So I waited until episode three of Marvel’s new TV spin-off because the first two episodes weren’t compelling but they had some good points. In particular, episode 2 implied that the show might go to interesting places but kept sort of hesitating around them. For me, to get a sense of what the character of this show was would depend a lot on the choices the story makes in episode 3.
The bad news is that the third episode was the weakest episode yet.
If you are OK with a sort of brainless superhero-themed spy/action show, it’s still fine. There’s a decent cast and plenty of money behind the production, so it will provide some distraction for 40 minutes. It falls apart rapidly if you engage your brain. I have no issue with not engaging your brain when consuming media — I spent a satisfying time watching a magical ape fight a radioactive dragon monster on Friday with no complaints. However, I would like a bit more smarts in when an opportunity arises and episode 2 of F&tWS showed that the writers were aware of some opportunities. The show just glanced off the idea of Captain America as a symbol of the darker side of America and skimmed briefly on the racism behind Sam not being the next Captain. Maybe, the show will return to this idea and do something with it but…well, we’ll see but my expectations are low.
The cynical side of me, when hearing that Disney (who still haven’t paid Alan Dean Foster) announced the MCU TV shows thought that these might end up being IP checkboxes. You know, like those comic book episodes were a famous character has to interact with some back-catalogue hero or villain really just to keep the name in rotation. That’s not always a bad thing, after all Neil Gaiman grabbing DC’s Sandman character and running with it took a 1930’s Shadow knock-off and created something extra-ordinary. So the purely pecuniary motives of the corporation don’t always translate into bad entertainment from the artist. F&tWS isn’t Gaiman’s Sandman, it’s a lot more like when Marvel was trying to make the Inhumans a replacement for the X-men in its properties because it didn’t control the film rights (at the time) for all the X-universe characters.
So the two problems with episode 3:
Let’s deal with Madripoor first. Madripoor is a cliche-city. It is Singapore-not-Singapore because it can’t be Singapore because Singapore it’s not a mess of cliches (or rather it is a mess of its own cliches and proud of them) nor is it Hong Kong (likewise) but some of both and a chunk of Bangkok and dash of KL and whole pile of Western fantasies. Pile up all the things that you might want in a fancy but piratical South East Asian city but then given it a new name so that it is marginally less terrible. Rather like Sokovia is the cliche city for Eastern Europe. Part of Marvel’s advantage over DC’s comics was to eschew this idea for American cities and put Peter Parker et al in New York rather than “Gotham” or “Metropolis”. These days fake cities feel fake and notably Marvel doesn’t do this for London, Paris, Moscow (or to complete the lyric) Munich (although maybe that would have been better for Munich?)
Madripoor was a bad idea. It was a lazy idea.
Zemo. I rewatched Captain America: Civil War recently and in so far as this F&tWS is a sequel to a movie it is a sequel to Civil War. One thing I really liked about the film is that it had a complex villain who defied audience expectations. Using the name of the comic book supervillain Baron Zemo, the Zemo of the film is a counterpoint to the evil Central/Eastern European supervillain (eg The Red Skull or Doctor Doom). Instead, Zemo is a security forces agent but with a simple motive: revenge for the death of his family in Sokovia. His only superpower is careful planning and an understanding of how to manipulate events. It’s a clever idea and one of the smartest parts of the film.
Of course, in making Zemo just an ordinary guy with a singular mission, Marvel threw away an existing comic book character. At the end of Civil War there was nowhere to go with the MCU Zemo. So episode 3 ends up being a narrative exercise in turning the complex, grounded character into Baron Zemo cliched baddy. After breaking him from prison, Zemo reveals that he is a rich aristocrat with a private jet and a big supervillain coat (and a mask). He’s campy fun but it is all kinds of sad and disappointing.
So two strikes and a so-so espionage plot this week.
If you want to read reviews of the other two episodes then Cora has a review of both episodes (http://corabuhlert.com/2021/03/22/marvels-new-world-order-some-thoughts-on-the-falcon-and-the-winter-soldier/ and http://corabuhlert.com/2021/03/29/the-falcon-and-the-winter-soldier-meet-the-star-sprangled-man/ ) and Font Folly has a review of episode 1 (https://fontfolly.net/2021/03/22/bucky-and-sam-try-to-find-their-place-in-the-new-world-order/ )