The internet has been all aflutter recently with the release of the first images of the upcoming live action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell. The response to the images has not been one of excitement. It’s been one of outrage.

The original Ghost in the Shell is a Japanese animated film that came out in 1995. The plot revolves around Major Motoko Kusanagi, a highly intelligent law enforcement officer whose ghost has been transferred into a full body prosthesis or shell.

Though the heroine is technically a cyborg, fans of Ghost in the Shell had widely accepted that should the film be adapted into live action the role of Major Kusanagi should go to an Asian actress. So of course the role went to Scarlett Johansson, the third whitest woman in America (first and second being Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Hudson, respectively).

It Happens Quite a Bit

The casting of white actors in roles that should go to people of colour is called Whitewashing and it is endemic in Hollywood. Though it’s an era of supposed political correctness white people are still being cast in roles that they don’t belong in.

Take the 2015 film Aloha which featured Emma Stone as Captain Allison Ng. The real life Allison Ng is of Chinese, Hawaiian and Swedish descent.

Emma Stone as Allison NG in Aloha
Emma Stone as Allison Ng in Aloha

By all accounts, the real life Allison Ng doesn’t look Asian or Hawaiian, she’s even a natural redhead. Nevertheless, anyone who knows someone half Asian knows that even those who don’t look Asian don’t look quite as Caucasian as a very blonde Emma Stone. The outrage over the film eventually resulted in director Cameron Crowe apologizing for the casting choice.

Then there’s this year’s Gods of Egypt. Though the statues and images of Egyptian deities leave lots of room for diversity in casting, most of the Egyptian gods are played by whites.

The movie Pan, an adaptation of Peter Pan released in 2015, cast the lily white Rooney Mara in the role of Tiger Lily, a Native American princess.

Though white actors are no longer being dressed and made up to look like caricatures of minorities, a la Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, that doesn’t make whitewashing OK.

Money and Scarcity

Despite the outrage of all these poor casting choices, movie studios and execs always hide behind the same arguments: money and scarcity. They either claim that films featuring people of colour don’t make enough money OR they argue that there aren’t enough ethnic actors to fill the roles. Let’s tackle these arguments one by one.

Don’t think movies with people of colour make money? Tell that to the people behind the X-Men franchise.

The X men comics feature a lot of people of colour including Storm, a black woman able to control the weather, and Jubilee, an Asian girl who can generate pyrotechnic energy plasmoids from her hands. In every film adaptation of the franchise, the casting choices have been fairly close to the characters’ ethnicity and in spite of this, or perhaps because of it, those films made money. X men grossed 296.3 million USD at the box office, X-2 grossed 407.7 million, and X men The Last Stand grossed 459.4 million USD.

Then there’s The Hunger Games. Racist trolls went bananas on the net when a black actress was cast as Rue in the 2012 film even though the book never actually alludes to the character’s ethnicity. Despite a few obnoxious noisemakers, the film grossed 653.4 million USD at the box office.

Life of Pi, which cast an Indian actor as an Indian character grossed 609 million USD.

The Jungle Book, released on April 15, 2016, cast a boy of Indian American descent as Mowgli, an Indian boy living in the jungle. It’s already grossed $377.4 million and is still going strong.

When you compare that to the pitiful $26.3 million grossed by Aloha or $128.4 million grossed by Pan, the argument about people of colour being a poor investment doesn’t add up.

If execs are really concerned about money, there’s one more argument to consider. Many people of colour don’t visibly age at the same rate as white people. That means they can pass for younger for a lot longer, an argument worth considering when casting for franchise films. Hugh Jackman, our beloved Wolverine is looking his 48 years, whereas Jet Li does not look 51 nor does Don Cheadle look 52.

Then there’s the notion that there aren’t enough ethnic actors to fill roles and the ones out there aren’t well known. That’s bullshit, and here’s a list of capable, well-known actors of colour to prove it:

Will Smith

Sandrine Holt – Of Asian and French origin, featured in Terminator Genisys

Jet Li – Chinese

Keanu Reeves – ¼ Hawaiian, ¼ Chinese – while not everyone agrees he can act, he still counts

Kristin Kreuk – Of Chinese and Dutch descent, known for Smallville

The Rock – ½ Samoan

Rosario Dawson – Puerto Rican, Afro-Cuban and Irish

Rosario Dawson
Rosario Dawson

Morgan Freeman

Salma Hayek – Mexican with Lebanese Roots

Kal Penn – American of Indian origin, known for the Harold and Kumar movies

Gabourey Sidibe – African American, played the leading role in Precious and was Oscar nominated for it

Jackie Chan – Chinese

Kerry Washington

Chiwetel Eljiofor – of 12 Years a Slave

Priyanka Chopra – Indian

Oded Fehr – Israeli

Lupita Nyong’o – Mexican with Kenyan parents

Adam Beach – First Nations

Sandra Oh – Canadian of Korean Ancestry

This list is just the tip of the iceberg. There are tons more visible minority actors who are more than capable of drawing crowds and bringing in revenue and are ready and willing to do it. Audiences worldwide now want to see themselves in the movies they watch and that means casting choices that reflect the world’s diversity.

The only excuse studios and executives have left is their own racism. And in 2016, that’s not good enough.

It took me somewhat longer that expected to get to Avengers: Age of Ultron, the finale to the “second wave” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies and the informal beginning to Summer Movie Season for this year. In the time since it hit screens, Ultron has been a tad divisive, and people continue to argue about it on forums, Twitter, and nasty messages left on bathroom stall walls. The argument has been on two fronts: the first being the actual quality of the film, the second being the possibly troublesome gender politics behind a scene involving Scarjo’s Black Widow.

The gender politics debate is ongoing, and something I’m still in the midst of considering, having finally seen the film. As for the quality debate, I knew almost immediately after the credits rolled that I stand with the side arguing that while Age of Ultron is definitely fun, oftentimes clever and an all around solid entry in the MCU, it’s also as clunky and badly formed as main baddie Ultron is when he first appears as a shambling mess of parts that don’t quite fit together.

Age of Ultron posterThough there is a lengthy lead-up involving the team mopping up what appears (for now at least) to be the last remnants of HYDRA, the action really gets under way when Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark and Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner use an artifact from the previous Avengers flick to create Ultron, a peacekeeping AI intended to bring about world peace. Of course, Ultron goes the way of pretty much every fictional AI ever developed and immediately announces his intent to bend humanity over his metal knee and make it think about what it has done.

From there, about a million different characters and plot threads weave in and out of each other as the Avengers try to stop Ultron from destroying the world, even as internal tensions threaten to tear the team apart.

As critics before me have pointed out, Ultron‘s biggest failing is an over-stuffed script crammed to the brim with new characters and action set pieces. Even though the franchise already has a dearth of characters to draw on, writer, director and fanboy messiah Joss Whedon uses Age of Ultron to introduce a whole whack of new blood to the MCU, and very few, if any of them, seem to get much screen time.

First there’s the twins, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, arguably the most important and developed new characters besides Ultron himself. While Elizabeth Olson and Aaron Taylor-Johnson both get some good scenes in, they only just feel interesting and developed enough that I want to see more of them.

Paul Bettany also makes his debut as the friendly, cape-sporting android Vision in the third act, and boy howdy, did he feel like he didn’t need to be there. I like that they brought in the character and all, and Bettany certainly feels right in the role, but both his character and what he brings to the table powers-wise feel so woefully underdeveloped that the whole thing screams missed opportunity. We never get a sense of what his powers even are beyond flying, smashing stuff and occasionally shooting a laser from his forehead, which is a shame since his actual powers of density control (which allow him to phase through solid objects or become an ultra-dense immovable object) could have been used for some really great visuals.

Age of this guy

The look of the film over all felt very cluttered and unfocused. Fight scenes often have multiple characters elbowing each other for room in the frame, and the 3D (as usual) makes things look so much more messy than they should. I feel like this is yet another one of those movies that will look better on the small screen and CHRIST am I getting tired of saying that about effects blockbusters.

Another thing that kept bugging me about the visuals was the editing, which often has this disjointed feeling, like certain shots were missing. Nothing huge, just small insert shots during action sequences. As a result, things often feel jerky and chaotic, two qualities that you don’t want in your action scenes, despite what anyone tells you.

But back to the script. Even with the burden of new characters to support, Age of Ultron bears the signs of a lot of hasty re-writes, missing scenes, and other behind the scenes problems. Plot beats will feel either unnecessary or like they aren’t there when they should be.

I completely believe it when I hear that this flick has like an hour of extra footage that got left on the cutting room floor for time. It feels like there’s a lot of connective tissue missing, which makes it feel rushed and disjointed overall. Sort of similar to that editing problem I mentioned. It isn’t smooth or streamlined in even the vaguest sense and while the plates more or less are kept spinning, they aren’t kept in the air with anything I’d call grace.

Age of Ultron WidowBut then again, there’s a lot to like. The dialogue is quick and snappy with Whedon’s trademark landslide of zingers and jokes, and there are enough fanboy geekout moments that I giggled like a child on numerous occasions. James Spader’s Ultron is a treat to watch, playing that old “serious villain who occasionally breaks character for a snarky one-liner” fiddle so hard the strings superheat and melt through the Earth’s crust.

Series regulars like Chris Evans, Robert Downey and Chris Hemsworth all feel comfortable and at home in their roles, trading jibes and kicking ass just like we expect them to. The action scenes work as much as they feel cluttered and busy, and there are some great action beats in there. There’s a great little sub-plot with Hawkeye, too, the only downside of which is that it makes any hope of an adaptation of the wonderful version of the character that Matt Fraction wrote in his fan-favorite Hawkeye series basically impossible.

Everything you liked about Avengers is back for the sequel, and it feels just as much like pure nerd-porn as ever. It’s just messier nerd-porn, nerd porn that’s maybe taking on too much and flying too close to the sun. It needs less of everything, less script, characters, maybe even take out an action scene if it means giving the thing some more breathing room.

In the spectrum of the Marvel Studios canon, Age of Ultron sits somewhere in the middle. It has enough fun to put it above the solidly “meh” entries like Thor: The Dark World, Incredible Hulk and the Iron Man sequels, but it is bogged down by enough script issues that it it gets left in the dust by the proud, magnificent stallions of Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and the first Avengers.

As a start to Summer Movie Season, it does what you want it to, delivering fun and laughs, but I have a feeling Age of Ultron is already set to be overshadowed as the king of 2015 blockbusters……

Roundabouts six months ago, a friend and I set out to see Luc Besson’s Lucy during its theatrical run. We hadn’t seen each other in a while and were chatting so merrily that we accidentally went to the wrong theatre.

When we found out our mistake, we shrugged it off and decided to sit through Woody Allen’s empty confectionery Magic in the Moonlight instead. The less said about that one, the better.

For a long time after, I didn’t have much interest in going back and giving Lucy a watch, under the sneaking suspicion that that anecdote would prove to be more interesting than the movie itself. But after hearing that it wasn’t actually that bad, I decided to take a look.

Surprisingly, Lucy did turn out to be more interesting than the story behind that mishap. The problem is that while Lucy is definitely interesting, it’s mostly interesting for how it fails.

Scarlett Johansson stars as the titular Lucy, a woman who receives superpowers after the bag of drugs smuggled in her abdomen ruptures. Yes, Lucy is perhaps the first movie in history about how drug smuggling leads to God-like power and the reshaping of human knowledge. I guess we really are running out of ways to give people superpowers, but turning Maria Full of Grace into a sci-fi action thriller seems like an odd way to go.

Lucy posterAfter being forced to smuggle a bag of a new designer drug, the bag leaks massive amounts of the drug into Lucy’s body, causing her to unlock previously unused portions of her brain, first turning her into a hyper-intelligent killing machine with perfect control of her own body, and eventually into a powerful psychokinetic who can do basically whatever the script calls for. So it starts out as La Femme Nikita and ends up as Akira.

Even in a genre movie landscape where Marvel movies regularly bend the laws of plausibility and physics over a chair and go to town like it’s the last day of spring break, Lucy feels like an anachronism in just how much it’s built on science so soft you could melt it on a broken radiator.

Like that Bradley Cooper thing from a few years back, Lucy is built around the whole “humans only use ten percent of their brain” thing, and while I’m usually perfectly fine accepting whatever made-up pseudo-science a genre movie can throw at me…..come on, really? We’ve known that that’s patently untrue for like a million years. But Besson and Morgan Freeman’s scientist character both seem perfectly fine believing that a human with just ten more percent of their brainpower can control radio waves or go into peoples’ memories, or change their hair color by sheer force of will.

Even for someone as indifferent to realism in movies as me, Lucy spends most of its run time straining my suspension of disbelief like my belt at a buffet. Maybe it wouldn’t be such a problem if Lucy didn’t seem to be trying to present itself as the next hard science genre odyssey, the next Interstellar but with more gunplay and Yakuza thugs.

It seems so convinced of itself, and while usually a movie playing the completely ridiculous with conviction is something I can get behind, in this case I was distracted by the sound of Neil Degrasse-Tyson having a breakdown just off screen.

And to add further problems, when Lucy essentially enters God-Mode in the second half or so, unlocking powers of telekinesis, omniscience and even bloody time travel, the movie seems to have no clue what to do with all the big ideas that it just dumped all over the table.

A new character is brought in to hang around Lucy for no reason that ever seems properly explained, solely because we need someone to be endangered now that Lucy can dispatch any threat with a flick of the wrist and we need a way to generate tension.

Lucy insert

The finale is meant to be some kind of epic, transcendental revelation about the nature of reality, the universe and everything, but it all feels like half-baked nonsense passed off as profound insight. Something about time being the only unit of measurement and one plus one not being two and a USB stick made out of stars.

And the thing that kinda bugs me more than anything else is that when Lucy isn’t trying to be so damn smart textually, it’s actually pretty damn fun formally at times. An early sequence actually uses symbolic editing, where non-contextual images are intercut with the action to create a kind of visual metaphor.

When bad guys are closing in on Lucy pre-transformation, Besson will cut to footage from a nature show of cheetahs stalking a gazelle. That’s interesting! That’s using editing techniques in ways that most mainstream blockbusters don’t, that’s using a different kind of toolset than we’re used to seeing!

Sure it may be a bit obvious, but it’s something new. Once in a while, Lucy will break out little formal touches like that that at least feel like someone was trying to bring something new to the table.

In a better movie, with a better script, little touches like that would have gone a long way, but in this case they just feel frustrating because they get swallowed up by a mediocre script bogged down by pretension and big ideas it has no idea how to handle or communicate properly.

Even though Lucy is, at the end of the day, something of a mess, I can’t fault it at least for being ambitious. I mean how many action thrillers from recent memory can you name that end up with the hero uncovering the secrets of the universe and becoming some kind of leggy super-diety?

And maybe with a better script, Lucy could have been something. But alas, all we’re left with is a confused jumble of ideas and action-set pieces occasionally lived up by some formal charm or decent effects work.

So far the second wave of this whole Marvel Studios thing is more miss than hit for me. Thor: The Dark World was by far the most middle-of-the-road, unremarkable film the young studio has produced to date, and Iron Man 3 tripped on a rock, hit its head and critically injured its tone. So understandably I had high hopes for Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and while I admit placing the burden of redeeming this second round of movies was a lot to put on one film, I’m happy to report it was well up to the task.

Picking up a year or so after The Avengers, Winter Soldier finds Cap, now a full S.H.I.E.L.D agent, running covert ops alongside Black Widow, or as covert as you can get when everyone on the damn planet knows who you are and you wear half of your initials on your forehead like you totally misunderstood how monogramming works. But when Nick Fury is attacked by a mysterious assassin called The Winter Soldier, and Cap learns of a sinister conspiracy lurking within S.H.I.E.L.D, he and the Widow go on the run to uncover the truth, joined along the way by The Falcon, a random dude Cap happened to meet jogging, who by happy chance happens to know how to work a set of high-tech mechanical wings.

WinterSoldierposterBy admission of the film makers, Winter Soldier is going for a very Robert Ludlum political conspiracy thriller vibe, less brightly colored superhero action and more shadowy backroom deals and secret government shenanigans. But what I think works about it is how it never totally forgets that it is still ultimately a comic book movie, and once in a while something completely and utterly ridiculous will happen to offset all the serious talky talky drama and Bourne-esque triller fair. One minute Robert Redford is giving some spiel about government oversight and the cost of freedom, the next someone’s pulling off a perfectly realistic face-changing mask like it’s an episode of Scooby Doo, and it turns out it was Old Man Backhoff all along. It strikes a really nice balance between the kind of “nothing we’re doing is even remotely realistic so let’s just run with it” Marvel Studios ethos and the political thriller vibe the Russo brothers were clearly going for.

The big problem though is that the script is a bit of a mess. It’s got that Christopher Nolan problem of being too full of story and characters, to the point that at any minute it seems ready to burst like one of those fat Left 4 Dead zombies. The real casualty of this is that the film’s title character, the mysterious Winter Soldier, is barely a presence in his own movie. For the first two acts he just appears out of nowhere to shoot someone and look enough like James Franco in Spiderman 3 to give everyone in the audience uncomfortable flashbacks. And after his true identity is finally revealed, the film dashes through his origin story at breakneck speed. In the course of one act we’re supposed to learn who he is and what he means to Cap, and even start sympathizing with him, and if that seems like a tall order, you ain’t wrong.

What they should have done, really, is just rename the damn film and save the reveal of Winter Soldier’s true identity, both to the audience and Cap, until the very end, and leave the fallout from the reveal for the already announce third movie so that it can be given the pacing and weight it deserves. As it is, it feels uncomfortably akin to Aaron Ekhart’s Two-Face transformation in The Dark Knight: truncated and unsatisfying, though without spoiling anything there will be room to flesh out his origin and character more later.

The exposition also comes fast and hard, often woven into the narrative with all the care and skill of someone playing Surgeon Simulator 2013 with their feet. Other supporting characters, like Emily Van Camp’s Agent 13, might as well not be in the movie at all for how marginalized they are.


Aside from that, the only real problem I can bring up is that the fight scene photography wavers between barely “acceptable” and “complete and utter arse”. Look, you’re trying to go for a Bourne thing, I get that, but that doesn’t mean you have to film it with a GoPro strapped to the head of a convulsing ostrich. Granted, this was probably made worse by the fact that I was exiled to the front two rows, but more often than not the hand to hand fight scenes were completely incomprehensible. The best fight in the whole movie is a brawl in the first few minutes between Cap and walk-on villain Batroc ze Lepair, played by local boy George St. Pierres. But Cap’s first proper fight with Winter Soldier was a bloody mess. The larger, effects laden stunt sequences and CGI set pieces fared much better, though, with Falcon’s scenes being a highlight.

But these problems aside, enough about the film worked for me to keep me thoroughly entertained through the entire run time. The chemistry between Chris Evans and his co-stars, particularly Anthony Mackie as Falcon and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, is great, and the film is full of fantastic character moments and sharp back-and-forth dialogue. The fanboy-pleasing namedrops are plentiful and there’s tons of world-building crammed in, ranging from small references to major revelations and status-quo shifts. It’s also undoubtedly the best filmed wave two film by far, largely avoiding the occasional “TV-ish” look that hurt Iron Man 3 and Thor 2.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier isn’t without a few major problems, but for my money is still the most satisfying wave two Marvel movie so far, and may even end up as one of my favorites of the lot. For all its lofty aspirations of political intrigue, it never take itself too seriously, and isn’t afraid to throw something completely nuts in just for the fun of it once in a while.