The Ultimate Avengers: Endgame Think Piece (SPOILERS)

Every time I think about the history-making finale to Marvel’s Infinity Saga, my mind swells with the sweet sound of Adele’s hit from another movie, “This is the end. Hold your breath and count to ten. Feel the earth move again. Hear my heart burst again.” Avengers: Endgame capped off a major movie franchise 11 years in the making and has eclipsed dozens of box office records including a Galactus-sized opening weekend haul of over $1 billion. The Endgame has obviously struck a chord and did so making bold character choices, paying off a ridiculous amount of story arcs and references, and laid a solid foundation for the mysterious future of one of Disney’s biggest cash cows. Let’s take a deep, SPOILER-FILLED dive into the biggest movie of all time and marvel at the beautiful journey “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” have been on since Iron Man debuted in 2008.

The Avengers Initiative Failed

Seriously, we are headed for spoiler land. If you haven’t seen Avengers: Endgame turn back now. The opening scenes of Endgame almost serve as a major trolling of the fan base! For a year now, fans have wondered why Thor didn’t go for the head, why wasn’t Captain Marvel there from the beginning, why couldn’t our heroes punch Thanos harder and faster and win by the force of their wills. That is not the story of Endgame.

Avengers in spaceship GIF

When Thanos’s years long quest to bring the universe under his power unfolded in Avengers: Infinity War, he was battling against a divided Avengers. They were battered and broken from the battles that led them up to that point and the team was in shambles. They had all had their heroism challenged by their own mistakes but also the mistakes of their literal and metaphoric forefathers.

Think about the impact that Howard Stark, Hank Pym, Ego the living planet, the founders of SHIELD/Hydra, and Odin have all had on the Avengers! Think about the mistakes that had led to the creation of the Hulk, the creation of Ultron, or that war in Civil War. Just tally all Thor has lost by the end of the opening scenes of Infinity War! The story of the Avengers leading into the Endgame was filled to the brim with failure. If report cards were handed out after Thanos snapped his fingers, the Avengers would have earned a hard ‘F’. Endgame is about the grief associated with the last decade of collective failures not about how hard they can punch. Thanos dies in the first twenty minutes of the film, and still the Avengers are left stewing in their losses. Where do they go from there?

The Hulk Smashes Relationships

Five. Years. Later. Endgame features a heartbreaking time jump for the “snapture” survivors, and, as we catch up with the heroes, it’s easy to define those five years by what the Avengers have been doing in that gap. However, what might be more telling is what they haven’t been doing. With the exception of Tony, no one has established any new relationships and they certainly haven’t revisited past ones.

Professor Hulk

Hulk finally returns from space and he and Black Widow survive the snap. Why are they not together? It’s not even just that they’re not together, but Bruce Banner has been working instead to reconcile his relationship with the Hulk permanently transforming into the hybrid Professor Hulk or Mister Fixit. Bruce can say all day that he did this to exist in a healthier state, but it’s also a really convenient state to avoid starting a relationship with Natasha. Before he left for space, they had all but admitted their love, but after the snap, after so much loss, they are avoiding having to lose anyone ever again.

Why haven’t they rebuilt a version of Vision? Sure, Scarlet Witch was dusted, but Vision was everyone’s friend and Bruce and/or Tony definitely would have the means over five years. It only took them a handful of days to turn the Mind Stone into Ultron. Recreating Vision would be too strong a reminder of the casualties of the Infinity War and that the joys of loving are paired with the grief of loss. And grief sure has taken hold in the MCU.

Thor’s Dark World

The Marvel movie machine was in desperate need of a course correction after the universally panned Thor: The Dark World. Yes, it introduced the Reality Stone. Ok, it featured continued growth in the relationship between Loki and Thor. Absolutely, Rene Russo was a great Frigga (Thor’s mom). Definitely, the final battle was creative. However, Thor 2 was birthed in the midst of The Hobbit taking us back to Middle Earth and Game of Thrones sweeping the media landscape. What is so appalling about Thor 2 is that it tried to copy the vibe of both of those universes without succeeding at either. Marvel has always tried to be a cinematic innovator, but this just felt like they were copying people’s homework. Then came Thor: Ragnarok with a new comedic thrust, a galactic setting, the companionship of The Hulk, and the vision of director Taika Waititi. Pairing Thor with the Guardians of the Galaxy in Infinity War cemented this new direction. Thor is funny now! But humor can often be used to hide deep pain.

Thor Comics

Across the 6 films that have featured Thor, he has lost his entire family and his entire support system. His story in Infinity War was a quest for redemption for all he has lost. He travelled across the universe and took the full force of a star all to prove that, even with all of the bodies in his wake, he is still worthy. A new weapon was born, and, if he could plunge that weapon into the universe’s biggest threat, his worth would be proved once and for all. Thor did plunge, and it meant nothing. Thanos won and, while all the others were tossed aside, Thor stood alone watching from inches away as a simple snap murdered billions. He fails once more in the opening of Endgame when the team realizes there is no reversing the snap. Not only could his worth not be earned with an axe, but it’s quite possible he was never worthy at all.

Thor Snap GIF

The Thor we meet in Endgame is very different from past films. Some of that is played for comedy, but the truth is far more tragic. Thor is depressed and coping by self-medicating with alcohol. The character change is jarring unless you realize it’s always been there, and he has actually been covering it up with a smile and a wink. Thor’s comedic transformation served him in hiding deep trauma and pain all of which comes crashing down at the beginning of Endgame.

How fitting is it then, that for Thor to be redeemed, he has to return to the film that was Marvel’s biggest creative failure to date, Thor: The Dark World. Not only does he get some closure with his mother, but gets a powerful reminder that he was born with inherent worth into a family that unconditionally loved him. He has virtue that no amount of failure can take away. Thor needed to have his armor of bravado and masculinity ripped away and his comedic defense mechanism defeated in order to set him up for future flourishing, and he’s not the only one who has a past that needed confronting.

Cap Had to Move On

Steve Rogers has always been a man out of time. Contrasting him against morally complex characters like Black Widow and Tony Stark, his personal constitution has never really fit in the modern world. Even the war that created Cap was slightly more clear cut. There were pretty clear lines between the good guys and the bad guys. Then he came out of the ice in an era of modern warfare, political corruption, and anti-heroes galore. Hardened by the Infinity War, Cap’s optimism and morals are still there, but this is a man who, over the course of these films, has gone from blurting out, “Language!,” in Age of Ultron to exclaiming, “Let’s go get this son of a [expletive]!,” in Endgame. The present reality has been tearing down the man of the past.

Cap and Peggy

For awhile, Bucky Barnes the Winter Soldier has kept Cap tied to some part of himself from the past, but Bucky was dusted. His friend Sam the Falcon understood Cap on a level that a fellow soldier only could, but he is gone as well. In the five years after the snap, Cap tries to move on by helping others move on. The problem is that he can’t forget the Infinity War because he never really forgot the past. You can see it in his face in that support group early on in Endgame. He’s saying all the right things and talking about how the survivors have to hope for the future and what could be. Steve tells that group that if they don’t start living their lives than they might as well have vanished too, but you get the feeling that part of him wishes he had maybe vanished, not in the snap, but all those years ago in the ice.

Cap Support Group GIF

He’s tried for years to accept his present. Joining the Avengers, defeating Hydra, and saving Bucky were all attempts to move on, but at the end of the day he’s still looking longingly through the window of the past at Peggy. She was supposed to be his future. In the final moments of, Captain America: The First Avenger, he runs into Time Square in a completely unrecognizable world and when a stranger in an eye-patch asks him if he’s going to be ok he says, “Yeah, its just…I had a date.” In the Endgame, Cap is surrounded by hundreds of Avengers and finally utters an, “Avengers…ASSEMBLE!” The problem is, no one in that battlefront is Peggy. So it should come as no surprise that, with time travel now in play, he can finally move on…to the past. As the credits are about to roll on the Infinity Saga, we are treated to a scene just moments after reuniting…Peggy Carter’s home…the door still swung open from Cap’s entrance…and they finally have their dance. It is a poetic and perfect end. Steve had to return to the past just as…

Tony Stark Had to Die

He started it all! There’s two ways to look at that. Iron Man, Tony Stark, can take credit for launching the MCU and creating a space for heroes to rise or it’s fair to say that it’s all his fault. Well, to be fair, it is his fault but the blame also lands on his father, Howard. Think about the big events that have pushed us through a decade of storytelling. Stark weapons and the wars they featured in manufactured and created the need for Iron Man. Sure, Tony had a literal and figurative change of heart, but when we put weapons down it nearly always creates new fears. Fears that simply never let Tony rest.

Avengers Endgame Iron Man GIF

A Stark missile planted the seeds of revenge that pushed Wanda to give Tony a nightmare that scared him into creating Ultron who incited the events in Sokovia that inspired the Sokovia Accords that started the civil war that broke apart the Avengers who then weren’t ready for Thanos. Tony is a futurist, but a side effect is that living in the future means living with fear. Allowing our minds to constantly live in the future places us in the prediction business and part of predicting the future means accounting for the worst possible scenario. The vision from Scarlet Witch wasn’t new. It was already something in Tony’s mind, but that’s not all that has been in his mind since the beginning.

Avengers Big Three GIF

Tony wanted so desperately to shift the focus of his company and his family to making the future brighter, but it has always been tied to a dark past. All of his solo films featured villains born of his father’s mistakes and mistakes he made trying to be his father. So Tony’s tireless work isn’t just about ridding the future of fear, it was about breaking the cycles of the past. The problem is that Tony was a part of that past. So much of the world viewed Howard as a villain and that made it impossible to view Tony as a part of a purely optimistic future. When Tony wielded the iron Infinity Gauntlet and completed the snap that ended his life, he was breaking the thick chains of his father’s past mistakes and redeeming his present mistakes for all time. This could have only happened with the next generation watching, and now Morgan Stark will grow up in a world where Iron Man is the hero that saved the universe. Tony Stark gave his life very publicly for the sake of a future that his child, and many others, can now imagine without fear. That is what heroes do.

Black Widow’s Ledger is Clean

Redemption sure does come with a high cost. This is something Natasha Romanoff knows all too well. Tony Stark did almost everything in front of the brightest flashbulbs and biggest crowds he could. He was the Avengers’ most public hero, and his contrast was the Black Widow. From the very beginning, she has been the definition of a spy. She was complex, always playing multiple sides and evaluating every scenario like a chess board. Spies have to stay hidden to do their best work. And so it makes sense that while Tony’s death was very public, Natasha’s was very private and intimate. She died in the company of a close friend on a remote planet and was mourned by a small group at a secluded base. The nature of her death definitely makes sense, but the death itself definitely doesn’t to anyone…but her.

Black Widow Hawkeye GIF

Natasha could never have a family like Hawkeye or Tony. She didn’t have the purity of Captain America or the powers of Thor, but Black Widow’s life is no less valuable than any of the other Avengers. However, it has been obvious from the first Avengers movie, and even more so in Age of Ultron, that she felt very differently. Throughout, these films Black Widow has carried a very heavy weight, as she calls it a ledger with red in it. All she has ever wanted to do was to repay that debt to the world, and seemingly specifically to Clint Barton, Hawkeye, as she tells Loki in The Avengers. Tony couldn’t rest because of his fear, but Natasha could never rest because of the weight of this debt.

Then an opportunity arose for her to give all she had for the sake of her newfound family, and also, to Clint. It is obvious in Age of Ultron that she had been working hard for years to protect Clint both on the field and by keeping his family a secret, but in her final moments on Vormir she sees the chance to make things right forever and ever. She could protect Clint, her family, and the universe one last time. Now Black Widow’s ledger is forever clean and then some. It’s everyone else who owes a debt to her, one that can only be paid by a life of flourishing and a life spent helping the Natashas of the future see just how valuable they are regardless of the red in their ledger. Black Widow was the only woman in the initial circling shot in The Avengers. Her willing sacrifice paves the way for many heroes to follow and proves that actually…

The Avengers Initiative Worked

“There was an idea…called the Avengers Initiative. The idea was to bring together a group of remarkable people, see if they could become something more. See if they could work together when we needed them to to fight the battles we never could,” Nick Fury explains in The Avengers. This was the idea that started this journey. It was an idea of a man who saw the exact opposite happening. Before Tony Stark was kidnapped, before Natasha Romanoff was made a spy, before Bruce Banner was hit with Gamma Rays, before Thor was banished to Earth, there was still no shortage of remarkable people. Odin, Howard Stark, Hank Pym, Bill Foster, King T’Chaka, and Peggy Carter were all avenging the world at the same time but they were missing one key ingredient to Fury’s idea. They weren’t working together.

Avengers Hands In GIF

There is plenty of evidence right in front of us. Do you think there really wasn’t anyone in the span of history that could recreate the super soldier serum that created Captain America? Everyone wanted to try but because greed, fear, ego, oppression, and division got in the way the story of the MCU is littered with the failings of not working together. The Hulk himself was the result of a failed attempt. What if Bruce and Tony worked together from the start? Maybe they would have gotten it right! Do you think nobody thought about time travel before Tony figured it out in Endgame? What’s interesting is that Tony wasn’t the key to time travel, Pym technology was! They needed Pym particles and the quantum realm research combined with Stark’s technology to do it. Tony and Scott Lang did something together that Howard Stark and Hank Pym were too proud to do. Imagine if more people were helping Peggy Carter succeed instead of holding her back because she’s a woman. Maybe Hydra doesn’t infiltrate SHIELD.

The story of the Avengers was never about any one hero, it was about the idea that if people could see the potential in the differences of others and combined our collective contributions and skill, no one could defeat us. In so many ways, the emotional state of the Avengers in Endgame were scars from the sins of the past, a past where the universe’s most remarkable beings couldn’t or wouldn’t work together. Now we move into a phase where T’Challa has opened his borders, everyone recognizes the power of Captain Marvel, and the wide-eyed optimism of Peter Parker is undeniable. The Avengers have assembled, and hopefully, one day may inspire us to do the same.

Avengers Walk of Fame

The women of Marvel ask, “What is a girl worth?”

I first heard this question posed by real life superhero Rachel Denhollander at the trial of Larry Nassar. Denhollander is a lawyer and a survivor of the decades of systematic abuse of girls perpetuated by the USA Gymnastics/Michigan State doctor. She presented this question to the court at his sentencing: “How much is a girl worth?” She and hundreds of others like her had been told by Nassar and the systems that protected him that they were worth less than him. They were worth less than Olympic gold medals, less than athletic achievement, less than the comfort of the adults in power. That day in the courtroom, more than 150 women told their stories and asserted their equal worth to the world.

Arthur-Ashe-Award-for-Courage-espys-billboard-1548

*CONTAINS ENDGAME AND CAPTAIN MARVEL SPOILERS*

As our country wrestles with the way our society views and treats women, these questions are being reflected on the big screen of Marvel blockbusters. There are ways that Marvel is ahead of the curve and elevating women in important ways. Black Panther is a shining example of offering women extended screen time and complex and interconnected roles. I have written about that here. It is also a very good thing that the number of women in the MCU is vast and diverse and continues to grow. But it is not enough to simply be on screen.

Black Widow and Gamora are in the wrong stories

One more warning, I am about to discuss Endgame and Infinity War spoilers!

I hate the soul stone. This piece of junk has claimed the lives of two strong female characters, the only initial women in two teams of men (the Avengers and the Guardians). I understand that the movies needed to have real stakes. I understand that you can make compelling storyline arguments for why it needed to be them and why it made the story pack a deeper punch. And that is the problem. These two complex and wonderfully acted characters are in stories that see them as expendable. That use them to make the audience feel something. The story was written such that it did not make sense for any other character to be the one lying dead at the bottom of the cliff. Either because the other characters on their teams are too strong and powerful to die, or because the men were not written in a way where their death makes sense in the story.

hqdefault

This reveals a systemic problem in the writing approach at Marvel. Having female characters who can fight effectively but who are clearly less crucial than their male counterparts is not a win. If you cannot have a good movie without Thor, without Captain American, without Star-Lord, but the movie can survive without Black Widow and Gamora, then you are not writing a good movie. Do not give us a strong and intriguing Gamora only to watch her die in a domestic abuse scenario where her abuser kills her because he “loves” her. Do not give us the option that she and Nebula are “the only ones” who can stop him and then lose them in the crowd. Do not give us a non-traditional Black Widow who is finding meaning and purpose outside of having biological children, just to have her sacrifice her life so the man with kids can live. Do not give us yet another woman who loses her life so others can flourish at her expense. That is already our every day. Give us something better. Write a better story.

Give us more Mar-vells and Marvels

The negative reaction to Captain Marvel is case-in-point why the movie was so needed. This story is about what it is like to be a woman in society. To be held back and to have your power diminished by others and then told by those same systems to be grateful for the small opportunities we are given. To be told that to be emotional and intuitive is a liability and should be suppressed if we want to succeed. To be told that we need to prove ourselves before we can be taken seriously. To be gaslighted into thinking that our instincts are wrong and we are misinterpreting and misremembering our own stories. Captain Marvel both names destructive social realities and paints a better way forward.

8f179299-3aa1-4b99-935f-8194f9ace4bb-getty-1134131157

Ask any woman who watched the movie how she felt when Carol simply blasts Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) as he yells for her to prove herself. Or why it was important to make Mar-vell’s character be female and a professional inspiration for Carol. This was not just being “politically correct.” There is a reason why Carol sees Mar-vell when she visits the Supreme Intelligence, even when she does not know who she’s seeing. Most women do not have female role models in our fields and careers. We often do not have accomplished women who look like us (this can be especially true for women of color) who inspire us to think we can succeed. It was so meaningful to watch a female professional mentoring relationship. It was empowering to watch a woman refuse to prove herself within a false system but to instead shatter the expectations that were preventing her from taking ownership of her story. This is good writing. This is what we want to see.

Another woman, Kyle Stephens, in the circle of survivors in the courtroom with Denhollander and the others that day said:

“Little girls don’t stay little forever. We grow into strong women who return to destroy your world.”

This is your audience, Marvel. We have some marvelous heroines in our universe who are changing the game. We are not content with old systems and old stories. We will support writing that reflects who we are and who we are becoming. And we will destroy that which tells us we are less. Because we are worth more than that.

Heather’s Top Ten 2018

Last month we had friends visiting from Australia. They know we love movies and as we were talking about what we had seen recently, one of them asked “What story do you think movies were telling this year?” That’s a terrific question. Several recurring themes emerged from the cinematic landscape of 2018. It was certainly a year of representation. Stories with strong female characters abounded, as did a wide array of cultural narratives (nearly always intersecting). It was a year that explored the ways we relate to each other. In our current social/political landscape America is still wrestling with what it means to understand one another, to make space for one another. The movies that made my top ten all help us take steps towards each other as we attempt to tell a unified story.

10. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (PG)

I do not like kids’ movies. I am rarely motivated to see an animated film. But the new animated Spider-Man is one for which I’ll make an exception. Following a young teen named Miles Morales (voiced wonderfully by Shameik Moore) who is bitten by a radioactive spider and develops super powers, the movie draws on classic comic book tropes while giving a fresh spin to Spider-Man. Miles witnesses a villain open an inter-dimensional portal which inadvertently draws in Spider-People from several different dimensions. They must work together to stop the villain and return each of them home. The movie boasts stunning animation, creative use of comic source material, a great voice cast, wonderful themes of representation (see Ivan’s review), and one of the best post-credit scenes ever. This will be a favorite for huge fans and moderate fans alike.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

9. If Beale Street Could Talk (R)

It isn’t often that you can leave a movie about depressing social realities and feel exhilarated. Only director Barry Jenkins can accomplish such a feat. As I unpack in my full review, Jenkins has a dizzying ability to film painful topics with warmth and beauty. His unique directing style imbues the characters with dignity and tenderness even as we watch them experience terrible injustice. Beale Street helps us see the intricacy of life, that beauty and love can co-exist with powerlessness and inequality. Life is complex, and so is this film.

Barry Jenkins

Director Barry Jenkins filming If Beale Street Could Talk (2018).

8. A Quiet Place (PG-13)

Thanks to last year’s fantastic Get Out, we are seeing a surge in thoughtful horror films. This year’s A Quiet Place is a heart wrenching view of parenting and family. Set in a world of invading creatures where “If they hear you, They hunt you”, a young family must maintain absolute silence to survive. It quite literally begs the question, “How can you bring a child into this world?” Featuring real-life spouses/parents John Krasinski and Emily Blunt (with a particularly powerful performance), the film explores the fears parents feel around keeping their children safe in a hostile world. Check out my full review here.

John Krasinski

John Krasinski in A Quiet Place (2018).

7. The Hate U Give (PG-13)

Lead actress Amandla Stenberg had an impossible task. She had to carry a film adapted from a beloved YA novel that spanned the entire emotional spectrum, contained multiple dramatic monologues, and she had to not make it cheesy. And she knocked it out of the park. The story follows a black high school girl who lives in a black neighborhood and attends a predominantly white prep school, and is present when a black male friend is shot by a police officer. She must navigate codeswitching and the racial dynamics at her school, process her own trauma, manage the reactions of her surrounding community, and decide how to participate in the national conversation around police violence. Buoyed by a wonderful cast, The Hate U Give depicts so many important topics that young people of color have to deal with every day and gives voice to their experience of the world. See Ivan’s review.

6. Bad Times at the El Royale (R)

Sometimes the best movies are the ones you just walked into knowing nothing about. Bad Times falls into that category for me. Set in the late 1960s in a hotel that straddles the California/Nevada line, the story follows a cast of seemingly unrelated characters who are brought to the El Royale by a variety of interests. Written and directed by Drew Goddard, creator of Daredevil, the film unpacks deep themes of guilt, intervention, faith, and redemption. Featuring an incredible film debut from Broadway actress Cynthia Erivo, (Tony Award winner for her lead in The Color Purple) and the best performance to date from Jeff Bridges, Bad Times sails into my top ten. For other spiritual themes of the film, check out Alissa Wilkinson’s great review.

Jon Hamm

Jon Hamm in Bad Times at the El Royale (2018).

5. Vox Lux (R)

I’m guessing the popularity of A Star Is Born this fall overshadowed the more poignant new release Vox Lux, but you do not want to miss this one. Starring Natalie Portman with original music from Sia, this is a story about a pop star that tells a much bigger story. Propelled to early fame as a result of living through a school shooting, Celeste (Portman) wrestles with fame, trauma, addiction, and terrorism. Maybe it’s because I clearly remember the Columbine shooting, 9/11, and VH1’s old series Behind the Music, but Vox Lux spoke to my experience of coming of age in America. The film is an exploration and an indictment of our cultural tendency towards distraction and avoidance through entertainment and substances. It is a snapshot of the first wave of millennials, the things that shaped us, and the the ways we attempt to cope.

4. Roma (R)

My pick for Best Director this year, Alfonso Cuarón pays homage to his childhood housekeeper/nanny in his latest film. Raised in affluence in Mexico City in the 1970s, Cuarón was at the time unaware of the classism and racism in which he was unknowingly participating. Roma is dedicated to this woman who was part of his family and yet was never equal due to her different race/class. Roma is the name of the neighborhood where Cuarón grew up and the film follows the experience of an upper-middle class family and their indigenous maid. It beautifully details the sometimes obvious sometimes subtle classism the young housekeeper endures and the way her experience of the world differs from that of her employers. With stunning cinematography and a striking performance from first-time actress Yalitza Aparicio, Roma tells an important story that will captivate you.

Yalitza Aparicio

Yalitza Aparicio in Roma (2018).

3. Won’t You Be My Neighbor (PG-13)

I dare you to see this movie and not be moved to tears. In a time where nearly all of our heroes have fallen to scandal and hidden toxicity, we were in desperate need of a hero who genuinely was good and kind. Look no further than Fred Rogers. This documentary brings to life Fred’s deep conviction that all people are endowed with dignity and value and we should all know that to be true. Driven by his Christian faith and a belief that everyone is made in the image of God, Fred wanted children to know they have an important role to play in the world. Helping us cope with deep emotions and tragic current events (from the JFK assassination to the Challenger explosion), Fred and Daniel Tiger were there to guide us. If you need to renew your hope in what our society can be, go spend some time in the Neighborhood.

Fred Rogers

Fred Rogers in Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018).

2. Eighth Grade (R)

“Hey guys! Today I’m going to be talking about…” In a shocking turn of unlikely creative sourcing, a 28 year old male comedian (Bo Burnham) made a beautiful movie about the experience of being a young girl. Having himself come of age as a teen YouTube sensation, he was able to empathize with the anxieties, insecurities, pressures and veneers that make up what it’s like to be an 8th grade girl in our modern times. Led remarkably by newcomer Elsie Fisher, the movie is sympathetic and awkward and insightful. It brings to life the vulnerability of being young, the ways it is difficult to connect with both friends and parents. It is not just about being an 8th grade girl, it helps all of us understand what it means to be young in an age of technology and connectivity.

Eighth Grade

Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade (2018).

1. Black Panther (PG-13)

I saw this movie four times in theaters. I’ll say it one more time for the people in the back, director Ryan Coogler changed the game with Black Panther. It redefines what a superhero movie can be. Who would have thought that a comic book movie could explore the experience of the African diaspora? So far beyond simply blowing things up and high speed chases, Coogler used the platform of Marvel to ask deep questions about identity, belonging, and the future of a global society. A master at taking source material and adapting it in a way that honors the original content while giving it countless new layers of meaning (Creed is another prime example of his abilities in this area) Black Panther stays true to the comics while helping all of us process our place in the world. With terrific performances, a stunning variety of female characters (see my full review here), this is the most enjoyable and most important film of 2018.

Black Panther

Letitia Wright and Chadwick Boseman in Black Panther (2018).

Check out Ivan’s Top Ten here!

Black Panther: It’s really Nakia vs. Killmonger

Without a doubt Black Panther is a game changer. Ryan Coogler, director of Creed and Fruitvale Station has established himself as an incredibly insightful storyteller. A superhero movie that uses the genre to explore identity and the experience of the African Diaspora is very much worth the 1 billion it has already surpassed at the box office. Not only does the film break ground on creating the platform to imagine thriving African nations who are free to rule themselves, and the relationship between the continent of Africa and African-Americans, Coogler puts forth the best treatment of women that I have seen in any movie. Period. So much so that the Black Panther, T’Challa, is not actually the hero of the story. It’s Nakia.

Played flawlessly by Lupita Nyong’o, the character of Nakia at first seems like a love interest and a female supporting role with her own cool skills. But when I watched the movie a second time, I realized that the story actually pits her as the hero who stands in opposition to the “villain” Erik Killmonger. (Killmonger is a very complex and sympathetic character, the most poignant of the film for me. I think his approach is erroneous, but the question of the film is less “who” is the villain than “what” is the villain.)

(Warning: contains spoilers)

They both see the pain outside of Wakanda

Killmonger grew up in inner city Oakland, and also served in the military traveling extensively. He felt personally the pain of the African-American experience and the deep injustices that plague the world. Nakia has also spent extensive time outside Wakanda as a spy on missions around the globe. When we first meet her she is on a mission among human traffickers, not only rescuing the women who have been kidnapped but also protecting a male child soldier. They each have intimate knowledge of the ways that black people are suffering and in need of empowerment. Where they differ is in how they want to address it.

Nakia and Shuri

They both want to empower black people

After T’Challa is crowned king of Wakanda, he and Nakia have an important conversation as they stroll through the marketplace. T’Challa asks her what she would have him do as king. Without hesitation she replies, “Share our resources.” She is the first person in the film to suggest that Wakanda needs to look outward and move away from their seclusion. Herein lies a key difference between her and Killmonger: she looks at the mistakes of the world and wants to learn from them to improve upon what has been done before. She says to T’Challa, “Other countries offer aid and refuge, we could do it better!” Killmonger on the other hand looks at the mistakes of the world and seeks to recreate destructive patterns against the original perpetrators. When he and T’Challa are fighting he tells him, “I learned from my enemies that you have to beat them at their own game.” He sees suffering in the world and wants to use the resources of Wakanda to arm black people so they can turn the tables of colonization back on their oppressors. In the process he has no problem killing several people. His plan would continue the cycle of death and endless power struggles. Nakia’s plan is to break the cycle entirely. When she rescues women and the child soldier from human trafficking she tells them, “Carry yourselves home now. Take the boy with you, get him to his people.” She gives them power to immediately take ownership of themselves and power to help someone else. Her every move preserves life. To learn from what has failed in the past and do something new and different that could truly change the world.

null

They are both offered the heart shaped herb

Killmonger wins the right to be Black Panther and wastes no time consuming the heart shaped herb, the secret to the Black Panther’s abilities. His immediate next step is to destroy it so that no one other than him can have it. In that same moment Nakia slips in and plucks one last herb, again showing her drive towards preservation. As Nakia journeys with Shuri and Ramonda, T’Challa’s sister and mother, Ramonda urges Nakia to take the herb herself. Nakia is trained in combat and would make a very good Black Panther. But she refuses to grasp for power that is not rightly hers. She declines to join the power struggle and in so doing is later able to use the herb to save T’Challa’s life. She understands in a profound way how to use power in ways that are rightly ordered for the flourishing of all, not just for her own advancement.

They both exert power in Wakanda

Killmonger becomes king of Wakanda through an endless series of death. We see him kill multiple people on screen in his quest towards Black Panther, and he tells T’Challa about all the people he has killed along the way. “All this death just so I could kill you.” Killmonger is a man whose life has tragically been marked by death since childhood, and he sees no other way of living than to kill. When Nakia sees Wakanda teetering on the brink of destruction under his rule, she has a choice. She can support Killmonger as king and serve Wakanda in the hopes that things will turn out all right. She responds vehemently when asked to serve her country, “No, I’ll SAVE my country!” She partners with other women to fight Killmonger, and ultimately T’Challa tells her, “You saved me. You saved our nation.” The way they each exert power is diametrically opposed. Every choice she makes is for the furtherance of flourishing for all people.

They both interact with women

I did not see it clearly until my third viewing of the film (it really is that good), that Killmonger only has two significant interactions with women other than Nakia. We never see or hear of his mother, he is always surrounded by men and addresses men. He has a girlfriend who only has two lines of dialogue, and whom he treats as expendable. Then we see him strangle a female shaman when she initially balks at destroying the heart shaped herb. He threatens her, “When I tell you do to something, I mean that s***.” The only way he interacts with women is to dominate and treat them as objects. In refusing to be interdependent with women, Killmonger ultimately cuts himself off from true power and success. His life is lopsided and unidimensional.  He can only see one way of being and succumbs to the cycle of death. In sharp contrast, Nakia has thriving relationships with women and is nearly always working collaboratively with them. Together these women are creators and protectors, imagining many ways of being that can result in vibrant lives.

Nakia and squad

This is one of the strongest aspects of Black Panther, that the female characters are complex and diverse and all have meaningful relationships with each other. Part of what makes Nakia strong is her willingness to be interconnected with others, specifically other women. These women are also what make T’Challa and Wakanda strong. Their society is one that is marked by creativity and equity. When the women are shared partners in their national life, the possibilities become boundless. Wakanda is a fictional place that is giving all black people the opportunity to imagine different possibilities for themselves and their communities. Wakanda is also giving the whole world a chance to imagine what a shared future could look like for us all. If Nakia is leading the way, I’m here for it.