Pop Culture 2021: A Review

Marvel: Fan Theories and Escalating Expectations

After involuntarily taking their longest break since the gap between Incredible Hulk and Iron Man 2, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was back in force in 2021. Let’s kick this off with a quick lightning round of the four movies and five TV shows Marvel managed to crank out.

Black Widow: Worked better as an introduction to Florence Pugh’s Yelena Belova than a swan song for Scarlett Johansen’s Natasha Romanov. A lot of people didn’t like their revisionist take on Taskmaster, and I get it, I’m going to be talking later on using a character’s name but nothing else about them. Ultimately a little forgettable, like a blend of Hanna (the show) and a latter Bourne movie. And having Natasha stay behind to be arrested while her family escaped, only to cut to her very much not arrested was a dumb, dumb editing choice.

Shang-Chi: The cast was engaging, the action scenes fun, this one was a solid hit. My only issue is that Marvel feels a need to go big with their climaxes lately (the climax of Iron Man wouldn’t be enough for a first-act action beat these days), so while I thought the emotional payoff of the movie was the father/son battle of Wenwu and Shang-Chi, the movie felt the stakes weren’t high enough unless two CGI dragons had a fight for the fate of the world and I was just like “Must we?” Also Ryan George was correct in his Pitch Meeting video when he described that fight as “Extremely colourful but also entirely grey.” I guess that’s a feat.

Eternals: Better than the controversy over reviews would have you believe. It’s like they tried to make Eternals the artistic, award-bait critical darling and critics decided this was their moment to strike. Ultimately it’s fine, the twists work, but the cast was a little too sprawling. Imagine if in Blues Brothers it took them until the final concert to actually get the band back together. Every car chase and pre-concert gig they find another member of the band, until they finally reach the concert venue with the movie almost over and Matt “Guitar” Murphy is just waiting in the green room because time’s up but they hadn’t gotten to him yet. That’s Eternals. And it means it’s somehow too long and too short at the same time. Still, I’ve seen it twice now, on purpose, which is more than I can say about some movies I claim to like.

Spider-Man: No Way Home: I’m-a touch on this one twice, but overall it’s very fun and surprisingly emotional and yes it’s entirely built on cameos from previous movies but they actually do something with most of the cameos and all the returning players showed up to work. Also I don’t think any Spider-Man movie or cartoon show has depicted spider-sense this well. That’s a minor thing but a cool one.

Okay on second thought I already talked about WandaVision, Falcon and the Winter Solider, and Loki in last season’s rankings (4th, 11th, and 3rd out of 17 respectively), and I haven’t seen all of What If, so let’s talk about

Hawkeye

Bows, arrows, Pizza Dog
Image: Marvel

Okay. Gonna be some spoilers for Hawkeye and also one for Spider-Man: No Way Home coming. Not one of the big spoilers. There are big spoilers for that movie but this won’t be one of them.

Hawkeye succeeds where Black Widow failed, while also succeeding where Black Widow succeeded, twice over. Hailee Steinfeld makes an incredible debut as Kate Bishop, Clint Barton’s sometimes partner and sometimes successor in the comics. She’s funny, determined, very capable in a fight. This would be a star-making turn for anyone else, but Steinfeld’s been in a league of her own since True Grit, so while her performance here is entirely impressive and loveable, that’s not surprising.

Where it first surpasses Black Widow is that it also acts as a great showcase for Jeremy Renner’s Clint Barton. The events of the series drag Clint’s gnawing guilt to the surface, or rather guilts plural. Clint feels guilt over his mass-murdery actions during the Blip, and crushing survivor’s guilt over the events of Avengers: Endgame, when Natasha died and he didn’t, despite his best efforts. Kate’s hero-worship of him feels utterly unearned, and he’s afraid to accept her as a partner because of what happened to her predecessor. And being confronted with the faces of both these guilts in the form of someone wronged by his Ronin murder spree and an angry Yelena Belova isn’t helping him. Renner doesn’t overplay it, but Clint’s torment is always brewing under the surface.

Our inciting incident occurs at a secret underground auction underneath a fundraiser Kate’s mother is running, an auction that includes Clint’s old suit and sword from his Ronin days during the blip, as well as a watch of some significance. When the auction is robbed by a Russian gang called the Tracksuit Mafia, Kate puts on the Ronin suit to fight them, the watch gets taken, and Clint risks skipping his first Christmas with the family in five years to clean up the mess.

Also a family friend of Kate’s named Armand who seems to dislike her mother gets killed, maybe her impending stepfather Jack did it, the Tracksuits have a boss named Maya (known to comics readers as Echo) out for revenge on Ronin, she has a mysterious boss Clint’s actively afraid of, and Yelena comes to New York on a mission to kill Clint. There’s a lot going on. Maybe too much. Actually definitely too much.

Between Kate and Clint bonding, Kate’s family drama, Armand’s murder, the Tracksuits’ vendetta against Ronin, Yelena’s vendetta against Clint, the secrets of the Watch, and the big reveal of the big boss behind Maya and the Tracksuits, there is just too much happening for six episodes to resolve in a satisfying manner. Most notably, the watch isn’t really a thing. There was a lot of speculation about what the watch might be (we’ll get into that in a minute), but it was the purest of Maguffins… it got the plot moving, but didn’t really matter. All it did was reveal that Clint’s wife Laura used to be a SHIELD agent herself, in a manner almost custom designed to annoy fans of Agents of SHIELD. (Again, below.)

As for the Big Boss, every hint, Easter egg, and connection to Matt Fraction and David Aja’s infamously great run on the Hawkeye comic paid off: the big boss is Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin, played once again by Daredevil’s Vincent D’Onofrio. Fans were thrilled to see D’Onofrio’s Fisk return, and now fully canonical to the MCU, and rightfully so, it’s hard to imagine someone playing him better… but also then very aggravated that he wasn’t given a lot to do. But… how could he have been? Other than a photo in the final shot of season five, Kingpin doesn’t even show up until the final episode. The episode where they have to solve Armand’s murder, tell us what’s up with the watch, resolve Clint and Yelena’s issues, wrap up Maya’s arc, and have Clint and Kate become true partners. There is so much happening, there simply wasn’t time for Fisk’s trademark slow-burn masterminding.

But the thing about Hawkeye is that so much of the show works so well that the fact that a couple of balls get dropped in the final hour doesn’t ruin it for me. When I think of the finale, I don’t think about how the watch was barely anything, I don’t think about there not being enough Fisk, or wonder exactly how many Tracksuits there actually are, I think about how great Hailee Steinfeld and Florence Pugh play off each other. I think about how fun the big fight in Rockefeller Plaza was, how well they played the emotions of Clint and Yelena’s confrontation, how fun Jack was in the climax, how many set-ups did have satisfying payoffs. It works.

Yes there are misfires and a couple bad payoffs, but it’s not like WandaVision abandoning all of its creativity for a standard Marvel Movie CG showdown or Loki resolving (if we can call Loki resolved) with 15 minutes of exposition or Falcon and the Winter Soldier deciding that one good deed redeemed John Walker.

Okay so that’s Hawkeye summed up. Very fun, somehow more Shane Blacky (in the best ways) than the actual Shane Black Marvel movie, Kate and Yelena deserve six seasons and a movie. Here are the problems currently facing Marvel, and they both boil down to fan expectations.

Specifically, fan excitement being a double-edged sword.

Author: danny_g

Danny G, your humble host and blogger, has been working in community theatre since 1996, travelling the globe on and off since 1980, and caring more about nerd stuff than he should since before he can remember. And now he shares all of that with you.

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