TV Review: What If… (2021)


Title: What If…
Release Date: 2021
Creator: A.C. Bradley
Director: Bryan Andrews
Season: 1
Episodes: 9
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

The animated Disney+ series does what it says on the tin, asking “What If?” things happened differently in various Marvel Cinematic Universe stories.  It helps to have a knowledge of the existing films to understand why the changes are significant, but I think plot changes are explained well enough to still be entertaining to a novice.  The series is narrated by The Watched (Jeffrey Wright), an alien being who observes the multiverse and is sworn not to interfere.  The animation is high-quality with a painterly quality that fits both the stories’ comic book origins and motion picture predecessors.  The voice cast also includes a lot of the actors who played the roles in the movies, including Chadwick Boseman in one of the final projects he worked on before his death.

The What If? propositions tend to go for comedy or to go really dark.  In the former category, Boseman’s T’Challa becomes Star Lord instead of Peter Quill and his competence makes everything go better for everyone involved, including Thanos (Josh Brolin) who is convinced to give up trying to kill half of all sentient beings and join the Ravagers.  The dark episodes show us what happens if all the Avengers were killed before they could work together and what happens if the world was overrun by zombies (including some of the superpowered).  My favorite episodes are “What If… Captain Carter Were the First Avenger?” where Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) takes the serum instead of Steve Rogers (Josh Keaton) and fights HYDRA with a shield bearing the Union Jack.  The other classic “What If… Killmonger Rescued Tony Stark?” has Erik “Kilmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan) rising through the ranks of Stark Industries where Tony Stark (Mick Wingert) had no life-changing injury to create Iron Man.

While the show works as a series of stand alone episodes.  The penultimate episode leads into a cliffhanger with the final episode requiring The Watcher to be a more active character and bring together a team of characters from previous episodes to be The Guardians of the Multiverse.  The show also ties into some of the recent movies and shows where the Multiverse is figuring to play a big role in the overarching theme of Phase 4 of the MCU.  While not a vital series, it is a fun addition to the lore for fans of the MCU.

 

MASTER LIST OF MCU REVIEWS

 

Movie Review: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)


Title: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Release Date: September 3, 2021
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

Shaun (Simu Liu) a Chinese immigrant in San Francisco, working as a valet and spending nights out at karaoke with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina, previously in The Farewell). When they are attacked on a city bus and Shaun shows considerable martial arts skill in their defense, he admits that his real name is Shang-Chi and he comes from a complex family background in China. His father Wenwu (Tony Leung, previously in In the Mood for Love) gained immortality through the use of a magical bracelets called the Ten Rings, and used the power they give to create an international crime syndicate also called the Ten Rings.  His mother Ying Li (Fala Chen) was the guardian of a magical village of Ta Lo which is home to many mythical beasts. The murder of Ying Li drove Wenwu back into crime and eventually into the mad belief that Ying Li is being held captive in Ta Lo.  In order to stop Wenwu from destroying Ta Lo, Shaun and Katy must first reunited with his estranged sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) in Macau.

As far as origin stories goes, this movie does a great job at efficiency with the backstories of Shaun, Xialing, Ying Li, and Wenwu filled in by a short prelude and many flashbacks that fit smoothly in to the flow of the movie.  There are a lot of great martial arts sequences, some well-timed humor (mostly from Awkwafina), and some imaginative wonders rooted in Chinese folklore.  A number of small parts and cameos of familiar characters include Wong (Benedict Wong) from Doctor Strange and Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley) from Iron Man 3, who provides some more humor.

I knew nothing of Shang-Chi going into the movie, but I’ve read that the original Marvel comics used a lot of ethnic stereotypes.  The film has people from Asia and of Asian heritage working on both sides of the camera, and does a great job at winding Chinese folklore into a modern superhero action film. I’d say the biggest flaw is that Xialing, who is constantly said to be in Shang-Chi’s shadow in the movie, is ironically given very little character development in the movie.  A post-credit scene indicates that Marvel has plans for Xialing in future films, though.  Other than that though, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is an excellent Marvel movie with a great cast, story, and effects.  It’s also Awkwafina’s second movie of the year featuring dragons after Raya and the Last Dragon, which makes for an interesting footnote.

Rating: ***1/2

MASTER LIST OF MCU REVIEWS

 

TV Review: The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (2021)


Title: The Falcon and the Winter Soldier
Release Date: 2021
Creator: Malcolm Spellman
Director: Kari Skogland
Episodes: 6
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

WARNING: This review contains light spoilers, so if you’re sensitive to spoilers and not watched all 6 episodes of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, please don’t read.

Much like its predecessor WandaVision, this Marvel series on Disney+ is set shortly after the events of Avengers: Endgame and uses recovering the traumatic events of “The Blip” as the background to series.  Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and James “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan) were both snapped out of existence for five years and both lost one of their closest friends with the passing of Steve Rogers.  As the series begins, Bucky is in therapy dealing with the murders he committed while brainwashed by Hydra.  Sam received the Captain America shield from Steve, but determines to place it in a museum rather than take up the mantle himself.  He also grows concerned about his sister Sarah (Adepero Oduye) being in a position where she needs to sell the family’s fishing business in Louisiana, but even as a superhero he can’t get credit from predatory banks.

The main antagonist in the series is Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman playing a character very similar to her role as Enfys Nest in Solo), the leader of an organization called the Flag Smashers who are fighting for open borders in the post-Blip world.  Workers who were allowed to move to to more prosperous countries during the Blip are now being forced out.  This is an interesting concept that relates to real life issues of refugee crises, but the goals of the Flag Smashers  seem very muddled in practice, as if the show’s creators wanted to make them somewhat sympathetic but still keep the moral certainty needle pushed towards the shows “heroes.”  Another antagonist is John Walker (Wyatt Russell), a U.S. Army veteran appointed to be the new Captain America when Sam refuses it.  He’s an interesting morally-grey character because he’s arrogant, but also seems to be trying to do the best he can in the shadow of Steve Rogers.  He eventually does turn heel, but then is far too easily redeemed in the final episode.

The series focuses deeply on issues of race and how Black people are treated inequitably in America.  Sam’s reluctance to be Captain America is partially due to the fact that the colors of the American flag don’t represent Black Americans and that a Black Captain America would not be accepted by white Americans.  Issues such as police harassment of Black people and the revelation of super soldier experiments on Black prisoners are covered in the show.  The race issues are unnuanced and a bit simplistic, but on the other hand it’s a credit to Marvel for trying to address them.

The very busy six episodes also include appearances by anti-super soldier villain Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl), Avenger James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle), a fugitive Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), and member of Wakanda’s Dora Milaje Ayo (Florence Kasumba).  The series serves as a transition for Sam and Bucky to set them up for future chapters in the ongoing MCU.  I found it entertaining with some good performances, but it bit scattered storywise with too many plot elements packed in.

MASTER LIST OF MCU REVIEWS

 

TV Review: WandaVision (2021)


Title: WandaVision
Release Date: 2021
Creator :Jac Schaeffer
Director: Matt Shakman
Episodes:9
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

WARNING: This review contains light spoilers, so if you’re sensitive to spoilers and not watched all 9 episodes of WandaVision, please don’t read.

The Disney+ series reunites Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) as a happy couple enjoying domestic bliss in the New Jersey suburb of Westview.  Or are they?  6 of the series’ 9 episodes feature pitch-perfect recreations of tv sitcoms for each decade from the 1950s to the 2000s. But under the facade of the television show there is a reality shadowed in mystery and a lot of creepiness.

Olsen and Bettany do a great job in showing their acting range showing their ability to capture the nuance of old sitcom banter and then shift into more serious and emotional behavior.  The series uses these television genre motifs as a way of exploring grief and the way in which one can find solace in the routine predictability of television entertainment.  Kathryn Hahn is great in her role as Agnes, the nosy nextdoor neighbor.

A lot of the mystery is built up in the first three episodes where it’s really unclear why Wanda and Vision (the latter is supposed to be dead) are starring in these sitcoms.  Is Wanda trapped in someone else’s reality, or is she creating her “vision” of a perfect world?  It’s more complicated than you might think.  We start to get a better idea of what’s going in episode 4 which takes place outside of Westview and involves three supporting characters from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU): Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings), who stole every scene she appeared in Thor and Thor: The Dark World (and does so here); Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), the FBI agent from Ant-Man and the Wasp; and Captain Monica Rambeau of S.W.O.R.D. (Teyonah Parris), whose character appeared as a child in Captain Marvel. It was great to see the three characters step in to lead roles and work together as a team, and I hope Parris returns for future Captain Marvel films.

A familiarity with the MCU is helpful, although not necessary, as it will help with some back story and Easter eggs in the series.  On the other hand, I didn’t get a big twist in a show because it involved the X-Men series of films, which I’ve never watched, and there was plenty of the show that drew on The Scarlet Witch comics which I haven’t read. At an extra metafictional level, Olsen was born into a family where her slightly older sisters were already celebrities from starring on a  popular sitcom.  Maybe the show’s creators thought it was too obvious, but they resisted making any Full House references that I noticed.

For all the creativity and experimenting that went into the series, I felt a little let down by the final two episodes.  The series finale in particularly is mostly a bog-standard MCU punch-em-out.  A lot of the mystery built up over the course of the series is resolved in perfunctory way or misdirections (I really thought that Dottie and the Beekeeper were going to mean something more).  Also, Rambeau, Woo, and Lewis are just spectators. It’s still satisfactory, but just not as good as I grew to expect from the rest of the series.  One thing it does do well though is set up the next phase of the MCU, and I look forward to see what’s coming next.

MASTER LIST OF MCU REVIEWS

 

Comics Review: Star Wars (2015-2019)


Following on reading the Darth Vader comics series, I read all the books currently available in the standard Star Wars line.  The stories are set in the period between the destruction of the first Death Star and the events of The Empire Strikes Back. I was never clear how long it was supposed to be between the first two movies of the original trilogy, but apparently it canonically three years, same as the production time between movies.

I like these comics because it builds on the camaraderie among Luke, Leia, and Han from the first movie that we don’t get to see as much in the later movies as they are separated in The Empire Strikes Back and relationships have changed by Return of the Jedi.  It also fills in some details on Leia and Han’s growing romance, Luke developing his Jedi skills, and why the Rebellion is on its back foot in Hoth in ESB despite destroying the Death Star. Most of all, it’s just fun, old-fashioned serialized adventures as our favorite characters fight tit for tat with the Empire, with some goofy stuff thrown in.

Below are some quick thoughts on each volume.

 

Title:  Star Wars Vol. 1: Skywalker Strikes
Writer(s): Jason Aaron
Penciller(s): John Cassaday
Letterer(s): Chris Eliopoulos

Luke, Leia, and Han attempt to follow up on the destruction of the Death Star by attacking an Imperial weapons factory.  Things go wrong, and Luke has to go face-to-face with Darth Vader!  This is a gutsy move and yet it is done well and really works within the existing storylines.  Also, there’s some great C-3PO comedy.


Title: Star Wars Vol. 2: Showdown on Smuggler’s Moon
Writer(s): Jason Aaron
Penciller(s): Simone Bianchi & Stuart Immonen
Colorists: Simone Bianchi

Luke finds Obi-Wan’s journal and reads a story about Obi-Wan’s time on Tatooine watching over young Luke. These Obi-Wan journals stories become a recurring feature.  In the present day, Han and Leia are trapped on the “smuggler’s moon” and are rescued by Han’s wife?!? Meanwhile, Luke is captured and forced to battle in Grakkus the Hutt’s arena, trained by the mysterious Gamemaster who knows things about the Jedi.  After a strong start, the second volume is Star Wars comics veering into the silly.


Title: Star Wars Vol. 3: Rebel Jail
Writer(s): Jason Aaron & Kieron Gillen
Penciller(s): Mike Mayhew, Angel Unzueta, & Leinil Francis Yu
Cover artist: Terry Dodson

An uprising on a Rebel prison ship causes headaches for Leia who must ally with none other than Doctor Aphra. Aphra is the best character introduced in Darth Vader comics, so it’s good to see her again.  In a more comical plot, Han and Luke attempt to raise money for the Rebellion through gambling and smuggling.  The stories are entertaining, but the comics series still feels like it’s treading water after the great debut.


Title: Star Wars Vol. 4: Last Flight of the Harbinger
Writer(s): Jason Aaron & Chris Eliopoulos
Penciller(s): Chris Eliopoulos, Mike Mayhew
Jorge Molina
Cover artist: Mike Deodato, Jr.

The Rebels steal a star destroyer, but then have to fight a special ops team of stormtroopers, the SCAR Squad lead by Sergeant Kreel.  Also, more Obi-Wan adventures on Tatooine, and a cute R2-D2 story.  Good stuff.


Title: Star Wars Vol. 5: Yoda’s Secret War
Writer(s): Jason Aaron & Kelly Thompson
Penciller(s): Salvador Larroca
Cover Artist: Stuart Immonen

R2-D2 goes off on a solo mission to rescue C-3PO. Stranded in his X-Wing, Luke reads another journal entry that tells a story of Yoda in the times before The Phantom Menace.  Yoda is drawn to a planet with warring children, and a mountain of stones made of the force? I don’t know, I like seeing a Yoda story, but this one doesn’t make much sense.


Title: Star Wars Vol. 6: Out Among the Stars
Writer(s): Jason Aaron & Jason Latour
Penciller(s): Salvador Larroca
Cover Artist: Mike Mayhew

Luke and Leia get stranded on a desert island (on a deserted planet?) and spend time bonding as they work to escape. Sana and Lando pull a con, while Han and Chewie work for the Hutts.  And Artoo becomes the action hero who rescues Threepio!


Title:  Star Wars Vol. 7: The Ashes of Jedha
Writer(s): Kieron Gillen
Penciller(s): Salvador Larroca

Kieron Gillen, writer of the Darth Vader comics, makes his first contribution to the Star Wars main line.  The story also interacts with story ideas from Rogue One, the planet partially destroyed by the Death Star and the surviving partisans.


Title: Star Wars Vol. 8: Mutiny at Mon Cala
Writer(s): Kieron Gillen
Penciller(s): Salvador Larroca

In Return of the Jedi, the Rebel Alliance is reliant on ships of the Mon Calamari and leaders like Admiral Akbar. This story shows how Leia plans to get the Mon Calamari to rise up against their Imperial oppressors, which involves a shape-shifter and an opera performance.


Title:  Star Wars Vol. 9: Hope Dies
Writer(s): Kieron Gillen & Cullen Bunn
Penciller(s): Salvador Larroca

Seeming ally Queen Trios of Shu-Torun has been working with Darth Vader all along and has allowed the Empire to initiate a plan that could lead to the destruction of the entire Rebel fleet!


Title:  Star Wars Vol. 10: The Escape
Writer(s): Kieron Gillen
Penciller(s): Salvador Larroca

With the Rebel fleet scattered through the galaxy, Luke, Leia, and Han end up trapped on a planet of isolationists and must convince them to help the cause.


Title:  Star Wars Vol. 11: The Scourging of Shu-Torun
Writer(s): Kieron Gillen
Penciller(s): Angel Unzueta & Andrea Broccardo

Leia devises a daring plan to take revenge on Queen Trios, and more importantly knock out a key source of resources for the Empire.


Title: Star Wars Vol. 12:  Rebels and Rogues
Writer(s): Greg Pak
Penciller(s): Phil Noto

Han and Leia are caught up in a noir mystery which involves Leia’s old flame. Luke tries to lure away the Empire from a strategic location. And Chewbacca and Threepio team up to destroy a planet before realizing it has an indigenous life form.