Stories influence and reflect our world. It’s been that way since ancient mythology and prehistoric cave paintings— we try to understand ourselves and our place in the universe through the interpretive prism of fiction. That’s one of the reasons why inclusive, diverse representation in media is so vitally important — seeing yourself onscreen is unfathomably powerful. That identification, the acknowledgment that you exist, that you can accomplish wonders, that the worlds of movies and TV aren’t exclusive to just the nauseatingly overrepresented white male, is precious and desperately needed. Doctor Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space, become an astronaut after seeing Nichelle Nichols’s Nyota Uhura on the bridge of the Enterprise in Star Trek.
Onscreen inclusivity leads to richer storytelling landscapes with a wider range of perspectives, ones that disprove dangerous stereotypes and hopefully lead to better understanding. It’s never “just a movie”; we’re shaped by what stories tell us, just as we shape the stories told.
Luke Cage is more than another successful Marvel venture in a string of solid, formula-aligning Netflix efforts. It’s undeniably urgent, undeniably relevant, and undeniably black. A thrilling, genre-bending hybrid, its hero a bulletproof black man in a hoodie walking unafraid into a barrage of gun fire and emerging unscathed, an image the power of which can’t possibly be overstated. It’s a love letter to Harlem — its history, its culture, and the community living within it. Conversations meditating about the legacies of sports figures, hip hop artists, authors, and war heroes are as important as outwitting a villain’s schemes. The visual choices and music cues are steeped in layers of black history, the latter especially woven throughout the series as its beating lifeblood (every episode is titled after a Gang Starr song). The subjects of police brutality, systematic racism, economic inequality, the criminal justice system, and politics are combined into a nuanced, seamless whole. There are no deplorable stereotypes or cheap caricatures but a rich, complex, multifaceted, stunning cast of characters with histories, dreams, goals, motives, perspectives, and experiences, both shared and different; heroes, villains, and the spaces in between, with a cast made up almost entirely of people of color. Trust, legacy, dignity, respect, and responsibility are all reexamined. It gets inside your favorite superhero genre cliches and tears them apart from the inside out; reinvents them through the perspective of a black man’s life in modern America.
Eight years before Iron Man, when Marvel’s interconnected movie universe was just a studio’s daydream, there was X-Men. In many ways we have Bryan Singer to thank for establishing the success of today’s superhero blockbusters. Singer grounded his mutant world in realism and heart, proving that movies based on crime-fighting, cape-wearing people with funky abilities can have social, political, and emotional relevance; something fans have known for decades, but the general public remained mostly unaware of. (Ew, comics? Comics are for nerds!)
Singer also proved these movies have staying power. Sixteen years and nine films later, the X-Men franchise is still chugging along, except they’re no longer the biggest superheroes on the block.
So, after all that time and competing against countless other caped crusaders, does X-Men: Apocalypse have anything worthwhile left to say? Kinda.
Part of it depends on your point of view. Given the staggering 48% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the critics sure don’t think so. (For reference, previous films Days of Future Past, First Class, and X2: X-Men United scored a respective 91%, 87%, and 86% with critics. Yeouch.)
Audience scores are better — a respectable, if not stellar, 74%, certainly enough of a difference to highlight the viewing priorities between both camps. Having said that, it’s still less than Future Past (92%), First Class(87%), and X2 (85%).
Me? It’s no miracle of cinema on its own standing, it doesn’t match the heights of creative ingenuity and thematic pathos we’ve come to associate with Singer’s entries in the franchise, but it’s fine. Good, in fact! Nothing revolutionary, but a solid, enjoyable, smart middle ground that presents its ideas and characters clearly.
If Civil War is the masterpiece and Batman v Superman the godawful mess, then Apocalypse is the perfectly okay one.
So why did critics and some fans hate it so? Where’d this apathy, even vitriol, come from?
(Spoilers for Arrow episode 4.18, “Eleven-Fifty-Nine.”)
It’s a familiar refrain for me by now. “That female character deserved better.” From her series, her writers, the fans. The disappointment never seems to end in that regard, and it’s been one hell of an awful year already for LGBTQ, WOC representation on TV: Lexa from The 100, Rosa from Jane the Virgin, Denise on The Walking Dead, Mary Louise and Nora on The Vampire Diaries, and a casualty on The Americans just this week.* No female character, it seems, is off limits.
When Daredevil hit Netflix this time last year, it was a revelation. The streaming site gave Marvel a venue to explode with a previously unseen maturity on par with anything on cable. With season two upon us (and Jessica Jones months prior), it’s clear the collaboration wasn’t a fluke. Daredevil’s sophomore outing more than holds up to its premiere season, even surpasses it in some ways.
Obviously, that’s my cue to talk about it! Here’s what I loved and what didn’t float my boat, in a handy list format. (Spoilers abound for everything.)
Killing time in a sold-out theater, waiting for the movie to start, my friends and I refreshed our memories on the release dates for all the upcoming superhero movies this year. There were, naturally, a lot.
Batman v Superman in March. Captain America: Civil War and X-Men: Apocalypse in May. Suicide Squad in August. Gambit in October and Doctor Strange in November. The two titans of comic publishing are duking it out for box office dominance, and with plans for more movies spanning into 2020 and beyond, the spandex-and-capes train isn’t losing steam anytime soon.
Deadpool hit the world at a time when some critics and audiences are awash with “superhero movie fatigue.” As you can probably guess by the title, these souls are sick of superhero movies. Some even think they’re ruining good cinema. Take this recent article from Forbes:
At last, Hollywood realizes the drawing power of adult males who want to pretend that they are still teen boys. Just think of how much better Deadpool might have done if audiences weren’t so clearly tired of costumed superhero comic book movies. Oh, and if you’re a kid trying to sneak into Deadpool this weekend, while I cannot condone such behavior, I can beg you to buy your cover ticket for Brooklyn.
Whooooo. There’s so much for me to take apart in that paragraph alone, but I don’t want to get too far off track. (Maybe next time. Hey, there’s an idea for a different article!)
Whether or not you agree with the idea of superhero fatigue (for the record, I vehemently don’t; no surprise there), there’s no denying Deadpool came out in a year loaded start to finish with exhaustive comics offerings — and instead of audiences turning away, it broke records with a $135 million dollar opening weekend. The highest ever for an R-rated movie, and an impressive one even by the standards of blockbusters. It’s barely behindTwilight and beat freaking Harry Potter and the Dealthy Hallows Part 1.
I’m sure there’ll be lots of discussion over the coming weeks piecing apart why a predicted sleeper hit, estimated to gross a safe $60–$80 million, blew down the doors of all expectations and set the standard for future comic book adaptations. If you ask me (you didn’t), it’s simple.
I’ve had two weeks to digest the latest effort from Marvel and Netflix’s collaboration. It might not be the best testament to my writing prowess, but I couldn’t talk about Jessica Jones right away. There was too much in my head to process. I have an embarrassing, overly emotional confession that will undoubtedly draw mockery from friends and strangers alike: when the credits rolled on the final episode, I watched them through a fountain of grateful tears.
Because Jessica Jones is a nigh-miracle.
An imperfect one, which I’ll get to later: but here is a female-created, female-driven narrative wholly centered around women regaining their autonomy, their bodies, and their futures; that treats sexual assault with the responsibility and gravitas it deserves rather than as a cheap plot device or the exploitive, disgusting, omnipresent trope it’s become; and it stars at its core a smart-ass, hard-drinking, emotionally shattered, deeply caring private investigator straight out of a classic film noir, who just happens to exist on the darker side of the colorful Avengers universe.
Given how even in 2015 our media landscape is so heavily skewed toward the male experience (especially considering we won’t see our first female headliner in the Marvel movie universe, Captain Marvel, until 2018, and the constant sidelining of Black Widow as a character), for a show one hundred percent devoted to the female perspective to not only exist, but be successful, is a revelation.
Hence the tears.