Disney’s Marvel Studios — the masterminds and architects of the global cinematic sensation, the Marvel Cinematic Universe — now also spends a lot of time on TV/Streaming shows due to the arrival of the streaming service Disney+, which Disney knows can thrive on several shows aimed at the Marvel and Star Wars fandoms. In the first year with MCU content straight-to-Disney+, Disney and Marvel Studios gave us four live-action series and one premier animated show. In this article, I’ll take a look at each of the ‘first-year’ shows in bite-sized reviews.
Of all of the year one Marvel Studios Disney+ shows, none of them worked as well as WandaVision did. Sure, it wasn’t perfect, but WandaVision, which I recapped/reviewed every episode of, is one of the most thematically rich and genuinely moving things that Marvel Studios has done. Set after the events of Avengers: Endgame, WandaVision primarily follows Wanda Maximoff (played by Elizabeth Olsen), also known as the Scarlet Witch, as she has built herself a life with her deceased android husband, the Vision (played by Paul Bettany), inside of a make-believe world that she herself appears to have created. The show functions both inside and outside of this altered reality bubble cut off from the rest of the world, as MCU authorities try to figure out what exactly has happened, while Wanda, for the most part, sticks to herself inside of the magical bubble — the Hex — which also houses civilians who appear to be under some kind of spell. Here’s the kicker: the people inside of the bubble aren’t just trapped, they also appear to take part in an era-hopping sitcom focused on Wanda and the family she wishes she had.
Tonally, WandaVision functions very much like a normal Marvel movie. There’s a lot of humor mostly with the sitcom plot, but also with some of the wildly entertaining supporting characters that have been put outside of the bubble looking in. These include characters like Randall Park’s Jimmy Woo, Kat Dennings’ Darcy Lewis, but also Teyonah Parris’ Monica Rambeau. But this is also an amazing genre exercise and blend for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as they have essentially recreated different sitcom eras in American television history. It goes from the 1950s and all the way up to the modern day. There is a lot of attention to detail in these productions and recreations, and, throughout all of it, the show’s two leading stars, Paul Bettany and Elizabeth Olsen, never miss a beat. They are seasoned pros in the Marvel movie world, but, here, with the spotlight firmly on them, they shine as sitcom actors capable of flipping on a dime and becoming the dramatic leads that they have always had the ability to become within this Marvel Cinematic Universe.
This was one of the most hyped-up shows throughout 2021, and fans ate it up. We were all obsessed with every little detail of the show. And, for the most part, it paid off in interesting and fun ways. However, they did make a few mistakes. There is a fun bit of meta stunt-casting that was fun on paper, but which severely backfired due to how fans misread it as evidence that the show was about to open up the MCU in ways the show was not prepared to do at this point in time.
This, the first Marvel Studios Disney+ show, also kickstarted the trend that in the final episode these Marvel shows tend to struggle to stick the landing. The penultimate episode of the season — “Previously On,” — is arguably the best episode of any Marvel Studio show thus far, including the latest 2022 shows, though. It was thoughtful, moving, and gave us a new understanding of the grief that one of the show’s titular characters struggled with. And then, the final episode was just this huge action episode that was a bit of a disappointment as it concluded things too quickly.
Still, I think the show succeeded in accomplishing what it had set out to do. Its creators made a show about deep-seated grief disguised as a superhero show, which was a refreshing and inventive twist on the Marvel formula. It’s one of the most exciting experiments that Marvel Studios has done. And, at the same time, the show’s creator’s succeeded in making Wanda a more significant character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
“The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,”
This next show is one that I was incredibly excited for when I first heard it announced, but, unfortunately, it also turned out to be my biggest disappointment of any of the year-one Disney+ Marvel shows. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier felt like a really big event show. It was picking up directly after Avengers: Endgame, which meant that it was supposed to show us what happened next once Steve Rogers had given the shield to Sam Wilson, who is mostly known as the Falcon (but who has been Captain America in the comics previously, a title which his co-lead also had). The series showed a lot of promise early with a high-flying action scene — involving the Falcon (played by Anthony Mackie) — which certainly looked like a major film scene. At the same time, it also seemed open to discussing the guilt that the Winter Soldier (played by Sebastian Stan) has to live with now that he’s essentially a good guy again.
Ultimately, I think Malcolm Spellman‘s show deserves a lot of credit for being as ambitious as it ultimately is because the show wanted to be more than just what had been set up at the end of Endgame. Once the season got going, it was clear that the show also wanted to focus on a terrorist subplot, and, more importantly, this idea that America and its government perhaps weren’t ready for Sam Wilson, a Black man, to be Captain America — the face of the United States.
I genuinely think that with more focus The Falcon and the Winter Soldier could’ve been an all-timer in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. When the show hints at what it means to be a Black man in America, what the Captain America shield means to different people, what it means to take on the shield, and, specifically, the way Isaiah Bradley (played by Carl Lumbly) — an African-American war veteran and super-soldier who had been hidden away and experimented on for decades — has been treated, I think the show is straight-up magnificent. But as the show went on it became increasingly clear that the storyline involving the ‘Flag-Smasher’ organization had been heavily restructured, which resulted in their scenes not being very satisfying. I’ve gone this far in the review without even mentioning the so-called ‘Power Broker’ or the US agent John Walker, which should make it clear that there was so much in the show packed into its six-episode arc.
My biggest problem with the show is this lack of focus. The show seems so messy at times, and it feels like it was trying so many different things without knowing how to wrap them up. The social commentary in the show is strong until it isn’t. It all leads up to a not-so-surprising new uniform for Sam Wilson and a speech that felt too heavy-handed. The show doesn’t stick the landing at all. It feels like the show was in a rush to end, which has actually become a bit of a trend with these Marvel shows in year one. Most of them have fumbled parts of their final episodes.
This isn’t to say that nothing in the show works. I think the dynamic that Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan share is delightful, and it is what gets this show from episode to episode. It is this fun buddy show, at times. I also, again, must stress that the major flying action scene in the first episode is spectacular for television. Again, I was impressed by the ambition of the show’s social commentary, and I ultimately think most of it works. It’s just a shame that the final episode was so heavy-handed. Finally, I also want to highlight Wyatt Russell, playing the US Agent, as well as Daniel Brühl, playing Baron Zemo. The latter of them is so fun and so smart and he’s a joy to watch in the show, even though he’s a villain. And I think Russell really throws himself into his controversial role. It’ll be interesting to see where he shows up next.
Ultimately, I think the show had so much going for it. It was so ambitious, and there were so many things that I wanted to like more in it. Unfortunately, it was let down by the length of the show, how messy the show ultimately felt, and how heavy-handed everything felt once the show eventually came to its conclusion. It’s a disappointment, but it isn’t a bad show. It just doesn’t reach its potential, which is frustrating because there are so many good things about it.
“Loki: Season One”
As I wrote in my article on the best television shows of 2021, Loki was a show that I thought about so much last year. It was one of the shows that I was a little bit obsessed with. After the titular character met his end in Avengers: Infinity War, another version of the character — or ‘variant,’ which is what this show refers to them as — popped up in an alternate timeline in Avengers: Endgame, wherein he escaped from Earth’s Mightiest Heroes without anyone in the film noticing it. This show picks up right after that scene and follows this alternate Loki (still played by Tom Hiddleston) as he is apprehended by the mysterious organization-out-of-time, the ‘Time Variant Authority (TVA),’ which eventually gives him the choice of either being erased from existence or to help them to fix timelines in alternate universes.
In my original notes back from when I first saw the show, I noted that Michael Waldron’s Loki was essentially Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy meets Men in Black meets Netflix’s Maniac. It’s a crime thriller about finding your place in the universe that pairs Hiddleston with Owen Wilson, who is just so fun to watch as one of the agents at the TVA. A lot of consideration was put into the creation of this show, which gives us a new understanding of Loki as a character, and it also doubles as an opportunity to teach audiences about the concept of alternate universes, which Marvel Studios has since gone on to use quite a bit.
First, I want to highlight the performances. I’ve already mentioned how fun it is to watch Owen Wilson in his role, but another highlight of this show is Sophia Di Martino as Sylvie, who helps to give us that new understanding of what makes Loki our Loki. I can’t say too much about her without spoiling something, but she was a great surprise in this show. Tom Hiddleston has previously only been a great supporting cast member in the MCU, but in Loki, he reminds you that he is one of this cinematic universe’s finest actors. He’s great throughout the show, but especially so early in the series when he reacts to how the rest of his life could’ve turned out. It might be my favorite moment with the character. It’s certainly up there.
I also loved the attention to detail in the show. I loved how much time was spent making the various Loki variants distinctive and interesting. The aesthetic of the show is also so special. The TVA has this 1970s stuck-in-time look to it, for example. I was also particularly impressed with how the show chose to use Scandinavian to color our understanding of Loki. There’s a great scene in the show where Hiddleston sings a song in what sounded like some kind of Swedish-Norwegian blend, which warmed my Scandinavian heart.
I also just have to say that Loki, i.e. season one, has the absolute best ending (and final episode) of any of the year one Marvel Studios shows. What happens has weight to it, and it feels significant both emotionally and in the context of the larger cinematic universe (they may have revealed the next major villain). I highly recommend this one.
“What If…?: Season One”
Where the previous three shows definitely felt like necessary viewing if you were to follow along in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this next show definitely didn’t. An animated anthology show, What If…? opens the Marvel sandbox for writers to pick and choose characters and scenarios and test the waters on intriguing directions that the cinematic universe could take. Narrated by ‘the Watcher,’ an observer of the Marvel multiverse, voiced by Jeffrey Wright, almost each and every episode of the show takes place in their own alternate universes (there is, however, an ongoing overarching plot that involves several different universes and characters in the final episodes of the season), which allows for characters to look different or be in different places of the world. Not unlike Loki, this felt like an attempt by Marvel Studios to teach viewers and fans about the multiverse concept before opening it up in Spider-Man: No Way Home and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.
This is the kind of show that I’ve been wanting from Marvel for so many years. And I think this first season definitely toyed with some interesting ideas. There’s an episode that changes the events of Captain America: The First Avenger, there’s an episode that mixes Doctor Strange from 2016 with The Time Machine, and so much more. Interestingly, the show also puts major characters in other costumes like with Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa being Star-Lord instead of Black Panther. Admittedly, not all of the episodes work as well as others or are as inventive as they maybe should’ve been, but, on the whole, I think the show succeeds in taking the cinematic universe in fun directions. My personal highlight was definitely the Doctor Strange-centric episode.
For the show, Marvel Studios managed to get many of the original live-action actors to join in. Benedict Cumberbatch, Chadwick Boseman, Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, and others have lent their voices to make sure this animated show feels significant. However, this also means that, once a popular character isn’t voiced by their live-action actor, it is really jarring. I found it to be especially distracting when it came to Tony Stark, with Robert Downey, Jr.’s voice being iconic at this point, and it just sounded really wrong without him. The voice actor did what he could, and I’m not criticizing him. Rather, I think it is an interesting downside to consider that to actually spend so much focus on getting the actual actors to do voices means that once someone else is voicing the characters, it just breaks the fantasy a tiny bit.
I also have to say that even though I, at the time, was fine with it, looking back on it I am a little bit disappointed with the animation. The overall look is fine to me, even though I understand some of the larger criticisms of it, but I just think it’s a really big missed opportunity not to have different types of animation for each alternate universe and episode. This is something that Star Wars just did for their animated anthology, Star Wars: Visions, and I thought it was such a smart choice.
The first season of this show gave me pretty much what I wanted from it. However, going forward I want it to be bolder with the changes — I want the writers to dream a little bigger — and I’d like them to change up the animation more often. I think there are so many cool things you can do with these types of characters in the animated space. I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.
Leading up to the release of Spider-Man: No Way Home in theaters, Disney+ released all six episodes of Hawkeye from November to mid-December of 2021. The show was loosely based on Matt Fraction and David Aja’s critically acclaimed comic book Hawkeye-run and used some of the same imagery and aesthetic in scenes and title sequences (and costumes), and, as for its placement in the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, it took place right around the same time as No Way Home.
The show was designed to focus on the aftermath of Avengers: Endgame and deal with some of the lasting trauma that Jeremy Renner’s titular character still has to deal with, such as his actions like his role in the death of Natasha Romanoff and his time as the murderous vigilante known as Ronin. But, more to the point, it would also follow up directly on an after-credits scene from the MCU prequel solo film Black Widow, as well as feature one of its best characters, Florence Pugh’s Yelena Belova.
Set around Christmas-time and aping the tone of a Shane Black action-comedy, Hawkeye, however, also introduced ‘new’ characters to the larger MCU, one of which I don’t think it is right to discuss in a review. As viewers would find out almost immediately, though, the show isn’t just about one archer but two, since Hawkeye introduces the fan-favorite character Kate Bishop played by Hailee Steinfeld, Renner’s co-lead. Furthermore, the series also features a so-called backdoor pilot for the upcoming Disney+ series ECHO, as the series features the character Maya Lopez (played by newcomer Alaqua Cox, who I thought was really good).
From that description, the show probably sounds quite big, and, yeah, it is, in a way. Once the final episode came around, it didn’t all tie together as satisfyingly as I wanted it to. However, I also think it is the breeziest and most low-key and low-stakes show in the 2021 MCU show line-up. I loved that, even though it inherently interrogates its complicated titular character, it is, at its heart, a show about a father trying to make it home for Christmas. It’s sweet and it hits many charming and expected notes along the way, as the grumpy elder archer shows Kate Bishop, who is just delightful thanks to Steinfeld’s winning performance, the ropes.
On top of that, I was really happy with the questions the show was asking of Clint ‘Hawkeye’ Barton. However, I’m not sure all of the questions had satisfying answers or pay-offs once the series, or season, came to an end. When it came to the storylines involving Pugh and Steinfeld’s characters, I thought the answers and final scenes gave me what I wanted and that the show came to acceptable conclusions. But I think the show really should’ve elaborated more on the subplot involving the titular character’s time as Ronin. I think, to be honest, that Clint Barton should’ve been held more accountable. It feels like that was exactly what this type of Post-Endgame show absolutely had to address, and it fails to do so in a way that feels substantial, which is my biggest problem with the show.
As for easter eggs, cameos, and cinematic universe connective tissue, I thought that there was a lot to like. I really liked the action with the trick arrows. I thought the very short musical scenes were a lot of fun. But the ways the show tried to bring in a fan-favorite villain from Marvel Comics lore (including an actor that had played the character before) didn’t always satisfy fans’ expectations. The ways the show teased the character’s eventual appearance were great, but the way the character figured into the final episode was both unnecessary and underwhelming.
Ultimately, in spite of my frustrations with the Ronin-subplot, I was quite happy with the show because of its low-stakes and fun holiday plot and the ways it introduced Kate Bishop, as well as how it utilized Florence Pugh’s character (Pugh is so much fun in the role, and she appears in my favorite scene in the show in the penultimate episode, in which Kate and Yelena have a conversation).
I think this is exactly the kind of show Disney+ is perfect for, because it is a fun little extra adventure, or side story, that gives you added insight into the title character(s), but, at the same time, it is also a show that you probably won’t strictly have to watch to understand the theatrically released films. Like with What If…?, it doesn’t feel like a must-see show, but fans will get a kick out of it.
Going forward, if I have the time, I hope to review each and every future Marvel series or season in separate reviews. When this article is published, I will have already seen Moon Knight, so you can expect a review of that series coming soon.
– Reviews by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.