#REVIEW: CAPTAIN MARVEL

Traditional Facebook Blurb Spoiler-Free Bluster Zone: The one very very minor spoiler that I wanted to make sure I knew before going into Captain Marvel was whether Stan Lee had a cameo in it or not. I wasn’t sure how the filming schedule timed out with his passing last year, and I know they tend to film his cameos in bunches, so it wasn’t immediately clear. I discovered two things: one, there was “a tribute” to him immediately, and two, yes, there was a cameo, and there will be one more, for a film that hasn’t been named yet but, c’mon, it’s Avengers: Endgame, because of course it is.

Well, for quite possibly the first time in human history the goddamn production company’s five-second logo video made half the audience cry. Like, I’m struggling right now writing about it. It was perfect. And his cameo is perfect, too– apparently they reshot Larson’s reaction to him after he passed away, and that little smile on her face when she sees him is a deliberate change to acknowledge that he was gone– even if it introduces a hilariously complicated rat’s nest of continuity craziness if you start thinking about it.

Okay, that’s probably long enough. Spoilers ho, y’all. Everything. And, really, this movie does have a nice twist or two, especially if you were already a comic book person going in. If you aren’t, less so.


I’ll put the tl;dr in the first paragraph: While I love the character, and this movie’s high points are tremendous, overall this is a high second-tier Marvel film for me; that first tier being in no particular order Iron Man, Avengers, Infinity War, Winter Soldier, Civil War and Black Panther. This movie has an awful lot of fucking work to do, and in a lot of ways that ends up dragging the overall experience down a bit.

Positives:

  • Brie Larson. I was neutral on her casting at first– my preferred actress would have been Katee Sackhoff, and I wasn’t familiar with Larson at all, but she’s great in the role. Just great.
  • Lashana Lynch and Akira Akbar, who play Maria and Monica Rambeau, respectively. Their relationship is great, their relationship to Carol Danvers is great, and as someone who has been clamoring to see my Captain Marvel on screen for over a decade, I was literally jumping up and down when I found out Monica was actually in the movie. I presume that we’ll see her, unfortunately portrayed by an older actress, in Endgame or another future film, but Akira Akbar is amazing, guys. Loved every second these two were on screen.
  • Goose the cat, and actually getting to hear the line “That’s not a cat, that’s a flerken!” uttered by one of the characters on-screen.
  • The twist with the Skrulls was great; I had commented to my wife on the drive to the theater that I was a little bit worried because in general as a storytelling device I find the Skrulls kind of tiring because every single fucking thing always boils down to “Is he a Skrull? Is she a Skrull? How long has he been a Skrull? How long has she been a Skrull?” and there’s a little bit of that but they actually manage to come up with a way to use them that was fresh and genuinely unexpected.
  • Despite my reservations on the whole memory-loss thing, I found Captain Marvel’s overall arc in the story to be pretty damn good, and by the end of the movie she is absolutely the hero I wanted her to be. I just wish the trailers hadn’t spoiled the “getting up” sequence from the end of the film, because it ends up being pretty damn pivotal and I’d have preferred to be seeing it for the first time on screen.
  • Similarly, having Annette Benning be Mar-Vell and not Jude Law like everyone assumed was a nice touch.
  • Did I mention there’s a flerken in this movie? Because that’s a flerken. My wife has been so confused with my insistence on yelling “FLERKEN!” every time any trace of cat shows up in any of the promo stuff for this movie. She gets it now, and she wants an orange cat.
  • Flerken.
  • If God loves me, there will be at least a brief sequence between Rocket and Goose in Endgame.
  • I really like the relationship between CM and Nick Fury, and I like the subtle way that Sam Jackson plays Fury as younger, less burdened, and a much looser character. If anything I feel like this part of the movie could have used a few more minutes.
  • Nice touch, releasing the film on International Women’s Day.

Stuff that I maybe didn’t like quite as much:

  • As I said, this movie’s got a lot of work to do, and has a lot of elements piled on top of it: HEY LOOK! IT’S THE NINETIES! HEY LOOK! SAM JACKSON AND CLARK GREGG ARE WAY YOUNGER! HEY LOOK! NICK FURY DOESN’T HAVE HIS EYEPATCH! I WONDER WHEN HE’S GONNA LOSE HIS EYE? HEY LOOK! ORIGIN STORY! HEY LOOK! IT’S THE TESSERACT, AND YOU’RE EVENTUALLY GONNA FIGURE OUT THAT THE TIMELINE IS CONSISTENT BUT IT’S GONNA TAKE A MINUTE! HEY LOOK! SHAPESHIFTING ALIENS! HEY LOOK! MEMORY LOSS STORY! And a lot of these things are kind of distracting, and ultimately the weight of all this extra shit just kinda drags the film down in a way that weirdly I don’t want to blame on the movie itself, but I should, because it’s not like Marvel didn’t decide to put all this stuff in there, and they could have made different storytelling decisions, up to and including not waiting over ten years and 20 movies to introduce Captain fucking Marvel to the MCU.
  • Look at how long that sentence is. Jesus.
  • Because of all this, the movie needed some more space to breathe at a couple of points that it didn’t get. It moves fast, and while I did like the relationship between Danvers and Fury they just flat trust each other too goddamn fast because they have to to keep the story moving. Similarly, I would actually like to have seen some more of Carol’s time as an Air Force cadet, but I understand why it’s not in there (and the single line “you know why it’s called a cockpit, right?” does a lot of work.)
  • And it puts some weird pressures on Endgame, too, right? Like, part of me kind of expects Endgame to be, if not Captain Marvel 2, at least Captain Marvel 1.5. I love that they included Monica Rambeau as a ten-year-old in this movie but if they didn’t put Monica Rambeau as a grown-ass woman with awesome powers into Endgame I’m gonna be pissed. And the whole Rocket/Goose thing. And I know Endgame is already three hours long and I’m pretty sure it still doesn’t have time to tie up loose ends from Captain Marvel.
  • WHERE THE FUCK IS KAMALA KHAN okay she hasn’t actually been born yet STILL DAMMIT
  • (A way around this: I’ve talked about how I want to see Riri Williams in the stingers for Endgame. If Endgame has, like, six stingers, each doing a brief intro for a new MCU character picking up the reins after Captain America and Iron Man die heroically, I will be a very happy man who is crying like a tiny baby.)
  • Captain Marvel being the actual first Avenger, and not Captain America, is both kinda goofy and kinda hilarious, because the manbabies were already mad about this movie and this is gonna make it so much worse.
  • Not a huge deal, but why are all the Kree blue except for the actors who have enough clout to not want to be slathered in blue makeup? I’m good with them having a variety of skin shades, but it’s kinda strange that ALL of them are blue except for the two white ones and the one black one.
  • So, are all the other Stans Lee that have shown up in all the other movies Skrulls? Because Stan Lee was playing Stan Lee in this movie, on his way to audition for a movie role where he plays himself. So are there Marvel Comics about the Marvel Comic characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, since we have actual Stan Lee, who is important enough to still be in Mallrats SHUT UP BRAIN

I feel like I’m forgetting to talk about something important, so I reserve the right to add to this as the day goes on. Don’t get me wrong, guys; this is a good, solid Marvel movie, I’m just not doing backflips over it like I have several of the recent ones, and in this particular case the things that were odd or a little off are more personally interesting to talk about. And every dollar Captain Marvel earns makes a manbaby cry! That, in and of itself, is reason for all good Americans to go see this six times. So. Begone, and then come back and talk to me about it.

#REVIEW: SHORTEST WAY HOME, by Pete Buttigieg

This is gonna be one of those book reviews that’s more about me than the book I read, so buckle yourself in for that.

The strongest single-sentence recommendation I can issue for the book my mayor wrote, Shortest Way Home, is this: Pete Buttigieg made me proud to be from South Bend.

(In case you’re wondering, he wants you to think his name is pronounced “BOOT-edge-edge,” but “bootyjudge” is also acceptable, because I’ve voted for this dude four times so far and I get to poke gentle fun at his name if I want to.)

It is rather difficult to express just how unlikely a sentence that is for me to have written. I grew up here, y’all. I escaped to Bloomington for college and to Chicago for nine years after college and then … well, my wife is amazing, I totally married up in the biggest way possible, and I literally would not trade her for anything, but my one and only reservation was how the hell did I move to a city with 3,000,000 people and end up marrying someone I went to high school with?

Which, yeah, that’s what I did. And there’s a whole story there, and I’m not sharing it, but if you had asked me even two years before we got married what the chances were of me marrying someone from high school I’d have told you zero and not been kidding, and I’d probably have been slightly offended by the question. I moved back to South Bend because one of us had to move and I hated my job and she didn’t want to live in Chicago; it just made more sense for me to come back to where my family was. (And I’m not complaining about my family! I hope that’s obvious! It’s just that they all lived somewhere I didn’t want to live in.)

And then we elected a dude who wasn’t even thirty yet to be Mayor, and I think I competed against his ass (and probably lost) when I was on the Quiz Bowl team in high school, and I voted for him because everyone else running pissed me off and he won by default … and then the guy turned out to be way more Mayor than South Bend ever deserved, and he turned the fuckin’ city around in two terms, running against and crushing by 80-20 the parent of one of my former students to win his second term.

And there was that time I almost killed him. And now he wants to be President, and I’d rather have him as my Senator or my Governor than my President right now, but I gotta admit I’m coming around. And Goddammit he’ll be a good President when he gets around to it but I’d still prefer he take over for President Harris when her second term ends in 2028.

So here’s the thing. I’m pretty sure I liked this book more than most people will because, well, I live here. And this is a memoir written by a still relatively young mayor of a mid-sized city. It may be that the appeal is somewhat limited, especially since it really is about mayoring, for the most part, and about revitalizing a city that basically none of you live in. But Buttigieg really genuinely is a smart, fascinating guy, and this is a ridiculously compelling book given what it’s actually about. It’s the second “I’m running for President!” memoir I’ve read this year– Kamala Harris’ was first– and it’s a better book than Harris’ was. (It’s also much less of an “I’m running for President!” book, for the record.) But Pete Buttigieg loves the hell out of South Bend, guys– the book is drenched with it; I thought I loved living in Chicago but it pales in comparison to how Pete feels about being mayor of the town he grew up in. And my curmudgeonly THEY PULLED ME BACK IN nonsense just couldn’t stand up against it. I’m this close to ordering a damn flag, for God’s sake.

(Shout-out to the graphic designers, who incorporate elements of South Bend’s flag throughout the book but never call direct attention to it, in a way that I find clever. The current flag was a product of his administration, and looks like this:)

I still really don’t think Buttigieg is going to be President in two years. For the record, he hasn’t officially announced yet; he’s still in the exploratory committee phase. But there’s a townhall on CNN tomorrow night at nine, and maybe you ought to watch that? And maybe if you watch that, and you think, hell, Luther’s right about this dude, then you should probably check out this book. If nothing else, for the chapter about meeting and courting his husband, which is the most ridiculously fucking adorable thing I think I’ve ever read.

#Review: ON THE COME UP, by Angie Thomas

I shouldn’t write this tonight. I am tired, y’all; there was no school on Monday because of Presidents’ Day and this week has still been at least six years long. I don’t even have to go to work on Friday because I have a training all day and I still don’t know how the hell I’m going to make it through the rest of the week. It’s just been bullshit on top of bullshit on top of bullshit on top of bullshit, and that’s just been within the walls of my building. It’s not like there hasn’t been substantial bullshit going on in the real world, too. There’s been plenty. I am as tired of white men and our bullshit as I have ever been in my life and the notion that I am almost by definition guaranteed to be less tired of white men than damn near every person of color and damn near every woman on earth is practically incomprehensible. I don’t know how any of y’all make it through a day without killing any of us. I really don’t.

You may remember that I liked Angie Thomas’ debut novel The Hate U Give quite a lot. In fact, it was my second favorite book of the year. I ordered her follow-up novel On the Come Up a few weeks before it released and was up far too late last night because I couldn’t put it down. (Note: “follow-up” is a decent way to describe the book, which alludes to the events of THUG and is set a year later and in the same neighborhood, but does not share any major characters. There are a couple of shop owners and neighborhood figures and the like who I think appear in both, but I’d need to reread THUG to be sure.)

On the Come Up is not as important a book as THUG, but I think I might have liked it more anyway. Bri, the main character, is a neophyte rapper and the daughter of a local hiphop legend who was shot and killed when she was very young. Hiphop was a big part of THUG, but this book is utterly drenched in it, and honestly I’d love to hear some of the raps she performs in this book actually recorded. My understanding is that Angie Thomas at least dabbled in rap herself, and I can absolutely hear this kid performing the lyrics she writes throughout the book. Let’s be real here; given my previous experience with this author and the subject matter, there was no chance I was going to dislike this book. The only question was how much I was going to love it. Will it end up at #2 on my year-end list? Perhaps not, because, again, this book doesn’t feel as important as THUG— which is less a criticism of Come Up and more of a statement that if you haven’t goddamned read THUG yet you should get off your ass and do it.

I look back over this and realize I haven’t really discussed the plot of the damn book at all; chalk that up to being tired. In lieu of me rewriting it, let me just post the blurb from the back of the book, which is a perfectly fair description:

Sixteen-year-old Bri wants to be one of the greatest rappers of all time. Or at least win her first battle. As the daughter of an underground hip hop legend who died right before he hit big, Bri’s got massive shoes to fill.

But it’s hard to get your come up when you’re labeled a hoodlum at school, and your fridge at home is empty after your mom loses her job. So Bri pours her anger and frustration into her first song, which goes viral…for all the wrong reasons. 

Bri soon finds herself at the center of a controversy, portrayed by the media as more menace than MC. But with an eviction notice staring her family down, Bri doesn’t just want to make it—she has to. Even if it means becoming the very thing the public has made her out to be.  

Insightful, unflinching, and full of heart, On the Come Up is an ode to hip hop from one of the most influential literary voices of a generation. It is the story of fighting for your dreams, even as the odds are stacked against you; and about how, especially for young black people, freedom of speech isn’t always free.

Give it a read, y’all. Angie Thomas is a goddamn national treasure; you should be appreciating her while we’ve got her.

Double book review!

I read these back to back, and they are very similar books, right down to my actual opinions of them, so let’s do a dual review sort of thingie here. I ordered Kill the Queen a month or so ago after reading an article that recommended a bunch of epic fantasy by women, and Throne of Glass is the first book in a series whose final book just came out and which apparently a lot of my friends enjoyed, because I saw alllll sorts of tweets and Instagrams and all sorts of stuff when it came out. So I jumped in. Throne of Glass has six or seven sequels out and the series is complete; Kill the Queen’s second book comes out in June or July and I’m not certain how long it’s planned to run.

tl;dr: neither book is perfect but both have a lot of potential and you should check them both out.

Somewhat more detailed: both books feature young, orphaned women as the main protagonist (I’ll admit to rolling my eyes when KtQ’s protagonist first mentioned her parents were dead; I read that book second) although KtQ’s Evie is ten years older than seventeen-year-old Celaena in ToG. Both books spend the majority of their time in or around castles and dealing with the problem of royalty, although in different ways; Celaena, an actual assassin, is freed from jail by the crown prince at the beginning of the book and offered her freedom in exchange for serving as the king’s assassin for four years, and Evie is seventeenth in line for the throne at the beginning of KtQ, although … well, some stuff happens that sorta moves her up in the line of succession a bit. Spoiler alert, I guess. Celaena is uber-competent from the jump– if anything, a bit too competent for a seventeen-year-old; Evie starts off kinda useless but gets over it quickly.

ToG is Young Adults, although it’s the kind of YA that bitchy old men like myself can read without complaint. It’s real YA, as in the publisher markets it that way and that’s where you find it at bookstores, not the sexist “fantasy written by a woman, starring a woman, so it must be YA” YA. KtQ might fool you for about fifty pages and then the shit hits the fan and it definitely ain’t YA no more.

As I said, both books have some weaknesses, although ToG’s are less weaknesses of the book and more consequences of being YA: Celaena is an impressive badass, but I was never really sold on the idea that this seventeen-year-old who has been in jail for a couple of years working the salt mines was a world-renowned assassin. She doesn’t really ever come off as super assassiny, I guess? I mean, she’s a bitchy asshole, and I mean that as a compliment– I like her personality– but there’s a bit too much tell and not enough show, and I want much more backstory on her. But there’s six more books coming, so I’ll probably get it. In KtQ’s corner, the book begins with (spoiler) a Red Wedding-esque massacre that Evie is one of a very small number of survivors of, and I kinda feel like PTSD should have played a bit more of a role in her story? There’s also not as much societal upheaval as I’d guess from a book that starts with the utter destruction of damn near the entire (spoiler) ruling family. Like, nobody really seems to notice much other than a day of mourning.

Both books have romance; in no case does the romance go quite where you think it’ll go, which is cool. Throne of Glass also has a great bit where it is made clear that the book was written by a woman, and one who has thought about the biological ramifications of her protagonist basically being enslaved in a salt mine for a couple of years.

Also! I like the worldbuilding and the magic in ToG quite a bit, and again, I like Celaena quite a bit despite not quite believing in her, and despite being fucking called Kill the Queen, Kill the Queen‘s story managed to surprise me twice. I mean, it’s called Kill the Queen. You might imagine there’s some queen-killing! And there is! And it’s surprising anyway. It’s weird, but it works.

So, yeah: these are both four-star-out-of-five reads, with KtQ’s excellent ending very nearly pushing it up another half-star or so, and they’re both definitely checking out. I’ve already ordered the next two books in the Throne of Glass series, and I’ll be buying the sequel to Kill the Queen, called Protect the Prince, when it comes out in a few months. Check ’em both out.

#REVIEW: FOR THE KILLING OF KINGS, by Howard Andrew Jones

I have praised Howard Andrew Jones’ writing here before– his The Desert of Souls was on my 10 Best list for 2017, and I also enjoyed its sequel The Bones of the Old Ones, although I don’t think I reviewed it here at all. So when I got a chance to land an ARC of the first book of his new trilogy, For the Killing of Kings, I jumped on it. This isn’t out until February 19, so when I’m done telling you you should pre-order it, you can just go do that and have it on release day in a couple of weeks! Great how this works, isn’t it?

The word “Conan” always comes up when I’m discussing Jones’ books, and his work always does a great job of scratching that particular itch for me– straightforward sword & sorcery full of magic and violence and cool worldbuilding and prophecies and scary villains and interesting monsters. Jones’ flavor of sword and sorcery is decidedly more modern than the traditional Conan model– you’ll notice that the woman on the cover is wearing clothes, for example– and not only is the main character a woman but so are several important members of the supporting cast.

That said, this series actually feels a bit less Conan-esque than his previous books, despite being set in a more European-style setting than The Desert of Souls and The Bones of the Old Ones, which were both deeply influenced by the Arabian Nights. In a lot of ways, For the Killing of Kings has the feel of a murder mystery for a decent chunk of its length– it’s not quite a true murder mystery, because the reader knows who did the killing, but the book splits its time among three distinct groups of characters, two of whom are pursuing the third, and no one really has the full story about what’s going on until close to the end. The characters are the best thing about the book, honestly; everyone who gets screen time has their own motivations and goals, and most of the time those motivations and goals don’t overlap perfectly with everyone else in the story, so the conflicts keep multiplying and mounting until all the sudden at the end of the book we’re pretty sure that the government all of the main characters are supposed to defend is at least partially the bad guys and oh by the way there’s a whole invasion thing going on and the scope of the book widens rather quite a lot. This is a great rollicking landslide of a book; every little plot-pebble that happens sends a bigger rock rolling down the hill, and Jones never lets up on moving the plot relentlessly forward.

It’s tricky, when writing a trilogy, to set up the first book so that it tells its own story but introduces story threads that will continue into subsequent tales, and For the Killing of Kings does a great job of keeping the scope smaller until the end and then abruptly pulling the camera way back and massively upping the stakes for the remainder of the series. I will be buying my own copy of this to put on the shelf next to my ARC. You should too.