Avengers: Infinity War (Spoiler-Free Review)

In preparing for this review, I took a look at other reviews and think-pieces. One in particular drew my attention. “Are Movies like Avengers: Infinity War Worth Taking Seriously?” asks Alyssa Rosenberg of the Washington Post, which addresses critic A.O Scott’s “symphony… of resignation” in his New York Times review of the film that asks the titular question. Rosenberg comes to the conclusion in the article that yes, we should take Avengers: Infinity War seriously, although her reasoning is more that critics can teach the movie-going public how to be smarter and that critics are independent thinkers who can push and prod against “the Big Bad.” While I agree with a lot of Rosenberg’s article, the clear implication that she and other critics aren’t fans of this work can’t apply to me. I am a fan of Marvel and have invested in these movies. So when I approach these films, it’s with duality, because I want to embrace it. I’m not trying to push against the “Big Bad.” But I’m also trying to be a good reviewer. Can I do both? Or, like Thanos, who feels that destroying half of the world will make the other half better, do I have to destroy one of these sides of me to fully be the other?

This is a non-spoiler review, so here’s what I can tell you: Thanos, an intergalactic god, has to collect six infinity stone to have enough power to wipe out half of the universe. All of the Marvel superheroes you know and love and quite a few you probably forgot about form mini-teams and split off into different corners of the galaxy to prevent him from collecting them all.

Some critics have been comparing Avengers: Infinity War to The Empire Strikes Back. I would compare it more to The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Both have the characters splitting off into their different quests (some that drag or seem unnecessary), a lot of mythology you have to know to understand anything, and great action scenes. Both are not as self-contained as Fellowship of the Ring, yet neither have the satisfactory feel of The Return of the King. But like The Two Towers, Infinity War is necessary for the future, and it has things to offer on its own.

However, like I would not recommend seeing The Two Towers without having seen Fellowship of the Ring, I would also not recommend seeing Infinity War if you, like my mom, asked before the film, “Is Wonder Woman going to be in this one?” If you are a casual movie-goer and can’t name at least 3/4ths of the heroes on the poster, I can imagine this two hours and forty minute esoteric season-finale of a 19-film melodrama series feeling… well maybe like 19 films.

If you are a fan, then you probably already have your ticket, and I suggest you use it. Infinity War is both everything you expect and none of it. It is the closest I’ve ever seen a movie embody an amusement park ride, and there are genuine delights for fans. But I don’t think your experience is going to be satisfactory.

There’s a scene at the end of the film that is a perfect representation of the Infinity War as a whole. I promise it’s not a spoiler. Thanos, our villain, has a vision of sorts. In his vision, he finds himself walking on top of water, surrounded by a red dusk. He approaches a vaguely Buddhist-inspired temple, where he sees a character we’ve learned he has a complicated relationship with. This character says a few cryptic words, end vision.

This scene made me feel something. First it’s visually striking with the color palette and the Jesus-imagery with Thanos walking on water. Then we see him talk with the character, and the heartstrings are pulled because I know the relationship between the two, the complexities and emotions behind it.

But when I take a step back and think about it, the scene rings a bit hollow. This vision accomplishes very little, and doesn’t tell us anything about Thanos that we didn’t already know. Did Thanos show any previous affinity to walking on water? No, there’s no reason to have him do that except that it’s cool and seems tantalizing because it’s a religious allusion, and makes the film seem smarter. The Buddhist temple? I think for a majority of American audiences, including me, the first reaction will be, “oooh, that’s mystical. This must mean this is spiritual and stuff.” But it means nothing other than that. It’s lazy, uninformed short-hand for, “this is a mystical scene.” And then for the character interaction itself? There’s no actual work put into the scene to make it emotional. It’s all shorthand that I have to know to infuse it with any meaning.

Infinity War is all of these things: visually striking, suggestive of deeper meaning but without actual invention, and completely made up of shorthand. This film actually brings very little to the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) and there’s no character development. It only combines and uses what has been established before.

But… isn’t that also the point? Marvel has done something that has never been done before. Marvel created an interconnected cinematic universe, the equivalent of a television show with two to three two-hour long episodes a year, going on for ten years. As other reviews have pointed out, this is like the season finale. And it’s not bad to use a shorthand, that’s what all films do. Isn’t it then a narrative triumph that this movie has even been made, and audiences can understand and emotionally identify with it based on all the work done before? It’s indulgent, yes, but Marvel has certainly earned it with 10 years of consistent work.

Then why doesn’t it feel whole? While I’m still trying to unpack the film, I think there are a few reasons. 

One, the ending. This film was originally conceived as a two-parter, and it certainly feels that way.

Second, we know the future roster of movies, and that keeps some characters completely safe and the stakes not as high. To the film’s credit though, I think it does all it can to make you feel like everyone is at risk, and some of the character’s fates are genuinely shocking.

Finally, all of the previous movies ended with saving the world, and hope. Sometimes it rang hollow and felt false, but it wasn’t until this film, which has very little hope, that I realized how comforting that is.

Now there’s no doubt that hope is coming in future films. So, on one hand, I would applaud this movie for ending on a hopeless note, unlike, say Batman V. Superman which couldn’t bring itself to do hopeless in an honest way. But, on the other hand, because this film doesn’t actually add anything to any characters, quickly patches over old conflicts and plot threads with a throw-away line, it is neither a celebration of this beloved universe, nor is it a complete reboot. It suspends everything in midair, without even hope to tide us over. And aren’t superheroes about hope?

Infinity War isn’t satisfying as a critic because this is a movie with very little actual substance, and needs not only knowledge, but emotional ties, to the previous films to work. It’s not satisfying as a fan because while it’s a thrill ride, it’s both a relentless beating to your fan-heart and its delights are quick and often feel more like a checklist. If you blink you might miss your favorite two characters meeting, interacting, and then departing.  

But I’m still not taking the bait. I’m not killing my fan side, nor my critic side. I still believe you can be both, and even if Avengers: Infinity War isn’t complete, that doesn’t mean it is empty.

-Madeleine D

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Yell it out: A Quiet Place is great!

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One of the best parts of watching a horror movie is asking yourself, “Would I survive this? And if not, at what point would I die?”

I decided I would have probably died in A Quiet Place about halfway through. Emily Blunt’s character Evelyn lives in a post-apocalyptic world overrun with blind monsters with super hearing. She and her family live on a farm in constant fear of making noise. And she’s pregnant.

One night, with her family out, she hears the monsters come into the house. Then her water breaks. She goes down the stairs to hide, and steps on a previously upturned nail. It is at that point, I would scream and gladly let the monsters eat me.

But this scene, which my description gives no justice to, is one of the reasons A Quiet Place might be one of the most well-written films of all time. It does everything from a screenwriting perspective right. The stakes are constantly raised, all of the character have some kind of guilt, every scene has a purpose, every plant has multiple payoffs, and of course, it’s the epitome of “show, don’t tell.” And credit should go to director John Krasinski and cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen (Fences, The Hunt) for letting the script “speak” for itself with practical, purposeful, and restrained directing and cinematography.

I was afraid going in that my movie-going experience was going to be ruined by the audience. But A Quiet Place shows what film has the power to do as a medium. The audience I ended up in was one of the most well-behaved ones I’ve ever seen. A minute in and everyone was dead silent. I heard someone struggling to eat popcorn as quietly as possible. There was not a peep during the whole film. A Quiet Place immediately sucks you into its mindset and plays with your every emotion. Each action is deliberate and every facet of the film- the acting, direction, set design, score, and sound editing- is used to engage the audience and force you into the place of the characters. Sound becomes the enemy and a character of its own.

It’s hard to talk about A Quiet Place, not only because it’s best to go in without any big spoilers, but the film is prime material to be a metaphor for something. But determining what that something is is all the more difficult without dialogue. Krasinski and Blunt have said it’s a film about parenting, which is clear by the end. However, it could also be about childbearing, our obsession with sound, or how we adapt and function when disabled.

Or, it could simply be an excellent film that uses all of the horror-genre conventions to its advantage, and will take your breath away. But once you see it, don’t be afraid to exclaim how good it is.

-Madeleine D

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Tomb Raider

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*Mild Spoilers Ahead

In elementary and middle school, one of my favorite movie series was the Nicholas Cage National Treasure films. They were the perfect sleepover movies to watch with friends, to ooh and aww at the exciting chase sequences, and to laugh at the jokes. They weren’t great films, but they were fun, exciting, and tried to teach a little history and patriotism. I’m not familiar with the Angelina Jolie Tomb Raider films, or the original video game this film is based on, so as I watched the new Tomb Raider (2018) it was not those images that came to mind, but National Treasure.

Now, this new film is fairly predictable. There were a few times that I found myself saying the next line of dialogue (“The tomb’s not trying to keep people out… it’s trying to keep people in!”), and a careful viewer can point out the twists a mile away. Yet, by the end I had decided that at my next sleepover, I was going to switch out National Treasure for Tomb Raider, because while it’s not necessarily a better film, it’s a smarter one, and I couldn’t help but fall a little in love with it.

Alicia Vikander makes a star turn as Lara Croft, who goes on a search for her missing adventurer father (Dominic West). She teams up with Lu (Daniel Wu) to travel to a secret island off the coast of Japan to find him. This is Lara Croft’s origin story, showing the younger, less experienced Croft come into her own as the Tomb Raider. The film screams “franchise,” even setting up a sequel at the end, but it knows its strength, which is not the plot but the character the plot is based around. Even when I didn’t much care for what was going on in the film, Vikander’s Lara Croft had me hooked.

It adds another level of engagement and excitement when you can relate to the person on screen so deeply. Sure, I will never be Lara Croft, as much as I would like to be. But Vikander made me believe perhaps one day I can at least meet a Lara Croft-esque person that I can be friends with. The film, different from the original Angelina Jolie ones, is shot through the female gaze. This term does not mean the men in the film are treated badly, or that it is a feminist manifesto (it was even directed by a man with the manliness of names, Roar Uthaug). It simply means the film appeals to the female audience by not sexualizing the female characters and providing complex portrayals of characters that can enact female fantasies and escapism. And this worked wonders for my viewing; it was impossible for my friend and me not to spend the entire movie talking (and by talking I mean sparse whispering, as I am a courteous theater attendee) to the screen as if Lara were one of our friends.
“No, Lara, don’t go in there!”
“Punch him in the adam’s apple! YESSSS- my mom told me about that move.”
“Don’t let him talk down to you like that, Lara! Okay good, you’re escaping. Good call pal, good call.”
“I want to borrow your leather jacket. Where did you get it?”
“How… how do you get biceps like that? I can’t even do one pull-up.”
“Now that’s a nice guy, be friends with him!”

Lara Croft is a video game action heroine for sure. She does impossible stunts, survives insane injuries, and is perfectly film-suave. She doesn’t change much over the course of the film- she starts out independent, adventurous, and smart, and ends that way as well. But, there are a few details thrown into an otherwise pretty conventional film that both point to what possibly could have been, but also elevate it significantly.

There is clear attention to detail regarding how Lara could realistically take down men twice as strong as her, and the movie makes it clear how challenging that is. And when she does have her first kill in self-defense, she sits by the body and cries. It’s a stunning moment of humanity in a genre that rarely ever treats the villain body count as something to care about.

The film also takes the father-daughter storyline and elevates it by swelling to the emotional reunion- and then creating sophisticated conflict between the two that isn’t really satisfyingly resolved. The rest of the film is spent with the two in unease and heartache, and watching Lara wrestle with forgiving her father, and vice-versa, added a level of emotional resonance and maturity, even as Walton Goggins yelled about mummies and curses during the finale.

I could talk more about Tomb Raider’s flaws and how it is indicative of the origin-story- video-game-adventure genre overall, but honestly, I had a great time watching this film. If you like movies like National Treasure and Raiders of the Lost Ark– and you know who you are- then I really think you’ll enjoy this Tomb Raider. It’s a step in the right direction for the franchise which I hope will get a sequel, and I’m excited for Alicia Vikander to get to play this character again and get more roles in the future. Sometimes, fun movies can be fun, and Tomb Raider is just that.

-Madeleine D

Annihilation for Kids: A Wrinkle in Time

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I read A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle somewhere around third grade, after I had finished the Harry Potter series and a relative had said, “Hey, you should read this. You and the author have the same name!”

I don’t really remember anything about the book, except I found it too weird for my tastes. Anyone who knows the book well though will tell you it’s a difficult, near impossible story to translate to any other medium. It’s a strange mixture of L’Engle’s curiosity and imagination, religious inquiries and intellectual ponderings. It follows Meg Murry (in the film played by a formidable Storm Reid), a sullen, troubled thirteen year old, whose scientist father (Chris Pine, cementing his status as the best Chris in Hollywood) has been missing for four years. Three immortal beings- Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), and Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) come to Meg and her friend Calvin (Levi Miller) and little brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) to travel dimensions to find Dr. Murry and bring him home.

What is most striking about A Wrinkle in Time is, even if you didn’t know there was a woman directing, you would likely still discern an intrinsically feminine quality to the film. To be clear, while there aren’t a lot of films directed by women, the majority I’ve seen do not play as obviously made by a woman, just like not every film made by a man is clearly so.

But it did feel like taking off blinders I didn’t even realize I had on to see a fantasy film from the female perspective. Sure, women are prolific in fantasy and science fiction literature, but this hasn’t translated to film yet. This is the first film I’ve seen with this “feminine fantasy” angle, and based on A Wrinkle in Time, I would characterize it as having a character-driven plot, the main arc coming from the protagonist finding inner strength (over, say, an external weapon or source of strength), emphasis on teamwork and collaboration, and women and people of color in leading, powerful roles.

Obviously these aren’t clear cut, and plenty of other fantasy stories driven by men do similar things, but here is what I see, and what I think will, as the genre hopefully grows, continue to develop.

See, A Wrinkle in Time is less concerned with adapting the novel and more concerned with giving the archetypal, mythological coming of age story to a young black girl. That is clearly the story Ava DuVernay is most interested in telling. That is the best story in the film, but unfortunately it is buried under the plot and visuals that have to be translated from the book. The best fantasy is always concerned with characters, but A Wrinkle in Time gives the hero’s journey to someone who doesn’t usually get it, and that’s an exciting development.

With that hero’s journey comes finding inner strength, which is usually a facet of fantasy. However, often the hero has to find an object that becomes his source of strength, or the strength within him is of a magical kind. Following in the steps of Moana and Frozen (also written by A Wrinkle in Time’s screenwriter Jennifer Lee) the climax is about Meg using the power of love for her brother to stop the It (the antagonist). She tells Charles Wallace about memories they have together, how much she loves him, and how he’s shown love to her.

I love this new alternative to the climactic battle. I hope other films starring guys will be able to start partaking in it too, because violence being the ending to all big blockbusters is… concerning. And particularly for a children’s movie, showing that compassion and love is stronger than violence is the message I would think we want to be taking away. So often good trumps evil is the theme of a story, but when that is only expressed through violence, then being good becomes aligned with being the better fighter. That’s not the message that creates compassionate, empathetic children.

Now with all of the praise for this film, I do need to say that despite all of the best intentions in the world, it is not a good film in the technical and story aspect. Thematically, it’s endearing. From a cohesive, well-paced and constructed filmmaking perspective? It’s a mess. The script seems like a rough draft, with character that say everything, never trusting the audience to understand its nuance. For example, in one of the opening scenes, a teacher character loudly tells another teacher something along the lines of: “Meg Murray’s father has been gone for four years. Meg is very troubled because of it. Her father was working on a science experiment to travel dimensions.”

And as kids around Meg say mean things, out pop Demi Lovato and DJ Khaled singing “Today I saw a rainbow in the rain, saying I could do anything, I believe in me” as if we didn’t get the message. I guess it was restraint that they didn’t along sing, “I better go save my father now, time to defeat some evil” in case someone didn’t understand what was about to happen. It’s a poorly made film, but can earnestness and good intentions save it?

I compare this film to Annihilation because both hit similar emotional beats. In both films, the protagonist is not particularly likeable, has lost a man close to her to the Science Thing, and goes on a mission to find him, discovering more about herself as she goes along. Both also have trippy visuals and an unusual climax that takes places in a cave with a clone.

Unlike Annihilation, though, this movie is not about self-destruction and its toll on people. It’s about our flaws, and how they can be our strengths, and the power of love. If personified, it would be a giant hug. In fact, I’ve never seen as much hugging in any movie as I’ve see in this one.

And that might cause some to scoff, or look down at the film for its childishness. And yes, it is childish in some sense. But its fascination with love is not, and I want more films like A Wrinkle in Time. Films that love unabashambly, have no cynicism or limits, and display feminine strength, something we still sorely lack, even in the age of #MeToo and girlpower. While more films are featuring women, rarely are those stories being told by women, and often those women are asked to be more masculine in order to be strong and worth the audience’s time. I want more protagonists like Meg, families like the Murrys, and the directors with the imagination and heart of Ava DuVernay.

And yes, I want films that are not terribly paced, oddly filmed and edited, sloppily scored, or badly written. I wish A Wrinkle in Time appealed to a broader audience, and showed the same deliberate, delicate filmmaking DuVernay has proven herself masterful of.

However, it is clear, and she has confirmed in interviews, that DuVernay made this film for children, and particularly girls of color. And I think this is the kind of film that should be supported. Hopefully movies like this will become better, but take your kids to see it, because this is a lot more hopeful, heartfelt, imaginative, and purposeful than 90% of kid entertainment available. And if you don’t want to sit through it yourself, sneak over to the next theater and watch Annihilation and get an adult-version of the experience.

Or, maybe not. Maybe A Wrinkle in Time will have a message and hug for you, too.

-Madeleine D

What Does It All Mean???? Annihilation

Annihilation

*Major spoilers ahead!

As the saying goes, behind every great movie is great behind-the-scenes drama, and it’s no different with the new mind-twisting, sci-fi thriller Annihilation. Alex Garland, the director (Ex Machina) made the film, then screened it for Skydance’s David Ellison and his other producers.

The producers had some notes. Um, Alex, maybe you could change some things to help the story, I don’t know, make sense?

Garland refused to change anything, citing his own creative genius. As a semi-punishment and a way to cut their losses, Ellison decided that outside of the US and Canada, Annihilation isn’t getting a theatrical release, instead going straight to Netflix. So, while you can decide which side you take- business-savvy execs or creative-genius Garland- anyone who has seen this film can probably pinpoint the exact moment the executives started thinking, this might be a problem.

Annihilation follows Lena (Natalie Portman) a biologist and former soldier, who joins a team to go into “The Shimmer,” an alien disaster zone in the swamps of Florida, where teams have gone in, and have never returned. The fim is a gorgeous, tense, slow burn of thoughtful pondering and, for the most part, a stellar use of science fiction imagery to convey a compelling human story. It has an incredible ensemble cast. I would highly recommend it to anyone who likes slow-burn science fiction. It is a film that is difficult to describe, and even more difficult to review without discussing the ending, so come back once you’ve seen the film, and let’s discuss what Annihilation may or may not be saying.

…..

OK, seen it? Good, let’s move on. It’s tempting to think at the end of the film that this is one of those pseudo-intellectual films where the director throws out a bunch of images and words and tries to see what sticks and if it would make an Intro to Philosophy student go hmmm, interesting. I can imagine Garland trying to explain his brilliance to Paramount producers, “IT’S SO DEEP, DUDE! It’s so deep, I don’t even know what it means. Deeper than deep, you feel me? But I don’t need answers, I’m here to ask questions, about the meaning of life and stuff. There’s so much thinking, but at the same time I have an alien mirror- dancing with Natalie Portman! And that’s what makes it deep! Why is my eye twitching?”

But here, I’ll bite, because I think there might actually be a compelling message here. So based on the final cliffhanger (is Lena a clone or not?) there are two options that relate to the recurring theme of the film.

Option One: Lena is not a clone. The clone died.

The recurring theme in the film is self-destruction. All of the team members self-destruct in some capacity, and volunteering for the trip is the ultimate act of self-destruction. This is the foil to the Shimmer itself, which annihilates, but then recreates. It is revealed that Lena is having an affair, a self-hating kind of self-destruction that is ruining her and her marriage, and her guilt is consuming her, causing her to go on the mission.

In the lighthouse, she hands the bomb to, supposedly, the clone, and the clone dies. The clone, as it burns up, touches her husband, someone else who self-destructed and the symbol of Lena’s self-destruction. When the clone dies, so does the Shimmer, the reason for the mission Lena went on to self-destruct. So Lena kills the dangerous, self-destructive part of her. And then she moves on. I like that interpretation, it’s straightforward and thematic.

Option Two: Lena is the clone, and real-Lena died.

This is the more problematic option for me, but here’s my hot take. While Lena at the end tells the interrogator (Benedict Wong) she doesn’t know why the aliens sent the Shimmer, it is implied it is because the aliens seek to annihilate humanity. They want to change it by destroying it. This aligns with Lena’s self-destruction and desire for change, so when she becomes an alien at the end, this is just a representation of what was in her all along.

This ending is the weakest part of Annihilation because science fiction and fantasy is at its best when it asks questions about humanity. Sci-fi, fantasy, genres in general, are supposed to use the unreal or exaggerated or hypothetical to answer real questions about human nature, and reveal truths about ourselves. The aliens are never really about aliens. The technology is never just about technology. The Shimmer should not actually just be about a rainbow-bubble-monster-zone.

But in the third act, the aliens and the Shimmer and the modern-dance metallic clone alien becomes the focus, not the humans. Even with my interpretations, they focus in on the sci-fi. Gimmick is a strong word, but basically I am too busy thinking about “What happened, what did the alien do?” and not enough about “What does the alien mean? What is this trying to reveal about humanity? About humans? Did I see truth reflected?”

So in that case, Annihilation does not use its premise to its strength. Instead, it feels self-indulgent at times, wanting to mull over its twists and turns, without using that to say anything. Yet I think any flaws in the ending are saved by the first two acts, which do focus in on the characters and their interactions, developments, and changes. It builds to say something about humanity. The sci-fi elements are an exciting bonus, but are not the point, and that is why Annihilation, on a whole, ends up working as a great film.

-Madeleine D

Go See it! Black Panther

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Should wealthy and advanced countries share their resources with the world? Are there any advantages to isolationism? What responsibility does Africa have to the black diaspora? What responsibilities does the black diaspora have to Africa? Do world superpowers have to be the world’s police too? Should one’s loyalties be to leaders or to their positions?

These are the ideas wrestled with in Black Panther, which besides being a political drama is also the story of a king who wears a bulletproof catsuit and was in the movie where the Avengers fought each other in an airport parking lot.

Yes, Black Panther has been poised to stand apart from the other Marvel movies, and not just because this is the studio’s first superhero movie (its 18th movie overall) made with a black lead. The film is directed by auteur Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) and has an almost all-black cast, with stars like Oscar-winners Lupita Nyong’o and Forest Whitaker, as well as Michael B. Jordan, Angela Bassett, Sterling K. Brown, and this year’s Oscar-nominated Daniel Kaluuya. Black Panther comes from a rich comic book history beginning in the Civil Rights Era, and many people are counting on it to be a new trailblazing film, in the vein of last year’s Wonder Woman. It aims high in its entertainment, and its ideas.

So is it as good as all the hype?

Short answer: Yes.

This is a visually stunning movie. The acting is excellent. The attention to detail, particularly in the costumes, is amazing. The film is big and mythic in proportions, but has intimate moments dedicated to character building. The worldbuilding for T’Challa’s country of Wakanda is comparable to Middle Earth.

Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), aka King T’Challa, is the first Marvel hero I would actually trust to lead. The majority of Marvel heroes, from Tony Stark to Star Lord, are varying levels of man-children, but T’Challa is a real leader and role model, full of stoic strength and dignity. He surrounds himself with equally good people, and what makes him such a great leader is that he listens to those around him. I said in my Thor Ragnarok review that all the Marvel heroes were starting to meld together, but T’Challa and his supporting characters all stand as unique and three-dimensional.

I only have two mild critiques. First, is that T’Challa himself doesn’t have a character arc. He begins as a great man and continues to be a great king. He doubts himself briefly, but that disappears. Most of the conflict in the film isn’t because anyone is doubting he would be a good leader. His real arc, going from being blinded by vengeance to showing mercy, was in Civil War, which wasn’t even his movie.

Instead, Black Panther is much more about Wakanda then it is about T’Challa, so Wakanda goes through a character arc, and he just represents it. That makes it sometimes feel like Black Panther is the sequel to half of an origin story we’ve never seen.

But that isn’t really a critique considering how important Wakanda is, and how compelling of a character this setting makes itself out to be. I can’t really do justice to the fictional country here, but I’ve learned a lot by reading what it means to others (I highly recommend this article to learn more about what Black Panther and Wakanda represent for many people: https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/black-panther-s-glorious-depiction-wakanda-envisions-africa-black-dreams-ncna849016).

The second critique is that the film does not feel like a Marvel movie. That works well in this case, but there are moments within the film where it seemingly remembers it is a Marvel movie, and then does a Marvel-y thing that feels out of place. I would almost prefer if it hadn’t been associated with Marvel at all, and did not feel like it had to have any action sequences or jokes or any outside references.

However, those moments are few and few between, and don’t distract from the integrity of the film. And in case you’re wondering if this film is just a political history lesson, don’t worry. It’s an extremely entertaining film. It will also just happen to make you think! And isn’t that the best of both worlds?

But ultimately, this film wouldn’t have been made if it weren’t a Marvel movie. Not just because Black Panther is a Marvel comics property, but because Marvel and Disney are the only studios that are either able or willing to take this risk. Maybe they didn’t need to make ten movies starring a white guy named Chris before doing this film, but we’re here now. That’s why I get frustrated when prestigious directors bad mouth superhero films. With all due respect, they are by and large not making the films main audiences- and particularly audiences of color- want and need to see.

Black Panther isn’t just an example of the potential of blockbuster and big-studio successes, but also an example of why superhero movies are important. This is a genre, a space, like ancient mythology, that has the ability to be paired with any other genre to create new and original stories. Logan, Wonder Woman, Black Panther, and The Dark Knight are all based in comic books, but all tell different stories, create different worlds, and say different things. As long as filmmakers keep pushing for new ways to tell these stories, the superhero boom isn’t going away, and until everybody gets to see themselves as a hero on screen, I don’t think it should.

I don’t know the full effect Black Panther will have on audiences, or comic book readers who have been waiting to see Wakanda in big screen glory. But I do know that it is a great film, and everyone should see it.

-Madeleine D

Unrest, Unfair, Unconvincing: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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Martin McDonagh’s (In Bruges) Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a story about angry, grief-stricken Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand). Her daughter Angela was murdered, and the police have seemingly dropped the case. The officers on the case are Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell). Willoughby is a well-meaning cop, dying of cancer, and Dixon is a dumb, racist, temperamental, corrupt cop. Mildred rents out three billboards that send a loud and clear message:

-Raped while dying

-And still no arrests?

-How come, Chief Willoughby?

This film has been getting critical acclaim and is leading the awards season, so I would like to raise three billboards of my own:

-7 Oscar Nominations.

-Best Screenplay and Picture?

-How come, Academy?

The biggest criticism of Three Billboards has been its treatment of race. Several people throughout the film explain that Dixon is racist and has a history of torturing the people of color in Ebbing. He uses the n-word, makes threats, and this is all used to establish him as a terrible man. Our (good?) police chief, Willoughby, explains not-so-helpfully why he keeps him on the force- “”You get rid of every cop with vaguely racist leanings, you’d have three cops left and all of them would hate the f-gs.”

Once Dixon needs to be redeemed through, his racism, which he never shows remorse for or makes efforts to change, is completely forgotten about. It’s treated, as Insider’s Jacob Shamsian notes, as “a character quirk.”

I don’t doubt that there are cops who feel this way, and it’s not that a movie that is supposedly about redemption and empathy and human complexity can’t redeem a despicable person. That’s what I believe we have to do in real life. But the redemptive arc for Dixon is shallow, unfulfilled, and he never seems remorseful. Discussing institutional racism in your movie is an admirable thing to do if you’re going to treat it with weight and actually have thoughts about it. But British director McDonagh is much more interested in throwing sensitive topics around as coloring to his black-and-white sketch of what he believes is middle-America, and it’s utterly unconvincing and disgustingly manipulative.

Another example- Mildred’s black friend, Denise (Amanda Warren), is arrested by Dixon to spite Mildred, and she isn’t released until the end of the film, and this is… cool with everyone? Not talked about? That’s not a commentary on racism, that’s terrible writing and using black characters for the advancement of white ones.

In my screenwriting class, my teacher tells us to make sure every scene has conflict, but that doesn’t mean “every scene has to have a screaming match.” Three Billboards is very much ready to have a screaming match, or an explosion, torture, domestic abuse, burning someone alive, or horrific beating in every scene. Almost every single scene escalates to 100, leaving no room to breathe or think. Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson do a fine job with their roles, but all of the things they are asked to do are so actor-y, so unnatural, and so over-the-top that I honestly don’t think they should have been nominated at all. I never had to read Frances McDormand’s face to figure out what she was feeling, she was either saying it or destroying something.

I recently watched Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. It’s a masterpiece, and it also deals with the escalation of anger. It and Three Billboards are very different films, but what Do the Right Thing does that Three Billboards doesn’t do is spend the majority of the film building characters and setting up the tension, before making the violence climax and thus actually hurt. Watching the riot in that film feels like a gut punch. Three Billboards is constantly pummeling me, so nothing feels like anything after a while.

I never felt like any of the characters were real. I could not imagine any of the characters in situations beyond the ones they were in. I suppose that this could be interpreted as a hyper-reality, like the film is becoming what grief and anger feels like. But it’s not presented that way. This is portrayed as a story where someone really does all of these things.

It’s a film being billed as a movie for our divided times. But as I see it, it’s a harmful one. It tells you your anger is justified. And true, a lot of anger is, and Mildred’s certainly is. But there are no repercussions for the actions she or Dixon takes because of their anger. They suffer indirectly- Mildred is still miserable and Dixon gets burned because of Mildred’s attack on the police station, but they are never punished for their actions. They never see repercussions. They are the only ones that affect each other, even though their villainous acts affect everyone else.

Anger isn’t the problem, it’s what you do with it, and all the characters in the film act in an evil way with it, and those actions are excused. Telling people they can be angry and do whatever they want with that anger is a dangerous message. Three Billboards isn’t just a movie about mean people. It’s a mean movie, one that wants to say a lot of important things but doesn’t have the heart to actually finish the job.

-Madeleine D