Art Vs Commerce: Oscar Bait and Endgames (2010s)

2018

The films of 2018 led to some actually exciting Best Picture nominees. Black Panther’s Afrofuturism and ruminations on isolationist policy helped it break through the Academy’s cape-o-phobia and be the first superhero movie to land a Best Picture nomination. Spike Lee took on racism in an entertaining but no-holds-barred way with The BlacKkKlansman, his first Best Picture nomination… ever? Ever. Wow. Spike Lee Joints should probably not have taken as long to get a Best Picture nod as superheroes. And Roma got Netflix and Mexican movies to the show, with Alfonso Cuarón’s deeply personal look back at class barriers in 70s Mexico.

Which makes the fact that one of the There’s Something About Mary guys has an Oscar now even stranger.

And The Oscar Goes To…

When Green Book won Best Picture, Bill Murray was careful to hold the card up to the camera so everyone could see it and know this wasn’t another La La Land incident, because it was such a weird call people might have suspected.

*Sigh*

Okay. Let’s do this. Could have and has been worse.

Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) is a bouncer for the Copacabana Club in 1962 New York, and I’m not saying all Italians were racist in the early 60s, but he and his entire family save for his wife (Linda Cardellini, who deserves better movies) sure are. While the Copacabana is closed, and his only employment options are being muscle for the Mafia, Tony Lip takes a job driving famed pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) on his concert tour of the Segregation Era Deep South, using the real-life book from the film’s title, a guidebook for African-American travellers to navigate the South without running into Whites Only signs and getting lynched. Along the way, Tony Lip and Dr. Shirley learn that despite their differences they’re really the same and racism is bad and why did this win there were so many better movies

*Another sigh* I know why it won. It played the Crash/Driving Miss Daisy “talk about racism but in a friendly way” card and damn it somehow that card still worked. I just don’t care for it.

So it seems like it’s just another Driving Miss Daisy, right? I mean there’s even still a scene where the employer is aghast that the employee needs to pull over to pee. Oh, but this time, the employer/employee relationship has flipped! The black guy is the boss! Does that make Green Book better than Driving Miss Daisy? No.

I mean… it is better than Driving Miss Daisy, but that’s not why.

So here’s some things I begrudgingly admit Green Book did well, in fact better than Driving Miss Daisy. I thought Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen were better than Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman (Ali’s soft and precise spoken Dr. Shirley is impeccable, Mortensen is practically unrecognizable); it’s a better indictment of the segregation era south and exposes the sheer hatred that powered it, through… let me check… accurately depicting segregation laws; …um… thought I had more than two… oh yes, its moral is not “a racist can change, if you give them a few decades;” and it does touch on how the south valued black artists but still refused to treat them like people. Dr. Shirley might be the guest of honour at the party, but he still can’t use the whites-only washroom.

That said… it is just another “White man learns not to be racist by having a black friend” story, and after decades of those things, have they ended racism yet? Let me check… nope, white cops killed another unarmed POC, and I’m not linking to the story because by the time I publish this there’ll probably be another. Also it’s worth noting that two or three of the times Frank stands up for Don, it’s because the racist he’s currently dealing with also says unkind things about Italians.

Plus it can’t just be about Tony Lip learning the follies of racism, can it? No, Tony has to teach Don a lesson too, lessons about fried chicken and soul music and being part of a family. And you can hardly blame the real Dr. Shirley’s family for taking offense at the implication that he needed some white Italian to teach him how to be black properly. And of course Frank/Tony’s cool about the gay thing, because he works in a nightclub so he gets it. It’s… very obvious that the real-life Frank/Tony’s son co-wrote this movie, very obvious.

It’s… fine. When I ranked the 2010 nominees, I broke them into categories from “Great” to “Bad” and this wasn’t one of the Bad ones. But I’d hardly call it Oscar worthy. It holds your interest and sometimes it’s funny and then you stop watching and immediately forget about it. That it won Best Picture in a year with two better movies also discussing the mistreatment of black people, both of which had “Black” in the title, felt extra insulting.

One parting thought… there might be a movie in the story of how Victor Hugo Green came to write The Negro Motorist Green Book, and it could also have served as an indictment of segregation (that part’s not hard, it’s pretty easy to show how wrong that was), but no, the thing the movie is named after becomes a relatively minor prop.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: Surprisingly high, to be frank/tony. It’s at #63, over Grand Hotel and under Chicago. Not very high but I had to scroll past some good movies to get there. And many mediocre ones, to be fair.

Where did I rank it? All the way down at #79, not in the “Bad” section with American Sniper and the pointless biopics, but near the bottom of the “Meh” section, over Tree of Life (I just don’t care for Terrence Malick) and under War Horse.

What was I rooting for? Green Book wasn’t my least favourite that year (that would be Bohemian Rhapsody), but it was far from the top. I was cheering for BlacKkKlansman.

As for the other Best Picture nominee with “Black” in the title, well… it was certainly a trailblazer, and a crowd-pleaser.

The Box Office Champ (Domestic)

I would like, at this time, to discuss a common phrase used by the “Just Hate Bad Writing” crowd… “Get Woke, Go Broke.” It is the belief held by certain angry male nerds so pale light passes through them that if studios like Disney fill their movies with “forced diversity” (we covered that one) or “too much feminism” (meaning any), the “true fans” wouldn’t turn up and they’d lose money. Appeal to those foul, fun-hating SJWs, and your movie will flop hard, they say.

Black Panther made over 1.3 billion dollars, was the number one movie in the US and Canada, and the tenth highest grossing movie of the entire decade.

So… “Get Woke Go Broke” is a fairy tale, is what I’m saying. As much truth to it as trickle-down economics or “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.” Go ahead and file “Get Woke Go Broke” next to “forced diversity” as a red flag that the person saying it does not deserve respect. Or happiness. Or your time.

Anyhoo Black Panther. A fun superhero flick with a great cast and an amazing Afrofuturist aesthetic, a look at what an advanced African society that never bowed to or was disturbed by colonialism might look like. I don’t think I need to go too deep into the plot or the characters, this is all well known and two minutes on Google could find people who’ve unpacked it better, maybe even BIPOC writers who can speak far, far better than I can on what it was like for African-Americans to finally have a superhero movie with a cast that looked like them on a larger scale than Meteor Man or even Blade.

In other circumstances or contexts, I might question introducing us to the gorgeously conceived and rendered nation of Wakanda and then question its moral integrity in the same movie, but… in this case they really had no choice, did they? There’s no way to depict this hyper-advanced African kingdom in the modern world and not ask where the hell they’ve been for centuries of White History being terrible to Africa and all who live there. Especially now, as we dig further and further into how deeply entrenched white supremacy is and has been in every fiber of western society. So yes, Wakanda’s conspicuous absence from the worst parts of black history (ie. most of it) is a perfect theme for our first Black Panther movie, and makes for a great ideological difference between the hero and villain.

Honestly right after Green Book it is again hard to be sure Killmonger is a Bad Guy, I mean yes he wanted to conquer the world and do some genocides but not without reason. Yes in the end he is just Hero But Bad, which yes is a typically lazy trend in Marvel villains, but this time it works. Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger is definitely the best Hero But Bad, and Andy Serkis’ Ulysses Klaue (just having a blast in this movie) is the best Evil Arms Dealer.

Visually, thematically, and in terms of ensembles, it’s definitely upper-tier Marvel, and was such a cultural moment that I couldn’t exactly be upset it was the first superhero movie to get a Best Picture nomination. I mean it had to be this one, right? It’s about actual global injustices and the responsibility of powerful nations to address them instead of “Whoops Tony made an evil robot.”

I mean some people disagreed but they assure us it’s not because they’re racist, they just happened to prefer our next entry.

Should it have won? Well… they actually gave the trophy to Green Book, so from what possible moral high ground could one say “No?”

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: A big 96% from critics, 79% from audiences, and let’s see… well I can’t prove that it’s being review bombed by racists, but we also can’t be sure they weren’t just being careful and saying “Bad CG, half a star.” Seems like a lot of half-star reviews for something this successful and beloved. (Also the guy saying Venom is better can go check himself into a dungeon.)

Where did I rank it? It’s at number 33, above La La Land but under Bridge of Spies.

There is a belief in Hollywood that, as I have heard it said, “black movies don’t travel,” or to put it in words that don’t sound like they have a white robe and hood hidden in their closet, audiences in Europe and, oddly, China prefer films with famous white stars to famous black stars. We could get into how the China thing might be a result of Hollywood’s century-plus-long habit of giving more and bigger lead roles to white men than every other race combined, but the point here is that Black Panther didn’t quite disprove the theory.

The Box Office Champ (International)

This is how I typically explain the international success of Infinity War. Black Panther was the bigger hit in the US and Canada, true, but its total global haul was less than what Infinity War made just overseas. In other words, Infinity War would have outgrossed Black Panther even if it hadn’t opened in the US.

And of course it was huge, this was the biggest Marvel crossover yet, combining every major still-recurring character from every movie they’d done, even if they barely had more lines or screentime than Stan Lee, like Idris Elba, Jacob Batalon, and Benicio Del Toro. Well, everyone except Hawkeye. And Ant-Man. And some Thor people.

Some Marvel fans call it the best one. They cite the multiple excellent action beats: the brawl in New York, the battle of Wakanda, the sheer innovation in the Titan fight. Or the banter, which is often top notch, there’s great wit and some solid character moments for Thor and Star Lord. Either way you’re getting characters who’d never interacted joining forces and bouncing off each other, combinations that, in some cases, we definitely won’t get again (won’t be more movies where rival Sherlock Holmeses Robert Downey Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch have scenes together, for instance).

I can’t say I agree with them. See… yes there’s all these big triumph moments and fun banter and deep character choices but the resolution of them all is “and then it fails because Thanos.” Nothing actually stops him, at best they slow him down, and sure some appreciate that but to me it feels like half a story. Everything cool fails so that Thanos can win and set up the next movie. Kevin Feige said “No, it’s self-contained, the ending isn’t a cliffhanger, it’s Thanos’ movie and ends with his victory,” and some Marvel fans have drunk that Kool-Aid, but… [plants self like tree at river of truth] No, no it isn’t self-contained, that is absolutely a cliffhanger.

The only way, the only way that ending isn’t a cliffhanger is if there was even a slight chance it wouldn’t be undone one year later, and there wasn’t, there just wasn’t. Look at who got snapped out of existence: most of the Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Panther, Spider-Man. The Guardians had a third movie already announced, a Black Panther sequel was an absolute certainty, Spider-Man: Far From Home was already in production, and started filming before Infinity War was out of theatres. The idea that the Snap was permanent was a terrible bluff, the worst I’ve seen since Marvel Comics tried to convince us that just because their entire post-Civil War slate was based on Tony Stark’s plans didn’t mean Tony won the fight, maybe Captain America uses all of Tony’s ideas ironically.

I’m not saying you’re wrong to find Spider-Man’s dusting emotional. A thing can be temporary and sad. What I’m saying is, I don’t care about Feige’s press releases, it’s still just half a story, and that’s one of the reasons why it did not deserve Oscar love more than Black Panther.

Still though. They didn’t really have a choice. Making that great a villain out of Thanos (he remains the gold standard for CG villains, way above Doomsday or either Steppenwolf or Zombie Moff Tarkin), having him collect the stones, and enact his big plan while still trying to give nearly every major character in the franchise something of meaning to do? It barely fit in the amount of movie we had. If the “undo it” part had also been in there? There would have been no way to do all well. Better to do “Despite pulling every trick in their arsenal the heroes lose” in movie one, and “Okay but we can fix it” in movie two. And it’s not like they did something hell of stupid like have Thanos turn Captain America evil so the one who’s supposed to be the hopeful icon the whole time is the villain in the next no, no, save it for the Snydercut blog…

Sure a lot of the big hero moments feel hollow on rewatch given they amount to nothing… save for forging Thor’s new axe, that pays off… but there’s still a lot to enjoy here. So now here’s some petty quibbles!

Thanos’ chief minions, the Black Order, do about half the villaining in this movie, but if you’re not a comic reader, you’d never know their names are Cull Obsidian*, Ebony Maw, Proxima Midnight, and Corvus Glaive, yeah, Jonathan Hickman really did just pull some 50-point Scrabble words out of a hat when he created them. Like the Howling Commandos in the first Captain America, their names are largely never spoken out loud (Thanos says “The Maw” once), so to rookie audiences, they’re just Big Dumb One, Mouthy Overpowered Telekinetic**, Lady One, and Guy Who Gets Taken Down Like a Punk By Basically Anyone But The Objectively Most Powerful Avengers For Some Reason. Honestly, in a post-WandaVision world, it’s weird that someone who slaps around Wanda and Vision like they’re nothing gets taken out in seconds by Black Widow or Okoye.

*I think he’s called “Black Dwarf” in the books, he had no chance of us knowing his name.

**He was less powerful but way more interesting in the comics, we don’t have time for that.

A huge chunk of the movie’s emotional stakes hinge on Wanda and Vision’s relationship, something that happened almost exclusively off-screen. This is a recurring problem with the MCU pre-Disney+, so many of the key quiet character moments get skipped over so they can focus on punching an evil version of the hero under a skybeam.

Quibble that isn’t the movie’s fault… this is where I drew my line in the sand about revealing lore things in press interviews. The Russos disputed the fan theory that Banner couldn’t turn into Hulk for most of the movie because Hulk was afraid of Thanos, giving a different explanation I shan’t repeat because you know what, you didn’t put it in the movie. No more “This is what that meant” reveals to Entertainment Weekly, Hollywood. Textual. Evidence. Only. You want to claim Dumbledore is gay? Put it in the movie. You want me to believe Emperor Palpatine’s son was a clone and not the result of Palpatine raw-dogging an Imperial Senate intern? Put it in the movie. Did the producers of Agents of SHIELD say in an interview that they meant to address Endgame but ran out of time? Call me Rhett Butler, sunshine, because frankly my dear I don’t give a damn. Textual. Evidence. Only.

And I mean come on, Thanos pulls the “Give me the stone or I’ll hurt someone you like” move three times. It’s a bit repetitive. Also his plan is bad. Ms. Nicholson, please educate them.

Honestly it might have been better if they’d kept the comic explanation of “Thanos is literally horny for the personification of death.” Eh, probably not, but still, his plan is bad.

Y’all hating on Star Lord for screwing up the Titan plan like everyone there hadn’t made a bad choice out of emotional trauma, and besides Thanos would have just taken the gauntlet back two minutes later, look at Endgame, an even stronger squad couldn’t keep Thanos from putting a glove on, you know I’m right. It’s Thor needing to take his time pushing the axe in that screwed everything up.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: 85% from critics, 91% from audiences, yeah, this one was always going to be more popular with crowds. If by a fairly small margin.

Other Events in Film

Some felt the gap between Popular Cinema and Important Cinema (if such a distinction need be made) was never wider than 2018, with massive blockbusters making it hard for smaller, artistic movies to find a venue. I don’t know if that’s true, I might suggest that the gap between Art and Commerce began in 1981 and there was no going back, but it is true that overreliance on potential blockbusters meant that mid-budget movies got muscled out. There were big-budget tentpoles and small arthouse Oscar bait flicks, and nothing in between. Much like how the middle class has been decimated in North America by conservative financial policies. Not that you’re likely to hear Hollywood sound off on that. You might have to go to Korea for a movie on that.

I know, I know…
  • Elsewhere in Superheroes: If Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse hadn’t won the Best Animated Feature Oscar, that award would have lost all meaning; James Wan’s Aquaman is brighter, more colourful, bolder, and weirder than the Snyder films that preceded it, and as a result much better; Deadpool 2 kept the madcap fun and had some unexpected twists; Ant-Man and the Wasp was a weirdly low-stakes entry to follow Infinity War in the MCU, but it’s fun and energetic and the mid-credit scene that sets Ant-Man up for Endgame wouldn’t have worked anywhere else; Teen Titans GO! To the Movies is incredibly entertaining; Venom is trash but once the origin is done, kinda fun trash?
  • Mission: Impossible Fallout is a spectacular achievement in action filmmaking. There are, at minimum, seven setpiece action scenes that would be the absolute highlight of any other action movie, sometimes back to back.
  • Solo: A Star Wars story has a few things going against it: a troubled production leading to last-minute rewrites, toxic fanbros still raging over The Last Jedi, and general ambivalence over a movie about pre-New Hope Han Solo. Whichever of these were to blame, or something else, Solo underperforms… but only because Disney thought every Star Wars movie would be a Force Awakens hit, or at least a Rogue One, and budgeted accordingly. If they’d walked down the hall and asked Kevin Feige for help, he could have explained that you don’t spend Avengers money on Ant-Man. Anyway the toxic fans took its failure as a win, and I hate those troglodytes getting to feel good about anything.
  • Game Night is a super fun homage/satire of David Fincher, not that you need to get the references to thoroughly enjoy it. If the Academy valued comedy, Rachel McAdams would have been a shoo-in for a Best Actress nomination.
  • The bloody struggle to grab power in the wake of Joseph Stalin’s passing isn’t an obvious choice for high-energy political farce, but dang did In the Loop and Veep creator Armando Iannucci ever make it work in the hilarious The Death of Stalin.
  • The Tomb Raider video games had rebooted Lara Croft to be less… male gaze-y and more developed, and a new Tomb Raider movie tries to bring that version to the screen with Alicia Vikander as the less sexualized, gritty survivor Lara. It basically adapts the plot of the first reboot game but removes all the magic? Weird choice.
  • The Office’s John Krasinski makes a big splash with his first horror flick, the highly effective A Quiet Place.
  • Ocean’s 8 had the same problem as 2016’s Ghostbusters WAIT LET ME FINISH I’m not talking about the all-female cast, that was fine, there were icons in Ocean’s 8 and Cate Blanchett rocked every outfit she was given, I’m saying that Ocean’s 11, like the original Ghostbusters, was such lightning-in-a-bottle perfection that even the exact same cast and director couldn’t replicate it, so what chance does anyone else have? That said, Ocean’s 8 is a fun heist flick and might be the second best Ocean’s. It’s definitely better than 12.
  • I think the first thing I’m watching when I hit “Publish” and end this project in its current form is Sorry to Bother You, I hear so many people raving about it.
  • The Equalizer 2 was okay, but didn’t have nearly enough Equalizing. Probably way too much to hope for that Denzel gets bored enough to guest star on Queen Latifah’s Equalizer TV show.
  • August of 2018 was the month of “Movies that got dragged by critics I still enjoyed plenty in the theatres,” between The Spy Who Dumped Me (funny!), The Meg (Jason Statham punches a giant shark in the face!), and The Happytime Murders (…I had fun with it, sue me). And yet I didn’t watch Crazy Rich Asians until I had to for homework, cancel me over that one if you must.
  • Halloween is a sequel to John Carpenter’s Halloween that ignores every other Halloween movie, that franchise is a bigger mess than Terminator.
  • Bohemian Rhapsody inspired Patrick Willems to do a whole video on how that whole genre is bad, and used to be the blandest, most pointless Musician Biopic I’d ever seen, but now I’ve seen Jolson Sings Again. You’re welcome, Bohemian Rhapsody.
  • Some crazed fool actually tried to build a Harry Potter franchise out of The Nutcracker.
  • Sony and MGM decided they did want a sequel to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, but didn’t want David Fincher or any of the original cast back, not even Rooney Mara who got an Oscar nomination for her role. Also they wanted to skip over the rest of the original trilogy and adapt the first book that the original author didn’t write, and that’s why The Girl in the Spider’s Web feels like some Queen of the Damned, Fant4stic, “We need to make something or we lose the rights” nonsense.
  • Enjoying Wyatt “Son of Kurt” Russell in Falcon and the Winter Soldier? Check him out fighting Nazi mad science zombies in Overlord.
  • Mary Poppins Returns, Aquaman, and Transformers prequel/reboot Bumblebee all open basically opposite each other, because these days if there isn’t a Star War, Christmas is a bloodbath.
  • Netlfix releases the first streaming choose-your-own-adventure, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. Black Mirror being Black Mirror, the fact that you’re steering the protagonist’s actions becomes part of the narrative, essentially making you, the viewer, a character.
  • Clint Eastwood clearly thought the problem with Sully is that the thing Sully’s famous for lasted too long, and so he decided to make a biopic of the US soldiers who tackled an armed criminal on a train one time. Even weirder than making a movie around a moment of heroism that lasted a few seconds, he cast the actual soldiers as themselves instead of, you know, actors. Thankfully nobody cared. Like, not even enough for one of the film’s subjects to get Milkshake Ducked. Which honestly felt like a risk.

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