cast is because of the adult co-stars with whom they have to share the spotlight. Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson play the Pullman parents, and have such excellent chemistry that it surprised me to read that they hadn’t worked together onscreen before Wonder. They have many enjoyable scenes together, but my favorite isolates their relationship, without the distractions of work and family life. Despite all the difficult circumstances they’ve endured together, they’re still able to keep the spark alive….
The Pullmans attend Auggie’s fifth grade graduation (Wonder, Chbosky, 2017)
The adult presence in the film also includes two excellent educators: Mr. Tushman (Mandy Patinkin) and Mr. Browne (Daveed Diggs). While their characters are a bit cliché – Patinkin plays the wise old owl principal, while Diggs is the hip and with-it young teacher – they fit their personalities so perfectly that it’s a passable affront. If you’re a fan of the musical Hamilton, which introduced Diggs into mainstream American popular culture and beyond, it’s a bit jarring to see him in such a tame role after his firecracker Broadway performance. When the sass comes out, it’s more subtle, and a pleasant surprise. There’s also moments of touching tenderness – like Mr. Browne comforting Jack Will after his fight with Julian - which we never saw with Lafayette and Jefferson. Overall, it really makes the case for his nuanced talent, and I hope he has more of a screen presence in the future. I also loved Crystal Lowe as Julian’s mom. It’s a small part of the movie, but large in importance, and she nailed the nuances of the character.
Thus far, I’ve listed all the things I’ve enjoyed about Wonder. Now it’s (finally) time for the critiques. Other reviewers have commented on the fact that they would have rather seen Auggie played by an actor with actual facial differences, not someone who needed a prosthetic to look that way. I agree with this, and also think they downplayed his look. It’s possible that, over the course of the film, I just got used to Auggie’s face, and it didn’t shock me anymore…but it didn’t shock me that much in the first place. Perhaps the effect is different on younger audiences – and perhaps they had those younger audiences in mind when they sculpted his face, not wanting to frighten them too much – but I think that discomfort, and being able to transcend it, is an important part of the storyline, for actors and audience alike.
Changes to source material almost always occur in the adaptation process, and Wonder is no different. I’m usually fairly picky about this – as much as I know it’s natural – but only one confused and irritated me to the point it’s worth discussing here. Towards the end of the book, the Beecher Prep fifth graders go on a field trip to a nature reserve, where Auggie gets attacked in the woods at night by a group of older students, who make off with one of his hearing aids after scaring him and pushing him around a bit. Film Wonder keeps this moment, but lessens the tension considerably by setting it during the day instead – and his hearing aid isn’t stolen because he doesn’t wear them in the first place. I’m thinking they did this to reduce the fear factor it might evoke in younger audience members, but it feels like a cop-out, evading a genuine empathetic moment. Being scared by a movie isn’t always fun, but sometimes it’s necessary.
If you’re not ready to cry, this is not the movie for you. However, if you would like an emotional and thought-provoking experience, Wonder might be a good choice for movie night.
Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) looks to her public (I, Tonya, Gillespie, 2018)
by Megan Hess
Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya (2018) is the Maleficent (Stromberg, 2014) of biopics. What makes the analogy doubly appropriate is that, to many past and present figure skaters, along with fans of the sport, Tonya Harding is certainly “The Mistress of All Evil.” Although she was the first woman in the world to perform the triple axel in competition, most people only remember her alleged involvement in the brutal attack on fellow skater Nancy Kerrigan, not her athletic capacity. Vilified and lambasted by society, she never got the chance to tell her story. Patriarchy came for Tonya Harding, as it comes for all women – even those, like Nancy Kerrigan, who seem to conform to its demands. This analysis will examine how I, Tonya, shows Harding’s diversions from gender norms - specifically looking at cultural context, dress, and behavior – and how they impacted her success in the figure-skating community.
A tense dinner between Tonya (Margot Robbie) and her mother (Allison Janney) (I, Tonya, Gillespie, 2018)
Harding’s rise to fame occurred in the 1980s’, an interesting time for American women…on and off the ice. The push for a return to “family values” in the 1980s’ tried to bury the consciousness raised during the women’s movement the past two decades before. On some level, they succeeded – pushing feminism into hibernation after the divisive “sex wars” of the antipornography movement and the failed attempt to pass the Equal Rights Amendment – but they couldn’t undo the female empowerment gains made during the past two decades of activism and scholarship. However, feminism had not touched the figure skating world. In fact, regarding gender roles and conduct, it was frozen in time. As Tonya says in the film “it’s a sport where the friggin' judges want you to be this old-timey version of what a woman is supposed to be.”
Like many popular women’s sports, appearance factors into an athlete’s success in skating. One of the judges even admits to Tonya that “we also judge on presentation.” Specifically, if a female skater is a) physically attractive by contemporary social norms and b) outfits herself in the manner the judges and audience are accustomed to, she finds she will do better than if she disregards these elements. The judges objectify the skater, yet an overtly sexual “look” will count against her score. Like ballerinas, skaters must have a feminine, graceful, look.
As a young girl, Tonya adheres to the ideal more because her coach has more influence on her. However, she still stands out. For example, Diane (Julianne Nicholson) encourages LaVona (Allison Janney) to buy Tonya a fur coat so that she blends in with the other young skaters. She knows Tonya’s lower-class background will impact her presentation, and, therefore, her scores. So she gets one…technically.
Young Tonya’s (McKenna Grace) “fur coat” - and her response to all those who ridicule the gift (I, Tonya, Gillespie, 2018)
As a young adult, she pushes back against the system. Typically, skaters had – and still do, to some extent - a more typically feminine look: long hair and soft color palettes. By comparison, the first time the viewer sees teenage Tonya, she has short hair and wears a bold blue and yellow skating costume – standing tall and proud on the ice.
Tonya at a younger, more innocent, less controversial time in her life (I, Tonya, Gillespie, 2018)
Her bright-colored costumes, which she wears throughout the film, reflect her confidence in her own skill as a skater - which the judges and more traditional members of the figure skating community see as such an affront. However, as she struggles to be accepted by this group, she tries to acquiesce. When Tonya leaves her mother, she cannot afford the expensive costumes she needs for performing. She sews a pink skating outfit that she thinks looks more like what the other skaters wear. (But it still gets that special Tonya touch – she sews a butt bow on it.)
Tonya – wearing her pink skating outfit – is shocked by her low scores (I, Tonya, Gillespie, 2018)
However, even after all her hard work training and sewing, she does not get the scores she thinks she deserves. It’s even implied that her handmade costume loses her points. Those go to her contemporaries who toe the party line a bit better – for example, Nancy Kerrigan…
I, Tonya subverts audience expectations by choosing not to pit Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding against each other. Instead of going for the cheap thrill of a catfight, it makes things more interesting. A “Man vs Society” conflict drives Gillespie’s film: Tonya vs the corrupt, classist, sexist, system of the late 20th-century US figure skating scene. Nancy and Tonya were both entangled in the machine, but Nancy could work the system better than Tonya because she typified its ideals. She does not have a strong presence in the film. Her most standout moment is, of course, the iconic scene post-knee-bashing. As she grips her leg and wails “Why?” she wears a white lace skating costume reminiscent of a young girl’s First Communion dress. The media – and the movie - used this image for juxtaposition. Now Nancy Kerrigan was the Cinderella of the skating world, and Tonya was just the ugly stepsister. She should have stood out for her ability, but she was cast out for not fitting the mold.
Tonya, tasting success, with no idea that she'll have it all taken away very soon.... (I, Tonya, Gillespie, 2018)
It wasn’t just Tonya’s style that limited her success. Her behavior set her back as well. Frequently in I, Tonya, instead of just taking her scores and leaving, she confronts the judges over their biased treatment, even calling them out for the classism inherent in the sport. The way she does this – directly, on the ice, instead of speaking to them in private after her skate – and calling definitely contributes to the judges’ collective dislike. In one scene, Tonya confronts a skating official after a competition in a parking garage, accusing them of treating her poorly. In response, he tells her that their negative feelings towards her come out of not wanting to promote her because of how she diverges from their wholesome, all-American girl model. This hurts her not only in later competitions, but also when the Kerrigan controversy breaks. It’s possible to argue that if Tonya was more well-liked, they wouldn’t have gone after her so aggressively. While Tonya does not have to serve jail time for her alleged involvement in the attack, she does not escape punishment. She gets put on probation for three years and sentenced to 500 hours community service on top of fines. This seems like punishment enough for her role, but the US Figure Skating Association takes it one step farther, banning Harding from skating professionally… for life. Instead of accepting her punishment and (in the words of Dylan Thomas) “going quietly into that good night,” Tonya tries to protest: “All I did was the hindering of prosecution. What, you're never gonna let me skate again? I mean, I'd rather do the jail time. Please, they only got eighteen months. They got eighteen months, I'll do that. Your honor, I don't have an education. All I know is skating. That's all I know. I am no one if I can't skate….I mean, I'm not some monster. I'm trying to do my best. It's like you're giving me a life sentence if you do that, you can't do that.” Instead of rewarding Tonya’s feminine vulnerability, the judges hold to their initial decision, and wash their hands of her forever.
Over 20 years have passed since Tonya’s last skate, and much has changed about the figure skating world that was so hostile towards her. While still primarily a domain of wealthy whites, minority skaters have made their mark – for example, Kristi Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwan. Black women still do not have a significant mainstream presence in American figure skating, but there have been some talented black American female skaters, like Debi Thomas and, most recently Starr Andrews. Catherine Machado is a two-time Olympic bronze medalist and was the first Latina woman to represent the US in the Olympic Games in 1956. On the men's side, we have openly gay figure skaters like Johnny Weir and Adam Rippon. At the same time as all this diversity has been introduced, much has not changed. Skating is still tied to the thin, ultrafeminine ideal and is more high-cost than other sports. It’s curious to see if these things will ever change, but these developments give us hope. It’s too late for Tonya Harding, but perhaps not for a similar girl in the future.
When it comes to Japanese-animated films, most people are usually familiar with Hayao Miyazaki’s work from Spirited Away (2001) to My Neighbor Totoro (1988) and others. However, 2016's Your Name (Shinkai) is one that shows that Japan’s creative vision can and will continue forward after Miyazaki is long gone.
Your Name is the story of two teenagers who discover they are connected to each other beyond time and space. Mitsuha Miyamizu (Stephanie Sheh), a girl in a small rural town, and Taki Tachibana (Michael Sinterniklaas), a boy working in the middle of Tokyo, discover that they switch bodies in their sleep. Through writing notes down on their hands and in their phones, they work together to improve each other’s lives. When Taki wants to visit Mitsuha in her town, he finds everything is not how it seems, and that Mitsuha’s future is in danger. Taki and Mitsuha must work together to survive and push past all obstacles so they can finally meet in-person.
A part of Japanese culture that plays a major role throughout Your Name is the “red string of fate.” The legends behind it say that people connected by it are irrevocably tied to each other through a vein that starts at someone’s heart, passes through the pinky, and to another person’s heart (American culture represents this myth through the “pinky promise”). Though the string can lengthen or tangle, it can never break (Monasterio, 2015). In the film, Mitsuha wears a red string as a hair tie. A flashback/dream sequence depicts Mitsuha reaching out to Taki using the string, trying to connect with him. Taki is also shown wearing a red string, using it as a bracelet. Mitsuha’s grandmother Hitoha (Glynis Ellis) reiterates the ideas behind the red string of fate when talking about “Musubi” or the flow of time and how all things in the universe are connected. The cords of the universe, as she says, “converge and take shape. They twist, tangle, sometimes unravel, break, and hone connect again.”
The film uses the red string to not only fuel the relationship between the two leads but also to inspire hope that they’ll finally meet. As Mitsuha and Taki learn more about each other, the forces of nature sever their connection through the comet Tiamat. It is revealed that Mitsuha lived three years in the past apart from Taki, and that she died when a piece of the comet struck her town. Taki decides he is going to change the past so he can prevent Mistuha’s death so that they can meet. Despite the absurdly impossible conditions that Mitsuha and Taki’s relationship exists in, they always find a way to keep their bond strong.
Your Name is not only a great story about how two people can overcome obstacles that get in the way of their relationship, it is also a great story about how close friendships are made and maintained. When Mitsuha and Taki discover that they are switching bodies with each other, they each come up with a list of do’s and don’ts for whenever they are switched. They are honest with each other, telling each other what helps and hurts them to do. This is a good example for what healthy relationships should look like, whether they are platonic or romantic. Meanwhile, having each other literally in their lives shakes up their routine. While Taki acts more assertive and confident in Mitsuha’s body, making her more popular with her peers, Mitsuha acts more kind and caring in Taki’s body, making him more appealing to his crush Miki Okudera (Laura Post).
Your Name is a heart-warming, hopeful story about friendship that literally transcends time and space, and a recommended watch for fans of Japanese animation and movies in general.
Monasterio, Lucia Ortiz, "The Legend of the Red String in Japan" Faena, 6 Nov 2015, http://www.faena.com/aleph/articles/the-legend-of-the-red-string-of-japan/
By Nathan Simms
It’s 20 years into the future in the Japanese Archipelago. All dogs have been exiled to Trash Island following an outbreak of “dog flu.” This is the setting of Isle of Dogs (Anderson, 2018), Wes Anderson’s latest film and his sophomore stop-motion feature. It’s now been a little over nine years since Fantastic Mr. Fox (Anderson, 2009), Anderson’s first animated feature which is based on the Roald Dahl book of the same name. Fox follows a group of anthropomorphized animals who rob three local farmers and have to relocate in the ensuing battle. To contrast, Isle of Dogs depicts a young boy’s battle rescue his dog Spots from government enforced exile (Liev Schreiber). In the time since the release of Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson and his team have clearly had time to improve on their craft. Isle of Dogs feels very much like any other Anderson film in terms of structure, but the film tackles societal issues in a new and refreshing way that clearly departs from Anderson’s past filmography.
Isle of Dogs opens with a notice, written in both Japanese and English, which advises the audience that all human characters speak in their native tongues. It then specifies that Japanese will be translated by an intermediary while all barks are rendered in English. This is a great example of the thorough, ordered nature of Isle of Dogs. The film is also characterized by a few devices that pervade Anderson’s body of work. For example, the film is divided into six acts which are both labelled by titles and announced by the narrator, a device that is present in almost all of Anderson’s films. Additionally, every shot in Isle, from wide City shots to close-ups of faces, is compositionally symmetrical. The focus on symmetry in his films has been commented on before; it is impressive to create completely symmetrical shots in live action. However, in a completely controlled environment like that of a stop motion set, the symmetry in each frame is only more precise. These factors all make Isle of Dogs feel just like any other Anderson film, but recent technological advancements have allowed for nuances that would have been impossible for Fox.
Like Fantastic Mr. Fox, Isle of Dogs was created using stop-motion animation. Thousands of still frames are combined to give the illusion of motion to puppets which are positioned by hand. In Fox, every principal animal character has fur on its face and hands. An unfortunate artifact of this fur was a inconsistent shift of hair in every frame due to the animator’s hands. Combined with other frames, the movement of each character would include this random shift of hair which was mostly distracting. Taking this into consideration, Wes Anderson directed his animation team to incorporate this movement to simulate wind. Now, the fur movement is consistent and motivated. In scenes where there is a lot of movement within the fur, wind noise accompanies. This serves to eliminate what was one of the most distracting elements of Anderson’s previous animated film. However, this change is a relatively minor consideration compared to the dramatic shift in political commentary that is absent from films like The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (Anderson, 2004) and The Grand Budapest Hotel (Anderson, 2014).
In this futuristic Japan, cat-loving Mayor Kobayashi fears for the citizens of Megasaki city after “dog flu” runs rampant through the canine population. In a late night decree, he banishes all dogs to trash island, including the personal bodyguard dog of his nephew, Atari. In the following months, every single dog in Megasaki is placed into the city’s trash collection system which consists of hundreds of horizontal ski-lifts with modified trash carriers. The dogs are then carried off the mainland and dumped onto the isle of dogs. Atari, missing his dog, endeavors to retrieve him from the island and goes so far as to steal a plane and fly there.
politics of this situation are hinted at during Kobayashi’s late night decree when the Mayor allows for political dissent. Dr. Watanabe, of the science party, makes a brief statement in which he bluntly states that the dog flu is not a danger to humans and abandoning man’s best friend is a mistake. Kobayashi’s supporters just ignore him. Doctor Watanabe continues to fight for dogs during the film, even going so far as to find a vaccine to dog flu. This accomplishment results in him receiving some poisoned sushi. His dissent is ultimately silenced. Sensing malicious intent of the government, a group of pro-dog students resists Mayor Kobayashi’s anti-dog rhetoric. According to dramatist Kenneth Burke’s theory of representative anecdote, films reflect societal fears and concerns. The drama of a movie is often representative of the current political climate of the society in which the film is created. In today’s political climate, a film which depicts the politically motivated and government sanctioned oppression of dogs (man’s best friend), is most certainly relevant. The only real difference between the government of our nation and that of Megasaki, is that in the end, the corruption of Kobayashi is admitted by the man himself and order is restored. The real world never seems to dispose of its trash quite as easily.
Beneath the political drama that forces dogs onto trash island and pervasive governmental corruption, lies a simple story of a boy, his dog, and the space between them. This relationship really is the crux of the story and the most heart-wrenching element. The audience needs to see the reunification of this boy and his dog. Isle of Dogs is a love letter not only to the unique relationships that we form with our pets, but also to Japanese film and culture. The deep reds, purples, and greens that shine in the futuristic city of Megasaki remind us of the Tokyo of today, while the symmetrical compositions and ordered set design are reminiscent of Japanese auteurs like Kurosawa. Anderson has often been criticized for his insistence in form over function, but in a society which focuses on balance and symmetry, his style feels right at home. If you are looking for a bit of escapism, I cannot think of a better film
By Emmanuel Gundran
Since its very early production and onward, Coco (Unkrich 2017) has been a controversial film for Disney to make. Disney started production on Coco as early as 2013, when they tried to copyright ‘Dia de los Muertos’ for a list of goods and services. However, many criticized the decision, including Mexican political cartoonist, Lalo Alcaraz. He led the backlash against Disney’s corporate actions, even drawing a cartoon titled ‘Muerto Mouse’ which depicted Mickey Mouse as a giant, skeletal monster and had the subtitle “It’s coming to trademark your cultura!”. Eventually, Pixar hired Alcaraz onto Coco as a creative/cultural consultant to repair relationships with the Latino community.
While this was one hurdle that Disney managed to overcome, there was also the problem of Coco being too similar in concept and story to Book of Life (Gutierrez 2014), another film that’s centered around Dia de los Muertos. Journalists and movie-goers alike noticed and took to the web to voice their criticisms. One writer for the website Cartoon Brew expresses his distaste for a “white Jewish gentleman” like Lee Unkrich directing a film “rooted in a centuries-old Mexican tradition.” He further accuses Unkrich of wanting to “appropriate Mexican culture for the purpose of boosting an American corporation’s bottomline.” However, after Coco was released in November 2017, it received rave reviews from fans and critics alike and reached $744.9 million in the box office. The film’s release calmed many of those who feared it would blow up in disaster. Despite the controversies surrounding it, Coco proves that it can not only coexist with Book of Life as a film about Dia de los Muertos, but also that both films supplement each other with Mexican culture.
Coco is a film about a boy named Miguel who wants to honor the memory of his ancestor Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), a famous singer and guitarist. When his family bans music from the household, Miguel travels to the Land of the Dead to find de la Cruz and prove that he is his worthy successor. Along his journey, he meets Héctor (Gael Garcia Bernal), a bumbling trickster whose family is slowly forgetting him. Once his family forgets him, his soul would fade away. The only memory left of who he was is kept in a photo of himself in life. Thus, not only must Miguel find his ancestor, he needs to make sure Miguel does not fade away and left to be forgotten.
One aspect of Coco that sets it apart from Book of Life is the specific parts of Mexican culture that are portrayed and reinterpreted. Both films deal with the idea of being remembered and forgotten, but it is treated different between them. In Coco, when a person dies and is sent to the Land of the Dead, their soul is kept their as a skeleton until they are no longer remembered. Dia de los Muertos honors the dead because their souls never truly die, as long as people continue to remember those who are gone. Book of Life also shows this important aspect of the culture, but in a different way. In that film, two gods rule over the Land of the Remembered and the Land of the Forgotten: La Muerte (Kate de Castillo) and Xibalba (Ron Perlman) respectively. These gods play with people’s lives, even making bets with each other that involve mortal souls. They also pull souls into and out of their respective realms at will. The process of a person’s soul living on in the after-life works similarly in Coco, but Book of Life emphasizes the supernatural, as the god’s conflict with each other is one of the central points of the film.
While Coco and Book of Life deal with a young protagonist fighting against his family’s expectations, they deal with different struggles along the way that gives each of them a distinct journey. Manolo (Diego Luna), the protagonist of Book of Life, wants to break away from his family’s bullfighting tradition to be a musician. Miguel (Anthony Gonzales), from Coco, also wants to be a musician and break from his family’s shoe-shining tradition. Their conflicts, however, are different. Manolo loses the love of his life Maria (Zoe Saldana) to his childhood friend Joaquin (Channing Tatum), who is a successful bullfighter. Joaquin has achieved what Manolo feels his family expects of him. Miguel, however, has tension with his family because music has been banned from their house. After de la Cruz left the family to play music, Miguel’s great-great-grandmother Imelda (Alanna Ubach) was left without a husband, and her daughter Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguía) was left without a father. For Miguel’s family, becoming a musician meant pursuing personal fame and abandoning everything and everyone else. The film deals a lot with the conflict that Miguel’s ancestor created and how it would be resolved through his journey. By the end of both films, Miguel and Manolo learn different lessons about family and expectations. While Manolo learns to follow his heart and be the person who he wants to be, Miguel learns that true family can never be forgotten.
These films have strong similarities and subtle differences between each other, but they are able to coexist with how they create a more complete picture of what Mexican culture is like. Both show how life never ends after the body dies, but include different details on how. Coco shows that the souls of those dead live on as long as they are remembered and the tragic death of a soul after all their friends and family have forgotten them. It also shows the traditions practiced by Mexicans, such as bringing food and setting up shrines, called ofrendas, honoring family members who have passed. Book of Life adds to the spiritual aspect by having the two gods who watch over the realms of the remembered and forgotten. It shows that higher powers have control over the souls of the dead. In Mexican culture, Santa Muerte, who the goddess La Muerte was likely based on, is a female deity who takes the form of a skeleton in robes and oversees the souls of the living and dead. Those who pray and offer gifts to her can have their requests granted, such as asking for the soul of a loved one to return or praying “for a holy death.” (Ramirez, 2007)
While Coco struggled early on in its production, it was able to provide a more complete picture of Mexican culture along with Book of Life and craft a unique, heart-felt story about family and forgiveness.
Amidi, Amid. "Pixar Announces Day of the Dead Film 'Coco'" Cartoon Brew. https://www.cartoonbrew.com/pixar/pixar-announces-day-of-the-dead-film-coco-117684.html
Ramirez, Margaret. "'Saint Death' Comes to Chicago" Chicago Tribune. http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/death-chicago-08-story.html
The protagonist, Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, wearing her typical expression of world-weary, adolescent angst (Lady Bird, Gerwig, 2017)
by Megan Hess
At this point in history, most of our iconic coming-of-age films – movies like The Graduate (Nichols, 1967) or Rushmore (Anderson, 1998) focus on a male protagonist. But, as they say, the future is female, and Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird (2017) is helping to bring a female presence more prominently into the genre.
In the afterword to Full Dark, No Stars, his 2011 collection of four short novellas, Stephen King makes a differentiation between literary and genre fiction that could also apply to film. According to King“….literary fiction usually concerns itself with extraordinary people in ordinary situations,” while genre fiction in the classic sense focuses on “ordinary people in extraordinary situations.” (528). Like many coming-of-age dramas that precede it, Lady Bird doesn’t fall into either category. The situations and the people in them are both ordinary. (In fact, I think it’s Gerwig’s commitment to the ordinary that lost her Oscar glory. In a less sensational Oscar season, she would have better chances.) But, it’s a vibrant, vulnerable, unforgettable rendition of the regular. Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is average, but constantly trying not to be. She’s dramatic, irritating, and idealistic; a girl who wants things she doesn’t deserve and doesn’t know how to get…in short, a typical teenager. It’s easy to see yourself in her – even if you’ve never been a teenage girl enrolled in Catholic school in California in 2002. The film takes place over Lady Bird’s senior year of high school, a period where she experiences a lot of big firsts – and has big expectations for those moments. The film’s universal message is great for teens to hear – and for the rest of us to remember: Sometimes your biggest wants have the most unexpected outcomes.
Lady Bird with her short-term boyfriend and co-star from the school’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, Danny O’Neil (Lucas Hedges) (Lady Bird, Gerwig, 2017)
I’m still of the opinion that Brooklyn (Crowley, 2015) is Saoirse Ronan’s best performance so far, but she still did an excellent job in this film. I saw a little bit of Briony Tallis, her character from Atonement (Wright, 2007), in Lady Bird – mostly her frustrating self-centeredness and naivete. She also had a great supporting cast to bolster her performance. The mother-daughter relationship between Laurie Metcalf and Ronan felt painfully authentic for me – the thrift-store scene in particular. It was a little sad to see her lose out in the Best Supporting Actress race, as much as I love Allison Janney and really enjoyed her performance in I, Tonya (Gillespie, 2018). Beanie Feldstein’s character Julie makes a great best friend\sidekick for Lady Bird; their relational arc and dynamics flavor the plot. While the twist with Danny is a bit predictable, it’s interesting nonetheless. His character reminds me of Paulie Bleeker in Juno (Cody, 2009). I’m appreciating Timothèe Chalamet in hindsight because I didn’t realize it was him on first viewing. His love scene in Lady Bird isn’t as controversial as the infamous “peach scene” in Call Me By Your Name (Guadagnino, 2017), but it’s character-development fodder, and gives him one of the best lines in the script: “You’re gonna have so much unspecial sex in your life.” (It’s a little dark and pessimistic, but true, I suspect, for many….)
Kyle (Timothèe Chalamet), Lady Bird’s other love interest in the film. (Lady Bird, Gerwig, 2017).
The stellar cast and commitment to realism means there’s little to complain about with Lady Bird. I wish they hadn’t shown the car scene in the trailer because it lessened the impact of the scene in context. I also would have liked a more concrete ending, but I usually balk at ambiguous movie endings as a rule, so that’s not a problem specific to this film…. It’s not incredibly diverse – racially, sexually, or otherwise – but that could be a setting and time-period factor. Class difference and gender are Gerwig’s main concerns, and she handles them well. I appreciated the grace, tact, and subtlety she used with the religious themes and subject matter in the film; Catholicism in particular often gets demonized or mocked in popular media (not without cause, but still…) and she avoided any sort of that from a filmmaking lens, taking a neutral stance.
In our big-budget blockbuster world, stillness and authenticity aren’t always valued, but Lady Bird shows their power in narrative. It also highlights the importance of women’s stories. Overall, Lady Bird is the kind of film I can’t wait to watch again, one capable of resonating with many people. The memories and nostalgia of adolescence it evokes for older viewers – meaning, anyone out of high school - won’t necessarily be the rosy, happy kind, but they’re worth reflecting on post-watch. Teens – those in the thick of it, who can most directly identify with Lady Bird – will likely have a different take, but can still enjoy the film. I look forward to the woman-centric coming of age films it’s destined to inspire, and hope they’re just as honest.
King, Stephen. Full Dark, No Stars. Pocket Books, 2011
By Bill Friedell
Ten years and eighteen movies into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Marvel Studios released Black Panther (Ryan Coogler, 2018). Following not long after Captain America: Civil War (Joe and Anthony Russo, 2016), T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns to his home nation of Wakanda, a technologically advanced African nation that was never touched by western colonization, to be crowned king after the recent passing of his father, T’Chaka (John Kani), after succeeding in a ritual rite of passage. At the same time, Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), with the help of Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), sets out to find the nation of Wakanda and take control of the country and it's vast resources.
Black Panther is easily Marvel’s most thematically rich and substantive movies. It follows very much in the vein of the Captain America movies in terms of their tone and how it looks at political themes. It explores the ideas of what it means to have power, identity, and isolationism. Director Ryan Coogler brings in real issues like the African diaspora, through the story of its villain, Eric Killmonger and dealing with the idea of isolationism and what the duties of a country in a privileged position should do when faced with helping others beyond its borders. Where Captain America: Winter Soldier (Joe and Anthony Russo, 2014) looks at themes of security verses freedom and Captain America: Civil War deals with the limits that should be set on those who protect us, Black Panther looks at what it means to do the right thing when it comes to dealing with injustice, particularly in terms of racial injustice. The way it does this is through the world of Wakanda and the various views of the characters who inhabit it. Characters such as Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o) who thinks that Wakanda should be giving relief to other countries, while the leaders of the tribes that make up Wakanda want T’Challa should focus on being a king and tending to his own people, rather than be a warrior and pursue Klaue. The dilemma for T’Challa, as well as being the main question of the film is, what is the best way to rules? How can T’Challa do what is necessary to be a good king and remain a good man?
The world of Wakanda is a beautifully portrayed, filled with its own traditions, technology, economy, and government. The opening of the film gives us the history of Wakanda through a unique sequence like Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins 2017) similar to telling the history of the amazons, while still being unique and beautiful. Jenkins nods back to classical paintings, whereas Coogler forms his sequence out of a world made of shifting sand. Coogler’s third outing as director is just as stellar as ever. Anyone who has seen Creed (Ryan Coogler, 2015) will love the use of single takes in two particular action sequences. Probably the most aesthetically beautiful sequences are in the spiritual plane where T’Challa’s ancestors reside. The use of color, particularly purple was dazzling and tranquil. The score and soundtrack also impress, mixing hip hop, rap and African music combined with orchestration, helping to sell the world and identity, while also celebrating black culture.
In terms of performances, there are many standouts. Everyone in the cast shines. Michael B. Jordan as Killmonger is probably the standout among a whole cast of memorable characters and performances. Killmonger is easily on of the MCU’s best, if not very best villain they’ve ever had. You understand and sympathies with his motives and in some ways can even agree with him to an extent. However, you still see the faults that make him a villain, much like Magneto from the X-Men movies. Jordan's introduction scene has you glued to his character from the get-go. Serkis is also a lot of fun, but Jordan is the most substantive and interesting. Serkis may get more laughs and has the bigger personality, but Jordan grabs you the minute he enters, instantly drawing you in, making you want to follow his story, whereas other marvel films see the villains as necessary plot points or roadblocks for the hero. Instead of being another world ender for reasons that don’t have any bearing on the themes or journey of the hero, Killmonger causes change in T’Challa and Wakanda. He isn’t just a bad guy to beat up and continue the norm. The hero is changed for the better because of the arrival and challenge of this villain.
Two other stand outs are Danai Gurira as Okoye, leader of the royal guard of female warriors and Letitia Wright as Shuri, T’Challa’s genius sister. These two were scene stealers both in action and in conversation. Everyone turns in great performances. So much so, that Chadwick Boseman can be overshadowed at times, considering the more subdued, more serious nature of his character. But Bozeman grounds the world and works well off each and every character, balancing the cast and giving it a center.
While there are familiar elements in Black Panther, fighting a villain with a costume and powerset that perfectly matches the hero, and a big climax, the movie makes it all its own and finds twists and spins to make it it’s own. Its voice is all its own, which is something that Marvel has been improving with as well as being cohesive with the other films, especially last year. With unique directors telling different kinds of stories with the superhero genre like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 (James Gunn, 2017) and Thor Ragnarok (Taika Waititi). Coogler brings his own story and style stunningly in Black Panther. It works as a stand alone film and shows us that there is still new types of characters, worlds, and conflicts when it comes to the superhero genre that can be explored.
Coogler, Ryan, director. Black Panther. Walt Disney, 2018.
Coogler, Ryan, director. Creed. MGM and Warner Brothers.
Gunn, James, director. Guardians of the Galaxy. Disney, 2017.
Jenkins, Patty, director. Wonder Woman. Warner Brothers, 2017.
Russo, Anthony and Joe Russo, directors. Captain America Winter Soldier. Walt Disney.
Russo, Anthony and Joe Russo, directors. Captain America Civil War. Walt Disney, 2016.
Waititi, Taika, director. Thor Ragnarok. Walt Disney, 2017.