*Warning: Here there be spoilers*
My wife and I have always loved the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movies. The writing, the acting, the visual quality… from Iron Man in 2008 to Avengers: Endgame in 2019, we liked some movies more than others, but all ranged from good to great.
The MCU TV shows that started Phase 4, though, weren’t something we’d ever checked out.
We always visually skipped by them to scope out what was coming up next for movie releases.
Until the last few weeks.
We’ve been working at showing the Marvel movies to our daughter, who enjoys movies anyway but seems to particularly enjoy superhero movies (a chip of the ol’ block in that respect). And once we got to the end of Phase 3, we found ourselves with a question: Do we actually watch the TV shows now, which my wife and I hadn’t vetted at all, or do we jump over them again and get back to the movies?
We all agreed we’d try them out. And man, have I been impressed.
WandaVision, the first show in the chronology of Phase 4, does a simply fantastic job of capturing the look, feel, and even language patter of bygone eras of sitcoms, from early black-and-white “houswife stays at home and has best friend nosy neighbour and contends with issues arising from miscommunication with the straight-laced office-working husband” shows to the look, feel and style of sitcoms into the 2000s.
But you learn from episode 1 that something else is going on. Something’s not right.
Turns out, the watcher discovers, this isn’t just taking two Marvel characters (one of whom was killed in Phase 3) and putting them into different decade styles of sitcom. There’s an underlying, sinister-feeling… something happening at the same time.
Those weird otherly hints became too creepy in parts for our daughter within the first couple of episodes, but my wife and I finished the series, and there wasn’t much I could suggest to have improved it.
The final few episodes revealed a new character we’ll for sure see again in the MCU, planted the seeds for another spinoff story, and created some of the most unexpectedly moving heartbreak I’ve seen on TV or in movies, full stop.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was the next up in the chronology.
The series (like WandaVision, a single season) opens up with Sam “The Falcon” Wilson, who inherited Captain America’s iconic shield in the Endgame movie, dressing to present the retirement of the shield as it’s put on display as a museum piece.
That doesn’t sit well with Bucky “The Winter Soldier” Barnes, Cap’s lifelong friend, who holds a grudge against Sam for not taking the chance to be the new Captain America.
While Sam wrestles with the ideas of that, he’s also contending with trying to help his sister’s fishing business stay afloat (literally). She became a lot more independent when Sam had been among half the global population who disappeared for five years in The Blip, so she’s trying to stay independent and resist Sam coming in to save the day when that’s exactly what he feels he needs to do.
Meanwhile, Sam and Bucky are trying to contend with a newly discovered threat: A group of freedom fighters/terrorists who have all been injected with the super soldier serum (news to them that the serum had even been made after the last known vial of it was injected into Steve Rogers to turn him into Captain America in WWII).
Mixed in with that, Sam and Bucky are coming to grips with a newly appointed Captain America — a lauded soldier who dons the costume and gets Cap’s shield, but who’s quietly more than a little insecure about himself and, when he injects himself with super soldier serum, has anger issues that escalate to being cool with murdering people with his bare hands — reconnect with former government agent Sharon Carter, and Sam meets an old friend of Bucky’s, Isaiah Bradley, who we discover was injected with the super soldier serum before Steve Rogers was, but whose history was buried by the U.S. government because he’s black.
Isaiah rocks Sam’s world with not just existing at all as who and what he is, but with the unshakeable belief that after how America has treated black people for hundreds of years, no self-respecting black man would ever be allowed to be, let alone should he want to be, Captain America.
Meanwhile, Bucky finally starts coming to grips with his being a mind-controlled puppet used to perform hits on high profile targets in the past, and finally understands what he has to do to start making amends for that with people affected by it now.
Lots of interaction and introspection and points of view for the characters and viewers to mull over in a surprisingly deep look into what people believe and why, how that will always be defined by the eye of the beholder, and beyond all of that, how you have to be true to yourself anyway.
This has been the unexpected surprise of all three TV series.
It starts with Loki the last time we saw him — grabbing the Tesseract and disappearing in Endgame — and appearing in an Asian desert. He finds a rock to elevate himself however he can and starts a bold speech to the handful of people who discover him about who he is (surely to lead up to, as he’s done before, how he’s their rightful leader-god) when some business-as-usual military members step through a portal and inform Loki he’s in violation of the Sacred Timeline and has to come with them.
He objects, prepared to fight, and is easily overwhelmed and taken into custody of the TVA — the Time Variance Authority — who ignores his confusion, objections and self-aggrandizing and put him through an absurdly bureaucratic process before he’s seen by a judge who quickly concludes he’s guilty.
We discover as he does that the TVA is a multiverse agency charged with ensuring that things happen the way they’re supposed to happen (per the Sacred Timeline). Anyone anywhere in existence stepping too far out of that line — a “variant” — can cause a new timeline branch to form, which could, left unchecked, become chaotic and destroy everything that ever has been or will be.
He’s taken on by a TVA agent named Mobius, who quickly and casually demonstrates to Loki that Mobius isn’t to be trifled with, what the TVA is, what a danger Loki is to everything, and then explains that they want Loki to help them find a particularly dangerous variant of himself.
Things take another turn when Loki finds the variant and as a result learns that the TVA isn’t at all what it says it is.
While I readily admit that I wasn’t particularly interested in bothering to watch these shows before now, I regret not seeing them sooner. They aren’t just episodic movies, taking the same characters we know and carrying on with more of the same of what we’ve already seen, they’re brilliant gems of creative work that are entire stories unto themselves, deepening and enriching not just the lead characters, but others around them.
Each series also, rather unexpectedly, has its own distinct style. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is the only series of the three that has a look and feel like the MCU movies do. But WandaVision is, at least until worlds collide, a total departure from anything we’ve seen before. And Loki offers a deeper look into who he is — who he truly is, when he’s got no choice but to admit it to himself — in an agency department setting that’s a melding of mundane bureaucratic nightmare and 1960s-meets Douglas Adams-style retro sci-fi.
It’s clear that, much to their credit, the Disney bigwigs didn’t just call in their writers and story developers and ask them to take these characters and make more of the same. Instead, it looks, and very much feels, like they were instead given carte blanche on how to make these series. They were perhaps guided on needing to get a character from point A in their comic-driven evolution to point B, but that’s it (if at all). Instead, they were given a chance to not only play in the MCU sandbox but to build on it any way they wanted to and, and in every one of these series, they’ve done so in new and unexpected ways and made the whole notably better than it was before.
If you’ve seen the movies, if you’ve been holding back from watching these shows as I was, I can’t encourage you enough to grab some snacks and drinks and dive into them.
You won’t regret it.