The Plot: With Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Pratt) still reeling from the death of Gamora (Saldaña) and the presence of her alternative self from a separate timeline, Mantis (Klementieff) and Drax the Destroyer (Bautista) head to Earth to bring Peter the greatest Christmas gift they can think of: his childhood icon, Kevin Bacon!
The Review: The special opens with Kraglin Obfonteri (Gunn) shedding some light on young Peter’s (Luke Klein) childhood amongst the Ravagers to Mantis, Drax, and Nebula (Karen Gillan). As a boy, Peter was still very sentimental towards Earth (largely referred to as “Terra” out in the depths of space) and tried to teach Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker) about its ways and traditions. Yondu, however, wasn’t just unimpressed at the idea of Christmas; he was enraged by it and forever ruined the festivities with his volatile temper. While Mantis is heart-broken at the story, Drax, in his usual boisterous fashion, finds Peter’s traumatic upbringing incredibly amusing, something even Nebula admonishes him for. The special does answer a lingering question I had about Taneleer Tivan/The Collector (Benicio del Toro), last seen as an illusion cast by the Mad Titan, Thanos (Josh Brolin), and presumed dead but he’s apparently still alive since he sold the entirety of Knowhere to the Guardians between movies. Because of this, the team has been too busy fixing the place up and restoring some kind of order and has been unable to indulge in festivities or even search for the elusive, alternative Gamora. Feeling a sense of obligation towards Peter, who’s revealed to be her half-brother since they’re both children of Ego the Living Planet (Kurt Russell), Mantis is spurred to give Peter the Christmas he missed out on as a child. Confiding in Drax, the only one who knows her secret, Mantis is elated when the muscled-bound buffoon suggests bringing Peter’s childhood hero to him as the ultimate Christmas gift and head to Earth to kidnap Kevin Bacon! Although their arrival initially causes a stir due to Drax forgetting to activate the ship’s cloaking device, the two easily blend in amidst the glitz, excess, and cosplayers of Hollywood, unwittingly earning themselves a decent wad of cash in the process as enthusiastic tourists clamour for selfies with their pair.
After blowing all their dough on shots and revels, Mantis uses her empathic abilities to obtain a map to Kevin Bacon’s house, where the EE spokesman is relaxing in his spacious Hollywood home and awaiting the return of his family. Although he politely sends the two away when they come calling, they’re easily able to barge into his house and a frantic chase throughout Bacon’s abode ensues, with Mantis hopping from wall to wall like her namesake and things escalating when Bacon desperately asks the local cops for help, which thankfully ends without any bloodshed. This sequence also showcases Mantis’s fighting skill as she easily takes down the armed cops and renders them unconscious with her powers, showing that she’s more than just the team’s emotional, compassionate conscious. These same powers are used to quell Bacon’s fears and, at the lightest touch and softest suggestion, he become enthusiastic about accompanying the two and helping them deck their ship out with Christmas decorations. However, once he’s heading out into the big black and sharing stories of his career, Bacon unknowingly lets slip that he’s simply an actor rather than some world-renowned superhero, much to the disgust of Mantis and Drax, so Mantis coerces Bacon into believing he truly is a hero so as not to ruin Peter’s Christmas once more. Bacon then believes himself to be a World War Two soldier, adopting a…well, “Australian” accent would be generous…then briefly pretending to be Bruce Wayne/Batman before Mantis demands that he be himself but not “suck”. Thankfully, Bacon is just happy to be out in space and takes it all in his stride, and Peter is astounded to find that all of Knowhere has been decorated with Christmas lights, songs, decorations, and even a snow blower. Though touched by their efforts, Peter’s joy turns to horror when he discovers that his friends have kidnapped his childhood hero, regardless of how excited Kevin Bacon is to be there to celebrate Christmas with them. After demanding that Bacon be returned to normal, the actor’s enthusiasm turns to terror; however, after learning of how influential his career was to Peter’s life, Bacon has a change of heart and decides to stick around and help out.
The Summary: Naturally, given the title and when it released, Christmas is a central theme of The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special; it’s bookended by the God-awful “Fairytale of New York” song by The Pogues, the traditional Marvel Studios logo is overlaid by soft snow fall and Christmas lights, and the special opens with an animated flashback showing young Peter’s failed attempts to explain the sentiment behind Christmas to Yondu. He’s not the only one in the depths of space who struggles with the concept; Bzermikitokolok (Rhett Miller) and his band (The Old 97’s) to interpret the season through song recast Santa Claus as a superpowered master burglar who shoots missiles and has a flamethrower, much to Peter’s dismay. Drax and Mantis are equally dumbfounded by Earth’s traditions but soon enjoy the taste of Earth liquor, the excitement of a bar, and delight in the festive decorations littered across Kevin Bacon’s lawn. Those who delight in the action-packed adventures of the Guardians may be disappointed to learn that the Holiday Special is much more of a character-driven pieces; Groot (Diesel) is little more than a cameo (and looks a lot like a man in a suit, an effect I approve of) and the special primarily follows Drax and Mantis, which is pretty delightful as these two don’t always get much to do and it’s cute to see them bicker and Mantis ultimately gifting him with an inflatable elf he had grown fond of on their journey. Also, the special shows that the team is now aided in their efforts by Cosmo the Spacedog (Maria Bakalova), a sentient dog that developed psionic powers after being shot into space by the Soviet Union and who has a strained relationship with Rocket Raccoon (Cooper), though she responds much better to doggy treats than criticism.
Although Kevin Bacon is terrified by Mantis and Drax, and rightfully so, fearing at first an invasion of his home, then an attempt on his life by overly enthusiastic cosplayers, and finally overwhelmed by being surrounded by strange alien lifeforms, his excitement at being out in the galaxy comes through thanks to Mantis’s spell. Despite his fear, however, he is touched by Kraglin’s story of how much his movie roles impacted Peter’s life and he decides to stick around Knowhere for a bit, singing a song and helping to teach them about the true meaning of Christmas. While Bacon’s explains the virtues of family and goodwill so associated with the season, Peter encourages the others to open their gifts: Groot is delighted by his Game Boy and even Nebula gets into the spirit by gifting Rocket James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes’ (Sebastian Stan) prosthetic arm! Thus, Kevin Bacon parts with the team on friendly terms, and even promises to be back for Easter, having brightened Peter’s life considerably with his generosity. Equally moved by the team’s effort, Peter reveals to Mantis that Yondu quickly came around to the spirit of Christmas after being amused by Peter’s gift (the first of many small toys for his control panel( and that he even gifted Peter his trademark blasters in return. Mantis’s revelation, however, trumps even that present and Peter is thrilled to learn that he has a sister, ending the special on a sweet note about family and goodwill and all that heart-warming Christmas spirit.
Rating: 3 out of 5.
Did you enjoy The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special? What did you think to the focus on Drax and Mantis and their efforts to cheer Peter up with a most unusual present? Did you enjoy Kevin Bacon’s role as a clueless, well-meaning celebrity? Would you have liked to see a little more action in it or were you happy with the traditional Christmas message it delivered? Where do you see the team going in the future? What’s your favourite Christmas special? Whatever your thoughts, feel free to share them below or on my social media.
Air Date: 24 November 2021 to 22 December 2021 Network: Disney+ Stars: Jeremy Renner, Hailee Steinfeld, Tony Dalton, Alaqua Cox, Vera Farmiga, and Florence Pugh
The Background: In one of their more blatant borrowings from their competitor, Stan Lee and Don Heck debuted Clint Barton/Hawkeye in the pages of Tales of Suspense all the way back in 1964. Originally introduced as a foil for Tony Stark/Iron Man, Hawkeye eventually became a member of the Avengers, was involved in some of Marvel’s most prominent storylines, and has even become a symbol of representation for the deaf community in recent years. Jeremy Renner helped the D-list archer become a household name after he was cast in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) but was very much restricted to a supporting role compared to his other, more compelling peers. Marvel Studios sought to change this with the launch of Disney+, and Hawkeye was one of the first characters slated to have his own show exclusive to the streaming platform, which executive producer Trinh Tran aimed to explore his backstory, his time as Ronin prior to Avengers: Endgame (Russo and Russo, 2019), and introduce his protégé, Kate Bishop (Steinfeld), to the MCU. Accordingly, the show was heavily influenced by Matt Fraction’s comic book run, in which these elements (and Hawkeye’s deafness) were prominent features. The show aimed to delve deeper into Barton’s mindset and how the Snap had affected him, while also formally incorporating elements from Marvel’s Netflix shows into the MCU proper, and further lay the groundwork for a potential Young Avengersproject. Despite issues caused by COVID-19, the six-episode series was highly praised when it debuted on Disney+; critics enjoyed the banter between the two archers, the seasonal setting, and the chance to spend more time with Barton, while also praising the grounded action sequences. While there has been no talk of a second series, a spin-off for deaf antagonist-cum-anti-hero Maya Lopez (Cox) was put into production for a 2023 release.
The Plot: Former Avenger Clint Barton just wants to get back to his family for Christmas but his life is thrown into disarray when he crosses paths with would-be superhero Kate Bishop and is thrust into the middle of a conspiracy from his past that threatens to derail far more than the festive spirit.
The Review: I mentioned in my review of his debut appearance that I’m not overly familiar with the character of Hawkeye; I’ve definitely read more stories of his DC Comics counterpart and Hawkeye generally just pops up in any stories I read that feature the Avengers or other Marvel Comics characters. As a result, while I’m familiar with Matt Fraction’s work with the character, I’m by no means a die-hard Hawkeye fan. I’ve always been a bit dismissive of him; this isn’t because he doesn’t have any superpowers, I’ve just never really been motivated to seek out his stories. However, having said that, I am a fan of Jeremy Renner’s portrayal of the character in the MCU; Hawkeye got a bit shafted in first Avengers movie, but has since become the heart (or, at least, moral compass) of the team. He’s shown himself to be a devoted family man, something none of his peers can boast of, a surrogate father and mentor and to have real emotional depth to his character, going on a killing spree as the vigilante Ronin after Thanos (Josh Brolin) wiped out half the universe (including Clint’s wife and kids, who eventually returned, of course) and being visibly broken after his best friend and partner, Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), sacrificed herself to help undo Thanos’s actions. I think it’s cool that Hawkeye got the chance to spread his wings in a series devoted to him, but I do think Marvel Studios missed the chance to do a sort of spy/thriller set in the past that showed how Clint and Natasha first met and joined the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.), which would also have shed new light on S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), but I suppose that still isn’t completely off the table and this is a good compromise as I can’t say for sure if a Hawkeye solo movie would land too well.
When we catch up with Clint, he’s still carrying the grief and guilt over Natasha’s death; he’s unimpressed, to say the least, and somewhat insulted by Rogers: The Musical’s glorification of the Avengers and their strife and haunted by Natasha’s sacrifice. He’s also now shown to be partially deaf and wearing a hearing aid (which he turns off to spare himself Rogers’ cheesy songs and later, to tune out Kate’s incessant babbling) and is irked that the musical includes superheroes who weren’t even in the battle. And that’s not even mentioning the “Thanos Was Right” graffiti he spots in the men’s room; here’s a guy who lost everything, put his life on the line countless times, and lost his best friend to bring back untold billions of lost souls and his reward is seeing his exploits turned into a cringe-worthy stage show (Marvel Universe Live! had better action, costumes, and production value) and anonymous accusations that all that pain and loss was not only for nothing, but unappreciated by a certain few. He’s also shown to be uncomfortable with the hero worship some show him, dismissive and annoyed by fans, and cares little for his “branding”; in “Hide and Seek” (Thomas, 2021), Kate voices her concerns that he’s too “low key” to sell and thus has been denied his proper share of the limelight and a big part of their emerging partnership is her emphasising that Clint needs to open himself up more so he can inspire people the same way he did her. “Partners, Am I Right?” (Bert and Bertie, 2021) shows his counterargument to this; Clint has always seen himself as a weapon, rather than a hero or a role model, and he’s too traumatised and too weary from his losses and years of fighting to want to be in the public eye. Indeed, he begins the show simply wishing to spend a happy, if cringe-filled, Christmas with his kids – supportive daughter Lila (Ava Russo) and his sons, veritable blank slate Cooper (Ben Sakamoto) and young Nathanial (Cade Woodward). He’s stunned when he sees a report of his former murderous vigilante persona, Ronin, on the news and immediately sends his kids back home to their mother, Laura (Linda Cardellini); haunted by the deaths he caused while in the guise, Clint makes it his mission to track down whoever’s in the getup to protect them from reprisals and is aghast to find Kate under the mask. Concerned for her welfare, Clint’s paternal instincts kick in and he takes her to safety; dismissive of her because of her age and claim to be “the world’s greatest archer”, despite her obvious talent with a bow, Clint wants only to dispose of the Ronin suit, tie up his loose ends with the Tracksuit Mafia, and get back to his family for Christmas; he has no interest in a partnership or teaching Kate anything at first, but they slowly bond throughout the events of the show despite his crotchety nature.
While the show bares the name of Clint’s alter ego and his strife and character are at the forefront of the narrative, Hawkeye is, primarily, the Kate Bishop show. The series begins with a flashback showing young Kate (Clara Stack), already a keen archer, being inspired by Hawkeye’s bravery and heroism during the Chitauri attack on New York City, which left Kate’s father, Derek (Brian d’Arcy James), dead and saw her and her mother, Eleanor (Farmiga), saved by one of Hawkeye’s arrows. Vowing to protect herself, her mother, and others in the same way as her hero, Kate grew up studying fencing, archery, and martial arts; the first episode’s opening credits are essentially an animated montage showcasing Kate’s tenacity and will to succeed but, while she’s certainly gifted with a bow and in a fight, she’s young, inexperienced in the field, and has no real idea of how to best use her skills. This comes up constantly throughout the show as she’s forced to think on her feet, react to dangers with either fast thinking or her martial arts skill, and use her surroundings to her advantage, all of which shows her to be highly adaptable, but in over her head. However, she has good intentions; she puts herself on the line to rescue a one-eyed stray dog, Lucky (Jolt), and manages to scramble through most fights through luck, perseverance, and the element of surprise. Kate briefly adopts the Ronin identity when she becomes suspicious of her mother’s new fiancé, the swashbuckling, charismatic Jack Duquesne (Dalton), and becomes caught up in a murder mystery after finding Jack’s uncle, Armand Duquesne III (Simon Callow), dead from a sword wound. Since the Tracksuit Mafia have a grudge against Ronin, and Kate’s not exactly a pro at covering her tracks, she quickly finds herself a target and is blown away when her hero, Hawkeye, rescues her. She’s disheartened to learn that he plans to part ways with her as soon as the suit is destroyed and when he shows reluctance to teach her anything, but she remains persistent; when Clint allows himself to be captured by the Tracksuits to try and warn them off her, she uses her mother’s security company to track him and literally comes crashing in to rescue him. Though aggravated by Kate’s recklessness, inexperience, and methods when it comes to dealing with criminal scumbags (she’s just as likely to offer them relationship advice as she is a beatdown), Clint genuinely wants to keep her safe and thus severs their fledgling partnership when Yelena Belova (Pugh) becomes involved. Though devastated at failing to live up to her promise and the example of her hero and his fellow Avengers, a candid discussion with Yelena only fuels Kate’s desire to be a part of that life and she openly defies him, her mother, and her naysayers to aid her hero and show that she’s more than capable of living up to the mantle of Hawkeye.
Family is a key component of Hawkeye; Clint is torn between cleaning up the mess from his blood-soaked past and spending Christmas with his family; having already lost so much time with them during his days as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent (essentially a glorified assassin) and Avenger, to say nothing of the five years he spent indulging his violent whims as Ronin, Clint just wants to have a quiet, peaceful life with his wife and kids and is constantly heartbroken at the prospect of breaking his promise to be home for the holidays. Refreshingly, his relationship with his kids is as strong as his marriage; his kids are generally understanding, sympathetic, and supportive of him, as is Laura, who never gives him a hard time or yells at him for prioritising his mission over his family. It’s not like Clint needs the guilt trip, either, as he carries the burden of potentially letting his family down throughout the show and nowhere is this evidenced better than during his heart-breaking phone call with Nate where, thanks to having lost his hearing aid, he’s forced to rely on Kate to act as an interpreter. As a former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent herself, Laura understands Clint’s mission; his desperate desire to not only get rid of the Ronin suit but also recover a mysterious watch with ties to her past is only further fuelled by repeated references to the “big guy”, a dangerous individual who makes even the ridiculous Tracksuit Mafia more of a threat. Although he has no interest in taking on a partner after losing Natasha, Clint comes to see Kate as an equal and almost a surrogate daughter, and even builds his own network of allies after being forced to endure the theatricality of a group of live-action roleplaying gamers (LARPer) to retrieve the Ronin suit from firefighter Grills (Clayton English). Family is incredibly important to Kate, too; she’s more than a little perturbed to find Eleanor is engaged to someone else and, despite Jack’s efforts to be understanding and friendly, she is cold and aloof towards him. This turns to suspicion when she discovers a link between him and the Tracksuit Mafia; however, Eleanor refuses to listen to Kate’s claims and is horrified when she forces him into a fencing duel, accusing her of lashing out due to being at a crossroads in her life and still grieving over the loss of her father. Still, Kate is torn between being genuinely pleased with her mother’s newfound happiness and her vow to keep her safe; it brings her no pleasure to deliver evidence of Jack’s presumed misgivings, but she’s devastated to learn that he’s merely a patsy and that Eleanor has been orchestrating events to pay off a debt her husband owed to the “big guy”, none other than the kingpin of crime himself, Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio).
The show’s themes of family are also exemplified in Maya Lopez, the head of the Tracksuit Mafia, whom Fisk regards as a daughter and one of his greatest assets. Deaf since birth, Maya communicates only through sign language (with helpful subtitles often appearing for our benefit) and violence thanks to being raised by her doting father, William Lopez (Zahn McClarnon), to be a keen fighter, thinker, and to closely observe and anticipate the movements and intentions of others using her other senses. Maya is thus a brutal and highly skilled fighter despite her lack of hearing and artificial foot; she was devested when Ronin murdered her father, the original head of the Tracksuit Mafia, and vowed to hunt him down and kill him, a vendetta that causes her close friend and second-in-command, Kazimierz “Kazi” Kazimierczak (Fra Free), to grow concerned not just for her welfare but for attracting undue attention to their organisation and angering the Kingpin. Distrustful and filled with rage, Maya has her goons target Kate as she’s their only lead to Ronin and refuses to listen to Clint’s claims that the vigilante is dead or Kazi’s attempts to reason with her; Clint goes so far as to ask Kazi to convince Maya to veer from her path as it can only lead to her destruction. Although Clint has the edge in terms of experience and adaptability, Maya proves the more agile and skilled of the two with her kicks and flips; still, Clint is able to subdue her and threatens to kill her if she continues to target his friends and family. Using a mixture of words and sign language, he attempts to relate to her since they’re both essentially living weapons but she only relents when she’s faced with the irrefutable proof that it was Fisk who ordered her father to be killed. As if Maya wasn’t bad enough, she has a whole gaggle of tracksuit-wearing goons at her disposal; the Tracksuit Mafia are a quirky bunch who all wear matching clothes and repeatedly end their sentences with “Bro”. The Tracksuits exhibit an amusing and interesting amount of personality; while they all dress and somewhat sound, look, and act alike, they’re not just mindless minions. They mock Clint and Kate, subjecting them to nonstop Christmas tunes while tied to kiddie rides, enjoy RUN DMC’s “Christmas in Hollies”, are fond of their lairs and offended when people question them and their methods, and are seen as both ruthless and clumsy, which ties into the themes of vulnerability and flawed characters.
Family is also a driving motivation behind Yelena’s vendetta; a flashback shows that, after the end of Black Widow (Shortland, 2021), Yelena was snapped away while freeing her fellow “sisters” from their programming. From her perspective, she instantly returned, finding her surroundings changed and life having moved on five years in the literal blink of an eye. Disorientated, her first thought was to find Natasha and she was devastated to learn that she was not only dead, but that Clint was responsible. I get that she’s blinded by rage and grief, but she’s very quick to judge Clint based on his bloody past considering how shady her own past is. Still, despite wishing to kill Clint, Yelena goes out of her way to warn Kate off him using her own signature (and awkward) brand of persuasion and even respects Kate’s ability and tenacity (it’s clear that she’s holding back during their encounters), but cannot condone her admiration of the man she believes killed her sister. Her final confrontation with Clint sheds some light on her motivations; refusing to fight, Clint relates a version of what happened to Natasha and takes a massive beating as Yelena works her grief out on him, blaming him for not fighting or trying harder and he’s only able to get through to her by sharing the secret whistle and knowledge he has of her from Natasha. It seems she’s jealous of the time Clint got to have with her and for not being there to try and stop her, and she finally realises that they both loved her and that she’s been consumed by anguish and gives up her vendetta (though their relationship remains noticeably frosty). And then there’s Fisk, making his official debut in the MCU and, presumably, tying the events of the Marvel Netflix shows closer to this shared universe; forced into a business arrangement with Fisk to pay off Derek’s debt, Eleanor angers the Kingpin when she not only tries to back out of their arrangement to keep Kate from knowing the truth but also tries to blackmail him. Garbed in his trademark white suit, Fisk exudes the same menace and authority as he did in Daredevil (2015 to 2018) with even the subtlest movements and it’s honestly fantastic to see him brought in as such a threat. He’s dangerous enough to put the wind up Clint and is known for reacting to insults with ruthless aggression; his threat is so tangible that Clint finally recognises Kate as his partner and vows not to leave until he’s been dealt with. Having trained and raised her as his own, Fisk admires Maya and demonstrates a respect and love for her but remains a natural manipulator and has a rage seemingly boiling under his skin. The audacity of Eleanor and Maya’s actions, and the reappearance of Ronin, enrages and insults him, leading to him personally attacking Eleanor after his plot to have Kazi assassinate her backfires. Here, we see his incredibly physical strength; he easily rips off a car door, shrugs off and breaks Kate’s arrows, and even survives being hit by a car and caught in an explosion when Kate’s forced to rely on her trick arrows to counter Fisk’s near-superhuman strength. Although wounded, the Kingpin manages to flee, only to be confronted by Maya; his attempts to reason with her apparently fall on deaf ears (…no pun intended) and result in his death at her hands, though we don’t actually see the shot or him die so I’m confident he’ll resurface at some point.
The Summary: Hawkeye stands out from much of the MCU by taking place during the Christmas season, which is a prominent theme throughout the series and lights, decorations, snow, and Christmas songs are everywhere. Even the first episode’s opening credits, styled after the art of David Aja, are sprinkled with Christmassy bells and tunes, and Clint’s primary goal is to get home to his family for the holidays. Although Kate constantly digs at him for refusing to open up to others and share his feelings, he’s only like this about the superhero life and his past; he relishes Christmas with his family, watching movies and wearing terrible jumpers and such, and a lot of his closed off nature is as much from his resentment at missing out on family time as it is the ghosts of his past. These ghosts are prominent elements throughout the show; although Clint is one of the more low-key Avengers, he has his fans and a reputation as a hero, which makes him extremely uncomfortable as he doesn’t want or ask for any thanks or special treatment but it proves useful in getting them information and co-operation from the LARPers and even winning the trust of Eleanor and Jack. However, this comes with a price; when Kate comes over with pizza and Christmas decorations, he accidentally lets slip a story about Natasha and, struggling with his grief, is barely able to tell Kate a version of his decision not to assassinate her and gets emotional reminiscing about her and the loss of his family during the Blip. This particular ghost resurfaces when Kate is tossed over a rooftop by Yelena; this time, Clint chooses to lower his would-be-partner to safety, and he makes a special trip to a plaque in the Avengers’ honour to bare his soul to his fallen friend when he makes the difficult decision to briefly return to the Ronin persona. Clint’s past is a driving reason behind Yelena’s distrust and hatred towards him; she questions why everyone has forgiven him for his murderous actions and Kate’s loyalty to someone she barely knows, especially after she deduces that he was the violent Ronin.
While Hawkeye’s emphasis is very much more on being an intriguing thriller full of character moments, there’s a fair amount of action peppered throughout to keep things visually interesting and engaging. Though just a man, Clint is extremely adept in a fight; he and Kate are similar in that they’re both adaptable and have to fight tooth and nail since they lack superpowers, though their accuracy with a bow borders on the superhuman at times. Clint is easily able to break or slip free of his bonds (amusingly leaving Kate clueless as to how he managed this), makes a habit of taking in and assessing his surroundings and potential threats, and is able to make seemingly impossible shots often without even looking. Both he and Kate can engage with multiple opponents at any one time, though Clint has the edge in experience even though the loss of his hearing aid can leave him disorientated. Their fighting and archery skills are at the heart of many of the show’s action sequences; there’s a recurring subplot regarding the retrieval and creation of Clint’s trick arrows, which allow him to blow up, ensnare, electrocute, disable, and even enlarge and shrink targets. Probably one of the best action sequences is in “Echoes” (Bert and Bertie, 2021) where Clint and Kate struggle to communicate when he’s rendered functionally deaf and must fight off Maya, Kazi, and the Tracksuits in a high-speed pursuit in a sequence taken almost beat for beat from Matt Fraction’s comic run. Yelena also contributes to some intense and thematically interesting fight scenes; her clashes with Kate are more like amusing scuffles between sisters since she’s not actually trying to hurt or kill the young archer, but her fight with Clint is as brutal and emotionally charged as Maya’s battles with the former Avenger since both are hellbent on avenging themselves on their opponent.
This ties into one of the most intriguing aspects of Hawkeye; the depiction of emotional and physical vulnerability. As stated, and demonstrated, Clint isn’t superhuman and nowhere is this more evident than in this show, which routinely shows him applying frozen foods and ice packs to his many aches, pains, and bruises. Indeed, Kate is disappointed when her first lesson from her hero isn’t how to do anything exciting but how to dress and treat her wounds, and Clint repeatedly relates how living the superhero life has caused him a great deal of losses. Not only has he seen friends and colleagues perish, but he’s lost out on time with his family, is dealing with the burden of age and wear and tear, and a lifetime of explosive, high-octane action and dangerous situations have cost him his hearing. Kate, however, remains undeterred; she’s determined to learn from his example of being a regular person standing up to impossible situations and continuously tries to change his image and make him see that he’s an admirable hero since, while he has made his fair share of mistakes, his bravery and refusal to abandon her to her fate prove that’s not just some cold-blooded killer. Although she’s been raised in luxury and Clint sees her as somewhat spoiled, Kate has fought and grafted her whole life; she threw herself into her training specifically to live up to Hawkeye’s example and starts the series cut off from her mother’s money after damaging the college bell tower, meaning she has to break into the family home and her mother’s files to dig up any dirt on Jack. Vulnerability also comes into play with Maya; like Clint, she’s essentially a living weapon but one not yet slowed by age and injury. Rather than be a victim of her handicaps, Maya has learned to embrace them and use them to her advantage, proving to be an aggressive and driven adversary, but she’s just as vulnerable as Clint and Kate. Kazi is on hand to tend to her wounds but takes no pleasure in seeing her hurt, or on such a self-destructive path. It’s clear there’s more to their relationship than just being colleagues; she’s devastated when Kazi chooses his loyalty to the Kingpin and their criminal lifestyle over her and, just as she refused to give up her vendetta against Robin so too does he refuse to walk away and be with her, leading to a fight between the two that leaves him dead at her hand, much to her heartbreak.
Overall, I was very impressed with Hawkeye. In this day and age, with where the MCU is now with all these cosmic, multiversal adventures, I can understand why some people might be disappointed to see things coming back down to Earth, literally and figuratively, for a more grounded series but, personally, I really enjoy that we can be galivanting around at the edge of perceiving reality one minute and then tackling street-level crime the next. Hawkeye is definitely the kind of character you want for a series like this and I’m really glad that Marvel Studios haven’t neglected to put some serious focus on their street-level superheroes; there’s so many stories to tell with guys like Hawkeye and villains like the Kingpin and it really helps to show how this world is alive and breathing both out in the universe and at home. While I’ve never been a massive Hawkeye fan, it was fascinating seeing a very human (if still very skilled), flawed hero grumbling and snarking his way through another jaunt into that life. The relationship between Clint and Kate was fantastic, with her being more optimistic and unorthodox in her methods and a quick study once Clint chose to actually share his knowledge, making her a fun addition to the MCU and, presumably the Young Avengers. The icing on the cake was including the Kingpin and I really hope we see more from him in Maya’s spin-off and future shows, but Hawkeye really impressed me with its deconstruction of what it means to be a superhero in the MCU and the toll that life can take on someone who just wants to leave the violence behind. And I haven’t even mentioned the glorious slice of cheese that was Rogers: The Musical and have only touched upon some of the intense action and exchanges seen in the film, all of which carry so much more gravitas as we see these characters hurt, dealing with the fallout from their fights and physical trauma, and struggling to cope with the burden of their past or living up to their expectations, whether self-imposed or otherwise.
Rating: 4 out of 5.
Did you enjoy Hawkeye? What did you think to the themes of grief, vulnerability, and family explored in the series? Did you enjoy the exploration of Clint, the insight into his background, and the relationship between him and Kate? What did you think to Kate and are you excited to see her return as Hawkeye going forward? Were you surprised to see the Kingpin make his return/debut and how would you like to see him used in the MCU in the future? What did you think to Maya and Yelena and their vendettas against Clint? Whatever you think about Hawkeye, drop your thoughts below or leave a comment on my social media.
Air Date: 7 October 2022 Director: Michael Giacchino Network: Disney+ Stars: Gael García Bernal, Laura Donnelly, Harriet Sansom Harris, Kirk R. Thatcher, and Carey Jones/Jeffery Ford
The Background: Back in February 1972, Roy Thomas, Jeanie Thomas, Gerry Conway, and Mike Ploog (under the direction of the legendary Stan Lee) introduced readers to Jack Russell/Werewolf by Night in the pages of Marvel Spotlight. After a ridiculous ban kept Marvel from publishing stories about werewolves and other supernatural creatures, the writers were finally free to explore these elements, and Werewolf by Night, soon graduated to his own self-titled series later that same year. Coming from a long line of lycanthropes and sharing a complex history with Count Dracula and the cursed Darkhold, Jack Russell became a feral beast under the light of a full moon and was repeatedly targeted by a nefarious cabal known as the Committee, who also introduced the emotionally damaged vigilante Marc Spector/Moon Knight to Marvel’s readers. Despite being one of Marvel’s more obscure characters, Werewolf by Night was pegged for a big-screen adaptation back in 2001; after numerous drafts and delays, Crystal Sky Pictures seemed ready to begin shooting when the project simply vanished from their slate. Hopes for the Werewolf lived again, however, when Kevin Smith was denied use of the character for a 2019 project, and the character was officially announced to be a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s fourth phase in a one-hour, horror-themed special for Disney+. Director Michael Giacchino drew specific inspiration from the classic monster movies of the 1930s and 1940s and promised that the special would include some of Marvel’s most famous monster characters, such as Doctor Ted Sallis/Man-Thing. Upon its release, Werewolf by Night was met with largely positive reviews; critics praised the aesthetic and brisk pace, and the homage to classic Hammer Horror films, while also noting that the characters and certain visuals were somewhat disappointing.
The Plot: A group of monster hunters gather at Bloodstone Manor following the death of their leader and engage in a mysterious and deadly competition for a powerful relic, which will bring them face to face with a dangerous monster.
The Review: I might not know much, if anything, about Werewolf by Night but I’m more than familiar with the Hammer Horrors of yesteryear, classic black-and-white terrors that laid the foundation for popular depictions of screen monsters such as Count Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, and Larry Talbot/The Wolf Man. I’m actually more a fan of the 1930 Hammer Horrors than the later renaissance spearheaded by the likes of Christopher Lee; there’s just something about the gothic aesthetic surrounding the likes of Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr. that I find endearing and appealing in its simplicity. Plus, those classic horrors are super brisk; you could probably watch all of them, or a good three or four, in just a few hours and that’s perfect for when you just want a short, sharp fix of horror rather than sitting through a two-hour feature film. Similarly, as someone who struggles to binge-watch even six-episode shows for these reviews, I couldn’t be happier that Werewolf by Night opts to simply be a short special presentation, clocking in at a little under an hour. I miss when Marvel used to produce one-shots to fill in gaps between movies and definitely think they would benefit from producing more one- or two-hour specials to flesh out some of their more obscure characters. Similar to how the old Hammer Horrors would open with some text or a voice over, so too does Werewolf by Night begin with an opening narration touching upon the malevolent monsters lurking in the darkness and those who hunt and kill them, with none being more prominent than the legendary Bloodstone family, whose patriarch has slaughtered monsters across the generations with the supernatural relic known as…well…the Bloodstone.
Following the death of Ulysses Bloodstone (Richard Dixon), the Bloodstone is in need of a new master, a process determined by inviting monster hunters from all over the world to take part in a ritualistic hunt to establish who is worthy of this powerful relic. Ulysses is survived by his widow, Verusa Bloodstone (Harris) and his estranged daughter, Elsa (Donnelly); Verusa is Elsa’s stepmother and is greatly disappointed by Elsa’s lack of interest in continuing the family tradition. Once thought to be capable of surpassing Ulysses’s abilities, Elsa instead abandoned her duties and her training but is nonetheless determined to take the Bloodstone for herself. Verusa acts as the hostess for the gathering of hunters, with over two-hundred confirmed kills shared between the death-dealers. Jovan (Thatcher) is easily the most bombastic of the group, making an impression through his impressive beard and facial scars, though only Jack Russell (Bernal) can claim over a hundred kills just for himself. With the exception of Elsa, all present see their crusade as a righteous one, a mission of mercy for the cursed and their victims, though there’s a definite flavour of cult-like sensibilities to their hunt. The hunt itself takes place on the grounds of Bloodstone Manor, a dark forest that leads to an Maurits Cornelis Escher-like labyrinth guarded by members of the Time Variance Authority (TVA), which probably explains why the layout and logic of the labyrinth makes little sense. Sporting tribalistic make-up to honour his ancestors, Jack is randomly selected to head out into the woods ahead of the others and his life is deemed to be as fair game as the monster, and any of the other hunters. Despite his impressive reputation as a monster killer, it turns out that Jack isn’t there to hunt their quarry, the swamp creature we know as the Man-Thing (Jones/Ford), but is actually there to rescue him and even refers to him by his real name, Ted. Thus, Jack wants no part of the hunt and even suggests to Elsa that they forget they saw each other, Jovan is driven into a frenzy by his desire to earn the Bloodstone, attacking Elsa with his axe and being surprised and unarmed by her martial arts skill. She then uses Jovan’s axe to more literally disarm Liorn (Leonardo Nam) and kill him with his own wrist-mounted crossbow, proving that she hasn’t been neglecting her training in her time away from Bloodstone Manor.
Although the Man-Thing is incapable of communicating beyond a few grunts and creaks, Jack is fully capable of understanding him and promises to relieve him of the Bloodstone, which hurts and weakens him, and blast their way out of there and to freedom. Although Azarel (Eugenie Bondurant) isn’t quite so altruistic, her attack does lead to Jack and Elsa finding some common ground and agreeing to help each other in return for her getting the Bloodstone and him getting the Man-Thing to safety. Although sceptical about Jack’s motives and his relationship to Man-Thing, Elsa is duly convinced that the creature is only a threat when provoked or senses a threat when he calms down after she reluctantly refers to him by his real name and takes Jack’s advice to treat him like an old friend rather than a monster. After some pratfalling with the explosives, Jack succeeds in freeing his friend but, when he tries to pick up the Bloodstone, it rejects him because he’s also hiding a monster within himself. Naturally, Verusa is disgusted by Jack’s charade and has him locked up with Elsa for her part in freeing the Man-Thing; although embittered that Jack kept his secret from her, Jack assures Elsa that he has “systems” in place to manage his monstrous side and that he works hard to keep that part of himself from hurting others. Unfortunately for him, Verusa doesn’t need to wait for the next full moon to witness Jack’s transformation as she possesses the Bloodstone; fearing what he’s capable of, he desperately tries to remember Elsa’s scent and begs for a merciful death, but Verusa forces him to undergo a startling transformation into a ravenous werewolf with her family relic. Naturally, the Werewolf goes on an animalistic rampage, savaging and tearing his way through anyone he deems a threat, but even his supernaturally-enhanced strength is nothing compared to the debilitating power of the Bloodstone, necessitating Elsa’s intervention to keep him from being killed. Retrieving the Bloodstone, Elsa is spared an evisceration after showing compassion for the Werewolf and Verusa meets a gruesome end when the Man-Thing gets his hands on her.
The Summary: Werewolf by Night establishes itself as a very different kind of Marvel production right from the start; not only is the entire feature in black-and-white like the old Hammer Horror films, but the Marvel Studios logo and main theme have been altered to evoke the gothic horror aesthetic of those classic horror films, all the way down to flashes of lightning over the logo, a suitably Hammer-esque orchestral score, and even film grain to give it that weathered, 1930s feel. Everything about the special screams Hammer Horror, right down to the gothic Bloodstone Manor and its hieroglyphics depicting the generations of monster hunting to the stuffed monster heads adorning the walls and the presence of the Bloodstone family crypt. In fact, the only time colour is even used in the special is when the Bloodstone itself is on screen, with the gem shining with a piercing blood-red light and breathing colour into the film after Elsa claims it in the finale. Sadly, the visual presentation doesn’t extend to the cast of characters; it takes about thirty minutes to learn Jack’s name and none of the characters introduce themselves so it was pretty difficult to tell who was who. None of the hunters except Jovan really stood out and we never really get a sense of who they are or their backgrounds; even Elsa and Jack’s origins are left frustratingly vague and Verusa came across as a cackling pantomime villainess that, while suitable for the Hammer vibe of the special, didn’t exactly make her any more nuanced than wanting to destroy all monsters simply because they are monsters.
On the flip side, I have to say that it’s great to see a character as obscure and visually interesting as the Man-Thing finally make it into the MCU after years of subtle allusions and references. Although an entirely CGI creature rather than being a marriage of digital and practical effects like in the 2005 film, the Man-Thing certainly impresses when onscreen. While the Man-Thing is supernaturally powerful and capable of melting a man’s head with one giant claw-like hand, he also showcases a childish demeanour; the creature is in pain and frightened by his current situation and desperate to get to safety, there’s a definite sense of victory when Jack and Elsa are able to work together to free the lumbering swamp monster from his pain and bondage. Even better, we get to see the Man-Thing in full colour and even handing Jack a cup of coffee after he recovers from his transformation, showing that the creature isn’t just some mindless beast and has not just a measure of intelligence but also a sense of humour. Interestingly, Werewolf by Night bucks a trend of many werewolf tales by not drawing upon the classic An American Werewolf in London (Landis, 1981) for its transformation sequence; instead, Jack’s transformation is largely relegated to a CGI light show and silhouette, which adds an air of mystery to the Werewolf, for sure, but half the fun of a werewolf feature is the gruesome body horror of the transformation. The Werewolf’s look, in the few instances where he is shown, is a nice throwback to The Wolf Man (Waggner, 1941); a furry, voracious humanoid wolf, the Werewolf makes short work of Verusa’s TVA guards, mangling, mauling, and manhandling them as Elsa takes out the last two hunts, all while framed by flashing lights and with a generous helping of gore splattering across the screen.
Ultimately, I’m somewhat torn; I enjoyed the visual presentation of the special, which is unlike anything else we’ve seen in the MCU and a fantastic throwback to the classic 1930s Hammer Horror films, but the characterisations are severely lacking. Obviously, it’s only an hour-long special so there’s only so much you can cram in there, and there’s something to be said for keeping an air of mystery around Jack and the Bloodstone family. However, it’s hard to care about the other hunters when none of them are ever named onscreen and they’re simply there to be cannon fodder for Elsa and the Man-Thing; even the appearance of TVA agents is a real head-scratcher and is never explained, nor do we learn anything about the Man-Thing’s backstory even as a throwaway line. The effects are pretty decent, but we don’t get to see the titular Werewolf until the last twenty minutes or so and even then he’s kept in shadow and framed in a way that keeps him monstrous to enhance his threat. I enjoyed seeing the Man-Thing in action, but I guess I was just expecting more monster action from this monster-centric special. I can understand wanting to showcase Jack as a human being trying to suppress his monstrous alter ego and I enjoyed that he goes out of his way to help monsters rather than hunt and kill them, but I didn’t find him a particularly compelling character. Similarly, there was some nuance to Elsa and potential in her conflict with her stepmother and her father’s legacy, but it just wasn’t expanded upon sufficiently enough for me. She’s just another bad-ass female fighter who distances herself from her family’s actions, but it’s not really explained why and all we’re really told is that Verusa and Ulysses recently Elsa for not living up to her potential (yet we see she’s the most capable fighter of all the hunters). In the end, I applaud the attempt at something new, visually and stylistically, and the introduction of monsters to the MCU, but, as presented, Werewolf by Night could easily be skipped or ignored at this point and I’d be surprised to see it directly referenced in later MCU projects.
Rating: 2 out of 5.
Could Be Better
What did you think to Werewolf by Night? Were you disappointed by the lack of insight and characterisation in the hunters? What did you think to Man-Thing, his visuals and his portrayal? Would you have liked to see more monsters featured in the special? What did you think to the Werewolf, his transformation and his bloody rampage? Did you enjoy the references to classic Hammer Horror films? Would you like to see more from these characters, and are there any specific Werewolf by Night and Man-Thing stories you’d like to see adapted into the MCU? Whatever your thoughts Werewolf by Night, leave them below or drop a comment on my social media.
The Plot: Mild-mannered gift-shop employee Steven Grant (Isaacs) is plagued with blackouts and memories of another life thanks to suffering from DID. When one of his personalities, mercenary Marc Spector, bubbles to the surface, he learns that he’s actually Moon Knight, the cloaked avatar of the Egyptian moon god Khonshu (El-Hakim and Abraham), and Steven is drawn into zealot Arthur Harrow’s (Hawke) plot to “heal the world” through the malicious power of the Egyptian goddess Ammit.
The Review: Moon Knight is a character I know next to nothing about beyond some sporadic appearances in Marvel videogames, and a general understanding of him, so his appeal, for me, has always been a very visual one. There’s something about his silver, hooded outfit and crescent moon gadgets that really speaks to me and I’ve always wanted to read more his stories but haven’t yet found an appropriate place to start. I’m a big fan of Oscar Isaac, Egyptian mythology, and the psychology and visual spectacle exploring a character like Moon Knight offers, however. I was hoping that Moon Knight would help to establish a contingent of street-level vigilantes in the MCU, ones whose concerns weren’t with sky beams and alien invasions, and delivering something a little more gritty and violent compared to the generally family-friendly MCU formula. When we’re first introduced to Steven Grant, he’s a simple gift shop clerk at the British Museum and having a great deal of trouble with his sleeping habits; suffering from insomnia and blackouts, he chains himself to his bed and rigs precautionary measures throughout his flat to track when he’s gone walkabout and stays up late playing with a Rubik’s Cube and reading up on the Ennead, a group of nine Egyptian Gods due to have a special exhibition at the museum. Steven’s tardiness and constant attempts to put his knowledge of and respect for Egyptian lore to better use as a tour guide earns him the ire of his boss, Donna (Lucy Thackeray), and he comes across as a bit awkward and frustrated with his lot in life. He wants more from life, and aspires to be more and put his knowledge to good use, but people frequently get his name wrong and he’s constantly shot down by Donna and held back by that quirky British politeness that keeps us from complaining. Steven’s only confidantes are his one-finned fish, Gus, and a mute, motionless living statue, Crawley (Shaun Scott), to whom he can freely vent about his issues and anxieties; however, he does leave regular messages for his beloved mother and has a crush on his co-worker (and actual tour guide), Dylan (Saffron Hocking). Although he has no memory of arranging a date with her, he’s excited at the prospect and consequently left absolutely devastated when his frequent blackouts cause him to miss entire days, thus ruining his chances with her.
It’s said that Steven’s blackouts have caused him to find himself in odd situations with no memory of how he got there, and he often treats many of the things he witnesses as nightmares, but his perception of reality is shattered when he finds himself being chased by armed men in the Austrian Alps! There, he not only discovers a strange golden scarab and encounters the measured and fanatical Arthur Harrow for the first time, but the mysterious, disembodied voice of Khonshu chastises him, calling him an “idiot” and a “parasite” and demanding that he “surrender the body to Marc”. Steven’s nightmare literally comes to life, however, when Harrow proves to be real and shows up at the museum looking to retrieve the scarab, which is actually a compass that can lead him to the tomb of Ammit, an Egyptian Goddess whom he serves and whose power he uses to judge whether souls are (or will ever be) capable of good or evil deeds. Recognising Steven as a “mercenary” who stole the scarab from his sect, Harrow is a former servant of Khonshu’s who became disillusioned with the moon god’s reactionary methods and has pledged himself to Ammit, who sees and knows all and judges people fairly according to their character, which he believes could’ve prevented some of the world’s most disastrous tragedies and wicked tyrants from rising to power if she hadn’t been betrayed and imprisoned by the Ennead. Like Steven, Harrow also hears a “maddening, relentless” voice in his head but he’s a far more emotionally composed and subdued individual, speaking with confidence and conviction and fully at ease with himself and his life’s mission. When he tries to judge Steven, the scales remain out of balance due to there being “chaos in [him]”; this chaos is Marc Spector, an alternate personality who inhabits Steven’s body and takes control of it whenever he’s in danger. This leads to a number of jarring and amusing jump cuts that show Steven having an episode and then waking up to find himself in the middle of a high-speed car chase or surrounded by dead bodies, but it’s not until Harrow’s jackal-like minion comes after him that Steven is forced to acknowledge that the voice in his head and his independent reflection are actually real and allow Marc to take control.
While Steven is somewhat awkward, a little sarcastic, very honest, and polite and speaks with the facsimile of a British accent, Mark speaks with an American accent and is a far more confident and self-assured individual. A disgraced and dishonoured soldier who turned to working as a mercenary, Marc is a dangerous and formidable fighter who carries a great deal of guilt on his shoulders; the avatar of Khonshu, Marc is charged with protecting the vulnerable and delivering Khonshu’s “justice” to the wicked, but this is contingent on Steven not interfering and Khonshu regularly admonishes Marc for not being able to keep Steven under wraps. Believing that he’s suffering from paranoid delusions and fully prepared to seek medical advice about his condition, Steven is confused and intrigued when Marc’s wife, archaeologist and adventurer Layla El-Faouly (Calamawy), tracks him down to finalise their divorce. After months of trying to get a hold of him and believing him to be dead, Layla initially believes that Marc is indulging in a deep cover story and is frustrated by his odd accent and behaviour, so she is understandably distraught to find that he not only doesn’t remember their life or adventures together, but also that Marc never confided in her about his condition. For his part, Marc has desperately been trying to keep both Steven and Layla safe; he’s distanced himself from his wife to keep her out of Khonshu’s grasp, since he’s always on the lookout for a new avatar, and the moon god effectively manipulates Marc into prolonging his service by threatening to take Layla if he doesn’t prevent Harrow from awakening Ammit. Marc is given the power to accomplish this through Khonshu’s “armour”, a wrapping of magical bandages that he can summon at will to become the titular Moon Knight. Armed with crescent moon weapons and capable of gliding on his matching cape, Moon Knight exhibits superhuman strength, agility, and durability, easily beating Harrow’s jackal to death and overwhelming a number of armed foes. The suit grants him accelerated healing and effectively makes him unkillable, allowing him to survive being shot at and impaled, but he’s not resistant to pain and loses his power when Khonshu is imprisoned in a small stone ushabti by the Ennead. Marc is well versed in the suit’s capabilities and has amassed quite the body count carrying out Khonshu’s will, but Steven is far more awkward; when he’s attacked by another jackal, Steven summons a literal three-piece suit and matching mask, much to Marc’s disappointment, and uses two far less lethal batons as Mr. Knight. However, just being granted superhuman abilities doesn’t make Steven a competent fighter and, when innocent bystanders are put at risk or the situation gets out of hand, Steven allows Marc to take control as Moon Knight so he can glide through sky, flinging himself across rooftops, and impale such monstrous creatures in suitably dramatic fashion.
Steven greatly disapproves of the bloodshed, however, and constantly interferes whenever Marc or Moon Knight are close to killing; when chasing down leads in Cairo, Marc is frustrated by these constant blackouts, which see Steven trying to get them out of the country before Marc can hurt or kill anyone, but both of them are confused when the bodies continue to pile up without their knowledge and they’re left without a lead when Harrow’s men demonstrate their commitment through suicide. Thus, they’re forced to turn to the Ennead for help and Khonshu summons a meeting of their avatars within the Pyramid of Giza by manipulating the sky; this is a problem, however, as the Gods disapprove of Khonshu’s theatrical and volatile nature as it threatens to expose them to the world. While Khonshu claims to be “real justice” since he punishes those who’ve done “real harm”, Harrow believes that Khonshu is a fickle and unstable liar who preys on those with a strong moral conscious, and it’s true that none of the Gods have much respect for him. In attempting to warn of Harrow’s intentions, Khonshu condemns himself to the Gods’ avatars – their leader, Selim (Khalid Abdalla), avatar of Osiris; Yatzil (Díana Bermudez), avatar of Hathor; and the avatars of Horus (Declan Hannigan), Tefnut (Hayley Konadu), and Isis (Nagisa Morimoto) – by accusing them of abandoning humanity. This enraged outburst is all the ammunition Harrow needs to manipulate the Gods into imprisoning Khonshu, thereby stripping Marc and Steven of their superhuman abilities, by branding the moon god a paranoid, jealous, unhinged outcast who’s so off the deep end that he acts through a psychologically unstable avatar. Although she’s powerless to prevent Khonshu’s imprisonment, Yatzil gives Marc a lead on Ammit’s tomb out of respect for her previous relationship with Khonshu and, thanks to Layla’s connection, they’re able to locate a sarcophagus in the possession of conceited, condescending self-styled philanthropist Anton Mogart (Ulliel). While Harrow pursues them and ultimately destroys the sarcophagus in a demonstration of power, Steven uses his knowledge of Egyptian scripture and hieroglyphics to help piece together the location of Ammit’s tomb, proving his usefulness despite not being as physically useful as his alter or Layla in a fight. Along the way, Steven becomes excited at the prospect of an adventure and exploring an actual Egyptian tomb and a strange love triangle eventually develops between Steven, Layla, and Marc as Layla warms to Steven because of his honesty and morals and they share both a kiss and a tender moment when she reminisces about the adventures of her father, Abdallah El-Faouly (Usama Soliman).
In contrast to Steven, who’s ungainly and full of self-doubt, and the mercenary Marc, Harrow is a well-spoken, composed, and enigmatic religious zealot and cult leader who willingly subjects himself to daily pain by filling his shoes with glass. His cane not only carries the likeness of Ammit but also contains a fraction of her power; with it, he’s able to determine whether a person is or ever will be good or evil, with the impure instantly dropping dead on the spot. Such is his allure and silver tongue that he’s easily able to manipulate regular mortals and Gods alike with just a few words and has swayed many to his cause; enough, in fact, to have established an idyllic society free from fear, crime, and selfishness where he is heralded as a savour, father figure, and leader. There, food is free, information and experience are openly shared, and everyone strives to better themselves…and all he asks is utter servitude to Ammit’s unbiased judgement. Having also spent time as Khonshu’s “Fist of Vengeance”, Harrow sympathises with Steven’s plight and encourages him to resist the moon god’s demands, but Steven finds the idea of pre-judgement disturbing and is disgusted when Harrow likens Ammit’s genocidal methods, which includes the murder of innocent children, to the severing of a diseased limb. Harrow’s cane grants him unique insight into Steven’s mind and this eventually impacts his relationship with Layla; although he tries to avoid discussing his bloody past and downplay Harrow’s poisonous words, he’s ultimately forced to admit that he was there when her father died. However, Marc was trying to save him and, for his insubordination, was also left fatally wounded by his former commanding officer, Bushman, and forced to accept Khonshu’s bargain in order to survive. This, however, is merely scratching the surface of Marc’s emotional damage; after being shot and killed by Harrow, Marc finds himself in his interpretation of the Duat (the Egyptian afterlife and just one of many “intersectional panes” that await us after death; since the Duat is impossible to comprehend, Marc interprets it as a psychiatric hospital in a reflection of his fractured mind. There, Marc and Steven exist as separate beings under the care of their therapist, Doctor Harrow, who tries to convince them that they’ve simply created an elaborate fantasy for themselves based on their love of adventure film Tomb Buster and to cope with a childhood trauma. Initially, Marc is more inclined to believe that he’s crazy and simply imagining everything rather than accept that an anthropomorphic hippo, Taweret (Antonia Salib), is guiding them to the afterlife, but is forced to face the truth when he sees the vast sands of the Duat for himself. Marc’s relief that he’s dead rather than insane quickly turns to desperation when the adorable Taweret urges the two to reconcile their unbalanced heart before they read Aaru, the Field of Reeds, as they won’t be able to find eternal paradise otherwise. Despite Marc’s best efforts to convince Steven not to dig into his fractured memories and to simply take control of Taweret’s boat for themselves, Steven is distraught to learn that he’s simply an alternate personality Marc constructed as a child to shield himself from the emotional and physical abuse of his mother, Wendy (Fernanda Andrade).
Wendy was left devastated when Marc’s younger brother, Randall (Claudio Fabian Contreras), accidentally drowned to death while play-acting Tomb Buster alongside young Marc (Carlos Sanchez). She not only spitefully blamed Marc for it, punishing and condemning him, but constantly shunned him and took every opportunity to make him suffer despite the best efforts of his father, Elias (Rey Lucas). Terrified of Wendy’s reprehensible outbursts, Marc created the alternate identity of Steven Grant (Tomb Buster’s Indiana Jones-type hero) to give himself a normal, happy life to retreat to rather than suffer his mother’s abuse. Initially, Steven is overwhelmed by the truth (and the revelation that his mother has been both dead for some time and wasn’t the doting woman he believed she was) but his anger turns to sympathy after witnessing first-hand the immense guilt and abuse Marc had to suffer. He’s even more disturbed when he witnesses Khonshu’s manipulation of Marc; appearing before him when he was on the brink of suicide, Khonshu offered to make him into an instrument of vengeance and encouraged his self-deprecating view of himself as nothing more than a killer, an event that Steven interprets as the moon god simply taking advantage of Marc when he was at his most vulnerable. Finally having found common ground, Marc is so devastated when Steven is dragged from the boat by hostile spirits and turned to sand that he rejects the peace and tranquillity of the Field of Reeds to reunite with his “brother” in the Duat and return to life through the Gates of Osiris(and the intervention of Tawerert). Thanks to Layla freeing Khonshu from his prison, Moon Knight is restored to full health and power, with Marc and Steven sharing the body equally, rapidly switching personalities and between Moon Knight and Mr. Knight as a united force, allowing them to broker a new deal with the moon god. After Harrow kills the Ennead, frees Ammit, and has his followers conduct mass judgement, Khonshu battles his fellow God in a kaiju-like brawl across Cairo while Moon Knight tackles Harrow. He’s not alone in this endeavour, however; since it takes multiple avatars to seal Ammit, Layla reluctantly agree to temporarily become Taweret’s avatar, the Scarlet Scarab, gaining her own armour and wing-like blades to help fight Harrow. In the end, though, Harrow is summarily defeated following another of Steven’s blackouts and Moon Knight ultimately rejects Khonshu’s urging to kill Harrow and Ammit. However, while it seems as though Marc and Steven have finally found a peaceful co-existence and been freed from their service to the moon god, a mid-credits sequence shows that there was a third, far more violent personality all along when Khonshu has this psychopathic alter, Jake Lockley, execute the Ammit-possessed-Harrow.
The Summary: Moon Knight is definitely a different flavour for the MCU; while there’s many of the traditional elements we’ve come to expect, especially in the high-stakes, CGI-infused finale and Harrow’s abilities basically boiling down to shooting electrical bolts, the depiction of duality and conflict and suffering in its main character really helps it to stand out. These days, we’re used to the MCU dipping its toe into Norse mythology and cosmic deities so exploring the Egyptian side of things really added a unique slant to the show. Steven treats Egyptian culture with a great deal of respect and is dismayed that the once grandiose society has been reduced to trinkets, toys, and sweets; he showcases an intricate knowledge of Egyptian folklore and traditions, particularly when it comes to their burial techniques and beliefs of the afterlife, and Cairo and its pyramids and society take the spotlight from the third episode, lending themselves to some stunning visuals and parkour chases. I really enjoyed how the show went balls-in with the depiction of Egyptian Gods and lore as well; Khonshu is this terrifying, robed figure with a bird’s skull for a head, we’ve got anthropomorphic alligators and hippos, and eight of their most prominent holy figures were represented in the Ennead. The depiction of the Duat was incredibly striking as well; Black Panther(Coogler, 2018) delved into the afterlife through the Celestial Pane and Moon Knight runs with this concept, postulating that all religions and afterlifes not only exist but that they are also connected and that there is some kind of serenity (and judgement) awaiting us in death. This set the stage for the show’s biggest revelations but also delivered its most harrowing scene; seeing Steven find his inner strength and then turn to sand was absolutely heart-breaking and it was very rewarding (if incredibly easy) when Marc decided to go back for him rather than be at peace.
Make no mistake about it, Moon Knight is the Oscar Isaac show. Just as Split (Shyamalan, 2016) showcased James McAvoy’s incredible range and versatility as an actor, so too does Moon Knight allow Isaac to show exactly what he’s capable of. Everything from his accents, his body language, and his little physical quirks helps to differentiate his personalities, to the point where Steven is horrified when he sees himself on security camera footage and can tell, simply through the way he’s carrying himself and the look on his face, that it’s not “him”. Mirrors play an important role throughout the film; reflective surfaces are plentiful, especially when Stephen is suffering from hallucinations, and he and Marc communicate through them. It’s absolutely captivating watching Steven have an emotional breakdown while Marc is pleading for control of the body, and Marc also exhibits his own unhinged side when he’s in control. Since he’s more composed and aware of their condition and what’s going on, his priority is always to shield Steven (and Layla) to protect them, even if it means pushing them away, lashing out, or fighting for control. The banter and interplay between Steven and Marc is a real highlight and an absolute testament to Isaac’s acting ability; the two bicker and squabble like brothers over the body, tactics, and even girls, with Marc threatening to throw them off a cliff and then forcing Steven to punch himself right in the nose for kissing Layla! This kind of physical comedy was also showcased in the first episode, where Steven was physically unable to hand the scarab over to Harrow and was jerked around like a puppet before blacking out so Marc could take control of the situation. As fantastic as Isaac as at switching between his personalities, you really get a sense of camaraderie and affection for the two when they’re split into separate beings in the Duat. Watching them endure Dr. Harrow’s manipulations while going on a painful and emotional journey of self-discovery was a harrowing experience and learning just how vindictive and abusing Marc’s mother was really drove home how damaged he was by the whole experience. It’s thus extremely cathartic when they come together for the finale, effortlessly sharing the body and their knowledge and experience to be a more effective whole, even though the hints to their more destructive third personality were peppered throughout the show and hint towards a greater conflict in the future.
Moon Knight was also a visual highlight as well and I really liked how his costume was interpreted as a magical construct of bandages and that it granted him superhuman abilities; while different from the comics, Mr. Knight persona also looked brilliant and Isaac’s quirky movements and snarky behaviour in this guise helped to make it a real treat when it showed up. Unfortunately, both incarnations of Moon Knight are used quite sparingly; thanks to Steven and Marc’s blackouts, we rarely get to see much onscreen violence and are generally left with the chaotic aftermath, which I actually found to be quite an amusing and unique narrative device. It really helped to build the mystique around Moon Knight and this was reflected in the few fight scenes of his we did get where the character is so ruthless and nigh-unstoppable that it’s difficult to believe he’s at risk so limiting his appearances helped make him more special, like he was Steven’s “big gun” to bust out and solve a situation. Plus, there’s a decent amount of action on offer; we’ve got car chases, parkour, and some pretty violent scenes as bad guys are squashed and sliced up or people simply drop dead from Harrow’s power. Layla proves herself extremely competent in a combat situation, gunning down and taking out Harrow’s men and undead Egyptian priests and even trying to assassinate Harrow before she agrees to become the Scarlet Scarab. These abilities make her an even more effective combatant and she and Moon Knight are clearly positioned as equals for the finale, where Harrows proves incredibly formidable, though he’s presumably overwhelmed by the brutality of Jake Lockely. Furthermore, we get a big kaiju fight between Khonshu and Ammit; it can be presumed that the general public doesn’t actually see this since Khonshu and Harrow’s jackals were invisible to those not “touched” by the Gods, but if you told me back when Robert Downey Jr was bombing about in a suit of armour that we’d eventually see two Egyptian deities fighting in Cairo then I would’ve called you a liar! Still, as great as these bursts of action, suspense, and the occasional bit of horror are (particularly whenever Khonshu is on screen), the interpersonal drama is the heart of this story; Steven is a deeply troubled man, one who’s been allowed to live a normal, mundane life thanks to Marc shouldering all the pain and regret, and seeing his unsatisfied but still chirpy demeanour falter when he discovers the truth was pretty tragic. Yet, his moral resolve holds true; while he lashes out at Marc for lying to him, he quickly comforts his “brother” and is always pushing for them to do the right thing, whether it’s apologising for his violent actions with that trademark British politeness, begging Mark/Moon Knight not to kill, or out-right trying to remove them from violent situations when he’s in control.
While it was a bit disappointing that we didn’t get to see more of Moon Knight or his fight scenes and it was admittedly a little cliché reveal that Steven wasn’t the true personality, there was an awful lot to like here. I found Marc’s justification for sparing Harrow to be a little odd considering the body count he’s amassed in Khonshu’s name (the souls of whom literally return to haunt and attack him in the Duat); I have to agree with the moon god that Harrow and Ammit’s threat was too great to let him live while other, less dangerous criminals were killed but I understand the sentiment. Not only did it tie into Marc’s now far more productive outlook on life and refusal to blindly obey all of Khonshu’s commands, it also led nicely into showing just how deep the moon god’s deceptions and machinations grow with Jake’s reveal at the end. All throughout, I was captivated by Isaac’s deeply emotional and incredibly impressive performance; watching him jump from an awkward, confused milksop to a focused and grim mercenary was fascinated and he was perfectly supported by a beautiful and adventurous co-star and juxtaposed by a disturbing and intense villain. Harrow is the best type of bad guy, one who truly believes that he’s doing the right thing in his intention to end suffering and selfishness by weeding out impurities and evil, and he’s so committed to Ammit that he’s more than ready to accept her judgement when she decrees that his soul is also unbalanced and tainted from his actions. Having formally been pledged to Khonshu, he knows full well what the moon god is capable of but, while he condemns Khonshu’s temperament and deceptive nature, he is grateful for being set on his path towards what he perceives as the greater good and often regretful of the lives that have been sacrificed to achieve that. Composed, measured, and a true manipulator, Harrow doesn’t necessarily need to pose a physical threat to be dangerous since he has Ammit’s power, a slew of disciples, and his principles behind him and yet he’s still able to fend off Moon Knight and the Scarlet Scarab in the finale. Supporting characters like Khonshu and Taweret also help to make Moon Knight incredibly enjoyable; I loved how Khonshu was this disgraced outcast, how dead set he was on his particular brand of justice no matter the cost to his reputation or the psyches of his avatars, and he was perfectly paralleled by the delightful Taweret and the scathing condemnation of the Ennead. For telling an incredibly moving and complex story of duality and guilt, delivering one of the MCU’s most visually impressive and brutally efficient superheroes, and delving into Egypt’s colourful folklore, Moon Knight definitely made an impression on me and I really hope that we see Marc, Steven, Jake, Layla, and Khonshu show up again for another round to see what other dark secrets and surprises are lurking in Steven’s fractured mind.
Rating: 5 out of 5.
Did you enjoy Moon Knight? What did you think to Oscar Isaac’s performance and the depiction of his multiple personalities? Which of the two personalities was your favourite and did you guess early on that Jake Lockley would be involved? What did you think to the Ennead, Khonshu, and the other aspects of Egyptian folklore? Were you impressed by Harrow’s threat or did you find him to be a bit underwhelming? What did you think to Moon Knight and Mr. Knight, their suits and abilities, and Layla’s transformation into the Scarlet Scarab? Would you like to see more from these characters, and are there any specific Moon Knight stories and villains you’d like to see in the future? Whatever your thoughts Moon Knight, leave them below or drop a comment on my social media.
Air Date: 19 March 2021 to 23 April 2023 Network: Disney+ Stars: Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Wyatt Russell, Erin Kellyman, Daniel Brühl, and Emily VanCamp
The Background: Unquestionably, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has become more than a success; from humble beginnings, it has evolved into a nigh-unstoppable multimedia juggernaut that has brought some of Marvel Comics’ most beloved, and obscure, characters to life in a way that no one could have ever predicted. Only a handful of the films produced by Kevin Feige and Marvel Studios have met with any kind of negativity or mixed reaction, and in a world that is becoming increasingly bleak and cynical the MCU achieved an impossibility by making the Star-Spangled Avenger himself, Captain America, a blockbuster movie franchise. Although Marvel Studios had dabbled in television ventures before, most notably with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013 to 2020) and their various Netflix shows, they really ramped up their focus on TV productions to coincide not just with the MCU’s fourth phase but also the release of Disney+, the streaming service of their parent company. Unlike other MCU TV shows, these shows were spearheaded by Feige and focused heavily on maintaining and expanding the continuity of the MCU going forward. One of the first pitches for this concept was a “buddy cop” series the focused on the dysfunctional friendship and grating banter between Sam Wilson/The Falcon (Mackie) and James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes (Stan); the series aimed to not only explore this relationship and Sam’s struggles with accepting the mantle of Captain America, but also tackle relevant social issues such as racism and coping with grief and change. Although delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier eventually released weekly on Disney+ starting from 19 March 2021 and was the most-watched show on the service for some time. Critically, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was extremely well-received, with reviewers praising the show’s depiction of racism and the dynamic between the two leads, though some criticised the show’s pacing and execution. Still, the show was successful enough to earn not only a second season but also a fourth Captain America movie that will see both stars reprise their roles on the big-screen and continue the plot threads left hanging at the end of the season.
The Plot: Six months after the events ofAvengers: Endgame(Russo and Russo, 2019), Sam Wilson struggles to live up to the mantle of Captain America and Bucky is still recovering from his brainwashing as the Winter Soldier. The two are forced to begrudgingly join forces with not only each other, but one of their worst enemies, to investigate a terrorist group in a worldwide adventure that tests both their abilities and their patience.
The Review: I am a bit late to the party when it comes to Disney+ and their various original content; the main reason for that is the sad fact that neither my television nor my service provider actually carry the app, and I didn’t really want to be watching the shows on a smaller screen. Ordinarily, I would wait for the home media release but it seems as though we might have to wait a while for that, or might not get it at all, so I finally decided to get started on working through them earlier this year and was excited to finally sink my teeth into The Falcon and the Winter Soldier since it was the one that looked most like what I enjoy about the MCU. Naturally, given the title, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier primarily focuses on Sam and Bucky and the fallout from Avengers: Endgame. At the start of the show, Sam continues to run missions for the United States military as the Falcon, quickly making an enemy out of Georges Batroc (Georges St-Pierre), and enjoying the chance to make a positive difference in people’s lives. Sam is determined (obsessed, almost) with helping people, trying to offer his services and council, and protecting others, even when it’s beyond him, but he is conflicted about taking on the mantle of Captain America.
Believing that he’s not able to live up to Steve Rogers’ (Chris Evans) legacy, Sam delivers an emotional speech in Washington, D.C. at a ceremony (more like a eulogy) at the Smithsonian Museum for Captain America where he entrusts the shield to the museum so it can be displayed as a symbol of hope and unity. In a recurring motif throughout the show, Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle) questions this decision, believing that times have changed, and that the world is “broken” and in need of fixing, and that Captain America is more important than ever before. Sam, however, remains steadfast in his decision to give up the shield since he can’t shake the feeling that it doesn’t belong to him, and instead tries to direct his attentions to reconnecting with his family. Sam’s sister, Sarah (Adepero Oduye), and his nephews Cass (Chase River McGee) and AJ (Aaron Haynes), maintain the family fishing business in Louisiana, but fell on hard times during the Blip and have struggled to stay afloat since the snapped were returned. While Sam is still somewhat stuck in the pre-Blip past, Sarah is faced with the cold, hard fact that she is out of options thanks to getting into debt; Sam, however, is determined to help, despite her cynicism, and is sure that he can help broker a new deal/loan at the bank and turn the business around. However, despite the adulation of the bank clerk for his heroics, Sam faces greater hurdles than he expected; things changed after the Blip, Sam’s income is questionable (apparently Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr) didn’t pay the Avengers, which I find odd), and the Wilson’s don’t have the collateral or standing to qualify for a loan. However, there’s also an undercurrent of racial prejudice throughout this meeting; though Sam refuses to quit, Sarah isn’t surprised that they got turned away and somewhat resents Sam’s absence (whether by choice or by fate) and efforts to swoop in and save the day when she’s been struggling so hard for so long, by herself, to keep the business afloat.
Already greatly troubled by these burdens, Sam is clearly conflicted when the United States government opt to reactivate the shield and pass the mantle of Captain America on Captain John Walker (Russell). The former Winter Soldier, Bucky Barnes, isn’t quite as shy about hiding his feelings regarding the matter, however. Although he’s received a full pardon for his past crimes, Bucky is legally mandated to attend regular therapy sessions with Doctor Christina Raynor (Amy Aquino) and continues to be haunted by vivid, explicit memories of his heinous past. Although he routinely lies to and criticises her, Dr. Raynor sees through his bullshit and he reluctantly relates that he’s been going through a list of his victims and trying to make amends with their families or bring those responsible for his conditioning to justice according to Raynor’s strict series of rules that prohibit him from killing, harming others, or doing anything illegal in order to help stave off his nightmares. Bucky is aggravated that Sam gave up the shield; he believes that Steve trusted in Sam, that he believed in him, and that Sam threw it all away like it was nothing and his stoic demeanour cracks when he states that if Steve was wrong to believe in Sam then maybe he was wrong to believe in him (as in Bucky) as well. This causes a great deal of tension between the two, who already had a pretty frosty relationship to begin with, which only escalates as they investigate a terrorist group known as the Flag Smashers. Led by Karli Morgenthau (Kellyman), the Flag Smashers believe that society was better during the Blip and want to restructure the world to remove all borders, both political and social, but are radical in their methods. Karli, and seven of her followers, have been granted superhuman strength and durability thanks to a new version of the super soldier serum, and use that power to launch a campaign against the oppressive governments and conglomerates, particularly the Global Repatriation Council (GPC), who seek to return the world to the way it was before the Blip. Sam is first alerted to the group by his military liaison, Joaquin Torres (Danny Ramirez), who is badly injured trying to fight Karli during a bank robbery in Switzerland, and the bulk of the series revolves around his efforts (and the efforts of others) to track them down. Karli comes across as very sympathetic and morally grey antagonist; her idea for a united world free from corruption is an admirable one, but she enforces her ideals through extremism and violence, which clearly puts her in the wrong. With slightly different methods and motivations, she could have rallied people into a productive force for good but, instead, she is a revolutionary posing as a freedom fighter. In a very short time, she has amassed a cult-like following of people only too eager to offer them food, shelter, and resources and Karli is determined not to let the same people who were in power before the Blip return to positions of authority, and to go to any lengths necessary to bring about “One world, One people”.
While Sam actively sympathises with Karli’s plight, and makes every effort to try and talk her down, neither Bucky or Walker share his unique approach to the situation; a former high school football star, decorated soldier, and American patriot, Walker initially struggles with the weight of expectation placed on him by assuming this mantle of Captain America. His wife, Olivia (Gabrielle Byndloss), and best friend, Sergeant Major Lemar Hoskins (Clé Bennett), offer him their utmost encouragement and support and Walker quickly takes to the public limelight, signing autographs and appearing live on Good Morning, America, and coming across as humble and appreciative of the opportunity (despite his impressive military record, physical fitness, and intelligence quotient) and selling himself not as a super soldier, but as a brave man looking to continue Steve’s legacy. Walker’s position as Captain America causes a great deal of friction between him and Sam and Bucky; although he helps them to (unsuccessfully) fight Karli and the Flag Smashers, his repeated attempts to work with them are met with reluctance and hostility (especially from Bucky, who quickly senses something is off about Walker). Bucky and Sam’s resentment of Walker is only exacerbated by his increasing arrogance and bravado; Walker’s mental stability is fractured further when he’s repeatedly left one step behind (or out of the loop) in the pursuit of Karli, is met with scorn and disrespect by the Flag Smashers, and is repeatedly bested in combat by both super soldiers and the Wakandan special forces, the Dora Milaje. He’s resentful of those with enhanced abilities, and the judgement he faces from the likes of Sam, and being forced to sit on the side lines, which causes him to blunder into situations full of piss and vinegar and even disrupts Sam’s attempts to talk Karli down.
Walker is joined in the field by Lemar, who fights by his side as Battlestar. While Bucky is ready to simply force Walker to give up the shield, Lemar acts as the voice of reason and not only manages to keep Walker focused but tries to keep the peace between them and Sam and Bucky to better pool their resources. When Walker is distraught at being so handily beaten by the Dora Milaje, Lemar admits that he would jump at the chance to take the super soldier serum since the benefits would far outweigh any side effects, arguing that they could have saved lives (and spared themselves a lot of bloodshed) during their time in Afghanistan. This is all the convincing Walker needs to take the serum for himself, but his already unstable mind and quick temper are only exacerbated by the serum, and by Lemar’s death at Karli’s hands. Walker’s grief quickly turns to outrage, and he takes his anger and pain out on Nico (Noah Mills), Karli’s close friend, beating him to death with the shield in front of numerous bystanders, many of whom record the incident on their phones. Walker is so traumatised by these events that he actually tries to justify them as being part of his duties as Captain America, and a brutal fight breaks out between him, Falcon, and Bucky when Sam tries to reason with Walker and Walker’s paranoia kicks in. Walker rips Falcon’s wings off, half-crazed by ego and madness, and Falcon is forced to break Walker’s arm to get the shield off him. Although Walker avoids a court martial for his actions thanks to his service record, he’s stripped of his rank, benefits, and the mantle of Captain America. Understandably, Walker is outraged at this betrayal but is given a second (well, third, technically) chance by Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), who sympathises with his plight and offers him a new assignment as the U. S. Agent.
Walker’s instability isn’t helped by Sam and Bucky’s decision to turn to Helmut Zemo (Brühl) for help; although Zemo is a dangerous radical and terrorist who cannot be trusted, he knows more about super soldiers than anyone left alive, but even Sam is aghast when Bucky orchestrates Zemo’s escape from prison and convinces him to aid them based on their common enemy. Zemo is only too eager to help rid the world of super soldiers, who go against everything he believes in, and the two reluctantly agree to utilise Zemo’s wealth and resources as a baron (not to mention his knowledge of Hydra and the super soldier serum). Zemo adds an extra dimension to the abrasive relationship between the two leads, riling up both Bucky and Sam with his mind games and taunts; Zemo questions the logic behind giving symbols and people too much power as you forget their flaws and it brews conflict. Despite being a bigot and a terrorist, Zemo makes some great points about the parallels between good and bad, heroes and tyrants; Zemo argues that his willingness to murder Hydra scientist Doctor Wilfred Nagel (Olli Haaskivi) shows he has the will to complete their mission, indicating his intention to kill Karli, whose attacks are becoming more and more frequent and dangerous. He also makes a convincing argument that to be superhuman is to be a supremacist, that Karli will not be able to stop herself escalating her methods and her goals, and basically comparing the Avengers to the Nazis and other supremacist powers on principal alone, while also expressing respect for Captain America for his strength of character. Zemo’s poisonous philosophies and mind games continually grate on Sam and Bucky, and his very presence causes controversy, especially when Ayo (Florence Kasumba) and the Dora Milaje come looking for him. Ayo only allows Bucky (whom she still refers to as the “White Wolf”) eight hours to make use of Zemo out of a fraying sense of respect, however while nobody trusts Zemo (and rightfully so), he actually proves to be super useful to the group’s investigation: he leads them to Madripoor, a desolate, neon-drenched haven for disreputable types run by the mysterious “Power Broker”, and to Nagel’s knowledge of the new super soldier serum. He often slips away from conflict and is ordered to stay out of the way, but actually goes out of his way to help Sam and Bucky, even donning his iconic ski mask to clear a path for his unlikely allies.
Zemo’s even able to use Turkish Delight and his way with children to lead them to Karli, but doesn’t show his whole hand to maintain his leverage, which riles Bucky up almost as much as Zemo’s smug, self-righteous, condescending hospitality. Still, his single-minded campaign against super soldiers causes some problems for the more righteous heroes; he not only executes Nagel, but he wounds Karli and angrily destroys the majority of her serum vials, which only serves to galvanise her extremism further. Zemo is instrumental not just in aiding Sam and Bucky but also in granted Bucky some of the closure he desperately needs; his code words no longer trigger Bucky’s conditioning, and Bucky opts to spare him so he can face imprisonment, and the two even part ways with a kind of mutual respect and understanding for each other. Zemo actually proves to be more of an asset than Sharon Carter (VanCamp), who was driven off the grid to Madripoor after helping Sam and the other Avengers during Captain America: Civil War (Russo and Russo, 2016). Resentful that she was left without the aid of the Avengers and to fend for herself, Sharon is less than welcoming to them, especially Zemo, because she’s been forced to live on the run, without contact with friends and family, and has been alone this whole time. Begrudgingly, she offers them shelter and has set herself up as the owner and proprietor of an art gallery filled with stolen, priceless pieces; recent events have left her cynical of the whole hero gig and she openly criticises their devotion to a cause she no longer believes in. Distrustful and bitter, Sharon agrees to help in return for Sam’s help in clearing her name and returning her home; while Sharon brokers a deal with some clients, the three blend in at her party, resulting in the now-infamous clip of Zemo partying down to some beats! Although Sharon’s information proves fruitful, and she’s instrumental in stopping Karli and the Flag Smashers in the finale, she is repeatedly shown to be somewhat shady and untrustworthy throughout the show, making suspicious phone calls and even hiring Batroc to add a wild card to the final episode. When Sam, Bucky, and Walker join forces to chase Karli down, Sharon is revealed to be the Power Broker in a tense showdown that sees her gun down Batroc for having the insolence to blackmail her and then shoot Karli to save Sam’s life after his attempts to reason with her fall on deaf ears. Despite her odd behaviour, Sam arranges for her to receive her full pardon, but, while she gratefully returns to a governmental role, she makes a suspicious call to an unknown party promising to deliver full access to the government’s resources going forward.
A central theme throughout The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is of racism and the power of symbols, labels, and Captain America; racist struggles and undertones permeate every aspect of the show, from Sarah’s efforts to keep the family business afloat to Sam being referred to as “Black Falcon”, and there’s even an unsettling scene were some cops randomly accost Sam, with the implication that they only backed down after realising that he’s the Falcon. These racial tensions are explicitly emphasised through the introduction of Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly), an African American veteran super soldier who fought, and defeated, the Winter Soldier in the Korean War. Jaded and betrayed by his country, Isaiah was imprisoned and experimented on for thirty years to help replicate the super soldier serum, leaving him a cynical and tortured individual. Sam is angered that a Black super soldier existed and has been buried and forgotten, and how many people got screwed over just to make the shield and Captain America a thing, regardless of how much good both have done. Isaiah bitterly talks about the oppression faced by Black people everywhere, especially soldiers who put their lives on the line for their country only to face bigotry and hatred upon returning. Isaiah reveals that his wife died while he was in prison, and that a bunch of prisoners such as himself were subjected to super soldier experiments and sent on missions even if they were unstable. After some of them got captured, Isaiah learned that the higher-ups were planning on destroying the camp rather than let their dirty little secret get out and rescued his comrades, only to be left a lab rat whose only salvation came from a sympathetic nurse. Sam is moved by his tale, and desperate to use every resource he has to tell it to the world, but Isaiah doesn’t share Sam’s optimism since Black people have been oppressed and erased for generations; he maintains that “they” will never let a Black man be Captain America, and that no self-respecting Black man would want to represent such a flawed symbol.
Although Isaiah’s tale causes Sam to contemplate if he should destroy the shield, Bucky emphasises that the shield is a symbol of hope to many, including himself. When Sam calls in the favours owed to his family by the neighbourhood, even Bucky gets stuck in with fixing up the family boat, and apologises for judging Sam’s decision. He helps Sam train with the shield and Sam encourages him to find his own path in life rather than looking to other people to guide him, and to “do the work” to make amends for his past by offer his victims closure, or a service, to properly put his sins to rest and, in that moment, they forge their friendship (though they still maintain their grating banter). Bucky’s support helps Sam to conclude that, while Isaiah may have a point, he owes it to all of those who suffered and sacrificed to stand up and keep fighting…and take on the shield, which he eventually manages to get the hang of after an inspirational training montage. This culminates in Sam making a dramatic appearance in the finale garbed in his all-new Captain America costume, courtesy of Wakanda, which is heavily based on his Cap suit from the comics and incorporates elements from his Falcon outfit, including the wings. As faithful as the suit is, though, I do feel like it’s a bit “busy”; it’s got white and blue and red and all kinds of different parts and details to it, which is fine, but it does seem like it could be streamlined and simplified going forward. Crucially, while Cap has (presumably Vibranium) wings and his additional technology and abilities allow for particularly exciting chase and action sequence involving a helicopter and a rematch with Batroc, Sam refuses the super soldier serum and uses his position to make an impassioned speech to the GRC representatives, the crowd, and the press about the dangers of labels and the importance of asking why people do the things they do. In a poignant address, Cap emphasises that that they all have a chance to make real change, to help those in need, and acknowledges that people will hate and judge him for being a Black Captain America but, despite that, he’s still there, a simple man with a strong belief that people can do better and the importance of setting a strong example and wielding power responsibly.
This comes after a dramatic and tragic final confrontation with Karli and the Flag Smashers, who launch an attack on a GRC conference; earlier in the series, Nico expressed his belief that the world needs heroes that “look like them”, that can relate to their plight, and even suggests that Karli has the potential to be as influential as Captain America because of her willingness to fight for those in need and to get her hands dirty in the process. Karli believes that the shield is “a monument to a bygone era” and serves as a reminder only of the people history forgot, and that the serum is the only way to bring about real change, and as part of that she only plans on killing people that “matter”, like John Walker and even Sam, as it will send a stronger message. This dismissive attitude raises the ire of Walker in the finale, but Sam consistently sympathises with Karli’s plight; for five years, the world completely changed the way it operated, offering aid and co-operating in a way that had never been seen before, but things have returned to normal and that is a jarring transition for many, especially the poor, underprivileged, and oppressed, who see Karli as a freedom fighter. Sam attempts to reach out to her, and convince her to come along peacefully, and is met with aggression and resistance; Karli rejects the notion that she’s a supremacist because she’s fighting against big, oppressive corporations but Sam argues that she’s killing recklessly, and heading down a dark path. Even when Karli threatens Sam’s family, he continues to try and reason with her and, when they go head-to-head in the finale, he refuses to fight her…or to back down…even as when she flies into a rage and mercilessly attacks him. After Karli is fatally shot by Sharon, she dies in Cap’s arms, leaving him with only an apology and regret at the unnecessary loss of life, and that tragedy fuels his big speech at the end.
The Summary: I really enjoyed The Falcon and the Winter Soldier; everything about it was indicative of a top-notch MCU production, from the music to the presentation, characterisation, and world-building. It was literally like watching a six-hour long movie rather than an episodic show, and a lot of that is due to how well the two leads characters are written. Sam and Bucky share some relatable and entertaining banter and dick measuring regarding their knowledge of pop culture, the craziness of their superhero lives, and it’s clear that they have a begrudging, grating, almost brotherly relationship. Bucky despairs of Sam’s reluctance to make or share his plans and goes out of his way to match his efforts, even leaping out of a plane at two-hundred feet without a parachute just to prove a point. When Karli threatens Sam’s family, Bucky insists on suiting up with him and has his back, despite the two having an abrasive relationship; this is best seen in an amusing moment where Dr. Raynor forces the two to sit down for some therapy and they push back against Dr. Raynor’s methods, rile each other up, and are forced to confront their issues. Although the two agree to part ways and never see each other again following this, they are soon bonded by their mutual respect and come to trust and even help each other with their doubts and issues. Bucky even has a little flirty banter with Sarah (which Sam warns him about) and, by the end, is laughing and enjoying himself with Sam’s family and neighbours. Their dysfunctional, brotherly, odd-couple dynamic is one of the highlights of the show and it’s great to see them ending the season as trusted allies.
A clear standout of the show was also John Walker, who gave a great turn as an unstable, violent, and unhinged version of Captain America. At first, he’s the humble, dutiful poster boy but it doesn’t take long for cracks to begin to show in his façade; the pressure of living up to Cap’s legacy weighs heavily on his shoulders and his ego and anger are only exacerbated by the disrespect and lack of recognition he receives from Sam, Bucky, and others. Walker has a tumultuous relationship with Sam and Bucky, who both see him as unworthy of the shield, and their attempts to join forces almost always become a war of words and very nearly lead to them coming to blows. The super soldier serum only escalates things further, finally granting Walker the power he so desperately craved but also driving him to sully his image by literally staining the shield with blood. However, Walker remains a complex and layered character; a tool of the system, he was used and abused just like countless other soldiers and left hanging after the government that made him washed their hands of him. After being stripped of the shield, Walker fashions his own, far less durable one and heads into the finale looking to kill Karli to avenge Lemar, but ultimately chooses to abandon his crusade in order to help save a truck load of hostages. Despite Sam and Bucky’s very valid reservations about Walker, he comes through in the end, but the series ends on a slightly ominous note with him rebranded to U. S. Agent and signed up to whatever Valentina has in store for him.
Other highlights of the show obviously include Zemo, thanks to his moral ambiguity and his twisted philosophies that actually make a great deal of sense; his inclusion was a masterful addition and really added to the dynamic between Sam and Bucky, as well as allowing the character to shift gears towards a more comic-accurate depiction, and it was fun seeing him rile the two leads up. Equally, Karli proved to be a surprisingly sympathetic and relatable antagonist; just as Zemo predicted, she grows increasingly bolder and more violent in her methods, eventually becoming willing to die and execute hostages for her cause, which unsettles even her followers. Yet, even when pushed right to the edge, she has a vulnerability to her; her adopted mother gave her shelter and love, and she’s just looking to provide for those in need and to stand up for the oppressed, but has turned her crusade against corporate or governmental propaganda and symbols like Captain America and her physical strength more than matches the strength of her beliefs thanks to the super soldier serum, making for an extremely dangerous and unpredictable enemy to unite these unlikely allies. Another emotional highlight was Bucky’s quest for redemption; haunted by this past and lost in a world that has passed him by, Bucky is desperately trying to find some purpose in life but finds himself constantly hampered by his violent actions. Not even a cute little date with a waitress (Miki Ishikawa) helps to alleviate his guilt and it’s only through fighting alongside Sam and that he’s able to start to come to terms with his sins. This comes to a head in the finale when he finally heeds Sam’s advice and finds the courage to confess his part in death of his friend Yori Nakajima’s (Ken Takemoto) son; it’s clear that he’s still got a long way to go to find the peace he wants but he ends the show in a far better place that he started it thanks to the partnership (and friendship) he builds with Sam.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is full to the brim with the biting, witty banter you’d expect from an MCU production and some exhilarating and exciting action sequence; Falcon dives and barrel-rolls through the air in freefall, Bucky throws bombs with his cybernetic arm, and action scenes are given a real punch (no pun intended) thanks to the Flag Smashers being augmented by the super soldier serum. Sam’s refusal to enhance himself in this way might be a questionable decision given he’s taking on the mantle of Captain America, but it goes a long way to keeping him humble, vulnerable, and relatable; he’s just a normal man striving to do better, without the shortcuts that Walker takes. Ayo and the Dora Milaje also contribute to some epic fight scenes, particularly in the way they humble Walker and even subdue Bucky by disabling and removing his Vibranium limb. Even more impactful, though, are the socially relevant themes in the show, such as racism and the power of labels and symbols; it’s no surprise that Isaiah’s story is framed as a dark parallel to Steve’s, and it’s deplorable to hear about what he went through while Steve was heralded a hero for similar deeds. It thus carries a significant impact when Isaiah ultimately gives Sam his begrudging approval and respect after being won over with Sam’s determination to be a symbol of his people and all those who suffered to make America the country it is today. Isaiah is moved when he sees that Sam has made good on his promise and arranged for him and his fellow soldiers to finally be recognised and honoured at the Smithsonian’s Captain America wing, and I applaud the show for tackling these unsettling issues head-on, even if Sam’s big speech might be a bit on the nose. Overall, this was a fantastic experience; it was literally like a fourth Captain America movie and really helped to flesh out Sam and Bucky and the changes brought to the MCU following Avengers: Endgame. I do wonder how explicitly subsequent movies and productions will relate to the events of this show, but it was a fun journey to go on and I’m excited to see how all the loose threads will be connected together going forward and for Sam’s big-screen debut as the new Captain America.
Rating: 5 out of 5.
Did you enjoy The Falcon and the Winter Soldier? What did you think to the banter between Sam and Bucky, and the dynamic added to the duo by Zemo? Were you happy to see Sam accept the mantle by the end or would you have preferred Bucky become the new Captain America? What did you think to Karli and her motivations, and did you enjoy the moral ambiguity of the show’s characters? Did you enjoy the introduction of U. S. Agent to the MCU and what do you think the future holds for him? Are there any Captain America stories and villains you would like to see make it to the MCU? How have you been celebrating the Star-Spangled Avenger’s debut this month? Whatever your thoughts on The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, or Captain America in general, sign up to let me know below or drop a comment on my social media.
In September 1961, DC Comics published “Flash of Two Worlds” (Fox, et al), a landmark story that brought together two generations of the Flash: the Golden Age Jay Garrick and the Silver Age Barry Allen thanks to the concept of the multiverse, an infinite number of parallel universes that allowed any and all stories and characters to co-exist and interact. Marvel Comics would also adopt this concept and, to celebrate the release of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness(Raimi, 2022) this month, I’ve been both celebrating the Master of the Mystic Arts and exploring the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s (MCU) equivalent of the multiverse every Sunday of May.
Air Date: 11 August 2021 to 6 October 2021 Network: Disney+ Stars: Hayley Atwell, Chadwick Boseman, Samuel L. Jackson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Ruffalo, Michael B. Jordan, Chris Hemsworth, Ross Marquand, and Jeffrey Wright
The Background: As a big comic book fan, it’s been absolutely amazing seeing the MCU become a multimedia juggernaut and some of Marvel Comics’ most beloved characters and concepts come to life on screen. Although Marvel Studios dabbled in television ventures with the likes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013 to 2020) and their Netflix shows, they really doubled down on TV productions for the MCU’s fourth phase to produce content for their parent company’s streaming service, Disney+. With MCU head honcho Kevin Feige behind them, the Disney+ shows aimed to maintain and expand the ongoing continuity of the MCU, but I don’t think anyone could have predicted that Marvel Studios would delve so deeply into the multiverse that we’d seen an adaptation of What If…?What If…? began life as a semi-consistent series of hypothetical, often light-hearted (or downright dark), stories that presented Marvel heroes and storylines with subtle (or major) changes. The Disney+ show followed this format and recontextualised the premise as an animated anthology series that would explore what the MCU would be like if characters or events had unfolded differently. The show’s animation was headed by Stephan Franck and sported a cel-shaded design that emphasised hyper-realism; as the MCU was officially exploring the concept of the multiverse, episodes could be part of the franchise’s overall canon and many recognisable faces, names, and voices returned to put a new spin on their iconic roles; however, although voice recording was able to continue remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, this production sadly marked the final performance of the late Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa/Black Panther. What If…? was received extremely well and the series was praised as a love-letter to the fans; despite some reservations about the format and presentation, reviews were primarily positive and spin-offs were quickly announced as either being in production or on the cards. Crucially, the multiversal scope of the series would be revisited in the live-action MCU films and characters and concepts from the show even seem set to cross over into the main MCU canon going forward.
The Plot: From beyond the multiverse, the cosmic being known as Uatu the Watcher (Wright) observes as the events of the MCU unfold differently, resulting in Peggy Carter (Atwell) becoming Captain Carter, Doctor Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) becoming a force for evil, a zombie infection running rampant, and T’Challa (Boseman) becoming Star-Lord. However, when a version of Ultron (Marquand) acquires the Infinity Stones and threatens the entire multiverse, the Watcher must break his oath of non-interference to assemble a heroic force capable of fending off this threat.
The Review: Because of the nature of the series, I think it’d be much better to look at each individual episode, what they do and how they work by themselves, and then talk about some overall themes and give my opinion on the entire concept down in the summary. The first season of What If…? is a nine-episode series of animated adventures that examine familiar characters and events in the MCU but change things about in subtle, or major, ways to create entirely new stories as part of the MCU multiverse. These alternate realities are observed by the enigmatic Watcher, a cosmic being bound only to observe and never directly interfere, and who acts as the narrator of the show. The Watcher’s opening narration explains the basics of the multiverse; as we were told in Avengers: Endgame(Russo and Russo, 2019), time and reality in the MCU is not a single, linear, fixed path. Instead, multiple timelines and alternate universes exist, with the deviations occurring from different decisions being made at key moments in time, however big or small. In this regard, time is less like a line and more like a river, with an infinite number of paths trailing off all over the place, and the Watcher acts as our impassive guide to this vast multiverse. The Watcher also serves as our narrator, quickly catching us up on the events preceding the episode and explaining when, where, and how each divergent timeline was created; however, he has taken a solemn vow to never interfere in the events he witnesses, no matter how gruesome or extreme they are.
The series kicks off with “What If…Captain Carter Were the First Avenger?” (Andrews, 2021), essentially a retelling of Captain America: The First Avenger (Johnston, 2011). Unlike in the original timeline, Strategic Scientific Reserve (SSR) Agent Peggy Carter chooses to stay and watch on the ground as skinny, ill-bodied Private Steve Rogers (Josh Keaton) prepares to become a super soldier. However, when the Nazi sleeper agent attacks the experiment this time around, Peggy manages to keep him from escaping with a sample of the serum but Steve is wounded, so Peggy ignores the orders of her commanding officer, John Flynn (Bradley Whitford), and voluntarily becomes enhanced to the peak of human physical conditioning before the experiment is lost forever. Promoted to head of the SSR, Flynn is outraged at the result; disgusted that the super soldier serum was wasted on a woman, he refuses to allow Peggy to actively participate in the war, much less on the front line, out of sheer prejudice, much to her chagrin and fury. As before, Hydra figurehead Johann Schmidt/The Red Skull (Marquand) seeks to usurp Adolf Hitler and claim victory for himself with the mysterious and all-powerful Tesseract. Flynn, however, is unimpressed by the threat and unwilling to risk even one man, let alone an entire platoon, on recovering the cube; luckily, inventor Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) believes so strongly in the Tesseract’s threat that he furnishes Peggy with a striking Union Jack-style costume and a familiar Vibranium shield so that she can single-handedly recover the Tesseract from Schmidt’s Hydra colleague, Doctor Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), decimating an entire convoy of Hydra’s soldiers with efficiency and glee and earning herself an official promotion to “Captain Carter”. Although he lost his best shot at fighting alongside his friend, Sergeant James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan), Steve is fully supportive of Peggy’s newfound strength and abilities and only too glad to pilot Stark’s Tesseract-powered “Hydra Stomper” armour. However, following an action-packed montage, Steve is apparently lost during a familiar assault on an armoured train; though grief-stricken, Peggy forces information out of Zola and leads an all-out assault against the Red Skull’s fortress, where they find Steve alive but are too late to stop the Red Skull from opening a dimensional rift with the Tesseract. The tentacles of a gigantic, interdimensional, Lovecraftian creature breach the portal, killing Schmidt and threatening all life on Earth; Peggy and Steve fend off the beast as Stark tries to shut down the portal, but Captain Carter is forced to sacrifice herself to the unknown by physically forcing the creature through the rift. The story then skips ahead to find the Tesseract being reactivated, spitting Peggy and the remains of the beast’s tentacles out into a Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.) facility where she meets Director Nick Fury (Jackson) and Agent Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and learns the bittersweet news that the Allied Forces won the war but she is now seventy years in the future, and thus forever cut off from her friends and loved ones.
While the first episode arguably played things a little safe, we really see the potential of a What If…? series with the second episode, “What If…T’Challa Became a Star-Lord?” (Andrews, 2021), which wildly deviates from the story of Guardians of the Galaxy(Gunn, 2014). Young T’Challa (Maddix Robinson) longed to explore beyond Wakanda but was shielded from the chaotic outside world by his beloved and overprotective father, T’Chaka (John Kani), only to be abducted due to a mistake by Yondu Udonta’s (Michael Rooker) subordinates. Surprisingly, he was excited at embarking on adventures throughout the cosmos with the Ravagers and, while T’Challa doesn’t possess the Black Panther’s near-superhuman abilities, he sports all of Peter Quill’s (Brian T. Delaney) gadgets in addition to his Wakandan fighting prowess. His greatest assets, however, are his charisma, diplomacy, and reputation as a Robin Hood-type figure. Indeed, T’Challa is far more competent, notorious, and respected than his mainstream MCU counterpart; not only does Korath the Pursuer (Djimon Hounsou) know who he is, he views sparring with Star-Lord as the greatest honour and willingly joins his crew. T’Challa’s positive influence means the Ravagers put their skills towards helping others rather than for personal reward, thus sparing Drax the Destroyer’s (Fred Tatasciore) family and even convincing Thanos (Josh Brolin) that his destructive aspirations weren’t the answer to the galaxy’s problems! Touched by T’Challa’s mission to save others after the presumed destruction of Wakanda, Nebula (Karen Gillan), now a far less violent and far more beautiful woman, proposes a heist to steal the Embers of Genesis, a cosmic dust capable of ending galactic hunger, from Taneleer Tivan/The Collector (Benicio del Toro). While sneaking around the Collector’s museum, T’Challa finds a Wakandan spacecraft and is angered to find that Yondu lied to him about Wakanda in order to help him realise his true calling as an adventurer. The two reconcile in the best way possible: by teaming up to fight with this much more formidable version of the Collector, who is enhanced by weapons, technology, and items retrieved from some of the MCU’s most powerful and prominent individuals and races. Thanks to their teamwork, the Collector is disarmed and left at the mercy of his captives, and T’Challa forgives Yondu’s deception before reuniting with T’Chaka and his people in Wakanda, bringing his two families together in celebration over their mutual friend. Across the world, however, a greater threat awaits when Ego (Kurt Russell) comes looking for his son, here a mere Dairy Queen employee.
“What If…the World Lost Its Mightiest Heroes?” (Andrews, 2021) takes us back to the middle of Iron Man 2 (Favreau, 2010) and Nick Fury and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow’s (Lake Bell) latest effort to recruit Tony Stark/Iron Man (Mick Wingert) to the Avengers Initiative. Fury is horrified when his attempt to stave off Stark’s palladium poisoning apparently has the unexpected side effect of killing the would-be Avenger; this tragedy is quickly followed by Thor Odinson (Hemsworth) being accidentally killed by Hawkeye’s errant arrow and the archer later being found dead while locked in an impenetrable S.H.I.E.L.D. cell. Fury suspects that his recruits are being targeted by an unknown party, and charges Natasha to escape Brock Rumlow’s (Frank Grillo) custody and make contact with Doctor Betty Ross (Stephanie Panisello). Though initially distrustful of Natasha due to her association with those who’ve hounded her friend, colleague, and former lover, Doctor Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Ruffalo), Betty is convinced to take a closer look at the injector used on Stark and theorises that a microscopic projectile fired from the needle killed the superhero. Hungry for blood after learning of Hawkeye’s death, Natasha agrees with Fury’s theory that their killer is targeting Avengers recruits; unfortunately, General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (Mike McGill) arrives looking to arrest Banner and sparks his transformation into the rampaging Hulk as in his solo film. However, the seemingly immortal Green Goliath also falls victim to the mysterious killer when he violently explodes from the inside out, and things escalate even further when Loki Laufeyson (Tom Hiddleston) arrives looking to avenge Thor’s death. Fury manages to buy himself one day to solve Thor’s murder on the promise of delivering the culprit to the God of Mischief and, when Natasha finds that a dead agent’s credentials were used to access S.H.I.E.L.D.’s database, she’s brutally beaten to death by an unseen assailant, and only able to tell Fury that all the deaths are relating to “hope”. This, however, is enough to piece together the perpetrator’s true identity: Doctor Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), who targeted Fury’s recruits in the guise of the size-altering Yellowjacket after his daughter, Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), died while working for S.H.I.E.L.D. A broken, bitter, twisted old man, Pym blames Fury and has become a deranged killer due to his grief and anger. However, Pym and his tech are outmatched when Fury is revealed to be Loki in disguise but, after Pym is defeated and taken into Asgardian custody, Loki double-crosses Fury and declares himself ruler of humanity. To combat this threat, Fury gets back to work assembling his super team, starting with calling Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (Alexandra Daniels) back to Earth and uncovering Captain America’s frozen body.
The show shifts over to the world of magic and mysticism for “What If…Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?” (Andrews, 2021), which presents a world where Dr. Strange and Doctor Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) are still a couple in a loving relationship. Fully supportive and enamoured by Dr. Strange, Christine encourages his ego and his skills as a surgeon, but sadly her influence doesn’t extend to his driving skills. However, in this world, Dr. Strange is relatively unharmed from the car crash that took his MCU counterpart’s hands but is left grief-stricken when Christine dies as a result of his negligence. In a bid to fill the void in his life, and his heart, Strange travels the world and, once again, ends up studying the mystic arts at Kamar-Taj under the tutelage of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). Like his mainstream counterpart, Strange becomes the Master of the Mystic Arts after the Ancient One’s death and successfully bargains with the Dread Dormammu (Cumberbatch), but remains preoccupied with the mistakes of his past and the promises offered by the Eye of Agamotto’s time-bending abilities. Haunted by memories of happier times with Christine, Strange ignores the warnings of the Ancient One and his manservant, Wong (Benedict Wong), and uses the Eye to place his current consciousness into the body of his past self. Unfortunately, the tragedy still occurs no matter how safely he drives, which route he takes, or even his refusal to go to the award speech as Christine dies again and again whether he’s there or what he does. Dr. Strange’s anguish at being unable to save Christine isn’t helped by the Ancient One’s explanation that her death cannot be averted as it would create a potentially universe-destroying time paradox (if Strange prevents her death, he won’t become a sorcerer and be able to go back and save her).
Refusing to believe that Christine is fated to die, and angered at the Ancient One’s refusal to help him break this “absolute point” in time, Dr. Strange uses the Eye to flee from the confrontation and consult the ancient tomes of the Lost Library of Cagliostro. There, he meets O’Bengh (Ike Amadi) and learns that one can potentially gain the power he requires by absorbing magical beings; thus, Dr. Strange conjures a variety of demonic, Lovecraftian, and magical creatures (including gnomes, familiars, dragons, and even the octopus-like creature Captain Carter fought). When they won’t willingly share their power, he resolves to forcibly take it, and quickly becomes obsessed with gaining more and more magical power from these entities over the course of centauries to become “Strange Supreme”. As he does so, he grows increasingly monstrous and takes on more of their attributes, but is shocked to learn from O’Bengh that he’ll never be powerful enough to achieve his dreams due to the Ancient One using magic from the Dark Dimension to split him in two and create two concurrent timelines. His other half, who took Wong’s advice and moved on from Christine’s death, is charged by an echo of the Ancient One to oppose his dark doppelgänger before his ambition erases all of reality. When Strange Supreme’s attempts to coerce his other half into joining his cause are rejected, a magical battle ensues that spans multiple dimensions. Despite Wong’s protective spells and Strange’s efforts to talk down his dark half, Strange Supreme’s centauries of basking in the powers of countless magical beings makes him the superior and he’s ultimately able to absorb his missing half. Finally whole again, Strange Supreme succeeds in undoing Christine’s death but is transformed into a demonic being by the effort this requires; understandably, she is horrified by his nightmarish appearance, and he’s left helpless to stop the time paradox from devouring all of his reality. Desperate to preserve the world, he begs the Watcher for help but he refuses to get involved, despite wishing to punish Strange Supreme’s reckless arrogance, and the once Sorcerer Supreme is left alone, despondent, and remorseful in the tiniest pocket of reality with nothing but his grief and regret for company.
One popular, recurring storyline in Marvel Comics in recent years has been the Marvel Zombies spin-off (Various, 2005 to present) that tells of a devastating zombie plague overwhelming the Marvel universe (and beyond). A version of this reality is explored in “What If…Zombies?!” (Andrews, 2021), which finds the Hulk crash-landing into the Sanctum Sanctorum as in Avengers: Infinity War (Russo and Russo, 2018) only to find it, and the streets of New York City, deserted. When Iron Man, Dr. Strange, and Wong arrive to take care of Ebony Maw (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) and Cull Obsidian (Terry Notary), Banner’s elation soon turns to horror when the three are revealed to be vicious, flesh-eating zombies who tear Thanos’s children to shreds, instantly infecting them in the process, and Banner is only saved from the same fate thanks to the timely intervention of Dr. Strange’s Cloak of Levitation, a swarm of ants commanded by Hope van Dyne/The Wasp, and Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Hudson Thames). Spider-Man’s amusing orientation video shows that the MCU’s zombies largely confirm to the “rules” commonly associated with their kind; they’re decomposing corpses with a voracious hunger who turn others with a single bite and can only be killed by removing the head or destroying the brain. However, they’re not as mindless or shambling as traditional zombies; they’re intelligent enough to co-ordinate their attacks and utilise tech like the Iron Man armour and magic like the Sling Rings. In a change of pace, the Watcher reveals a definite origin for the zombie outbreak by relating how Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) became infected with the virus while stuck in the Quantum Realm; when she bit Hank Pym, he brought the virus back with him and the entire world was quickly overrun once the Avengers were turned.
Banner joins up with the few uninfected survivors and learns from Okoye (Danai Gurira) of a possible cure at Camp Lehigh, New Jersey; the group travel to the Grand Central Station, where they’re attacked by zombified versions of Sam Wilson/The Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Hawkeye, and Captain America. Although they lose Harold “Happy” Hogan (Jon Favreau), the group is able to get the train working and fend off the zombies thanks to Okoye and the Wasp. However, the train is attacked by Zombie Cap, who infects Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) and forces Bucky to end his undead existence, retrieving his shield in the process, but Hope is also infected from a small cut she receives after disposing of Sharon. Although Peter tries to remain optimistic that she’ll be cured before she can turn, Hope sacrifices herself to atone for her part in causing the outbreak by carrying the group through a horde of zombies and dropping them off at Camp Lehigh. There, they find the zombies refuse to breach the camp thanks to the presence of the Mind Stone in the Vision’s (Paul Bettany) head; he and the severed head of Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) reveal that the Mind Stone’s properties can reverse the zombie virus, and the group is excited to spread the cure throughout the world from Wakanda. However, Banner learns that they’re not the first to respond to the Vision’s beacon, and Bucky is horrified to find that the Vision has been feeding parts of other survivors (including T’Challa) to a zombified version of Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) since she’s proven resistant to the Mind Stone and he’s been unable to kill her due to his love for her. When Wanda breaks free and proves uncontrollable due to her powers and hunger, the Vision rips the Mind Stone out of his head to atone for his actions and the group’s escape is covered by Bucky and the Hulk, who finally emerges from Banner’s psyche and is able to resist the zombie’s bite and hold back Wanda so the others can take off. The one-legged T’Challa, beheaded Lang, and shellshocked Peter console themselves with the knowledge that they’ll be able to save the world once they reach Wakanda, completely unaware that the nation has already succumbed to the infection and is under the rule of a zombified Thanos and his partially-completed Infinity Gauntlet!
We then go back to where the MCU all started in “What If…Killmonger Rescued Tony Stark?” (Andrews, 2021), which recreates the opening moments of Iron Man(Favreau, 2008) with one key difference: right as Tony Stark is about to be injured by one of his own missiles, he’s saved by N’Jadaka/Erik Stevens/Killmonger (Jordan), who fends off the Ten Rings soldiers looking to kidnap Stark and thus means that the genius, billionaire philanthropist never learns the humility or courage that led to him becoming Iron Man. Instead, he remains a conceited, arrogant, self-serving glory hound who believes that he needs to build bigger, better weapons to protect America’s interests. To that end, he drafts in Killmonger, who wastes no time in publicly outing Obadiah Stane (Kiff VandenHeuvel) as the man who bankrolled the Ten Rings’ attack on Stark, and Stark is so grateful to his saviour that he quickly promotes Killmonger to his new Chief Operations Officer, alienating Virginia “Pepper” Potts (Beth Hoyt) in the process. Killmonger swiftly becomes Stark’s closest friend and confidante and, together, they create robot drones, the “Liberators”, based on Killmonger’s fandom for anime. Killmonger pushes Stark to use Vibranium as a power source for the Liberators, and Stark sends in Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle) to steal some from Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis). However, the Black Panther attacks the meeting to recover stolen Vibranium, only for Killmonger to reveal his true intentions and kill T’Challa with one of Stark’s weapons. He chastises Rhodey for wearing the uniform of his oppressors and kills him with the Black Panther’s claw to make it seem like they killed each other; thanks to Just A Rather Very Intelligent System (J.A.R.V.I.S.; Bettany), however, Killmonger’s actions are revealed to Stark. Stark tries to avenge his friend’s murder using a Liberator, but Killmonger easily bests the drone and kills Stark with a Dora Milaje spear, which escalates the tensions between the United States and Wakanda into all-out war. General Ross assumes control of Stark’s assets and the Liberators are pushed into mass production; Killmonger then kills Klaue in order to deceive the Wakandans, then seizes control of the Liberators to lead his people in “defeating” the invading army. His victory and battle prowess wins over his uncle, T’Chaka, and earns him the mantle of the Black Panther; however, T’Challa’s astral warnings of Killmonger’s impending defeat are left a distinct possibility not only due to Ross’s obsession with continuing the war but also when Pepper and Shuri (Ozioma Akagha) agree to work together to expose Killmonger’s deception.
“What If…Thor Were an Only Child?” (Andrews, 2021) lightens things up a bit by retelling the events of Thor(Branagh, 2011); in this version of the story, in the absence of a brother to grow up alongside, Thor is little more than a lackadaisical, party-loving frat-boy who, despite still being worthy of Mjölnir, is far more interested in wasting time revelling with his friends than following his mother, Frigga’s (Josette Eales), instructions to behave or becoming a bore like his father, Odin Allfather (Anthony Hopkins). To avoid the all-seeing gaze of Heimdall (Idris Elba), Thor and his drinking buddies head the Midgard, the most backwater, insignificant world in all the Nine Realms, and invite guests from all over to join them in a massive, nonstop party. Tracking the cosmic disturbance and fearful of an alien invasion, Doctor Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) investigates and is both disturbed to find that Thor’s parties are so out of control that they can kill planets and won over by the Thunder God’s otherworldly charm. Jane and her intern, Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings), join the party, quickly being swept up in all the intergalactic chaos and merriment on display; Darcy even marries Howard the Duck (Seth Green), and Jane and Thor get matching tattoos, but soon wake up to massive hangovers and the arrival of S.H.I.E.L.D. Acting Director Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) is deeply concerned that Thor is leaving a trail of destruction as he takes his party on the road, and calls in Captain Marvel to assist with the perceived threat. Thor’s reunion with fellow party animal Prince Loki of Jotunheim is interrupted by Captain Marvel’s arrival; Thor brushes off her demands that he leaves, and a fight ensues that sees the two battle all across the globe. Despite Thor’s petulant, childish nature, the two are seemingly equally matched in terms of power and durability, but Carol’s forced to hold back her full power to avoid damaging the world or endangering lives. Since Jane disagrees with attacking or eliminating Thor since she’s so enamoured by him, she uses her tech to contact Heimdall and literally tells on Thor to Frigga. As Hill prepares an all-out nuclear strike against Thor, he’s terrified by Frigga’s impending arrival and begs his guests to help him clean up all evidence of their shenanigans. Despite Thor’s best, most frantic efforts to put right all the anarchy he and his friends had caused, she sees through his deception; however, rather than being mad at Jane for selling him out, he thanks her for teaching him a lesson in humility and asks her out…only for he, and the Watcher, to be stunned by the sudden appearance of an alternate version of Ultron!
This cliff-hanger is explained in the following episode, “What If…Ultron Won?” (Andrews, 2021), which presents a post-apocalyptic world where Black Widow and Hawkeye are the only Avengers left to oppose the all-powerful Ultron. In this world, Hawkeye not only sports his ridiculous mohawk and a mechanical right arm, but Ultron successfully fulfilled its goal to cause an extinction-level event by claiming the Vision’s body as its own, killing Iron Man, Cap, and Thor, and launching a worldwide nuclear attack that decimated humanity. When Thanos arrived looking to retrieve the Mind Stone, Ultron split him in two with one shot and claimed the Infinity Stones for itself, becoming a God-like being capable of laying waste to entire worlds and Realms with its endless supply of drones. Asgard, Ego, Xandar, and countless others all fall before Ultron’s power and even Captain Marvel is unable to oppose it; having eradicated the vast majority of life across the universe and ascended to a higher pane of existence, Ultron not only sees but also hears the Watcher. Although the Watcher previously considered intervening in Dr. Strange’s story, he held true to his vow of non-interference since he deals in a cosmic balance beyond the lives of mere mortals, even ones as powerful as the Master of the Mystic Arts. However, Ultron’s threat is so terrifying even to this cosmic observer that the Watcher is sorely tempted to assist Natasha and Clint in their efforts to coerce Zola’s artificial intelligence into helping them. The Watcher is pleased when their perseverance pays off but, although Zola is able to possess one of Ultron’s drones, he cannot shut down Ultron’s hive mind as Ultron is outside of the known universe, meaning Clint is forced to sacrifice himself so that Natasha and Zola can escape. The Watcher is aghast when Ultron not only does the impossible and breaches his cosmic observatory but is also able to match even the Watcher’s cosmic power. Their battle sees them literally smashing the dimensional barriers into numerous alternate realities and sees Ultron devour a whole universe and force the Watcher to flee. While Ultron prepares to lay waste to the entire multiverse, the Watcher is forced to turn to Strange Supreme for help in opposing Ultron’s threat.
This story, and the entire show, comes to a head in the final episode, “What If…the Watcher Broke His Oath?” (Andrews, 2021), which sees the Watcher recruiting Captain Carter, T’Challa Star-Lord, Killmonger, Party Thor, and a previously unseen version of Gamora (Cynthia McWilliams) to join Strange Supreme as the Guardians of the Multiverse. He enlists each of them right as they’re in the middle of tying up loose ends from their respective episodes and emphasises that every one of them is needed to protect something even bigger than their individual lives or concerns. Captain Carter immediately recognises the gravity of the situation, while Strange Supreme sees this as his chance at true redemption, and, despite the odds, they all tentatively agree to work together to combat Ultron, steal his Soul Stone, and destroy it using Gamora’s “Infinity Crusher” device. While Strange Supreme struggles to contain the dark magics within his body, Gamora is troubled by Killmonger’s obsession with Ultron’s technology, and Thor accidentally attracts Ultron’s attention, but the group is thankfully shielded by Strange Supreme’s protection spell. Following Captain Carter’s lead, the Guardians are able to launch a co-ordinated attack that allows T’Challa to swipe the Soul Stone; when Ultron makes short work of Zombie Wanda and follows the Guardians to its home reality, it gets summarily pummelled by the Guardians’ repeated attacks and Strange Supreme’s ability to counteract both Ultron’s Time Stone and match its enlarged form with his monstrous magic. Although they’re stunned to find the Infinity Crusher ineffectual because it and the Infinity Stones are from different realities, Ultron’s threat is ended when Captain Carter helps Natasha avenge Clint and fire an arrow containing Zola’s consciousness into Ultron’s armour, erasing its sentience once and for all. In the aftermath, Killmonger claims Ultron’s armour and proposes using the Infinity Stones to “fix” their universes; when they refuse, he attempts to destroy them and they’re saved by a Zola-controlled Vision, who tries to take the Infinity Stones for himself. Before they can properly get into a potentially devastating battle over the gems, Strange Supreme freezes them in time and seals them within a pocket dimension, ending their threat once and for all. The Watcher trusts Strange Supreme with watching over the two, and returns everyone to their proper place and time; since Natasha’s world was left lifeless by Ultron, the Watcher sends her to help Nick Fury overthrow Loki, and then alters his vow of impassive observation to a pledge to protect the multiverse when needed.
The Summary: At first, I wasn’t too sold on What If…?’s animation style; the slick, computerised cel-shaded look has never been a favourite of mine, but I was quickly won over by it due to how closely each character and episode mirrors their live-action counterparts. Everything from the recreation of certain shots, to the musical cues, to the costumes and likenesses perfectly emulates the source material each episode is based on, meaning we get the brown-hued colour scheme of World War Two for Captain Carter, the barrage of bizarre cosmic colours for Star-Lord, and the industrial, high-tech grey of Stark and S.H.I.E.L.D. facilities. Although some notable names from the MCU didn’t return to lend their voices to their iconic characters, What If…? employs the services of some incredibly gifted soundalikes and even goes the extra mile in presenting a version of Bruce Banner that resembles both Edward Norton and Mark Ruffalo, which is fitting considering we encounter this character between his solo film and his first big MCU crossover. Animation also means that What If…? is theoretically able to do absolutely anything it desires, regardless of budget, and is limited only be the imagination of the animators; thus, while things are a little on the safe side with slightly different retelling of Captain America: The First Avenger, Thor, and other MCU films, it’s not long before we’re seeing massive Lovecraftian creatures, a whole host of Marvel heroes interacting in ways we’ve not really seen before, an additional taste of the cosmic madness of the universe (and multiverse), and a wide variety of both horrifying and oddball concepts to really test the waters of what the MCU is capable of going forward.
I really liked that, despite their reversed roles, Peggy and Steve still have a mutual attraction based on mutual respect and their respective struggles; Peggy faces an uphill battle due to being a woman in a male-orientated world (and war) that constantly weighs her down even after she’s enhanced by the super soldier serum, and of course Steve has been overlooked and undervalued his entire life due to his gaunt frame and sickly nature. While everyone else is either incredulous due to her being a woman or impressed by her fighting prowess because she is a woman, and she must prove her worth through her deeds to win them over, Steve admires the person that she is and her fighting spirit; he’s the only one that doesn’t judge her for her gender and who doesn’t need convincing that she’s the right person for the job and is only too grateful to be an active combatant alongside her in the Hydra Stomper. Peggy is also quite different in the role; like Steve, she attacks it with a sense of duty and honour, but she also takes far more joy in her newfound abilities. There’s a sense that she’s finally able to let loose, that she’s been given the physical gifts to realise her full potential, and she literally dives head-first into making the most of that opportunity. T’Challa’s characterisation as a galaxy-wide force for good is a fitting tribute to the late Chadwick Boseman; unlike Peter Quill, T’Challa is a well-respected and competent space mercenary, and I loved the running gag that he’s somehow able to convince even the most maladjusted individuals to give up their villainous or tyrannical ways simply through presenting a convincing argument. Korath is only too willing to change sides simply out of his worship of Star-Lord, and his crew follow his lead into doing good deeds simply because he was such a positive influence on them. Unfortunately, he’s not able to have the same influence on the Collector, who’s not only blinded by his position in this universe, but also driven by his inherent greed and given a major power boost thanks to his artefacts. However, while threats still remain in this timeline, on the surface it seems to be a far more peaceful and united universe simply thanks to T’Challa’s positive influence on others.
Things take a turn to the dark side once the Avengers (especially Stark) start getting killed off; What If…? is a self-contained show within the larger MCU multiverse, meaning literally anything can happen to anyone, and seeing the franchise’s core six heroes be so brutally murdered really hammers that home. It also gives Hank Pym, someone introduced later into the MCU, a chance to be a more prominent player in this sandbox; seeing him active in the MCU’s first phase is a great way of fleshing out the world in a unique way, especially as he’s become a murdering psychopath. This is a Pym whose neuroses and paranoia have been pushed to breaking point, which deftly showcases just how much of a threat a guy with Pym’s intellect and technology can be to even the most superhuman individuals. Of course, the epitome of dark character turns is the tragic tale of Strange Supreme; it’s absolutely heart-breaking to see Dr. Strange left so desperate and despondent by Christine’s loss that he fell deeper and deeper to the darkness. His frustration and anguish at being unable to change the past see him become obsessed with gaining more and more power, to the point where he is fixated only on being reunited with his love. This makes him blind to all pleas, even those of his uncorrupted counterpart, and it isn’t until all of reality is about to be erased forever that he realises the error of his ways. Sadly, by then, it’s much too late for him to undo anything; Christine once again dies in his arms and everything that ever was is unravelled due to his time paradox; even the Watcher judges his heinous actions, and the once mighty Strange Supreme is left alone and repentant in the tiniest slither of reality. It’s a poignant and gut-wrenching take on the snarky, stubborn, and arrogant Sorcerer Supreme, one that shows just how dangerous a threat he could be if he lost his strong moral compass, and it’s a testament to the show that the character remained a tragic and relatable figure right up until the end rather than simply being a malevolent antagonist.
Easily the darkest tale is the inclusion of zombies; never before has the MCU veered so closely towards traditional horror and I really appreciated the bleak, gory change of pace. It was fantastic seeing the MCU’s most powerful characters reduced to animalistic ghouls, forcing the few survivors to battle their lifelong friends and making painful sacrifices to ensure the safety of others against overwhelming odds. This was also a prime opportunity to show a new side to the Vision; him luring in survivors just to feed his love is a haunting glimpse at the darker side of his cold, calculating logic. We’ve seen such behaviour, this overpowering sense of denial, in zombie films before and, here, it served as a gruesome reminder of just how close to the brink this alternate reality is to total collapse. This continued in Killmonger’s welcome reappearance, with his alternate tale basically showing what could have happened if he had succeeded in his goals of reclaiming his Wakandan birthright; Killmonger was always one of the MCU’s more driven and dangerous antagonists and his episode showed just how truly vindictive and sadistic he really was. He had no qualms about deceiving or using anyone and any resource at his disposal, and even incited an all-out war just so that he could get himself into a position of trust and power, which serves as a stark reminder to just how ruthless a villain he really was. The party-loving version of Thor is the polar opposite; Party Thor cares little for battle or being a king and just wants to enjoy himself. He revels in being the centre of attention and throwing the biggest, most outrageous parties in all the Nine Realms and is lauded amongst his guests as being the wildest party animal around. Thor is a consummate free spirit and a friend to all; alien races, Gods, and recognisable beings from all across the cosmos cheer his name and share in his revelry, making for some of the most light-hearted and amusing moments in the entire series as Surtur (Clancy Brown) tries it on with Lady Liberty and Frost Giants deface Mount Rushmore. This episode also leads to one of the best fist fights in the series as Thor and Captain Marvel trade blows, but he delights in the fight as much as he does in enjoying himself with mead, and only the disapproval of his mother finally shakes Thor from his apathy and pushes him to make amends for his reckless merriment.
Of course, things come to a suitably dramatic and action-packed conclusion with the final two episodes, which finally force the Watcher into action. Up until then, the watcher existed outside of the normal universe, powerful and cosmic enough to remain completely undetected, but Ultron’s sentience and force grows to such an extent that it’s able to sense the Watcher, breach his observatory, and begin a maniacal campaign to conquer and destroy the entire multiverse. Untold aeons of quietly observing the multiverse haven’t exactly dampened the Watcher’s power cosmic, but in the face to Ultron’s might, enhanced by the six Infinity Stones, the enigmatic onlooker is forced to do the one thing he has never done and ask for help, calling upon the characters he has been observing and asking them to intervene where he cannot. Seeing these wildly different versions of these characters interacting was a blast; they arguably got on the same page much faster than the regular Avengers (which is no doubt due to the short length of the episodes) and were able to launch a united attack on Ultron as a result. Indeed, Ultron kind of got a bit shafted in the last episode; it went from going toe-to-toe with a cosmic being to getting battered about by a handful of mortals and Godlings simply because the Guardians were able to keep the pressure on and keep Ultron from activating the Infinity Stones. Realistically, Ultron could’ve just “snapped” them all away, but then that wouldn’t be anywhere near as exhilarating for a final battle now, would it? Seeing Killmonger claim the gems and just the idea of what his twisted imagination would use them for was a cool moment, as was the idea that he might someday escape his trap to threaten the multiverse again, and just about the only issue I had with that last episode was the random inclusion of a Gamora when they could’ve maybe employed Zombie Wanda instead. Overall, though, I thoroughly enjoyed this series; the presentation, the humour, the fun twists on established characters, and the bizarre stories were all really fun and engaging and I can’t wait to see more from this as the MCU continues to expand into more and ore obscure concepts.
Rating: 5 out of 5.
Did you enjoy What If…?? Which episode was your favourite, and which of the alternate characters did you like the most? Did you enjoy the Watcher’s inclusion and characterisation? What did you think to all the cameos and the animation style? Did you enjoy seeing Ultron as an all-powerful force and what did you think to its battle with the Watcher? Were you also disappointed that Gamora didn’t get her own episode? Are you a fan of the What If…? comics and, if so, which was your favourite? What other hypothetical scenarios would you like to see explored in a future season? Whatever your thoughts on What If…?, sign up to drop a comment down below and check back next Sunday for the final instalment of Multiverse Madness.
In September 1961, DC Comics published “Flash of Two Worlds” (Fox, et al), a landmark story that brought together two generations of the Flash: the Golden Age Jay Garrick and the Silver Age Barry Allen thanks to the concept of the multiverse, an infinite number of parallel universes that allowed any and all stories and characters to co-exist and interact. Marvel Comics would also adopt this concept and, to celebrate the release of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness(Raimi, 2022) this month, I’ve been both celebrating the Master of the Mystic Arts and exploring the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s (MCU) equivalent of the multiverse every Sunday of May.
Air Date: 15 January 2021 to 5 March 2021 Network: Disney+ Stars: Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Kathryn Hahn, Teyonah Parris, Kat Dennings, and Evan Peters
The Background: Without a doubt, the MCU has become a nigh-unstoppable multimedia juggernaut that has brought some of Marvel Comics’ most beloved, and obscure, characters to life on the silver screen. Although Marvel Studios had dabbled in television ventures as well with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013 to 2020) and their Netflix shows, they really upped their focus on TV productions for the MCU’s fourth phase and to coincide with the release of their parent company’s streaming service, Disney+. Spearheaded by MCU head honcho Kevin Feige, the Disney+ shows focused heavily on maintaining and expanding the continuity of the MCU going forward, and the first of these announced was a spin-off that would focus on the previously underutilised characters of Wanda Maximoff (Olsen) and the Vision (Bettany). WandaVision was a curious venture that aimed to explore new areas of the MCU, and the multiverse, by placing the characters in different decades and parodying popular sitcoms throughout the years. Feige aimed for the show to shed new light on Wanda’s potentially dangerous powers and to lay the foundation for the MCU’s fourth phase by dabbling in the multiverse. Inspired by both classic sitcoms and notable comic book storylines involving both characters, the show was framed as a surreal and bizarre mystery that would weave in aspects from outside the MCU and build to a dramatic finale that fundamentally altered Wanda’s character. Released in weekly episodes that sent fan speculation into a frenzy, WandaVision received widespread critical acclaim; critics praised the show from breaking away from the usual MCU formula and its emotional and dramatic themes, though some criticised the finale and the show’s overall pacing. Still, WandaVision was highly successful and, while there are currently no plans for a second season, its story arcs were continued in further MCU films and spin-offs.
The Plot: Three weeks after the events of Avengers: Endgame(Russo and Russo, 2019), Wanda Maximoff and the Vision are living an idyllic suburban life in the town of Westview, New Jersey, where they conceal their true natures. However, things are not as they seem as their surroundings begin to move through different decades and they discover that they’re being manipulated by a malevolent supernatural force.
The Review: I’m admittedly pretty late to the Marvel Disney+ shows, primarily because neither my television nor my service provider actually carry the app, and it’s not the same watching on a smaller screen. I’d usually be content to wait for the DVD release, but it’s looking like we won’t actually get one so, with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness right around the corner, now seems like as good a time as any to actually watch WandaVision, which I honestly was the least excited about of all the Disney+ shows. This isn’t because I dislike the characters or the actors that portray them, it just seemed like a weird spin-off to produce, especially given the events of Avengers: Endgame, but I heard a lot of good things about it and followed the every-growing fan speculation so it was great to actually sit down with it and binge-watch it in one sitting.
Thanks to the inclusion of super cringe, super appropriate jaunty theme songs and opening titles at the start of each episode, WandaVision quickly catches us up with the two Avengers and the general theme of the show; somehow, Wanda and the Vision have gotten married and settled down in Westview, a quiet little town where they hope for a fresh start amongst normal, everyday people. To achieve this, the two keep their extraordinary abilities hidden; however, when in the privacy of their own home, Wanda freely uses her magic to perform household chores, such as tidying and cleaning, and the Vison walks around in his default synthezoid form without a second thought. Outside of the house, the Vision alters his physical appearance to pass as human and works at Computational Services Inc.; while he is naturally incredibly efficient and hardworking, neither he nor his co-worker, Norm (Asif Ali), has any idea what the company actually does. Although Wanda and the Vision seem perfectly happy in their new life, with all its quirks and eccentricities, WandaVision shows hints towards a darker side of their lives right from the first episode; while entertaining his boss and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Hart (Fred Melamed and Debra Jo Rupp), neither of the main characters can recall where they came from, when they got married, or how they even got there. Wanda is so confused by her inability to answer such simple questions that she simply sits, perplexed, while Mr. Hart chokes to death on a piece of food and Mrs. Hart is locked in an agonising loop where she can only say “Stop it!” with good humour. Eventually, Wanda sees how serious the situation is and asks the Vision to step in and the whole incident is laughed off as a gag, but it’s a disturbing moment made all the more intriguing when the episode ends with its events being watched by another within the show, providing our first hint that WandaVision is a show within a show.
Still, despite this incident, the two are determined to fit in with their quaint little suburban community; the Vision joins the neighbourhood watch, Wanda joins the planning committee for the local talent show, and Wanda is keen to take the family trick-or-treating later in the show. Essential to helping her to fit in is Agnes (Hahn), Wanda’s “neighbour to the right”, who constantly drops in on her at the most convenient of times to offer friendly advice about how to deal with the local social committee or to help her out of awkward situations. Agnes takes a special interest in Wanda and the Vision’s sex life (apparently because she is under-sexed and under-valued by her unseen husband, Ralph), and continuously probes Wanda for intimate details about her life and offers Wanda advice about how to spice up her sex life. Right from the off, Agnes is dropping hints about the two starting a family, and this is only exacerbated when Wanda feels detached from the community because she doesn’t have children like Dottie Jones (Emma Caulfield Ford), the head of the committee and a prominent figure in Westview’s social elite. After their magic show is a smash hit (despite the Vision being inebriated due to gum clogging his systems and Wanda frantically using her Chaos Magic to explain away her husband’s superhuman feats, and the fact that there are no children in attendance for show), Wanda is overjoyed when she spontaneously becomes pregnant and so angered by the strange appearance of a beekeeper’s outfit emerging from a manhole that she literally rewinds time to return to her happy moment.
Wanda’s pregnancy is explored through the third episode, “Now in Color” (Shakman, 2021); while she is delighted to find that she is already four months pregnant and happy to busy herself using her magic to decorate and prepare a nursery, the Vision begins to find himself disturbed by the strange goings on in their lives and around Westview. Every time he stops to consider why his neighbours are acting so strangely or how Wanda’s pregnancy is progressing so fast, Wanda gets closer and closer to popping, replacing his concerns with the dual emotions of happiness and anxiety at the thought of becoming a father. Wanda’s pregnancy sends her powers all out of whack and causes a neighbourhood blackout; when she worries that Westview will suspect she’s the cause of it, this strikes a chord with the Vision but, again, Wanda causes an abrupt jump cut to keep him from following his thoughts through any further and he’s soon rushing off to retrieve Doctor Stan Nielsen (Randy Oglesby) to help deliver the baby. Although she tries her best to hide her condition using bowls of fruit and to wish away a stork she randomly brings to life, Wanda eventually succumbs to her pregnancy but, luckily, her new friend Geraldine (Parris) is on hand to help out. Thanks to Geraldine, Wanda successfully gives birth to Baby Tommy and then she and the Vision are shocked at the arrival of his twin, Baby Billy. While thanking Geraldine and cooing over her babies, Wanda is reminded of her own twin brother, Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson); this seems to snap Geraldine out of her trance and, when she accidentally reminds Wanda of her brother’s death at Ultron’s (James Spader) hands, Wanda becomes enraged and forcible ejects Geraldine from Westview, which is revealed to be encased within a translucent energy field not unlike television static and monitored by government agents.
This is the perfect way to transition to some actual context for the show as, after three episodes of intrigue and mystery, “We Interrupt This Program” (Shakman, 2021) goes a long way to explaining just what the hell is happening by following Geraldine after she is restored to life by the second snap of the Infinity Gauntlet. It turns out that she’s not a native of Westview at all and is, in fact, a grown-up Monica Rambeau, which is relayed in a harrowing sequence where Monica stumbles through a hospital thrown into disarray by people suddenly returning from being disintegrated and culminates in her receiving the heart-breaking news that her mother, Maria (Lashana Lynch), succumbed to cancer while Monica was lost to the snap. Monica is a former fighter pilot captain in the Sentient Weapon Observation and Response Division (S.W.O.R.D.), an intelligence agency founded by Maria and now run by Director Tyler Hayward (Josh Stamberg) that monitors and responds to threats posed by robotics and artificial intelligence. Monica is assigned to assist the Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B. I.) with a missing persons case in Westview and liaises with Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), whose investigation has stalled because no one seems remember Westview or its inhabitants and the entire town is sealed within an odd temporal anomaly referred to as the “Hex”. After Monica’s drone disappears inside the Hex and Monica is sucked within shortly after, Hayward brings in Doctor Darcy Lewis (Dennings) and a number of other scientists to help. Darcy then recognises the patterns of cosmic background radiation and discovers that they are akin to old analogue broadcast signals, successfully tunes into WandaVision, and becomes invested in the show. Woo and Darcy ascertain that WandaVision’s “cast” is comprised of Westview’s missing residents, and that Monica and everything that breaches the Hex is assimilated into the show to become part of the cast a harmless toy, or a beekeeper. Their attempts to contact Wanda using radio signals only unnerve Wanda and injure Dottie, and Wanda is enraged at Monica trespassing in Westview; their confrontation is so traumatic for her that her sitcom demeanour falls away, and she’s briefly horrified by an apparition of the Vision’s mangled corpse.
From then on, WandaVision routinely switches between the ongoing drama within the show and the efforts of those outside the Hex to try and figure out what’s happening. Wanda and the Vision’s struggles to calm their crying children are skipped over when the twins spontaneously age-up to five years old; Billy (Baylen Bielitz) and Tommy (Gavin Borders) adopt a stray dog, “Sparky”, and then age-up another five years to be “old enough” to keep him. Sadly though, Sparky goes missing and is found dead by Agnes; Wanda struggles to comfort her boys, hypocritically asking Billy (Julian Hilliard) and Tommy (Jett Klyne) not age-up any further so they can face the natural reality of Sparky’s death. However, having seen what their mother is capable of (she soon decides she’s “tired of hiding” and openly uses her magic in front of Agnes), they implore her to use her powers to “fix the dead”, a feat that she believes is beyond even her and yet she’s stunned when “Pietro” (Peters) shows up on her doorstep, alive and well but sporting a new face and personality. The twins quickly become close to their fun-loving, free-spirited uncle; Pietro still has his superspeed, here depicted very similarly to his MCU counterpart, and is very much the freeloading man child archetype. Pietro causes havoc on Halloween night and is generally a bad influence on the twins, which he claims is what Wanda wants from him. Wanda doesn’t fully trust or understand his appearance, however, and is confused by their differing memories of their childhood; he relates a fuzzy memory of being shot to death and then hearing her calling for him and expresses an awareness of Wanda’s influence on Westview. Rather than judging her, Pietro is impressed at how far her powers have progressed but, just as she begins to feel comfortable enough to open up about how alone she has felt, Wanda has a brief vision of Pietro’s bullet-riddled corpse dead and strikes him with her powers when he makes a glib remark about the Vision’s death, which is enough to cause her to distrust him from then on.
Despite Wanda’s best efforts, the Vision’s concerns about Wanda and Westview continue to niggle at him; he’s aghast when Wanda brazenly uses her magic in front of Agnes and horrified when he learns the townsfolk are being manipulated by Wanda’s powers. When he confronts her, Wanda tries to walk away from the heated argument, and even rolls the credits, but the Vision persists, desperately trying to talk sense into her and infuriated that he’s being controlled, though Wanda insists that she’s not in control of what’s happening and is simply trying to make the best of it. Still, Wanda is troubled by the Vision’s behaviour towards her and his increasing tendency to go “off-script”; the Vision finds residents locked in (and pained by) endless, repeating loops or frozen in place at the edge of town and is stunned when Agnes reveals that he’s not only an Avenger…but also dead, two things he has no memory of. When he attempts to breach the Hex, he begins to disintegrate before Darcy and Hayward’s eyes, distressing Billy so much that Wanda expands the Hex to cover an even greater area and causes Darcy and several other S.W.O.R.D. agents to become assimilated into WandaVision. This only encourages Hayward’s belief that Wanda is a significant threat to Westview; already antagonistic towards superpowered individuals thanks to the struggles he lived through during the Blip, Hayward believes that Wanda is an aggressive terrorist and routinely clashes with Darcy, Woo, and Monica when they champion Wanda’s heroic actions and frame her as a victim of oppression and experimentation rather than aggressor, despite her recent actions. However, Hayward is unconvinced and even manipulates security footage to suit his agenda when, in reality, he’s reconstructed the Vision’s physical remains into a weapon under his direct control.
When Monica successfully breaches the Hex using a 1980s drone, Hayward attempts to assassinate Wanda, so she leaves her idyllic fantasy land to deliver a warning against him trying to interfere in her life. This, and expanding the Hex’s influence, causes Wanda’s mental state and control over Westview to begin to deteriorate as the show jumps ahead to the late-2000s; the house and town glitch and switch between eras and Wanda jumps at the chance to take a personal day while Agnes watches the twins. However, her confusion over her unpredictable powers soon turns to dread when she discovers an ominous, gothic lair in Agnes’s basement and her magic is rendered useless by a series of runes. This is when Agnes reveals (through a jaunty musical number) that she’s actually a malevolent witch named Agatha Harkness and has been behind everything happening in Westview (including Sparky’s death!) all along. While this is a fun reveal and definitely changes the context of the show, it does fall a little flat as many watching (including myself) would have no real idea of the significance of the name “Agatha Harkness”. Still, WandaVision tries to make up for this with a flashback to 1693 Salem, Massachusetts that shows Agatha being condemned by her fellow witches for practising dark magic from the forbidden tome known as the Darkhold and revealing that she’s capable of draining the magic and lifeforce of other witches to increase her powers. Drawn to, and envious of, Wanda’s power, Agatha desires to learn the secret of Wanda’s natural affinity for magic and forces her to relive some of her most traumatic memories to understand how the Avenger could possibly be the fabled “Scarlet Witch”.
Wanda witnesses a childhood memory of how she and her family would regularly watch old US sitcoms to bond and practice their English. It was during young Wanda’s (Michaela Russell) favourite episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961 to 1966) that their home was bombed, killing her parents and trapping her and young Pietro (Gabriel Gurevich) and actually the first instance of her using her Chaos Magic to affect the probability of the missile exploding. A subsequent memory of her volunteering to be a part of Hydra’s experiments with the Mind Stone shows that the Infinity Stone simply amplified Wanda’s natural magical abilities rather than causing them, as the MCU first suggested. Wanda also remembers a time when the Vision offered her comfort after Pietro’s death by suggesting “grief [is] love persevering”, and the truth behind her visit to S.W.O.R.D. headquarters after his death; contrary to Hayward’s earlier footage, Wanda was denied custody of the Vision’s expensive and potentially dangerous remains but was allowed to see for herself that he was truly gone. Grief-stricken, she visited Westview, where the Vision had intended for them to start a life together, and exploded in a burst of Chaos Magic; empowered by her pain and loss, her powers not only swept through Westview, transforming it into its original 1960s sitcom setting and enslaving its citizens, but also reconstituted an exact replica of the Vision for Wanda to settle down with and alleviate her anguish and she willingly lost herself to this fantasy world. Essentially a magic vampire, Agatha takes power from those she deems unworthy, and is far more adept at wielding dark magic than the more emotional and naïve Wanda; Agatha mocks Wanda for wasting the powers of the Scarlet Witch in such a way and goads her into a battle by threatening her children so that she can take that power for herself. Wanda is saved by the intervention of Hayward’s reconstructed Vision; cold and ruthless, White Vision attempts to kill Wanda as per Hayward’s orders, but she’s saved by the Vision. As both Visions prove to be equally matched in terms of powers and abilities, the Vision is able to subdue his counterpart by hypothesising that neither are the “true” Vision by using the philosophy of the Ship of Theseus to show that they are simultaneously both the Vision and not the Vision. The Vision then restores White Vision’s memories and personality, releasing him from Hayward’s control and ending his threat as he darts off the an uncertain future.
Hayward’s efforts to bring Wanda down lead Agatha to condemn him and his S.W.O.R.D. troops as being little more than the modern-day equivalent of witch hunters, but Wanda protects them regardless and Monica reveals that repeated exposure to the Hex has granted her superhuman abilities that allow her to shield the twins from Hayward’s attempt to gun them down. Darcy then rams his jeep to keep him from getting away and, thanks to Woo’s subterfuge, Hayward’s plot to emerge a hero from the whole affair is exposed. Agatha reveals that the Darkhold foretold that Wanda’s power is destined to not only rival the Sorcerer Supreme’s, but also to destroy the world, and forces her to face the consequences of her actions by releasing Westview’s citizens from her spell. Wanda is distraught to learn that those she thought she was protecting were in such physical and emotional pain, to the point where they beg her to let them go…or die to be free from their torment. Wanda creates a gap in the Hex so that the citizens can finally leave in order to both atone for her actions and to reject Agatha’s claims, but quickly reseals the Hex to keep Billy, Tommy, and the Vision from being erased. Forced to choose between saving her family or saving the town, Wanda ultimately accepts that she is the legendary Scarlet Witch and manages to outsmart Agatha by first overloading her with her Chaos Magic and then turning Agatha’s trick against her by casting protective runes that render Agatha’s powers inert. Wanda punishes the defeated and despondent Agatha by forcing to reassume her “role” as Agnes as recompense for her actions, and finally dispels the Hex, restoring Westview and the surrounding area to normal. Wanda and the Vision head home with the twins and reassure them that they’ll always be a family, before the two share an emotional last moment together where she admits that he was a product of her love and hope as much as her sadness and promises that they’ll see each other again. While Monica knows how much Wanda sacrificed to restore Westview and understands her pain, Wanda’s faced with the judgemental eyes of those she inadvertently hurt, so she heads out to understand her power in isolation at a remote cabin, where she studies the Darkhold in her astral form.
The Summary: At its core, WandaVision is a story about grief, loss, and the extremes one goes to after having suffered through some of the worst traumas both imaginable and unimaginable. Hayward’s concerns over Wanda’s threat, while radical, are well founded as, in a moment of anguish, she effectively manipulated the minds and wills of an entire town and forced them to bend to her desires just to make herself feel better. However, it’s clear that Wanda hasn’t done this out of any animosity or aggression; she’s simply suffering and in a great deal of pain, but has caught many innocent souls in her web as a result. Even the Vision is disturbed to see what Wanda’s influence is doing to Westview’s citizens; by touching his fingers to their temples, the Vision is able to free them from Wanda’s control and is met with only hysteria and pleas for help and to get Wanda to stop. When he confronts Wanda, the Vision is enraged at her actions and yet hoping that she didn’t tear families apart and hijack people’s lives out of any malicious intent…however, even Wanda begins to question her intentions and motivations, and her tendency to lash out and the uncertainty about the true nature of the Scarlet Witch certainly raises questions about her character.
WandaVision wonderfully separated itself from other MCU productions with its production style, format , and overall presentation, which becomes very metatextual and is full of homages to both the source material (the family dress up in comic-accurate costumes for Halloween) and a wide variety of American sitcoms. The first few episodes are presented in black and white, using an older aspect ratio, and clearly drawing inspiration from the sitcoms of the 1950s and 1960s, particularly the likes of Bewitched (1964 to 1972) in not only its premise and setting but also the filming techniques used (the special effects are achieved using practical, in-camera effects and of-the-time methods to give it that authentic fifties feel). The Bewitched influences are even more explicit in opening titles of the second episode, “Don’t Touch That Dial” (Shakman, 2021), which are directly influenced from that show, and we see this again as the series progresses, particularly in “Breaking the Fourth Wall” (ibid), which emulates the opening titles of Modern Family (2009 to 2020). The series is injected with a wash of colour at the conclusion of “Don’t Touch That Dial” and jumps into the vibrant brightness of the 1970s from “Now in Color” (ibid) to evoke groovy, jaunty, sitcoms like The Brady Bunch (1969 to 1974). With each new era, the character’s wardrobes, hair styles, and the show’s furnishings are all updated accordingly, and the focus quickly becomes about depicting the growth of Wanda’s family unit. Initially, episodes feature a canned laughter track to accompany the many sight gags and double entendres; this laughter track remains even when odd or disturbing events are happening onscreen, such as when characters are in danger of going “off-script”, and is ultimately replaced in favour of characters directly breaking the fourth wall or being filmed in a mockumentary, as was the style of late-2000s sitcoms.
WandaVision certainly got people talking when it first came out, and it’s easy to see why; every episode is peppered with gags, double meanings, and vague hints about what’s really happening in Westview (Agnes refers to Wanda as “The star of the show!”, which is another double meaning as she’s the star of the talent show and her own actual show). Many of the episodes end with false commercials for products and services that act as metaphors for Wanda’s suffering and anguish: The Stark Industries ToastMate 2000 is a metaphor for her sex life (and emits the same ominous beeping as the Stark missile that threatened Wanda’s life as a child, alongside the slogan “Forget the past, this is your future!”), Strücker watches directly reference the man who experimented on Wanda, Hydra Soak bath powder promises an experience so relaxing that it’ll make bathers forget their troubles and unlock the “Goddess within”, Lagos paper towels are tough and absorbent enough to clean up any accidental mess, the claymation Yo-Magic yoghurt is delivered to a boy stranded on a desert island who struggles to open the lid and wastes away to a skeleton over the course of several days and nights, and Nexus antidepressant pills offer a reprieve for those struggling with the weight of loneliness, guilt, and the feeling of life moving on without them and desperate for some relief. As if these odd commercials weren’t enough, the early black and white episodes are often punctuated by bursts of colour that disturb Wanda and allude to things being not quite right; Wanda is confused to find a toy helicopter that matches Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey, Jr) colour scheme and a tense discussion between Wanda and Dottie quickly turns bizarre when Woo speaks directly to Wanda through the radio, briefly causing Dottie to snap out of character and cutting herself to reveal red blood against the monochrome surroundings. Furthermore, there are numerous allusions to a greater threat looming in the background, one many assumed to be Mephisto; Dottie states that “The Devil’s in the details” and Agnes lends Wanda her rabbit, Señor Scratchy, but ultimately the threat proved to be much closer to home and hiding in plain sight.
Overall, I can see why so many people were impressed by WandaVision; the show is practically the definition of variety, featuring a lot of humour, heart, and drama to keep you invested throughout its run time. No two episodes are the same, even those set within the same time period, and the show evolves as we learn more about what’s going on, splicing in more of those familiar MCU elements while giving returning side characters like Darcy and Woo more time in the spotlight to shine as interesting personalities in their own right. WandaVision also introduces a new superhero to the MCU in the form of the grown-up Monica Rambeau, who ends the series altered at a cellular level and with the prospect of her own space adventure ahead of her with the Skrulls. Of course, there are some things that don’t work; it’s a bit of a tease to bring in Evan Peters only to have him revealed to be an actor with a ridiculously suggestive name who was manipulated by Agatha rather than actually being the Quicksilver from the X-Men movies (Various, 2014 to 2016). Agatha’s reveal didn’t really work for me either, as mentioned, but I did enjoy her as a villain and puppet master; however, it can’t be denied that reducing WandaVision to a big light show battle did kind of go against the deeper themes explored throughout the previous episodes. I think it might have been more effective to leave the Visions to handle the heavy combat in the finale and have Agatha and Wanda engage in a battle of wills rather than tossing fireballs at each other, but it was a colourful and intense end to the series. I enjoyed the chance to explore these characters in more detail, the new introductions to the MCU, exploring the effects of the snap from a different perspective, and the introduction of Wanda’s children and the expansion of her powers. WandaVision definitely tries something new and, for the most part, manages to stand out through its unique presentation; when it’s exploring Wanda’s complex trauma or paying homage to classic sitcoms, it’s really at its strongest, but there are a few missed opportunities spliced in there that may put some viewers off.
Rating: 3 out of 5.
Did you enjoy WandaVision? What did you think to the themes of grief and loss explored in the series? Did you enjoy the exploration of Wanda and the Vision and the additional spotlight given to some of the MCU’s side characters? What did you think to the use of different colours and filming techniques? Were you also caught up in the speculation, and were you suspicious of Agnes at the time? Did you find Evan Peters’ inclusion disappointing or were you excited to see him included? What do you see happening next for these characters and are you excited to see more from Monica and White Vision? Whatever you think about WandaVision sign up to let me know below or leave a comment on my social media, and check back in next Sunday for more Multiverse Madness!
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