Ian Thomas Malone

Monthly Archive: November 2022



November 2022



Hadestown celebrates the impermanence of joy against the tides of capitalism

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There is a certain false comfort that modern storytelling aims to provide its audiences. We embrace happy endings not necessarily because we believe that love conquers all or that individual people can beat back the tides of fate or capitalism’s all-encompassing clutches, but because it’s nice to dream that we could. The somber parting emotions that tragedies leave us with at their conclusions can often supersede the joys of the journey that the narrative exists to illustrate.

The musical Hadestown captures the essence of this dynamic perfectly in one of its first act numbers. In the middle of the song “Livin’ it up on the top,” Orpheus raises a toast, “To the world we dream about, and the one we live in now.” The play intertwines the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice with the romance between Hades and Persephone, dueling storylines that compete for attention in a manner that leaves the former pairing little time for an organic courtship, but that’s also part of the beauty of their story. Too many people struggle with the distance between their grandiose dreams and the reality that consumes their present.

Hadestown’s Orpheus is not an epic hero. He is a charming starving artist, the kind of pretty face who can win you over with his smile and his song, without any existing infrastructure to sustain a life beyond pheromones alone. Eurydice quickly learns that the beauty of spring is not built to survive the brutality of winter. Hades, king of the underworld, functions in the role of antagonist with an easily presentable defense against his own villainy. Eurydice consents to an eternity of indentured servitude not through Hades’ lies or deception, but largely because she is hungry and Orpheus cannot provide sustenance for the body as well as he can illuminate the soul with his song.

Capitalism is the true villain of Hadestown. Hades is not a soulless monster, himself open to the charms of Persephone to remind him of the man he used to be before time stripped him of everything besides the carnal urge to propel the means of production through his factory. America’s entire financial structure is built on an identical premise to Hades’ trial presented to Orpheus, the illusion of choice that covers up the near-impossibility of success.

Each and every day, banks hand out predatory loans to children not even old enough to buy a beer, promising tomorrows no one will ever see under the weight of the student debt they’ll spend a lifetime drowning in. The fantasy that capitalism tries to sell is the idea of agency, a dream of tomorrow hidden beyond the perpetually moving goalposts. Orpheus and Eurydice operated on two different wavelengths, reality and the dream forced to confront their own incompatibility.

Love does not conquer all. Love is not permanent, but a covenant forced to battle the demons of capitalism each and every day. The marching tides of capitalism wait for no one, not Orpheus, not you. Countless souls who dream of a better tomorrow lose that fight as their bodies and souls are depleted in service to the means of production. The legend of Orpheus and Eurydice remains as timely as ever, love taking its best shot against the machine and coming up just short. You can muster up all the wind at your back, the magic and beauty lining up perfectly in your favor, but sometimes that’s just not enough.

The kind of joy that tragedy offers often requires a harder road to travel. One could writhe in frustration at how close Orpheus and Eurydice came to eternal happiness, in doing so overlooking the simpler beauty in the time that did belong to them. Art does not derive its use value by capitalism’s criteria, but through the beauty in its crafting and its execution. Hadestown presents Orpheus and Eurydice’s love in a timespan more comparable to a one night stand than eternity, but there’s great magic to be found in the embrace of the present, even when facing the reality that nothing lasts forever. 



November 2022



The Crown wallows in an annus horribilis of its own making

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The general logic behind rotating the cast of The Crown every two seasons was to give the show a chance to cover the spread of major events in the Royal Family across the long and storied reign of Queen Elizabeth II. The transition in practice is a bit clunkier, with the need to reacquaint the audience with the characters gunking up the narrative flow of the show. A further complication stems from the reality that The Crown is slowly creeping up on recent history, particularly one saga that’s been covered ad nauseam for the past few decades.

Season five centers its narrative on decay. The Crown is quite preoccupied with positioning the decommissioning of the royal yacht Britannia as a broader narrative for the downward trajectory of relevance for the Royal Family as a whole, a notion that might confuse viewers fresh off the triumphant Platinum Jubilee, as well as the global outpour of affection following the death of Her Majesty in September. The fairly rosy outlook for the monarchy was hardly a given in the midst of 1992’s infamous “annus horribilis,” which saw the breakdown of 75% of the Queen’s children’s marriages as well as a tragic fire in Windsor Castle.

The overabundance of doom and gloom illustrates season five’s predominant shortcoming, a textbook example of showing without telling. Bad things happen to the monarchy and the Queen (Imelda Staunton) is very sad about it. She loses her boat, her kids get divorced, and Diana is tricked into going on national television to pull back the curtains as to what an uncaring and unsympathetic family the Windsors really are. That’s kind of it. The Queen doesn’t really do anything other than mope and cling to the past, even with regard to her choices in cable television. 

Previous seasons of The Crown, particularly the third season, struggled with Her Majesty’s place in a narrative that often found her relatives far more interesting to depict. Philip (Jonathan Pryce) and Margaret (Leslie Manville), once primary focuses of the series, are reduced to idle background characters, the former seeing his primary arc consumed with carriage riding and a friendship with Penelope Knatchbull (Natascha McElhone) that the show rather openly wishes was more than that. The Crown retains its contempt for the Queen Mother (Marcia Warren), one of the most interesting members of the family who’s been reduced to a window draping for the entire course of the series.

The Crown also refuses to let its fascination with the Duke of Windsor slip away, giving the long-dead former monarch an epilogue in the form of his valet Syndey Johnson (Jude Akuwudike), who later served Mohamed Al-Fayed (Salim Daw) in his efforts to ingratiate himself to the Crown. Episode three perhaps best highlights the main issue for the season as a whole, a narrative so strapped for plotlines that it would dedicate a full episode to the father of the man who died in the same car crash that killed Princess Diana. Such screentime might have been better deployed to the Queen’s three other children. After a season of relative prominence, Anne (Claudia Harrison) is reduced to almost complete obscurity, while Andrew and Edward barely exist at all.

Unsurprisingly, season five dedicates much of its runtime to the end of the marriage between Charles (Dominic West) and Diana (Elizabeth Debicki). The biggest problem with this dynamic is the reality that the show brought upon itself. The irrevocable breakdown of the marriage was already defined throughout season four, leaving this season with little but the epilogue. There are interesting moments here and there in the saga, particularly toward Diana’s mindset heading into the Panaroma interview that was solicited under false pretenses, but there’s not enough meat here to carry a season. Debucki does a fabulous job as Diana, but she’s hardly given many moments to define the Princess of Wales as her own like Emma Corrin was able to manage.

West is perhaps in the most strenuous position among the leads, portraying the future King of England in the midst of his most unlikable era. Along with Pryce, West suffers from an inability to truly sink into the role, neither actor able to deliver an accent that sounds much like their subject. Charles is fundamentally correct in most of his concerns about the future of the monarchy, but nothing can change how insufferable and entitled he fundamentally comes across as. Late-season remarks by Tony Blair (Bertie Carvel) lay out the challenges with Charles quite well.

The Crown spends its own annus horribilis oddly bored with itself, a meandering season without the passion it once evoked toward its privileged subjects. There’s nothing new to explore and nothing fresh to say about Diana and Charles. As much as stagnancy may have defined this chapter of the Royal Family, it’s hard to forgive the show’s exceedingly boring delivery. As an institution, The Crown will always have to deal with the “why” of monarchy, an existential moral question with real-world implications. As a show, The Crown might want to take a more deliberate approach to its own execution and present a better thesis for its own existence. 



November 2022



Mickey: The Story of a Mouse presents a corporate-approved perspective on an American icon

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It would impossible to overstate the cultural significance of Mickey Mouse. The greatest modern example of the commodification of art into product, Mickey has spent the past hundred years reinventing himself as a Rorschach test for whatever capitalism needs him to be. Mickey is everything, everywhere, all at once. 

The Disney+ documentary Mickey: The Story of a Mouse chronicles the mouse’s rise from mere cartoon short to a monolithic leviathan, occasionally with a keen sense of self-awareness. Born out of a loss to Walt Disney, who saw the rights to his initial creation Oswald the Lucky Rabbit snatched away by the clutches of capitalism he would eventually learn to wield for himself, Mickey was a cultural force straight from the get-go. The documentary does a fabulous job explaining Disney’s early technical prowess, one of the first to bring sound to cartoons.

Director Jeff Malmberg does a good job bouncing between Mickey’s storied history, and the present day he continues to dominate. Mickey superfans will undoubtedly love the behind-the-scenes glimpses into Disney’s animation studios, particularly its revered archival department. Malmberg manages to provide some perspective into Disney’s importance to shaping animation without ever diving too deep into the weeds. The documentary never loses sight of its primary objective of serving as a victory lap for Mickey’s century of innovation and excellence.

The doc does spend a bit too much of its 89-minute runtime on a rotating series of interviews from Mickey superfans stating obvious platitudes about the mouse, often carrying the aura of a Trump administration cabinet meeting. With all the beautiful archival footage and behind-the-scenes perspectives, the laymen’s perspectives on Mickey’s status as a cultural behemoth grow a little tiresome after a while. There is a certain irony in the sequence covering Walt’s time creating wartime propaganda for the U.S. military, this documentary serving a similar purpose for the house that Mickey built.

The propaganda does grow a bit tedious in the third act, when the time comes to admit fault for some of Mickey’s past depictions, particularly in blackface. Mickey has not always been everything to everyone, a shining example of Disney’s core center-right conservative leanings that the company still embodies to this day. Malmberg does not shy away from the implications of Mickey’s commodification, albeit without an iota of self-awareness for the reality that this is truer today than ever before with soaring ticket prices to Disney Parks and an incrementalist approach to inclusivity that puts Disney far behind several of its corporate peers.

Mickey: The Story of a Mouse is entertaining propaganda that should appeal to Disney superfans while only superficially engaging with the realities of Mickey’s status as the bastion of American capitalism. Malmberg made a beautiful documentary, crafted with obvious love for its subject. There is little artistic merit to this work, not with the strings of Disney’s corporate overlords never far from the frame. 



November 2022



Black Panther: Wakanda Forever pays tribute to Chadwick Boseman while setting its own course for the future

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The death of Chadwick Boseman left a void in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that can never be filled. The triumphs of the first Black Panther gave director Ryan Coogler an abundance of material to craft a follow-up that not only paid tribute to Boseman’s legacy, but built on the foundation he helped establish. The show must go on, not just for capitalism’s sake, but for the proletariat who were inspired by the original film’s mature themes that were far more substantive than typical Marvel fare.

Coogler’s most impressive achievement with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is his innate ability to give the narrative space to shape its own story while never losing sight of the grief at hand. The film starts off with T’Challa’s death, Shuri (Letitia Wright) unable to use her ample brilliance to save her brother’s life. A time jump moves the narrative up a year, where Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) is struggling to contain the fallout of the events of Avengers: Infinity War, which revealed Wakanda’s vibranium supply to the rest of the world, America in particular uncomfortable with a world power possessing weapons out of its reach.

Phase Four has largely focused on elements of the world at large, previously unknown to the heavy hitters across the Marvel Cinematic Universe, an ocean of possibilities from the heavens or the broader multiverse. The ocean itself carries more than a few secrets, particularly with regard to one of Marvel’s oldest heroes/antiheroes/villains. Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía) rules Talokan deep beneath the ocean, a civilization reliant on vibranium for basic necessities such as light itself. The comics have often pitted Wakanda and Talokan against each other, two isolated superpowers with vastly different governing ideologies.

Wakanda Forever never quite settles on a single figure to replace T’Challa’s position as the primary protagonist, instead relying on a combination of Romanda, Shuri, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), and Okoye (Danai Gurira) to carry the load. The ensemble dynamic works quite well for the narrative, though the mechanics of geopolitics cut quite a few corners to establish the conflict. Wright and Gurira’s chemistry does wonders for the film’s levity, delivering moments of much-needed humor. Shuri holds much of the film together, working marvelously off Namor and in some touching scenes, M’Baku (Winston Duke), building off the bonds established in the first film. Mejía is a superb Namor, embodying the underwater ruler’s signature cynicism while serving out the unenviable task of following Erik Kilmonger, the MCU’s best villain. 

Overstuffed is quickly becoming the default setting for Phase Four Marvel movies, with the last two cinematic releases spending large chunks of their runtimes meandering with uncertain senses of purposes. Coogler keeps his film focused throughout its 161-minute runtime, but the narrative does occasionally buckle under the weight of its lofty expectations. Newcomer Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne) meshes instantly with the cast, largely occupying the position of Wakanda outsider that Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman) possessed in the first film, but the scenes set in America felt a bit superfluous to all the other far more interesting stuff going on in the film. There’s little Coogler can do to mitigate the clunkiness that stems from the obvious setup for Williams’ upcoming Disney+ series Ironheart.

Oddly enough given its title, Wakanda never really gets its moment to shine in Wakanda Forever. Scenes shot in the country are largely limited to interior stages such as the throne room, along with a handful of sound stages that barely give a proper glimpse of the majestic cities. Absent is the sprawling beauty of the country’s landscape amply featured in both the first film and Infinity War. The special effects never quite give Talokan the same sense of awe and wonder, the cinematography unable to compensate for the film’s heavy use of green screens.

The fight scenes also leave more than a bit to be desired, an increasingly common trend across the MCU. Talokan’s beef with Wakanda is a much more interesting political discussion than a military conflict, but it wouldn’t be much of a Marvel movie without explosions. Coogler puts all the pieces together in a way that makes Wakanda Forever feel like more of an epic than its predecessor, even if the special effects don’t necessarily support that thesis.

Wakanda Forever could have easily succumbed to the weight of expectations dictated by forces outside of the artistic process. Coogler and the cast ensured that the film wouldn’t solely be defined by Boseman’s death or by obligations to set up the broader MCU. Wakanda Forever is a beautiful film that builds off its predecessor instead of merely mourning what could have been. What could have been a feature-length memorial service instead dared to rival the greatness of its predecessor. It might not surpass the quality of the first Black Panther, but Wakanda Forever is easily the best MCU film in years.