(On a warm day last week I took some snaps, including the above, which looks like some kind of weird microscopic close-up of a virus in action, even though it’s actually just a hibernating poison ivy vine. More photos to come.)
Recently I saw two films in close proximity:
(Note: mild spoilers for both.)
Now, let’s just get this out of the way — Black Panther is the superior film, and it’s the superior film in the way that a high-five is superior to a punch to the neck. Justice League isn’t a bad movie, exactly, but the best I can really say for it is that it is a movie that exists. It is a more palatable filmgoing experience than Batman V. Superman, though it is a worse overall film — at least BvS had a point-of-view, dire and overlong as it was. I actively despised that movie, but despised it because I didn’t agree with it — I didn’t despise Justice League, I didn’t even dislike it, but I certainly didn’t like it. My feeling for it are equal to my feelings for saltine crackers or Swedish fish: I know they exist, and I can summon no opinion about them beyond that.
Justice League is a film with no point-of-view. It has literally nothing to say. It’s just — here are some costumed weirdos, and now here is a sludgy computer-generated menace, now let’s mash them together like a bunch of action figures, mash mash mash, fight fight fight, tap the X button, tap it, now the right trigger, now Y and B in a combo, aaaaaand, yay, it’s done, please to enjoy one more shot with Superman’s CGI mouth-bits, since apparently they had to digitally erase Henry Cavill’s mustache? I dunno.
Justice League is a film with a lot of whizz and bang but not a lot of reason for it. It’s got some humor, but no heart. It’s got some heroes, but no real heroism. It’s not thoughtful in any way, and it has nothing to tell us, and that comes down to the fact that the characters possess, by and large, character arcs that are shaped less like arcs and more like a garden hose laying haphazardly across a driveway. No one has changed fundamentally by the end, if at all. Batman growls, “I gotta gather the team,” and then he gathers them. Aquaman is the only holdout, and even he comes along about six minutes later, somehow, and then it’s a red-tinted digital punch-fest after that, a series of perfectly serviceable PS4 cutscenes. Then they win. There’s never really any danger. Nobody sacrifices anything. Nobody learns anything. It’s the worst kind of story — introduce problem, then beat the problem. “I wanted a sandwich, so I got one, the end,” is not a good shape, but that’s more or less what’s on display, here.
It has no beauty, it has no aesthetic.
It has no mind, it has no heart.
And then we come to Black Panther.
It is a film that is almost the polar opposite of JL, isn’t it?
It’s a solo film, not a team film, but even in that, T’Challa has a capable team — most of them being strong women, and strong women not just in the “I CAN KICK YOUR FACE” way, but in the “strongly-rendered, lushly-imagined characters-with-agency.” They are not merely support players but vital players on the stage. Okoye, Nakia, Shuri! They have beliefs and attitudes and they do not shove them aside just because T’Challa (or the plot) demands — they push on the plot more than it pushes on them. T’Challa, in fact, is shaped by them as much as they are shaped by him. And I can tell you more about most of the side characters in Black Panther than I can about any of the main heroes in Justice League.
It’s also a film with a great deal of beauty — the Marvel films have done a lot of good in making their worlds really pop, but none have popped quite as much as Wakanda — or hell, even the Busan sequence, which is one helluva sphincter-clenching action-and-then-chase sequence.
Best of all, it’s a film with both a heart and a mind — it’s a movie with a point of view, a thing to say, and the entire film serves as a discussion of those themes, themes that arise from questions of colonization and supremacy, that are bound up with what it means to have responsibility. There is no simple good versus evil struggle here — Erik Stevens (Killmonger) is an antagonist, but not so much a villain; he opposes the protagonist, T’Challa, but is himself the hero in his own story. Erik is a liberator and a conqueror, and intends to use Wakanda to restore his idea of justice and balance. He’s not — shit, what was the bad guy’s name in Justice League again? Steppenwolf? What the hell did that asshole want again? Just… badness, right? He just wanted global apocalyptic badness, and the reason he wanted it was… *whistles* *snaps fingers* *shuffles feet nervously* … because he’s evil? I dunno. I got nothing.
What’s fascinating is, at the core of it, save the world is one of the most boring problem/goal combinations you can have in a story, and yet, both JL and BP have it. JL has the version of it we’ve seen a hundred thousand times — oh no, big bad guy, he wants to blow up the world, let’s stop him, punch punch punch, yaaaaay. But BP has a way more nuanced version of it — Killmonger wants to destabilize the world and he wants to destroy the social order of it, and arguably he wants to do so for reasons we totally understand and can empathize with. And T’Challa decides to commit to Erik’s goal, but in a better, more heroic, more open way. He chooses not to destabilize the world but rather, to stabilize it — he helps to save a world that doesn’t even know it’s in danger. And the heart of it is Killmonger versus T’Challa.
In Damn Fine Story I talk about how some characters run parallel to each other, and others are perpendicular — they crash into one another, and that’s Killmonger and T’Challa. Two characters coming at roughly the same goal from two different, competing angles. Their intersection is not gentle, but calamitous. These are characters who are not shaped by the plot, but are the plot. They are not architecture, but rather, they are architects.
And they carry both the heart and the mind of the work.
Black Panther will make you think.
And it will make you feel.
Those are the storyteller’s goals.
Not amuse or entertain — those goals are secondary. A film can’t just be fireworks. A story has to be fireworks that like, kill your Dad, or that set fire to an old-growth forest; the fireworks can’t just be for the light and the sound, for the clamor and the flash, but the fireworks have to be fired into your fucking heart. The fireworks should pop and sizzle in the sky and spell out a message, a message that challenges the ways you think about things, that demands you investigate your own ideas. Which, needless to say, Black Panther does.
Justice League is… you know, like a kid in homeroom, it’s present? It’s raising its hand to let you know it’s there, and then it’s going to lay its head back down on its desk and go to sleep.
So there you go.
What else is going on?
Not much, really — just a reminder that, HEY, I’m off to Emerald City ComicCon this week. You can nab my schedule here, and a reminder that even if you’re not going to ECCC, you can catch me, Fonda Lee, and Alex Marshall doing a panel at Brick & Mortar books this Thursday from 6-7pm (details here). And Friday night at 7pm is the Worldbuilders Party — donate to charity, come play games with creative weirdos!
Hope to see you there.
HAVE A GOOD DAY.
Except you in the back.
You know what you did.