MCU Catch-Up (Part 1): On LOKI, BLACK WIDOW, and WHAT IF…?

Hey there, everyone – I’m back!

Finally got a new laptop (and eventually figured it out, kinda) and have a keyboard to properly write, ’cause my phone’s touchscreen hates me. Originally, prior to my computer troubles, I was planning on doing separate reviews for each Marvel Cinematic Universe series on Disney+ and the films. Except, much like The Falcon & Winter Soldier, I can’t really say enough about any of them alone for an entire piece.

However, I can as mini-reviews! In two sets, actually, and here’s the first…


LOKI

After WandaVision and The Falcon & Winter Soldier, having a series with the strengths of both while lacking the weaknesses of either – well, mostly – was a nice development. Much like WandaVision, it’s partly a character deconstruction of the titular individual but also functions as an adventure akin to The Falcon & Winter Soldier, albeit one of time-travel and parallel timelines than international intrigue and espionage.

The antics with the space-time continuum are far more interesting and meaningful here than in Endgame, as it rarely ever diverts attention away from the protagonist for the sake of plot contrivance and fan service. I mean, why would they, when he’s played by Tom Hiddleston? He’s consistently been my favorite thing about the MCU because, even in something badly-written, he puts a level of dedication into portraying the character that makes him relatable and – despite his godhood – feel incredibly human.

There’s actually very little for me to condemn except for how both Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Wunmi Mosaku are essentially playing the same character. The only real difference between them is how they respond to the reveal of the Time Variance Authority’s true nature, but ultimately unnecessary and does little more than pad out the runtime. It’s like Monica Rambeau, Jimmy Wood, and Darcy Lewis in WandaVision all over again. That final episode, however? I’ve never loved and hated something so much simultaneously. It is both an info dump explaining what’s been going on in this series while also another in-house ad for subsequent installments of the MCU and…stop it, Disney. Fucking stop it.

Anyway, what made all that tolerable is Jonathan Majors, who delivers the aforementioned info dump, for his performance is so expressive that he manages to make convoluted and interminable exposition less arduous to endure. I shouldn’t be surprised by this given his role in Lovecraft Country, where he seemed to channel the spirit of Gil ScottHeron (now that is a biopic I want to see!), with his versatility proven here by feeling like a completely different person to Atticus Freeman. But, more importantly, does this properly stick to landing by the end unlike WandaVision and The Falcon & Winter Soldier? The final scenes actually live up to all that came before, moreso given it isn’t resolved with some big battle (though there is a brief skirmish), and the cliffhanger is enough to make me look forward to the next season.

Seriously, I’m eagerly awaiting it. The next entry? Not so much – I dreaded it.

BLACK WIDOW

Like Black Panther before it, Black Widow feels like the sequel to a nonexistent previous film and suffers greatly for it. The “Budapest Mission” that’s been occasionally referenced in other films should’ve been enough by itself (especially as a prequel) but, for whatever bizarre reason conceived by Disney, we got a film that bewilderingly came out well after Endgame but takes place between Civil War and Infinity War. You could blame it on all the pandemic-based delays but that’s just an excuse when considering this: shouldn’t there have been two Black Widow installments already? One about the “Budapest Mission” and the sequel? And, if we were only getting one of them, why choose the latter?

Bringing up Black Panther once more; that film was full of characters standing around talking about past events which we almost never see, we’re just told about them (‘cause of course), and its aggravating to have so much of the runtime spent on it instead of making the narrative more self-contained and eventful in its own right. Black Widow does the same goddamn thing, and it’s significantly worse for one reason.

Y’see, Taskmaster is the film’s secondary antagonist and there’s a big reveal about their identity, but it doesn’t matter because there’s no set-up and the pay-off would’ve only worked if…we had a previous installment about the “Budapest Mission” to properly introduce and develop them. The filmmakers obviously want us to care about this reveal but, sorry, that’s impossible for a person who has only been mentioned a few times and seen once in a flashback to the nonexistent previous (and likely better) film. It’s a perplexing creative decision, on so many levels, and makes me wonder how it ever got past the pre-production phase.

Although it’s not totally worthless, as long as you just concentrate on all the interactions between Natasha Romanova (Scarlett Johansson) and the surrogate family she formed with Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), Alexi “Red Guardian” Shostakov (David Harbour), and Melina Vostokova (Rachel Weisz). The dialogue between them is all about characterization with as little exposition as possible, refreshing given the MCU formula’s tell-over-show approach, and it’s impressive how the script is able to capture the Russian mindset of these people. There’s that fatalistic edge in how they perceive and connect with the world around them including a cynical and sarcastic sense of humor, making the film’s comedy more dark than quippy, that’s incredibly amusing to see play out. They’re weirdly functional as a familial unit despite their outwardly dysfunctional behavior and the adversarial friction between each other is simply accepted as a dynamic for catharsis and reconciliation. If misery loves company, then Russians worship misery’s company.

It’s unfortunate, then, that such pleasant moments are sandwiched between dull action sequences with unremarkable choreography and further accentuates an issue I’ve always had with MCU Natasha: she comes off as more invulnerable than Captain America, a superhuman soldier that nonetheless takes a notable amount of damage which leaves a mark. Natasha can fall several floors, hit a bunch of construction scaffolding along the way, and get up with little more than a limp that goes away in minutes. She breaks her nose on a desk and then resets it, wherein the wounds just disappear. She gets into a goddamn mid-air battle straight from Bayonetta, which would work in a comicbook or cartoon or videogame but simply breaks suspension of disbelief in a live-action film. Moreso when it’s clearly established within the setting she’s a normal, albeit expertly-trained, human being. Maybe I would’ve cared about her or felt excited about anything she does if they actually treated her like that…

Now, let’s move on to something very different.

WHAT IF…?

I love anthologies. Can’t get enough of ‘em. Wish there were more – many, many more.

What If…?, loosely based on the comicbook of the same name, is certainly one of those but it suffers from inconsistent quality as well as self-limited by its own premise. There’re some fantastic episodes – “What If… Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?” is easily my favorite, followed by “What If… Killmonger Rescued Tony Stark?” – and others that’re amusing, like T’Challa (the late, great Chadwick Boseman) as Star-Lord or Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) as Captain America (“Captain Britain”?) or the globally catastrophic frat party Thor (Chris Hemsworth) throws on Earth, but it’s hard to feel as much enthusiasm for the others. I can’t help but blame this on the fact the setting of each story is just an iteration of the MCU than an entirely separate reality, which is what the comics did. The MCU is relatively young, compared to that of the mainline 616 (a clusterfuck of canon like all superhero comics), and there’re only so many scenarios you can use before the creative well runs dry.

It’s rather puzzling when Loki brings up Variants and they differ greatly from the Loki we’re familiar with – including one who resembles Abomination from The Incredible Hulk, a Gran Prix racer, and even an alligator (all without explanation as to why,  thankfully) – but there’s nothing like that in What If…? I suppose, given it is the first season, they were playing it safe and are leaving their more ambitious material for the next – but I’m annoyed there’s still an aversion to risk at this point, whatsoever. Disney could lose fifty million and it wouldn’t matter. It’s a drop in a bucket worth two hundred and four billion dollars. At least Werner Bros. has been redirecting their DC properties allowing more creative freedom for filmmakers, forsaking the shared universe concept, and telling self-contained stories.

What basically damned the season was extending the eighth episode – “What If…Ultron Won?” – into a two-parter when it worked well enough on its own. The destructiveness on display is downright creative, like Ultron (Ross Marquand) enlarging his head to cosmic proportions and biting down on a solar system as if it were a sandwich, and could’ve ended on a dark note similar to the Dr. Strange episode. If it had to extend into another episode, I’d of just preferred Ultron and Uatu the Watcher (Jeffrey Wright) both going Super-Saiyan while battling across alternate realities – perhaps teasing the audience with what’ll be seen in the next season – but instead decides to be a team-up with all the previous episodes’ protagonists (and a Gamora Variant, voiced by Cynthia Williams, that hadn’t appeared until the finale), which was a terrible idea. Evil Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) should not have been given a redemption arc of any kind, as it lessens the impact of that episode’s bleaker-than-bleak ending, and a potential sequel to Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) and his machinations are now impossible due to the outcome of a battle between a god-like Ultron and the terribly-named Guardians of the Multiverse (um, why not use “The Exiles”? A team made up of multiversal Variants?). None of them should be able to stand any chance against the omni-genocidal robot with all six Infinity Stones, either on their own or as a group, but they’re able to anyway ‘cause of both literal plot armor and deus ex machina.

There’s obviously a lot of untapped potential in the show and am happy it’s getting another season like Loki, but my expectations for it are lower. The talent is definitely there; the animation, even if off-putting at first, quickly grows on you and the voice-acting, save for some bad line readings here and there, is pretty good. Also, despite the contrivances in some episodes – like Ultron bifurcating Thanos effortlessly even when possessing five of the six Infinity Stones – I’m willing to forgive that when it’s to indulge further in the oddity or ambition of an episode’s premise.

I hope for the best yet am still expecting the worst – it’s far less disappointing that way…


Don’t worry, the next set will be less harshly critical (kinda) and, thankfully, you won’t need to wait a month (or three, or six…) – it’ll just be a week!

I’m making it a personal (for there is nothing professional about me) goal to post my work on a weekly basis, starting with the next set of mini-reviews and, after that, my Non-Fan Review of The Clone Wars and an essay on the world-building of Disco Elysium.

See y’all then!

[Edited 4/23/22, for grammatical correction]

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