My Strange and Magical Odyssey Through the Work of Aaron Paul

During my city’s stay-at-home order in March and April, I finally got around to watching AMC’s iconic Breaking Bad series, and later, its prequel spinoff Better Call Saul. I quickly fell in love with both shows, but especially Breaking Bad. I loved the writing and directing, the twists and turns, and the complicated characters. My favorite character, far and away, was Jesse Pinkman- junkie dealer turned tortured soul.

When I finished the show, I experienced post-show depression. Also, we were in a pandemic. To combat this sadness, I decided to chase the “high” of Breaking Bad by watching a few of the movies of Jesse Pinkman’s actor Aaron Paul. 

And then I kept watching. Once I had watched a few movies, I decided I was too far in and committed fully to going through his filmography. Now, I have watched two full TV shows (BoJack Horseman, The Truth Be Told) and almost every single movie from Aaron Paul’s post-Breaking Bad career (the exceptions being Welcome Home, Central Intelligence, and Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV). As a newly certified Aaron Paul academic, I am compelled to share my findings with you. 

This essay will examine Paul’s filmography after 2013. We will examine the trajectory of his career and the underlying themes of the roles he has played and how they have responded to Hollywood trends, and we’ll take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of his projects. 

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It is an infamous Hollywood sentiment that most actors cannot make the jump from television to film. Only a few have been able to do it successfully and reach movie star level. While the era of prestige television has brought many stars to the small screen, it is still difficult to do the reverse. 

But if anyone would be able to do it, it should have been Aaron Paul. With the end of critically acclaimed Breaking Bad’s fifth and final season in September of 2013, Paul entered 2014 with five movies released in U.S theaters, all wildly different. The reactions to these five films set the course for the rest of his career.

Timeline

  • Breaking Bad ends in September 2013. 

  • Hellion (dir. Kat Candler) premieres at Sundance on January 17th, 2014, and gets a wide release in June. It’s an indie that doesn’t make much money, but Paul gets good reviews for his performance as an alcoholic widower struggling to keep custody of his sons. The film receives mixed to positive reviews. Hellion doesn’t quite come together as a whole but has a lot of strong elements. The film observes its characters without moralizing, full of empathy for their plights, no matter how frustrating it is to watch them self-sabotage. It’s an emotionally wrenching portrait of grief ripping a family apart. (I give it 4 out of 5 stars). 

  • Need for Speed (dir. Scott Waugh) comes out March 14th. This is obviously supposed to be Paul’s “leading man” action blockbuster debut. It’s panned by critics and makes decent box office, but not enough to get a sequel. The only thing about the film that lives in the cultural lexicon is this meme:

    So it was all worth it in the end. Paul is completely miscast as the lead here, which is probably why he’ll never be trusted with a franchise again. Lead characters in action movies are usually proactive and initiate within the story to drive the plot. Paul is great at reacting, which makes him a poor fit with a movie like this, which asks him to mostly sit and glower in front of a wheel. As Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune put it, “Paul has talent, though the actor’s idea of simmering intensity in the context of Need for Speed comes off more like serial killer in the making.'” Yikes. (1/5 stars)

  • Decoding Annie Parker (dir. Steven Bernstein) has a U.S theatrical release on May 2nd. It is a small drama that doesn’t get much publicity or box office, and it receives mixed to negative reviews. Paul’s character here is- and I mean this as respectfully as possible- a himbo. A himbohusand, until halfway through the film when his character does a complete 180. He wears a delightful array of terrible wigs that do a lot of the heavy lifting. The movie never figures out what story it wants to tell about the real-life Annie Parker and her contributions to breast cancer research, botching what could have been a moving story. But Paul’s relatively small role is entertaining, and much more so if you track his character’s moral decay by the shortening of his hair. (2/5)

  • A Long Way Down (dir. Pascal Chaumeil) gets a long, windy European rollout but eventually hits the United States in limited release on June 5th. It’s also a small film that doesn’t get a lot of attention or box office returns. Those who see it give it negative reviews. Paul plays a depressed ex-musician who tries to commit suicide on News Years Eve, but, surprise! three other people (played by Pierce Brosnan, Toni Collet, and Imogene Poots) are on the roof as well. The four of them make a pact to stay alive until Valentine’s Day and in the process become a little family. The movie is a tonally uneven “dark comedy” that refuses to sit in any kind of grief or sorrow. It’s not well written, and, as Mike D’Angelo notes for the AV Club, “Brosnan and Poots clearly believe A Long Way Down is a comedy…while Collette and Paul are convinced it’s a deadly serious portrait of despair.” But, admittedly, this movie is my kind of trash. It has plenty of tropes I hate, like “Go on vacation to find meaning in life again.” But it also has tropes I do like, such as “on the nose power ballad,” and “angstily swims in the ocean as a form of spiritual baptism” and “Aaron Paul crying,” which, in this case, are all the same scene. (3/5)

  • The 66th Primetime Emmys are on August 25th. Breaking Bad wins big, and Paul takes home his third Emmy win for best-supporting actor.

  • Exodus: Gods and Kings (dir. Ridley Scott) is released on December 12th. The movie is a box office failure and gets slammed with terrible reviews, as it deserves.(1/5)

Here is, apparently, what Aaron Paul learned from this appetizer-year of roles:

  1. I will never do a big blockbuster again, and my only leading man roles will be in B-level action flicks. (Whether this was a decision Paul came to on his own or was just what Hollywood decided post-Need for Speed, we’ll never know).
  2. I can continue to play boyfriends & husbands in supporting roles for mid-budget movies (Fathers and Daughters, American Woman, Decoding Annie Parker). 
  3. I will never ever do a period piece ala Exodus again, but I WILL work with a Scott again (he works with Ridley Scott for Exodus, works with Ridley Scott’s son Jake Scott in his 2019 film American Woman). 
  4. I will continue to play Troubled Fathers™ in indie movies (The Parts You Lose, Hellion, The 9th Life of Louis Drax)
  5. TV is my real home (BoJack Horseman, The Path, The Truth Be Told, Westworld)

So what did Aaron Paul’s career look like after 2014? Let’s go through each movie and see. The following movies are in chronological order by U.S theatrical release date.

Eye in the Sky (2016) 4/5 – This well-crafted drama explores drone warfare in a way that presents probably a more idealized version of how modern war is conducted than an accurate one. Putting realism aside, however, the film does what it set out to accomplish, which is to make the audience think about the ethics of this new frontier of combat. Paul spends most of the film sitting in front of a computer and being distraught, but he pulls it off perfectly. Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman (this was his last role) co-star and are both characteristically excellent.

Fathers and Daughters (2016) 1/5 – This movie is incredibly forgettable, and so is Paul’s role as Bland Supportive Boyfriend. Russell Crowe and Amanda Seyfried turn in nice performances in this not-particularly-insightful drama about… well, the relationship between a father and daughter.

Triple 9 (2016) 0/5 – This is a brutal, violent film that offers no redemption in the story nor interesting filmmaking on any level. Its great cast is wasted. Paul plays a sensitive criminal whose most interesting trait is his half-shaved head, half mohawk comb-over. Absolutely nothing worth recommending here. 

The 9th Life of Louis Drax (2016) 3/5 – This movie is bonkers! It’s absolutely nuts! It barely makes sense! Yet that makes it so much better than many of these other films. Paul plays the father of young Louis Drax, who falls off a cliff and into a coma on his ninth birthday. Paul also plays a sea monster. I… really can’t explain it, it has to be seen to be believed. This whimsical, dark children’s-but-is-really-for-adults-movie has a distinct vision. Is it a good vision? Debatable. But it is a wild ride nonetheless. 

Come and Find Me (2016) 0/5 – I despise how boring this movie is! Paul is again miscast playing a boyfriend trying to find his missing girlfriend in this action thriller that has neither good action nor is thrilling. You’ve seen a better version of this movie before.

American Woman (2019) 4/5 – This haunting drama follows the life of Debra (Sienna Miller), a down-on-her-luck working-class woman from a small town whose daughter goes missing. Paul plays her love interest, and while his role is small, gets to do some nice dramatic work. It’s Miller’s movie though, and although the film is a non-stop train to Sad-ville, it’s worth the ride.

The Parts You Lose (2019) 5/5 – Paul plays a nameless fugitive who is hidden and nursed back to health by a deaf child. Paul has a natural chemistry with child actors and he gets to use that here with promising newcomer Danny Murphy. Like in El Camino, he excels at expressing feral energy through a mostly silent role. It’s a perfect use of his talents, while also challenging him, and the whole movie is definitely a worthwhile watch.

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (2019) 5/5

This should have won the Emmy this year for Outstanding Television Movie! Vince and Aaron were robbed!

Paul delivers an outstanding performance that stands apart from his previous work as Jesse Pinkman. This Jesse is stripped of all of the things that made him more of a meme than a character (“yeah, science!”) and instead reminds us of the complex path towards salvation the character has been on, and the depth of his desperation when on the cusp of grasping it.

Strangely Specific Tropes in Aaron Paul’s Work

*I’m including here what I saw of his roles in TV shows BoJack Horseman, The Truth Be Told, the first two episodes of The Path, and a shoutout to the movie Smashed, which came out in 2012, which puts it before this scope of this essay.

  • His character is enslaved and gets tortured in the desert- Breaking Bad/El Camino, Exodus: Gods and Kings
  • Scene where his wife follows him in her car because she suspects he’s cheating on her and he goes to a shady motel to meet a mysterious woman: The Path, American Woman
    • Modification: Plays a husband who cheats and leaves his wife because he just can’t cope with the trauma she is undergoing: American Woman, Decoding Annie Parker
  • His character was in a band (but no musical abilities demonstrated) – Breaking Bad, American Woman, A Long Way Down, Decoding Annie Parker
  • Is a construction worker in the South with a spotty accent- American Woman, Hellion 
    • Only southern accent: Triple 9 and The Truth Be Told 
  • Wears a Beanie- The Parts You Lose, A Long Way Down, Breaking Bad/El Camino, BoJack Horseman, Triple 9.  (All these costume designers were like, “his forehead is bigger than our budget, we gotta cover it up!”
  • Interacts with Nazis/White Supremacists or the Mafia: Breaking Bad/El Camino, BoJack Horseman, Come and Find Me, Triple 9, The Truth Be Told
  • Is a junkie or alcoholic- Breaking Bad, BoJack Horseman, Hellion, Triple 9, The Truth Be Told, Smashed
  • I’m a criminal, yo: Breaking Bad, The Parts You Lose, Central Intelligence, Triple 9, Westworld, Need for Speed, The Truth Be Told
  • Does some guttural crying- Breaking Bad/El Camino, A Long Way Down, The Path, Hellion, Come and Find Me, Need for Speed, The Truth Be Told
    • Closeup as he sheds one single tear- El Camino, Need for Speed

So what’s the verdict? Aaron Paul’s filmography is uneven, to say the least, but it has some bright spots, especially as of late. If I were his manager, I would advise him to continue acting (and producing) small indie dramas that play to his strengths, stop doing mid-budget action movies, and try to befriend some prestigious directors (I could see a fit with the likes of Christopher Nolan, Kathryn Bigelow, Gina Prince-Bythewood, even Bong Joon Ho) and start edging back into big films, but not as the lead. He should also continue with prestige television, but use this as an opportunity to try different genres and be more experimental. I think with the right role he could get into better movies (and even win an Oscar one day?) but he needs to choose better projects and filmmakers need to take a chance on him.

As of right now though, Paul seems more focused on building his Dos Hombres Mezcal brand with Bryan Cranston, being a new dad, and taking responsibility for racism. And that’s pretty cool, bitch. 

– Madeleine D.

“No Bad Guys”: Clemency

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“It’s my job.”

Chinonye Chukwu’s 2019 film Clemency, starring Alfre Woodard, examines the way this sentiment can be twisted to justify horrific behavior and unjust systems. Woodard plays Bernadine Williams, a prison warden who carries out executions. The film begins with a botched execution and follows Bernadine as she moves towards the next one, a highly public case where the man (Aldis Hodge) in question is largely thought to be innocent. As Bernadine faces public and private scrutiny, she continues to figuratively wash her hands of the issue- after all, she’s just doing her job.

It’s fascinating to compare Clemency to another 2019 movie, Just Mercy. There are plenty of differences between them of course- Clemency is fiction, Just Mercy is based on a true story and on the life of still-living attorney and advocate Bryan Stevenson. Clemency takes place in the present, Just Mercy in the past. Just Mercy speaks explicitly on race and interrogates a “justice” system that imprisons black men at a disproportionately high rate. Clemency, which stars a black woman as a warden and a black man as a prisoner, is full of interesting implications, but never explicitly talks about race. Yet they are both about the prison industrial complex, and specifically, capital punishment. Just Mercy is focused on the prisoner- in this case, wrongfully accused Walter McMillian- and his relentless, righteous lawyer Stevenson. In Just Mercy, little time is spent thinking about those working on the side of the system. Particularly since the film is about race and how racism played into McMillians’ wrongful conviction in 1980’s Alabama, there seems to be a clear right and wrong. The prosecutors, the prison guards- all presented as clear-cut representatives of a broken system, who are therefore complicit. 

But we are all complicit in all sorts of injustice. There is corruption and sin in every industry, no matter how seemingly neutral or even moral your job or workplace is. Most of us end up playing a game about the degree of separation; how close am I to the injustice? Surely if, say, I work at a retail store where I know the clothes we make use child labor overseas, I can take comfort in the fact that there is enough separation between me and the CEO or the foreman in the factory allowing that to happen. I’m alleviated of guilt.

Right?

The frustration and helplessness as we come to grips with the reality that everything we touch is stained and contaminated can feel overwhelming, so we dull ourselves to it. We turn a blind eye, we cope, we disassociate, we tell ourselves stories. And it is true, we can’t fix everything. But instead of allowing that to turn us towards lament, we turn to paralysis or detachment. 

Just Mercy is a great movie (and an even better book). But Clemency, the more understated spiritual sibling to Just Mercy, is a critical companion piece to getting a fuller and more nuanced understanding of the justice system and our state-sanctioned executions. Clemency is focused on the other side, those prosecutors and guards, as well as those people’s loved ones, who serve as instruments of the state. It suggests that those who work in the prison system have a form of PTSD and suffer alongside the prisoners in being a part of a system that dehumanizes everyone involved, a system that seems too big and unwieldy to ever fix. The film departs upon the viewer a wariness, a weight that you feel alongside Bernadine. From the nauseating first sequence to the chilling final one, the movie plunges you into the quickly dulling psyche and spirit of Woodard’s Bernadine as she desperately tries to cope and detach from her escalating guilt and ambivalence. 

Alfre Woodard carries the entire film effortlessly. She conveys a multitude of emotions with just a glance or a sigh. She strikes an intimidating figure, making it clear how Bernadine got to the position of warden, but she always leaves a vulnerable underbelly for the audience to see. Woodard is also able to establish, without the script ever drawing direct attention to it, that Bernadine is experiencing clear signs of trauma- nightmares, detachment, hypervigilance and sensitivity, avoidance, numbness. You can see her choosing to deaden her spirit, moment by moment, rather than fully comprehend all of the implications of what her job requires. In the final sequence, we see that spirit leave her altogether. 

“It’s my job” has been a justification for all sorts of horrific evil. But instead of self-righteous indignation towards Bernadine and the work she does, Clemency takes an observational, non-judgmental eye and instead focuses on the effect the work has on her soul. Clemency rises above feeling like an “issue” movie, yet whether it intends to or not, it offers a critical perspective needed for advocacy and greater awareness of the issue of capital punishment and criminal justice reform.  

– Madeleine D. 

P.S- 

I’m from Oklahoma, where we lead the country with the highest incarceration rate and rank #3 in executions. We also have the highest rate of female incarceration, which just keeps growing. If you’re interested in learning more about programs that offer support and counsel to female inmates, I highly recommend reading about the work of (and consider donating to) the following two Tulsa-based nonprofits. I’ve had the pleasure of getting to meet with some of the leadership of both nonprofits and see some of their operations, and I admire the outcome-driven, strategic work they are doing. 

Still She Rises– Provides comprehensive legal representation to indigent women in the criminal and civil legal system.

Women in Recovery – Intensive outpatient alternative for eligible women facing long prison sentences for non-violent drug-related offenses. The 18-month program focuses on each client’s holistic needs, including rehabilitation, therapy, legal counsel, family reunification, and job training/workplace readiness.

4 Father’s Day Movies

Happy Father’s Day! This holiday is special to madeleinelovesmovies because, as you may have figured out, this is actually a joint venture between a daughter and father! My dad shared his love of movies with me and taught me how to watch them discerningly, and now we continue to share this love through seeing films, debating them, and writing and editing these reviews. To celebrate, here is a spotlight on four small, under-the-radar movies I haven’t reviewed before about complex fathers.

Infinitely Polar Bear

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Infinitely Polar Bear stars Mark Ruffalo as Cam, a father with bipolar disorder taking care of his two daughters when his wife (Zoe Saldana) goes away to attend graduate school. The film is semi-autobiographical for director Maya Forbes (The Polka King), based on her father and her experiences growing up. 

This is a tough film to watch at times. There is a lot of second-hand embarrassment that comes from Cam’s manic episodes that play out in public and humiliate his daughters. There are emotionally wrought moments, and if you have a parent that struggles with a mental illness, the film will especially hit home. Sometimes it feels a little simplistic, like Forbes is too close to the material to push against Cam’s more irresponsible moments that nearly endanger his children. I imagine the reality was a lot more difficult than Infinitely Polar Bear admits. But this isn’t enough to deter what is overall a wonderfully acted and compelling film that ultimately argues, convincingly, that being present is more important than being perfect, and that there is a lot of grace for parents who try.

Captain Fantastic

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Captain Fantastic tells the story of Ben (Viggo Mortensen), a father of six who has been raising his children in the wilderness as a form of extreme-homeschooling. When his wife dies, Ben is forced to take his family out of isolation and emerge into a society that they might not be ready for. 

Captain Fantastic is quirky, but despite the occasional weak point in the script, mostly steers clear of indie cliches. Mortensen holds the film together through his performance as Ben, a fiercely dedicated father but an arrogant, prideful, and boastful man who has to be brought down from his pedestal by his children. He wrestles with making difficult choices for his family, and when to compromise his values for his kids. While the film isn’t traditionally “faith-based” or Christian (the main characters actually make fun of Christians a few times), the questions wrestled with here are those of what many Christians who strive to “be in the world but not of it” face. It will certainly ring true for all parents who must navigate a rapidly changing culture they don’t always understand, in what feels like an increasingly hostile world for their children. But Captain Fantastic assures you that, no matter what, a parent’s love will help the kids be alright. 

The Parts You Lose

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The Parts You Lose is a cautionary tale about what will happen if a child doesn’t have a good father. In this case, the lack of love between him and his father is what drives young Wesley (newcomer Danny Murphy) to bond with the fugitive criminal (a particularly grizzly Aaron Paul) he’s hiding in his shed. 

Wesley is deaf, something his father Ronnie (Scoot McNairy) refuses to acknowledge. While it’s clear Wesley responds better to sign language, Roonie insists on Wesley reading his lips. Ronnie is a rough man; bitter and often absent from his family. It’s basically an act of rebellion against his father’s inattention that Wesley rescues the injured criminal and nurses him back to health. 

Paul’s unnamed criminal is not a good man, but his meager offering of attention and semi-paternal affirmation is enough for Wesley, who quickly becomes attached to him despite the unavoidable. As Wesley struggles between these two fathers, it becomes clear that no matter which influence prevails, Wesley will never fail to be disappointed. 

The Parts You Lose is a bleak, moody, slow burn, but never unengaging. The movie puts Paul’s natural chemistry with kids to good use and he and Murphy’s scenes are a delight. Most impressively, the movie sticks the landing, which is always difficult for any film, but especially for small character dramas. A good ending is surprising, yet inevitable, and I felt like this movie nailed that. It’s sad as hell, but properly haunting. 

Adopt A Highwayaaeef77ab9b06dfa17d268eaf9621c06

For our last pick, and the second film in the subgenre “convicts with parental instincts,” we have the lovely Adopt a Highway. Here at madeleinelovesmovies, we are big fans of all of these leading men, but Ethan Hawke has a special place in our hearts (watch First Reformed!!!) and Adopt A Highway simply reassures us of that fact. Hawke gives a soulful portrait of Russell, a man who spent 21 years in prison for possession of marijuana and emerges back into the world as a thoroughly institutionalized man. He struggles to reintegrate into society, assert his own identity, and make connections- that is, until he finds a baby named Ella in a dumpster outside of his work. 

Adopt A Highway is not Raising Arizona, in tone or plot. Instead, it follows Russell’s road to restoration as he makes his way through his new world. His time with Ella is sweet but- spoiler alert- is not the main focus of the film. Rather, what he learns from his time taking care of Ella sticks with him as he journeys to resolve his own father’s death. Baby Ella shocks Russell into action, making him aware of his own self-worth and potential to care for others. It’s a tender journey that shows what fatherhood- in its many forms- can positively awaken within a man.

-Madeleine D.

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie

AAAABTYD-SCYoagq9Sb6nEZqvmHE-CeWndT9Mk2Z1poBirWgiObFrVKONEp6WBIPmD-WR8cNHNt_gih4tcbUqnqfDs36vKYM*Spoilers for El Camino, Breaking Bad, and Old Yeller

Imagine a new world with me for a moment: I’m Vince Gilligan. I’ve spent the last six years being asked by fans what happened to Jesse Pinkman at the end of Breaking Bad. I can’t sleep well at night knowing that the fate of this beloved character that I tortured for years is still up in the air. I convince Netflix to give me a couple million dollars, and I write El Camino. I set it five years in the future, and tell a lovely and painless story of how Jesse Pinkman moved to Alaska, became an artisan carpenter, adopted a dog, bonded with his neighbors, is crushing it in therapy, and is now a big-brother mentor at the local elementary school. Aaron Paul wins five Oscars for it. How is that even possible? It just is. 

But alas, I am not Vince Gilligan, and instead, El Camino starts mere seconds after where Breaking Bad left off, with Jesse driving into the night after escaping the Brotherhood’s compound. The movie covers roughly the three days afterward as Jesse gets the money he needs to start his new life in Alaska. 

The largest criticism leveled against El Camino were accusations that it is superfluous. Jesse ends Breaking Bad driving to an unknown future, and that’s exactly how El Camino ends, too. Nothing in El Camino changes or informs us of anything new about Breaking Bad. So the accusation that it is superfluous is true- if you’re thinking purely in terms of plot. But plot and story are different things. The plot of The Lord of the Rings is getting the ring to Mordor, and everything after is technically superfluous. But the story of The Lord of the Rings is that of Frodo Baggins (and company) leaving the Shire to do an extraordinary task and the personal sacrifice it takes, which makes it impossible for Frodo to return to things the way they were. It’s that story that makes the long ending of Return of the King necessary. 

The plot of Breaking Bad may be over, but the story of Jesse Pinkman is not. Jesse’s ending in “Felina” completes the plot, but it doesn’t complete Jesse’s arc, because “Felina” ends with Walt freeing him from the Nazis, and that’s Walt taking action, not Jesse. Instead, Jesse’s arc has to be about him taking action to free himself, which is exactly what El Camino does.

The vice of Jesse Pinkman throughout Breaking Bad, more than his addictions or recklessness, is his malleability. He’s a sponge to outside influences, always looking to others to help him find a sense of direction and identity. His loyalty to these influences- Jane, Mike, Gus, and of course, Walt, form mental imprisonments that lead to his physical imprisonment. El Camino is about liberating Jesse from both.

Part of the way the film explores Jesse’s liberation and reclamation of personal agency is by building upon a connection that formed in the latter half of season 5, which is the comparison of Jesse to a dog. The title of episode 12, “Rabid Dog,” is in reference to Jesse and is when the connection is made explicit. Jesse has become a loose cannon to Walt’s operation, and Saul Goodman suggests to Walt that he should see this as “an Old Yeller type situationwhere he might need to put Jesse down, like a rabid dog. Walt stalls, but eventually hires Jack’s gang to do the deed.

The connection isn’t random; Jesse has always been a bit like Walt’s dog, tragically loyal and always there to be kicked around whenever Walt is angry. In El Camino, this connection is taken to its extreme, particularly in the flashback scenes of captivity with Jesse’s interactions with his primary captor Todd (a fantastically creepy Jesse Plemmons). Now literally in a cage and on a chain leash on a dog cable run, Jesse has been dehumanized more than ever. Little actions from Todd- licking his hands and smoothing down Jesse’s hair, spraying Jesse with a water hose to clean him off, patting Jesse on the head as he sits crouched over in the car, his condescending words of positive reinforcement- all go to show that, as Plemmons says in The Road to El Camino: Behind the Scenes of El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, “I think Jesse’s part [Todd’s] pet, and [Todd] thinks that what he’s doing is best for [Jesse], even if Jesse doesn’t realize it.” This is a sentiment similar to what Breaking Bad writer Gennifer Hutchison says of Walt, that “Walt does care about Jesse. The great thing about Walt is he kind of believes his own lies. He really does think he’s doing what’s best for Jesse.” In El Camino we finally see Jesse breaking free of these captors and regaining his humanity. Finally, it’s Jesse who is doing what is best for Jesse. 

All of this is conveyed through a truly captivating performance by Aaron Paul, whose work here is certainly cut out for him. He’s returning to a beloved character six years later, which alone brings plenty of skepticism. He has to play Jesse in five different time periods, and he has to overcome the sizable age difference between him and the character (Paul’s age works towards conveying that Jesse has been aged by his experiences, but can be distracting in flashbacks.) He has to track Jesse’s constant ups and downs, progresses and regresses, put well by Donna Bowman for the AV Club, “Gilligan’s camera won’t let us look away from [Jesse]: painfully infantilized by Todd in flashback, flinching and broken at Badger’s house, desperate in Todd’s apartment, regressing to petty defiance at the vacuum shop, and wearily dominant at Kandy Welding.”

Most impressively, Paul portrays Jesse as he is processing this deluge trauma in real-time, while also trying to fight it off, knowing that, as Brian Tallerico says for RogerEbert.com, “he does not have the luxury of time to grieve or heal [yet]… capturing the push-and-pull of trauma and need within Jesse.” Jesse has been in survival mode for so long that he can barely remember who he is outside of those basic instincts, making the moments where we see glimpses of “old Jesse,” precious glimmers of hope. Through the extensive flashbacks, Paul is able to weave together the different versions of Jesse to remind us of the person who is still there beneath the feral survivor. 

The only thing about El Camino that gives me pause is the climactic shoot-out. So much of Jesse’s character has been about his guilt over the violence he’s caused, and his quest to leave this violence behind him. To have the climax of the movie require Jesse to kill two men feels… wrong?

On the one hand, Breaking Bad has always been a western, and El Camino leans heavily into the genre’s tropes and aesthetics. I think incorporating the genre conventions are fun, and a shootout is classic Western. Also, Jesse doesn’t go into the situation with the intention of violence, and the duel is mutually agreed upon. It’s an “honorable” killing, as moral an act of violence ever gets in the world of Breaking Bad. And, as a cherry on top, the man Jesse duels is the man who built the rig-system that kept Jesse captive, so there’s a sense of righteous retribution. 

But. On the other hand, the rule of threes means that this shoot-out scene is thematically connected to two previous scenes in El Camino. The first is a flashback with Todd, when Jesse gets his hands on a gun while he and Todd are out in the desert burying the housekeeper. The second is when Jesse hands himself over to the fake cops, rather than kill them. As James Poniewozik says for the New York Times, Jesse “gets a ‘Coward of the County’ Western arc, twice surrendering his gun to bad men who break his will, then finally winning his freedom in a shootout. The beaten cur gets his mojo back by pulling the trigger. Walt would be proud.” The progression of these scenes, of Jesse suffering greatly twice before for not pulling the trigger, and gaining his freedom in the third, sends the message that Jesse had to enact violence. Pulling the trigger is part of his liberation. It was necessary, part of his character growth. In a way, it also implies that Jesse surrendering the gun twice earlier was a sign of weakness.

I hate this implication. What has always been most powerful about Jesse is his aversion to violence and his conscience. In the Breaking Bad ending, Jesse doesn’t kill Walt because Jesse has always been better than Walt. He doesn’t run from the consequences of his actions. He accepts them and endures them. Jesse isn’t like Walt, that’s why we love him, and his final actions in El Camino shouldn’t be about becoming more like Walt or doing something that Walt would approve of. 

So.. sorry Vince, the climax doesn’t do it for me. But that’s hardly enough for me to disregard the rest of the movie, which otherwise is the perfect mix of soul-crushing sadness and hopefulness that we’ve come to expect from the Gilligan-verse, and is a fitting ending for Jesse. But if, say, we’re looking at an El Camino Dos: A Breaking Bad Movie Sequel, Vince, I have the perfect pitch for you. 

-Madeleine D.

 

There Is Always Redemption At East High: The True Fantasy of High School Musical

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A wise woman once said that there are few things more well-suited to quarantine than rewatching the entire High School Musical Trilogy. That woman was my mother, and that’s what my family has been doing for the past week. 

The trilogy, starting with the first film released on the Disney Channel in 2006, was a generation-defining series, with each movie containing many instantly iconic moments. It was a huge hit for Disney, and it remains a nostalgic favorite for many, including myself. 

Rewatching the series, I was struck with several revelations. First, is that the series genuinely holds up. There are some dated elements, sure, particularly when it comes to early 2000’s fashion, but the series remains a refreshingly sweet teen story about growing up, first love, challenging the status quo, teamwork, and being proud of who you are and where you’re from

Beyond the messages, musical numbers, and the star-making performances though, the High School Musical trilogy embodies multiple fantasies, which is the real reason the series is universally appealing. 

Some of these fantasies are obvious. Troy and Gabriella’s relationship is a romantic fantasy. Being super talented at two things, like Troy is at basketball and music (getting a scholarship for basketball and being considered for a scholarship at Julliard?!), that’s another fantasy. Actually having a great high school experience? Fantasy. The fantasy of being able to run around your unlocked high school in the dead of night to scream out your emotions. These, and so many more, are the core appeal of the series. 

But one of the fantasies of High School Musical that I think flies under the radar has to do with the antagonist, Sharpay Evans (Ashley Tisdale). Sharpay has gotten a sort of posthumous pardon in the past few years with a compelling “Sharpay was the real victim” discourse emerging on social media. This is fun in its own right, but let’s focus on Sharpay’s intended depiction in the series. 

Sharpay Evans is seen, in the viewpoint of the movie, to be a spoiled, ambitious, hard-working, but conniving and controlling theatre kid. She has worked her whole life to be in musicals, which is impressive, but she doesn’t have the sweet summer child innocence of first-timers Gabriella and Troy. In each of the three films, she is poised to be the star of whatever musical production is being put on, but Troy and Gabriella are picked instead, so Sharpay tries to get back into the spotlight. Her efforts to do so range from convincing the drama teacher to change the date of the callbacks all the way to having Troy kidnapped in the dead of night

But at the end of each movie, without fail, Sharpay’s plan is somehow foiled, Troy and Gabriella are restored back to the spotlight, and Sharpay realizes the error of her ways. And when the whole cast sings the final triumphant number, Sharpay is invited to sing with them and is welcomed back into the fold, where she becomes counted among our protagonists. Our protagonists never hold her failings against her. 

Your first thought might be that this is formulaic, that Sharpray having the exact same character arc each movie, never progressing in a linear fashion over the course of all three movies, is poor writing. I, too, thought this originally. But with more contemplation, I realized that this is not the case. In fact, the cyclical nature of Sharpay is actually quite profound. Everyone struggles with bad habits and destructive behaviors. In real life, we rarely progress linearly or in an efficient manner. We all have strongholds that keep us in vicious cycles. In this way, High School Musical continues to be very profound and observant about human nature. 

Even deeper, though, the ending Sharpay gets in each movie speaks to one of our deepest desires as humans. We all want to be forgiven unconditionally. We want our mistakes and failings and vices to be forgiven and forgotten about. We want our friends to continually receive us with open arms and always be ready to sing with us again. We want to be redeemed. We want salvation. 

That is the fantasy of High School Musical, because, in our daily lives, our relationships are full of bitterness and grudges and unforgiveness and anger. We do not ask for, or receive, forgiveness from everyone. We are not given unconditional love. We ruin our friendships and are not let back into the fold. We do not act as redeemed people. 

Oh, but this Easter, let us remember that this doesn’t have to be a fantasy! When we celebrate Easter, we remember that we have been given unconditional love and continual grace. We can live as Sharpay Evans does- in full confidence that no matter what we do, we can be forgiven, redeemed, and enter back into covenant fellowship. Over and over and over again.

Sharpay may want it all, but she should realize that the unearned mercy and reconciliation she’s been given by her peers is what is truly fabulous.

An Impassioned Defense of Avengers: Age of Ultron

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To enjoy Avengers: Age of Ultron is to be in the minority, and sometimes to be outright attacked. I have loved and supported this film since I saw it as a newly minted Avengers fan in May of 2015. It was instantly my favorite Marvel film and it has remained that way 12 films later. I have engaged in many a heated debate defending this film. It has taken up an embarrassing amount of space in my brain for the past 4 years. All of these points have been thoughtfully ruminated upon, refined by the fire of argument, and cooled by the passing of time.  

For context, Age of Ultron, the sequel to 2012’s Avengers, at the time of its release, was given a mixed-to-positive reaction by critics, getting a 75% Rotten Tomatoes score. Critics primarily praised director and screenwriter Joss Wheaton for his writing and James Spader’s voicework. In 2015, superhero-fatigue hadn’t completely set in yet, so many of the reviews of the film can be boiled down to, “It’s exactly what you think it is and it does it pretty well!” 

The film made $191,271,109 in its opening weekend and quickly passed one billion by its third weekend. It overall made $1.4 billion worldwide (almost $460 million domestic) and now sits as the 10th highest-grossing film of all time. But, by all accounts, Disney still thinks of the film as, at best, an underperformer, and at worst, an outright failure. 

Why? For one, it didn’t make as much money as the first Avengers film, which sits as the 8th highest-grossing film of all time. AOU wasn’t as universally acclaimed as that film either. It also had a rocky press tour, which included Joss Whedon going around in interviews talking about how making the film nearly “broke” him and blasting Marvel for making him add things to the film to set up future movies. And lastly, the film has a complicated relationship with fans. 

The fans/fandom reaction was mixed to negative. There was the kind of stuff that accompanies each franchise property, like shipping wars (I wanted Black Widow to get together with Hawkeye but Joss Whedon made them just friends!) and anger over deviations from the comics. Then there was, in the internet intersection of academia and social justice, a lot of discussion over Joss Whedon’s brand of feminism and the treatment of Black Widow in the film, which many were displeased at, to put it lightly. (I know. I was on Tumblr. I was there. I still have scars.)

We’ll get to all of that. At best, the movie has gotten a *slight* positive turn by fans who, now with the context of history, have realized AOU is the closest we ever got to a superhero hangout movie. Mostly though, as time goes on, AOU has been mostly forgotten or considered a blight at best. 

If you haven’t seen the film lately, I’d suggest doing a quick recap on the plot. Read it? Is your memory jogged? Okay, great! Before I argue that AOU is actually one of the most interesting Marvel films (and maybe even persuade you that it is the best), it’s always worth noting that movie-going is subjective, and I try to disclose any major biases I have, so here it goes:

  1. My favorite Marvel characters are, in this order: Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) These are the characters that the film focuses on, so of course there’s bias that my favorite characters get the most to do. 
  2. This is a loose adaptation. In this discussion, critiques about comic book accuracy such as “Wanda and Pietro are mutants and their dad is Magneto! Ultron was created by Hank Pym, not Tony and Bruce!” do not matter. In the words of Black Panther:     

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Now that we have that out of the way, I’m going to start breaking down major criticism of the movie and my refutation, and then move on to things about AOU that are often overlooked that I see as critical to seeing this film as, dare I say, a masterpiece.  
I am willing to die on this hill. Let’s begin. 

Criticism of AOU That Are Legitimate

“The plot is overstuffed and too much of it is just set up for future films. It’s confusing and ruins the movie’s pacing!” Yeah. The growing pains of the MCU’s expanding cinematic universe are certainly here, and this is an example of foreshadowing and franchise synergy bogging down a movie. Marvel has gotten better at this, but I think at the expense of their films becoming more and more similar. Because AOU has such a unique style and a more singular, standalone vision, all of the setup for future movies feels extra jarring and out-of-place. 

“There are sexist jokes.” There are, and it fricking sucks. The prima nocta “joke” and gag of Bruce falling into Natasha’s chest are gross and, yes, I hate it. I have no interest in defending Joss Whedon as a person or as a feminist figure. I want to give him credit where it’s due, but also call him out when that is due, and these “jokes” were in poor taste, unfunny, and overall not-in-character for the film. 

“Why is it called ‘age’ of Ultron when the whole movies takes place over what seems to be just a week or two? Cause it sounds super epic. But you’re right. 

Criticism of AOU That Are Bad

“Ultron is a lame villain.” We’re going to get to that, but put simply: no. Is he as cool as Killmonger? No. Is he as powerful as Thanos? No. Is he as charismatic as Loki? Debatable, but no. But you know what he is, in a way that none of the other Marvel villains (except Killmonger) are? He’s a precise foil to our main characters and is devastatingly effective in showing our heroes’ flaws. He fits into the philosophical framework of the film beautifully, and James Spader is inspired casting.

“Natasha gets kidnapped! And it’s only because she’s the The One Girl™. She has a moment of weakness, therefore this film is ‘unfeminist.’” Natasha being the only lady Avenger is a problem, but this is a criticism towards the MCU at large and not this particular movie. This trope of a woman being kidnapped is generally considered a problem for two reasons. One, it’s frequent, and two, the female character in question does nothing else in the story except to be kidnapped and therefore be motivation for the (male) hero. But neither of these things are true in AOU. Natasha has never previously been kidnapped, and in no other way is she a weak hero. Secondly, and most importantly, she is far from a passive character in this film. Getting kidnapped is not her only purpose or plot point. In fact, this kidnapping scene (which stems from Natasha being a part of a huge and important action sequence) is used to highlight Natasha’s strengths, not that of her fellow Avengers. While imprisoned, she resourcefully reveals Ultron’s location to the team to further the plot. Getting kidnapped doesn’t make characters inherently weak or passive. Context is everything, and here the context makes this more an inversion of the trope than the trope itself. 

And, speaking of Natasha, possibly the biggest criticism of all: “The Hulk/Bruce-Black Widow/Natasha romance came out of nowhere!!! Now Natasha is defined by a man!!!! I don’t know how to think critically!”

We’re gonna come back to this more in-depth later, but I’ll just say here that both of these critiques are shallow and the latter is often made with a misguided understanding of feminist media criticism. 

First off, Natasha isn’t defined by a man, for the exact same reasons I said her being kidnapped is not problematic: because it’s A) not a pattern and B) a subversion of a trope. Romance is not the problem, in and of itself. Being in a relationship is not what makes a character have a sexist portrayal. If that were the case, every other Avenger should be called out because they are in romantic relationships.

The reason the role of women and romantic relationships in media is so heavily scrutinized is because women’s roles and agency in stories are often only contained within a romantic relationship, sending the message that women need to be in a romantic relationship to have value. But this should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, and not an overarching generalization that all women in relationships in movies are bad. If you look at the roles Bruce and Nat inhabit in the film and in their relationship, Bruce embodies the classic romantic interest type much more than Natasha does. Natasha is more proactive, pursues without taking no for an answer, has a dramatic confession of love, and is ultimately the more heroic character. Meanwhile Bruce, in the words of our modern poets, One Direction, doesn’t know he’s beautiful! Natasha spends much of the movie telling him such:

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He’s adorably clumsy! He has Black Widow guard him in the first Ultron fight. His power set is, like many classic female superheroes, dictated by his emotions. He doesn’t like violence and wants the two of them to leave the superhero business. In every movie he’s in we just happen to see him shirtless or naked! If we’re gonna be worried about anyone being the passive, defined-by-their-romantic-relationship character, it should be Bruce. But we don’t worry about him, because he has other things going on in this movie and other parts to his identity and character, just like Natasha. We don’t put the crushing weight of thousands of contradicting expectations on him so he can positively represent all men. 

Secondly, there are a ton of things in AOU that are inferred to have happened between movies. The movie clearly establishes how the team has grown closer and who has become besties with who. A romance isn’t all that hard to imagine happening between two attractive, shy, similarly traumatized characters with complementary skill sets who have a mutual admiration for the other’s deeper, more peaceful self. 

But, critically, the promising seeds of this relationship are sown in the first movie. Watch it again. Pay attention. Nat and Bruce have more screen-time together than with any other characters, from Nat recruiting Bruce in Calcutta, to him Hulking out, to Nat and Bruce’s various confrontations and conversations throughout, to him asking for her forgiveness at the end. As a duo they had a dramatic joint-character arc that is reflective of the emotional arc the entire team goes through: they had to learn to trust each other. 

Their relationship embodying the beats of the entire team’s experience continues in this film. This is made very clear a few minutes into the film when they have an exchange where Bruce expresses fear about Hulk’s involvement in their recent battle. When Natasha tries to reassure him of Hulk’s usefulness, he’s doubtful. Then Natasha says:

Natasha: How long before you trust me?

Bruce: It’s not you I don’t trust.

BOOM. That’s the entire team’s problem. They can’t trust themselves, so they can’t truly trust and rely on each other. Bruce and Natasha’s trust issues stem from fear they have about themselves. Bruce, that in the end he’s just a green mean killing machine; Nat, that she’ll never move past being the monstrous assassin she once was. In other words, neither of them can shake their “programming,” which of course sounds a bit like the problem of our titular murderous robot.  Every one of the Avengers has this problem and it is ultimately everyone’s downfall. Thus the film operates on two levels. The micro-level is this intimate romance between two characters, which mirrors the macro level, which is a conversation of whether:

  1. A) The Avengers will and can last (and are even good for the world), and  
  2. B) If the individual members will ever be able to find personal satisfaction, whether by superhero-ing or not. 

By the end of the film, it’s clear that Bruce and Nat’s insecurities and trauma keep them apart (for now), and so too does it keep the Avengers from ever completely self-actualizing as a group. While Bruce and Nat are able to save the day at the end, they’ve given up on the relationship. Meanwhile, the team itself is splintered, also having, in a way, given up. Bruce and Thor go into self-appointed exile while the others try to pick up the pieces, knowing things will never be the same. 

To the idea that these heroes can ever escape the self-destructive path of superhero-ing, the film ultimately gives a sad ‘no’, displaying a rather cynical view that saving other people is a job only for those who can’t save themselves. So when you consider the Hulk/Black Widow relationship, not just as a B-storyline, but as a shadow, a more intimate, smaller picture of the overall drama happening, the beats begin to make more sense. 

The Thesis of AOU

So the main question of AOU is this: Can superheroes (the Avengers) live normal lives? 

I talk in my Endgame review about how the MCU equates a normal life, aka “making it,” with a biological family and domestic bliss. The Marvel movies operate on the assumption that  “having a biological family is a sign of a character succeeding, being relatable, and having a greater purpose. It’s presented as an ideal life.” And while I love biological families, having one should never be an idol, in any case, and especially not in a series that is the definition of a “found family” trope. AOU is the only Marvel film to really wrestle at all with this assumption, while also reinforcing it. 

Throughout AOU, the language of the film makes it clear that this is a movie about family. What makes it, what destroys it, and what it looks like. Almost everything in the film is codified using the language of family. From Nick Fury calling the avengers “kids,” to Helen Cho’s machine that creates Vision literally being called  “The Cradle,” to Nat’s ritual with the Hulk being called a “lullaby.” The child metaphor is not subtle. 

I’ve already said that the film ends up having the view that these heroes, by nature of themselves and their jobs, can’t ever have this domestic bliss. To come to that conclusion, the film breaks down each of the Avenger’s possibility of getting biological family and domesticity. So let’s take a look. 

Thor

Age of Ultron is decidedly not Thor’s movie. As a consequence, this theme is the weakest with him. However, there are some things to take away. 

Thor’s family are his people, the Asgardians. He feels a responsibility to them, but as the vision, Wanda gives him shows, his deepest fear is that he’ll destroy them. In the vision, Hemindall (a wasted Idris Elba) says to Thor, “You’re a destroyer, Odinson. See where your power leads you.” Then we see Thor killing people in the vision. Even during the scene when the team is at Clint’s house, Thor steps on a Lego house, crushing it. Thor is a threat to the home. This is setting up an arc where Thor has to overcome his fear that he will destroy his own people. 

This never goes anywhere because Taika Waititi and the Russo Brothers drop this character arc completely, making it so that Thor is never a threat to his own people. But this isn’t Whedon’s fault. Thor’s journey changes from “How can I be a leader if I have the potential to kill my people, my family” to “All the things I have set my identity on have been taken away. Who am I now?” But while Whedon’s arc for Thor is never completed, it demonstrates how Thor will never get a domestic ending, and by extension, will never get to quit being a superhero. 

Steve 

Steve is haunted by the war and can’t leave it behind, which may explain why he would rather start a civil war then talk reasonably (come @ me Team Cap). In Steve’s dream, he’s walking through a WWII victory party. But, among the festivities, the war is mixed in. A camera flashes and it sounds like explosions. A spilled cup of red wine looks like a bullet wound. Ultron says that Steve can’t live without a war. Even in his happiest moments, he can’t separate himself from the war, and this follows him until his resolution in Endgame, which is why he and Nat are the only Avengers who really stay and lead the team. They won’t abandon the fight. It’s all they know. 

 Peggy appears in the vision, telling Steve, “We can go home.” But, clearly, Steve can’t. This picture of domestic bliss in front of him is barred, like it is for all of the other characters. It’s still an idol, but one they will never get. But, because the Russos didn’t watch this movie he actually does get this ending, so… whatevs. 

Clint

Clint’s storyline is strange here, and the most complicated in terms of this theme. He acts as a foil to the rest of the Avengers because he’s the only one who actually achieves the domestic dream (until Endgame). 

He is only able to achieve this dream by 1) hiding his family away, and 2) being the least effective, interesting, or necessary member of the team. Clint and his family’s role as a foil is showcased in the safehouse sequence in the middle of the film. After the team gets a beating from Ultron and the twins, they go to Clint’s house to hide out and regroup. This is where we get Bruce and Natasha’s dialogue about kids, and some other nice character moments. But this whole sequence, and Clint’s family in particular, has a dark edge to it that adds to the film’s view on family and all it represents by being denied to the other Avengers. 

The small detail I previously mentioned of Thor stepping on the Lego house sends the message that these heroes are a threat to the home, and that’s almost immediately when the Avengers arrive. 

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Bruce and Nat’s conversation shows their ideological split, one they won’t be able to mend in the course of the film. Clint’s wife, Laura (Linda Cardellini), talks about Clint making it back home from the fight (which in movie-language is supposed to make you fear for Clint’s life). Tony and Steve have an argument that helps set up Civil War.  Thor leaves, and this is the last time the whole team is ever all together again (except briefly during the final battle) until literally Endgame. And in Endgame Clint loses his family. All of this shows that for the Avengers, even if they get to achieve this domestic bliss, their identity as superheroes will always be threatening the family and any illusion of stability. 

Natasha

We’ll talk more about this later, but in the safehouse scene, we learn that both Nat and Bruce are infertile. They cannot have biological children. It’s also heavily implied they also both feel like they would be a threat to their own children. The movie clearly disproves this view, but the characters never get over this view of themselves. If Bruce and Nat are our micro-look at the rest of the Avengers, then the message is crystal clear: the Avengers will never be able to have children. Therefore, they won’t ever get a happy ending, because in Marvel, children and biological family = happiness and peace. (Then the Russos go and ruin that theme with Endgame. It’s fine that they didn’t watch this film. It’s fine. It’s fine. It’s fine. it’s. fine.)

The movie posits that Bruce and Nat’s only option for happiness together is to run away from their superhero responsibilities. But Nat can’t do that. She shows, time and time again, that she prioritizes the mission over everything, including her own happiness. Throughout all of these films, Natasha is the only one who sees the Avengers as a family (because she understands that this is a found-family storyline, dammit!). She’s the one who tries to unite the team in Civil War and keeps it going in Endgame. She sees herself solely as an Avenger and is the quickest out of all the teammates to stop pursuing any other end for herself. 

When Bruce later frees her from Ultron and suggests that this is their chance to finally run away, she says “The job’s not finished.” It’s her way of punishing herself, trying to get the red out of her ledger. Bruce then tells her, “You’ve done plenty.” He is the first person to ever say she is enough. She’s done enough. She can stop punishing herself. The tragedy is that she can’t believe him, and turns down the opportunity to “run with it,” and instead goes back to work. That was how she was programmed: Never abandon the mission. 

Tony (and Why Ultron is a Good Villain, Actually)

I said in my Endgame review that making Tony have a daughter, Morgan, is a poor choice because it undermines Tony’s arc. Tony’s arc has been about him feeling responsible for saving the world because he understands how much his mistakes have put it in danger. He didn’t need a child to make the fight personal and raise the stakes- it’s always been personal and the stakes have always been raised, which we particularly see in AOU. 

Yes, part of Tony’s arc has been trying to become a better father than his father was. But this isn’t happening through Morgan Stark, who, while she is his actual offspring, is not nearly the same foil to him as his first child-figure, which is Peter Parker. But even before we got Morgan or Peter, we got Ultron. Tony creates Ultron because after his vision from Wanda, he decides his Iron Legion fleet could be used to create “a suit of armor around the world.” Loki’s scepter finally gives Tony the power he needs to make this vision a reality with Ultron. 

After he and Bruce create Ultron, Ultron appears “in the flesh” at the Avengers’ dinner party, quite literally interrupting the most intimate, family-like setting we’ll ever see them in again for the rest of the MCU. This “birth” is chaotic, unplanned, and changes everything, and sets the stage for why the Avengers will never get families of their own. 

The movie consistently uses the language of father and son to express Tony (and Bruce) and Ultron’s relationship. During one of their first confrontations, Tony and Ultron have this exchange:

Ultron: Don’t compare me to Stark. He’s… a sickness!

Tony: Ah, Junior. You’re gonna break your old man’s heart.

Ultron: If I have to.

Later, Wanda tells Steve, “Ultron can’t tell the difference between saving the world and destroying it. Where do you think he gets that?” and in context she’s obviously talking about Tony. And maybe most explicitly:

Wanda to Ultron: I saw Stark’s fear. I knew it would make him self destruct.

Ultron: Everyone creates the thing they dread. People create… smaller people? Children! I lost the word there. Designed to supplant them, to help them end.

This is literally what happened with Tony. He tried to grasp onto the domestic dream, hoping it would help not only him achieve peace, but the world. And it turned against him, and ended his chance at ever being free from the burden of being a hero (until Endgame). He created Ultron, the thing he would come to dread. 

Bruce

Bruce’s arc here is less clear, as Bruce is more coerced by Tony into creating Ultron and Jarvis and therefore the film gives him much less responsibility in the matter. Despite this, there are fascinating implications of Bruce becoming, like Tony, a father of these two AIs. The best way is to see them is in a callback to a small moment in the first Avengers film.

In the scene where Bruce and Nat first meet, he touches a baby cradle (splattered with green) and says “I don’t every time get what I want.”

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Along with the looks of longing Bruce has as he watches Natasha interact with Clint’s kids, it’s clear that he had wanted children. So isn’t it just a bitter and yet darkly hilarious turn of fate that Bruce is then the “father” of both Ultron- a literal supervillain that reflects Bruce’s worst fears about himself, but ALSO Vision, the scientific, heroic Messianic figure who is worthy enough to wield Mjolnir? Bruce, a man of dual natures, creates two equally dualling forces. That’s-

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In this, we get a little pushback on the theme of the Avengers not being able to have children. Bruce’s arc here suggests that, sure, they might mess them up and be bad parents, but perhaps not. Perhaps children can truly save the family tree. But sadly, we’ll never know for these characters. 

Age of Ultron uses a complex metaphorical framework, in both its language and visuals, to explore ideas about family. It comes to the conclusion that family, both in a biological sense and in a team-sense, is impossible for these heroes. This conclusion questions many of the traditional worldviews and themes of comic book stories, making Whedon’s film more subversive then it may initially appear. 

However, like any good piece of art, there are multiple themes and interpretations within this one film. So let’s take a look at a few more things Age of Ultron has to say.  

The Gospel According to Ultron

Steve tells the team in the pre-final battle speech: “Ultron thinks we’re monsters. That we’re what’s wrong with the world. This isn’t just about beating him. It’s about whether he’s right.” The movie, by showing us the monstrosity of its heroes throughout and denying them a chance of redemption through a happy family ending, seems to fall, in part, on the side of Ultron. Our heroes are what’s wrong with the world, but they’re also the best we have, because there are no other saviors. And speaking of there being no other saviors:

Age of Ultron is an atheistic movie. It sure doesn’t appear that way at first. Even a non-religious viewer will probably notice the references to biblical scripture, the religious imagery, and Vision, the messianic Christ figure who is born of men to save them from their own sins, literally calling himself, “I am.” But context matters, and in AOU, only the villain believes in a God. 

Ultron, despite being only days old, is more biblically literate than some of the most seasoned Christians. Throughout the film he quotes Scripture. For example, when he finds the vibranium metal he quotes Matthew 16:18, saying, “Upon this rock [vibranium] I will build my church.” When he tells Wanda and Pietro of his plan to turn Sokovia into a meteor to destroy the world, much to the twin’s dismay, he offers the comfort that, “The human race will have every opportunity to evolve.” When Pietro asks if they don’t, Ultron responds, “Ask Noah,” directly tying his plan to destroy the world into God’s in the Biblical story of Noah and the flood in Genesis. Ultron furthers his point by saying, “Whenever the earth starts to settle, God throws a stone at it. Believe me, he’s winding up,” and the stone is obviously Sokovia/meteor, which makes Ultron into God.

Ultron took in the entire internet at the beginning of the movie, but out of all the religions he could choose from, he chooses Christianity. He’s not quoting the Qur’an. He speaks beyond the language of metaphor. He speaks with complete assurance that there is a God. Yet it’s clear that Ultron is less interested in knowing God then actually being God. He is using religious imagery and stories to justify himself, the way many people abuse Christianity to justify themselves and various atrocities.

When Ultron first recruits the twins, he meets them in a church in Sokovia, where he sits on what looks to be a throne. Then, in the climax of the film, we find out that Ultron has made his fortress/hideout in that church in Sokovia. That is where he has implanted the device that will destroy the whole world. The final fight then takes place primarily inside the church as the Avengers work to stop the device. 

In other words, the Avengers literally have to destroy the church to bring peace. 

I think Joss Whedon might have some issues with organized religion. 

Whedon is a self-proclaimed atheist and humanist, and his worldview pulses through this film with every scene. Ultron is not just a manic A.I. or the spurned child of Tony Stark. He’s a religious extremist, who uses religion as a coat for his own desire to play God, and misuses Scripture to justify his actions. Meanwhile, the heroes are the ones who believe there is no God and take it into their own hands to make the earth better. Religious people are the delusional ones who, if not using religion to suppress others, use it as an excuse for their apathy, while the atheists/agnostics are realists who will actually make the world a better place.

Vision, Ultron’s foil, then is the perfect expression of Whedon’s alternative to religion, which is humanism. This may seem strange; consider what I said before about Vision being a messianic figure who refers to himself with God’s title of “I am,” but these lines of dialogue between Ultron and Vision at the very end summarize the film’s thesis on humanity:

Vision: Humans are odd. They think order and chaos are somehow opposites, and try to control what won’t. But there is grace in their failings. I think you missed that.

Ultron: They’re doomed.

Vision: Yes, but a thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts. It’s a privilege to be among them.

In the end, Vision does not save humankind. He helps save the day, and he reflects the best of the Avengers, but crucially, he is made by them. Pluggedin reviewer Paul Asay writes in his article over the topic that Tony is dutifully punished for creating Ultron, a false idol and god. If the movie had stopped at this, then there would have been a very biblical theme of not “messing in the divine act of life-creation.” But then he goes and makes Vision, who “is, in a way, a New Testament savior pitted against a wrathful, Old Testament-like god—an intercessor to stave off Ultron’s ultra-doom.” No longer do we have a man (Tony) who causes harm when he tries to create a god, but we have a man actually succeeding in creating a god, and now the theme is about humans overcoming through science and technology, which again is a triumph of Whedon’s ideology. 

This is part of what makes AOU stand apart from other Marvel movies. While I don’t agree with Whedon in this area, I love AOU’s philosophical quandaries that I don’t believe any other Marvel movie, besides Black Panther, has truly had. DC movies, particularly Batman vs Superman, have had some similar religious tones in their scripts, but there were no coherent ideas presented there. 

“You’re Not the Only Monster On the Team” – or, Why Ya’ll Need to Pay Attention to SUBTEXT

This is it. This is the moment we’ve all been eagerly anticipating. We’re gonna think critically about that dang safehouse scene, the scene that gave us a hundred bad hot takes and made people say, “Joss Whedon thinks women who can’t give birth are monsters!” Guys, 

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The safehouse scene should only be watched out of context in Mark Ruffalo or Scarlett Johansson’s Oscar reel. That’s it. Otherwise, it has to be taken in context, because it’s crucial to understanding what’s happening. Remember: These are the characters at their worse. They have just been mind-controlled by Wanda and shown their worst nightmares about themselves. The entire team has been thoroughly beaten, and they are questioning everything. Everything the characters say should be taken with a grain of salt. 

We can infer between the movies that Nat, like Bruce, has come to see the Avengers as her family (she expresses this explicitly in Endgame). Revisiting her past, seeing the violent killing machine she was made into, shakes her entire trust in her ability to ever fit into the Avengers and be a hero. She tells Bruce in this scene: “I had a dream. The kind that seems real… that I was an Avenger.” 

Bruce only brings up the topic of children because he just saw Natasha interacting positively with Clint’s children. It’s not that he assumes she wants to be a mother because she’s a woman. He is caring about her needs and what he perceives to be her desires, so- and this is incredibly important- he brings up his infertility first. I can’t remember ever seeing a movie, much less a blockbuster, that treats a man’s inability to have children seriously and sees it as a tragedy, which is very much what the scene is about. We’re not supposed to just be sad for Natasha, we’re also supposed to be sad for Bruce. For both of them, because within the metaphorical framework of the film biological family means healing, and they literally can’t have it! He is being vulnerable, which gives her the space to be vulnerable. That’s a connection! That’s a relationship! That’s maturing and growing past their disgust with themselves and their inability to get over the past! That’s-

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I do think the placement of “you think you’re the only monster on the team” is ill-placed as it directly follows up Natasha’s reveal, and if it had been put maybe after another a line or two it could have avoided any ambiguity. But if you are watching the events as the film has presented them to you as- a moment where both characters are at their worst and are still operating out of deep-seeded self-destruction- then it makes complete sense!

Natasha is saying the Red Room made her into an assassin. Part of that process was being sterilized against her will, but that’s not what made her a monster. It was that she embraced and thrived in the role, and her vision suggests that she killed a lot of people to gain the favor of her instructors and become the top Black Widow. That’s why she is a monster. It’s because of the red in her ledger. 

Even in the least-charitable interpretation of the scene, if she was saying she’s a monster because she’s sterile, then remember: that’s the exact same thing Bruce is saying about himself. And also, if she did believe her infertility meant she was a monster or less of a woman, that is, unfortunately, a very real reflection on women who have been sexually assaulted and may take on blame or think it is their fault. I don’t think that’s what the scene is saying, but it could be read that way. Either way, both Bruce and Natasha believe they are monsters, and can’t come to forgive themselves. That’s why Bruce/Hulk leaves at the end of AOU and why Natasha sacrifices herself in Endgame. They are clearing the red in the ledger the only way they know how.

When Nat pushes Bruce off the cliff, she takes away his bodily autonomy, forcing him to become the Hulk and encouraging him to “go be a hero,” stating her faith that Hulk, like her, will find purpose in finishing the mission. But that shows a misunderstanding between the characters of the other’s core motivations. This could have been a great thing to explore and work through in future movies, but instead, they drop the whole romance subplot altogether because Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely are c o w a r d s.

In Conclusion

If you liked almost any other Marvel movie that came out after AOU, then you can thank AOU. Despite its mixed reputation and lower profile, it sets up more of the MCU then I think either Whedon or Marvel realized. 

There are so many other good reasons that this movie is the best besides all the ones I have laid out in excruciating detail. The quips! The great group chemistry! The action sequences are some of the more memorable for Marvel. It has one of the better scores that makes use of the international locales of the film. There are references for the comic book nerds (Helen and Amadeus Cho!!!!). Steve rips a log in half with his bare hands! This is when the Avengers still had distinct personalities and their senses of humor were different!

You don’t have to love Avengers: Age of Ultron now. But I do hope you reconsider it, and respect it. 

(And respect me. I’ve finally rested my case to the haters).

-Madeleine D. 

P.S,

It may be hard to believe, but there is a lot left on the cutting room floor of this essay. So wanna discuss AOU’s commentary on colonialism and America as the world’s policeman? Want to talk about how absolutely fantastic Downey and Ruffalo’s acting here is and the fascinating relationship evolution that takes place between Tony and Bruce? Want to know more about why I regularly cry during the Hulkbuster fight in Johannesburg? I also have a theory that what Bruce is listening to in the beginning,  “Casta Diva,” from the opera Norma, actually foreshadows the rest of his and Nat’s relationship in the movie! Want to get together and just rag on Jeremy Renner and Hawkeye? Let’s do it!

An Editorial Note:

This essay was finished before the first trailer for the upcoming solo Black Widow film was released. This trailer focuses on Natasha’s family (or does it???? It is about spies). I did not rewrite the essay to fit with the possibility of this because for one, we haven’t seen the film yet and don’t know to what extent biological family for Nat is examined, and two, it doesn’t change AOU and the arc Whedon gives Nat in it. I will be interested to see how this film handles the issue of birth family vs. found family, and if that will change how Natasha views herself and her role as a hero. I’m hoping the new film will not change the core components of Nat’s character that I’ve outlined here, but instead will simply be a further progression of her already complex character. 

Brie Larson Trifecta: Short Term 12, Room, and Unicorn Store

Recently, I found myself with a to-watch list that contained three Brie Larson films. So, in a very late celebration of her film Captain Marvel reaching the billion dollar mark at the box office and Avengers: Endgame taking all the rest of the world’s money, let’s take a look at some of the highlights of Larson’s filmography. 

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Short Term 12 is about Grace (Brie Larson), a young counselor at a care unit for at-risk teens. Grace herself was once one of those teens, but now is a model for the kids as she cares for them in a calm, firm, and compassionate manner. The slice-of-life drama follows Grace and her boyfriend/ fellow counselor Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) as they face new challenges at the center and in their relationship. 

There’s not a single weak performer in the cast. While Larson got deserved praise for her performance, John Gallagher Jr. is equally perfect. He does most of the comedic lifting, but he has a number of small dramatic moments that make the film work so well, and he and Larson have perfect chemistry. The supporting cast, including rising stars Rami Malek and Lakeith Stanfield (go see Sorry to Bother You!), are equally great in their roles. 

The film is so authentic and realistic it feels like a documentary, but it never once lost my attention. It is, simply put, riveting. Short Term 12 never shies away from the flaws of its characters, but it also never forgets their dignity and beauty either. It is the kind of film that pulls you completely into the story, and makes you feel the pain of each character, yet also makes you feel stronger and more ready to take on life when you leave the theater. I believe it is a must-see. 

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Like Short Term 12, this is another realistic, serious film that is almost documentary-like in parts as it tells the story of Joy (Brie Larson) and her son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) as they escape their kidnapper and restart life in the real world.

I resisted seeing Room for a while, knowing it was going to be a hard watch. Thankfully, it’s not a shocking or gratuitous film, but it is still emotionally heavy. This story is about a crime but that’s not its focus; the focus is on the human soul. 

Every time Room could fall into a cliche about the inspiring strength of the human spirit or the resilience of kids, it sidesteps the cliche gracefully and tells a fuller story. It is a reminder of the strength of the human spirit and the resilience of kids, but the movie doesn’t end on a victorious or inspirational note. Instead, it embodies an honest view of the evils of the world but with a persistent attitude of hope. Another must-see, if only for Larson and Tremblay’s incredible work.

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A lighthearted departure from her other films, Unicorn Store is Larson’s directorial debut. She stars as Kit, a young adult who refuses to grow up. She meets a man called The Salesman (Samuel L. Jackson), who promises to give her her heart’s desire- a unicorn- if she prepares a home for it. Kit accepts the challenge and must learn how to take care of the creature, and maybe along the way learn to care for herself. 

Kit as a character is very uneven, like the film, but I did like that she offers up a fresh breath of air as a heroine. A lot of female characters are getting the “strong” treatment, in which the description of “strong” ceases to have any actual meaning and instead becomes code for, “just like the ideal male hero,” which means completely competent and physically tough with a lack of or at least a comfortably low count of any feminine qualities. (Obviously, there is a discussion to be had if being “strong” should be thought of as a firstly masculine trope and narrative at all, but that’s a different discussion). Anyway, here Kit is not strong in any of the ways the word is used. She’s not physically strong, she’s not particularly mentally strong or tough, and is not someone to look up to. She is *gasp* flawed and must grow. 

Kit is silly and immature and unsure of herself, and yet that is never equated with her femininity, which itself is never taken from her, even as she matures. The problem with Kit is never presented that she likes glitter and unicorns and pink- an over-the-top feminine aesthetic- the problem is that she is resistant to change and unprepared for adult life. I found that refreshing and know the character of Kit will resonate with a lot of women. 

Unfortunately, Unicorn Store really wants to be quirky and unique, which is usually the mindset that makes a film fail to be either quirky or unique or good. The forced whimsy of the film, combined with an all-too-obvious metaphor, keeps it from being much of a meditation on the difference between being childish and being like a child. This is furthered by the uneven tone that fluctuates between child-like wonder and childishness, which might have been an interesting way to reflect Kit’s character but is clearly out of bad filmmaking instead. 

As for her directing, Larson is fine but is bettered by the cinematography by Brett Pawlak and is weakened by Samantha Montgomery McIntyre’s script. There’s still potential here for Larson’s next directorial effort- and I do hope she does another film- but I think it would be better for her to focus on a more minimalistic story.

Is there a common thread between these projects? I would say so. Both Room and Short Term 12 are about people in crisis that are trying to regain an identity outside of being in crisis. Unicorn Store is also about identity, but the crisis has much lower stakes and comes more from personal failure and dissatisfaction than the outward influences that plague the characters of Short Term 12 and Room

Unicorn Store relies on Larson to play a bold, quirky, and altogether more performative character, while her other work has her do the opposite in extremely subdued, naturalistic characterizations. Her performance in Unicorn Store is not bad, but it doesn’t play to her strengths, which makes it comparable to her work as Captain Marvel. Her uniqueness as an actress lies in how she makes each character feel lived in, to such a degree that I feel, watching them, that I could sit down with Joy of Room or Grace of Short Term 12 and ask them about their pasts and they could tell me all sorts of things. Both Carol Danvers aka Captain Marvel and Kit from Unicorn Store are big personalities that make it seems like Larson is impersonating other actors who would fit those roles better (although I truly think Larson will come more into her own as Captain Marvel by her next appearance and under better directors).

Watching a selection of films from an actor’s filmography is a helpful way to not only understand the actor better but the craft of acting. And I think this experiment not only gave me two excellent films to enjoy but also should serve as a reminder that Brie Larson does not deserve all the online trolling and hate she is getting. So, if you’re a Marvel fan harassing Brie Larson online- quit it! I would say I will find you myself, but after seeing how ripped Larson got to play Captain Marvel, I think she can take care of herself. 

-Madeleine D. 

December Round-Up, Part One

If you’re anything like me, December, with the holidays, relatives, and breaks from school/work, becomes the perfect month to catch up on all of your movie watching before Oscar season and a new year. In my case, this is also the month where I have the time and mind to catch up on some reviews, so let me offer some suggestions for what movies should be on your “nice” list. Here are six smaller films, some of which were released earlier in the year.

Sorry to Bother You

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It’s useless to try to describe this film to anyone who hasn’t seen it, so I’m just going to say this: if you want to see one of the most bizarre, memorable, and radical pieces of art this year, see Sorry to Bother You. A defiant and explosive mix of satire, parable, and horror, it embodies the chaos our nation felt this year. It feels like 2018 in movie form, and it does so while feeling completely fresh and wholly unique.

A Simple Favor

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The movie equivalent of a twinkie, A Simple Favor is ridiculous and completely over-the-top but is well anchored by a great performance by Anna Kendrick and twists that never stop coming. Its mysteries are not ones the audience is supposed to be able to solve alongside the protagonists, so the fun comes from the absurd escalation of stakes. It’s not a good movie, and but it’s a perfect addition to the emerging Gone Girl knockoff genre. I think it has been well-established by now that yes, women can be crazy, but if you need more evidence, this film will suffice.

The Spy Who Dumped Me

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There have been lots of great films starring women this year, but less starring multiple women and close female friendships (no, Oceans 8 is not enough). The Spy Who Dumped Me then is a fun surprise for its likable and hilarious center of best friends played by Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon. Sure, not every joke in this action caper comedy lands, and it doesn’t quite pay off in the end, but it’s hard for me to dislike a film that made me think of me and my best friend. It’s a solid perfect rental for a light movie night and despite some crudity and gory violence, it ends up being a sweet celebration of friendship.

The Grinch

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Dull. I’ve forgotten most of what happens in it. There is absolutely no reason to watch this instead of the original animated film.

Mowgli

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Thrown onto Netflix after seeing they wouldn’t be able to compete with Disney’s live-action remake, Andy Serkis’s version of the live-action Jungle Book is sadly in the right place, not on the big screen. I applaud the more mature tone and ambition of the film, but it ends up feeling like a joyless slog. Serkis’s effort to differentiate his version from the Disney versions means all of the characters are mean and without any strong characterization, making you wonder why Mowgli likes these unpleasant companions at all. The questionable choice of putting human faces on animals works against the film’s interest, actually keeping most of the actors from being able to get through, with the exception of Christian Bale as Bagheera, who is able to put in the strongest and tenderest performance. Mowgli is never able to give a spin on the story that justifies its existence.

Instant Family

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Instant Family, a movie about a couple (played by an extremely good Rose Byrne and Mark Wahlberg) who take in three foster children, isn’t a revolutionary family dramedy, but it gets the job done. It tells a sweet story that, while sanitized, is still able to get across many of the difficulties and complexities of its subject matter. I’ve been told by at least one family who fosters that the film is very realistic.

For what it’s worth, I cried at the end. True, I watched this right after finals, and its tear-jerker ending was the perfect outlet for my catharsis. But I also think it is just a good film without so much as a drop of cynicism, and I hope it is truly able to do some good and inspire people to accept the noble calling of being a foster parent.

 

-Madeleine D

The Best Christian Movie Of The Year: The Hate U Give

THE HATE U GIVE

The Hate U Give is based on the best-selling novel by Angie Thomas. It follows a young black girl named Starr Carter, (Amandla Stenberg) who struggles to live between the world of her black neighborhood and her white preparatory school. After her childhood friend is shot and killed by the police at a traffic stop, the divide between her world becomes bigger as she struggles with whether to step forward as a witness to the shooting.

So why is The Hate U Give the best Christian movie of the year? After all, it’s not from the Kendrick Brothers, it’s not the next God’s Not Dead film, and it doesn’t have any children coming back from heaven. It’s not been advertised as a Christian movie in any regard.

It’s the best Christian movie of the year because it is a film that sees its characters the way Jesus sees us. It takes a complicated situation and slowly unravels all of its layers with empathy, lament, hope, and a cry for reconciliation and justice. It is a movie that is pro-life. It advocates for protecting the oppressed and recognizes the value and dignity of every human life. It is an honest movie because it laments the hate in our world and recognizes that it comes from everyone. It sees all of its characters as complex people who are sinful. It confronts large-scale systematic injustice and small-scale prejudice, without ever turning into a movie about us versus them. Instead of running away from the characters who appear to be in the wrong, the movie moves towards them with compassion. It looks suffering and pain square in the face- although it is never gratuitous- and then looks up in hope. It doesn’t just ask questions, but suggests solutions, all without acting like it has all of the answers.

I don’t mean to make this sound like a pure message-film. I’m sure some viewers will approach the film with cynicism thinking, it’s just Oscar-bait because this is the next cause the liberals want to back. It’s going to be preachy and one-sided. This is not the case. The Hate U Give is an effective movie, but not because it is “trendy” or “topical.” It is the fact that it feels (unfortunately) timeless that makes it so strong. And yes, it does have a message (all films do) and there are moments in the film where this isn’t exactly subtle. But, the film is always centered on its characters. Everything else is secondary. It is about one girl’s life, and while her viewpoint touches on bigger issues, it’s about her. In fact, there are only one or two scenes in the film that don’t have Starr in them. This is what keeps the movie grounded, even as it deals with so many issues, and this is what will make you remember it once you leave the theater. You will remember Starr and her family.

The Hate U Give is also a must-see because it is just an excellently made film, which seems to be something a lot of Christian movies are afraid of being. The writing, directing, and cinematography, in particular, are excellent, and the actors are all spectacular. Not to be punny, but Amandla Stenberg is a Star. She carries The Hate U Give and ups the game of everyone around her. In fact, the only weak cast member is Anthony Mackie, whose charisma is clearly miscast in a role in which all he does is stand around and give the same I’m peeved and intimidating look.  

Another reason it is a must see is because the film equips white viewers with a guide on how to be an ally. It first asks you to look beyond stereotypes with compassion. Reading the book and seeing the movie made me think about if my friends of color felt like Starr. Did our majority white high school force them to be someone else? How did I contribute to that? Secondly, the film gives you examples of how to react if someone accuses you of doing something racist. Getting defensive does nothing- it just kills the relationship and any potential for learning. Instead, seeking to understand why you’ve been accused and how to make amends is what furthers and deepens a relationship. And third, the film shows you how to be an ally within a larger movement. How can white allies help Black Lives Matter? The movie’s advice is to listen to the people of color in charge and follow their instructions (as your conscience allows). Support them, learn from them, and amplify their voices over your own.

A small warning though: at over two hours, the film has cut a lot from the book, and most of the things it cut were the happier moments, which means the film is a non-stop gut punch, with very few moments of respite. The moments of peace given are extremely effective, but by the end of the film, you will feel as emotionally drained as Starr. That’s an excellent movie-going experience if you ask me, but do be prepared for a heavy two hours. When I was walking into the theater, I was nearly backed into by a car in the parking lot. When I walked out, I felt like I might as well have been hit by that car.

The Hate U Give is a challenging film because it refuses to be easy. It doesn’t let you walk away feeling smug or self-righteous. Instead, it gives more nuance than our polarized age wants to allow. It’s a film I hope Christian filmmakers and studios will pay attention to, and it’s one you should pay attention to, also. It’s one of the best films of the year.

If you’d like to think more about films that view their subjects in a Christ-like way without necessarily speaking directly about Christ, I highly recommend this article: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/christ-like-gaze-film/

-Madeleine D

You Never Really Escape: Eighth Grade

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There has started to become a trend of there being a coming-of-age movie every year that garners awards and praise. Last year it was Lady Bird. Two years ago it was The Edge of Seventeen. Before that was Brooklyn, and before that Boyhood. Eighth Grade will probably be this year’s contender. But before you think “Oscar bait!” let me persuade you otherwise.

Eighth Grade doesn’t really have a plot, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The film moves along at a good pace and ends satisfyingly, but it does feel more episodic than you might expect. The whole story takes place during thirteen-year-old Kayla Day’s last week in eighth grade.

The film is based on cringe humor and terrific performances. Josh Hamilton as Kayla’s dad is one of the best movie dads of all time. That’s it. No debate. This is almost as much a movie about parenting as it is teenagerhood. And Elsie Fisher is incredible as Kayla. While watching the film, you realize a large majority of it is focused on her face. Many directors wouldn’t trust such a young talent to carry the film exclusively on her shoulders and let the camera linger on her for long periods of time. But this film does, because Fisher can handle it. Most striking is her physicality- she slumps the whole movie, her eyes anxiously glancing back and forth, and on top of that, she actually looks like a real thirteen-year-old. It was realistic, sometimes I felt like I was watching old footage of myself.

That’s how I think most people will react. While some aspects of the film are going to be relatable primarily to women, I am positive that everyone will see parts of themselves in both Kayla and others. The universality of the awkwardness of that period- whatever age you are- overcomes the superficial differences.

But it’s not just enough to make a movie about how awkward teenagers are. All coming-of-age movies do that. What makes Eighth Grade different is its insight. It doesn’t it just say, “wow teens are so weird.” It understands why, and perfectly showcases its philosophy through the central framing device. Throughout the film, Kayla makes youtube videos. She does them on subjects such as “how to have confidence,” and “how to make friends.” Her advice is cliche-ridden, but it is good. She just struggles to live it out. The disconnect between what she says and does is evident.

This, the movie says, is why teenagers struggle so much. Unlike children, they realize they aren’t perfect. They have a hole in their heart, and they don’t know why they are incomplete. But unlike adults, they either don’t have the words and tools to start figuring out what is missing, or they don’t have a dependency on various coping mechanisms/idols yet. They know they are incomplete but cannot figure out what to do about it.

This hole, this sense of incompleteness, is sin. It’s our fallen nature and can only be filled by God. We all have it, and in that sense, we all understand the anxiety and fear of the teenage years. It simply looks different in adults.

Kayla knows the person she wants to become- that’s who her videos describe. She knows what she’s missing, but cannot get there. She says in the film, “I’m nervous, like I’m waiting in line for a roller coaster, (but) I never get the feeling you get after you ride the roller coaster.” Waiting for release, for everything to fall into place and seem whole, but never getting there. That is the curse teenagers are growing into.

I was introduced to writer/director Bo Burnham’s comedy about a year ago at the recommendation of a friend (you can find two of his specials on Netflix). I found his work to be incredibly clever, but also incredibly cynical. I was worried that his cynicism and snarky nihilism would be an element of this film.

Not so. Bo Burnham has created a hopeful film, one that teaches that what you feel in eighth grade will probably be temporary, and even if it’s not, there will always be people who will love you through it. But probably the best message of Eighth Grade comes simply from its existence. Seeing it, and knowing you are not alone, is the empathetic message of the film, and I can’t think of a better one to send to both real eighth graders, and the rest of us.

-Madeleine D