One Thing I Like About Tasting History

Good things can happen when people on the internet make an effort

I’ve gotten to be a fan of the YouTube channel Tasting History with Max Miller, which manages to hit the sweet spot that combines interesting, funny, and accessible.

The idea is pretty simple: Max Miller chooses a dish from some point in history, attempts to prepare (or recreate) the recipe, gives some historical or cultural context for the dish, then eats it. One thing that I love about the series is that there’s one thing Miller never says: “I don’t know how to pronounce that.”

Instead, if Miller encounters a term or a name in a foreign language, he’ll find an expert or a native speaker, learn the correct or preferred pronunciation, practice the correct pronunciation, and include only that in the video.

What impresses me the most is when he tackles episodes that deal with languages that can be difficult for Westerners, like Chinese. In this episode about nian gao, he’s careful to get the pronunciation correct, including the changes in tone, for all of the names. It’s often clear that he recorded it until he got it right, then edited that recording into the episode to make absolutely certain it was right, being careful to hide the edits and make it seem as natural as possible.

That kind of dedication would be pretty impressive for any show, I think, but is unheard of when it comes to a YouTube channel. Miller keeps the tone light, casual, and funny, but it’s also clear that he’s committed to getting the details right and showing respect to the cultures he’s talking about.

I haven’t had live TV in several years, so I watch a lot of YouTube1Years ago, I signed up for the ad-free version of YouTube, and I couldn’t do without it at this point.. Obviously, there is a ton of obnoxious behavior on YouTube, but something that’s disappointingly common, even among people I like otherwise, is the tendency to straddle the line between “casual” and “professional.”

They’ll make casual, chatty videos that say stuff like “Now, you guys know me,” and then complain about parasocial relationships. Or do insincere calls for engagement that mimic having a conversation with people in the audience, but with no intention of ever actually engaging with the audience. And to be clear, the problem isn’t that somebody with 1000 subscribers isn’t actually friends with each of them — the problem is that false sense of friendly familiarity.

But the most common is to simultaneously insist that yes, this is too a real job, actually, and not just some hobby, because I am a professional video content creator, and also that they’re not under any obligation to know stuff or get details right. “Research” for a disappointing number of people means “glancing at the Wikipedia or IMDB page.”

And it’s extremely common to hear “I’m not even going to try to pronounce that.” Maybe it’s well-intentioned, as if a mis-pronunciation would be somehow even more offensive than not bothering to say it at all. But it all builds up over time to give the impression that a lot of people are making a good bit of money off of YouTube (and Patreon) without making much effort.

So I appreciate Max Miller making the effort. It sounds crass to say, but it’s true: a handsome and charismatic guy with millions of followers could probably get away with doing a lot less. Instead, he acknowledges that he’s neither a historian nor a chef, but instead of making excuses, he just takes the time and effort to get the details as close to correct as he’s able.

  • 1
    Years ago, I signed up for the ad-free version of YouTube, and I couldn’t do without it at this point.

One Thing I Like About Ahsoka

The live-action continuation of an animated series somehow managed to feel bigger on the inside

Watching The Mandalorian often felt a little unsettling, because it was so overwhelmingly my thing. Not that I was being targeted, but that the people who grew up around the same time I did had finally been put in charge of Star Wars productions. The closing credits really drove the feeling home, feeling simultaneously like a call out to the concept art by Ralph McQuarrie that I had hanging up on my bedroom wall, and TV series from the 1970s like The Wild Wild West that had a near-subliminal impact on my aesthetic.

Ahsoka was not that. It was completely, unapologetically, made for fans of The Clone Wars and Rebels, rewarding them for their loyalty with live action versions of their favorite characters.

I didn’t dislike those series, and in fact there’s a lot of aspects about them that I love, from the stylized character designs reminiscent of Thunderbirds, to the storylines that delivered on jetpack-wearing Mandalorians totally kicking ass years before The Mandalorian season one. But I could never really get into the series, either. Several times I’ve attempted to get caught up on both of them, but I never last more than a few episodes.

As a result, I could recognize a lot of what Ahsoka is doing, but I spend the whole time extremely aware that it’s not speaking to me as it would a super-fan.

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One Thing I Like About The Haunted Mansion

Sometimes it’s just nice to feel targeted.

I really enjoyed The Haunted Mansion. I hadn’t expected to like it, to be honest, because movies based on theme park attractions don’t have a great track record, and I tend to be possessive about the source material.

And it does feel overstuffed, as if there are a few too many characters, a few too many distracting cameos, a few too many plot lines, and a few too many rewrites. But then, you could say the same thing about the ride itself. Honestly, the movie shares a lot of the feeling of the ride — a ton of talented contributions towards something that’s unfocused and disjointed but memorable.

It gets the tone right, too: it’s both creepy and funny but never too goofy and never too scary. LaKeith Stanfield goes harder than he needs to, honestly, but his performance is a huge part of keeping it from feeling just like a commercial IP synergy exercise. It often feels like Danny DeVito’s and Owen Wilson’s characters were leftovers from earlier drafts of the screenplay, but at the same time, the movie wouldn’t have worked nearly as well if any of them had been edited out. It ends up feeling surprisingly like an ensemble movie, where everybody in the ensemble is more talented than they need to be.

But one thing I like about The Haunted Mansion is that it is so deeply committed to paying homage to the theme park attraction that it finds a way to include both Disneyland’s and Walt Disney World’s versions.

Most of the movie takes place inside Disneyland’s New Orleans plantation house version of the mansion, but there’s a side trip to another historical house that looks exactly like the Magic Kingdom’s northeastern version. An especially nice touch is that the establishing shot of the house is seen from exactly the same angle as you see when entering the queue of the Magic Kingdom attraction, much like the “main” mansion is most often seen from the same angle as the entrance of Disneyland’s queue.

It is 1000% fan service, and the movie is full-to-bursting with it, and I was entirely on board for all of it. Just about every scene of the ride gets a depiction in the movie — the only scenes I didn’t see were the body trying to get out of its coffin in the conservatory, and the singing busts in the graveyard. Several of the ghosts depicted in paintings throughout the queue and the ride are made significant characters. All of the rooms make an appearance, most notably the stretching room and a version of the seance room. The movie even finds a way to include the rhyming headstones from the queue.

There are so many references to the ride, and they’re done so faithfully, that it’s impossible to cynically dismiss them as nothing more than an IP cash grab. There’s no question that the movie was made with affection for the attraction, by people putting in the extra effort to do justice to a beloved attraction. It often feels like a fan film made with a Disney budget.

One of the most charming things in the movie is the idea of “ghost winks,” signs that the dead give us to let us know they’re still with us. The movie itself spends a lot of time winking at us, feeling like shared love for a favorite ride.

One Thing I Like About Diablo 4

Leveling up in Diablo 4 is one of dozens of moments of carefully orchestrated bad-assery

I feel like I’m supposed to mention up front that I’ve got a friend who worked on Diablo 4, even though it won’t make a difference in what I’m writing about the game, I’m not a game reviewer, and I’ve got a new policy where I don’t waste time writing about stuff I don’t like when there’s so much stuff that I do like.

After I tried the open beta, I said that I was impressed enough by the game’s introduction that I was re-considering my belief that story is superfluous in Diablo games. As much as I love these games — I have bought at least two versions of every entry so far, across multiple platforms and remasters — I’ve always had this condescending idea that all of the art and lore and such are just fancy dressing on a random number generator.

Now that I’ve played through that opening sequence three times1Once in the open beta, and then again for two new characters in the full game, I’m not so sure that it holds up as well to repeat viewings. It’s still extremely well done, but this is a game that encourages you to create multiple characters, but then puts them into a story that ostensibly relies on surprise and discovery. I was starting to fear that the game had gotten so much larger than its simpler action-RPG roots that it had succumbed to the scourge of ludo-narrative dissonance.

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    Once in the open beta, and then again for two new characters in the full game

One Thing I Like About Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

I liked that the movie had the confidence to slow down and be quiet

I’ll come out as a grouch right of the bat: I didn’t like Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse nearly as much as the first movie.1To be clear, when I say “the first movie,” I mean Into the Spider-Verse, and not that one with the naked guy running in profile.

That’s to be expected, though: Into the Spider-Verse was a once-in-a-generation masterpiece. It seemed to come out of nowhere and not just do every single thing right, but to be so relentlessly imaginative that it tricked you into believing that anything was possible.

And the moments when Across the Spider-Verse works best are truly astonishing. It is near-flawless technically and artistically, seemingly designed and art directed with the overriding rule being that absolutely nothing would be dismissed because it was too difficult, or because it didn’t fit.

It builds on that feeling of confidence that made the first movie so exciting: mixing and matching art and animation styles not just between universes, but between characters and even between shots in the same scene. You can see the sketch marks and guide lines on some characters, the crisp lines on others, and more than one is made from paper or newsprint2And for two completely different story reasons!. When it’s working, the movie captures that feeling of “anything goes” experimentation from comic books, but applied to animation.3The various comic book-style captions from the “editor” explaining throwaway gags or blink-and-you’ll-miss-it references were an especially nice touch.

But still I was a bit disappointed simply because I could see the seams in this one. Into the Spider-Verse was relentlessly inventive but also felt “tight,” as if every detail and every stray idea was in the movie for a reason. Plus it never insulted the audience’s (or at least my) intelligence: you pretty much figured out things at the same time as the characters did, and there were no overly drawn-out revelations, or twists meant to blow your mind that you’d seen coming a mile away. Across the Spider-Verse was frustrating at points, because I was either wanting it to hurry up and get to the point already, or because I was wanting it to just calm down and be quiet for a second.

So much of it was manic. I felt like the first movie was able to throw everything together and make it all work, while the second often felt over-stuffed to me. It often seemed like the team knew they had made a masterpiece, and were now desperately trying not just to recapture lightning in a bottle, but to stretch it out into a franchise, Peter Jackson-style, even if it didn’t fit the story.

But this post is supposed to emphasize what I liked about the movie, and what I especially liked were the moments when it stopped the chase scenes and the constant one-liners and asides, and used all its artistic mastery not to overwhelm, but to just tell a story.

The beginning is excellent, deliberately deviating from the format of the first movie’s manic introductions (with a self-referential first line setting up exactly that) to re-introduce characters and introduce one of the main themes of the movie: that these stories are about characters defined by tragedy. It worked wonderfully and was one of the highlights of the entire movie, combining art and music and melodrama and humor in a way that only this series has been able to pull off.

There’s a lengthy scene with Miles and his mother that had me in tears, just because it was such a fearlessly earnest (but not quite maudlin) description of how much a mother can love her son, and the inevitable sadness that comes from realizing that letting a child reach their full potential means losing a huge part of them.

But my favorite scene in the movie is one fairly late in the movie, when (mild spoiler) Gwen returns to her home and has an extended conversation with her father. The scene itself is well performed by the actors, although I don’t think it’s quite as powerful as the one between Rio and Miles. But what makes it so remarkable is that every single aspect of the scene goes towards expressing all the emotion contained in the scene. The backgrounds gain and lose detail. The characters shift between more and less sketchy, full clarity to black shadow, as their moods change. The entire color palette of the scene changes with the characters’ emotional state.

It feels as experimental as the pinnacle of the most inventive Warner Bros shorts, but all in the context of a feature film, and all for a purpose.

I guess that it’s good that I didn’t like Across the Spider-Verse quite as much — and to be clear, it’s like the difference between a B+ and an A++ — because Into the Spider-Verse was almost too perfect in execution. Since these movies are so technically proficient and seemingly capable of absolutely anything, it’s nice to be reminded that there are real, talented, artists behind it all, trying to express something real and personal.

  • 1
    To be clear, when I say “the first movie,” I mean Into the Spider-Verse, and not that one with the naked guy running in profile.
  • 2
    And for two completely different story reasons!
  • 3
    The various comic book-style captions from the “editor” explaining throwaway gags or blink-and-you’ll-miss-it references were an especially nice touch.

1d10 Things I Love About Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves

I wasn’t expecting Honor Among Thieves to become one of my all-time favorite action movies.

I rolled an 8.

1. It has tons of fun with the source material, but never makes fun of it.

I never got the sense that the filmmakers were trying to make Dungeons and Dragons accessible to a wider audience, or to translate it in a way that non-nerds could understand, or use just the trappings of D&D in a tangentially related fantasy movie. Honor Among Thieves seems to say “they saw D&D in the title, they knew what they were getting into,” and just commits to it entirely. Even Marvel didn’t get this right for several years, feeling instead like they had to “ground” comic books in something movie audiences could better appreciate.

There’s not even a hint of embarrassment about the game, or an attempt to bring the game to The Normals, that have plagued so much genre entertainment for as long as I’ve been alive.

2. Maybe the best possible role for Michelle Rodriguez.

Rodriguez always gets to play tough characters, because she’s really good at it, but she never seems to get the chance to be funny. This character is just great, and her performance is perfect — still delivering all of her lines with a combination of anger and annoyance, but also with a perfect understanding of why the context makes it hilarious.

3. It seemed to never take the easier or cheaper way out.

First, it’s fantastic that they used as many practical effects as they did. The CG creatures were almost universally great (especially the dragon), but there was one scene with a cat woman1A Tabaxi, according to the wiki and her kitten that made me say “AWWWWWW” loudly and unashamedly.

But even more than that, I was surprised over and over again when a character would start describing something in flashback, and we’d actually flash back to see it all played out. I thought for sure they’d choose to save the money and just have a character tell the story in the present, but I’ll be damned if they didn’t film every single scene. Even big battle scenes, or special-effect-heavy crowd scenes, or even quick 10-second gags.

4. It always knew what to take seriously and what to have fun with, and it was rarely what I expected.

Honor Among Thieves is relentlessly, genuinely, laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes with a line of dialogue but just as often with a perfectly executed visual gag. But I wouldn’t even go so far as to call it an action-comedy, since its actual story is just as earnest as you’d expect from a more traditional fantasy story, or a more straightforward and predictable action movie. Instead, it stays true to its story, its world, and its characters, and then finds every way it possibly can to make that fun.

As a result, an encounter with a dragon — which is supposed to be one of the most intimidating master-level adversaries in the game — ends up being completely charming, and a genuine threat that takes several moments of inspiration2Both in screenwriting and in D&D terms to get past.

5. It didn’t resort to corny fourth-wall-breaking references to the game, but it did often capture the feel of having to respond to random chance and unexpectedly bad luck.

The entire plot centers on heroes who have to respond to misfortune and find a clever way around it. It’s such a big part of the story that it’s the main character’s super-power. And as a result, you can see the characters have an unexpected bit of luck, followed by what must’ve been a critical failure. All of it presented organically as if it were a natural part of the story, instead of being called out as “this is the part of the movie where we show you what happens when you roll a 1.”

6. Even when I knew what was inevitably going to happen, it still worked perfectly in the moment.

Partly because it nailed that balance between earnest and flippant, but mostly because it was so frequently clever, I felt like the movie earned every single one of its “action movie moments.” Those moments when a magic item is foreshadowed early on, and you just know it’s going to become important during the climax. One of those was so cleverly executed that I never saw it coming. The other, I knew exactly what was going to happen from moment one, but seeing it play out was still completely satisfying. It was all executed so well that it didn’t seem predictable so much as inevitable.

7. Better than many “serious” fantasy movies I’ve seen at depicting what day-to-day life would be like in a world filled with magic.

I almost never like depictions of magic in movies or television, because it always comes across as too rigid in its rules and systems to still be magical, or so completely arbitrary in its rules that it becomes meaningless.

Dungeons and Dragons is one of the main reasons that we even think of magic as having rigid rules and systems in the first place, so I wasn’t expecting anything new here. I admit I did find myself frequently thinking, they’ve already used all their daily spell slots! but it passed quickly as I noticed the interesting ways the story depicted magic as utilitarian but still fantastic.

There’s a clever scene pretty early on that shows us the scale of what people in the Forgotten Realms would find fantastic or surprising, and what wouldn’t impress them at all. (“A five-year-old could do that!”) But even more importantly, the movie establishes that it doesn’t care about the wonder or spectacle of magic as much as the usefulness of it. The most spectacular thing isn’t casting a spell, but finding a clever use for it.

8. It had already won me over early on, so I could just enjoy it in the same way that I used to enjoy movies.

I’d heard plenty of good things about Honor Among Thieves, so I had a good feeling I was going to at least enjoy it. But by the end of the opening sequence, once we’d finally been introduced to Jarnathan, the movie had already won me over. All the hyper-critical parts of my brain happily shut up for a couple of hours and let me watch the movie the way I used to as a teenager.

In fact, every time the movie jumped into a new setting, or set up a new extended action sequence, I kept being reminded of how I felt being at the theater during the “golden age” of action movies when I was a teenager. Seeing things like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Big Trouble in Little China and marveling at how they seemed to keep topping themselves. I thoroughly and completely enjoyed Honor Among Thieves in a way I haven’t enjoyed movies in a very long time.

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    A Tabaxi, according to the wiki
  • 2
    Both in screenwriting and in D&D terms

One Thing I Like About Quantumania

Spoiler: It’s MODOFK.

Reading reviews about Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania gives me the impression that a lot of critics have negative reviews pre-written, much like celebrity obituaries. Ironically, they complain about the corporate-driven sameness and lack of imagination in every installment, in a way that’s so repetitious and over-familiar that I’m getting deja vu that I’ve made this exact same complaint in previous blog posts about MCU projects.

Somehow, they never seem to mention that it’s corporate-driven content that keeps them submitting reviews for movies that they’re predisposed to dislike. Imagine going back to a pre-Siskel & Ebert/Pauline Kael world, where critics only had to write about things if they had an interesting observation to make!

To be fair: Quantumania does have plenty of signs of Creeping Marvel Fatigue. It never reaches the level of “why exactly does this movie exist, again?” that Eternals did, but it does lapse into the feeling that it’s going through the motions. They’re grand, sweeping, extremely expensive motions, granted, but still.

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One Thing I Love About Disneyland’s New Fireworks Show

“Wondrous Journeys” is the exceedingly rare case of a “nighttime spectacular” that feels like more than just spectacle

Concept art used in this post is from the Disney Parks Blog.

I love fireworks, and I’ve been going to Disney parks for around 50 years, but I’ve still only seen two fireworks shows that I’d call perfect. One was the show for Disneyland’s 50th anniversary, which used sound clips and songs from the various attractions to celebrate the history of the park itself.1The show used the announcer from the Disneyland Railroad announcing a Grand Circle Tour of the Magic Kingdom before setting off on a segment devoted to each land, which was a particularly brilliant touch.

The other was Illuminations: Reflections of Earth at Epcot, which used pyrotechnics to represent the dawn of creation and an LED-covered globe to tell an optimistic story about human civilization. From the pre-show music, to the opening narration blowing out the torches around the lake, to the spectacular conclusion, it’s still in my opinion the best show that Disney’s ever produced.

Almost all of the others I’ve seen have been fine but mostly forgettable. I get why people get misty-eyed over Wishes or Happily Ever After at the Magic Kingdom, but they’ve never made me “feel” anything. None of the songs or flames or projection effects really add anything to the experience; they feel more like they’re there only because they have to be. Disney can’t just launch off a bunch of fireworks and be done with it; people have paid money to see some real spectacle.

So I had low expectations for the new fireworks show that Disneyland has for the studio’s 100th anniversary. For starters, it’s called Wondrous Journeys, which I had to go look up right before writing this post, because it’s exactly the kind of forgettable Magical Word Soup that Disney insists on using to name things. It also starts out following the predictable pattern: introduction from a narrator talking about the importance of wishes or dreams or imagination; an inoffensive pop song done in whatever style is popular on Disney Radio at the moment; and then a series of songs from Disney TV and movies all grouped by theme, from the hero’s “I wish” moments, to the “scary” bit, to the end.

But by the end of it, I was in tears, and I felt like I’d actually seen something new from Disney entertainment, for the first time in over a decade.

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    The show used the announcer from the Disneyland Railroad announcing a Grand Circle Tour of the Magic Kingdom before setting off on a segment devoted to each land, which was a particularly brilliant touch.

1 Thing I Like About M3GAN

M3GAN is a PG-13 horror movie filmed entirely on location in the Uncanny Valley

There’s a scene mid-way through M3GAN where our protagonist has driven her troubled niece Cady to the first day of an alternative school. It seems necessary, since Cady has gotten overly attached to her robotic friend M3GAN, and she needs to socialize with other human children. The school’s teacher comes up to the car and cheerfully and kindly introduces herself to Cady, then asks if she’s come with her sister, at which point M3GAN turns to look at her, causing the teacher to involuntarily shout “JESUS CHRIST!”

That’s one of my favorite moments in this surprisingly good movie, because it perfectly captures the confidently silly and relentlessly sinister tone that makes the movie so much stronger than its premise would suggest.

Blumhouse and Universal have gone all-in on marketing the movie as a campy, creepy, successor to the “evil doll” subgenre of horror movie like Child’s Play and Annabelle. That’s a good call, since the promise of something silly and fun is what got me into the theater in the first place.1There’s not nearly as much creepy dancing in the movie as the trailers suggest, though, which felt like a bit of a bait and switch. But what makes M3GAN so unexpectedly clever is that it doesn’t settle for being a self-aware rehash of its too-familiar influences; nor a winking deconstruction; or even an undeservedly high-minded re-examination of them. Instead, it takes all of its familiar elements and uses them at face value, but combines and re-contextualizes them to make them just as uncanny and eerily not-quite-real as its villain.

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    There’s not nearly as much creepy dancing in the movie as the trailers suggest, though, which felt like a bit of a bait and switch.

Four Things I Like About Midnight Mass

Mike Flanagan’s horror series for Netflix are so thoughtful and ambitious that even the ones that don’t work for me are still fascinating. Spoilers for the entire series.

I seem to have a trend going where I’m always a year behind on the Mike Flanagan-led horror series for Netflix. I’ve kept it up for the third year in a row, using a miserable weekend being sick as an excuse to watch Midnight Mass, long after the buzz has already died down around it.

None of the series has worked for me as well as The Haunting of Hill House did, but I’d still consider myself a fan. They’re all so thoughtful and ambitious, clearly trying to do something new with the horror genre by giving them some weight and thematic significance, without losing the fun of monsters, ghosts, and jump scares. I love that they’re not quite an anthology series, but have that feel because of the same actors appearing over and over in significantly different roles.

And you can see why actors keep wanting to work with this team again, too. I don’t know anything about the actual production — although Flanagan and Kate Seigel do seem like genuinely cool people with a real love of horror stories and what can be done with them — but it’s evident that these series give actors plenty work with. Similar to Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story and spin-off projects, which give actors the chance to go completely over the top, Flanagan’s series give their actors weighty monologues where they can rhapsodize about the nature of what it means to be alive.

So Midnight Mass is smart, thoughtful, frequently moving, full of some really strong performances, indelible imagery, perfectly understated visual effects, and a few genuinely scary moments. It’s also meandering and overlong; I think calling it “a slow burn” is a little too charitable, and it would’ve benefited from having two or three fewer episodes. It’s full of monologues that undermine any sense of urgency in the story; a character will drop a bombshell of information that needs to be acted on immediately, only for the other character to start going on a lengthy tangent about germ theory or 9/11 or a story from their childhood. (“Sir, this is a Wendy’s.”) It peaks about mid-way through, then kind of fizzles out through its ending. It’s all very well done, and it takes a while to realize what a big swing it’s making with its ambition, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.

It’s too dense to pick just one thing I like about it, so here are four:

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One Thing I Love About the She-Hulk Finale

She-Hulk literally delivers its mission statement directly to the camera, but still manages to leave all of its implications for the audience to figure out. Lots of spoilers for the series.

Here’s an example of how blatantly obvious you have to be about something before everyone will get it: the entire time Jennifer Walters spent addressing the mysterious KEVIN in the finale episode, I kept thinking that it was a missed opportunity that they didn’t put a baseball hat on top of him. In fact, KEVIN was clearly, blatantly, designed to look like he was wearing a baseball hat, and this is shown on-screen for long stretches of time, but I completely missed it.1I read a segment from an interview with Kevin Feige in which he said his only push-back to that entire sequence presenting him as an all-controlling AI content generator was that the concept art put a baseball hat on top of the robot, and he pushed for the less silly but still overwhelmingly obvious version used in the show. Which just cements my respect for him and makes me even more convinced he deserves his success. I love the idea of someone becoming obscenely wealthy and powerful just by getting it.

I mention that as a disclaimer that all of the things I think are subtle about She-Hulk are probably not subtle at all. But really, that’s the thing that’s impressed me the most about the series as a whole: it hasn’t ever been subtle about telling the audience exactly what it’s about, but all of the gags and guest appearances and stunt casting and lamp-shading in-jokes haven’t been just a layer of frivolous comedy, skipping along the top to keep it from being too strident or too serious. Instead, they’ve been like a stage magician throwing out one misdirection after another, leaving it until the big finish to show that they’ve been one step ahead the entire time.

The final episode spins last week’s downer of an ending into an over-the-top barrage of self-aware parodies and silly gags. I think it would’ve been completely successful even if it had just stayed on that level, defiantly asserting itself as a light-hearted comedy series proudly existing in the middle of a superhero action-movie juggernaut. When you’re part of a franchise that makes literally billions of dollars, mostly by iterating on a template that’s known to be successful, it’s bold to be able to say, “Nah, we just want to be goofy.”

I admit that while I’ve been enjoying the series a lot — even the episodes that seemed the most frivolous and least “necessary” — it’s been bugging me how often Jennifer Walters seemed to be getting sidelined in her own series. They even had her acknowledge that early on in a fourth-wall break about the audience wanting to see more of Wong, but at the time I just assumed that was a semi-apologetic bit of self-awareness. “We’re going to keep doing this, but we want you to at least know that we’re aware that it’s at the expense of the main character’s story.” The introduction of Titania as an archenemy seemed to be a huge anti-climax and a waste of a hugely charismatic actress. Side characters like Madisynn came in and seemed to steal all the attention away from the lead character. It felt like the series was swimming against the current of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, still managing to be silly and fun, but with all of its franchise obligations keeping it from being as solid as it could’ve been.

The finale says not just that they’re aware of it, but that it was the point all along. Jen’s dream of a gender-swapped version of The Incredible Hulk‘s credit sequence works fine as just a gag parody, and it also works within the fiction: the injustice of her being perceived as a savage monster just for responding in anger to criminal levels of abuse. But it also fits into the theme of the episode and the series as a whole, repeating the question that Jen has been asking outright all along: why can’t she have an identity of her own outside of just being a lady version of a male character?2I learned from Nerdist’s recap videos that there’s an additional layer there: the whole reason the character exists was in response to The Incredible Hulk TV series, and Marvel’s fear that the producers would try to create a female-led spin-off of their own, as they had with The Bionic Woman.

By the end of the show, she’s not just re-writing her finale, but re-defining her whole character. She says outright that the finale was taking things in a weird direction, when it should’ve been about her being able to finally reconcile both of her identities. And that idea is plenty strong enough for a “legal comedy” (if that’s what you prefer to call it). But the finale also draws attention to how it’s spent the last nine episodes reconciling a character that’s been almost entirely defined by men, to one that can actually exist as a voice for women. Even the well-intentioned attempts to redefine or re-invent She-Hulk over the years have still resulted in her being an almost cartoonishly literal representation of “female empowerment.” This series says that instead of giving yet another version of the character that’s defined by how she reacts to sexism and anti-feminism, and how she reacts to the standard superhero cliches, why not just let her define herself?

The finale emphasizes that the audience has been focused on the wrong things all along. Instead of thinking of it as a superhero origin story that uses stolen blood and fight scenes as metaphors for a personal struggle, we should’ve recognized that all the “A plots” were just MCU connective tissue, vehicles for the real story about a woman who stops letting herself be defined by other people. It still works well as a story about a woman figuring out what it means to be a superhero, but I think it’s more interesting as a story about a woman figuring out what it means to be herself.

You can go back through the episodes and see how the stuff that might’ve seemed like meandering side-plots, or throwaway gags, or plot-lines that ended up fizzling out into disappointing anti-climaxes, were never the point in the first place. The first episode is about how women are taught that their anger and power are something they need to be ashamed of and keep under tight control. The second is about people trying to take advantage of her superhero status and exploit it for their own gain. Throughout, she’s trying to deal with the men who only want her as She-Hulk instead of Jen, before eventually being reminded that the problem is letting men define her self-worth. (I was especially happy that we never saw Josh in the finale; the victory wasn’t seeing him get his comeuppance, but in Jen’s finally realizing that he never actually mattered). Titania is set up to be her super-powered arch-nemesis, but instead ends up being an illustration of how powerful women are so frequently set up just to fight each other. And it might be a stretch, but I like the idea that Madisynn exists as an example of a big sloppy mess of a person who can enjoy herself without caring what anybody else thinks.

For a while it seemed like the series was in a weird position, where they were obligated to include fight scenes, even though the fight scenes didn’t fit thematically and were doomed to be anti-climactic when the main character is invulnerable. So I really liked that they gave Jen an obligatory “hallway fight” in which she’s fighting not against the incel bad guys, but against Marvel’s super secret strike force. The show confidently insists that the fights don’t matter, and the franchise tie-ins don’t matter, and then finds a way to include both, all on its own terms.

Since WandaVision was the first MCU TV series, Marvel’s already shown that they’re perfectly willing to indulge in some meta-storytelling. But I’d been assuming that She-Hulk‘s version was just meant to stay true to the comics and to keep the series feeling light and silly. There’s always a risk when you try to be too self-aware and break the fourth wall, that you’re dooming yourself to shallowness: if you’re coming right out and telling the audience what you’re doing, then you’re not leaving them with anything to interpret for themselves. So I’m really impressed that She-Hulk manages to have it both ways: keeping it fun and self-aware while also filling the series with valid-albeit-shallow “grrl power” messaging; but then also defying the template enough to invite you to go back and re-contextualize what the show’s been saying this whole time. This mediocre white man gives it a big thumbs up.

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    I read a segment from an interview with Kevin Feige in which he said his only push-back to that entire sequence presenting him as an all-controlling AI content generator was that the concept art put a baseball hat on top of the robot, and he pushed for the less silly but still overwhelmingly obvious version used in the show. Which just cements my respect for him and makes me even more convinced he deserves his success. I love the idea of someone becoming obscenely wealthy and powerful just by getting it.
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    I learned from Nerdist’s recap videos that there’s an additional layer there: the whole reason the character exists was in response to The Incredible Hulk TV series, and Marvel’s fear that the producers would try to create a female-led spin-off of their own, as they had with The Bionic Woman.

One Thing I Like About Werewolf By Night

Werewolf By Night wasn’t quite as bold as I’d been hoping for, but it pushed the limits of what you can do within the MCU

When I saw the trailer for Werewolf by Night, I thought that Marvel had finally abandoned the notion of making multi-billion dollar global entertainment product, and had become a boutique art house making stuff personally tailored just for me. It felt as personalized as a custom-recorded birthday card.

Since I consider myself one of the internet’s leading evangelists for The Beast Must Die!, I was getting hit with every single one of the right vibes. My only trepidation was that the trailer seemed to be pushing it directly into Universal Monsters territory, instead of making it a 1970s period piece.1Which would’ve been doubly appropriate considering that the Werewolf by Night comics are about as 1970s as you can get without a guest appearance by the Brady Kids. I was holding out hope, though, since the CBS Special Presentation-inspired opening, along with the narration, freeze frames, quick cuts, and fake film effects, all suggested that the movie might be kind of a mashup between 1930s-40s Universal and 1970s Castle Horror.

As it turned out, I was thinking too small. Werewolf by Night was stylistically better than either of those options, since it went for a mash-up of a bunch of different styles, instead of just a pastiche of a single one. There are stun batons, gramophones, and magic amulets, gothic architecture coexisting with art deco and brutalism. It ends up feeling timeless, as if it’s able to draw from a century of genre fiction instead of trying to emulate just one specific period.

It’s become popular to criticize the MCU for its feeling of same-ness — a criticism it often deserves, as genuinely novel concepts so frequently devolve into people flying around punching or shooting lasers at each other. So the current phase of the movies and series have impressed me by how much they’re willing to draw from Marvel’s scattershot library. Is it just super-heroes, or is it a horror story, or sci-fi, or fantasy, or legal sit-coms? The answer is yes.

Werewolf by Night often feels like it’s pushing at the boundaries of the MCU, trying to see how much it can get away with while still fitting into the universe. Unlike a lot of the other MCU entries, it’s most interesting not when it’s showing us a new interpretation of the familiar, but when it’s adding a flourish that’s completely new.2Or at least, new to me. I’m even more unfamiliar with the horror/monster side of the Marvel comics than with anything else. I didn’t even recognize Ted, for instance, until it was pointed out afterwards. The main character Jack transformed completely from a WASP-y, long-sideburned teen into a Mexican man with face paint to honor his heritage. A wind-up, talking corpse. A somber man playing a flaming tuba, for some reason.

So I was a bit disappointed to see it just turn into a bunch of fight scenes, and to see that after all the build-up to the appearance of the title character as being the most fearsome monster of them all, he ended up being only like the fourth most brutal and scary character in this movie alone. But that build-up had so much pure style that I’ll gladly give it a pass.

One thing I like in particular about Werewolf by Night is how brazen it was about simulating old-school filmmaking techniques with all of the tools that a MCU-budgeted film in 2022 has available. It does lay on the affectations so thick that it sometimes feels like it’s trying too hard — film grain, rough cuts, reel change markers, overall the kind of stuff you might expect to see in an After Effects tutorial. But I think it all balances out to a feeling of near-campy enthusiasm. Harriet Sansom Harris, who’s never been less than awesome in anything I’ve ever seen, goes gleefully over the top throughout, so it sometimes seems like the direction is just trying to keep up to her energy.

And it results in a couple of really neat flourishes. The red of the bloodstone every time it’s shown, with the added bonuses of colored lens flares in a black and white movie. But my favorite is in a sequence where the werewolf is ravaging some generic bad guys in a hallway. The action is all in silhouette against a blinding white doorway that’s slowly closing, with the only other light being the occasional flashes of stun batons. It doesn’t show any of the monster or the violence close-up — seemingly a stylistic choice to preserve the mystery instead of a technical limitation, since they don’t hesitate to show Ted in extreme detail. As the carnage goes on, blood is splashed against the camera lens, obscuring more and more of the view. By the time it’s over, you can only imagine what happened.

Was it a visual effect, or a practical one? I don’t actually know, and that’s what I like about it. I’m so used to CGI being omnipresent in these projects that I tend to assume everything is done in post-production, and I’ve gotten harder and harder to impress. However it was done, it was done with so much style and thought to its purpose instead of simply its spectacle, that I stopped caring about how it was done. Instead of zoning out during the fight scenes, like I typically do, I appreciated the point of the scene: to suggest a new monster that was so fearsome, they weren’t even allowed to show it to us.

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    Which would’ve been doubly appropriate considering that the Werewolf by Night comics are about as 1970s as you can get without a guest appearance by the Brady Kids.
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    Or at least, new to me. I’m even more unfamiliar with the horror/monster side of the Marvel comics than with anything else. I didn’t even recognize Ted, for instance, until it was pointed out afterwards.