Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Various Thoughts: Loki, Black Widow, MCU Future, He-Man, and Amazon's Lord of the Rings

My break from MCU disappointment has been largely consumed by another playthrough of Witcher 3 and reading up on Norse sagas (my advice is to skip the intriguingly titled Valkyrie: The Women of the Viking World, as it's ideologically motivated without academic restraint; I haven't finished The Cambridge Introduction to the Old Norse-Icelandic Sagas, so can't offer thoughts), I still have my eye on what's happening in the MCU and many friends remain actively engaged.

Speaking of Loki, what are the reactions? The critical response has been neatly drawn along the usual lines--the outrager peddlers hate it (Andre at Midnight's Edge being the exception, although Andre hates everything else Marvel so it's hard to know what to do with that), and the sycophants love it. In terms of anecdotally, people I know have slotted it in the middle of the Disney+ shows (better than Falcon, which seems to be at the bottom of everyone's list, but not as good as WandaVision). This is surprising to me, as Tom Hiddleston is a bigger and (arguably) better actor than Elizabeth Olsen, and had a bigger costar (Owen Wilson) than she did. Loki should be at the top of everyone's list and its not. What does that mean for the future? Probably nothing at this point, as I discuss below.

The above represents two perspectives from Google Trends (keeping in mind, that's only one assessment tool, but I consider it an important one because it's a good way of judging the impact on the casual fanbase): one through all of 2021, and another from the start of Loki to present. I'm going to reiterate that Shang-Chi is a non-entity despite having started its marketing push, and that both WandaVision and Falcon and the Winter Soldier fell off people's radar very quickly. Loki will likely go that way as well (it's overall trend is very similar to WandaVision, but with slightly higher peaks), but it's too early to say.

Speaking of Black Widow, what a disaster it has been at the box office (when a hack like Scott Mendelson has to talk about it, it's beyond debate). As of this writing it's only hit 156 million and Disney has quietly stopped claiming massive success on the streaming side. The excuses for this performance are built-in: the pandemic, but it's a weak argument. This is the MCU, a franchise where unless you are Ant-Man, the expectation is that you should be pushing a billion (the five other films from 2018 onward all hit that mark)--even if you want to round it down conservatively, 700-800 million is where it ought to land, but it has no hope of getting anywhere near there. Friends have put the film into the mediocre category and that seems to reflect broader opinions. The massive drop off after opening weekend tells you all it needs too: no one felt compelled to go back for more and word of mouth didn't draw people either. Clearly, writing the script in eleven days did not help, although that was a second emergency re-write of a Jac Schaeffer (WandaVision showrunner) script that was so bad it delayed filming. You cannot sustain success with bad writing and that has been the story of Phase Four.

Do I think Marvel has learned anything from this? Absolutely not. The MCU is in the giddy aftermath of post-Phase Three success and it will take multiple punches to the face for reality to set in. I firmly believe Shang-Chi and The Eternals will disappoint in the same way Black Widow has and that marginal IP like Ms. Marvel will struggle to draw eyeballs even more than Falcon and the Winter Soldier. The problem is, all of Phase Four is planned, so poor decisions will extend far beyond the realization that it's not working. Can Kevin Feige turn things around in a couple of years? I want to say yes--I hope he can--but right now we are getting the material he likes most and the writing is terrible. Without restraint, Feige has become Zack Snyder, and we are all nose deep into Jason Momoa's soggy sweater wishing we could just walk away like Ben Affleck.

I wanted to briefly talk about He-Man, for reasons I'll get into momentarily. I wasn't a fan of the 1980s cartoon--as a kid I thought it was goofy--but I did like the comic from that era and I had the toys as a kid (I used them for WWE-style wrestling, since they looked like they were on a steady diet of steroids). When I heard Kevin Smith was going to write the show I assumed it would suck--when he's not writing about himself, Smith's output has been horrendous. That Smith landed the gig despite a string of failures is due to the last twenty years he's spent kissing the ass of everyone in Hollywood, but we know from old clips he's not a fan of the IP, so only took the project for the paycheque after his Marvel Entertainment show (Howard the Duck) was cancelled. Beyond that, the look of the show isn't for me (the animation--we also had yet another redheaded character deleted--the most forgivable prejudice apparently). I say all this to make it clear: this show wasn't something I had any interest in it. So why talk about it?

It's an IP I know very well and has a different feel from She-Ra (which never had a hint of adult tones, and therefore the fanbase isn't exactly the same). It's also being covered by everyone who covers the MCU, so I get to hear about it. Naturally, the screaming started before it came out and it's difficult to parse, because I suspect bad writing wouldn't inherently upset people given the original. The major complaint, as far as I can tell, is related to how Teela is written. For those who follow me, you all know I like faithful adaptations unless the original material isn't very good (ie)--the latter would apply here, but in something so inherently goofy with a predominantly older, male fanbase, it's an odd approach to take with the most prominent female character. In the grand scheme of things I don't really care--this was a Conan-ripoff designed to sell toys, after all--but I am intrigued when we get Ghostbusters-style fighting between fans and creators. The noise level isn't deafening yet, probably because the inherent interest isn't that strong, but I am curious where this will go. She-Ra only survived a much smaller level of criticism for two years--how will He-Man fair? True success is measured in how long Netflix continues to fund the show, so ignore all the noise and keep an eye on that. Whatever happens, I think in six months, a year, or a little longer, Kevin Smith will make one of his hilarious apologies and move on.

Let's end on a positive note. For those who follow me broadly, I've written a couple of articles on Amazon's Lord of the Rings show (eg) and overall the limited coverage of it has been negative (a lot of lazy videos from Nerdrotic and others). There are reasons to be concerned--good reasons (inexperienced showrunners, middling writers' room, lack of stars)--but it has created a slanted picture. Quite recently I came across TolkienTube, who has the exact kind of content I like (I highly recommend his channel). His videos have debunked some of the hysteria and provided context and information I hadn't seen elsewhere. While he has idiosyncratic desires and expectations (some of which I believe are unrealistic), he's been a breath of fresh air from all the negativity. I still have my doubts about the show, but some optimism has returned. There's nothing I'd like more than a good fantasy show on TV (Witcher's atrocious writing means no matter how hard Henry Cavill tries, I have no faith in the second season; there's never been any hope for Amazon's Wheel of Time), something lacking since season four of Game of Thrones (way back in 2014).

This article is written by Peter Levi (@eyeonthesens)

Saturday, July 10, 2021

Various MCU Thoughts

This is a bit of a grab-all article touching on various things. I may put out a video covering this as well because, despite my disinterest in Phase Four at the moment, I'm still interested in what Marvel is doing.

The Irrelevance of Shang-Chi

This could still change (there's two months to go), but the fears many of us had when the film was announced have thus far proven true: despite two trailers, no one cares (the second trailer did worse than the first). Not only is there indifference, but we don't know if the film will appear in China (ostensibly a primary target). I went over the numbers on martial arts films a long time ago and they simply don't hit big at the box office (you can see me argue with James Simon on Small Screen about this). In a world where MMA fights happen all the time, there's no mystic about martial arts and the nostalgia market just isn't strong enough. The MCU brand is still powerful, so I'm not going to predict it will bomb yet, but the odds of it underperforming remain very strong.

Hype vs Reality

mentioned last week that the performance of HBO's Lovecraft Country was an excellent example of the contrast between hype and reality. Positive media coverage of the adaptation was ubiquitous, as were the reviews. It reminded me of HBO's 2019 Watchmen--very much the same arc--but just like that case, where the rubber meets the road--financials--there's no second season for either. That's not how economics work--even if you believe Damon Lindelof (and I don't) that he wanted to stop Watchmen after the initial season, HBO would happily have replaced him if there was demand. Have no illusions, these shows failed. I don't mean necessarily in terms of art (while I doubt the quality, I've seen neither), but as commercial enterprises (and that's the only reason they were made). This is why I express skepticism when I hear excessive praise in the media--talk to me when the financials are out, then we can have a real conversation.

Bad Writing

I won't dwell on this too much, but I did want to make a general point. You can succeed with bad writing in popular entertainment--it happens all the time--but I don't think you can get away with it when your brand is built on a precedence of good writing. A vapid show like Bridgerton never pretends to be serious (nor do the original romance novels), so the writing is irrelevant, but once you start to take yourself seriously, you can't pull a Ralph Bohner--it creates ludonarrative dissonance. I think there's no awareness of this at Marvel, as I believe they see all their films as Bridgerton's and (thus) there's no requirement for good writing. This is manifest in the needlessly sloppy narratives that have been put on display on Disney+. The people I know who currently enjoy the MCU are ones who never took it that seriously--when this quality of writing happens in things they do take seriously, they express the same frustrations I do, so I think anecdotally and evidentially this is simply true.

The Scooper Wrap-up

I mentioned in my last video that I was thinking of updating my exploration of the scoopers, but as the change I wanted to make was very specific it doesn't require its own isolated content. When I talked about the 'Big Four' I had singled out Sutton for not indulging in the social media meltdowns we've seen from the other three. That's still true, largely because Sutton only uses Facebook (and even that is purely for advertisement), but I now know he has the same temperament. While he avoids public rages, he can't handle criticism. Sutton is an odd fellow in the space--a zero sum promoter. He plays the identity politics game in his official material and gives positive reviews to everything, but he's happy to appear on channels on the other side of the culture war if they are big enough (Midnight's Edge in particular). His comments on roundtables also suggest that his A+ for everything in his official material doesn't reflect his actual opinions. What I think this means is that exposure matters more to him than ideology, which suggests that his purported beliefs are simply for the purposes of self-promotion or protection (the latter is understandable when you look at what happened to Jeremy Conrad). Despite this, Sutton remains an interesting figure in the space, just one who is less distinctive than I originally thought.

Reminiscing about Small Screen

I was involved with Lauder's program for such a short time there's not much to reflect on. It wasn't a perfect show--I think the format could be improved--but I enjoyed the roundtable discussions. What's fascinating is how much it has changed over the last two months and is seemingly in decline. None of the Super Team Mega Force talent remains, such that it's just Edward and Clint Baker--both nice guys, but the pair are like a sandwich missing the filling. Losing out on Syl Abdul (whose channel is doing very well) hurts--I like Syl and think he has the talent to ride out the demise of the Snyder movement (which is what truly launched his channel). Losing Sutton from Small Screen also hurts, but not as much--Sutton has struggled finding a stable home on Youtube (I suspect he'd like to feature regularly on a big channel like Midnight's Edge, but Kamran Pasha--who better fits their ideology--and others occupy that space), and by himself he doesn't boost viewership meaningfully (look at the failed experiment on Lords of the Long Box). Perhaps Syl will be able to fill that void for him. As a mentioned a few months ago, Sutton was orienting his coverage more towards DC and Syl seems to be the primary reason for that (there's far less competition in the DC space than Marvel).

The Culture War

This isn't about whatever side you come down (if you have strong thoughts either way; and I realize it's not a true binary, but people tend to think of it that way), but about how the entertainment industry has picked one. Naturally, corporations like Disney have locked hands with the ruling class (including the CIA and US military, both of whom have put out unintentionally hilarious promotional material) and none of the exotics who oppose the idea in film do so with any awareness of the bigger picture (most are simply charlatans and clowns). I referenced this in my article about Amazon's Lord of the Rings series back in March, but to be reductive and explicit about it: the great thing about a war against -isms is that it never ends--just like the war on terror--it provides a constant excuse to change nothing in society while keeping the masses busy bickering with one another. For the last five years film and television has explicitly supported and propped up this narrative, even though it's fiscally punishing (the trite 'go woke, get broke' idiom has some truth to it). The goal isn't to lose money, as there's an underlying belief that with enough explosions etc the public will enjoy anything (Michael Bay and Bridgerton come to mind), and they aren't necessarily wrong except when it comes to genre adaptations. The problem is, when you put something out with a strong fanbase, you can't just shit out generic pap and get people to show up for it. Bad adaptations are, of course, nothing new and exec's have always pushed to take distinctive genre media and make it generic, so what's changed? Two things: 1) we know faithful adaptations work (Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter films), so the old argument that you can't do them is false, 2) there's an extra dross of politics which disproportionately targets most of the core fanbase of these IP. Not surprisingly, using marketing to attack your fans and then including a watered down version of the same in the product isn't the smartest idea. Despite numerous failures with this approach (Charlie's Angels, Terminator: Dark Fate, Harley Quinn, Wonder Woman 1984, etc) the message hasn't sunk in because these are ideologues--they believe the way a fundamentalist believes, therefore the approach is never the problem, it's just -ist fans and they can be overcome. John Cusack gives us a great example of this kind of thinking: he believes Julian Assange is a Trump supporter, therefore it's a good thing for the US to extradite him in order to torture and kill him. When the class of people Cusack represents frame things this way, you can't expect rational discourse (it reminds me in a way of the thesis of the South Park film over 20 years ago, "Horrific, deplorable violence is okay, as long as no one says any dirty words").

I've discussed before that a corporation can do whatever it wants in an adaptation of a product--there's no ethical or moral obligation for it to produce something faithfully, just an economic incentive. That said, it's irritating how dishonest the whole ideological thrust is (as it doesn't address actual inequality, cf). That aside, on a creative level the race/gender swaps have no discernable meat to them--a black Heimdall is exactly the same as a white Heimdall, so what's the point? The only story beats that are ubiquitous within the trend is that women need to be stronger and smarter than their male counterparts, presumably as a vague critique of the patriarchy (apparently having women always be better is not a problem). There's no genuine exploration of race or gender in any of this (I used the word 'dross' above intentionally), and it's an oddly anti-humanist sentiment, but its real purpose is simply to maintain the status quo--don't question why the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, focus in on an -ism and fight fight fight.

The sad thing about this is everything gets reduced into a kind of binary--a with-me-or-against-me mentality (as one can read in Hate, Inc etc). You don't like a film with a female lead or a person of colour? You must be a racist. You like something with a white lead? You're also a racist. Etcetera etcetera.  It's dishonest and reductivist and enough to drive any rationalist insane. I don't think regular fans think about these things at all, but subconsciously they are aware that something is off.

What's positive is that this can't last. There's no intellectual or ethical underpinning to this nonsense--it's just marketing and propaganda. At some point, as franchises get nuked into oblivion, financial imperatives will force a shift. What's not clear is what that shift will be or how long it will take to happen--will theaters still be a significant element in entertainment? It's unclear. I bring all this up because the approach has infected the MCU to the point of ruining narrative and character such that, just like the Concordia, it will crash before any lessons are learned. I think there's no hope at all for anything currently in production in Phase Four and likely nothing in this Phase at all--can it be fixed? I'm doubtful, but one can hope.

This article is written by Peter Levi (@eyeonthesens)

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Phase Four: A Disaster Story

It feels like I'm late to the party. The warning signs for Phase Four were always there, but like most MCU fans I believed Kevin Feige 'got it'--that he was the protector of the brand, the lord of continuity, the guarantor of quality. This notion was undercut by WandaVision, set on fire by Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and then nuked out of existence by Loki. That may sound like hyperbole, but I don't think it is. Let's go through why I believe that.

WandaVision has deep and problematic character and story issues. We know even Marvel is aware of this after the fact because Feige arranged for a damage control article in May. This is the show that said torture was okay if you feel a little sad (among other things, although that's the biggest Bohner). I'm not going to rehash all the issues (you can peruse here and here), but the errors were not typical for the MCU--I'd argue they were unprecedented.

Then we have Falcon and the Winter Soldier, a show that is actually worse, with nonsensical character and story arcs and a baffling conclusion where the titular hero loses a debate with faceless bureaucrats (again, I won't repeat everything, but peruse here and here). There's been no damage control from Feige yet, but unlike with WandaVision, Falcon isn't directly leading into a film (Doctor Strange 2) that's coming soon.

What about Loki? How, after just one episode, was it already problematic? It eliminated free will--the TVA has us living in a deterministic universe where none of our choices matter. It also undercut the importance and power of the Infinity Stones (and, thus, the primary motivator of Phases two and three). This is Last Jedi-style subverting of expectations and it cannot go well (it already causes problems for Eternals--how can they impact the past of the MCU when the TVA dictates everything?).

In all three shows, the writing is inexcusably bad, yet Feige seems unaware of it--rewarding the first two showrunners post-launch and Waldron prior (he re-wrote Doctor Strange 2). Were it not for the brand, production value, and most performances, these shows would be considered disasters.

I'm including these charts from Google Trends just to point out the obvious: none of the three upcoming films have made inroads with the public--Shang-Chi in particular has run into a brick wall of indifference, while Black Widow missed its window (interest peaking back in December of 2019). The poor reception of Falcon is obvious. Right now Loki is riding star power to slightly more interest, but I think we'll see the same downward trend ending in regret once it's over.

I'm comparing these shows to the standard Marvel set for itself. For fans content with generic television, there's nothing to worry about, or so one would believe given the types of shows that are popular (Bridgerton comes to mind), but oddly, casuals are not flocking to the IP as expected (something made very clear when Disney+ missed its targets). As for those of us who enjoyed the MCU as something more ambitious, this has been disheartening. All the cleverness and character development laced throughout the MCU has evaporated and we're left with a husk. It's because of this that I haven't been posting for the last month.

This begs the question: how did this happen? How did we go from a brilliant film like Infinity War to what we're getting now? My theory is that this is what an unfettered Kevin Feige looks like--that he doesn't understand story or continuity. Feige, it seems, is a visual person--he knows aesthetics. Why do I say that? Because those are the things that continue qualitatively now. If that's the case, and the underclass of producers haven't changed, why was the writing better before?

For years we read about the much derided Marvel story group--how they interfered with what Feige wanted to do. This group's impact was removed (along with Ike Perlmutter) during the production of Civil War, although their impact was felt to some extent with Doctor Strange. For me, Strange is the last consistent film we received from the MCU (outside the Russo brother's films), so the impact of that change can be traced back prior to the Disney+ disasters.

If that's my assessment, what does it mean for future coverage? Much of what I've done the last few years is track scoops--who was right, who was wrong, ergo who can be trusted. I feel like that's well understood at this point, and right now I frankly don't care what's happening in any of the currently announced projects. I feel no inclination to watch every MCU IP, although I'm more likely to keep up with the films because the investment is so much smaller. I hope there's something on the slate that I'll enjoy, but there's nothing on the horizon which inspires confidence. I'm not going to stop covering the MCU completely, but I will be more periodic about it until I have a reason to re-invest.

This is a painful state for me to be in, given how much I loved Marvel comics when I was younger and how good the MCU used to be. It doesn't hurt as much as I expect the Amazon Lord of the Rings show will, because Marvel had an eleven year run of excellence that can still be enjoyed (whereas Amazon will likely crush Tolkien immediately and it will be years before someone else can fix it). It's an odd era to live in, where genre fair is constantly being made, but the writing for it is slipshod and horrible. Feige, we know, can be very good when given constraints, but at this point in his career those constraints aren't likely to return.

This article is written by Peter Levi (@eyeonthesens)

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

MCU News & Notes

There was interesting news about Disney that reflects on the MCU (this is Variety's coverage):
Streaming hits like “WandaVision” and “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” failed to deliver the kind of Disney Plus subscriber numbers that Wall Street was looking for, as the Walt Disney Company reported a mixed quarterly report on Thursday. The entertainment conglomerate’s stock fell sharply, dropping more than 4% in after-hours trading. Disney’s $15.61 billion in revenue for the quarter fell short of expectations, and its 103.6 million streaming subscribers missed estimates
The article actually tries to spin this positively, but it's important to note the failed logic being used: if WandaVision and Falcon and the Winter Soldier were big hits, subscriber numbers would meet or exceed targets. Fundamentally, this means both shows failed to accomplish their goal, although Feige has plenty of rope to continue doing what he's doing before Bob Chapek comes knocking on his door for an explanation.

We have more from THS (Nick Santos), who says Midnight Sons is in early development. This is a primordial idea from LotLB that Sutton inherited (cf), but whose framework was originally intended for Jeph Loeb and Marvel Entertainment as part of their Hulu strategy. Santos says a number of interesting thing:
Marvel has over 20 unannounced films, but with those is a heavy emphasis on branching out with their team up movies. They want to replicate the success of The Avengers with multiple team-up films. Young Avengers, Dark Avengers/Thunderbolts, etc. Although this week we can exclusively share that Marvel is working on a Midnight Sons movie, which is currently in early development. … The roster will start off small and grow in future films as with any team-up film. It will start with Doctor Strange, Moon Knight, Blade, Hannibal King, Hellstrom, Ghost Rider, and Scarlet Witch. Hannibal King and Hellstrom will be introduced in Blade and fleshed out further in Midnight Sons. While Ghost Rider will be utilized in [Doctor Strange 2] before continuing on in Midnight Sons. Moon Knight and Blade both have a series and movie coming soon. While plot details are scarce as this is still in early development, we can exclusively share that Blackout will be the primary villain; with teases of Mephisto throughout. From what I’m hearing, Kevin Feige and Marvel Studios are interested in having multiple Thanos-level threats within the MCU
The lineup is slightly different from the constantly changing Sutton roster (Hannibal King has never come up), and Blackout has never included as a villain. It also has an imbalanced gender lineup (6 to 1), so if this is accurate, expect gender swaps (I'm not sure if it's diverse enough either, although Blade and now Moon Knight will tick boxes for Marvel).

The first full trailer for Eternals was underwhelming (the teaser is actually better, albeit ephemeral)--again, no demonstration of acting (the cast looks old and tired), the visuals are simply adequate, and there's no tension. Some of this is due to Marvel not wanting to take away from Black Widow and Shang-Chi, but I expect much better (especially given how much time they've had to tweak the marketing). Nothing has changed my fear that this film is going to disappoint. There's certainly nothing yet to justify the award buzz in the fandom.

Speaking of the film, original script writers Ryan and Matthew K. Firpo got the Jac Schaeffer treatment, and are now simply 'story by', as Patrick Burleigh (Ant-Man and the Wasp) and Chloe Zhao are the credited writers. This is not at all unusual for Marvel, as outside Markus and McFeely, it's rare for a script to be under the control of one writer (or writing pair). Unlike with Schaeffer, we don't yet know if the change is a sign of improvement.

Not long ago Daniel said Shuma-Gorath was coming, but claimed he didn't know where. I pointed out that this information had to come from Production Weekly, meaning Daniel does know where the character will appear. This was confirmed when Richard Nebens (cf) posted its appearance in Doctor Strange 2 as a 'scoop' for The Illuminerdi. You can see how this ecosystem works, with Daniel arranging things for 'credit' knowing it was coming, while helping out his buddy by giving him the 'scoop'. This indirect way of cannibalizing Production Weekly (available to you at a price) is the awkward way in which the public gains access to this. The basic idea, of Shuma-Gorath in Doctor Strange 2, goes all the way back to a 4chan rumour from October, 2019, but reading through the entirety of that post it contains a ton of incorrect information. A month later we had another 4chan post which seems credible; it was followed by a third in December, but that has erroneous elements. Since then, we had radio silence outside K. C. Walsh saying he hoped the creature would appear in the film. In the end, if we're giving credit, that November post on 4chan (from 2019) appears to have had the genuine scoop. Am I excited to see Doctor Strange fight a tentacle monster? It depends on how it's done.

Daniel posted up a casting call from Production Weekly that's seeking French and Dutch diplomats and mercenaries (one of each). This seems trivial, but I included it regardless.

Jordan Blum, showrunner of M.O.D.O.K., says the show is part of the MCU. This is probably true, although we don't know in what way (presumably the multiverse) and we have to keep in mind that Jeph Loeb maintained the same throughout Marvel Entertainment's existence when it wasn't true. I certainly don't consider it required viewing.

John Cena made a fool of himself when he apologized for calling Taiwan a country. I'm bringing this up not only to point out what a tool Cena is for abasing himself for the Chinese box office, but because it's a good lead in to the hypocrisy the MCU engages in whenever it tries to take a moral or ethical stance. The main approach for Marvel is to talk about diversity (in the extremely limited, American sense of it), but they remain unconcerned about restrictions imposed by oppressive regimes or American militarism as long as it helps at the box office (what a contrast it is that Steve Rogers joined the army to fight the Nazi's, while Sam Wilson joined an invading force in Afghanistan chasing a paycheque). Cynically, there's nothing unexpected about it, but it's one of the reasons why I find the glowing press pieces about their casting absurd--it's just virtue signaling and a way of distracting fans from being critical (that goes for Disney as well).

This article is late because I needed a break. There was some behind the scenes drama which seems to be over now, and I've generally been very down on the direction of the MCU of late. I still hope to recapture the enthusiasm I had through the first three phases, but we are standing on a precipice where my desire to fully cover it is in question (this happened with Marvel Netflix as well). Let's hope Loki is excellent.

This article is written by Peter Levi (@eyeonthesens)

Thursday, May 13, 2021

MCU News & Notes

I don't usually post articles like this in such close succession, but we have major news to discuss so let's get to it.

Not that long ago I raised the alarm for both Shang-Chi and Eternals in regards to their release in China, but the response within the fandom has been muted. Variety (Rebecca Davis) has now echoed those concerns:
In a report on the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Phase Four films, the CCTV6 China Movie Channel aired a list of the U.S. release dates for eight of the ten scheduled titles, but conspicuously left out “Eternals” and “Shang-Chi.” … The omission might seem small, but its significance lies in its provenance: the channel is under the jurisdiction of China’s powerful propaganda department, which has the final word on film approvals. … While the China Movie Channel report is not hard evidence that the two titles will be banned from the China market, their omission could be an indication that something about them is troubling Chinese officials.
As Davis' says, this doesn't guarantee issues for both films, but continues the potential trouble for both. The Eternals issue is comments made by director Chloe Zhao in an article long ago that's seen as critical of the Chinese government (good on Zhao for the criticism from an ethical perspective, but it was clearly a bad idea for her future career if China was an important part of that). The criticisms of Shang-Chi aren't presented as clearly by Davis, who I think is uncomfortable with the real ones (she begins with the non-issue of Fu Manchu, who isn't even in the film, then wastes time talking about the impact of Internet trolls because that fits a popular agenda in Hollywood). Once she's through those strawmen, the article repeats the comments we heard from The Direct (link above) that the cast plays into foreign stereotypes about how the Chinese look (along with unhappiness about the stereotypical kung fu, lanterns, pagodas, and the colour red)--the pandering itself is singled out (and they certainly aren't wrong, although I think part of that is aimed at the diaspora). I don't think those of us who aren't Chinese are in a position to say who does or doesn't best represent how they look, but it has to be a kick in the balls for Feige to get this kind of pushback (you either have to blame or congratulate casting director Sarah Finn). Davis also brings up that there's a chance Tony Leung (Mandarin) has been blacklisted, as his previous two films have not been released in China.

I said it when these films were announced and I'll repeat it again: neither Eternals nor Shang-Chi are popular IP, so bringing fans to the table was always going to be a struggle. If the worst case scenario occurs and they aren't released in China, that's a serious blow to their box office potential and we could be looking at Ant-Man numbers even if they are entertaining. What the Marvel sphere will do if that happens is difficult to imagine--poor Charles Murphy may go full Jeremy Conrad and nuke his online I'm just kidding--Murphy loves the spotlight too much to do that, but I still think we'd see an existential crisis (the usual playbook is to blame the fans--toxic fandom!--whether the MCU would stoop to that I don't know--there was a plan very similar to that almost put in place for WandaVision, cf).

One thing that's occurred to me about the award buzz for Eternals: originally I thought this was marketing meant for the public, but given that the public doesn't care about awards, I wonder if instead this is meant to soften the blow because the MCU is expecting meagre box office returns. When something does poorly financially, you can still call it a success if it wins awards, so is this an Into the Spider-Verse play to disguise financial disappointment? It's just a theory--the film might be great and do well--but it's food for thought.

THS (Nick Santos) comes to us with a Ghost Rider scoop and here are the essentials:
I’ve seen concept art from Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness that shows Ghost Rider. From what I’ve seen and heard, it’ll be a cameo at best but considering Multiverse Of Madness is exploring the multiverse and will have horror elements, a cameo will fit in with the movie while not distracting too much from the rest of the film. While Ghost Rider can appear in his own movie, it’s said that like The Hulk, he’ll appear in other movies as a side character. ... As for casting, while this may be disappointing for fans, Marvel is not going to bring back Gabriel Luna, from Agents of Shield or Nic Cage. It will be the Johnny Blaze character but recast.
This story must have Sutton fuming, because he's been calling for the return of the character (albeit in different ways) for quite some time. Clearly, no one cares if Luna returns (otherwise he would, eg Charlie Cox), but a few will bemoan the loss of Cage even if his Ghost Rider films are broadly derided and he's become a caricature of himself as an actor (not the bees!). If this recasting is correct, what does that imply about the mass migration of Netflix characters we keep getting from Sutton? It's unclear. Speaking of Sutton, as with previous Santos material, while this is similar to things he's said, it's not exactly the same--we have a specific citation of evidence (concept art from Doctor Strange 2), but more importantly, the framework varies--recently Sutton has been talking about the character having their own IP, but Santos is talking about Ghost Rider as a secondary character who appears in other people's films. In that link we see 4chan echoing this idea (Ghost Rider in Doctor Strange 2). Sutton's own comments have been a bit confused--in July Gabriel Luna was returning, but by April he wasn't; Johnny Blaze will debut in Blade, but also Doctor Strange 2--I think the free flowing Q&A's he does with Tim just create confusion for those of us who keep track of what he says.

Speaking of Sutton, sometimes you are reminded of things when you're collecting comments for something else: how did Falcon pave the way for Luke Cage? If that happened, it alludes me, but (via the link above) apparently that was going to happen. The best argument you could make is introducing the serum to the MCU, but all the Nagle vials are gone and the serum was introduced in Captain America, so I'm at a loss for what the connection was meant to be.

Back to the Eternals briefly. We had another toy leak, but unfortunately it doesn't add anything to our understanding of the film (other than, perhaps, there's no sign of Black Knight anywhere, which would fit the leak). It's blase as leaks go.

We had two Black Panther 2 posts from Sutton (here and here) that are cross promotions for other people. The first is from Dietsch (Giant Freakin Robot) and Sutton adds nothing to it, so what Dietsch says is that Sam Wilson will appear in the film, although to what extent he doesn't know. This is certainly plausible given the ridiculous appearance of Wakandans in Falcon. The other is from Everything Always, which repeats a very old rumour that Namor will be the villain of the film. Other than Sutton repeating that the film rights are back at Marvel (which is only partially true, cf; it's odd that he puts it this way, since my Namor article is one of the few of mine I know he's read), Sutton adds nothing of substance to this. As for the Namor rumour itself, this is plausible (although I've never understood how a land-locked Wakanda would be a target for the sea-bound Atlanteans). You can see many of the old rumours here.

Our final Sutton entry, or actually, our final Dietsch entry (since this is again from him) is this, where he claims that Marvel is going to cast a young Iron Man with a different actor (ie, rather than de-aging Robert Downey Jr.), but Dietsch was uncertain which project it was for (Ironheart makes the most sense on a meta level, but Sutton thinks it will simply be a flashback). It's worth the reminder that right now there's no track record from Dietsch as either reliable or not, so I have no idea if he's credible (that applies to Everything Always as well).

This article is written by Peter Levi (@eyeonthesens)

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Marvel News & Notes

One of the things I've realized recently is that if the MCU's quality remains at the current Disney+ level, I won't stick around to cover it. This unfortunate circumstance has happened before--Marvel Netflix crashed and burned so I moved on. It's still early and things can change, but given the recent drop in quality I'm genuinely concerned for upcoming Marvel products.

Buried in a THR story is a comment about Blade:
Marvel isn’t rushing with Blade, whose start date was pushed from this September to July 2022, so that the studio can spend time working on the Stacy Osei-Kuffour-penned script
That unexpected ten month delay suggests some serious issues beyond the director search THR references. I have to wonder if this is another Jac Schaeffer scenario where, the 'appropriate' person was found to write the script, but just like with Black Widow one of the MCU's script doctors is required to fix it. That may sound cynical, but given Mahershali Ali's age (he's forty-seven!) filming soon is of the essence for the action-oriented Blade, so there's logistical pressures to get things moving.

Variety is pumping the tires of Falcon's views based on TVision ratings, which is a US-only data set based on just 5,000 households. We're going to need a bigger boat, Variety! With that said, via Nielsen through the fourth episode the show was #1 among streaming shows, which is honestly surprising. If it can maintain that ranking I'm curious to see if views fall off a cliff when it's over (like WandaVision), or if it can retain its popularity.

James Gunn says he's done at Marvel once Guardians 3 is out (something he might be saying to get more money, but we'll take him at his word for the moment). I think this would be the right move--Gunn's second film wasn't as good as the first and he's being given all he wants at WB (the trailer for Suicide Squad was not encouraging).

A few things from Daniel:
  • Shuma-Gorath will appear in an upcoming MCU project [The character has been floating around Doctor Strange 2 rumours for awhile, having started in WandaVision rumours, although no one of note has backed it]
  • He believes Monica Rambeau will appear in Doctor Strange 2 [Given her connection to Wanda there's some plausibility to this, but just how many characters can you have in this film--I feel like this is unlikely given that she's off to the seemingly unrelated The Marvels soon after]
  • Marvel is considering a POC for Hercules [This wouldn't surprise me, despite the cultural insensitivity--think of poor Gilgamesh]

Sutton claims Nova and Captain Marvel will face Galactus in the future, although he doesn't know in what project. It's a plausible idea, but not one likely to come to fruition any time soon. Whether The Marvels can fix Carol Danvers or not is an open question, but that would require the MCU to believe there are problems with her character in the first place (something we can't be sure of).

  • Gorr the God Butcher kills Korg and quite a few Asgardians (on Earth). Valkyrie is severely wounded and not seen again until the end of the movie. Gorr leaves when he discovers Thor is no longer on the planet.
  • I am also pretty sure Gorr kills Russell Crows Zeus or we are to presume he is dead.
  • The beginning of the movie shows Gorr killing Thor (we then find out he is an alternate Thor from a different universe. mjolnir then shoots off into a wormhole and Gorr follows. The Multiverse is a big deal in this movie as well.
  • A few surviving Greek Gods team up with Thor to fight off Gorr who easily defeats them all. They are minor Gods. Hercules is mentioned but not with this crew. Thor is rescued by the [Guardians of the Galaxy] with Jane carrying mjolnir and has all the power of the MV Thor. I have literally no idea how she goes from Earth to being with the GOTG. Gorr injures [Peter Quill] (not badly but he is knocked out).
  • Sif sacrifices herself for Jane when the two of them are fighting Gorr.
  • There is a fight scene with Thor and Hercules over both being very childish about something. Its more comical than dramatic. Drax bets on Hercules while Rocket bets on Thor.
  • Thor, Jane Thor, Hercules and Valkyrie all fight Gorr. He loses and then runs away. I would assume he will return again.
  • Thor decides to stay with his people on Earth and invites the surviving Greek Gods to live with them as well. Jane stays with Thor but Valkyrie remains Queen.
Off the hop I have to say I don't like this plot at all, but nothing strikes me as inherently implausible, even if the description is vague enough to make me think the poster simply made it up. One of the main trends in rumours is Sif dying and a marginal role for Valkyrie (she can have a major role if she dies, but I don't think that can happen), but just because those elements are repeated doesn't make them true.

This article is written by Peter Levi (@eyeonthesens)

Thursday, May 6, 2021

The Eternals - Soaring to New Heights or in Crisis?

The story of The Eternals has hit a point where I feel the need to contextualize and explore it by itself. Buckle-up, strap-in and strap-on, because I want to go through it thoroughly. We're going to begin with a chronology to set the stage.

  • Marvel Entertainment (Jeph Loeb) hires John Ridley to produce an ABC show based on The Eternals (cf); the identity of what IP Ridley was working on was kept secret until 2019, long after it was retaken by Kevin Feige for Marvel Studios

  • April - The scoop that made the now cancelled Jeremy Conrad--Kevin Feige had taken back the IP for the MCU; this news came out a month after WB hired Ava Duvernay to direct New Gods (RIP), the IP Jack Kirby retooled when he returned to Marvel from DC--it's difficult not to see a connection between WB's push for that project and Feige's sudden interest (both hiring female directors of colour for the project doesn't seem coincidental)
  • May - Writers Matthew and Ryan Firpo are hired to write the script
  • June - Feige says he wants the film to play with the Ancient Aliens trope where the Eternals are the inspiration for a lot of mythology (how this meshes with actual Asgardians and Greek Gods is a mystery, unless the Eternals progenerated them as well); given how poorly Captain Marvel and Falcon and the Winter Soldier were integrated into MCU history, I'm skeptical that this will be done well
  • September - Director Chloe Zhao is hired, coming off The Rider (an award winning film--the kind of thing only cinephiles watch anymore--the small scale, personal drama Modernists beat to death 70 years ago); it's claimed Marvel was in a rush to hire her in case someone else scooped her up
  • October - That Hashtag Show (anonymously, but presumably Murphy) posts a story synopsis that, while clearly outdated (and presumably from Production Weekly), is still leaned on in popular coverage
  • November - THS (Murphy) posts a cast list that must come from Production Weekly, but this is also dated and only partially resembles the cast in the film

  • March - Angelina Jolie is cast (erroneously believed to be Sersi at the time)
  • May - Richard Madden is cast (correctly identified as Ikaris)
  • July - The release date is set for November 6, 2020; filming commences with Zhao given complete control (saying the style she was using was inspired by Alejandro G. Inarritu's The Revenant, a film where DiCaprio shivered until he won an Academy Award)
  • August - Gemma Chan, Kit Harington, and Barry Keoghan join the cast--this block announcement isn't typical for stars, so presumably was done to mute criticism of race-swapping Sersi (Harington is a much more direct adaptation for Black Knight, a character with no comic association with the Eternals and not included in the initial casting call, making him a late addition--presumably intended to add spice to an otherwise underwhelming group)

  • February - Filming wraps
  • April - The release date is shifted to February 12, 2021; reports (ultimately from Daniel) circulate about how rushed the production was--unfinished costumes and an unfinished script (the reason for the film's rush, its speculated, is because of Guardians 3's shift in the slate); Daniel says the focus of the film is on Sersi and Dane Whitman (rather than Sersi and Ikaris), which is officially confirmed over a year later
  • August - The title is shortened from The Eternals to Eternals (something I habitually forget)
  • September - The release date shifts to November, 2021; Zhao's film Nomadland comes out (it doesn't make money, but as award bait that doesn't matter)

  • January - Zhao says she was also a writer for the film
  • February - Additional photography (reshoots) occur--these are anomalously late given that the release date had changed just four months earlier (ergo, it's unlikely they were the original planned reshoots); a Tweet from Erick Weber (editor of Awards Ace) starts pushing the hype train for the film--it's the next Citizen KaneK. C. Walsh (GWW editor) reports that Gemma Chan was such a problem on-set that Marvel has scaled back plans for her--Walsh subsequently deletes his Tweet without explanation and the fandom has tried very hard to forget it
  • March - Busy with the awards schedule, Zhao (who typically edits her own films) leans on Dylan Tichenor and Craig Wood to make the first cut--this means the praise for the film up until then is at least in part due to those editors; the New York Times reports that the film could be in trouble in China due to a backlash over comments Zhao made in an interview years ago
  • April - The leak: an anonymous Redditor reports on a screening (which must be the Tichenor-Wood cut)--the fandom eagerly ignores this information; Zhao wins an Oscar for Nomadland (which is the same type of film as The Rider)
  • May - The first official trailer shots are included in a brief promo montage (the images match the leak, from what little we can tell); the focus is on Jolie's Thena (she gets the 'hero' shots), rather than the films leads

The Risk

Ever since this project leaked, there have been concerns about it (as I've gone over before, cf). While often casually compared to Guardians of the Galaxy, the Eternals IP is far more obscure and lacks the obvious roots in popular entertainment (Guardians is reminiscent of a lot of popular space fare). Beyond that obscurity and background, the film is saddled with a cast that hasn't made a ripple in the fandom. What about the director? Putting aside Zhao's inexperience with this kind of film, or that the films she's known for are divorced from popular entertainment, casual fans don't usually care about directors. So how about that cast?

Angelina Jolie is the only big name in the film, albeit in a secondary role. The famous actress is 45 and has a long, award winning career, including experience in genre films (Tomb Raider). Her only true blockbuster was 2014's Maleficent (758 million), whose sequel tailed off significantly. Everyone knows who she is, but that's never specifically boosted the box office of her films. Clearly Marvel knows she's the most exciting cast member, as she was given the most best coverage in the teaser--this can't last, since the leads will have to be prominently featured.

Richard Madden, the 34-year old Scottish actor, is best known for Game of Thrones; he has a modest film history with no notable failures. Like Jolie above, he's a positive add, but he won't bring fans into the theater.

The 28-year old Irish actor is making the transition from award winning films into the realm of blockbusters. Less recognizable than the two above, like them, no one is showing up to The Eternals because Barry Keoghan is in the film. Given the quality and age of the actor, Marvel might be playing the long game with him and envisioning a larger future.

The two leads are 38-year old Gemma Chan and 34-year old Kit Harington. Neither has ever shouldered a blockbuster before. Chan is known primarily for Crazy Rich Asians (based on the best selling Kevin Kwan novel), which was a modest box office success. Harington, like Madden above, is best known for his role in Game of Thrones, but his experience in film has generally been disastrous. Clearly, neither actor generates box office on their own. It goes without saying that Marvel has had luck with actors who have struggled elsewhere--Chris Hemsworth is the poster boy for that--but both Chan and Harington are much more subdued actors--and older than Hemsworth when he became Thor. Comparisons to Chris Pratt don't really work given his strong comedic background (such an important part of his success). These are, from what I've seen, primarily dramatic actors. The concern with both is that they will pale in comparison against their costars--that Jolie will outshine Chan and Madden/Keoghan will do the same for Harington--the last thing Marvel wants is for fans to wish for there was more of the secondary characters rather than the leads.

The rest of the cast, from veteran Salma Hayek to youthful Lia McHugh, seem to be tertiary members of the group (not just due to their relative prominence, but also by what's in the leak), which makes sense given the limited screen time available. Like everyone else on this list, none of them will have fans rushing out to the theater. Marvel may be aware of this problem, as thus far the (limited) marketing has pushed the director rather than the cast.

To sum up, we have an IP that no one knows (and was never successful as a comic, even if it's lauded for its scope), a cast that can't be relied on to draw an audience, and a rushed production. We also have to talk about the size of the cast--there are eleven characters to introduce here. This is an absurd amount. I think Guardians pushed it to the limit to provide origins for five, and one of those is a tree--is this ambition or insanity? There simply isn't time for proper origins here and the leak implies very limited roles for most. I think most MCU fans will wave away worries about the cast and an obscure IP because of past Marvel success, but what about the production?

When false news about production problems surface, there's typically a quick and strong response to it--either directly from those within the production, or from the media covering it. That has not occurred with this film--instead, the approach has been to ignore any problems raised. This approach concerns me as it lends credence to those reports. So what do we know? The production issues:
The Eternals pre-production was rushed in order to meet the movie’s filming schedule, meaning costumes were not finished, sets were not completely constructed, and even parts of the script were incomplete at the start of filming. Specifically, Kit Harington's Black Knight costume was unfinished when scenes with him in the suit were being shot, so it's likely that post-production work will be needed to digitally complete the suit
Daniel is a huge Marvel fanboy who doesn't want to speak negatively of anything, so he's only going to talk about this if he feels its verified (and the coverage surrounding it never questions the facts). In the leak Harington never suits up as Black Knight, leaving us with three options: 1) The leak is false, 2) The scene or scenes are few and were removed for the screener, or 3) Marvel decided against having that reveal (presumably because of how many characters in the film and require introductions). That aside, while films have survived a rushed schedule, this is often a sign of trouble. The above story circulated for about a week in April of 2020, but since then no one talks about it. Daniel can't have learned of this from his usual source (Production Weekly), so it must be from crew chatter and/or local reports. This story was followed later by much spicier news:
I heard Gemma Chan [Sersi] was a pain to work with on Eternals, so much so, Feige reduced her role in future plans and changed the ending to give Madden [Ikaris] a larger role, also heard other characters are introduced
Walsh doesn't say where this information comes from, but he has firm connections to both Murphy and Daniel and the former does have access to at least one Marvel associated agent (eg he was given the entire breakdown of Endgame almost a year before it came out). The idea of introduced characters fits the leak (one of the post-credit scenes), but above and beyond that, he has a good track record and is a card-carrying Marvel fanboy--the last thing Walsh would want to do is say something negative about Chan. While he has deleted the Tweet, he hasn't made a mea culpa to say he was wrong. There's no sign of these changes from the leak, but it's unlikely much could be changed with her as a lead. What's not in dispute are the potential issues Zhao has in China (as per The New York Times):
Experts say that while Ms. Zhao’s background would likely have been a major selling point for “The Eternals” in China, it could now become an Achilles’ heel
We don't know if China will suppress the release of The Eternals or not, but if they do that has massive implications for the film's box office. Perhaps Zhao and Disney can mollify the Chinese government and this will simply be a footnote to the film's history, but until then it raises serious questions over how well the film can perform.

There's Still Time

While interest in The Eternals hasn't spiked, it isn't in the black hole of indifference of Shang-Chi (at least in terms of social media engagement). The teaser for it is ephemeral, but the highlighting of Jolie seems to have helped. We won't be able to assess how well the film is being received until we see a true trailer and there's no rush for that given that two movies will release ahead of it.

I haven't talked at all about whether this will be a good film or not (as opposed to a successful one). We simply don't have enough information to even guess. The people gushing about it have an incentive to do so, which means we can't take their effusion seriously. For fans of Zhao's prior work, cinema history is filled with non-genre filmmakers faceplanting when attempting this kind of thing, so we can't draw conclusions from that either. As for the cast, while I think the casting of Gilgamesh is outrageous for cultural reasons, even if it's underwhelming on the surface it could still work--there's talent here that a good script could make shine. Unfortunately, I'm concerned about the current standards of MCU storytelling after the slipshod experiences of WandaVision and Falcon (the former has already lead to spin from the MCU). Will this be a return to form? If it's not, this is one of the rare projects Marvel can put in the rearview mirror without impacting anything--it's not the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, etc--something fans are already passionate about and would truly be upset if they were done poorly. Ultimately I think expectations need to be measured. There is potential for the Eternals, but I think we need to hold off uncorking the champagne until we've seen a little more.

This article is written by Peter Levi (@eyeonthesens)