Birthday presents are cool and all, but how many people get an entire Marvel movie trailer released in honor of their birthday? Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings star Simu Liu became one of the lucky few to receive that distinction this morning, as Marvel surprised him – and all of us – with a first trailer for the hotly-anticipated next installment of the MCU after Black Widow: after initially revealing a poster for the upcoming movie that, while quite beautiful, wouldn’t have given us much to talk about beyond the fact that Simu Liu’s official costume is stunning.
But we’ve been promised a lot of martial arts epics by Hollywood that have more often than not failed to match the visual splendor and shock-and-awe factor of action films produced in China, South Korea, and Japan. I can’t say for certain if Shang-Chi will be able to break that trend based on just a single trailer, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t optimistic – because the trailer has got the visual splendor in spades (cinematographer Bill Pope is new to the MCU, but not to action-heavy blockbusters, with the visually stunning Alita: Battle Angel being one of his most notable credits), and the wuxia elements left me both shocked and awed…possibly because, for the longest time, I was convinced Marvel would go in a much grittier direction with the character.
The first minute of trailer footage still had me worried that would be the case – but then Shang-Chi battles a magical, flowery-hat wearing, wind spirit, in a bamboo grove (and the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon parallels are so strong, I have to believe it’s Michelle Yeoh behind that green mask)…and from there, the trailer cuts to a flashback sequence, with an entire army of gravity-defying warriors fighting alongside giant lions and bats. The Mandarin (here using the name Wenwu) uses his titular Ten Rings to create magic weapons and conjure tidal waves. There’s a villain named Razor-Fist, played by Florian Munteanu, whose arms turn into glowing blades. Awkwafina drives a bus over a row of cars like this is Fast And Furious. It’s kind of zany, but that’s undeniably also part of the winning formula for genuine wuxia films.
From what we can glean of the story, it’s clear that Shang-Chi was The Mandarin’s adopted son and one of his most powerful disciples as a child. But after letting Shang-Chi go off on his own and forget (or try to forget) his martial arts training for ten years, The Mandarin suddenly shows up again in his son’s life now that he’s an adult, with a whole bunch of threats and taunts about how he’s gone from being the right-hand man of the most dangerous and feared crime-lord in the world to working as a hotel valet and using his spare time to sing a karaoke rendition of A Whole New World (gotta love the corporate synergy there) with Awkwafina.
But Shang-Chi gets pulled back into his life of crime, and…well, I have no idea what happens next. There were rumors at one point that the film’s plot would revolve around a martial arts tournament with the prize being the Ten Rings themselves, and we see glimpses of what that might look like with Shang-Chi dueling Meng’er Zhang’s character in some kind of nightclub/crime den, but my theory (based on Zhang and Munteanu’s villains being clearly visible disembarking from The Mandarin’s helicopter behind Shang-Chi in one shot) is that The Mandarin will send them all on a globe-trotting treasure-hunt to the death. That allows for more diversity to the locations and fight-scenes than just a single building (even one with such beautiful bisexual lighting).
And speaking of diversity, one thing I really want to talk about is the fact that this film is a milestone for Asian and Asian-American representation onscreen. Building off the amazing work of Chloe Bennet and Ming-Na Wen on Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., Simu Liu’s Shang-Chi will be the first Asian-American superhero to exist inside the peripheries of the MCU proper, and the first to get his own solo movie – and that is definitely worth celebrating. There’s no need to pit these characters against each other or hate on any of them, particularly since (if their adorable Twitter interactions are any indication) it seems like Liu would love for Bennet’s Quake to cross over into the MCU at long last.
And on that note, happy birthday to Shang-Chi himself, Simu Liu! He seems like one of the most humble, down-to-earth people working in the MCU today, but he’s going to literally fly onto our screens this September, and I couldn’t be happier for him.
SPOILERS FOR THE FALCON AND THE WINTER SOLDIER AHEAD!
Ralph Bohner walked, so Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine could…also walk, but in really fancy high-heeled boots that even she admitted were incredibly uncomfortable.
There was a time, at the height of WandaVision‘s popularity, that it didn’t seem so inconceivable that any number of celebrity cameos might populate the series’ later episodes, giving rise to countless theories each more outlandish than the last. First it was Evan Peters as Peter Maximoff, then suddenly the entire X-Men universe was going to spill over into Westview by means of the Multiverse, including Ian McKellen as Magneto, Patrick Stewart as Professor X, and Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. Then it was Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man, for reasons still unbeknownst to me. Somewhere along the line, fans decided a throwaway reference to an “aerospace engineer” was actually a nod to Mr. Fantastic or Blue Marvel. Al Pacino as Mephisto was a topic of serious debate.
And in the end, the big cameos that WandaVision teased turned out to either be misdirects or literal pranks by the cast. Evan Peters wasn’t even playing Peter Maximoff: he was just a random guy named Ralph Bohner, and the fact that he played the X-Men universe’s version of the character whose personality he assumed in Westview was a coincidence. But therein lies the danger of theorizing – it’s incredibly fun, particularly in comic-book franchises where there are no shortage of rabbit holes to dive down, but you shouldn’t let it interfere with your ability to enjoy a story that turns out to be doing something completely different than what you theorized.
At the same time, I do think filmmakers and showrunners could perhaps refrain from overhyping literally every reveal, as seemed to sometimes be the case with WandaVision, if only to protect their own projects from inevitable fan backlash. But caving in to the most absurd fan theories is also a bad idea: how much further afield would The Falcon And The Winter Soldier have drifted in its middle section if it had had to stop and introduce Wolverine in Madripoor?
All of that is to say: Julia Louis-Dreyfus popping up in The Falcon And The Winter Soldier as an iconic character from Marvel Comics was the perfect kind of surprise, because, while it’s quite a brief cameo, and doesn’t distract a bit from the main narrative, it’s also fun, unpredictable (while still making sense in hindsight, like any good twist), and allows us to do some rabbit-hole diving right now, as we discuss the past, present, and future, of Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (no, I will not abbreviate it to Val: Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine literally says in the episode never to do that, and my SEO optimization says to pad my posts with at least 600 words).
Formally known as La Contessa Valentina Allegra de la Fontaine, the character first appeared in the Nick Fury: Agent Of S.H.I.E.L.D. comics in the late 1960’s, with her backstory mostly shrouded in mystery, but generally giving the impression that she was a fabulously wealthy Italian heiress until her parents were killed, at which point her skills as a hand-to-hand fighter and sharpshooter caught the eye of S.H.I.E.L.D., and she was recruited into the organization as Agent 14. Appointed leader of the all-women S.H.I.E.L.D. team “Femme Force”, Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine’s working relationship with Nick Fury quickly became a romantic one – so romantic, in fact, the Comics Code Authority intervened.
More recently, La Contessa has played a major role in the Secret Invasion storyline, being the victim of a Skrull impersonator. While laying low in Britain, she worked alongside Lance Hunter, who has already appeared in the MCU-adjacent Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV series. And then her entire backstory was retconned, and she was revealed to be a Russian sleeper agent working with the organization known as Leviathan to infiltrate HYDRA, leading to her taking over the title of Madame Hydra.
In the MCU, all we know about her comes from her exceedingly brief interaction with John Walker, during which she tells him to keep in touch with her as he might prove “very, very valuable to certain people”. Although she never states her true purpose, her knowledge of classified state secrets suggests a connection to either S.H.I.E.L.D. or HYDRA – and her threatening aura (plus the villainous purple highlights in her hair, an upgrade from her Bride of Frankenstein-esque white streak in the comics) makes the latter more likely. We also know from Vanity Fair that Julia Louis-Dreyfus was originally supposed to debut in Black Widow, most likely in a post-credits scene.
That, coupled with the handful of hints she drops, have led many to believe she’ll be assembling the MCU’s Thunderbolts (a team of reformed villains from the comics) or Dark Avengers (a team of evil doppelgangers of the original Avengers), jumping from films to Disney+ shows and back to recruit all the best baddies onto her team before they can be killed or imprisoned. She just missed her opportunity to accost Baron Zemo (the original founder of the Thunderbolts in the comics), but the fact that he’s currently on his way to The Raft rather than Wakanda makes it easier for La Contessa to potentially break him out. And if she does appear in Black Widow, that’ll probably be where she picks up Natasha Romanoff’s younger sister, Yelena Belova.
Since she’s clearly being set up as a puppet-master of sorts, she may also be tied to the Power-Broker of Madripoor – and there’s a possibility they’re one and the same. That honestly makes more sense than Sharon Carter being the Power-Broker herself, since she doesn’t seem to have much motive to design an army of Super-Soldiers. But Carter could be working for La Contessa, something that would parallel the characters’ dynamic in the comics, where Carter was a Femme Force member and the two were rivals for the team’s leadership position.
It’s also important to note that even if Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine is affiliated with HYDRA, and even if she does call herself Madame Hydra, that doesn’t somehow retcon Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s version of Madame Hydra out of existence, as some people are claiming. S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s Madame Hydra is a character from the HYDRA-operated Framework simulation, not even a real person, and her character design was lifted from Ophelia Sarkissian, another woman who wears the title in the comics. Haters love to claim Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t MCU canon, but it still lives rent-free in their heads.
There also remains the slight chance that La Contessa isn’t a straight-up villain. A lot of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents are just…kind of shady, particularly those in Nick Fury’s inner circle. I think this is least likely out of all the options, but if it means we get to see Samuel L. Jackson and Julia Louis-Dreyfus flirting all the way through the Secret Invasion series, I’d be okay with keeping her on S.H.I.E.L.D.’s side for a little while. Though it would be even more entertaining if they’re bitter exes on opposite sides of a conflict between their teams, whose romantic history allows them to predict their insignificant other’s next moves.
So what do you think Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine is plotting? Which team of villains should she be assembling, and why? Share your own thoughts, theories, and opinions, in the comments below!
SPOILERS FOR THE FALCON AND THE WINTER SOLDIER AHEAD!
Billed by the series’ producers as the single best episode of The Falcon And The Winter Soldier from a thematic standpoint, and highly-anticipated in the fandom due to its rumored inclusion of an epic Marvel Comics cameo, episode five – which bears the simple yet potent subtitle, “Truth” – delivers overwhelmingly on both fronts, diving into a timely discussion about Black identity in America while precisely utilizing the incomparable Julia Louis-Dreyfus to plant seeds for MCU storylines in the near future. After drifting slightly off-course in episode four, the series has regained its footing and the focus is back where it belongs, on Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie)’s journey of reconciliation.
Louis-Dreyfus’ unexpected cameo as Marvel’s famous Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine is a big deal for comic-book fans, probably deserving of its own breakdown, but The Falcon And The Winter Soldier very wisely doesn’t belabor the point, slipping the charismatic Contessa into just a single early scene before having her exit just as mysteriously as she arrived, leaving a blank business card and a promise to “keep in touch” in her wake. It hasn’t been confirmed if she’ll show up again in The Falcon And The Winter Soldier‘s upcoming finale, but there’s no question we’ll be seeing more of Louis-Dreyfus in the MCU soon, as her character’s sprawling comics history gives her plenty of potential story directions from which to choose.
But all the Easter eggs in the Marvel Multiverse (and there are thousands) can only go so far when it comes to crafting a truly meaningful story. Thankfully, that’s why The Falcon And The Winter Soldier is blessed to have a head writer like Malcolm Spellman, who uses the series’ penultimate episode to develop a profound commentary on the sacrifices Black people in America are expected to make every day for a country built by and for white supremacy…and how Sam Wilson’s fight to protect what he sees as the legacy of Captain America isn’t anywhere near as simple as it would be for a white man.
That’s something even Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) comes to acknowledge later in the episode, apologizing to Sam for all the times he questioned his decision to give up Captain America’s shield, and specifically for never once considering how Sam’s identity as a Black man factored into that controversial decision. It’s a powerful moment that recognizes Sam’s Blackness as a crucial element of his character in-universe that can’t and shouldn’t be ignored or downplayed, even when that makes white characters and viewers uncomfortable; especially when that necessitates reevaluating Hollywood’s so-called “colorblind” strategy of treating characters as paper dolls, and racial and cultural identities as interchangeable outfits.
But that’s a moment. And in too many cases, The Falcon And The Winter Soldier‘s best scenes have been mere moments – due to occasionally poor pacing and the nearly consistent issue of time constraints. The latter is at least not a problem in today’s hour-long episode, which makes room for one extended dramatic sequence that I suspect will still be hailed as the series’ thematic high-point even after next week’s finale. In a story that revolves around Black identity, it’s no surprise that this incredible sequence is focused exclusively on two Black men – Sam Wilson and Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly), who meet up at Isaiah’s house on the outskirts of Baltimore, with Sam initially intending to give the old man a chance to see Captain America’s shield.
And as Sam approaches the house, with the shield wrapped up in brown paper, it’s easy to envision how that hypothetical could have played out with a different screenwriter; all tears of joy and feel-good vibes. But Isaiah stops him in his tracks, recognizing the shield before Sam ever gets a chance to unwrap it. “Leave it covered,”he tells Sam bluntly. “Them stars and stripes don’t mean nothin’ good to me.”
At last, Isaiah finally gets a chance to tell his story. It’s not a comfortable one, particularly for anyone who recognizes the intentional parallels between his account and the history of the real-life Tuskegee Syphilis Study conducted on Black men between 1932 and 1972. Isaiah describes how he and the other men in his facility were told they were being treated for tetanus, though in reality their bodies were being used by the US Government as expendable vessels on which to test out experimental versions of the Super-Soldier Serum – all part of a race to recreate what Isaiah describes as the “great white hope” of Steve Rogers; the same race being run by John Walker (Wyatt Russell), a living still-frame of whiteness in action.
Lumbly’s performance throughout the sequence is so vividly and excruciatingly present, there’s no need for dramatized flashbacks even as Isaiah tells of his escape-attempt, and the thirty years he spent in prison on charges of treason while the experiments continued, and he was slowly drained of his superhuman blood, his resolve to live, and his sense of self. He was mutilated, erased from history, and, upon being released, forced into hiding. The fact that his blood now flows in John Walker’s veins backs up his pessimistic worldview: his entire life was reduced to the parts of him that could be mined to create more juiced-up white guys.
But it’s what Isaiah has to say about Sam that cuts most deeply: like an emotional gut-punch on par with, if not far exceeding, Vision’s profound analysis of grief in WandaVision. “They will never let a Black man be Captain America. And even if they did, no self-respecting Black man would ever wanna be.” It’s probably one of the most powerful lines ever spoken in the MCU, so quietly paradigm-altering that it demands a response from Sam – but since we don’t get to hear one because the scene ends there, we’ll have to see his response instead, through his actions. I don’t trust Disney to make the right call here, but it would be incredibly empowering to see Sam come out of this unaffiliated with the American government in any way.
To be honest, I don’t see another option that makes sense given how far Sam has progressed. He’s already shed his identity as the Falcon, symbolically passing his wings along to Joaquin Torres (Danny Ramirez); who, if the comics are to be trusted, will get plenty of use out of them. And while he could still use the Captain America moniker, he’s clearly sympathetic to the motives, though not the methods, of the anarchist Flag-Smashers – which probably wouldn’t make him too popular with any government, least of all the United States’.
The Flag-Smashers are an example of a subplot that has been meandering so long it feels pointless, only barely being kept afloat by Erin Kellyman’s performance as Karli Morgenthau. The group is apparently being secretly assisted by Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), who breaks Georges Batroc (Georges St-Pierre) out of jail and sends him along to New York City to help the Flag-Smashers orchestrate a hostage crisis that will shape next week’s finale – though the nighttime setting gives me concern that we won’t be able to fully appreciate the splendor of Sam Wilson’s new set of wings, which I believe to be the unspecified Wakandan-designed gift left behind at Sam’s house after Bucky stops by to help him fix up his family’s old fishing-trawler.
Separate from Sam, Bucky’s journey also starts strolling off on its own, leading him to the memorial in Sokovia namedropped two weeks ago by Baron Zemo (Daniel Brühl), whom Bucky finds there. In a slightly strange turn of events, Bucky aims a gun at Zemo’s head and pulls the trigger, only to then reveal that he removed the bullets…some emotionally manipulative payback for all of Zemo’s own manipulations. The Dora Milaje arrive to escort Zemo to The Raft, the high-security underwater prison seen in Civil War that is totally a great place to be holding one of the most dangerous criminals in the world.
Obviously he won’t be there for long, but I have a feeling his time on The Falcon And The Winter Soldier may have come to an end. With a mid-credits scene revealing that John Walker is hard at work on his own handcrafted replica of Captain America’s shield (is anyone gonna tell him it needs vibranium to actually be effective, or…no? Okay), all our focus in next week’s finale will have to be on the action-packed showdown between Walker, Morgenthau, Barnes, Wilson…and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, which is a bizarre yet wonderful twist of fate that I can’t wait to watch spiral out across the MCU.
SPOILERS FOR THE FALCON AND THE WINTER SOLDIER AHEAD!
And…here we go again. Another week, another episode of The Falcon And The Winter Soldier, another round of unbearable Twitter discourse about the white people in this show while the Black lead continues to be, at best, overshadowed, and at worst, actively undermined, by this very type of discourse. And this week’s episode didn’t even center on Sam Wilson as much as it could have with better writing, but it focused even less on Bucky Barnes – and yet the new discourse predictably revolves around the latter.
This week, it’s actor/director Stephen Ford who failed the “try-to-have-a-meaningful-conversation-about-The-Falcon-And-The-Winter-Soldier-without-constantly-centering-whiteness” challenge. While most of us were acknowledging the sheer awesomeness of the Dora Milaje warriors, and getting even more hyped about the upcoming Wakanda Disney+ series that will surely explore their adventures and inspiring teamwork, Ford took to Twitter to share his own deeply cringeworthy take on one of the best scenes in the series (and by far the best action sequence), in which Ayo and the Dora Milaje battle Sam Wilson, Bucky Barnes, John Walker, and Lemar Hoskins.
In a matter of minutes, the Dora Milaje have soundly defeated all four men – and only fail in their ultimate goal to capture Baron Zemo because Sam and Bucky insisted on getting involved in the fight to protect John Walker’s fragile ego, allowing the Baron to escape in the chaos. Sam almost holds his own, but Ayo makes short work of Bucky, swiftly and decisively activating what is implied to be a secret failsafe built into his Wakandan-made vibranium arm, causing the appendage to simply pop off.
Okay but the Wakandans putting a built-in weakness in Bucky’s arm is like really messed up. It shows they never fully trusted him. He spent years trying to finally reclaim his autonomy, only to be undermined in an instant by those who helped. It’s just sad. pic.twitter.com/fpIqpLdBtx
The moment is shocking, and is clearly supposed to provoke an emotional reaction from the viewer – but if your takeaway is that the Wakandans are “really messed up” manipulative monsters who violated Bucky’s bodily autonomy, then I encourage you to rewatch the scene: and this time, not through the filter of whiteness. Because the entire sequence is far more complex and nuanced than that, and exemplifies everything I love most about The Falcon And The Winter Soldier‘s masterful way of tackling very serious topics.
Ford’s argument, which I had already seen being voiced by melodramatic Bucky stans before he posted his tweet, is that Bucky was betrayed by the Wakandans who designed the failsafe in his arm, and that it’s indicative of the way nobody in his life – even those he believes to be friends or allies – actually trust him to have changed or evolved since his time as the brainwashed HYDRA killing-machine known as the Winter Soldier. But for a deep-dive psychological analysis into an already iconic pop-culture moment, it’s embarrassingly shallow, ignoring several crucial bits of context that lend a wholly different meaning to the scene when taken into account.
Firstly, how about we actually talk about why the Dora Milaje were there? They had been dispatched from Wakanda to find Baron Zemo and bring him to justice for assassinating their King T’Chaka – a violent killing that, need I remind you all, Zemo carried out while disguised as Bucky in an attempt to have the Winter Soldier taken captive, thus making him easier for Zemo to later access and brainwash. And yet, when the Dora Milaje arrive in Riga, they find Bucky now willingly aiding and abetting Zemo – something that has to hurt them all, after what they did to help Bucky heal and recover from Zemo’s manipulation.
And sure, you could argue that Bucky had a valid reason for breaking Zemo out of prison and following him halfway around the world…but at the same time, it is deeply troubling that Bucky hasn’t once mentioned what he planned to do with Zemo after he and Sam had gotten the information they needed from the killer. At this point, anything remotely resembling a plan has now gone out the window (or, rather, the sewer tunnel), thanks to Zemo’s escape: but the Dora Milaje are validated in their distrust of Bucky, because all he’s done is call Zemo “a means to an end”, as if that makes his actions more ethical, without explaining whether he ever intended to hand Zemo over to the Wakandans, or back to the German authorities.
Secondly, let’s talk about the arm in question for a moment, shall we? Designed by the Wakandans out of vibranium, their nation’s most rare, precious, and frequently stolen resource, the fact that that arm even exists is proof that Wakanda trusted Bucky enough not to go on a homicidal rampage strangling people to death, as is the fact that Ayo leaves the arm with Bucky after their battle instead of taking it with her. But…that arm is still a weapon; a dangerous and potentially very destructive weapon.
And Ayo, by activating the failsafe in the arm, isn’t telling Bucky she distrusts him. She’s reminding him – without even having to say a word, though she does throw in a whispered “Bast damn you, James” for good measure – that Wakanda did trust him, that they made the choice to weaponize him believing he had changed, and that he betrayed that trust: not by devolving into the Winter Soldier again, not by going on a murder spree or anything like that, but by having the audacity to defend Zemo after everything he did to hurt the people who helped Bucky escape him in the first place.
There’s a reason society overemphasizes the virtue of trust – because whiteness relies on people putting their total, unwavering, trust in fundamentally corrupt individuals and systems which are then free to exploit, abuse, and weaponize that trust against people of color, and particularly Black people. Unconditional trust is extremely dangerous, and if you want a good example, look no further than American nationalism, which is horrifically embodied in The Falcon And The Winter Soldier by John Walker. The entire show is about this idea of unconditional trust being the weapon of the oppressor, and about how Black people specifically have known this for a very long time.
So no, the Wakandans not putting total trust in Bucky isn’t a fault of theirs. It’s a defense mechanism – just like the literal failsafe they built into his arm. It’s not monstrous, it’s not manipulative, and it’s not messed up.
You know what is? That every week, the discourse that comes out of The Falcon And The Winter Soldier immediately centers whiteness and white characters in a story that is all about the dangers of doing just that. But with two episodes left and two more weeks of what will have to be some extraordinarily bad “hot takes” in order to top this one, I hope I can use my blog responsibly to help fight this trend.
SPOILERS FOR THE FALCON AND THE WINTER SOLDIER AHEAD!
At last I’m beginning to understand why The Falcon And The Winter Soldier waited so long to give us any insight into the series’ main villains, the Flag-Smashers, and their sympathetic ideologies. It’s apparent now that the writers felt they had to wait until just after the end of episode three, when the Flag-Smashers commit one completely uncharacteristic, irredeemably brutal act of violence, bombing a storehouse full of innocent people. Up until that point, they had only occasionally had to resort to violence, always against corporations rather than humans: in fact, their mission to smuggle vaccines, food, and other resources into refugee camps around Europe seemed fairly noble, and was just getting really interesting.
And then comes that one act of horrible violence: all it takes to permanently stamp the Flag-Smashers with the “villain” label and cast their nobility into question. Only three people die in the ensuing cataclysm (a number I actually find shockingly low, given how much of the building was on flames last we saw it), but it’s three too many. And, given how the series only now allows the Flag-Smashers a chance to tell their side of the story, it was clearly taken as a preventive measure by the writers to make sure they can’t fully win our empathy, much less our trust, and so by extension neither can their message…which, incidentally, is fervently anti-capitalist and anti-nationalist.
The Falcon And The Winter Soldier reduces what could have been a significantly more complex conversation between a genuinely empathetic Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and a status-quo-upending Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman) into a clear-cut moral debate about violence that side-skirts (and distracts from) any meaningful discussion about the Flag-Smashers’ agenda entirely, where Sam can only go so far as to say “I agree with your fight. I just can’t get with the way you’re fightin’ it,” because that’s as far as he can go without endorsing the murder of innocent civilians. The Flag-Smashers could have presented the writers an opportunity to tackle a sensitive but timely topic, but they shied away from the conversation instead.
It doesn’t even feel authentic for Sam’s character, who deserved the emotional growth that could have come from having the chance to feel more morally conflicted about the Flag-Smashers’ war on injustices much like the ones Sam and his sister Sarah (Adepero Oduye) have been fighting for a long time on the show. But with the Flag-Smashers now murdering people left and right, and “Captain America” himself, John Walker (Wyatt Russell) also a very high-profile murderer after the events of this episode, it looks like Sam is being positioned to rise like a falcon between the two opposing forces and their ideologies by the end of the series…which makes me fear the ultimate moral of the story will be to meet your enemies half-way and compromise.
All that being said, the eventual meeting between Sam and Karli is still a powerful scene, taking place at a gloomy funeral service in Riga, Latvia, for Mama Donya, Karli’s mother-figure and the matriarch of her community. There’s a subtle yet impactful beat as the scene opens, where Karli, delivering a speech to the onlookers with a small child nestled in the crook of her arm, suddenly catches sight of Sam watching from the mezzanine – and immediately passes the child in her arms to another character, the implication being that she fears she’s about to be shot dead by a sniper’s bullet, and won’t use the infant as a human shield.
If The Falcon And The Winter Soldier won’t make her truly sympathetic, it would at least be worthwhile to examine this aspect of the character, her surprising duality, in greater depth: if for no other reason than that Kellyman is a brilliant actress, and it’s frankly a little insulting that her character keeps being called “a kid” in the show, as if Kellyman’s not in her early twenties, and Karli Morgenthau is somehow not responsible for her own actions. I hate having to classify her as a villain, but I’m not gonna sit here and deny that she was the one who planted the car-bomb. What makes her so interesting is her ability to switch from gentle to fearsome in an instant, and the responsibility she takes for that, much like another character on this show.
But Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) actually keeps his cool this week, being content to lean back and enjoy the show as Ayo (Florence Kasumba) and her small team of Dora Milaje warriors from Wakanda arrive looking for Baron Zemo (Daniel Brühl, a fan-favorite thanks to his awkward dance on last week’s episode). After giving Bucky eight hours to hand over Zemo, the Dora Milaje go for the kill: taking on everybody at once in a melee battle, including John Walker and his partner, Lemar Hoskins (Cle Bennett). The result is the best action sequence not just in this episode, but in the series thus far, although I feel like budgetary constraints probably prevented the Dora Milaje from using their electric spears the way they were intended.
Even apart from their fighting skills, the Dora Milaje are developed as characters, with Ayo and Bucky sharing an intense flashback scene set six years prior to the events of The Falcon And The Winter Soldier, while Bucky was living in Wakanda – though, again, budget constraints necessitate that the scene be set somewhere in the forest surrounding Wakanda. Technically, there’s a good reason for this: Ayo is testing Bucky’s resistance to his HYDRA programming, and wants him as far from the city and its people as possible. Bucky is ultimately able to suppress the Winter Soldier programming, but we later learn that Shuri designed his new vibranium arm to be much easier to remove in battle, leaving Bucky bewildered when Ayo does just that.
John Walker, on the other hand, escapes with all his limbs intact but one seriously bruised ego – lamenting to Hoskins that he can’t keep up with any of his enemies physically…which probably explains why he, unlike Steve Rogers, carries a handgun as part of his gear. Walker isn’t the Cap that America needs, but his weapon of choice makes him the Cap that America would predictably end up being saddled with anyway: a vainglorious, gun-toting, white guy who publicly murders an unarmed Flag-Smasher at the end of the episode, quite likely beheading the man based on the way the shot is framed, and then having the audacity to lift the blood-stained shield and stare unapologetically into the cameras capturing every moment of his rampage. Yikes.
And by that point in the episode, John Walker has also finally recovered one of the vials of Super-Soldier Serum stolen by Karli Morgenthau from Madripoor, and used it to juice himself up with a physical boost that puts him on par with the Flag-Smashers. This is a John Walker who’s at the peak of his career and celebrity, who should and very easily could have left the Flag-Smashers alone at that point and gone his own way. Instead, he recklessly attacks Morgenthau’s hide-out, and she, presuming both him and Lamar Hoskins to have used the Serum, throws Hoskins into a stone pillar, breaking his back and killing him instantly. It’s shockingly graphic, but what comes next, with Walker using the shield as a murder weapon, is just as horrific.
The episode leaves on a weird kind of cliffhanger: John Walker’s next move is obviously going to be extremely important, but Sam and Bucky don’t really have a clear objective now – they’ve been reluctant to confront Walker, but now might be the moment things change, and they’re forced to do so to save not only the world, but Steve Rogers’ legacy. Meanwhile, Zemo has completely disappeared, after evading capture by the Dora Milaje and pursuing Morgenthau himself, leading to a gunfight which breaks off when Zemo discovers several vials of Morgenthau’s Serum and crushes them one-by-one under his heel, in an attempt to end the line of Super-Soldiers permanently. Say what you will about him, but at least he’s consistent in his motives.
And then there’s Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), who, in just a few scenes, is looking more and more like the Power Broker behind the creation of the new strain of Serum. She somehow has access to satellites that are able to pinpoint John Walker (who had just taken the Serum, perhaps suggesting that Sharon’s tech is able to detect the chemical compound), and these satellites act as her “eyes in the sky” – wording eerily similar to the tagline “The Power Broker Is Watching” that we see graffitied on buildings in Madripoor and in the closing credits. My only question is what Sharon would be doing with the Serum, since she doesn’t seem to have a clear motive just yet: stealing valuable art is risky, but does it require an army of superhuman warriors?
I do feel as though the biggest enemy to The Falcon And The Winter Soldier is, unfortunately, a lack of time to properly explore all of its many subplots and storylines, but we have two episodes left in which the series can hopefully regain some footing, while remaining entertaining and action-packed. Right now, it’s just downsized its powerful thematic punch to a light swat, a result of too many different ideas pulling focus from Sam Wilson’s mission to regain the shield and become Captain America…which should be the central thrust of the narrative, and right now feels like it’s going to have to be forced into the finale as an afterthought.
WandaVision was the gust of fresh air that blew open the doors to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s untapped reserves of sheer absurdity, and for that I think we will always be thankful. But WandaVision‘s weirdness was very specifically engineered to produce a sense of dread in the viewer, an understanding that something had to be terribly wrong – because worlds like the one Wanda had created for herself couldn’t possibly exist in the (mostly) grounded MCU. Loki, on the other hand, reassures those of us who loved WandaVision that the MCU actually is just…weird. Permanently.
I’ve compared the upcoming Loki series’ concept and styling to the works of British fantasy author Terry Pratchett before, and the second trailer (released today quite out of the blue: classic God of Mischief move) only makes that comparison more apt – as well as making a convincing argument for everyone involved in the production of this series going on to develop an adaptation of any one of Pratchett’s novels after this is done. There’s also shades of Dr. Who, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, and Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy – basically, every zany, high-concept, British sci-fi/fantasy ever made rolled up into one.
The new trailer for Loki treats us to one deliciously abstract visual after another, beginning with a charming elevator noise as a magical glowing door appears in the wall of what looks like a horrendously ugly 1980’s subway-station with brown, orange, and mustard-yellow tiling; soon revealing a man in a German stahlhelm, holding the Tesseract in one hand, and gripping the Norse deity’s arm with the other. I mean, seriously, just read that sentence and tell me it doesn’t sound like the opening to a Dirk Gently mystery.
The atrocious color palette is echoed throughout all the lobbies, waiting rooms, offices, and elevators of the Time Variance Authority, or TVA for short, in whose headquarters Loki has unwillingly ended up. As in the Marvel Comics, it appears the TVA work from behind-the-scenes to monitor the flow of time, making sure everything runs like clockwork and working to ensure that alternate timelines are cut off before they in turn sprout innumerable other timelines – each an entire universe of possibilities. Like Wanda walking out onto the empty soundstage of her life and finding stage-lights and auditorium seating, we’re seeing for the first time the nuts and bolts of the MCU.
From their seemingly infinite office space (which I’m fairly certain is tucked away in its own dimension, not limited by the confines of our earth), the TVA dispatches heavily-armed soldiers (including one prominently played by Lovecraft Country‘s Wunmi Mosaku) across the Multiverse to locate anyone caught moving across timelines, and drag them back for trial…where they will presumably face Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Judge Renslayer. This character’s first name hasn’t been revealed, but don’t be surprised if it turns out to be Ravonna, since Princess Ravonna Renslayer is a notable comics character who shares a long romantic history with Kang the Conqueror, a time-traveling Marvel villain who’s already been confirmed to appear in Ant-Man And The Wasp: Quantumania, played by Jonathan Majors of Da 5 Bloods and Lovecraft Country.
The TVA’s agenda is still not entirely clear, so it’s possible – I’d say probable – that they have an ulterior motive for keeping Loki alive and enlisting him into their army of timeline-hunters, beyond just needing his “unique Loki perspective”, as Owen Wilson’s Mobius puts it. They, or at least some of their top agents like Renslayer, might be working with Kang to conquer all the timelines simultaneously, and Loki’s knack for causing mischief might work in their favor. Kang could even be the hooded figure we see battling TVA hunters in the agency’s hallways and utilizing their glowing portal technology – though, with alternate universes in play here, that could just as well be Lady Loki, or Old Loki, or another of the God’s many variants.
But while that mystery is sure to be compelling, the thing that has me most excited for the series is the thought of traveling back in time through the history of our earth, and of all the Nine Realms yet to be explored – and all the versions of them that exist throughout the Multiverse. Loki has already been seen playing the part of notorious real-life hijacker D.B. Cooper in the 1970’s, but now we get a clearer glimpse of other locations he’ll travel to, including a Medieval festival (where we later see a TVA hunter wielding a jousting lance); a Roman street that’s probably in Pompeii based on the wall of ash and smoke bearing down on the grinning God; a Roxxcart supermarket; a ruined New York City; an otherworldly mining facility; and two diametrically-opposed castles, one bathed in golden light and the other dark, laced with cracks as if made of glass.
Another awesome reveal is the return of Loki’s magic powers, an aspect of his character that’s been sidelined in his last few movie appearances in favor of his twin daggers. Those beautiful weapons still show up in the trailer, but it’s nice to see him wielding magical green energy-blasts as well, particularly given how badly the Russo Brothers used him in Infinity War; not even allowing him to pull a signature magic-trick on Thanos before having his neck broken. It’s still one of the most embarrassing character betrayals in the MCU, if you ask me.
But the crucial difference is that this Loki is Avengers-era Loki, at the height of his game, riding a massive confidence boost from escaping the Avengers on Earth, and still significantly more villainous than heroic. And the writers have clearly gotten into the character’s headspace from that period, because the chaotic mess of Shakespearean angst that we all fell in love with is finally back, and I can’t wait to see where (and when) his story goes from here.
SPOILERS FOR THE FALCON AND THE WINTER SOLDIER AHEAD!
It’s no coincidence that the best and by far the most outrageously entertaining episode of The Falcon And The Winter Soldier yet happens to also be the longest, at fifty-three minutes: still not quite an hour, but close, so close. And those additional few minutes make all the difference, allowing ever major plot beat (and reader, there are several) the space they need to breathe while making the slower character moments feel more organic and earned…resulting in several characters finally realizing their full potential.
This is the first episode of either The Falcon And The Winter Soldier or WandaVision that I’ve watched where I haven’t felt rushed for time, constantly checking the progress bar at the bottom of the screen to try and frantically calculate how much of the remaining runtime is actual story, and how much is credits. But whereas WandaVision sometimes felt like it needed more of the former to counterbalance the length of the latter, The Falcon And The Winter Soldier is perfectly balanced…as all things should be (I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist).
If it’s story and substance you seek, you will not be disappointed this week: everything involving the escape of Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl) is gotten out of the way in the first few minutes, freeing up the rest of the episode to take us to the Indonesian pirate kingdom of Madripoor, for some awesome fight scenes, a tense reunion with Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), and a few major developments in the Super-Soldier Serum storyline, before returning to Eastern Europe for a confrontation with the Flag-Smashers – which gets delayed to next week, but only because another entity intervenes at the last minute that demands our immediate attention, and gives us the kind of surprise cliffhanger ending that should please many fans.
But it’s Zemo who made it into the top three trends on Twitter this morning, and who serves as the best entry point into the breakdown – or should I say, Baron Zemo, since the criminal mastermind is revealed to have been a descendant of Sokovian royalty before the brutal deaths of his entire family and the destruction of his homeland in the aftermath of Age Of Ultron: which I suppose I should have guessed, given how many trips around the world he was able to take while spending money on hotels, large weaponry, and elaborate disguises. What’s a private plane, a collection of vintage cars, and a creepily devoted elderly butler (who’s just been waiting at the airfield for his master’s return for over five years, I guess?) compared to all that?
The only thing that confuses me slightly is why Zemo just happened to have his iconic comic-accurate purple face-mask just lying in the backseat of one of his old and unused cars. A popular theory suggested he might design it to resemble Thanos, to mock the surviving Avengers with the memory of their greatest failure…but that’s clearly not the case, and in the MCU, in the absence of any better origin story for this singularly bizarre piece of brightly-colored headgear, I’m just gonna assume it’s a rich guy thing and roll with it. A weird family heirloom or some high-end fetish-wear, perhaps.
With Daniel Brühl turning in his most deviously charismatic and seductive performance as the villain to date, it doesn’t take long for Zemo to escape his maximum-security prison with help from Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan): but, crucially, on the latter’s terms. Zemo tries his little brainwashing game again, of course, but the code-words meant to activate Bucky’s Winter Soldier persona no longer work as well as they used to, although Zemo guesses that they still trigger some response from deep within Bucky – who grows more and more violent over the course of the episode, as if his HYDRA programming is overwhelming his senses with every moment he spends by the side of his one-time handler.
But, toxic influence on others aside, Zemo does appear to be genuine in his offer of assistance to the heroes, who need his help locating the origin of the new batch of Super-Soldier Serum being used to juice up the Flag-Smashers. True, the only reason he agrees to help them is to fulfil his own mission of wiping out superheroes, and there’s no question he still loathes the Avengers…but at the same time, he saves their lives at crucial moments; he doesn’t lead them astray in Madripoor, although he clearly relishes watching them both endure humiliations while maintaining the disguises he selected for them, such as forcing Bucky to fake an activation, or forcing Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) to eat snake-meat; and five years in prison appear to have humanized him…in a creepy, “uncanny valley” sort of way: he dances at a nightclub in Madripoor in a scene terrifyingly reminiscent of Spider-Man 3, and voices his opinion on Marvin Gaye and the “African-American experience”, earning a questioning look from Sam. He’s doing the bare minimum, and from Zemo that’s…a lot.
But perhaps some of it comes down to the fact that, in Madripoor, even a villain as legendary as Zemo is out of his element. We only get to catch a fleeting glimpse of what life is like in the pirate kingdom’s flourishing criminal underworld, and already I can’t wait to go back, perhaps in Shang-Chi and Hawkeye. The city doesn’t boast many big cameos from Marvel Comics’ rogues gallery, mostly just references (for instance, Sam Wilson’s disguise as the “Smiling Tiger” is a nod to an obscure Marvel villain with Thunderbolts ties), but the big players are still out there. In this episode, we only get to visit the lair of a villain named Selby (Imelda Corcoran), who radiates that wealthy-British-white-woman-who-still-regards-Southeast-Asia-as-her-colony type of unsubtle racism.
One of Madripoor’s less racist but no less morally gray residents is Sharon Carter, whose days of fighting for justice at S.H.I.E.L.D. and the CIA ended long ago. But despite her complaints with Sam and Bucky for leaving her to fend for herself after the events of Civil War, it’s clear that a few years on the run from authorities, operating a criminal enterprise in Madripoor’s fabulously wealthy Hightown district, have done wonders for Sharon’s character arc, finally giving her personality traits beyond “occasionally offers encouraging advice to male love interest (who is also her late great-aunt’s boyfriend)”. She’s now the semi-antagonistic, deeply cynical, three-dimensional character she might have been all along were it not for the Russo Brothers’ obvious disinterest in her potential beyond what she could offer Steve by silently backing him up in every argument.
The only thing about sticking her in a luxury penthouse apartment and giving her a side-hustle selling stolen artwork to the rich and famous is that it makes it ever so slightly difficult to relate to her apparent dissatisfaction with that cushy career path, and her desire to return to the US with a Presidential pardon: but The Falcon And The Winter Soldier already seems to have that figured out, implying that Sharon might not be entirely sympathetic, and that her plea for a pardon may hide an ulterior motive. Some fans think she could even be the mysterious “Power Broker” who commissioned the new Super-Soldier Serum.
But to my mind, the better bet is that John Walker (Wyatt Russell), the MCU’s new Captain America, is the Power Broker. We know from last week’s episode that Walker’s body was considered such an extraordinary natural phenomenon that he was studied by MIT. Episode three (and the behavior of the Flag-Smashers, who have all sampled the Serum at this point) revealed that this new variant of the Serum was designed to be, in its creator’s words, “subtle, optimized, perfect”, needing no “clunky machines” or “jacked-up bodies” to function – so even if Walker had taken it, he might have been able to hide that fact from MIT’s researchers.
The only wrinkle in this theory is that Walker clearly doesn’t have that kind of physical strength anymore: as evidenced in his fight with the Flag-Smashers. So perhaps this new variant of the Serum only works temporarily (which would explain the Flag-Smashers carrying it around with them at all times), or he could have been given an early, less effective, prototype by Dr. Wilfred Nagel (Olli Haaskivi), the new Serum’s inventor. Either way, the fact that Nagel designed his Serum using blood samples from Isaiah Bradley, the forgotten Black Super-Soldier, would makes this revelation particularly interesting from a thematic standpoint. And the only other thing we know about the Power Broker is that they’re hot on the trail of the Flag-Smashers, hunting for the stolen Serum…just like Walker, whose search for the anarchist organization is growing increasingly desperate and destructive, as he’s wielding the full weight of the shadowy organization known as the GRC (Global Repatriation Council) to find them.
Walker’s hunt seems intensely personal, from the way he threatens possible suspects to his use of Flag-Smasher Karli Morgenthau‘s (Erin Kellyman) first name. Why, unless Karli is in possession of the one piece of evidence that could forever tarnish Walker’s pristine reputation, potentially even lose him the Captain America gig?
With the mission to Madripoor cut short by Nagel’s death, Sam, Bucky, and Zemo return to Europe without Sharon to find the Flag-Smashers on their own and get to the bottom of the mystery. But in its closing minutes, Bucky suddenly veers off from the rest of the group, telling Sam to go on ahead without him – and while I was at first confused and concerned that this was just a plot device to separate the gang before a fight scene, it’s quickly revealed that Bucky is aware of someone else pursuing them. And even as I was getting ready for it to be some old acquaintance of his from HYDRA, the episode surprised me yet again, as the familiar Wakanda theme plays over the arrival of Ayo (Florence Kasumba), a Dora Milaje warrior.
Ayo appeared in Black Panther, where her most significant scene (one in which it was hinted that she was LGBTQ+ and attracted to General Okoye) was unfortunately cut – so it’s absolutely thrilling that she’ll get a proper chance to shine while representing Wakanda in The Falcon And The Winter Soldier. Her mission is to find and presumably kill Zemo, who caused the death of Wakanda’s King T’Chaka in Civil War, and her distinctive fighting style will add an exciting new element to the upcoming action scenes, particularly if she’s armed with her culture’s traditional weaponry. This was not a surprise I expected, but it’s the one I think we all needed – particularly since Ayo’s inclusion may begin to give us some insight into how the MCU will move forward with Wakandan storylines following the tragic passing of Chadwick Boseman.
Zemo, Sharon, Ayo…with all the characters that The Falcon And The Winter Soldier has taken in just one episode and already completely revitalized, it’s extremely exciting to see how the series will continue to do the same for Sam and Bucky, our leads. And it’s once again abundantly clear that Disney+ really is the best place to do this for all the MCU’s supporting characters, who deserve the time and space that only a six-hour television series can provide.
When I said I wanted The Falcon And The Winter Soldier to generate more conversation amongst the MCU fandom, queerbaiting discourse was not what I had in mind, I’ve got to be honest. Mostly because I had gone into this series basically resigned to the fact that the character of Bucky Barnes would probably never be revealed to be LGBTQ+ either in The Falcon And The Winter Soldier or anywhere in the MCU, even after years of fans pleading for him to be. Yet here we are, a mere two weeks into the series’ run, already heading down an all-too-familiar path…[*sighs*]…so let’s talk about it.
Bucky Barnes’ sexuality has been a subject of fervent – and occasionally heated – debate for years. Fans took one look at his intense relationship with Steve Rogers, and realized what Marvel and the Russo Brothers either hadn’t, or didn’t want to admit: it was heavily queer-coded, and that was what made it alternately so compelling and so frustrating…because once Marvel saw what they’d done in creating the pairing commonly known as “Stucky”, it felt to many fans like the studio went out of their way to squash it.
Bucky had always been just as central to Steve’s character arc as Steve’s “best girl”, Peggy Carter…if not more so, given how little the Russo Brothers actually utilized Peggy when they had the chance. Captain America: The Winter Soldier was literally named after him, and revolved around the reveal that Bucky didn’t die in WWII, but was reborn from a potentially fatal injury as an emotionless assassin brainwashed by HYDRA to assist in the overthrow of democracy. Steve couldn’t bring himself to give up on Bucky, instead spending two movies chasing him down, doing everything in his power to save him from his own demons, and from those who would hurt and manipulate him.
Ultimately Steve is successful, but then Bucky – and by extension, Stucky – kind of disappears. In Endgame, he only has a few lines of dialogue at the end of the movie…just before Steve decides to go back in time and live out the rest of his life with Peggy, whose entire character arc in her Agent Carter series (which Endgame canonized earlier in the movie!) is thus scrapped. Some people like this ending for Steve and Peggy, which is fine. But whether you like it or not, there’s no denying it marked the death of Stucky, with Steve confirming through his actions that Peggy was his one true love.
So you can see why, going into The Falcon And The Winter Soldier, I wasn’t expecting much when it came to the matter of Bucky’s sexuality. Yeah, Marvel has talked a lot recently about the responsibility they feel to better represent the diversity of the modern world. But when it comes to finally getting an LGBTQ+ superhero onscreen, their policy has always been one of “maybe next time”, and it’s getting really old at this point.
Maybe in Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2…no, to be honest, I don’t even know what James Gunn was referring to in that case. Maybe in Thor: Ragnarok…nope, just a deleted shot of a woman walking out of Valkyrie’s bedroom. Maybe in Black Panther, then?…nah, just a deleted scene of ambiguously gay flirting between Okoye and another woman. Well then, maybe in Endgame…of course not, just an unnamed civilian character who mentions going on a date with a guy. Maybe in WandaVision…no, Billy and Tommy Maximoff, both queer characters in the comics, have yet to be confirmed as such onscreen.
So even though The Falcon And The Winter Soldier featured plenty of lightly queer-coded scenes of Bucky and Sam Wilson tumbling on top of each other in the grass like Anakin and Padmé in Star Wars, or going to couples counseling to work out their problems…I wasn’t prepared to read anything into that. Sure, it felt like queerbaiting, but at the same time it felt like affection between men was being used as the joke in all those scenes, and I said as much.
There was, of course, that one puzzling line in the premiere where Bucky goes on a date with a woman, and mentions that he tried online dating but couldn’t get past all the “tiger photos”…something that confused the heck out of me, because I was not aware of the fact that tiger photos are a real thing on dating apps (or at least, were, before some apps banned the practice), and that specifically, they are a real thing almost exclusively found on men’s dating profiles. Men apparently pose, often half-naked, with tigers and other large cats. I don’t know why, but it’s apparently common enough information to spark a whole conversation on Twitter about the subject.
So of course, in a recent interview with NME, The Falcon And The Winter Soldier‘s showrunner and head writer, Malcolm Spellman, was asked about whether that subtle reference was meant to imply anything about Bucky’s sexual orientation. And Spellman opted to answer as follows: “You just gotta…I’m not…I’m not diving down rabbit-holes but, uh, just keep watching.” It’s a non-answer, in line with non-answers Marvel content creators have given to questions before. But this wasn’t a question about Mephisto being in WandaVision. And this answer merely teases us with the infinite possibilities of an incredibly vague “maybe”.
Because a “maybe” isn’t exactly reassuring, but it holds out a lifeline to fans who are desperate for any LGBTQ+ representation…and if you’re gonna extend that lifeline, you can’t tug it away at the last minute. Because that is the definition of queerbaiting: the tried-and-true process of luring queer audiences into a show or film with the promise of meaningful LGBTQ+ representation, then never following through in any substantial way, or else revealing in the end that “surprise! They were straight all along! Fooled ya!”
I want to give Spellman the benefit of the doubt and dare to hope that maybe, maybe, he really is hinting that Bucky is queer, because that kind of reveal would be incredibly powerful and important: and because I don’t want audiences to use this conversation about queerbaiting as a way to ignore or actively undermine everything this series has already done for Black representation in superhero media – although confirmation of Bucky’s queerness would inevitably be weaponized for roughly the same effect. Even leaving potential queerness aside, Bucky is already used by some audiences to distract from Sam’s character. It’s racist, and needs to be called out.
And if fans “keep watching” only to come out the other side with nothing, what then? If it hadn’t been for Spellman’s non-answer, I’d probably be regretful but unsurprised. Mark me down as frustrated and unsurprised now if we don’t even get another “exclusively gay moment” akin to LeFou dancing with a guy for about 0.1 seconds in 2017’s Beauty And The Beast. Because up until now, I was prepared to write off every instance of queer-coding in the series as simply being interpreted differently by fans than by the creators.
So a word of advice to Marvel, and all of Hollywood: don’t tease what you can’t or simply won’t follow through on, when it comes at the expense of queer fans who are still looking for representation in mainstream media, and keep being lured in different directions by series’ and films each promising to be the one that finally gets it right…but only if you “keep watching.”
Generally, though, there was some concern among fans that The Falcon And The Winter Soldier wouldn’t turn out to be a big conversation-starter like its predecessor, WandaVision, which consistently had even casual audiences going wild with theories – a crucial element of the series’ popularity that backfired in fans’ dumbstruck little faces towards the end. That concern has hopefully been assuaged today. Coming off a premiere I described as soft and fluffy fanfic (albeit a very good one), The Falcon And The Winter Soldier ratchets up the tension, the drama, and the stakes, for all our characters – even John-punchable-face-Walker (Wyatt Russell).
In some way, this is the closest thing to a Walker-centric episode…and hopefully the last time we’ll be asked to dive so deeply into the character’s psyche. During an extended opening sequence that had me terrified the whole episode was going to focus on his backstory, we learn that Walker is a golden boy in the U.S. military, the recipient of three Medals of Honor, and a really bad actor (to be clear, that’s Walker: not Russell, who’s doing a very good job), who’s apparently only trying to do the right thing by stepping into Captain America’s shoes. But as his marching band intro music plays over the Marvel title cards, it’s impossible to take him seriously.
Deep down, even Walker must realize or suspect that he’s a pawn: a tacky, suitably camera-friendly piece of sentient military propaganda designed by the U.S. Government to project a frighteningly familiar image of jingoistic nationalism to the rest of the world, while tales of his heroic exploits distract the media from the government’s more sinister operations elsewhere…in short, he’s the kind of manufactured, consumer-tested Build-A-Bigot that the modern GOP wishes they had, and have been trying to construct for years now (looking at you, Dan Crenshaw)…and he is everything Steve Rogers knew he couldn’t be in The First Avenger, when he too was trotted out as morale-boosting entertainment for the troops.
But while Walker leans into the commercialization of his character, posing with Cap’s shield and marketing action figures of himself, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), the rightful heir to the legacy, has to get back to work fighting the mysterious Flag-Smashers: who serve a valid purpose in the story, but don’t feel very organically implemented, having just suddenly become the antagonists because Joaquin Torres (Danny Ramirez) has made them out to be. The Flag-Smashers don’t appear to be very well-organized villains, perhaps because they’re not all that villainous: their leader, Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman), is implied to actually be helping people by smuggling medicine to refugee camps around Central and Eastern Europe.
In return, she and other Flag-Smashers are welcomed into the homes of civilians, calling back to a conversation Sam had last episode about the “tremendous amount of goodwill” that keeps superheroes functioning despite not being paid for their services to humanity. That being said, the Flag-Smashers are still heavily-armed and accompanied by an elite bodyguard of enhanced Super Soldiers, including Morgenthau herself. To deal with the heightened threat, Sam calls in Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), who’s conveniently answering texts now. A result of his therapy working, or a plot device? We shall never know.
We all knew, however, that I wasn’t going to be able to make it through this review without geeking out over the heroes’ reunion – where the conversation quickly turns to “The Big Three”, Sam’s term for aliens, androids, and wizards; the Avengers’ most common enemies. In the back-and-forth, Bucky mockingly namedrops Gandalf, before smugly revealing that he read The Hobbit when it first came out, in 1937 – a miraculous feat given that the first American edition of the book wasn’t published until 1938, which means Bucky didn’t just pick this up on a whim: he literally would have had to order it all the way from England, because he’s just that much of a Tolkien nerd. By a lucky coincidence, yesterday was also Tolkien Reading Day!
The random yet endearing exchange continues the fluffy fanfic vibes I picked up from the premiere episode…and speaking of fanfic, are we gonna talk about the new SamBucky content, or what? Yes, yes, we are. And not just the banter, but the inherent sexual tension of them being forced to roll on top of each other during an action scene, or engage in a “soul-gazing exercise” at the orders of Bucky’s therapist (played by Amy Aquino, who is phenomenal). For me, it’s the way all the heteronormative “bromance” jokes and sight gags accidentally just make the situation more gay.
The episode packs a lot into its back half, including a pretty long action sequence with the Flag-Smashers in rural Germany, which moves from an abandoned warehouse to a highway fight on the tops of two moving MAC trucks like a violent Euro Trucks Simulator mod (complete with random, seemingly driverless car that gets wrecked in the ensuing chaos while trying to pass). Things quickly go wrong: Falcon’s wings are somewhat limited on the narrow stretch of road, and Karli Morgenthau smashes his drone Redwing over her knee, while Bucky’s vibranium arm can’t save him from being dragged under a truck. And that’s when John Walker intervenes to “save” the duo, popping up in the first of many surprise appearances.
This is followed by what feels like an even longer sequence of Sam and Bucky being forced to ride back to the airport with Walker’s team after their humiliating defeat; a cringeworthy opportunity to see how fame has gotten to Walker’s head in a very short time. In the face of mediocrity, Sam keeps his cool, while Bucky loses his temper quickly and insults Walker, before jumping out of the vehicle when Walker’s companion, Lemar Hoskins (Cle Bennett), reveals his ridiculous code name, Battlestar. Sam, as a Black man, is forced by circumstances to remain civil – because the one time he gets angry and raises his voice, later in the episode, he’s immediately surrounded by cops who threaten him.
On that sad note, it’s time to talk about Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly), who makes his long-awaited MCU debut surprisingly early. Revealed as a former enemy of Bucky’s from the Korean War era, Bradley it turns out is still alive after six decades lying low in Baltimore: having been experimented on using the longevity-inducing Super Soldier Serum, or some variant of it. In the comics, Bradley’s origin story dates back to World War II, when white doctors used and abused his body to test out their own versions of the Serum, giving him enhanced abilities and a lifetime of trauma. I’ve always believed this reveal would be most significant if Bradley predated Steve Rogers’ miraculous transformation, but there’s no indication that’s the case yet.
Bradley’s introduction sheds light on the MCU’s dark past, while the introduction of his teenaged grandson Eli (Elijah Richardson) illuminates its hopeful future. Eli might seem like a background character in The Falcon And The Winter Soldier, but comics readers will recognize him as a member of the Young Avengers. He may even be the first Young Avenger to enter the MCU in his final form, given the recast of Cassie Lang and the fact that Wiccan and Speed will presumably also be recast when they age up to teenagers. In the comics, his powers come from a blood transfusion from his enhanced grandfather.
The history of the Serum is quickly emerging as the through-line of the series’ plot: running parallel to, and beautifully intersecting with, the emotional through-line of Sam and Bucky (and even John Walker) learning what went into the making of Captain America, and what it takes to live up to his legacy. But with only vague hints from Bradley as to his origins, and with Walker revealing – and confirming through his action scenes – that he doesn’t have a drop of Serum in his veins, the Falcon and the Winter Soldier are forced to turn to someone else for help…someone who knows the Serum’s history intimately, and was presumed to have killed all the Super-Soldiers manufactured by HYDRA in Bucky’s image: Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl), who is exactly the type of thwarted sociopath that creepily plays chess with himself while brooding in prison.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye is probably the least interesting part of the upcoming Hawkeye Disney+ series…which I imagine really sucks for Renner’s hardcore fans, but is great for those of us who are only going to be watching Hawkeye for the amazing women involved: Hailee Steinfeld’s Kate Bishop, Florence Pugh’s Yelena Belova, Vera Farmiga as Eleanor Bishop, and Alaqua Cox as the antiheroine Echo.
And despite being a complete newcomer to the acting scene, it’s Alaqua Cox’s Echo who’s apparently first in line for her very own Disney+ spinoff coming out of Hawkeye, a series that hasn’t even finished filming yet. Variety reports that, while the spinoff is still in the early stages of pre-production, Etan and Emily Cohen have come onboard to write the series scripts. This news, if true, would make Echo the first Marvel character introduced on Disney+ to get her own solo spinoff, further enriching this vast corner of the MCU, and hopefully proving once and for all that the Disney+ series’ aren’t just supposed to act as extended prologues and epilogues to other movies – they are their own thing, and should be viewed as such.
It’s been hard to convince some fans of that latter point, particularly when dealing with a universe where the occasionally eyeroll-inducing need for “interconnectedness” drove viewers away from Marvel’s previous TV collaborations with ABC (which hosted the long-running and criminally underrated Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.) and Netflix (which only just recently relinquished the rights to Marvel’s Defenders content, including beloved heroes like Daredevil and Jessica Jones), after those TV series’ struck out on their own and forged new ground…in the process becoming less essential viewing for the MCU overall. That’s a pattern we saw repeated after WandaVision‘s finale, which proved to be controversial in part because fans felt cheated when the series didn’t halt in its tracks to introduce the Multiverse, or reveal villains like Mephisto and Nightmare, or reinstate Fox versions of the X-Men (though, to be fair, Evan Peters should have been playing Peter Maximoff), despite laying the groundwork for at least two other Marvel films and another Disney+ series.
The news that Echo specifically is getting a spinoff is exciting for several reasons. The character – whose codename comes from her ability to expertly replicate or “echo” any opponent’s fighting style and techniques – is a deaf Native American antiheroine named Maya Lopez, who rises through the ranks of the criminal underworld to become a widely-feared and respected warrior. While operating in Japan and fighting a faction of HYDRA, she adopted the alias of “Ronin”, the same name we saw Hawkeye himself randomly pick up in Avengers: Endgame, during his five years as a vigilante/serial killer. The Hawkeye series will hopefully explain away all the mysteries surrounding the Ronin identity, including whom it belonged to first in the MCU canon, but Echo’s story doesn’t have to end there.
In the comics, Maya Lopez goes on to help and hinder the Avengers at various points, even playing a critical role in the Secret Invasion storyline which will be adapted for Disney+ in the near future. She’s had complex relationships with many of Marvel’s grittier street-level characters, including Daredevil, Moon Knight, and the Kingpin – who mentored her throughout her childhood, after first murdering her father. Maya later turned on Kingpin and left him temporarily blinded, but he’s honestly the least of the villains she’s battled while wielding her signature nunchuks, from Madame Hydra to the Skrull Queen Veranke – the former of whom at least deserves to be brought back into the MCU, with Mallory Jansen reprising the role she so brilliantly originated on Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. In one storyline, Echo even hosted the cosmic power of the Phoenix Force within her during an underwater battle with Namor.
Echo’s role in Hawkeye is still unknown, though I remain confident in my theory that she’ll be revealed to be one of the last remaining Red Room cadets trained by Taskmaster, positioning her at an intersection between the storylines of Hawkeye and Black Widow and making her the literal “echo” of one of Widow’s greatest failures, still reverberating through current MCU history. Having her own spinoff series, though, vastly expands the number of stories that could be told with the character – from undercover work as a ninja in Japan, to fighting alongside Daredevil on the streets of New York City, all while helping to increase onscreen visibility for the Indigenous and disabled communities.
But what do you think? Are you excited to see Alaqua Cox as Echo? Do you have any theories about her spinoff? Share your own thoughts, theories, and opinions, in the comments below!
SPOILERS FOR THE FALCON AND THE WINTER SOLDIER AHEAD!
If you had told me even as recently as yesterday that the first episode of Marvel’s The Falcon And The Winter Soldier would consist mostly of characters struggling to obtain bank loans or get back into the dating scene, I’d have told you that sounded more like a prompt for a fluffy domestic AU (Alternate Universe) fanfic, and that we’d be lucky to have something like that adapted to the small screen. But that’s…almost exactly what this episode is, from start to finish. It feels like soft, wholesome, fanfiction in the best way possible.
Although there are a few sequences of high-stakes, high-speed action throughout the episode, and it ends on a rather epic cliffhanger that’s got Twitter in an uproar, the forty-minute long pilot episode doesn’t advance the plot much further forward than what was already covered in the The Falcon And The Winter Soldier‘s synopsis, teasing only a little bit of upcoming drama while diving deep into the personal lives of our protagonists, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), whose plotlines don’t even intersect by the end. But like some of the best fanfics, the narrative is mostly just characters going about their daily lives and interacting with everyday scenarios and problems, but layered over with complex social commentary and the kind of attention to detail that we’ve almost always had to turn to fanfiction for, at least when it comes to the MCU proper (this was never a problem with Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., part of the reason why it remains peak Marvel TV).
It’s a bold choice, particularly when most audiences were expecting nonstop action, but it’s a choice that’s already paying off. To name just one example, Bucky, who’s probably had more fanfic written about him than just about any other Marvel character ever, is finally utilizing the relative peace and quiet of the post-Blip MCU to conquer his inner demons and find healing with the help of a military therapist (a small but standout role brilliantly played by Amy Aquino). The refusal of Marvel superheroes to go to therapy has become a long-running joke in the fandom, making this whole subplot look and feel a lot like the intricate canon “fixes” that fanfic writers create every time a Marvel movies leaves them disappointed…particularly when you sprinkle in world-building details; like Bucky’s little list of people with whom he has to make amends, from a HYDRA agent he helped install in Congress to the elderly father of one of his victims; his adorable grin when he helps bring down the aforementioned HYDRA agent without even having to maim or kill anyone; or simply the fact that he sleeps on the floor of his apartment because he’s not used to beds, and still suffers from nightmares about his past.
Therapy and healing is the most natural progression for such a traumatized and battle-torn character, whose only just now getting the chance to actually explore the world again, and is…doing a pretty awful job of it, to be honest. He’s completely alone in the civilian world, and, given how badly he messes up a halfhearted attempt at a date (as the MCU once again tries to push the obviously false narrative that Bucky is straight, the only part of the episode that threatens to shatter the fanfic façade), he’s likely to remain alone for some time.
Meanwhile in Louisiana, the Falcon is taking a break from active duty to be with his extended family, who are already some of the loveliest, most genuine civilian characters in the MCU. The exploration of Sam Wilson’s backstory, across all his movie appearances thus far, has amounted to only a few lines about his military service, so it’s nice to finally learn something about the man behind the titanium wings, and for it to be a Black screenwriter (Malcolm Spellman) who gets to establish these new aspects of the character. Sam spends most of the episode trying to help out his sister Sarah (Adepero Oduye), whose small business is going down along with the rusty old fishing-trawler she inherited from their parents, but they’re approaching the same goal from very different perspectives – Sam, who spent five years as cosmic dust and has only been alive again for about six months, is still optimistic, convinced he can swoop in and save the day like he’s always done. Sarah, who survived the Snap, has no such delusions: she’s barely getting by raising two children on her own, and she can’t afford to entertain Sam’s overconfidence.
Their attempt to take out a bank loan is one of the strongest sequences in the episode: a fascinating look at how inadequately prepared superheroes are to return to civilian life, and a microcosm of how MCU society views its heroes in general, as symbols and props to be worshipped, names and logos to be slapped on merchandise, faces to be captured in selfies…but no humanity. There’s something deeply exploitative about it all, and it’s what inspires the Wilsons’ banker to think he can simultaneously reject their request for a loan while pleading with Falcon for a photo of him with his arms out, doing the wing-motions.
That it’s a white man getting away with this behavior makes it clear what Spellman’s script is trying to say about the exploitation of Black lives in every aspect of society, particularly in media and politics. How many times have Black women voters in a state like Georgia been called upon, even expected, to “save” America from our nation’s never-ending cycle of moral failings, only for white elected officials to, at best, ignore their needs completely? On my first viewing of this episode, I missed the point of the banker’s question to Sam, about who paid him to work as a superhero, and Sam’s loaded response that no one ever did.
It’s particularly interesting to see how that same concept plays into Sam’s decision earlier in the episode to give up Captain America’s legendary shield, handing it over to the Smithsonian so the symbol can officially be retired and a new one take its place…only for the US Government to promptly ignore that decision and hand-pick a “new Captain America”, a square-jawed patriotic puppet named John Walker (Wyatt Russell), who exists to be exploited as propaganda, to stamp his seal of approval on all the nation’s most controversial decisions, from war-crimes to nuclear weaponry. He is a tool of his government, without free will or an identity of his own, and he represents everything that Falcon was fighting against in Captain America: Civil War.
The core conflict of The Falcon And The Winter Soldier seems to be this one of the exploitation and commodification of superheroes, which makes the series’ apparent antagonists all the more intriguing – the terrorist group known as the Flag-Smashers are certainly violent, but their agenda to unite the world in anarchy with neither heroes nor symbols opens an opportunity for more commentary on similar topics, such as the dangers of celebrity worship. As of yet, we still don’t know how Bucky’s arch-nemesis Baron Zemo will play into things, though his name appears on the Winter Soldier’s list – and I can’t imagine Bucky will have a cute grin in store for the man who brainwashed him into attacking his best friend.
If you’re just here for the action sequences, I’m afraid this pilot might be a bit of a letdown. Bucky doesn’t get to do much fighting at all, while Falcon’s mid-air hostage rescue in Tunisia is definitely a lot of fun (and marks the return of Winter Soldier villain Georges Batroc, a role reprised by Georges St-Pierre) but drags a little. What I’m looking for from Falcon’s action sequences is unique usage of his signature wings, and I think there’s still work to be done in that area.
But if you’ve managed to move on from feelings of post-WandaVision depression and are ready for a new series, then The Falcon And The Winter Soldier offers something that feels familiar and enjoyable, but hides just as many dark and mature themes below its surface as WandaVision. The difference is that, whereas WandaVision was about torturing Wanda to the brink of despair, The Falcon And The Winter Soldier is soft and fluffy, and features unforgettable moments like Bucky shaking hands with a Maneki-neko “waving cat” statue. Good stuff.
The finale of Marvel’s WandaVision – the studio’s first official foray into streaming television – left many fans conflicted over how to view the entire series in retrospect. Thanks to weeks of intense speculation and theorizing (and, to be fair, some unnecessary trolling from WandaVision‘s own cast and crew), the slim fifty-minute finale was hyped up in audiences’ imaginations to the point where a cameo from Patrick Stewart or Dick Van Dyke didn’t seem out of the question, and Wanda ripping open the Marvel Multiverse felt like a done deal. So there were a lot of fans left unsatisfied by what was, instead, the inevitable conclusion to a much smaller and more intimate saga of love and grief.
Personally, I found it quite satisfying for that very reason: but let’s play devil’s advocate (too soon? Sorry, Mephisto fans). Did the WandaVision finale really contribute nothing to the overall jigsaw-puzzle that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and is that even necessarily a bad thing? It’s true that WandaVision was far more introspective than expected, and didn’t deliver some of the paradigm-altering surprises certain fans decided they were owed. But I don’t think I’m being biased when I say that WandaVision‘s mid-credits and post-credits scenes actually did plenty to set up future MCU storylines, allowing the episode itself to wrap up Wanda and Vision’s tragic romance without distraction.
Minutes after Wanda took flight and vanished over the rooftops of Westview (escaping any and all consequences for her actions, because the status of the Sokovia Accords in the MCU post-Endgame is unclear at best), a mid-credits scene allowed us to catch up with Captain Monica Rambeau and Jimmy Woo, both of whom were slightly underutilized in the episode proper. Woo, tasked with leading the clean-up of Westview and the arrests of villainous S.W.O.R.D. agents like Tyler Hayward, strikes up a conversation with Rambeau – which probably would have been the perfect moment for Monica to acknowledge her superpowers, since she missed her chance to ask Wanda about what to do now that she can turn into light and even phase through things like Wanda’s husband, Vision. The two chat, but are swiftly interrupted by a detective who directs Wanda to the movie theater in the town square. There, in the dimly-lit interior, the detective reveals herself to be an unnamed shapeshifting Skrull alien with her own mission that has nothing to do with Westview.
Now, we don’t know if or when Monica has interacted with Skrulls since her eventful childhood in Captain Marvel, but her cool demeanor in this scene (combined with her veiled reference to “allies” in space, back in episode four) implies a degree of familiarity with the aliens – which is interesting, given that her relationship with Captain Marvel herself seems to have had hit a rough patch, based on other clues throughout WandaVision. This particular Skrull doesn’t work for Carol Danvers, but for a male friend of Monica’s late mother, Maria Rambeau; someone who’s heard about Monica’s recent exploits and wants to meet with her, probably about a job opportunity. This friend’s identity isn’t explicitly confirmed, but the Skrull reveals that he’s somewhere in space – which means “he” is almost definitely Maria and Carol’s friend, S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury, and the job opportunity probably involves working on Fury’s top-secret space-station, where he was last seen enjoying a beach-holiday simulation in Spider-Man: Far From Home alongside a small army of Skrull and human agents.
The thing I find most interesting about the entire exchange, which beautifully sets up Monica’s important role going forward, is the backstory still being hidden from us about Nick Fury and Maria Rambeau’s partnership, how and why S.W.O.R.D. got started, and whether the space-station is linked to S.W.O.R.D. or not. After Far From Home, the prevailing theory was that Fury had founded S.W.O.R.D. (which in the comics stands for Sentient Worlds Observation and Response Department) to protect Earth against future alien threats: but WandaVision revealed that Maria Rambeau founded the organization, and that its core purpose is to observe and respond to “Sentient Weapons”, implying a more grounded role in the MCU and bringing into question their affiliation with Fury’s space-station. S.W.O.R.D. did have a pioneering space-division, but it was dialed back in the years following Thanos’ Snap, attention being redirected towards AI and nanotech under the leadership of Tyler Hayward. So did Hayward know about Fury’s role in S.W.O.R.D. and the space-station? Or was Fury pulling a reverse-HYDRA?
Those questions will likely be answered in the upcoming Secret Invasion series, which seems like the most logical place for Monica Rambeau to appear next, alongside Nick Fury and the Skrull leader Talos in an adaptation of one of Marvel’s most ambitious comics crossover events. My belief is that, throughout Phase 4, the MCU will expand outward in three major directions – with earth-based stories, cosmic stories, and mystical stories. WandaVision, fittingly, weaves all three together and lays the groundwork for Monica to continue along a cosmic path, culminating in a major role in Captain Marvel 2.
And the mystical stories will continue to follow Wanda Maximoff, who is now established to be more goddess than human, with the ability to redesign or simply destroy the universe as she sees fit. The post-credits scene gives us a quick look at what the Scarlet Witch has been up to since leaving Westview: isolated in a charming yet lonely cabin by a lake in the wilderness (and within the shadow of a breathtaking mountain some fans think is Wundagore, Wanda’s fictional birthplace, where she was cursed by the primordial deity Chthon), the sorceress appears to be taking that quarantine-style staycation she promised herself back in episode seven. She’s dressed in casual clothes, and seems almost content. But the camera’s long tacking-shot moves past her, proceeding into a darkly lit room where we discover – another Wanda.
The MCU’s sorcerers have long practiced the art of “astral projection”, a technique by which a person’s soul can leave their unconscious or sleeping body and do pretty much anything that their body can do, except with the added benefit of flying and moving through walls. Thus far, Wanda is the only person we’ve seen achieve this while her body is still conscious, which effectively means she’s mastered “bilocation” – being in two places at once. But while her conscious body is just going about her daily routine, her soul is dressed up in the full Scarlet Witch costume and is levitating in the lotus-position, reading Agatha Harkness’ ancient book of magic, the terrifying Darkhold.
Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. fans would warn her this is a phenomenally bad idea, since the Darkhold has previously displayed a tendency to drive its readers mad with power-lust. Being in possession of it at all is a risk – particularly if Wanda is currently residing in the vicinity of Wundagore, where Chthon actually wrote the Darkhold and imbued it with all manner of horrors, nightmares, and demonic powers waiting to be unleashed. And yet here comes Wanda, not merely tempting fate by reading the book of the damned, but seeming to use it as a textbook. When she told Monica she would learn how to use her Chaos Magic, I thought we might see her seek out a magical mentor like Doctor Strange or even Karl Mordo – but Wanda’s instead opted for a masterclass in dark magic and demonology.
A dark take on Doctor Strange’s theme music plays as the camera zooms in on Wanda’s concentrated face, before the voice of Billy Maximoff suddenly cuts through the sound – screaming for help, and begging his mother to find him. The screen flashes red, then slams to black: and until Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness rolls around, we probably won’t know for certain what Wanda’s next move will be – or even how Billy (and presumably Tommy) is back from the dead. Remember, both of Wanda’s twins disappeared when she pulled the Hex back into herself: the episode made it explicitly clear that the twins were her creation and thus subject to the same rules as everything else she’d created in Westview, from her dream home to her perfect husband to her fleeting illusion of happiness. All of it had to go.
But there’s always been something strange about the children. They may have been part of The Hex, but they never obeyed Wanda’s ground-rules – and not in the usual way that children disobey their parents; I mean Wanda literally couldn’t control them, even when she exhausted the full extent of her magic on trying to do so. They appeared seemingly out of nowhere, proved impervious to her spells, and were able to age themselves up whenever they wanted – and, of course, they soon revealed their own superpowers, including Billy’s telepathy and Tommy’s enhanced speed. By the end of the series, Wanda seemed to have come to terms with this unexpected development, telling the children before she left that she was thankful to them for choosing her to be their mother. I think by then she must have realized what I now suspect, that Billy and Tommy are beings from another dimension or alternate universe who ended up in her reality but were never really hers.
And that means that the real Billy and Tommy are somewhere out in the Multiverse – of that I’m sure, because both need to return to the MCU so they can join the Young Avengers team, which is currently being assembled. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re really the ones calling out to Wanda for help. It could be an elaborate trap meant to lure the Scarlet Witch into the vast expanse of the Multiverse, where she’ll be at her most vulnerable. Some fans are already jumping back on the Mephisto bandwagon, though to be honest I’m more inclined to suspect Chthon is behind this latest shenanigan – and the more I learn about the Elder God, the more I think he’d be a truly terrifying villain: perfect for Multiverse Of Madness. But even if the twins actually are in danger, that still means someone must be threatening them – and that could also be Chthon, or any number of other dark forces from the pages of Marvel Comics.
And depending on the nature of the threat, Wanda might need to call on multiple allies – including Doctor Strange, and Agatha Harkness, who’s being kept alive and imprisoned in Westview for a reason. Agatha’s knowledge of Chaos Magic and long ownership of the Darkhold would make her a valuable (and delightfully untrustworthy) guide through the Multiverse. Any excuse for more Kathryn Hahn in the MCU is a good enough excuse for me.
But what did you think of WandaVision‘s mid-credits and post-credits scenes, and how would you like to see Wanda and Monica’s journeys continue? Share your own thoughts, theories, and opinions, in the comments below!