Infinity War at the Federalist

A new Federalist article is up, this one based off of Avengers Infinity War and talking about some of the same things I’ve been writing about recently.

Sample:

In other words, Thanos is a classic student of Thomas Malthus: a believer in the threat of overpopulation, only on a universal scale and with a blend of Marxist utopianism. He points to poverty, hunger, and environmental devastation as proof of his theory and boasts that in worlds he has “balanced” (by conquering and massacring half the population) no one goes hungry. He believes that his efforts are necessary to create the best life possible for the most people, and he believes it so strongly that he is willing to do quite literally anything to achieve it.

Yet, though he is a monster, Thanos is also, for lack of a better word, a very human character. He does terrible things, but we see he feels the horror of them, and he carries himself at all times like a man bearing a tremendous burden. When the other characters reject his arguments, he doesn’t fly into a rage, but only shakes his head in sad frustration that he can’t make them understand. Again, he genuinely believes in what he is doing and thinks that he is the only one with the knowledge and will to do what has to be done. He feels he has been given a tremendous responsibility and must do whatever it takes to carry it out.

 

Thus, Thanos has a similar mindset to the Marxists and other leftists of the past century or so: he has a clear idea of the state of affairs that he is aiming to achieve, which he believes will eliminate the suffering he sees around him under the current system and save the world from a greater disaster down the road. Most importantly, he believes that anything and everything can be justified if it forwards this goal. The “agenda,” the final utopian state to be achieved, is more important than anything happening now, just as Marxists believed that “truth” and “justice” meant anything that forwarded the revolution.

Read the rest here

How I Would have Written ‘Black Panther’

As I’ve said before, the more I think about Black Panther the worse the writing in the film gets. As a side effect, I found myself thinking about how I might have done it instead, had I been in charge of writing it. The result was the following rough outline, which I now present to you (by the way, I don’t know how much this fits with the ‘Black Panther’ comics, but from what I’ve seen of the comics, I don’t particularly care).

black-panther-concept-art

We open on darkness, a child’s voice says “Papa, tell me a story.”

The voice of T’Chaka then begins narrating in a kindly, fatherly manner:

“Many, many years ago, a mountain fell from the sky in a blaze of fire. Its arrival was so terrible that for many years no one dared approach it. But in its fall, ten pieces of it were thrown off and scattered among the tribes. And wherever they landed, they brought strife and violence, for they were worth more than all the gold and gems in the world. Warriors fought one another like beasts for them, and all the land was in woe.

Then, one day, a great warrior, seeing the chaos, said to himself ‘I shall take these fragments back to the fallen mountain, so they may trouble us no more.’ For years he travelled the length and breadth of the land, winning each piece by defeating the ten greatest warriors in the world.

At the end of that time, he had all ten pieces and was the richest man there ever was. He could have used them to rule a mighty empire. But he kept to his vow and, taking the precious fragments, climbed to the summit of the fallen mountain.

Upon the summit, he met Basth, the Panther Goddess. She was so struck by his courage and his honesty that she said to him: “Of all the men on the earth, you are the first who has touched my heart. Therefore I shall marry you, and give you all this mountain for my dowry.”

The warrior and the goddess were wed, and founded their city about the slopes of the Fallen Mountain. The goddess taught him how to use the mountain’s bones to make tools and weapons, and by her craft she wove it into a suit of armor modeled after her beloved panther, and the ten fragments became its claws.

Thus they brought order and peace between the five tribes, and Wakanda was born.

For many, many years, the warrior and the goddess ruled over the five tribes in peace and justice. But the warrior was mortal, and so grew old and, in time, died. Basth was inconsolable with grief, and returned to the sky to mourn her lost love. But before she went she took her son and the leaders of the five tribes to the top of the mountain to give her final command.

“All this land, from the river to the white peaks, is Wakanda,” she said. “It is your forever, my children, and none shall take it from you. But I warn you: never, never seek to expand its borders beyond these limits. For your own land is enough for you, and your own treasure enough to guard. If ever you attempt to become a cruel empire and rule over your kin, this mountain, and all its treasure, will be taken back to the sky.”

Then the goddess departed, and ever since then, her descendants have ruled Wakanda and guarded its treasures, and shall do so until the sun falls.”

We now see the jungle at night. A cloaked platform is hidden among the trees, from which M’Baku, a skilled warrior and a giant gorilla of a man, is peering along what looks to be a blowpipe at a line of vehicles wending its way through the forest.

“I make five,” he says.

“Six,” comes the answer. We pan up to see the outline of the Black Panther crouched on a tree branch, watching the convoy.

Another figure in a horned mask, wearing scale armor, sits in the tree beside M’Baku. This is Eklabu. He orders M’Baku to take out the lead vehicle, but Black Panther orders them to wait until the convoy crosses the border into Wakanda.

We see from the vehicle point of view as they cross a rickety bridge over a raging river into Wakandan territory, rolling over the border gate and ignoring the signs forbidding entrance. They draw further into Wakandan territory before Black Panther orders M’Baku to take out the lead vehicle.

M’Baku affixes a small cylinder to the end of his pipe, takes aim, and blows. We then see that the ‘blow gun’ is actually a rail-gun. As soon as he puts the little stone suspended in the cylinder into motion by blowing it, it is swiftly accelerated to just below the speed of light. It hits the lead vehicle with the force of a bomb.

The convoy stops in a panic and the mercenaries get out, armed to the teeth. Then Black Panther swoops in and begins expertly disabling them. He doesn’t kill them, only rips their weapons apart and knocks them out. Eklabu appears as well, attacking from the rear. He savagely tears into the men, brutally massacring them by stabbing and slicing with his spear or simply beating them senseless with his super-human strength and agility. One of the mercenaries throws down his gun and tries to surrender. Eklabu picks him up and bashes his brains out against the side of the truck so hard that he dents the fender (we only see the resulting blood-stained impression).

Black Panther furiously orders him to stand down as Okoye, his Amazonian bodyguard and her troops appear from the bushes. Black Panther checks on the human cargo, tells them they are now safe, and orders Okoye to take them back to their homes before leaving with Eklabu.

Back in the forward base hidden among the trees, T’Challa and Eklabu both take off their helmets. T’Challa angrily rebukes him for his savagery, while Eklabu answers that the men were scum who deserved to die.

T’Challa: “Not when they are trying to surrender!”

Eklabu then angrily points to the suffering going on all around them while they sit in their borders and do nothing.

Eklabu: “Right across that river people are being slaughtered and enslaved, and we do nothing. Then they travel two miles out of their way, suddenly it matters to us.”

T’Challa says their duty is to protect Wakanda; that is the purpose of the royal family. Furthermore, once they start trying to fix other people’s problems, it will never end, and they are liable to only make things worse. We learn here that they are cousins, and that Eklabu’s father was killed during a mission that went bad during a war in the Congo.

The argument escalates, and finally Eklabu snaps “you are not king yet.”

They return to the capital, where we meet T’Challa’s mother and sister. His sister, Shuri, is a tall, extremely dignified young woman; every inch the daughter of a king. She, we learn, rules Wakanda in her brother’s absence.

Everyone treats T’Challa with immense respect bordering on fear. He carries himself as a king at every moment and his people bow reverently whenever they see him.

T’Challa next visits the armory, where he meets Zurai, their lead scientist. He is a venerable, gray haired man in charge of a scientific team. He is also grooming his rebellious daughter, Nakia, to one day take on the mantle. Nakia is a cute, sunny young woman with a great love for western culture. She also is the only one who can tease the king and get away with it, which she proceeds to do by pestering him about whether he got Iron Man or Captain America’s autograph. T’Challa takes it in stride, smiling benignly on her and humoring her. During this time, Zurai describes the Wakandan power grid, which is formed by the resonance of all the vibranium throughout the country, creating an infinite supply of energy.

As T’Challa leaves, we see Nakia gazing longingly after him, only for her father to smack her upside the head and remind her that the king will not give a thought to the likes of her. She answers “doesn’t mean I can’t give a thought to him.”

We next get another scene of T’Challa and Eklabu, in the latter’s chamber where they seem to reconcile. T’Challa tells him that he needs his support, as guarding the borders will be Eklabu’s duty, and that he is open to the possibility of taking a more active role in the world, especially after what he saw with the Avengers, but only if they can find a way that will not jeopardize Wakanda. The cousins then share a moment of levity.

The next day is the coronation, wherein T’Challa assumes the throne. This takes place at the summit of the Fallen Mountain (not in some stupid waterfall arena), where legend has it the warrior first met and wed Basth. The five tribes and the Royal family, together with certain dignitaries (including Zurai and his daughter) are assembled, and the high priest reads out King T’Chaka’s achievements before offering T’Challa the throne. He then asks whether any one wishes to dispute T’Challa’s right to be king.

To everyone’s shock, Eklabu does so. He announces that T’Chaka murdered his father, that he saw it happen as a boy, and that “twenty years with a murderer on the throne is long enough.” During his description, we see a flashback to him as a boy hiding behind a corner while T’Chaka and his father argue. Suddenly there is a gunshot, and when Eklabu emerged he found his father dead.

T’Challa is enraged and the ceremonial combat begins. The two savagely beat on each other using their superhuman speed and power, with Eklabu pouring out all the anger he’s kept bottled up for two decades against T’Challa and his father. It finally ends with T’Challa being thrown off the cliff, presumably to his death. Eklabu then assumes the throne, promising to restore the dignity of the throne.

Late that night, the distraught Nakia sneaks out of the city to try to find T’Challa’s body. She is caught by M’Baku, who turns out to have the same object. They search, but find nothing. Then, all of a sudden, T’Challa himself comes crawling out of the forest, incapacitated by a spinal injury, but alive. He wants to challenge Eklabu at once, but the others remind him that, one, the ceremony is over and he has no right to do so, and two, he is no state to try even if he could.

T’Challa thus decides to leave Wakanda to heal and plan his campaign. Nakia insists on going with him, as does M’Baku.

We cut to the palace where Eklabu finds Shuri standing by a window. He walks up to her and expresses his surprise that she remains. She comments that her place is beside the throne. When Elabu asks whether it isn’t a risk for her to remain within his reach, given his hatred of her father and brother, she answers “to be killed by you would put me in better company than to rule with you.”

His claws (he’s wearing the Black Panther suit) start to come out at that, but she then adds that he would not dare lay a hand on her. He’s surprised, then laughs that he is the king and can do what he likes.

Shuri: “And I am a princess. Do you think the people of Wakanda would stand it if you raised a hand against a member of the royal family?”

He grins. “I am the Black Panther. What could they do?”

Shuri smiles and begins describing the composition of the wall he is standing behind, before concluding “Do you know how much resistance that would provide to a rail gun aimed at your unprotected head? None at all.”

This disturbs him visibly, and she adds “A king only rules as long as his people will allow him to. Perhaps you should have thought of that before you killed my brother.”

Eklabu retreats to his chambers, where he prays and has a vision of his father. He discusses the future, and his father agrees that Wakanda will not be easily swayed to break its long isolation. Eklabu says he will give them no choice, and declares that he’ll take all of Africa before he’s done.

T’Challa, Nakia, and M’Baku flee Wakanda and end up in a neighboring nation call Buandi, where they find a ‘doctors without borders’ station to have T’Challa’s spine looked at. The doctor is amazed that he is still alive and able to move with his injury. He is reluctant to operate, and M’Baku angrily orders him to obey. The doctor protests that he might kill him, and M’Baku says that if T’Challa dies, he dies.

Doctor: “Well now I’m definitely not gonna try!”

T’Challa intervenes and assures the doctor that he will be him no grudge if anything goes wrong, ordering M’Baku to stand down.

The argument attracts the attention of Everett Ross, the CIA operative, who walks into the tent and whistles in recognition of T’Challa.

Ross: “Your highness. I’m sure there’s a reason the King of Wakanda is in an aid tent, but you don’t look in the mood to tell me.”

The doctor says he wants him to perform a spinal surgery, Ross advises him to try as “He’s pretty good at surviving.”

The doctor operates, resetting T’Challa’s spine while the king refuses morphine and grits his teeth. Nakia impulsively tries to hold his hand, but he doesn’t take hers.

The surgery completed, he lies there while his superhuman cells heal his injury, and Nakia and M’Baku tell Ross about Eklabu’s coup.

Ross: “Where I come from we have elections. They’re nowhere near as civil, but people generally walk away with intact spines.”

T’Challa asks what Ross is doing there, and Ross says that he’s interviewing survivors of the latest massacre. When the Wakandans express confusion, Ross explains that Buandi is in civil war and has been for years; the rebels prey on poor farming villages and travellers, while the government forces focus on protecting such business interests as the country has and avoid engaging with the militants if possible. This, he says, is because the rebels are armed with hi-tech weaponry.

Hearing this, T’Challa sits up, wincing, but looking fierce.

T’Challa: “What kind of weaponry?”

Ross: “Funny you should ask. You, see I’m here looking for their supplier, and I have an idea you’ve met.”

Cut to an old ivory station in the jungle. Here Ulysses Klaue has his base of operations. We see him interrogating one of his workers and accusing the man of dealing under the table. His right arm a mechanical nightmare that lives up to his name.

Klaue tells the man that, in his organization, “you’re only allowed to cheat when I say so.” The man pleads, obviously terrified of Klaue, that he’s innocent. Klaue acts surprised at hearing that.

Klaue: “Oh, innocent? Well, that changes everything. I’m sorry; I had no idea.”

He turns away, feigning distress, then suddenly whips around and fires a blue laser from his mechanical palm, blasting the man to ash.

Klaue: “I’ve got no use for innocent people in my organization.”

Klaue then goes into his chambers to look over some new weaponry. Suddenly the Black Panther drops from the ceiling. Klaue, apparently unconcerned, gives a mock bow.

Klaue: “Your royal highness. This is an honor, and so soon after your coronation too! Allow me, as one who so admires the throne of Wakanda, to express my congratulations.”

Eklabu removes his helmet and asks how he knows so much. Klaue answers that even in Wakanda there are people on the bottom of the ladder who are willing to sell what they know. Eklabu smilingly asks whether he’d be willing to give the names of these people, Klaue answers that it depends on what he’ll bid for them. Eklabu asks whether he thinks he’s there to bargain, Klaue replies that, if he weren’t, they wouldn’t be speaking.

Eklabu tells Klaue that he wants the Buandi war to spill over in to Wakanda. He wants Wakandan blood spilled on Wakandan soil. Klaue laughs that he’s buying the deaths of his own people.

Klaue: “You’re a trader in death. A killmonger.”

Eklabu answers that a little blood is necessary to wake his people out of their stupor. He tells Klaue to name his price…and to throw in the names of informants as well, as “A king needs his spies.”

Klaue laughs and pours them both a drink.

Klaue: “Is this the beginning of a beautiful friendship?”

Eklabu: “I wouldn’t count on it.”

Klaue (toasts): “Good answer.”

We cut back to T’Challa, who is talking with Ross. Ross suggests that, if T’Challa intends to retake the throne, he might consider cutting a trade deal with the US in exchange for aid. T’Challa feigns ignorance; what does he think Wakanda has to offer? Ross says he has an idea:

Ross: “I see the king of a third world country running around in the most advanced body armor I’ve ever seen, then I think about how you’re also the only place that produces the most valuable medal in the world, and suddenly I start to wonder whether Wakanda is quite so poor as it makes out.”

T’Challa: “I don’t know what you are talking about.”

Ross: (Smiles) “Alright. But if you change your mind, remember the US is pretty good at changing governments.”

M’Baku: “Pretty good at taking over governments, you mean!”

Ross: “That too.”

T’Challa says that he will not sell the honor of Wakanda for his throne.

He leaves Ross and walks into the jungle, where, out of sight of everyone, he punches a tree so hard he shatters the trunk.

Nakia: “Careful! I think that one’s endangered! Can’t start our lives in the outside world by offending the environmentalists: according to the internet they basically run the place.”

T’Challa: “Do not follow me.”

Nakia: “I am sorry. I only thought…you might not want to be alone.

T’Challa: “That is exactly what I do want. I need to think…to plan how I am going to regain my throne.”

Nakia looks troubled, then begs permission to speak.

T’Challa: “I am not king, Nakia; you do not have to beg permission.”

Nakia: “But I think I should, because you are not going to like what I have to say.”

She suggests that trying to retake the throne might make things worse: like it or not, he lost the fight and so has no real claim to it anymore. As long as Eklabu keeps the support of the tribes, T’Challa would only, at best, bring civil war to Wakanda. At worst he’d get himself killed.

She shrinks back in alarm when glares at her, but then he slumps to the ground and says that perhaps he doesn’t deserve to king anyway. If what Eklabu said was true…Nakia says it wasn’t. It couldn’t be.

T’Challa: “I’ve seen, and felt, hatred like that before. It does not come from nothing.”

He asks her to leave him, and he begins to engage in fervent prayer, communing with the spirit of his father, who appears to him in a vision. T’Challa confesses how much he misses him, and that he feels he has failed.

T’Chaka answers that he is the one who failed. T’Challa asks whether it is true he killed his own brother, and T’Chaka hesitates, which to T’Challa’s mind confirms it. The vision ends with him roaring his agony to the sky.

Suddenly, he hears gunfire coming from what Ross says is the direction of a nearby village. T’Challa draws a deep breath, pushes his own suffering down, and begins running through the forest.

Meanwhile Ross is on the phone trying to get UN troops to come and help. When he fails to get through he grabs a rifle and asks M’Baku if he’s any good in a fight. M’Baku laughs and shoulders his rail gun.

We cut to the village, where women and children are being herded to one corner while the men futilely try to fight. The militants all have vibranium armor and carry powerful energy weapons. One man is seen defending his wife and children with a farm tool, which shatters against the militant’s armor. The bad guy laughs at the blow, beats the man to the ground, and prepares to decapitate him.

T’Challa (wearing a black mask over his face), comes flying in from the trees with a noise like a panther roar, dispatches the militant with a few quick blows and relieves him of his blade and knife. The other militants turn on him, and with his new weapons he begins utterly decimating them with his speed, agility, and raw power, slashing at them like a cat with his blades.

A jeep armed with a machine gun rolls up and opens fire on T’Challa, who dodges and ducks, but can’t get close enough to attack…then it blows up with a single shot from M’Baku’s rail-gun.

Ross: “…Can I borrow that sometime?”

M’Baku: (threatening growl)

T’Challa finishes up by beating up the militant leader, but refrains from killing him.

Back in Wakanda, Eklabu, together with the leaders of the five tribes, Shuri, and the queen mother are participating in a ritual honoring Basth. Suddenly, it is interrupted when a missile lands in the midst of the circle, killing the five leaders and the queen, though Eklabu saves Shuri, who escapes injured.

As the dust settles, one of the guards says that the weapon came from outside the borders, but was of Wakandan make. Eklabu says that this proves that someone has been stealing Wakandan technology, and that their borders are no longer enough to keep them safe. One of his cronies then comes forward saying that they have intelligence that T’Challa is alive and has been seen conferring with foreigners, together with Zurai’s daughter, who knows the secrets of Wakandan tech. Zurai is furious at the accusation, but Eklabu asks if he has a better explanation for what happens. With the support of the people, he assumes full control and tells them to prepare for war to avenge this atrocity and secure Wakanda against foreign treachery.

Back at the village, T’Challa, Nakia, and M’Baku help the villagers while Ross interrogates the militants. Nakia has a moment where she tenderly cares for a little girl who has been injured in the fight, cheering her up with a folk song. T’Challa watches with admiration.

Ross appears with the news that they now have Klaue’s base, but that it’s deep in the rebel-controlled zone where the military won’t go. He suggests that the three of them might be able to mount an attack. Nakia insists on coming as well, noting that they might need her to get around Klaue’s tech. She also repairs some of the weapons recovered from the militants.

M’Baku tries to prevent Ross from taking one, noting that only Wakandans are permitted to use them.

Ross: “Well, you know us white people: not big on respecting local customs.” (picks up the weapon).

M’Baku gets angry, but T’Challa stops him, noting that they’ll need Ross’s help.

That night, we have a tense scene of the four of them infiltrating Klaue’s camp. As they approach, they realize Klaue is about to make another shipment of weapons, these worse than before: long-range emplaced rail-guns that could be mounted on vehicles or behind fortifications. These could destroy any vehicle currently in use.

T’Challa takes out his guards one-by-one with stealth, then Nakia slips in to take down his alarm system and stop the shipment, which is being delivered by drone as added security. Klaue, meanwhile, senses something wrong and starts moving toward her position. T’Challa gives the signal and M’Baku and Ross open fire, distracting him and focusing his attention on them. Nakia succeeds, then T’Challa attacks, taking out Klaue’s guards before going one-on-one with him.

Klaue is extremely dangerous with his mechanical hand, as well as suit of vibranium armor similar to what Eklabu wore in the opening. Ross and M’Baku join in, then Nakia, who distracts him long enough for T’Challa to catch him off guard and tear his mechanical arm off.

Klaue, however, seems unconcerned, cracking jokes at T’Challa’s expense for losing his throne. He also reveals Eklabu’s falseflag attack, and that he killed T’Challa’s mother as well as the five tribal leaders, and that “Killmonger” means to conquer Africa and maybe the world. He also reveals that Eklabu has blamed T’Challa for the attack and for selling Wakandan technology to the outside world, meaning he’ll be arrested and executed if he tries to return.

T’Challa is furious and ready to kill Klaue, but he then plays his final hand: he’ll give T’Challa a recording of his meeting with Killmonger in exchange for one hour’s head start. And, he says, considering Killmonger will start his war in the morning, they don’t really have time to search for it…or to go after him.

M’Baku asks what’s to prevent them from taking the deal and killing him anyway.

Klaue: “Oh, I have much too much respect for the throne of Wakanda to think you’d do that. A king would never go back on his word, would he?”

Furious, T’Challa accedes to Klaue’s deal. Klaue gives him the recording and then disappears.

They then have to decide what to do about it: T’Challa must challenge Eklabu for the throne, but he fears whether he is truly worthy of it, given the history of his family. Moreover, Nakia points out that, with the five chiefs dead, Eklabu basically runs the government alone, and that they may have a fight to even get to position where they can use the recording against him. Ross offers the support of the CIA in exchange for vibranium, but T’Challa refuses.

Ross: “Well, not to play the white savior, but Eklabu has an army. An army that you claim is the most advanced in the world, while you have yourself, a girl, and a great ape.” (M’Baku glares at him) “I mean that in the best possible way. Let us help you!”

T’Challa refuses, saying he cannot bargain for his throne with foreigners, growing angry.

T’Challa: “You don’t care about Wakanda. You are just like all the rest of your people: only after what you can get.”

Ross: “I don’t care about who sits on a chair in the most isolated country on Earth? You’re right; I don’t. Why should I? What have you people ever done that I should care? At the moment, what I’m after is some way to convince my government that stopping this war, which is claiming the lives of thousands of innocent people, is in our best interests, and if we had an ally in the region, an ally who supplies extremely valuable technology and resources, that might be a reason. But I don’t suppose that matters to you.”

T’Challa lunges at him in anger, but Nakia stops him. He then demands to be left alone.

As the others leave, Nakia becomes upset and confesses to M’Baku that she’s afraid no matter what happens: if T’Challa fails, he’ll die. If he succeeds…she doesn’t finish, but he understands and gives him a comforting bear hug.

Meanwhile T’Challa prays once more, communing with his ancestors for guidance. He has a vision in which he sees, not his father, but an upright, elderly woman (in an ideal world she’d be played by Eartha Kitt). This, it turns out, is Basth herself. T’Challa admits to her that he is uncertain what to do and whether he is even worthy to be king.

Basth: “It is not the armor that makes you the Black Panther: it is what is beneath the armor. In here.” (she places her hand over his heart) “If anyone can stop you from being a king by taking your throne or your crown or your armor, then you never were one to begin with. But I don’t believe that for a moment.”

He returns to the present and declares that, by the next sunset, he will be on the throne or in the ground of Wakanda. Nakia and M’Baku volunteer to go with them, as does Ross.

T’Challa: “I told you I don’t want help from the CIA.”

Ross: “You’re not getting it. You’re getting help from a friend.”

Back in Wakanda, Eklabu gives a speech to his army as they prepare to conquer Buandi and the neighboring regions, declaring that T’Chaka was a murderer and T’Challa is a traitor, and that because of them Wakanda has no choice but to abandon its traditions and expand to remain safe.

Afterward, Shuri catches him and tells him he is a liar; that her brother would never betray Wakanda. Eklabu asks whether you can truly know anyone, and she answers “people like you cannot.” Eklabu responds that no one will question the king who rescued their beloved princess from her traitorous brother.

Meanwhile, T’Challa and his friends are preparing to cross into Wakanda. The plan is that Nakia, together with T’Challa, will slip into the palace to broadcast Klaue’s recording, while Ross and M’Baku keep the army from leaving Wakandan territory.

Ross: “Two of us against the most advanced army in the world?”

M’Baku: “Those are the odds I’ve always dreamt of!”

T’Challa and Nakia slip quietly into the city. As they infiltrate the palace, with her hacking the security panels and him subduing guards, she asks what will happen if the army leaves Wakanda. T’Challa says that, according to the legend, Fallen Mountain will be taken back to the sky. She asks if he believes that, he says “I would rather not risk it.”

The Wakandan army begins advancing to the borders, with numerous ships, vehicles, and hundreds of soldiers. M’Baku hands Ross the rail gun to cover him while he goes and plants mines to slow them down.

M’Baku: (handing him the gun) “Twist, aim, and blow. Can you do that?”

Ross: “I think my primitive savage brain can just handle it.”

M’Baku: “You certainly have wind to spare.”

T’Challa and Nakia slip into Fallen Mountain as a back route to the palace. As they do, Nakia notices something strange about the vibranium. They pause for her to examine it, and she realizes that it’s growing unstable:

Nakia: “Large amounts of vibranium form an energy resonant network; a natural power grid.”

T’Challa: “Right, I know that.”

Nakia: “Well, as long as the vast majority remains in one place, the grid is stable, but if too much moves too far at once, it…it’ll overload.”

T’Challa: “Overload? What do you mean? How bad?”

Nakia: “Give me a second…” (she does some quick calculations, then looks up in shock) “If the army goes a mile past the river, the crater will reach the Indian Ocean.”

T’Challa (stunned) “Why haven’t we known this before?”

Nakia: “No one’s ever tried moving this much vibranium away from the mountain at once! It’s only been bits and pieces. But this…”

They look at each other, then T’Challa gets on his communicator and tells Ross and M’Baku to stop the army at all costs.

Ross: “You said to try to avoid killing anyone…”

T’Challa: “Doesn’t matter now. If they cross the border, the mountain will explode.”

Ross: “Are we talking firecracker, nuke…”

Nakia: “It’ll blow Africa in half!”

(Beat)

Ross: “Okay then,” (aims the rail gun) “No more playing nice.”

T’Challa and Nakia reach the main communication chamber, but there they are caught by Okoye and her guards. T’Challa tells her that Eklabu has betrayed them, and that he has proof. She hesitates, unsure whom to believe the Eklabu himself appears in his Black Panther garb.

Eklabu says he expected as much from T’Challa, though he didn’t expect him to try to fight the whole of Wakanda with only four people. Shuri then suddenly shows up and hits Okoye with a tazer, correcting him that it’s five.

This sparks a fight, with Shuri, with a little help from Nakia, taking on the guards with her own physical powers (as she too is a descendent of Basth) while T’Challa clashes with Eklabu. Their fight spills into the throne room, where T’Challa grabs a spear from a rack. T’Challa tries to warn Eklabu that his plan will destroy Wakanda, but Eklabu will not listen, accusing him of merely wishing to steal his glory.

T’Challa: (contemptuous) “You sit on that throne, you put on that armor, and you think that makes you a king?”

Meanwhile, M’Baku and Ross struggle to survive and keep the army too busy to move. They are pinned down and seem about to die. They clasp hands and declare it has been an honor.

Eklabu, with the Black Panther suit, has a crucial advantage and gets T’Challa on the ropes.

Eklabu: “What a pathetic king you are.”

T’Challa: “But I am a king.”

With Shuri holding off the guards, Nakia puts in the data disk and projects it onto the shield surrounding Wakanda, so that the entire population sees it. The army pauses its assault to watch. The broadcast distracts Eklabu, allowing T’Challa to get the drop on him and tear the helmet off. The fight resumes, with Eklabu enraged by the sudden overthrow of his plans. He pins T’Challa against the throne and tries to tear his throat out with his claws, which T’Challa barely holds off.

Eklabu: “If nothing else, I will kill you and your bitch sister!”

T’Challa, in a sudden burst of rage, reverses the attack, grabs Eklabu’s head, and slams it into the throne, knocking him out. He then picks up the spear and prepares to kill him, when Shuri and Nakia come in. He sees their faces, then looks at the throne, which was cracked by the impact, and throws the spear away. Okoye and her guards come in, see the scene, and bow, beseeching forgiveness. T’Challa orders them to take Eklabu into prison and remove his armor.

The next scene is T’Challa, once again wearing the Black Panther armor, standing on his balcony overlooking his people. He announces that he has returned to claim the throne and asks if any disputes his right to rule. The answer is a cheer.

T’Challa greets M’Baku and Ross, who are bruised and bloodied, but alive. Ross says he hopes Wakanda and the United States will enjoy good relations in the future. T’Challa agrees, then comments that perhaps it is time their isolation comes to an end; if they cannot expand their own borders, they can at least share their bounty. He tells M’Baku that one of the tribes (from which he hails) appears in need of a leader, and he needs a general. M’Baku grins in appreciation and bows.

T’Challa adds to Shuri that, once they have settled things here, he may be away more often than not, as there is much to be done in the surrounding countries.

T’Challa: “Perhaps it is time the Black Panther becomes a sign of hope for more than just Wakanda.”

There is then a scene of T’Challa visiting Eklabu in the dungeon. He tells Eklabu that he now knows what happened: T’Chaka didn’t kill Eklabu’s father. He caught him selling Wakandan weapons to rebels the Congo, hoping to make a better life for the people there. But when T’Chaka revealed that those same weapons were being used to commit atrocities, Eklabu’s father killed himself out of shame before his brother could stop him.

Eklabu: “He may not have pulled the trigger, but he drove him to his death.”

T’Challa: “Your father chose his own path, as have you. I hope, in time, you will think better of it.”

He leaves him and goes to watch the sunset from the top of Fallen Mountain. Nakia joins him, complaining that she’d been waiting for hours and it’s cold up there. He asks why she thought he’d come, she says because she knows how he likes to brood, and that there’s no better spot in Wakanda for it.

Nakia: “I brood up here myself sometimes. Or listen to my ipod. Actually, mostly that, but some brooding.”

There is a pause. She comments that he’s king now. He agrees.

Nakia: “It’s funny; when you were deposed, all I wanted was to help you take back the throne. Now, I almost wish you hadn’t.”

T’Challa: “Oh? Why not?”

Nakia: “Well, a king wouldn’t even look at someone like me.”

T’Challa: (surprised) “You don’t know many kings, do you?”

Nakia: “Only one. That’s more than enough for me.”

T’Challa: “The way I see it, a king can look at whoever he wants.”

He pulls her close and they kiss in front of the Wakandan sunset.

 

Thoughts on ‘Rampage’

Over the past few weeks I’ve been to see Steven Spielberg’s film about a world bounded only by the imagination, the ultra-hyped latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and a Dwayne Johnson vehicle based on a cheesy arcade game. Guess which I think was the best. Go ahead; guess.

Rampage is basically a sci-fi channel original movie with a big budget and a crew that knew what they were doing. It’s incredibly silly, kind of stupid, and a ton of fun. Dwayne Johnson (more on him in a bit) plays an asocial ex-special forces primatologist (you know, one of those) who comes to work one day to find his favorite gorilla, George, has grown much larger and more unstable over the night. Turns out the experiments of an evil corporation have fallen from their corporate space station (again, one of those) and have resulted in three mutated, out-of-control monsters: George the Gorilla, Ralph the Wolf, and Lizzie the Alligator (who doesn’t get named in the film). They all end up in Chicago, where Johnson, with the help of a smug, faux-cowboy federal agent and a good-looking, oft-endangered scientist (the fact that I can describe the female lead thusly earns the film an extra point right there) try to find a way to stop the monsters and the evil corporation while saving George if possible.

Rampage is one of those delightful films that has no illusions about itself: it doesn’t think it has an important statement to make about corporate greed or animal rights or anything, it just wants to tell a fun little adventure involving giant monsters on a rampage. Just about everything it does is in service to that end, which makes it a surprisingly solid and streamlined film. There are holes, of course, that’s to be expected, but at least so far there’s only one or two that really stand out to me, and the movie was entertaining enough that I didn’t really care. Once accept the premise and the film holds together fairly well. And it lives up to the title, with the three monsters tearing up Chicago, the human cast, and each other in satisfying and creative ways.

Speaking of the human cast, after the incredibly bland characters in Black Panther, this was breath of fresh air. The characters aren’t especially deep or well developed, but they have personality, sometimes almost too much. The moment we meet the female lead, we see she is a little bumbling and absent minded, and that her life is a mess. We thus immediately like her because she both has a clear character and is the underdog. Likewise, it would have been incredibly easy to have the federal agent be just a stiff; instead he’s got this hilarious faux-cowboy persona, with accompanying permanent smug grin that he somehow uses to convey every emotion. Even the villain, though a pretty generic evil businesswoman is given a bit of extra personality by having a loser brother who hangs around her panicking the whole film (she also has a pet rat; parallel, perhaps?).

As this indicates, the film has a pretty good sense of humor: actually found myself laughing out loud at some of the lines. Like when the loser brother takes out his frustration at losing the multi-billion dollar space station by smashing a scale model, his sister notes they’ve lost “Ten Billion, plus twenty-thousand for the model you just broke.” Or the heroine’s excuse for hanging up on her boss: “I’ve gotta go; the car in front of me just…exploded.”

Basically, these aren’t deep characters, but they are serviceable for the kind of film this is, and they are constantly enjoyable to watch. Though they’re stock characters, the writers made an effort to inject a little life into them. Again, contrast Black Panther where the love interest’s entire personality is ‘earnest and capable action girl, but not the other one.’

As for Johnson, he’s basically playing a variant of his usual character, which is perfectly fine with me. He’s given the added dimension of being mildly misanthropic and having a chivalrous streak. Though I joked about his career path, the film actually does give him a fairly plausible backstory of special forces – anti-poaching team – primatologist. Basically, his character makes sense on his own terms. His connection with George is cartoonishly exaggerated (he apparently can convey complex instructions like “look after the new guy because he’s confused” with a few simple signs), but it gives an extra layer of emotional investment to the story.

Watching this film, one thing that struck me about Dwayne Johnson is that he really knows how to make his characters heroic. Like, when the bullets start flying the first thing he does is throw himself in front of the girl and try to shield her. Then he risks his own life to save the guy who has been nothing but rude to him and whose fault the whole situation is in the first place. Even outside the action sequences he’s polite, chivalrous (e.g. rebuking George for making lewd gestures in front of the girl), and generally a stand-up guy. I like the way he tries to talk down the two MPs who come to arrest him and the girl before knocking them out. And I love his description of his last encounter with poachers: “They shot at us and missed. I shot at them and didn’t.” (why do I remember so many more lines from this film than the other two?). In sum, yes, I’d call this guy a legit hero.

(By the way, the heroes of this film are two super-masculine men and a cute, feminine girl. The villains are a soulless, dominating businesswoman and her weak, sniveling brother. Not sure if there’s any meaning to be gleaned from that, but it made me like the film even more).

I just realized that, of the three films I’ve seen recently, Black Panther had the least impressive hero. The kid in Ready Player One was kind of weak, but he at least had a moment where he made a hard call to protect the girl, and he had to struggle a little and grow a little, and the story ultimately depended upon him. T’Challa was effectively useless without his powers, which could literally be given to anyone and which he loses because he made a series of terrible decisions for no reason and gets back through no effort of his own. He never has to sacrifice anything or make a hard decision for someone else; the arc of the film is the villain gets power because of the hero’s incompetence, then the hero is rescued by his friends and comes back to stop him before he can seriously misuse it, all in the final third of the film. There was little sense of what was at stake; we didn’t see people being threatened or in danger, we just heard Killmonger ranting about how he wants to kill women and children.

In Rampage, on the other hand, during the climax the characters are constantly worrying about the civilians. We see people in danger, and when the crisis is over we see people expressing relief and reuniting with loved ones. We are given a clear sense of what our heroes were protecting and that they succeeded in doing so.

Actually, my biggest problem with Rampage is that it ends too abruptly: I would have liked to see an epilogue showing what happens to the characters afterward. It seems so obvious that I’m kind of amazed they don’t have one (I also would have liked to see some smooches between our two leads, but oh well).

So, that’s Rampage: it’s nothing great, but a very solid, very enjoyable B-Movie that, in its own simple way, outdoes the giant A-pictures it goes up against. I feel kind of like Johnson’s character here: preferring the company of a gorilla to ostensibly more engaging companionship. Here’s hoping Infinity War proves to be the lovely geneticist who will make me care about the human race again (a convoluted metaphor, but I think it holds up).

More on Black Panther

One of my favorite YouTube critics, Maulr, absolutely tore into ‘Black Panther.’ After watching his video, I think I still liked the movie better than he did, but…yeah, it’s really not a well-put together film at all.

Something he brings up repeatedly is that there really is nothing binding T’Challa to the Black Panther: it’s all a matter of who has the special juice and the suit, both of which Wakanda has an apparently unlimited supply of. Why on Earth wouldn’t they mass-produce an army, or even an elite force of Black Panthers, which would effectively make Wakanda invulnerable to attack? Heck, they literally have spare Black Panther suits lying around the lab, and they’re apparently so easy to make that his sister makes two just so that he can have style options: why wouldn’t the other characters put one on toward the end the film? Or, to take the other side of the equation, why doesn’t Wakanda give their elite guards the performance enhancing juice, especially when they go off on dangerous missions?

Also, we know from the Infinity War trailer that Wakanda will be invaded by Thanos: will they start passing out Black Panther suits then? Because what possible reason could they have for not doing so? As of this film they have at least three functional suits, and the survival of the world is at stake: give one to Captain America for God’s sake!

The frustrating thing is that this would be so easy to fix: just make it so that the physical powers are not the result of a fruit, but are inborn to the royal family. That would at once give us a reason why only T’Challa could be the Black Panther and put their whole society on a more reasonable basis (as it is, though I like the idea, it doesn’t make sense for the most advance nation on Earth to choose kings by combat, but if it’s limited to the royal family – only those with the panther powers – it would be more understandable). It would have greater symbolic power (the royal family being the ones with the power to protect their people) and make both T’Challa and Killmonger more unique figures and make their rivalry matter more. Likewise you could make the panther suit an ancient artifact of which the knowledge of how to make it has been lost, which would solve the question of mass-producing it and make the suit itself matter more (as it is, it’s as if Asgard could churn out Mjolnir’s on an assembly line, but didn’t for some reason). Make Vibranium more limited, or balance it with other forms of unobtanium to explain their sci-fi tech (as it is, the fact that Vibranium does literally everything is just silly, especially since apparently stone-aged tribes were able to both mine it and figure out how it works. This implies the writers think that the mere presence of a resource is what determines the progress of a culture, which of course is why the Arab world discovered oil refining and internal combustion centuries before anyone else). If there’s only one suit, that could also make the final battle more dramatic with T’Challa having to fight Killmonger when Killmonger has the suit and he doesn’t. That would not only stack the odds even further, but would also reassure us that, yes, this thing has some form of weakness.

Because that’s a problem I had that Maulr only alludes to: Black Panther is too darn powerful for the threat level he deals with. He’s going after arms dealers and mercenaries, and he has both superhuman powers and a suit that makes him completely invulnerable: it’s too much and it makes the action scenes kind of boring because the bad guys don’t stand a chance.

Now, when Iron Man drops into the Afghan village and starts punting terrorists around, he outclasses the bad guys too. But one, he’s still a single man dropping into a warzone, not going after petty criminals, two, we’ve already seen him at the mercy of these men, so there’s a catharsis factor, and three, we see in that scene that things like tanks and jets can at least damage him, even if not a whole lot. We don’t doubt he’s going to win, but we can see where he conceivably could lose. Black Panther has superpowers and an indestructible suit and ultra-advanced technology and a back-up force of super-tech armed amazons driving an indestructible car. The overall effect is like the Avengers going up against the Vulture: there is literally no conceivable scenario where he loses. I actually found myself rooting for the bad guys during the Seoul chase because they were so ridiculously outclassed it was annoying.

Also, the backstory of the villain makes absolutely no sense: why would the uncle try to kill a man when the king was standing right in front of him in his Black Panther suit? Why would the king kill him, when taking the gun from him would be child’s play for him? Why would they be afraid of telling Wakanda what happened; that the king found one of their agents had betrayed them and killed him when he tried to murder a third party? Why would they leave the kid behind? Why would they leave the body behind? As Maulr points out, the cover-up would raise more questions and spark more unrest even without being discovered than simply telling the truth would.

And again, the thing that kills me is that it would have been a stronger story if they had gone that route: Killmonger grows up in Wakanda, knows T’Challa, pretends to be going along with it all but secretly seethes with anger against the royal family, then when T’Challa ascends the throne Killmonger unexpectedly challenges and beats him, forcing T’Challa to try to figure out a way to take back the throne, maybe undergoing further training, etc. Meanwhile Killmonger is secretly manipulating events to convince the Wakandan people that they are under attack and need to go to war with the rest of the world (rather than just arbitrarily ordering them to start killing women and children – which he literally does in the film as it stands). That would have been a better and more streamlined story, would have made the premise more acceptable, and would have provided the means for more organic exposition and exploration of the world. Both Killmonger and T’Challa would have been stronger characters and had a stronger connection. As a bonus, you could have made Klaue more integral to the story by having him work with Killmonger to arrange the false flag attacks.

It is depressing to me that this entire scenario took me about ten minutes of consideration to come up with, yet the ultra-budgeted, Disney-backed tent-pole film came up with a jumbled mess that only works at all because it’s held up by the actors and the visuals.

So…yeah, my opinion of the film is sinking the more I think about it. I still think it’s okay; it’s enjoyable, the visuals are mostly great, and of course Michael B. Jordan is fantastic (his performance is really the entire reason his character comes across as complex and sympathetic, because, strictly for what he does, he really isn’t. On paper he’s just an angry psychopath looking to start a world-wide race war, but Jordan seems to give him actual depth. This film could not work to the extent it does without him), but the story is contrived and weak, most of the characters aren’t very interesting, and the set up is really stupid in ways it didn’t have to be.

Thoughts on Black Panther

Finally got out to see Black Panther while it was still in theaters. My reaction is definitely ‘good not great.’ It was…fine. There was a lot to like about it, though on the whole it wasn’t really that impressive to me as a film, or even compared to the rest of the Marvel universe.

First the good things; visually it’s great. After the oddly dull Ready Player One, this is more like it. The colors, the costumes, the sets, it’s all fantastic to look at. The CGI gets a little lame at times, but mostly it looks fabulous.

Character-wise, the villains are exceptional. Andy Serkis kind of steals the show at Ulysses Klaue, the eccentrically-evil arms dealer. I really wish he’d had a bigger role, though to be fair Michael B. Jordan as ‘Killmonger’ is amazing. I don’t think I’ve actually seen him before (haven’t seen Creed), though from what I had seen of clips and word of mouth I knew he’s an excellent actor, and yeah, he is riveting in this role as a guy so full of rage – and understandable rage – that it’s made him a monster. He doesn’t scream or rant, and is actually kind of understated, but you feel his all-consuming anger every frame he’s on screen.

I also really liked Martin Freeman as Everett Ross, a CIA operative introduced in Civil War (kind of odd in a film called Black Panther that the two white characters ended up among the most memorable). It’s kind of unusual to see him playing a badass, though he does get plenty of out-of-his-depth moments. I liked the sister character: she was cute and had personality, though…well, we’ll get to that in a bit.

As for our hero, honestly, I didn’t find him as interesting in his own film as he was in Civil War. In that film, he was every inch a king; an intensely dignified, dead-serious character who knew exactly what he was after and what he was due, but who nevertheless was moved by the spectacle before him to choose justice over revenge. Here…he’s kind of just the soulful protagonist. He wants to do the right thing, and sets about trying to figure out what that is. He still had formidable dignity and he was by no means a bad character, but I wasn’t impressed by him the way I was in the previous film.

I will say, though, that I really liked a scene where he has a vision of his father, which seems to be going for the tired ‘I’m not ready to be king’ route, but turns into something more personal and more interesting instead.

As for the plot, again, it wasn’t all that interesting, partly because it seemed to kind of veer about some: first it’s him claiming the throne, then him going after Klaue, then him fighting Killmonger. These things ultimately tie together, but it could have used a lot of streamlining to feel less choppy.

Speaking of streamlining, we have a few too many characters, especially since the majority are pretty dull. For instance, we have T’Challa’s sister, girlfriend, and his female general (sidekick? Bodyguard?). That is at least one too many badass female warriors (more on that subject later): for instance, why were the girlfriend and the general necessary to the film? Neither has a very distinct personality or role to play in the story: could they not have been combined? Or if that’s not possible, then could the sister have been made into the girlfriend instead (that would have given the latter a personality)? You see my point: we have several characters who kind of blend together and clutter up the story. Merging one or two together would have made for stronger characters and a more efficient film.

And there are some plot holes, including a major one involving the villain’s backstory. There’s also a bit at the end that is really stupid. Granted, it’s in the service of a nice moment, but if you want that moment then stage the final battle differently, because as is it’s ridiculous.

By the way, granting that Wakanda has spies all over the world, why is one of the most important agents running low-level crimes in the LA slums? How does that benefit them? Why would he even be in that environment? Wouldn’t he be stationed in the government, or in business, or somewhere that might be remotely relevant to Wakandan interests?

I could talk about the politics involved, but I don’t think it really matters that much; the film is obviously pandering to a certain audience, but it wasn’t too bad, and, really, I wasn’t invested enough for it to make much of an impact.

One thing I will say, and this goes back to the point about the characters, is this: Wakanda looks great, but it never felt quite convincing to me. The idea seems to be an extremely traditional society, with a hereditary monarch, trial by combat, ancestor worship and so on blended with sci-fi technology. That’s a cool idea, but it doesn’t really work out that way. Apart from their form of government, the characters basically act like modern Westerners. That kind of makes sense for the sister, because she’s established as being rebellious and we can buy that she’s imitating western culture, but what about all the rest? Part of the problem is they’re so bland, but they just talk and act like any other Marvel film characters.

In particular, the fact that all the women in this society are warriors and scientists feels false to me. Wouldn’t a society like this, with royalty and nobility and all the rest have firm gender roles? And, more to the point, wouldn’t that be more interesting than what we got? To have strong, marked female characters in a notably different cultural milieu? It’s not even that I think it’s a bad choice: it’s just boring (I really wish Hollywood would realize that we’ve long since reached the point where it’s less imaginative to have an action girl than would be not to). We have seen badass female warriors and scientists before, they don’t do anything fresh with the idea, and it feels out of place with the world they are presenting.

I thought the first Thor movie did this sort of thing a lot better. Granted, Asgard had amazon warriors too (or at least one), but the important point is that Asgardians, as a rule, acted like people from a different culture, while the Wakandans by and large don’t, except in very specific ways. Consider the famous scene where Thor smashes the coffee cup, then politely acquiesces when told that’s not how we do things around here. That, to me, feels like how that kind of character would act. Then here we have a scene where the king of Wakanda and his girlfriend just walk about in the marketplace and nobody seems to care. Also, the back-and-forth about who would be king worked better in that film because Loki was directly involved from the beginning and we could see how he was manipulating things to his advantage. In this one…well, when you think about it, Killmonger could have enacted his plan at basically any time, which begs the question of why much of the first half of the film was even necessary.

It’s even worse because there’s an opening scene with T’Challa’s father that does capture a starkly different cultural feel, where he meets one of his agents and the man immediately kneels and snaps at his friend to do the same before begging permission to allow the friend to stay in the room. That was a really good scene, and set a tone for how different this culture is that is kind of forgotten for most of the rest of the film, with only sporadic exceptions.

Speaking of the beginning, the opening exposition giving the origin of Wakanda and the Black Panther is one the worst I’ve seen, at least for this kind of movie. It’s framed as young T’Challa asking his father to tell him a story, but there is not the slightest effort to write in a way suitable for the device. It sounds like he’s just reading off of the Wikipedia page. Visually it’s great, but from a writing perspective it’s terrible.

That’s kind of the film as a whole to an extent: it looks fantastic, but apart from the visuals it lacks imagination. It’s not a bad film by any means, and the good elements are really good (again, Michael B. Jordan is a fantastic actor and makes for a great villain), but as a whole, it’s just kind of serviceable.

 

Thoughts on ‘Ready Player One’

Today I went and saw ‘Ready Player One.’ It was more or less what I expected: shallow pop-culture porn, only not as good. I won’t say I didn’t enjoy parts of it, but the enjoyment was mostly of a very simple nature: ‘oh, hey, this is cool, oh, I recognize this.’ I think there is a great film in there, but the story and character are too generic to make it work.

One of the problems is that neither the game world nor the real world are presented as being desirable: the game world turns people into fantasy-addicted zombies, but the real world is so dreary and hopeless you can’t really blame them. I wasn’t especially invested in the story because I didn’t really buy the world they were presenting and also, again, it’s just so generic: evil corporation wants to take over the world to be evil. They have suits and evil-looking red and black drones and a private military, run virtual prisons (where is the government in all this?), and the CEO is the bad guy from Rogue One. They’re evil because they’re evil and the heroes are good because they’re trying to stop them. Also, the heroes are poor and the corporation has done them wrong.

The visuals aren’t especially creative or interesting either; just standard, usually ill-lit CG environments with a bunch of cameos walking about. Ego’s planet from Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 was more creatively fantastic than this game, which is supposed to be specifically designed to be creatively fantastic.

The film lives and dies on its pop culture credits, but it misses the point of why people connect to these things in the first place. Or if it not it plays out too generically for it to make an impact. The Greatest Showman captured the importance of fantasy in two lines better than this whole film does (“Does it bother you that everything you’re selling is fake?” “Do those smiles look fake?”). Here it’s pretty much just ‘hey, do you remember Gundam? What if a Gundam robot fought Mechagodzilla: wouldn’t that be cool to see’? (by the way, it seems Toho wasn’t one of the backers of this film, since the ‘Mechagodzilla’ on display doesn’t resemble any of the canonical designs and I don’t think they even used the roar). No insight as to what made these stories or characters interesting or why anyone would remember them; just Captain America-style ‘I understood that reference.’

Pretty much as soon as you hear the premise, you can guess the entire story. There’s the loser kid who turns out to be a hero because he’s sensitive and understands the secretive game developer. There’s the super-elite tough-girl gamer chick whom he’ll fall in love with while in no way outshining or having the advantage over. There’s the Black best friend, whose personality is ‘Black best friend.’ There’s a high-stakes competition for control of the world between the scrappy misfit kids and the evil corporation. The corporation will go after the kid in the real world, they’ll have to go back and forth between the two worlds some, and eventually the kid will triumph after passing a secret final test and getting some wisdom from the wise game developer, end on a moral. There is admittedly one twist I didn’t see coming, though it kind of felt like a cop-out more than anything: a way to get them out of a corner they really didn’t need to be in to begin with.

There is some talk about how characters in the game aren’t really like their players in real life, but it doesn’t amount to much: the Black best friend is really a Black woman best friend. The two Japanese players (who are introduced so casually it’s kind of a shock that we’re supposed to remember them when they show up in the real world) are really…well, Japanese players, but one of them is eleven years old. And they all live within a few miles of each other which…come on, really? Not only is that astronomically improbable, but wouldn’t it have been more interesting and more creative if one of them was stuck on the other side of the country and still was trying to help?

Also, the pretty redhead in the game turns out to be…a pretty redhead in real life, only she has a mild birthmark over one eye. Uh, what a shock? Really, I’m fine with that, only don’t try to pretend it’s a twist.

There were some good points there. I really liked the character of the game developer; this awkward, semi-autistic loner who lost himself in fantasy because he was afraid of facing the real world. He’s played by Mark Rylance, who I think is genetically incapable of giving a bad performance.

Honestly, the film would have been much more interesting if someone like that had been the main character: if it had been the story of a pathologically lonely person learning to let go of fantasy and face the real world. That would have had some meat to it, and would have fit in well with the pop-culture references (since the purpose of fantasy is to make us better equipped to face reality). Drop the stupid corporation plot and make it the story of a young man trying to find a way to reconnect with reality by using this imagination-based virtual reality as a springboard.

Apart from that, there are one or two good scenes: I like the bit where the hero figures out, just from his tone, that the villain isn’t really a fanboy despite him knowing all the right details. I also like the bit where, after being forcibly ejected from the game, he comments on how different the real world is, having spent so much time in virtual reality he has almost stopped noticing. I also liked the bit where the redhead meets the Japanese kid, goes to hug him, and he indignantly responds “ninjas don’t give hugs!” It’s a perfect ‘kid’ moment and rare instance of honest humanity in what is otherwise a shallow experience.

I also really liked how the ‘hired gun’ character acts basically like a standard gamer and sounds like he’s about eighteen in real life. That was one instance of the film making a clever use of its premise, though again it doesn’t amount to much since he doesn’t have much screen time or much of a payoff, and they could have done so much more with that idea (just off the top of my head: he has the heroes captured and is about to finish them off, then his Mom calls him away from the game to take out the trash giving them a chance to escape).

On the other hand, it’s really stupid that all these crowds are out in the streets playing virtual reality on the sidewalks: who in their right mind would do something like that? This isn’t staring down at your phone, which we know is bad enough, this is putting on visual and audio blocking gear and running around a city street. Not one of them gets hit by a car or face-plants into a telephone pole?

Basically, this is very much a film that puts style over substance and it doesn’t even understand it’s own style very well. I wouldn’t say it’s terrible, just not very good.

Thoughts on the Greatest Showman

The other day I got out to see The Greatest Showman before it left theaters, which I’d been meaning to do for a little while. I’d known almost nothing about the film before, except that it was about P.T. Barnum and the founding of his circus. Then a month or so into its release I stumbled upon one of the songs and discovered that it was actually a musical! I like musicals, and the trailers looked really cool, so I made a point a point of getting out to see it while it was still on the big screen. And I can say I enjoyed it a good deal.

In first place, I liked the style a lot: there’s a lot of brilliant colors, a lot of interesting sets, and a kind of cool thing where it’s just a little surreal and impressionist. It’s very much like a stage show where things are just kind of set for the duration of the story, and we don’t exactly see how things are done or question how much time is going by, but we’re given an impression of the progress of the story. For instance, we don’t really see any of the circus acts, just the performers dancing and singing in the ring, giving more the impression of a circus show. I think it works pretty well and it keeps the film moving without being bogged down in details.

Hugh Jackman’s really good, of course: I’ve read this was a passion project of his for years and that intensity really comes across in his performance. He absolutely owns the role of Barnum. I really liked the relationship between him and his wife and their daughters: it’s just a lovely image of marriage and family life.

Of course the dancing is fantastic; very fast, very energized, and shot really well, making excellent use of sets and props. Interestingly enough, for all the circus and acrobatics, my favorite dance number is simply Barnum and Carlyle discussing business matters in a bar.

The songs are…okay. There’re very energized, they work well in context, but with the exception of the title number and maybe the aforementioned bar song they didn’t really stick with me (no, I wasn’t especially impressed by the Oscar-nominated ‘This is Me.’ It was okay, but…nothing really special. Maybe I’m just sick of the ‘I exist so you should admire me’ sentiment, though, again, it works in context of the film and the performers claiming their human dignity). They’re a little repetitive and some are a shade too long and travel over too many verses without enough lyrical variety, but they’re enjoyable enough and, taken in conjunction with the story and imagery are thoroughly entertaining. Well…the opera number is a little stale, but it’s kinda supposed to be.

By the way, I friggin’ love one shot in the title song of Barnum and his performers charging the spotlight flanked by elephants. It’s an awesome image that fits the music perfectly and I had to mention it.

All in all, I liked the first half of the film much more than the second. When he’s dreaming up the show, taking audacious risks, making mistakes and learning from them, gathering his performers and perfecting his vision, it’s fantastic. You can feel his energy, his drive and creativity. The scenes of him meeting the ‘freaks’ are excellent. We get to see their suspicion, their uncertainty, their fear of being laughed at again, then their gratitude at finding someone who actually wants to treat them like human beings. I really liked the circus performers and the depiction of their comradery, and kinda wished there’d been a little more scenes of them just hanging out together.

The second half isn’t bad, but it’s not as interesting as we see Barnum losing sight of his own vision as he chases after the approval of the world in general instead of being content with the support of his family and friends and the knowledge that he’s bringing joy into people’s lives. It’s a good theme about how there is never enough social approval to satisfy one who feels marginalized, and how the best thing is to seek fulfillment in family, friends, and worthwhile endeavors, but it kind of drags a bit and it’s just not as much fun.

I also think a bit more time could have been given to some of the subplots. Like the romance between Carlyle and the acrobat is good, but it’s not given enough lead in: he finds her attractive, she says two words to him, the next scene their hands are drifting together and she takes offense when he hesitates. One more scene establishing why they’re so drawn together would have made a huge difference.

But on the whole, it’s really good; I loved the energy, the passion, the celebration of popular entertainment and the urge to make people happy (“Does it bother you that everything you’re selling is fake?” “Do those smiles look fake?”). It’s just a really good film musical with a strong will to entertain, and I imagine Mr. Barnum would have approved.