Zootopia and Race

Warning: This post will contain spoilers for Zootopia.

I remember watching the Zootopia sloth trailer in front of Star Wars: The Force Awakens and laughing just as hard as everyone else in the theater. However, when the release date came around I was preoccupied with the hype for BatmanvSuperman and the film slipped by my radar. Zootopia returned to my radar after hearing about its box office success, and especially after a friend gave it a glowing review.

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One of the things that my friend liked the most was how the film tackled the issue of race. He said it wasn’t preachy or overly sentimental, but worked in allegories that were easily identifiable. I remember the one he told me about was the use of the word “cute”. In the film, it is okay for bunnies to call one another cute, but it is offensive if another species uses the word. I don’t think I need to elaborate on the similarity to the word “nigga”.

Another light-hearted allegory that got my attention was a scene where Nicholas “Nick” Wilde (Jason Bateman) touches a sheep’s hair, remarking on how fluffy it is. Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) then whispers that he can’t just touch a sheep’s wool. I can remember grade eight at Southbank International School in London, England. I was one of two black kids, out of a student body of at least 100, and my classmates often touched my hair. I am sure a lot of other black people, and women especially, can relate to someone treating them like an animal in a petting zoo and touching their hair without permission. I remember that a Buzzfeed article on Zootopia was filled with people arguing that this happens to anyone with curly hair. Black people, on average, are more likely to have curly or “kinky” hair so I think it is fair to say that the sheep wool can be interpreted as kinky hair.

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Aside from these smaller vignettes, Zootopia is loaded with messages of discrimination. What I like most about the film is that most of these messages or lessons don’t come from the depiction of highly vocal bigots. I have no sympathy for ignorant people but most of the discrimination in the film is presented as ingrained biases from otherwise decent people who do not seem to know any better. I have no problem with the depiction of more staunch bigotry (such as Imperium or American History X) but in this age of supposed “colour-blindness” it is important to see how people who claim to be tolerant can adopt stereotypes of other races.

Within the city of Zootopia, mammals (predator and prey) now live in harmony. The film revolves around the disappearance of fourteen mammals in Zootopia.  Their disappearance is revealed to be a move by Mayor Leodore Lionheart (J.K Simmons) to hide the fact that predators are going “savage”- reverting to their desire to attack and consume prey. Co-screenwriter Jared Bush has explained that predators in Zootopia only eat plant-based proteins and insects. Going “savage” causes the animals to lose the capacity for speech and return to the predator-prey mindset. Hopps, aided by Wilde, must uncover why the animals are going savage.

Wilde’s identify as a fox gives us one of our first insights into discrimination in this fictional world. In the film foxes have a reputation for being sly and deceitful. Hopps’s parents are wary of her living among them when she leaves their farm and goes to Zootopia. They make sure to give her fox-repellent, similar to pepper spray. Although Judy criticizes their bigotry she still brings the fox-repellent with her on her first day of work. Like real-life, someone who is outwardly accepting can still be affected by stereotypes that they have picked up from the media, friends, parents etc. I have had well-meaning friends tell me I speak well for a black guy, and Hopps also applauds Nick for how articulate he is. Nick has heard the compliment before, and thanks Hopps for not being patronizing (although his tone implies that he is not truly happy to hear the compliment again).

Wilde has long been the victim of prejudice, with the most pivotal moment being an incident of childhood bullying. Wilde had hopes of being the first fox scout, but was pranked and muzzled during his supposed induction ceremony. Zootopia is founded on the idea that anyone who arrives can be anything they want to be, similar to the American Dream. However, Wilde believes that all you can really be is what’s on the outside.  He knows other people only see a fox when they look at him, so he stopped trying to be different and became a con-artist. Obviously, I am not trying to say every criminal is simply misunderstood, and I don’t think the film is either. Wilde is simply an example of someone who is disillusioned with the world’s supposed equality, which he has yet to experience.

Meanwhile, Hopps is the first bunny cop, who is enlisted as part of a Mammalian inclusion initiative. Although she is accepted, Chief Bogo (Idris Elba) has little faith in her ability and assigns her to parking duty.

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Hopps and Wilde are able to form a bond over their treatment, but the bond is tested after they find the missing mammals. Hopps’s takes the stage for her first press conference, with Wilde watching close by, and is quick to reveal that all of the savage animals were predators. When probed, Hopps remarks that the predators might be returning to their old instincts. Wilde doesn’t approve of the comments, and Hopps initially dismisses him. She argues that Wilde should know she wasn’t talking about him, just “them”.

“I remember a mom of a friend of mine in the suburbs made some comment about a black person and – I had to be 12, about 60 pounds – and I said something and she said: ‘Oh no, not you. You are not black. You are great.’- Jesse Williams

That quote leapt into my mind during this scene. We end up being a “credit to our kind”, differentiated from “them”, the masses that deserve hate or mistrust.

It is later revealed that a serum, derived from a poisonous plant, is responsible for the mammals going savage. Mayor Dawn Bellwether (promoted after Lionheart is imprisoned) reveals herself as the mastermind behind the plot, aiming to use the public’s fear to eliminate the predator minority from Zootopia. Using a hitman of sorts, she was able to target predators all over the city and create an atmosphere of fear and distrust. This scheme isn’t just fiction; Donald Trump probably read an early draft of the screenplay and used it as a manual on running a Presidential campaign. As Bellwether says “Fear always works!”

I remember thinking about Zootopia unapologetically explored issues that many people are too afraid to nowadays. In many ways, this Disney film had more guts than most of the Disney produced Marvel films. There is a childhood scene where Hopps is attacked by a child fox, and when he moves to scratch her I was sure that she would be saved at the last minute somehow. Instead, we see Hopps sporting a scar on her left cheek. Life isn’t a fairy tale, and this movie isn’t afraid to let us know that. No pretty princesses, no flowery songs.  Zootopia has a great motto of equality but Hopps acknowledges it is only a motto and that the dream is a work in progress.

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The Irony of the MCU

 

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I saw Captain America: Civil War recently and I currently rank it as my second favourite MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) film, with The Winter Soldier still being #1 for me. Despite the love I have for some of the MCU, I can’t help but notice the criticism people always levy at DC films. I am no DC “fanboy”, I recognize that they don’t have as solid a film universe, since they got a later start on it. However, I have previously discusses my disdain for people who say that DC movies have a problem with their tone. Many negative reviews will at least mention the darker tone of the DC universe films as being a problem, as if darker=worse.I realize that Marvel has dark properties on Netflix, like Daredevil and Jessica Jones, but I made this post specifically to discuss the MCU on the big screen. Reading comprehension is a dying art, so let me break this down a little further. I am not saying that BvS or Man of Steel are amazing. MOS was a 7.5 for me and BvS a 6.5. I am not saying these films have no flaws. I am saying that I don’t think their tone is one of their flaws.

Obviously BvS had issues aside from its tone (I’m looking at you Eisenberg) but I can’t stand this relatively
new idea that darkness is a bad thing in itself, and that “dark” and “good” are mutually exclusive. Of course, there have been dark comic book films that have been relatively well received, like The Dark Knight and the more recent example of X-Men: Days of Future Past. However, times are changing. Go to Rotten Tomatoes and see how many negative reviews of Apocalypse mention the “dark”, “grim”, “joyless” tone as being an issue. I’ll wait.

There is a pervasive mentality that a comic book movie must be “fun”. It shouldn’t take itself too seriously and should have plenty of comic relief, otherwise it has failed as a film. The MCU is now held up as the standard of comic relief and as the benchmark for the tone that a comic book film should have. It is easy to see why people latched onto them since they have had the most prolific comic book film output of any studio.

What I find ironic, is that the “fun” mentality is what held comic book films back for so long. Many critics and members of the general public who flock to see MCU films now would have once scoffed at the idea of a critically revered comic book film. Of course there are classics like Superman (1978) but Superman did not usher in an era of consistent comic book films and box-office domination by comic book films. This era started slowly with films like Blade, then X-Men and then Spider-Man. Then came Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and then the birth of the MCU with Iron Man.

Many critics once thought comic book films would never have the success they do now. They might be silly fun, but no one would take such films seriously. The idea of Oscar winners or nominees regularly starring in comic book films would have been deemed preposterous. Marlon Brando’s appearance in Superman was such a big deal due to the pedigree that he brought to the film. The first big successes of the modern era (Blade and X-Men) used a tone that many would now view as overly dramatic, “dark”, “pretentious” etc. but that is what allowed comic book films to gain more popularity and critic recognition. If it weren’t for these films we might not have the MCU. Yet everyone now forgets the stigma comic book films had to overcome and wants everything to be “fun” and “colourful”. There was a time when people thought that was all comic book films would have to offer, and it seems like fans now want history to repeat itself.

 

DC vs. Marvel: Marvel Brainwashing and The Loss of Reason

I have heard many people say that there has never been a better time to be a comic book fan. While many people still view comic books as childish or ashamedly nerdy, comic books are now the inspiration for some of Hollywood’s most profitable and critically-revered films. Earlier works like Blade (1998), X-Men (200) and Spider-Man (2002) paved the way and later works like Iron Man (2009), Captain America (2011) and Avengers (2012) have cemented their status as marketable works. You may notice that all of the films I just listed are either Marvel comic book properties, or Marvel Studio properties. That is not because Marvel has made the only good comic book films. I think I ended up writing only Marvel films because I am a victim of some of the same brainwashing I am to criticize in this post.

This is another post that is a result of online ramblings I have come across, whether they are on YouTube, Instagram or IMDB. I do love some of Marvel’s films, such as the Captain America films, the first Iron Man and Avengers 1. However, I do have qualms with some of them, and I am able to acknowledge that they are not perfect and that they are not definitive examples of what a comic book film should be. The general public has a tendency to get attached to what comes first. Some people saw Jack Nicholson as their first Joker in a Hollywood film, so they refused to accept any other actor as Joker afterwards. For some people, Ledger was their first, and they already hate Leto simply because he is a different interpretation. Twenty years from now, there will probably be people saying that no Joker will ever top Leto’s.

In terms of Marvel, this tendency to like what comes first, manifests itself through a love of all films Marvel and a hate for anything else. Although DC had earlier successful comic book films such as V for Vendetta (Vertigo comics, which was then acquired by DC) the general public has now been saturated with marvel studio films that overshadow all other comic book properties. This saturation results in a high number of Marvel films that stamp themselves onto the public consciousness far quicker than any other comic book properties can. With Marvel films imprinted, people become less open to seeing something different. People may be open to different characters, but the Marvel v DC debate makes it clear that people are not open to other things, such as tone.

Marvel studios’ films are known for their light-heartedness, their humour, their “fun”. They have been cementing this style and reputation since 2008 with the first Iron Man. To this day, Marvel will even hire a comedy writer so that he can make a script about Asgardian doomsday more light-hearted. If any movie deserves a dark tone, it is Thor: Ragnarok, but I guess some studio executives disagreed.

I am not anti-fun or anti-humour. I simply do not like it when the device is overused. While some Marvel films have juggled it well, such as The Winter Soldier (2014), the Thor series has been severely brought down by terrible and consistent one-liners imho. While Loki’s humour is handled well, Jane’s (Natalie Portman) and Darcy’s (Kat Dennings) end up being the Jar Jars of the franchise. My problem is not only the overuse of humour, but how Marvel has successfully conditioned people to believe that this humour is the mark of a good comic book movie. Nowadays, any film that lacks the same level of levity is deemed too “dark”, “gritty”, “depressing, “brooding” or “pretentious”. A lot of the criticism levied towards Man of Steel (MOS) before it was even released came from this misconception. The trailers were serious in tone, nothing about them screamed “dark” or “brooding”, but people were so used to Marvel’s marketing by this point. The MOS trailers did not have enough one-liners, enough levity in comparison to Marvel’s trailers, so people were thrown off. Everything is relative, and since the MOS trailers were found to be lacking in humour, they were immediately deemed too dark.

This brings up another issue I have with Marvel’s brainwashing. I often hear people throw around the word “dark” like it is an insult in itself. As if saying a film is dark is as bad as saying the acting was terrible, the writing was terrible etc. A film can be “dark” and also be good, which seems like a fact that is lost on many members of the Marvel horde, and among Marvel studio executives. Dark does not equal depressing, gritty or pretentious.

While Marvel has darker material in some of its films, and has Netflix shows with much darker tones (Daredevil, Jessica Jones) it appears that Marvel’s status gives it more room to experiment than any other property has. Marvel’s trailers, films and tv shows can have darker tones without people complaining about them trying to “copy Christopher Nolan”, “not being fun” etc. While Marvel is allowed to experiment, change and adapt, DC is now forced to appeal to Marvel sensibilities in order to be less divisive among audiences.

The first Suicide Squad trailer was leaked, featuring a lovely cover of I started a joke. It was a serious, dramatic trailer but was subjected to the same talk of not being fun enough, in comparison to Marvel of course. Some of you might want me to cite specific websites and links, but honestly this chatter is all over the Internet: the same thing you are currently on. Google my arguments and you’ll come across them aplenty.

The second trailer came out, making great use of Bohemian Rhapsody, and also having more humour. What do you know, some of same people who love this one are happy to see that the film will still be “fun”. I have no problem with the second trailer’s lighter tone, or the film’s tone (from what we have seen so far). However, I hate the mentality that every film has to be “fun”. Is Saving Private Ryan a bad film because it isn’t “fun” enough? Maybe that example is a bit hyperbolic but hopefully it gets my point across. A film does not have to be “fun” to be good. Some characters are darker than others. Additionally, many comic book characters have histories spanning numerous decades. Some of their comics are darker than others. MOS used some of the more serious storylines for the film and then gets chastised for daring to be different and not following Marvel’s mould of being “fun” enough. I have even had someone on IMDB tell me that Superman was too serious since brow was too furrowed when he was learning how to fly. So they ignored the huge grin on his face when he was flying and instead criticize the scene because Superman wasn’t grinning ear to ear the entire time.

This brings me to another point about Marvel’s brainwashing. The desire to love everything Marvel often leads to nitpicking of anything that is not Marvel. While Man of Steel is deemed a terrible film and a terrible adaptation of Superman due to all the damage done during the final fight, The Avengers gets little or no hassle for the damage to New York City. This is the same damage that is mentioned in Daredevil and plays a part in Wilson Fisk’s efforts to rebuild the city. So while Man of Steel continues to get flack for showing that a city will get damaged when two super powered people fight in it, no one cares that New York got damaged since they love Marvel. This nitpicking not only affects films that already came out but also affects any new releases. I have heard someone criticize Jared Leto’s joker because his hair is dyed green, yes…really. I forget exactly where in the video the guy says it, but my comment on the video acknowledges him saying it. To me, it just seems like this person is either

  • Attached to Heath Ledger’s portrayal, which brings up my earlier issue of the general public getting attached to what comes first. This then leads to nitpicking of newer adaptations
  • Simply a Marvel fanboy (in the sense that he does not want to like non-marvel properties) and is looking for reasons to hate this new DC release.

Either way, his comment demonstrates the extent of stupidity that bias can lead to. I am not saying Suicide Squad, or any DC movie is guaranteed to be good. However, I think criticizing the film and saying they’re making “joker a punk” because his hair is dyed green is a little ridiculous.

The bias for Marvel sometimes does not only result in DC (or Warner Bros) vs Marvel, but also leads to people nitpicking any film that is not specifically a Marvel Studios production. People saw the design for Apocalypse in X-Men: Apocalypse and some of them started crying for the rights to go back to Marvel. These people were willing to ignore everything the previous X-Men films did well (ignoring X3 and the Wolverine films). Despite how great Deadpool looks, I have read blogs, forum posts and other miscellaneous talk where people rant about how the rights should go back to Marvel. It’s obvious why they want that to happen. They just want Marvel studios to adapt the properties. Yes, I want the X-Men and Deadpool in the Avengers universe too, but I won’t hope a film fails just so that can happen. People are now so brainwashed they think Marvel is the only studio capable of handling a comic book film well.

You don’t like the shirt a character is wearing? Cry for the rights to go back to Marvel

You don’t like a character’s design? Cry for the rights to go back to Marvel

 

The Internet allows us access to so much information, but also allows us to customize our searches. We can choose what information to find and what information to cut out. This phenomenon has been explored mostly in regards to political polarization, but I think it is also relevant to entertainment preferences. Either way, it makes us dumber.