March Madness: Disney Songs Bracket

Not much time for preamble today. If you spend any time on Twitter at all, you’ve probably seen a slew of different brackets making the rounds, usually pitting great movies or Internet boyfriends against each other. Yet of all the brackets, though, only one truly begged for completion:


Now, I imagine I would have seeded this a little differently, but we play with the memes we’re dealt. First round went pretty quickly. Wherever possible, the edge went to the iconic song over the merely nostalgic.

A few items of note:

  • The behemoth “Let It Go” lost in an early season upset to “Part of Your World.” Whether this demonstrates the strength of longing over empowerment, or whether the judge was simply some random thirtysomething unable to set aside his childhood, we may never know.
  • Classic dad-rockers Phil Collins, Billy Joel, and Elton John all survive into Round 2. Joel is probably the biggest surprise there, but even “Why Should I Worry” performed well against the cut-rate Prince ripoff from The Goofy Movie.
  • The defeat of “I See the Light” hurt far more than I expected. Although Tangled is one of my all-time favorite animated movies, “Part of Your World” is easily among the best Disney songs ever composed and readily curbstomped the competition.
  • On the other hand, “Go the Distance” and “How Far I’ll Go” aren’t even close to the same level. The Hercules song is fine enough, but, thematically, Moana just hangs together so much better, and “How Far I’ll Go” plays an indispensable part in that film’s execution.
  • “You’re Welcome” and “Friend Like Me” made for a tougher competition than I expected. The difference came down to performance. The Rock does well enough, but there’s no world at all where he out-sings Robin Williams.


Something really interesting happened this round: I realized just how much I esteem the songs of A Little Mermaid. I can’t discount the fact that Mermaid was one of the first movies I ever saw in the theater, but I also suspect that there’s something objectively timeless and classic in the songs from that film.

Some more notes:

  • Perhaps no song in Disneydom is more revered than the villain song, and “Hellfire” is among the best of those, easily trouncing the iconic “Beauty and the Beast.” Given a choice between love and damnation, leave it to me to make the… questionable choice.
  • This same tendency is on display again on the other side of the bracket, as “Poor Unfortunate Souls” wins out over “Remember Me.”
  • Of the dad rockers, only Elton John endures. Likely this is due to the relatively weak competition. “Heffalumps and Woozles” worms its way into your brain, but “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” managed to pull ahead, perhaps demonstrating some awareness that it alone remains to represent the best film of Disney’s second golden age.


Let’s jump straight to the commentary:

  • The Little Mermaid continues to impress, sending two of its numbers to the Final Four. Its third representative, “Part of Your World,” loses its footing against “Hellfire,” but it goes home with its head held high, having made a good showing to this point.
  • “When You Wish Upon a Star” may carry a questionable message, but it’s undoubtedly classic. Not even Elton John stands a chance.


At this point, there is nothing more I can do but be true to myself. When forced to pick between a pair of villain songs, one of the most charming and romantic Disney songs of all time, and a song that is arguably the MOST Disney song of all time… how I could I not pick the villain songs?

And now, we come to…


“Poor Unfortunate Souls” is a delightfully, unapologetically wicked number, easily among the best Disney songs ever composed. Its opponent, “Hellfire,” lacks the tongue-in-cheek fun of “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” but it makes up for it with deep feeling and pathos. So who wins in the battle between earnestness and camp? In the end, there was really no question:

Well, I Guess I’m Old Now (or: How I Broke Myself Trying to Impress a Pretty Girl’s Family)

I texted my boss today:

I managed to sprain my ankle pretty badly this weekend. I should be okay to work, but I would like tomorrow off, just in case.

He responds:

Please do. A sprain is no joke, especially when we aren’t 12 years old anymore. Get wel.

And then:


You know, like you do.

This probably isn’t the first time that I’ve sprained my ankle, but it’s definitely the first time I’ve sprained it so severely that I felt the need to run to urgent care. A few hours had passed since the injury, and I was trying to muscle through the pain with the help of a cheesy Netflix martial arts movie and some Little Caesar’s pizza (which I stood in line for fifteen minutes to get) (yes, that means I stood in line on a sprained ankle) (no, it was not worth it) (I mean, how could it be?). After a while, I decided I probably ought to at least wrap the thing up, and I think it was my frustration with trying to wrap my own ankle that finally led me to get in my car and drive to the urgent care, about twenty minutes away.

The doctor was nice. He wore a green scrubs top and khakis, and he had a very strong vibe that said, “As me about my trip to Amsterdam.” We bonded over a mutual interest in the “Yoga with Adriene” YouTube channel, and he joked about charging me hundreds of dollars more than he was supposed to. You know, normal doctor stuff. He did some X-rays to confirm that it was a sprain and not a break, gave me an ankle brace, and wished me luck. Pretty sure the luck was for dealing with the ankle brace. It’s a complicated tangle of cords and velcro that took both me and the nurse poring over the instructions to figure it out.

So I’ve been dating someone fairly seriously, which is incredibly important to the story, because of COURSE me hurting myself involves trying to impress a girl, right? Well, only sort of. See, at this point, we’ve been dating for about ten months, which I think is probably enough time for her to see right through any attempts at flattery. Her family, on the other hand, doesn’t know me that well yet. So this is really about me trying to impress them. Specifically, the two people whose negative opinion of me would put our continued couplehood in jeopardy.

No, not them. I’m referring to her six-year-old nephew and her four-year-old niece.

Saturday night finds me with my lady friend at her cousin’s wedding reception. Her niece and nephew, hopped up on youth and wedding brownies, decided that they were done sitting around and wanted to run outside to play. The girlfriend and I joined them, and we tracked around the grounds surrounding the church where the reception took place, our feet unsteady in the wet grass.

“Boy, this ground sure is soft,” I said, demonstrating a little principle known as dramatic tension.

The game we wound up playing is a popular one among all kids of a certain age. It’s called, “Watch the grown-ups do silly things.” The grown-up in this case was me, and the silly thing was attempting to chop down a tree using a bunch of those long, brown seed pods. You know, these ones:

Darn things are everywhere.

After slapping the side of the tree a few times, the pods would break, leaving me with a comically short stub pinched between my fingers. The kiddos, of course, thought this was hilarious, and I, pleased with the impression I was making, started playing up the comedy by employing increasingly ludicrous wind ups. Truly, a great time was had by all…until I bashed my hand into the tree.

The shock and pain from the impact sent me staggering back a couple of steps, where my ankle decided to do a Gordon Hayward (don’t look that up). My memory of the immediate aftermath is a little fuzzy, but I’m reasonably sure that’s right when my ladyfriend’s parents came out to get us for the cutting of the cake. Which means that they, and the girlfriend, and her niece and nephew, all beheld the exact moment I realized that I’m not a kid anymore.

When I was younger, of course, I’d walk of a rolled ankle like it was no big deal, because it wasn’t. I tried to play it off the same way last night, turning down my girlfriend’s offer to pick up some drugs and an ankle brace from Wal-Mart. I even lied to myself about it (hence the standing in line at Little Caesar’s). Eventually, though, I realized that I no longer have the resiliency of a six-year-old, and so I drove myself to urgent care.

When the girlfriend found out, she was… frustrated, to say the least:

Dude!!!! Why didn’t you call me?? Sheesh, you shouldn’t be driving.


Oh brother. If you weren’t hurt I’d be so mad at you right now. But you are hurt and it’s kind of my fault so I can’t get mad.


Ugh. Men are the WORST.

So there you go. I guess part of the process of getting older is learning to accept help again after striving so hard to be independent for so long. I eventually accepted some help from my parents, who brought me ace bandages and an old prescription for Ibuprofen 800 mg, which is GREAT STUFF.

Seriously, I’m not much for taking medicine, even when I need it, but nowadays, I’m all singing, “Ibuprofen! He be profen! She be profen! We’re all profen! Wouldn’t you like to be a profen too?”*

I even let the girlfriend finally help me – she brought me a pair of crutches, which was absolutely lovely of her to do. I could have saved myself a big headache by simply accepting her help in the first place. Which means.. which means… all that time spent watching Home Improvement as a kid taught me not a blasted thing.

Thanks for nothing, Tim Allen!


Apologies to Dr. Pepper.

Opera Night: Pagliacci

When I was a child, I remember seeing this commercial on PBS on a Saturday afternoon about opera. Specifically, about how ridiculous it is that the opera has a reputation for being “boring,” especially since the most famous operas are chock full of sex, violence, and murder. I get where that reputation comes from. It’s difficult to get engaged in a plot where you don’t understand anything the major characters are saying. Heck, I went to the opera once in the Czech Republic. The singing was in Italian, while the supertitles were in Czech, so I was utterly lost in two languages at once.

That said, I’ve been at least curious about getting into this opera thing for years. For example, a song from Madame Butterfly inspired the only bit of writing I ever got paid for (a poem which netted me a whole dollar bill!). I’ve attended a broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera, which was great, although somewhat pricey. However, when I finally got the chance to go see a real, live opera (with supertitles I could actually understand), I leapt at the opportunity.

Utah Opera put on a double feature at the Capital Theater. One of the shows, a comedic little episode called Gianni Schicchi, provides some much needed context to the operatic standard “O Mio Babbino Caro.” It is not, as I first suspected, a lullaby sung by a mother to her baby. Rather, it’s a plaintive plea from a young girl to her father, claiming that she will die if she can’t be with the man she loves. It’s, you know, dramatic and all, but in the context of a comedic opera, it carries about as much depth of emotion as Veruca Salt demanding that daddy buy her a goose that lays golden eggs NOW.

The real draw to me, though, was the classic Pagliacci. I’m pretty sure everyone’s heard of Pagliacci by this point. You know, it’s the opera about the sad clown.

I first encountered Pagliacci in that one episode of Batman: The Animated Series where the Penguin tries to show off for his date by singing “Vesti la Giubba.” From there, I associated the song with the cliches of opera – stilted, boring, overly dramatic, and inaccessible. And yet… in the context of the show, “Vesti la Giubba” is really unbelievable. A brutish man, completely and utterly destroyed by his wife’s infidelity, has to dress up in a clown outfit and make a buffoon of himself, because that’s what show business demands. It’s a real gut punch of a number, and it’s absolutely worth checking out.

But go to a live show, if you can. Operatic recordings are nice and all, but there’s something to be said for seeing the production live. If nothing else, watching the singers overpower the orchestra with nothing but their voices (no mics) is truly awe-inspiring.

Also, in commemoration of the occasion, I drew a sad clown:

New Gods, Old Fears

News broke today that Ava DuVernay, director of the divisive (but visually-stunning) A Wrinkle in Time will now also direct New Gods, an upcoming entry in the DC Comics cinematic universe. As this is news involving a superhero movie, you might expect that I have some opinions on the matter. And you would be right.

I am 100%, absolutely, totally excited for this jazz!

See, New Gods is based on the “Fourth World” saga, which is easily one of my favorite comics, one of the best things DC ever published. The story begins as something of a Superman spin-off, but it quickly turns into its own thing, combining The Lord of the Rings with the soft sci-fi of superhero comics and a liberal dose of hippy-dippy social allegory. And, with art and writing by Jack Kirby, it’s a truly beautiful thing to behold.

Kirby is one of the most influential artists in comics for good reason. The artistic mind behind some of the most popular superheroes in the world (Iron Man, The Fantastic Four, Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, the X-Men…), Kirby had a flair for wild, imaginative visuals. The Fourth World is one of Kirby’s most important creations, and he filled those pages with some of the weirdest and most wonderful drawings he ever did. This is material that is perfect for a visual-oriented director like Ava DuVernay.

But it’s not just about the visuals. The Fourth World is full of some of the richest, most colorful characters to ever grace the comics page:

  • Mister Miracle – a high-tech escape artist and conscientious objector in the war between light and darkness
  • Orion – the son of an evil god, whose dark nature makes him the perfect soldier for the forces of good
  • Granny Goodness – a motherly figure who “nurtures” all the free will out of her charges
  • Glorious Godfrey – basically just Alex Jones, but somehow even worse
  • Steppenwolfe – a warrior who… Wait, we’ve seen this guy recently, haven’t we?

Oh… Oh crap.

Um… so, yeah, before I get too excited about this project, I need to remind myself that New Gods is slated to be part of the DC Extended Universe, a cinematic monstrosity that now includes five films, of which only one and a half are any dang good at all (and those are Wonder Woman and maybe a quarter part each of Man of Steel and Justice League). I know, I just know, that there’s going to be a real temptation to follow in Zach Snyder’s deconstructionist grimdark footsteps. That’s a huge problem for the material, which is so straightforward and earnest that it literally named its chief antagonist Darkseid.

He wears a minidress, so he is clearly the best and most evillest.

Darkseid is probably the best known of all of the New Gods. He’s popped up in a few major Superman adaptations over the years, including that one time someone decided that the best way to make Superman relatable was to have him date Kristin Kreuk. He is also (and I know I’m using this word a lot recently) my favorite super villain of all time.

There’s a lot of great stuff about Darkseid. He’s every bit the physical match of the heroes he faces off against. He can easily beat the tar out of Superman or Wonder Woman, and he actually killed Batman once (and by “killed” I mean “turned into a caveman”… long story). But the best stories about Darkseid don’t involve him throwing a single punch. Darkseid wins the same way evil wins in the real world: by slow, imperceptible, inevitable corruption.

See, Darkseid preys on the “dark side” of human nature. He seeks, like so many do, to “take over the world,” but he’s a theological villain more than a standard super villain. He doesn’t control people using mind beams or hypnosis. Rather, he controls them by appealing to their weakest, most shameful elements – their fear, their selfishness, their anger and pettiness. In the world of the New Gods, he is the devil.

If you ask me, the last great Darkseid story was Final Crisis, a 2008 comics series by writer Grant Morrison. In this story, Darkseid succeeds in placing the world under his control. The heroes of the DC Universe have to unite to fight a war that, frankly, they’ve already lost. Their great strength, their ability to punch evil into submission, is of no practical use here. The big fist fight between Superman and Darkseid never happens in this story. In fact, Darkseid is probably at his physical low point here, having possessed a weak mortal body. He even wears leg braces the whole time, apparently unable to stand on his own.

And yet… he’s never been more terrifying than he is in this story.

I remember that the end of Final Crisis drew a fair bit of criticism, as Darkseid was ultimately defeated by Superman singing a song at him. It’s slightly less ridiculous than it sounds, but only slightly. But I think that ending illustrates an important point: the darkness in humanity cannot be overcome through violence.

That’s a difficult message to portray in superhero stories, where violence is almost as much a part of the medium as ink and paper. However, the fact that Darkseid is an antagonist in a superhero comic means one thing for certain: he will always lose, in the end. That makes for a pretty inspiring message, if you think about it. The literal “dark side” of human nature can be beaten, and goodness and virtue can win, no matter how bad things get.

As much as I love the New Gods and the character of Darkseid in particular, I’m very nervous about how these characters will appear on the big screen. See, I can now, very easily, picture Henry Cavill trying on his best Christopher Reeve smile and saying, “Well, Darkseid, time to send you to the ‘dark side’ of the moon!” before punching him in the face and sending him shooting into the stratosphere, while Darkseid (played by yet another wildly inappropriate actor… I’mma say Colin Firth) screams “Noooooooooo!” before finally disappearing with a distant twinkle, Team Rocket style.

…actually, now that I’ve typed that out, it really doesn’t sound that bad.

My point is this: the New Gods don’t really function the same way other superhero characters do. They aren’t about over the top action sequences and quippy comedy. They’re a Book-of-Genesis style myth about the nature of good and evil within humanity. In other words, they’re the one place the whole “Superman is disaffected Jesus” thing might actually work (but seriously please don’t try that again).

The New Gods are going to be really, really difficult to film. I think DuVernay is up to the task. At the very least, the film should be pretty. But if what we get is just another “pretty and competent” superhero beat-’em-up, then we’ll have wasted a lot of potential, and that would be too bad.


It’s amazing how much emotion can be expressed in very simplistic faces. Kinda phoned it in when it cam time to add texture to the trees and the bird. But, you know, it’s a Sunday afternoon, and I need a nap.

Wonder Woman’s Theme: A Pretty Good Song?

***Warning: this post contains hot takes.***

I know I’m not the first person to notice that the music of superhero films has been less than stellar since the Marvel renaissance began with Iron Man back in 2008. Heck, the last iconic superhero soundtrack was probably the score from Tim Burton’s run on the Batman franchise. Ask me to hum the John Williams Superman theme, and I can do so pretty easily. Ask the same for the X-Men films, though? Every time I try to hum the theme from The Avengers, I invariably slip into The Fellowship of the Ring. With only a few exceptions, most superhero soundtracks all sound like the same old summer blockbuster fare: excellent at setting a tone, but not exactly something you’ll be whistling on quiet afternoons.

The only exception for a while there, if you ask me, was Hans Zimmer’s score to The Dark Knight – specifically, the Joker’s theme. Unfortunately, that song, while a brilliant piece of soundtracking, doesn’t make for a terribly listenable track on its own. Its most memorable feature is a single note played on the cello with such excruciating deliberation that my fists ball up just thinking about it. The Joker’s theme sets a mood, but it’s not a “theme song” in the traditional sense.

As far as I can tell, we’ve only had four movies with soundtracks that can possibly come close to reaching the same level as the classic John Williams/Danny Elfman scores for Superman and Batman. The first two of those movies – Guardians of the Galaxy and its sequel – are full of wonderfully iconic tunes, but both are disqualified on account of plagiarism.

The most recent of the four, Black Panther, has some of the only songs I can actually remember at all after leaving the theater. The theme songs for the two maincharacters (I stand by my claim that Wakanda, not T’Challa, is the actual protagonist of BP) are powerful pieces built around some absolutely ridiculous* rhythms. That said, I think my favorite track plays over the closing credits. The film ends with throngs of people chanting the name of their king, returned to power: “T’Challa! T’Challa!” It’s moving and operatic and over the top and I love every bit of it.

Despite my effusion, though, Black Panther‘s score is so new, and the buzz so high, that it remains to be seen whether the songs will actually endure beyond the current craze.

And then there’s Wonder Woman, the last one, the song I expect to have the most staying power, but also the one I’m most ambivalent about.

On the one hand, the Wonder Woman theme originated with the movie Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, which has only and exactly two good things in it: Jeremy Irons and the savage electric cello theme that accompanied Wonder Woman’s first big screen appearance. When you get down to it, the song itself is all slashing rhythm and wails. It’s an excellent piece to accompany a thrilling action sequence, but it doesn’t really say that much meaningful about Wonder Woman herself.

I mean, John Williams’s Superman theme is dramatic and triumphant, befitting a man who has all the power in the world and chooses to do the right thing. You can almost hear the word “Superman” shouted during the song. Meanwhile, Danny Elfman’s Batman theme is dark and brooding, but it still has those victorious brass notes in there, indicating a man who uses the darkness to fight for justice. These songs are really about their subjects in a way that most soundtrack pieces aren’t.

Not being the biggest Wonder Woman fan, there are three things I know about her from general nerd osmosis:

  • She is a powerful warrior from a tribe of warrior women.
  • She has a magic lasso that makes people tell the truth.
  • She came to the “world of man” as an ambassador of love and peace.

The Wonder Woman theme really captures that first bullet, but, if you ask me, there’s nothing in those notes that really says “truth” or “love and peace.”

All that said, though, the song itself has grown on me, thanks in large part to the inspired work of Rupert Greyson-Williams, who managed to build a pretty workable soundtrack for Wonder Woman around what is arguably just the hook to some arena rock piece. I’ve also gotta give props to one of the major inspirations for the song: cellist Tina Guo, whose performance legitimately rocks my socks off. Add to that some great think pieces that analyze the Wonder Woman theme much better than I can (here and here), and I think I finally get exactly why the song works so well and remains so memorable when other superhero scores fall flat. I’m not convinced we’ve managed to create anything nearly as simple and fundamental as the Superman or Batman themes from the 80s and 90s, but we’re certainly close.

The Wonder Woman soundtrack reminds me, strangely, of the history of superhero costumes. When superhero comics were born, they got costumes that were all simple shapes and primary colors. As comics consumers developed more sophistication, they demanded a bit more verisimilitude in the pictures on the page. Costumes developed seams, laces, buttons and snaps, but they kept pretty true to the original flashy designs, for a time. Eventually, though, all those colorful costumes gave way to armor with shoulder blades, leather jackets, and a notable lack of red briefs worn overtop blue tights. Comic book designs seemed to want to be seen as anything but the the colorful daydreams of children.

Similarly, the scores for superhero films draw little inspiration from the earnest adventures of Christopher Reeve or Michael Keaton (or, for that matter, Adam West). The goal doesn’t appear to be “fun” as much as “action.” That’s not necessarily a strike against the superhero score, but it isn’t exactly a distinction, either.

The truly great thing about the Wonder Woman soundtrack is that it takes the grimdark Batman v. Superman track – which is powerful but seems embarrassed to own its source material – and manages to build something somehow optimistic and inspirational. I don’t think the Wonder Woman theme is on quite the same level as the Williams or Burton theme songs. At the end of the day, it’s really just a song that’ll get you hyped up to deadlift a truck at the gym.

…actually, that sounds pretty cool. Good enough!

* – “Ridiculous” here being a word that means “intricate and powerful.”

Sins of the Nation: Wakanda and Asgard

Spoilers for Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok, if you care about that sort of thing.

It’s been about a week now since I watched Black Panther. The movie was great, possibly my favorite MCU film second only to Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (which, as you might recall, I liked quite a bit). In the time since I watched it, I’ve been keeping an eye out for interesting articles and tweets. I’ve read up on the costuming, the cast… I’ve even researched some apparent plot holes, all of which confirm to me that Black Panther really is that good.

I also found this:

Now, it turns out that the original Amazon review was some sort of gag, but the tweet did get me thinking again about Thor: Ragnarok. The more I thought about the two films together, the more I saw a pretty strong connection between them. I mean, most superhero movies have quite a bit in common, but let me describe the plot of one of these films. You guess which one I mean:

“After the death of his father, a young prince must defend his home (an isolated technological wonderland) from an invading usurper to the throne, a mysterious and terrifying individual with an uncanny knack for warfare, a blood-relationship with our protagonist, and a serious grudge against the dead king stemming from the king’s dark and secret past.”

Yeah. More than a couple similarities.

Truthfully, though, I’m less interested in the similarities between the films than I am in the differences. To begin, I’ll attempt to summarize the twists of the two movies as best I can. Bear in mind that I’ve only seen these films once apiece, so there may be some minor details I get wrong.

In Thor: Ragnarok, we learn that, before he became the benevolent ruler of the Nine Realms, Odin employed the violent skills of his oldest child, Hela, to ruthlessly wage war and accumulate wealth and power. Because he feared her (and possibly because he was ashamed?), Odin had Hela sealed away. She returns and seeks to conquer Asgard almost immediately after Odin’s death.

In Black Panther, T’Challa’s father T’Chaka visited the United States on a mission to find his own brother. Upon learning that his brother planned to violate Wakanda’s isolationist policy by selling their futuristic weaponry, T’Chaka killed his brother and left a child (T’Chaka’s nephew and T’Challa’s cousin) to be raised an orphan. This child grew up to become the villainous Killmonger, who attacks Wakanda in order to secure weapons for a worldwide race war.

One of the first things that struck me about these stories is how they manage to explain, to some extent, the racial makeup of both our fantastical settings. The Asgard of the Thor movies was a colonizing empire, a fact that would almost certainly create more genetic diversity. Conversely, Wakanda adopted a strict isolationist policy early in its existence, likely well before European nations came in contact with Africa.

Thus, it is entirely plausible and, in fact, expected that Asgard in the MCU would have black people, while Wakanda wouldn’t have any white people. Racists can now shut up forever.

As fun as it is to find handwavy continuity excuses, I wanna go deeper. I think there’s something a lot more interesting going on with the histories of these two fictional countries. In addition to being wild, colorful technological pseudo-paradises, both countries have some pretty awful secrets lurking in their histories. Both movies use their respective villains (Hela and Killmonger) to embody these dark histories, but, beyond that, these movies explore how a country copes with its troubled past in very different ways.

By the end of Thor: Ragnarok – the same movie in which we learn about Asgard’s history of horrifying warfare – the entire nation is destroyed, and its citizens are cast to the stars in search of a new place to call home. The message here appears to be that a country with a history as violent as Asgard’s does not deserve to exist. While there’s a part of me that appreciates the idea that karma functions on such a global scale, I consider the somewhat shameful past of my own country and find myself hoping that there’s a better way than utter annihilation.

Ultimately, I don’t think Ragnarok is interested in dealing with the repercussions of Asgard’s history. It is, after all, a Thor movie, and it’s therefore more concerned with getting Thor from point A to point B along his hero’s journey. But this is the first major difference between Ragnarok and Black Panther. The main character of Thor: Ragnarok is, unsurprisingly, Thor. The protagonist of Black Panther, on the other hand, is the nation of Wakanda itself.

True, the Black Panther performs most of the significant actions, but while Thor is very much the comedic action hero, T’Challa is, in all things, the king of Wakanda. Although T’Challa grows and changes, as most good film characters do, his journey is nothing next to the seismic paradigm shift that the country of Wakanda goes through. Wakanda starts as a reclusive (dare I say selfish?) utopia, but it ends a neighbor and citizen-state of the world.

Early on in the film, T’Challa visits some sort of ghost world to commune with his father and the other past kings of Wakanda. During this meeting, T’Chaka tells T’Challa that “it’s hard for a good man to be a king.” Indeed, by the end of the film, we learn that King T’Chaka likely no longer considered himself a “good man” by the end of his reign. He sacrificed much – his integrity, his honesty, even his own brother – in the name of preserving Wakanda’s much-treasured secrecy. T’Chaka represents the nation’s history, and his violent crime represents the very real pain inflicted by an individual (or, indeed, a nation) that can help but chooses not to. As the new king, T’Challa commits himself to protecting Wakanda by continuing the isolationist tradition, although he does not yet recognize how destructive this tradition has been.

When set against a young king committed to keeping the secrets of his country safe from outsiders, Killmonger becomes a far more interesting villain. His main goal is to use Wakanda’s advanced technology to arm struggling communities so that they can conquer in the name of Wakanda. It’s tempting to dismiss Killmonger as just another megalomaniacal cartoon-book supervillain. The trouble is, though, the narrative refuses to portray Killmonger as entirely villainous. In fact, the narrative appears to side with Killmonger, allowing him to repeatedly chastise the leaders of Wakanda for keeping to itself while so many fellow Africans suffered.

Killmonger’s radical philosophy of “helping those less fortunate” has another ally: Nakia, a Wakandan spy and T’Challa’s ex-girlfriend. Rather than adhere to Wakanda’s non-interventionist policies, Nakia chose to work covertly, rendering aid and comfort in war-torn, struggling areas. This decision drives a wedge between her and T’Challa – as long as he chooses to follow in his father’s footsteps, they cannot be together. The audience sympathizes with Nakia… which means, to some extent, we sympathize with Killmonger, too.

At the end of the movie, T’Challa abandons his father’s path, and it is implied that Killmonger is part of what persuaded him. Wakanda ends its isolationism and opens a series of outreach centers throughout the world, including one in the same neighborhood where Killmonger was born and raised. The new Wakandan way resembles Killmonger’s scheme, except with fewer laser guns. Although the villain dies… he also kinda wins? And it’s a happy ending?

Moral ambiguity is delicious to us former English majors.

Wakanda is still a beautiful, vibrant country, but it is far from perfect. In fact, it has some flaws that run deep and go back, possibly centuries. Wakanda’s past does not invalidate the culture’s right to exist, as did Asgard’s; rather, Wakanda recognizes its obligation to atone for the past. Wakanda atones by doing what all of us with means should do, and what it should have been doing all along. Wakanda chooses to help its neighbors.

The story of Ragnarok seems to be one of national comeuppance – cathartic, maybe, but ultimately a bit limited. Black Panther, on the other hand, is about national repentance. And that’s something that every country could stand to consider more seriously.