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Not having a great week

The universe isn’t done screwing with me yet, it seems.

It looked like I was finally close to getting out of this financial pit I’ve been in all year, or at least making significant strides uphill. I’m waiting on something that should pay off soon, probably next month, and ease my burden a great deal. But in the meantime, it looks like the profits from the Kickstarter campaign for Among the Wild Cybers are lower than I’d hoped due to the costs of printing, shipping, etc., and I probably won’t see them right away. At the moment, I’m still very close to being out of money, biding my time and hoping I can make it through the next month or so with what little I have.

I thought it would help if I took advantage of my soon-to-be-improved fortune to apply for new credit at my banks, either a new card or a credit line increase or whatever. I was turned down before when my income was practically nonexistent, and the bankers advised me to try again when my situation improved, which it’s now just about to do. I tried applying at one bank last week, but it turned out my credit score was just a hair too low for them. I was literally off by 1 point. So I figured I’d go to my other bank and retry the things I tried there before. Hopefully one of them would pay off. If I could get more credit, I thought, it’d give me enough leeway to get some car maintenance done before I have to drive to Shore Leave.

So I went out to my car to drive over to that bank, the nearest branch of which is 5 miles away.

And I couldn’t start the car. My battery was dead.

I could get a jump start and drive to the garage pretty easily, but the new battery would run me up to a couple hundred dollars, and that’s a sizeable chunk of what I currently have left. If I’d already succeeded in getting new credit, that wouldn’t be such a problem, but I didn’t know if I would. This was the worst possible time for this to have happened. Especially knowing that, one way or another, I needed to get my car up and running within the next 20 days.

As it happens, though, a family member who recently moved to the DC/Baltimore area was willing to pay my expenses to pick up some belongings from their former home and bring them when I came to the area for Shore Leave. I realized that would be a way to pay for the new battery, since that would definitely count as a necessary expense. So I made those arrangements through my always-helpful cousin, and once I got the check in the mail, I was able to take the car in and get a new battery. Once that happened, I finally drove over to the other bank and applied for both a new credit card and a credit line extension, hoping I’d get at least one approved.

Guess what. They were both rejected, because my current debt load is too high. Which is frustrating, since I’m within a month or so of being able to start paying down that debt, but I may just need a little more help to make it until then. I know that I will be able to make good on my debt before much longer, that I just need to bridge the gap for another month or two at most, but I can’t convince the faceless decision-makers of that, because it’s all so rigid and by the numbers, so on paper I’m too great a risk. I mean, I understand the reason it’s all so strict these days — the rules were put in place to protect against fraud after the banking crisis a decade ago. So I can respect that. But it doesn’t do me any good in a situation where I could really use some wiggle room.

There’s still a chance that the big thing I’m waiting on will come through soon enough that I won’t need the additional credit cushion, but at the moment I have no idea how long it’ll take. I’d actually expected it to have happened already — I was told “very shortly” over 2 weeks ago. And I have several stories out at various magazines, so something else might pay off at any time, or it might not. I’m stuck just not knowing again, and afraid of what might happen if at least something doesn’t pay off in July. I really thought this would’ve all been wrapped up by now, but I got overconfident. Things are finally moving, but they’re still taking longer than anticipated. I just hate not knowing.

I’m wondering if, instead of applying for a bank credit card, I should just use one of those card applications that come in the mail. Maybe the approval standards would be different. But I just don’t know.

Well, at least I’ll have some books for sale at Shore Leave, copies of Only Superhuman and such. Between that and the convention stipend, maybe I’ll make at least a couple of hundred to help tide me over. Of course, my book sale is still on as always. And who knows? I could get good news from somebody or other any day now. I just hope I don’t have any other unanticipated expenses like the car battery.

Meanwhile, it’s not just the battery that unexpectedly failed me. The pull chain for my ceiling-fan light fixture in the living room broke off the other day, right after I turned it on. It broke off right at the base deep inside the fixture, so there was no way I could fix it myself. I had to wait a while for the maintenance guy to come fix it. At first I thought it was lucky that the light was on when the chain broke, since I could still use the wall switch to turn it on or off. But that meant that I couldn’t use the ceiling fan without the light also being on, and the fan is kind of necessary in hot weather, even when I don’t need the light. I might’ve preferred it if the ceiling light had been stuck in the off position, since I could’ve used my torchiere lamp to fill in. If the situation had gone on longer, I might’ve decided to unscrew the light bulb. But it turned out that it only took a couple of days to get it repaired, so it’s resolved now.

I also asked the maintenance guy to look at the spray nozzle on my kitchen sink’s hose attachment, which was sometimes sticking in the on position. Which was weird, since it was a replacement for the previous nozzle that also stuck in the on position. In trying to fix it, he got it stuck permanently in the on position, meaning all the water was coming through the spray hose instead of the faucet. He had to go out and buy a new nozzle, since he didn’t have any spares. Apparently, I’m the only tenant who still has a spray hose, since I’ve been living here so long that I’m the last one with an un-remodeled kitchen. Anyway, I thought he’d be gone for a while, so I channeled my inner MacGyver and used some long twist ties (from my drawer for spare electronics cords and such) to secure the spray hose to the faucet so I could use it as a makeshift faucet. But he came back less than half an hour later. I could’ve just waited and saved the effort. And the new spray nozzle has a different kind of lever to turn it on, so hopefully it won’t stick like the others.

Oh, one other way the universe messed with me, this time with my unwitting assistance: Yesterday when I drove to that bank 5 miles away, I turned out to get there shortly after the banker I’d been working with went to lunch. I guess I’d given her the impression on the phone that I’d be coming later in the day than I did (we didn’t make a formal appointment or anything). So I went over to the nearby library to wait it out. While there, I came upon several trade paperback volumes of Marvel’s hilarious The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl which I haven’t read yet. I tried to remember which ones I had already read and picked the two I knew I hadn’t, volumes 6 & 7 of the trade collections. Volume 5 was there too, but I got the impression I’d already read it and put it back on the shelf. But when I got home and started in on volume 6, it referred to a previous story I didn’t remember, so I went online to check, and it turned out I’d only read up to volume 4. So I went on the library website to request that volume 5 be shipped to my local branch.

Only to see that the list of volumes available for requesting included volumes 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, and 7.

This didn’t make sense, since I’d literally held volume 5 in my hands less than 2 hours previously. Apparently there was some catalog glitch or mislabeling or something. That meant there was no way to request it electronically, at least not from the local library. I could request a copy from another Ohio library through OhioLink, but that tends to take the better part of a week, at least. But, guys, it’s Squirrel Girl. It’s awesome. And the one place where I knew I could find it was the very branch I’d been in before. So, yes, I actually hopped in the car and drove the 5 miles back to the library to pick up volume 5. I knew exactly where I’d left it 2 hours before. And what were the odds that someone else had checked it out during those 2 hours?

Guess what. Someone else had checked it out during those 2 hours. I made that whole second 10-mile round trip for nothing.

Once I got home, I did the only thing I could and requested it through OhioLink. But that means I won’t see it until sometime next week at the earliest. Whereas I could’ve read all three volumes already and saved myself a pointless drive if I’d just checked more closely when I had the darn thing in my hand.

This is just not my week.

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Thoughts on AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (full spoilers)

Yup, I finally got around to seeing Avengers: Infinity War. I got paid for a writing project at last — a bit later than I’d hoped, but enough that I figured I could spare 5 bucks for a movie ticket on discount day (last week — I’ve been busy since). Honestly, that spoiler warning in the title seems almost unnecessary; despite all the pleas from the filmmakers for people to avoid giving away spoilers, it was less than a day after the film’s release that I got spoiled on the ending by something online, and people have been talking about it pretty openly on the Web ever since. Then again, there were several people near me in the theater who seemed genuinely taken aback by the ending, so I guess not everyone’s been spoiled. So be warned.

Honestly, I’m not sure the film offers much to talk about but the ending. I mean, as a single story culminating the plot and character arcs of 18 previous films and uniting nearly all their casts, it’s a logistically and structurally impressive achievement in its way. It’s kind of a miracle they even pulled it off and that it’s actually a coherent story overall. But the drawback of fitting in all those characters is that few of them really have that much to do. Oh, they get their moments to do their schticks and be the characters we’ve come to know and love, and we get to see various pairs or groups of characters meet for the first time and play off each other in novel ways. (I liked it that they paired Spider-Man with Iron Man and Dr. Strange, two characters he’s often been close to in the comics.) But opportunities for meaningful character advancement and growth are few. The most important character arc left over from previous movies, the conflict between Iron Man and Captain America, is all but completely avoided, with Tony Stark and Steve Rogers never actually meeting at any point in the film.

So it’s certainly a well-done film for what it is, one massive action crossover spectacular. I enjoyed it while I was watching, and had fun seeing the characters I liked do their things (though I could’ve done without Star-Lord, who was really kind of a moron here). I even enjoyed the unexpected return of a long-absent MCU villain in a new role as the Soul Stone’s guardian, and it was fun to see Peter Dinklage playing a giant. (Really, come to think of it, it makes biomechanical sense that a giant would have more squat, vertically compact proportions than an average-sized human, so that’s actually very logical casting.) But it left me feeling less than satisfied after the fact, because there wasn’t much else to it in the way of substance. The biggest thing that happened to any of the major characters, mostly, was that a lot of them died. And that quickly lost its shock value as it happened more and more throughout the film. Really, I’ve kind of gotten tired of lead-character death as a story device, because it’s been used so often. Not to mention that there’s no telling how many of these deaths will stick.

Thinking it over, the only heroes who really get any meaningful character growth are the pairs of Vision & Scarlet Witch and Star Lord & Gamora. And both couples have the exact same arc — one urges the other to kill them to stop Thanos, the other resists but eventually finds the courage to try it, but it fails anyway because of the Infinity Gauntlet’s powers, yet the first one still dies anyway after Thanos got what he wanted from them. With so many different characters to play with, you’d think they could’ve found two different arcs there instead of the same one twice. Similarly, Loki and Nebula play quite similar roles — former villainous siblings who largely redeemed themselves in their last appearances and now solidify their redemption. Except in this case, one lives and the other apparently dies (though as soon as it happened, I was expecting it to turn out to be another of Loki’s faked deaths, and Thor suggested later that it might be).

The one character who has a real, complete story arc in this film is Thanos. In a very real sense, he’s the protagonist of the movie — he’s the guy whose quest drives the story, we learn of his motivations and witness his choices and personal struggles as he pursues his goal and overcomes the multiple enemies opposing him one by one, and eventually he prevails against the odds. And of course he does see himself as the hero of the story, believing his goal is benevolent. Although of course he’s a hypocrite. If he has the godlike power of the Gauntlet and can rewrite reality to his will, why not snap his fingers and double the amount of food and resources available in the universe? Or multiply it by a hundred times so there’s more than enough for everyone? He’s too fixated on his obsession with Death (albeit not as literally as in the comics) to see a better way. Still, he was an impressively rich and nuanced character for an MCU villain, and marvelously played by Josh Brolin and the CG animators interpreting and augmenting his performance. Between him and Killmonger, this has been a good year for MCU villains. I just wish Infinity War had had more room to do good work with the heroes.

You know, one thing that’s bothered me about comics’ mega-crossovers is the way they require the individual series to twist themselves into knots to accommodate the big mega-events, often getting dragged off course and forced to change their plans to accommodate the new status quo when they’ve barely even gotten started. We see that here with Spider-Man and Black Panther, two characters who’ve only just had their solo series get underway and have already been yanked in a whole other direction. Not to mention that the relatively happy ending of Thor: Ragnarok turned out to descend into tragedy literal minutes after that film’s post-credits stinger. (It’s a good thing that I ended up seeing Ragnarok out of order after Black Panther, since it works better there, its stinger leading straight into the opening of A:IW.) I find that the DC Arrowverse shows on The CW have done a defter job with their multi-series crossovers the past two years; instead of swerving the individual series’ storylines off course or negating their plot developments to serve the crossover, they construct the crossover so that it serves and advances the individual series’ existing storylines and character arcs, even if it’s a complete swerve from them in terms of the basic situation and the enemy they’re facing. Granted, this past year’s Crisis on Earth-X crossover had the advantage that most of the heroes had already met in the previous year’s crossover, or at least at the wedding reception early in the story, so there weren’t as many getting-to-know-you moments taking up time as there were in A:IW. (And if you think it was also because they had a lot more running time in a 4-part crossover, think again. With each part only being 40-odd minutes including recaps, they had maybe 10-20 more minutes than the 2.5-hour Infinity War.)

Of course, the saving grace for Infinity War is that it’s just the first half of a 2-parter. Despite the shock of my fellow moviegoers when the film ended with half the cast dead or disintegrated, it’s obvious that the ending will be reversed somehow in Avengers 4, resurrecting at least the characters turned to dust by Thanos’s snap, if not the ones killed earlier as well. After all, several of those characters already have announced sequels coming up after Avengers 4. Meanwhile, the next couple of films and the Marvel Cinematic Universe-adjacent TV series are apparently mostly going to keep themselves in a timeframe before Infinity War, while Agents of SHIELD is saving its next season until after Avengers 4, suggesting that the next film will pick up pretty much directly after this one and mostly restore the status quo in a fairly brief time in internal continuity terms.

Come to think of it, the advantage of killing off half the huge ensemble of IW is that it may give the surviving characters in A4 more room to breathe and develop. In a way, I’m surprised that most of the newer characters like Spidey, Dr. Strange, and Black Panther got dusted while the established core cast like Stark, Cap, Thor, Banner, and Black Widow is intact. But at the same time, I’m not surprised. It makes sense to keep the focus on the big stars. But I, and probably a lot of people, had been expecting that this duology would bring about a changing of the guard, a passing of the torch to the new generation of MCU heroes who will be more prominent going forward. Still, maybe that will happen in A4. Maybe the reason to give the old guard the focus there is to give them a proper wrap-up to their arcs so the new characters can take the lead thereafter. We’ll see.

Anyway, I suspect we’ll learn in A4 that the reason Dr. Strange gave up the Time Stone to save Stark is that the one possible future he beheld where Thanos was beaten was one where Tony saved the day after the Snap and somehow reversed things. It figures that the fate of the whole MCU would revolve around Tony Stark. I wonder if maybe he’ll find a way to reset time and give Thor a do-over for that final strike. Really, why didn’t he go for the head? Or chop Thanos’s hand off? You’d think a warrior with millennia of combat experience would’ve known better. So that was kind of contrived.

Speaking of contrivances, it’s kind of weird that the last Infinity Stone Thanos managed to claim, the Vision’s Mind Stone, originally came from Loki’s scepter — which Thanos gave to Loki in the first place! So did Thanos not know he had an Infinity Stone all along? Or did he give it up as an investment, knowing it would set events in motion that would expose the other Stones on Earth? Maybe Avengers 4 will finally explain that plot hole.

Oh, by the way, while the audience I saw the movie with may have been largely unspoiled on the ending, given their reactions, they did know one thing that most prior audiences in my experience have not: that for an MCU movie, you stay through the credits. Usually I’m practically the only person who sticks around to the very end, but this time, most of the audience stayed. Although it helped that there was only one post-credit stinger here and no mid-credit teaser for the next film. If there had been two stingers, most of the audience would probably have left after the first one.

I finally saw THOR: RAGNAROK (spoiler review)

Well, it took quite a while, but I finally reached the top of the library’s hold list for Thor: Ragnarok. So now I’ve finally seen it, out of sequence (after Black Panther) because it took so long. (I almost got it a week sooner from a friend who was going to loan me his Blu-Ray, but it turned out I couldn’t get my inherited Blu-Ray player to produce a picture without connectors that my other equipment can’t handle.) Fortunately, there’s nothing in either Ragnarok or Black Panther that requires them to be seen in order. As long as I saw them both before Avengers: Infinity War, I’m good.

So what did I think of Thor: Ragnarok? Not much, really. It’s a moderately amusing bit of fluff, but is that really enough for a movie about the Norse Armageddon? A lot of really big stuff happens in this movie, numerous major character deaths and permanent changes in the Asgardian status quo, and none of it has any emotional weight because the director is more interested in the comedy. None of the characters really seem to feel anything very deeply; they just look distractedly upset for a moment and then get back to being wry and quippy.

In the original Thor, the conflict between the brothers Thor and Loki was the emotional core of the film. That same family conflict, also including Odin and Frigga, was the most notable part of the second film as well. But here, we have Thor battling the sister he never knew he had — indeed, the original bearer of Mjolnir — and the fact of that relationship has effectively zero impact on the story, beyond the plot mechanics of explaining how she was able to hold and destroy Mjolnir. It just lies there and nothing is really done with it from a character standpoint. Hela is just one more of the MCU’s long list of one-dimensional villains who are more obstacles than characters. Meanwhile, the entire character arc of her henchman Skurge — based on what I gather was a really powerful and beloved storyline in Walt Simonson’s classic Thor run — is conveyed almost completely through Karl Urban repeatedly looking sullen and conflicted. The fact that most of the established Asgardian characters are killed off as an afterthought also weakens the impact of the conquest of Asgard, since there’s nobody there whose point of view we can identify with for much of Hela’s invasion. (I’m just glad that Jaimie Alexander’s commitment to Blindspot spared Lady Sif from the cavalier carnage. Maybe she can still show up on Agents of SHIELD again sometime.)

Then you’ve got the whole Planet Hulk adaptation crammed in and overshadowing the storyline that the movie’s actually named for. Again, as an insubstantial bit of amusement, it was fine. Certainly it deserves credit for going whole hog on the Jack Kirby design sense more than any prior MCU movie (with Stan Lee’s costume being the most Kirbyesque thing ever). But honestly, I’ve never been a fan of Kirby’s artwork, and I find his designs garish and silly. And again, there’s not much substance to the plotline. Thor’s arc with Loki is one that should be quite effective on paper, but it’s directed and played with so little weight and so much snark that the poignancy isn’t there. Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie (who isn’t really called Valkyrie, but is just a Valkyrie whose given name is unrevealed) has a lot of inner angst, but it’s only passingly addressed, rushed through like most of the serious and important stuff in this movie. And Mark Ruffalo is surprisingly disappointing as both Hulk and Bruce Banner. It’s good to hear Hulk speaking more than two words per movie at last, but Ruffalo’s voice isn’t really cut out for it, even electronically deepened. And as Banner, he seemed to be distracted and phoning in his part, the charisma and subtle emotion he brought in his previous appearances not in evidence.

I’ve heard a lot of praise for this movie, and I just don’t get it. Sure, it has its funny bits, which is fine as far as it goes. But a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie should go farther. The MCU’s films and some of its TV shows have plenty of humor, even outright comedy, but they also have emotional depth and sincerity and a real sense of stakes and danger. This movie only seemed to care about laid-back snark and put little effort into the rest. None of the characters really seemed to be more than mildly annoyed or disappointed about any of the huge, intense, tragic, dramatic stuff that happened, so it was hard for me as a viewer to care much about it either. It was an amusing way to pass 2 hours and a bit, but it provided no substance that lasted beyond the moment. It’s really quite dissatisfying after the fact. This is the way Asgard ends: not with a bang, but with a shrug.

GraphicAudio sale this weekend!

Heads up: GraphicAudio is running a sale this weekend on its comics/superhero-related audiobooks, with 20% off when you buy 2 or more. This sale includes their adaptations of two of my novels, Only Superhuman and Spider-Man: Drowned in Thunder, so that works out nicely. The ordering links are here:

Only Superhuman audiobook  Only Superhuman

Spider-Man: Drowned in Thunder audiobook  Spider-Man: Drowned in Thunder

It looks like OS is only available in digital audio formats, but DiT is still available in a 5-CD box set as well as digitally.

Admittedly, Only Superhuman has never been done in comics (not yet, anyway), but it’s a superhero story and is largely an homage to superhero comics, so GraphicAudio lists it along with their comics titles. Anyway, this is a good time to call new attention to OS, considering that my story collection Among the Wild Cybers: Tales Beyond the Superhuman, featuring the brand-new Only Superhuman prequel story “Aspiring to Be Angels,” is due out later this year.

Thoughts on BLACK PANTHER (spoilers)

I finally got around to seeing Black Panther yesterday, since I have a bit of money coming in and figured I could spare a few bucks to see the phenomenon while it’s still in theaters (and before Avengers: Infinity War comes out). I never got around to seeing Thor: Ragnarok in theaters — I’m in the hold queue for the DVD at the library, but there are about 1350 people ahead of me at the moment — but this was a film I had to see, given its rave reviews and its larger importance.

Usually when I go to see a film this late in its run, and in a matinee showing, I’m one of only a few people in the theater. For this film, though, the theater was fairly packed. And I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie with an audience that was so emotionally invested in the film — with people who said “Oh, no!” when a supporting character was about to be killed or applauded when the hero made a grand entrance. For once, I wasn’t annoyed when people talked in the theater, because I was interested in the way people were reacting to this movie and engaging with it.

I don’t really want to go into detail about the plot and specifics of the film, since it’s all pretty terrific and it’s all been talked about really extensively elsewhere. I thought it was fascinating on a lot of levels. I loved the portrayal of Wakandan technology and architecture, of African designs and sensibilities extrapolated into modernity and futurism without colonial influence. It made for something really fresh and intriguing to see. And I love it that the film didn’t just depict an Afrofuturist utopia, but made it textured, with its own internal problems and conflicts and mistakes, and also confronted what it would mean to black Americans — both the sense of hope and empowerment it offered, and the harsh question of whether they had the right to maintain their utopia by abandoning others in need. Killmonger is certainly the richest, most sympathetic villain the Marvel Cinematic Universe has had since Loki, if not ever, since he had a legitimate viewpoint to offer, even if his methods were too violent. He was right that his people deserved liberation, but wrong to think that just adding more violence and oppression to the world would achieve that. I could tell from very early on that the film was likely to end with T’Challa realizing he needed to open up Wakanda to the world and offer its benefits to others, to make amends for Wakanda’s past through peaceful outreach and support rather than armed conquest. I’m very interested in seeing the answer to the question T’Challa is asked at the end of the mid-credits scene.

The cast was really solid, excellent all around. Michael B. Jordan is a standout as Killmonger, bringing enormous charisma while still being a credible threat. Chadwick Boseman is effective in the lead. Lupita Nyong’o is very good as Nakia, and it doesn’t hurt that she’s one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen. (This is the first movie of hers I’ve seen where I could actually see her face.) Letitia Wright (who had a recurring role in Humans season 2 as a troubled schoolgirl pretending to be an android) is lots of fun as Shuri, and I love it how the film just takes it for granted that their resident Tony Stark-meets-Q is a teenage girl. (She has the kind of vast high-tech underground playroom that I dreamed of having as a teenager.) I was impressed by Person of Interest‘s Winston Duke as M’Baku, a character who had to be handled very, very carefully to skirt the offensive implications of his comics counterpart, the villain called “Man-Ape.” He had to start out as a convincing antagonist and then reveal a more admirable side, and he pulled it off well. Martin Freeman did his usual excellent work as Everett Ross, going from a smugly clueless American to a stalwart ally who slipped comfortably into a supporting role, rather than trying to dominate the narrative. (I’ve seen this movie compared to a James Bond film, so I guess that means Ross would be Felix Leiter.) Andy Serkis was unexpectedly impish as Ulysses Klaue, who we initially were led to think was the primary villain but who ended up being secondary to Killmonger. In the comics, Ulysses Klaw was the murderer of T’Challa’s father, but Captain America: Civil War gave T’Chaka a different fate, so that arc was transferred to T’Challa’s friend W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), motivating him to turn against T’Challa and aid Killmonger. W’Kabi is a minor antagonist, but one who has a well-drawn arc and understandable motivations for doing the wrong thing.

One thing I found a bit distracting was the music, but that’s not really the movie’s fault. Before the movie, the theater showed a trailer for Spielberg’s Ready Player One, scored with a partly orchestral arrangement of the 1984 pop song “Take On Me.” (I don’t know pop music well, but I heard that song constantly on the PA at the UC Bookstore when I worked there.) Then the film came on, and the orchestral theme used for the Black Panther was exactly the same melody as the first six notes of “Take On Me”‘s refrain. So because of the trailer, every time I heard that leitmotif, I was reminded of the song. Otherwise, though, the score by Ludwig Göransson does some fairly interesting things blending African rhythms and styles with conventional orchestral movie scoring.

When I first heard that there’d be a Black Panther movie, I was concerned about how an American-made film would portray Africa, since there have been so many stereotypes and misconceptions about it in past films and TV shows. Some of the Marvel animated TV productions that have depicted Black Panther and Storm (of the X-Men) have been deeply rooted in ignorant stereotypes about Africa, tending to portray it as a single monolithic culture consisting of nothing but thatched-hut villages surrounded by wilderness. The ideal that I hoped for but wasn’t sure we’d get was a film that avoided all those assumptions and cliches, that did the research about modern Africa and portrayed it authentically. And this film essentially did fulfill my hopes. It’s certainly well-researched and rooted in real African culture rather than Western preconceptions, and it satirizes those preconceptions by contrasting them with the reality of Wakanda. Although its tight focus on the fictional nation of Wakanda means that it didn’t necessarily counter preconceptions about what the rest of Africa looks like. It would be nice, in a sequel, to see more exploration of Wakanda’s neighbors on the continent now that it’s not hiding from them anymore. Let’s see some major African metropolises like maybe Lagos, Nigeria, which is one of the largest and fastest-growing cities on Earth.

Still, that’s a minor note. Even if Black Panther doesn’t do all the work itself, its success will hopefully bring more attention to African-American voices and African culture, and perhaps other films can follow in its footsteps. (Pawprints? Sneaker prints?) That’s a change that’s long overdue, and I’m glad to see it starting to happen. Even aside from the importance of equal representation and diversity, it’s just good to have a wider range of ideas and perspectives informing popular culture, making it richer, inviting more people into the tent both as fans and creators. And it’s really satisfying to see an audience really engaged and excited by a movie like the folks around me in the theater yesterday. Black Panther, like Wonder Woman before it, was a movie that needed to knock it out of the park in order to dispel Hollywood preconceptions about what kind of films could succeed. And like Wonder Woman before it, the film met that challenge and surpassed it, and hopefully has opened a door that will never close again.

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Annotations update: dead links fixed

A TrekBBS member called Extrocomp was kind enough to go through the Star Trek annotations pages here on my blog and alert me to the various links that have gone dead in the years since I posted them, even providing updated file names from Memory Alpha. I spent the morning correcting the dead links — either updating the file locations, linking to Internet Archive snapshots of the now-defunct pages, or finding suitable alternative links to convey the same information (such as Wiki pages, or in one or two cases, the original source of an article that I’d linked to a mirror of). After which, since I can never resist being thorough, I went through my Original Fiction and Marvel annotations on my own and updated or replaced broken links as needed. So now all the annotations should have fully updated links, although there might still be broken links I haven’t yet found on some of the non-annotation pages of the site.

So, thanks, Extrocomp, for your diligence!

 

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING thoughts (spoilers)

I don’t have the budget to see many movies this summer, but Spider-Man: Homecoming was one I felt I needed to see (even though I’m waiting to see Guardians of the Galaxy 2 until the library gets it). And I made enough money on my recent Shore Leave trip that I felt I could afford to spare a few bucks for recreation. Though of course I went on discount Tuesday.

Anyway, I liked the movie, but I didn’t love it. I guess I’m not the target audience for the John Hughes-style teen romantic comedy vibe they were going for — I don’t think I ever was. I got kind of bored during some of those teen-drama sequences, though the young actors were all pretty good. I didn’t dislike it, and it was pretty fun at times, but it didn’t wow me. I dunno, everyone these days seems to be excited about putting Peter Parker back in high school, even though he spent only three years and 30 issues in high school in the comics (well, more like 44 issues counting guest appearances in other books), but I first became interested in Spidey as a college-age character in the 1990s animated series, and I got to know him best when writing about him as a college graduate and part-time high school teacher in Drowned in Thunder. So I guess the idea of making him a kid doesn’t do that much for me.

Still, for what it was, it worked well. It captured the essence of who Spider-Man is, his sense of fun and his desire to help and his commitment to justice even when it screws up his personal life, as it invariably does — just in a more teenagery way than usual. And in the context of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I can definitely see the value of stepping away from all the big important adult heroes dealing with matters of global or cosmic significance and taking a look at what life in the MCU is like for the little guy down on street level. And Spider-Man is a very good character for that, a hero who often hobnobs with superhero royalty but never loses his connection to the streets. (Which was approached fairly literally here. He tended to stay more on the level of brownstones and bodegas than skyscrapers here, and there was a fun sequence showcasing how hard web-swinging is in suburbia. The few times he did get up high, he had trouble coping with it.) Moreover, it was really interesting to see a street-level villain. Adrian Toomes could soar to any height, but he didn’t want to rule the underworld or conquer the planet, he just wanted to make a dishonest living because he blamed Stark and the government for taking his honest livelihood from him. He wasn’t exactly a victim in the vein of your classic tragic Batman: The Animated Series villain — it’s not like he couldn’t have found a different way to make an honest buck, he just chose to become a criminal and occasional killer because he was ticked off at the system — but he still saw himself as just a guy looking out for his family, making him a more nuanced and relatable villain than the MCU usually manages.

Now — spoiler alert — I could say it’s a huge coincidence that that Vulture turns out to be the father of Peter’s school crush Liz (wait, is she Liz Toomes? Liz Allan-Toomes?), but then, that’s the classic Parker luck. The villain always turns out to be either a family member of one of Peter’s friends, Peter’s own beloved mentor, or both. So I can give that a pass. And it plays out interestingly. We’ve seen the beat of the villain deducing the hero’s identity before in superhero films, perhaps too often, but it rarely plays out on such an intimate scale, and with the villain not really wanting to hurt the hero. Although it does get rather hard to sympathize with Toomes toward the climax, as he’s actively beating up a teenage boy and trying to kill him. That felt like too much of a standard action-movie beat being imposed on the characters. I think that Toomes as established through the rest of the film should’ve had more qualms about such face-to-face violence against such a young opponent.

But I love the way it turns out. I’ve spoken before of my dislike of the way superhero movies insist on killing off the bad guys, either by having the heroes kill them or going the “I don’t have to save you” route or having them die by their own actions or a twist of fate. It was so satisfying to see a movie not do that — to see Spidey risk his life to save the villain, succeed, and even get karmically rewarded for it in the post-credits scene. That’s the way I like to see these stories play out. I was worried about how Spidey, a character largely defined by his refusal to kill, would be handled in the MCU, which tends to make its heroes rather less non-lethal than they usually are in the comics. (Seriously, why would Tony even install “Instant Kill Mode” in that suit?) I’m relieved that they’re keeping that aspect of his character intact.

By the same token, I liked the scene with Spidey and Donald Glover’s character (who apparently is Miles Morales’s uncle). Spidey started out trying to intimidate the guy, but it turned out that what did the trick was Spidey’s kindness — he’d invited the bad guys to shoot him rather than Glover, and the latter appreciated that and was thus willing to help, as well as sharing a common concern for their neighborhood’s safety. That’s the sort of thing that really uses the idea of a Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man and makes it mean something.

I’m a bit disappointed that Spidey ended the film with the same Stark supersuit he started it with. I figured the arc of the film would be that he’d learn that all those gadgets were too much of a crutch and that he preferred something more basic. Maybe that will still be the case, though — maybe he’ll re-enable “Training Wheels Mode” voluntarily. (Although I read a review that pointed out that having the “Karen” AI to talk to was a nice substitute for Spidey’s constant internal monologue in the comics.)

Speaking of Stark, it’s interesting how he has his own parallel plotline sort of running through this movie, even though he’s mainly there to serve Peter’s story as a surrogate father figure and (rather bad) mentor. Even though he seems to treat Peter as an afterthought, he’s invested an awful lot (literally, financially) in this kid and his training as a hero. It matters to him, even if he’s inadvertently following in his own absentee father’s footsteps. One could wonder why he places so much importance on this one young protege, and partly that’s because it’s Spidey’s movie, but it also fits with where Tony is at this point in the MCU. This thing he’s built, the Avengers, has fallen apart. He’s lost almost his entire team, save for War Machine and Vision, and Rhodey’s probably still on the disabled list. So he needs to cultivate new members — not just for the optics or the logistics, but out of his personal need to keep his dream from being a failure. He’s trying not to rush the kid into it, trying to give him a chance to start out small and work his way up, but he’s equipped the Spidey suit with an AI designed to guide Peter’s training and hone him into Avenger material. And once Peter bypasses all that and proves himself by saving the day in his hoodie and goggles, Tony can’t resist jumping forward and offering him the works, just going all-out for the kid the moment he has an excuse. Because he needs this. Not just to rebuilt the Avengers, but because, as he said, he wants Peter to be better than him. He sees himself in the kid and wants to help him be a better man and a better hero than Tony could ever be. It’s interesting how much this film reveals about Tony Stark even though it’s nominally in a different series and even from a different studio. Some might hold that against the film as a Spider-Man story in its own right, but I enjoy the interconnectedness of all this and how unusual it is for movies. I love it that you can put all these individual films together and get an ongoing story running through most of them as a bonus.

Oh, and speaking of bonuses… Yes, as usual, I was the only one in my theater who stuck around through all the credits and got to see the Captain America tag at the end. It was worth it. (Plus, Michael Giacchino’s score was a good one, so I was happy to listen to the whole end title cue.)