Fantastic Beasts: Maybe Just Read the Books Again Instead

Warning: I’m going to write down just about everything that I can remember from this movie, so if you’re hoping to see The Crimes of Grindelwald unspoiled, then you should absolutely keep reading and see if I can’t persuade you to save yourself twelve bucks.

Or you can just go watch the movie first, I guess. But, staying or going, you’ve been warned. Here there be spoilers.

The fiancée and I went to see Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald tonight. She’s a big Harry Potter fan. Me? Not so much, although I do like the books, especially when narrated by Jim Dale. Still, we’ve had a lot of stress in our lives recently, and so a quiet night with a fun movie seemed like it should have been just the ticket we needed.

Instead, we left the movie theater very, very sad.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter started as a magical place, full of butterbeer, chocolate frogs, and silly make-believe words like “quidditch,” “muggle,” and “Hermione.” Unfortunately, the most recent Wizarding World stories don’t seem to be interested in the fanciful, fairy-tale nature of their source material, instead opting for the hyperactive blockbuster shenanigans of the lucrative Marvel Cinematic Universe. And, like the other franchises trying to snatch the throne from Marvel, they haven’t quite managed it.

I can already hear counter-arguments forming: “Harry Potter has grown up with its fans!” “This is the Empire Strikes Back of the franchise!” “What did you expect from a movie named after the biggest mass-murderer in the entire Wizarding World series?”

And… yeah, I concede that there’s always been a bit of darkness to the Harry Potter stories. There’s a murder or two in just about every book. Heck, the action that kicks the entire story off is the attempted murder of a baby.

But you know how that worked out? We spent the entire series following the exploits of “The Boy Who Lived.”

Right from the very beginning, there was a sense of optimism permeating through the story of Harry Potter. Tragedy never occurred simply for tragedy’s sake. When someone died, people mourned. They were shocked, grieved, angry… and, eventually, they healed. Our heroes experienced sadness, as do we all, but the sadness never felt cheap.

Well, except in The Deathly Hallows, I guess. Maybe that should have been a warning for where we’ve found ourselves now.

The violence in The Crimes of Grindelwald feels exploitative, but that in and of itself isn’t necessarily a crime. After all, fiction is, by its nature, somewhat exploitative. It pushes our buttons to give us that moment of emotional catharsis when the good guys finally win. Worse than exploitative, The Crimes of Grindelwald is cruel. Full stop.

Yes, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone starts with the attempted murder of an infant. Crimes of Grindelwald slides in, says “hold my beer,” and actually MURDERS the tyke. And then, to make sure we know just how serious Harry Potter is now, the movie kills ANOTHER baby. ON SCREEN.

And we’re just scratching the surface here. Remember the lovable flapper Yankee witch from the first Fantastic Beasts movie who falls in love with the bumbling yet charming muggle? Well, she’s evil now, and I’m not referring to her eventually siding up with Grindelwald. Her first act, just before the movie begins, is to mind-rape her beau to get him to marry her WHEN HE ALREADY SAID NO. I mean, consent is important, QUEENIE.

Oof, and we haven’t even touched on Grindelwald’s master plan to prevent the LITERAL NAZI HOLOCAUST by… orchestrating the mass slaughter of an entire population based solely on their lineage.

I haven’t been this angry at a movie since Batman v. Superman saw Jimmy Olson get shot in the head. Crimes of Grindelwald spends so much time committing the above war crimes that I haven’t gotten to the rest of Santa’s naughty list:

  • Why is Voldemort’s evil snake suddenly a sympathetic Asian lady now?
  • How the heck is Newt Scamander, of all people, suddenly in the middle of a love pentagon?
  • Why is the movie edited like an action scene from Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen?
  • Why does the movie seem to think we care about Leta Lestrange, a woman we have literally never seen before now and will likely never hear of again?
  • Why is the climax of the movie kicked off by a bad episode of PBS’s Finding Your Roots?
  • When did Johnny Depp turn into bargain-bin Jared Leto?
  • Just how many secret siblings does Dumbledore have?
  • Wait… did they manage to slip in a SECOND rape plot?

And finally:

  • Why couldn’t Eddie Redmayne be in a GOOD movie?

See, the biggest problem with the Fantastic Beasts movies is that they have a legitimately lovely protagonist in Newt Scamander, but they have no idea what to do with him. As portrayed by Redmayne, Scamander is awkward, shy, and bumbling, but he remains consistently sweet and charming. He’s not one of the slick, antisocial sociopaths that we so often get in nerd media – the type of person who claims to be too good for human interaction. No, Scamander is a genuinely good man with a deep affection for all living things.

In short, he’s the type of protagonist we desperately need more of, especially in our escapist fantasies. Unfortunately, such a character simply has no business being in a summer blockbuster with a half-hour action climax. Because, seriously, how is Scamander going to defeat Grindelwald? “Empathize” him to death? Don’t be ridiculous.

So to sum up: No, I didn’t like Fantastic Beasts: Special Victims Unit. But that doesn’t mean the movie is completely without redeeming value. In fact, there was one little moment that got me genuinely smiling, and, in the interest of spreading at least a little positivity, I’m going to share that here:

Newt Scamander and his love interest from the first movie, Tina Goldstein (played by Katherine Waterston) have hit a rocky point in their relationship. The reason for their estrangement is… well, it’s pure plot contrivance. Utterly ridiculous. It’s…

NO! BAD BRADDY! POSITIVE TIME!

Anyway, during his adventures, Newt interacts with this curious monster that looks more than a little like Falcor the Luck Dragon. He manages to calm the beast down by dangling a cat toy in front of it and adopting a playful posture. It’s a pretty charming moment that feels like a return to some of the best moments from the first film.

(A brief aside: the Braddy cut of the Fantastic Beasts franchise would just be all the scenes where Redmayne interacts with the creatures. That’s it.)

Anyway, at a later point in the film, Newt and Tina have raided the French Ministry of Magic, searching for some bit of Lestrange family lore. They get briefly distracted by their personal drama. The ensuing awkward exchange has both of them talking over each other. We learn here that Tina read the book that Newt had been working on during his visit to America.

Soon, the movie decides it needs another action set piece, and out comes Falcor for a romp about the library. Newt and his friends escape, riding on Falcor’s back, and the beastie has a hard time calming back down. This time, however, it’s Tina to the rescue. She produces another cat toy and adopts the same pose and mannerisms that Newt used previously to calm the Luck Dragon down.

How did she know what to do? She read his book.

It’s a tiny moment, but that scene – heck, that one shot of Tina with the cat toy – beautifully illustrates the affection Tina felt for Newt even during his absence. Even more, though, it shows that Newt’s empathy is contagious. Newt’s defining characteristic is kindness. Kindness is what makes Newt special, but it is not unique to him. Anyone can learn to be kind. Including Tina. Including me and you.

As for how effective that kindness is in combating literal magic Nazis… well, that’s unfortunately a whole different discussion.

I harbor a lot of mistrust towards anything that purports to be “non-fiction.” If I know you’re lying to me, I can figure out what you’re trying to say. But if you say you’re telling me the truth, then I’m immediately suspicious.

I have a complex.

Thus, you’d expect that I wouldn’t go out of my way to catch a limited-release documentary – and you’d generally be right. However, we’re talking about Fred Rogers here, the closest America has ever come to producing a universally-acknowledged saint. The man has a reputation for being one of the kindest, most sincere individuals to ever rise to public prominence. I guess I was looking for a little kindness and sincerity.

I don’t have enough of a reference pool for documentaries to know if this one is a good one, so if you’re here for deep, insightful film criticism… I mean, I liked it. Of course I did. Go see it. See it twice. Take your dad. He misses you.

I didn’t come away from Won’t You Be My Neighbor? trying to figure out what it was trying to sell me on. I didn’t walk away looking for inconsistencies, or questioning whether everything I just saw actually happened, or if the subjects interviewed really believed what they said about Fred Rogers. I came away questioning MYSELF, more than anything. And I found myself wanting.

Fred Rogers had a ministry, a calling from God, to teach and support children. He vowed to help children cope with the difficulties of life so that they could grow into stronger, braver adults. He wanted (and I apologize for the cliché) to “make the world a better place.”

I’m not sure he ever felt like he succeeded in that ministry.

In one of the most striking moments of the film, Rogers questions whether the good he does is enough. In the wake of 9/11, he sees the immensity of evil in the world, and, for a moment, he feels defeated. Sure, he pulls together in the end and delivers a hopeful message, just as we all knew he would, but that doubt was there.

At the end of his life, Rogers questioned, “Am I a sheep?” Meaning, will I be saved, or will I, like the goats, go to hell? Was my ministry enough, or did I disappoint my creator?

I don’t know that I have ever related to a cultural icon more in my life. I know, objectively, that my little corner of the world is in better shape than it’s ever been before. However, I see so, so many problems, and I feel this great desire to try to do something about them, fix them. And it never, ever feels like its enough.

Thus, I feel like a failure. Like so many people do. Like Fred Rogers did, despite all his extraordinary success. What can you do?

Well, one thing you can do is maybe take to heart a little wisdom from the man himself: “…for all the rest of your days and nights, I hope you can remember that you never have to do anything sensational for people to love you.”

It seems apparent to me, reading this now, that I waited a few days after seeing Won’t You Be My Neighbor? before writing. Coming out of the theater, I felt cheery and uplifted. Today, however, I feel worn down, tired, and frustrated. And that’s shaped my perspective on the film more than a bit, I’m sure.

It’s true: you will never do enough good to outweigh the bad. It’s literally impossible. Hopefully, however, we don’t look at the enormity of the task and give up. Rather, we should take it as a challenge: “We can never do ‘enough’ good, so why should we ever stop?”

Do whatever good you can, wherever you can, however you can. Bolster the fearful. Comfort the mourner. Stand by your friends, and have patience with those you disagree with.

And, seriously, call your dad. Don’t make me ask you again.

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:

ROUND ONE

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.

ROUND TWO

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.

ROUND 3

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.

ROUND FOUR

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…

ROUND FIVE – THE FINAL ROUND

“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:

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.

This Is the Greatest Show? This Is? THIS Is?

I’m a big fan of the movie musical renaissance we’ve been experiencing over the past few years. You can tell I’m a fan, because I call it a “renaissance” even though we only get one of these big budget productions every year, discounting that magical time when both Annie and Into the Woods ran in theaters at the same time. You can also tell I’m a fan because I keep going to these movies, even though they’re… well, pretty bad, most of the time. Nobody complains about anything quite like fans do.

But that’s pretty much the way I feel about musicals in general. Musical theater has pretty much always been a style over substance genre. Put a gun to my head and demand I name five musicals that have more to offer than sparkly production values, and I’ll probably just say Hamilton five times and hope you don’t notice.

So imagine my surprise when I went to see The Greatest Showman the other night and discovered, to my absolute delight, that this movie musical is divinely and spectacularly… fine. It’s… it’s fine.

The Greatest Showman stars Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum, a cancelled Silent Hills project… I mean, a devoted husband and father who struggles to keep his woman in the manner to which she has become accustomed by putting on shows, which employ all sorts of people who have been ostracized by society. Even though he takes his performers for granted, Barnum eventually recognizes that, through his circus shows, these men and women have found a place to call home and a group of people who accept them as they are.

And, look, I get that there’s significant value in advertising the theater as a place where all are welcome. It’s one of the things I love most about theater. I still get choked up a bit thinking about that time James Corden hosted the Tony Awards. I’ll even admit that using rare genetic conditions as a metaphor for the “outsider” status that tends to follow so many who find solace in the theater is, though a little clunky, not actually a bad idea. But there are definite issues with telling that kind of story using P.T. Barnum as your protagonist, especially when you consider that the people Barnum employs were shunned due to their physical abnormalities, like being a woman with a beard, or a being only three-foot-tall, or… being… black.

Hoo, boy.

This is kinda messy, because P.T. Barnum was a real person with a… complicated relationship with race. The Smithsonian published a pretty detailed discussion of Barnum’s rise to fame, which involved fewer wax dummies and more slaves. One slave, in particular: Joice Heth, an elderly woman who, Barnum claimed, served George Washington. She was old, but not that old. Barnum toured with Heth, making his outlandish claims pretty much right up to the day she died. Then he sold tickets to her autopsy.

Seriously. That happened.

It feels like The Greatest Showman wanted to address Barnum’s early racism, but it didn’t know how to do so without making him more unsympathetic (and you don’t want to do that – Hugh Jackman needs to be sympathetic). So they decided to address racism by having Barnum’s partner, Phillip Carlyle, fall for one of the black performers, Anne Wheeler (played by Zendaya). Which would be a fine solution, I guess, if either of those people actually existed. Which they don’t.

This is why I have trust issues. In a year where there was so much debate over preserving our history, be it good or bad, that a movie “inspired by a true story” would try to ignore the less salient aspects of Barnum’s life. Especially since they probably didn’t have to.

See, Barnum eventually went into politics, where he appeared to regret his treatment of Joice Heth. He even argued in favor of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, saying:

“A human soul, ‘that God has created and Christ died for,’ is not to be trifled with. It may tenant the body of a Chinaman, a Turk, an Arab or a Hottentot – it is still an immortal spirit.”

Where’s my movie about THAT guy? I’m picturing Lincoln, but with jugglers and The Tattooed Man.

The Greatest Showman does have some good stuff to offer, in particular a wonderful performance from Jackman and some of the best dancing I’ve seen in a film… pretty much ever. But I can’t help thinking that it’d be a stronger film if it were about Peachy Buckingham, pretty fictional circus boy. And then we could get a serious, Oscar-worthy film called Barnum: The Spectacle of Conscience. Starring Javier Bardem.

Braddy’s Pick: The Best Movie of 2017

One day in, 2018 is looking good, but it feels wrong to begin a new year with such a fresh, optimistic start.  No, the appropriate way to begin a new year is with a sleepy, half-dead gaze back into the year just completed, even when that year was the rampaging, odious dumpster fire that was 2017.

(Generally speaking, I mean.  2017 was actually pretty good to me on a personal level).

Now, it’s been a real molasses minute since I last wrote… well, any dang thing.  I’m making it a goal in 2018 to do more writing generally, and so the time felt right to dust the ol’ WordPress account off and ease myself back in to writing by effusing at length about my favorite movie of the last year:

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Best movie of the year.  Definitely the best of the Marvel films.  Might even be the best “comic book” movie of all time.  Fight me.

I’m a little hesitant to try to say anything about GOTG2, as there are already a fair number of insightful takes out there.  Heck, I’ll even link you to my favorite, which probably says a lot more of substance about the film than I could.  Still, no movie came even close to eliciting as strong an emotional response from me as this big-budget special-effects blockbuster about an emotionally-stunted man-child who likes Pac-Man a little too much.

…which actually sounds a little too familiar, now that I’ve typed that sentence out…

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So here I sit, at 1:30 in the morning.  I’ve got a head cold and can’t sleep, and I’m trying to put into words exactly why I found this, the popcorniest movie of the year, just so revelatory.

I could bring up the way each character carried over from the first film experiences their own story arc that builds on the place where we left them at the end of GOTG part 1.  That may not sound like a big deal, but it’s pretty darn rare, especially in these serialized movie franchises.  If you don’t believe me, name the James Bond movie that ends with 007 actually learning something about himself.

While you’re doing that, I’ll point out how Drax, having gotten a handle on most of his anger issues in the last film, now serves as something of a mentor/father figure to Peter Quill in the new film.  I’ll also point out how Gamora and Nebula use their obligatory girl-on-girl fight to actually deal with their history.  I’ll also (also) point out how Peter Quill, a noted womanizer, is now warming up to the idea of a single-woman relationship, but he still struggles to understand what he can really offer in such a relationship, and so he finds himself stuck in the “teammate zone”

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I could bring up the absolutely inspired use of licensed music.  GOTG: Part the First brough a lot of really iconic songs to the soundtrack and managed the feat of making “The Piñat Colada” song almost listenable.  The songs ing GOTG2 aren’t quite as timeless, but they are put to far greater effect – in particular, Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain.”

I’m a bit late to the idea that Fleetwood Mac is better than their reputation as “my dad’s music” would imply.  While I still have absolutely no use for “Landslide,” I’ve got nothing but love for “The Chain,” a song which explores the resolve of a couple on the rocks to make their commitment work while simultaneously describing the exact moment their relationship completely implodes.  It’s either cognitive dissonance of the highest order or the type of rich, emotionally complex lyricism that these durn kids with their “dabbing” just don’t hear anymore.

”The Chain” plays twice in GOTG2.  During the first scene, the team is splitting up in the middle of a pretty nasty fight between Quill and Rocket.  None of their grievances have gotten resolved, mainly because neither party is owning up to what’s really bothering them (Quill’s acting tough to mask his insecurity, while Rocket’s trapped in a self-loathing spiral which causes him to actively push people away).

The second time we hear the song, it’s during the big climactic fight between Quill and his father, the Celestial Ego.  We’ll leave aside the on-the-nose metaphor about how Quill has to overcome Ego in order to save the day and focus on the familial relationship.  Quill lost his mother at the start of the first movie; now, he’s losing his father, too.  At the same time, though, he’s reunited with his team, and they’ve been joined by Yondu, a man who, for all his flaws, has very much been a father to Quill.  Although his biological family is now shattered beyond repair, Quill finds himself part of a different family, one of his own choosing, and they make a chain that can never be broken.

Hey, that’s kinda like what the song says…

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Neither of those points really touch on what really grabs me about this film, though.  The real reason I love this movie so much is that it made me cry, repeatedly, every time I watched it.  And I watched it three times in a single month, which is kind of ridiculous for me.

Although 2017 was, as I said, a pretty good year for me personally, it was also the year where I lost my grandfather.  He spent the last several years of his life in a rest home for U.S. veterans, lying in bed and watching military documentaries.  When he died, he received a military funeral, complete with a flag ceremony.

I have… complicated feelings about patriotism in general.  Those feelings get even muddier when you start to mix in the military. That said, I am nothing but grateful for the way the armed services took care of my grandfather in his final years, and I will always remember the respect and reverence showed by the soldier in his uniform, who folded up the American flag and presented it to my grandmother.

In the concluding scene of GOTG2, Yondu gets the Ravager sendoff he thought he would be denied after his death.  As his remains are scattered through space, the lights of hundred of fireworks blaze around him.  The pomp and ceremony that accompanied Yondu’s funeral remind me of a similar ceremony conducted at my grandfather’s graveside.

But that’s not the image that gets me.  We cut, for just a few seconds, to one of Yondu’s ravager buddies, played by Sean Gunn.  Gunn’s character sees the lights and cheers rowdily, tears running as he pounds his chest in a military salute.  He mourns his captain, of course, but he feels a great surge of joy, knowing that his friend has been remembered.

It’s a powerful moment, perhaps the strongest I’ve ever experienced while watching a superhero flick.  Would I have felt so strongly about this scene if I hadn’t just buried my grandfather?  Possibly.  I doubt it, though.  I also don’t think it matters much.  In the end, art is really about the bond between the piece itself and the consumer.  Although there were probably more important movies I could be talking about, I bonded with none of them as strongly as I did with this one.