Thursday, March 22, 2018

Isle of Racial Unease

A while back, I tackled the unfortunate controversy surrounding Tim Burton not having more diverse actors and actresses in his films. During that, I mentioned the following:
"…[T]here are plenty of talented actors and actresses of colour who are looking for work, and they're always welcome additions. By constantly turning a blind eye in favour of white actors and actresses, you're actually being racist."
This couldn't be more relevant in light of a recent issue with yet another director: Wes Anderson. Anderson's newest movie, Isle of Dogs, is scheduled for release shortly as of me writing this. I'm sure it'll be delightfully quirky and charming, but I can't help but feel like there's something off about it from as early as the trailers. Whether it's that most of the cast is his white regulars, as opposed to being Japanese, his few Japanese characters smell of stereotypes, or that the Japanese characters are window-dressing, it's hard to get around the racism of this film even if you ignore that it's about, well, dogs.

Then there's the issue of the film's narrative. I won't get into the nitty-gritty, since: a. I haven't seen it yet. b. I don't want to ruin it. c. I think this review does a better job than I could. But outside of that, Isle of Dogs invokes, yet again, the bothersome p-word that I'm not too fond of in general. Still, it's definitely a blight on a winner from a director whose career's defined by them.

It also shouldn't surprise you that I opened my mouth and got myself into trouble yet again on Twitter over this. I won't relay the full conversation, you can read it here, but yeah…not a great impression. Like, at all. As in, I need to heed my own advice and learn when to stop talking.

To clarify, I'm not saying that Wes Anderson isn't to blame. He is. Art is the by-product conscious decisions on every level, such that even its more questionable material isn't accidental. A film conceived and directed by Anderson bears his seal, and, for better or worse, he deserves the brunt for its failings too. Especially given that he could've made completely different decisions than the ones he did.

However, there's a bigger issue here that's a two-fold problem. First and foremost, Anderson doesn't exist in a vacuum. He's an artist in an artist colony known as Hollywood, one that shares many of the same worldviews as him by proxy. I know this is code for "Wes Anderson is a white man surrounded by white people in a white institution", but he's limited in scope of ideas. That's not necessarily a fault of skin colour, but as with Burton's remark, it's telling of how Hollywood operates.

So when Wes Anderson, master of quirky, oddball comedy-dramas, makes a movie about Japan, a country quite different than his own, this worldview will come into play. It's no different than a Japanese director peering into my culture, aka Judaism: they can try, but unless they understand my history and life experience, it'll never be entirely-successful. Thus is the issue of racial bias: you can take the person out of the culture, but you'll never take the culture out of the person. Whether it's Anderson casting mostly white people for his roles, stereotyping Japanese people, or even limited the scope of what he covers in his story, that racial bias is gonna be there in some form. And that's troubling.

The general perceptions of art need to change too. Hollywood needs to let other voices speak, irrespective of what position they're given. And we, as a collective, have to demand better of artists. It's not like Wonder Woman and Black Panther were only box-office smashers because they were superhero films. That may be part of it, but they also catered to niches not normally represented.

If we're gonna live in a globalized world, then our art should reflect that. And it's not happening fast enough. Especially in animation, where the excuse "you can draw them however you want, so who really cares?" is still valid for casting non-diverse talents. I see it all the time, such that even my favourites aren't immune to whitewashing.

I know some of you don't understand, and I get it. That's your privilege talking, of which I also possess a certain amount. But think about it this way: when Love, Simon came out, there were stories of gay people finally feeling comfortable enough to express their gayness. Amongst them was Joey Pollari, an actor from the film who'd long felt shame. This is a phenomenon not exclusive to gay people or Love, Simon, as it happens whenever a minority of any kind gets a chance in the limelight. Isn't that something we should be celebrating, not shaming?

So yes, I stand by my claim that this isn't entirely Wes Anderson's fault, even if he deserves some of the rap. Because art is also part of a grander system of biases and prejudices. If we're to change that, part of it means acknowledging that Wes Anderson's failings aren't the full picture.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

A Eulogy for Star Wars Rebels

How about that Star Wars Rebels?

So I wasn't on-board with this show initially. After all, it premiered in 2014, right as uncertainty about the new direction Disney was taking the franchise was at an all-time high. Additionally, its direct predecessor, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, was recently cancelled, and my only exposure to it at that point went back to the pilot movie no one liked. It wasn't until I watched Star Wars: The Force Awakens that I gave these shows a chance. Admittedly, Star Wars Rebels was already halfway through its second season by then, but I liked what I saw of its predecessor, so I figured I'd enjoy it too.

Forewarning, I'm gonna assume you've already seen it if you're reading this. It'll save me lots of effort and space trying to condense 4 seasons into a single blog. I'll also forgo defending it, as I've already done that. Instead, I'd like to give my general thoughts on the experience. Here goes:

I'll begin by mentioning that Star Wars Rebels, like its sister series before it, has the weird distinction of being cheaply-animated, yet progressively looking better over time. It's definitely more crisp and cinematic, thanks to an increase in budget, but it's obvious that this could never be made into a theatrical film. That's something Star Wars: The Clone Wars had to learn the hard way in 2008, and, thankfully, it's not repeated here. This show knows its visual strengths and weakness and never oversteps them, and thank goodness for that!

It's clear early-on who this show's really meant for: little kids. If Star Wars: The Clone Wars was created and written with teenagers in mind, than Star Wars Rebels is for younger Star Wars fans. I know this has turned some viewers off, but it's never bothered me. Star Wars has always been for children, and George Lucas even acknowledged this early-on. So a Star Wars show, let-alone a cartoon, being for kids is crucial when understanding why it was even aired on DisneyXD.

Musically, the show's on-par with Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Those who've seen my comparison piece will know what I think of composer Kevin Kiner's work, but I'll add that he's at his best when he plays to the tunes that John Williams made famous. This almost seems unfair, but it's a testament to the legacy of the movies themselves. This isn't to flat-out disrespect the shows for what they've brought to the table, however: ignoring their opening and ending themes, which'd be ear-worms either way, both have moments of brilliance on-par with the films.

But that's somewhat irrelevant, because Star Wars Rebels is all about filling in the gaps leading to the 1977 classic. I know its existence involves retconning certain details of established lore and stretching others, but considering that Star Wars is notorious for doing this anyway, it's easy to forgive. Not all franchises need to follow The MCU principle of tying together neatly, nor should they.

Nevertheless, I was worried how the rebellion would coalesce in the first season. The show indicated that it was initially a grassroots, guerilla-style resistance that did everything on a "hero for hire" method, except with two Jedi thrown in for good fun. That's how it starts off, but as the Season 1 finale came to pass, it was revealed to be more complicated. That almost makes me want to see another show going even further back, but I'm overreaching here.

The cast more than made up for that, though. Whether it was the headstrong Hera Syndula, daughter of partisan rebel Cham Syndula, the trigger-happy Zeb, the rebellious Sabine Ren, daughter of Mandalore, the grumpy Chopper, or the Master/Padawan combo of Kanan Jarrus and Ezra Bridger, a lot of thought went into making this crew likable. Returning characters Ahsoka Tano and Captain Rex, two fan-favourites from Star Wars: The Clone Wars, eventually rounded-out the crew even further, although they would always pop in and out as necessary. Either way, a fun crew for kids to relate to.

The show also had guest appearances from the films, including Lando Calrissian, Princess Leia, Darth Vader, Darth Maul, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Sidious, all of whom helped anchor the show in the Star Wars universe. Even R2-D2 and C-3PO, who've been in everything Star Wars-canon, made a guest appearance in the first season…on the side of The Empire, no-less! This wasn't happenstance either, as Star Wars: The Clone Wars did this too. Plus, the inclusion of Admiral Thrawn, a non-canon character, in Season 3 was a nice touch.

Star Wars Rebels also expanded on The Force, as every Star Wars property has. Its most-infamous moment was the inclusion of a "world between worlds", a dimension isolated from time itself that appeared toward the end of Season 4. It was never fully-expanded on, to my disappointment, but it allowed for future franchise possibilities. That it also brought back the "Father/Son/Daughter" concept from the previous series was a nice nod to continuity. My only complaint is that it also retconned Ahsoka's death at the hands of Darth Vader, but I can't bellyache too much.

There were other nice nods to continuity that I liked. Ahsoka's fight with Vader in the Season 2 finale, a fight that'd been hinted at for a full season, was a great callback to the one between Anakin and Obi-Wan, even using part of Duel of the Fates in the fight's music. The show also saw the return of Darth Maul and concluded his arc toward the end of Season 3, fulfilling a long-standing threat Obi-Wan made to him in Star Wars: The Clone Wars. These sorts of call-backs were nice and further amped the show's greatness.

Additionally, Star Wars Rebels had solid season finales. Season 1 was an excellent showdown between The Grand Inquisitor and Kanan/Ezra. Season 2 had the long-awaited fight between Ahsoka and Vader. Season 3 had the long-awaited battle between The Empire and the planet Dantooine. And Season 4 topped it off with the fight for Lothal. Each of these finales were great and sweeping, if not sometimes epic, and allowed for the show to show off what it was capable of thematically and narratively.

It's hard to say if I preferred this to Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Both shows had their strengths and weaknesses, with one being really dark and edgy, and the other lighter and family-friendly. Perhaps the only advantage Star Wars Rebels had was that its narrative didn't jump around between episodes. This did mean that it suffered from more filler episodes, but even then most of them ended up meaning something. I guess only time will truly give me a satisfying answer.

Still, I enjoyed Star Wars Rebels a lot. It's not the most-ambitious or gutsy of the Star Wars properties, nor does it live up to its full-potential, and its closing narration's a little too clean, but the show's a recommended companion-series to Star Wars: The Clone Wars. It's not for everyone, but it's definitely worth checking out.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Whitewashing in the Hell

Hollywood's guilty of harbouring many skeletons. Its most-recent one, sexual predation, has been the subject of scrutiny and backlash following Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo movement. However, it's its whitewashing, which goes back to the industry's inception, that regularly rears its ugly head. It's been criticized, chastised, deconstructed and apologized for as much as it's been defended and ignored, making it a routine punching bag. And while it's not as bad as it used to be, thanks to the globalization of film in the last 30-odd years, it hasn't gone away entirely.

I mention this in-light of a Vulture article about Annihilation. The article discusses the issue of whitewashing the, admittedly vague, character descriptions in the source material via actresses who are predominantly white. Or, more specifically, actresses who are Natalie Portman. It's an interesting piece, to say the least, and it's worth reading, but I'm stung by what it's insinuating about Portman and Jews as a whole.

I don't think E. Alex Jung, the author of the piece, is being malicious towards Jews. At least, not intentionally. But the underlying, subtle implications can lead to a terrible and blatantly-offensive misreading, one that reinforces negative stereotypes about the Jewish people as a whole. And that's somewhat concerning, such that I feel it's worth responding to.

What's whitewashing? It's the concept by which one culture or character's legacy is painted over or supplanted with another's, this being white people. This practice can extend to other areas as well, but since whitewashing's its most-common form, that's what's usually brought up. Especially since whitewashing has been the predominant form of cultural revisionism in art for centuries, completely ignoring the contributions of other groups. To be fair, sometimes what qualifies as whitewashing can be vague, especially when factoring in context, but the concept is pretty abhorrent and worthy of understanding in order to change it.

Which leads me to Jung's article. He's right to say that Annihilation's an example of whitewashing, even if it's unintentional. He's also right to say that casting Portman as an originally Oriental-Asian character is a form of whitewashing. But I take issue with Jung's assumption that Portman's, therefore, white. Because she's not.

Let me explain.

See, Natalie Portman's not even American. She's Israeli. Her birth name is Neta-Lee Hershlag. The decision to Anglicize her name, a common practice for foreign talent in Hollywood, was to help sell her to American audiences. It's especially common for Jews to adopt this, and is, itself, already an argument against Jews being inherently white.

This is important for why calling Jews "white" is a problem: because they still feel subtle pressure, like other minorities, to adapt in order to succeed. If Jews were really white, they wouldn't be adopting non-Jewish names. If Jews were really white, they wouldn't feel pressure to hide their Jewishness. That both of those still happen should already be a red flag, right?

Besides, Jews are a diverse people. Some are European. Some are Asian. Some are African. Some are Latino. Some are Middle Eastern. Some are Desi-Hindu. There's enough range in physical and ethnic appearance for them to not classify as "white". The only reason why most people don't know this is a lack of exposure and representation.

Even ignoring the diversity of skin colour, "white" Jews, the European ones, have only really been accepted into Western culture within the last 100 or so years. Even after The Enlightenment of the 18th-20th Centuries, in which Jews were slowly-integrated into European countries, long-standing discrimination, left-over from segregation and isolation, didn't fully go away. Rather, it morphed into modern-Antisemitism, a term coined in Germany in the 19th Century. Antisemitism continued to haunt the Jewish experience like an elephant in the room, eventually reaching its peak during WWII and The Third Reich.

Even today, Jews aren't fully part of white culture. They might benefit from a certain degree of white privilege, no doubt due to their resourcefulness and understanding of wealth and power, but it's recent, conditional and can be easily-revoked. If you want proof, simply ask a white supremacist or neo-Nazi what they think of Jews. At the same time, though, brace yourself for the answer.

This is why it offends me when Jews are lackadaisically clumped in with "white people". Even those Jews that aren't European, like Hank Azaria and Ben Kingsley. It ignores the difference in historical circumstances and is, honestly, somewhat Antisemitic. Yet instead of being the kind of Antisemitism that's open and blatant, it's the kind of Antisemitism that's more opaque and harder to read. This is the same Antisemitism that allows oppressed groups to adopt BDS as a platform, to delegitimize the Jewish experience, and to lump the occasional bad apples with the grander power structure that's oppressed them historically. It also robs Jews of their voices in the struggle for societal progress.

Which leads back to my issue with Vulture's article. I'm sure the filmmakers were unaware of their whitewashing, as the article states, but to assume it's okay to feed the long-standing misconception that Jews are white is equally frustrating. Because Jews don't need backhanded placating and lip-service from other minority groups. Good or bad, they need the respect they deserve.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

I Am Panther, Hear Me Roar!

Internet, it's time we had another talk…

I'm sure everyone who hasn't been living under a rock knows what Black Panther is. It's the first major superhero movie starring a black lead and directed by black man that's receiving critical praise (I know the Blade movies predate it, but they weren't directed by black directors and weren't critical darlings.) This is a big deal, especially since superheroes have been at the forefront of mainstream film culture for over two decades and haven't made gains on proper representation for minorities. To paraphrase an old mantra, Black Panther matters.

Unfortunately, not everyone thinks that way. The existence of early-backlash against the film has been centre-stage for weeks now. This isn't new, Frozen and Selma also received pre-release pushback, but it's especially egregious in light of the circumstances leading up to it. For one, there's the anti-Disney/Marvel group that claims Disney's buying good press. There's a lot to be unpacked here about how ridiculous that is, but I think Bob Chipman did a better job than I ever could.

The bigger pushback, I think, comes from an underlying paranoia. Like the recent Star Wars films, Black Panther's become the victim of angry nerds who feel Hollywood's leaving them behind. But since they have no control over that, their only outlet of venting is to down-rate the film. It's as sad as it sounds.

It's worth noting that, despite its perceived status as a bastion of social progress, Hollywood's still largely ethnocentric in its casting and storytelling. Most individuals working in the industry are white, straight men, and their output reflects that. In an article written on July 31st, 2017, Variety noted that little social progress has been made in Hollywood over the last decade. To quote the article directly:

"…[O]f the films surveyed in 2016, 31.4% of speaking characters were female, unchanged from 2015 and not much higher than the 29.9% logged in 2007. The overall ratio of male to female characters was 2.3 to 1, and 34 films had a female lead or co-lead, compared to 32 in 2015…

…70.8% of speaking roles in 2016's top 100 were white, far outweighing the tallies for characters who were black (13.6%), Asian (5.7%), Hispanic (3.1%), or other (7%)…72 of 2016's top 100 films had no Hispanic or Latina female speaking roles, and 91 had none for LGBTQ females.

Women were underrepresented behind the scenes…making up 4.2% of directors, 13.2% of writers, 20.7% of producers, and just 1.7% of composers…[O]nly 34 unique female directors that released films between 2007 and 2016 (excluding 2011). Male gay characters were among the few demographics to rise year-on-year, up to 36 speaking roles in 2016 from 19 in 2015...The 2.7% of characters with disabilities in 2016 films was about on par with the 2.4% reported in 2015."
This snippet highlights the disparity between perception and reality. Hard-right critics of Hollywood like to point out the "liberal agenda", but the truth suggests otherwise: Hollywood talks the talk, but refuses to walk the walk. And in an increasingly-globalized world, the leading outsource of global entertainment is failing to keep up. Which is all-the-more reason minority voices of any kind should get their dues, as that's the only way for change to happen.

Enter Black Panther. I haven't seen any of director Ryan Coogler's prior films. I wanted to watch Fruitvale Station when it was in theatres in 2013, since 2013 was an awful Summer for blockbusters, but due to circumstances not within my control it never happened. Creed was intriguing, but I decided to skip it because I hadn't watched the Rocky movies prior. I feel bad, especially since I loved Michael B. Jordan in Chronicle, but it simply wasn't meant to be. And that's why I'm excited to finally catch Black Panther, as I get to see a new and exciting voice tackle a comic book character. That the reviews have been great so far helps.

This is also why the racist backlash is so concerning. Not only is this a Marvel movie, but it's a character based on an obscure property like so many of The MCU's prior films. We've embraced a guy in a suit of armour, a green monster, a Norse demigod, a genetically-engineered super-solider, a rag-tag group of space scoundrels (one of whom is a talking tree), a guy who can communicate with ants and a sorcerer who can bend dimensions, but a black man in a cat suit? That's pushing it!

That isn't to say Black Panther will be flawless, or that there won't be legit reasons to end up not liking it. But that so many of the complaints lobbed against this film come from having a black lead makes me sad. People are also whining that there are only two white people in the entire cast, to which I reply with "How does it feel?" Because movies have so frequently done the reverse that, as with last year's Wonder Woman, having an underrepresented demographic be at the forefront is a nice change of pace.

Besides, Black Panther, judging by early box-office estimates, will have intensely high turn-outs from audiences, including audiences of colour who wouldn't otherwise see movies in theatres. Like it or not, representation matters because it means that people care. You're not simply a wingman to someone else. And given there are other groups of people than straight, white males, isn't that good?

Let's not forget, we're also getting a Captain Marvel movie next year. And a Wonder Woman 2. And I'm sure that won't be the end of it. And if you can't accept that? Well…no one's forcing you to watch these movies, right?

Really, this backlash is a lack of understanding of what it means to share. There's a reason that people are taught how to share when they're babies, as it's an important life-skill. By letting Black Panther exist, you're sharing with black filmgoers. Why's that so bad?

I guess the racist backlash will have to be shown up by opportunities for inclusive film-going. I know there's been an initiative to help students from underprivileged communities watch the film for free, and I strongly support that. Because if Iron Man and Spider-Man are allowed to be heroes in 2018, then so should Black Panther. I only hope that people realize that soon enough…

Monday, February 5, 2018

Walt Disney Revival Studios

These past few months have seen a serious shake-up. With Harvey Weinstein being stripped of the limelight following allegations of sexual assault and rape from various celebrities in Hollywood, the #MeToo movement has shed light on an onslaught of predatory behaviour in every industry out there. Notable predators include Kevin Spacey, George Takei, Mario Batali, Stan Lee, Max Landis, Roy Moore and Patrick Brown, to name a few. It appears as though some real change is happening, and it's happening fast and aggressively.

I mention this because of a video I recently watched discussing "the end of The Revival Era" for Walt Disney Animation Studios. It brought up the company's recent preference of sequels with Wreck-It Ralph 2 and Frozen 2 over original ideas, as well as the resignation of John Lasseter following his predatory behaviour. It suggested that the momentum that started with Bolt in 2008 might finally be over because of those factors. It's a cute sentiment in theory, but it doesn't hold up for a few reasons.

Let's start with the obvious: Disney's always had its ups-and-downs qualitatively. This goes back to the early days of Walt's studio, as following its first five films-Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi-the studio was hit by the war effort and wouldn't make another real stride until Cinderella in 1950. It'd take, yet again, a hit following the financial failure of Sleeping Beauty in 1959, and would stagnate even further following the death of Walt in 1966. Even during the 90's, the studio released Pocahontas in 1995, and the latter-half of the decade never quite matched the prowess of the former-half. And let's not forget the 2000's, where most of the films that came out weren't successful critically or financially.

Basically, Disney's always been a roller-coaster of quality. If anything, a potential slump is expected, especially after 9 critical hits in a row. This isn't something to be feared, but embraced, as even the greats aren't infallible. It's a real learning opportunity. Also, given how Disney has Marvel and Star Wars to fall back on, I'm not terribly concerned.

Disney's sequels that are coming out don't concern me either. I'm actually excited for Wreck-It Ralph 2, while Frozen 2, though unnecessary, doesn't upset me in the slightest. Remember, this isn't the first time Disney's made a canonical sequel to a Disney property. Remember The Rescuers Down Under? Remember Fantasia 2000? Remember Winnie-the-Pooh? If those are well-liked, then so can these be.

Then there's Disney's near future. Disney announced plans a while back for some "original" projects, including ones based on Jack and the Beanstalk and The Princess and the Pea. They changed the names, obviously, and I doubt the films will follow their sources, as per usual, but they still look promising. And these have been in production for a while now! Disney has unique ideas, don't worry.

Finally, let's talk John Lasseter. For as much as it pains me that Lasseter's a sex offender, especially considering what he's done to rebuild Disney's image, I doubt Disney will die without him. Lasseter hasn't directed a truly great film since Toy Story 2 in 1999, let-alone a film at all since Cars 2 in 2011. He's had a ton of producing and executive producing credits, but he's never truly been active in the field for years now. And while I'll forever respect the dedication and passion he brought to the craft, he's not irreplaceable.

Besides, there are other, equally-talented individuals who deserve recognition, especially now that he's gone. These include female directors, producers, writers and animators who'd have otherwise not had a chance at fame and fortune prior, and it's high-time they got one now. I know that Brenda Chapman, Pixar's first female director, never got to truly show off what she was capable of before retiring in 2012, and she's one person! If Lasseter's accusers are to be believed, there are plenty of lost voices animation that deserve to be heard. It's merely too bad we won't get to hear them.

Don't get me wrong, Lasseter's contributions are immense: he helped Pixar kick off in the 80's and 90's. He helped CGI animation become mainstream in the mid/late-90's. He revived Walt Disney Animation Studios in the late-00's following their failures. And while he may not have been the originator of their success, he did help Studio Ghibli become well-respected by Western animation fans thanks to his friendship with Hayao Miyazaki. I'm forever thankful for all of that.

But I also have to acknowledge that he's an awful human being who's preyed on. The stuff that's been lobbed against him? That's probably not everything, especially given his tendencies to stalk women. It's like someone on my Twitter Feed stated: for every talented predator, there are a dozen, equally-talented women he's left behind. It's a serious problem, and if it means not seeing Lasseter's imprint on Disney anymore, then we'll have to live with it.

And yes, I don't think that Disney's Revival Era is over. Or, if it is, perhaps it's for the best until a wiser, less-destructive replacement comes along. Especially if it's a woman, because we don't have enough of those!

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Wonder Woman (2009) VS Wonder Woman (2017)-Which is Better?

On March 3rd, 2009, Warner Bros.’s animation division released an original, direct-to-video feature about comics’ prized superheroine, titled Wonder Woman. A trailblazer in many ways, it was also the first superheroine film directed by a woman. The film was an underachiever financially, yet has received critical praise and gained cult-status in the years following its release. For many years, it was also the only feature-length film to focus on Diana of Themyscira exclusively.

On May 15th, 2017, Warner Bros. took another shot at the titular heroine for the big-screen, titled Wonder Woman. A trailblazer in many ways too, it was the first theatrical superheroine film directed by a woman. The film was a smash-success at the box-office, generating a little over $800 million, and remains the sole critical darling in the struggling DCEU. Second-time’s the charm?

It’s easy to look at the latter as the better film. Not only did it perform better, it also accomplished more for comics’ first feminist icon and helped save the reputation of a slowly-dying film universe. Even its critical success is better, outdoing its animated counterpart’s 88% on Rotten Tomatoes with a whopping 92%! Surely, it’s no contest, right?

As with my previous comparison pieces, I’ll make two disclaimers: first, this is all subjective. Nothing I say should be taken 100% at face-value, I’m only doing this for fun. And second, there’ll be heavy spoilers for both movies. You might wanna watch them before reading this analysis.

Let’s begin with…



The basic premise of the Wonder Woman mythos is as follows: the gods create mankind. Ares, the God of War, corrupts man for his own benefit. In retaliation, Zeus creates the Amazons, only to have them be mass-slaughtered. As a last-minute salvation, Hera gives the Amazons a private island and grants Hippolyta, their queen, a daughter named Diana. Many centuries later, a pilot, named Steve Trevor, crash-lands on said island and is rescued by Diana. The Amazons are initially distrustful of him, yet eventually agree to let Diana escort him to his home world.

Both films take different approaches to the source material. The animated film updates the story to set the crash in modern-times. The plane becomes a jet, Steve a military pilot who gets downed during a…secret mission, and his plane doesn’t so much crash as emergency lands. Even the part where Steve’s rescued by Diana is flipped on its head, with Diana engaging him in a fight, kicking him in the groin and taking him back to the other Amazons for interrogation. And the traditional interrogation scene, a famous moment in DC Comics’ history, includes jokes that’d only fly in a modern context.

The live-action film goes the opposite route. Traditionally, Wonder Woman’s origin begins in WWII, as that was when it was written. However, because her story is about humanizing men-something made complicated with our contemporary understanding of fascism and its inherent evils-the film reverts to WWI instead. The film even plays into Steve being a spy escaping a German platoon, with said platoon finding Themyscira actively fighting the Amazons. The rest of the origin story, however, remains mostly intact.

There are also minor details in both films that make them distinct. In the animated film, the Amazons hold a contest to determine who brings back Steve, which Diana sneaks into and wins despite her mother initially refusing to let her participate. In the live-action film, however, Diana actively disobeys her mother’s wishes, sneaks into a secret shrine, steals the legendary armour and leaves with Steve anyway. And while the animated film gives better context to why Diana dons the traditional armour Wonder Woman’s famous for, I prefer the higher stakes of live-action.

That having been said, I take issue with facets of both films’ set-ups. For one, the animation has a few plot-holes with how Steve arrives on Themyscira: who was Steve fighting during his crash? Who punched the mirror that allowed Themyscira to appear as a landing strip? And how did Steve manage to have his combat exercise right above the island? I don’t expect every detail in the movie to have an explanation, but those particular questions are never answered.

The live-action film has a better sense of narrative geography, but it also takes way too long to get to the same point. Much of its set-up is necessary, like the whole back-story involving The God Killer, but then it also has a pointless debate about whether or not Diana should be trained to fight. It’s so dragged-out that by the time Steve crashes, I was starting to get bored. I’m not sure if this was mandated by WB’s higher-ups to connect to the grander DCEU, but I’m unimpressed. I think this film should’ve been isolated from The DCEU, especially given the franchise’s other outings.

The animated film also has structural issues that permeate the rest of it. While in Hades’s realm, Ares has a brief moment of weakness when he sees what happened to his son. It’s meant to humanize him, and it works, but it also drags out the scene. Additionally, the final fight has some plot-points that end anticlimactically, including one involving a missile that ends up being a red herring. These don’t kill the momentum, but they feel like padding to fill the 72-minute runtime.

I also don’t buy Ares’s speech about how he’s superior to the gods while fighting Diana. He mentions that he’s “…stronger than Hercules, as fast as Hermes, and…like Hades…[has] dominion over the dead.” The film shows these attributes, but why would a nuclear warhead give them that much power? I’ve seen the movie many times, and that still leaves me scratching my head.

The live-action film, however, has a bigger problem. Once you get past the set-up, the movie’s great, with the stretch from No Man’s Land to the battle with Ludendorff being excellent. Yet once Ludendorff is dead…it begins to fall apart. The real villain, Hades, is introduced in a twist, and the movie then becomes yet another DCEU spectacle (i.e., a bombastic mess). It’s nowhere near as bad as Man of Steel or Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, and it has its share of emotional tension and pay-off, but that last fight needed another pass at the script.

I’ll give the live-action film an advantage over the animated one with its dialogue. For all of its strengths, the animated film has overly on-the-nose writing. It’s not subtle at all, especially in how its characters exposit their thoughts, and that can get a little grating. Especially considering that the film’s message, though well-executed, is yet another “not all men” statement that I’m sure feminists are sick of. Being time-crunched doesn’t help much.

It’s tough, but I’ll cede this to the animated movie. It’s less subtle, feels rushed for time and has several plot-holes that aren’t properly addressed, but it’s also much more consistent and economic. Like a supermodel, there’s little body fat, which isn’t something I can say for the live-action film’s meandering first-act and messy third-act. I still think the live-action film is better-written dialogue-wise, but it’s the weaker film story-wise.


But a good movie is only as good as its lead and their support, so…



Speaking about a strong cast of characters, which is better?

The animated film’s main players, save Steve Trevor and Diana, are introduced in the film’s opening battle, where they’re all given their character quirks: Artemis is a bloody-thirsty, arrogant war-monger. Her sister, Alexa, is the opposite, being a passive bookworm who’s afraid of violence. Persephone, later revealed to be a supporting antagonist, is fleshed-out enough to understand why she’s unhappy with her lot. Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, is a fierce and strong-willed leader. And Ares, the archetypal war profiteer, the one who feeds on the psychic energy of carnage, is shown revelling in bloodshed, right before his son is slaughtered by Hippolyta and he’s bound by Zeus for his crimes.

Every character that matters is accounted for, with Diana and Steve arriving shortly afterward. Which is important because the animated film’s short enough that every second counts. Every frame, every bit of dialogue, every movement these characters take, it’s all carefully constructed. And bless it for that.

Which makes it all-the-more important that the live-action movie goes the reverse route and take its time to establish its characters. The movie’s cast is huge, and it divides its introductions into three parts: The Amazons of Themyscira, the military personnel and the small infantry Steve assembles. They’re all done wonderfully, with not a single character wasted or beat missed. That’s equally difficult for a movie to achieve, and this one does it with flying colours.

Perhaps the real star is Diana herself, played by Keri Russell in the animated film and Gal Gadot in the live-action film. It’s hard to beat Russell’s millennial snark and constant banter with Nathan Fillion’s sexist quirks, especially since she sounds like someone desperate to come into her own skin, but Gadot has the tougher position of playing comics’ biggest, feminist icon while working around her Israeli accent. Her movie, to be fair, has all of the other Amazons don accents too, to mixed effect, but it’s a tough and thankless role. Add in that Gadot saw a slew of backlash that ranged from her not being the right build, to her being a Zionist, and it’s amazing that she made it work.

If there’s a real downside I have with both films’ casts, it’s that they both have a weak-spot. For the animated film, I’d even argue there are actually two. The animated movie completely wastes Etta Candy for a cheap gag, something that’d most-likely anger comic fans. Steve’s character-arc is about learning not to be a shameless womanizer, yet Etta’s entire shtick is that she’s a secretary who flirts with Steve. I’m not sure what the creative team behind this movie was getting at, (did they think Etta’s initial character was sexist?) but if Diana doesn’t approve, then neither do I.

Hades is also a wasted character. His whole purpose revolves around helping Ares because “family”. He acknowledges that he’s “a dog [who] will obey every command”. He removes Ares’s bands after tormenting him briefly with the half-dead corpse of Thrax, presumably to anger him for fun. Yet he could’ve been replaced with anyone, so why have him?

The live-action film fixes Etta and removes Hades from the picture, yet it ruins Ares in the third-act. Not only is this out of left-field, but it’s the point at which the movie starts falling apart. Why couldn’t the film have resolved after the fight with Ludendorff? It’s fun to see David Thewlis act slimy, something I’ve yet to see with him, but it’s nothing more than an excuse for a fight on-par with The DCEU’s lesser-entries.

I think this is more clear-cut a victory than the last category, and for one reason: the live-action film’s finale. Sure, the animated film ruins Etta and underutilizes Hades, but it at least doesn’t shove in a second villain. I like the racial politics of the live-action film more-I’ll cover that in the last category-but its twist-villain really does hamper it. Sorry.


It’s now time for…



This is tough.

On the one hand, the animated film has the advantage: it’s clean. Its Greco-Roman art-style is easy on the eyes. Its colour-palate’s also easier on the eyes. And it’s hyper-detailed for direct-to-video. If anything, this should’ve been released in theatres, as it’s on-par with Batman: Mask of the Phantasm and The Iron Giant aesthetically.

But as I began to think about it, I realized the live-action film does something you wouldn’t expect from a DCEU movie: it uses colour-grading smartly. Past DCEU movies had a muted, darker palate consistently, making them ugly to look at. In contrast, this film uses different colours to signify moments in Diana’s journey, with No Man’s Land even regaining its colour after she frees it from German control. It’s something you wouldn’t think of the first time around, but it works in its favour.

Think about it this way: what’s more-impressive? A consistently beautiful palate, or a dirtier one that progressively gets more-lively? A Greco-Roman art-style that was hard to draw, or a deceptively-dingy one that was hard to make look convincing? I think the latter’s more interesting, especially given the constraints it had. Also, this is the only DCEU film to use Zack Snyder’s obnoxious slow-motion style in a way that’s artsy and not pretentious.


Speaking of impressive, it’s time for…



Oh boy!

Right from the get-go, the animated film has musical brilliance. Because of composer Christopher Drake, who’s scored several of DC’s animated ventures, the movie’s littered with a Greek chorus and female harmonies, both of which match the film’s vibe. It’s also used to excellent effect. This seems like an easy win, right?

Not quite, and it all boils down to three words: electric cello riff. It’s only ever used four times in the entire film, the last being the end credits, but it sticks in your head! You immediately hear that riff, and your head starts bobbing up-and-down like you’re at a heavy metal concert. Take that, animated film!

The rest of the film’s score is pretty good too, by the way.


It’s time to decide the victor once-and-for-all with…

Entertainment factor:


Determining which of these two films is superior is like someone determining which of her children she loves more. However, I’ll try my best.

I’ll begin with the overall themes. This should be a no-brainer theoretically: the animated film, while well-executed and well-balanced, is really a 72-minute exercise in “not all men”. I recognize that that’s an important message from-time-to-time, but given the rise in sexual misconduct stories these past few months, well…it’s unhelpful. The live-action movie, in contrast, is all about the good and bad in humanity. I can get behind that.

I also like how the live-action film isn’t afraid to tackle uncomfortable issues of race and women. One of the crew Steve acquires is an Ottoman Turk who tell Diana that he wants to be an actor, but “is the wrong colour”. That’s…surprisingly on-point for how Hollywood casts its movies. Another is a Native American who lost everything to Steve’s people. Again, that’s…surprisingly on-point in its commentary on colonialism. Even Diana’s an openly-active protagonist, as opposed to being active in the context of those around her in the animated film.

The live-action film also has its share of inspiring moments. The most-famous is No Man’s Land, where Diana jumps into the trenches and fends off German soldiers. There’s a reason it’s a great moment: it’s optimistic and heroic. At best, the animated film’s most-optimistic moment is when Diana helps a little girl swordfight. Even then, as Steve points out, it’s kinda twisted.

Fortunately, the animated movie’s much funnier. There’s a running gag surrounding the word “crap” that has an excellent pay-off in the finale. Steve also has some of the best lines and moments. Perhaps the funniest is when the two are drinking, and Steve mentions that if Diana’s mother had been seduced by the god of dependability, she’d say, “You’re sweet, but I think of you as a friend”. There’s also the punchline to that drinking, where he passes out drunk before Diana’s even partly inebriated, although how Steve recovered as quickly as he did…

The two movies also compliment/oppose one-another brilliantly: both films have an alleyway fight where Diana shows off her bulletproof wrist-cuffs. Both films have an emotional scene involving the death of a prominent Amazon. Both films also highlight different aspects of the Amazon culture and mythos, with one tackling Greek gods and the other touching on the Greek concept of Paradiso. And the fight scenes in both films are incredibly-impressive.

Personally, I’m siding with the animated film. The live-action film’s great, has lots of great moments and touches on great themes and concepts, but it’s a much messier experience. The animated film, though often rushed and expository, is more economically-efficient and wastes relatively little time. That’s something the live-action film should’ve strived for, hence losing by a hair.

Overall winner:

And there you have it! Thanks for sticking with me yet again, and I’ll see you next time!

Sunday, January 7, 2018

In Defence of/A Take-Down of Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Storytelling is tricky to truly master. For one, there has to be a plan connecting everything together. And two, it must be done in such a way that it doesn’t feel manipulative. This is especially challenging for a long-running series, which needs to do the above while setting the groundwork for the grander picture. There are definitely wrong ways to pull this off (see Lost), but there’s also no one way to do it correctly.

Take Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Star Wars is no stranger to narrative inconsistencies, due to the franchise frequently building off of previous installments, but it’s always seemed like there was a plan in place. Even lesser-entries, bad as they are, had a reason for existing, an established goal worth respecting. Unfortunately, this latest film bucked that trend. Despite taking the franchise in a new direction, which I’d argue isn’t a sure-fire guarantee of quality on its own, the film has seen backlash over a few dropped threads from its predecessor and its decision to include a detour on a planet called Canto Bight. I happen to not mind these decisions too much, but I’ll play Devil’s Advocate and explain why I think it’s not fair to dismiss the criticism.

By the way, spoilers.

The first I’ll tackle is the attempts at a new direction. Star Wars: The Last Jedi, right from its opening scene, subverts expectations. Poe Dameron, the loveable pilot of The Resistance from Star Wars: The Force Awakens, is reckless and gets most of his fleet killed. Luke, seen at the end of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, immediately chucks his prized lightsaber off a cliff in his first scene. Even Snoke, built-up to be another Emperor, is defeated by Kylo Ren, only for Kylo Ren to shock Rey and usurp the title of Supreme Leader shortly after the regime change. These are legitimately new and surprising decisions for an over 40 year-old franchise.

But is “new and surprising” necessarily good for Star Wars? Remember, the oft-maligned prequels introduced new and surprising elements too: the introduction of political banter was new, and Anakin’s descent to The Dark Side was surprising. That doesn’t, however, mean that these inclusions were good. And they shouldn’t be expected to, either. It’s a case of “different =/= better”, and it’s important that people understand that.

Fortunately, these decisions do work in the movie’s favour. Remember, Star Wars is over 40 years old. Even if you remove the “what ain’t broke, don’t fix” mantra so many people love touting, or that, to paraphrase George Lucas, Star Wars is like poetry and, therefore, rhymes, there’s a point where retreading too much can be a bad sign. It’s one of the many ill-founded complaints detractors lobbed at Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and it was used to reverse effect here. To paraphrase Jeremy Jahns in a YouTube video on the film, “It’s all about The Goldilocks Effect”.

That said, I do think there’s no real Goldilocks Effect with some Star Wars fans. The franchise is so deeply-rooted in nostalgia, and their hatred of Disney’s so strong, that they’d complain regardless. I don’t think Star Wars fans would be truly satisfied even if a movie found that balance, essentially.

The dropped threads are included here. Star Wars: The Force Awakens built up real questions and potential lore for future movies to address: who are Rey’s parents? Who’s Snoke? Why did Kylo Ren turn evil? And, most-importantly, how did Maz Kanata acquire Luke’s old lightsaber from Cloud City?

How does Star Wars: The Last Jedi address these questions? By ignoring the questions. To be fair, some of the answers are fine, like Rey’s parents being nobodies, but others rub me the wrong way. I know Snoke isn’t important, and that The Emperor originally had no backstory either, but so what? The Emperor sucked until the prequels anyway, and a simple acknowledgement of who Snoke was would’ve sufficed. Also, Luke’s lightsaber was the laziest part of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and not addressing that irks me.

This is the biggest disconnect between fans and detractors. On one hand, not every franchise needs Harry Potter-levels of Rube-Goldberg connectivity, that’s asking too much. But, on the other hand, it’s ridiculous to bring up major questions, then drop them Damon Lindelof-style. Even if the question’s more important than the answer, there’s a fine line between creating intrigue through ambiguity and laziness. Some of these answers fall into the latter category.

Fortunately, I can forgive it somewhat because the Star Wars franchise is coded with laziness and false-leads. The initial cut of the original film was a mess, saved at the last-second by rush-edits and decisions. The sequel’s original script was trashed, with a new director, the late-Irving Kershner, replacing George Lucas in the end. The trilogy’s finale, arguably its worst entry, had plenty of padding and two anticlimactic deaths, the second being my biggest gripe as a whole. And the prequels were guilty of many contradictions and retcons, the most-egregious being Midichlorians.

Let’s address Canto Bight. It’s a detour in the film where Finn and Rose are dispatched to find a secret codebreaker at a casino. They end up getting arrested, find another codebreaker in prison and escape on alien horses. They then arrive at The First Order’s flagship destroyer, whereupon the codebreaker betrays them in time for everything to go crazy. It’s a subplot that I like, since it deals with classism, but it’s received the biggest split reaction of everything that people were split on.

I get it: it feels tacked-on. The social commentary about the elites trouncing on the poor feels out of left-field. It distracts from the main story. It goes on for too long. And it ends up being a pointless distraction.

I also get the defence for it. Not only is it thematically in-line with Star Wars in general, it’s also a fun way to explore a new side of the universe’s lore. It also builds Rose and Finn’s characters, and its pointlessness is kinda the point. And given the weird detours Star Wars has gone through in its history, both show and movie-wise, it’s not the most-outlandish part of the mythos either. So I’m cool with it existing.

But I think that, in an attempt to defend it, we mistake the forest for the trees. Star Wars has had some weird detours, Star Wars Ep. VI: Return of the Jedi’s opening act qualifies as one, but they usually lead to something. Canto Bight doesn’t lead to anything until the end of the movie, and that can be jarring for those not patient enough to endure. Also, while not everything needs to be a Rube-Goldberg machine, there’s a difference between breaking conventions because there’s something fun/meaningful to say, and simply diverging from structure because you want to. The former is interesting, the latter, again, lazy, and that’s an important distinction.

That’s really the problem in the discourse surrounding Star Wars: The Last Jedi: there are many points of criticism that are irrelevant, like how Luke failing Kylo Ren is considered to be a flaw, but some of the complaints are, in fact, valid…from a certain point of view. It’s not enough to brush them off as “irrelevant whining”. Especially when they’re not.

Do I love this movie regardless? Yeah. It has its moments of wasted potential, and Carrie Fisher is, once again, underutilized, but more of it clicked than didn’t. And I liked how it was bold enough to try new ideas. But it’s not perfect, and the sooner people recognize that, the better.

I’m also not sure if I liked it more or less than Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but I guess time will tell…