Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Jason Reynolds & Miles Morales

When Jason Reynolds' agent called him about writing a book about Miles Morales, the first thing he said was: "Never heard of him."  "He's a Spider-Man in Brooklyn who's black and Puerto Rican," she explained.  He paused.  "Continue..."

Throughout his work, Reynolds has written with the intention to teach young boys of color how to become men, so it made sense for him to have an instant interest in writing a YA novel for Miles.  That and it's Marvel.  There was just one small request from Disney: that he write the book in twenty-eight days.  He had to cut himself off from the world to do it, but he succeeded in weaving a narrative that may have a keener awareness for Miles than even the comic books did.

If you haven't read Miles Morales: Spider-Man, the quick run down is that Miles' spidey sense is on the fritz and he's just been suspended from his private school for constantly leaving to "go to the bathroom."  This causes tension with his family, particularly his father, who is adamant that Miles doesn't fall into the same criminal habits as his uncle.

When Reynolds kicked off the release of Miles Morales: Spider-Man at an indie bookstore (which was fitting since he's the 2017 Indies First Spokesperson), he talked about the hiccups in the character's comic book background that he had to address.  "His father's name is Jefferson Davis, first of all," he said, pausing to let the audience absorb this.  Miles Morales, an Afro-Puerto Rican teenager/superhero, has a black father named after the president of the Confederacy.  Uh-oh.

"Then I realized that Ganke is Korean but that's not a Korean name," Reynolds continued.  "And if Miles' mother is Puerto Rican, she's probably - speaking generally here - she's probably Catholic and would change her name.  So why does Miles have her last name?"  In the book, Miles explains that his father and uncle made Davis a bad name back in the day, so that was why he goes by Morales.  The characters acknowledge the strangeness of other two name problems later in the book, though they can't give an answer to them.

As for the Peter Parker Spider-Man, Reynolds always thought the famous line "With great power comes great responsibility" sounded silly in a fifteen-year-old mouth.  "If I got powers, I'd be thinking a whole lot of other things first," said Reynolds.  He expressed his interest in expanding Miles' identity as a superhero of color who does not automatically have the same privileges as the likes of Peter Parker.  How could Miles be saving the world when his own neighborhood needed saving?

In the novel, Reynolds explores the "survivor's guilt" that Miles feels not only for making it to a private school but also gaining supposedly undeserved powers.  When his spidey sense goes out of wack, Miles repeatedly wonders if his time has a hero has run out.  If he'll inevitably go back to the hustling in his veins.  Miles' conflict sharpens whenever he has a conversation with his father, who had narrowly escaped Uncle Aaron's fate by turning his life around in his youth and who repeatedly emphasizes that he is Miles Morales' father, not Spider-Man's.

Over and over Miles hears the words "You're just like me" in his nightmares, in his day-to-day life, everywhere.  He hears the warning that he will turn out just like his uncle.  Like how every other brown kid is expected to turn out.  It's the fear that plagues real kids like Miles who made it into the good school to help them get out of their rough neighborhood, only to be thrown into the school to prison pipeline as they experience harsher discipline than their white peers.

"It has to matter that he's black and Puerto Rican, " said Reynolds.  And he does make it matter.  When you realize what Miles is up against in the book, you know that it's intertwined with his racial identity and family roots.  Miles' reality is harder because of his skin color.  The book makes no qualms about acknowledging that and does not neatly resolve Miles' problems.  As a result, the novel's last scene reverberates with a power that only an author like Reynolds could pull off.

As if Reynolds hadn't already won me over enough, he also discussed his mission to deconstruct toxic masculinity in his writing.  "In my stories, I have a brown boy who is terrified," said Reynolds.  In Miles Morales: Spider-Man, Miles' crush calls him out on his fear.  Reynolds also talked about an alternate narrative of men fumbling like nervous wrecks instead of boasting about their womanizing ways.  Reynolds illustrates such a narrative when Miles' father tells Miles that he spilled salsa all over his mother when they first met and that Miles should go ahead and "spill the salsa" on his crush.  It's a more lighthearted refrain in the novel, but no less powerful in showing a different way to be a man.

If none of that is enough to convince you that Miles Morales: Spider-Man is worth reading, I don't know what to do with you.  But if you have any interest in Miles as a character or in Reynolds' mission as a writer, I highly recommend you go to the closest indie bookstore and buy a copy ASAP.

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Me and Jason Reynolds at Kepler's Books

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

New Spider-Man Accurately Shows the Awkward Stage of a Superhero

Prepare to feel way better about your embarrassing teen years, thanks to the newest Spider-Man.  We’ve anticipated the third reincarnation of Spidey ever since his appearance in Captain America: Civil War, and, let’s be honest, we were real nervous about it.  However, Marvel answered our concerns with a surprisingly fresh take that shows a Spider-Man in transition.  I’m not just talking about the typical arc of an impatient young guy who learns from his mistakes and finds his “inner strength” and whatnot (though that’s definitely there).  I’m talking basic, practical, visceral teenage-hero awkwardness.

Let’s start with this: the costume change.  Deadpool gets the credit for first pointing out the cumbersome costume change that every other superhero film skips over, but Spider-Man also tackles the challenge in an alleyway as he struggles to shimmy into his costume.  (You’d think that Stark would have figured out a way to make that easier.)  Worse yet, he loses his backpack afterward.  While Deadpool’s costume change intends to satirize, Spider-Man’s simply portrays the less graceful side of a superhero-in-training.  This is a Spider-Man who tumbles through backyard bushes, falls from rooftops, and crashes into pools.  This is a Spider-Man who stumbles over everything and apologizes profusely as he’s doing it.  He’s not the smooth, wisecracking web-slinger that we have seen in the comics.  At least not yet.  And that’s the cool thing about Spider-Man: Homecoming.  It shows us what Peter Parker was probably like when he first started out.

Usually I put the movie poster here, but that's a Photoshop disaster so this is a picture of me at the theater instead








We had a taste of Peter's youthful excitement in Civil War, but apparently it was more extensive than we thought.  Homecoming reveals that Peter was taking behind-the-scenes video footage from the moment Tony recruited him to seconds before Peter was called into duty at the airport battle and beyond.  His curiosity and enthusiasm is endearing, and it makes so much sense for Peter to feel that way.  He’s young, and he wants to save the world as soon as possible.  Even my best friend, who’s a hardcore fan of Spider-Man, hadn’t seen this happy-go-lucky version of Peter before.  He’s silly in the best possible way.

The movie never lets us forget that Peter’s a sophomore in high school.  All the tropes are there to remind us of our own high school days.  Unrequited crush.  Invited to the cool kids’ party.  Homecoming gone wrong.  Peter’s best friend Ned also provides a fun dynamic.  On one hand he’s the confidant that reminds Peter that “you are a kid” as Peter gripes about Tony treating him like a child.  On the other hand he’s asking if Peter can lay eggs and summon a legion of spiders.  Boy, please.  Summoning insects is Ant-Man’s job.

Thankfully, Tony doesn’t dominate the movie like I was afraid he would.  Peter obviously aches for a father figure in Tony (I could think of better role models, honestly, but that’s a post for another time).  Tony pops in just often enough for the “fatherly” arc to make sense while still letting Peter come to his own conclusions and find his own path, which creates a nice coming-of-age narrative that we haven’t seen in the MCU yet.  Not only was Spider-Man: Homecoming a new, interesting take on Peter Parker, but also on Marvel movies as a whole.  I happily welcome the new Spider-Man, and I look forward to seeing the other ways that he develops in future films.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Ahsoka: A Star Wars Story

For fans of the animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars, E.K. Johnston’s novel Ahsoka is required reading.  In the TV series, we saw Ahsoka Tano transform from the brash and sassy Padawan, to the experienced young general, to the Jedi who left the Order after a loss of faith.  Johnston continues the Ahsoka character arc we deserved in the tragically cancelled Clone Wars.  Ahsoka, who was already struggling to find her new place in the world, has become even more untethered now that most of the Jedi have been wiped out and she can no longer sense her former masters.

(Source: Wikipedia)
Ahsoka spends most of the novel on a moon called Raada in the outskirts of the galaxy, where she meets a small, quiet community of farmers - including a young woman named Kaeden.  I assume Kaeden is a black woman from the description of her skin color and hair, but what I know for sure is that Kaeden is the first (confirmed) gay character that I’ve come across in the Star Wars universe.  Kaeden’s unrequited feelings for Ahsoka are obvious to everyone except Ahsoka - which is unfortunate, but perhaps for the better since the Star Wars universe has not proven to be relationship-friendly.  Meanwhile, the Empire starts to wreak havoc on Raada, and Ahsoka has to navigate her secret identity and her desire to help people.  I liked getting inside Ahsoka’s head in a way that I never got to while watching her in The Clone Wars.  Because I was reading a novel, I could see her in her tactical mode, her meditations, and her moments of vulnerability in a more intimate setting.

I love how Ahsoka has come into her own in this novel.  She’s always had a strong tactical mind and sense of empathy, traits that she has had to sharpen without the guidance of Anakin or Obi-Wan.  However, she seems to have achieved a balance and control that Anakin never could.  Ahsoka keeps her emotions in check when she is strategizing for her survival or for a mission, but she allows her loyalty and emotional ties to her friends motivate her to save them despite personal risk.  She’s taken the best of Anakin’s heart and Obi-Wan’s mind to become a tempered, quick-thinking, and compassionate fighter under pressure.  It hurts to see how much she misses them.  But if nothing else, they trained her well.

Ahsoka leaves the Jedi Order
(Source: StarWars.com)
The novel is interspersed with flashbacks, mostly from Ahsoka but also from Anakin and Obi-Wan.  All of them will make you sad.  If you’re a masochist like me and want to increase your suffering, linger on the first flashback from Ahsoka featuring the old nickname “Snips” or, even worse, the flashback from Anakin: “Anakin had never put in for a Padawan of his own.  He didn’t want it to look like he was pushing Obi-Wan aside.  Now, Obi-Wan had gone and done it first, and Anakin still wasn’t sure how he felt about it.”  THESE ARE NOT THE TEARS YOU’RE LOOKING FOR. *sniffle*

During The Clone Wars, Anakin and Obi-Wan were like Ahsoka’s bickering adopted dads.  If you don’t believe me, check the Tumblr memes.  If you don’t believe the memes, check the scene where Kaeden's sister asks Ahsoka if her “adopted parents” ever fought and tell me if Ahsoka’s smile doesn’t crush your heart into itty bitty pieces.  The Jedi could talk all they wanted about no attachments, but when you’re Anakin Skywalker’s Padawan, there’s no avoiding them.  Ahsoka’s feelings about the ones she left behind paint the novel with a tender grief that heightens the tragedy in her life as well as Anakin’s and Obi-Wan’s lives.  Now, I don’t want to imply that Ahsoka merely serves as a boost for their story, because that would reduce her character to a prop, and anyone who’s familiar with her character will now that’s not who she is.  But their stories have always been and always will be intertwined.  Ahsoka allowed us to see the prequel trilogy's universe in a different light.  Hopefully, her presence in Star Wars Rebels and other Star Wars installments can help us see the original trilogy’s universe in a different light, too.

The best part of this book is that even after finishing it, I know Ahsoka’s story is not finished.  She’s not a Jedi.  She’s still figuring out what she will be instead.  And if anyone can relate to that, it’s a recent college graduate who has no job and no idea what she’s going to do with her life now that she’s not a student.  (Hint: that’s me.)  I think a lot of people can relate to her storyline, whether they’re having a mid-life crisis, a quarter-life crisis, or any other identity crisis.  Ahsoka shows us that even when you’re forging your own path, it’s okay to acknowledge what the past has done for you, and it’s okay to let go of that past.  One day at a time.



Sunday, July 2, 2017

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

When I watched Tim Burton’s film Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, I knew not to expect the book.  I’m glad that I didn’t.  I could appreciate the movie for what it was rather than what it wasn’t, while I also pulled out the parallels that did exist between the movie and the book.  As a result, I ended up liking both in their own right.

Ransom Riggs created a mixed-media book series that combined text with vintage photographs that he obtained from various collectors.  He created characters with semi-creepy powers from these semi-creepy photos and fabricated a fascinating nightmarish adventure that killed off characters left and right.  Tim Burton, surprisingly, dials back the dark tones in the books quite a bit in his interpretation.  He more or less follows the plot of the first book, but he wraps up the story with a neat, happy ending instead of a cliffhanger.



Source: Wikipedia
During the movie, I kept my eyes open to appreciate the elements from the book that did come to life, instead of fretting over what didn’t.  In return, I could see the peculiar spirit of the book - that feeling of being different, the eternal pause on childhood, and the shock of the fantastical becoming real and scary.  The first time I saw a hollowgast in the movie, I got the heebie-jeebies.  As much as I did like the book series, I also found the story intense, violent, and creepy compared to my usual fantasy novels.  The movie, meanwhile, treats the story with a quirkier and more lighthearted touch.  Burton added humor to the characters.  I laughed more during the movie than I remember laughing for Riggs’ three books combined.


Just look at the different color schemes between the film poster and book cover to get an idea of what I'm talking about.
Source: Wikipedia
Burton also did two interesting things to the main character Jacob’s love interest.  First, Burton downplayed Emma’s relationship with Jacob’s grandfather, making her current romantic involvement with Jacob way less icky.  Second, he changed Emma’s power from controlling fire to controlling air.  Compared to the book Emma, movie Emma is softer, gentler, less in your grill.  She floats on air instead of spitting fire in everyone’s face - which, to be honest, I missed.  I couldn’t help but wonder if Burton changed her character because she was too “aggressive” as a female character.  If so, he missed the fact that she’s also the most grounded character, believing in Miss Peregrine and in Jacob so steadfastly that she gives the other characters the courage they need to face the horrors around them.  She feels deeply, and even though she is confrontational, she is also vulnerable.  All of those dimensions are skimmed over or ignored in Burton’s movie.  Part of it comes at the price of condensing the story to 100 minutes.  The other part comes from Burton’s different sensibilities.  I liked picking out the differences between the Emma’s, weighing the good and bad in both versions and thinking about what I value most in a female character.  I’ll be honest though, even if I miss the fire, that movie scene where Emma blasts water out of an entire submerged ship with just her lung power was pretty amazing.  Definitely not in the book.

Also gone in the Burton movie is the plot about Miss Peregrine’s brothers being the ones to create the wight and hollowgast problem in their pursuit of immortality.  The oldest brother Caul in particular inspires a peculiar movement, mostly among males, against ymbrynes like Miss Peregrine who keep peculiar children in eternal loops to protect them from the outside world.  His followers claim that the powerful ymbrynes, who are all female, infantilize and oppress peculiar people.  Riggs makes no hesitation to point out that Caul’s behavior stems from jealousy that his sister is stronger and more powerful than he could ever be.  His rhetoric, frankly, reminded me of men’s rights activists.  The subtle conversation about gender dynamics in peculiardom was unexpected, particularly from a male author.  Unfortunately it becomes lost in the hands of a male director.  Granted, I understand why Burton would cut out Caul from the narrative since he stuck to one movie instead of three, but I still feel like he missed an opportunity.


So, how do the book and movie of the peculiar world compare?  The answer to that question doesn’t matter as much as the fact that movie-watching is a lot more fun when you aren’t prepared to criticize it from the onset.  In the case of Miss Peregrine, I wouldn’t call the movie “worse,” but “different.”  In this case, whether you should read the book instead is up what you want.  If you want the peculiar feel of the story without going quite as deep or dark, the movie’s the way to go.  If you want to dive into the nuance and fearsomeness as well as the gender dynamics of Riggs’ world, the books are your way in.  Or maybe you try both because you’ve got a lot of time on your hands.  Like me.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Wonder Woman Slays the Day

SPOILER ALERT: Wonder Woman gets a rude awakening.

Make no mistake that Wonder Woman is better than everyone. *glares at Batman and Superman*  I find delicious satisfaction in that DC finally found its big break in what the LA Times calls "the first female-fronted superhero blockbuster," with Wonder Woman grossing $100.5 million in its debut weekend.  DC can finally heave a sigh of relief.  Fourth, fifth, sixth time's the charm.

There's a certain coming-of-age quality to Wonder Woman's origin story.  She grew up in paradise filled with strong women like her mother Hippolyta, who instilled the values of justice and peace-keeping through stories of the Amazonian past.  Wonder Woman, also known as Diana, then steamrolls alongside Allied spy Steve Trevor into a war-torn world.  She's determined to slay Ares the god of war, because she believes his influence is the sole reason for the war and that once he is dead, then everyone will stop fighting and killing each other.  Take out the one bad guy, and you're all good, right?  It takes a while for Diana to learn what we already know: people are way more complicated.

(Source: Wikipedia)

Besides the nice character development, the film has great action scenes, with liberal use of the dramatic slo-mo and athletic feats that would make you do a double take.  Wonder Woman is a goddess.  Meanwhile, Steve does his best to help with his rifle, with a pew-pew here and a pew-pew there, but you know she's the one that's kicking butt and taking names.

I also like that the movie acknowledges racism several times through Sameer and Chief, two men of color on Wonder Woman's team.  Sameer wanted to be an actor, but he tells her that the color of his skin has ultimately forced him to become a spy instead.  Chief, a Native American, explains that when he smuggles, he's taking back what was taken from his people by (gesturing to Steve) "his people."  Both Sameer and Chief become heroes in their own right, and I appreciated seeing that.

Wonder Woman showed us the transformation of an idealistic, fresh-faced woman into a hardened warrior that knows her way with a sword (a sword, mind you, that at one point she wears in the back of her dress).  The film made me gasp with surprise and tear up with emotion.  Diana and her merry band of unexpected heroes are a wonderful (pun not intended) addition to the DCEU.  This world did not deserve this movie.  But I'm sure glad that we got it.

P.S. There's a big spoiler that's not in the header.  Can you guess what it is?

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Everything, Everything

SPOILER ALERT: Rapunzel leaves her tower.


Imaginative and sweetly tender, Everything, Everything is a young adult romance that fulfills your feel-good needs thanks to the performance of its talented leads.  The movie follows Maddy, a girl who has stayed inside her house her whole life because she has a compromised immune system - SCID, which she illustrates for us in the opening.  Then along comes the new neighbor Olly with a bundt cake and... well, you get the idea.

I thought the movie stayed true to the YA fiction genre it came from.  The characters felt like real teenagers.  Their story felt hopeful and cutesy and touching.  Example: when Olly and Maddy finally meet in person, you see subtitles of their thoughts as they awkwardly try to make conversation.  Olly: I'm more nervous than she is and she's never even left the house! Maddy: His hair could save my life.  Funniest scene in the whole movie.

Beneath my sarcastic exterior is a giant cheeseball for a heart, and that heart bawled ugly happy tears for this movie.  The actors have wonderful onscreen chemistry and a fun, flirty friendship that develops into something bold and genuine as the story progresses.  The pièce de résistance is that it's a relationship between a white guy and black girl that NO ONE questions on the basis of their race.  I need me more healthy interracial relationships like this.

(Source: Wikipedia)

Since Maddy takes architectural classes, she frequently builds models of various structures - including a 50s diner and a several-story library that she visualizes meeting Olly in as they are having their text conversations.  I loved seeing those imagined architectural spaces on screen that allow Maddy to touch and talk to Olly in a personal interaction that she desperately desires.  In and out of those spaces walks the astronaut that Maddy also puts into every model because she identifies with a man in a suit in space.  That aspect of the film was fascinating both visually and metaphorically for me.

The movie had its faults, which my mother and I discussed afterward.  Maddy's nurse Carla has a daughter, Rosa, who is briefly introduced at the beginning but does not return until the end.  We thought it would have made more sense to include more of Rosa and to have her facilitate Olly meeting Maddy at her house rather than Carla, since a teenager is more likely to take risk like that.  I also thought that we should have seen hints earlier on about Maddy's mother being controlling and overprotective of her daughter, which doesn't come to a head until the last minute.

I mentioned to my mother that I saw a lower rating for Everything, Everything on Rotten Tomatoes, and she said: "It's very much a girl movie.  Probably it was all the male reviewers who said bad things."  I haven't checked to see if her comment is true, but it's probably true in the sense that anyone who is not into somewhat sappy teenager romance won't have much interest in this movie.  If that's not your style, it's not your style.  But if it IS your style, I think watching it is worth your while.

P.S. I totally stole the idea of a spoiler header from Maddy.  She writes several blog reviews throughout the movie and always puts a funny or cryptic spoiler at the top.  Might try doing that from now on.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2

I try not to be Marvel trash.  I really do.  You would think that I'd get bored of Marvel after six or seven years, but somehow the Guardians have won me over for the millionth time.  The sequel to last year's smash hit, though not quite up to par with the original, was still funny, still zany, and still hard on the feels.  Sue me, I liked it.

(Source: Wikipedia)

Peter, Gamora, Drax, Rocket, and Groot are back to save the day.  In true Guardians fashion, one of the first scenes opens with the gang fighting a disgusting monster as baby Groot jams to the first song he plays on Peter's Awesome Mixtape Vol. 2.  Rocket reveals afterward that he has stolen the very batteries that they were protecting from the monster, and as a result the people who hired them chase the Guardians throughout the movie to get them back.  But that's not the main story.  The big reveal is when Peter Quill's father Ego (played by Kurt Russell) arrives to bond with his long-lost son and takes them to the planet that he created with his Celestial powers.  I won't go too much into the Peter-Ego relationship because (SPOILER), but just know my mind was blown by Ego's character several times.  

In line with the father-son theme, Rocket is constantly struggling with the burden of fatherhood - namely making sure that Groot doesn't get them all killed.  Wonderful and hilarious interactions ensue.  Meanwhile, Yondu, who Ego had hired to take Peter to him after his mother died, has been kicked out of the Ravagers for breaking their code and feels lost until he runs into Rocket.  They come to realize that they have more common than they think, and it's an excellent moment for both characters.  I didn't expect Yondu of all people to get me so emotional on several occasions, especially because of how crappy he was to Peter in the first movie, but he does.  And that whistling arrow is as cool as ever.

Nebula, Gamora's sister, is trying to kill her for revenge for always beating her when their father Thanos would pit them against each other.  She gives us another hint at how awful Thanos is and reveals a surprising dynamic between her and Gamora that I hope to see developed more in the future.  Drax is still not doing much, like last time, but I did love his interactions with Mantis, an alien who can feel people's feelings by touching them.  He's so blunt and she's so innocent and it makes an interesting contrast.

One of my favorite moments in the film is when Gamora mentions how Peter told her that he used to carry a picture of David Hasselhoff and tell other kids that it was his father.  Peter complains that he told her that when he was drunk and it's too depressing, but Gamora replies, "I love that story."  Ever since the first movie, Peter has had an obvious crush on Gamora and tries to flirt with her, but she shoots him down every time.  However, their conversation about Peter's childhood story reveals that if Peter stopped acting so cocky and shared more vulnerably with Gamora, she would probably be far more receptive to his romantic intentions.  The moment subtly shows men that being tough and egotistical isn't the way to win women over.  (Certainly not this woman, anyway.)

I will say that some of the humor fell flat this time around.  The movie takes shots at a few cheap jokes and of course that means that not all of them are going to get a laugh.  It's not the end of the world and it doesn't take away from the overall comedy and feel-good vibes, but I have to acknowledge it.  Aside from that, the movie had stunning space fight visuals, unexpected emotion that made me tear up at least once, and a fun comedic tone that I enjoyed thoroughly.  And I hope to keep enjoying the Guardians for several years to come.

The Marvel Trash Can. This is where I am, and this is where I'll stay.
(Source: Wikipedia)