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New Escapist Column! On Marvel’s All-New, All-Different Streaming Villain Problem…

I published a new column at The Escapist yesterday. The penultimate episode of Hawkeye featured a major reveal of a significant villain for the show. This is very typical of how the Disney+ streaming shows have operated, so it seemed like a good opportunity to talk about Marvel’s streaming villain problem.

Marvel Studios have long been criticised for their fairly generic villains. However, in the transition from blockbuster releases to streaming series, the company has created a new sort of problem. Instead of generic and forgettable antagonists, these shows tend to feature puzzle boxes and references, clues and riddles. The identity of villains are often hidden and concealed, treated as late-in-the-story revelations that reward long-term fans at the expense of pacing and characterisation.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

New Escapist Column! On The Genre Dissonance of “Hawkeye”…

I published a new column at The Escapist at the weekend. With the release of Hawkeye on streaming, it seemed worth an opportunity to take a look at the show.

In particular, there’s a fascinating genre dissonance between what Hawkeye is trying to be and what it actually is. The show positions itself as a feel-good holiday buddy comedy, but it also inherits the weight of a film noir. It is essentially a six-episode series rooted in the title character’s attempts to recover the one piece of evidence that links him to mass murder, but the show absolutely refuses to let any of these considerations get in the way of its desire to be “fun” and “chirpy.” The result is an interesting tonal clash between what Hawkeye wants to be, and what it actually is.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

Non-Review Review: Eternals

Chloé Zhao’s Eternals is a small, but necessary, step forward for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

There has been a lot of pre-publicity around Eternals, most of it centring on Zhao as an auteur. Zhao has given interviews insisting that she directed all of the film’s action. Kevin Feige has talked about how her work convinced Disney executives to shoot in real locations rather than simply rendering a lot of the movie in post-production. As such, Eternals has become a weird battleground for the idea of authorship within the confines of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

When Marvel saw the breadth of its domain…

It is easy to understand why this is. There have been Marvel Studios movies directed by Oscar-winners before; Joe Johnson won an Academy Award for visual effects on Raiders of the Lost Ark and Taika Waititi recently won a Best Adapted Screenplay award for JoJo Rabbit. However, there is something tangibly different about seeing a big budget blockbuster coming from an artist who won both Best Picture and Best Director at that year’s Academy Awards.

It also makes sense in the context of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There have undoubtedly been Marvel Studios films with strong senses of authorship: Shane Black’s Iron Man 3, Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy and Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, and Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. However, those movies all feel quite a long time ago. Although one can perhaps pick up traces of Cate Shortland’s personality in Black Widow or Daniel Destin Cretton’s interests in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, those films feel very familiar and very rote.

Red eyes in the morning…

There is tangible sense of opportunism at play in way that Marvel Studios has positioned Eternals as an auteur-driven project. After all, the studio has a long and complicated history with directors who have distinct visions; Patty Jenkins, Edgar Wright and Ava DuVernay have all suggested that the company’s culture is not particularly welcoming to creatives. In particular, Zhao’s assertion that she oversaw the movie’s action sequences exists in the context of Argentine director Lucrecia Martel, who recalls being told that if she chose to direct Black Widow, she would not be allowed to direct the action scenes.

Again, context is important here. Eternals is really the company’s first director-driven project since Black Panther, which is a big deal given the studio’s history of beginning pre-visualization of scenes and special effects “before the cinematographer or director has signed on to the project.” While movies like Avengers: Infinity War, Captain Marvel, Ant Man and the Wasp, Avengers: Endgame and Spider-Man: Far From Home are all varying degrees of entertaining, none of them feel like the work of a filmmaker who has something particularly pressing to say about the modern world.

Superfriends.

All this tension plays through Eternals, the fine balancing act between a director with a very distinctive artistic sensibility working with a studio that appears eager to launder its reputation by association, while also being anxious that this auteur doesn’t get to go too far. In some ways, Eternals feels like a limit case for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, an example of just how far the studio will allow a creative talent to stretch a rubber band before aggressively snapping it back into the default position.

This is the challenge facing Eternals. It goes further than any Marvel Studios film in recent memory, but that’s still not far enough.

Continue reading

New Escapist Video! “Eternals is Flawed and Messy, But Also Beautiful – Review”

I’m thrilled to be launching movie reviews on The Escapist. Over the coming weeks and months, I will be joining a set of contributors in adding these reviews to the channel. For the moment, I’m honoured to contribute a three-minute film review of Eternals, which will release in theatres next weekend.

New Escapist Column! On “What If…?”, and How We Measure What Stories “Matter”…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. Because What If…? wrapped its first season last week, it seemed like a good opportunity to take a look at the show.

In particular, What If…? demonstrates one of the tensions within modern pop culture. How does modern pop culture measure the worthy or value of a particular story? Historically, stories have been judged on their own quality, making arguments for their own value. However, with the emergence and evolution of shared universes like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it increasingly seems like audiences are being told that they should measure the value of a given story by how it “matters” to the continuity of the larger franchise. A story no longer has worth because it is good, but because it promises a return down the line.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

Non-Review Review: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

There’s something unsettling on how conservative Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is, even by the standards of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

This is particularly frustrating when Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings positions itself as a progressive piece of pop culture. There’s a lot to appreciate about the film, conceptually. It is the first film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe from an Asian American director. It is the first entry in the franchise with a predominantly (almost exclusively) Asian cast. It exists in conversation with the company’s long-standing history of clichés and stereotypes, exploring and reconstructing them. Even more than that, it has a fundamentally charismatic cast and a fairly solid emotional arc, both of which should sustain it.

Stick with it.

However, all of this ultimately feels like empty window dressing arranged around a weirdly traditionalist and pandering core. At its heart, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a story about how “kids these days” really don’t know what they’re doing or where they’re going, and really just need to get back in touch with their roots and learn from their elders. There are points when Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings feels a little bit like a Jerry Seinfeld joke about stupid millennials with their gap years and their gig economy.

There’s something disheartening in all this, particularly with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings positioned as the first true origin story to follow Avengers: Endgame, the herald of a new era for perhaps the most ubiquitous pop culture franchise in the world. However, when Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings should be looking forward into a bold new era, it casts its gaze backwards.

Continue reading

New Escapist Column! Reviewing “What If…?”

I published a new column at The Escapist today. I took a look at the opening three episodes of the new animated series What If…?

What If…? is an interesting step into the Marvel multiverse. It is a series of adventures that depart from the existing shared continuity in interesting ways, imaging alternate possibilities within the established superhero framework. The series itself is at its most interesting when it embraces the possibilities of the shared universe, but it suffers from a weird conservatism. At its worst, What If…? feels far too beholden to what has been rather than would could be.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

New Escapist Column! On “Black Widow” and the MCU’s Humour Problem…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. With the release of Black Widow last weekend, it seemed like a good opportunity to take a look at one of the film’s biggest issues and one of the biggest issues with the MCU in general: the question of tone.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is funny. It has always been funny. This is part of what distinguished it from a lot of its comic book movie contemporaries when it was released. However, as the universe has progressed and evolved, the “house style” has tended towards ironic and self-aware punchlines. Sometimes this approach works beautifully; many of the best Marvel Studios films are also the funniest. However, it can also serve as a distraction that lowers the dramatic stakes and undermines key character beats.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

New Podcast! The Escapist Movie Podcast – “Will Black Widow Have Us Russian Back to Cinemas?”

The Escapist have launched a movie podcast, and I was thrilled to join Jack Packard and Richard Newby for the twenty-first episode of the year. With the release of Black Widow on streaming and in cinemas, there was only one movie to discuss. So we went for a deep dive into Marvel’s interquel, its character-centric movie for a dead Avenger.

You can listen to back episodes of the podcast here, click the link below or even listen directly.

New Escapist Video! “Black Widow – Review”

I’m thrilled to be launching movie reviews on The Escapist. Over the coming weeks and months, I will be joining a set of contributors in adding these reviews to the channel. For the moment, I’m honoured to contribute a three-minute film review of Black Widow, which is releasing theatrically and on Disney+ Premier Access this weekend.