Time for a review of the latest episode of WandaVision: “A Very Special Episode…” Since I keep taking too long to finish these, I’m going to try to do a bit less verbose in my recapping and focus on reviewing. And before we get into that, I want to mention up front that while I thus far love this show playing on Disney+, it is still unfortunate that the Disney corporation is refusing to pay Alan Dean Foster and other authors money they are owed for media tie-in novels.
This week’s episode continues the trend seen in the first three where Wanda, Vision, and the town of Westview moves through the decades with styles, decor, and so forth evoking sitcoms of a particular era. This episode has moved into the 80s, and while i recognized the styles and at least the homages during the opening sequence to Family Ties, but I have to confess that while I am familiar with a lot of the sitcoms of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, I didn’t watch much TV during the 1980s1. So I probably missed a bunch of subtle stuff in this one.
This episode moved back and forth between the viewpoint of Wanda and Vision inside the reality bubble, and the scientists and agents outside. With some direct interaction that did not go very well. It was interesting, it was intense in places, and the mystery managed to deepen some more. I don’t think I can say more without spoilers, so if you don’t want to read those, stop now!
Seriously, spoilers ahead!
Time for the next installment in my weekly WandaVision episode review. I reviewed the first three episodes here. I’ll try to to stick to one episode at a time going forward.
This week’s episode, entitled “We Interrupt This Program” gave us a lot of answers while raising many more questions. It is also chock-full of connections to and characters from other parts of the Marvel universe. Which is cool for nerds such as myself. But I want to stress that you don’t have to be familiar with all of those other things to understand. The show is still doing a fairly good job of framing this story in a way that people who aren’t familiar with the other properties can follow and be just as perplexed about what’s going on as the rest of us. There is one bit at the beginning of this episode that might need a bit of extra explaining for someone who isn’t Marvel obsessed, but even then they gave some explanation that I think might have been enough for those not familiar.
So, I’m going to limit the body of this review to only what happens on screen, and if I feel the need to squee about any of the bonus things along the way, I’ll toss that into footnotes.
The only non-spoilery thing I can say is that this episode tells us what was happening from the point of view of government agents and scientists who are outside of Westview. Which is way the viewers (us!) gets some answers, obviously.
I can’t really say anything more without spoilers, so, if you don’t want to be spoiled, stop reading now.
Seriously, spoilers ahead!
What do you call a fourth wall that’s entirely inside the production, or, Let’s talk about WandaVision
The new series from Marvel, WandaVision dropped on Disney+ a couple of weeks ago, and I was thinking of doing an episode-by-episode set of reviews, as I’d previously done for Star Trek: Picard, but I didn’t get the first one done within a week. Anyway, we’ve now had three episodes (“Filmed Before a Live Studio Audience”, “Don’t Touch That Dial”, and “Now in Color”) which gets us far enough along that I feel I can comment on what I suspected the main themes of the show will be as well as just talk about how those episodes work.
First I wanna make a few unspoilery comments: this show is not a typical superhero adventure. It has a lot more in common with Twins Peaks than shows such as Arrow or Daredevil. You also don’t have to have watched any of the Marvel movies to understand what’s going on. Within the opening minutes the show tells you most of what you need to know to understand the framing mechanism: she has some sort of magickal powers, he’s not human, they are in love and they are trying to fit into a stereotypical suburban family neighborhood without any of the neighbors realizing who or what they are.
To me, it also became clear very early on that this show is more likely a horror-type mystery than a thrilling adventure/action story. A number of other reviewers I’ve read didn’t pick up the horror-vibe until episode three, so your mileage my vary.
I don’t think I can say anything more without spoilers, so if you don’t want to be spoiled, turn back now.
Seriously, spoilers ahead!
A lot of people have linked to the comments by people like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and so forth denigrating the modern superhero movie as not being “real cinema”, not being narrative, having more in common with an amusement park ride than a “proper movie” and so forth. And many other people have posted counter arguments, but most of the counter arguments I was thinking were being a bit too timid in their defense. And then Cora Buhlert weighed in: Old Directors Yell at Clouds – Pardon, Superheroes. And she nailed it:
My initial reaction to Martin Scorsese’s remarks was, “I could say the exact same thing about his films. I tried to watch them, I really tried, and I’ll never get the hours I spent sitting through Taxi Driver or Gangs of New York back. But I’m sorry, I just cannot connect with the kind of white dude arseholes who are the protagonists of Scorsese’s movies.” I may never have been a superhero, but I find Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow and the rest of the gang much more relatable than anybody in Taxi Driver or The King of Comedy or Goodfellas or Casino.
I mean, really, it’s quite rich for a guy like Scorsese to accuse any other filmmaker of not being able to create a narrative. I had immediately gone to Gangs of New York myself as the perfect example of the kind of failed storytelling usually defended with “but that’s what happens in real life!” The difference between fiction and real life is that fiction has to make sense. That’s what narrative actually means: making sense out of events by tying them to a thread of meaning. Gangs of New York (and every other Scorsese film I’ve sat through) set up all sorts of narrative threads, places metaphorical guns on mantlepieces, that are simply ignored or forgotten in an ending that can be boiled down to: “Life is unfair and meaningless and you, the audience, are stupid for not realizing it.”
Buhlert makes some other points that I was thinking while reading the various screeds:
Because for all their flaws, today’s superhero movies are a lot more diverse in front and behind the camera, then the highly touted movies of the New Hollywood era, which were made by and for a very narrow slice of people. It’s no accident that directors, actors and characters of those movies are all white and male and either Italian-American or members of some other immigrant group (the characters in The Deer Hunter are all descendants of Russian immigrants). There are a lot of people who never saw themselves reflected in those movies – women, people of colour, LGBTQ people, people who are not American – and who likely never much cared for those movies either, because the big Scorsese or Coppola fanboys are mostly white dudes themselves.
Not all superhero movies are diverse. I mean, I was hardly the first person to point out that several of the franchises featured blond-haired, blue-eyed protagonists who were playing by and white actor named Chris, for goodness sake! But just as one example, the best Captain America comics (And the movie moments) have been the ones created by writers who never forget that inside that supersoldier body, deep down, Steve Rogers is still the not-able-bodied asthmatic kid who understands what it means to be powerless and to be bullied, and who has the empathy and hope necessary to fight for the powerless.
Now I am a comic fan of old and like superhero movies. And so the current golden age of superhero movies is a dream come true for me, where I finally get to see plenty of characters on the big screen that I never expected to see there, in well made movies with excellent actors, great production values and stories that capture what made the comics so compelling. However, I also realise that not everybody likes superhero movies and I know the pain of cinemas being full of some genre of movies you don’t like. After all, I felt the same during the glut of westerns (and anybody who hates superhero movies should remember that the glut of westerns lasted from the silent era into the 1970s, i.e. almost fifty years), the glut of Vietnam war movies in the 1980s (and WWII movies in the 1960s), the glut of gangster movies in the 1970s/80s (and the 1930s) or the glut of romantic comedies in the 1990s. Oddly enough, however, I never hear the usual suspects complaining about too many westerns or war movies or gangster movies, though romantic comedies, Star Wars knock-off space operas and even the mini-trend of YA novel adpatations approx. ten years ago all got dinged. Gee, I wonder why that is.
It’s another example of that phenomenon that I called “applause from the wrong crowd.” Movies that are aimed at that narrow slice of cishet, white, male, able-bodied people are “proper cinema” and anyone in the audience who isn’t a member of that demographic is expected to watch with quiet admiration. We’re not supposed to expect to see our own stories on the screen. We’re not supposed to expect to see our issues addressed in the tales on screen. And if somehow something slips through that does include us, or tell our stories, we’re not supposed to cheer it loudly and enthusiastically.
If I keep going, I’m just going to devolve into ranting on my own. Buhlert makes a lot of other good points about the kinds of stories that superhero comics and films tackle well, the kinds of movies that are being squeezed out by the current focus on blockbusters, and other topics along the way. You should really go read the whole thing.
In the early 70s U.S. pop culture became obsessed with martial arts. One of the best examples of this was the television series, Kung Fu which ran from 1972-1975. The show, which was wildly popular both with audiences and critics, told the story of Kwai Chang Caine, a half-chineses, half-white man raised in a Shao Lin monastery who winds up in the American Wild West wandering the countryside seeking his father while evading agents of a Chinese nobleman who wants him dead. The show cast white actor David Carradine in the role (after rejecting Bruce Lee). And it really was wildly popular. In the redneck rural communities I was living at the time, every one of my classmates would quote favorite lines from the show and make allusions to it in various ways. While the show cast a white actor in the role of the supposedly biracial lead, since ever episode relied heavily on flashbacks to incidents in Caine’s childhood, teen, and young adult years back in China, it also provided a lot of acting roles for Asian American actors in recurring and supporting roles. Probably more so than all of American TV before then. Which doesn’t make up for the white washing, but was at least a teeny step forward.
That TV show wasn’t the only bit of pop culture effected. Action movies and television series of all kinds started introducing martial arts experts to their story lines, and soon audiences were expecting amazing martial arts fights in all of their entertainment. Even the BBC’s Doctor Who had to bow to the expectation, with the velvet-jacketed Third Doctor suddenly becoming an expert in “Venusian Karate” though embarassingly what that meant was the actor occasionally exclaiming a cliche “Hai-ya!” as he felled opponents with an unconvincing chopping motion of his hand.
And comic books were hardly immune. Suddenly every comic company was adding martial arts experts (some of asian descent, some not) into their superhero lines. Comic titles such as Master of Kung Fu, Karate Kid (no relation to the 80s movies), and Kung Fu Fighter, and Dragon Fists were suddenly popping up in department store comics racks. Along side characters such as Shang Chi, Richard Dragon, Lady Shiva, and Karate Kid (no “the”) there was Danny Rand, aka Iron Fist: the Living Weapon.
Danny was a classic mighty whitey: a white orphan taken in by mysterious monks in a secret temple in the Himalayas, who masters their semi-mystical martial arts to a degree that far exceeds any of the natives and becomes their greatest warrior. This being an American comic, of course Danny comes to America, specifically New York City, where he tried to reclaim his family fortune (along the way discovering that his parents’ deaths on the journey may not of have an accident). His costume was a bit unusual for male superheroes of the time—ridiculously plunging necklines were usually reserved for women. The excuse for exposing all that skin was the black dragon mark on Danny’s chest. It’s not a tattoo, but rather a symbol that was burned into his flesh during a fight with a dragon, which is an important part of the ritual of becoming the Iron Fist.When Marvel debuted in comics in 1974 I was 14 years old. I didn’t read the very first couple of issues. Back then my source of comic books was the rack at the only drugstore in the small town where we lived, and which comics they got were hit and miss from month to month. But I remember seeing this cover in that rack one day and being instantly fascinated. I bought the comic, and as I frequently did in those days, read it, re-read it, and re-read it again and again. The story was middle episode in the middle of a story arc, so I was a bit confused about some things, but was still immediately enamored with the character. I kept my eyes peeled for the character from then on, and managed to pick up a few more issues as they came out, but not all of them. It was a constant frustration at the time: not being able to count on the next issue making it to my town.
Because of that inconsistency—where I would pick up, say, issue #85 of Spider-Man, then not find another issue until #89 came out—I spent a lot of time looking for clues in the stories as to what I had missed in the intervening issues, and I would write up my own versions of the adventures my favorite heroes had experienced in between. Very occasionally I tried to draw my own comics, but mostly I wrote them out more as prose stories. This skill of figuring out all the ways a character might go from point A to point Z has been useful in my own writing since.
Eventually, after my parents’ divorce, Mom, my sister, and I moved to a town large enough to have multiple book stores and an actual comic shop, where eventually I managed to purchase at relatively cheap prices many of the back issues I had missed of Iron Fist and several other titles. I was a little disappointed that some of my attempts to fill in the gaps between issues were way off, but I still loved the character. I know now (but didn’t realize back then) that one of the things that appealed to me about the character originally was that chest-baring costume. But Danny Rand’s story also appealed to me because he was an outsider, never quite fitting in anywhere. That was something I really empathized with.
Another thing that appealed to me about Iron Fist the comic (and some of the other Kung fu-ploitation properties) was the inclusion of (often mangled, I know) zen, buddhist, and taoist philosophy. Seeing other traditions underpinning moral and ethical principles, seeing good, brave, and noble character behaving morally and ethically outside of the fundamentalist Christian framework helped me reconcile my growing discomfort with the evangelical beliefs I’d been raised with. Yes, it was culture appropriation, and it was a stripped-down and distorted representation of those other religions, but it wasn’t being done to deride those beliefs. The distortion was because of ignorance and the expediency of meeting writing deadlines, not out of a hostility to the cultures themselves. While it was problematic, it still helped me find a way to escape the clutches of a homophobic denomination. And that’s a good thing.
As I said at the beginning of this post, I had had high hopes for the Netflix Iron Fist series. I’d read enough reviews when it first came out to know that the consensus of critics and a lot of fans was that the show was nowhere near as good as some of the other Marvel-Netflix shows. But I still hoped. I still think that the show would have been improved immensely if they had cast an asian american as Danny. It would have been really easy, and I think would have made the way they chose to tell his story work a bit better. The external conflict of the series is mostly about control of the corporation originally founded by Danny’s father and the father’s best friend. The internal conflict is about Danny trying to figure out his place in the world. If they had made Danny biracial, showing his father in the flashbacks as white and his mother as, let’s say, Chinese American, then that internal conflict would have had more layers. And this story desperately needed something less shallow than a badly thought out boardroom drama.
It also doesn’t help that the actor they cast as Danny seems about as talented as a block of wood. Seriously, the adam’s apple of the actor who was cast to play Danny’s childhood friend from the mystical city displays more acting talent and skill in a single scene than the actor playing Danny does in the entire series. Another big problem is pacing. The series spent about 9 episodes setting things up that could have easily been handled in one. The first episode was pretty an okay beginning of the tale, but it wasn’t until about episode 11 that things seemed to pick up. I also can’t figure out why they showed virtually no scenes of the mystical city where Danny gets his training. Let along never showing us the dragon. I mean, what is the point of telling Iron Fist’s story without showing us all that?
Maybe they’ll do better in season two.
In case you don’t know where the title of this blog post originated, here’s a music video that might explain things:
Carl Douglas – Kung Fu Fighting:
(If embedding doesn’t work, click here.)
By that time I was running three different groups of players on three different nights of every week.
I ran the last game using the system, and set in the same world and continuity, in the year 2000. I want you to think about that for a moment: I ran a roleplaying campaign, a single campaign setting, with a single history, et al, for 19 years. So when people find out that I’ve got a Victorian Steampunk roleplaying campaign that has been running (with the same core players, same core characters, and in the same continuity) for 16 years and they freak out, I have to point out that it isn’t the longest campaign I’ve run.
There was a point where I re-typed all of the rules for my superhero game into a word processor. And I made more updates and changes to the rules, refining things as we ran into situations that within the game. In the early 90s I was thinking that I might still try to publish the system, and I had changed the name to Crime Does Not Pay (but the hours are good)! The problem was that by then, there were several other superhero based role-playing games on the market, and while I still think there are aspects of mine that were superior to those others, there were also aspects that weren’t.
I should mention that I did get the rules well-defined enough that three of my friends who loved to run games set up their own campaigns. So I got to play in my own system and see how it worked from that point of view.
I’m writing about this now because this last weekend I went through some of the shelves in the computer room, and I emptied out all of the three ring binders, pulled out all the spiral notebooks, and so forth that were full of notes and characters and scenario descriptions and so forth, and put them all into recycle. The scary part as I was going emptying all of those binders was how many of the thousands and thousands of pages of material that was in there was handwritten. In my atrocious printing. But usually in pretty colors, because I love unusual ink colors and I had a tendency to color code my notes as I created villains and supporting characters and scenarios. Or wrote up the fictitious history of small countries or crime fighting organizations, and so on.
Several years ago I made a comment to some friends that, since I hadn’t run a game in the system in years, I should toss all those gaming notes. These friends had been players in the game for years. And one of them was horrified at the idea that I would toss all of that history. So I decided not to tell anyone other than my husband before I went through the shelves.
Usually my inner packrat balks at this sort of thing. I expected it to be more of an emotional trial than it was. But the fact that I haven’t actually run a game, nor seriously looked through any of those notes for this campaign, in more than a decade seems to have given me enough emotional distance to just be amused as I recognized some notes in passing.As you can see from the photo, there were a lot of binders. Several of those were 4-inch binders, which hold about 800 pages each, and at least two were 5-inch binders, which hold 1000 pages each, plus a bunch of 3-inchers, which since they usually have O-rings usually only hold about 570 pages each. When I said thousands and thousands of pages I wasn’t kidding. Keeping the notes organized in binders was always a bit of a challenge. Many years ago I got in the habit of making a title page for the binders, so I could remember that this binder was full of villains, while this one had notes on our never quite completed magic system, and another had notes for older games, while another had the notes for the most recent games and things I was planning.
And there were about a dozen spiral notebooks and several notepads all filled with even more notes. I generated a lot of material running that game for 19 years.
The notebook names were often based on Far Side comics. At least two were based on Calvin and Hobbes strips. As the pages of notes and characters and scenarios piled up, I’d have to make new binders, while older binders would become part of the archives, rather than something I’d get out all of the time.
It’s a little scary to think about how much fictional history we created during all of those games. I should add that when I said it was a single campaign, that’s slightly misleading. As I said I had at one point several groups playing at once, and I kept them separate mostly by basing their characters in different cities. But it was one fictional world, and we did cross-overs. Plus, since it is comic book superheroes, there were occasional adventures where the entire world was in danger. I also set some of the player groups in different time periods. at one point I had two side groups adventuring during the World War II time period, while original three sets had been playing in “the present” so basically the 80s and 90s. Then I had another side group playing in the 70s for. But all of the groups were set in the same world. And yeah, since I had player characters in different time periods occasionally involved in big global events and so forth, the continuity of my fictitious world got nearly as convoluted as that of the big comic book publishers.
Of the six friends who created characters for my first couple of weeks of playing, three have passed away. Of the others, I still have some contact with two on Facebook. I last ran into the sixth player at a science fiction convention around the year 2000, and he had an absolute melt down when he found out I was gay. My friend, Mark, moved to the town where I lived before moving to Seattle in 1983, I think it was, and joined the campaign. He played various characters for nearly 10 years, I think, with some interruptions since he moved to Seattle about a year before I did. And we’re still friends, now. Maybe I should make him a certificate, because I think he might hold the record of the longest player in that game.
I had a lot of fun, and as far as I know the players did, too.
When I came out at the age of 31 (yep, it took a while), more than one relative on that side of the family repeated the theory that the reason I was a homo was because of those G.I. Joe dolls I had as a kid.
People who understand the medical science know that a person’s sexual orientation is determined sometime before the age of two (it is almost certainly earlier, but it’s much more difficult to measure before then), so toys I received as presents at the age of seven didn’t have anything to do with it. But the claim is wrong in another way.
I never owned a G.I. Joe action figure as a child.
The original G.I. Joe was created by toy designer Stan Weston. He licensed the idea of his articulated action figure that could have a infinite number of costumes and accessories to Hasbro. The deal wasn’t an exclusive license, so Weston took Hasbro’s money and formed his own company.
Once he saw that Hasbro was going with only soldier accessories, he secured licensing deals with D.C. Comics, Marvel Comics, and King Feature Syndicate to produce a similar action figure, but one that was a something of a shape-shifter.
Captain Action’s exact shape differed from G.I. Joe in several ways, the most noticeable being that his head seemed a bit small for the body and the facial features are a little weird. The reason was that, thanks to all of those licensing deals, among the accessories you could buy for Captain Action were kits to transform him into characters such as Superman, Spiderman, Batman, Aquaman, Steve Canyon, Buck Rogers, the Lone Ranger, Flash Gordon, and so on. Each of those kits included a “mask” that completely covered Captain Action’s face, giving him the face of the character in question.
The Christmas that I received Captain Action, I also received the Superman kit. Note that there is no action figure in the box. That is a full-head face to go over the Captain Action figure’s head, a costume, and other accessories, but no action figure.
The thing I remember most about the Superman kit is that when I put the Captain Action clothes back on the figure, I often put the red Superman boots on him. I even remember explaining to someone why I thought the red boots looked better with the Captain Action costume. I also remember that another kid swiped my Krypto the Superdog toy. And I never got it back.
The following Christmas, several relatives got me G.I. Joe accessories, because they were easier to find (and probably most of them didn’t realize that Captain Action wasn’t a G.I. Joe). They only kind of worked. Captain Action’s chest was just enough bigger than G.I. Joe’s that I couldn’t fasten the shirts and jackets that came in the G.I. Joe kits. So when my Captain Action was dressed up as a marine or a sailor, he also had his shirt open, showing off his hyper-muscled chest. It made him look like a member of the Village People—except that the band didn’t exist until ten years later.
Now that I think about it, maybe that was part of the reason that one uncle was convinced the action figures were making me gay: my Captain Action was always baring his chest!My uncle wasn’t the only person who had misgivings about boys playing with dolls. When Hasbro introduced the first G.I. Joe, they invented the term “action figure” to label and advertise it precisely because their marketing research indicated that a lot of parents were reluctant to buy a doll for a boy.
While I remember seeing figures for Dr. Evil, Captain Action’s nemesis, I don’t think I ever saw the Action Boy figure in stores. I know, from reading collectors’ web sites, that there were Action Boy figures and there were accessory kits to turn him into Robin (to go with Captain Action in the Batman kit) or Superboy.
It’s probably just as well. As I recall, my Captain Action was laying in my toy box completely naked most of the time. Whenever I wanted to play with him, I had to spend a while tracking down enough clothes and accessories to dress him up as someone. If there had been a naked Captain Action and a naked Action Boy lounging about in my toy box, that uncle would have probably had a stroke!