The MCU Report Card for 2021, Part 2: ‘Loki,’ ‘Black Widow’ and ‘Shang-Chi’

In an ongoing back and forth between two Marvel cinephiles, Will Mann and Joel White discuss where things stand for Marvel after the latest releases of Loki, Black Widow, and Shang-Chi.

Will Mann: So, the show that stuck out like a sore thumb when it was announced, and the one that I admittedly had little to no interest in was Loki. Frankly, I was fine when the character died back during the opening scene of Infinity War. And then, we had to spend precious moments of Endgame setting up this particular spin-off show more than any other. Loki literally disappears from the movie once he catches the Tesseract that has been flung away due to the Avengers’ fiddling in the past. And even though he has no dialogue in this scene, it was as if Loki looked into the camera and said “ah-ha, I have thwarted the Avengers and now you can see all my future adventures, streaming soon on Disney+” before disappearing.

I just didn’t see the purpose of Loki. I would rather see new characters, particularly from deep within the lore of the original comic books, than be forced to double down yet again on Thor’s brother, the bad guy from the first Avengers movie. Was there a legitimate story to tell and was Loki the character we knew well enough to do it or was this all done to appeal to Tom Hiddleston fangirls on Tumblr?

Tom Hiddleston in ‘Loki’. (Marvel)

So, imagine my surprise when I actually ended up quite enjoying Loki. It turns out it did have a story to tell, and Loki the character might have been the best vessel for it. I might like its first four episodes more than I liked any four episodes from either WandaVision or The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. As I imagine we’ll get to, just like the other shows, it isn’t perfect, and because this is no ordinary show, its flaws are no ordinary problems. And as is evidenced by the other two shows, these Marvel Disney+ projects really have a difficult time sticking the landing by coming up with compelling endings. What were your initial impressions of Loki?

Joel White: I, like you, was not at all excited to hear that Loki would be getting his own show, but I was not even the slightest bit surprised. The Loki character has probably the most passionate and attentive following of any character within the Marvel fandom, after all. And given the events of Endgame, I felt like I had a decent idea of how the plot would go, too. We saw the Avengers inadvertently change the course of the past, allowing a still-alive Loki to escape, thus creating—wait for it—a new timeline! As a veteran consumer of mediocre Science Fiction, I figured we were in for an unoriginal, assembly-line Disney+ product that would track our favorite antihero’s shenanigans through the alternate universe he just created.

But, here again, you and I had the same experience. I was sort of right about the plot, in an extremely basic sense, but it turns out this show had way more in store for me than bland multiverse tropes. Loki’s tone, its production design, and its particular take on multiverse theory were almost shockingly distinct and refreshing. This show doesn’t really look or feel quite like anything else in the Marvel Cinematic Universe right now, and I was both surprised and thrilled to discover that.

Mann: The imagination that was unlocked by going into such an interesting corner of the Marvel universe was breathtaking. This series deals with time travel, alternate dimensions, the vastness of time and space, and “variants” of different characters across timelines, as Loki encounters the Time Variance Authority, or the TVA, charged with maintaining the order of the sacred timeline. Because of all of that, it seemingly takes a lot of its inspiration from Doctor Who. I couldn’t help but be reminded of my Whovian roots while watching this show, especially in episode 3, “Lamentis,” which feels like it shares much in common with some of my favorite Doctor Who episodes.

White: It’s retro-futuristic in a way that you’re absolutely right to call it Whovian. The music is great, too, which is always a huge plus for me. And Owen Wilson has felt like an actor that deserves a place in the MCU for probably a decade now, but I’m glad we had to wait for this project for him to become involved. I felt that his performance as Agent Mobius, not Hiddleston’s as Loki, was what ultimately grounded the zany universe in which Loki takes place.

None of this is to say I thought Loki knocked it out of the park, or that it was even my favorite Marvel show on Disney+. The central difficulty for me was Sylvie, probably the show’s most important new character and a Loki variant from yet another timeline who is out to overthrow the TVA.

Sophia Di Martino is undeniably a badass in the role, and she does the most with what she’s given, but I just didn’t feel like I got to spend enough time getting to know her character. Her arc is critical to the season’s overall trajectory, and the climax essentially asks you to be 100% in her corner by that point. Personally, the show just couldn’t get me there. I take it from your earlier comment that you have your own issues with the second half of the show?

Mann: I think the issue I had with the second half of Loki is one we’ve talked about before, particularly regarding WandaVision: something really innovative and different is happening in the early episodes of one of these series that really hooks you, but by the end, it just becomes another Marvel affair. Some of it was gimmicky, like the appearance of all the other Loki variants, which include Richard E. Grant as “classic” Loki and an actual crocodile Loki. But, these characters don’t contribute much except the initial “hey, it’s Loki as a ____” response. Having been to the massive AwesomeCon comic book convention here in D.C. recently and having seen so many cosplayers dressed as Loki variants, the cynic in me wants to believe that’s why they were introduced on the show in the first place.

Jonathan Majors as Kang the Conqueror. (Marvel)

But I think part of the reason why Loki felt anticlimactic was that it was teasing something big. Nexus events, the people in charge of the TVA aren’t people at all, apocalyptic events, Sylvie…where was this all headed? Well, apparently it was all headed to Jonathan Majors mugging the camera for his big debut as Marvel big bad Kang the Conqueror, here just referred to as He Who Remains. Part of me likes the big swing that Majors took in the role, and I hope he brings that energy to his inevitable future Marvel projects. But as Honest Trailers pointed out, here in Loki, he’s just doing that exposition dump that the Colonel Sanders-looking Architect character gives at the end of The Matrix Reloaded that everyone hated. Like that scene, it’s a lot of explanation with no immediate payoff, just the assurances of the filmmakers not to worry, this will all pay off soon.

I think it was also a disservice to not make this a self-contained story. As much as WandaVision didn’t stick the landing, it did, at least, end. Going into the ending, I knew the motivations (Sylvie: revenge, Loki: power), but not necessarily stakes. I think I was so riveted by those early episodes because unlike the two previous shows, we were in the control room of the MCU itself with a trickster god. Everything we thought we knew had the potential to be not only shaken up but shaken up big. But, because they decided to make this an ongoing and not limited series, it ends with Kang going “don’t kill me, because something worse will happen,” he gets killed, something worse happens…that I’m sure will be explored in-depth in the next season. Whoop-de-freaking-do.

White: I’m going to have to make an effort not to rehash too much of what you’ve already said, because it’s becoming increasingly obvious to me that our experiences with this show were nearly identical. I, too, thought the variants felt more gimmicky than groundbreaking and I found the climax frustratingly incomplete. I should point out here that I absolutely love Jonathan Majors. He was a compelling leading man in Lovecraft Country, and his performance in The Last Black Man in San Francisco is, to me, one of the best by any actor in the 2010s. That is such an introspective, relevant, and profoundly melancholy film; I can’t recommend it strongly enough. But having said all that, I don’t like him in Loki at all. You’re absolutely right to say he’s swinging for the fences, but I think he struck out. His scene is overwrought and he talks too much, which I recognize isn’t his fault, but it feels like he couldn’t decide what variety of “over the top” he was going for. Is he impish and petulant or is he aloof and superior? Is he disinterested or panicked? It’s not at all clear, and that is his fault.

But most of all, I agree with you that at the end of the day, Loki just feels like a six-episode set-up for another project, whether it’s Loki season 2 or Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, or both. In fact, it increasingly seems to me that every Marvel property is just setting something else up. It’s almost as if now, thirteen years into this grand project, entire movies, and TV shows are serving the purpose within the MCU that was originally served by those signature post-credits scenes. It used to be that Marvel only needed a thirty-second clip to show you how the movie you just watched would connect to the next one you’d see. Now, you need to watch the entirety of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier just to understand the post-credit scene from Black Widow, which itself sets up a separate Disney+ show. Staying up to date with this franchise is quickly becoming one of my Full-Time Nerd Jobs. But speaking of Black Widow

Mann: Yes, I think it’s finally time to dive into Marvel’s first major release since the pandemic, Black Widow, a prequel based around Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff. Starting off as a bit player way back in Iron Man 2 before evolving into a franchise staple by the time of her untimely death in Endgame, this solo spin-off was Natasha’s (and by extension, Johansson’s) time to shine. We had gotten hints about her backstory in Avengers: Age of Ultron, but this promised to be much more like a Bourne movie with a Marvel twist.

Much of the plot revolves around Natasha seeking out her surrogate family, which posed as a suburban American family during the end of the Cold War. (Methinks someone at Marvel HQ might’ve gotten a little too into watching The Americans?) There’s surrogate father Alexei AKA Red Guardian, played by Stranger Things’ David Harbour. Like Captain America, Alexei is a super soldier, but unlike Cap, he never got the opportunity for superheroics. Oscar-winner Rachel Weisz plays the pseudo-family’s matriarch Melina, a scientist. And of course, there’s “little sister” Yelena (Florence Pugh), whom this entire movie feels like is setting up to take the mantle of Black Widow from her “big sister” post-Endgame. So much these days seems to be setting up a New Avengers, or possibly Young Avengers roster that would not only resemble its comic book counterpart, but continue the MCU tradition of having movies with Avengers in the title be the big team-ups.

White: In short, I thought Black Widow was perfectly adequate and not much more. David Harbour was probably the most charming I’ve ever seen him, and Florence Pugh is a great addition to the MCU who I’m excited to see in the upcoming Hawkeye miniseries on Disney+. Of the three recent MCU projects based entirely around dead characters (the others being WandaVision and Loki), this was probably the one I had the most fun watching.

Mann: A lot of my favorite things in this movie are about that family dynamic, the natural rapport and chemistry they all share, particularly at a dinner scene about halfway through. Harbour’s Red Guardian is big and bombastic, while Pugh’s Yelena makes quips about her sister’s popularity and penchant for the “superhero landing.” I guess Yelena decided to call Natasha out for that after seeing the same thing being pointed out in Deadpool?

Overall, I agree with you: Black Widow is fine. It neither stands out enough to be in the upper echelon of Marvel movies, nor is it enough of a disappointment to yield any major disruption in the Marvel machine. It hits the notes exactly the way it should, nothing more, nothing less.

Especially after these big Marvel event movies like Infinity War and Endgame, as well as the big event Disney+ shows, it was nice to have a more-or-less self-contained story and one that filled in some of the gaps in the storyline. This movie was never going to be a game-changer, it was never intended to be. Although, based on what has happened in the aftermath of the film’s day-and-date release on Disney+ Premier Access, it might end up being one for the most unexpected of reasons…

White: You’re right in thinking that Black Widow‘s influence on the MCU will likely have more to do with the lawsuit filed by its marquee star than the events depicted in the movie itself. It’s not often that I get a chance to do a legal explainer in the entertainment context, so I’ll just go ahead and run with this opportunity. Basically, Scarlett Johansson has sued Disney for breach of contract, alleging that the agreement she signed with the studio provided for a theatrical release only and that Disney violated those terms by simultaneously releasing Black Widow in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access.

Now, one of the most important elements of a successful breach of contract claim is damages–the plaintiff needs to show not just that the terms of the agreement were violated, but that she was actually harmed by that breach. And I think Johansson might actually be able to show real harm here. According to the complaint filed by her attorneys, she lost out on upwards of $50 million due to the streaming release because part of her pay was based on theatrical ticket sales. With more people streaming, theatrical ticket revenues fell, and the argument goes, less money made its way into Johansson’s pockets. This is, on its face, a decent claim for breach. Whether she has enough evidence to back it up is another story entirely.

Why should we care whether a movie star with a net worth of $165 million gets to line her pockets a little further? It’s simple, really. Johansson’s lawsuit represents the most meaningful pushback against the emerging post-pandemic business model of most major movie studios–a retreat away from theaters and towards streaming. If Johansson can win the public relations battle (let’s be honest: what happens in the courtroom matters very little here), the movie studios might be more reluctant to limit their theatrical releases in the future. I might also posit, more cynically, that the real result of a moral victory for Johannsson might just be different compensation packages for the stars of future projects. But if you, like me, are desperate to keep the old movie-going experience alive, then this lawsuit, along with the very strong numbers for Shang-Chi, should give you some measure of hope.

Mann: I’m glad you brought up Shang-Chi, because it feels like the most pleasant Marvel surprise of 2021 (that is, unless Eternals and/or Spider-Man: No Way Home turn out as good, if not better than they look). The recently-released, theater-exclusive Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a certified hit at the box office and exactly the infusion of creative energy that this franchise needed. It tells the story of Xu Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), who goes by “Shaun” and valets cars in San Francisco with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina) until being called back to his native China to face off against his father, master of the Ten Rings and leader of the eponymous organization Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung).

It’s as exciting a solo feature as Marvel has ever done, at least since Black Panther. It even goes so far as to redeem Sir Ben Kingsley’s role as Trevor Slattery, essentially a one-note joke that was one of my least favorite things about Iron Man 3. But imagine my surprise when Kingsley’s Slattery, along with his adorable monster pal Morris, ends up being one of the more endearing things about the movie. The action is top-notch, some of the best Marvel has ever done, with a finale that feels appropriately huge. The design of the movie is impeccable, full of settings as varied as bows-and-arrows in fantastical landscapes to intense fighting in Macau. More than being the first Marvel movie with an Asian lead, it captures a kinetic energy and sense of fun reminiscent of everything from classic Jackie Chan movies like Police Story to Godzilla and even Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It’s one I know I’ll revisit as many times as I have my other MCU favorites. What did you think of Shang-Chi?

White: As I said before, I’m desperate to keep the classic moviegoing experience alive, so I had sky-high hopes for Shang-Chi’s theater-only release. I wanted, dare I say needed, it to be a smashing box office success so that the fat cats at the big movie studios would feel comfortable with a full slate of future wide releases. And thank the stars, it seems we have the hit we all needed! I mean it when I say that Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is the most complete and compelling origin story in the MCU since the first Captain America flick. (Sorry, Black Panther, it was only by *this* much.) And we can add Tony Leung’s Wenwu to the remarkably short list of relatable, three-dimensional Marvel villains. In fact, if there’s any criticism I can make of Shang-Chi, it’s that leading man Simu Liu (who I’ve adored ever since my wife binged Kim’s Convenience for the first of many times) can’t quite compete with the absolutely stellar supporting cast, charming though he is. But that would be praising by faint damnation, I suppose.

If Shang-Chi is a sign of what Marvel has in store for us, then I won’t need to dwell on my petty quibbles with the Disney+ shows or the good-but-not-great Black Widow. A few weeks ago, I wrote that I feared the MCU didn’t have a post-pandemic future without its old pillars, Captain America and Iron Man. If the releases up to this point didn’t do much to assuage those fears, Shang-Chi may have single-handedly put them to rest. Here’s hoping Eternals and the (very intriguing) Spider-Man: No Way Home can take up the torch and keep this newfound momentum going.