Wrestling With Endgame 3: An Incomplete World or A False One? Gender and the Problem With Endgame

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This is the third part of a three part series of posts on Avengers: Endgame. Check out part one here and part two here.

Endgame’s use of time infuses a humanity that bolsters the emotional stakes of the story, at least the parts that feature Captain America, Iron Man, Thor and the Hulk. The other members of the original team are less fortunate. Scarlett Johannson’s Black Widow and Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye are present in the film and have arcs of their own, but the absence of a meaningful history in the prior films make their journeys feel slightly less significant. The Hulk plays a much smaller role in the story, but his status as a pop culture icon (and the mythic quality of the Hulk concept) makes it easier to use narrative shorthand in stories in which he is featured. Most of those who watched Endgame have probably never opened an issue of the Incredible Hulk, but it’s likely that they know that he is an embodiment of the rage and frustration of a superficially mild-mannered man and can appreciate the significance of a mild mannered Hulk. It’s hard to imagine that many non-comics fans are familiar enough with Black Widow or Hawkeye for the changes to either character to have had much of an emotional impact.

Renner’s Hawkeye is a cipher who becomes a murderous vigilante when his family vanishes from existence and fights for redemption after a confrontation with Johannson’s Black Widow. Widow is a more enigmatic figure whose development prior to Endgame consisted of a series of asides, hints and suggestions during the first three Avengers films. We know that she is haunted by her past as an assassin and is seeking redemption. We know that she had a quasi-romantic relationship with Bruce Banner. The stories behind both – stories that could have made her a more compelling character to audiences – were left untold. Widow has become the de facto leader of what remains of the Avengers during the five year gap, but the absence of Captain America and Iron Man suggest that she is the leader by default. We’ve seen Widow serve as an able tactical field leader in the last three Avengers films (as well as the last two Captain America films), but this is the first time that she’s in charge. The leader that we see in Endgame is incredibly competent and dependable but not in the cool or compelling way that Captain America or Iron Man were in earlier films. Once the team reunites to battle Thanos and reverse the damage he caused in Infinity War, Widow mostly fades into the background until it’s time for her to sacrifice herself for her friend the cipher. It was a moment that was somehow both expected and shocking, and a reminder of both her lack of development in the franchise and the shortcomings of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) to date. It was also a reminder that Widow was the only one of the original cast of Avengers whose experience in the final movie largely consisted of suffering. Not everyone on the team received a happy ending, but all of the other members of the team experienced a moment of narrative closure that felt satisfying – from Captain America’s decision to retire and reunite with his old love to Hawkeye’s reunion with his family, Thor’s alliance with the Guardians of the Galaxy and even Iron Man’s opportunity to have five years with his wife and daughter before the team reunited.

A story with high stakes is less effective if everyone makes it out unscathed. Someone had to fall short and narrowly miss closure and it couldn’t be Captain America, Thor, Iron Man or the Hulk. It could have been Hawkeye, but the loss would’ve had less impact, as it would have if the victim was someone who wasn’t a part of the team introduced in the first Avengers movie. Endgame is the last film in a cycle, and it was only fitting that the focus was on completing narrative arcs introduced in the first phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The end of this story needed a sacrifice and the sacrifice needed to be one of the original Avengers, a person who was both important to the team and story and less important to the marketplace. It had to be Black Widow.

Right?

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Wrestling With Endgame 2 – Time Is On My Side (Yes It Is)

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This is the second part of a three part series of posts on Avengers: Endgame. Check out part one here and part three here.

One of the most interesting things about Endgame is the way the film uses time to tell its story. We are used to seeing time treated as a plot device or a stream of events and plot points in superhero fiction, but Endgame goes a step further by considering the relationship that the characters have with time and the impact that time has on their lives. Time plays a central role in the plot and theme of the film and its’ impact can even be seen in the images used to tell the story. Time serves as a limiting principle on the fantastical logic that we often see in superhero films – even in a world with time travel, the harm caused by Josh Brolin’s Thanos (the villain who destroyed half of the universe with a snap of his fingers in the original film) created half a decade’s worth of scars that cannot be erased (at least for now).

We don’t really see time move forward or impact the lives of prominent characters in the superhero comics published by Marvel or DC for a number of creative and commercial reasons, such as the need to preserve the mythic, permanent feel of important characters in a superhero universe and the perceived cost of allowing valuable characters age and die (in a lasting way). The ‘essential’ Iron Man in the comics is a brilliant and wealthy playboy inventor with a suit of armor. We’ve seen his status quo change a number of times over the years – he has been replaced by his best friend and Dr. Doom and a teenage girl and served as the Secretary of Defense and the Director of SHIELD. We’ve also seen depictions of him shift over the years – in some comics he feels like a brash young man, while in others he feels more like a mogul in late middle age – but in the end, he is always returned to his role as a youngish playboy inventor. 

It’s harder to take a fluid approach to a superhero’s appearance when the superhero is an actor in a costume, even when the director has the latest in visual effects at their disposal. A fifty four year old Robert Downey jr. can’t pivot from a middle aged mogul to a young master of the universe. In the months before the release of Endgame, some speculated about Marvel’s long term plans, as many of the contracts binding key actors to the studio were set to expire and talent seemed eager to explore acting opportunities in other genres. Would Disney recast Steve Rogers and Tony Stark or put different characters in the role of Iron Man and Captain America? We’ve seen Warner Media follow the first path in its Batman and Superman franchises over the decades to great success, but they don’t ask viewers to treat all of the films as part of a single cinematic universe (although there is something fun about the notion of a Batverse style project with Michael Keaton, George Clooney, Val Kilmer, Christian Bale and Ben Affleck). A live action film franchise designed to mimic the vast narrative storytelling approach of superhero comics will eventually have to confront the chief dilemma of superhero comics – how to tell high stakes interconnected stories over lengthy periods of time without changing any of the core (and most lucrative) elements of the status quo. The studio has to reward long-term hyper-committed viewers while maintaining accessibility for more casual audiences. 

Endgame resolves this dilemma by telling a story about trauma and aging disguised as an epic adventure. We see this in the images that are used to tell the story and the plot of the film itself. The heroes look old and exhausted in a way that is hard to effectively communicate in comics drawn by a number of artists with slightly different approaches to character faces. 

The Russo Brothers frequently use state of the art visual effects in Endgame’s action scenes and in sequences that spotlight a character’s use of their superpowers, but they refrain from using technology to obscure how the actors playing the characters have aged over the last decade. The camera appreciates the impact that time has had on the appearance of actors like Robert Downey Jr. He is weathered and slightly gaunt, but vital. When we see him after his return from space or are introduced to his newly expanded family, it’s clear how much he’s changed since we first saw him as Tony Stark over a decade ago. 

The film’s interest in the ways that it’s characters can change and evolve with the passage of time extends to its plot. The story centers around a Tony Stark and Steve Rogers who are ready to retire and move on to a post-combat phase of their lives and a Thor who is grappling with the cumulative impact of personal loss and professional failure. We also see how other characters have changed over the years, from a Bruce Banner who has learned to manage his anger and a Natasha Romanov who has become the leader of the Avengers, to a Hawkeye who has become a remorseless vigilante and a Rocket Raccoon who has become a de facto team member. We’ve seen stories where prominent characters evolve, age, and are affected by their past in lasting ways, but most feature alternate versions of the characters from another universe, or are about secondary characters, or contain signals to fans that all changes are temporary. There are stories where Tony Stark retires, even ones where he dies and/or is replaced by his best friend, a teenage girl and Victor von Doom, but none (other than stories set in another universe) where he spends five years of his life as a husband and father in (semi?) retirement. The last few decades has featured a number of stories about intelligent versions of the Hulk, but none where he was truly happy and emotionally balanced 1.

I have read stories where Thor is a frog, where he believes that he is unworthy to hold his mystic hammer Mjolnir, ones where he is a young god fighting alongside Vikings and ones where he is the All Father at the end of time, but none where tragedy slaked his thirst for adventure. I’ve seen Captain America retire (and age) on multiple occasions, but I’ve never read a story in which he put the shield down because he was ready to retire, to be a symbol for the last stage of a soldier’s journey.

The heroes experience five years between the introduction of the movie and the beginning of the action in the first act, and the passage of time has made them feel more human, even ordinary. Those of us who were introduced to the characters in comic books are used to seeing the heroes face changing circumstances, but rarely see them grow in response to those shifts the way people typically do over time, especially when that change runs counter to the demands of the companies that own these characters and the marketplace. The version of the Hulk that we see in the comics in 2019 is different from the Hulk that rampaged through the comics of my childhood, but he’s still a ferocious giant doing battle with monsters, not the stable behemoth we see sipping coffee and explaining time travel (poorly) in Endgame 2.

Check out part three here.

Footnotes

1. An Aside About the Hulk.  The closest that comics readers have come to seeing this version of the Hulk was in Peter David and Dale Keown’s version of the Hulk from the early 1990’s or Mark Bagley and Gerry Duggan’s version from 2015. David and Keown’s Banner worked with a therapist to merge his (then) three personalities into an integrated whole, but the Hulk that resulted was a man who was trying to find peace and emotional balance (and was unable to achieve his goal). Bagley and Duggan’s Hulk was extremely intelligent, but he was actively suppressing the Banner side of his personality (and more importantly, was driven by hate). The stories that feature both of these versions of the Hulk strongly suggest that he may evolve into the Maestro, a future version of the Hulk who has become a villainous despot.

2. An Aside About Time Travel. Time travel is used in the film as a tool to revisit and learn from the past, not to rewrite it (unless your name is Captain America). It may be overly complicated and nearly incoherent as a plot element, but it does serve as an effective reminder of all of the past events that shaped the lives of some of the central characters. We see the experiences that cemented the Avengers team and traumatized Iron Man. We are reminded of how Thor was shaped by the losses he endured in Dark World (and while this was not intentional, one could almost see the lighter tone (and high stakes) of Ragnarok as a response to his traumatic experiences in the prior film). We also visit moments of the past that give us some new insights into familiar characters like the Guardians of the Galaxy’s Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillen)’s Nebula or John Slattery’s Howard Stark. We even get a semi-coherent explanation of time travel in the Marvel Universe from Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One.

Learning How To Be A Better Neighbor: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

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It’s easy to imagine all the ways that Morgan Neville’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor could have gone wrong. A documentary about a guy who spent decades helping kids develop their emotional intelligence with a leisurely paced show filled with deceptively simple messages, skits and songs. A giant of children’s entertainment with an unparalleled reputation for decency. A man whose closets do not contain skeletons, whose feet are not made of clay. What stories can you tell about that man’s life?

This documentary treats him as more than a kids show host or a pop culture minister for late boomers and Gen X’ers. It treats him as an artist – we see him play (and appreciate) music, painstakingly develop the characters in the Land of Make Believe and take creative risks (by keeping his show slow paced, resisting trends and refraining from offering children cheap hope or easy answers). We observe his efforts to dig deeper with theme weeks on superheroes (exploring the line between fantasy and reality), conflict, violence death, and other sensitive subjects (like the Challenger tragedy or the terrorist attacks on 9/11).

The film celebrates his legacy but does not shy away from his quirks. We see his obsessive qualities, his discomfort with showing his anger, and the melancholy that occasionally seems to lurk under the surface. We hear stories of him using the voice of one of his characters when he wanted to say something that was ‘not Mr.Rogers like’.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor unpacks the philosophy behind the show. It illustrates how much thought and consideration went into every moment children saw on screen – from the rigid structure (and oft parodied routines) to the music choices, his deliberate use of silence and pace and the roles played by the recurring characters. Every element of the show was deliberately constructed – as one of Rogers’ collaborators shares, “there was no futzing around with the words”.

There is a sequence early in the film when Tom Junod (a journalist and one of Rogers’ friends) asks whether his attempt to influence America succeeded. It’s a scene that makes you think of the cruelty, disrespect, bigotry and selfishness that defines our political moment. There is one parallel that feels direct and deliberate – a clip when king Friday contemplates erecting a wall to keep enemies both real and imagined away from the kingdom. The problem is resolved by messages of love, a solution that feels impossible to imagine in our world.

But for the most part there are only allusions to the politics of today – the thoughtful kindness of Rogers’ art (produced by a person who was a lifetime registered Republican when that label meant something very different) serving as a silent rebuke to the reckless evil that we see all around us. We see a man persuade legislators with a passionate (and crafty) appeal to their better selves and wonder when (if?) we’ll live in a world where ideas and debate can inspire Congressional action.

There are three moments that brought tears to my eyes –

The first was the point in Rogers’ testimony when he quotes one of the songs from his show about “what do you do with the mad that you feel?”. He recites the lyrics in straight ahead, earnest fashion, building to an emphatic series of ‘stop’ – reminders that the person experiencing rage still has control over their actions. We hear (but don’t see) his hand hit the table with each ‘stop’, and though his expression is outwardly calm, his eyes are resolute and you can sense how strongly he feels about his life’s work. I was struck by the fact that he was explaining his approach to public television while sending a message to Congress – the angry child wasn’t the only one who could ‘stop when [they] want to’. He closed with a reminder that we should “know that there’s something deep inside that helps us become what we can” and I felt my eyes well up.

The second was the duet between Lady Evelyn and Rogers as Daniel. It starts with Daniel sharing that he wondered whether he was a mistake. He breaks into song, confessing that he doesn’t feel like anyone else and wonders if he’s just a fake. The young woman assures him, tells him that he’s fine as he is. It’s something that I’ve seen before in art aimed at kids – the expression of doubt followed by assurances from a loved one or friend that feeling doubts is normal and its ok to be who you are. She emphatically sings ‘you’re not a fake, you’re no mistake, you are my friend’. The next moment hit me pretty hard. Daniel doesn’t acknowledge Lady Evelyn’s verse and repeats his own, a reminder of the stickiness of negative thoughts. Lady Evelyn doesn’t stop, and the two sing their verses in harmony. He doubts and she steadfastly supports him. The two resume speaking and she tells him that he is fine the way he is – the way he looks, the way he talks and the way he loves.

The third was a clip of the last commencement speech he gave at Dartmouth University, one in which he responded to those who believed that his efforts to remind people that they were special were a form of coddling. He said that it means that “you don’t ever have to do something sensational for people to love you”. It was a powerful moment.

The final scene did more than bring tears to my eyes. It included another clip of the Dartmouth speech when he talked about the people who’ve “smiled you into smiling”, “sung you into singing” and “loved you into loving”. He asked the audience to take a moment to think about those people and how they “encouraged you to be true to the best within you”. I felt the tears streaming down my cheeks when I closed my eyes and thought of all of the people who loved me and supported me over the years. The people who are still with me and those who have passed on. The people who showed me how to love and care for other people.

This is not a perfect documentary. Some of the transitions (such as the one between Rogers’ efforts to craft programming targeted to adult audiences and his ‘theme’ episodes are clunky and the animated transition sequences can be treacly. It’s still pretty moving, and not just because it reminds me that Fred Rogers was a nice guy with a pleasant tv show. A number of critics described Won’t You Be My Neighbor as a standard documentary about a fascinating subject. There’s a moment late in the documentary when the focus shifts from how Fred Rogers would respond to these changed times to how ‘you’ would respond. It’s the moment when I realized that the film was more than a tribute to Rogers, it was a reminder that his art and perspective on children and the world is still valuable today. We still need to respect childhood and think of children as more than future consumers. We still need to remember that “love is at the root of everything – all parenting, all relationships – love or the lack of it”.

Wrestling With Endgame 1 – Endgame at Hyde Park

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I saw Endgame on the Sunday after it was released in theaters during a work-related conference in Chicago. I bought advance tickets for a screening at the ShowPlace ICON at Roosevelt. The theater featured “industry leading customer service”, reserved stadium seating, the ICON-X enhanced xperience with Dolby Atmos, upwards of 60 individually powered QSC speakers and 40 QSC digital amplifiers, and a fancy lounge with fancy cocktails. The screens were nearly 1500 square feet. 

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My hotel (and the conference) were in Hyde Park, a gorgeous diverse neighborhood in the South Side of Chicago. As I explored the neighborhood, I stumbled by the Harper Theater, a local spot that had screened films for the local community since 1913 (with a break in the early aughts). It did not have stadium seating or an ICON-X enhanced xperience. I don’t know how large the screen was, but it was not nearly 1,500 square feet. The theater was screening Endgame but there were no lines or fuss, just some posters promoting the movie and people casually milling about the theater. There was something about the casual atmosphere and the friendly environment that felt appealing. I decided to return my ticket at the ShowPlace and buy one at Harper. 

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The theater didn’t serve much food but was near some great places that did (props to Ja’Grill Hyde Park). It also featured a ticket taker/usher/bartender who made a mean (and inexpensive!) Jack and Coke.The projection was perfectly fine and the sound was clear. The theater was full, but I got there a little early to get a good seat. The audience was perfect, engaged but not loud enough to be a distraction. It was a terrific viewing experience. As the credits rolled at the end of the film, surrounded by satisfied families and fans, I thought that Marvel had finally produced a legitimately great film that captured the experience of reading an epic superhero comic. 

I had breakfast with a colleague at the conference the following morning. We chatted about work, family, Game of Thrones and Endgame while sipping coffee and absentmindedly picking at bagels. We both grew up on comics and were surprised at how excited we always were for the latest Marvel film, even when we had mixed feelings about the actual product. They chuckled as they told me that they took Friday off work to watch the film after closing out a particularly challenging case. I told them that I saw the film immediately after a networking dinner at the conference to wind down. They shared their mixed feelings about the film – they enjoyed moments and the spectacle, but the film was far too long and didn’t make much sense. I nodded thoughtfully. I shared my thoughts about the film. They asked me whether I liked the film. In that moment, I realized that I didn’t know. 

Endgame is the second part of a story about the epic battle between almost every hero introduced in Marvel Studios’ Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) vast narrative (including the Avengers) and Thanos, a hypercompetent nearly omnipotent super villain with plans to reduce the population of the universe by half that began in the Infinity War. The film is partially inspired by Jim Starlin, George Perez and Ron Lim’s classic Infinity Gauntlet miniseries from the early ‘90’s. It features the surprising team ups, epic battles and astronomical stakes that one might find in a classic superhero event crossover. For those of us who read superhero comics when we were children (and many who continue to read the books), this pair of movies combine to form a single expensive, perfectly designed nostalgia machine. 

 The film blends melodrama, situational comedy, slapstick, space opera and action to create an entertaining viewing experience, but it also values emotional resonance and fan satisfaction over storytelling logic and meaningful stakes/consequences for character actions. The film alternates between dialogue and banter heavy scenes and pedestrian action scenes with state of the art visual effects in a way that feels thrilling in the theater but quickly fades from memory upon exit. Endgame tantalizes the audience with a world of imaginative possibility that feels absent of civilians or characters who are not superheroes (by this point in the narrative, the Avengers are mostly protecting and avenging one another). 

Endgame exemplifies the strengths and shortcomings of the MCU project as a whole. It is a film that captures the sense of discovery and excitement that readers like me felt when reading superhero comics as children, appeals to a global audience of people who are only familiar with the Marvel characters as brands and feels somewhat weightless and insubstantial. 

I saw the first MCU movies (the first ‘phase’) in the theater. The sense of awe I felt watching Iron Man on the big screen diminished with each film that followed. After Joss Whedon’s Avengers, I mostly saw MCU films on a streaming platform on nights when my wife went to sleep early. They were more densely plotted and serialized than procedural shows like Law & Order and not as intellectually taxing or emotionally draining as shows like the Americans. They scratched an itch. The best of these Marvel films were thoughtful and entertaining, but other than a few standouts – Captain America: Winter Soldier, Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok – the scenes and images faded shortly after the credits rolled. 

I never got completely used to this experience. I’ve loved superhero comics and film for most of my life, and one of the things they have in common are the images that lingered in my imagination. 

The woman emerging from the sea as a god surrounded by flame. The man who realizes that he’s going to leave his wife and child and stay with a near stranger in France. The woman who embraces her rage and allows her exterior to reflect her interior. The door closing on a woman who allows herself to realize what she suspected all along – that she lost her husband to his family and their business a long time ago. The makeshift family who momentarily put aside their troubles to enjoy each others’ company, if only for a moment. A sequence that asks us to imagine a near future America that feels as uncertain and unsafe as the unstable countries we all read about in the newspaper (never mind that we were always more uncertain and unsafe than we thought and some of those places may have been more stable). 

I will never completely understand how the marriage of superhero stories and film in the Marvel Studios films has produced so much entertaining work with so few memorable images and moments. 

The excitement that I felt in Chicago’s Harper Theater surrounded by enthused families and dedicated Marvel fans faded into respect for the craft involved in creating the film as I walked back to my hotel room. It took me a few days to notice that Endgame’s plot (and the film’s overall role in the MCU vast narrative) left more of an impression than any image or visual sequence in the film. There were flashes – the exhaustion on Robert Downey Jr.’s face, the calm expression of Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk – but very little that lingered in the imagination. 

As I sat through workshops and chatted with colleagues from peer institutions over the following days, I found myself returning to the storytelling choices of the filmmakers and Endgame‘s place within the larger MCU vast narrative. There were elements and ideas that were still fascinating, but others which had a distancing effect, a reminder that I was watching a commercial product. 

2. Endgame: The Pedestrian Puzzlebox

Endgame is the last chapter of the most successful film franchise of the last decade, a visual effects extravaganza designed for theaters with top of the line sound and projection systems. It’s also one of the few action franchises that feel more driven by dialogue than compelling action scenes. The visual effects are state of the art but the action scenes are relatively pedestrian, lacking the brutal beauty or poetry that can be found in the John Wick or Raid franchises. 

I didn’t have the sense of awe or magic that I get from watching films from the Star Wars franchise (which is even effective on a smaller screen). One of the things that separate great action films like the Police Story or Mission Impossible franchises from lesser films is the use of action sequences as a tool to add layers of meaning to the overall story. The fights aren’t just a way to get from point A to point B or an opportunity to thrill the audience, they help us understand the characters involved and gain insight into their respective journeys. We see combatants display their strengths and vulnerabilities and learn from mistakes. The scenes tell a story through movement that complements the scenes with dialogue. 

Tony Stark’s sacrifice is foreshadowed in the dialogue-heavy scenes in Endgame and occurs at the close of the film’s biggest action sequence, but the opportunity to use the action and movement to tell the final part of his story was lost. His final battle with Thanos and his army did not look or feel meaningfully different from his prior conflicts with Thanos and other antagonists, except that the outcome was not the same. In an early scene, we do see what Thor learned from Infinity War (don’t pause when you’ve got a kill shot against a genocidal maniac), but it would have been interesting if Thor’s approach to combat in the final battle in Endgame was more clearly informed by the prior film. On first viewing, Thor’s ferocity in Endgame doesn’t feel much different than the ferocity that he displayed in the closing battle of Infinity War

The action in Endgame may not have the beauty or meaning that one might find in the best action movies, but even after a decade, there is still something novel and exciting about engaging with a franchise that isn’t just composed of a number of smaller franchises with interlocking stories, but has incredibly fluid narrative boundaries. Each film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) stands alone as an individual work or as part of an independent franchise, but could also be viewed as a piece of a larger story that shifts the audience expectations of narrative extent from the confines of a two-hour film to a ‘cinematic universe’ that includes nearly two dozen films and which represents the entire output of a film studio. 

Some viewers can engage with the film as a part of a single vast epic narrative that begins with 2008’s Iron Man, but for others, this film is simply the last in a quartet, or most interestingly, as a part of a loosely connected string of films that have some familiar faces. There were some in my audience who were ardent fans of the MCU and others whose knowledge of Marvel consisted of vague memories of Iron Man and the first Avengers movie and crystal clear recollections of Black Panther (the crowd erupted when Wakandan warriors made their appearance in the final action scene) and Infinity War.

We can treat each film as a chapter of a story or a piece in a giant puzzle, but not only do we not need to experience all of them to understand the larger narrative, the shape of the story itself changes based on the number of Marvel films one has viewed. A story about heroic sacrifice can be one about the limits of duty or another one of a series of zany misadventures. It can even be a prelude to a story where your favorite franchise moves from the margins of the narrative to the center.  

These qualities help make Endgame feel like the perfect Marvel Studios film, a work that can appeal to different slices of the audience who are engaged with one or more of the lucrative franchises within the larger MCU. It is interesting to think and talk about, but it’s hard to avoid the sense that the film is essentially a nostalgia machine filled with unremarkable images and scenes. Is this why it was so hard answering my colleague’s simple question?

Did I like this film at all? And if I didn’t, why am I still fascinated by Endgame?

The Art Of Inventing A Scam: The Inventor: Out For Blood in Silicon Valley

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Over the last few months, I’ve watched three documentaries on two frauds perpetrated by con artists – Fyre, Fyre Fraud and The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley.

Whenever I encounter stories like this, I wonder why the con worked and whether the success of the con suggests something meaningful about our culture. The people at the center of these stories are not wildly charismatic (or if they are, that charisma is not captured by the camera). They are outwardly bland and unmemorable by the standards of American pop culture, the kinds of figures who you might find occupying a crowd scene in a movie to help sustain the illusion of normalcy. Neither appear to be the next coming of P.T. Barnum or salespeople who could sell water to a whale.

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Rough Gabfest Thoughts (The Degrees of Blackface Edition)

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I’ve enjoyed Slate’s Political Gabfest for a number of years, but found that I couldn’t listen after our current President was elected in November 2016. Everything had changed for me, and I feared that nothing would change for the hosts of the show. I enjoy listening to smart perspectives that differ from my own, but I feared that they would be likely to dismiss the unusual nature of our current political status quo. I still subscribe to the podcast and check in every once in a while, but it’s no longer my go-to political analysis podcast (I rely far more heavily on the NYT Daily podcast and Vox’s weekly Weeds podcast for that).

I listened to last week’s podcast over the weekend and was both fascinated and disappointed by what I heard.

The first segment of the show focused on the controversy surrounding top officials in Virginia’s state government, specifically the concerns around the governor and the attorney general’s admissions that they (separately) dressed in black face in the early 1980’s. Governor Frank Northam acknowledged wearing blackface while wearing a Michael Jackson costume during his time in medical school and AG Mark Herring admitted to dressing in blackface while impersonating Golden Age rapper Kurtis Blow when he was an undergrad. This came to public attention when some photos from Gov. Northam’s page in his med school yearbook featuring a person dressed in a KKK hood and an individual dressed in blackface were released (as part of an investigation by a conservative outlet). Gov. Northam appeared to admit that he was one of the individuals in the photo, only to retract that admission and admit that he wore blackface in a different context for a party.

The panelists (the New York Times’ Emily Bazelon, CBS’ John Dickerson and Atlas Obscura’s David Plotz) talked about the impact that the controversy could have on the two officials involved and marveled at the mistakes made by both politicians. The conversation was similar to the ones you probably heard in any number of forums. There was the requisite condemnation and disgust, but that was followed by a conversation that reminded me that many people have trouble appreciating the impact of racism that’s not driven by animus.

The three hosts agree that dressing in blackface is inappropriate, but there is some debate about the distinctions that can be drawn between the yearbook image and the examples shared by the Governor and Attorney General for the Commonwealth of Virginia. Plotz describes the former as vile and grotesque and the latter are characterized as stupid and boorish, the actions of ‘stupid frat boys’. 

The suggestion is that one is mean-spirited and the other is… not. Maybe an ill-considered celebration of the impersonated artists. “An attempt to honor a cultural figure who you admire.” A comparison is made to (non-Chinese) people who wear traditional Chinese dresses to honor Chinese women.

I can imagine why a Chinese person might be annoyed by a non-Chinese person wearing a traditional garment. I would imagine that they would be even more annoyed if that person applied makeup to make themselves look like a 19th century caricature of a Chinese person.


Neither Michael Jackson or Kurtis Blow have ever had skin tones that one would naturally compare to black shoe polish. “Black” people come in many shades of brown, but none of us are literally black.

The discussion is dominated by Plotz and Dickerson (though Bazelon does condemn the behavior in all contexts). The two men employ the phrases used by self-styled rational/reasonable men – ‘nuance’, ‘context’, ‘continuum’ to unpack the differences between the three situations.

Context is important and I appreciate the value of nuance, but I worry when those words are used as rhetorical shields instead of tools that help us understand a situation and craft a remedy.

Context can prompt us to consider the fact that the two men (from Virginia) chose to use blackface to impersonate musicians and can remind us to contemplate the legacy of blackface minstrelsy.


Nuance can help us think and discuss the subtle power of racism that can accommodate both virulent hatred and condescending affection disguised as love.

We can use models and the concept of a continuum to help unpack different kinds of racism (and identify strategies for undoing racism) without assuming that one’s place on the continuum is perfectly aligned with the seriousness of the behavior.

It’s important to consider the emotions that motivate racist behavior when developing strategies to address racism at different levels, but we should remember that hate and loathing are not essential components of racism, particularly in the United States. We have a long history of racist policies (and practices) created and enforced by people who had no trouble reconciling their affection for black people with a steadfast belief that we were inferior and less human. Scarlett loved Mammy, but never considered her a full person. Racism isn’t always grounded in hatred, it can simply be a failure to recognize that others are full human beings.

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The performance of blackface as an explicit reference to a history of racial oppression (by combining it with a person wearing a KKK costume) is different from a performance of blackface to ‘honor’ black artists, but both are tied to a long history of using makeup to dehumanize and shape prejudices of black people in this country. They are harmful in different ways, but both are pretty damn harmful.

 

 

These Are A Few…

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A few of my favorite cultural experiences of 2018. The featured image is from my son’s kindergarten class performance of Arrow to the Sun (which was my favorite cultural experience of 2018)

Here are the runner ups in no particular order:

Words and Pictures

Words

Moving Pictures

Radio with Pictures

Food

Music

Music + Video

Forty

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img_0354I started thinking about turning forty a few months ago, mostly because people started to ask me about it on a semi-regular basis. I was told that it was a meaningful milestone and an ordinary day, that I would feel unchanged and newly mortal, and that I would reflect on my past and think about the future. I was urged to do something fun, novel and extraordinary.

I spent a happy thirty minutes talking about travel with my brother, who is one of those people who always makes sure to do something interesting for his birthday. He was the one responsible for my last big birthday trip to Las Vegas about eleven years ago.

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That was a different version of me, a much younger Jamaal with locs who smoked cigarettes.img_0112

That version of Jamaal wasn’t quite sad, but very far from happy. He was starting to have trouble imagining his future. Things turned out pretty well. He found a new job (and was laid off, but quickly found another and was later promoted into one that was a perfect fit). He proposed to his long-term girlfriend and the two were married three years after the Vegas trip. Six years after Vegas, he welcomed his son into the world and learned what it was like to feel overwhelmingly happy and terrified on a daily basis. It didn’t take much effort to imagine the future anymore.

I also started thinking about turning forty because I mentioned it to people on a semi-regular basis and was hoping to find a way to figure out how I should feel about it. November is a very busy month in the life of the Thomas family, between my son’s birthday, a wedding anniversary and the tumult of Thanksgiving, and it’s extremely easy to distract myself by attending to the needs of others. I didn’t plan my son’s party this year (my wife was the mastermind of that one), but I did take every opportunity to bury myself in work and routine and story reading and writing practice and chores and games of Tayo the Friendly Bus.

Whenever I did find time to think about my fortieth birthday, I felt a sense of joy and peace. I haven’t come close to accomplishing what I thought I would’ve done in terms of my career, but my life outside of work is far more fulfilling than I ever would have imagined. That feeling dissipated when I thought about doing something for my birthday. It made me feel uncomfortable, like I haven’t done enough in my life to merit a celebration. I don’t actually believe that, but there are definitely moments when I compare who I am to who I could have been, and feel like I’ve fallen short of my potential.

So I didn’t jump out of a plane or throw a big party or go on a fun adventure. Maybe I should have. I just took a day off from work, took a walk, listened to a great talk from a journalist who covered some of the most terrifying conflicts of the last three decades and did some writing. I saw a little bit of the Criterion Edition of Terrence Malick’s New World and had lunch with my wife. I plan to see some old friends this weekend. I would like to say that I felt like I did enough, but I’m still uncertain. I genuinely believed that I would reflect on my past and plan for my future, but it felt more like I found ways to distract myself. I still have some time (hopefully!) to figure out how I feel about turning forty.

A few things I do know – I’m an older Jamaal who cut his locs (and is slowly losing his hair), who stopped smoking over a decade ago, has a pretty great wife and kid, and who’s not always happy, but pretty far from sad. As of yesterday, I’ve lived in this world for four decades. I’ve had a lot of love in my life (I’m lucky). I’ve spent the vast majority of my career helping people and organizations (who are in the business of helping people). It may not be a lot, but it feels like something.

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Here are some of the things I want to do (over the next year and beyond)

  • Write more.
  • Slow down.
  • Learn to drive. (Don’t @ me about this one – I grew up in New York and live in a small town (yeah, I said it) where a car is important, but not strictly required)

There are other personal and work related things that I won’t share (your boy’s got plans), but this is a start.

Related

Thirty Nine

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Sometimes My Heart Gets Heavy (Cell Therapy Two)

Black Panther Take Three: T’Challa Is Not Excellent

Recently Revised/Reposted

The Carter: Weezy Never Takes A Day Off

Respect the Architects

Sometimes My Heart Gets Heavy (Cell Therapy Two)

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The last few weeks have been exceptionally challenging – from the Kavanaugh hearings and the New York Times’ coverage of the Trump family’s efforts to preserve their family fortune to work related things (it’s fulfilling, but it can be emotionally draining).

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Here are some things that have been therapeutic:

Writing: There are few things that I enjoy more than thinking and writing about culture. The only reason that I don’t write about culture more frequently is that the things I love and value more than writing are also pretty time consuming. Over the last few months, I’ve managed to find the time (between family, work and volunteering) to write a few thousand words about a popular superhero movie. I have more to say (I always have more to say), but I think it’s time to branch off in a different direction. I have some ideas related to afro-futurism and black pop culture heroes, but I’m not sure that I’m going to have the time to do the topic justice. I’d love to do some more writing about pop culture, but with a full time job, a slate of volunteer commitments and a family, I’m always going to be behind the ‘discourse’ (is late 2018 too late for a Phantom Thread essay?). I have the beginnings of a comic book post in my head about how modern creators are finding interesting ways to reimagine the origin stories of Golden – Bronze Age superheroes. I have a series of posts about Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton that need to be fleshed out and edited. I also have a bunch of Funnybook Babylon and Between the Stations posts to finish editing/uploading to this site, but that’s not as fun as writing something new.

So what’s next? If I have the time (crosses fingers), a post about Sorry to Bother You and something about why the most meaningful hip-hop (and popular music) in 2018 has been created and performed by women. If I really have the time (e.g., a bout of the flu), I will finally complete the Hamilton posts.

Music: I’ve spent the last few weeks listening to Aretha Franklin concert mixes and Teyana Taylor’s recently released K.T.S.E. They are very different artists, but both lack artifice and can convey the feeling of finding joy in pain and chaos. Aretha was a genius in every way that a music artist can be one – a brilliant technician and arranger whose ability to evoke raw emotion was unmatched. Teyana doesn’t have Aretha’s gifts, but there was something unflinchingly honest about her performances on this album, from songs like Issues/Hold On to WTP. On Issues/Hold On, Taylor explores the intertwined anger, passion and uncertainty present in a tempestuous romance. She doesn’t just share the suspicion and other ugly emotions that can come when one feels vulnerable in a romantic relationship, she suggests that her uncertainty is rooted in her past experiences. She is self-aware, but the pain is still raw.

WTP is a very different kind of song (as you might guess after you listen to the hypnotic ‘work this pussy’ refrain), but there’s something deeply honest about her demand that a lover give her pleasure. The song is inspired by the Harlem underground ballroom scene created by black gay men, trans men and women, drag performers of all identities and orientations and other members of the LGBTQ community in the 1960’s. I always associated that scene with a heightened sense of fantasy, but Taylor’s assured delivery reminds me that the underlying desires and emotions can be very real.

During the last two decades weeks of the Kavanaugh nomination, I found myself turning to hip-hop. During other ‘our political landscape is enraging and terrifying’ moments over the last few years, I fell into the habit of adding more hip-hop tracks and playlists to my rotation. I usually added a mix of songs that were made when I was a young man or which sounded as if they were inspired by that music (my go to is one that shares the title of this post with tracks from Black Star, Yasiin Bey, Common, Lauryn Hill, Chance, Otis Redding, Amy Winehouse and Me’Shell Ndegeocello). This time I found myself listening to Tierra Whack’s Wack World, Noname’s Room 25 and Lil’ Wayne’s Carter 5.

I don’t know why I downloaded Tierra Whack’s debut album. It may have been a recommendation from a friend online or an admiring tweet that floated by on my timeline. It’s a delightfully strange album filled with unexpected rhythms and exceptional rapping. Tierra’s songs contain some hard truths, but there’s a sense of joy and optimism at the core of her music that feels necessary in this political climate. We deserve to feel joy and “if you love somebody I promise that you should tell ’em”. I know exactly why I rushed to get Noname’s Room 25 when it became available – I’ve loved her work since I was introduced to her on Lost, from Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap mixtape. Her verse was brief but powerful – the closing line “the only time he loves me is naked in my dreams” was heartbreaking. Her debut is assured and brilliant. I loved her two collaborations with Chance the Rapper (Lost and Israel (Sparring)), but she sounds even more confident on this album. The verses are packed with meaning, but Noname is comfortable with adjusting the density of her rhymes to ensure the maximum impact on the listener – contrast the melancholic Don’t Forget About Me with the high energy playful vibe on Self. I haven’t seriously thought about Lil’ Wayne for years, since I was disappointed by the Carter 3 about a decade ago. I downloaded his album on a lark – I wanted to listen to some new music and saw that Wayne had finally released the Carter 5. I was surprised to hear an artist who had rediscovered his voice. Wayne is scattered (as he always is), but his flow is still incredible on songs like Dedicate and Mona Lisa. His rhymes are dense, profane and inappropriate, but they are also compelling. Sometimes. He’s still Lil Wayne, so we still get verses that are just terrible or feel exceptionally lazy, but even the less inspired verses are backed by impeccable production from Mannie Fresh (man, was it refreshing to hear some new Mannie!) and the team of R!o and Kamo.  I found myself turning to a playlist with my favorite tracks from all three albums to help cope with all the dark and dour news of the day on a increasingly regular basis over the last few weeks.

I’ve also been doing some reading, but more on that later. Here are some highlights:

  1. Giant Days – John Allison, Max Sarin
  2. Immortal Hulk – Joe Bennett, Al Ewing
  3. The Black Monday Murders – Tomm Coker, Jonathan Hickman
  4. The Rise of the Black Panther – Evan Narcisse, Javier Pina
  5. The Seeds – Ann Nocenti, David Aja
  6. Twisted Romance (Red Medusa on the Road to Hell) – Sarah Horrocks
  7. Black Bolt – Saladin Ahmed, Christian Ward
  8. Twisted Romance (Treasured) – Trungles, Alex de Campi
  9. Batman – Jim Aparo, Jim Starlin
  10. Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles – Mark Russell, Mike Feehan, Mark Morales
  11. Twisted Romance (Invincible Heart) – Alex de Campi, Carla Speed McNeil

See you next time.

Black Panther Take Three: T’Challa Is Not Excellent

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Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa is not the kind of male protagonist that we normally see in action/adventure movies, superhero or otherwise. He is refreshingly ordinary, frequently the least capable and experienced person in the room. At first glance, T’Challa’s narrative arc looks a lot like a traditional hero’s journey. He goes on an adventure, faces an existential crisis and returns transformed, but he is not learning how to be a superhero as much as he is working through his grief and deciding what kind of man and leader he wants to become.

“You are a good man, with a good heart. And it’s hard for a good man to be a king.”

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