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)