Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

More than even Infinity War and Endgame, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness feels like the culmination of the whole MCU (for better and worse)

I really enjoyed Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and I liked too much about it to be able to pick just one thing. It’s big, loud, and overstuffed, but for every criticism I have, I’m even more amazed that it works at all.

It works as a blockbuster franchise movie that must’ve had to answer to dozens of different stakeholders, but still has enough flourishes to make it unmistakably a Sam Raimi-directed movie. Like Captain America: Civil War, it works as a big super-hero team-up movie and a tentpole entry in the MCU, but it’s also a surprisingly good sequel to the first Doctor Strange. And I’d say that even more than Infinity War and Endgame, it shows what can happen when you’ve got all the various parts of the MCU laying the groundwork to culminate in a huge, weird story.

First: the Sam Raimi effect. As somebody who always liked the Evil Dead movies but couldn’t really love them, my two favorite sequences in Raimi-directed movies are:

  1. In Darkman, the shot of Frances McDormand looking at the explosion in disbelief that perfectly cross-fades to her at a funeral.
  2. In Spider-Man 2, the sequence of Doctor Octopus coming to life on the operating room table.1For whoever’s keeping track of these things: number 3 is the seance/summoning/exorcism sequence in Drag Me To Hell.

The thing that both of those have in common is that they’re perfect translations of comic book aesthetics to filmmaking. Plenty of filmmakers have tried to translate comics to movies, either getting the “spirit” of comics or doing a too-literal direct interpretation, but nobody’s ever been as successful at it as Raimi.

So I had a blast seeing Raimi getting the reins of the full power of the MCU dreadnaught, but still be able to make enough of it in his own style. There aren’t any sequences that quite reach the level of that Doc Octopus scene in Spider-Man 2 — although a scene with a character getting caught in a prison of reflections and busting their way out was gloriously creepy — but there were so many camera spins, zooms, and stylistic flourishes that you could probably recognize it as his work even before Bruce Campbell showed up.

It’s funny that the sequence of Strange and America Chavez sailing through different universes is the one that made it into the trailer as an indicator of how weird the movie gets, because at this point, it’s almost tame and predictable. The bar for CG has been raised so high at this point that I just assume that effects houses are capable of doing anything a filmmaker can think of, so the effect in the movie kind of ends up feeling just like a demo reel. The shots in Multiverse of Madness that really stood out to me were the ones that felt old-school, teetering on the edge of cheesiness: there’s at least one shot of characters’ heads superimposed over the frame that actually reminded me of The Night of the Hunter more than anything else. These movies have to check off so many boxes that it’s nice to see filmmakers like Raimi and Taika Waititi getting to have some real fun with it.

But the entire movie was thoroughly and gloriously a comic book movie in subject matter, tone, and frequently aesthetics. More than anything else in the MCU, this seemed to embrace its comic origins even more than its cinematic origins, or even broader “genre fiction” origins. It’s the first that didn’t seem to be bringing comic book source material to a movie-going audience, but rather making movies for comic book audiences. There’s a background character who’s a sorcerer and a talking bull, for instance, and nobody comments on it or even seems to think it’s that remarkable.

As a result, there’s a kind of respect for the audience throughout, and I loved it. A tone of “you get this, you understand why it’s cool, we don’t need to spell it out for you or have characters spending too long gawking at the spectacle of it.” When a cameo happens — and there are several, one of which actually had me spontaneously yelling out “Yaaaayyyy!” in the middle of a packed theater, against my more reserved impulses — it’s not milked for surprise, but treated more like, “Yeah, you all knew this was coming, but it’s cool as hell anyway.”2Contrast it with Moon Knight, which frustratingly seemed to be operating with no awareness of how the rest of the MCU works. One of its big reveals in the finale was of a character who’d been conspicuously absent the entire series, not just to fans of the comics (which I’m not), but to anyone who’d seen a “Who is Moon Knight, anyway?” explainer video (which I am).

Which isn’t to say that it didn’t surprise me; even though most of the surprises were of the “satisfying reassurance of something I already suspected” variety, the whole story went in a direction that I hadn’t suspected at all. (More on that in the spoiler section below).

And even though it was so relentless that I kept finding myself thinking, “Anyone who isn’t exactly me would be exhausted by all of this,” it actually managed to give its major characters genuine character arcs. I compared it to Civil War, but I’d say it works even better as a sequel to Stephen Strange’s story than Civil War was for Steve Rogers. It’s not as surprisingly funny as Doctor Strange was, but it did further the story of Stephen Strange becoming a better person. The arc from the first movie had only gotten him part of the way there.

Since I’d expected it to be all spectacle with little substance, I was actually surprised that Strange’s storyline had essentially the same overall message as Everything Everywhere All at Once: instead of obsessing over what could have been or even what could be, learn to accept with gratitude and humility everything that is. I don’t think it was anywhere near as insightful or as moving as Everything Everywhere, but then, that wasn’t what it was aiming for. It was more focused on super-hero fights and less on the personal implications of the multiverse.

As for the thing that most surprised me — and is in my opinion the strongest example yet of how the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe is paying off in storytelling terms, not just box office — that requires me to spoil the whole story. I think not everybody’s going to like it as much as I did, but it’s still a lot of fun and one of the best entries in the MCU.

Continue reading “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness”
  • 1
    For whoever’s keeping track of these things: number 3 is the seance/summoning/exorcism sequence in Drag Me To Hell.
  • 2
    Contrast it with Moon Knight, which frustratingly seemed to be operating with no awareness of how the rest of the MCU works. One of its big reveals in the finale was of a character who’d been conspicuously absent the entire series, not just to fans of the comics (which I’m not), but to anyone who’d seen a “Who is Moon Knight, anyway?” explainer video (which I am).

One Thing I Like About Eternals

Eternals is a defiantly humanistic adaptation of cosmic-powered source material

I didn’t like Eternals. It was overlong, meandering, and ponderous. Its action sequences were weightless in multiple senses of the word. It made baffling story decisions from the opening text crawl to the post-credit sequences.

I’ve lost interest in picking apart things I don’t like, not so much out of any vague push for “positivity,” but because there’s just too much good stuff out there I’d rather be concentrating on. But unlike some other high-profile projects that more or less evaporated after failing to live up to expectations1See: The Matrix Resurrections. Or better: don’t., Eternals left me with something. It was a hazy sense of well-being, a faintly optimistic feeling of global community and shared humanity. (More than just the general light-headedness that came from still being up at 3 AM after foolishly starting the movie at midnight).

In short: Eternals took a part of the Marvel library that was designed from the start to be grand and cosmic, and defiantly turned it into a gentler, more humanistic story. I might not think it was successful, but I can respect that it was so full of intent, especially considering the weight of the MCU machine behind it.

Because I’ve recently read Jack Kirby’s original The Eternals comics, and then Neil Gaiman and John Romita, Jr’s 2006 update, I can’t help comparing them with the movie version’s adaptation2I haven’t read any of the other Eternals comics, so I can’t really comment on the aspects of those that were used in the movie version.. In particular, there are two aspects of the comics that are done differently in the movie, and they end up saying a lot about what the movie was trying to do: one aspect is representation, and the other is the audience’s entry point into the story.

Continue reading “One Thing I Like About Eternals”
  • 1
    See: The Matrix Resurrections. Or better: don’t.
  • 2
    I haven’t read any of the other Eternals comics, so I can’t really comment on the aspects of those that were used in the movie version.

One Thing I Like About Hawkeye

The Hawkeye series is a reminder that “super-hero” isn’t really a genre all on its own. (Spoilers for the entire series and maybe Daredevil)

One thing I like about the Hawkeye series is that they committed to making it an action comedy. Sure, it’s got themes of trust and betrayal, and dealing with loss, and they’re given enough weight that they rarely feel like it’s just going through the motions. And the overall theme — that being a hero is about responsibility and sacrifice more than super-powers — is both stated explicitly and also carried more subtly through the entire series.

But more than that, it’s just unapologetically silly. What I’d initially thought was a vague undercurrent of “arrogance” turned out to be a quiet confidence that they were telling a lighter story, and they didn’t have anything to prove. It’s Christmas! It’s supposed to be fun!

Ultimately, it’s more like the buddy comedy that I’d been afraid The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was going to be. That series wisely veered into more serious questions of race and privilege. It definitely had its moments of humor, but it was really more about expanding on the MCU post-Endgame, re-contextualizing the past four-plus hours of cosmic-scale action into the effects it’d have on actual human beings.

Hawkeye has more the spirit of the Ant-Man movies, confidently transitioning between comedy and action and getting laughs out of both. The trick arrows are just fun. I appreciated that they spun Hawkeye’s ostensible status as “the least lethal Avenger” into a positive, using it for some hyper-violent slapstick they’d normally have to steer clear of. Lots and lots and lots of guys get impaled, poisoned, frozen, stabbed, or even devoured by an owl, but the series never feels obligated to undermine it with a token acknowledgement of either “no really they’re all fine,” or a moment in which the characters have to consider the Serious Human Costs of the Battle for Justice.

I was surprised, though, to find myself taken out of my detached “Yes, this is all quite charming” state and genuinely laughing out loud at the scenes with Kate and Yelena. It’s easy to think of the MCU’s 900-pound-gorilla-scale budget going into CGI, stunts, and pyrotechnics, and forget that it also extends to casting. Finding one actor who is good at drama and comedy and action is rare; finding two and being able to play them off of each other is unheard of. Not to mention finding actors who understand the tone down to the atomic level, recognizing all of the shifts required for something that’s supposed to be grounded and relatable and shamelessly nerdy at the same time. Hailee Steinfeld and Florence Pugh are both astounding.

It’s also easy to forget that this confidence in and commitment to tone is a huge part of what got me into the MCU in the first place. Infinity War, and Endgame are very much “super-hero movies,” and they loom so large that it’s easy to assume that’s what the entire MCU is. But the best entries in the franchise have all tried to add something to make them distinct. I’ve always thought of Iron Man as a romantic comedy that is also about a super-hero, The First Avenger as The Rocketeer-style WWII nostalgia, Captain Marvel as 1990s period piece, The Winter Soldier and Black Widow as two tonally different spy movies, Black Panther as bringing Afrofuturism to mainstream (i.e, white) audiences, etc. WandaVision was a showcase for genre-hopping, being the MCU’s first TV series that was also a meta-commentary on both TV and comic books.

A while ago I saw a tweet from somebody forgettable, responding to a photo of the upcoming slate of Marvel movies with something like “This makes me weep for the homogenization of cinema.” And I mean, it was deeply ironic, seeing someone complain about homogeneity with a comment that was completely indistinguishable from hundreds of other pretentious nerds who’ve been making the exact same complaint for a decade or longer. (Before it was the MCU, it was Harry Potter that was “killing cinema,” and before that it was Star Wars. I wonder if there were d-bags complaining about the preponderance of trains-coming-at-the-audience movies destroying the potential of the medium).

It annoys me not just because I’ve appointed myself defender of the multi-billion dollar media conglomerate, but because it’s just such a lazy and shallow way of approaching any piece of art or entertainment. For one thing, for all the whining people have been doing about how the MCU is destroying cinema, it didn’t seem to stop anyone from releasing The Green Knight1I still haven’t seen it, but even if it turns out not to be great, it’s visually amazing, or a movie about a couple who have a kid with the head of a lamb for some reason. But more than that, the MCU has rarely been content to just make another super-hero adaptation. The reason it’s resonated with audiences enough to become so dominant isn’t just that they’ve got a ton of marketing money behind them; it’s because they keep experimenting with the formula, incorporating more of pop culture — and culture in general — than just comic books. Nobody’s obligated to like super-hero stories, but to go pfft and declare that that’s all they are, is just stubbornly incurious.

It’s also dumb because it assumes a hypothetical audience of comic book movie fans that doesn’t actually exist. If there is a “typical” comic book movie fan, they’re a lot more likely to be alienated by Marvel’s experiments in tone and genre, instead of attracted by it. The perfect example is Hawkeye‘s version of Kingpin.

I really liked Netflix’s Daredevil series2At least, what I saw of it. I fell off around the time they started focusing on The Punisher., but it undeniably catered to an audience of comic book fans. Of course, it went beyond that, to attract people like me who’d never been a fan of Daredevil before, but it had everything that most comics readers wanted out of an adaption in live action: a mature story with real characters in a realistic-feeling world, with a villain brought to life with every single bit of his outsized sinister intensity in place.

Hawkeye has the same character, performed by the same actor, but played with a markedly different tone. He’s not a real-world version of a comic book character; he’s a comic book character brought into the real world. His size is exaggerated, his twitchy menace is no longer doom-filled suspense but outright villainy. He’s taking arrows to the chest without a second thought. He’s ripping the doors off of cars. He’s getting hit by a car and still overpowered next to our hero. Most of the comic book fans that I know would scoff at such a comic book character as being too over-the-top and unrealistic. The MCU’s approach requires the filmmakers and the audience both to understand the differences in tone and appreciate how they’re both valid. It’d be just plain inaccurate to declare they’re both the same, though.

I’m glad to see the MCU not just leaning into comedy, but staying broad enough to encompass multiple types of comedy: Ant-Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor: Ragnarok, WandaVision, and now Hawkeye. It doesn’t always work in Hawkeye; I still don’t like the LARPers, and I feel like their version of Rogers: The Musical wasn’t nearly as delightful as they seemed to think it was. But even that had a great line, when the singers are praising all of the super-heroes and the best they came up with for Clint Barton was “Hawkeye seems cool, like a really nice guy.”

  • 1
    I still haven’t seen it, but even if it turns out not to be great, it’s visually amazing
  • 2
    At least, what I saw of it. I fell off around the time they started focusing on The Punisher.

One Thing I Love About Spider-Man: No Way Home

One scene in No Way Home articulates what I love about the MCU, and also the One Thing I Hate about the movie. Lots of spoilers!

Pretty much everything that happens in Spider-Man: No Way Home is a spoiler, so I recommend avoiding reading anything like this until after you’ve seen it!

There’s one scene midway through No Way Home where I was taken out of the action for a second, and I had a minor epiphany, recognizing a huge part of what’s made me become such a shameless fan of the MCU, and why I think the formula works so well with this incarnation of Spider-Man in particular.

The set-up: Spider-Man has gone into a wooded area, tracking down a villain who’d been teased in an earlier fight scene. (And in the trailer). Because I can recognize the pumpkin bombs from the Sam Raimi movies, I know better than Peter Parker does what is about to go down. He’s got his friends talking to him and watching what’s going on via a cell phone duck-taped to his chest (a brilliant touch), and they have even less of an idea what’s about to happen. It’s a nice twist on dramatic irony, since it’s based not only on stuff that’s happened in the movie so far, but on the audience’s general pop cultural knowledge.

But then the scene subverts those expectations. And then keeps reinforcing and then subverting them, pulling in stuff we’ve seen from the trailers, previous movies, ideas foreshadowed by Doctor Strange, a general idea of how movies work, and so on. The whole sequence works a little like a horror or suspense movie, with that call-and-response of expectation and subversion. It ends up feeling like a dialogue between the filmmakers and the audience, relying not just on the story so far, but everything the audience knows.

Entries in the MCU are rarely just a live-action interpretation of a comics story, and rarely an entirely new story based on familiar characters. Instead, they’re more like remixes, taking multiple aspects of existing characters and existing storylines, and then recombining and rearranging them, to keep giving the audience that flash of recognition before turning it into a flash of discovery.

Even with characters that aren’t as universally known as Spider-Man, like the Guardians of the Galaxy or Shang-Chi, it still works, because it’s never drawing only from the comic books. It assumes that in addition to comics, the audience is also familiar with science fiction, martial arts movies, other entries in the MCU, and pop culture in general. In fact, it doesn’t assume that; it depends on it. A side effect of that is that the storytelling can’t be condescending, or too smug about its secrets and reveals. It always has to assume that the audience understands this stuff, and we’re on board with seeing it expanded and reinvented.

Explaining more of how that relates to No Way Home requires explicit spoilers, so I’ll put my short review here: it’s extremely well-done and surprising, and it’s a solid finale to the three standalone Tom Holland Spider-Man movies. I’m not as happy about what it means for the future of the character and the MCU in general, but even the parts I hated were well-written, performed, and perfectly integrated into the story. In other words: I hate what it did, but I like the way it did it. Now stop reading unless you’ve seen it.

Spoilers Below!

Hawkeye: My Life as a Franchise

I’m gradually warming up to a Disney+ series that seems like it should’ve been a slam dunk

At the time I’m writing this, I’ve only seen the first three episodes of the Hawkeye series. The third episode was a relief, because that’s where it all starts to come together. For the first two, I spent most of the running time wondering why I wasn’t enjoying it more.

In theory, this should totally be my thing. It’s the Disney/MCU behemoth pouring its resources into a light-hearted comedy/action series, largely based on a beloved comics storyline1Which I haven’t read yet but has been on my to-read list for years, starring one of the most charismatic actors working today — who totally should’ve won the Oscar for True Grit, because her performance in that role is still astounding. For someone like me, who’s a fan of almost everything the MCU has put out on Disney+ so far, it seems like the only thing working against it is that it features the Least Interesting Avenger. But not only do they work that idea into the storyline and the gags, but they already set a precedent with The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. I had less than zero interest in that series, but it ended up winning me over.

But so much of it feels like it should be charming and exciting to me, but it just keeps bouncing off. I’m also getting this weird, vague undercurrent throughout that it’s somehow already taken for granted that people are going to love it. Look at this, beautiful people and intrigue and fight scenes and the occasional explosion, it seems to say, of course you like it. What’s wrong with you? We even put in a bit of self-deprecating musical theater to show how much we’re in on the joke.

I’m not sure how much I was pre-disposed to dislike it after getting the impression that the creators of the My Life as a Weapon comic weren’t compensated or sufficiently credited by Disney, even though the entire graphic design and many of the characters come straight from that comic. But I saw that Matt Fraction is credited as a “consulting producer,” and he and David Aja are in the credits under “special thanks,” and I don’t know enough about the business to know whether any of that has financial compensation. Not knowing the business, I’ll try to keep from forming an opinion on topics where I’m completely ignorant. But on the whole, it does seem like Disney tries awful hard to hold onto money that would be insignificant to the company but huge to the artists helping them build a library of stuff to sell.

To its credit, it’s made Clint Barton’s Hawkeye the most interesting version he’s ever been. It’s tough to build a series around a character whose whole thing is that he doesn’t want to be there, especially when the character is supposed to be more world-weary and less yipee-ki-yay than John McLain in Die Hard.

And I don’t think that’s a knock on Jeremy Renner, who probably doesn’t get enough credit for making a thankless role feel like a real person. Because this series gives him more to do and say — and in the proper scale, instead of burying it in the midst of the destruction of the universe — it makes his understated (and frankly, often energy-draining) performance make sense. He’s got much of Black Widow’s baggage but has even less desire to be a “poser.” It’s more an obligation than a call to glory. Plus, here he’s given more of a chance to be dryly funny and flippant.

Which is a good example of how I’ve been weirdly frustrated by the series. In one episode, he has to go to a LARPing event, and he ends up having to participate against his will. The premise itself is just, honestly, lazy writing: based on the tired old haha lookit the funny nerds who take it too far unlike our perfectly mature and healthy decades-long devotion to super heroes. (It’s the attitude of the first X-Men movie, and its pointed sneer at yellow spandex costumes instead of the obviously much more mature and realistic adults walking around in full-body skin-tight black costumes). But to the show’s credit, it takes the lame premise and turns it into a believably endearing moment. Clint isn’t won over by the experience or anything — which would be unrealistic — but he ends up being pretty good-natured and patient about the whole thing. It feels like an action-comedy setup that is being played not as an action-comedy, but as the character would genuinely react to it. That makes it more believable and a lot more endearing, but also kind of inert.

(Also at the beginning of the scene, one of the LARPers offers him a helmet with attached wig to wear, but he refuses. As if he’s too cool for that, although come on. Everybody in the world saw you with that haircut).

It seems like this version of Clint Barton is just doomed to be kind of dull, because of a decade-long series of choices that were probably the right ones at the time. So it was a pleasant surprise to learn that the Hawkeye-just-wants-to-get-home-for-Christmas storyline isn’t really the focus of the series; it’s just a framing device for Kate Bishop’s insertion into the next phase of the MCU.

Often it feels like the show is just coasting on Hailee Steinfeld’s charisma, but that’s not so bad since she’s got tons to spare. It’s interesting seeing her and Renner play off of each other, since they seem to be coming from the same place but with different priorities. Both actors get the whole MCU concept, which is “realistic,” relatable characters grounding fantastic situations and acting as both super-heroes and audience surrogates. But I get a sense that Renner is playing it in terms of “who is Clint Barton in this situation?” while Steinfeld is more focused on “who is the protagonist of this MCU action comedy?” I don’t think either approach is wrong, and it actually helps their dynamic, in that she’s eager to break into the super-hero world, while he’s hoping to be free of it.

I also like this version of the Kate Bishop character, even though she’s frequently in circular conversations with her mother and with Clint, sometimes feeling like she’s going from scene to scene because the plot demands it. It’s great that they’ve established that she’s rich and essentially good at everything, but is far from flawless. It feels like a rejection of the Strong Female Character trap that the comics and movies too often fall into.

I think Robert Downey Jr’s performance as Tony Stark helped hide the fact that the character was pretty two-dimensional: his arrogance and over-confidence was the one note played over and over again in the stories, but his performance showed how someone that obnoxious could still be endearing and relatable. I think this version of Kate Bishop could be a more nuanced take on a similar idea: her over-confidence comes not just from arrogance, but from feeling invulnerable. This is the source of some of the best-written scenes in the series so far, with her mother saying pretty much this explicitly, and later with Barton and Bishop on a subway train talking over each other, since he can’t hear her.

So far, it seems like a character-driven series in the guise of a plot-driven one, with talented actors doing their best to make their characters seem real and believable. I do often feel like it’s aiming for 80% while I want it to be at 100%, but then it has a chase scene with all kinds of trick arrows (including the USB arrow!) culminating in a double-shot that creates a giant arrow that impales a truck. Which, I mean, is objectively rad, even if a bunch of Eastern European gangsters all calling each other “bro” isn’t quite as charming as it might’ve been several years ago.

  • 1
    Which I haven’t read yet but has been on my to-read list for years

One Thing I Love About Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

There’s a ton of fantastic stuff packed into Shang-Chi, but my favorite was choosing an antagonist who’s In the Mood for Love

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was compelling enough to get me into a theater, which is good because Disney insisted on releasing it in theaters only, while we’re still in the midst of learning about the impact of the Delta variant. Good job, Disney! (Kudos to the Alamo Drafthouse in SF for requiring proof of vaccination on entrance, and of course having lots of space in between the seats).

Still, the movie was worth the effort and the trip, stuffed full — overstuffed, even — of different movie genres they wanted to absorb into the MCU. Why not combine 30 years of Hong Kong and Chinese cinema into one movie, and throw another Ant Man in, while they’re at it?

I thought it was excellent, and a little more focus, plus some more breathing room between sequences, would’ve made it perfect. As it is, you just have to settle for several fantastic action sequences, tons of CGI spectacle that somehow managed to be genuinely thrilling, and several of the most preternaturally charismatic performers the world’s biggest movie franchise can attract and afford.

Ever since I first saw her donkey-kicking fools on top of a speeding train in Supercop, Michelle Yeoh has been my favorite part of anything she’s in. Simu Liu is so handsome, ripped, adept at both action sequences and light comedy, and so effortlessly charming, that he might as well have been genetically engineered to lead an American mega-corporation’s attempt at creating a new kung fu franchise. In fact, there’s not a bad performance in the movie, which is remarkable considering that everyone has to shift constantly between action and comedy with little warning.

So it’s saying something that even with all of that going on, the performance that stood out to me as exceptional was Tony Leung’s as Shang-Chi’s father Wenwu.1Also I just saw on IMDB that he and I have the same birthday, which is rad.

It took the movie into a direction I hadn’t expected at all, making it feel more substantial than a super-hero blockbuster take on a kung fu movie. Explaining why would require spoiling some of the surprises of the movie, which would be a shame, since I was surprised that it even had the capacity to surprise me.

Continue reading “One Thing I Love About Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”
  • 1
    Also I just saw on IMDB that he and I have the same birthday, which is rad.

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.

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

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.

Continue reading “Captain America and the Pledge of Allegiance”