The MCU’s second foray into television had its moments, but was overall a massive step down from the strong debut of WandaVision, with glaring issues with the structure, writing, and villains.
Bullet Point Review
- The worst MCU project in several years. Started slow, got really bad, then pretty good, before ultimately whiffing the landing.
- I believe this should have been two separate stories and that for as fun as Zemo and Wakanda were (and Sharon Carter wasn’t), it led to there being far too much going on and the individual elements suffered for it.
- The writing staff were ill-equipped to tackle the theoretically interesting racial material, only able to engage with it all on the most surface, cringe level.
- While the creators’ apparent aim to make John Walker likeable is troubling, he was definitely one of the most interesting MCU villains in years, with Wyatt Russell likely opening a lot of doors for himself.
- Sebastian Stan excelled as his assignment was simpler, and he didn’t have the pressure of being the leading man. Anthony Mackie got there in the end, but was far too passive in the first four episodes.
Pure Second Act
As the series went on I found it impossible to shake the feeling that this writers room had been allotted a certain amount of time for a group project, and sunk 90% of into the breakdown/elevator pitch ideas, and then hurriedly had to figure out how to get all the pieces where they wanted them and tie a bow on it with the final 10%.
It felt to me like somebody in the room said ‘Okay, wouldn’t it be cool if we revealed Sharon was The Power Broker???’ and they all just high-fived each other instead of making sure that idea was air-tight… which it definitely isn’t. At a minimum, Sharon was very stupid, as she pointed Sam, Bucky and Zemo directly to her prized super solider serum, and they did exactly what you’d expect: shut it down, killed the creator and smashed all the spare samples. Now maybe you can argue she saw an opportunity to return to America, gambled and lost, but why not simply give the illusion of helping and instead send them on a wild goose chase? And for that matter, the entire handling of The Power Broker was poor, with the Flag-Smashers, Zemo and the residents of Madripoor doing a lot of talk-abouting. This was emblematic of the whole show.
John Walker was an amazing villain character until they did a complete 180 on his story and instead pivoted into him being a hero of a new team. A victim of American exceptionalism and military propaganda handed power he does not deserve and going deeply off the reservation should not end with hero poses, jokes and general celebration. Kari Skogland’s comments about their aim being to make everybody like him were terrifying, quite frankly.
The Flag-Smashers had a theoretically interesting set of motivations that you had to assemble for yourself to get anything out of, so I can’t blame most viewers for feeling absolutely nothing about them. With fewer people fighting for resources and the dissolution of certain power structures, the survivors of The Blip enjoyed greater unity. One world, one people. Then BAM, the missing come back and the survivors are left out in the cold, deported, and deprived of resources. Many have speculated there was a pandemic plot that got exorcised given current events, with Karli’s group having to steal vaccines denied to the displaced. THAT would be a compelling villain. Killmonger-Lite. She even goes out the same way, turning hyper-violent to justify her death, and then dying in the hero’s arms in a patronising fashion that lets them sweep all of her valid points under the rug.
All of these elements and more (Sam’s family, Torres, Bucky’s therapy, Yori, Leah etc) felt dramatically under-baked. A collection of ideas written on a white-board that the writers were enthusiastic about, but completely lacked the competency to bring to life. If somebody better had been handed their notes, maybe we could have gotten more out of them. But as things stand, it’s pure second act, which is why episodes 4 and 5 are so much better than the beginning and end.
Two Projects in One
Fundamentally I think the show was trying to do too much at the expense of most of the elements being any good. Having so many different factions in play isn’t inherently a bad thing, with Game of Thrones doing a superb job of juggling dozens of characters and locations before committing suicide in its final season. But this show’s writing staff proved week after week that they lacked the sophistication to craft such a sprawling tale, so in my opinion would have been better served by splitting its two stories into separate projects.
The first: John Walker being named the new Captain America and trying to take down the Flag-Smashers. You’d need to devote a lot more screen time to these two, perhaps even doing an entire episode from Karli’s point of view. You’d need to make the GRC more meaningful, making their high council series regulars so we always have their viewpoint in mind, instead of the nebulous background concept that exclusively get talked about by characters and badly written news reports. And while John’s story was good, it could have been even better by making his wife and Lemar Hoskins bigger characters, and perhaps showing some flashbacks to Walker’s military career with early red flags that went unnoticed. Our heroes’ arcs would remain broadly the same, but with more time for Sarah, therapy, Yori, Leah etc. You’d also need a much better final confrontation between the three factions, but you’d end things with Sam in uniform, Bucky starting to heal, and Walker disgraced.
Then Captain America 4 is the two heroes trying to figure out where these people got the super solider serum from, requiring an odd couple team-up with Zemo, leading them on a globe-trotting adventure with Madripoor and Sharon Carter and Wakanda and the like in play. The series would act as a slower, more character-driven prequel filled with up and coming actors who could establish themselves in long form, while the bigger names would be saved for the movie. You’d need to work out some kinks around where Sam gets the outfit from if Wakanda haven’t arrived yet, but whatever. As fun as those elements were, they ultimately felt like distractions.
Time and again, superhero movies prove they’re not really equipped to handle Big Issues. It’s a fundamentally fascist genre, with real-world military ties, more concerned with pretty people punching each other than gripping drama. That’s fine, the world needs popcorn flicks. But by attempting to engage with Heavy Themes and whiffing, you look so much worse in my opinion.
Race was of course the biggest of these, with Sam and his sister experiencing unfair treatment from a bank, police nearly arresting him for arguing with a white man in public (until they realised he was Somebody Important), the government insisting he turn in Steve’s shield… only to hand it straight to a blonde-haired, blue-eyed All-American boy, who is essentially a cop who kills somebody on camera, and the Isaiah Bradley of it all.
In theory all of these are interesting beats and a launching pad to Say Something. In reality, the writing lacked the necessary nuance, and Disney were never going to let them take too radical a stance. Sam Wilson was so infuriatingly passive throughout, naively offering to make a phone call for one of the refugees, and clumsily trying to relate his own struggles to the GRC/Flag-Smasher debate.
There IS something to be said for the media labels used to describe certain groups of people, so that speech should work, and yet him telling them off for calling Karli’s group terrorists when the show was unable to portray them as anything else is telling.
‘Movie Level Production‘
While the show generally had the look and feel of the Russo-verse, there wasn’t a single truly noteworthy action scene in the series. Even the Bucky & Sam vs Walker brawl lacked any real oomph, and the final fights with Batroc and the Flag-Smashers were absolutely nothing.
Instead the show got by on cute little moments like Sam’s creative use of his jet pack or his new wings in the final episode. Shield flips, people catching things, and the Dora Milaje pinning Walker to a table with a spear were all a lot of fun. But they’ve gotten disturbingly bad at delivering a complete action scene that gets everybody talking. In short, it’s wearing Winter Soldier and Civil War’s clothes, but it is definitely not them.
If episodes 4 & 5 had been the norm, this would have been a pretty good show. Instead I can’t get the bad taste of the overly-busy third episode out of my mouth.
Episode 1 set up a lot of things that were completely dropped until near the end, feeling a little redundant in the long-run. Episode 2 put all the focus on the series’ most successful element: John Walker, but being book-ended by such weak material meant it felt a little ‘meh’ at the time.
- ‘The Truth‘ (Episode 5)
- ‘The Whole World Is Watching‘ (Episode 4)
- ‘Star-Spangled Man‘ (Episode 2)
- ‘One World, One People‘ (Episode 6)
- ‘New World Order‘ (Episode 1)
- ‘The Power Broker‘ (Episode 3)
Loki is the next show on the schedule and I think it’s safe to say we all have much higher hopes for that. This series was the one most people were least excited for, so I’m not too mad at it for being the worst thing they’ve put out in years.
I was honestly a little annoyed that Marvel announced Captain America 4 as soon as the series wrapped. Malcolm Spellman proved he isn’t good enough at this to be handed a tentpole movie, but hopefully he’ll get some help.
We still have no idea if there is an Avengers team post-Endgame, but Sam as the new Captain America is nice. There was a surprising lack of teased direction for the major MCU story of the next 5-10 years, with Sharon as a Big Bad not setting the world alight.
Instead, they seem to be more concerned with building two smaller stakes teams: The Young Avengers and The Thunderbolts. We’ve already seen Wanda’s kids and David Bradley, with America Chavez, Kate Bishop and Ms. Marvel on the horizon. Heck, we could get Kid Loki and a live-action Miles Morales by the end of the year, too.
Thunderbolts could be more of a Suicide Squad-adjacent affair, with a secret branch of the government employing villainous and morally grey individuals to do shady shit. John Walker seems the natural leader, with Val as the team’s handler. Zemo has been on the team before so could be broken out of The Raft down the line.
My theory is that Val works as a sort of anti-Coulson for Thaddeus ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross. He’s a disgruntled retired soldier who went too far and always wanted a government-controlled Avengers team. His first potential recruit? Another disgruntled retired soldier who went too far. Zemo could be a member too (remember Ross ran The Raft in Civil War), and Black Widow might offer up multiple candidates, from Florence Pugh’s Yelena Belova, to David Harbor’s Red Guardian, to whoever is playing Taskmaster.
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The Superhero Pantheon also reviewed the series, obviously.
Check out The Matt Signal, in which I recap episodes of Batman the Animated Series every weekend. This week season 2 concludes with the returns of two fan favourites: Mr. Freeze and Batgirl.