I mean they’re not new. The idea of a multiverse, of nigh-infinite alternate Earths, dates back to Greece in the 3rd century BCE (that we know about), and in terms of pop culture goes back at minimum to that time the current Flash met the previous Flash.
But all of a sudden multiverses are everywhere. The infinite possibilities of multiple worlds are popping up all over popular media. Sure they’ve been in comics for a minute and a half, but now they’re in movies and TV. The Flash brought the multiverse into the Arrowverse back in season two…
…multiversal shenanigans are a big part of Marvel’s post-Endgame movie/TV plans, Rick and Morty is so tuned into alternate universes as an idea there’s an entire episode with dozens of characters who are either Rick or Morty. How long will it last? Probably until the day before Jerry O’Connell announces he’s signed a deal for a Sliders revival.
Come on you know he’s gotta be at least considering it.
But like the multiverse offers many possible variations on the world we know, the narrative concept of the multiverse can be used for many, many purposes. Some good, some interesting, others… less so.
So what I’d like to do today is look at a few properties using the multiverse as a storytelling tool and what they’re using it for, and along the way, who’s doing it best.
(Inevitable spoilers ahead for Book of Boba Fett, Peacemaker, and The Suicide Squad, but I’ll try to keep it minimal)
Two shows hit streaming in late 2021/early 2022. Both took (mostly) the weekly release strategy. Both–no, no, I did this “How many parallels can I find” schtick with Supergirl and Lucifer and I absolutely stretched it a little… and the shows are in the title… okay so let’s just get started.
A week before Christmas 2020, Disney+ wrapped their second season of hit series The Mandalorian by teasing that instead of/prior to season three, they were launching a new show, The Book of Boba Fett, after having Temura Morrison turn up throughout the season as a surprisingly not eaten-by-Sarlacc Boba Fett. Because that’s how season two of Mandalorian rolled: Din Djarin/Mando and his little buddy Baby Yoda/Grogu going from recognizable character* to recognizable character picking up sub-quests until he was ready to form a squad to take on Moff Gideon.
*I mean… recognizable if you watched Clone Wars and/or Rebels.
Boba Fett’s been a fan favourite character for decades, because… um… let me check my notes… because he had a sweet action figure back in the 80s. He was such a favourite that a Boba Fett movie was one of the earliest movies Disney was pitching when they bought Lucasfilm. Then Solo disappointed at the box office and the whole “cinematic Star War every year” plan got rethought. But despite basically making a better version of a Boba Fett show with Mandalorian (a new character having new adventures in basically the same badass suit), they circled back to it with Book of Boba Fett. Seven episodes devoted to everyone’s favourite featured extra from The Empire Strikes Back, spinning off from The Mandalorian and moving into the palace from the opening sequence of Return of the Jedi to become a crime boss. I certainly see the logic behind this series. It’s extremely cynical logic, based on how to exploit an IP more than “we have a story that needs telling,” but that seems to be Star Wars these days. Thanks again for that to the toxic wastes of time that pitched a tantrum after Last Jedi and scared Disney away from trying to innovate.
End result… it’s fine. Basically mostly fine. Some issues we’ll be unpacking later, as you must have suspected. But let’s rip off this Band-Aid… I don’t know why it’s called The Book of Boba Fett. There is no book. No implications of a book. Could have been The Ballad of Boba Fett, all I’m saying.
And in this corner…
As the Snyder Cult loved to complain, nobody really asked for Peacemaker. But how could we. It’s a show spinning off a character from a movie that, when the show was announced, hadn’t come out yet. Mad genius James Gunn, stuck in the same quarantine and dealing with the same anxiety as the rest of us, hammered out an eight-episode series for one of the characters of his upcoming TheSuicide Squad. Actually three characters, one of the squad and two members of their tech support team. Not the ones cued up to be audience favourites. Not Harley Quinn or Bloodsport or Ratcatcher II. John Cena’s peace-loving mass-murderer, Peacemaker.
And yeah, Cena’s good in The Suicide Squad, he’s a fun character, right up until the moment he isn’t, at which point he transitions to being one of the most hateable characters in the movie. Not the most. That’s General Suarez. Maybe Presidente Luna. Actually Amanda Waller’s not here to make friends either, and the Thinker… okay he’s somewhere between third and fifth most– Blackguard, right, screw that guy– third and sixth?
Anyway he wasn’t exactly primed to be the first cast member we’d want to see next, but Gunn clearly had an idea he liked, and set about to take this character we’d been booing and dig into why he is like he is, what made him into this, and make us feel bad for him. Make us like him, root for him, want him to succeed… partially because if he doesn’t succeed, humanity is pretty screwed.
All this with Gunn’s blend of laugh-out-loud humour, fun characters with strong arcs, and some truly, unexpectedly, gutting emotional moments. Peacemaker started from nearly the opposite position as Book of Boba Fett, but found everything the other show was lacking.
So I wanna do a compare/contrast: look at the reasons that Book of Boba Fett was basically okay but hard to recommend, and what Peacemaker did differently to wind up an incredible ride and the most-watched streaming show in the world while Boba Fett was still happening.
It’s that time again! The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has named their shortlist of what they consider the top movies of 2021, and once again, it feels like a list that doesn’t match either what the general audiences consider the year’s best, nor what critics looking for novelty or artistry consider the year’s best. Well, some of them. Some of the latter have made the shortlist through sheer power of critical love, some through mounting award buzz, some because what are they gonna do, not nominate Spielberg? That’s crazy talk.
Actually that brings us to a sad fact about the Oscars, a tale told in two records set this year. Steven Spielberg became the first person to be nominated for Best Director in six different decades. Jane Campion became the first woman to be nominated for Best Director twice.
Nothing against Steven, man’s a legend, but… marinate in that a minute.
Anyhoo before we get to the rankings…
Should they have nominated Spider-Man: No Way Home?
Look I liked it a lot in theatres. I wasn’t compelled to watch it a second time, especially not if it meant dancing with Omicron. It’s good Spider-Man. But it’s good because it’s good at delivering fan service. It managed to hit us with two hours of fan service moments while still telling a story that made sense and was about the current, reigning Spider-Man. Like Day of the Doctor homaged 50 years of Doctor Who while still being primarily about 11 and Clara. That’s fun to watch, but that’s not enough for an Oscar, you know? And as a friend pointed out, yes, Oscar Bait has become such a precise science that there is such a thing as fan service for Oscar voters, looking at you The King’s Speech, but I want “He sure was a great man from history, let’s not unpack his flaws much” to stop getting Oscar love, rather than “He’s from the other movies!” to start so that it’s fair. Ghostbusters: Afterlife also had reams of fan service that didn’t stop it from telling its own story, you don’t hear me whining it was snubbed. I know the deal.
And yes, it made insane money, even if we weren’t still in a pandemic. It made huge bank, first movie since Rise of Skywalker to do so. But come on, peeps. Is that relevant. There was a time when earning more money than any other movie made the Academy think “Well it must be doing something right,” but that time essentially ended with ET: The Extra Terrestrial. Sure there’ve been outliers, but overall, being the box office champ only gets you a Best Picture nomination if you’re Lord of the Rings good or directed by James Cameron.
So no. No I don’t think Spider-Man: No Way Home particularly deserved a nod, even if there are some real questionable choices this year (as always), even if the Academy does need to open its minds to the possibility that popcorn movies can be good and legit classics (justice for Raiders of the Lost Ark, Chariots of Fire my entire ass), even if they required there to be ten nominees, the first time that’s happened in 11 years, seemingly for the express purpose of sneaking in a hit so that maybe the ratings would pull out of their death spiral.
I mean they did nominate a big tentpole flick, but… it’s probably not the People’s Champ they’d hoped for.
That said, as we rank this year’s picks, we will chat about movies that maybe should have made the list.
So with the prior year wrapped up, various critic groups are releasing their best-of lists, and it feels like they’re getting more attention than usual, because the Second Annual Plague-Time Oscar nominations are months away, and the Golden Globes got busted so hard for being too white they’re not even getting televised this year so honestly why do we care. The LA Critics Association gave out awards and the internet’s AV Club named their top 25, and both seemed to learn the lesson of Parasite, as the top film for the former comes from Japan, and far more of the latter’s list came from outside the US than in.
And god damn I don’t want to watch most of it.
Listen to this fucking description for Days, number 24 on the AV Club’s list: “What passes for a plot is mostly mundane activity, the dialogue reduced to an unscripted, un-subtitled minimum. Yet those who can adjust their attention span to Tsai’s demands on it will discover a film fluent in the loneliness so many have endured these past couple years.” Fuck you. I know it’s been lonely since that first lockdown, I have lived that, and with (for my region) a fifth lockdown on the horizon, I don’t need to watch a slow, intentionally dull film about how one erotic encounter breaks up the monotony of an empty existence to know that plague times are emotionally taxing. If one thing goes wrong at work, I go into an emotional spiral for hours, because life in 2021 does not provide enough joy to cushion a difficult work moment.
Let me turn the mic over to this TikTok about Spider-Man: No Way Home being a huge hit and Ridley Scott’s apparently excellent Last Duel not to explain the issue here.
I have seen, at time of writing, two films from the AV Club’s list (The Power of the Dog, and West Side Story, which I’m sure we’ll talk about it when I rank Oscar nominees), actively want to see one other (The French Dispatch of The Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun), and would be okay seeing four others (including, yes, the one that features sex with cars, Bumblebee crawled so that Titane could run), but…
I would trade the entire list and every remaining Golden Globe nominee for a second season of Hawkeye. And Hawkeye isn’t perfect, it has too many plot threads for six episodes to tie up in a satisfying way, but it surely was a fun ride. Whereas Oscar Season 2020 was nothing but tough hangs, so nobody can be blamed for not rushing to check out Oscar Season 2021.
So instead, let’s talk nerd stuff.
Several pop culture franchises made some big flexes in 2021, and not all of them necessarily worked, but a lot of them point to some issues facing the entertainment industry right now I want to talk about, so let’s talk about them. I, a sometimes regionally notable playwright who works in a hotel, will break down the biggest problems facing the world’s largest media conglomerates, why not.
And maybe touch on why I liked Hawkeye, we’ll see.
Two TV series I’ve loved both ended recently. Both were based (to varying degrees) on comics from DC. Both ran for six seasons of differing lengths. Both were saved from premature cancellation. Both have been near the top of my annual comic TV rankings at various points. Both have had lead actors so great that their title characters have regularly appeared on the Best Lead podiums, with supporting characters often doing likewise. Both knew they were heading into their last season. Both had a role to play in Crisis on Infinite Earths okay I’m stretching these parallels too far now I see it too.
It’s Lucifer and Supergirl. We’re talking Lucifer and Supergirl.
One ended with a tight ten episodes, a steady string of comedic highs and powerful emotional punches that were so moving towards the end they’ve lived rent-free in my head ever since, compelling me to start a series rewatch from the pilot. The other… went a different way.
Lucifer started on Fox, seeming to be just another murder-of-the-week procedural, only the straight-laced cop’s quirky partner was the literal Devil instead of a mystery writer or guy who’s good with math or fake psychic or less fun fake psychic or fake psychic who’s actually a zombie, then stealth-transformed into an incredibly watchable deconstruction of biblical figures, and a compelling examination of family, love, justice, how we build our own Hells, and what it means to be human. Also sex jokes and musical numbers. It got cancelled after three seasons, and seemed doomed enough that I wrote a eulogy for it, but was saved by Netflix and came back to do three admittedly shorter seasons that enjoyed some freedoms from network standards (less than you might expect but far from none) and turned out to be possibly their best work.
(I say “possibly” because it’s hard to declare any season lacking regular appearances by Tricia Helfer as either Lucifer’s scheming divine mother or her slightly unhinged host body Charlotte Richards to be their best.)
Then it looked like season five would be it… but Netflix said “No, hang on, one more. We want one more.” So we got two consecutive seasons of series-endgame high stakes, and it was delightful.
Supergirl started on CBS, the third entry from the Greg Berlanti Superhero-Based Action Fun Factory, known better as the Arrowverse, though was not yet part of said Arrowverse. It was in the same mold as The Flash but tried to stand alone… until ratings slid and they had Flash drop by for a crossover bump. CBS was willing to call it a day after one year, but kid sibling network the CW picked it up, bringing Supergirl into the Arrowverse proper. The move to Vancouver and reduced budget meant some lost cast members, new sets, streamlined story elements, and dropping a Supergirl/Jimmy Olsen romance that lacked spark. They became the most unabashedly political superhero show, taking stands for immigrants and refugees, striving for quality LGBTQ+ representation (if never enough for the Supercorp ‘shippers, we’ll circle back to that), crusading for hope over fear, compassion over hatred, lifting each other up instead of yielding to cynicism.
I’ve talked in the past about how a show in its final season that knows it’s in its final season can be a sight to see. They have the chance to pull some big moves, to look back at how they get here and build to a conclusion that pays off how far we’ve come. Or you can go the Game of Thrones route and screw the pooch so hard you wipe out any affection your viewership ever had.
So let’s look at these two shows, how they approached their last season, and through comparisons to other final seasons of note, perhaps I can show how one show’s final season soared, and one kinda tripped on their own cape.
Let’s start with the title characters, because hoo boy is that the elephant in the room for one of them.
So it’s been a minute since I’ve updated here. Started a new job that means a) I live in the mountains five days out of the week; and b) putting in a 40-hour work week for the first time in… hoo boy a great long while. Which is good, hooray for actually being on a proper career path again, but it has been an adjustment figuring out how to do creative stuff in staff housing after a day at the office following a year and a half of having at most 20 hours of classes a week, all done from my sofa, and for months on end having literally nothing but time.
Not that having endless time was great for my productivity either. Look at all those blogs and new plays I didn’t write. I just tried to take solace from the oft-tweeted sentiment that George RR Martin didn’t use quarantine to finish his novel either.
So anyway, new job is good, new career is promising, living situation could be better but not for at least four months at time of writing so I’m choosing not to dwell on that… there is one thing, though. As I started moving enough possessions to live out here for two weeks at a stretch into my provided apartment, I saw a sign in the entranceway: “Bear in area.”
And I thought… that’s new. That’s different. For the first time in my professional life, “possible bear attack” was a job risk.
But I mean come on. Every job has its little inconveniences, and not all of them have the potential fun of calling your boss to say “I’m going to be late, there’s a bear in front of the staff entrance so I’m going home until that’s not true.”
So I thought of all the annoyances past jobs have had, and thought I’d compare them to “mild risk of bear encounter.” Let’s see how my past jobs rank, shall we?
Alright. Here we go. The full rankings. Maybe you have some theories about what’s near the top, based on who kept getting mentioned, and who might be closer to the bottom, based on who hasn’t been mentioned at all. Will this be the first year a freshman series doesn’t win, or will the Disney+ era of Marvel keep the tradition going? Let’s find out together! Well, not together, I already know… anyway.
Farewell to some shows that have left us this season, for good or ill…
Agents of SHIELD. First in and very nearly last out of the pre-Disney+ Marvel TV era. It took work to make this show as reliably charming as it was for so long. They had a show with no recognizable characters except Phil Coulson, that claimed to be in the MCU but could almost never get permission to use major Marvel characters, that had to wait 16 episodes to be allowed to have a plot, that got no love or recognition from any other live-action Marvel property, even f**king Inhumans… and it was perhaps the most consistently entertaining and most loved pre-Feige Marvel TV show. Maybe season five was the stronger “final season,” but this adorable band of scrappy misfits/leading experts in their fields kept me invested to the end, even though the last handful of episodes made that super tough. I’m gonna miss the core cast for a while, because whatever the die-hard “it’s all connected” fans think, we won’t be seeing them again. (Seriously, stop speculating that such-and-such SHIELD character is turning up on so-and-so Marvel project, it likely ain’t happening.)
Black Lightning: Honestly this one was a surprise. It’s the first CW superhero show to end after less than six years. Maybe shooting in Georgia made it harder, I don’t know, I just know that it felt like the Pierce family, gadgeteer/tailor/ex-black ops agent Gambi, and albino crime lord Tobias Whale still had some mileage in them.
Jupiter’s Legacy: Are we surprised this one’s cancelled? It had no buzz. Almost nobody was talking about it, and the ones who were weren’t being complimentary.
Stumptown: Damn it, I thought I was getting more of this. Damn COVID for derailing the entire entertainment industry and damn you ABC for giving me hope and taking it away. We all deserved much more of Dex, Grey, Tookie, and the gang. I’m confident I’ll see Cobie Smulders and Jake Johnson in something before long, but less confident it’ll be this good.
WandaVision: Like Watchmen before it, they had one story to tell, told it very well, and left it there. Honestly I don’t know how you even could do that show a second time.
That melancholy business complete, time for the rankings, and capsule reviews that vary wildly in length based on whether I’ve discussed this show already. Let’s begin!
(Falcon and the Winter Soldier isn’t cancelled, Falcon and the Winter Soldier got called up to the majors, instead of a second season they get to be Captain America 4 in Phase Five.)
This part gets tougher every year. More prestige shows drawing top talents, more top talents being discovered on smaller shows… on my spreadsheet (of course I have a spreadsheet, we went over this at the end of Art Vs Commerce, I am absolutely that geek), I used to flag people as green (top performances), yellow (decent but less exceptional), or red (uninspiring), but it’s been ages since I had fewer than six people flagged as green in the most categories. I basically gave up on any other colour, each year has at least one category that’s a game of inches between five to eight amazing performances.
So here’s the results of some tough, sometimes nigh impossible choices.
(Yes, I still have these categories split by gender. When comic book TV has enby, genderqueer, or genderfluid characters other than the sentient teleporting street, I’ll add a category for them as well. For some reason I love adding categories.)
And here we go again. The best characters, best scenes, it’s the annual not-quite-comprehensive ranking of Comic Book TV. A little late this year because COVID delayed everything, so a) I tried to give at least some of the network shows a chance to wrap up their seasons, and b) six months watching mostly just vintage Oscar movies and their box office counterparts meant I kind of forgot how to watch serialized TV and fell behind on some stuff. But it’s okay, we’re here now, and ready to rock!
For six years running, the top show has been a freshman series. Will the MCU proper’s official entry into television keep that going? Let’s find out!
But first, a few shows not included, other than any show not ending its season before fall (sorry, Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow, I stalled as long as I could, see you next year)…
Helstrom: Come on, none of us actually cares about Helstrom, it only made it onto screens because they’d signed too many contracts for Kevin Feige to shut it down when he pulled the plug on the rest of pre-Disney+ Marvel TV. It is to Jeph Loeb-era Marvel TV what New Mutants was to the Fox X-Men franchise: an embarrassing epilogue that the new management got stuck with.
Pennyworth: When I finally found a way to watch the second season of Young Hot Alfred and Friends, I made it ten minutes before the story of right-wing fascists the Raven Society gradually conquering England and being cheered for making the Empire great again became a bit much. Read the goddamn room, Pennyworth. Your first season was okay but I’m not dealing with right wing fascist dystopias right now, and I happily watched a show on this list about a world-ending plague, that’s how dark Sexy Alfred decided to get. Hard pass.
Riverdale: The Riverdale empire seems to have collapsed, with both Sabrina and Katy Keene over, but I’m too far behind on the Last Riverdale Standing to meaningfully include it here.
The Walking Dead: How the hell is it possible that this show is still going after 11 years and Preacher ended after four. How are there two of them. No justice in this world.
And now, here are the shows we will be ranking, with links to blogs where appropriate. Some stalwarts, some new kids, some returning favourites that missed a year for various reasons.
I maintain my “No cartoons” rule, but I really must take a moment to endorse Invincible. It’s a good blend of laughs and gasps, funny and horrifying, but it mostly mixes the comedy and the darkness well. Mostly. It’s an excellent show with a great cast and great animation whose only flaws are a) the fact that nearly every villain is more invincible than the title character, if Invincible has super strength then maybe sometimes his opponents could at least look like they’ve been in a fight; b) it’s made us notice that bald billionaire Jeff Bezos sure likes to greenlight shows about how Superman is Bad, Actually. Kinda… kinda doing the Lex Luthor out loud these days, isn’t he…
Also MODOK’s pretty good, maybe give MODOK a watch.
Like everything else, Best of Comic TV 2021 has been delayed by COVID… I gave some CW shows a chance to wrap up and also forgot how to watch things other than vintage Oscar movies for a while… but now it’s coming up, and there are a few shows with just too much to unpack for a capsule review in the final rankings.
So I’m gonna quickly talk about a few. Also the Snyder Cut post has been on top long enough, wouldn’t you say?
Here’s a handy table on contents in case you want to pick one in specific to hear about.