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.
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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.
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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Some movies belong to a genre, others define a genre.
For example, if someone ever asked you “What’s Film Noir?” you could do no better than to plonk them in front of The Maltese Falcon and say “That.”
That movie perfectly encapsulates everything that we associate with the genre; the moody black and white photography, the moral ambiguity, cynical gumshoes, treacherous dames, shifty foreigners and all the fedoras in the world. We might argue over whether it’s the best Film Noir, but it’s definitely the most Film Noir.
Which brings me nicely, like the old blogging pro I am, to Return to the Sea, which I feel confident in calling The Maltese Falcon of Disney Sequels.
I haven’t seen all the DTV sequels but I’ve seen enough.
I’ve seen enough like George C Scott saw enough in Hardcore.
But, fair is fair, they have occasionally been able to surprise me. Some of the very best, I’ll even concede, are slightly better than the very worst of the official canon. But Return to the Sea will not surprise you. If you picture the platonic ideal of “Disney Sequel”, this is it. This is exactly what you imagined. A palpable lack of effort leaches into every cel of this misbegotten thing. Mulan 2, whatever its crimes against its heroine, has a loopy, unpredictable “what is it going to do next?!” chutzpah that I have to admit I kind of enjoyed. But Return to the Sea provides the kind of soul crushing tedium that can only be provided by watching a movie you’ve already seen but worse in every respect.
Scalpels at the ready folks. Let’s make some sushi.
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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.
There are so many different places you could start with a review of Black Panther. I could go heavy and political, exploring the importance of the most famous black superhero in these troubled times. I could go historical, discussing how the character was conceived and developed over the decades. Or I could go personal, explaining how I personally discovered the character.
Instead, let’s talk about Batman.
Batman was created in the Golden Age of comics, where many of the genre’s tropes and visual languages were codified. And the Silver Age that followed was in many ways the second draft of the superhero genre, where the old characters were taken and what worked was enhanced and what didn’t work was discarded.
Often, this was quite literal. The Silver Age at DC saw new versions of the Flash and Green Lantern that were basically the same as their Golden Age counterparts but with some of the clunkier aspects of them sanded down. And as a Golden Age character, Batman definitely has some aspects that could be troubling.
Look, I love Batman. Don’t get me wrong. One of the greatest superheroes ever created. But, as I’m hardly the first one to notice, the image of a billionaire WASP donning a bat costume to beat the ever-living tar out of the city’s poor and disenfranchised with the tacit blessing of the police can be a difficult sell. It’s not an insurmountable problem, by any means and many different writers have found different ways to deal with it. Grant Morrison largely keeps Batman away from muggers and car-jackers and has him mostly fighting crazed supervillains. Other writers emphasise that Bruce Wayne isn’t just helping Gotham by being Batman but also contributes hugely to the city with his humanitarian work. And Frank Miller just shrugs and says “Yeah, he’s a fascist, whadyagonna do?”
But still, that’s always going to be an issue with the character that has to be dealt with. And I would argue that the second draft of Batman that addressed these problems wasn’t created at DC at all, but at Marvel. Actually, scratch that. Marvel didn’t make an improved Batman. They made three:
Okay, he’s Batman, but instead of being a rich kid raised by his butler he was a dirt poor Irish Catholic boy with a hardscrabble working class upbringing in the roughest neighbourhood in New York who had to put himself through law school despite being blind.
Okay, he’s Batman, but instead of everyone pretending that dressing up in a costume and beating up muggers wouldn’t make you a lunatic and kind of an asshole we just acknowledge that he’s a lunatic and kind of an asshole.
Okay, he’s Batman. But he’s black. And smarter. And richer. And a king.
Like the Golden Age that preceded it, the Silver Age was initially whiter than white. But even in the early days at Marvel you can see a recognition of this and the halting, occasionally cringe-worthy but always well-motived attempts by Stan Lee and his co-creators to open up their fledgling universe to non-white characters. And undoubtedly their greatest achievement in this regard was the introduction to the Marvel universe of T’Challa, the Black Panther and the King of Wakanda.
T’Challa first appeared in Fantastic Four #52 where Reed Richards and his family are invited to the mysterious African Nation of Wakanda by its equally mysterious king. The FF consistently underestimate the technology and skill of the Wakandans until they are faced with the mysterious Black Panther who manages to best one of the most powerful superhero teams in the world single-handed. Then, the Black Panther reveals himself to be T’Challa, and explains that he had to lure them to Wakanda to test his abilities against them. This first story, I think, encapsulates what’s made the character so enduring:
Which doesn’t sound like a selling point, but hear me out. Too often, when white creators are trying to create positive black characters they make them a little too um…what’s the word I’m looking for?
Like, really friendly, eager to please, completely unthreatening and ready to lay their lives down for whitey at a moment’s notice.
Black Panther is very much not that. He may be a good guy, but he’s not your good guy. He has his own mission and agenda which is protecting Wakanda. If your agenda and his align, great. If not, he will not hesitate for a second to slit your throat if that’s what it takes to keep his people safe. He’s aloof, unknowable, one of the three of four smartest human beings on the planet, and you can never quite be sure how much you can trust him. He is a black man who is the hero of his own story, not a supporting character in someone else’s.
If there was any doubt that there was a real hunger for this kind of character, then the roaring rampage this thing cut through the global box office put it to rest. No MCU movie has flopped…
No MCU movie that counts has flopped and most of them have been big hits. Some of them have been massive hits. But Black Panther was a full on cultural event. Dialogue and characters from this movie saturated the pop culture. Athletes started dressing in Wakanda inspired outfits and making the Wakandan salute. Schools and churches organised trips to see it and some commentators compared its release to cultural touchstones like Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech and the election of Obama and okay guys, c’mon. It’s just a movie. But, after all the fanfare and thinkpieces, does the movie hold up? This looks like a job for an opinionated white guy on the internet! Let’s do this.
Ah Bakshi, the man they couldn’t tame.
I’ve reviewed two of Ralph Bakshi’s movies now, and even though my feelings on them were, oh let’s just go with “mixed” I have to say I have been looking forward to this one quite a bit. Why? Well, partially it’s because the animation reviews tend to be more fun to write, and also because, even if I don’t think they’re necessarily good films, they’re always a hell of a trip and fascinating to watch and talk about. Look, the guy walked into mainstream animation and just started throwing petrol bombs and I’ve always said I’ll take fascinatingly bad over dully competent any day.
And yet, the more I read up on Wizards (Papa Bear Bakshi’s third feature) the more anxious I got. Wizards is Ralph Bakshi’s most popular movie, and the one that, by Bakshi’s own admission, no one gave him shit over and genuinely seemed to like. This is the movie that even the squares seem to dig.
Could that work? Could Ralph Bakshi actually make a standard, mainstream animated film? Or would his movie lose that inherent grungy Bak-shit insane quality that’s really the only thing that makes his output interesting? What happens when Ralph Bakshi shaves and puts on some damn pants? Let’s take a look.