Catching Up With Marvel Studios

David Harbour is nine years older than Scarlett Johannson.  

I have to start here because that’s maybe the most important takeaway. And not just because he plays her ersatz father in Black Widow. In general, that’s an astonishing thing to be true about those two people. Harbour is a couple of months older than me and I clearly remember Johannson playing a spelling bee winner on Conan O’Brien’s show when she was a literal child. I can’t reconcile this timeline and I feel like I sort of backed into a Loki reference by accident.  Anyway, my point is that Marvel is back, baby!

After taking a pandemic off, we’re starting to get Marvel Studios content again with three streaming TV shows so far this year and their first theatrical release since July 2019.  And since I like talking about Marvel stuff, I’m going to do that. (I’ve been at this a while and don’t have it in me to put together a satisfactory introduction any more. We’re at the casual stage of our relationship and everybody’s wearing sweatpants.)

And I don’t even want to get into the seemingly endless “Marvel movies are ruining cinema” argument. If you think the movie theaters were full of high art and auteur achievements until the moment we met Iron Man, you’re clearly drunk. Yeah, Martin Scorsese doesn’t like superhero movies. Of course he doesn’t. Is that in any way surprising? Is there anybody who thought he went to see Captain America: Civil War and stood up and whooped with delight when Ant-Man got really big? I’m tired of movies about mobsters and the different kinds of man pain, but it’s fine. There’s infinite space to play and people have a million options to watch the things they like. And I’ve liked pretty much all of the Marvel stuff that’s come around, so it’s cool with me.

We kicked off the year with WandaVision, which I already wrote about a little, so I don’t want to reprise all that except to say that it’s amazing how weird this was. The Disney+ shows kind of feel like passion projects, which is not at all what you’d expect. It’s weird that they made a show focusing on a minor character and most of it was a survey of sitcom tropes by the decade. That’s a weird choice, Marvel. Kathryn Hahn got her own theme song that revealed her treachery. Wanda recast her dead brother with the actor who played that same character in a different franchise. Despite its ties to past movies and the way it sets up another couple of TV series, it felt like a show that somebody wanted to make rather than something the accountants wanted made. Like, there was probably a corporate edict to introduce Monica Rambeau and follow up on Far From Home’s setup for Secret Invasion and maybe reference the possible existence of mutants. And WandaVision was “Cool, but we’re going to do a full-on Bewitched tribute and talk a lot about trauma and also Vision is going to be Larry David for an episode.”

(I should note here that I have been watching the Marvel shows with my friend who is not only the amazing artist responsible forour logo and has a great Etsy store right here, but also approaches this kind of thing as an adult and thus has insights that don’t occur to me, a man who just thinks “Hey, the guys I’ve been friends with since I was six are on TV now!” So I might have a little more clarity than I usually do.)

Falcon and the Winter Soldier came with, I think, fairly low expectations. They weren’t going to do anything strange with those guys. I’m not really a fan of the more militaristic aspects of the MCU so the two guys who carry guns weren’t my top choices for a spinoff, but it turned out to be a lot of fun and timely in a way that nobody could have seen coming. Yeah, there was apparently a pandemic in the original scripts, you know, before they had to stop filming because of an actual pandemic. But we still got hints of vaccine hesitancy; a MAGA Captain America – like, I know Donald Trump doesn’t exist in the Marvel Universe, but John Walker was definitely at the Capitol on January 6; surprisingly antagonistic portrayals of law enforcement and the systemic racism therein, and the wild image of somebody in a Captain America costume killing a foreign national with his shield, covering it in blood. It’s not explicitly real-world political, but it’s as close as they’re going to get.

Beyond that, this show in particular has room to play with the idea that half the people disappeared and then came back five years later. The movies aren’t going to dwell on the minutiae of that, but here they can at least touch on it. People came back to find a world that moved on. Other people lived in their house. Their credit was a mess. It’s cool to snap billions of people back into existence but there’s a story in what happens next. And while they’re never going to devote a series to the practical and financial ramifications of returning from the dead, at least we’re getting something.

F/WS also set up some intriguing ideas for the future, including evil Sharon Carter (she’s totally a Skrull, right?) and some prominence for Zemo, who was underused in Civil War. And the end made all the right people mad. Captain America is Black now; deal with it, FOX News.

And then we got Loki, which ranged from a Brazil-style satire of Bureaucracy to Doctor Who shenanigans to a big change to, you know, time. It’s not what I expected from Loki – you sort of assume it’s going to be about him running the show and manipulating people and just generally being a sneaky little bastard. Instead, the time-lost Loki from Endgame spends the whole  time just barely staying one step ahead of disaster and scrambling for his life. And it’s fun! I had a blast with Loki. The Time Variance Authority stuff was great. The multiple Lokis, including Richard E. Grant in the most comics-accurate costume anybody has ever captured on camera, were an absolute blast. Sylvie, the female variant, is a delight and I hope she makes it into a Thor movie down the line. I had so much fun watching this weird show.

I have to say some things about the finale. Most nerds already put this together, but if you’re well-adjusted, consider this a SPOILEE WARNING and skip to the end of the paragraph. Jonathan Majors shows up at the end of time as The One Who Remains and eventually dies at Sylvie’s hand, at which point the timeline splits into infinite branches. Now, Majors was previously announced to appear in the upcoming Ant-Man as Kang, a time traveling villain. His monologue from Loki not only establishes from the 31st Century, which we know as Kang Time, but he mentions an evil variant of himself and clearly that’s the Kang we’re going to see soon. Also, we know that the upcoming Spider-Man and Doctor Strange movies are going to have multiversal elements, with characters from the Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield movies showing up in the MCU and Dr. Strange actually getting the subtitle “In the Multiverse of Madness”.  (Reportedly, both Loki and Wanda will be showing up there.)  So they might just have snuck a roadmap for the next few years of movies into the last ten minutes of a streaming series.

I have to say, I’m not a huge fan of spending too much time with the Multiverse. That’s really more of a DC thing and outside of Spider-Verse, I’ve never really enjoyed Marvel dipping into other timelines. Sure, it creates a lot of potential for storytelling, but cynically it feels like a way to replace actors who don’t work out or back off from a poorly received movie. Just exile Eternals to a different branch of the timeline, you know? If they get to a point where they start explaining which movies are in which timelines and what is and isn’t in continuity for any given movie, I think that’s where they lose people. I’m hoping they limit the Multiverse to weird stuff with Alligator Loki and Spider-Man Noir instead of “Hey, Tony Stark is alive in this variation!” But, you know, they’ve got a pretty good track record right now so I’m ready to see how it plays out. Mostly, I’m just happy that there’s a second season of Loki coming. Lot of balls in the air with that one.

And finally, Black Widow. The movies are back, baby! I can’t tell you how good it felt to go to a theater and see a Marvel movie again. I had my big emotional return when I saw Nobody and I burst into tears when Maria Menounos welcomed me back. That cleared Widow to be just pure fun. I felt like it started slow, but that may have been because the theater was maybe a little too full and sitting right next to strangers had me a little too uncomfortable to settle down at first. I saw it again and dialed in much faster when I wasn’t sharing an armrest. And the thing is, I’m not a huge fan of the character. Johansson has seemed bored with playing Natasha for about five movies now. Her original “former Soviet spy” backstory was great during the Cold War but it’s less impressive when her career began after the Soviet Union dissolved. When her first boss was Boris Yeltsin, it’s just not as cool. And beyond that, Joss Whedon saddled her with some lousy backstory in Age of Ultron

Maybe most important, we also know that Natasha is going to die on Vormir trying to retrieve the Soul Stone, so it’s a little hard to really dial in. We know how her story ends and considering what the near future holds, Ray Winstone is maybe a step down as adversaries go. She’s going to fight Thanos soon, you know? That said, Black Widow is easily her best performance as Natasha. After all the crazy time travel and robot fights we’ve seen, she has easily her coolest badass moment in this movie. And without spoiling a new release, I think this completes her character arc in a really satisfying way. She felt incomplete when she died in Endgame and this pulls together a lot of threads and wraps up all that “red in my ledger” stuff that goes back to the first Avengers

Since we know Nat can’t die here, the movie does a great job of setting up her sort-of-family, all of whom seem like they could be the one who dies to motivate the others. Rachel Weisz is as great as you expect her to be, David Harbour is hilarious, and Florence Pugh steals the show as Yelena Bulova, Natasha’s fake sister and presumably the incoming Black Widow. There’s a running bit about how cool her vest is that absolutely shouldn’t work and she just totally sells it. We also get a surprising take on Taskmaster and a collapsing flying fortress finale, which is right up my alley. This was the first time I’ve just fully gotten into a movie since things reopened and it felt so good.

I’ll admit, the upcoming releases don’t have me jazzed just yet. Shang-Chi has a solid trailer but the character has never done much for me and I don’t know if martial arts in a world where Thor exists are going to play as particularly exciting. And Eternals, man, I just don’t know. I’m a huge fan of Jack Kirby, especially of his weird Seventies experiments that other people find offputting, but they’re just not compelling. Their series was about explaining Chariots of the Gods every month and the antagonist was a space giant who came to Earth with the stated plan to stand motionless for fifty years. It is a tough read and nobody else has ever found anything that works for the Eternals. But on the plus side, that probably frees the movie up to really do something nuts. You’re not going to upset the fans because there are no Eternals fans. Right now, Shang-Chi and Eternals are things that stand between me and more Spider-Man. 

But you know what? Based on the last thirteen years of output, they’re probably going to turn out pretty well. Check back in in a couple of months when I’m all “Eternals was amazing! After forty-five years, they found the hook for these characters!”  It seems unlikely, but this is a world where Frog Thor appeared on TV and I can’t take anything for granted.

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