Thoughts on WandaVision

I know, I’m slightly late to the conversation on WandaVision. This isn’t because I watched it late, but because it took a while to unpack this series. Like most viewers, I found it a bit mystifying from the trailers, but I was intrigued from the first episode. This, I thought, is by far the quirkiest thing that Marvel has put on any screen, large or small, and yet held a sense of foreboding that something was just around the corner, something ominous. What I found as the series progressed, and as I’ve had time to ruminate on it a bit, is that there is a deeper theological undercurrent to this series than I’ve seen in any of the MCU to date.

Let me cut to the ending though: I loved WandaVision.

Comic book literature is sort of naturally given to feature length films, because it tends to contain huge battles between good and evil that are epic in scale. Arcs like Captain America’s backstory, or the Avengers, are well-suited to a series of large-screen films. We’ve followed them, loved them, found ourselves invested in them. If you’ve read comics at all, though, you’ll know that there’s more to the characters. Comics give space for the backstory of the characters, as well. They at times devote entire issues to conversations between incidental or secondary characters, developing not only those characters but others in the process. There’s room for dialogue, for the heavy introspection of someone’s thoughts. Were the screenplay writers to include this in every film, they would all easily exceed two hours. What we’ve seen with Marvel’s series at large, though (think of the Defenders series on Netflix) is that their episodic nature provides the writers with the room to unpack backstories, develop characters, help us to know these heroes (and villains) better. Think of the entire episode of Daredevil devoted to Matt Murdock revealing his secret identity to Foggy Nelson. That was incredible dialogue, and the viewer was so much more invested in both Murdock and Nelson after.

That sort of space is something that both Vision and the Scarlet Witch have been in need of since they debuted in Age of Ultron. Wanda Maximof’s story of one of trauma. Repeated trauma. She watches her parents die. She chooses to become an Avenger, and then her brother dies. She still tries to do what is good, and manages to find a strange an unusual love in the Vision, not only to watch him die as well at the hands of Thanos, but actually is forced to be the one to kill him. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Wanda is one of the strongest characters in the Marvel universe at this point, not just in sheer power level (we’ll get there), but in the will to even get up each morning and keep going after that amount of trauma. I’m not sure I would make the same decision.

Wanda, however does. The complication is that she is endowed with a level of power that she can’t even comprehend prior to this series, and, when her mind finally breaks under the pain of grief of loss, that power alters reality. The writers riffed on the House of M story arc from the source material, and walked the thin line of introducing the complexities of this scenario without ever allowing Wanda to become a villain. Because, at the end of the day, it just isn’t that simple.

What fascinates me about WandaVision is the theological implications of the story. This is ultimately a story of what happens when any one of us tries to play God. Wanda just wants an end to pain. She has no ill intent. So, she does exactly what any of us would do if we found ourselves in possession of an enormous amount of magical ability to alter reality to fit our will. Wanda departs the realm of hero, but never becomes a villain. She just wants a respite from her grief but, because she’s only human after all, creates a disastrous scenario when she takes matters into her own hands, even though (and this is important) she does so instinctively rather than intentionally.

I don’t want to throw out a post full of spoilers…you really need to watch this series if you haven’t. To continue the theological discussion, though, the best part of the story is that, in the end, when confronted with the decision to maintain the relief from sadness that she so desperately wants and deserves, or to let Vision, her one love, die yet again in order to free the innocent people around her from the prison that she’s inadvertently created, Wanda displays the nature of a hero and places the good of the many before her own. The pain that she’s feeling we cannot fathom, but she repents of her wrong doing and makes an effort to save the lives of others.

There are far more themes introduced in this series than I can explore here. We see an image of temptation by the evil one in the Garden in Agatha Harkness. We’re given a bit of time to ask the question, can a machine love, if we can create as we were created, and what the ramifications of such actions might be. There is so much going on in WandaVision.

WandaVision is the most original idea that Marvel has tried to date. Each episode is superbly written, perfectly performed, and full of layers of significance that one just doesn’t find in any series created in the U.S of late. If you’re a comics fan, and especially if you’ve followed the MCU at all, this is a must-watch. I wouldn’t recommend that this be a jumping-on point to the MCU if you haven’t, though. The good news there is that you have a lot of great material on which to catch up.

A Review of “Black Panther”

Movie poster for Black Panther. Image used under Creative Commons.I knew before entering the cinema this weekend that Black Panther would be a very different movie for Marvel, but hadn’t predicted how different. Until now, every character in the cinematic universe has been seen through the lens of a hero, albeit, at times, reluctant or unintentional heroes. This isn’t the story of a hero, but rather the story of a king.

T’Challa rises to power, as you’ll remember from Captain America: Civil War, through tragedy. Thrust into wearing the mantle of king, he is now trying to do what is right for his country, struggling against a history of violence and revenge. His sudden rise to power is marked by living in the tension between honoring their way of life and doing what is right with the power that his country holds.

What immediately struck me about Black Panther was the quality of the world-building. Wakanda here finally fulfills its potential in the Marvel Universe. We see a fully developed nation, honoring and maintaining its ancient traditions all while embracing a technological superiority surpassing any other nation on the globe. The balance that the Wakandans maintain between these two extremes is completely believable and profoundly thought-provoking. The visuals are stunning, especially the dream and hallucination sequences. Both the sweeping shots of the African landscape and the digitally constructed sequences of the high-tech bunkers beneath the city are equally impressive. I also particularly liked the Bond/Q sort of relationship between T’Challa and his sister.

Speaking of Shuri, we should not pass over the fact that T’Challa’s closest advisors and confidants in this film are women, strong female characters that make up the backbone of his government. This is a subtle triumph for the writers that does a great deal to contribute to the strength of the film as a whole.

Interestingly, Everett Ross’ character  truly comes into his own here as we continue to see hints of the as-yet-unrealized fallout from Civil War. Their paths cross as T’Challa’s adventures in the beginning of the film are more like an espionage adventure than a super-hero one. This initially felt slightly out of place, but the director ultimately made it work.

The film offers a powerful social commentary, as well, perhaps the most powerful we’ve seen in a Marvel film since Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The fear of having one’s country legally taken over by an unstable dictator is very real (and oh-so-relevant today). The recognition that violence doesn’t solve this problem, but rather does working to strengthen the system, is equally apropos, and needs to be said to as wide an audience as possible.

The Black Panther is not a costumed hero, at least not yet. He is a warrior attempting to protect those he loves, a leader attempting to make atonement for the past sins of his country.  He sees the wisdom of using violence only as a last resort, and sees the humanity that connects us all. This is possibly T’Challa’s most heroic trait.

In the end, the Black Panther extends Wakanda’s hand, recognizing the folly of not helping others in need when one has the power to do so.  Wakanda coming out of isolation will have a profound impact on the Marvel Universe, and I’m fascinated to see exactly what that impact will be.

Black Panther is a celebration of African culture, and an exploration of what that means. I can’t pretend to understand that, but I think that I am closer to understanding it after seeing this film. Every actor gives a stunning performance here, building on top of a strong screenplay. This is quite possibly the best movie that Marvel has made so far, certainly a relief after the disaster that was Ragnarok. Here is a Silver Age hero brought to the screen as a new type of character for the cinematic universe, taking us in a very different direction. T’Challa will play an important role in the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  I can’t wait to see what that role will be. This film is not to be missed.

Image attribution: junaidrao under Creative Commons.

Back to Paperback

Back to PaperBack

Something very important happened two weekends ago, something that solidifies the entire process of moving back to New England and was the last step in feeling “at home.”

I found a good comic book shop.

You laugh, but I hadn’t found one in two years while living in North Carolina, and had resigned myself to moving all of my comic book reading to the digital sphere. I held no hope of locating a source for print comics again.

Don’t get me wrong, digital comics are a great thing. I always prefer to give my money to a small local business whenever possible, though, and the local comic shop is more of a cultural experience than it is a retail experience. There are really good conversations that happen there about very, very geeky things.

This particular shop has a great selection of old issues…boxes upon boxes of them, in fact…which is wonderful because I’m not a fan of what any of the major publishers have been doing in print of late, so I’ve focused my reading a lot on graphic novels and back issues for the last year or so.

As I browsed the neatly-organized and alphabetized shelves of recent-but-not-new issues to fill in some gaps that have occurred in the last couple of months, I found myself questioning which issues I had, and where I had left off. I found a few titles there of which I suddenly remembered having read the first issue, but had let the story and issue-to-issue cliffhanger escape my mind since doing so. Some of these were four or more months old.

This is highly unusual.

For two years, I have purchased all of my comics digitally. I thought that this would have no effect on my reading. After all, I still prefer to purchase ebooks whenever possible, primarily for the convenience of having whatever I’m reading readily available when I find myself with free time. Any excuse to read is well-taken, in my mind, so facilitating more opportunities to do so is a no-brainer. Comics should be no different, right?

Except that my theory is now proven wrong. These digital issues had as much interest to me while I was reading them, certainly. Yet, they faded from memory very quickly. I lost track of where I was in a given series, and even what series I was reading in some cases. It’s as though the stories took up space only in my short-term memory, making no lasting connections at all.

Which is far, far too disrespectful to any story to permit to continue.

I’m not sure why novels that I read in e-book format stay with me just as a physical novel does. Perhaps the issue at hand is that I have been far too busy with little time to read for the past few months (a new child has that effect). Or, more concerning, perhaps my attention span is being progressively shortened. That’s a frightening concept that I prefer to not consider.

So, that Saturday afternoon, I brought home my first paper issues of new comics in two years. A good feeling, I’ll admit.

Incidentally, I still remember where each issue left off, and am looking forward to next month to continue reading.

Just like in years past.

Physically.

A Review of “Black Widow: Deadly Origin”

Black Widow: Deadly OriginBlack Widow: Deadly Origin by Paul Cornell

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Black Widow has long been one of my favorite characters in the Marvel Universe. Before the world at large was introduced to her in Iron Man 2, I was reading her adventures. I was thrilled to have her introduced into the cinematic canon because she’s a strong female character, a hero of tragic origin with a darkness that brings an enormous amount of depth to her stories. Natasha Romanoff has been involved in many adventures within Marvel comics through the decades, playing an important part in various continuities. I hadn’t read the Deadly Origin issues, though, and I was looking forward, as I always do, to reading anything Black Widow when I picked this collection up at my local bookstore.

How disappointing.

This story alternates between a plot called the “Icepick Protocol” to kill everyone that Romanoff loves and hinging around the man who was a father figure to her, Ivan…and flashbacks to her past, from her origins as part of the Red Room through her involvement in the Civil War story arc. This is the retconned history for the Black Widow, in which biotechnological enhancements prolong her life substantially, and thus she has lived through a great deal. We see her husband, the Red Guardian, and other interesting glimpses into the Widow’s past that has crafted her into the strong and fractured character that she is. The flashbacks seemed to be well-paced within the context of the rest of the story to me, but the dialogue seemed out of character in both present and past on many occasions. The sweep of the story is too broad for so confined a collection…we’re simply covering too much of Romanoff’s life because we have to see how it collides with present events. The present events are then reduced to a cacophony of violent confrontations that don’t leave room for the sort of character evolution that I would hope to see in an origin story.

Then, there’s the art.

Two different artists draw this collection: one the modern events, another the flashbacks. The flashback art by Leon is brilliant. The emotions of the characters carry far past the dialogue, and there are moments where I feel I know the Black Widow’s character better based only on her facial expression or posture in tableau from these flashback sequences. Comparing this to the majority of the collection…the current events…is striking enough to be painful. In modern day, Romanoff looks as though she’s seventeen rather than the woman she is, her apparent age completely incongruous with the skills she evidences in the fighting sequences. Which is sort of noticeable, as fighting sequences are really all we see in the present events.

Overall, I also find the events of the story a bit too steeped in the “off-camera” sex. Yes, the Widow is a product of the Red Room, but she has become so much more as a hero, and this just doesn’t do her justice. I think the motivation of the writer was to paint Romanoff as the woman she’s become, but this missed the mark entirely.

Deadly Origin’s writing is, unfortunately, a lot of failing to do the character of the Black Widow justice. Combined with profoundly disappointing artwork for more than half of the collection, and this is a book that will likely gather dust on my shelf without ever being re-read. If you love the Black Widow, you’ll want better.

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