The MCU Report Card for 2021, Part 1: ‘WandaVision’ and ‘The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’
Will Mann: It’s hard to believe that it has been almost a year since our last collaboration, Joel. Since then, you got married (congratulations again!), there was a crazy presidential election and subsequent Capitol insurrection, we’ve both been fully vaccinated, and I think it’s fair to say that we are now reaping the benefits of an increasingly opening up and back-to-normal world. One of those benefits is clearly the act of returning to movie theaters and seeing the big spectacles, which I very much associate now with the Marvel movies.
Two years ago, we all knew that Avengers: Endgame was going to be this huge movie, that it would be an end to an era in the MCU. What we didn’t know is that, less than a year later, a global lockdown to prevent the spread of a novel coronavirus would disrupt nearly every aspect of our lives. And then, something strange happened: in the lockdown, Endgame somehow became even more important. It was already a once-in-a-blue-moon box office success, but also one of the last big movies we all watched together before the pandemic, and certainly one of the most beloved.
More than that, I saw so many posts and things online in the lockdown about how people related to it differently now. Endgame was about a world disrupted, changed forever by a cataclysm; shared grief; and ultimate triumph in vanquishing a threat once and for all. The imagery of empty cities struck people differently now. It became like comfort food, like the cookie or the pizza we would spoil ourselves with one-too-many times during quarantine. Hell, when I finally got my vaccine, I couldn’t help but think of Captain America’s iconic opening line in Endgame: “Let’s go get this son of a bitch.”
Joel White: It would certainly be an understatement to say things have changed since our last collaboration, Will. But as society reverts back to the pre-pandemic norm, I have also found myself musing on where exactly the Marvel Cinematic Universe sits in our rejiggered, post-interruption cultural landscape. For me, the timing of the pandemic seemed (for lack of a better phrase) almost exquisitely timed from the MCU’s perspective, at least in terms of minimizing its disruptive impact.
After an epic 21-movie arc, we were treated to an uncommonly well-executed final act in Endgame, complete with a good-but-not-great epilogue in Spider-Man: Far from Home. After more than a decade of relentless comic book adrenaline at the box office, it almost felt it fitting that the entire movie-going world should take a little break.
Mann: In some ways, I wonder if Endgame’s impact will resonate more now that it feels tied to this specific moment in history, and that was already in the zeitgeist as the worldwide annus horribilis that was 2020 wrapped up. And now that we’re halfway through 2021, it’s amazing how Marvel has once again been able to recapture the world’s attention, now through the luxury of streaming on Disney+. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, and I have to admit I choked up a little seeing that Marvel Studios logo for the first time since the pandemic while watching WandaVision. What did Marvel mean to you in the quarantine?
White: Personally, I was happy to step away from the MCU for a while and focus my fandom energy on other pursuits. I got caught up on Star Trek: Picard and Discovery, I rewatched the whole of Mad Men, I did a fly-by tour of the entire Alien franchise, I played Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, and I finally got around to reading Absalom, Absalom!
When the MCU popped back into our shared cultural consciousness via streaming, I was initially reluctant to engage. Once I did, however, I found that Marvel was ready, as usual, to surprise me with its insight and witticism. Apparently, it occurred to the creative minds at Disney that there might be people like me who preferred the world when it was a little less crowded and hectic, and they had the intuition to include that perspective within their own, thinned-out fictional world. But I’m probably getting ahead of myself.
Mann: I like what you said earlier about the timing of this pandemic. For better or worse, this was a pause on the regular Marvel output. This allowed us to take up different pop-culture interests in the meantime (you were much more ambitious than me, I only got into animated Batman movies and Kevin Smith comedy specials in the quarantine, but then again, I find Faulkner overrated). But when Marvel came back in the form of the streaming Disney+ shows, it felt different because there was this longer pause than expected, and then the anticipation takes hold. “OMG! Marvel’s back!”
As it pertains to WandaVision, the first MCU Disney+ show that premiered in early January, that was a major advantage it had. In fact, I might argue that the build-up factor alone is what contributed to a somewhat rose-tinted impression of the show. Not only was Marvel back, but it was different than it was before, truly a change to the status quo worthy of the events and impact of Endgame. It was a Marvel TV show, and a bizarre one at that, that paid homage to a different decade’s respective sitcoms in every episode while still expanding and developing the overall universe. It was a nice change of pace from “[insert superhero name] punches bad guys in order to save the world.”
White: I completely agree that WandaVision initially felt like a strange avenue by which to chart our collective reentry to the MCU. I was skeptical, but I found my expectations wildly exceeded by the finished product. The comic book nerd in me had been disappointed with the MCU’s neglect of both Vision’s (Paul Bettany) character development and the realm of magic generally, so WandaVision ultimately proved to be exactly the tonic I needed.
I felt that it started off incredibly strongly–it perfectly captured the aesthetic of sitcoms from Dick Van Dyke to Modern Family. It was funny, it was breathtakingly sad, it was mysterious, and we got to see Darcy (Kat Dennings) for the first time since Thor: The Dark World! Plus, who has literally anything unkind to say about Kathryn Hahn?
Mann: I think when the Disney+ titles were announced, WandaVision was the one that raised the most eyebrows. It seemed curious, interesting, and even potentially groundbreaking. But, I think something that made people like me suspicious, and something the show ultimately can’t shake off was that we hadn’t really spent all that much time with Vision and Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olson) before the show.
They were both introduced in 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, got a little bit of time in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, and are then on the run and having this epic love story by the time we got to 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War, in which Vision actually dies at the end. In terms of these Disney+ shows, it was always going to be difficult to be the first one out the gate, even in the most ideal of scenarios.
But I think part of the success of WandaVision was that it took characters we were somewhat familiar with and expanded their lives and mythos. But even with that, I have a hard time engaging with the aforementioned Wanda & Vision romance. We didn’t know a lot about their history or how they fell for each other, we just hadn’t seen enough of them in love before, and now that romance is the lynchpin of this entire miniseries? Luckily, Olson and Bettany have pretty natural chemistry, and that helps pull you through while watching it.
White: Just as WandaVision exhibited all the strengths of an MCU product (a good balance of humor and heart, a relentlessly engaging storyline), so too did it share the common failings of the MCU library: underdeveloped supporting characters and a weak, CGI-laden third act. By the time I found myself watching two witches hurl different-colored magic blasts while two different-colored Visions shoot laser beams out of their foreheads, I was forced to admit that the touching exploration of grief present in the first few episodes had come to a close in favor of standard superhero kitsch.
Mann: When I think of WandaVision, I think of moments: the various opening theme songs, or Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) returning to existence after the Avengers undo Thanos’ “snap” in Endgame or that one week we were convinced the original X-Men movies were MCU canon because X-Men actor Evan Peters showed up as Wanda’s dead brother Quicksilver. And of course, the highlight of the entire series might be the reveal that it was “Agatha All Along!” I think Kathryn Hahn’s performance as Agatha Harkness could be the show’s strongest, she brings an energy to the role that has been properly praised and even meme-ified.
But when thinking over those moments, I’m not sure I agree with what you and many others say about the show being this profound meditation on grief. That’s certainly an element to it, but that didn’t start feeling like what the show was actually about until the end. And by the time it said what it wanted to say, it was time to wrap up, denying the audience the opportunity to linger on the subject. Moreover, you could say that whatever the show did manage to say about grief feels hollow now that it looks like the subject of said grief, Vision, might be coming back in some form for some kind of resurrection. One good line, that being “what is grief, if not love persevering?” does not a brilliant thesis make.
White: Well, I was particularly incensed to find that Wanda, after magically mind-flaying the entire population of a New Jersey town, was going to be able to fly away scot-free without any further discussion. As someone who staunchly defended Wonder Woman 1984 after the protagonist came under serious fire for doing something similar to a single person, I was astonished that Wanda’s actions seemingly garnered nothing but sympathy. I don’t care what anybody says: making Wanda a villain does not make up for that. If anything, it lets her off the hook.
Mann: I agree, I too hate the last shot of Wanda just sort of flying away from everything, as if to say “huh, that was weird, off I go to further adventures, which you can see coming soon to a multiplex near you!”
There was another show I thought a lot about while watching WandaVision, and that was Legion. Both involve Marvel protagonists who have powers beyond their own comprehension, whose powers can even warp reality, yet are grounded by a romantic relationship they share with a fellow superhero. But Legion is a drug-inspired psychedelic trip, it took risks and couldn’t care less whether or not you could follow it. I think that sort of similar non-traditional structure and the promise of being at least somewhat trippy and surreal compelled a lot of viewers of WandaVision early on, and the early buzz about the show was focused almost solely on that aspect.
But WandaVision feels so safe and sanitized in comparison to Legion as if it were approved by Mickey Mouse himself. Legion ended with some of the craziest episodes of TV I’ve ever seen. As you’ve noted, WandaVision ends with two floating witches throwing CGI colors at each other. That’s when its charm began to rub off and it felt like just another Marvel movie, now in episodic TV form.
I think I was looking forward to the next Marvel Disney+ show that was released, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, as sort of a palette cleanser after WandaVision. It promised to be an action-packed show featuring two characters from the Captain America franchise I actually felt like I knew pretty well: Sam Wilson AKA the Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky Barnes AKA the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). And while it showed some promise early on, the show ended up being even more of a rollercoaster of quality than I think we’ve ever really seen in a Marvel project before…
White: I note that while WandaVision started out strong and got weaker over time, I thought that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier did the exact opposite. With TFATWS, I admittedly had no idea what to expect. For starters, I wasn’t really sure what united those two characters other than their shared affiliation with Captain America, but that one commonality proved to be all that was necessary once it became clear that Captain America’s legacy was the gist of the whole show.
Unlike WandaVision, TFATWS started out on very weak footing. Here’s what the script offered up as an explanation for Sam Wilson’s reticence to take up the Cap mantle: “When Steve first told me about the shield, the first words I said were, ‘It feels like it belongs to someone else.’ That someone else is Steve.” I’m not really sure that I’ve ever heard 27 words with less meaning.
Once we get past that first episode, however, things really start to fall into place. TFATWS broadens the scope of its story in a way that WandaVision does not, exploring the worldwide trauma that’s being suffered in the wake of the rather incredible events of Endgame. I particularly like the antagonistic Flag Smashers, who believe that the world was better off with fewer people in it and that those who were displaced by the return of the Blipped deserve better treatment. I won’t lie–if I were an ordinary citizen in the MCU, I would have probably been in their camp. And this isn’t the only way TFATWS explores the plight of the dispossessed. It shows Sam’s sister Sarah (Adepero Oduye), a small business owner, unable to get a bank loan. (Is it really because of the post-Blip population increase?)
And we revisit our old friend Baron Zemo (Daniel Bruhl), who in Age of Ultron literally lost his entire country in the mayhem caused by the Avengers, only to later commit his revenge on them in Civil War.
Mann: I want to start with what I really like about this show because on its surface, I think you’re right, it has a lot going for it. Sam’s wondering about his role and place in the post-Endgame status quo is a through-line that feels well managed, since it also mirrors Bucky’s attempts to make amends for his various past sins committed as the Winter Solider. The titular relationship is interesting, feeling like sort of Marvel’s answer to Lethal Weapon: Sam’s Murtagh as the jaded vet, Bucky’s Riggs as the renegade maverick. More importantly, there is begrudging respect that eventually results in true friendship.
But then there are just things that feel like bold swings that resulted in weird decisions: who exactly thought a pseudo-remake of the shrimp boat scenes in Forrest Gump, but this time featuring Sam and Bucky instead, was what this exciting, action-oriented follow-up to the Captain America movies needed…?
Another great addition to the Marvel mythos was John Walker, played by Wyatt Russell, son of Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn. Walker is who the government recruits to take over the mantle of Captain America once Sam gives the shield that Steve Rogers gave him at the end of Endgame back to them. I have been known to call the Walker character “Marvel’s answer to Homelander” the famously nasty, nationalistic superhero at the heart of Amazon’s The Boys.
He has a temper that results in needless deaths, a representation of America at its most deplorable and guttural. That makes it all the sweeter when he gets the crap beaten out of him by the Dora Milaje, the all-female elite security force and bodyguards for the king of Wakanda, as first seen in Black Panther. Walker is eventually dubbed U.S. Agent by the mysterious Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus in one of the show’s best reveals.
White: We also meet Isaiah Bradley, brilliantly played by nerd icon Carl Lumbly, who was an African American super-soldier who fought in the Korean War only to be poked and prodded like a human test subject upon his return home. Isaiah’s scenes are perhaps the show’s most powerful. When he tells Sam that a Black man cannot and should not ever hold the mantle of Captain America–a symbol of a nation that has abused and brutalized Black bodies for centuries—it’s nearly impossible to argue with him. That’s exactly the kind of hard-hitting, substantive discussion about the show’s central themes that I felt was missing toward the end of WandaVision. Of course, I can’t pretend like this show didn’t have its fair share of explosions, as well…
Mann: As you mentioned, the Isaiah Bradley subplot, in particular, feels very fitting especially during this moment in history. If the Isaiah Bradley storyline represents America dealing with its moment of racial reckoning in a post-Black Lives Matter world, John Walker is MAGA-capped, “America First” counterexample: constantly flexing, obnoxiously domineering, arrogant to the point of being a douchebag.
But this show has a pretty glaring problem in my book, and that is its lack of a compelling villain. The Flag Smashers concept is, as you alluded to, an intriguing one: what if some of the people wanted to go back to the way things were during the Blip? But despite understandable motivations, much of the frustration I have can be leveled at the character of Karli (Erin Kellyman).
Karli kind of looks like a grown-up version of Lil’ Orphan Annie, as well as too young to drink, much less run a terrorist organization. Instead of a great Marvel villain name like Thanos or Killmonger, she opts for the nickname of a third-grader and speaks with a cockney accent so thick that sounds like it’s straight out of a Guy Ritchie movie. And this is who we’re supposed to believe is essentially the Osama bin Laden of the Flag Smashers…? I think this sort of bad casting comes about because Marvel wanted to work with Kellyman, as she had proven herself memorable in the otherwise-forgettable Star Wars spin-off Solo, and not necessarily because she was the best fit for the role.