We are seven months into 2020, so it’s a perfect time to share thoughts about art I enjoyed in 2019.
On July 3, 2020, Disney’s streaming service premiered a filmed version of Hamilton, the acclaimed Broadway musical written by Lin Manuel Miranda. It was filmed in June of 2016, during the height of the musical’s popularity and directed by Tommy Kail, who combined footage from three separate performances to create a cinematic feel. In early 2020, Miranda announced that Disney bought the rights to the film (for a reported 75 million dollars) and planned to release it in theaters in October of 2021.
A few weeks later, theaters across the country closed their doors due to the COVID 19 pandemic.
A few weeks after that, Disney opted to skip the theaters and release the film fifteen months early into a world that feels very different from the spring and summer of 2016.
Will Hamilton work in 2020? I don’t know if this is the right time for the musical. The film may feel like an artifact of another era, an unpleasant reminder of where we are now. Or it could be an inspirational bit of fun that distracts us from the chaos outside our collective windows (while inspiring us to take some concrete action). It will be interesting to see how a broad audience responds to seeing the musical for the first time.
Hamilton was developed, produced and released during the Obama administration and exemplifies the era in which it was produced.
It is a powerful, optimistic symbol of Black and Latinx culture and excellence and the potential of the grand American experiment. It gently subverts and complicates the traditional telling of the nation’s founding by incorporating elements of hip-hop art and culture and having a cast composed entirely of Black and Latinx performers (other than King George and a brief appearance of Samuel Seabury).
The filmed version of Hamilton will be released in a very different political and social environment. The Trump administration’s reactionary response to Obama has been a reminder that many of the gains we thought we made over the last decade were ephemeral. The protests and activism that have arisen in response to the Trump administration’s actions have also drawn attention to the systemic problems in this country. It’s a bit harder to have an optimistic view about the Founding Fathers and the grand American experiment in 2020. If this nation is to be redeemed, it will not be through reinforcing the old myths – if anything, it would be through a version of this story that centered the other, less prominent people who were not memorialized with a statue or an image on currency.
The release of the film to a broad audience has prompted me to revisit some of the elements of the musical that were most intriguing – from the ways that it complicated the notion of hip-hop theater to the meaning that can be found in the dual casting choices or the ways in which it served as a meditation on legacy and the benefits and costs of ambition. It has also led me to think about my initial response to Hamilton. Let’s start there.
The Best Birthday Present Ever
I first became aware of Hamilton when I read rapturous tweets from the Roots’ Questlove and NPR’s Gene Demby about an amazing hip hop musical that told the story of Alexander Hamilton with a primarily African American and Latinx cast. I was vaguely intrigued, but was hesitant. The idea of a hip-hop musical evoked memories of the ill-fated Carmen: A Hip Hopera musical, a well intentioned flop that was trying so hard to signal authenticity to hip hop fans that it felt completely false.
I pictured fresh faced Broadway performers earnestly reciting embarrassingly simplistic verses about the Revolutionary War and duels.
So I put it off.
I don’t know why I relented. Maybe I wasn’t in the mood to listen to anything in my library and was open to something new.
It blew my mind.
I said all of the things that you probably read in a Hamilton review (or heard from an excited friend) five years ago. I felt compelled to share my excitement with everyone I knew. My apologies to all the people who spent the fall of 2015 (and the spring of 2016) waiting for me to shut up about Hamilton.
I loved how Lin Manuel Miranda created a dialogue between hip hop and musical theater and history that invigorated all three disciplines and introduced them to wider audiences. There were people who knew nothing about hip-hop discussing the intricacies of Daveed Diggs’ double time flow.
When my wife told me that she bought tickets to Hamilton for my birthday, I was concerned that the actual show couldn’t live up to the version of Hamilton that lived in my mind. I imagined a sweeping saga and was afraid that something would be lost once I saw it live, that it would all feel ordinary.
I was wrong. The show wildly exceeded my unreasonably high expectations. The live performances breathed life into a story that already felt compelling. I had become very familiar with the sound of the cast performing the show, but the movements and expressions of the actors added layers of meaning to the story. Some actors who were less than memorable on the soundtrack were magnetic in person.
The second act (set after the end of the Revolutionary War) is particularly moving in a live format. Diggs’ performance as Thomas Jefferson is mesmerizing in person and the rivalry between Jefferson and Hamilton is far more vicious. The disdain between the two men is palpable. The subplot focusing on Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds affair is similarly enlivened by the performances of actors involved – Jasmine Cephas Jones’ movements and expressions (as Ms. Reynolds) add a layer of seduction that can’t be conveyed by vocals alone.
The relationship between Alexander and his wife Eliza (played by Phillippa Soo) also feels more fully realized in the live performance. We only see glimpses of their marriage in the second act of the musical, but those moments are enriched by watching Soo and Miranda interact on a stage. The two are comfortable with each other and their body language, gestures and facial expressions give the audience insight into their relationship (and inform the choices the two make later in the musical).
To put it plainly, I was deeply impressed.
Hamilton Mania Recovery – A Glimpse of How Race Complicates Hamilton
That was several years ago. In the time since, I’ve been one of the many who enthusiastically participated in Hamilton mania. I bought the t-shirt, watched the mini performances posted on Facebook, saw and appreciated the fan art and read Miranda and Jeremy McCarter’s Hamilton: The Revolution.
I’ve also thought a lot about the ways in which Lin Manuel Miranda’s hit musical comments on the darker side of the Founders’ collective legacy. Race is central to Hamilton, from the casting choices to the art forms used to tell the story. It’s also present in the conversations between Hamilton and Laurens about recruiting enslaved African Americans to fight for the colonies during the Revolution or the sly comments Hamilton makes about Jefferson’s slaves in the second act and the multiple references to the importance of slavery for the power brokers in the South.
Hamilton is a historical period drama, not a docudrama. This gives Miranda license to shape history to fit his narrative and explore race in unorthodox ways. His take on George Washington might be the best example of this approach. Miranda’s version of the man is as informed by our national myths around our first president as Chernow’s masterful biography (or any of the other histories about Washington’s life). Miranda’s Washington does not chop down trees but is a towering inspirational figure that could have come from mid 20th century elementary school textbooks. Chris Jackson depicts Washington as a wise leader who stands above the fray, the ultimate gentleman warrior who is also a mentor and surrogate father to Alexander Hamilton. The audience sat at attention when he was introduced, and I saw tears in eyes when he stepped down from office and departed from the play in the second act. He was a humble man who appreciated the terrible cost of war and leadership, who understood the risks that our young country would face going forward. Jackson’s performance gave me a glimpse of what it must feel like to be a person with uncomplicated views about our first president.
I learned the secular myth of George Washington and the Founding Fathers with everyone else when I was a child. I’m not sure I ever believed the stories of the cherry tree or some of the mythology built around the founding of our country, but there was a moment in my life when there was something inspiring about the brilliance and vision of the men celebrated in our history books. I always knew that they were flawed, that some owned slaves, that many were willing to make a dark compromise with the elites in the southern colonies/states to ensure that the American experiment was successful. I told myself that it was a different time.
As I got older, I read more about the abolitionists of the time, the men and women who recognized the horrors of slavery as it happened. Those who accepted that the institution shouldn’t be ‘normal’. It became harder to think of the founding fathers as fundamentally good men with flaws when some of their contemporaries understood that those shortcomings were monstrous in scale.
Chris Jackson reminded me of that more innocent time in my life and of the singular impact George Washington still has in American culture/history. Casting a Black man in the role is a revolutionary act – a reminder that African Americans are central to the story of America and that the dreams we associate with the idea of America are ours.
Although the tension between the physical identity of the actors and the historical identities of the individuals their characters are based on adds meaning to the story and places African American culture at the center of the American story, it also obscures the role of African Americans in the colonial era.
The act of transforming George Washington into a heroic black man comes at the cost of ignoring the black men and women held captive by the real George Washington. There are no references to the one hundred and twenty three (123!) enslaved people who resided at Washington’s estate against their will at the time of Washington’s demise in Hamilton.
There are a handful of references to slavery, but little that reminds the audience of the pivotal role that African Americans played in the Revolutionary War (on both sides of the conflict) or how omnipresent they were in early America. The stage is filled with brown faces but there are no African American characters in the musical. There are no references to the compromises that perpetuated slavery, and which laid part of the foundation for modern systemic racism (although there is a powerful track on the Hamilton mixtape that gives some hint of what might have been).
Even the conversations about race that take place in the musical are transformed by the cross-cultural casting in complicated ways. The line ‘we will never be free until we end slavery’ line sung by Anthony Ramos (as John Laurens) and Miranda would have sounded very different (and more radical?) from the mouths of actors who bore a closer physical resemblance to the historical figures.
This is not necessarily a failing of Miranda’s Hamilton. He is telling the story of the rise and fall of one man. Lin Manuel Miranda is not aiming to simulate reality or give the audience a panoramic view of colonial America. Miranda sacrifices realism to present an America where the demographics of the power elite are reversed. He doesn’t present his story as a science fiction style alternate reality, but the visual impact of scenes where a group of African American and Latinx men decide the fate of a nascent America is indescribable, particularly when viewed in an audience that’s predominately white.
The Untold Stories
The experience of watching Hamilton onstage was so moving that I missed some of the gaps in the story, at least for the first few weeks and months. It’s hard to imagine a story about the beginning of this country that doesn’t include a reference to the crimes against the people who lived in this space before we arrived.
Hamilton samples the language Americans use in our creation myth – the story of a brand-new nation in a land filled with endless possibility. It’s a powerful and familiar idea that connects with Miranda’s approach to depicting Hamilton’s genius. He uses the qualities and characteristics we associate with creative brilliance in pop culture as a metaphor for political and economic genius. Miranda’s Hamilton is a tireless dreamer who uses language to create different worlds. In another life, he would’ve been a playwright or a novelist or an MC. He sees early America as a blank canvas, a space that can be filled with his ideas about government, the economy and society as a whole. This is a version of the American dream that is familiar and appealing. A frontier waiting to be explored, a blank page waiting to be filled. A new system where the best ideas for organizing society can be introduced and tested.
This approach is enormously effective, especially when combined with Miranda’s vocal performance, which features the kind of polysyllabic speed rapping and complex rhyme schemes that hip-hop fans associate with skill and erudition. It is complicated by the fact that the canvas was never truly blank. Our nation was new, but the land was not. It was filled with nations, villages, families and people who were violently displaced. The improved prospects for some led to the end of possibilities for others.
Hamilton is not a story about the conflict between people indigenous to this land and the colonizers who sought to conquer it. It is also not a story about the experiences of people who helped build this country without any of the accolades (or anyone to tell their story). This is not a narrative that includes black people, and while it does include some women, they are far from the center of the story.
I left the show wishing that we had more time with the actresses and the fascinating women they portrayed. It’s only right that Alexander Hamilton sits at the center of a musical called Hamilton based on a giant biography with the title Alexander Hamilton. It’s the story of a guy narrated by another guy who killed him. I was just intrigued by the glimpses we got of the inner lives of the Schuyler sisters. We are told about Angelica’s brilliance on multiple occasions, but we never get a chance to see her mind at work after Satisfied. We see hints of the famed intellect that entranced the real Hamilton in her letter urging him to resolve the dispute with Jefferson, but no more than fragments. Eliza doesn’t get the genius label, but she may be the most fully developed (and emotionally complex) character in the musical. In Stay Alive and That Would Be Enough, Soo brilliantly conveys the fear, hope and love of a woman desperately trying to convince her husband to make safe choices and to be content with their life together. This simply may be a reflection of an era when women were almost entirely excluded from the “rooms where it happens”, but I still wanted more. We all know what happened in those rooms – it would great to imagine what happened outside of them (and to remember that history is more than the stories of powerful people).
Despite Hamilton being such an out-sized unstoppable phenomenon at its peak, it can’t be all things to all people. It distills the essence of a masterful biography about a brilliant flawed man into an exploration of manhood, ambition, parenthood, love and friendship, while sharing some fun historical insights and blending elements of different musical genres into an entertaining whole. It’s a story about the power of stories – the refrain “who lives, who dies, who tells your story” reminds us that the history we’re familiar with (and the story we’re viewing) are only carefully curated fragments of the truth.
It’s also a product of its moment in history, when elevating artists from varied backgrounds and musical forms created and innovated by people of African and Latinx descent felt like a Great Leap Forward. A story that elevated our art and the Founding Fathers felt radical-ish in 2015, but things are different in this era, a time when we are collectively disabusing ourselves of the lies we’ve been told (and been telling) about our country.
The film is an opportunity to revisit a tremendously entertaining show, a welcome distraction in this time of political, economic and social chaos. It’s a time machine to an era that many are nostalgic for, when it appeared that we had made meaningful progress on the issue of race in this country. The musical is a compelling work of art, even if it’s not completely accurate. Hamilton symbolizes the shortcomings of that era in which it was produced. It privileges demographic representation over inclusion. It shows our faces and incorporates our art and vernacular while disregarding our stories. It represents a kind of progress that flatters the powerful without addressing some uncomfortable truths about our world. We had a Black president in 2016, but we also had a Black Lives Matter movement that formed during his time in office. We were so excited about the prospect of a Broadway musical theater production with a predominately Black and Latinx cast that blended hip-hop and history that many of us disregarded the parts of the story that were left out. I’m still looking forward to the film, but the musical is also a reminder of the limits of that era.
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.
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.
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.↩
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”.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Black Lightning, Black Panther, Boots Riley, Chadwick Boseman, Comic Books, film, nokings, politics, Race, Random Acts of Flyness, Ryan Coogler, Salim Akil, Sorry to Bother You, superhero fiction, Terence Nance
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.”
A list of four things about Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther that stuck with me in the months following my first viewing (I am not good at listicles).
On an unseasonably warm Saturday morning in early February, my wife suggested that I take a break to go see the new Black Panther movie on our way back from a local Chinese New Year parade. We were having a very good day after an exhausting, impossible week. At the time, I did not know that this pattern would repeat itself over the following four months. We had a great breakfast at one of our favorite local spots (Zoi’s, which makes terrific breakfast sandwiches) and I successfully convinced my son that the colorful dragons marching in the parade were fun and not frightening (“See? They’re not real dragons, they’re just costumes!” <man under dragon costume gives a friendly wave to skeptical son>).
We discussed the Black Panther phenomenon while we munched hash browns and sipped coffee – it had premiered a few days earlier and was already a giant success at the box office and in the culture. I was curious and she was ambivalent – while the concept and creative folk involved piqued her interest, she mostly checked out on Marvel movies after the underwhelming Avengers film in 2010. When she made her offer later that morning, I thought about declining until I realized that if I didn’t accept, I probably wouldn’t see Black Panther until it arrived on Netflix (or whatever over the top digital service Disney comes up with). So I accepted her offer and was surprised by how excited I felt.
I found an amazing seat at our local theater (a spot that made up for its lack of modern features with decent screens and pleasant staff). I was surrounded by a representative sample of New Haven – earnest college students from a wide variety of backgrounds, excited African Americans from the local community and pleasant Yale/Yale New Haven Hospital retirees. There was a lot of conversation in the room that died down when the trailers and commercials and PSAs ended. Everyone focused their attention on a dark screen and heard a boy ask his father to tell him a story.
A few hours later, another curious boy asked a man who he was, and the screen faded to black. There were two more scenes tucked in a seemingly endless scroll of credits, but they felt like post-film trailers for future Marvel movies, a reminder that Black Panther takes place in a larger (and quite lucrative) narrative and a suggestion that the cinematic Wakanda will play a much more prominent role in the Marvel movie universe than its comic book counterpart. Some stayed for the scenes, and others did not, but it was clear that the boy’s question was the end of the story that Ryan Coogler spent 200 million dollars to tell. Some people were energized, others were talking about their favorite scene or which one of the many attractive actors in the film was the most stunning. I saw a few people with tears in their eyes, a few repeating Michael B. Jordan’s last line in the film.
Black Panther is an excellent film, possibly the first Marvel movie that feels completely engaged with our world. Coogler sustains an emotional resonance throughout the entire film that can only be found in isolated sequences in other Marvel films – a glance from Jeff Daniels, a provocative question asked by Cate Blanchett, a moment of intimacy between Chris Evans and Sebastian Stan. These genuine, emotionally honest moments are as important to the Marvel Studios storytelling formula as all of the third acts filled with expensive digital effect sequences and schematic plots. Black Panther departs from this formula by grounding these moments in a personal story with meaningful stakes. The stakes of the story matter because all of the artists involved in the movie – from the director, writers and cast to the costume designer, the makeup and hair people and the experts who helped with dialects – worked to make all the characters feel fully realized, with hopes, dreams and flaws independent from our hero and his journey. We care about the fate of Wakanda because we care about the characters who inhabit it – and T’Challa’s family turmoil matters because the love, joy and resentment expressed by the family members feels real.
Coogler reminds us that the desire for representation in the African American community isn’t just about seeing black faces on a screen. We want to be taken seriously, to feel like our gaze is as valid and important as the white gaze that we are accustomed to seeing in Hollywood films. We want to see a dramatization of the kinds of debates and tensions that exist within the black community without an explainer for everyone else. We want movies where dark skinned people are properly lit and stories that aren’t mediated by the perspective of outsiders (even the very well meaning ones).
Coogler uses a familiar hero’s journey framework to tell a story about community, societal boundaries and black liberation. Black Panther dramatizes the discourse within the black community about identity and freedom in mythic, larger than life terms without sacrificing the black perspective. He invites the audience to view in-group conversations without translating anything for them. It’s a mainstream movie about black lives that cheerfully ignores the urge to reassure or defy the “little white man deep inside all of us” who wants to limit our freedom to imagine and create fictional worlds.
Coogler trusts his audience. He trusts them to tease out the distinctions between and within the liberal and radical visions for black liberation presented in the scenes and layers the narrative with allusions to events and ideas relevant to the African American experience.
There are limits to the scope of ideas explored in Black Panther. The film is set in Africa and is filled with images and items that we associate with Africa, but its narrative is driven by the concerns, dreams and dilemmas of the members of the African diaspora who were brought to America hundreds of years ago. In one sense, there aren’t many African American characters in Black Panther, but in another, we are everywhere. We are asked to reflect on the obligations that a privileged black community owes to less privileged black communities and while the characters do reference the struggle against white supremacy (not named, but you know…) in global terms, the visual reminders of oppression and that struggle are all tied to America, and the African American civil rights movement (in the early nineties) serves as the catalyst for the story.
This dynamic is not confined to the film version of Black Panther. In the late winter, I planned to (and may still) write about Black Panther and Wakanda as incomplete afrofuturist projects. Here’s the gist: Black Panther and Wakanda were created by two Jewish American comic book creators in the 1960’s, and while a number of Afro-diasporic writers and artists have helped shape our understanding of the Black Panther’s world over the years, almost all were telling stories from a perspective that was both African and American. They explored African American hopes and fears about empowerment, colonialism and intergroup conflict, but rarely incorporated the viewpoints of other members of the diaspora, particularly those who remained in Africa. I found great value in exploring the dreams and possibilities of the African American experience through a story like Black Panther (and a nation like Wakanda), but wondered if the absence of non-American perspectives (particularly African ones) blunted its potential impact. I also wondered how much sharper – and more transformative – the story would be if we were reading/watching a story that Africans were telling us about their world.
Black Panther is also a Marvel Studios movie, and cannot escape the positive and negative associations of that corporate relationship.
It shares the basic plot structure as many of their films centered around a solo hero, from the role of the two villains in the narrative (and how they are introduced) to the hero’s fall from grace and eventual triumph in a CGI fueled battle.
I wonder if that relationship contributes to the intriguing tension between the radical and conventional elements in Black Panther. The film’s visuals shake mainstream (at least in the world of blockbuster commercial Hollywood filmmaking) assumptions around beauty and power, with a diverse, nearly all-black cast presented as larger than life figures and shot in a manner that highlights the richness of their individual skin tones.
We are shown pieces of culture from all over Africa in a way that makes them feel modern and vital (and not ancient or exotic). But while the story gestures towards quasi-radical politics, it ultimately delivers a full throated defense of traditional monarchy that would’ve seemed downright reactionary in another film. The dialogue that evokes a long history of black nationalism/radicalism is delivered by a character presented as a violent faux populist tyrant. T’Challa’s plan to reengage with the world felt audacious on my first viewing, but upon reflection, it sounded pretty vague. My wife (who watched the movie with me when it was released on Blu Ray) remarked that she expected T’Challa to announce an initiative that would improve the material circumstances of the people of Oakland – a housing or education or employment program.
The Africana spread throughout Black Panther highlights this tension. The visual look of the scenes set in Wakanda is thoughtfully considered and creates a distinctly non-American context for the story. The interviews and profiles surrounding the movie make it clear that the visual aesthetic for the film is intended as a celebration of a wide range of African cultures, a rare thing for mainstream American films. This celebration is complicated by the film’s narrative, which is mostly set in a fictional isolated African nation. In this context, the blend of different African cultures in a single place without any in-text explanation becomes a reminder of our troubling habit of treating Africa as if it were a single location. A cinematic Latveria (the fictional Central European home of Fantastic Four villain Dr. Doom) that just combined elements of Greek, Czech, French and British visual and physical culture wouldn’t seem authentically ‘European’, it would feel artificial, the product of an outsider unfamiliar with the diverse cultures and societies on the continent.
The mix of conventional and radical elements make Black Panther feel less satisfying and more substantial. I would have wholeheartedly welcomed a mainstream Hollywood funded full throated meditation on dismantling white supremacy and the pain caused by colonialism, but I know that Americans – that we – have a limited appetite for blockbuster films that unnerve or threaten. I still want to see a movie that shows the non fictional black community – my community – through a non-tragic lens. Many countries in Africa still face huge challenges, but there have been a number of meaningful improvements of social and economic conditions in nations throughout the continent over the last two decades. African Americans still face a wide range of disadvantages relative to European Americans, but there has been (some) progress (particularly in the areas of education and wages). We are more than nameless youth at an urban basketball court. The scenes set in Wakanda are triumphant and transporting, but I couldn’t shake the thought that there are also happy and prosperous and successful (in the broadest definition of the word) black people who live in actual neighborhoods in real countries.
Coogler’s Black Panther is a piece of entertainment, a commodity owned by a multi billion dollar corporation that has a mixed history with black people and social justice and which is unlikely to green light a blockbuster with radical politics or that challenges viewers. It’s also a thrilling and thought provoking work of art made by a promising young African American director who has successfully infused social commentary and emotional honesty in a series of mainstream films of steadily increasing size and scope. Black Panther’s success is a win for films made by and starring black people, but it’s also a big win for Disney shareholders. It’s a story that excites by centering the perspective of African Americans (even in allegorical terms), but leaves one hungry for more that reflects the experiences of people from other parts of the diaspora.
It’s a movie that entertains and inspires, but as Yasiin Bey might say, it can’t save us. Thankfully, no one promised that it would.
Next Week: Second Take (Four Things).