Captain America and the Pledge of Allegiance

Why The Falcon and the Winter Soldier worked for me, even though its finale didn’t

After watching the episode six finale of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, my initial impression was that it was a really strong five-episode series. There were some pretty great action sequences, and a few really good character moments. I even liked Sam’s extended monologue lecturing all the selfish politicians about how everything was their fault. But I still felt like the finale had betrayed much of what had made the previous episodes so strong, tossing out the attempts to show complexity and nuance in favor of the over-simplified action movie morality that the MCU is too often accused of glorifying.

Now, though, I think that’s both unfair and inaccurate. The series did have things it wanted to say and new ideas it wanted to bring to the MCU, and I think it did end up being tonally consistent. My problem with it is that it wanted conclusions that it didn’t quite earn.

If nothing else, it got me invested enough to be yelling back at the screen through much of it, which is something I haven’t done in a while. But to explain why requires spoilers for the entire series.

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The Falcon and the Winter Soldier: Sleeper Agent

Four episodes into The Falcon and the Winter Solider, and it’s finally won me over

I had pretty low expectations for The Falcon and the Winter Solider — it was being marketed as a buddy action comedy set in the MCU, and it seemed to be a little too familiar to be super compelling. It seemed like it was going to be a genre series, even before WandaVision came along and spent a couple of months chewing up multiple genres and spitting them back out in the form of an extended grief metaphor/blockbuster film prequel.

It’s a little unfair, since the show’s been really good from the start. Good performances, a great action sequence to start with, pretty good pacing, smart and understated dialogue, and a tone that manages to be serious without being humorless, grounded without being mundane. The whole “odd couple buddy comedy” aspect does make up much of one episode, but then it’s mercifully relegated to the background.

I felt like I had a handle on the show by the end of the first episode, and the best example of that was the culmination of Bucky’s story in that episode. It seemed like the show wanted the “reveal” of Yori’s son to be a big deal, but I thought it was weird they were stretching out that scene, since I’d thought they’d made it all but explicit up to that point. But I also wasn’t that bothered by it — it wasn’t a huge, Shyamalan-esque “Oh my God did we just blow your ever-lovin’ mind?!” scene, but instead a weighty character moment that worked okay even if you weren’t that surprised.

So that was my overall impression of the series — it might not be blowing me away with its surprises or innovations, but it’s all entertaining and well-executed. That lasted until midway through the fourth episode, when I realized this series had gotten its hooks into me. And although it initially comes across as formulaic, I think it’s subverting the Marvel superhero formula more subtly and intelligently than some projects explicitly questioning the genre.

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Flourish! (My Take on WandaVision’s Finale)

WandaVision’s excellent finale somehow did everything it needed to do and so much of what it wanted to do

I avoided the internet for any risk of spoilers before watching the finale episode of WandaVision (titled, appropriately, “The Series Finale”), and you should, too. This post is going to be about the finale and the entire season so far.

Despite my precautions, I did manage to see one tweet saying that it relied too much on spectacle and tried to pack too much into one episode. As somebody who’s been an unabashed fan of this series from episode one, who thinks it’s been groundbreaking and near flawless in execution, and who’s spent hours thinking about each episode, my reaction to that opinion was: “Yeah, that sounds about right.”

I mean, this series is kicking off the next phase of the MCU.1I think Spider-Man: Far From Home is “officially” the start of the next phase, but it felt to me more like an epilogue than a kick-off. But it’s been noticeably light on superhero battles so far, and the past couple of episodes have been setting up four separate showdowns between hero and villain all converging in one place.

It seemed inevitable that this intelligent, relentlessly self-aware, character-driven series would have to wrap up its experiment and settle into its place in the MCU franchise. And that’s not such a bad thing: I liked Infinity War and Endgame a lot, but there’s no denying that they were unapologetically overwrought and overstuffed.

Not to mention that my own expectations have been overwrought and overstuffed. Other people on the internet have been spending weeks getting more and more hyped up about secret cameos, introductions of the multiverse, tie-ins with mutants, layers on layers of hidden references, Mephisto, Nightmare, Wundagore, and introducing decades of conflicting comics continuity into a 9-episode TV series. Meanwhile, I’ve been building up the show as this multi-layered, meta-textual masterpiece that has as much to say about the very nature of storytelling as it does about infinity stones. I had to prepare myself for Marvel to say, “Nah, we just wanted to parody some old TV series. Did you catch our hidden message about how sitcoms represent escapism?”

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Arrogance Persevering

Thoughts about jackasses on the internet and how much of my life I’ve wasted responding to them.

Yet another thing that I have to thank WandaVision for: maybe I can finally stop feeling the need to respond to arrogant dipshits on the internet? Last week’s excellent episode had an extremely well-written and well-performed scene in which Vision reminded a grieving Wanda that what she was feeling wasn’t just sorrow and emptiness. “What is grief, if not love persevering?”

An objectively good line in an objectively good scene in an objectively good show. ‘Nuff said!

Except Twitter’s gonna Twit, so the whole weekend was filled with some people gushing about what a well-written moment that was… followed by an assload of trolls, snobs, condescending misogynist dolts, insufferable anti-corporate twits, and generally arrogant an awful people mocking it — and the series as a whole — as being insultingly beneath them.

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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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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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True Believers

(Over-)Thinking about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and whether it’s “cinema,” or if it’s something even more relevant to the 21st century

Hey, did everybody catch the latest episode of WandaVision. It was pretty rad. The feeling of a TV-series-long homage to “It’s a Good Life” was stronger than ever, with the added depth of being invested in the characters to make it super sinister. My favorite gag in the whole episode was how they called back to the various ways TV series have tried to hide an actor’s pregnancy over the years: putting them in big coats, standing behind counters, holding a bowl of fruit.

While I was reading back over my gushing about WandaVision, a few things stood out: first was that I seriously need an editor.

Second is that I referred to Paul Bettany as “Jennifer Connelly’s husband,” which could come across as a weird dig against him out of nowhere, but I really intended it as a dig against his agent. Or probably more accurately, the byzantine union rules that resulted in his getting top billing over Elizabeth Olsen. Because that doesn’t seem fair at all. Bettany himself, on the other hand, seems pretty cool.

But third was how I put in a dig against Martin Scorsese for saying that “Marvel movies aren’t ‘cinema.'” This was a quote that I’d heard a while ago, back when the internet was trying to gin it up into a controversy, but at the time I just rolled my eyes and moved on. Last week I realized that if I’m going to keep referencing it, I should probably look it up and see what he actually said.

And I was disappointed. I’d expected it disagree entirely, but I figured that coming from a filmmaker with Scorsese’s stature, it would be a well-thought-out and multi-layered argument. Instead, it’s just the same old “high art vs low art” gate-keeping that fans of “genre fiction” have been used to seeing for decades. It uses a narrow definition of “cinema” that is just flexible enough to include the stuff that Scorsese likes, it conflates subject matter with artistic merit, and it goes on to conflate artistic merit with financing, production, distribution, and exhibition. And it should come as little surprise that it frames the predominance of “franchise pictures” as the death of the auteur-driven film model in which he became world-famous and widely respected.

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