I believe in softcore pornography… but isn’t that for straight dudes?

Part One: The Discourse, erotic thriller nostalgia, and the feminist angles


For the past two years, give or take, I’ve been formulating and untangling a whole mess of interrelated thoughts on the State of the Sex Scene in mainstream film and television. (This is a manifesto of sorts, so I will be unnecessarily capitalizing phrases to make them seem important. I read enough manifestos while getting my art history degrees to know that unnecessary capitalization is a key component of manifesto writing.) I’m not alone in this preoccupation, by any means. If you, like me, are addicted to the Dying Bird App, then you know that on Film Twitter, we’ve been arguing about the State of the Sex Scene for what seems like a thousand years.

On Film Twitter, it’s well known that there are certain subjects one can tweet about that will increase one’s chances of virality via a flurry of hate-shares and quote tweet dunks. (Anyone who posts anything about Martin Scorsese and the MCU in the same sentence knows exactly what they’re doing.) For a while, one such recurring Discourse was the necessity of sex scenes in movies. For the uninitiated, this Discourse amounted to a different random account going viral every month or so for tweeting some variation of “sex scenes are unnecessary in movies because they don’t advance the plot.” This would prompt a wave of responses along the lines of: 

“What are you mad about, there is virtually no sex in mainstream Hollywood movies any more”

“Disney/Marvel killed the sex scene”

“Why is Gen Z trying to revive the Hays Code”

“All the sex is on TV now”

“There should be MORE sex in movies!!”

And so on and so forth. In 2021, after several rounds of the Sex-In-Movies Discourse, something started to give. The Discourse had reached critical mass by the middle of the summer (see, for example, Brianna Zigler’s feature on La Piscine, which had a surprisingly successful revival run at Film Forum in New York, for Paste Magazine). As film critics started routinely championing the Sex Scene, the conversation shifted. It’s not just that Sex Scenes have disappeared from the multiplex, critics and Sex Scene Defenders noted. We all started asking the same questions: What happened to Films for Adults? (Films for Adults are not to be confused with Adult Films—here we encounter our first “softcore/hardcore” distinction, although I don’t necessarily mean this in the traditional “no penetration/penetration” sense.) What happened to the Good Old Days, when Hollywood released films about sex, films that blatantly aimed to arouse while still telling an engaging story? What happened to mainstream erotic cinema?

Kathleen Turner and William Hurt in Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat (1981).

One genre floated to the surface as an object of collective fascination and nostalgia: the erotic thriller, perhaps the high water mark in terms of Hollywood’s permissiveness of sex on screen. In July, the Criterion Channel unveiled a neo-noir collection that proved quite popular in the context of the Discourse. The collection included Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat (1981) and Brian De Palma’s Body Double (1984), both often cited as important precursors to the classic erotic thrillers of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.* That same month, cinephile cult favorite journal Bright Wall/Dark Room devoted an issue to the erotic thriller. In the spring of 2022, king of the erotic thriller Adrian Lyne returned with a new entry into the genre: Deep Water, starring Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas. This new release prompted yet another wave of erotic thriller appreciation (If not appreciation for Lyne’s new film), including an Erotic Thriller Week at Vulture.

This borderline fetishization of the erotic thriller, however, potentially reveals the limitations of a previous era’s idea of what’s Acceptably Titillating. For one thing, many of these mainstream erotic films prioritize the titillation of straight, male viewers. This is not to say that other viewers can’t find something to excite them in these movies—many do, including myself. I firmly believe that one can legitimately enjoy art that’s “not made for you,” but we can’t pretend that the erotic films of the 80s and 90s don’t have a legacy of sexism (and homophobia) on and off screen.

In the spring of 2022, Karina Longworth released the “Erotic 80s” season of her Hollywood history podcast You Must Remember This. Longworth approaches the era, when Hollywood was making films that took sex seriously and showed that sex on screen, through a consistently feminist lens.** While Longworth mourns the loss of a time when Hollywood made Films for Adults, she also critically examines the deeply conservative ideas about gender and sex that underpin many of these films, as well as the oftentimes terrible treatment on set and off of the actresses who starred in them. 

Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey in Emile Ardolino’s Dirty Dancing (1987), one of the films covered in “Erotic 80s.”

Longworth, a historian through and through, endeavors primarily to bring the past into focus; but she implicitly makes the argument that any hypothetical mainstream erotic cinema of the 2020s can’t and shouldn’t look exactly like it did in the 1980s. In a 2021 trend piece called “Why Hollywood is shunning sex,” Christina Newland explores the possible reasons for the decline in erotic content in mainstream Hollywood films. Among other things, Newland theorizes that “this new discomfort with depicting sex” is likely tied to the #MeToo movement and the film industry’s ongoing reckoning with systemic sexual abuse. She writes:

The reckoning … in the film industry has ushered in enormous positive change, encouraged filmmakers to nix female objectification, and led to the increasing introduction of intimacy coordinators to help actors feel safe. Their efforts ensure issues of boundaries and consent are correctly navigated while filming sex scenes. But even then, anxieties remain about the validity of depicting sex, and whether it is gratuitous or not. Lately, sex has felt like a very serious topic; one that no one wants to joke about or “get wrong.” Filmmakers may be responding to this anxiety with their own shyness around the topic: no one wants a social media storm on their hands.

These critiques of the mainstream erotic cinema of yore, and the desire to avoid repeating the harms of the past, must be taken into consideration during any discussion on the topic. I’m not interested in Romanticizing the 1970s or 80s or 90s or whatever. I will always love old films, and I believe that art from the past often remains relevant to contemporary life; but I live in 2023, for better or for worse. And instead of bemoaning how They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To (although I do, also, do my fair share of that), I’d like to see a New Mainstream Erotic Cinema—one that embraces a wider idea of what’s sexy and who deserves pleasure. We’re still here, we’re still having sex, and we still want hot movies about it.

In arguing for the value of erotic content in the mainstream, I often feel like Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) making his famous speech in Bull Durham (1988).*** Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) asks Crash what he believes in when it comes to matters of the heart, and he proudly declares, amidst a litany of other things, that he “believe[s] in softcore pornography.” And I think that about sums it up for me, too. I believe in softcore pornography, and I believe in softcore for all who want it.

PORN! Just kidding, it’s Keira Knightley and James McAvoy’s famous sex scene in Joe Wright’s Atonement (2007).

When I say “softcore pornography,” I don’t necessarily mean actual softcore porn, although I’m pro that, too. I use this term self-consciously, as “softcore” is often used as an epithet when dismissing or negatively judging the type of mainstream erotic content for which I’m advocating. One of the weirdest retorts the Anti-Sex Scene Tweeters throw out to the Sex Scene Defenders is that people who want to watch Sex Scenes should just watch porn. There is a distinction between mainstream erotic content and pornography, even if blurring the lines is sometimes fun. (I try not to be a binary thinker.) 

For the purposes of this manifesto, “softcore” isn’t a category of porn based on heteronormative ideas about penetration being the ultimate sex act. No, I use “softcore porn” to evoke an attitude, a vibe. I’m talking about films and television that revolve around sex, include fairly explicit Sex Scenes, and exist to sexually excite the viewer on some level. This wide net can catch anything from a raunchy rom com to, yes, an erotic thriller.

Why do I believe in softcore? Well, for starters, it can be fun. In a media landscape saturated with Escapist Content—and I use “content” derogatorily here—why the sheepishness about a little sexual fantasy? Watching beautiful people in compromising positions on screen makes me happy, so sue me. When confronted, some Sex Scene Defenders will hedge, saying that it’s not about actually seeing the sex. They miss sensuality and chemistry and heat in Hollywood films—the suggestive charge and the promise of adult activities. While I agree with all of those things, I must clarify that I also want to see the sex. Watching a film is always, to some degree, a voyeuristic act, and I’m a cinephile. Of course I like to watch. So do a lot of people, it’s not that weird.

Beyond personal indulgence, I do believe in the power of softcore to destigmatize certain kinds of sex. Mainstream erotic content reflects and, to some extent, shapes sexual mores. It can push the boundaries of The Norm. Now, hey, more power to you if you have no desire to see your sexual preferences and practices “normalized.” But, to me, there’s something insidious about the way mainstream erotic content has evaporated onscreen as society has become more sexually permissive offscreen. Perhaps it’s respectability politics, but I think it’s simpler than that.

It’s clear that there are Unspoken Rules about what kind of erotic images and scenarios Hollywood deems on the Right Side of Explicit. This comes up occasionally when a film hits trouble with the MPAA, particularly when filmmakers are desperately trying to avoid or appeal an NC-17 rating. Here’s the deal: I’d wager that more people than not consider any erotic imagery that’s not focused on a straight dude’s pleasure (onscreen and/or off) to be “more explicit”—even if the actual level of explicitness is objectively the same. I don’t think most people even do this consciously, but it’s indicative of widespread assumptions about what kinds of sex count as softcore (and therefore okay for mass consumption) and whose pleasure is prioritized.****

Do you remember why Derek Cianfrance’s 2010 film Blue Valentine initially got slapped with an NC-17 rating?

We’ve all kind of collectively agreed that just making softcore for straight dudes isn’t going to cut it anymore. But how, exactly, does one make softcore for other gazes when the Unspoken Rules about what counts as softcore actively undercut that whole idea? I would contend that Hollywood has, by and large, been all-too-content to cease making mainstream erotic cinema altogether in order to avoid challenging the Unspoken Rules.

The Unspoken Rules, as far as I can distill them down, are these:

    1. Sex acts that prioritize female pleasure (or the visual framing of any sex act that prioritizes depicting female orgasm) can never be softcore. I think this is the Unspoken Rule that’s gotten the heaviest beating over the last decade or so, even as I hesitate to say it’s finally been discarded. Cunnilingus, specifically, has become quite the popular addition to the R-rated Sex Scene repertoire. I’m not saying this is completely thanks to Ryan Gosling, but… he’s not not responsible.
    2. Queer or non-heterosexual sex scenes can never be softcore. This is a huge one, especially when we’re talking about gay sex scenes between men. See:
    3. Male full-frontal is the end all be all of nudity (the final “front”-ier, if you will), and an erect penis can never be softcore. I think we’ve seen some pushback on the penis part, but not the erect part. But I’m sorry to report that the floppy prosthetic dicks on HBO are doing nothing for the Agenda.

Now, I’m a self-professed Horny Bitch who desires men. Naturally, then, I’m most sensitive to the attempts Hollywood has made at catering to Female Desire (a term which is always, always straight and cis-coded). And I will concede that, of all the demographics historically un-catered to by mainstream erotic film, the Lusty Straight Ladies™ have made the biggest strides over the last twenty years. 

And, indeed, as you have read this manifesto, you might have been thinking, “Leah, hasn’t there been plenty of Sexy Stuff for the Lusty Straight Ladies lately? Isn’t objectifying men cool now? Haven’t the thirsty fangirls won the war? Didn’t you just watch Alexander Skarsgård on a leash in a suburban AMC? And didn’t Magic Mike let those Hollywood execs know that catering to Female Desire is profitable a whole damn decade ago?”

To this I say, “Well… sort of.” If you look at most of the films aimed at satisfying Female Desire, so many of them are simply not horny. It’s 2023, and I still struggle to think of a better straightforward celebration of a lady’s Horny Rights than Shakespeare in Love, which came out in 1998. (That’s not an invitation to list movies in the comments. I’m sure there are examples, but the fact that I can’t think of any off of the top of my head proves my point.) And let’s talk about the epidemic of leading men who will play the sex symbol off screen but hesitate to do anything remotely sexy in their art. I don’t think Female Desire is taken much more seriously in Hollywood as an actual sexual concept than it was 25 years ago.

There’s lip service given to the idea of providing women with “what they want,” but what Hollywood says women want is rarely sex. And I, the self-professed Horny Bitch, take extreme issue with that. Where is the softcore for the Lusty Straight Ladies?

Alexander Skarsgard in Brandon Cronenberg’s Infinity Pool (2023), which is softcore, but not the fun kind. (I believe in feel-bad softcore, too!)


Coming soon, part two: “I believe in softcore pornography… but that’s not what Channing Tatum says I want.”



*Both films are sometimes categorized as erotic thrillers in their own right, but the generally accepted narrative of the erotic thriller’s brief heyday pins the genre’s explosion in popularity on the success of Fatal Attraction in 1987. 

**Longworth does periodically engage with and critique the aggressive heterosexuality of the period, especially in Part 3 (“1980: Richard Gere and American Gigolo”) and Part 8 (“1985: Fear Sex, Jagged Edge & AIDS”). But I would still argue that, by and large, “Erotic 80s” is a feminist project more than anything else.

***If you listened to “Erotic 80s,” then you might have guessed that I watched Bull Durham for the first time at Karina Longworth’s suggestion.

****I’m going off of anecdotal and experiential evidence here. Sometimes I find myself (naively, perhaps) shocked by the entrenched social conservatism I encounter when I leave my Bubble, and I don’t have to stray very far. Additionally (I’ll say it here in the footnotes like a coward), everybody has implicit biases, and dismantling them is a daily practice.


Screen shot from the animated film The Sea Beast (2022). Mid shot of a large, animated red sea dragon looking into the camera.


The Sea Beast

Directed by Chris Williams
Starring Karl Urban, Zaris-Angel Hator, Jared Harris
Released June 08, 2022, streaming exclusively on Netflix


Netflix Animation, the streaming behemoth’s in-house animation studio, has only produced a handful of films since launching in 2019 with the Christmas film Klaus. The studio’s output prior to this year suggested no cohesive approach or guiding vision: a few unremarkable children’s movies here, an outrageous adult comedy about American history there. Netflix Animation has come into 2022 swinging and ready to make its mark, however. In April, Richard Linklater’s intimate Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood premiered; later this year, the studio seems poised to make a splash with My Father’s Dragon, a co-production with the multi-award-winning Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon, as well as with Henry Selick’s new film and Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio.

If these projects seem calibrated to earn the studio some artistic credibility (and maybe an Oscar), The Sea Beast is Netflix Animation’s move into the classic Disney space. In fact, writer/director Chris Williams made his name at Disney, spending many years in the story department there and eventually co-directing three pictures (including Big Hero 6 and Moana, two of my favorite animated Disney films of the last decade). Williams makes his solo directorial debut with The Sea Beast, and his first outing post-Disney could easily sit with his former employer’s best output.

The Sea Beast follows the adventure of famous monster hunter Jacob Holland (voiced by Karl Urban) and Maisie Brumble (Zaris-Angel Hator), a young orphan girl who has stowed away on the ship where Jacob serves. Jacob has made his name hunting sea monsters on The Inevitable under the legendary Captain Augustus Crow (Jared Harris). Maisie idolizes the entire crew of The Inevitable and wants nothing more than to be a hunter herself. The hunters, everyone is told, keep the high seas safe and ensure the well-being and expansion of the empire. When a fight with one of the biggest monsters in the sea goes sideways, Jacob and Maisie come to learn that perhaps the hunters’ mission isn’t as righteous as they’ve both been led to believe.

The Sea Beast borrows freely from eighteenth-century material culture for the look of its sumptuously realized environments, on land and sea, even though the film’s setting doesn’t replicate any historical time period. The racial diversity of the characters and the names of some of the locations—like Rumpepper Island, for example—suggest a sort of fantasy Caribbean setting. This, combined with the design of the hunters’ clothing and accessories, lends the whole film a vaguely piratical aesthetic that will please anyone (of any age) who might still be in their “pirate phase.” 

I love pirates, and I love giant monsters, so it’s probably no surprise that I was immediately taken with this film. But The Sea Beast rewarded my blind trust at every turn. The rigorously choreographed action sequences, in particular, are a highlight. Each action set piece is conceived as a kaiju battle, and the film never loses a sense of just how enormous “them beasts,” as the characters in the film call the creatures, are. The consistent consideration of scale gives the fight scenes an appropriate air of grandeur and, well, epicness. In addition, The Sea Beast is handsomely animated; the attention given to the surface texture details on the sea monsters stands out as an especially striking example of this. 

On a story level, The Sea Beast also satisfies. The plot unfolds in three distinct acts, and the deliberate pacing permits each emotional beat room to breathe. The film isn’t manically paced or jam-packed with jokes, instead allowing the drama to stand on its own. Even Maisie’s cute baby monster sidekick, advertised heavily in the trailer, is only sparingly used for comedic relief. While still remaining family-friendly, of course, the movie doesn’t oversimplify the emotional stakes or gloss over the implications of its pretty clearly anti-imperialist final lessons.

The Sea Beast works splendidly by combining gorgeous visuals, swashbuckling action, colossal monsters, and a time-honored adventure sensibility with gently progressive morals. If Netflix doesn’t bury it, this movie could become a family film classic.


Still from The Princess (2022), close up of The Princess (Joey King) holding a sword out towards the camera


The Princess

Directed by Le-Van Kiet
Starring Joey King, Dominic Cooper, Olga Kurylenko
Released July 01, 2022, streaming exclusively on Hulu (U.S.)


The Princess lays its cards on the table from the first scene. The film opens with a swooping exterior shot of a castle tower; the camera zooms through a window at the very top of the structure, and inside the tower lies a beautiful girl. She’s asleep, in a white wedding dress, laid out on a bed decorated with pink satin bows and rose petals. But this princess is no Sleeping Beauty waiting to be kissed. The Princess (Joey King) awakens, sits up with a dismayed sigh, and lifts her hands only to find her wrists manacled in front of her. A quick flashback reveals she’s been drugged, explaining her groggy state. The Princess explores the room, looking for a way out, and, finding none, she takes her chance at escape when two guards come into the room to check on her.

The Princess, who is given no other name through the course of the movie, brawls with the guards, eventually dispatching them both. She stabs one in the eye with a hairpin. She takes longer to defeat the second guard, struggling to back him towards the window. “You think you’re gonna make it all the way to the bottom?” the guard sneers, setting the challenge that The Princess will tackle over ninety minutes. “I’ll see you there,” The Princess promises before kicking the guard out of the window to his death.

The Princess does, indeed, make it to the bottom of the tower to avenge herself, but only after fighting a boss at every level on the way down. This will inevitably draw comparisons to The Raid, but martial arts movies love to give their protagonists a single setting to fight their way into or out of. (Enter the Dragon is set on an island, let’s not forget.) I imagine that’s exactly how director Le-Van Kiet pitched The Princess: What if the princess locked at the top of the tower knew martial arts and escaped by kicking everyone’s ass?

There’s a little more of a plot than that, but not much. The villainous Julius (Dominic Cooper, chewing the scenery) drugged The Princess and locked her at the top of the tower as punishment for leaving him at the altar. The Princess’s father negotiated the match to save his kingdom, since he has no male heirs. Trained to fight by warrior Linh (Veronica Ngo), The Princess knows she can handle herself and resents being sold off by her father into an arranged marriage. The Princess’s refusal to marry Julius causes trouble when Julius instigates a hostile takeover. He and his whip-bearing right-hand woman, Moira (Olga Kurylenko, sporting a black pompadour to match Cooper’s), crack down on the castle in an effort to force the marriage to happen so that Julius can assume the throne of The Princess’s kingdom.

The Princess is a martial arts thriller dressed in fairytale Renaissance clothing, and the fun comes from its propulsive, crunchy action scenes. As The Princess, Joey King doesn’t exactly match the material. While King brings an interesting youthful vulnerability and a real sense of desperation to the role, she can’t quite convince in the action sequences. One could be forgiving and read some of the less graceful physicality as character work; The Princess is trained in combat, but she’s not a hardened warrior. However, when King fights on screen next to Ngo, or even Kurylenko, the comparison is unfavorable. A lead performer with just a bit more of a compelling physical presence would have bumped this film up a grade, in this reviewer’s estimation.

Still, as is, The Princess is well choreographed, briskly paced, and mercifully thematically simple. After the week we’ve had in America, it’s undeniably satisfying to see an angry woman dropping men left and right in increasingly violent ways to defend and secure her own bodily autonomy. If that’s all The Princess ultimately gives, that’s perfectly fine.


Still from Spiderhead (2022), close up shot of Chris Hemsworth's smiling face



Directed by Joseph Kosinski
Starring Chris Hemsworth, Miles Teller, Jurnee Smollett
Released June 17, 2022, streaming exclusively on Netflix


Chris Hemsworth may be one of Hollywood’s most underutilized, underappreciated stars. As Thor, Hemsworth became a household name, but the MCU is never where he’s done his best work. One doesn’t have to venture too deeply into Hemsworth’s non-Marvel filmography to realize that the actor’s font of charisma remains grievously untapped by Disney. From his mind-meltingly hot performances in Rush and Blackhat to his breakthrough comedic role in the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot to his mesmerizing turn as a villainous cult leader in Bad Times at the El Royale, Hemsworth has proven again and again that he’s more than the God of Thunder. Even as Thor, the actor has savvily adapted the role to his strengths to become a fan favorite against all odds, after years of getting upstaged by Tom Hiddleston.

Spiderhead, Joseph Kosinski’s new sci-fi film, works as the latest piece of evidence in the case for freeing Chris Hemsworth from Kevin Feige’s death grip. Miles Teller is ostensibly Spiderhead’s leading man; and with Kosinski’s Top Gun: Maverick (also starring Teller) still selling out theaters three weeks into its release, Spiderhead seems poised to be discussed as the duo’s straight-to-streaming B-side. But, as the lengthy preamble to this review should have hinted, Spiderhead is all Hemsworth’s. He receives top billing, and his performance as scientist Steve Abnesti provides the movie’s main fascination.

Spiderhead, adapted by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick from a George Saunders short story, takes place entirely within an experimental facility of the same name. A Brutalist hideaway in the jungle, Spiderhead houses convicted felons who have volunteered to participate in drug trials in exchange for better living conditions. Jeff (Teller, out of his depth) serves his sentence here. When he’s not participating in experiments, he performs janitorial and catering duties with fellow inmate and love interest Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett, giving one hundred percent in material that doesn’t deserve it, as usual). Abnesti and his assistant Verlaine (Mark Paguio) oversee the experiments, which involve dosing the test subjects with descriptively named drugs like “Phobica,” “Laffodil,” and “Luvactin.” Test subjects are also routinely dosed with a substance called “Verbaluce,” which compels them to describe how they are feeling for the sake of the scientific record. Abnesti administers these drugs via remote through a “Mobi-pack” affixed to the base of each inmate’s spine.

Although Jeff is the film’s main character, the effects of the drugs that he’s given are rarely shown subjectively through his point of view. Rather, the audience monitors the drugs’ effects from the outside, which inadvertently aligns the camera’s viewpoint with Abnesti’s observational position. This leads to a few striking passages where cinematographer Claudio Miranda dispassionately captures the disturbing dissonance in the dosed inmates’ behaviors. One test subject giggles, framed in a static mid-shot, as Verlaine relates horrific statstics from the Rwandan genocide. In a later scene, another inmate/test subject has been given a drug that overrides his natural hunger/satiation response. This inmate is briefly glimpsed stuffing himself with food until he vomits. Jeff, when dosed with Luvactin, finds himself chemically obliged to have sex with two women he doesn’t want to have sex with; these scenes of “love” making are shot through a pane of glass, from the scientist’s side of the lab.

A weirder, more daring film would have plunged viewers into Jeff’s altered states with more gusto. As it is, Spiderhead seems content to keep the proceedings cerebral rather than visceral. Again, this mimics Abnesti’s view of the world and Spiderhead’s activities rather than Jeff’s experience of his sentence at the facility. It’s no wonder, then, that Abnesti emerges as the film’s most interesting character. The scientist is the worst kind of villain—one who thinks he’s a pretty chill dude, all things considered. (Abnesti’s taste in easy-listening music, which he pipes through the facility’s speakers, reveals volumes about him.) Hemsworth plays Abnesti like the coolest teacher at your high school, the one who “related” to the students and always acted like he was one of them rather than an authority of any sort. Abnesti never lets Jeff forget that all of the test subjects at Spiderhead volunteered to come to the facility. Abnesti prides himself on treating the inmates with “mutual respect” and running a facility without locks or bars, as well as providing the inmates with a better quality of life than they would have had at a state penitentiary. Hemsworth stays placid even as the experiments get weirder, exuding a calm sense of control. It’s easy to imagine, for a while, why the inmates at Spiderhead trust Abnesti; Hemsworth weaponizes his star power here.

It gradually becomes clear that the questions of consent at Spiderhead aren’t so clear cut, and Abnesti’s dream of a world where there’s a drug to control every negative emotion could potentially rob everyone of their humanity. Spiderhead raises thorny ethical and philosophical questions, but it ultimately eschews exploration of these quandaries in favor of a more digestible ending. (The very end, a bit of hackneyed voiceover, almost ruins the film entirely.) Spiderhead doesn’t end up being more than a slick little diversion, enjoyable enough for two hours. Unfortunately, its web isn’t sticky enough to keep you in its clutches after the credits roll.


Tom Cruise as Stacee Jaxx in Rock of Ages


It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of an electric guitar must be in want of a groupie.

Or something like that. Starting a band to get a girlfriend is a time-honored tactic employed by teenaged film protagonists, after all. Even today, with rock and roll reportedly dead, the idea persists that the sexy sheen of rock music automatically confers some sex appeal upon its practitioners. It’s one of the most unshakeable myths of the twentieth century, informed by the profound connection in the cultural imagination between sex and rock and roll. 

Because if sex and rock and roll go hand-in-hand, then it follows that rock stars are mega-studs. In certain cases, a rock star’s sex appeal absolutely has to do with physical appearance—consider Elvis Presley’s matinee idol good looks, Robert Plant’s bare chest and mane of golden hair, Bruce Springsteen’s butt in rigid ‘80s denim—but it’s only the pop stars who have to look pretty. If somebody as weird-looking as Mick Jagger can become a sex symbol through the power of rock and roll, then surely there’s hope for every other man with a guitar in his hands. The implicit promise is that he, too, can harness rock music to become a chick magnet, and why wouldn’t he want to?

In Rock of Ages—Adam Shankman’s 2012 film adaptation of the surprise-hit, jukebox stage musical of the same name—Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise) is the biggest rock star in the world. Everyone else in the film utters his name reverentially, as if he’s the embodiment of rock and roll itself. Initially, it seems as though Rock of Ages might take a conventional, if humorously exaggerated, route with its characterization of Stacee as a quintessential rock star/sex symbol.

Stacee Jaxx first appears on screen to the sounds of a steamy jungle beat and a dramatic electric guitar riff.* He emerges from a literal pile of women, four certified babes who have sensually draped themselves over his passed out body and obscured him from view. Stacee’s manager (a perpetually gum-smacking Paul Giamatti) calls the rock star’s name, and Stacee shifts, sending a ripple through his groupies. The women lazily disentangle themselves from Stacee and each other, parting the veil so that Stacee can get up from his bed. The first part of Stacee Jaxx’s body they reveal is his crotch, adorned with a bejeweled codpiece.

As is immediately evident from this introductory scene, Rock of Ages explicitly, outrageously conflates sex and rock ‘n’ roll in the figure of Stacee Jaxx. Because Stacee is rock ‘n’ roll incarnate, he is also, naturally, sex incarnate. Or, at least, everyone reacts to him that way. The film’s perspective on sex and its relationship to rock and roll isn’t all that straightforward, and this complicatedness is what has prevented me, for a decade, from writing off Rock of Ages as a totally mindless guilty pleasure. Perhaps this understates the case. Let me be more clear: I’ve been utterly fascinated with Cruise’s Stacee Jaxx since I first laid eyes on his naked, tattooed torso. (And what tattoos! The pistols on his hips pointing down his pants? That’s art.)

The entire plot of the film version of Rock of Ages (adapted for the screen by Justin Theroux and Chris D’Arienzo) revolves around Stacee Jaxx, even if he isn’t technically the lead character. At the start of the movie, the Bourbon Room, a fictional stand-in for places like the Whisky and The Roxy, is on the brink of bankruptcy. The club’s proprietors (Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand, vibing on jarringly different frequencies from one another) are counting on Stacee Jaxx to save their business with a guaranteed sell-out attraction. Stacee has agreed to play one last show with his band, Arsenal, at the venue before going solo. All of the main characters in Rock of Ages, aside from Stacee himself, work at the club, so this farewell show becomes the focal point of the film. But the primary driver of the plot isn’t just Arsenal’s final show at the Bourbon. The source of conflict, for all three major plot arcs, stems directly from the question of who Stacee Jaxx has or hasn’t had sex with.

Despite turning the film’s villains into Regan-era Republican politicians—a change from the German real estate developers of the stage version—Shankman’s Rock of Ages is decidedly conservative. For the sake of a PG-13 rating, it’s glaringly conservative about drugs, for one; there’s not a powder or pill in sight in this movie. The illegal substances are hilariously conspicuous in their absence, particularly since the narcotics are so heavily implied in Cruise’s drugged-out performance as Jaxx. And Shankman’s Rock of Ages is also, less obviously but no less deeply, conservative about sex.

The film’s treatment of Stacee Jaxx serves as the site of the film’s most muddled and curiously convoluted assertions about sex and its relationship to rock and roll. In the stage version of Rock of Ages, Stacee is a true supporting character and a much more traditional rock star/sex god. Cruise’s Jaxx, by contrast, is the centerpiece of the film version and an ambivalent sex god at best. There’s a tension between the film’s repeated adulation of the “rock and roll” lifestyle and its distinctly un-rock-and-roll attitude towards sex; the film uses Jaxx, its resident rock god (the figure in which rock and roll and sex most clearly merge), to explore and questionably resolve these tensions.

Tom Cruise’s mesmerizing, off-putting performance gives Shankman’s Rock of Ages exactly what it needs. Only Cruise could convincingly bring this version of Stacee Jaxx—the rock star/sex god whose magnetism isn’t exactly sexual but is mistakenly assumed to be—to life with such clarity and comedic precision. Cruise’s casting electrifies Jaxx’s anxieties over his perceived sex appeal and how integral it is or isn’t to his fame. This isn’t some meta layer the audience brings to the film. Cruise knows exactly what he’s doing here, which makes the performance enthralling.

Cruise’s casting in Rock of Ages was a point of interest and speculation as soon as it was announced. His decision to do his own singing in the film garnered repeated comparison to his dangerous Burj Khalifa stunt in the recently-released Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Entertainment Weekly reported, with a barely disguised hint of incredulity, that Cruise had worn “perhaps the skimpiest outfits of his career,” including assless chaps, for the film. W asked Cruise about all of the “sexy scenes” in the movie after noting that Cruise would be fifty by the time the film came out.

It might not be correct to say that Tom Cruise was never a sex symbol, but I think it’s more than fair to say that he’s never been known for generating much heat on screen. He’s routinely described as a compelling but cold presence—“sexless,” “robotic,” a “beautiful android.” This coldness can veer into creepiness, something the actor has effectively tapped into on occasion to play against his clean-cut leading man persona of the ‘80s and ‘90s. He’s also known for being a try-hard, someone who commits to his roles with an almost maniacal, single-minded intensity. There’s nothing wrong with this, per se, but most people understand sex appeal as something effortless, whether that’s accurate or not. An actor can’t train to be sexy the way he can train to perform death-defying stunts. Generally, paradoxically, the harder one tries to be sexy, the less sexy one seems.

When Rock of Ages hit theaters, there was one thing everyone wanted to know: “Does Tom Cruise embarrass himself?” (The assless chaps get another mention here.) The movie received poor reviews and even worse box office receipts, turning out to be one of the few bona fide financial flops of Cruise’s career. But the general consensus was that, no, Cruise didn’t embarrass himself. In fact, many critics singled out Cruise’s Stacee Jaxx as the only worthwhile thing about an otherwise completely forgettable movie.

The narrative goes like this:

Rock of Ages is a cheesy, saccharine piece of fluff. Although the film takes place on the Sunset Strip in 1987, during the heyday of the legendarily libidinous and druggy hair metal bands that ruled the rock scene there, Shankman presents a determinedly sanitized, grit-less simulacrum of this setting. Rock of Ages uses the hits of Guns N’ Roses, Poison, Foreigner, Whitesnake, Bon Jovi, Def Leppard, and others to punctuate a generic story of boy-meets-girl. This being a musical comedy at heart, the movie conclusively, shamelessly proclaims that the most rock ‘n’ roll thing of all is… true love.

The leading boy and girl, Drew (Diego Boneta) and Sherrie (Julianne Hough), barely make an impression. Supporting player Tom Cruise upstages everyone as Stacee Jaxx, the only character who brings any real rock and roll energy to the proceedings. Dana Stevens wrote, in her review of the film for Slate, that “Cruise’s portrait of the rock star as empty-eyed nihilist doesn’t really belong in this gaudy pop trinket of a movie.” In his positive (and mostly bang-on) review of the movie for Salon, critic Andrew O’Hehir lamented, “Stacee belongs in some other movie, maybe the great film about ’80s rock that Cameron Crowe has never managed to make. In this one [Rock of Ages], he’s like a wild thing, the tragic, dying spirit of rock ‘n’ roll, trapped in a cage made of candy.” Cruise is not only good, he’s too good for the silly film Shankman constructed around his performance. Cruise’s Stacee Jaxx injects a little danger, a little darkness, a little sex into an otherwise safe, light, and sexless movie.

I agree to an extent with this analysis. Stacee Jaxx does steal the movie, and I return to Rock of Ages again and again mostly for the joy of watching my favorite Weird Tom Cruise performance. I don’t agree that Cruise’s Stacee Jaxx doesn’t belong in the version of Rock of Ages that we got.

There’s something undeniably perverse about casting Tom Cruise, an actor known for failing to generate much chemistry with his co-stars on screen, as a rock star/sex god. Intriguingly, however, Stacee Jaxx turns out to be a rock god who doesn’t want the sexual attention he receives. It’s implied that maybe Stacee is just over it, that he’s lived that debauched lifestyle long enough and, after a decade plus of rock star excesses, he’s seen it all. What’s another beautiful woman when you’ve had hundreds? Here’s the catch, though, and what makes Stacee a supremely comedic creation rather than a cliché: I don’t believe that Cruise’s Jaxx has ever enjoyed having sex. Not once. 

Stacee Jaxx’s sex appeal is entirely manufactured, a product of his status as the biggest rock star in the world, and this only registers so clearly because there’s not much that’s actually erotic about Cruise. The whole set up works to parody the idea that being a rock star makes someone sexually desirable as a matter of course. Cruise leans in, playing the poor little rock star—confused by, ambivalent about, and resentful of the way women respond to him—like a sad sex clown. He’s a rock star, and he’s expected to be sexy. So he’s performatively lewd, permanently shirtless. He gives the people what they want, but he’s totally trapped and perplexed by his sex god persona. Rock of Ages takes this joke about as far as it can go, and Cruise, I would argue, is in on that joke.

At the time of the film’s release, critics picked up on how Cruise might be better positioned than most to understand the psyche of an impossibly famous entertainer who’s been on top for too long. It’s tempting to read Cruise’s performance as some fun-house mirror expression of his own feelings of isolation and pain and disillusionment, and maybe it is, subconsciously. I think Roger Ebert got closer when he claimed in his review of Rock of Ages that “all the stars except the leads are essentially satirizing themselves.” He applauds Cruise for being “the most merciless on himself,” playing Stacee as the worst version of a megastar, a narcissistic ego-maniac.

Sure, Cruise has a reputation for being a demanding perfectionist, and he’s probably as narcissistic as can be expected when a person’s been world-famous for four decades. But with Jaxx, Cruise isn’t just broadly satirizing megastars, himself included. I find the satire rather more pointed. As Jaxx, Cruise sends up the image of himself as sexless and plays with audiences’ perceptions of his sex appeal (or lack thereof).

Cruise’s sex appeal has been a much-debated topic in Hollywood for decades now, and addressing this through surprising role choices wasn’t new territory for Cruise by 2012. Two fan-favorite Weird Tom Cruise roles, Lestat de Lioncourt in Interview with the Vampire and Frank T.J. Mackey in Magnolia, serve as clear predecessors to Stacee Jaxx. Lestat, like Stacee, is circumstantially sexy; being a vampire, like being a rock star, brings with it an immediate seductive allure. Mackey’s a wannabe rock star, with his leather vest and cuffs, teaching disgusting “Seduce and Destroy” seminars about how to get women to fall at men’s feet the way they literally fall at Stacee’s. All three roles require Cruise to be sexual, often obscenely so, but he isn’t necessarily sexy in any of these films. All three characters are intentionally repellent to different degrees.

If Lestat and Mackey are nods to and subversions of expectations regarding how sexual Tom Cruise can or should be on screen, only Stacee directly addresses how fame as an entertainer distorts and influences a person’s perceived sexual desirability. And while a mischievous sort of humor infuses Cruise’s performance as Lestat, Stacee is the only character of the three calibrated primarily for comedic effect. Cruise’s performance in Rock of Ages, while clearly coming from some place deeper and more committed than the other actors’ work in the film, is just as funny, just as outlandish, and just as artificial. Cruise’s Jaxx doesn’t illuminate some truth about fame or rock stardom. Cruise’s Jaxx is an impossible fantasy creation that simultaneously lampoons the idea of a famous entertainer who doesn’t enjoy the sex that comes with the territory and provides a bizarre argument for the disentanglement of sex appeal from value as an entertainer (especially entertainers like rock stars or movie stars who are expected to be sexy).

This slipperiness is what makes the movie version of Jaxx so fascinating and Cruise’s performance so rich. If Cruise had simply brought a genuinely hot rockstar energy to the role, played it straight like so many others who played the role on stage before him, I don’t think I’d be thinking about his Stacee Jaxx a decade later.

Stacee Jaxx gets three musical numbers in the film, and they come almost all in a row, smackdab in the middle of the movie. “Wanted Dead or Alive,” “I Wanna Know What Love Is,” and “Pour Some Sugar On Me” form the high point of Rock of Ages. They’re all killer numbers. 

Cruise turns “Wanted Dead or Alive” into a song about how tiring it is to be sexually desired by literally everyone. The “wanted” here gets a plainly sexual connotation; as Cruise struts through the number, looking off into the distance as he sings his tale of woe, a group of women trails him, touching him, trying to get a piece of him. “Pour Some Sugar On Me” begins with Jaxx on stage, shaking a bottle of beer in front of his pelvis with his back to the crowd (giving them the impression that he’s jerking himself off) before “ejaculating” the foam spray. Cruise lays it all out in this number, performing the whole song on stage, being the rock god we’ve been promised Stacee is.

The crown jewel, however, and the number that gets to the heart of Stacee’s (and maybe the film’s) whole deal, is “I Wanna Know What Love Is.” Before Arsenal’s show at the Bourbon, Stacee’s manager has arranged for the star to give an interview to Rolling Stone reporter Constance Sack (Malin Åkerman, maybe never better than she is here). Stacee’s first number, “Wanted Dead or Alive,” is framed as Stacee’s answer to Constance’s first interview question. She asks him, “What’s it like to be the Stacee Jaxx?” And he launches into the Bon Jovi song.

Constance doesn’t buy Stacee’s bullshit. She tells him he’s not a cowboy, but a “man-child stuck in a rut.” She dresses him down, telling him he’s not great any more. Stacee suggestively eggs her on, moaning, “I love it when you talk dirty” and growling, “That’s right, just give it to me rough.” He wears his sex god persona like an armor.

“I think you get this sense of entitlement due to the fact that you’re a rock god,” Constance says to him, thinking that she’s seen right through him. “But it’s not real. It’s not love.”

“No, it’s not love,” replies Stacee, startling Constance with his self-knowledge.

“Then what is it?” she asks.

“Off the record?” Jaxx pauses before leaning in close to Constance and obscenely hissing, “Ssssss-ex.”

After letting that land, he launches into one hell of a monologue, continuing, “And other people’s projections of what they want me to be. Of what you and all your readers want me to be. Sex. And it keeps me from going out and getting the thing that could save me. But I can’t have that now. I’m a slave to rock and roll. I am searching for the perfect song, the perfect sound that will make you want to live forever.”

This initiates a positively incredible duet between Stacee and Constance, in which the two of them sing Foreigner’s power ballad to each other as they shed their clothes. Stacee puts the charm on Constance, using his inexplicable rock star sex magic on her until she’s so worked up that she throws him down on a pool table to straddle him. Stacee’s also just telling Constance what she wants to hear. He’s singing that he wants to know what love is, with her, the only person who’s perceptive enough to understand him. Although Stacee later comes to realize that she is special, he’s sort of manipulating her in the duet scene, showing her how powerful it is when he gives in and becomes “what they want me to be.” Constance starts to understand this when she watches Jaxx perform “Pour Some Sugar on Me” in front of a crowd his next scene, working the magic. Cruise’s face remains contorted in anguish for the whole Foreigner number; and it’s purposefully unclear if Stacee is anguished because Constance has seen his vulnerability, or if he’s anguished because he’s being forced to be sexy again.

This scene is uproariously raunchy. Constance begins her part of the second verse on her knees with the laces to Stacee’s pants in her teeth. He starts the second chorus, belting “I wanna know what love is,” with his face inches from her ass. He sings into her boobs. He sings into her crotch. (Eat your heart out, Adam Driver.) She almost falls off the pool table in her haste to climb on top of it and, by extension, Stacee. 

The duet is a quasi-sex scene. I’m not sure if we’re meant to understand that the two of them actually have sex or not. Most critics read it this way, even though both parties keep their pants on, and the camera angles keep that unambiguous. This is a musical, a genre where songs regularly stand in for sex. The “I Wanna Know What Love Is” duet takes this idea to its limit, showing Constance and Stacee “climaxing” at the big high note at the end of the song. But the camera keeps Constance’s cotton panties in the frame for most of the time that she’s writhing on top of Stacee, and she still has her panties on when she rolls off of him and onto the floor. This comically literal fusion of sex and rock and roll, in which Constance and Stacee erotically sing a power ballad to eachother seemingly in lieu of sex, is the joke.**

Later in the film, when Stacee calls the Rolling Stone offices looking for Constance after she’s published the interview, he doesn’t mention that they had sex. He says instead, with a supremely pained look on his face: “She stuck her tongue in my ear. She blew my world up.” The face Stacee makes when Constance performs the tongue-in-ear action in their duet does, indeed, suggest that the moment made him reevaluate his whole life.

As Drew and Sherrie perform the finale number, “Don’t Stop Believin’,” the film checks in on the newly reunited Constance and Stacee. They’re making out, throwing each other around the bathroom of the Bourbon, destroying sinks and knocking a condom machine off the wall. When the camera cuts back to the couple, they’re on the floor of the bathroom, kissing with Stacee on top. Seemingly in the middle of whatever sex stuff they’re doing, Stacee looks up as he hears Drew’s song. Stacee appears to interrupt his sex with Constance so that he can go to the door of the bathroom to hear the song better. If I wasn’t sure before, this scene again suggests that there’s something weird going on with Stacee’s mental inability to separate sex and rock and roll after years of conditioning.

It’s striking that the film’s villain, a conservative politician’s wife named Patricia Whitmore (Catherine Zeta-Jones, originating the new role for the movie), also conflates sex and rock and roll to a ludicrous extreme. She’s determined to “clean up” the Sunset Strip with the help of her husband and LA mayoral candidate Mike (Bryan Cranston), seemingly motivated by some personal vendetta against Stacee Jaxx. At one point, Patricia angrily condemns Jaxx by asserting, “He’s like a machine that spews three things. Sex! Hateful music! And… sex!” (Another instance where the lack of drugs in this film is so obvious that it becomes the punchline.)

It turns out that Patricia’s hatred of rock and roll has nothing to do with the music and everything to do with a one-night stand she had with Stacee Jaxx many years ago. The first time I watched this film, I thought, ever so briefly, that the movie might insinuate that Jaxx’s encounter with Patricia wasn’t consensual.*** But Jaxx’s only crime seems to be that he merely had sex with Patricia’s once, since he left LA on his tour bus the next day, and she wanted more. 

Near the end of the movie, Jaxx neutralizes the threat Patricia and her group of church ladies pose to the Bourbon by approaching her as she leads a protest outside of the club. He gropes her breasts, looks deep into her eyes, and addresses her by name. “Patty,” he says. “Your tits have held up well.” Cruise’s Jaxx only uses his unwanted powers of sexual persuasion for good, apparently. Patricia loses her cool, turns to putty in Jaxx’s hands, and her past with the rock star gets revealed to the public. In the final number of the film, Patricia’s decked out in leather and enjoying a rock concert. She can only enjoy rock music again once she’s been assured that her favorite rock god, Stacee Jaxx, still finds her sexually appealing.

The whole thing is so goofy that it’s impossible not to question the entire assumption that it’s normal to enjoy a rock star’s music because of your sexual attraction to him. This, combined with Stacee’s apparent psychological anguish at having to fulfill everyone’s sexual fantasies of him, reads as the film’s attempt to justify its strange investment in separating sex from the spirit of rock and roll. And, ten years later, it’s hard not to read it as Cruise’s justification for fully committing to a radically asexual kind of movie stardom from Rock of Ages on out.

Rock of Ages is, to this day, the last non-action film that Cruise has starred in. Most of his roles this century have been action flicks, but there’s been a purposeful escalation of the sexlessness since his divorce from Katie Holmes a decade ago. For good reason, since it nearly derailed his career, Cruise no longer wants us to think about his sex life at all. This pivot has worked. Cruise’s recent disinterest in being sexy/sexual/romantic on screen has gotten him praised as “the best place for women in action movies,” and, in light of Hollywood’s recently puritanical bent, his sexlessness doesn’t feel so out of place. In the wake of the massive success of Top Gun: Maverick, Cruise has been worshipfully lauded as The Last True Movie Star.**** 

In hindsight, it’s difficult not to see Stacee Jaxx as Cruise’s final, brilliantly contradictory word on the subject of anxieties over his own sex appeal. Jaxx is, on the one hand, ridiculous. The film gets laughs out of imagining a rock star who doesn’t seem to like sex. Of course all rock stars (and movie stars) like having sex. Only someone hilariously pathetic, someone like Stacee Jaxx, wouldn’t. But on the other hand, the film sympathizes with Jaxx’s burden. It’s also ridiculous, the film seems to say, to buy into the myth, to give rock stars (and movie stars) such sexual power. It’s ridiculous to be like Patricia, enjoying an entertainer’s work solely through the lens of their sex appeal.

By the end of the film, Jaxx is still making popular music, still a rock star performing to a huge arena crowd, and he’s happily partnered with Constance. (The only evidence provided that Stacee and Constance ever actually have sex is her visible pregnancy in the final scene.) He’s not groping anybody, getting groped, or thrusting his hips. He even has a shirt on. Sort of. It’s an open vest, but it’s more clothing than he’s worn on stage at any other point in the film. This fits with Rock of Ages’ most conservative assertions about sex, art, and fame. Of course famous men have and enjoy sex: procreative sex with blonde women who love them. But good art—good entertainment—should have nothing to do with that sex. Why should it? No sex, no drugs, just pure rock and roll.



* The character of Stacee Jaxx was, reportedly, modeled at least in part on Axl Rose. In this introductory scene, Stacee’s green room is ostentatiously jungle-themed, which seems like a clear visual nod to the Guns N’ Roses’ hit “Welcome to the Jungle.”

** It’s also worth noting here that the film adaptation of Rock of Ages changes the story so that Stacee and Sherrie never have sex. In the stage version, the duet is between Stacee and Sherrie, and they unambiguously hook up. This leads Drew and Sherrie to break up. In the film version, the Rolling Stone reporter’s role is expanded to become Stacee’s love interest, and Drew only thinks Sherrie and Stacee have slept together based on a misunderstanding.

*** This would be much more in line with the Stacee Jaxx we get in the stage musical, who is a straightforward lech—a famous man who takes whatever he wants when it comes to sex. Not for nothing, by the end of the stage show, Jaxx has fled to Uruguay to evade charges of statutory rape.

**** As someone who became pop culturally aware in the aughts and learned who Tom Cruise was basically because of the Oprah couch thing (I was eleven when it happened), I never thought I’d live to see the day.




Directed by Chloe Okuno
Starring Maika Monroe, Karl Glusman, Burn Gorman
Released June 03, 2022, now playing in theaters


A young woman moves to a foreign country with her husband. They arrive together, a unit, but their daily lives quickly take divergent paths. He goes to his job at a marketing firm. She spends her days alternately languishing in their apartment and aimlessly wandering around the unfamiliar city she now calls home. She tries to learn the language but doesn’t seem to make much headway; she’s forced to rely on her husband to translate for her. If this scenario conjures up semi-glamorous images of expat ennui, think again.

Julia (an excellent Maika Monroe) has recently decided to reevaluate her life after giving up on becoming an actress. Francis (Karl Glusman) has been called to Romania for work, a position he’s qualified to fill since he speaks the language—he’s American, but his mother was Romanian. So the couple relocates to Bucharest, where the unoccupied Julia starts to feel isolated, paranoid, and, above all, watched.

Watcher seems to tip its hand early on. Nathan Halpern’s eerie score immediately signals that this film is a Horror Movie. The music, combined with the superb sound design—in which innocuous, small noises are amplified to startling effect—put the viewer on edge from the start. Julia and Francis arrive at their Bucharest flat, which features an enormous picture window in the living room. The couple starts making out on the couch, and the camera zooms out until the audience observes the couple from outside the window, perfectly framed. These gorgeous people, and their apartment with its giant windows, were made for watching. Watching a movie and spying on a neighbor are both inherently voyeuristic acts, and, for a brief moment, it appears as though Watcher will go the traditional route of aligning the audience perspective with that of the voyeur.

But Julia is sick of being looked at. She notices a shadowy figure in a window across the street (played by Burn Gorman), and she becomes obsessed with the idea that someone is watching her. Julia starts looking back, obsessively gazing out her window to catch the person she knows watches her day and night. When she learns of a serial killer roaming the city, Julia becomes even more convinced that someone with malevolent intentions is keeping his eye on her. Francis, while initially sympathetic, eventually becomes dismissive of his wife as she ever more desperately tries to persuade him that she’s being stalked. He finds Julia’s behavior increasingly out of line, and he starts to understand her surveillance of their neighbor as the problem. (With this strand of the plot, we get a hint of the good, old-fashioned gaslighting thriller; although I don’t think Julia ever truly doubts her own perceptions.)

Watcher, like its beautiful blonde protagonist, is stylish, lean, and tense. Writer/director Chloe Okuno, making her feature film debut, shows restraint in keeping the plot simple. What makes Watcher stand out is its sophisticated, flipped, feminist perspective. Watcher isn’t a gender-swapped voyeur tale, in which a woman spies on and becomes sexually obsessed with a man across the street. (For a satisfying film that fits this description, I’d recommend Michael Mohan’s The Voyeurs from last year.) But Okuno has, in fact, made a sort of flipped voyeur movie in which the female object of the male voyeur’s gaze has the audacity to gaze back. Watcher is less concerned with the act of looking and more interested in the particular feeling of being looked at, which naturally aligns the film’s perspective with feminist concerns about the pervasive objectification of women. To be a woman is to exist to be looked at, and Watcher seizes on and amplifies the everyday anxiety that this reality produces for most women.

Okuno paces the film just right, masterfully increasing the pressure until the critical moment. Just when you think that Watcher might not deliver the genre goods, the film gratifyingly punctures its own atmosphere of unrelenting tension with a few scenes of graphic violence that bring the movie home.

If you’re looking for an exquisitely crafted suspense film, I can’t recommend Watcher highly enough. Watcher marks Chloe Okuno as one to… well, watch.


Sundance Film Festival 2022 Header Image


It’s the last week of January, so you know what that means. I’m back with dispatches from the front of Virtual Sundance, Round 2 (aka the Sundance Film Festival 2022)!

This year’s coverage of the festival won’t be quite as extensive as last year’s. I have just moved across the country–seriously, we’ve been in our new place for a week, and the movers haven’t even gotten our stuff here yet–and had thought that I wasn’t going to be able to attend the festival at all this year. While the 2022 edition of the festival had long been planned as a “hybrid” event, it wasn’t clear what would be available online (frankly, it didn’t seem like much), and I wasn’t going to be able to go to Utah for a week in the middle of a move. So I had written this year off a Sundance loss and resigned myself to it. 

As the omicron/winter COVID surge began to sweep the country in December, film industry folks wondered if Sundance would push forward with the in-person festival. Public health experts in Utah predicted that the peak of the omicron surge in the film festival’s host state would coincide with the event. At the very last minute, the announcement finally came that the 2022 edition of the festival would, as last year, be entirely virtual. Well, I couldn’t help myself at that point. I snapped up some tickets, roped in my longtime Sundance buddy (my mom), and we were off to the races. I don’t have a festival pass this year, and I’ll have to take a few days off this week to, you know, unpack all of my belongings; however, I can’t restrain myself and will still probably watch more movies than any one person should watch in a week.

Writing my Sundance diary last year was a challenge that I greatly enjoyed tackling. I thought it would be fun to try it again, so expect regular updates here on the blog about what I’m watching at the festival. This year, I’m going to try out a streamlined version of the diary that consists mainly of capsule reviews. I’ve also tasked myself with being less descriptive in my roundups and more pithy with my opinion. We’ll see how that goes. “I’m working on developing my quick reaction muscle,” I tell you as I meaningfully tap the “About Us” tab.

So, without further ado, here’s the main attraction.


DAY 1 (Friday, January 21, 2022)**

All of the films I watched on Day 1 pointed me outwards, to other films I would like to watch. Living made me curious about Ikiru, of course, while The Exiles inspired me to seek out the documentaries of Christine Choy. Leonor Will Never Die piqued my interest in the Filipino action films, like the ones Leonor makes and dreams about, that clearly inspired writer/director Martika Ramirez Escobar.


Living (Premieres)

Oliver Hermanus directs this remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952), while internationally acclaimed novelist Kazuo Ishiguro wrote the script, which transposes the story of Kurosawa’s film to post-war London. Living features an impressively restrained, incredibly effective central performance from Bill Nighy as a bureaucrat who struggles to find meaning in his life when he learns that he has six months left to live. Supporting turns from Tom Burke (pitch perfect here, simply oozing seedy charm), Aimee Lou Wood, and Alex Sharp round out a uniformly strong cast. From the stunning opening credits, which are designed to look as though they belong to a film made in the period in which the film is set, it’s clear that the film will be a treat for the formalists. Each frame of Living is rigorously, classically composed, and, combined with the gorgeously high contrast cinematography, this does lend the film a decidedly (deliciously) old-fashioned look. The plot, taken straight from the Kurosawa film, has a literary bent, full as it is of chance encounters, intertwined fates, and existential questions. The film is, ultimately, a morality tale, but the script never falsely reduces the emotional complexity of any situation to make a point or pull a heartstring. Despite a premise that sounds like the setup for something mawkish, Living operates in a controlled, repressed register that reflects its main character’s inner state. I liked this film quite a bit, but, having never seen Ikiru, I can’t speak to how it works as a remake. 


The Exiles (U.S. Documentary Competition)

Violet Columbus and Ben Klein set out to make a biographical documentary about outspoken nonfiction filmmaker, activist, and professor Christine Choy; but during the process, they discovered that Choy had hours and hours of footage for an intriguing unfinished project. In 1989, Choy began filming a group of Chinese activists who had survived the Tiananmen Square massacre and been granted asylum in New York City. Choy, a Chinese-American woman, found herself at the perfect cultural crossroad to take on the project. (She’s blunter, saying she was able to film the subjects because “I spoke Chinese.”) Columbus and Klein endeavor to help Choy finish the project, following up with the subjects thirty years later and reminding audiences of the significance of the Tiananmen Square massacre. The two intentions of the documentary never came together meaningfully for me (the profile of Choy and the recovery of Choy’s old project), although the thread of the film that concerned the survivors of the massacre in the present day was undeniably moving.


Leonor Will Never Die (World Dramatic Competition)

Perhaps the strangest film I’ve seen so far this festival, Leonor Will Never Die might best be described as an experimental film about filmmaking, turning life into art, dealing with death, and action films from the Philippines. Martika Ramirez Escobar wrote and directed this never less than involving movie, which takes so many surreal turns that you can’t help but keep watching. Leonor (a fantastic Sheila Francisco) is an aging, retired action film maker. When she gets hit on the head and goes into a coma, she gets stuck in a script she’s been working on for many years. The coma/dream sections of the film are faithful, affectionate recreations of the type of action film Leonor would have made in her career. I admired the craft and the ambition of this film, but I’m not sure I loved it. I am looking forward to watching this one again when I have the opportunity.


DAY 2 (Saturday, January 22, 2022)

My Day 2 schedule unintentionally provided me with two thematic pairs. Calendar Girls and Good Luck to You, Leo Grande featured women over 60 interested in challenging accepted norms about how women “should” age and figuring out a better way to live their lives. The documentaries Fire of Love and Lucy and Desi both spotlit real-life couples whose shared work changed the world.


Calendar Girls (World Cinema Documentary Competition) 

If this movie doesn’t make you want to dance, then I don’t know what to tell you. Finnish directing duo Maria Loohufvud and Love Martinsen make their feature film debut with this charming documentary about a volunteer dance troupe in Florida made up entirely of women over 60. The film follows several of the dancers, including the troupe’s founder and leader, over the course of a year or so. The spirited women at the center of this documentary find meaning and purpose while performing with the Calendar Girls at a time in their lives when they feel like society expects them to be invisible. The highlights of the doc for me were the interpretive dance scenes sprinkled throughout the movie, which worked to both illuminate the women’s inner emotional states and also effectively translate the Calendar Girls’ dancing for the medium of film. Juno Films picked up Calendar Girls for distribution, with an expected North American theatrical release in the summer.


Good Luck to You, Leo Grande (Premieres)

Before I go any further, I have to get this out of the way: Daryl McCormack is a goddamn STAR. I hadn’t seen him in anything before I watched this film, and he a) held his own against Emma Thompson giving an absolute powerhouse performance and b) completely sold a character who is pretty much a gender-swapped, progressive version of the “hooker with a heart of gold” cliché. He pulled off the fantasy and kept the whole thing real without breaking a sweat. He knocked my socks off. Yes, he’s hot (that’s the point), but I can’t stop thinking about his performance. Brb, coming up with pitches about this for later because I have MORE TO SAY.

Anyway… if you can’t tell, I adored Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, directed by Sophie Hyde and written by Katy Brand. The film is a dialogue heavy two-hander that might easily have been a play; the astutely written script got noticed by producers because the single setting and two characters made it safe to shoot during a pandemic. The film’s visual style is rather subdued and utilitarian, but that worked for me, as the script and the performances are the main attraction here. Emma Thompson plays “Nancy Stokes,” an older woman who has never experienced sexual pleasure or satisfaction. She hires a much younger sex worker, “Leo Grande” (McCormack), to meet her in a hotel room and hopefully, finally give her a sexual encounter to remember. Over the course of four meetings, Nancy and Leo experience many forms of intimacy with each other in addition to the sexual kind. This sex-positive dramedy never hit a false emotional note, and I will not stop recommending it to everyone I know when it comes out.


Fire of Love (U.S. Documentary Competition)

I loved this archival doc, which showcases the work and relationship of married volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft. Director Sara Dosa combines archival footage and lyrical narration (voiced by the inimitable Miranda July, an inspired choice) to create a French New Wave-inspired meditation on the volcanic forces of love and nature that shaped the Krafft’s lives. The artistic footage of active volcanoes, taken by Maurice during his lifetime, that makes up the bulk of the film is simply mesmerizing. I can’t wait to see Fire of Love on a bigger screen, which should be possible since National Geographic Documentary Films snapped it up for distribution. The story of the Kraffts, who come off in the doc as outsider adventurer scientists from an age bygone even before they lived, seems like a great fit for National Geographic.


Lucy and Desi (Premieres)

At the height of their influence, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were a power couple if ever there was one. Comedian Amy Poehler’s documentary serves as a tribute to both their love story and their legacy in Hollywood. As a nearly lifelong I Love Lucy fan whose Dad encouraged her to read histories and biographies, none of the information presented in Lucy and Desi felt revelatory to me. However, the documentary makes wonderful use of archival audio to let Lucy and Desi tell their own stories in their own voices. Although Poehler refrains from relying too heavily on talking heads, Lucie Arnaz contributes extensive recollections of her parents, and a handful of performers from the generations after Lucy and Desi speak to the couple’s legacy in the entertainment industry. Ultimately, the film is standard in form for this type of biographical documentary but obviously made with love for its subjects. Lucy and Desi will debut on Amazon Prime Video in March.


*The festival officially kicked off on January 20, but I didn’t see any of the premiere screenings that night. My festival started on the first full day, January 21, so that’s when I’m starting this diary.


The Ghost of Christmas Present and Scrooge in Scrooge (1970)


I grew up in a movie musical-loving household, so, naturally, our yearly dose of A Christmas Carol came in the form of Scrooge, the 1970 musical interpretation of Dickens’ holiday classic. While this version is my sentimental favorite, I concede that this adaptation makes a number of baffling decisions. For one, Scrooge was an obvious bid to capitalize on the success of 1968’s Oliver!, but none of the creatives involved with that project were involved with Scrooge. (It shows in the songs, which vary wildly in quality but nevertheless can’t manage to reach the heights of anything like “As Long as He Needs Me.”) Casting a then thirty-four-year-old Albert Finney—who can’t sing a note—as the titular old tightwad is another head-scratcher. (I love Finney’s ridiculous old man theatrics, but your mileage may vary.) The film’s most controversial choice might be in its third act, when the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come goes a step further than usual and literally shows Scrooge his place in hell. (After this prophetic vision of eternal damnation, Scrooge’s decision to change his ways seems a bit more, uh, selfishly motivated.)

I will fiercely defend, however, the film’s unexpectedly breezy Ghost of Christmas Present.

In any version of A Christmas Carol, the Ghost of Christmas Present has one job: to get Ebenezer Scrooge to care one iota about his fellow man. The second spirit who appears to Scrooge espouses a philosophy of goodwill to all and promotes charity and unselfishness, challenging Scrooge to reevaluate his miserly outlook. This ghost is generally jovial and pleasant, until suddenly he isn’t. There often comes a point where the spirit drops the Father Christmas act to reprimand and shock Scrooge into thinking that maybe he should start giving a fig about someone other than himself.

I find myself indirectly chided and reproached by well-meaning people online for “not caring” about this or that every day. If you’ve ever used social media, you, too, might recognize some of the tactics that The Ghost of Christmas Present regularly uses for cajoling Scrooge into paying attention to and doing something about the ills of the world. Among other strategies, the second spirit pulls out:

  • The “why is no one talking about this” tweet: The Ghost of Christmas Present assumes Scrooge’s ignorance of the degradations of poverty, showing Scrooge how the working-class lives in hopes of sparking a revelation.
  • The heart-wrenching GoFundMe link for medical bills: The Ghost of Christmas Present tells Scrooge straight up that Tiny Tim will die if the old man doesn’t do something about it.
  • The litany of dire predictions about the future: The Ghost of Christmas Present tries to scare the stuffing out of Scrooge by dramatically revealing the freaky allegorical waifs under his robe, Ignorance and Want, who will inherit the earth if no one practices Christian charity.

In Scrooge, the Ghost of Christmas Present is good vibes only. The ghost’s stern side never surfaces; Kenneth More infuses his incarnation of the second spirit with his signature blithe charm. If you don’t understand that life’s a romp—or a “perpetual spree,” as he sings—you’re doing it wrong, babe. Here I must confess that in my younger days, at the height of the YOLO craze, I once used a lyric from the Ghost of Christmas Present’s song, “I Like Life,” as an Instagram caption.

More’s Ghost of Christmas Present inspires goodwill towards men in Scrooge’s heart by getting Ebenezer lit. The two of them get drunk together, on the “milk of human kindness” that looks suspiciously like red wine. Then they fly off to invisibly attend a pair of Christmas parties. In remembering how wonderful and enjoyable life can be, Scrooge’s cold heart begins to warm, awakening a generosity of spirit.

Cheers to that. Admonishment, guilt, and fear only go so far as methods of persuasion when they become a constant barrage, even when I’m sympathetic to the causes being put forth. I’m not being the tone police here; I think righteous anger has its time and place. Sometimes we all need to be woken up a little bit, slapped like Bill Murray in Scrooged. But let’s be honest, if the Ghost of Christmas Present showed up at my door at two o’clock in the morning and started in with a talking-to, I think I’d just tune him out. Keep scrolling. I know the world sucks, what’s new.

My grandmother, who might easily be an antivaxxer and a Covid skeptic based on her preferred news sources, just got her booster shot the other week. When my mom thanked her for getting her vaccine and doing the right thing, grateful that it didn’t turn into a point of contention, my grandma texted back, “I love life too much to ever wager on giving it away!”

I like life / Here and now / Life and I made a mutual vow.

Life and I / ’Til I die / We’ll both try to be better somehow.

Perhaps More’s unrelentingly merry Ghost of Christmas Present is onto something. I like the idea of a “mutual vow” between life and I. It’s symbiotic, a give and a take. Getting high on life becomes an essential part of living a generous, open existence and remembering to love other people. I guess it seems kind of obvious, but, man, it’s been easy to hate people these last few years. I don’t need more reminders of how awful the world is right now. I need to be reminded of all of the wondrous things that make being alive so incredible, all of things that I want everyone in the world to have.

Like every good charity event planner, my favorite Ghost of Christmas Present knows that, sometimes, reaching this beatific state of generosity requires a few glasses of wine. And that’s okay.



[I rarely write about new releases, so I’m not in the habit of doing spoiler alerts at the top of my posts. BUT this post includes spoilers for Eternals. *Taylor Swift voice* Don’t say I didn’t, say I didn’t, warn ya.]


Every so often, a satire or parody comes along that is so effective, so indelible, that it starts to replace the original target as a reference point. I’m thinking, for example, of the way that reviews of the recent spate of Bohemian Rhapsody-inspired music biopics reference Walk Hard far more often than they reference the films that Walk Hard lampoons; or consider the way Weird Al’s “The Saga Begins” completely eclipsed Don McLean’s “American Pie” in the minds of a micro-generation of Zillennials. (Or is that just a “me” thing? No, I’m willing to bet that all the Radio Disney play of this song rotted the brains of other people my age, too.) Well, right now, I want to talk about a recent case of this phenomenon that inadvertently tipped me off to a plot twist in Eternals, the most recent entry into the MCU.

If you’ve seen Eternals and you watch The Boys, you may have guessed by now that I’ve gathered you here today to discuss Homelander. It’s no secret that Homelander, the show’s premier villain, serves as the main fascination for many viewers of The Boys. Antony Starr does standout work on Amazon Prime’s sick superhero send-up; search “Antony Starr Emmy” on Twitter, and you’ll find an abundance of outraged fan tweets about how Starr’s been robbed of a nomination two years running. While I have a more measured appreciation of The Boys as a whole, I will concede to the fanboys that Starr gives one of the more surprisingly intricate performances on a television drama in recent memory.*


A still from the TV show The Boys of Homelander (Antony Starr) using his laser eyes


The whole conceit of The Boys boils down to this: if superheroes really existed, they’d be power-mad perverts to whom no rules apply. So it’s no surprise that Homelander, the leader of the show’s elite superhero squad called the Seven, turns out to be the most power-mad and perverted of all. The show, as well as the comic series it’s based on, is ostensibly a satire of other superhero properties. As Doreen St. Félix observes in her stellar review of season two, the show sits uneasily at the halfway point between satire and genre deconstruction (Alan Moore’s Watchmen seems to be a bigger inspiration for The Boys than anything else), but I do think that the satire is the hook, so to speak.** The show most plainly reads as a satire of other superhero properties when one looks at the supes that make up the Seven. Each member of the Seven is transparently modeled on a member of DC’s Justice League, and Homelander is Superman. To be more specific, he reads like Marvel’s Captain America with Superman’s powers.

This means that Homelander has super strength, the ability to fly, and, of course, laser eyes. And because this is The Boys, Homelander does some horrific fucking things with his laser eyes, let me tell you. His favorite move is slicing people in half, which the show repeatedly depicts with its usual level of graphic violence. At the end of season one, Homelander kills his boss and lover in cold blood by looking into her eyes and focusing his laser gaze directly into her skull. In season two, Homelander imagines committing mass murder with his laser eyes, razing a crowd of protesters to the ground. We’re forced to watch this lurid scene play out before a quick cut reveals that Homelander hasn’t actually used his powers to silence the assembly but merely fantasized about it.



The moment Ikaris (Richard Madden) used his laser eyes in Eternals, I felt uncomfortable. The first time he uses his power on screen, he’s heroically saving ancient humans from the Deviants, the world-devouring threats from which the Eternals have been tasked with protecting Earth. Ikaris isn’t doing anything nefarious, in any way, but those laser eyes put the chill on me faster than Kevin Feige slapped “from Academy Award winning director Chloe Zhao” on all of the Eternals marketing materials after this year’s Oscars ceremony. Every instinct in me went, “HELL no, not the laser eyes,” and I distrusted Ikaris from the start for no reason other than the laser eyes. I fully blame Homelander.

Like Homelander, Ikaris is an obvious riff on Superman. He flies, comes from outer space, and has superstrength and heat vision. I can’t speak knowledgeably about the comics, but the film version of Eternals heavily leans into the Superman comparison, going so far as to have a child verbally mistake Ikaris for Superman. In various interviews, Chloe Zhao called Ikarus “our own take on Superman” and acknowledged the influence Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel had on her superhero film.

Recent cinematic iterations of Superman have trended towards the, shall we say, more disillusioned. When everything’s a gritty reboot, nothing is, and so by now I’ve come to expect that any new Superman (or “Superman”) will turn out to be Evil Superman, since that’s the edgier, more “realistic” option. Evil Superman has a storied history, but lately it seems that he’s taken over. See: Justice League (2017) and Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021), which adds the “Knightmare” sequence that hints at more Evil Superman. So I suppose it was expected that Eternals’ Ikaris would not only be the MCU’s Superman but also its Evil Superman/subversion of the Superman myth, as he does, ultimately, turn out to be.***


Promotional image from Zack Snyder's Justice League, close up of Superman's (Henry Cavill) face with his laser eyes activated


Despite being satire, Homelander is, arguably, the most culturally visible Evil Superman at the moment. Season two of The Boys was Amazon Prime Video’s biggest hit to date; although the streaming services rarely release meaningful viewership data, Nielsen’s weekly “Streaming Top 10” showed The Boys drawing in huge numbers. And so we’re back where we started, with the parody overtaking the original.

I won’t go so far as to say that Homelander has ruined Superman for me – that would be hyperbolic. But Homelander’s laser eyes are so disturbing that I think we need to put a moratorium on heat vision for now. I would like to say that I guessed where Eternals was going with Ikaris because I have such a finger on the pop culture pulse that I used recent trends to predict the arc. That would be a lie, however, and I can’t lie to you in good conscience. No, it was my absolutely visceral reaction to the laser eyes that prompted my suspicion.

Laser eyes are for villains now. Sorry, I don’t make the rules. 




*I’m partial to Starr’s work in season one, where you can literally see him turn the charm on and off (the way he makes his eyes go dead on command freaks me out), but Starr portrays Homelander’s mask-off villainy in season two with similarly terrifying precision. It’s a marvelously controlled performance in a notably unsubtle and over-the-top show.

**I could also go on at length about how it’s never quite clear what, exactly, The Boys is satirizing. Is it other superhero properties, or is it our (real) cultural obsession with (fictional) superheroes? In the same review, St. Félix notes how The Boys takes aim at the real world cultural domination of Disney/Marvel as much as it parodies the Justice League, in an apparent departure from the source comics.

***I wouldn’t say that Ikaris is quite evil in the film, but he secretly works at cross purposes with the rest of the Eternals for what he believes to be the greater good. That greater good involves the complete destruction of Earth, however, which I guess tips him into the villain category, relatively speaking.


Brett Goldstein as Roy Kent in Ted Lasso


[SPOILER WARNING: This piece discusses plot points from seasons one and two of Ted Lasso, so if you’re not totally caught up and don’t want spoilers, wait to read this until later! Also, I refer to “soccer” as “football” throughout the piece because the show’s British characters do so, and calling the sport “soccer” in this context felt weird.]


When I began watching the first season of Ted Lasso, Apple TV+’s breakout word-of-mouth hit comedy, at the beginning of the summer, I quickly fell in love with Roy Kent (Brett Goldstein). As someone who prefers a man with a hirsute torso, I thoroughly appreciated the positive chest hair representation.* Goldstein’s deliciously terse line readings consistently cracked me up. (The way he spits out the phrase “shape-based jokes” in episode eight might be a season one highlight.) Sure, Roy’s irritable and stoic to a fault, but he’s not mean. He has a good heart, and his tender relationship with his young niece Phoebe confirms it. As the ladies on the romance novel podcast Fated Mates pointed out in a recent episode, Roy is definitely a romance hero. And like many viewers of the show, I felt the warm fuzzies as his cute and genuinely hot romance with Keely (Juno Temple) sparked over the course of ten episodes.

Roy’s not only a romance hero, though. While his relationship with Keely is certainly pivotal to Roy’s character development, he’s not defined by their romance.** More than anything else, Roy Kent is defined by his anger. He speaks in a low growl (not Goldstein’s natural voice), and he’s always scowling. He liberally punctuates many of his sentences with profanity, as if he can’t quite convey his bottomless frustration without swearing. Goldstein delivers every line as if Roy’s angry he has to speak at all; this has, as I mentioned, a wonderful comedic effect, but it’s also a key component of Roy’s characterization. Through season one, it becomes clear that Roy’s anger issues come from an inability to acknowledge, process, and articulate his emotions. He’s angry that he has feelings, he’s angry that he has to face them, and he’s angry that he has to communicate them to other people.

Understanding this character dynamic, when it fully came into focus at the end of the season, sent a disruptive shock of recognition through me. When I was younger, I had anger issues. It took me a long time to realize that all of my furious anger had nothing to do with actually feeling angry. I had lots of other feelings, feelings that I told myself didn’t matter and should be stuffed. Those feelings came out as a misplaced, directionless, seemingly inexplicable rage when I could no longer deny them but still couldn’t properly express them. I thought that being emotional was being weak, and I’d angrily push people away at the moments when I was the most vulnerable. The last scene between Roy and Keely in the season one finale hit me in a profound way. I, too, have said “stay the fuck away from me” when what I meant was “I desperately need you to hold me.” If we’re being honest, I still mentally shout an exasperated “Fuck!”—Roy Kent style—when I’m metaphorically smacked in the face with an emotional epiphany. I’m working on it, but anger remains my instinctual reaction when I have to deal with my feelings.

Reflecting on Ted Lasso’s first season, I realized that I had never before seen my own anger issues depicted with such painful accuracy on screen.*** I saw myself in Roy Kent, in a way I could not or would not see myself in other, harsher characters defined by their misplaced anger. This new awareness complicated my fun, fangirl infatuation with Roy. I found myself wondering if I desired Roy Kent, in the fantasy way one desires fictional characters, or if I had been deeply identifying with him the whole time and misunderstanding what was happening. Like Loki having romantic stirrings for an alternate timeline version of himself, had I fallen in love with an alternate timeline version of myself?

Jason Sudeikis as Ted Lasso and Brett Goldstein as Roy Kent in the show Ted Lasso

Both reactions—finding Roy desirable and recognizing myself in Roy—are only possible because of the way the show treats Roy’s character-defining anger. It’s apparent that his anger issues come from an aversion to being emotionally vulnerable, and it’s true that, culturally, we often code this inability as “masculine.” We could fairly infer that some of Roy’s reluctance to feel his feelings comes from being steeped in a macho sports culture for the majority of his life. But there’s a distinct, purposeful way that the show avoids stating any of this outright. Roy’s trouble with accepting his feelings is never directly tied to the condition of his being a man.

In a recent piece critical of Ted Lasso’s (and Ted Lasso’s) brand of aspirational positive masculinity, Time’s TV critic Judy Berman pushes back against the recent trend of shows that self-consciously try to craft the “perfect man” for male viewers to emulate. She writes that as long as these portrayals of ideal men refuse to meaningfully challenge binary gender norms, they remain one-dimensional “teaching tools” and not depictions of full-blooded people. Berman concludes that these kinds of characters are ultimately not useful to the work of unlearning the behaviors of toxic masculinity. “Isn’t it possible that gender essentialism is exacerbating things?” she asks. “Whether male, female or nonbinary, the characters we need most now may well be ones defined by anything but their gender.” I wholeheartedly agree with Berman’s larger point, but I don’t agree that Ted Lasso is the culprit that she makes it out to be. The discourse around the show certainly perpetuates what Berman talks about, but I contend that there is a way to engage with the text of the show that complicates such surface-level readings.

Roy Kent works as a fascinating case in point. Roy’s anger issues can’t concretely be linked to toxic masculinity because they’re never quite linked to masculinity at all. (Compare what we know of Roy’s history to, say, Jamie’s. Jamie’s relationship with his dad is, I would say, more clearly the “toxic masculinity” storyline of the show if that’s a thread for which we’re looking.) For this, Roy’s character immediately becomes richer, and his journey becomes more complicated. The show takes pains to treat Roy’s character-defining trait with nuance and, quite frankly, ambivalence, in a way that would simply not be possible if Roy’s anger issues were neatly labeled as a harmful result of toxic masculinity. 

By decoupling Roy’s anger from masculinity, Ted Lasso assures viewers that Roy Kent isn’t a “bad man.” This signals two things simultaneously: Roy is a safe character to identify with, and Roy is a safe character to root for in a romance. The moment that Roy’s anger issues become unambiguously linked to gender, the whole thing, in my opinion, would fall apart. There’s too much cultural baggage. His character absolutely works best outside of a pointedly gendered context, particularly given the pop-culture track record regarding men with anger issues like Roy’s. 

It’s rare to find an angry male character who isn’t explicitly a product of toxic masculinity. These types of characters often serve as villains or tragic warnings, men who would rather punch someone than cry, to their own detriment and to the danger of everyone around them. While men don’t have a monopoly on anger as a whole, misdirected anger, specifically, is often popularly associated with masculinity. Women are in touch with their feelings, and men aren’t. Or, perhaps, women are socialized and expected to be in touch with their feelings, and men aren’t. (I’m not a gender essentialist, so you know which one I think it is.) When “being a man” means sucking it up and burying your feelings, it follows that being unable to process emotional responses in a healthy way has become a pervasive problem among men. Denying your emotional responses and developing anger issues can go hand-in-hand. Invalidating your feelings and stuffing them down is like loading a cannon; those feelings are going to explode out in some way eventually, and probably not in the way you mean for them to.

Many pop-culture depictions of displaced anger end up being portraits of abuse and/or abusers, violent men who misguidedly and/or unconsciously overcompensate for their general feelings of hurt by lashing out at people more powerless than themselves. These abusers are the extreme examples of what the unhealthy standards of masculinity can create, and they serve as pop culture’s most common form of toxic-masculinity-related cautionary tale. I find it incredibly telling that Goldstein, in an interview last fall with Esquire UK, described Roy Kent as “Bill Sykes, if Bill Sykes had a heart of gold, and wasn’t a murderer.” Goldstein repeated this comparison in a different interview last month, asserting again that he based Roy on “Bill Sykes if he hadn’t killed Nancy.” The unbearable English-ness of casually referencing Dickens aside, the comparison speaks to the strong connection in our cultural imagination between misplaced anger and abuse. 

Brett Goldstein as Roy Kent in Ted Lasso

All of this is subtext to which Ted Lasso remains attuned. I find Roy so compelling precisely because he isn’t Bill Sykes. He isn’t even particularly physically violent. I keep waiting for Roy to punch a wall, even, but he never does. But that is not to say that Roy’s anger isn’t sharp. Roy’s explosive, emphatic swearing has a certain auditory violence to it—which makes a comedic subplot in S02E08, where Roy realizes that he needs to stop swearing in front of Phoebe, metaphorically rich—and often functions as the main indicator of Roy’s fundamentally angry state of being.**** In yet another interview, Goldstein likened Roy’s physicality to a “walking fist.” Even though the Roy we see in the show never acts on any violent impulses, Goldstein’s tightly coiled body language does, indeed, suggest that Roy is always a breath away from starting a brawl. 

Ted Lasso and Brett Goldstein communicate the violence of Roy’s misplaced anger in subtler ways than we might be used to with characters of his kind, but I would argue that Roy’s anger, as presented in the show, still has a definite edge. It’s been curious, then, to see almost no critical discussion of Roy’s anger issues. It’s as though, if we’re assured that his anger won’t result in physical violence, his anger issues aren’t that pressing. Much of the writing I’ve read about Roy Kent doesn’t even use the word “angry.” Softer adjectives like “grumpy,” “gruff,” and “surly” do the work of describing Roy’s brusque manner while sidestepping the point. Roy’s anger isn’t a personality quirk, it’s the core of his character.

This is where we get to the knotty heart of the matter: Roy’s anger is both his biggest strength and his greatest weakness. Anger often serves as the motivating fire in Roy’s belly. Over the course of season one, Ted weaponizes Roy’s anger to, arguably, righteous ends by goading Roy into putting the unbearably cocky Jamie in his place to restore the balance of the team. (Another perfect line delivery from Goldstein: “Vanilla vodka. Such a child.”) In S01E07, when Nate memorably reads the team to filth before a match in Liverpool, Nate tells Roy, “Your speed and your smarts were never what made you who you are. It’s your anger. That’s your superpower.”

Later in that same speech, Nate tells Roy that he needs to let out his anger on the pitch again. “I’m afraid of what [your anger] will do to you if you keep it all for yourself,” Nate finishes weakly as Roy glowers at him, inches from his face. Ted Lasso understands this tension, too, that Roy’s anger can both fuel and destroy him. While Ted largely works to channel Roy’s anger to benefit AFC Richmond (in both seasons one and two), Keely encourages Roy to let his anger go. As their romance develops, Keely gently diffuses Roy’s temper and gets him to open up about his real feelings, those vulnerabilities and hurts that he’s been suppressing because he doesn’t know how to talk about them. She coaxes him into being comfortable expressing his emotions in an honest way instead of angrily denying them.

Through the course of two seasons, Ted Lasso carefully navigates this contradiction at the center of Roy Kent. His anger is an elemental component of his existence, and he has to learn how to deal with it in the healthiest way he can. The show can treat Roy’s anger with a certain amount of ambivalence because the harm of his anger is mostly self-directed. He’s not cruel or irredeemable, as many of pop culture’s angry men are. He’s just a human being who finds his feelings frustrating and annoying and would prefer they didn’t exist. Learning to validate and process one’s emotions isn’t a simple journey, and I would argue that Roy’s season one character arc isn’t simple in the slightest, which is what makes it so powerful. Part of that power is rooted in the way the show stops short of simplistically diagnosing Roy’s misplaced anger as a symptom of the harmful pressure to “be a man.”

Juno Temple as Keely Jones and Brett Goldstein as Roy Kent in Ted Lasso

Positioning Roy as the “heterosexual dream man,” as many discussions of Roy’s character have, re-centers masculinity in the conversation around Roy’s anger. I think this is why, even though the show does position Roy as a romantic lead, I’ve found myself bristling at articles like this recent one from Paste Magazine. I can’t say that the interpretation of Roy as a “dream man” is totally wrong; the show does set up Roy as a romantic lead and asks us to invest in his relationship with Keely. And he is pretty dreamy. But because  I am the Roy Kent in my relationship, I guess I see it from a different point of view. (I’m lucky enough to have found my Keely—now there’s a dream man.) I know firsthand how hard a relationship with someone like me can be. It’s disconcerting to see the work Roy and Keely do together in their relationship simplified to fit a “patient woman trains an emotionally illiterate man” narrative that doesn’t do justice to the complexity of their dynamic.

I was frustrated with Roy’s season two arc for the first four episodes, mainly because it leaned so heavily into the “dream man” characterization. Keely was his sole narrative link to the AFC Richmond orbit proper, and it wasn’t clear if Roy would continue to fit into the show as anything other than Keely’s perfect boyfriend. There are moments, in these first four episodes, that seem designed to generate swoons on Twitter. Some of these moments work as thoughtful character beats, like the one where… well, you know exactly what scene I’m thinking about right now. Others didn’t land so well for me—take, for example, Roy’s outburst in S02E01 where he tells Rebecca not to settle for fine in her love life, that she deserves someone who makes her feel like she’s been “struck by fucking lightning.” (Yes, Roy’s always taken no bullshit, but a relationship pep talk? From a man who repeatedly refuses to join the Diamond Dogs in session?) After retirement, Roy seemed adrift as a character, and I wasn’t sure if the writers were intentionally cultivating this sense or not.

And then, in S02E05 (“Rainbow”), Roy came roaring back. “Rainbow” is an undeniably Roy-centric episode that might best be described, in more ways than one, as “the one where Roy Kent returns.” Anyone with a shred of sense probably knew that Roy was likely going to come back to AFC Richmond as a coach; narratively, it’s the best way to keep Roy in the action without back pedaling his retirement arc, and it’s established in season one that Roy is a natural leader and an effective coach, albeit of small children. The whole episode works as a spin on the romcom formula, but instead of two lovers making their way to each other, Roy finally shows up for his date with coaching destiny.

How fitting that Roy’s big romcom moment is not, after all, with Keely, but with himself. “Rainbow” ingeniously subverts expectations by, once again, refraining from slotting Roy into a heterosexual, gendered role. He embraces his ultimate vulnerability not by committing to a romantic relationship or admitting romantic love (the stereotypical fear of straight men everywhere); instead, he admits that he can’t live without football, a sport that’s broken his heart and will undoubtedly do so again. Instead of angrily rejecting a career as a football coach to protect himself from further pain, as he has been doing up to this point in season two, he commits to the sport that he loves—a sport that, as Nate reminded him before the Liverpool game, requires his full, angry brilliance. 

I love the way Ted Lasso explores the paradox of the anger at Roy Kent’s core and his complicated anger issues. It only works so well because it does just what Judy Berman calls for: it explores a man’s emotional reeducation beyond the framework of the gender binary.





*While the fastidiously waxed Jamie Tartt (Phil Dunster) makes some cracks about Roy’s chest hair, the camera frequently and admiringly lingers on Brett Goldstein’s shirtless body in the locker room scenes. Unfortunately, the now retired Roy is more frequently clothed in season two.

**Refreshingly, Keely isn’t defined by this romance, either, at least not in season one. While season two has, so far, mostly focused on Roy and Keely as a happy couple, I hope that future episodes will complicate their dynamic a little bit. In a recent interview with Vanity Fair, Goldstein said of Roy’s post-footballer season two arc: “[Roy’s] not going to kill himself, it’s not the end of the world. But I think we can already see there’s a danger in how much he’s investing in his relationship with Keeley versus the rest of his life.

***One of my good friends got the rough draft/seed-of-an-idea version of this essay via text when she unsuspectingly messaged me about Ted Lasso a few days after I finished season one. She was like, I just started watching Ted Lasso, it’s so good. Roy Kent is the best! I replied with a casual, Oh cool, I might identify with Roy Kent to an unhealthy degree because I’ve never seen a character with anger issues like mine who isn’t an asshole abuser, and it’s making me really emotional! As Rebecca said in S02E02, “That’s why you have friends, isn’t it? To burden them with your issues and anxieties, right?”

****Ted Lasso is a smartly written show, and I really don’t think I’m giving the writers too much credit here. So much of what makes Ted Lasso work operates in the subtext. I love this choice partially because the series is a comedy and exists, first and foremost, to be funny, but I also love it because it’s tiresome to be constantly hit over the head with Important Themes and Lessons.