WandaVision is an escapist fantasy, but there’s no freedom from Marvel’s machine

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WandaVision wasn’t meant to be Marvel Studios’ first television show. That was supposed to be The Falcon and the Winter Soldier: an action-driven piece branching off from Marvel’s most popular movies, the most straightforwardly sensible pick for the franchise’s Disney+ debut. Production on the latter wasn’t finished in time, though, with filming delayed because of the novel coronavirus, in turn meaning that WandaVision was brought forward.

WandaVision also wasn’t meant to be the first Marvel content released in over a year: with twenty months between it and 2019’s Spider-Man: Far From Home, WandaVision’s arrival marks the end of the longest Marvel drought in a decade. Again, plans were disrupted because of the global pandemic, with Black Widow and The Eternals removed from their scheduled 2020 release dates. As a result, WandaVision took on a significance it was never intended to bear – but the series makes for an unexpectedly appropriate return, though.

Structured as a collection of sitcom homages, each new episode of WandaVision (with a few notable exceptions) has advanced through the decades of comedy history – the series began by mimicking The Dick Van Dyke Show and Bewitched, and in more recent weeks modelled itself on Malcolm in the Middle and Modern Family. The tension at the heart of WandaVision is the push-and-pull between these sitcom trappings, and a much more recognisable set of tropes drawn from the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe: Elizabeth Olsen imitating Mary Tyler Moore or Julie Bowen is intercut with Randall Park going through the motions of a Clark Gregg/Cobie Smulders role.

On one level, this is a little less unusual for a Marvel property than it necessarily appears – those films have always, at least ostensibly, styled themselves as different genres. That’s part of the appeal, and a big part of how they sell themselves: Captain America: The Winter Soldier is nominally a 70s style political thriller, Ant-Man is loosely a heist film, Spider-Man: Homecoming is broadly a John Hughes movie, so on and so forth. Exactly how well they live up to those inspirations almost doesn’t matter – changing the surface level iconography and applying a different aesthetic sheen to each film, even if they can be all be reduced down to something functionally very similar underneath that, is what sustains the MCU. (Or, put another way, you can make Iron Man twice if the second go around he’s a magician.) WandaVision goes further with this, a much more faithful recreation of its inspirations than its predecessors are of theirs, but it’s still operating in the same milieu as the rest of the Marvel universe. In and of itself, arguably the only innovation WandaVision has introduced is to literalise that question of genre, the puzzle box structure asking “what is this show, really?” being applied to something usually left only as subtext (or, if you prefer, marketing speak).

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What’s perhaps most striking about WandaVision, then, is essentially an accident. As many people have noted, the idea that Wanda is seeking refuge from her grief and pain by throwing herself into the television she loves is especially resonant now – it’s exactly what a lot of the audience will have spent the past twelve months doing themselves. (A stray reference to quarantining in the seventh episode takes on an odd resonance; WandaVision is about a traumatised woman who has to stop binge-watching sitcoms and face the real world, here defined as a Marvel movie, but it might as well be an instruction to the viewer at home.) After over a year without any new Marvel content, the franchise’s big return is a show about, on one level at least, the Cinematic Universe eating sitcoms from the inside out: the superhero genre dominating and subsuming that which thrived without it, demanding you pay attention to it again.

WandaVision is a show about its own impact on popular culture, and in a sense that’s what makes it such an inadvertently perfect piece to re-establish the Marvel Cinematic Universe after a period away. Where the past year saw a paucity of Marvel content, the coming year brings a flood: The Falcon and the Winter Soldier will air later this March, with Loki, What If…?, Hawkeye, and Ms Marvel to follow, while films Black Widow, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, The Eternals, and Spider-Man: No Way Home are all planned at least to see release too. Without really meaning to do so, WandaVision ended up setting the stage for that return – decades of television history slowly turning into the latest Avengers spin-off, diegetically as well as literally.

On its own terms, WandaVision is best when it commits to its central conceit, when it embraces the idiosyncrasies that made it so distinct; the show loses that sense of verve and flourish when it’s focused instead on spinning six different MCU plates all at once. There’s a marked contrast between the earlier episodes and the later ones – the WandaVision that ties into Thor: The Dark World, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Captain Marvel 2, and Dr Strange and the Multiverse of Madness is dull and flat and lifeless compared to the WandaVision dedicated to exaggerated hijinks and slapstick humour. (You can feel that on screen, sometimes; Kathryn Hahn is a delight as nosy-neighbour Agnes, but it’s obvious she wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic about playing Agatha Harkness.) It’s hard not to wish WandaVision had gone even further with its sitcom stylings – mimicking late-2010s dramedies like Fleabag with its eighth episode, putting a little more emphasis on jokes at the beginning – but by the point the show devolves into a blurry CGI mess, it’s easy to appreciate the time the show did spend as a comedy homage.

WandaVision loses something when it becomes so entirely of a piece with the rest of its franchise; a little less focused on character, a little less emotional clarity, a little less sense of its own identity. It’s a shame, not least because of how good Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany were when given the chance to do something new. It wasn’t exactly a surprise: the sitcom homage turns into a superhero film, just like the political thriller and the John Hughes movie did before it. For the most part, WandaVision has done what it was always expected to, sacrificing its charm and quirks in favour of an obligatory reversion to a familiar mean – but it’s hard not to read into the metanarrative there, as Marvel reasserts itself in the real world by telling a story about Marvel reasserting itself in a fictional one.

Or, put another way, what is WandaVision if not the Marvel Cinematic Universe persevering?

You can find more of my writing about television here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed this article – or if you didn’t – please consider leaving a tip on ko-fi.

Michael James Shaw on Avengers: Infinity War, his character Corvus Glaive, and more

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Part of the trick of playing a villain is finding the love in the character’s journey, and not playing ‘evil’, you know? With Corvus, there’s a strong connection to Proxima, but also he betrayed his people to work with Thanos. I created my own little history about why he’s looking for redemption with Thanos, and searching for retribution through his work with him. I find it kinda helpful to create that backstory.

As I’m talking to you, I’m also watching Ancient Aliens on the History Channel – there’s a history that may not be in the history books, but of what it means to be an alien. [It’s] outside our normal viewpoint, just to have a different level of consciousness. That opened up my imagination about what their world could possibly be like, and how they communicate on multiple levels – whether it be through actual English, or through clicking, or whatever. It just let me go wild – there were no limitations in terms of how he moved and how he expressed himself, you know?

My interview with Michael James Shaw! We spoke about Avengers, Constantine, and his upcoming show Blood and Treasure.

There are no spoilers for Infinity War in the interview, or very very light spoilers if you want to go in completely blind. I’d not seen the film myself when we conducted the interview – it actually hadn’t even been released yet. There was a still a week or two to go if I remember correctly.

What was interesting about this interview, actually, was that when I conducted it Michael’s identity as the actor playing Corvus was still being kept secret – to the point that, when it was being arranged, I wasn’t actually initially told it was going to be him. At first, he was just referred to as the Corvus Glaive actor (admittedly I had a hunch it was going to be Michael, because one of the things they did tell me was that the actor had previously been in Constantine, and Michael struck me as most likely of the cast to be Corvus).

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In season 2, Jessica Jones became more of a superhero show – but that’s not exactly a good thing

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No, Kilgrave – and, indeed, the first season of Jessica Jones as a whole – worked because there was a certain truth to him. The character served as part of Jessica Jones’ exploration of rape culture, of pervasive and insidious attitudes that can be observed in real life. A lot of the drama and tension comes from the fact that audiences are familiar with him, and those like him, both on a diegetic and extra-diegetic level; there’s something recognisable about Kilgrave, something that maps onto real life experiences.

Across season 2, we follow our eponymous hero as she’s drawn deeper and deeper into a convoluted conspiracy, uncovering information about the shady organisation that are responsible for her powers. It’s something that Jessica Jones isn’t particularly well suited to: the conspiracy angle is weak, and the return of a key character from Jessica’s past marks a genre shift that the show can’t sustain. In essence, it’s because little of this is analogous to real experiences. A huge amount of the strength of Jessica Jones previously came from its ability to use the trappings of the superhero genre to tell a story about trauma and surviving abuse; here, it’s weighed down by old tropes and familiar archetypes. Where the fantasy angle of Kilgrave’s powers was used to great effect to tell a story about genuine human experiences, that’s not the case in season 2.

Very heavy spoilers for Jessica Jones series 2 here, particularly after episode six – wouldn’t recommend reading it until you’ve seen the whole season, personally.

Not sure I quite got this article right – often the way when you’re writing quickly to meet a deadline, moreso after having binge-watched something. (One day, I should write about my growing disdain for binge-watching television programmes. It’s often a necessary evil of my job – gotta get the clicks within the optimal search hours – but I do think that television criticism, and actually in a broader sense television viewing, suffers from binge-watching.)

Anyway, though, this article. It perhaps might have been better titled “Jessica Jones loses sight of human experiences”, or words to that effect. In short, my feelings are that the best parts of Jessica Jones season 1 were the moments when it was least like a superhero show – when it reflected real life, even if only in an allegorical sense. The fact that it’s increasingly like a fairly over-the-top and convoluted superhero show in S2 was a bit disappointing – it felt like a genre shift in a show that didn’t need one. (Again, I have fairly complex thoughts on “superhero” as a genre definition, but that’s for another time.)

Still! I hope you like this article – or, if not the article itself, at least the basic gist of the ideas that are going on within it. Let me know in the comments below what you think!

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Marvel’s The Punisher was surprisingly good, if not exactly great

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As an exploration of the Punisher’s morality, the series is admittedly somewhat lacking. The villains of the piece reflect the same ideology as Frank; both the larger military-industrial machine willing to commit war crimes and an individual lone gunman who believes the end justifies the means, the antagonists of this series are Frank’s equal and opposite. And yet while the series deliberates, it’s unwilling to truly grapple with the question of what separates them – ultimately, the only thing that makes one a hero and the other a villain is who the series is named after.

Despite this, though, The Punisher is able to find a degree of depth elsewhere. Encouragingly, it avoids fetishizing violence particularly, wallowing not in a hail of bullets and gunfire but taking the time to indulge in slower, character-focused scenes. Jon Bernthal’s performance is key to this, anchoring the material as he elevates it; often the more compelling aspects of the series are the moments when Bernthal is allowed to move beyond the militaristic posturing and show a certain vulnerability to his character.

In hindsight, I wonder if I was actually too positive here – in my surprise that it wasn’t worse, I was maybe too forgiving of all the ways it was still pretty bad. Definitely, that line about fetishizing gun violence should have been way more heavily caveated.

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Amber Rose Revah on Marvel’s The Punisher, her character Dinah Madini, and more

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The key theme of what it is to be a human being is always relevant. Our passions, whether love or hate, forgiveness or revenge, are all part of the puzzle of our lives. We live in a confusing world, filled with uncertainty and tension, and need to shed some light on the issues we all face. 

Here’s my interview with Amber Rose Revah, one of the stars of The Punisher. This was an email interview, so the answers are a little shorter than they’d normally be; I think had it been over the phone, or in person, I’d have pushed a little harder for a proper answer to the question about gun violence.

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What is the place of a Punisher TV show in 2017?

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This discussion has started because of the Las Vegas shooting – the deadliest shooting in modern American history, coming just 476 days after the previous deadliest shooting in modern American history – but it’d be one worth having regardless. On average, there’s a mass shooting every nine out of ten days in America; Punisher exists in a cultural context that makes the character, if nothing else, an uncomfortable reflection of a very real and very present problem.

All of that said: What’s the place of a Punisher TV show in 2017? From the optics to the thematic content – how is a lone-wolf vigilante, taking the law into his own hands to murder those he deems guilty, a straightforward protagonist?

An article I wrote a while back about The Punisher, and just what the place of such a programme is in an era of mass shootings. When it came to actually reviewing the show, I think I was a little too kind to it – surprised, mainly, that it wasn’t worse, I mostly let it off easy. But I still think, though, that The Punisher show was misconceived on pretty much every level, and the lack of nuance inherent to its treatment of an increasingly murky premise is little more than an ethical lapse, frankly.

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Marvel Visual Development Supervisor Andy Park on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, the Marvel house style, and more

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I think that so much of that was the collaboration between us, the director, Kevin Feige… of course, with each director, they’re all going to have their own flavour, their own style, but that’s why having a group of artists, who have worked on our films, and understand the language of the MCU, as well as of course Kevin Feige and the rest of the Marvel team who are always asking how far can we go? What is that look that goes too far, to the point that it wouldn’t feel like part of the Marvel universe?

My recent interview with Andy Park!

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The Defenders is less a story, and more a drawn out contractual obligation

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It’s not so much that The Defenders is bad, exactly. Bits of it are quite good. The leads are, if nothing else, good at their job and keep the show afloat even as the script drags it down. Equally, though, it has to be said – it takes a special kind of programme to waste Sigourney Weaver. At the end of the day, there’s never really a sense that someone went into this with a story they wanted to tell, or any particular vision they wanted to realise.

Me on The Defenders, which I found quite disappointing on the whole.

Actually, “disappointing on the whole” is being far too kind – wasn’t it just staggeringly bad? Quite apart from the fact it managed to waste Sigourney Weaver (!!!) it moved at an absolutely glacial pace while still doing very little. One of the big things that stood out to me, actually, was that it couldn’t find the time for a scene between Matt and Claire, despite how important they’d been to one another in Daredevil. Just such a lack of focus on or interest in the characters (to say of nothing of moments of outright sloppiness, like poorly staged fight scenes and tonally mismatched musical cues), it was ultimately pretty substanceless.

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Who is Sigourney Weaver playing in The Defenders?

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We’re not far from the debut of Netflix’s superhero team up extravaganza, The Defenders. It’s set to unite Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist, bringing each one together from their own shows to fight a new evil that threatens New York. 

We know a lot about the different characters, of course – we’ve seen their respective shows. But what about Sigourney Weaver’s new villain? Who’s she going to play? Here’s a look at some of the theories, ideas, and persistent rumours surrounding the role…

A little bit of speculation about Sigourney Weaver’s character in the upcoming Marvel series, The Defenders…

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The Defenders catch-up: what happened in Iron Fist?

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We’re not far from the debut of Netflix’s superhero team up extravaganza, The Defenders. It’s set to unite Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist, bringing each one together from their own shows to fight a new evil that threatens New York.

There’s just one problem though – what if you can’t remember what happened in the other shows? It’s been a while, after all, and you probably don’t have the time to binge watch them all ahead of The Defenders. No need to worry – here’s your explanation of everything that happened in Iron Fist

Your summary of what happened in Iron Fist, how it ended, and any unresolved plot threads that might show up in The Defenders…

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