Justice League

I went into Justice League mostly excited to laugh at the reportedly horrible CGI. I’ll admit that. And I got what I was expecting. Steppenwolf and Cyborg never look quite right, and Superman’s top lip makes most of his expressions creepy. Sometimes the effects are fine, but more often than not, they feel unfinished.

What I wasn’t expecting when I sat in the theater was that I would enjoy Justice League maybe even more than Thor: Ragnarok (which I reviewed a couple of days ago).

So far, none of the DC movies had really worked for me. I enjoyed Suicide Squad at first, but liked it less and less with each watch. And Wonder Woman, though the best out of all their movies so far, had structural problems that kept me from fully enjoying it.

But Justice League was a joy to watch. I’ve seen it twice, now, and I enjoyed it more the second time than I did the first.

They do a great job giving each character a reason to get involved. Most of the characters learn something from the team-up, and each pairing of characters has a different relationship. The heroes are heroic, and you root for them, cheer for them. A sequence near the beginning of the film gave me chills both times I watched it, and was a fulfillment of my hopes for what a superhero movie could be.

That’s not to say it’s a perfect movie. An hour was cut during reshoots and edits, and there are two or three places where it feels abridged or where small pieces of information didn’t get communicated to the audience. The ending doesn’t have as much tension as it needs to, and the villain never comes across as all that threatening to the League.

In both my watches, I noticed the flaws, but I didn’t care. They got the characters right, most of the dialogue is sharp, and the action is solid at worst. I highly recommend Justice League, with one caveat: I saw it with two different people, and both times, I liked the movie more than they did. Your mileage may vary.



The sequence that gave me chills: Wonder Woman runs along the line, deflecting bullets to save the hostages. Superman’s eyes following the Flash at full speed was a pretty incredible moment for me, too.

Snyder tried to do a 300 thing with the Amazon sequence, but ended up just being creepy and uncomfortable. And there’s a stupid amount of male gaze with Diana throughout the movie.

Some of the worst CG offenders: Superman’s lip in almost every shot; Cyborg’s duck waddle in one shot; Superman and Steppenwolf square off, looking more cartoony than Injustice.

Some of Batman’s lines are cringe-worthy. Other people have pointed it out, but: “I don’t…not…” was a bad one. Overall, he seems to be more dad-jokey than BvS. Batman’s character was one of the few things that I actually liked in BvS, which makes his transformation in Justice League sometimes disappointing.


Thor: Ragnarok

This is the first of two reviews going up in the next couple of days. Since I watched Thor: Ragnarok first, I decided to review it while it’s fresh in mind.

The third Thor is funnier and more action-packed than either of the previous movies. It’s an adventure, and a fun watch, in a way that the Shakespearean first film and the mediocre second offering don’t even attempt to be. Tonally, Ragnarok has much more in common with Guardians of the Galaxy.

It gets its fun at the price of much of its depth. A lot of incredibly dark stuff happens in this movie. Stuff that will change Thor’s life forever. But we never get to see the impact that has on him. Unlike Guardians, which pulls back from its humor to grow its characters, Ragnarok shrinks from most real emotion, throwing out one more joke as a defense mechanism.

I enjoyed Thor: Ragnarok immensely. I’m going to watch it many more times, for several reasons. The acting is great, full of actors that I never would have picked but prove perfect. Some of its effects felt like magic to me, where I knew it wasn’t real but still can’t work out how they did it. And Korg is a new favorite character.

But the movie didn’t make a real impact on me. It’s a popcorn movie that is rarely dumb. A movie you can throw on in the background in five years and enjoy it without focusing on it.

If you like the MCU, go see this movie. It’s in the middle of the pack for me, but only because I love many MCU movies so much.




This movie is absurdly quotable. “I’m not doing get help.” “Well, I tried to start a revolution, but didn’t print enough pamphlets so hardly anyone turned up. Except for my mum and her boyfriend, who I hate.” “That’s exactly what Doug used to say! See you later, New Doug!” You might notice that Korg gets two lines here. THAT is how good he is.

Let’s tally this: Odin dies, most of Thor’s friends on Asgard die, Asgard is destroyed, Thor loses an eye, Thor learns he has an older sibling (and thus isn’t the rightful heir), and he loses his hammer–leading to him having to redefine himself. Loki loses his father and any hope of making final amends with him, and learns that another child of Odin was cast out, potentially leading to a complex relationship between him and Hela. Not to mention Hela, who has hints of motivation, but no development whatsoever. I’m not saying the whole movie should be brooding. But pivotal moments in each of these characters’ lives get swept under the rug so that we can get the next joke. As much as I enjoy this movie, part of me resents that these moments don’t happen in a movie that cares about them.

Speaking of Mjolnir: Anyone else surprised they never go back for the pieces of the hammer? It’s made from a super-rare material, right? My instincts say it’s going to be reforged into a new weapon, but it feels like they forget about that plot point.

And why were those cool swords in all of Thor’s promotion? He barely uses them.

I’m willing to bet that Loki stole the Tesseract while he was in the vault. Not a totally unique prediction, but I will also bet that he hands it over to Thanos at the start of Infinity War.

“The Defenders” Review

I’ve watched each Netflix Marvel series as it was released, all the way from Daredevil’s season one. I stand with the majority opinion on all of them: both seasons of Daredevil were awesome, Jessica Jones disappointed, The first half of Luke Cage was outstanding (and the second half was lackluster), and Iron Fist was a DISASTER.


To say I started The Defenders with mixed expectations is an understatement. And the series provided more or less what I expected (with a few big exceptions that I’ll tackle in the spoiler section).


First, the good. The team-up does service to each character individually. Some people say that the first couple of episodes were slow, but I found them interesting because they did a great job showing how each hero got involved in the central conflict. Each character brings their baggage into the group. Some are reluctant to join up; others outright refuse.


The dynamics between each set of heroes is treated differently, and the best part of the series to me was watching them pair up in different ways and what happens when they do. It even hints in places why each character needs the others in their life, something that the Avengers doesn’t really do.


Charlie Cox is by far the best part of the show. He gives the best performance in whatever scene he’s in. It’s as if he’s never stopped being Matt Murdock. This is a performance that should continue forever, that should win awards.


Sigourney Weaver does a great job. Some of her small expressions speak volumes; as I watch her, I continually wonder why she’s not all over the place in Hollywood and on TV.


A lot of characters from each individual series return. They don’t hesitate to give these characters important parts in the plot, significant character development, or sometimes gruesome deaths.


Most of the action is decent. Nowhere near Daredevil’s perfection, but not as sloppy as Iron Fist.


Now the bad.


The basic plot is decent, but it’s executed lazily. A mystery that’s hinted at for so long that by the time the reveal happens, we don’t care. The threat to the city is vague for most of the series, which makes the driving tension sputter. Characters are sometimes driven by the needs of the plot rather than internal motivations. Some of the lazy writing in the last couple of episodes made my jaw drop.


It’s very easy to split the show up into “These two episodes are about this, and these two are about that, and…”, which goes back to a lack of complexity in the writing.


While most of the action was competent, a couple of fights had so much shaky-cam and quick-cuts I couldn’t tell what was happening.


Finn Jones has improved a bit since Iron Fist, but that’s not saying much. He still spends much of the series reminding me of Mr. Furious from Mystery Men.


And last, it feels like we’ve moved completely into a comic book universe. Similar to Gotham, whose first season felt like a crime procedural with the occasional supervillain, and the second felt like a comic book show from Gordon’s perspective. (Or similar to the second half of Luke Cage, which transitioned from a gritty crime drama to a comic book show.) It loses something unique to the Netflix Marvel shows in the process.


The Defenders is worth watching for anybody who’s into the Netflix Marvel shows. It falls solidly beneath the Daredevil seasons in quality. If you’re not already into these shows, I’d suggest you start with Daredevil, which remains some of the best “television” I’ve ever seen.

















The MAIN main problem, since we’re talking spoilers, is that the entire series is about the Iron Fist being a liability. If he had made a strong showing in his own series, this wouldn’t be a problem. As it is, this takes an already-annoying character and forces us to ask why they want him in their group. Which we should NOT be asking about a character whose main purpose is fighting the villains they’re currently dealing with! I’m not saying that I agreed with Stick’s idea… (though I was surprised that option three hadn’t occurred to anyone else before then?)


I did love Luke Cage smacking Danny down about his privilege. It ultimately doesn’t come back up after that episode, but exploring those themes would make Iron Fist more interesting.


Elektra had nice character progression throughout much of the series–even if amnesia as a plot device needs to burn in a fire. But then she makes the heel-turn, from Dragon to Big Bad. Uh, writers? You know the difference between a twist and a slap in the face, right? Ask Shyamalan if you’re confused. You need to hint at this. You presented “she’s struggling over what the moral choice is”, when you needed to bring back “she likes killing, and that’s scary”.


And then–THEN! Daredevil trying to convince Elektra. Three problems with that. One, you’ve shown her radical descent into mustache-twirling villainy. We don’t care anymore. Two, he struggled with this for a whole season before, and has had eight more episodes to deal with this. WE DON’T CARE ANYMORE. And Three, you’ve established that anyone at the bottom of that hole is dead when the bombs go off. So who cares whether he convinces her? They’re both dead literally within moments. He’s dying for literally no reason.


Oh, and then Daredevil surviving? When next we see him, I expect Doctor Strange-level magic at work. And I still call shenanigans. Plus, it adds to the “pointless” part from above.


Lastly, all the legal troubles go away. I understand they wanted A) the Hand still exists and wants to cover up what really happened, or B) Hogarth is just THAT good. But here’s the thing: DESTRUCTION OF POLICE PROPERTY. OBSTRUCTION OF JUSTICE. Let’s leave out DOMESTIC TERRORISM, because the only person who knows for a fact that they’re the ones that planted the bombs (Misty Knight) is on their side now. Still, that’s what, 15 years worth of felonies that there’s hard evidence for? And kidnapping, since Matt isn’t going to show up to take responsibility for his part. You don’t sell “Wow, it went away! That’s weird/creepy/ominous” well enough for it to feel like something other than lazy writing.



Why Moana is Broken (and How to Fix it!)

Out of all the movies that I regretted not being able to see in theaters, Moana was not one of them. I’ve seen most main Disney movies, and I like more than half of those I’ve seen. I actually love a few of them. But while I enjoy many kids’ films unashamedly, I rarely have that much to say about one.  I tend to wait until they’re out on DVD or on Netflix, or when one of my nieces or nephews absolutely needs to watch it while I’m over.

However, as it turns out, Moana is one of the few movies I have a lot to talk about. And a lot of it isn’t great.

This is going to be full of spoilers. Moana is on Netflix and DVD, so I feel ok about that. Also, disclaimer. All of this is personal opinion. If you disagree with me on every issue here, that’s fine. In fact, it’s awesome! Leave your opinion in the comments to let me know!

I want to start by talking about what the movie does great.

It is a gorgeous film. Every person working on the visuals deserves a round of applause. From the hair, to the skin textures, to the facial animations, right down to the water, everything is perfect.

Within five minutes, I liked Moana as a character and was rooting for her. I loved that she is set to take over as the chief after her father, and gender is never brought up as an issue. I love that she legitimately cares about her people and we see her learning to take care of them.

The character design is good, and the voice acting is great overall. The reveal at the end–that both the demon that acts as antagonist for the last twenty minutes and the goddess they’re trying to revive is one in the same–is Epic Fantasy-level awesome. Overall, the movie had a fun, adventurous tone that was perfect for the story.

And last, I loved the underlying themes. Many Disney movies nudge at a key question from adolescence, but never really try to explore it. “Who am I?” Moana is actually trying to say something meaningful here, by expanding a usual one-liner into the main theme for a whole film. It’s a great basis for a kids’ movie.

I don’t think the movie is atrocious, insulting, or a complete waste of time. Not by a long shot. I just have problems with it that I have a lot to say about.

Why Moana is Broken.

The primary problem I had is this: Moana felt like it had certain emotional and plot beats shoved into it whether they fit or not. Examples are below.

1) The father almost burns the fishing boats to keep Moana safe. Uh, dude? You’ve established that your people survive on coconuts and fish. Now they’re having trouble finding fish. YOUR PEOPLE ARE STARVING. So your answer is to burn the boats that they are using to search for fish? This was lifted from The Little Mermaid, where Triton overreacts when he learns of Ariel’s hoard of human artifacts. Except, Triton wasn’t knowingly killing his people by doing so. And he still comes off as a jerk! Note that this isn’t Frollo from Notre Dame. This is a reasonable man and a good leader. This beat was to drive a wedge between Moana and her father, proving that she has to go on her own.

2) Gramma dying. Was she sick? For the time until now, she’s been the healthiest, most active character excepting maybe Moana herself. Sure, she has a line about her death as a hypothetical future. But this is essentially the same thing as if Mulan had killed off the grandma to drive the plot forward. Like, what? This is taken from any number of deaths of mentors/parental figures that drives the plot in Disney films. Frozen, for example. Except it’s established there that they’re journeying overseas, a situation where deaths happen literally all the time. Gramma’s Cause of Death was Plot Contrivance. (Or possible Stingray Attack. Those things are treacherous.) This beat is naked emotional manipulation of the viewer, and it’s a lazy plot contrivance to have A WOMAN’S DYING WISH convince Moana to set out. Some moments that would be legitimately touching later on are fruit of the poisonous tree.

3) Coconut dudes. It doesn’t advance the plot or develop the characters, and really brings up troubling questions as far as the setting goes. Also, Moana is superhuman for like thirty seconds for no reason, and that’s never brought up again. This honestly feels like someone dictated exactly where an action beat needed to go.

4) Maui’s hook not working. Why doesn’t it work? Yes, by context, his confidence is broken, and that lack of confidence breaks the magic. Here’s the thing, though: As far as I could tell, his confidence was broken BECAUSE his hook didn’t work. So yeah, why? Oh. This is a beat to add tension to the crab sequence (note on that below). Coming from a Fantasy writer, YOU DO NOT BREAK YOUR MAGIC SYSTEM’S INTERNAL LOGIC FOR A STORY BEAT! Similar to Gramma, the character development that springs from this means nothing to me because this is stupid.

5) Maui in the climax. Maui getting angry and leaving is fine. It’s a tad weak, sure, but it works. But why does he come back? Nothing in his circumstances have changed, as far as we can tell. He came back because this is where the climax’s unexpected rescue beat happens. (Honestly I think this beat might have worked, except the groundwork isn’t laid for it. Nothing hints that he’s conflicted about leaving.)

This is just speculation on my part. Maybe the writers added each of these moments in the final draft and are incredibly happy about them. But it doesn’t feel that way. The moments I mention not only don’t feel natural, they feel like the movie is trying to write AROUND them. They open up the majority of plot holes and logical/emotional disconnects I had with the movie.

Disney is infamous for restricting writers and proscribing what their stories can be. It’s wrecked a handful of movies, and it’s the reason that Disney films have rarely broken away from the formulas of the late 80’s and early 90’s. Their big hits in the 90’s are still, to this day, how they define success. After all the risks Frozen took, Moana feels like a huge step backward in this department.

There are a few smaller things that feel really forced, rushed, or badly-executed.

Moana has two mentor/inspiration characters: Gramma, and the ocean. (And yes, when the ocean is proven to be sentient and take a stand in the plot, I consider it a character.) She really only needs one, if that character is properly handled.

“You’ve been told all our stories…except one.” Really? Who all knows about this? Just you, Gramma? I’m guessing the dad does, too, but Moana doesn’t seem to think so. If it’s just you, how do you know this? And if you disagree with the decision to hide this story, why not share it publicly? As the Batman Forever meme goes, “It just raises too many questions.”

Ghost Gramma isn’t established as a real possibility, and it just feels lazy. Wouldn’t it be nice if all of us had someone we lost return to us to offer guidance at key moments?

The ocean is incredibly inconsistent on whether it will help Moana and how much help it offers. I know some of this is played for laughs, but again, breaking the magic system to get a laugh is a no-no.

The father’s arc has no resolution. The mother works, because she’s consistently a bit player. The relationship with Moana’s father is a main part of the first act, and then it’s GONE. Also, his hidden, tragic backstory? Is not for Gramma to tell.

The village needs more time. Maybe we spend a few more minutes there in the opening? Maybe the climax gets the original island involved, somehow?  I’m not sure, to be honest. But the more invested we are in the village as a character, the more we see its people suffering, the more powerful the primary motivation becomes.

That’s a lot of problems. But now that we have them tallied, the fun part can begin.

How to Fix it!

I make some pretty drastic changes here. But it’s all in good fun, right? Let me know what you think?

First is the problem of having two mentors. Gramma is doing more as far as emotional development goes, but she’s also the source of a lot of these problems. Meanwhile, by its very nature you can’t have an emotional connection to the ocean, and yet it is there throughout Moana’s whole journey. How do we reconcile these two things?

Kill Gramma. No, not like she gets killed in the movie as is. I mean she needs to be removed completely from the movie.

Hear me out. Gramma was easily my second-favorite character in the movie. She’s awesome. Wise, funny, and kind. But a lot of fundamental flaws revolve around her. If necessary, we can move some of the lines, the understanding, the peacemaking between father and daughter, to the mother. The mother gets more fleshed out, and the moment when she helps Moana pack is more powerful.

We’d have to move the narration off on another character for the opening. I pick the father. His fear and resentment toward the ocean can come out a bit, getting us into the conflict even as we’re worldbuilding. (Also, during the narration, establish that the hook is damaged, to establish that conflict early.)

So, who reveals the secret of Moana’s ancestral past? The ocean. This could be as simple as a low tide revealing a pathway. Or it could be as dramatic as the ships being on the bottom of the water, and the ocean literally opening up to reveal it. Either way, this builds on Moana’s relationship with the ocean, explores the ocean being an active participant in the plot.

The second big change… Have the father go after Moana.

Have him face his terror of the ocean to, in his mind, save his daughter. Make this conflict a cornerstone of the movie. Promote him to a main character. Not only does this allow him to have his full character arc, but he serves a HUGE purpose in the story. He’s a living embodiment of her doubt, the pull to go back to the village and delay the inevitable rather than face the problem head on.

He catches up, they argue, the storm washes them both ashore. Give him that moment of fear that he’s going to lose his daughter like he lost his friend (Though we only see his panic; we haven’t learned about his backstory yet.). And then…Maui.

If her dad is a representation of her doubt and the pull toward home, Maui is the lie she tells herself–that she can solve this problem without changing who she is. If she just does A, B, and C, she can let him do the dangerous part. Because HE is the hero, not her.

The action beat with the coconut dudes can serve a purpose here. The father is injured. Now he can’t physically force her to turn back, but if she doesn’t, he might die. She either has to turn back, or step up in a big way. He is the village, metaphorically speaking. And after deciding to continue, she has to leave him behind, to climb the cliffs and enter the realm of monsters.

In the fight to reclaim the hook, the hook takes some hits. It starts showing some more minor damage. We see the cracks in Maui’s bravado here, as he expresses worry about the hook. When they return to the boat, her father has gotten worse. They collectively debate whether to return home. Maui exposits how terrifying Te Ka is, how impossible getting past her is.

But they’ve all come too far. Now the only hope is returning the heart and reviving the goddess; as the goddess of life, she can heal Moana’s father. And Moana uses the “hero” persuasion on Maui.

Note here: The “hook not working” bit is completely gone. I’ve replaced a problem that was out-of-nowhere and had no influence on the plot, with a problem that foreshadows the lowest point in the movie and furthers already-established conflict.

The “Maui teaches Moana to sail” sequence is fine. It’s awesome, in fact. It’s a great way for them to bond. Her father gets development as well, watching her master sailing in a way that his people never have, watching her come alive by exploring her love of the ocean. Things are looking up.

And then disaster strikes. Very similar to what we have before. Except for three changes that make a HUGE difference.

One: We’ve been establishing throughout the movie both that Maui’s hook is fragile and that he ties his own worth to the hook. This makes the punch stronger when the hook is incredibly damaged, one hit away from shattering. Because she drove him on KNOWING about these things, his anger toward her feels more justified than it does with her making a miscalculation in the heat of the moment.

Two: Her father is dying.

This failure leaves very little hope for him to be saved. He tells his tragic backstory about losing his friend in the water. The ocean has been helping her all along, but it can’t help her here. She pleads for help, but all she hears is the water lapping at the boat. She throws the Heart into the ocean. Her father continues to speak, bringing her back to his side. He’s proud of her for doing what she believes must be done. Even if they’ve failed. She’s choosing who she is. And he’s proud of her.

Her father falls unconscious. She turns the ship back toward the home island.

The ocean throws the Heart back.

Her father represents her doubt, what she was, and the village at stake. Maui represents the lie she tells herself, that she can go back to her old life after this, that she doesn’t need to step up and save the day. But the ocean represents the truth of who she ultimately is, who she needs to become to save everyone, and what can be their future if she succeeds.

Here’s where I have to be careful. The theme is “Who am I?” and the answer is “Who you choose to be.” I can’t undermine that by having the ocean MAKE Moana keep the Heart, MAKE her turn around and try again. This is the single key moment in the film, the moment when other influences fall away and Moana makes a CHOICE.

What the ocean is doing is making sure Moana has that choice. She threw the Heart before in anger, not in decision.

She raises her hand to throw it again. Pauses. Looks down at her father. Looks at the Heart. Looks at the water. Looks behind them, toward Te Ka still terrifying in the distance. She turns the boat and starts back toward Te Ka.

Notice change three? No Ghost Gramma. No one swoops in at the last second to make her feel better. This is the darkest moment of her life. She is the one who has to claw her way out of it.

After a little while, the ocean throws up a wave to speed her forward. Maui swoops in earlier, before they’re in range of the mad god.

“You said you’re nothing without your hook.”

“I’m already nothing if I choose not to try.” The line change (along with some minor tweaking earlier in the movie) lets Maui shift priorities in a realistic and meaningful way. Having him come back sooner helps recover from the darker low point, and can help shift us back to adventure.

Moana enters this attempt more resolved, and more angry. (Maybe she’s even decided to help fight Te Ka? Flinging water somehow?)

The climax largely happens as is. (I’d like to shift things a bit so that the boat, with Moana and her father on it, and Maui are both in danger when Moana realizes the truth about Te Ka.) Te Ka is reunited with the Heart, reverts to Te Fiti.

Te Fiti saves Moana’s father. He is a symbol of the village, of what needs to be saved, and saving him has turned into part of the drive for the quest.

Te Fiti does NOT make a new hook for Maui. He entered the battle knowing that it was a potential cost of his choice. Taking that consequence away makes his sacrifice, and therefore the end of his character arc, hollow. (He DOES, however, get to return to the island a hero.)

The movie ends with Moana putting the shell on the top of the island and setting out to sea–and teaching her father to properly sail.

This isn’t perfect. There’s quite a bit undefined, still, and things might need to be reshuffled here and there to keep pacing and tone right. Not to mention, I completely left out the humor, which makes the above read like a Greek tragedy! But here’s my fixes for the main plot points I had trouble with, and even a few minor gripes.

The chicken is still completely pointless, though.


“Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2” Review

Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2 is a film every bit as full of color and character as the first, a bit lighter on laughs but heavier with drama. Like the first, I spent most of the time smiling. But unlike the first, the sequel doesn’t launch to the top of films in the MCU or comic book movies in general. I enjoyed it, I recommend it, but it is middle-of-the-pack for me.


All of the actors gave great performances.I don’t have a complaint about a single one. A couple stood out, though: Michael Rooker as Yondu has some great, unexpected moments. Chris Pratt surprised me by making a potentially cheesy scene feel real. And Kurt Russell brought just the swagger his role needed (and made me happy every time he was on screen).


The action was great. Even in scenes where multiple characters were fighting on multiple fronts, I was never confused as to who was where or why. I always knew what was going on. And all of the carnage was both gorgeous and funny.


Anyone going into Guardians 2 expecting a fun, Sci-Fi/Action Comedy will be happy.


What brings it down for me, then? A couple of things. First, its pacing is all over the place, almost to the point of being nonexistent. Its plot is disjointed, due to the first half hour being an extended prologue. And yet, what really hurt the movie is harder to explain.


The movie doesn’t know the meaning of words like “subtle” or “understated”. That’s fine when they’re blowing things up. But Guardians 2 prides itself on spending more time on character. And in drama, a lack of subtlety can kill a movie.


Warning: I am going to spoil the original Guardians. Yeah, I know, I’m spoiling Guardians for the second post in a row, and focusing on the same scene! But it’s a safe bet that many of the people who might want to watch the sequel have seen the original. And I need something to compare to in order to explain what Guardians 2 gets wrong.


Imagine when Groot surrounds the group to save them from the crash, and Rocket tearfully says, “You’ll die!”, and Groot smiles sagely down to him and responds, “We are Groot.” Imagine that punch to the gut, and how you felt the first time you saw it? What does that phrase mean to you? If you’re anything like me, it has layers of meaning, layers of emotion. It’s such a resonant, powerful phrase, because it lets the viewer understand through context.


Now imagine Groot saying that, and then Rocket explaining just what it meant. “It means he sees us all as part of him. We’re together, we’re family. We’re one. He will survive as long as we survive, because we are him. Oh, and also, he stashed a bit of himself away and will survive and regenerate eventually.” How robbed would you feel, if Guardians had built that beautiful moment, and then interrupted it, and your own emotional reaction, to tell you how you should be feeling?


But no. All it gives us is Groot’s zen, and Rocket’s pain.


Guardians 2 constantly sets up meaningful moments that would have impact, and then rips away any emotion by giving us the lines that make explicit what we had been processing emotionally before. It got to the point where an emotional scene started to build, and I never fell into that raw emotional place, because I was waiting for the line to betray it. And I was rarely wrong.


It’s the difference between Batman movies where we focus on Bruce Wayne’s dead parents, and movies where they’re never mentioned.


The other problem that emotional scenes had was that they didn’t feel properly motivated. Why are these characters in the mindset to spew sappy backstory? And why are the characters they’re speaking to the ones they trust with this information?


In a movie where absolutely everyone is doing their best, the writer brought their B game.


The last main problem I had was with the villain. And this coming from someone who usually thinks Marvel’s villains are fine for what they’re doing (and thought Ronan was awesome). I’ll be writing very carefully here to avoid spoilers, but if you don’t want to risk it, I’ll just say: The type of villain in this movie needed more screentime than they got.


In the first movie, Ronan was a villain unto himself, and a threat that had very little to do with the main characters except by way of Thanos. Because Ronan was so self-contained, having only a handful of scenes worked perfectly.


However, in Guardians 2, the impact of the villain is in direct proportion to the main characters. It is the villain’s relationship with these characters that makes us care about them. Because of this connection to the characters, and the reliance on them, the villain here needed a lot more time with the heroes than they got.


(I’m going to go into much greater detail on this last point in the spoiler section.)


The movie is pretty awesome. It’s a good follow-up to the first, remains true to the characters and the world they’ve established, actually brings some meaningful development to those characters. And it’s a ton of fun. None of that can be taken lightly.






Sylvester Stallone is in this movie? I should have been focusing on the scene itself, the backstory involved, but all I could think about was that question, in all caps. (Sly and Rooker would make an amazing buddy action team, by the way.)


When Yondu turns to look at the prostitute android, she deactivates herself. I found it a thoughtful establishing of his loneliness. That whole shot re-introducing Yondu belonged in a darker, more meaningful Sci-Fi movie. Blade Runner-esque.


Yondu’s funeral did NOT warrant ten minutes. I understand that they’re closing out the conflict from Yondu’s first scene, but it breaks the pacing of the ending. Spock got less than half that time in Wrath of Khan!


YOUNG KURT RUSSELL! And he didn’t look creepy! I know exactly what young Kurt Russell looks like, and even knowing that it was CG, he looked ripped straight out of the 70’s and 80’s. Bravo, Disney/Marvel. It worked this time.


Ego, The Living Planet, turned out to be a bad guy, eh? Go figure. I didn’t know much about the character, but I knew enough about the meaning of the word that I wasn’t exactly surprised. Was him being a villain supposed to be a secret? It’s written that way, but any even slightly savvy viewer knows he’s bad from moment one, don’t they?


Speaking of which! The part I mentioned above, about the villain. Ego works as a villain in direct proportion to the attachment that Peter has with him. It is a villain who, in essence, gains the hero’s trust and then betrays him. So the most essential part is to show that relationship developing. We need 15-20 minutes with Quill and Ego together, see Ego become important to Peter not as an idea, but as a person (well, give or take). What do we get? A game of energy-ball and a story about how I met your mother. To look at this done right, watch Frozen. Yes, I said it.


“I guess sometimes we’re looking for something, and it turns out it’s been right next to us all along.” Paraphrased. Are you kidding me? This is a basic character arc, a simple children’s story moral. It’s fine, if uninspired, to give your character this journey. But here’s the thing: You do not, under any circumstances, put this in your film. It’s almost like the director gave Pratt motivation for his scene, and Pratt threw it in there as actual dialogue. How did this make it to theaters?


Even if that was supposed to be Peter’s journey, where is it? Where is the part where we establish that? The Point A of everyone’s journey is eaten by the prologue. If Part C is him learning that he has a family beside him all along, then Part A is him starting his search for his father (which he doesn’t; Ego finds him), and Part B is him rejecting his real family in favor of the pleasant lie of his father. There is some of Part B, but again, that’s in the rushed, antsy-to-get-to-the-ending second act, and I never really feel it. So Part C just becomes, “Oh, is this what the movie was about?”


All the raunchy humor in this movie, the innuendo and genitalia jokes. The movie uses a villain that’s all about male fertility, is all about toxic fatherhood from multiple angles. In a more subtle script I’d say that the humor was just trying to play up this theme? I’m not sure it works. It just feels out of place compared to the first.


And Nebula! She continues to be my favorite character! Yes, more than Groot. Yes, more than Drax, who gets all the best lines in the movie. Nebula. And I love that she basically goes good, but retains the dignity and strong will to strike off on her own. She’s the Vegeta of Guardians, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.


Rogue One: Making Character Death Hurt

I finally saw Star Wars: Rogue One! Yes! Now I get to tear it apart!


No, in all seriousness, I loved many things about this movie. The acting was good, the music was good, the action was good. The set design and cinematography make me sad I didn’t see it in theater. This is the most beautiful Star Wars movie yet, and that’s saying something.


Even the dialogue, characters, and overall plot are fine. Really, I strongly recommend watching Rogue One, if you haven’t already.


If you haven’t yet, I also suggest clicking away from this post, because I’m going to go into full spoilers from here on out. (I’ll also spoil Saving Private Ryan and Guardians of the Galaxy.)


This is a long, dense post. You’ve been warned.


Like many movies, I find one thing captures my attention to the exclusion of all others. Like Doctor Strange, which I loved despite its many flaws because I could only think about how well it executed its magic, or Ant Man, which I couldn’t enjoy despite it being a fun movie solely because it broke its own rules.


In the case of Rogue One, it’s this: I didn’t feel anything when the characters died.


This isn’t to say that I didn’t like the characters, didn’t enjoy my time with them. With only a couple of exceptions, the large ensemble cast all stood out and offered memorable moments. For the most part, they had solid motivations, and I believed that they were in this to the end.


However, when the dying starts, you need more than that. You need it to hurt.


Rogue One had a couple of serious disadvantages on this front. First, it is a large cast. There’s not all that much time to introduce characters and get the audience attached. And second, let’s be honest: most of us went into the movie assuming everyone was going to die by the end.


The main failure to counteract the first problem is that our characters only talk about the war. That’s it. There is nothing else, for any of them. There’s only the struggle. Where are the hopes and fears that they have completely separate from the immediate plot?


Saving Private Ryan and Guardians of the Galaxy get this right.


In Saving Private Ryan, Tom Hanks’s Captain Miller talks about his wife, and we learn that he used to be a schoolteacher. Matt Damon’s Ryan talks about his brothers. We get a sense of where they’ve come from. They want to go home. See their families again. They mourn the losses of people we never see on screen, and try to make peace with the very real possibility that they are just going to end up as names on a wall.


In Guardians of the Galaxy, Drax and Gamora talk about the ways that Thanos has caused them pain. Sure, that’s great. It works for motivation, and gets us to understand and even like the characters. But the scenes that affect me most, particularly on rewatches, are the opening scene in which Peter loses his mom, and when Rocket breaks down crying after the bar fight, tired of others viewing him as a freak (and tired, too, of fearing that they’re right). These moments have little to do with the immediate plot. And yet they make our hearts ache for these characters.


One spot where I feel Rogue One succeeded at this was right after the council, when Cassian reveals that he’s haunted by the things he’s done, that it’s become a Sunk Cost Fallacy: “If I quit, I can’t live with myself. The evil I’ve done won’t have been for any greater good.” It’s a moment of vulnerability and pain that, yes, is still centered around the war. But it’s intensely personal. It means something.


But every character needs these scenes in order for the movie to work as intended.


The Jedi Temple Guardians (Played in half by Donnie Yen! Yes!) have lost their entire purpose in being, their home, and any family and friends they might have had. Obliterated in an instant. And we get a single reaction shot from them. Where’s the scene talking about the food stall on a corner that made their favorite dish? The child that they’d taught to kick a ball properly?


K-2SO was built and programmed to serve the Empire. He’s been reprogrammed and repurposed. Where is his worry that his free will means so little, that his very personality is a whim of anyone with the skills to change it? He has a sense of self, so is he afraid of losing that self again?


Bodhi Rook, the pilot, defected from the Empire, risking his life and likely the lives of anyone he cared about in order to do what was right. And for that, he got tortured, driven to brink of madness. Is he resentful? Does he doubt that the Alliance is really any better than the Empire?


Even Jyn Erso, our star, doesn’t talk too much about her father. Certainly not enough for us to develop an emotional link and sympathize when he’s killed. We’re left to rely on their acting alone to sell the relationship.


It doesn’t have to be as dramatic as some of these examples. But step one to making a character feel real to the reader is to give us glimpses of their life outside of the plot.  


These things go partially into solving problem two: The savvy viewer goes into Rogue One having written everyone off as dead already. Even without realizing it, this means we have our defenses up. “You won’t get me!” we (or at least I) think, holding back from truly caring about any of these characters so I can save myself the pain of losing them.


Making the characters feel real to the viewer is the most essential step. The urge to connect is stronger than the urge to avoid pain in most people. If you can make them real, you can get the viewer to let down their guard, just a little. But that won’t get a story all the way there by itself.


The other part to this, which I feel Rogue One completely fails at, is to make the deaths surprising, make them emotionally meaningful.


In Rogue One, once the dying starts–too late and too close-together in the story, but we’ll get to that–a pattern is set and never deviated from. Character A accomplishes mission-essential goal, and dies. Character B accomplishes mission-essential goal, and dies. Character C…


I understand why they did it. They wanted to make the characters’ deaths feel like they meant something. But here’s where I feel they made a mistake: We don’t need the character’s death to mean something to the plot. We need these deaths to mean something to us.


For instance, back to Saving Private Ryan. Out of all the deaths in the movie, the one that really sticks to me is that of Vin Diesel’s character, Private Caparzo. Tom Hanks’s character undoubtedly has the most meaningful death, from a plot perspective. But it’s poor Caparzo, bleeding out in the rain, that makes me feel like I’ve just been punched in the stomach. It feels like a betrayal. Caparzo shows a little compassion, and he dies for it. He fumbles for his weapon, too late for it to help him. His death isn’t heroic. As he’s dying in the rain, it’s other characters who are competent, who are heroic. All that Caparzo has is his heart. But even as he’s dying, he has a lot of it.


In Guardians of the Galaxy, we have Groot. Groot’s death should be silly, right? He’s a giant, talking tree, he can only say one phrase. The most meaningful reaction comes from a raccoon with a Brooklyn accent. And yet, “We are Groot” has become a meaningful and enduring line, and the scene itself hardly ever fails to make a viewer tear up. (Marvel ruins it by bringing Groot back immediately, but what are you going to do?)


Why do these deaths affect us? What makes them different than any of the half-dozen main character deaths in Rogue One?


These deaths work because they surprise us. Sure, we might call that the kindhearted Caparzo, who has no place in this war, might not make it to the end. And certainly, we might figure that Groot would be able to use his regenerative ability to shield the rest of the Guardians. But could we guess that Caparzo would complain about the blood that was now on the letter to his father? Could we guess that Groot would face death with joy, speaking words that cement the family that the Guardians have become?


Maybe that’s why the death of K-2SO is the only one that completely works for me. It was surprising that a droid who had to this point been cynical and blase at the prospect of the crew’s deaths chooses to lock the humans away and hold the door. It was surprising and gratifying to see him finally get to wield his blaster. And it was definitely surprising–and a little scary–to see him carry on under a dozen wounds that should have stopped him, in a way that brought the T-800 to mind.


And on the other end of the spectrum, we have the rest of the main character deaths. The cycle of success and death, self-sacrifice that never really means much to me as I watch it because it’s utterly impersonal. This cycle actually grew boring, which is something you should never be able to say about main character deaths.


They should never have stuffed all of these main character deaths into the last fifteen minutes. Character death has diminishing returns. You can’t rely on sheer volume to make the viewer feel something.


Instead, they should have paced the character deaths. When they’re killing characters who have one or two scenes of screen time, they should be killing main characters. Make it feel like anyone can die, not just the wizened mentor and the father-who’s-served-his-purpose. Make us fear for the main characters, and mourn with them.


Another mistake they made was copy/pasting the way the characters died. No, I’m not talking about the means with which the Empire killed them (although grenades OP, please nerf). I’m talking about the emotional content of each death.


Why are all the deaths in Rogue One bittersweet heroes’ deaths? No one dies a coward, a failure, a victim. Imagine if, instead of having five separate objectives, there were only two. Jyn and Cassian and K-2SO are off accomplishing one, and the rest of the crew are working on the other.


Imagine the first character, say Donnie Yen’s Temple Guardian Chirrut, starting toward the switch. He’s repeating the mantra, just as he does in the movie as is. But he gets blasted. Right in front of his comrades.


Rook, the pilot, folds in on himself, too traumatized to go on. Perhaps as a call-back to his ongoing fragility after the horrors of war that had led him to defect, and the torture that had driven him to the brink of madness. And yes. Weak, whimpering in the corner of a bunker, Rook dies.


Baze, the other Guardian, steps up. He’s clearly terrified of the overwhelming power raised against him. But he walks out into the open, closes his eyes, and repeats his friend’s mantra: I am one with the Force, and the Force is with me.


This is a call-back to an earlier scene that should have been, where the friends mourned their home, and Baze confesses to doubting the powers he’s been loyal to for his entire life. In this moment, he’s decided to put his faith in his fallen friend, and walks into danger with nothing but the Force to protect him. He takes glancing hits, but forges on, mantra on his lips. He activates the switch, and he dies.


Chirrut’s death is a shock. Rook’s death is sad and kind of pathetic. And Baze’s death has earned the heroism of the moment. Each of those deaths elicits an emotion from the audience. And it makes the sequence dynamic, rather than a loop.


The movie has some other flaws kind of related to character death. Wasting characters, and great actors, in particular. Neither Forest Whitaker or Mads Mikkelsen were allowed to do everything they might have and their characters might have, unfortunately.


Mostly unrelated to the rest of the post, I was disappointed by Vader’s limited role. They respected the character and didn’t embarrass him, as some other movies might have. But I always had a very different vision for his use in this movie than the one to which they eventually put him.


See, in my mind, Vader would have a handful of scenes. And each time he showed up, a main character would die. Each time he was on screen, the movie turned into a slasher flick, essentially. I wanted to have dread in the pit of my stomach at the first notes of his music.


Instead, we get a guy who’s just never quite there when he’s needed (through no fault of his own), until the end. The equally glorious and spectacularly stupid ending, where the plans for the Death Star are passed around like the basketball at the end of Space Jam. Vader amazingly keeps up with it by annihilating anyone in his way, but never quite snatches it out of the air using the Force.


He is just the right amount of sassy for my liking, though.  


I really liked Rogue One. I think I’ll like it even more on future viewings. However, they wanted to be a war movie set in the Star Wars universe, but still wanted it to be upbeat and kinda sappy. I’m not sure you can have both, in this day and age.




Tie for best moment in the movie:


Using the Star Destroyers to shatter the shield. So good. So beautiful.




“Are you kidding? I’m blind!”


Doctor Strange Review

Doctor Strange begins with a bonkers fight between magic-wielders that gives a glimpse of the inventive action we’ll be seeing in the rest of the film. It sets the tone of the movie—dark and in places violent, but with loads of awesomeness—and before we even meet most of the main characters, we’re eager to learn about this new part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and we trust the movie to teach us.


And teach us it does. There is a ton of exposition in this movie. More than half of the conversations in the movie are about communicating plot or worldbuilding information to a character and to the audience.  It should, by all rights, either bore or confuse us. But I found myself enthralled throughout the entire movie. So much so that I forgot to take mental notes for this review and had to take stock after it was over—a feat only a handful of movies have managed since I started writing reviews.


What is this movie’s secret? How does it introduce what is essentially an all-new, complex world, with rules different than our own, without alienating viewers?


Partly because, while the events in the movie involve fantastic and imaginative magic, the characters almost without exception are grounded. Their emotions and motivations are familiar to all of us. These are people who have known pain and regret, people whose pride has been or is hurting them, people who are trying to do what they think is right or what they feel they must to survive. There’s even one beautiful scene that made me empathize with the villain.


The acting helps. Most of the speaking roles are taken by Oscar-nominated actors and actresses, and I didn’t feel a single performance was phoned in. Cumberbatch cemented himself as the only Doctor Strange that I think of when I hear the name, and Chiwetel Ejiofor played his role with a sincerity that I found heartbreaking in places.


The standout performance was Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One. I wasn’t expecting to say that going in, between the casting controversy and the failure of the trailers to convince me that she was a fit. But she had a presence that kept my eyes on her and made me pay attention to every single word she had to say.


Having great characters and fantastic actors helps to mitigate many of the problems that such an outlandish story can create in terms of keeping viewers invested. But instead of settling for not bored, the makers of Doctor Strange worked to make sure that their audience was enthralled.


For those of you who just came here for the review, and don’t particularly care about the nuts and bolts of writing, here is your stop. The movie is awesome, is great in Imax, and is the most fun 3-D experience I’ve had so far in theaters. If you like superhero movies, you’ll love this one.


For those still with me, how does Doctor Strange keep viewers informed and invested throughout the movie? By following foundational rules of writing Fantasy.


It starts us off with some action that shows us how cool their magic is, a promise that we’ll get to see more of it soon. As we follow the pre-origin-story life of Doctor Strange for a bit, that magic stays in the back of our minds. What happened in that scene? And why? What did the different magics do? We have mysteries to ponder, and to get excited about seeing solved.


That leads me to another thing it did right. It throws magic in our faces, but it doesn’t explain what or why (outside of seeing how said magic is used and what basic effect it seems to have). It lets us be confused when we are supposed to be confused, lets us feel in the beginning that this is something different than what we’ve seen in the MCU before. Then it teaches us, bit by bit, until the viewer can not only recognize each kind of magic without being told, but can also anticipate certain spells and try to piece together a solution based on what they have learned. It welcomes us into this world and rewards us for paying attention.


Whenever the movie gives us a rule—for instance, what a certain spell or item does—it sticks to it. It remembers that this is a rule of the world, and it can’t change. Action A has effect B, every single time. Other movies in the MCU could learn a thing or two—looking at you, Ant-Man. Some of these rules are explored in great depth, in ingenious ways I never would have guessed.  Some, on the other hand, still have room to be explored further, which gets me excited for Strange’s future appearances in both the inevitable sequel and the larger MCU.


None of the information shared is just one character telling another character something so that the audience can have the information. It’s always presented in a way that feels natural the characters will be talking about this. The information is always given in such a way that we learn something about the character providing it. The way it is provided helps to develop the tone for the scene, or foreshadow something later, or refer to events we’ve seen. In short, the information is presented in a way that feels real.


The final, and perhaps most important piece that Doctor Strange gets right is that, while it starts us off unsure of what’s happening, and while it only gives us answers in a breadcrumb way that keeps us salivating for more, it makes CERTAIN that we know what we need to know for the next scene to make sense.


Is Doctor Strange a perfect movie? No. Is it the best movie Marvel has ever made? Not quite. But it is a master’s class in exposition. And even days afterward, I still find myself happy that we’re living in a world where this movie could be made.




Minor gripes:

Nobody pointing out how dangerous and stupid it was for him to keep the Eye of Agamotto on him while fighting. He’s a newbie, facing down a well-trained set of villains, and nobody suggests that he shouldn’t keep it on him? I realize there isn’t much time between fights in the second half, but come on.

Strange’s ascension to Sorcerer Supreme is very sudden. I’m sure there must be dozens of surviving members that are more qualified as of the end of the movie. I understand that’s where he’s going to end up, but it seems like it’s only been a few months. Having to accelerate him into position for Infinity War is probably the culprit here. Minorly annoying, but unavoidable.

He gets stabbed in the chest, almost dies, gets shocked in a way that should have killed him, and then he finishes the rest of the movie without resting? I find that unlikely. I haven’t found a workaround for this plot hole yet. I just choose to ignore it because I enjoy the movie so much.


Ok, now that those are done.


The rewind scene at the end! The one apprentice getting sucked up into the aquarium! The guy launched out of his car rewinding back into it! That whole scene is delicious. I wish it could have been longer, but it must have been ridiculous to make, both cost-wise, and logistically. I’m just grateful it happened.


The cape was great. Funny, but also super-violent. I love that Strange is so stubborn he ends up fighting with it.


The moment when Kaecilius is in the restraints, and he and Strange talk. The look of recognition on Strange’s face as he realizes that he very well could have become Kaecilius. The absolute understanding, and yet the horror. And the way that scene ended. Just amazing.


I couldn’t tell you how good the martial arts aspect of the movie is, because we got to the movies just in time for trailers, and only the front row was available. Imax 3-D from the front row? I might have missed some things, visually.


I…just realize that we walked out before the second end-credit scene. I’m sad now.