I think I’ve finally found something to genuinely love about Christmas.
If you’ve ever read something I’ve written around late-December then you know that I’m not all that fond of a certain holiday in which a certain obese White man commits serial breaking-and-entering. If you want specifics, feel free to read through from the tags. Suffice it to say, I prefer to spend that day as far away from my relatives as possible.
Still, whether you think the day is about mindless consumerism or connecting with one’s nearest and dearest (it can be both, y’all), most would agree that it’s a day of tradition. I’ll be the first to say traditions should be destroyed when they’ve clearly become obsolete, but the tradition of Christmas has led me to my own tradition: avoiding my family to spend time at the movies. Because if you can’t celebrate Christ’s birth by avoiding your relations, then what’s the point of the holiday?
Let’s see what the tail-end of 2018 had to offer, shall we?
“Okay, I’ll admit it took me a bit to get into it… but I think I kinda love this!
– Miles Morales (as written by Brian Michael Bendis), Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man Issue 006 (2011)
I was… hesitant with this one. On their own, Sony haven’t made a single good Spidey film. Not a one. Letting the MCU proper take the reins was the best decision Sony’s ever made about the series. And yet, Sony refuse to relent completely, promising to create their own Spidey-related flicks independent of Marvel’s input. The announcement of this did not fill me with confidence (to date, I haven’t seen Venom), so when I heard that Sony’s first non-MCU Spidey flick would be about Miles Morales, I tempered my excitement for one of my favorite characters with lowered expectations. After all, they’re the studio who twice screwed up this can’t-miss franchise. (Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 sucks. It sucked when it came out, it sucks now – you know it, I know it.)
So, imagine my pleasant surprise when I sat my family-dodgin’ ass in the auditorium to see a Sony-made Spidey film that wasn’t just “good”, it was great. As in “genuinely great”, the sort of flick I can see myself watching traditionally without it being background noise or a hate-watch (a la the Matrix trilogy). It’s a film that accomplishes an amazing paradox: it draws from – and explicitly acknowledges – the numerous incarnations that have come before, yet is able to stand on its own merits. It features a Stan Lee cameo that is as subtle as it is heartbreaking, given the legendary creator’s death a few weeks prior. Most of all, it successfully gets the MCU core element down without any MCU involvement.
When I say “core element,” I mean the fact that MCU’s films are specifically designed for audiences to see themselves in the characters. Whereas DCEU flicks are about the unapologetic abuse of power that comes with being a metahuman, MCU are simultaneously about enjoying your new gifts as you recognize the necessity to use them in service of your fellow humans. Miles Morales finds himself in the impossibly large shoes of Peter Parker, but soon comes to realize he doesn’t step up, no one will.
I’d love to go through every aspect in detail – the “painted” design of the animation, the addition of Spider-Gwen & Spider-Ham, the great voice acting, the fantastic revelation of Doc Ock, and the absolutely hilarious end credits scene – but I’m covering three films today. Let’s just say that 2018 both started and ended with a great Marvel movie starring a Black superhero.
“‘For the black man to come out superior,’ Ali said, ‘would be against America’s teachings. I have been so great in boxing they had to create an image like Rocky, a white image on the screen, to counteract my image in the ring. America has to have its white images, no matter where it gets them. Jesus, Wonder Woman, Tarzan and Rocky.’”
– Muhammad Ali to Roger Ebert, “Watching Rocky II with Muhammad Ali”, Chicago Sun-Times
(31 July 1979)
You see that quote? I love it.
As much as I grew up loving the Rocky films – and I still do – growing up as a Black cinephile made its rather shitty racial politics crystal clear to me. Stallone adapted stole the story of Chuck Wepner’s infamous knock down of Muhammad Ali to make, I’ll admit, a great story about an underdog. But he did so by callously oversimplifying the underdog’s opponent: Stallone’s creation Apollo Creed is Ali stripped of all his political convictions; a loud-mouth nigga for White America to jeer. Rocky II pushed ever further and made him an outright villain, and the entire series has been about Rocky Balboa beating the shit out of Black villains (yes, even Duke from Rocky V).
I’m not saying Stallone was knowingly racist, but even Ali – whom Ebert details as loving the film – recognized the White Man’s Power Fantasy at work in the series’ then-only-two entries.
That’s where the Creed films come in. They’re a direct reaction to the one Rocky film not focused on the title character beating up a Black guy… he just avenges his death. (Even in the Rocky series, the Black guy dies first.) What’s more, they add a new dimension to the underdog element by removing the White privilege of their predecessors. This makes the latest entry all the better, as it’s not only a sequel Ryan Coogler’s original (which I found merely “okay”), but serves as a direct sequel to Rocky IV, flipping its campy ‘80s excess on its head to make an exciting sports drama.
One of the problems I had with the first Creed was that Adonis was Apollo’s illegitimate son, despite the Rocky films clearly establishing Apollo and his wife had kids. These other Creeds are still MIA in the sequel, but if you were to just watch this one, you’d never know Adonis was the result of Apollo’s affair. This is important because this film leans on the “father’s legacy” angle – both for Adonis Creed and Viktor Drago – in a way that’s damn-near Greek tragedy. Adonis has finally escaped the shadow of his father when Viktor shows up, and Viktor has grown up under his father’s iron fist. Both sons carry chips on their shoulders, making their two well-choreographed bouts as emotionally palpable as they are physically visceral.
Creed II feels like the film the entire series had been leading up to all this time. This is only punctuated by an unexpected dinner party cameo midway through the film and another at the very end of the film (no, it isn’t the absent “Little Marie”, who, like the Creed siblings seems to have vanished off the face of the Earth). It gives most of the main characters the narrative closure they deserve while finally lending a bit of real-world social reflection into a series based on Black and White opponents fighting. If the series ended right here, it would be a good way to go.
But this is Rocky we’re talking about.
“’I don’t think I fitted the type of actress Michael Bay the director had met before,’ Beckinsale said. ‘I think he was baffled by me because my boobs weren’t bigger than my head and I wasn’t blond.’”
– Kate Beckinsale on Michael Bay
I’ll be honest with ya, folks: I neither wanted nor planned to see this flick. As I was hopping from screen to screen, I’d just wanted to catch a good 45-or-so minutes of it until I could sneak off to see Mortal Engines. Before this, I’d only seen the first of Michael Bay’s Transformers flicks. Between its incomprehensible “action”, its shameless objectification of women, its racist caricatures, and the “Oh-God-that-really-happened!” scene of John Turturro being pissed on… yeah, I don’t feel at all bad about skipping the other entries. The fact that this one was centered on the notorious Turturro-pisser didn’t help matters.
But a funny thing happened: I sat through the whole thing. You wanna know how to improve a terrible movie series spearheaded by Michael Bay? Get rid of Michael Bay. From the opening scene (set on Cybertron) to the last (which creates some continuity errors for the series), the movie is refreshingly free of Bay’s perverted ogling, attention-deprived editing, and root-for-the-bully narratives. In other words, the live action series has finally realized that its audience is children.
Yet, it also gives several nods to those kids’ parents, who likely grew up watching the original series (I know I did). The characters all have their “uncomplicated” ‘80s designs and the story feels like it could have been an episode of the Gen. 1 series. And given that the movie takes place during the ‘80s, I guess it makes sense that the plot is essentially Goonies with giant alien androids.
I’m still not completely sold on Jon Cena as an actor. I wouldn’t pay to see anything that focused solely on him and I don’t think he’s as charismatic as The Rock, but – like Channing Tatum – Cena’s initial stiffness has given way to a… well… not-as-stiffness that at least makes him tolerable. Given that this flick revolves around giant alien androids (and the central human focus is Hailee Steinfeld’s character), I guess Cena isn’t the worst thing in the world.
In the end, BumbleBee is a worthy distraction and much more kid-friendly than its predecessors. Much of its success can be attributed to said predecessors creating such low standards, but I wouldn’t mind watching it again, and have no problem recommending it to others.