She-Hulk (2022)

She-Hulk has been both fun and a little odd.

I’m enjoying the acting—Tatiana Maslany is great as usual. I like a lot of the writing choices. They’re often hilarious, and neatly fit the genre I think She-Hulk is aiming for. 

This show is a comedic personal drama about the life and times of Jen Walters, following the everyday trials (heh) and tribulations of her experience as an up-and-coming lawyer. It adds an extra dash of “you just can’t win” via all the ways in which getting super powers doesn’t solve Jen’s personal struggles. That almost feels like an homage to Molly Ostertag & Brennan Lee Mulligan’s Strong Female Protagonist… except this show doesn’t (yet) pay attention to the deeper ethical questions that excellent comic focused on. That’s the bit that feels odd to me.

Only a few episodes are out so far, so maybe it’ll go deeper, but…

She-Hulk is very aware of the fact that it’s commenting on struggles women (or femme-presenting people) face in their day to day lives. It brings those up in frequently hilarious (sometimes painful) ways. I appreciate and enjoy that, and I don’t want the show to stop doing that. But so far She-Hulk seems hyper-focused on those struggles from the perspective of the wealthy and privileged. It hasn’t dug much deeper, it hasn’t (yet) pushed towards deeper potential intersectionality or towards struggles beyond Jen’s. For lack of a better word, the show’s focus so far is both expansive and self-centered.

Insofar as I want to watch a slightly shallow comedic personal drama with superheroes that (thank fucking goodness) isn’t yet another male-centric story—one that does focus on the experiences of female characters—this show is great. I’m here for it. I’m glad that it’s being made. I hope She-Hulk does well, I hope it goes places and does more fun things. This show helps ease the poverty of representation for female superheroes in the MCU, and goodness knows the MCU needs that.

We still need more stories like this though, as well as more different ones. Less personally focused ones, and/or personally focused ones that include other people. This show can’t solve the issue on its own.

And there are other elements that feel like they’re fertile ground for good stories, but which have lain fallow for years (if they were ever included at all). She-Hulk has referenced them in passing so far, but hasn’t focused on them.

Specifically, I really enjoy the ways in which this show has poked at the personal and emotional lives of the various superheroes it’s mentioned. I like how it has pointed out that being a superhero doesn’t pay the bills, and that most of the existing superheroes are otherwise rich. Jessica Jones and Luke Cage and (to lesser extent) Daredevil all gave this some attention, with JJ and LC also including other intersections of gender and race. But those shows were and remain a side show in the larger MCU. Again, we need more.

And I’d really like that “more” to be good! She-Hulk nearly lost me with the fight sequence in its first episode. 

As someone who cares a lot about fight scenes, the first episode’s fight between Bruce and Jen wasn’t interesting to me. I hope the show didn’t spend too much money on it (though they probably did), because it seemed like a fight in search of a reason. There weren’t meaningful stakes or potential consequences, no meaningful discovery was made for either of the characters, it didn’t even feel like there was real character growth for anyone. It was a CGI punchfest for the sake of having a CGI punchfest.

The show has been far better on this front in the episodes since: fights haven’t dragged on, they’ve felt like they had pressing stakes, and they’ve told us new and interesting things about the characters involved and the world around them. All of that is pretty much perfect in my book. I really hope they don’t lose sight of that excellent focus in the remaining episodes. I think lacking that focus has been one of the ways other superhero movies and shows most frequently fall apart, narratively and tonally.

We’ll see.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)

I’m glad I finally watched Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.

I’d read some critics saying that this movie lumbered under the weight of its exposition. I’d heard from fan-friends that they really liked it. I can see the critics’ critique, but I’m pretty firmly in the second camp.

First off, the exposition involved did not surprise me. Marvel has a lot of work to do with introducing its multiverse stories, and MoMadness was their opening cinematic entry for that.

See, Marvel is clearly planning more multiversal cinematic adventures. They’ve been tying multiverse elements into many of their stories lately, leaning into the weirdness even as they use the multiverse to pull together the most poignant story threads they can get their hands on. They’re probably going to slip up and fall on their face at some point—they can’t all be winners—but so far they’ve done pretty well.

Spider-Man: No Way Home worked magnificently on this front. It also featured Dr. Strange, and multiverse shenanigans, but my guess is that Marvel wanted another movie that more fully focused on the multiverse… and which was completely within their owned IP, instead of being in awkward joint custody with Sony. Aside from all that, I think MoMadness is establishing building blocks for the next set of Big Threats and Consequences for the current MCU arc (while No Way Home was more focused on Spider-Man). After Angry Purple Man 1 & 2 and Thanos’ threats to “all life,” Marvel’s writers are probably trying to up the ante for their next big showdown and multiverse threats to existence as we know it are a solid escalation. Threatening existence itself is also a little bit like jumping the shark, but that’s comics baby.

Now, if you didn’t watch the Loki TV series, or weren’t already familiar with a multiverse as a concept, or didn’t know Marvel’s extensive history of playing with multiverse storylines in their comics, I can see how this movie might feel a little off the wall or rushed in its exposition. But as someone who was familiar with all of those things, I had an excellent time. I actually liked the way they leapt from one thing to the next without spending a whole lot of time building up the how and the why. Among other things, it kept the movie moving (heh) and let Sam Raimi shine with the horror elements he knows so well.

I also see Marvel’s embrace of the multiverse as a way for Marvel to play around with extremely weird or unanticipated story and character ideas. When you have infinite parallel-ish existences, you can wring each one for all the emotional content it’s worth, and then only keep the ones that you like most. If a character dies in one storyline, that’s no reason they can’t some back (with some slightly different emotional baggage) in another storyline. Writers can borrow them from another dimension for an afternoon, after all. This way, one character’s experience of their single life can be grown in new directions (giving the audience context for the character’s emotional world) and then rewritten without necessarily discarding all the emotional development.

This, of course, is going to open Marvel up to screwing the pooch even more thoroughly in their next big ensemble movies. I wasn’t a big fan of Angry Purple Man 1 or 2. Much of my distaste for those movies—even when I loved elements of them—came from the way in which they didn’t give time for (or maintain continuity with) the characters’ emotional development in their preceding individual movies. Juggling so many different storylines across multiple universes is only going to make that more difficult.

On the topic of character development though…

I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry about this movie’s choices. Both, maybe? I like what it does for Dr. Strange. Plus, I really like Wanda Maximoff’s journey—and have reservations about it at the same time. Dr. Strange first, because his experience is simpler.

A little context: in many ways, watching Dr. Strange die repeatedly at the end of his first movie was so fun for me because he’s such a prick. And seeing him gradually become less of a prick over the course of that movie feels good. In that moment near the end, as he’s dying repeatedly, no one else can see his sacrifice. No one else sees him suffering through an eternity of painful deaths in order to negotiate with an impossible force. He’s given a chance to grow as a person even as he pulls a really neat (and frankly torturous) trick in order to save the world.

So for me, Dr. Strange movies have this double appeal: I can see an asshole get what’s coming to him, and I can see that same asshat become a (marginally) better person while growing into his role as a hero. What’s not to love?

MoMadness continues that tradition. Dr. Strange learns from his own (and his other selves’) mistakes. This is one of those places where the multiverse concept really shines: it’s possible for someone to recognize things in themselves that they weren’t ready to see, as they are confronted by their other selves. Dr. Strange may be full of himself and a control freak, but he’s not an idiot. Seeing him come to care for others and be there for them (instead of being there for them for himself, because it gives him a chance to play the savior and build a heroic image of himself) is really sweet. I might actually want to watch this movie again just to appreciate the ways in which it delivers on that personal growth.

Sadly, all that growth also makes me dread what may come in the next big cinematic combo event. If it’s anything like the last one, the individual characters will probably be shortchanged and their growth over the previous films won’t make it fully formed into the movie. Or maybe Marvel will surprise me, but I won’t hold my breath.

All of which brings me to Wanda Maximoff / Scarlet Witch.

Her personal arc is awesome, honestly. It retraces some of her development in WandaVision, which is unfortunate but understandable given that the movie doesn’t assume viewers are current with the TV shows. Despite that, I love how the multiverse works in such similar ways for both Wanda and Strange here. Each has a chance to confront the lives and choices of their other selves—and to be confronted by those things in turn, peeling back the lies and illusions they hold dear.

It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, but to get into the weeds I’ll have to share some *SPOILERS* about Scarlet Witch.

I’m not happy about Scarlet Witch (apparently) killing herself. After how Marvel killed off Black Widow, and the very real problem with the poverty of representation in these stories (see also my review of Soul), having Scarlet Witch kill herself too leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It’s a bad look, Marvel.

On the other hand, this time it made sense. Wanda Maximoff was a tortured soul by the end of WandaVision (much as she was at the start of it). This movie established firmly that she was still in a very bad place, and was busy digging deeper into a magic book that the movie explicitly established as being extremely bad news. But where Black Widow died in a way that felt cheap and senseless (and was arguably fridging), this movie gave Scarlet Witch a chance to have a rich (and painful) emotional arc that ended in death.

She pursues her obsession beyond the ends of the Earth, and is ultimately confronted (while reaching closure with herself and with her family in a way that felt brilliant) by the consequences of her choices up to that point. That drive, that confrontation, and that closure were all good. Those scenes with herself and her boys were heart-wrenching. Given all the choices she’d made leading up to those moments, and the way she’d lied to herself while also digging deep into the evil evil magic book of evil, her choosing to kill herself and destroy the physical manifestation of those dangerous spells actually feels meaningful.

It doesn’t resolve the issue of those spells (presumably) existing in other universes in similar locales, but it makes narrative sense. And it doesn’t feel like the writers just offed a female character to give a male one some new emotional trauma. But while this was definitely a better course than Marvel took with Black Widow—I didn’t feel like Wanda was being shortchanged here.—that doesn’t make me excited about the Scarlet Witch dying.

Having said that, I doubt it’ll stick. Given the increasing importance of multiverse-shenanigans, I suspect Wanda will return to a future storyline as a multiverse-self. Alternate-Wanda presumably won’t stick around, but her character won’t simply be gone.

*END SPOILERS*

Okay.

There’s even more I want to talk about.

I’d love to dig into the ways in which MoMadness functions as a horror movie, but at this point it’ll have to be short. You can easily see the ways Sam Raimi digs into his long experience with making horror movies: the movements of pursuers, the deaths, the moments of disquieting revelation, the occasional weird and awful and maybe a little funny gore and body horror. It’s all present.

We’re even treated to Bruce Campbell! His cameo (and his after-credit scene) are delightful, and offer a nod to Raimi’s Evil Dead series that presages some of the horror elements still to come. It’s a good little bit of bonus fun.

But in conclusion, yes, I liked the movie. It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, but it was good. I hope you can enjoy it too.

Loki, revisited

Well, as far as I can tell, the show stuck the landing.

Loki is now secure as my favorite of the Marvel TV series so far. Sure, I’m excited to see what comes from What If…? but I don’t expect those jaunts to have the same emotional weight, or to be given the same time and focus. I don’t think I’m spoiling too much to say that there’s supposed to be a second season of Loki, and that I’m really looking forward to it.

I’m going to try talking around spoilers as much as possible. But I am going to talk about the show, mostly from a structural perspective. If you’re really worried about spoilers and are able to watch the show, I strongly encourage you to go enjoy the rest of Loki’s first season (when you can) and ignore the rest of this.

I was worried when I started watching Loki that the show would promise too much and give (or resolve) too little. I was also afraid that, like WandaVision and Falcon and the Winter Soldier before it, Loki would suffer from compression or similar [writing / directing / editing] runtime and continuity problems. To be clear, I think WV and F&WS worked… but I also think they suffered from narrative cuts and cramming.

So. This show promises a whole lot. I think it delivers more.

In a really wonderful way, this show kept giving me more than I expected. There was one exception—one that kind of disappointed me—but that had been foreshadowed extensively already. Mostly, the show felt free to resolve lots of issues and move things along to a new, messy resting state with new sources of tension that I quite enjoy. Best of all for me, the show leaned into the exploration of Loki’s motivations, hopes, and dreams, and played those through to the hilt.

Honestly, I think the certainty of a second season is critical here. Without it, and without the show’s writers and runners feeling free to resolve issues or create new ones as they saw fit, I think they would have felt pressured to tie things up more neatly for the end of the season (and the show). And I think that would have done a huge disservice to the story. I suspect that pressure (along with budget) is what forced WV and F&WS to compress as they did.

I believe that Loki‘s messiness is actually better than a neatly tied up story, even if we never get more Loki. I’d love to have more stories that feel free to do this sort of thing: creating interesting and exciting and difficult situations and then using them for honest explorations of characters I enjoy… without feeling locked into tidying everything up at the end. I like stories that end with open possibility.

I know other people don’t necessarily feel the same way. I have friends who love a neatly resolved story with all the loose ends tied up and all the resolutions for each character explored on screen. They abhor open-ended conclusions that only imply next steps and leave it up to the viewer to decide, or imagine, what happens next. But for me, a lot of that is boring or uninteresting. Life is full of the unexpected, and it feels more honest to me to close out a story’s arc while leaving open the shapes of arcs to come.

Loki does that. I have my guesses about where things will go, but there are many possibilities, and I look forward to exploring them even if I have to do it in my own mind.

Loki (2021)

I’ve now seen the first two episodes. I like it. I rather like it. This show is great so far.

I’m a sucker for this for several reasons: one, it has time travel, which I love; two, the interplay between Tom Hiddleston and Owen Wilson is a delight; three, the whole Time Variance Authority and its cast is a great vibe, all the way from R. Slayer down to Casey; four, I was upset when Loki died for Thor’s character development at the start of Angry Purple Man #1 because (a) it felt like it cheapened & threw out the deeper relationship they’d built in Ragnarok, and (b) any resulting character growth for Thor was ignored in the underwhelming and too-busy Infinity War series… so watching Loki’s earnest emotional reaction to seeing all of his other self’s suffering and growth was fucking brilliant.

Honestly, giving Tom Hiddleston more of a chance to play a bigger role seems like the right choice to me. I never understood what people saw in him in the first Avengers movie (besides a pretty face with good quips), but the Loki that grew out of the subsequent movies won me over completely. On reflection, I blame Joss Whedon’s writing and the big ensemble movie’s lack of focus for anyone not dead center in the spotlight. Anyway, making this show with more room for Hiddleston (& others) to explore seems like such an obvious good move.

And in case I still had any doubts, Loki’s emotional private moments convince me that this show was a good idea. I don’t think we’ve gotten anything like as personal a view of Loki’s internal world in any previous Marvel movie. As conflicted as I feel about supporting the Mouse, I’m really enjoying watching this show and I’m glad that it’s being made. I’d absolutely go for more.

I do worry that the show will not live up to its first episode. The previous two shows (WandaVision, Falcon & the Winter Soldier) felt a bit like they suffered from being compressed—more towards the end for WandaVision, and at several different points for Falcon & the Winter Soldier. All of which makes me wonder whether Loki is going to go sideways in a few episodes and fail to live up to its promise. The fact that Loki is only supposed to have six episodes exacerbates those fears.

But the truth is, even if all we got was the first episode, I think this would have been a worthwhile jaunt. That’s how much I liked the interplay between Loki and Mobius, that’s how much I liked the emotional development of Loki in that set of interview scenes. It’s really exciting to think that we’ll get more of that.

Having now seen the second episode as well, I still have high hopes. There are more twists and I have more questions, but I’m still excited to see what comes next and don’t feel like they’ve really flubbed anything so far. That said, the six episode limit feels tight. I wonder whether the show will stick the landing.

Your Friendly Neighborhood Spiderman

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This movie manages to embody the tone of the central character, AND make me believe that the central character really is the Spiderman that I know and love. It’s not grim-dark, or silly (well, I mean, it *is* silly but it’s *Spiderman* silly). I really enjoyed it, and would happily watch it again. And while nothing is perfect, I felt like this movie did a wonderful job of portraying a Spiderman with hope and integrity, and without the angst that seems like such a big component of so many other Marvel movies.

I’m not saying I don’t love the angst, but there’s something refreshing about seeing Spiderman so relatively free of it. Maybe Peter will grow into it in the future, but that can take its own time.

Also, while I still want to see a Spiderman movie about Miles Morales (which the internets tell me has been teased by an easter egg I missed), I was impressed by the fact that this movie managed to feel inclusive in a way that other Marvel movies have not. Maybe I shouldn’t be that impressed. The other Marvel movies, after all, haven’t exactly been bastions of inclusion. But I was pleasantly surprised by the diversity of the movie’s high schoolers. Honestly, anything else would have been jarring, so it’s good they didn’t screw it up.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Pilferers of Pocketbooks

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I made two trips to the theater this weekend, two nights in a row, to see Guardians of the Galaxy.  At least I watched it in Burlington instead of Boston, and thus offered my wallet some protection from the box office’s depredations.  To be perfectly honest, I want to watch the movie again; the Guardians of the Galaxy’s punchlines are a delight, and I consistently missed the followup lines in the audience’s waves of laughter.

If you’ve enjoyed the previous high points of the Marvel movie franchise and are looking for more of the same with a good dose of silly, Guardians of the Galaxy is the movie for you.  It hits its timing wonderfully well, with a great comedy-action plot well-leavened by stupid and/or greedy and selfish characters, without leaving me feeling that anyone had the idiot ball for too long (or even at the wrong time).  On my first watch-through, I enjoyed myself but was almost disoriented by the movie’s pacing as I came time and again to totally new material (well, new to me).  The second time, it felt like the film fairly well flew along, flowing seamlessly from scene to scene in a rush of drama, action, and excellent comedic timing.  Like I said before, I’m interested in seeing it a third time, though next time I’d like to be able to hear the lines I missed the first two times around.

I liked the actors, I liked their interactions and side comments, and I thought that even the completely wooden Groot was wonderfully expressive.  More tidbits after the break, including a few complaints.

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier

I just watched Captain America: The Winter Soldier for the second time last night.  I loved it both times.  I liked the first  Cap movie as well, but The Winter Soldier leaves that first one in the dust.  They found an excellent balance between action, comedy, and serious trouble, striking a note that felt remarkably similar to the delivery of the first Iron Man movie, less the odd bit where I felt a little underwhelmed by the final fight between Obadiah and Tony.  Which is to say that it’s pretty frickin’ spectacular.  I’d say that it’s worth watching the first Captain America movie in order to better understand what’s going on in Winter Soldier, but it’s not absolutely necessary.

Almost all of the rest of this article is going to be spoiler-rich, so if you haven’t yet seen the movie I suggest that you stop reading before the break.  Take my word for it and go watch the movie; I’m almost certain you’ll enjoy its pulpy action-intrigue comic book goodness.

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