Man, you guys do love your animated fantasies from the late seventies/early eighties don’t you? In fact, I’ve now reviewed enough of these things that they’re starting to run together. Which animated fantasy centring on wizards and a war between science and magic with seriously dodgy gender politics is this again? Nit?
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Much like an awesome party where someone suddenly showed up with a suitcase full of tainted MDMA, the X-Men film franchise got real bad, real fast. From the dizzying (well) highs of X2 the franchise had laid two massive turds in a row and was now in the unenviable position of having exactly as many bad films as good ones (also known as the Star Trek ratio). What was to be done?
Alright, all joking aside, the idea for a movie about the early days of Xavier’s School for Gifted Child Soldiers had been knocking about since the shooting of X2, and as an idea it’s pretty damn bad. Making a movie about the earliest adventures of the X-Men is like making a movie about John Lennon and focusing solely on his time in the Quarrymen. That was the worst part. Virtually all the good stuff came later. For a while. Then things got really, really awful.
But First Class also shares much of its DNA with what was originally going to be the second instalment of the X-Men Origins spin off series, Magneto. After Wolverine Origins bombed so hard that the box office was glowing in the dark, the ideas for Magneto were bundled up and worked into First Class.
So how does this grab-bag of sewn together bad ideas and discarded movie bits work as a film?
Surprisingly well! Except when it doesn’t. It’s complicated.
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Not so long ago, in the pages of this here very blog what are you reading like, I reviewed Makoto Shinkai’s 5cm per Second and my good Lord, it bored me so. It bored me like Sarah, plain and tall.
Well, Shinkai apparently took my criticisms onboard and went away and created Garden of Words, a movie that has all of 5cm per Second’s stunningly gorgeous visuals and sumptuous sound design but which actually marries them to interesting characters and some class of plot. I mean, I don’t want to take credit for this critically acclaimed film but honesty compels me.
Anyway yes. Okay. I am now on board. I am on the Makoto Shinkai train (and the dude does love his trains). Like 5cm per Second, Garden is slow and relies heavily on atmosphere but there is a definite sense that it’s telling a story patiently and methodically and not faffing about and wasting your time. The characters are also far more distinctive and memorable, compared to the 5cm per Second’s leads who were so bland and grey you could use them to wallpaper the walls of a dentist’s office. For instance, one of the main characters, Yukari, spends her days in the local park drinking beer and eating chocolate because her depression has dulled her sense of taste and those are the only flavours she can experience. That’s good writing, because it informs us of an important character trait (her depression) but does it in a way that’s unique and memorable and makes her stand out from all the other sadsacks (I’ve had depression, I get to use that word).
The movie begins with the two things that get Makoto Shinkai out of bed each morning; weather and trains.
This review was requested by patron Allison. If you’d like me to review a movie, please consider supporting my Patreon.
Way back in the before times I reviewed Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings, an important step on my journey to realising that Ralph Bakshi is a pretty terrible filmmaker, his importance in the animated canon notwithstanding. Well, Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings (BLOTR, henceforth) was originally intended as part one of a two part series but United Artists never actually got around to making the sequel, despite the first movie turning quite a tidy profit. So Rankin-Bass, proud purveyors of “good enuff” animation, bought up the rights to Return of the King. Rankin-Bass had previously done a made-for-TV version of The Hobbit (which I haven’t seen but have it on good authority is good enuff) and together with that movie and BLOTR they form a kind of loose trilogy, albeit the kind of trilogy with wildly different animation styles, voice actors and plots that only have a tenuous narrative continuity. Still, if you were living in a pre-Peter Jackson world and didn’t want to have to sit through three chapters of Tom Bombadil humble-bragging about how hot his girlfriend is, it did the trick.
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Every so often in superhero comics, a character will come along who is so ground-breakingly original, so instantly arresting, that they become an archetype. The obvious example is Superman. Supes shows up in 1938, and creates an entire genre. Every “Cape” type superhero follows in Superman’s footsteps, every “Cowl” has a bit of Batman (who, it must be said, got that bit from Zorro). Got an angsty teenage super-hero with real world problems the audience can relate to? Cut Stan Lee and Steve Ditko a check. When it comes to superheroes there are the archetypes, and the rest are copycats. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. As I mentioned before, Black Panther, Daredevil and Moon Knight are all derived from Batman but manage to put a different enough spin on the archetype to be great characters in their own right.
And the villains have their archetypes too. And no villain casts a longer shadow in comics than the master of Apokolips, DARKSEID.
Who is DARKSEID? Fool. DARKSEID is.
Jack Kirby spent much of his career in comics attempting to create a new American mythology with all new pantheons of gods and heroes. In DARKSEID, he created his Satan, a brooding, pitiless tyrant who can never truly be defeated because he is evil itself. DARKSEID is an archetype, and you don’t have to look far to find his descendants across all comic book companies big and small.
The most blatant (and admitted) rip off of DARKSEID is, of course, Marvel’s Thanos. He’s also the most interesting.
Whereas DARKSEID cares for nothing but himself, Thanos is usually depicted as something of a romantic, devoted utterly to the woman of his dreams. Unfortunately, the woman in question is Death itself whom Thanos tries to woo by eradicating as many of the living as possible. There is a kind of primordial mythic scope to that which I love. I mean, imagine you get transported thousands of years into the past and you got adopted by a local tribe and they asked you to tell them one of the stories of your people. And, as you crouch around the campfire, you tell the tale of the great giant Thanos who so loved death herself that he killed half of everything that lived to woo her, and still she spurned him.
That’s the kind of story cavemen would tell each other. It feels ancient and epic. It’s deep shit man.
And of course, that is the element that the producers of the MCU decided to do away with. Now, I’m on record as predicting that the whole MCU project was going to come a cropper because it was building to a final confrontation with Movie!Thanos and that he was a boring character, an awful villain and a terrible lover.
So. Here we are.
Yes, I was obviously wrong (uuuuugh what is this sensation I don’t like it) but, in my defence, I do still think that Guardians of the Galaxy completely mishandled Thanos. I just didn’t reckon with the Russo Brothers, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely pulling out the mother of all salvage jobs. Cards on the table, Infinity War is by far my favourite Avengers movie and one of the best entries in the MCU thus far and, bizarrely, that’s mostly down to Thanos, the element I was most expecting to tank the entire endeavour.
How did they do it? Let’s take a look.
This review was requested by patron Amelia Mellor. If you’d like me to review a movie, please consider supporting my Patreon.
Okay. Okay. I see. Alright.
Okay. Yup. Yup. Uh huh. Okay.
Sorry. My bad. I see I haven’t been clear enough on this topic. So let me be frank.
STOP ASKING ME TO REVIEW PIXAR MOVIES. STOP IT. JUST CUT THAT OUT.
You want to know what I think about Inside Out? It’s PERFECT, okay?! IT’S GODDAMN FICKETY FUCKETY FLAWLESS! IT’S A FRICKIN’ GOAT! IT’S THE BEST POSSIBLE VERSION OF ITSELF. THERE IS LITERALLY NOT ONE SINGLE THING I CAN THINK OF THAT WOULD IMPROVE IT.
So what (excuse me) but what the FUCK AM I SUPPOSED TO SAY ABOUT IT? HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO CRACK WISE? YOU’VE HANDED ME THE CEILING OF THE SISTINE CHAPEL AND SAID “HERE, MAKE WITH THE FUNNY”. I CAN’T MAKE WITH THE FUNNY BECAUSE IT’S ONE OF THE GREATEST ACCOMPLISHMENTS IN THE HISTORY OF HUMANITY AND I HAVE A SOUL, YOU MOUTH BREATHING HEATHENS!
Ohhhhhhhh oy vey oyvey okay.
Inside Out. It’s the Pixar movie of Pixar movies. It makes other Pixar movies look like Dreamworks movies and Dreamworks movies look like pimply butts. It slays all that come before and after it. It’s so good, such a triumph of writing, design, animation and performance that honestly it’s a little intimidating and hard to love. It’s never going to be one of those movies that I just have on in the background because when I’m doing housework I usually prefer something that’s not going to break me emotionally like an egg.
I never used to cry at movies. Not really. I distinctly remember crying at the end of Michael Collins and that being a big, shocking thing. And that was a special case, because he’s like the George Washington of this thing and he was a real guy who really died (spoiler). But crying at movies just because they were sad? No. Not a thing.
That all changed with the arrival of somebody.
Becoming a dad did something to me, people. Messed with my brain chemistry like a mad scientist juggling beakers and cackling. Now, when I watch a movie I cry if someone stubs their toe (unless its Adam Sandler, because my empathy can only stretch so far).
Researching this movie I learned that writer Pete Docter based it on observing changes in his daughter’s emotions when she reached eleven. I mean, I learned it, but I already knew it. This movie is so perfectly observed that it could only be drawn from real life.
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Wolverine. Logan. The Savage X-Man. The Adamantium Atavus. Ol Canuckle-head. The little hairy butthole.
Wolverine did not have the most auspicious start in comics, and you definitely wouldn’t have pegged him as destined to become (for a time at least) The Most Popular Superhero in all of Comics. Some superheroes arrive fully formed, some take a lot of work. Wolverine was originally introduced as a fairly bland and one-note adversary for the Incredible Hulk. From there he migrated to the new multinational X-Men team launched by Len Wein and Dave Cockrum and nobody really gave two shits about him. But, through a combination of refinement and luck, Wolverine eventually came to be the most popular character in Marvel’s stable. How did that happen? Timing. Wolverine was perfectly placed to ride the pop culture currents of not one, not two, but THREE decades.
During his time in the X-Men Wolverine’s character evolved into “Clint Eastwood but Superhero”.
This allowed him to tap into the gritty anti-hero craze of the seventies. Then, Frank Miller established that Wolverine had spent time in Japan and had trained as a ninja, allowing him to benefit from the martial arts craze of the eighties. And by the time the nineties rolled around, Wolverine was so popular that he had basically kickstarted the Dark Age of comics which of course allowed him to remain front and centre for another ten years.
Since 9/11, comics have swung back to wanting more morally pure superheroes like Captain America and Superman, and with Marvel heavily de-emphasising the X-Men in favour of the Inhumans…
…the character is definitely less of a big deal than he once was. Make no mistake though, for a time, Logan was EVERYWHERE. They were organising events around him just so he could appear in every single book. He was like a lucky talisman to boost sales. He was the Crying Purple Gorilla of the Modern Age of Comics.
And I am pretty much totally sick of him.
Look, it’s not the character’s fault. He came by his popularity honestly. He’s got a killer design, a great power-set, a really intriguing backstory and some all time classic stories under his belt. But I was there at the height of Wolverine-mania and I have no desire to go back, especially when so many stories about him are just watching how much one man can be an asshole to the entire world and get away with it.
And there is no excuse for a one-note take on Wolverine, who is honestly one of the more complex and layered heroes in comics. Like I say, this is a great character when done right. But he’s been done wrong. Oh baby. He been done wrong.
One Wolverine story that most decidedly does not suck or have baboon faces is Origin, which is weird because everyone (including the writers) expected it to be a disaster. Wolverine was virtually unique among the major superheroes in that he didn’t have an origin story (the closest he had was Weapon X, another classic tale that showed how Logan got his Adamantium skeleton while still revealing nothing about who he was or where he came from). And that mystery was an essential part of his appeal. But when the first X-Men movie was in the works, Marvel realised that Fox would probably end up giving Wolverine an origin, and it would probably suck, so they might as well create their own and hope that it sucked a little less.
The result was Origin, a slow-burning, beautifully illustrated mystery set in 19th century Canada that did the seemingly impossible job of giving Wolverine an origin that was surprising and memorable while being appropriate for the character. So job done, right? Marvel had given Wolverine his origin, and it was excellent, and there was no way Hollywood could mess it up, right?
This is a device known as a rhetorical question.
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Oh hey, here’s a nice uncontroversial question: Is Mulan feminist?
To which of course the answer is IT’S A TRAP YOU FOOL RUN!!!
You see, the question presupposes that everyone agrees on what a feminist movie is, and that you can even have a feminist movie in the first place and you’d be surprised how little agreement there is on these points.
Now as to whether Mulan is feminist, personally, I say “Yeah, sure”. It centres its story on a female protagonist whose story is treated as being of equal or greater importance to those of the male characters and it doesn’t reinforce any misogynist tropes. Boom. Let’s go out for ribs. But there are differing schools of thought.
For example, when Fury Road (a movie that, for my money, wears its feminist politics as openly and proudly as a movie can while still working in its own right as a narrative) came out, Anita Sarkeesian claimed that it couldn’t be considered feminist because the main characters still resolved their problems with violence. In an action movie.
Which, if taken to its logical conclusion, would mean that the only way a movie could succeed at being feminist would be if it failed utterly as a movie. Which…no.
So for the sake of argument, let’s accept that Mulan (as much as it can be given that it’s a movie that’s enjoyable and therefore a tool of the patriarchy) is feminist. But Mulan is not. By which I mean, the character herself should not be considered feminist because she lives in a pre-industrial, pre-mass literacy honour culture where anything even remotely resembling modern feminism is not only unknown but literally impossible. And here’s the thing that I think people often miss about this character. She doesn’t dress up as a man and join the army to give the middle finger to the expectations and traditions of her culture, but to honour them. Let me explain.
Mulan’s father teaches her that the three most important things in life are:
- Respecting her ancestors.
- Protecting her family.
- Safeguarding her family’s honour.
Now, ideally these three priorities should be in alignment. But when Fa Zhou is called up to serve in the Imperial Army, those three priorities are suddenly in competition. If Mulan lets her father go to war, she will be respecting his wishes (Respecting her ancestors) and ensuring that the family’ honour is intact, but she will not be protecting her family because her father will almost certainly die. But, if she somehow prevents him from going she will be protecting her family but disrespecting her father and bringing shame on the family. Mulan’s dressing up as a man and joining the army in her father’s place, while seemingly staggeringly transgressive, is really the only way Mulan has of resolving this paradox and ensuring that all three of her obligations are met. This is why Mulan is brilliant and why Mulan is brilliant. It gives us a story that is progressive and inspiring to a modern audience, but is still rooted very much in the culture and Imperial Han milieu of the heroine (or, y’know, the Disneyfied version of it at least). It gets to eat its cake and have it. This is why Mulan is my favourite Disney princess along (along with Moana, who has a similar story). She’s not about adventure in the great wide somewhere, she’s the “get shit done” Princess. She’s not riding out there upsetting gender norms for poops and giggles, she’s doing it because she’s got a job to do and she’s going to do it, dammit. And if a couple of hundred thousand Huns got to get put in the ground, well, eggs and omelettes.
Lotta people don’t get that. Some of them got together and made a movie.
Ohhhh I’m gonna catch a beating for this one. I’ve given bad reviews to popular movies before but, holy moly, 5cmPS is a full on critical darling. It was released in 2007and received rapturous responses, with the film press instantly hailing director Makoto Shinkai as “the next Miyazaki”, an accolade I’m sure that had nothing to do with the fact that Hiyao Miyazaki was the only animé director any of those mouth breathers knew by name harrumph harrumph harrumph harrumph harrumph!
I’d never heard of the movie before I was requested to review it but I went in expecting to love it. I mean, there is a halo around this thing and all the screenshots I could see looked absolutely smurges. I mean, look at this.