WandaVision Limited Series Review

After a long, very un-marvellous drought of content from the mainline MCU since Spider-Man: Far From Home in July 2019, fans have eagerly awaited what is the first of a slew of small-screen series coming to Disney+ for the foreseeable future. Was it worth the unusually long wait?

The short answer to the above question is yes, without a shadow of a doubt. The long answer, however, requires a look at exactly why this ambitious, crazily-premised sitcom spoof scratches the itch left behind by closed cinemas and empty theatres the world over. It may not be an equal substitute for the seemingly-cursed Black Widow feature, or the thoroughly mysterious Shang-Chi and Eternals properties for which there is still yet to be any promotion. But what is is, thankfully, is a risk-taking look inside the mind of the most tortured and tragic character still alive after Thanos’ war with the wider universe.

Wanda’s first clue that not everything is as idyllic as she would like

Grief-stricken after Vision’s demise in Infinity War and given no time to process her trauma, Wanda has taken control of a small town in New Jersey and made it her home with…Vision?!

Or at least, someone who looks like Vision. What starts as a homage to classic black-and-white era sitcoms barrels through the decades before reaching the 21st century, with each era offering its own set of clues as to what is really going on. Viewers could be forgiven for being totally lost after the credits have rolled on episode one. And two. And…maybe the third one as well. Eagle-eyed fans, however, receive vindication when the fourth episode pulls the curtain back on the twisted spectacle playing out in front of them when fan-favourites Jimmy Woo and Darcy Lewis join forces with a grown-up Monica Rambeau from Captain Marvel and S.W.O.R.D. to make sense of it all.

Although Monica is the only existing character from outside Westview who Wanda interacts with (and even at that, she is portrayed by a different, much older actress), viewers could hardly care less. Whether she is in sitcom-land, a S.W.O.R.D. makeshift base, or a witch’s basement lair, Elizabeth Olsen gives the performance of her Marvel career across nine heartbreaking episodes. Moving through the stages of grief we see her deny the truth, rage against her reality, drift into acceptance, and then ultimately find peace. Never before has such a journey been portrayed in a single property before, owing thanks to the new long-form storytelling afforded to Marvel Studios by Disney+.

One person who does not have Wanda’s best interests at heart is the only unidentifiable Westview resident – the mysterious Agnes.

There’s more to this overbearing neighbour than meets the eye…

Always popping up when is least convenient and portrayed brilliantly by the ever-talented Kathryn Hahn, Agnes fulfils the role of ‘friendly neighbour’ which has found life in nearly every sitcom since the genre’s inception. In the final third of the series we finally receive confirmation that ‘Agnes’ is in fact the infamous Agatha Harkness, a character who is intrinsically linked with Scarlet Witch in the original Marvel comics. While there she is mostly portrayed as a positive influence on the world, here we get the sense that in the MCU that statement could not be further from the truth.

For the most part, WandaVision takes risk unlike any other MCU project that came before it. Before the advent of Disney+ it simply would not have been feasible to output a long-form story like this in the first place, and only in the aftermath of record-shattering Endgame can Marvel Studios afford to get weird and challenge audiences in ways hitherto undreamt of. That is not to say that this fledgling limited series is without flaws; it absolutely has missteps which can and will rightly be criticised. But for the most part it does something wonderfully refreshing and unique – it dares to be bold.

When candlelit dinners go awry…

Sharing top-billing and elevating the series to great heights is Paul Bettany who, at long last, is afforded the opportunity to have fun with his role as The Vision.

If someone had told fans of Iron Man back in 2008 that the voice behind Tony’s armour would go on to play the resurrected husband of Wanda Maximoff in front of a sitcom live studio audience they probably would have laughed in your face. Thankfully that came to pass, and the franchise is better for it. While Elizabeth Olsen and Kathryn Hahn spar and trade words (sometimes in equal measure), it is Bettany who provides the most complex performance. Having said that, the most impressive episode of the series is its penultimate one which hardly features him at all, speaking to the calibre of acting from all involved.

Having embraced sitcom life to the full, even employing stunt casting for the long-lost sibling trope, WandaVision starts to feel familiar from the seventh episode onwards when it reverts back to more traditional superhero fanfare. What it gains in spectacle however is lost in equal measure in terms of charm and uniqueness. Falling into the prevailing trap of a CGI fight between the hero and similarly-powered villain, some viewers will be left wishing that such a unique show would have instead opted for a more unique form of conflict resolution.

As for dangling plot threads, if Photon getting the call to arms in outer space and a restored Vision weren’t enough then surely a post-credits scene teasing the sequel to Doctor Strange will whet your appetite.

I’m dreaming of a White Vision

When all is said and done, fans and curious outsiders alike will look back on WandaVision with fondness, marvelling over just how well a bizarre concept like this was executed while still fitting seamlessly into a wider franchise. Even now, Disney+ apps are being booted up as we speak for immediate rewatches to start the crazy ride all over again and try to spot clues hiding in the background. What held it back from being truly great, however, was its hesitation in committing fully to the promise it made in being a “new era of television.” Certainly nothing like this has ever been done on the small screen before; but a small part of it has definitely been seen on the big one. In this way it scratches the itch left by an absent Black Widow release, but it falls short in staying true to the gimmick it paraded so proudly for the majority of its run.

Final Score: 8.5/10

The New Mutants Review

Stuck in development hell after numerous delays spanning several years, Josh Boone’s The New Mutants finally hit theatres this month and is one of the first to do so during the global pandemic. Breaking the traditional superhero mould and fusing X-Gene mayhem with YA horror, the biggest question hanging over its head is was it worth the wait?

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

It feels like a lifetime ago when Thor: Ragnarok landed in theatres across the world back in October 2017, accompanied by the first trailer for what would be the final entry in the FOX-Men series of cinematic outings. Had this movie released in April 2018 as originally planned its target audience would still be gushing over Stranger Things and one of its stars Charlie Heaton, they would not yet have been disappointed by Maisie Williams’ final season of Game of Thrones, and they would be eagerly awaiting Anya Taylor-Joy’s next blockbuster outing between the one-two punch that would become Split and its sequel Glass. Instead those ships have all left the harbour a long time ago, and since the planned reshoots never actually happened we have to wonder what was the point of keeping this ensemble of talented young actors on the shelf for so long.

A couple of minutes and one disaster movie intro later after the lights dim and the projector powers up, the audience follows Blu Hunt’s Dani Moonstar to the mysterious medical facility in which she has woken up. Far from a traditional hospital, she finds herself handcuffed to the bed and under constant observation by biometric-scanning CCTV cameras before the initially-soothing Dr. Reyes comforts her new patient and explains her new set of circumstances. Soon joined by her four other fellow patients, or rather inmates, Dani discovers that she is being kept in an off-the-grid facility which teaches dangerous new mutants how to control their powers and reintegrate into society. However, doctoral qualifications aside, Reyes shares very few similarities with the altruistic Xavier over in Westchester.

It isn’t long before the sinister underbelly of Dani’s new home is revealed, with her housemates being kept there mostly against their will long-term with no release in sight.

The exact circumstances of her arrival uncertain, all that is known is that something devastating tore through Dani’s ancestral home and killed all of its inhabitants. She, however, is relatively unharmed and strange things begin to go bump in the night when she becomes agitated during her nightmares. With a healthy dose of dramatic irony at play by keeping the movie’s six characters in the dark until the final act, it is immediately apparent to the audience that Dani has the ability to make a person’s worst nightmare manifest in the real world. This leads to a destructive final confrontation with her inner demons as it takes the form of the Demon Bear from her childhood folklore, killing Dr. Reyes and freeing these five new mutants from under her boot. But not before they get the chance to work together as a team and embrace rather than fear their superpowers to defeat it, of course.

Things don’t look good for the new mutants heading into the final confrontation

In many ways the movie works, making the audience care for each of the teenagers in turn except for Roberto ‘Sunspot’ da Costa, who is an unfortunate victim of sequel setup which will now never happen.

This disappointing oversight aside, by and large Boone has made great use of a short runtime to cover the backstories of four other troubled teenagers whose origin stories contain a mix of survivor’s guilt, Catholic shame, penitent mourning, and repressed sexual trauma. Far from the usual radioactive spider or gamma rays, one thing which Boone does not do with this cast of comic books characters is shy away from what makes them tick. Although it is for the most part implicit context rather than explicit content, the narrative is still served well by the gradual reveals of their individual histories.

That being said, what The New Mutants needed more than anything else is more room to breathe. Claustrophobia aside, which in fact ups the tension as the characters never leave the facility, events and exposition happen one after the other and after another like clockwork, as if a checklist of things to cover is being ticked off one by one. If the rumours of the planned reshoots being used to incorporate more horror elements are true, they would have been a welcome addition if they also brought along with them enough extra footage to bump the runtime up to two hours and allow a world to develop onscreen. Rather than escaping to the world of cinema and becoming immersed in the FOX-Men universe one last time, instead we feel more like casual observers who are simply viewing quick-cut snippets of the characters’ lives.

To make matters worse, even though she is the closest thing to a main character in this ensemble, Dani is overshadowed by Illyana Rasputin in almost every way.

When the armour and sword come out, you run

With the most explicit backstory and substantial script material to work with, Anya Taylor-Joy easily puts in the best performance of the bunch and makes this another successful footnote in her growing filmography. Not that fellow sci-fi franchise veterans Charlie Heaton and Maisie Williams are pushovers, nor are the rest of the cast, but it is a simple case of another character ultimately being more compelling and entertaining to watch than the one who is supposed to be the audience’s eyes and introduction into this new world. Add in miniature dragon Lockheed, a gigantic glowing Soulsword, teleportation portals into Limbo and suddenly you find yourself just lamenting the fact that we will likely never see Magik link up with her famous metallic brother Colossus of Deadpool fame.

Rahne ‘Wolfsbane’ Sinclair midtransformation – try to scorch her with a hot brand at your own peril

The aforementioned Williams also produces some of the best acting in this outing, her strong Catholic faith contrasting nicely with the real-life horror movie unfolding in front of these fictional characters. Sharing a number of touching scenes with Blu Hunt’s Dani as they explore their sexual identity and budding romance, in many ways they link up to form the heart of the movie.

Tragically, this great performance is overshadowed in some scenes by shockingly bad special effects in an otherwise impressive movie CGI-wise. Made famous for being a werewolf in an X-Man suit in the source material, here Rahne Sinclair deviates between being a regular wolf and Maisie Williams with extra tufts of fur around her neck and longer nails. In a project which contains a building-sized nightmare bear, a teleporting girl with a sword and a pair of boys who can spontaneously combust and charge through the air at extreme speeds, this is unfortunately a distractingly disappointing effort which will not age well for a character who the audience spends a lot of time connecting with and is portrayed by such a fan-favourite actor.

Also disappointing is the absence of the true villain behind Dr. Reyes and the facility, implied through context to be the infamous X-Men villain Mr. Sinister when it is revealed that Essex Corporation is the governing body. No doubt setup for the rest of the trilogy along with the pleasantly surprising connection to Logan, given that this movie is now just a one-and-done affair it instead reeks of unfulfilled opportunities.

A little worse for wear and severely traumatised, but at least the world is now their oyster

Plagued by studio-mandated pushbacks and delays that killed any momentum the project might have had in the first place, The New Mutants caps off the FOX-Men Cinematic Universe with a whimper rather than a bang. Although it is full to the brim with young and talented actors, an appropriately eerie atmosphere, mostly-perfect special effects and a drive to do something different, this outing is weighed down by failings which are too glaring to ignore. It’s hurried runtime robs the audience of the quieter moments which are well-executed when present, its traditionally superhero-esque third act marks a tonal shift so out of left field that it gives the audience whiplash, and its efforts to tie together other projects containing an X-Gene are unfortunately too little too late and leave longtime fans of the franchise craving something that is now never going to see fruition.

Final Score: 6/10

Hawkeye: Freefall Mini-Series Review

Eternally popular in both print and live-action media, Clint Barton is once again on a one-man crusade to fight crime the only way he knows how – with increasingly perilous difficulty.

There is a lot of goodwill from fans when it comes to a new Hawkeye miniseries. With a history including stellar runs from Matt Fraction and David Aja in 2012 and then again in 2015 under Jeff Lemire and Ramon Perez, when this series was first announced last year fans hoped that Matthew Rosenberg and Otto Schmidt would be adding their names to that hallowed pantheon. And in many ways they do. In some others, however, not so much.

The premise of this new miniseries is straightforward enough to begin with – Parker Robbins, a.k.a. The Hood, is expanding his criminal drug empire and the corrupt authorities under mayor Wilson Fisk cannot be bothered to stop him. Enter Clint Barton, one of the few Avengers (West Coast or otherwise) who can still count himself as a street-level hero, the man on a mission who wants to see the streets of New York City cleaned up. Excellent, this sounds exactly like a classic ‘good guy versus bad guy turf war.’

Hawkeye: Freefall #1, courtesy of Marvel.com

The only problem with this is that The Hood is not just well-connected and an idiot, as Clint likes to remind us every now and again. He is downright formidable even to the strongest heroes on the block, and all Hawkeye has to his name are a bow and some arrows. Oh, and someone is impersonating his former Ronin persona and going after The Hood’s assets with a more violent plan of attack, so whoever this is probably needs to be taken down too. So a three-way turf war and six issues to tell it – this is going to be exciting.

Clint manages to get the better of Robbins at first, but not for long

And for the most part it is. There are a lot of action sequences, as well as a plethora of cool and interesting fight scenes involving The Hood’s supernatural abilities that are beautifully brought to life by penciller Otto Schmidt. However, a major drawback of this miniseries is that for something that only clocks in at around 120 pages in length it becomes needlessly convoluted around the halfway point. This unfortunately hampers the narrative a great deal as time needs to be spent explaining plot twists that weren’t necessary in the first place – time which is in short supply.

As it transpires, it is Clint himself who is donning the Ronin costume while pretending to be a mysterious newcomer who is capable of fending off the likes of Bucky, Falcon, and even Spider-Man. He is doing this so that he can secretly pick-off a number of The Hood’s assets in secret (with some uncharacteristically violent fallout) while still publicly striving to bring him to justice the legitimate way. Of course, Clint is Suspect Number One amongst the superhero community when his old alter-ego reappears on the scene, so the way he gives himself an alibi by being in two places at once is…a portable, one-hour-boomerang time machine.

On paper it is exactly the sort of comic book-y plot device you would expect to make an appearance, but in an otherwise grounded miniseries which shows the fallout of Clint’s many mistakes and the toll each and every encounter with The Hood is taking on his body it just feels out of place. When the device breaks and is impossible to repair by his new seventeen-year-old former-criminal tech expert you would assume that the narrative would return to its original premise, but instead even more time is spent finding ways to continue the by now eye-rolling ruse.

Not the sort of behaviour that you would expect from a (sometimes) well-respected Avenger

Still, this miniseries deserves a lot more than just complaints. By the time Bullseye comes onto the scene in the third act the stakes have well and truly been raised, and there are a number of casualties which weigh heavily on Clint’s conscience. This serves as a much-needed wake-up call for the purple archer and narrows his focus to the original goal – put a stop to The Hood’s criminal activity. The final issue concludes on a sombre note in contrast to the rest of the miniseries, and teases a premise which could very well be the basis of a fascinating follow-up series. As far as this one goes, however, it doesn’t quite reach the heights that one of Clint’s arrows could.

Presenting an interesting premise and hosting an all-star supporting cast, Hawkeye: Freefall offers gorgeous artwork, thrills and laughs throughout, and also a solid ending. However, its unnecessarily convoluted plot and slump around the middle take points off it and makes it miss the mark which Clint would normally nail even with his eyes closed.

Final Score: 7/10

Ant-Man (2020) Mini-Series Review

With Scott Lang now a household name thanks to not one, not two, but three different franchises within the record-breaking Marvel Cinematic Universe, this iteration of Ant-Man can still tell a compelling story in print as well as on the big screen.

When mainstream audiences last saw Scott Lang don the red and black Ant-Man suit it was to save all of creation from the would-be multiverse conqueror Thanos in 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, the culmination of an eleven-year narrative woven throughout twenty-two different cinematic outings. With the much-anticipated ‘Ant-Man 3’  still a considerable amount of time away, fans of the character will have to look elsewhere for their Scott Lang fix. Provided, of course, that they do not mind doing without the Paul Rudd likeness for the time being.

Is this miniseries, the final issue of which landed on the shelves of comic book stores across the world this morning, the cure for ant fever? In its small five-issue dosage, yes, it absolutely is. Picking up right in the thick of action we find Scott and his daughter Cassie foiling the plot of a band of drug mules, super-sizing themselves using patented Pym Particles to become Ant-Man and his current sidekick/partner Stinger.

Ant-Man (2020) #1 variant cover

We learn that at this current point in time in the Marvel comics universe Scott has found himself a little down on his luck, now being forced to live out of an ant hill in a garden in Florida because he cannot afford a place of this own. This is played as a joke with lovable consequences as we see him deal with annoyed ant roommates who would rather he take his problems elsewhere, but it also sets up the rest of our story nicely.

Interior art from Issue #1 courtesy of Marvel.com

Desperate for work, the superhero kind or otherwise, Scott begrudgingly accepts a mundane job investigating the disappearance of local bees. After all, he is the ‘bug guy,’ right? Although Cassie is not impressed by his seemingly-low aspirations due to her being offered a place on the Kate Bishop-led West Coast Avengers, the job turns out to be more than Scott bargained for when Nazi scientist-turned-supervillain Swarm is revealed to be responsible.

Swarms of bees have never been scarier

What starts off as a classic good-guy-beats-bad-guy conclusion to the first issue, the startling revelation is made that other villains comprised of an insect hivemind have been hunting Swarm, namely newcomers Vespa, Thread, and Tusk. From here the story snowballs as this trio of monsters are revealed to be merely henchman of the deadly Macrothrax, who in turn is the pawn of a trio of insect gods who live in the Savage Land by the names of Phthira, Crematrix, and Ve’trock.

By the end of the fourth issue Macrothrax has bested both Scott and Cassie, stolen the latter’s helmet and used it to brainwash Phthira and Crematrix to do his bidding, starting with murdering the hateful and cruel Ve’trock. Oh, and also lead the stolen-Pym-Particle-enhanced duo on a rampage across the world in order to assimilate mankind into his twisted insectoid vision for the future of Earth.

On paper, the concept of this miniseries sounds ridiculous. In practice, however, it is a story that you cannot possibly divert your attention from. Zeb Wells has crafted a hilariously thrilling story that effortlessly shifts from Scott arguing with an ant to Hope facing a crossroads in her life, and then back to Scott again as he fights for his life against brand-new villains who will captivate your imagination.

Maybe Scott bit off more than he can chew…

This is made easy by the stunning character designs by Dylan Burnett who makes each of the villains grotesquely unique in their own way, as well as putting his own spin on the Ant-Man and Stinger costumes – Scott’s ‘bee suit’ in the first issue is a particular highlight. Throw in a well-timed series of cameos from the Avengers, Spider-Man and Black Cat during the half-way point of the miniseries and suddenly it all contains just enough low and high stakes action to make it required reading not just for fans of Scott Lang, but for fans of superheroes in general.

This might be a little bit above Scott’s pay grade

While we won’t give out any spoilers for today’s final issue, what we will say is that Wells and Burnett have crafted an excellent addition to the Ant-Man mythos for a variety of reasons. They have captured the trademarked Scott Lang brand of humour and comic relief effortlessly, as well as laid the foundations for future stories involving both himself and Cassie, who by now has well and truly become a superhero in her own right. Although the concept of this miniseries quickly gets out-of-hand and is by no means as small in scale as Ant-Man himself, they manage to keep it grounded by always paying dues to the human problems which plague the men and women behind the masks. While the miniseries could have probably used one extra issue to let itself breathe for a moment and flesh out some of the new characters a little bit more, today’s final issue has still left us chomping at the bit for Ant-Man and Stinger’s next four-colour outing.

Final Score: 8.5/10

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