One Thing I Like About The Suicide Squad

The Suicide Squad feels like a faithful adaptation of a Vertigo comic series that doesn’t exist

One reliably amusing thing is to see pompous blowhards online complaining about “superhero movies” and how they’re effectively destroying originality in Western culture. It’s amusing only because it’s the exact same uninspired snobbery against “comic book movies” that we’ve been seeing for decades, but forced to be more specific about precisely what kinds of comic books are and aren’t appropriate. It’s kind of fun to imagine how snobbery will evolve into ever-increasingly-specific genres of disdain.

The Suicide Squad is kind of a superhero movie, but it is absolutely — almost fetishistically — a comic book movie. That’s the one thing I like best about it. The specific thing I like best about it is the above scene, with Peacemaker and Bloodsport casually murdering an encampment full of soldiers, and I don’t think anything else in the movie ever achieves that level of over-the-top nasty fun as effectively as that scene.

But it’s more consistent in its overall attitude, which is recreating a specific feel: a Vertigo comic from the late 1980s and early 1990s.

I don’t think the Suicide Squad comics ever actually got the Vertigo treatment, and from what I’ve seen of them, they didn’t have the same types of stylistic flourishes as books like The Sandman, Hellblazer, or Swamp Thing. But The Suicide Squad feels like a faithful adaptation from an alternate universe, in which a “For Mature Readers Only” re-imagined version of the comic series was coming out right alongside Preacher and the Grant Morrison version of Doom Patrol.

For better and for worse.

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Literacy 2021: Book 17: The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires

This horror novel by Grady Hendrix is a lot better than its premise might suggest

Book
The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix

Synopsis
In a small South Carolina city in the late 80s/early 90s, a group of overstressed and under-appreciated housewives form a book club over their shared interest in true crime and suspense stories. Their friendships and families are tested over the next few years, after a strange man moves into the neighborhood and begins working his way into their lives.

Pros
Genuinely horrifying. In retrospect, it might’ve been because I thought I knew exactly what the book was going to be and how it was going to pull its punches, but I was surprised by how quickly and intensely it dove into horror. Fantastic details during the most intense scenes — often involving insects, like fleas and roaches! — that kept the action feeling immediate and personal. Great at pushing my buttons; I was tense when I was supposed to be tense, inadvertently groaning out loud during some of the worst moments, and internally screaming with anger when I was supposed to be frustrated. Good at balancing tone: it avoids becoming maudlin, but also has an unerring morality to it that never devolves into cynicism or nihilism. Uses the setting and time period for effect, not just nostalgia; this is a society of affluent white people only just starting to acknowledge how much they’ve normalized casual racism and misogyny. De-romanticizes vampires, while all of pop culture in the time of the book’s setting was trying to make them sexy and misunderstood. Gives a contemporary take on Dracula-style vampires that splits the difference between realism and the supernatural.

Cons
Depictions of sexual assault that didn’t seem gratuitous, but were still unexpected; I’m not generally a fan of content warnings, but I think the book’s premise and presentation suggest a tone that’s lighter than the actual material. The characters’ tendency to reset back to normal life after horrific events strains credulity, even after you realize it’s part of the theme (see below). I wish the book had gone more into the actual details of the plan for slaying vampires, as the title implies, instead of just telling us that the women did their research. I wish Hendrix had saved his introduction/dedication for the end of the book; it’s wonderful that he insisted on including an essay praising his mother, but it also threatens to overwhelm the start of the book with expectations of Steel Magnolias/Designing Women levels of schmaltz. Although I think the book is an excellent horror story and explanation of the premise, there’s no denying that the premise itself is kind of a mish-mash of cliches. The book constantly reminded me of how much I miss my mother.

One Thing I Like
One thing the book does particularly well throughout is show how repression and suppression worked (and still works!) in societies like the middle-to-upper-class southern white families in the 80s and 90s. The men in this book were so casually cruel and condescending, and all the white characters were so dismissive of the plight of their black neighbors, and all of the characters were so desperate for everything to go back to normal, that at times it seemed too much to believe. Except it also feels like a real, accurate depiction, especially to those of us who grew up in southern towns in the 80s and 90s. So much of the menace from the monster in this book comes from its ability to manipulate everyone’s desperation to keep up appearances and maintain public perception that they’re good, proper, Christian families. They’re so eager for things to be normal that they’ll deny an abundance of evidence of evil. They’re not naive, necessarily, but so wrapped up in creating and maintaining an illusion of perfect suburban whiteness that they’re in denial of anything that threatens or is even critical of it.

The book is direct in its condemnation of casual racism and misogyny, and it makes a deliberate illustration of how easily the monster fits itself into that kind of environment and takes advantage of it. But it’s a little bit more subtle about how much people deny our true selves and our obligations to each other out of a need to be normal.

Verdict
Surprisingly excellent. I’d expected a mash-up of Steel Magnolias, Fried Green Tomatoes, Designing Women and the like with Fright Night, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and True Blood. Instead, it’s an often-intense horror story that seldom pulls any punches, and uses social commentary for good effect. It’s not quite the predictable story of The Irrepressible Resilience of Southern Women, but actually a sincere celebration of the true strength of people who’ve been underestimated and unappreciated.

Another Thing I Love About Black Widow

More thoughts about Black Widow, and how clever it was to pit Natasha against the Taskmaster.

It’s a little frustrating to see so many reviewers dismissing Black Widow as being too overloaded with Marvel Cinematic Universe action to have any depth — or worse, dismissing the entire MCU as commerce — because it’s a sure sign the reviewer is just phoning it in. Some of them seem to be pre-written like celebrity obituaries, making the same predictable complaints with each installment, just copy-and-pasting in a new movie title to maximize search engine optimization.

It’s frustrating because we’ve all got assumptions about how super-hero movies work, but I think Black Widow shows how super-hero movies can work. It is undeniably packed full of over-the-top action sequences that, especially towards the end, strain any notion of believability. But it’s also completely aware that those action sequences are at the core of a super-hero movie. Instead of trying to compartmentalize them away from the “real cinema” of thematic exploration and character development, it’s really clever in how it uses the action to introduce or reinforce the themes.

One of the best examples of that is how it introduces a new incarnation of the villain The Taskmaster to the MCU. In the comics, it’s a character from the 80s who trains other mercenaries, and whose super-power is being able to reproduce a hero’s abilities and fighting style just by watching them. In Black Widow, the character’s super-power is being able to perfectly encapsulate a hero’s character development and personal growth.

To explain why requires lots of spoilers, though, so don’t read this unless you’ve seen Black Widow.

Credit goes to Ryan Arey for his video giving his take on “the real meaning of the movie and her journey in the MCU,” which if I’m being honest, is a little too reductive for me, but does a great job making explicit a lot of aspects of the movie that I appreciated, but couldn’t put into words how and why. Watching that video, and a re-watch of Captain America: The Winter Solider, which I highly recommend to get more out of Black Widow, helped clarify it.

Read More if you’ve already seen the movie

One Thing I Love About Black Widow

I mean, it’s Florence Pugh, 100%. But also, the tone.

I admit I was skeptical about Black Widow, and I’d been assuming that it’d be the first MCU entry (apart from The Incredible Hulk, which has never seemed like it really counted) that I didn’t see in its theatrical release. But the combination of mostly positive reviews, and the chance to see a movie in a theater for the first time in over a year and a half, made me change my mind.

Good call on my part, as it turns out, since the movie is fantastic. I might still be in a post-action-movie high, and I’ll change my mind as time passes, but right now it’s one of my favorite entries in the entire series.

The reason I was skeptical was probably common to anyone who’d pre-judged it based on the trailers: Marvel spectacle inflation. This looked like a spy-themed, entirely Earth-based action movie. The MCU is pretty good at those, but it’s hard to get super-enthused after they’ve had super-powers, aliens, Norse gods, space travel, and wiped out half the population of the universe.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier has been a favorite of mine for the way it integrated a Marvel super-hero movie with the feel of a paranoid 1970s spy thriller, but I still have to admit that it only really picked up for me when they had super-villains embedded in old computers. Natasha is allowed to be an absolute bad-ass in that one, but it still feels as if she’s supporting the super-heroes.

That’s one of the things Black Widow makes fun of, the idea that Natasha is one of the “lesser” Avengers. The character who’s keeping her in her place — which includes mocking her well-known three-point landing as “posing” — is Yelena Belova, played by Florence Pugh in a performance that threatens to steal the whole movie.

She’s sardonic without ever completely giving in to bitterness, tough without seeming invulnerable, irreverent without seeming glib. All with an accent that is probably accurate but still feels like it’s from a cornier spy movie, but still somehow true to the character. She makes it an outstanding hero origin story, because she so thoroughly inhabits a comic book character without letting it veer too far into realism or too far into camp.

That perfect balance of tone is carried throughout the movie. This has some of the darkest material of any of the MCU installments I’ve seen, with ever-present reminders that this is a story about betrayal, paranoia, abandonment, abuse, and human trafficking. But it treats everything with what I think is an appropriate level of gravity, without letting it become completely bleak and somber.

From the trailers, I’d been worried that it would be just another wise-cracking action movie. The scene of Natasha’s family getting back together was highlighted in the trailers as a bit of comic relief at Alexi’s (David Harbour) expense. That turns out to have been a bit of a bait-and-switch, since in the movie, it’s an extremely sinister moment with an extremely sad undertone.

The Breakfast All Day review mentioned one moment that I think illustrates the balance in tone perfectly: in Avengers: Age of Ultron, Natasha explains that she was sterilized as part of the Widow program, in a scene that’s played for maximum emotional impact. In Black Widow, Yelena describes her hysterectomy a lot more bluntly and matter-of-factly. As Alonso Duralde points out, not only is it less about equating a woman’s worth with her capacity to bear children, it’s truer to the characters and the way they would think about what’s been done to them.

It’s also truer to the tone of the movie overall: this is a movie about characters surviving and fighting against the trauma they’ve gone through, not using it to manufacture pathos. It’s tempting to join the dogpile on Joss Whedon for setting up powerful women characters just to put them through torture, especially since WandaVision showed how her character could’ve been handled so much less clumsily. But really, it’s a problem throughout a series that has never been quite sure how to handle characters who aren’t super-powered.

The trailer including that scene at the dinner table, with Alexi stuffing himself into his Red Guardian suit, is also a bait-and-switch because it implies a break in the action. But the action in Black Widow never completely lets up. It’s relentless without being exhausting. People complain about the dominance of the MCU, but one of the advantages is that it can include one of the most exciting car chases I’ve ever seen — which would’ve used up the entire budget of a normal movie — and it’s still just getting started. “I could do this all day.”

Again, that car chase isn’t a shift in tone into action mode. It’s establishing Yelena’s character and her relationship with Natasha. Black Widow manages to do what few action movies can pull off, which is combine character development and plot momentum with action scenes, never at the expense of either. There’s a sense that chase scenes, daring heists, shoot-outs, and exposition-filled mission debriefs are the only way these characters can really communicate with each other.

Early in the movie, Natasha is shown watching Moonraker on a laptop, in a scene that foreshadows the level of spectacle that’s yet to come. It’s a neat inclusion because it establishes Moonraker as fantasy; this movie will soon be hitting (and then exceeding) the scale of that spy adventure, but without all of its camp.

By the time Black Widow reaches its climax, piling spectacle on top of spectacle and stunt on top of stunt, I was a little taken aback. Up to that point, the movie had been smart and thrilling, but relatively grounded compared to the rest of the MCU. But then I remembered: not only is this still the MCU, it’s Natasha’s long-overdue showcase as one of the Avengers. Not just a supporting character. Earlier, Yelena had called her a “super-hero,” but in context, it seemed mocking. By the end, it’s clear that there was no mockery at all. Natasha may not have had super powers, but she was still every bit a super-hero.

Even before the pandemic delayed it over a year, I had been thinking that Black Widow was coming far too late to have any relevance. No matter how much I liked the character, her story was over. While the rest of the universe was mourning Tony Stark and speculating on the fate of Steve Rogers, Natasha Romanoff had simply closed out her story as a self-sacrificing hero. A prequel would add nothing.

I was mistaken. I said that Florence Pugh “threatens to” steal the movie (along with Rachel Weisz, who was perfectly creepy, and who incidentally seems to also be stealing Paul Rudd’s anti-aging serum), because as much as Black Widow sets up her character to be a great addition to the next phase of the MCU, it’s also a fantastic conclusion for Natasha’s character. It takes near-throwaway bits of her backstory and makes them not just trauma she has to overcome, but a cause to fight for. It calls back to her most standout moments in The Avengers, The Winter Soldier, and Civil War, and shows why she wasn’t just Captain America’s or Nick Fury’s assistant, but a key member of the Avengers, and more than just a poser.

I’m sure future installments will be full of action, drama, intrigue, comedy, magic, spectacle, science fiction, lasers, robots, mad scientists, and anything else that can fit into a comic book movie. But they’ll have a hard time keeping all of it in as perfect balance as Black Widow does.

Five Things I Love About Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway

Thoughts about the relentlessly delightful ride at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Florida

We just got back from a week-and-some-change-long trip to Walt Disney World for a milestone birthday. I’ll probably have more to say about it later after I’ve done more reminiscin’, but there were two immediate standouts: the Skyliner, and Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway.

The ride replaced The Great Movie Ride in the Chinese Theater at the center of the park, and it’s notable for being the first ride with the Mickey Mouse characters. (There have been shows and movies, but never a ride).

I just loved it. I’d already spoiled myself by watching ride-throughs on YouTube, but still had a huge grin throughout, both times we got to ride it. It most reminded me of the first time I rode Pooh’s Hunny Hunt at Tokyo Disneyland, not just because they’re both trackless ride systems, but because they’re both start-to-finish delightful in a way that supersedes individual gags or overall spectacle.

There’s too much it does well for me to pick just one thing, so here’s five:

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One Thing I Like About Loki

The new Loki series is a victory for “genre fiction,” since it’s full of weird stuff that’s not that weird anymore.

Pretty early in the first episode of Loki, there’s a brief scene where he’s forced to consider whether he’s a robot without being aware of it. I like the scene because it’s got such good line reads from both actors. More than that, though, it’s a good example of how the MCU acknowledges the absurdity of the whole premise of the MCU: trying to translate decades of comic book weirdness into “mainstream” movies and television.

I liked the first episode of the series a lot, but there wasn’t the same “electricity” I felt from the novelty of watching WandaVision. And I don’t think that’s a criticism! It’s a sign that 10+ years of gradually pushing out the borders of what’s “too weird for Hollywood” has paid off.

There’s so much great stuff going on in this series: the set direction, art direction, costume design, prop design, a fantastic retro animated sequence, some imaginative VFX with various time doorways and what is essentially an “exposition projector,” not to mention great casting including the always-welcome Pillboy. (Eugene Cordero, who’s just great).

And yet, I don’t have much to say about it! It’s not that novel anymore; its presence alone isn’t that remarkable. Which means I don’t have to consider the changing level of respectability of genre fiction in the mainstream, parallels to aesthetics of the Fallout series, how ideas established in comics translate to live action, any of it. I can just enjoy watching it. (Of course, I realize I don’t have to write about any of this stuff for free on a personal blog; I just am unable to turn off that portion of my brain for some reason).

The first episode was full of moments and design decisions that would’ve drawn attention to themselves just a few years ago, but now it just feels like it all simply works without comment.

Also, I was surprised at the end of the episode. We’ve known about the premise of this series forever, so in retrospect, the revelation probably should’ve been obvious. “Who’s the villain in a Loki series?” But I didn’t see it coming at all, which I take as a sign that I was actually watching the show, instead of being in detached cinema studies/media analysis mode. I wasn’t thinking about it in terms of metatext, but just as a story.

Which is how most of the source comics work, now that the 90s are over and there’s less of a trend of high-profile comics stories about comics stories. It feels like we can stop defending genre fiction and justifying genre fiction, and just enjoy genre fiction. And appreciate a Marvel series that finally seems to be embracing the Marvel aesthetic.

Image of the Timekeepers and the "sacred timeline" from the animated sequence in the first episode of Loki

One Thing I Like About Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049 is better than Blade Runner at doing the things that Blade Runner does best.

It feels like a scandalous confession to say that I never really liked Blade Runner that much. Obviously, it’s an absolute masterpiece of production design, it’s forever changed our collective idea of the future, and it’s got some images — in particular, any scene with Joanna Cassidy or Daryl Hannah — that are unforgettable.

But as a movie, it’s always left me cold. It’s dour, literally humorless, and for having such a straightforward plot, still seemed to favor style over substance. Its ambiguity is its greatest strength; I think it implies a depth and complexity that’s not actually there. Or at least, a complexity that’s delivered entirely via Roy Batty’s final monologue — and in some versions, Deckard’s final voice-over — without being supported by the rest of the movie to that point.

So I was curious but not exactly eager to see Blade Runner 2049, which is why I’m only seeing it now, 4 years after its release. The high point is certainly the astounding cinematography, but it’s kind of repeating the obvious to say that Roger Deakins is one of the best cinematographers in history. It’s also got great, understated performances from Ryan Gosling, Ana de Armas, and Dave Bautista, each giving a different take on the movie’s core idea of what it means to be human. Almost all of the CG1I hate those tiny flying probe devices in Wallace’s headquarters seems to have been used not to bypass practical effects, but for maximum impact: the scene in which Joi is trying to “sync” with a prostitute is especially fascinating.

And I think it’s better structured. It’s still dour, humorless, and far far too long, with way too many ponderous, drawn-out conversations, especially after Deckard shows up. But at least up until the final act, it’s plotted more like an actual mystery than the first film, which felt more like a series of mini-boss battles leading up to a final boss fight. Overall, it seems like a more focused, more conventional Hollywood movie that’s been over-inflated to twice as long as it needs to be. And I think most of the scenes at least supported its main idea, instead of simply feeling like tangential world-building.

So the best detail that I want to call out is how the character of Luv involuntarily cries when she kills someone.

Or is it involuntary? There’s an ambiguity there. It doesn’t seem like ambiguity is in short supply in either Blade Runner movies, with their lengthy silences, and characters staring off into the middle distance while talking across each other. But this is an ambiguity I don’t have a good answer for, and I actually care about the answer in terms of character development.

As opposed to, say, Is Deckard a replicant or what? which I still don’t think has been answered definitively, but which has no real impact on either movie’s story. In fact, I think K is a more interesting protagonist because it’s established from the start that he is a replicant. His entire personality — or because it’s a Blade Runner movie, lack of personality — is built around the acceptance that he doesn’t believe he has a soul, instead of being a somewhat generic sci-fi take on the grizzled, disillusioned film noir detective.

Luv, on the other hand, spends the bulk of the movie as a fairly two-dimensional villain, before shedding that extra dimension and going completely over the top by the movie’s final act. So why is she crying? She doesn’t cry when she kills other character, human or replicant. She shows a flinch of sympathy/discomfort during the (unnecessary) scene in which Wallace inspects a new replicant model, but otherwise, she’d seem to have all the depth and complexity of fellow evil henchmen like Odd Job or Jaws. Is she acting against her will? Is there something innate that her “programming” is betraying? Is she expressing guilt for her role in keeping replicants oppressed? It’s never made explicit.

The movie makes it explicit, multiple times, that the replicants are slaves, but also shows K, Luv, and Joi having different takes on being subservient. Especially with Joi, she sees her choice to make K happy as the thing that gives her agency, which brings her closer to being alive.

K is shown to be at some kind of peace — if not happiness — with the discrimination and his role as even more of a machine than a slave. He’s comfortably at “baseline” until he starts to suspect that he’s special, which throws him into tumult. There’s the suggestion that he didn’t see his existence as oppression, but as giving him a purpose in life.

And then there’s Luv’s final declaration, “I’m the best one!” It’s not just that she does whatever her boss/master commands; she takes pride in it, and she’s even made it a part of her identity. The question of “what does it mean to be alive?” is obviously at the core to these movies, but I think Blade Runner 2049 is better at illustrating why the question is relevant to us in the audience: it suggests that the things that make us alive aren’t assigned to us, but the ways we choose to find meaning.

Most of the movie makes these ideas explicit. There’s just the one scene that’s left ambiguous, and that’s where the intrigue is.

One Thing I Like About Godzilla vs Kong

Godzilla vs Kong seems perfectly happy to be spectacular, beautiful nonsense

Title Image: Kong vs Godzilla in Hong Kong in Godzilla vs Kong

I liked Kong: Skull Island quite a bit, although apparently that didn’t come through clearly enough in my post about it. A few years ago, I was applying for a job on a licensed video game that I would’ve hated working on, so I’m very fortunate I wasn’t offered the job. At the interview, though, the interviewer mentioned reading that post and seemed skeptical I’d be happy working on a project that was part of a major franchise subject to scrutiny from tons of invested parties.

I was reminded of that while watching Godzilla vs Kong, because it’s very much the culmination of a movie franchise. But it also doesn’t betray a hint of pretense that it’s anything else, or that there’s anything wrong with being the culmination of a movie franchise.

And I really enjoyed the hell out of it. It was big, gleefully dumb fun, on a scale that I don’t think I’ve seen since The Mummy. The aspect of it I love the most is that it knows exactly what it wants to do, and exactly what people want to see when they watch a movie titled Godzilla vs Kong. Which is perfectly illustrated by this scene:

(The rest of this post has spoilers, which I really suggest you avoid reading because there are some fun surprises in the movie, even if you, as I did, go in thinking you’d already been spoiled for all of it).

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Not an Imaginary Story! (One Thing I Like About WandaVision Episode 8)

Episode 8 of WandaVision has what I believe are some great ideas about what’s actually “real”

Lots of spoilers for the entire series of WandaVision in this blog post, obviously, so read at your own peril.

Once again, WandaVision has taken us out of the fantastic bubble of Westview, dumping us into the mundane real world of the MCU, with its boring old stories of centuries-old covens of witches, and top-secret government facilities building fantastic sci-fi weapons to keep super-powered heroes in check.

Like you might expect from an episode titled “Previously On,” this one was full of exposition, delivered via speeches and flashbacks. Like you’d expect from WandaVision, it’s all so well-written and performed and executed that it’s almost a shame that the series’s weird and novel format distracts from how well made the show is.

But right as it ended, I felt a little disappointed. All along,1You’re humming the tune now, aren’t you? my favorite thing about the show has been that I’ve felt completely in sync with the storytelling, even though I recognized almost none of its Easter eggs, comics lore, or ever-growing MCU internal lore.2I nodded sagely when the videos pointed out that Strücker was the name of a Hydra agent, then felt kind of dumb when they pointed out that he was a fairly significant character in a movie that I’ve seen twice. This episode had the most genuinely moving moment in the series so far, if not the entire MCU: of course, it’s Vision’s description of grief as being not emptiness, but “love persevering,” which is especially relevant to everyone who survived 2020. But then it ended with a moment that felt so jarringly artificial to me that it knocked me out of the story so hard, you’d think that I’d just mentioned Ultron.

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She’s Not the Final Boss Now (One Thing I Like About WandaVision)

Episode 6 shows that WandaVision succeeds where other Intrigue TV hasn’t: because it’s about more than just its central mystery

MOVIE CRITICS AND FANS, 2020: The Marvel So-Called “Cinematic” Universe is just a bunch of the same shallow thing over and over again, just punches and CGI.

MARVEL STUDIOS, SOMETIME IN 2019 PROBABLY: Thank you for coming to this meeting. What we need is an early 2000s-style claymation commercial for yogurt with an Extreme Shark and a little boy starving to death, to represent the main character’s survivor’s guilt.

It’s not surprising that I didn’t immediately love episode 6 of WandaVision (“All New Halloween Spooktacular!” if you’re scoring at home), because its format is imitating my least favorite era of sitcoms. All the self-awareness and deconstructionism of the late 80s and early 90s could’ve turned into something interesting, but instead it just turned really shallow, loud, cynical, and soulless all through the late 90s and early 2000s.

Still, I continue to be impressed with how much this series is in tune with the audience. (Or at least this guy in the audience, but I know I’m not the only one). This episode somehow feels like even more of a recalibration/exposition episode than episode 4, which is the one that explicitly went back and set up the situation that led to the series so far.

And that’s not really a gripe; having an episode like this is essential for the pacing. The audience already understands the gimmick for the series, so less time can be spent recreating the sitcom format — screen-time, although most certainly not in terms of production time! — except when the format is in service of setting up the story. It also lines up with the in-story idea that fewer and fewer people are all-in on this altered reality as the season goes on: the leads are less wary of showing off their powers, and we have a better idea that not everyone on screen is caught in the spell.

I’m sure it’s not a coincidence that the episode in which the characters are in self-referential costumes, and showing more awareness that they’re all playing roles in a fantasy, is the one paying homage to TV shows that broke the fourth wall. Now I’m wondering if episode 4 wasn’t actually a break in the format. It might’ve been their homage to 1980s television, since it was structured so much like an episode of The X-Files.

Because I’ve felt so in sync with this show, it means that episodes like this are mostly filled with confirmations instead of revelations. Yes, obviously that’s a bad guy. Sure, the people outside of Wanda’s sphere of influence and attention exist in a perpetual, miserable, stasis. Right, Monica Rambeau is probably going to be a super-hero, and good, so are the kids. And as everybody suspected, it’s looking more likely that some soon-to-be-revealed villain at least initiated the whole thing, if they aren’t still actively manipulating Wanda.

It’s a nice change from the usual in Intrigue TV, where you can almost feel the show creators lurking in the background and giggling, “Oh have we got such a delicious secret for you all!

And there were a few genuinely surprising moments, too. First was the commercial I already mentioned, and it was fantastic because it kept up the real genuine gimmick of the series: telling a dark idea using something that’s completely tonally inappropriate and creepy.

Second was that fantastic ending, which raised the stakes in a way I didn’t see coming. I think turning the SWORD agents into clowns and their camp into a circus was a great acknowledgement that they were never going to be the real source of conflict in this series, because the series’s conflict is character driven.

But the one thing I love about WandaVision that I want to call out is that even as it gets closer to revealing more about its central mystery, it’s showing that its central mystery is kind of irrelevant. Maybe I’m just tired of watching so many “102 Easter Eggs You Missed In WandaVision!!!!” videos repeating the same tenuous stabs at sketchy interpretation, but I’m increasingly feeling like the references and Easter eggs simply don’t matter as much as I’d originally thought.

They can be fun, if you’re into that kind of thing — I especially like the observation from the computer displays that SWORD’s project to inhibit or suppress Vision was called Operation Cataract — but the series isn’t actually some puzzle box or ARG that will reward the first person to figure it out. It’s not a show for “nerds.” I have to keep reminding myself that the MCU is gigantic now, and comic books and sci-fi aren’t niche audiences anymore.

It feels increasingly like that idea is implicit in WandaVision: it’s a mash-up of pop culture and “genre fiction” without any apparent interest in putting a value judgment on any of it. Instead, it just treats everything as a shared cultural reference that’s fair game for storytelling. I’ve got to break myself of these outdated ideas of “target audiences” and “nerd television” and such, since they’re ideas used to sell art, not to make or understand it. They’re about excluding people or limiting possibilities, instead of expanding them.

I’m reminded of all the times I’ve seen audiences or executives see something imaginative and react with “Oh, this is so weird! Were the people who made this high? Are audiences going to get it?” This series reacts like Nick Fury to Peter Parker: “Bitch, please. You’ve been to space.”