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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WandaVision All Along (One Thing I Love About WandaVision Episode 7)

WandaVision proves that if you’re good enough at what you do, you become spoiler-proof

In this post, I’m making the argument that WandaVision is so brilliantly made that it’s made itself spoiler proof, but it’s a working theory, and I don’t want to take any unnecessary chances. Please don’t read it unless you’ve seen WandaVision Episode 7, “Breaking the Fourth Wall.”

Choosing the One Thing I Love about the latest episode of WandaVision was easy, because it’s the bit I’ve watched about 10 times by now: the final “reveal.” Somehow it works in all the same ways that the usual intrigue-driven Mystery Story does… but is also not much of a surprise at all. What was revealed wasn’t as important as how it was revealed, and what it means for the series and the rest of the MCU.

My initial reaction was to think, “Of course, we already knew that.” But I quickly realized that I only knew because I’ve been watching all the “easter eggs” and “things you missed” videos after each episode. If I hadn’t, my reaction would’ve been “Who? Should I recognize that name?”

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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.”

Sit, Uatu, Sit (One Thing I Love About WandaVision Episode 5)

Even as it divides its time with the “real world,” WandaVision keeps making good use of its meta text

As expected, the more time WandaVision spends outside of its alternate-reality bubble, and gets back to advancing the ongoing storyline of the MCU, the less it feels like something completely new and unexpected.

To be clear: it’s still an outstanding show. Its shifts between realities, characters, and modes of storytelling are all excellently paced and executed. Even as it gets closer to providing more of the action-movie moments that MCU fans expect from a tentpole, big-budget TV series, those moments are tense and memorable.

Except those moments work like the rest of the MCU does, while the series up until now has felt like something different. In particular, they left me with the feeling that I was perfectly in sync with what was happening on screen, without having to suspend my disbelief about anything. That sounds odd, considering it’s a show about alternate reality bubbles and super heroes and synthezoids with powers gifted to them via the infinity stones, but I’m talking about suspending my disbelief in the show itself, not its content.

For instance: now, I’m back to second-guessing not just the motives of certain characters, but second-guessing whether I’m supposed to be second-guessing them. I mean, everybody could tell SWORD director guy was suspicious, and they even have our most sympathetic characters call it out. But now I can’t tell if the show itself was trying to hide it. It seems like a missed opportunity for a little bit more depth in a series that’s otherwise been able to give sitcom-style conflicts an underlying tension and dread unlike anything we’ve seen before. There was potential to set up a more interesting relationship between the director and Our Heroes, but instead they just seem to be repeating story beats from Captain America: Civil War.

But there were two moments in this episode that worked brilliantly, a reminder that this series is doing more to push the limits of conventional storytelling not just past what we’ve seen in the rest of the MCU, but in television as a whole. Neither of them are the “big spoiler moments” of the episode — or the amazing pictures of Vision over the opening credits — but they are spoiler-adjacent, so I’d recommend not reading on until you’ve seen all five episodes.

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WandaVision in the Meta-text of Madness

Episode 4 of WandaVision somehow managed to top what’s already been an astoundingly well-crafted series

As much as I’ve been loving WandaVision, there’s been a creeping sense of dread — in addition to the overt one that’s baked into the premise — that eventually this fun, bizarre experiment is going to have to be unrolled, scaled back, and placed into the more mundane “real world” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Which at this point has spaceships, time travel, multiple alien species, magic, multiple heroes who can casually fly, and a society still dealing with the fact that half of the living people in the universe were blinked out of existence for five years. But still.

It turns out that I needn’t have worried, because episode 4, “We Interrupt This Program,” was great. It didn’t feel like a reduction, but a recalibration, a re-contextualization of what we’ve seen so far, and a suggestion of how the already-huge MCU might expand in the next “phase.”

Last weekend, I made a belabored argument that the MCU had managed to create something that wasn’t “cinema,” wasn’t really like episodic TV, and wasn’t really like comic books, but combined the aspects of each most suited to a 21st century audience. At the time, I felt like I might’ve been laying it on a little thick. But this episode feels like the MCU responding with, “Uh, yeah, no shit, dude. Where’ve you been?”

I’ve got three favorite moments in this episode, but talking about them is spoiler heavy so please don’t read the rest until you’ve seen the first four episodes of WandaVision.

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He vas… my boyfriend!

Celebrating Cloris Leachman’s amazing career

It seems odd to try and write a celebrity obituary as some random person on the internet with a blog, but how phenomenal was Cloris Leachman in everything?

That obituary from The Washington Post highlights her work in The Last Picture Show and Young Frankenstein, which is undoubtedly one of the best comedies ever made and in my top 10 of best movies ever made. Comedic performances never get the same respect that dramatic ones do, but it says a lot that she stands out even in a movie filled with pitch-perfect performances from several of the best comic actors of the 20th century.

The obituary also makes a point of how much she was not just willing, but eager to take risks. I wasn’t aware of the true scope of it, but even as a casual fan, I could tell that she took thankless parts and made something great of them. Phyllis on The Mary Tyler Moore Show could’ve been just the irritating neighbor lost in an ensemble of great performances, but she managed to nail the comedy so perfectly — making sure that she was always more funny than obnoxious — that even as a little kid, I thought naturally she should have her own show.

Two more quotes from that Washington Post obituary: “‘My intention,’ she told the Los Angeles Times, ‘is not to do something I’ve done before.'” and “…for the most part, she embraced unorthodox, aggressively undignified parts.” That seems like the best legacy for anyone, not just actors. We may not have her talent, but we could all aspire to her fearlessness.

“I Love WandaVision”

Reviewing (or really, effusively gushing about) the first two episodes of the new MCU series WandaVision

Two warnings first: 1) This has spoilers for the first two episodes of WandaVision. 2) I’ve barely read any Marvel comics, so if you got here via a search, hoping for easter eggs and hidden comics references and storyline speculation, I’m no help. Luckily for you, there’s a metric shitton of that already online: ScreenCrush has a bunch and tries to speculate on future story developments, while Nerdist keeps it a little bit more to the comics references themselves.

As an only-partially-abashed fan of Disney, Star Wars, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ve maybe been a little too much of an apologist for global media conglomerates. I feel like I’ve abandoned any claim to indie cred several times over, when I suggest that not all IP is bad, and that sometimes mega-budgeted corporate productions can result in fantastic experiences.

WandaVision makes me feel a little vindicated, because I’m skeptical you’d ever see something quite like it without ten years of blockbuster movies and a corporate-owned streaming service behind it.

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I Have to Talk About Why I Love Taskmaster

My time starts now.

This week — in between bouts of overwhelming panic and anxiety, of course — I’ve been watching episodes of the British game show-like series “Taskmaster,” and it’s quickly become my new favorite thing.

I’d started to say that I’m late to the party, but that’s not really accurate. It’s more that I’ve checked into the party several times over the past few years, but it’s never seemed like something I’d be that interested in. There are plenty of clips available on YouTube — and if you ever watch any British game shows like “8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown” or “Would I Lie To You?,” YouTube will recommend them to you — but the clips don’t really get across what makes the show special.

The premise: each series assembles a cast of five comedians, actors, or presenters, from the same set of two dozen or so British celebrities that seem to appear on every single TV production in the UK. Over the course of ten episodes, Taskmaster Greg Davies assigns the contestants a series of tasks that they must carry out, under the supervision of his assistant, Little Alex Horne.1Who is the actual creator of the show and all of its tasks. Each episode, they assemble in a studio to watch a video recap of the tasks, and Davies awards points based on how well they succeeded.

Some example tasks: cheer up a depressive traffic warden within 20 minutes, destroy a cake as beautifully as possible, get into an elevator with a disguise kit and change your appearance as much as possible by the time it reaches the bottom floor, or make the best noise.

It’s a clever idea, but what elevates it to genius is the tone and the presentation. The whole thing has the aesthetic of a surreal spy series, reminiscent of The Avengers or The Prisoner. Most of the tasks are carried out in an odd cottage at an undisclosed location in England. Paintings and other artwork of the Taskmaster hang all over the house, sternly observing everything that happens within.

Tasks are assigned in plain white envelopes, sealed with a special Taskmaster wax seal, the instructions typed by Davies in the opening credits of each episode. The music played during the opening and ending credits2And performed by Alex Horne’s band has the feel of an early 60s spy series. The music played during the interstitials is a creepy few bars relying on a stringed instrument I can’t recognize, which somehow makes me think of John le Carré novel covers.

The tasks themselves are fun, like watching an escape room being played by people who are just naturally funny, even when they’re not being particularly clever. Mercifully, it seems that the contestants are either coached not to try to be deliberately funny, but instead just take the task as straightforward and let the humor come naturally and spontaneously.

Or possibly, the awkward bits of comedians trying to be funny are edited out, because the editing on this series is next-level perfect. Full of dry humor, understanding exactly when to cut to a reaction shot from Alex, understanding exactly the right quotes to include and when. The editing and direction seems to derive as much satisfaction in showing a clever success as it does a hilarious failure.

But the tasks themselves are only part of it, and watching just clips of those would be like watching just the movie segments of Mystery Science Theater 3000. You’d get the idea, but all the details that make the series magic would be lost. So much great stuff happens watching the contestants in the studio reacting to the video of their past selves, sometimes recorded months earlier. And of course, trying to justify themselves to the Taskmaster, who doesn’t hesitate to make judgments that vary from “that was shit, wasn’t it?” to “that was genuinely amazing.” Nobody’s taking it that seriously, but unlike other panel shows, they’re all taking it just seriously enough.

It’s that combination of sincerity and silliness that makes the magic of the show. Funny people taking absurd tasks as if they were absolutely straightforward and serious, and then getting together to laugh at themselves for it afterwards. Some of the clip compilations are pretty good, but if you’re like me and have tried watching before but couldn’t get into it, I recommend digging in to a whole episode.

So Many Bobas, or, Why Frog Lady Is So Important To The Mandalorian

More speculation on how the new Boba Fett series fits into Disney+ Star Wars programming, and how The Mandalorian looks without Baby Yoda

(Image for this post was stolen from The Spruce website)

After the season finale of The Mandalorian, I was speculating that “The Book of Boba Fett” shown in the teaser was going to be the third season of the series, which would unexpectedly take on an anthology format, devoting each season or two to a story about another Mandalorian character. Also, I was enjoying the blissfully un-21st-century feeling of having no idea what was going to come next.

Turns out I was completely wrong in multiple ways. By Monday, they were putting Jon Favreau on Disney-owned morning programs to explain what was going down.1I’m not linking to the Good Morning America interview because it annoyed me as a Star Wars pedant. At least Favreau gave them explicit permission to call Grogu “Baby Yoda.” The Book of Boba Fett is a new, separate series, led by Robert Rodriguez, coming in December of 2021. After it’s complete, season three of The Mandalorian (which is currently in pre-production) will start.

I’m a little disappointed, because I liked the idea of an anthology series, but it sounds like good news overall:

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The Mandalorian: The Book of Din Djarin

The Season 2 finale of The Mandalorian, “The Rescue,” once again reminds me of how I felt watching the original movies

Since it was such an annoyance with this episode in particular: spoiler warning for the season two finale of The Mandalorian.

I can’t accurately describe to anyone what it felt like seeing The Empire Strikes Back for the first time back in 1980. For me, it involved my parents driving us to the only mall theater in the state that was showing the movie on its premier night, then waiting in line for two hours. That was back when two hours felt like an eternity. Everyone in the theater was just losing their minds cheering and gasping and booing at every moment from the opening crawl, in response to every character appearance and dramatic reveal. By the end of the movie, I could already tell as a nine-year-old that it had been a transformative experience.

But the season 2 finale of The Mandalorian was kind of almost similar to that. Partly in the hype building up to it, partly in the feeling that everybody in the country was experiencing a Huge Cultural Event at the same time, but mostly in that feeling of simultaneous satisfaction and uncertainty. It was an excellent conclusion to the season, and I have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen next.

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