The following article contains spoilers for Wandavision, Loki, and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier
I remember the first time I saw The Avengers (2012) in theaters: the scent of buttery popcorn saturating the air, the kid who kept kicking the back of my seat, and the raucous cheers any time all six major cast members were on screen together.
Over the years, Marvel movies have remained a staple in my—admittedly limited—cinematic repertoire. They’re the only movies I watch on long flights to the U.S., and still, the only movies I deign to see in cinema. No matter where I am, I’ve always made time to see the newest release in theaters—an homage to my original Avengers experience. My family still rewatches the films together, laughing every time Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.)’s sardonic wit pierces the stillness of a serious scene, or debating the enduring (though somewhat propaganda–like) appeal of Captain America (Chris Evans).
It’s one of those things that doesn’t necessarily fit with the rest of my personality or interests, the one puzzle piece that remains slightly askew in comparison to the larger picture. I’m not really a big fan of movies to begin with; I tend to stop paying attention because of the long running times or formulaic plotlines. As anyone who’s ever watched anything with me will tell you, I have an irritating habit of fast–forwarding through stagnant scenes or anything providing an inkling of secondhand embarrassment.
So when Marvel began ushering in Phase Four of its cinematic universe with television series—I was excited. The episodic format appealed to me more than a traditional film: I could take breaks in between episodes, and there was no need to deal with that dire feeling of emptiness that always accompanies the end of any good action movie. In actuality, none of these original sentiments turned out to be true: I binge–watched my way through each series, and was still left with a sickening sensation in my stomach at the end of each one: that this reality, my reality, was fundamentally disappointing. After all, it’s odd to watch characters deal with life–threatening, world–altering scenarios on a daily basis only to return to poring over the content of my anthropology final.
But Marvel’s new television series are brilliant in another way altogether. One of the things I’ve always appreciated most about the Marvel canon is continuity: after the events of Endgame, movies like Spider–Man: Far From Home explored what it actually meant for half of the world’s population to return after disappearing for five years altogether. Accordingly, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier continued that theme—with its titular characters Sam (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky (Sebastian Stan) dealing with a rebel group, the Flag Smashers, who want to do away with world borders and the council trying to re–establish them. In one scene, the leader of the Flag Smashers, Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman), points out the irony of the situation: “The GRC (Global Repatriation Council) care more about the people who came back than the ones who never left.”
Marvel is at its strongest when it acknowledges complexity and nuance: and its newer shows are no exception. WandaVision, in particular, is a poignant reflection on grief and PTSD: in the penultimate episode, viewers watch as Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) relives the worst moments of her life: her parent’s deaths at the hands of war, the loss of her twin brother, and eventually, losing the love of her life (Vision) in another battle. As Wanda stands on the land Vision (Paul Bettany) bought for them, staring at the deed to what would have been their home, she begins to cry with an almost cathartic force. Wanda’s turmoil gives way to the creation of the “hex”—a spell that casts the town of Westview, New Jersey into an idyllic sitcom town, complete with a recreation of Wanda’s husband Vision.
While Marvel hasn’t shied away from representations of mental health and PTSD before (notably in Iron Man 3), WandaVision is unique in the way it focalizes Wanda’s grief as the centerpiece of the show. Instead of being relegated to a plot device or a side conversation, her anxieties become the crux of the momentous spell that she casts.
Of course, the episodic format also allows for a certain level of creativity: earlier episodes are tailored to resemble iconic sitcom moments, with excruciating attention being paid to sets, costumes, and props. This level of inventiveness would be otherwise impossible in a single film: WandaVision deliberately plays on its format as a television show to engineer meta moments and nods to the audience. The show is resplendent with fake “advertisements” between scenes, breaking the fourth wall, and even a nod to the “recasting” of Pietro Maximoff, Wanda’s brother. For me, however, the appeal of WandaVision still lies in the representations of extraordinary individuals experiencing ordinary, painful emotions.
Any discussion of Marvel’s newer shows would be remiss without mentioning Loki; a show that has most recently redefined the concept of the multiverse. This is another benefit afforded to Marvel’s newest project: the ability to set up impending movies and cement together any gaps in the storyline. There are a lot of good things to say about Loki: the cast of characters (including Richard E. Grant as a Loki variant) is phenomenal, the attention to detail is astounding, and the production is, for lack of a better term, phantasmagorical. Guardians of the Galaxy and Infinity War may be stamped with alluring imagery of the cosmos—but Loki pushes the envelope. All of the other worlds depicted in Loki glitter and shine with the promise of enchantment. Notably, the representation of the sacred timeline surrounding the Citadel in the finale episode is particularly beguiling; an otherworldly mirage of light and glimmer swirling around a gargantuan castle.
But as a television show, Loki offers something that a film could not: a believable character redemption arc. Ultimately, the series offers a chance to put Loki through the ringer in a way a movie could not: he makes friends (though most are variants of himself—how’s that for narcissism?), begins to see the errors in his quintessential catchphrase of “glorious purpose,” and even falls in love (again, with himself). Though his character arc has been somewhat controversial, I find that the show finally gave Loki fans what they were clamoring for from the beginning: a reason to root for the “bad” guy. And while the finale left many ardent fans reeling—the lack of a traditionally neat ending is part of what makes the television format so great. The conclusion to season one of Loki bore more questions than answers: but perhaps that’s perfectly in keeping with the titular character himself.
While some criticized The Falcon and the Winter Soldier for being “dourly macho,” or cramming too much into one series: this show was by far my favorite. Part of the reason why is because Loki and WandaVision both require far more suspension of disbelief—something I’ve never been particularly good at. But mostly, it’s because The Falcon and the Winter Soldier delved into uncharted waters for Marvel—with an entire plotline dedicated to the existence of Black super soldiers, and Sam Wilson’s struggle to take on the mantle of Captain America as a Black man. The current zeitgeist in film and television is to repeat the mantra, “representation matters.” And while that’s certainly true, I find that there’s often a lack of critical discussion around that phrase.
In The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Sam Wilson reflects on what it means to carry a flag that doesn’t or hasn’t always stood up for him. It forces us to re–examine our own conceptions of the Marvel Cinematic Universe thus far. The original film, Captain America: The First Avenger, functioned in many ways as an alternate retelling of historical events: but The Falcon and the Winter Soldier contextualizes that alternate history within a very real one. While the show certainly could’ve done a better job of fleshing out its numerous storylines, it brought a sorely needed perspective to the cinematic universe.
Marvel has no shortage of upcoming traditional movie projects. As of recent, Scarlett Johansson reprised her role as Black Widow in the eponymic film, and Simu Liu is set to star in the upcoming Shang–Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. However, Marvel’s television projects have thus far offered a fresh, nuanced take on classic superhero storylines. They reminded me of the excitement I felt in the theater in 2012 when I saw the Avengers for the first time, and of the promise and adventure to come. I can only hope that their newer films live up to the legend, while continuing to honor and reinvent their legacy.