ON WANDAVISION: THE FIRST TWO EPISODES

…meh?

We watched the first two episodes of WandaVision last night. To be clear, this is all that’s been released so far, and I’m still not clear (and I’m not looking it up) how many episodes are planned for this season or what the release schedule is. The real short version of this post is that right now after two episodes I’m not sure why this show exists or what it’s for, and I’m kind of bewildered by the super-positive reception it seems to be receiving so far.

Minor spoilers, but if you’re familiar with the concept of the show there’s really not a lot to spoil.

The thing is, this is a Season 5 mystery, not a first-episode-of-the-series mystery. When last we saw these characters, Wanda was at the big fight at the end of Endgame and Vision was still dead, having had the Mind Stone ripped out of his head by Thanos before the Snap– and because he died before the Snap, as far as we know he stayed dead. Did Tony bring him back? Maybe, but we’ve not been shown that prior to now.

So I guess we’re supposed to be wondering why Vision isn’t dead any longer, and probably wondering why this series is, so far, mimicking crappy TV sitcoms from the fifties and sixties and abruptly bouncing into Technicolor at the end of the second episode to enter the seventies. There have been a couple of hints that something else is going on; the color red, and a weird dude in a beekeeper’s suit, and a couple of moments where Wanda sort of freaks out and takes control of what’s going on around her.

The problem is I don’t care. Here’s what I mean by a Season 5 mystery: if you watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer, imagine that Dawn’s first episode was the series premiere. The viewers knew that something weird was going on from the jump, because we’d had several seasons to get used to Buffy and her family and we knew ferdamnsure that she didn’t have a little sister, and she’d never had a little sister, and so Dawn’s first appearance sparked curiosity. This, on the other hand, comes off to me as more of an okay, this is what we’re doing, I guess sort of thing, and the fact that they’re leaning so hard into the fifties and sixties tropes when those shows were bad is, at least to me, not a smart move. I spent all of both episodes waiting for the minute of footage where Something Untoward Happens, because of course this isn’t how things are supposed to be and can we move on to getting some answers, please, because the A-plot where Vision is having his boss over for dinner is insanely not interesting. Like, that sort of boring-ass plot worked in the 1950s, or at least I guess it did, but in 2021 it’s all wasted time, because there’s no earthly reason to care.

Is there something about Wanda’s personality or hobbies or something that makes reverting to old sitcoms make sense? Dunno; we don’t really know anything about her. I know, because I follow these sorts of things, that the actress calling herself Geraldine in the second episode is actually Monica Rambeau, who is low-key the main reason I’m watching the series in the first place– but that’s not in the episode at all. In a Season 5 mystery, we know that the dude playing Vision’s boss is actually Mr. Frumblegumph from his actual job and the neighbor lady who’s being so nice is actually the villain from Season 2, so we should keep a close eye on her, or whatever. This? If I hadn’t known that Monica Rambeau was in this show, noted the name of the actress playing her, and then seen that name in the credits, I’d have no reason to think anything at all about that side character.

I mean, I don’t hate it, don’t get me wrong, and I’ll watch more of it because 1) what the hell else do I have to do right now and 2) Monica Rambeau, but this wasn’t the home run to me that a lot of people seem to think it is, and I really don’t know where those folks are coming from. Hopefully a few more episodes in will have moved onto something real and not this contrived-ass mystery.


A quick moment, though, while I argue with something that I’ve, uh, not actually seen anyone say so far: one thing I do like about the show is that so far this program has been aping the 1950s and 1960s but there are Black and Asian people in the cast and they have not felt the need to be Historically Accurate and made all these white folks racist as hell. I feel like if I look hard enough I’m going to find someone complaining that “Geraldine” was just treated like another member of the cast when in the real 1950s show she’d be blah blah blah blah and I’m glad they decided to just ignore that.

#Review: Attack on Titan, Season 1

I have now watched the entire first season of this … show. This program. This anime. And while I’m neither in love with the program itself nor the format, there are some interesting things going on here.

The premise of Attack on Titan is that the human race, under assault of giant man-eating humanoids called Titans, has withdrawn behind three concentric walls that, for hundreds of years, have protected them from Titan attacks, but also prevented humanity from going anywhere outside the safety of their walls. In the very first episode, a Colossal Titan, one larger than any ever seen before, shows up and basically wrecks the outer wall, allowing the Titans inside. A full 20% of humanity perishes in the events that take place over the next several months, as the Titans have feasts and the humans try to fight back.

Good stuff:

  • This show does action really well. All of the Titan fights were really cool, and the Spider-Man-esque way the characters get around, via waist-mounted cable guns, never looks anything short of amazing.
  • The designs for the Titans are uniformly awesome. None of them look like any others, but they all really skate up to the uncanny valley and they are all really creepy. None of them move quite right, although some of them move much more strangely than others, and the way some of them have faces that would look perfectly normal on a banker or a grocer when they’re actually man-eating monsters is really something.
  • The actual story itself is pretty cool; I want to know more about these things and more about the world.

Bad stuff:

  • This may be a manga thing or an artifact of how Japanese translates into English– and I should point out that I watched about 80% of the season dubbed, not subtitled– but my God, the dialogue was terrible, and the melodrama off the charts. There was no set of circumstances perilous enough (or exciting enough) that they could not be interrupted for a lengthy philosophical conversation, even if the characters were, say, on horseback and fleeing from a giant, when you wouldn’t expect them to be able to talk. The voice acting in both languages has one volume: screaming. And any individual sentence would always be 20 times as long as it needed to be, with lots of recursive clauses. Even if this is how Japanese sounds to an English speaker when translated literally, you solve that problem by not translating it literally. If you’re going to do a dub, try and make the dialogue sound natural to an English speaker.(*)
  • Character design for the human characters could be better, especially since they tend to be wearing uniforms and thus dressed the same all the time. I had trouble differentiating between a lot of the characters.
  • The flashbacks. My God, the flashbacks. Again, nothing is too exciting that you can’t interrupt it with a five-minute flashback to people talking.
  • Pacing. The episodes are short, at about 22 minutes each, but there’s a couple of minutes of recap and credits at either end of that, so the actual episode length is maybe sixteen to eighteen minutes? I am not exaggerating when I say that most episodes are 14 minutes of talking about what is happening right in front of the characters and carping about philosophy and then four minutes of something actually happening, then a cliffhanger.

So, it sounds like I hated this, but the positive stuff is actually interesting enough to me that I’m probably still in for the second season– especially since the things that are crappy about it lend well to making fun of the show while watching it, which … is a way to enjoy TV, I suppose. I may try out a season of My Hero Academia before I go into S2 of Attack on Titan just to see what things are in common across the two shows and maybe recalibrate my expectations a little bit.

Also, my wife brought home the first two volumes of the manga from the library, and I read the first one, and the anime really does appear to be a scene-for-scene translation of the manga. I have not read the second volume yet and really am not feeling much of an itch to do it, so I think I’ll stick with the series for now.

(*) This may be a good time to remind people that my academic background is in Biblical Studies, and the Hebrew Bible in particular, so I have a lot of Opinions about how to translate things. My lack of facility with Japanese hurts me a bit, but I can go on for a while about this sort of thing.

#REVIEW: Cemetery Boys, by AidEn Thomas

I’m kind of entertained that the first book review I wrote in 2020 and the first book review I’m writing in 2021 are both of YA books. And both of them are books that I came to because I’m trying to read widely in terms of the types of characters I read about and the types of authors I’m trying to read books from. To wit, Aiden Thomas is a queer Latinx transgender male, and Cemetery Boys is one of only a handful of books I’ve read with a trans male as the main character. (Also worth checking out: Lila Bowen’s The Shadow series.)

So, what’s it about? Also something I haven’t seen much of: the main character, Yadriel, is a 15-year-old trans boy who is a member of a community of brujx, people who follow traditional practices regarding communicating with and aiding the dead in passing on from this world to the next. The book takes place a couple of days before el Dia de los Muertos, and it begins with Yadriel completing a ritual on his own to confirm himself as a brujo. As it turns out, brujos and brujas have different abilities and focus on different things, and Yadriel’s family has resisted him becoming a brujo since he was assigned female at birth. Prejudice toward Yadriel isn’t a huge part of the book, but his mother was his main protector and she’s been dead for several months as the book starts, and it’s clear that his relationship toward his father is strained at best and moving toward broken at worst. Becoming a brujo requires a sort of confirmation or blessing from Lady Death, you see, and everyone basically thinks that it just won’t work, so they haven’t let him try.

So he does it on his own. And it works. And he summons a ghost, and the ghost is of a boy named Julian who has recently died– so recently, in fact, that no one seems to know he is gone and no one is looking for him. That same night, another member of Yadriel’s community dies (brujx can feel it when other brujx pass away) but despite lots of people looking for him, they can’t find him.

From here, the book moves into what is sort of a murder mystery– Julian remembers very little leading up to his death, and doesn’t want to pass on to the next world until he makes sure his friends are okay– and what is almost a slapsticky sort of thing as Yadriel tries to hide Julian from his family until he can help him pass on. All of whom can see dead people, remember.

I four-starred this; this is one of those books where the good things (the setting, the characters) are very very good and the overall actual plot is not as well executed. I thought the first 100 pages kind of dragged on a bit, and the book really doesn’t feel like a murder mystery until all the sudden at the end the villain is suddenly revealed, in a very Scooby-Doo sort of way. I wasn’t expecting there to even be a villain, to be honest; the search for Miguel, the missing person, is mostly handled off camera and the focus is on finding out how he died and where his body is, not searching for someone who killed him, and Julian’s death felt to me like random gang violence or something similar, and I wasn’t expecting them to pin it to one person and have a big Here Is My Evil Plan moment at the end.

(Like, remember the movie Stand By Me? They know they’re looking for a body the whole time. They know it’s a dead kid. They’re not really worried about how he died, they just want to find him. Imagine if that movie had ended with Ace and Eyeball explaining that they’d murdered Ray Brower in some sort of insurance scam or something. This has much the same feel.)

I can’t quite claim that I loved this book, but it’s still well worth recommending just because of the “I’ve never read anything like this” angle. The representation is great, and I can think of a couple of students I’ve had who I might try to get this book into the hands of. Where it’s strong, it’s very strong, it’s just that the story itself falls down a bit.

Some kind of random thoughts:

  • Never once is Yadriel’s deadname used in the book. There are two direct references to it; one when someone calls him by it and another when Julian sees it in a yearbook. Both times the name itself is not used in the text.
  • Thomas’ skill at writing characters who speak a lot of Spanish in a way that’s clear and understandable to non-Spanish readers is frankly phenomenal. My Spanish is good enough that I made it to page 304 before deciding to look something up– and it turned out to be an idiom, so I felt okay about it– but in general whenever someone says something in Spanish, or at least the first time something is said in Spanish, the word or phrase is used in English quickly afterward to make it very easy to infer the meaning of the word from context. Just as an example, Yadriel’s aunt says “Dame un beso” at one point, and the next sentence he kisses her on the cheek. That sort of thing. This could have felt really shoehorned in if Thomas wasn’t careful, but it always felt natural. Nicely done.
  • The words “Latinx” and “brujx” are used throughout the text, both as character dialogue and as narrative references. This did feel a little intrusive, as I’ve spent a lot of time teaching young people from Latinx backgrounds and have worked at a couple of schools where they were either a solid majority or virtually everyone, and I’ve never heard either of those words out of the mouth of a young person. I mean, okay, I wouldn’t expect “brujx,” but I think if I dropped “Latinx” in conversation with one of my Mexican or Puerto Rican students they wouldn’t know what the hell I was talking about. This isn’t a complaint so much as an observation; it’s entirely possible that the -x suffix is more widely used in other parts of the country and hasn’t made its way to the Midwest yet, but my (possibly erroneous) understanding was that it isn’t widely used yet and, in fact, was kind of controversial. It will be interesting to see if, ten years from now, the term dates the book at all.

#REVIEW: Wonder Woman 1984

I LiveTweeted my way through this last night– I’m going to say a lot of the same things in the review so I’m not going to include them, but feel free to go look— and it takes a certain type of movie for me to do that for: the movie must be either entertaining and kind of dumb, or I have to hate it. And Wonder Woman 1984 has been receiving some seriously mixed reviews, so I had a little bit of worry going into this– the original Wonder Woman is still easily my favorite DC movie since Christopher Reeve was playing Superman, and I was worried they’d fucked it all up.

Spoiler alert: they did not, in fact, fuck it all up.

I mean, there’s some fuckery afoot, don’t get me wrong. But they did not fuck it all up.

Now, let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves here: while Wonder Woman 1984 never gets close to the heights of gloriously dumb that Aquaman reached, there is nonetheless quite a bit of glorious dumb in this movie, and really it has a lot more tonally in common with Aquaman than it does with the first Wonder Woman movie. That said, heart goes a long way with me, and this movie has heart to spare, and I am officially elevating Patty Jenkins to the best superhero-movie director working today, because once again she has demonstrated that she remembers her main character is a superhero and there are a number of places in this movie where crazy shit like saving people and– wait for it, this will startle you– stopping crime is Wonder Woman’s priority.

This is, in a lot of ways, a yeah, but type of movie, where everything that is wrong with it also leads to at least one thing that is good about it, and so ultimately your takeaway from it will depend on whether the bad things annoy you more than the good things made you happy. Some examples? Sure!

Steve Trevor did not belong in this movie! Yeah, but that scene with the flying, and the other scene with the flying, and the way he leaves the movie?

Pedro Pascal is about twelve times as much actor as this role needed, and spent most of the film blissfully gobbling up scenery! Yeah, but he sells the hell out of the last fifteen minutes of the movie, and when was the last time you saw a movie where the villain was defeated by reminding him that he loves his son?

Hey, did you hear that this movie was set in 1984? Because it’s totally set in 1984! Yeah, but … okay, they leaned into that one a little harder than they really needed to.

I don’t understand why movie people can write a film set in the 1930s or for that matter the freaking 840s without pounding you over the head that their movie is a period piece, but every movie set in a decade I remember has to constantly beat you over the head with time period references.

There’s a couple of exceptions, of course: Kristen Wiig didn’t really have a lot to do, and should have had her own movie. There are bits and pieces of her performance that I really liked, but her character bounces off of Steve Trevor in a really weird way (it is obvious, to the point where it could not have been an accident, that Barbara Minerva and Diana Prince have a hell of a lot of chemistry together, in a way that Diana and Trevor really don’t) and I felt like she deserved a stronger arc than she got, particularly at the end of the movie. And a lot of people really seem to have enjoyed the bit at the beginning of the film set on Themiscyra; I am not among them. They should have used that time to give us more of an indication of what Diana has actually been doing with herself other than spending 70 years pining over the first dude she’d ever met, who she knew for a week.

(I knew intellectually that there was no way they’d do this, but there was a bit in the film where I felt like Steve Trevor was about to remind Diana that they’d only known each other for a week, and whoa, lady, let’s pump the brakes here on the eternal love thing just a lil’ bit.)

(Trevor’s entire thing in this movie, from start to finish, is kind of a problem, but it’s a problem that’s mostly outside the movie, if that makes any sense.)

So, yeah: I have some gripes. I loved Wonder Woman, and I wanted to love this movie, and I didn’t. But it’s not a bad movie; it’s a solid B or B+ type of film, for me, mostly on the strength of Gadot’s performance and Jenkins’ story decisions. The DC Murderverse films’ biggest flaw is that they forget who their characters are, and they have a thing called the Justice League that has no concern with “justice” as a concept whatsoever and that the characters they’ve written would never have named their organization in the first place. Wonder Woman 1984 remains defiantly outside the Murderverse, out there with Shazam! and Aquaman and making fun of the Supr Srs murples and throwing popcorn at them. Go ahead and pay the $14.95 to join HBO Max for a month; you’d have paid more than that to see this in theaters anyway and it’s well worth that amount of money and an evening of your time.

Quick #Review: VENOM (2018)

The boy has been campaigning to be allowed to watch Venom for a few days, so Bek and I previewed it last night to make sure it wasn’t going to destroy his tiny little brain or anything like that. The answer: no, it will not, although he might end up kind of bored with it, because the movie shows a surprising amount of patience with setting up its characters before Venom itself actually shows up on screen.

I don’t think this movie really need a full-blown review, but you should slot it pretty firmly with the second tier of non-Marvel superhero movies. It’s nowhere near as bad as some of the early attempts– say, the Elektras and the Daredevils— and probably on par with, say, the Birds of Prey movies, where you have a pretty good idea going in what you’re in for and if you’re okay with being in for that you’re going to have a decent time for the $9 it currently costs to buy this movie from Amazon Prime. The most jarring thing for me is that Venom himself has kind of a cheesy sense of humor, which I wasn’t really expecting, but expect that the alien symbiotic might come awfully close to making a couple of Dad jokes at various points during the film. There are definitely some story weaknesses, don’t get me wrong, and Riz Ahmed’s villain-whose-name-I-don’t-remember is damn near cartoonishly evil, but you could do worse than two hours of making fun of Tom Hardy’s accent and Michelle Williams’ wig.

Three and a half stars, watch during a long weekend.