Marvel's TV shows have been released in a fallow time for superhero blockbusters. It wasn't supposed to be that way – The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was meant to launch just three months after Black Widow, in August 2020. WandaVision was meant to follow the release of Marvel's Eternals, and begin its run on Disney Plus in December 2020.
Obviously, the pandemic meant things didn't turn out that way. And while this year hasn't been as dry for blockbuster entertainment as 2020 (the likes of Godzilla Vs Kong and Mortal Kombat have proved to be a nice distraction), Marvel's TV shows have basically felt like the only game in town when it comes to pop culture. We've talked about them every week because, Oscar season aside, there isn't a lot going on in entertainment right now. And, superficially, these shows look and sound like blockbusters, simply because Disney Plus has spent so much money on them.
But are they any good? They're definitely entertaining, and after waiting so long to see them (and therefore see Disney Plus reach its full potential after a relatively slow opening year), it's satisfying to have new chunks of the MCU to look forward to each week.
If you ask me, WandaVision was better than The Falcon and the Winter Soldier for a few reasons. In the main this is because it felt more like a TV show, built specifically around an episodic structure – which, as a viewer, made watching it each week feel satisfying. It helped that the show riffed on a different era of sitcoms for most of its run; it gave the show a natural TV-like framework that worked well episodically.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, meanwhile, felt like it could easily have been a long movie. And I don't necessarily mean that as a compliment. The show probably features as many great MCU character moments as WandaVision overall, and my appreciation for the two leads didn't dim throughout its run.
But, it was a messier show. The muddled plotting, overload of characters, and not entirely successful 'Power Broker' mystery made it harder to enjoy. Some of the creative decisions didn't work, either – I'm still not over the show having Sam Wilson, famous Avenger who helped stop Thanos, implausibly go undercover in Madripoor. The series particularly mishandled its main villains, the Flag Smashers, a group of young revolutionaries who were a little too happy to blow up innocent people when it suited them. And one of the series' most interesting elements – its new, off-brand Captain America, John Walker, played by Wyatt Russell – didn't get enough screen time and development.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier felt like it could have been a lean movie about Sam coming around to the idea of being Captain America, with Bucky trying to make amends on the side. Instead, it ended up being a slightly overstuffed TV show.
The series wanted to go big on being a globetrotting adventure – but this actually made the rapid changes in location a bit incoherent. We'd see John Walker kill one of the Flag Smashers in broad daylight in an Eastern European city, then fight Sam and Bucky in one of the show's multiple warehouse-based sequences at the start of the next episode. The changing sense of place was a bit breakneck.
Marvel is still figuring out what its TV shows look like
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier just didn't entirely hang together for me. It felt like the 'TV show' part of it was more characters and plot than you'd see in a Marvel movie. But it's not bad for a first try at telling a more conventional MCU-style story on the small screen – and I certainly didn't find it a chore to watch; I devoured each episode every Friday.
It feels like we're getting close to seeing the full potential of Marvel on the small screen, something we only really saw hints of in the Netflix shows from a few years back.
Going forward, it looks like Marvel is tackling a number of different types of stories for TV. Loki looks like it might be a more high-concept show, like WandaVision – the wrapping of the show is that the god of mischief is helping the TVA fix the various timelines he's messed up. The show is expected to see Loki collide with real-world historical events, with the first trailer teasing that Loki is actually mysterious plane-jacker and robber DB Cooper, for example. With different realities to play around in, Loki is likely to be very different to either of its predecessors.
Meanwhile, from what we've learned about them so far, Ms Marvel and Hawkeye sound a little more like conventional MCU-type stories – a teenage superhero origin story in the former's case, and a hero passing on the mantle in the latter. That said, there's some (informed) speculation that Hawkeye will explore Clint dealing with hearing loss, which may result in something we haven't seen before in Marvel's on-screen stories. She-Hulk, meanwhile, which is filming now, sounds like it will be an all-out legal superhero comedy, with lots of potential for deep-cut MCU cameos.
Marvel is using the TV form to tackle more varied types of stories, then. And it should – ideally, these shows should tell stories that wouldn't necessarily make sense as movies, or they should at least use the extra time afforded to them to dig deeper into the characters.
This is something WandaVision did particularly well, adding emotional dimensions to its two titular leads. It isn't something The Falcon and the Winter Soldier did enough, though, since its two heroes fought for screen time with John Walker, Baron Zemo and the Flag Smashers. It's telling that episode 5 was maybe the series' strongest, as it just gave the audience time to enjoy Sam and Bucky hanging out as they fixed a boat together.
If we learned anything from Avengers: Age of Ultron's party sequence, it's surely that watching Marvel heroes hang out is pretty entertaining in itself.
Worth the hype?
The Mandalorian set such a high standard for Star Wars on the small screen that it suddenly felt like TV was the place all the stories in that fictional universe should be told. The Marvel series' haven't had that effect yet, despite WandaVision's obvious greatness as an unusual MCU story about grief, and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier being entertaining enough to keep us watching each week.
But that's more to do with how consistent the MCU has remained on the big screen, while Star Wars films have fluctuated wildly in quality over the past few years. WandaVision, though, did more to showcase what a TV show can do for the MCU than The Falcon and the Winter Soldier did – a more experimental approach to the shows would be most welcome. If it just feels like a film cut into six parts, it doesn't necessarily feel like the best use of the form.
The MCU shows are a good substitute while we don't have Marvel movies on the big screen – but we're looking forward to a time where we can enjoy both in tandem.