Our copyright overlord Disney has huge marketing budgets for its stories. Is that the only reason Disney is popular, or has it earned its popularity through storytelling craft? Let’s take one step toward finding an answer by examining the three live-action Marvel TV shows released on Disney+: WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and Loki.
I’ve given each show a score for the four critical engagement factors in ANTS, which stands for attachment, novelty, tension, and satisfaction. For each factor, the shows are ranked on a scale of 1 to 10. A 1 means that the element in question is almost or wholly absent, while a 10 means it is executed to the height of excellence. A 10 is very difficult to score, but not impossible. For example, I would rate each of these stories as 10s in their prospective category:
- For attachment (the level of emotional investment in the story and its characters), I’d give a 10 to The Murderbot Diaries.
- For novelty (how fresh and fascinating the story is), I’d give a 10 to The Broken Earth.
- For tension (which is created by compelling problems and conflicts), I’d give a 10 to The Martian.
- For satisfaction (a factor that represents how skillfully problems are resolved), I’d give a 10 to The Wrath of Khan.
Now let’s see how well Marvel’s entries fare.
Spoiler Notice: WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and Loki
The first of these shows to hit our streams, WandaVision has two important goals: first, to explore Wanda’s grief at losing Vision in Infinity War; second, to bring Vision back to life. We don’t kill characters round these parts, thank you very much, not if we can still get the actor in front of a camera. And hey, if deepfake tech continues on its current trajectory, maybe those pesky actors won’t even be needed! Oh, and the titular characters appear to be trapped on a fictional sitcom together, so that’s fun.
Wanda and Vision have been Avengers since Age of Ultron, but never particularly prominent ones, so they don’t hit the ground running in this category. Attachment then takes a serious hit when we learn that Wanda has mind-controlled an entire town to act out her sitcom fantasy, which is apparently how she expresses grief. While the townsfolk are behaving like a happy supporting cast, they’re actually being tortured by Wanda’s nightmares. Yikes. It’s not clear if Wanda knows about the nightmares, but she definitely knows that she mentally abducted an entire town, which makes it really hard to care what happens to her.
Meanwhile, her two kids don’t feel like characters at all, as they’re literally created by Wanda’s spell and also made entirely of over-the-top sitcom tropes. Fortunately, the rest of the cast picks up some of the slack. Vision in particular is quite sympathetic, as he got brutally murdered back in Infinity War. He’s also a magical construct from Wanda’s spell, but he has the memories and personality of a real character. Plus, he wants Wanda to stop torturing the townsfolk even if it means his death, which it does, thanks to some extremely convoluted rules of magic. Granted, he also puts several people back under Wanda’s spell so he doesn’t have to deal with them freaking out, but he’s mostly fine.
The secondary characters are also pretty good overall. We’ve seen Jimmy in Ant-Man and Darcy in Thor, so there’s some residual attachment for those two, and both characters are decently funny. Monica was technically in Captain Marvel, but as a small child, so adult Monica is essentially a new character. Despite that, it’s cool to watch Monica gain her powers. However, she loses points by constantly excusing Wanda’s habit of mentally kidnapping civilians.
That’s the real problem. As likable as many of the characters are, they can’t make up for the main character acting more like a villain than a hero, leaving the show with average attachment at best.
Final Score: 5
I’m sure it won’t be a surprise to most of you that WandaVision’s novelty is high. It’s so high that the show was marketed entirely with unexplained clips of Wanda and Vision in a sitcom, and naturally, we all had to watch so we could find out what the heck was going on.
Putting superheroes in a sitcom is a fantastic premise from the start, and it stands out even more in the MCU, where stories have become infamously formulaic. Advancing the sitcom environment by a decade each episode gives the writers a whole new set of tropes to play with, something that remained fun and novel even for people like me who don’t watch many sitcoms.
The scenes that take place outside of Wanda’s enchantment are more standard Marvel fare, but they don’t detract much as they’re all focused on investigating what the heck is going on with the magical sitcom, which is something the audience also desperately wants to know. Plus, these scenes set up moments when someone breaks character in the sitcom, which is yet another twist to keep things interesting.
The only serious flaw in this category is the finale, which is a by-the-numbers mirror-mode fight, nearly identical to all the mirror-mode fights we’ve seen before. It even has a skybeam! This scene is extra frustrating because Wanda’s powers don’t work on her opponent; why doesn’t she try switching partners with Vision?
Despite that, WandaVision is a breath of fresh air that I really hope Marvel learns from. It would be very nice if Phase Four also mixed up the formula now and then.
Final Score: 9
WandaVision also does pretty well in this category, though not with the flying colors it got for novelty. In the early episodes, we just want to know what’s going on! Who put our heroes in this weird sitcom reality, and how do they get out? When something occasionally breaks through the facade, like a dinner guest choking after his memories contradict the established narrative, that only raises the tension higher.
Surprisingly, the tension remains fairly high when Wanda is revealed to be the cause of everything. Instead of worrying what will happen to Wanda, now we’re worried what will happen to everyone else. Vision and the townsfolk didn’t do anything to deserve this; are they going to be okay?
Tension does drop toward the end for a couple of reasons. First, we learn that antagonist Agatha’s big evil plan is to take Wanda’s magic. Good? It’s pretty clear Wanda shouldn’t have it, and we have no reason to think Agatha will do anything worse than what Wanda is already doing. There’s also an evil government guy who is doing… something? I’m not quite sure. He’s created his own version of Vision to be a living weapon, and for some reason he sends it to kill the version of Vision created by Wanda’s spell. I have no idea what that’s supposed to get him.
Neither of these threats creates much tension, other than the threat they pose to Vision. Poor Vision – it seems like everyone is gunning for him one way or another. These later-episode goofs leave us wishing for the halcyon days that came before, back when we were still freaked out by a beekeeper emerging from the sewer. Despite that, the show’s average tension remains good, if not exceptional.
Final Score: 7
This is a weird category because WandaVision’s satisfaction varies wildly depending on how well you buy into the writers’ version of events. We’re supposed to think that Wanda justly neutralized Agatha and then made a great sacrifice to save the townsfolk from the spell they were under. Monica even has dialogue explaining all of this, telling Wanda “they’ll never know what you sacrificed for them.” If you can accept that, then the satisfaction will be high.
But if you look a little closer, that version of events falls apart. Wanda basically inflicts a death of personality on Agatha, trapping her as a sitcom character until she dies or until Wanda needs some magic lessons, whichever comes first. That’s a disturbingly harsh punishment for a villain who didn’t do anything nearly as bad as what Wanda herself was doing.
Speaking of which, Wanda is the one who put the townsfolk under a spell in the first place. All she does is stop the active harm she herself was committing. She suffers no consequences, makes no amends; she doesn’t even seem particularly sorry. She does lose her magically conjured husband and children, but by the post-credits sequence, it’s clear that’ll be temporary.
Wanda’s conclusion in this finale is anti-satisfaction. It drags the rest of the ending down with it, which is too bad. Otherwise, the satisfaction would be pretty good. The townsfolk are saved, the bad guy is defeated, and the hero goes off to learn more magic for her next adventure. That ticks off the major conflicts, and it could make for a good score if not for Wanda’s strange mind-prison choices.
Final Score: 4
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier
My first complaint about this show is that the title doesn’t easily shorten to anything. I can’t just call it “Falcon”; that leaves out an entire Winter Soldier. “Falcon and Winter” is still too long and also doesn’t sound anything like the actual title. That’s why I’m calling it “FalWinSol,” which I shamelessly stole from a friend, and there’s nothing you can do to stop me.
Anyway, FalWinSol begins with a truly fantastical premise that requires you to suspend a lot of disbelief: that the US military is a real stickler for respecting other countries’ borders. This is the most politically ambitious of our three entries, and with decidedly mixed results. FalWinSol does a good job portraying the history of racism in the United States, particularly with regard to Black veterans.
Unfortunately, the show fails to find time for the political conflict that’s supposedly driving its entire plot: the disruption caused by half the population disappearing, thanks to Thanos, and then reappearing five years later, thanks to the Avengers. That certainly sounds like something that would cause political issues, and FalWinSol claims such issues exist, but it’s amazingly light on details. There are refugees, but where they came from or why they were displaced is a mystery. Some characters mention that borders were less important when half the population was gone, but how or why is never discussed.
This is not high, I’m afraid. As the Falcon, Sam has played occasional backup to Steve Rogers’s Captain America, but never in a prominent enough role to build prior attachment. His personal problem in this show is deciding if he wants to be Captain America, something he does without any real difficulty. The show certainly builds sympathy when the cops hassle Sam for talking while Black, but that kind of discrimination doesn’t actually seem to affect Sam very often, at least onscreen. He doesn’t have a personal connection to the villains, and his most sympathetic conflict is trying to save his sister’s fishing business. Not only is that primarily his sister’s problem, but also it feels like something an Avenger should be able to solve in a snap.
There’s a certain level of selflessness to Sam taking on the villainous Flag Smashers, especially when we learn he’s not getting paid. But fighting villains is the baseline for every superhero, so it doesn’t help him much. Costar Bucky does a little better, as he’s still dealing with the psychological fallout of being brainwashed as Hydra’s Winter Soldier assassin, which is a pretty sympathetic problem. We also remember him as Steve’s secret boyfriend from the Captain America movies,* so some of that attachment carries over.
Then we’ve got John Walker, a soldier the US government puts forward as a replacement Captain America, and he’s all over the place. The writers can’t decide if he’s genuinely a nice guy, a sympathetic bad boy, a noble hero on a downward arc, or a jerk with no redeeming features. It’s difficult to build attachment to a character who keeps changing based on what the writers want for a specific scene.
Unusually, FalWinSol also tries to build attachment with Karli, the show’s main antagonist. She’s got sympathetic motivations, you see; she’s trying to help refugees and make the world better! But she also burns office workers alive because they work for a political organization she doesn’t like, so any sympathy goes right out the window. Instead, it’s just irritating when Sam keeps insisting that Karli is misunderstood. We can’t know for sure, but I suspect this was the result of conflicting interests: On the one hand, the writers wanted a sympathetic villain. On the other hand, they had to make the vaguely leftist villain do something horrible so the audience wouldn’t want her to win. The result is a confused, unappealing mess.
Oddly, Civil War‘s Baron Zemo is probably the character with the highest attachment. For one thing, he’s very sassy, which creates a lot of personal novelty by FalWinSol’s drab and gritty standards. He’s also an underdog: an unpowered guy trying to rid the world of supersoldiers. That’s worth a lot of sympathy. Still, it’s not great when a recurring minor villain has the highest attachment in your show.
Final Score: 4
This is another category where FalWinSol lags behind. The show’s aesthetic is meant to be more realistic, with most locations being regular buildings and the characters dressed in street clothes or reserved costumes. For fight scenes, we usually get to pick between mundane gunfights or mundane fistfights. Heck, Sam doesn’t even use his Falcon suit most of the time, so he’s just a guy with a pistol. I’m guessing the wings and jet pack were expensive, but maybe it was just a commitment to the aesthetic.
This reserved aesthetic could actually have created novelty if the show had been willing to embrace a more realistic type of fight scene, but this is still Marvel. Characters constantly survive blows that should have killed them. That is, until it’s time for a side character to die tragically. So this show gives us the standard, consequence-free style of MCU violence, but without the colorful hero aesthetic.
Meanwhile, the villains are fairly mundane as well. The Flag Smashers are supposed to have taken the same super serum that created Captain America, but thanks to Marvel’s convention of leveling out everyone’s powers, it’s hard to remember that. Sam has about as much trouble with an unenhanced French martial artist as he does with the supposedly superpowered Karli.
Another source of novelty could have been the political conflict. If FalWinSol had fully explored the issues caused by half the population vanishing for five years, that would have been both interesting and unusual in a Marvel product. Instead, the politics are left exceptionally vague, especially at the beginning when we most need to know.
The only remaining source of novelty is FalWinSol’s acknowledgment that systemic racism exists. For a franchise that had previously acted like America’s WWII army wasn’t segregated, that’s a pretty big deal, and it helps set FalWinSol apart. It just doesn’t help enough.
Final Score: 4
Finally, a category where FalWinSol holds its own! While the lack of political context does make it hard to tell what the Flag Smashers are fighting for, we soon learn that they enjoy blowing up civilians, so yes, we would like them stopped please. And while you often forget that they’ve taken super serum, they still win a number of early fights, so their threat level is decent.
The Flag Smashers’ endgame plan is also surprisingly well thought out. At first, I thought they were just taking hostages without any idea of what to do next, but then we learn that they actually mean to kidnap several important officials. This will gum up the mechanisms of government and slow the passing of legislation that the Flag Smashers oppose. Granted, it would be better if we knew more about what that legislation entailed or why the Flag Smashers opposed it, but you take what you can get.
There’s also some tension over Walker taking the Captain America mantle early in the show. All we know at first is that Walker’s costume is designed to make him look sinister, which makes it seem like he might do something bad. Have you seen how wide his mouth looks in that mask? That has to mean he’s up to no good! This tension fades as it becomes clear that the writers have no idea what to do with Walker, but it helps for a while.
There’s also more tension than I expected wrapped up in Sam helping his sister with her fishing business. The stakes aren’t super high, but it’s also the show’s most real conflict, especially since it starts with a bank denying credit to a Black business owner. It doesn’t carry the rest of the show, but it helps.
Final Score: 6
FalWinSol does a decent job tying up most of its subplots. The sister’s fishing business is saved, yay! Zemo is sent to a new prison that he’s less likely to escape from. We have some closure on the story of Isaiah Bradley, a Black supersoldier from the Korean War who was imprisoned, tortured, and experimented on by the US government until he faked his own death. Nothing can undo that, but Sam at least helps him get some recognition for his service.*
Sam’s personal arc is also resolved when he decides to become Captain America, which is a big deal. Frankly, it’s a bigger deal in real life than it is in the story. In our world, Captain America has been an icon since the 1940s. In the MCU world, he was briefly and secretly active in WWII before becoming one face among many in the Avengers, minus the time he spent as a fugitive. So while Sam takes up the shield with very little in-universe fanfare, it’s a big moment for us watching.
Unfortunately, the main plot largely fizzles out. Karli and the Flag Smashers all die, which is fine because they’re pretty evil. But then the writers try to resolve the political conflict with Sam giving a speech in which he tells the government to “do better.” Granted, I don’t know what the political problem actually is, but I know that’s not gonna do anything about it, no matter what the epilogue news reports say.
Final Score: 5
Welcome to Loki-Man: Into the Loki-Verse. In this show, we see what happens to the version of Loki that escapes after the Battle of New York thanks to the Avengers’ bungled time traveling. Naturally, he first joins and then fights against the Time Variance Authority (TVA), an organization that oversees all of time itself. If you were worried that the MCU’s less-than-100% plotting might have trouble with more time travel, don’t worry: you’re absolutely right. The time travel is a total mess, surprising no one who saw Endgame. But hey, it gives us more Tom Hiddleston, so that’s nice.
Loki the show lives and dies on attachment to exactly one thing: Loki the character. We’ve watched the trickster god develop and grow across five movies, and it’s easy to see how his complex portrayal won him so many fans, especially when compared to the MCU’s normal lineup of mirror-mode villains who are evil because they’re evil. Turning Loki into a hero was the next logical step.
The only problem is that this show really wants the 2018 version of Loki, plucked from Infinity War just before his death at Thanos’s hands. It wants that version of Loki so badly that it would like us to politely ignore that this is actually the 2012 version of Loki, back when he was literally compared to Adolf Hitler. The writers want 2018 Loki so bad that they have 2012 Loki watch a recap of the MCU’s best Loki scenes so he’ll know how he has to act. Anytime you remember that this Loki was just invading New York rather than fighting alongside his brother on Asgard, attachment slips a little.
Fortunately, the secondary characters are also pretty good in the attachment department. Mobius is just a nice guy played by a very charismatic Owen Wilson. That helps him stand out in a show where everyone else has some level of dramatic brooding. Beyond safeguarding the timeline, his main ambition is to try a jet ski one day, and I really hope he gets the chance in season two.
Sylvie is also a really sympathetic character. She was abducted and nearly murdered by the TVA when she was just a kid, and those who destroyed her life don’t even remember why. At least, so they claim. I suspect we’ll find out differently in the next season, but that’s neither here nor there. Sylvie does get a bit too much candy, mostly in the form of other characters talking about how great she is, but it could be worse. They could be excusing the time she mentally kidnapped an entire town!
Final Score: 9
This is another category where Loki does pretty well. We’re on a roll! The TVA aces its role as the bureaucracy at the end of time, mixing the wondrous and surreal with the utterly banal and mundane. A great combo, if you ask me. Plus, Miss Minutes the cartoon clock is a fun mascot.
After that, we visit a number of strange new worlds, mostly when they’re about to explode. Each of them has a cool and distinct look, and I especially like the near-future department store turned storm shelter. Like the TVA, it’s a potent mix of the futuristic and the disturbingly familiar. It also hits close to home for fairly obvious climate change reasons.
Finally, the many Lokis we meet near the end are very cool. Classic Loki obviously steals the show, as any character played by Richard E. Grant is wont to do, but some of the background Lokis have very cool looks, and Alligator Loki is always good for a meme or two. However, the many Lokis also show why I can’t rate this show as highly as I did WandaVision. While they’re very cool, most of them are just part of the background. They show up and then leave so quickly that they feel more like cutouts than characters.
That’s also true for most of the strange places Loki and Sylvie visit. They look cool, but they’re often more window dressing than an integral part of the story. Still, they look very cool.
Final Score: 7
There’s no way around this: tension in Loki is low, easily the worst of the three shows. The main reason is that the antagonistic TVA is incredibly incompetent. They have exactly one trick up their sleeves: goons with batons. The goons aren’t superpowered, and there aren’t even that many of them. The batons at least have a function that can theoretically be deadly with a single hit, but in practice it seems like you have to maintain contact long enough that a knife could do the same job.
It’s obvious that the TVA isn’t a threat to anyone, least of all Loki and Sylvie. The first time Loki encounters the time agents, they defeat him via a sucker punch, and after that he easily wipes the floor with them every time. The only fig leaf of tension comes from magic not working in TVA headquarters, but Loki and Sylvie are such good fighters that it barely matters. There’s a scene where the TVA claims they haven’t done anything about the Avengers’ time traveling because it’s “supposed to happen,” but I think it’s really because they’d get completely ruined trying to bring in Steve Rogers or Tony Stark.
Another factor reducing tension is the total lack of consistency in how time travel or magic works. Variants who deviate from the single TVA-approved timeline are pruned immediately, and yet there are hundreds of alternate timelines out there so we can have a bunch of different Lokis. Apparently being an alligator wasn’t a deviance for Alligator Loki, but eating the wrong pet was. Nothing that happens in an apocalypse sets off the TVA’s time scanners except for two variants wanting to smooch, for reasons. Loki’s magic is also all over the place. Sometimes he can only create illusions; sometimes he can teleport; sometimes he can throw fireballs. One time he stops a skyscraper from falling over.
When the setting doesn’t have any consistent rules, it’s difficult for the audience to feel any tension. On the rare occasion when Loki is threatened by something more dangerous than a baton, it’s easy to guess that some brand-new power or twist in the mechanics of time travel will save him. Yawn.
Finally, Loki has no goal or even a real motivation. The closest he gets is the occasional claim of taking over the TVA, but that’s obviously not going to happen, and it’s not even clear if Loki’s being serious. Normally, a story builds tension over whether the hero will get what they want, but Loki wants nothing.* Instead, Loki mostly goes along with either Mobius’s or Sylvie’s goal, depending on whom he’s hanging out with at the time. That’s better than nothing, but since Loki is our main character, it doesn’t help much.
Final Score: 3
Somehow, the show’s satisfaction is even lower than its tension. After being pursued by impotent TVA agents for a few episodes, Loki and Sylvie discover the big twist: the TVA was founded by a mysterious figure who uses it to prevent a multi-timeline war. His methods are brutal, but killing him means starting a war beyond anything our heroes have ever seen.
This reveal should be a satisfying moment when everything clicks together, except it’s almost identical to the story we’re given at the start of the show. Back then, we were told that three Time-Keepers created the TVA to prevent a multi-timeline war. The only difference is that there turns out to be just one Time-Keeper instead of three. This is supposedly a complicated meta-joke for those familiar with Marvel comics, but for the rest of us, it’s the ultimate who cares reveal.
After the “twist,” Loki’s lack of motivation comes back to bite the show once again. Instead of focusing on what Loki wants or is trying to accomplish, the show chooses Sylvie instead. She accomplishes her goal of destroying the TVA while Loki stands around. They have a brief sword fight, but mostly because Sylvie still has trust issues rather than because Loki was legitimately trying to stop her.
To be clear, Sylvie is a decent character, but she isn’t the main character. She could have been, but that probably wouldn’t have flown with the marketing department. So the show does all the work of investing us in Loki, only to pivot to someone we don’t care about nearly as much. It might even have worked if the two of them had seriously clashed at the end, with Loki wanting to take over the TVA and Sylvie wanting to destroy it, but that’s not what happens.
And then Loki gets popped back into a new timeline where Mobius’s character development has been seemingly undone, as a reminder that this show’s main purpose is to set up the multiverse premise for Phase Four of the MCU. Presumably we’ll get back the Mobius we know in season two, but it’s still an annoying way to end things.
Final Score: 2
As we tally the scores, WandaVision leads with 25, with Loki managing a 21 and FalWinSol trailing at 19. That matches up fairly well with what I’ve seen of fan reactions. WandaVision and Loki both focus really hard on one category, which tends to get a story noticed. Even though Loki dips below FalWinSol in some categories, intense audience investment in characters like Mobius and Loki himself is enough to carry the show for many fans. Still, all three entries have significant room for improvement, and at least two of them are likely to get a second season. Maybe next time Sam and Bucky can battle a sympathetic villain who doesn’t burn people alive? Just a thought.
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