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Why “Joker” Is Brilliant, But Controversial (For The Wrong Reasons)

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Every now and then, a movie comes along that’s brilliant in so many ways, but undermined by the circumstances of its release. In the same way certain movies come along at just the right time to become a cultural phenomenon, others hit theaters with unexpected forces working against them.

When “The Dark Knight” came out in 2008, its timing was perfect. It struck all the right notes from a cinematic, narrative, and cultural perspective. On top of that, Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker went down as one of the greatest displays of acting prowess of all time, and not just for a superhero movie. For many, myself included, Ledger’s version of the Joker will always be the one by which all others are measured.

By contrast, “Joker” couldn’t have been timed worse. The current social, political, and cultural landscape is vulnerable and hypersensitive to every one of the themes it explores. On top of that, the movie explores those things very well, so much so that it warrants being in the same conversation as “The Dark Knight” in terms of how it portrays the Joker.

While Heath Ledger’s Joker is still superior in almost every way, what Joaquin Phoenix accomplished in this movie deserves plenty of praise. At the very least, it helps cleanse the memories of those still cringing at Jared Leto’s rather eccentric take on the character in “Suicide Squad.”

This movie, as well as Phoenix’s performance, comes at a time when taboos about mental health and disturbed lonely men are hot-button topics. On top of that, a string of mass shootings perpetrated by disturbed men, some with disturbing manifestos, has created real-life horror while stoking genuine fears. The story in “Joker” neither avoids nor downplays those issues.

This movie also dares to do something that few beyond Alan More has been able to achieve, which is to give the Joker a backstory. For many lifelong comic fans, especially Batman fans, the very concept of fleshing out this character undermines the core of his appeal. He has always functioned better as a chaotic force of nature rather than a person with a tangible history.

Ever since his creation in 1940, his life and his story have been vague. He has been defined as a perfect counter to Batman’s never-ending crusade. Whereas Batman seeks justice through clear, defined rules, the Joker seeks chaos and laughs at such rules. He can never be too defined, as a character, if he’s to personify that chaos.

Despite these challenges, “Joker” finds a way to tell his story and, like “The Dark Knight” before it, actually manages to make the Joker even more terrifying. Through the character of Arthur Fleck, we see a disturbed mind trapped within an environment that does everything to make his condition worse. Through both unavoidable circumstances and fateful choices, we see this broken mind become something far more dangerous.

It doesn’t happen all at once. There’s no single trigger, like falling into a vat of chemicals. There’s a cumulative effect to Arthur Fleck’s transformation. It’s not always logical or smooth, which comes off as intentional from the beginning. The only constant is that Fleck gets more twisted and unhinged with each escalating event.

This is where Phoenix’s performance really shines. He carries himself with a presence that feels very close to what Ledger captured in “The Dark Knight.” He starts off as simply being mentally ill and struggling with it. However, what he does with his illness and what it does to him turns him into something more than just another disturbed loner.

It’s here where the controversy behind the “Joker” takes hold. I would argue it’s a dumb controversy, but it was serious enough for Aurora, Colorado to cancel screenings of the movie. While it feels like an overreaction, it’s somewhat understandable, given what happened in Aurora in 2012.

If that were the extent of the controversy, then “Joker” would only be a passing concern for most people. Then came the idea the movie celebrates or glorifies “incel culture” through Fleck’s story. While I usually try to be balanced when scrutinizing certain ideas, even if they’re absurd, I can’t do that this time.

Simply put, this part of the controversy is just plain stupid. There’s no better way to say it.

Worrying that this movie might somehow inspire lonely, disturbed men to go on killing sprees is completely without merit. It’s akin to worrying that “Friday the 13th” will inspire anyone who wears a hockey mask to brutally murder camp counselors. Moreover, the absurdity of this controversy undercuts the more substantive messages of this movie.

There is a real message in “Joker” and it has nothing to do with incels, masculinity, or even violence. In this world, Gotham City is the perfect symbol of a grossly flawed society that tries to pretend those flaws can be fixed by staying the course. From the perspective of people like Arthur Fleck, this notion is a complete joke.

Much like our world, there’s a small segment of very rich, very powerful people who benefit the most from this society. The Wayne family is the perfect manifestation of this joke. Even when they carry themselves as responsible, upstanding pillars of the community, they still look down at those who are dissatisfied. On top of that, they think their dissatisfaction is a flaw.

Arthur Fleck is as caught up as anyone in this decaying society. Then, through details I won’t spoil, he starts something that inspires chaos that would make Heath Ledger’s Joker proud. That chaos may or may not be entirely justified, but it’s understandable. In a sense, the Joker is just an extreme manifestation of something that seemed inevitable.

If there is a real controversy with “Joker,” it’s that the wrong issues became controversial. This movie conveys a message to the rich, powerful people who benefit the most from society that things aren’t as rosy as they seem. Those same people who think they know the solutions have no idea what people at the bottom are going through and dismissing them as “clowns” only makes things worse.

We’ve already seen this happen in the real world. The powerful who seek greater power call those who lash out as unimportant or misguided. They think those who protest loudly have nothing of merit to say, which only feels like an excuse to not listen. In that sense, it’s probably not surprising that many media outlets have turned on this movie, albeit for the wrong reasons.

At its core, “Joker” highlights the craziness that compounds craziness. In a world that’s unfair, unjust, and full of lies, how can sane person not be driven insane by their circumstances? Arthur Fleck had more circumstances than most and his mental illness only compounded the situation.

There are times when it’s not entirely clear when the events unfolding are real or vivid delusions. It nicely reflects the uncertain nature of the Joker’s origins, as both the Killing Joke and “The Dark Knight” have previously established. There’s a point in the movie where it becomes unclear where Arthur Fleck truly comes from or whether that name is truly his.

In the end, his name doesn’t matter because once he becomes the Joker, he becomes something more than just a mentally ill loner. For certain people who have seen mentally ill loners commit atrocities in the real world, it sparks real fear. At the same time, “Joker” makes clear that’s the wrong target.

After seeing “Joker,” I feel like I just saw a movie that people are going to be talking about for years to come. It’s a movie that can be interpreted in many ways, which is perfectly befitting of the Joker’s chaotic nature. At the same time, I knew some of those interpretations would be used in the name of an agenda and not in a good way.

In another time, “Joker” would be hailed as a movie worthy of praise on the level of “The Dark Knight.” However, because it came out at a time when people fear the lonely, deranged men more than the society that creates them, it’s not able to have the same impact. It’s still an excellent movie and one that will have a unique place in cinematic history for years to come.

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Back (And Exhausted) From New York Comic Con 2019

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It was a long, eventful day, but it’s over now. I built my entire day around attending New York Comic Con 2019 and, without a doubt, it was a day well-spent. I saw so many amazing things. I met so many awesome people. Between the fans, the costumes, the panels, and the big news, there was just so much to experience. I’m still processing it all.

To be honest, it’s going to take a few days to fully appreciate what I experienced. That’s to be expected for the New York Comic Con. For as long as I’ve been going, it has always been this huge spectacle that overwhelms me with so many things I love. Every year I feel like it has to take a step back, it somehow surprises me.

This year was no exception. It was an incredible experience. Now, I’m exhausted and badly in need of some rest. As long and arduous as this day was, however, it was SO worth it.

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Five Reasons Why Joss Whedon Should Direct The First X-Men Movie In The Marvel Cinematic Universe

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These are exciting times for X-Men fans. The Fox era of X-Men movies is over. With Disney’s purchase of Fox, a new era is set to begin. There are no more divergent timelines or soft reboots. The X-Men are coming to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It may not happen for a while, but the process has already begun. It’s only a matter of time.

As a lifelong X-Men fan, I’ve discussed both the possibilities and the immense potential of this development. I’m sure I’ll discuss it plenty more as news, rumors, and what not emerge over the next few years. Until then, there isn’t much to go on.

While there are plenty of details to explore, in terms of story, there’s one logistical issue that I feel is worth addressing. It has to do with who will help guide the X-Men into the MCU. Now, it’s a given that Kevin Feige will be the mastermind behind it all. He is, after all, the alpha and omega of all things Marvel Studios. He’ll be the one with the vision, but he’ll still need someone to turn that vision into a tangible product.

That’s not going to be easy for the X-Men. This isn’t the same as making “Ant Man” a viable franchise. The scope and scale of the X-Men franchise is immense. There’s a reason why it lasted 19 years with Fox. It has a wealth of characters, iconic stories, and endearing themes that are as relevant as ever.

Bringing X-Men to the MCU will be a massive undertaking. With that in mind, I’d like to make the case that there’s one director who is uniquely qualified to take on this challenge. Most already know his name and he has already left his mark on the MCU. I think he’ll leave an even bigger mark by taking this on. That name, of course, is Joss Whedon.

Hold your applause/outrage, please.

Now, I know Whedon’s name doesn’t carry the weight it once does. His success really peaked with the first “Avengers” movie, but since then, he’s somewhat faltered. It hasn’t helped that he suffered some bad press, some of which I’ve touched on. Even with these setbacks, and even because of them, I believe he’s the best choice for leading the X-Men into this new era.

As always, I know there will be those who vehemently disagree. I understand that and even welcome those counterarguments in the comments. That said, I’d like to offer five reasons to make my case that Mr. Whedon is the man for the job.


Reason #1: He Has (Successful) Past Experience With X-Men

Joss Whedon is no stranger to the X-Men. In fact, he probably has more experience with this franchise than he did with the Avengers. He did script work on the first X-Men movie. He was also on the short-list to direct multiple X-Men movies at one point. He’s gone on record as saying that he’s an X-Men fan.

Outside the movies, Whedon’s credentials run even deeper. In the early-to-mid-2000s, he penned an acclaimed run for the Astonishing X-Men comic. If you were to talk to any X-Men fan during that time, myself included, they would’ve said the same thing. Whedon’s run on Astonishing X-Men was one of the best of its era.

Through that run, he demonstrated a strong appreciation of these character. It wasn’t just the female characters either, although they definitely shined. He understood the personalities, dynamics, and quirks with characters like Cyclops, Emma Frost, Wolverine, and Kitty Pryde. He gave them all a chance to demonstrate why they’re so iconic.

While the Fox era of X-Men movies did plenty for Wolverine, Charles Xavier, and Magneto, they rarely succeeded for other major characters. Some, like Cyclops and Rogue, were outright butchered. While Whedon has mishandled characters in the past, his experience with X-Men should help avoid that.

Given the size and scope of the MCU, the margin for error will be small. Having a director who knows, understands, and cares about these characters will go a long way compared to one who is unfamiliar with them. Just ask Josh Trank.


Reason #2: His Style Will Give The X-Men The Right Tone For The MCU

Whether it’s a movie or TV show, Joss Whedon’s work has a distinct tone and style to it. There’s often a tight blend of light-hearted character moments mixed with serious drama. There are also plenty of jokes and quips, but not nearly on the level of an Aaron Sorkin script. For the most part, Whedon works to humanize his characters while making them lovable and relatable in their own way.

That kind of approach is exactly what the X-Men need in the MCU. It’s an approach that has already been proven with the first “Avengers” movie, as well as “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” In each case, both the heroes and the villains had moments where they could joke around, but still have heated arguments when necessary. It was a big part of what made these movies so entertaining and memorable.

The X-Men have had their share of funny moments during the Fox era. Unfortunately, most of them came from Deadpool and the always-charming Ryan Reynolds. By the standards of modern superhero movies, the original X-Men trilogy was very serious and even a little dark. Granted, that was necessary, if only to distance itself from the excessive camp in “Batman and Robin.” Things are different now.

The X-Men franchise has had plenty of bleak, serious moments in recent years. As great as “Logan” was, the franchise could benefit from something more uplifting and Joss Whedon’s style fits that perfectly.


Reason #3: He Knows How To Balance Action, Character Development, And Melodrama

This is something else that’s readily apparent to anyone who read Joss Whedon’s run on Astonishing X-Men or seen at least one season of “Buffy: The Vampire Slayer.” Say what you will about his feminist credentials. The man knows how to strike that critical balance between action, character development, and melodrama.

He did plenty of balancing with action and character development in “Avengers,” but X-Men will need a lot more melodrama to succeed. That’s because all those soap-opera elements that tends to complicate other action franchises are a core part of the X-Men’s DNA. They have been since the heyday of Chris Claremont’s run on the comics.

I’m not just talking about romantic sub-plots and love triangles, which have been a detriment to previous X-Men movies. Being an X-Men and a mutant is full of both personal and interpersonal drama. It’s part of what makes these characters relatable and iconic. People might not be able to relate to the Asgardian God of Thunder, but they can relate to someone who is born different and struggles to cope with those differences.

Add clashes with killer robots and murderous bigots to the mix and you’ve got plenty to work with. In the MCU, where superheroes and super-powers already exist, these are exactly the kinds of complications that can keep things interesting and Whedon has experience doing just that.


Reason #4: He Has Something To Prove (And So Does The X-Men Franchise)

As I noted earlier, Joss Whedon’s career and personal life have taken quite a downturn in recent years. In addition to his divorce, his creative decisions during “Avengers: Age of Ultron” were subject to controversy. Some may argue the extent of that controversy, especially given the box office of that movie, it’s still telling that Whedon hasn’t been involved with the MCU ever since.

On top of that, Whedon name has been unfairly linked to the massive commercial failure of “Justice League.” Now, there’s a lot to be said about the problems with “Justice League,” but I think it’s wrong to lump them on Whedon. He came into a movie that was radically different from his usual style and was already grossly overbudget and behind schedule.

Fair or not, Whedon’s credibility has taken hits on multiple fronts. By spearheading the X-Men’s arrival into the MCU, he has a chance to rebuild it. His career is far from over. Even with the upheavals in his personal life, he hasn’t burned too many bridges or completely lost the trust of fans.

If he has any kind of ego, and most people in Hollywood do, he’ll be more motivated than most to succeed with the X-Men in the MCU. At the same time, the X-Men franchise has just as much to prove. Even with the success of “Logan” and “Deadpool,” not one X-Men movie has ever topped a billion dollars.

As a franchise, the X-Men have fallen behind in the superhero hierarchy. Entering the MCU is their chance to show that they deserve to be in the same world as these multi-billion dollar success stories. To some extent, both Joss Whedon and the X-Men franchise need each other.


Reason #5: He Knows How To Balance New Ideas With Classic Elements

The X-Men that show up in the MCU will be different from the X-Men we saw in the 19 years of movies. That’s a given. It’s only a question of how different they’ll be. That will likely be a key consideration because while the X-Men movies had their share of flaws, they did a number of things that worked exceptionally well, Deadpool being the most notable.

While it’s likely that Marvel Studios won’t do much to change Deadpool, there will definitely need to be some fresh nuance to the X-Men. As it just so happens, Joss Whedon is better than most when it comes to balancing new ideas with classic themes. He did that with Astonishing X-Men in the comics. He did that in both “Avengers” movies, as well.

While some elements worked better than others, they still came together in a polished product that made billions. The X-Men will need that balance as they enter the MCU. Unlike other characters and teams that have been introduced, the X-Men come in with 19 years of cinematic baggage. It must distinguish itself in this new era.

That’s not going to be easy. Depending on when they show up, the MCU could be very different from the one that just culminated with “Avengers Endgame.” Whedon, given his experience, is certainly up for that challenge.


There’s little doubt that mutants coming to the MCU will be a huge upheaval. How Marvel Studios and Disney go about it could determine whether the MCU continues to dominate at the box office or finally runs out of steam. This incredible cinematic world has delivered time and again, overcoming immense challenges and breaking box office records along the way. They’ve earned the benefit of the doubt.

Joss Whedon may or may not be the one to lead the MCU into this new era. I think he has what it takes. I hope he gets a chance. There’s a lot of uncertainty with the X-Men franchise right now, but this is a franchise that has overcome major struggles before. With the Disney machine and the MCU behind it, I don’t doubt for a second that it can become uncanny once more.

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Five Things I Hope To See In The Upcoming “Ms. Marvel” Show

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Every so often, I get news that excites me like a kid in a candy factory. It doesn’t happen often these days. As adults, it’s hard to get too excited when bills, the news, and traffic do plenty to dampen your spirits. Then, it happens and your world is better because of it.

This past weekend, I got a much-needed dose of that excitement. At Disney’s annual D23 Expo, Marvel Studios announced that they’re making a live-action Ms. Marvel TV show for their Disney+ streaming service. As someone who has praised Ms. Marvel’s comics and her contributions to female superheroes, I freely admit I jumped for joy when I saw this.

I know the news surrounding Disney hasn’t been good lately, given what has been happening with Spider-Man. I also know they’re in a bit of a transitional period after the conclusion of “Avengers: Endgame.” Despite these issues, Marvel Studios and their Disney overlords still want to make money. They’ve got plenty of high-profile movies on their slate, but this could end up being a bigger deal.

I say that as an unapologetic fan of Ms. Marvel and all things Kamala Khan. I also know that Disney is looking for any possible edge to promote their new streaming service and take a bite out of the market share that Netflix currently dominates. I admit I wasn’t planning on subscribing. Shows about She-Hulk, the Scarlet Witch, Vision, and Moon Night sound fun, but not enough to justify the cost.

That all changed with Ms. Marvel. As far as I’m concerned, she’s the only reason I’ll be getting or keeping a Disney+ subscription. There’s a lot to unpack with this announcement. I doubt I’ll cover all of it here, but for now, I’d like to take some time to articulate the extent of my excitement.

To that end, I’d like to share five things I hope to see in this upcoming series. Kamala Khan is one of those characters who can capture the heart, soul, and spirit of the superhero genre. Her entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe couldn’t be better. These are just some of the things that could make it even more marvelous.


Number 1: The (Many) Quirks That Make Kamala Khan Lovable

Any TV show, comic book, movie, or video game involving Kamala Khan must make its first priority to capture the essence of what makes her so endearing. Being a superhero is only small part of her overall story. What makes Kamala great is the many little things that define who she is.

She’s not just a teenager who gets superpowers and decides to start fighting criminals. She’s a self-professed fangirl. She loves playing video games, eating gyros, and writing fan fiction. These quirks are small, but numerous. They’re real things that people in the real world can relate to. That makes it easy to understand and appreciate her passions.

When I first read about Kamala in “Ms. Marvel #1,” I immediately grew to like her. She came off as the kind of girl I would’ve been friends with in high school. She presents herself as someone who behaves how you would expect a teenage girl to behave in a world where superheroes existed. She has a good family, a good heart, and an adventurous spirit. How can you not love that?

She’s also an outsider and not just because she’s a Pakistani Muslim girl living in Jersey City. Like most teenagers, she’s uncertain of her place in the world. She struggles with real issues, even before she gets superpowers. Those issues stay with her, even as she develops her superhero identity. It makes her easy to like and even easier to root for.

A TV show can’t just focus on her beating up bad guys and making witty one-liners. Plenty of other superheroes already do that, some better than others. It has to highlight, if not belabor, the distinct traits that have helped make her one of Marvel’s most successful female characters. There’s a lot to love and with a TV show, there’s plenty of room to explore it.


Number 2: Relatable Teenage Melodrama (Compounded By Being A Superhero)

Along with the traits that make Kamala Khan so lovable, there’s also the unavoidable battle that is teenage melodrama. Everyone faces it. Superpowers don’t make you immune to it. The last two Spider-Man movies have made that abundantly clear. A TV show provides more time and flexibility to flesh out that melodrama.

In the first few issues of Ms. Marvel’s comic series, which I highly recommend, she deals with a lot of teen angst and uncertainty. In fact, that sentiment is the very thing that prompts her to defy her parents and sneak out at night to a party that would ultimately end with her getting superpowers. In a very literal sense, teenage melodrama helped make Ms. Marvel who she is.

She’s not sure of where she fits in. She clashes with her parents. She argues with her friends. She also is starting to have feelings about other boys, which have made for some wonderfully sweet moments. She deals with all of this on top of being a superhero.

Like a young Peter Parker before her, these different aspects of her life often clash. One tends to undermine the other and it does plenty to overwhelm her at times. That often brings out the best in her and any TV show would be wise to present those moments.


Number 3: The Family And Supporting Cast That Help Make Her Who She Is

Like every major hero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Ms. Marvel’s greatest strengths often stem from her supporting cast. Tony Stark wouldn’t have achieved what he did without Pepper Potts. Carol Danvers wouldn’t have accomplished what she did without Nick Fury and Goose the Cat. Kamala Khan is no different.

In “Ms. Marvel #1,” we learn plenty about Kamala’s supporting cast. She has two loving parents who tend to be overprotective of her. She has an uptight brother named Aamir, who tends to intrude into Kamala’s personal life more than most siblings. She also has a friend/love interest in Bruno who had a front-row seat in seeing her become Ms. Marvel.

Each one of these characters helps shape Kamala into who she is, before and after she gets her powers. They support her, but they also complicate her efforts. While none of them have to die for her to be the hero she strives to be, they all make their on contributions to her story. In the same way Superman’s parents guided his heroic journey, Kamala’s friends and family informed hers.

Unlike Superman, Kamala endured a pretty rocky road to establishing herself. However, at no point did her creator, G. Willow Wilson, give the impression that her friends and family were just background decorations. They all care for her. They worry for her. They all want what’s best for her, even when they’re rarely on the same page.

A TV show featuring Kamala has to capture at least part of that family/friend dynamic. Even a fraction of Kamala Khan’s supporting cast from the comics can do plenty to make for a rich, engaging TV show.


Number 4: The Struggles (And Triumphs) Of A Growing Hero

There’s no getting around it. Kamala Khan screwed up more than once when she started off her superhero career in the comics. While she managed to save one life the first time she used her powers, she ended up getting shot the second time. Even before that, she struggled to master her powers in ways that were both understandable and hilarious.

It’s a critical part of every superhero’s journey. With new challenges come new struggles. Some of those struggles devolve into outright failures. Even the best heroes fail sometimes and Kamala had more than her share in the comics. Any TV show that tells the story of her journey cannot and should not gloss over those struggles.

With Kamala, however, the struggles matter even more than the triumphs. While many heroes may lament at their failure, Kamala tends to get a lot more animated. She’s passionate about what she does and has a tendency to wear those passions on her sleeve. It’s part of what makes her lovable. It also reminds everyone that she’s still a teenager. She’s still growing and maturing.

One of the things I love most about Ms. Marvel comics is seeing her grow with each passing story. The first dozen issues had more growth for Kamala than the last 100 issues of Amazing Spider-Man. Along the way, there were missteps, heartbreaks, and victories. They all just made me want to root for Kamala even harder and if a TV show can accomplish that, it’ll do plenty to justify a Disney+ subscription.


Number 5: A Vision For Young (Idealistic) Heroes In A World That Needs Them

From the beginning, Kamala Khan connected with fans like me because she radiated this ideal spirit that a lot of people once had in their youth. Time, age, and watching too much news has a way of crushing that idealism over time, but most of us still remember why it was so important to us.

As Ms. Marvel, Kamala carried herself as the kind of young, idealistic hero that many of Marvel’s traditional heroes grew out of years ago. The comics, themselves, became jaded as the very act of heroism gained major complications, both from events within the stories and influences from the real world. That’s part of what made Kamala a breath of fresh air.

She might be young, naïve, and impressionable, but she’s also exactly what we need right now. The MCU just suffered some devastating losses. The world, as a whole, is still recovering from the events of “Avengers: Endgame.” This world still needs heroes. Even though it still has plenty, it doesn’t have someone like Ms. Marvel.

She can be the hero that emerges from the chaos of this broken world and shows what dedicated heroes can accomplish. She can show everyone that, even in the face of heavy losses and broken hearts, there’s a place for pure, uncorrupted heroics. You don’t need to be a billionaire playboy genius philanthropist, either. You can just be a teenage Pakistani American girl from Jersey city.


I cannot overstate how excited I am for Ms. Marvel to get her own show. I imagine I’ll be writing about it a lot once it comes out. There’s a lot I hope to see for this show, the comics, and the MCU. If Marvel Studios can capture even a fraction of what makes Ms. Marvel great, then the future of that world and ours will be that much brighter.

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Why Natalie Portman Becoming Thor Is The Biggest Story From San Diego Comic Con 2019

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If you’re a fan of comic books, superhero movies, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this past weekend was like Christmas, Halloween, the 4th of July, and the Super Bowl all rolled into one. The San Diego Comic Con is essentially the epicenter of geek culture. In recent years, it has only gotten bigger, becoming a staging area for major pop culture events. This latest convention was no exception.

While there was plenty of news to follow at this year’s Comic Con, especially for X-Men fans like me, the biggest event was always going to be Marvel Studios. It has already been a historic year for superhero movies, especially on the Marvel side of the genre. Shortly before the convention began, “Avengers Endgame” officially passed “Avatar” to become the highest grossing movie of all time.

It’s a good time to be Kevin Feige.

It’s a good time to be Bob Iger.

It’s a good time to be a Marvel fan, in general.

With the end of “Avengers Endgame,” however, the story that began in 2008 “Iron Man” has concluded. The Avengers assembled in a truly spectacular battle for the ages. Thanos is defeated. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is once again secure, but after making the highest grossing movie of all time, how can Marvel Studios keep raising the bar like this?

In Hall H of the San Diego Convention Center, the next phase of the MCU was finally revealed. Some of the announcements were expected. News of a “Black Widow” movie, as well as an “Eternals” movie, had already been reported months ago. News of a “Blade” movie within the MCU was more surprising, but that wasn’t the biggest story by a long shot.

By far, the biggest Marvel Studios news to come out of San Diego Comic Con 2019 was Natalie Portman returning as Jane Foster to play a female Thor. I’m not going to lie. When I saw this news, I had to blink a few times and slap myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. Once certain this was real, it finally sunk in.

Natalie Portman is returning the MCU as Jane Foster to play a female Thor.

To appreciate why this is a huge deal to longtime comic readers like me, I need to provide a little context. Jane Foster being Thor is a concept that only recently gained prominence, thanks to one of Marvel’s top-tier writers, Jason Aaron.

Back in 2014, the Thor comics underwent a major upheaval. After a fateful encounter with Nick Fury, Thor suddenly became unworthy of lifting Mjolnir. It was a dramatic moment that defined the character for years to come. Then, after everyone in Asgard failed to lift the hammer, Jane Foster came along to wield it. In doing so, she became the new Thor.

If you haven’t read the first few volumes of that story, I cannot recommend them highly enough. Even if you’ve only seen the movies, you’ll still find plenty to love about these comics. They made me a fan of both Thor and Jane Foster. If Marvel Studios and Natalie Portman can even capture a fraction of this story’s greatness, then it’ll be a bold new era for superhero movies.

Now, make no mistake. Jane Foster becoming Thor was not without controversy. In fact, the timing of this story couldn’t have been worse. It came out right around the same time that efforts to promote diversity within superhero comics had become mired in regressive politics. It was a time when iconic characters were being replaced and new characters were being created, albeit with mixed results.

This is how mixed it got and NOT in a good way.

I’d rather not go into all the issues, controversies, and absurdities from that era, but I will say that Jane Foster becoming Thor was one of the success stories from that tenuous period. Her journey as the new Thor didn’t supplant that of her predecessor. If anything, it complemented his story. The title of Thor was greatly improved because Jane Foster wielded that hammer.

Now, Marvel Studios is in an even better position to do the same. The success of both “Wonder Woman” and “Captain Marvel” has established that there is a market for female superheroes. The events of “Avengers Endgame” also opened the door for someone else to step in without diminishing Chris Hemsworth’s character, who may still have a part to play in “Guardians of the Galaxy 3.”

It also helps that Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster has been MIA since the events of “Thor: The Dark World.” While her reasons for leaving were somewhat obscure, the announcement at San Diego left no room for ambiguity. She’s coming back and she’s going to play a major role in the next phase of the MCU.

In my opinion, this will go down as one of the most pivotal announcements in the history of the MCU. Why do I believe this is bigger than the Eternals, Blade, Black Widow, or any of the upcoming shows on the Disney+ streaming service? To answer that, it’s necessary to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

The Jane Foster that Natalie Portman played in the first two Thor movies is not the same Jane Foster who has established herself as a prominent force in the comics. Throughout her history, she has maintained a strong connection to Thor and not just as a romantic interest. In many respects, she has been the character through which ordinary, non-Asgardian people explore Thor’s world of gods, demigods, and monsters.

A big part of what made Jason Aaron’s story surrounding Jane Foster becoming Thor so powerful was how she proved her worthiness of that title. As a mortal woman with many mortal limitations, she embraced that role and proved herself against gods, monsters, and even other superheroes. It was easy to cheer her on every step of the way.

In any era, it’s a powerful story, having an ordinary human embrace god-like power to bear god-like burdens. In this current era of superhero movies, Jane Foster becoming Thor isn’t just a fitting, comics-accurate way to build her story in the MCU. It’s a story that almost feels necessary.

The MCU is a world that has become densely populated by super soldiers, aliens, gods, monsters, and demigods. With the conclusion of “Avengers Endgame,” the world is in a tenuous state. Friendships, families, and teams have been decimated due to the conflict surrounding Thanos and the Infinity Stones. There are voids to be filled, including a few once populated by gods.

Ordinary people becoming heroes is a story that the MCU has told many times before, the latest being “Spider-Man: Far From Home.” Stories about ordinary people becoming gods haven’t been nearly as common and with the Eternals already poised to join the MCU, I think that story should play out in some manner, if only to keep humanity connected to this world.

Jane becoming the Goddess of Thunder is the perfect story to maintain that connection. Unlike Carol Danvers, Jane is not a soldier or a warrior. She’s a scientist who got caught up in the world of gods and superheroes, but she didn’t run from it in the comic. Now, armed with Natalie Portman’s Oscar-winning talent, she’s poised to make a similar journey in a world that needs new heroes to step up.

It’s an exciting, but uncertain time for the MCU. However, when you’ve got a story like that of Jane Foster becoming Thor and an actress as talented as Natalie Portman leading the way, the future has never been brighter.

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“Spider-Man: Far From Home” Review: An Amazing Movie With One Spectacular Flaw

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In this golden age of superhero movies, Spider-Man occupies a special place. Aside from being one of Stan Lee’s most famous creations, this franchise has undergone many triumphs, failures, scandals, upheavals, and everything in between. No matter where it stands among other franchises, Marvel just isn’t Marvel without Spider-Man.

The first “Spider-Man” movie helped revolutionize the superhero genre alongside “X-Men.” It’s not unreasonable to say that the Marvel Cinematic Universe wouldn’t exist without that first movie. That’s why when Spider-Man entered the MCU with “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” it carried a lot of weight.

With “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” both the standards and the stakes are higher. This movie is coming off the historic success of “Avengers Endgame” and is poised to close out Phase 3 of the MCU. It’s tasked with building on the foundation of its predecessor and dealing with the dramatic aftermath of the battle against Thanos. That’s a tall order for any franchise.

Look at this face and tell me I’m wrong. I dare you.

At the same time, it feels like Spider-Man has to be the franchise to pull this off. Between its special place in the genre and its cast of emerging stars, including the inherently lovable Tom Holland, “Spider-Man: Far From Home” feels like the only movie worthy of such a task. It has everything going for it. The question remains. Does it succeed?

In my humble opinion, I say it does, but not without some major flaws.

In terms of the big picture, “Spider-Man: Far From Home” is a quality Spider-Man movie that checks a lot of boxes, both for the franchise and for the MCU. It seamlessly weaves itself into the evolving narrative of the MCU in wake of “Avengers Endgame.” The first five minutes of the movie touch on the lingering aftermath of that climactic battle. It even injects some of that trademark MCU humor into some heavy moments.

On a more personal level, Peter Parker’s story builds upon the drama of Tony Stark’s death in “Avengers Endgame.” Throughout the movie, Iron Man’s presence looms large. Spider-Man is essentially stuck in the shadow of another hero who really affected his journey as a character in “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” It makes for plenty of dramatic moments that guide Peter throughout the story.

In terms of it genre, “Spider-Man: Far From Home” even succeeds in maintaining the increasingly high bar that Marvel Studios has set for its villains. While Jake Gyllenhaal’s Mysterio won’t rank as highly as Josh Brolin’s Thanos, he proves himself a daunting foe who doesn’t just test Spider-Man. He comes very close to breaking him.

I would even go so far as to say that Gyllenhaal’s take on Mysterio is worth the inflated ticket price. He makes “Spider-Man: Far From Home” work on multiple levels. I would argue that he’s the primary reason why the movie succeeds, despite its critical flaws.

Now, this is where I’m probably going to diverge from the those who have given this movie such glowing reviews. I may even upset some of my fellow Marvel fans who recoil at the idea of an MCU movie faltering. However, I believe the flaws are there and are being overshadowed by factors beyond the scope of the movie.

To me, the biggest failure of this movie isn’t in how it tells Spider-Man’s story. It’s in how it develops Peter Parker’s story. The battle between Spider-Man and Mysterio is beautifully developed. It’s what happens when Peter is out of his mask where the story stagnates and it has everything to do with Zendaya’s character, “MJ.”

I put “MJ” in quotes because she is definitively not Mary Jane Watson, Spider-Man’s most famous love interest in the comics and the character that Kirsten Dunst portrayed in the first three Spider-Man movies. That’s not the issue, though. “Spider-Man: Homecoming” established her and Peter’s friends as something very different from the comics. It wouldn’t be the first time the MCU made such changes.

The problem with MJ, Peter, and their shared role in “Spider-Man: Far From Home” is how poorly their romantic sub-plot plays out. It’s not a trivial sub-plot, either. A good chunk of the plot involves Peter following this elaborate plan to tell MJ how he feels about her. On paper, it’s pretty romantic. In practice, it’s a catalyst for too many cringe-worthy moments.

There’s no polite way to say it. The romance between Peter and MJ in this movie is awful. I won’t say it’s as awful as the nonsensical babble we saw between Peter and Gwen in “Amazing Spider-Man,” but it’s pretty close and for the high standards of the MCU, it’s just unacceptable.

While “Spider-Man: Homecoming” did an admirable job of establishing the dynamics between Peter and MJ, it falls incredibly flat in “Spider-Man: Far From Home.” In fact, if you didn’t see “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” Peter’s efforts to get with MJ seem more obsessive than romantic. At one point, he becomes downright vindictive when someone else tries to get with her. It does not reflect well on Peter.

MJ isn’t much better. Zendaya is a great actress, but she comes off as flat and unemotional throughout this movie. Say what you will about Kirsten Dunst’s portrayal of Mary Jane, but she still displayed a wide range of emotions throughout three movies. Zendaya’s tone and facial expressions barely change throughout this movie.

In essence, there’s no real chemistry between Peter and MJ. Given how critical this relationship is for the plot of the movie, that’s not a trivial oversight. It frames their actions and their decisions as something petty and selfish. There’s never a sense that Peter and MJ make each other better. If anything, they’re liabilities to one another.

In both the comics and the previous movies, this is not how the romantic sub-plots play out. While Spider-Man’s relationships have always complicated his efforts to be a better superhero, they ultimately make him stronger. They make his decision more heroic and his triumphs more satisfying. In “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” the romance was more a handicap than a challenge.

Compared to how other romantic sub-plots in the MCU, Peter and MJ’s is by far one of the weakest. It’s established that they’re attracted to one another. That’s the critical first step in any romantic sub-plot. However, “Spider-Man: Far From Home” skips the part where they actually start caring for one another before they develop deeper feelings.

Again, that’s not a trivial oversight. Compare that to other relationships like Starlord and Gamora, Pepper Potts and Iron Man, or even Thor and Jane Foster. It starts with attraction. The characters flirt and tease one another. Then, at some point, that flirting turns into genuine care. They show concern and emotion when they see one another in danger. From there, deeper feelings emerge.

None of that happens with Peter and MJ. Their interactions lack drama, which limits the personal stakes for Spider-Man’s battle against Mysterio. It helps that there are other personal stakes besides MJ that guide this struggle. If anything, those stakes would be a lot more powerful if the sub-plot with MJ were completely removed.

As bad as this romantic sub-plot is, “Spider-Man: Far From Home” still works because so many other elements of the movie are well done. Mysterio is a great villain who really capitalizes on the post-Thanos landscape of the MCU. Peter’s supporting cast, from his teachers to his Aunt May to his best friend Ned, all get a chance to shine. They help give this movie the right impact.

Compared to other Spider-Man movies, “Spider-Man: Far From Home” definitely exceeds the quality of the two “Amazing Spider-Man” movies that came before it. I would also say it’s slightly better than “Spider-Man 3,” albeit barely. If I had to score this movie, I would give it a 6 out of 10. It’s great, but not amazing.

For the MCU, especially after “Avengers Endgame,” the standards for a great superhero movie have never been higher. This movie met many of those standards, but a major flaw in a key sub-plot kept it from exceeding those standards. While I doubt this will hinder the franchise, I believe it’s a flaw that will only get worse if it’s not addressed in the sequels.

If you see the mid-credits scene, then you know what I’m talking about.

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Multiverses, Mutants, And The (Uncanny) Implications Of “Spider-Man: Far From Home”

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Anyone who has read more than a few comics, seen a few movies, or consumed more than a little sci-fi knows what often happens when multiple universes enter the picture. First, the overall story becomes bigger in scope, scale, and complexity. Second, a host of major complications emerge. Third, when done poorly, it becomes next to impossible to follow.

In terms of a larger narrative, it’s a huge gamble. It’s one of those plot points that is easy to mess up, not unlike time travel, wizards, or clones. Very few franchises, be they movies, comics, or TV shows, can make that gamble pay off. If ever there was a franchise that could make it work, it’s the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Between the record-breaking box office of “Avengers Endgame” and the adulation of countless fans, including myself, Marvel Studios is uniquely equipped to make the concept of a multiverse work within its over-arching story. To some extent, it has to. The finality of “Avengers Endgame” means it will have to find some way to grow without the iconic characters that helped make it.

The stage has already been set for a larger multiverse to emerge within the MCU. Just as fans like me are finally recovering from the emotional upheaval we experienced in “Avengers Endgame,” the second trailer for “Spider-Man: Far From Home” dropped and, beyond dropping some heavy spoilers, it revealed that the multiverse is officially a thing in this world.

There are a lot of implications for this, many of which go beyond Spider-Man’s story in the MCU. As the trailer reveals, the universe-altering events of “Avengers Endgame” opened a literal and proverbial door to new conflicts within the MCU. These conflicts offer many opportunities for some of Marvel’s many cosmic characters, but I believe the biggest opportunity is for the X-Men.

I say that not just as a huge X-Men fan who has already written extensively about their potential in the MCU. I believe that Marvel Studios could reinvent the X-Men and the entire concept of mutants in a way that’s fresh, engaging, and very relevant to events unfolding in the real world.

Marvel and their Disney overlords have already reported that the X-Men will be rebooted into the MCU in the coming years under the skilled hand of Kevin Feige. However, the method and details of that plan have yet to emerge and chances are, it’ll be several years before we see that full-on reboot that X-Men fans have been pining for since Hugh Jackman hung up his claws.

Imagining Wolverine without Hugh Jackman.

Even for Marvel Studios, it’s going to be a challenge. How do you introduce mutants, an entire race of super-powered beings, into a world in which they’ve never been mentioned? In fact, thanks to conflicts over movie rights, nobody in the MCU could even utter the word “mutant” without incurring the wrath of Fox’s lawyers.

That’s a problem because in over 10 years of movies, TV shows, and tie-ins, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become populated with many super-powered beings that include gods, super soldiers, and teenagers armed with spider powers. On top of that, they already have a race of genetically modified people called the Inhumans, who basically acted as a stand-in for mutants at one point.

This complicates the whole premise of the X-Men. A big part of their story and their appeal is the parallels between mutants and real-world minorities. The X-Men emerged during the time of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States and have since come to represent oppressed minorities from many eras, from racial minorities to the LGBTQ community.

That’s a tougher parallel to establish in the MCU because how can mutants be hated and feared in a world where Asgardians, super soldiers, and talking raccoons exist? Granted, mutants have a unique aura of unpredictability in that anyone could potentially be a mutant. Unlike the Inhumans, there’s no catalyst or radioactive spider necessary to activate their powers. They need only survive to puberty.

It’s still a stretch because the hate and fear of the 1960s is very different from that of the early 2000s century. It’s one thing to just be afraid and hateful of mutants. It’s quite another to craft killer robots to hunt them while ignoring entire populations of similar super-beings.

This is where the multiverse could enter the equation. With the proper sci-fi machinations, it could both bring the X-Men into the MCU while framing mutants in a context that makes them very relevant to contemporary issues. The key is linking the struggle with mutants with that of refugees.

Whereas discussions over minority issues have become somewhat predictable in recent years, debates about refugees have been much more heated. It has triggered protests, empowered populist uprisings, and caused a rise in xenophobia that far exceeds the old-school racism of the mid-20th century. These are the kinds of heated politics in which the X-Men thrive.

The “Spider-Man: Far From Home” trailer establishes that something happened in the battle against Thanos that opened the door to the multiverse. It’s easy to envision a scenario in which a population from a more hostile universe seeks refuge in one that is already used to super-powered beings.

It’s not difficult to imagine things getting that bad for the X-Men or mutants. Both “X-Men: Days of Future Past” and “The Gifted” explored a world where mutants where hunted, imprisoned, and outright murdered. The comics also have a lengthy history of dystopian futures in which the X-Men could not stop humanity from hating and fearing their kind.

Then, just as things look hopeless, a doorway to another universe unexpectedly opens. Mutants suddenly have a chance to escape their rapidly-decaying world and start anew. It’s an opportunity many desperate and traumatized refugees seek in the real world. Their stories are full of horror and atrocity. It’s a story that resonates beyond the superhero genre.

In addition to providing a mechanism for entering the MCU, it also solves another critical issue with respect to narrative. It gives the X-Men a new type of story that hasn’t been told before in the movies. For the past 19 years, almost every X-Men movie has followed a similar formula.

Mutants are hated and feared.

The X-Men try to combat that fear.

Someone, often Magneto, tries to provoke a war between humans and mutants.

The X-Men stop that war from occurring.

It’s a story that has played out many times. Sometimes, it has been great. Other times, it has been god-awful. Just telling that same story again in the MCU won’t be enough. By making mutants refugees, the entire dynamics change in a way that could cause all sorts of upheavals that could impact many other MCU franchises.

One possibility.

Like real-life refugees, they come to a new world out of desperation, escaping horrors that they had no part in creating. The world they enter is inherently suspicious of them. They see them as strange, dangerous outsiders who could bring their problems to their homes. These are real concerns from people other than the reactionary radicals who often preach hate.

It’s one of those issues that has no good resolution. These people are victims of a war that they want to escape. They flee to wherever they feel they’ll be safe. Often, their options are limited and when an opportunity comes along, they have to pursue or die. If the events of “Avengers Endgame” somehow create such an opportunity, then why wouldn’t someone take a chance?

It would put mutants and the X-Men at odds with everyone in the MCU, from the Avengers to SHIELD to the average person still recovering from invading aliens in New York. It would also establish a clear divide that could one day manifest in a full-blown “Avengers Vs. X-Men” movie, which has already been teased.

All that being said, the powers that be at Marvel Studios may opt for an entirely different approach. In that case, everything I just described may be a moot point. This is just one approach that I found myself contemplating after seeing the “Spider-Man: Far From Home.” It’ll probably be a while before we know the full implications, both for the multiverse and for mutants in the MCU.

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