“Existence is chaos. Nothing makes any sense, so we try to make some sense of it,” declares a character in Loki, the latest of Marvel’s cadre of superhero shows on the Disney+. That Jean-Paul Sartre moment is actually a pretty good description of how a streaming service takes shape. In trying to overpower the Netflix’s of this world, Disney+ has turned to the behemoths of its movie studio, the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Star Wars. The question is: do TV shows siphoned off multiplex blockbusters make sense?
Disney+ and Marvel have given us multiple answers to that query. In January there was WandaVision, a smartly sketched mix of superhero trauma and television’s sitcom history, while March delivered the tough-guys-team-up action-adventure The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, with Loki kicking off its run of weekly episodes early this month. Each show, drawn from the guiding DNA and deeply detailed plots of Marvel’s multiple franchises, is a self-contained offshoot, a side-step as likely to be perfunctory as seditious.
The first wave of Marvel TV shows were on Netflix between 2015 and 2019, with characters separate from the burgeoning movies. On Jessica Jones, the best of these offerings, headline Marvel pieces such as The Hulk were barely acknowledged – “the big green dude” was one reference. But Disney’s new Marvel iteration pulls supporting characters from the movies and squeezes into existing timelines. It’s hard to create something intriguing and new when the parameters are tight and the fans demand allegiance.
That ruminative philosopher from Loki is actually a temporal police officer – he does the time for your crime – named Mobius, and because he is played by Owen Wilson, an actor with a deliriously dry cadence and surfer dude sangfroid, it makes sense that he also delivers a monologue about the majesty of the jet-ski. He calls the water vehicle “a beautiful union of form and function”, a deadpan verdict that makes even Tom Hiddleston’s arrogant title character pause. Like, so, where do jet-skis fall on the superhero spectrum?
The weirdness that passes muster on Marvel’s TV shows on Disney+ is actually a good way to define them. WandaVision’s high-powered heroine Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) was living in a private realm modelled on storied shows from TV’s past – Bewitched was an early archetype, while The Brady Bunch contributed a sunken living room. The show got excellent opening reviews – the format was catnip to TV critics – but it petered out, despite a terrific villain’s turn by Kathryn Hahn. The finale’s clockwork battles were a letdown.
That was still a better outcome than The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, which was a mismatched buddies blowout where two Captain America sidekicks – Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) – tried to prove that two halves of a protagonist can somehow add up to more than one. The duo’s bickering, with a few complications and strokes of social critique that gave the barest nod to contemporary America, got tired quickly.
With its focus on the fight scenes, as an international conspiracy was identified and invariably smashed, the series showed the limitations in trying to match the Marvel movies on a down-sized budget. The action scenes were smaller in scale, the digital effects workmanlike. You can’t duplicate a Marvel movie – well, at least an effective one – on a streaming service, despite Disney’s deep pockets. Blockbuster TV isn’t a viable concept yet.
Three shows in six months felt like a production line, which is probably what Disney+ wants. The corporation sees the streaming site as central to its future growth and is trying to grow it worldwide on a scale that numbers in the tens of millions of new monthly subscribers. But with the first two deliveries, Marvel hasn’t been able to hit the Baby Yoda-sized sweet spot that Star Wars spin-off The Mandalorian did. That show invokes pop culture legends – a scene at the close of season two had my household shouting in recognition and delight.
Loki may well do better. The dynamic between Hiddleston’s imperious schemer – a mainstay of the Thor movies and The Avengers – and Wilson’s veteran time cop is part therapist and patient, part absurdist procedural. “Big metaphor guy – I love it,” Mobius tells Loki, and that’s exactly what Marvel’s TV shows need: some unpredictable ambition to go along with the Terry Gilliam-like world building and multiple identities. Disney must think likewise, as Loki has already been renewed for a second season. Bring on the jet-ski chase sequence.
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