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Loki, Ep. 6: For All Time. Always.

It’s the end (for now) of our episode-by-episode look at Loki.  As always, spoilers lie in wait, threatening evil and ruin.

Years ago, back when I’d find myself in a movie theater two or three times a week, I took in a late showing of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ (2004).  It was a week night in a suburban theater, so but for one other fellow way on the other side of the room, I had the place to myself.  If you’re unaware or have never seen it, Passion concerns itself with the last day of Jesus’ life, culminating with his crucifixion.  Gibson’s movie runs 127 minutes, including credits, and I’d wager that at least 90 of those minutes are given over to flesh-shredding, blood-spattering, bone-cracking mayhem and torture of the most graphic sort.  If mainstream American filmgoers have ever been exposed to a movie more relentlessly cruel and violent than this one, I can’t imagine what it might be.  There are virtually no concessions to audience expectation.  Passion‘s dialogue is primarily in Aramaic, a dialect that very few people still speak…and by some accounts I’ve read, Gibson had to be persuaded to add subtitles!  Nor are there any accommodations made to catch anyone up on the story or provide any context.  If you know the details and the principle characters surrounding Jesus’ arrest and death, great; if you don’t, too bad.  I remember sitting there in the theater, watching this deeply strange and unsettling film, and thinking:  Who the fuck is this movie for?  Like, seriously…who’s the intended audience for this thing?

Jim Caviezel as Jesus in The Passion of the Christ (2004).

Now, full disclosure here:  while I couldn’t say I remotely ‘liked’ Passion of the Christ — I’m not sure the word like could or should possibly apply to this movie — I did and do admire it as a singular, personal work of art.  It’s utterly uncompromising.  That a half-witted hoard of religious nutbars and right-wing randos with a torture porn fetish latched on to the film shouldn’t necessarily count against it (though if you do wish to count it, I’m not the one to argue you out of it).  Whatever Passion‘s faults, insincerity and an unwillingness to commit to its own narrative are not among them.

Which is where Loki comes in.

Because though Loki exists at the opposite end of the cinematic spectrum from Passion in terms of intent, commitment, and effectiveness, I found myself asking the exact same question about it:  Who is this show for?  Setting aside that portion of fandom that reflexively grants their uncritical love to any- and everything Marvel Studios pumps out as an affirmation of their own identity, I’m curious who — if anyone — is watching Loki and thinking, Goddamn, but this show’s really got it going on.  Honey, look…there’s an alligator!  What will those scamps at Marvel Studios think of next?!

After six episodes comprising one season now in the books, I couldn’t begin to tell you what Loki was about or what, if anything, it was aiming for.  We’ve got a God of Mischief who’s neither mischievous nor remotely god-like, and who’s…what?  On his way to becoming a better, more trustworthy and civic-minded person by falling unironically in love with a version of himself?  Only once does anyone acknowledge or even mention the inherently weird perversity of a person falling in love with themselves; other than that, the show elects to play Loki and Sylvie’s chaste middle-school love affair completely straight.  What might love look like between a pair of immortal nihilistic liars who might not be capable of change?  It’s an interesting question, but not one Loki shows any interest in exploring.  (More than once during the course of this series, I found myself wishing we could dispense with all this Loki / TVA nonsense in favor of watching two characters played by Tom Hiddleston and Sophia Di Martino fall in love over witticisms and tea in the cafe around the corner from Hugh Grant’s Notting Hill bookstore.)

Even by the MCU’s usual standards of zero nutrition carnival food, Loki comes off as something like diet cotton candy.  It’s conceptual emptiness deluxe:  a sugar-substitute confection of color and puffed air that takes more calories to consume and digest than it provides.  The show’s technical execution — direction, photography, editing, etc. — is more than adequate, and at times even dazzling, but the banality of what’s being executed never lets Loki take flight.  It’s motion without meaning, spectacle without depth, a show whose parts add up to less than zero.  There’s no point at which Loki commits itself to…well, anything.  It’s not drama, it’s not comedy, it’s not satire or adventure or suspense or romance.  There’s no there there.  Just a tepid mix of light comedy and rote moralizing in a context-free vacuum.

Ah, well.

Following their enchantment of Alioth in the Void at the end of time last episode, Loki and Sylvie gain access to the sub-void beyond the end of time.  A ruined asteroid floats at the center of this sub-void, ringed by a representation of the Sacred Timeline.  Upon this ruined asteroid stands a dark and ominous castle.  Sylvie and Loki approach the castle, but before Sylvie can kick the door in, it opens of its own accord and they’re granted entrance.

The Citadel at the End of Time.

They’re greeted by Miss Minutes, the cartoon graphic app from the TVA, who welcomes them to the Citadel at the End of Time.  She congratulates them; they’ve had a long journey to get here, and He Who Remains, the master of the Citadel, is impressed.  According to Miss Minutes, HWR created all and controls all, and he has an offer for Loki and Sylvie:  they get to be reinserted back into the timeline where they can be together and essentially have everything they want.  Tempting, but the offer is rejected, perhaps because even Loki and Sylvie have the sense to realize that a being who created all and controls all wouldn’t need to bargain.  “We write our own destiny now,” says a defiant Loki.

“Oh, sure you do,” says Miss Minutes.  “Good luck with that.”  She disappears, reappearing in Ravonna’s chamber.  When Ravonna asks what took her so long, Miss Minutes tells her some things had to get worked out, but the files Ravonna needs are being downloaded.  Ravonna complains that the files in question aren’t what she asked for, but Miss Minutes tells her that HWR thinks this will be more useful.  “Happy reading!” Miss Minutes chirps, and disappears again.

Back at the Citadel, He Who Remains makes his dramatic appearance, emerging from an elevator.  He’s a disarmingly friendly and charismatic man (played by the disarmingly friendly and charismatic Jonathan Majors), clad all in purple, munching on an apple.  “This is wild.  The two of you…same person…I mean, it’s a little unnatural, but…”  He invites Loki and Sylvie up to his office.

“Not what you were expecting, hmm?” says HWR in the elevator, his back to his guests.

“You’re just a man,” says a disbelieving Loki.

“Flesh and blood,” HRW agrees, munching on his apple.  “Don’t tell me I’m a disappointment.”

“No,” says Sylvie.  “Just a little bit easier to kill.”  She swings her sword at his back, but he vanishes, reappearing just behind her, giggling.  She tries it twice more, each time with the same result.  The elevator opens to a large study or library, complete with a fire in the fireplace — it’s like Doctor Strange’s man cave, but moodier.  HRW invites them in, offering them seats in front of his desk, and serves them espresso.

He Who Remains (Jonathan Majors).

At the TVA, Mobius has returned from the Void to confront Ravonna in her office.  Ravonna apologizes for having ‘pruned’ him, but says she couldn’t let him get in the way of ‘our mission.’  Mobius points out that there is no mission:  the Time-Keepers are fake, and everyone in the TVA is a Variant.  Ravonna insists that it can’t all have been for nothing, and tries to call for back-up.  Mobius tells her now that the truth is out, calling for help isn’t going to work out the way she thinks it will.

Cut to a high school corridor in 2018, the now-freed Hunter B-15 leading other TVA hunters on a chase that ends in the office of one Rebecca Tourminet…who looks exactly like Ravonna.  Hmm.  And this is where we might wish that we’d been presented with some sort of guide for what the rules are with all this time-traveling.  Is Ravonna a Variant or is she not?  If she is, then who is Rebecca Tourminet?  Are there versions of Mobius and Hunter B-15 still extant in their respective timelines?

In the Citadel at the End of Time, He Who Remains is explaining to Loki and Sylvie why they’re unable to kill him:  it’s because he knows everything that is going to happen, and is thus able to pre-program his TemPad to anticipate every attack.  Every step Loki and Sylvie took to get here, HRW says, was on the road that he paved for them; and everything that needs to happen, will happen, to put everyone in the right frame of mind to ‘finish the quest.’

“So it’s all just a game?” says Loki.  “It’s all a manipulation?”  You might imagine that a God of Mischief would be more than okay with everything just being a game and / or a manipulation — that he might in fact insist on treating things like a game or a manipulation even when no one else saw it that way or wanted to play — but I guess that’s some other God of Mischief in some other show.

“Interesting that your mind would go to that,” says HRW.  He asks Sylvie if she thinks she can trust Loki; if indeed, she’s capable of trusting anyone at all.  Loki has a peculiar obsession with the concept of trust that’s weirdly out of place given the ostensible nature and function of its title character(s).  This isn’t the last we’ll hear of this trust business.

At the TVA, Mobius tells Ravonna that he thinks people are ready to hear a little truth;[1]Given everything that’s happened in this country since 2016, I got a bitter little chuckle out of that one. namely, that the TVA is a lie.  Ravonna argues, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me, that it’s a necessary lie; that without the TVA pruning the timeline, there’d be chaos.  Mobius counters that there’s nothing necessary about sending people off to violent death in the Void, and that what Ravonna’s afraid of isn’t chaos but free will.

“Free will?” Ravonna scoffs.  “Only one person gets free will:  the one in charge.”  She announces her intent to leave, opening a TVA dimension door.  Mobius tries to stop her, but she easily defeats and disarms him.  He asks her where she’s going.  “In search of free will,” she says, stepping through the door and presumably into next season, as this is the last we see of her.

Ravonna (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).

One of the odder traits of Loki is that the crux of every episode turns on a conversation — a truthful conversation, no less — in which people speak their minds at length and in genuine fashion:  Loki and Mobius in episodes 1 and 2, Loki and Sylvie on the train in episode 3, and so on.  As with everything Loki, the execution is usually sound enough, but the concept is all the way wrong.  We’d be hard-pressed to find a character less inclined (and maybe less able) to tell anyone the truth about what’s really on his mind than Loki.  Trust is for children and dogs is maybe the only thing the showrunners put in their title character’s mouth that really fits.  In any case, in a season finale that’s practically all conversation, we come at last to the one that’s central to this episode.

He Who Remains tells Loki and Sylvie that he understands their moral objections to the TVA, but while his methods are deceptive, the TVA’s  essential mission isn’t.  Without the TVA, HWR explains, “everything burns.”  Loki asks HWR what he’s so afraid of.

A long, considered pause, and then HWR says:  “Me.”

“And just who are you?” says Sylvie.

“Oh, I’ve been dubbed many names by many people.  A ruler.  A conqueror.  He Who Remains.  But it’s not as simple as a name.”  Eons ago, HWR tells them, before the TVA, one of his variants lived on earth in the 31st century.  A scientist, this variant discovered there were universes stacked on top of his own.  Other versions of this scientist were learning the same thing, and they made contact with one another.  For awhile, there was peace.  They shared technology and knowledge, each using their universe’s own advances to improve the others.  “However,” says HWR, “not every version of me was so pure of heart.  To some of us, new worlds meant only one thing:  new lands to be conquered.  The peace between realities erupted into all-out war, each variant fighting to preserve their universe and annihilate the others.”

It was almost the end, HWR tells them, of everything and everyone.

“And then the Time-Keepers came along and saved us all,” says Sylvie, bitterness in her voice.

“No,” says HWR.  “This is where we diverge from the dogma.”  That first variant, he explains, discovered a creature created from all the tears in reality.  A creature capable of consuming time and space itself:  Alioth.  HWR harnessed Alioth’s power, weaponizing it to end the Multiversal War.  He then isolated this timeline — the so-called Sacred Timeline — and created the TVA to stop any further branching, resulting in ages of cosmic harmony.

“You came to kill the Devil, right?” says HWR.  “Well, if you think I’m evil, just wait until you meet my variants.  And…that’s the gambit.  Stifling order or cataclysmic chaos.  You may hate the dictator, but something far worse is going to fill that void if you dispose of him.”

“Or…you’re a liar,” says Sylvie.

“Or I’m a liar,” agrees HWR.

“So you just continue to prune innocent timelines?” says Loki, and again, you can feel the tension between concept and execution here.  Why would a God of Mischief care about innocent timelines, or subscribe to the notion that innocence itself was anything other than childhood’s lack of experience or the perpetual stupidity of people without the wit to get up to anything interesting?  I can well believe that Loki would object to having his free will curtailed, but I don’t know why he’d give a damn about anyone else’s.

A small circle of trust with Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston).

HWR proposes that Loki and Sylvie take his place at the head of the TVA, and do the pruning themselves.  He presents them again with their dilemma (in case they, and we, missed it the first time around):    kill him and destroy the TVA, which results in not one devil, but an infinite number of devils; or Loki and Sylvie take his place and run the operation.

Wait…what?

Assuming that He Who Remains is telling the truth — and there’s good reason to assume he is, because as we’ve covered before, people don’t lie in Marvel movies unless it’s made abundantly clear that they’re lying — why choose Loki and Sylvie, of all people, as his replacements?  One could make the argument that this is the way events play out, have always played out, will always play out — that time, essentially, is a set course — but there’s very little in this series to suggest that that’s the case.  The branching timelines would suggest that different actions simply create new versions of reality.  And if, as HWR claims, he’s simply tired of running things, why not choose Ravonna as his replacement?  She’s dedicated to the cause, has all the qualifications and experience one could want, and can step into the job immediately.  As for the two Gods of Mischief, why not a third choice?  Namely, option C, All of the Above:  take over the TVA and kill He Who Remains.  Alas, that never seems to occur to either of them.

“You treated real people’s lives like some kind of game,” an indignant Sylvie says to HWR.  It’s bold talk for a Goddess of Mischief.  For one, treating people’s lives like some kind of game is pretty much her cosmological job description.  For another, if we can trust what we were told way back in episode 1, Sylvie has killed at least two dozen TVA hunters, knowing full well they were brainwashed Variants.

HWR tells Sylvie it was nothing personal.  Sylvie says it was personal to her, and a frustrated HWR tells her to grow up.  “We’re all villains here.  We’ve all done horrible, terrible, horrific things.  But now…we…you…have a chance to do them for a good reason.”  The camera closes in on He Who Remains, and for the first time he looks somewhat uncertain.  “We just crossed the threshold,” he says.  The camera pulls back out, far enough to include us looking over the inside shoulders of Loki and Sylvie.  This is one of only two times in this episode that the camera pushes in like this.  In general, a close-up indicates something personal or important, so we can surmise that in this moment, He Who Remains has a realization that’s so intensely personal to him that he practically forgets there are people in the room with him.

HWR admits he fibbed.  He knew everything that was going to happen up to a certain point…but that point has just passed.  Now, he says, he has no idea how the rest of this is going to go.  “I’m being candid,” he says cheerfully.  Outside the Citadel, the Sacred Timeline begins to branch.

“So that’s it?” says Loki.  “That’s it?  This is what happens at the end of time?  And now you’re just gonna sit there with all that freedom and let us decide your fate?”

“Yes!” says HWR. “What’s the worst that can happen?  You either take over and my life’s work continues, or you plunge a blade in my chest and an infinite amount of me start another Multiversal War, and I just end up right back here anyways.”

Sylvie is out of her chair in a flash, aiming a killing blow with her blade at HWR.  Loki stops her, asks her to hang on a moment so they can talk about it, but Sylvie’s in no mood for talking; she’s for finishing what she started.  She attacks again, and Loki stops her again, while He Who Remains looks on, amused.

Loki thinks that He Who Remains is telling the truth.  What if by killing him they make things worse?  Sylvie concludes by this line of reasoning that what Loki really wants is the TVA throne, which Loki denies.  “What was I thinking, trusting you?” she says.  Loki counters, saying that she never trusted him, and here we are again with this show’s bizarre obsession with the concept of trust.  They’re both fucking Gods of Mischief.  No one in their right minds would or should trust either of them, and who would know better not to trust a God of Mischief than another God of Mischief?  Loki and Sylvie both have lived for decades, if not centuries or millennia, as back-stabbing, treacherous narcissists, and now they’re crying about people not trusting them?  It’s ridiculous.

“Why aren’t we seeing this the same way?” says Sylvie.

“Because you can’t trust,” Loki says, “and I can’t be trusted.”

“Then I guess we’re in a pickle.”

Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino) share a good-bye kiss.

She attacks, and now the pair begin fighting for real.  Sylvie appears to get the better of it, but again, just as she’s about to kill He Who Remains, Loki gets in the way of her blade, begging her to stop.  He throws his own weapon away, and manages to calm her somewhat.  Loki tells Sylvie he doesn’t want to hurt her, nor does he want a throne; he just wants her to be okay.  She starts to cry, and then kisses him, with sorrow and longing.  “But I’m not you,” she says, breaking the kiss.  She opens a TVA dimension door behind Loki with her TemPad, and kicks him through it back to TVA headquarters.  Before he can recover or jump back through the door, it closes, leaving him shocked and broken hearted.  It’s a good moment for Tom Hiddleston, who isn’t typically asked to do much more in this role than speak clearly and look indignant.

Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino) prepares to kill He Who Remains (Jonathan Majors).

Free from interference, Sylvie asks He Who Remains if he isn’t going to beg for his life.  HWR seems more perversely delighted than frightened or disturbed.  He allows he could beg for his life…but doesn’t.  With nothing more to be said, Sylvie simply looks him in the eye, draws back her blade, and plunges it into his heart.  Pretty hardcore for a Disney joint.  He Who Remains just laughs…or laughs as much as a person can laugh with a small sword sticking out of their chest, puncturing vital organs.  “See you soon,” he tells Sylvie, and dies.  Her life’s mission complete, Sylvie sinks to the floor and begins to cry, while outside the Citadel, there’s a cracking sound as timelines begin to branch in their fractal millions.

Perhaps sensing the change in the air or the currents of destiny suddenly flowing another way, Loki rouses himself to search the halls of the TVA for Mobius.  He finds him in the archives section, Mobius in mid-conversation with Hunter B-15.  “That’s, what, 63 new branches in this unit alone?” he says.

“Does he want us to just let them all branch?” asks B-15.

He?

“At this point,” says Mobius, “how are we even gonna stop it?”

“We can’t!” shouts Loki, interrupting.  Mobius looks puzzled as Loki breathlessly tries to explain.  “It’s done, Mobius.  We made a terrible mistake.  We freed the Timeline.  We found him beyond the storm.  A Citadel at the End of Time.  He’s terrifying.  He planned everything.  He’s seen everything.  He knows everything.  It’s complicated, okay?  But someone is coming.  Countless different versions of a very dangerous person, and they’re all set on war.  We need to prepare.”

“Take it easy,” says Mobius, who clearly doesn’t recognize Loki or understand a word he’s saying.  “You’re an analyst, right?  What division are you from?  What’s your name?  Who are you?”

The realization that he’s likely in a whole other timeline from where he started begins to dawn on Loki, and when he looks where the giant statues of the Time-Keepers were, what he sees instead is a statue of He Who Remains.

Kang the Conqueror.

And…scene.  Roll credits.

Kang the Conqueror

____

This, that, and the other…

  • Though He Who Remains is never explicitly referred to as Kang the Conqueror, that’s exactly who he is.  The purple color scheme, the ‘ruler, conqueror’ line, the 31st century origin story, and the armor on the statue at the end of the episode…all of it points to Kang the Conqueror.
Avengers #8 (Sep 1964), by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Dick Ayers. First appearance of Kang the Conqueror.
  • Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Kang’s first comics appearance was Avengers #8, Sep 1964.  Maybe.  In the comics, there’s plenty of evidence that different people — Immortus, the Scarlet Centurion, Rama-Tut — are all Kang at different points in time.  Oh, and he’s probably related to Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four, and maybe to Doctor Doom as well.  It is, as Loki says at the end of this episode, complicated.  Jonathan Majors gives Kang a cheerful eccentricity that’s not found in the comics version of the character, where he’s more like a futuristic Genghis Khan with a time machine.
  • In addition to Lee and Kirby, Kang’s origin story in Loki borrows from several other sources in the comics.  The main ones are Steve Englehart’s[2]If his name sounds familiar, Steve Englehart was the writer who put the Vision and the Scarlet Witch together.  He’s also the fellow who wrote the Secret Empire stories in Captain America, … Continue reading Kang stories in Avengers #129 – 135, Giant-Size #2 – 4 (Nov 1974 – Jun 1975); Roger Stern, John Buscema, and Tom Palmer’s Council of Kangs story in Avengers #267 – 269 (May – Jul 1986); and Kurt Busiek and various artists’ Avengers #41 – 55 (Jun 2001 – Aug 2002), which features Kang doing some legit conquerering and culminates in a straight-up ass-whupping courtesy of Captain America.  Finally, Jonathan Hickman toyed with the idea of a council of variants getting together to share ideas and solve problems, though he did it with Reed Richards in Fantastic Four #570 – 611 (Oct 2009 – Dec 2012). 
  • Though I haven’t seen it mentioned or alluded to anywhere, this final episode of Loki put me in mind of the conclusion of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, in which another pair of heroes are put in a kind of moral checkmate by an all-seeing, all-knowing villain who makes his home in a distant citadel.  Like Loki, Watchmen too deals with matters of time (though not, we should note, time travel or alternate timelines).  One of the reasons that Watchmen‘s treatment of time works is because clear, concise rules are laid out for the reader.  That’s not the case with Loki, where the nature of time and how it works remains fuzzy from beginning to end.

And that’s that it for Loki.  As always, hit me up with your questions, comments, death threats, insults, and suggestions.  Anything you’d like to see dealt with in future installments of Opposite of Cool?  Let me know!

References

References
1 Given everything that’s happened in this country since 2016, I got a bitter little chuckle out of that one.
2 If his name sounds familiar, Steve Englehart was the writer who put the Vision and the Scarlet Witch together.  He’s also the fellow who wrote the Secret Empire stories in Captain America, providing the tone and broad subject matter that would inform Captain America:  Winter Soldier over four decades later.  And if all that weren’t enough, Englehart also co-created Shang-Chi, the Master of Kung Fu, with Jim Starlin, the creator of Thanos.  The MCU owes a tremendous debt to the works of Steve Englehart, to put it mildly.
Categories
Marvel

Loki, Ep 5: Journey into Mystery

Our episode-by-episode examination of Loki continues, served up with a side of spicy spoilers topped with a hot ‘n unholy scoop of more spoilers.  Beware!

What are we doing here?

Had you taken yourself to a comic book store to find some Loki-related material on the day that the fifth episode of Loki was released, the most recent comic you’d have found featuring the God of Mischief would’ve been Mighty Valkyries #3 (Aug 2021).  Released three weeks before, it was written by Jason Aaron and Torunn Gronbekk, with art by Mattia De Iulis, Erica D’Urso, and Marcio Menyz.  In that book, you’d have found Loki enmeshed in a scheme cooked up by Karnilla, former Queen of the Norns and current co-Queen of the Dead, to create new life — new gods — down in Hel.  Oh, those tricky Norns!

Now, the Land of the Dead in Norse mythology isn’t necessarily a place of punishment, but neither is it a place anyone would expect to see the birth of new lifeforms.  Karnilla involved Loki because her scheme necessitated items she couldn’t procure on her own, in return for items Loki desired.  Loki is getting the better of the deal, because that’s what he does, but he and Karnilla aren’t the only ones with schemes afoot.  The other co-Queen of Hel, Hela herself, is playing a game of her own, and no one’s plot is as of yet understood or seen clearly by anyone else.

Mighty Valkyries #3, Aug 2021, by Jason Aaron, Torunn Gronbekk, Mattia De Iulis, Erica D’Urso, and Marcio Menyz.

I bring all this up because this issue of Mighty Valkyries has precisely the elements that Loki, the show, is missing.  It has mythic grandeur and breathtakingly high stakes, with overlapping schemes put into motion by brilliant players at considerable peril to their continued well-being.  This is a mythos where one might well end up tied to a rock by the entrails of one’s children while a snake drips venom on their face for all eternity.  There’s nothing small or trifling about any of it.  These aren’t human schemes; these are the games of gods.  Lying, treacherous, backstabbing gods up to no good, sure…but gods all the same.  For Karnilla and Hela, their schemes are designed to produce some desired end, but for Loki, the scheme itself is probably the point.  You’ll forgive the tautology (I hope), but Loki plays games of duplicity because he’s a God of Duplicitous Games.  Doing so serves both nature and function.  As Mighty Valkyries says of Loki:  …if he sees an opportunity, he will seize it.

All of which might lead us to wonder, being the God of Mischief, does Loki have the agency to not do mischief?  Does he have any real say in the service of his nature and function?  Is he capable of change, or is his course set in stone?  (The myths would argue for the latter.)  All good questions, and taken together, they might have provided the foundation for a smart and interesting show, with something to say about the nature of fate and personal identity.

Alas, for the most part, that’s some other show.  Loki nibbles around at the edges of this concept of defying one’s own nature and destiny, but its default tone is breezy light comedy and unearned sentimentality.  It’s more or less a sitcom.  Loki Can Wait, say, or Everybody Hates Loki.  Problem is, the show wants to be all things all ways at once.  It wants to be funny and it wants to pack emotional punch, but it doesn’t have the wit or the insight to provide either quality.  Loki never fully commits to its own bit.

So…what are we doing here?

When last we saw Loki, it looked like he was being ‘pruned,’ i.e. disintegrated, by Ravonna…but it turns out, instead of being dead, he was transported, skinny tie and all, to a place at the end of time called the Void.  The Void is primarily populated by variant versions of Loki who’ve been pruned by the TVA, along with a giant smoky dog-looking monster called Alioth, ‘a living tempest that consumes matter and energy.’  According to Kid Loki, one of the variants that Loki meets (there’s also a ‘classic’ Loki, a hammer-wielding Loki, and a little alligator Loki), the Void is where the TVA “dumps its rubbish,” by which he means all the stuff that gets pruned or ‘reset.’  Hammer Loki says entire branched realities sent to the Void are devoured instantly.  Classic Loki puts it more succinctly:  “We’re in a shark tank.  Alioth is the shark.”

Alioth

Back at the TVA, following the revelation that the Time Keepers are actually androids, Sylvie and Ravonna have moved their discussion from the Time Keepers’ chamber to the TVA’s courtroom.  It was probably hard to concentrate in the chamber, what with all the mist and that weird robot head laying on the ground.  Ravonna says she doesn’t know who’s at the top of the TVA, but good news, Loki’s probably still alive.  When a branched reality is pruned, she says, it isn’t so much destroyed as it’s transferred to the Void, “a place on the timeline where it won’t continue growing.”

Ravonna claims that she wants to find out who’s running the TVA just as bad as Sylvie does, adding with a completely straight face, “I can help you if you trust me.”  Because, sure, why wouldn’t Sylvie trust the woman who kidnapped her as a child, erased her entire reality, hunted her for decades, and disintegrated her boyfriend not five minutes ago?  Makes total sense to me, or at least as much sense as anything else that goes on in this episode.

Sylvie reasons that whoever runs the TVA must be beyond the Void at the end of time.  I don’t know why they couldn’t just as well be sitting in an office or a penthouse suite somewhere in this massive TVA city that would take several lifetimes to search, but it’s probably simpler to just go with beyond the Void at the end of time.  Ravonna says there’s no way to get beyond the Void; there’s no destination for their instruments to lock on to, and going through it is suicidal.  “Then I guess my need for you has passed,” says Sylvie.

Alarmed by the implied threat, Ravonna and Miss Minutes successfully stall for time with a bullshit Void spaceship story.  You might have assumed that it’d be difficult to put a convincing lie past a Goddess of Lies and Mischief, but apparently not.  The ruse allows Ravonna’s goon squad enough time to rescue her.  Sylvie pushes Ravonna aside, stealing her TemPad as the goons rush in, and then ‘prunes’ herself, to Ravonna’s astonishment.  Disintegrating yourself on the assumption that everything your mortal enemy has told you is true is a bold move, I’ll give it that.

Convening in their decrepit bowling alley hideout, the council of variant Lokis trade tales of woe and ancient history.  Much to our Loki’s dismay, the Lokis of the Void all agree that escape is impossible, and that any such attempt will end with violent death.  Loki tells them about Sylvie and her quest to take down the TVA, and concludes without plan or evidence that the way to escape the Void is by killing Alioth:  “If it lives, it dies!”

The bowling alley court of young King Loki.

Loki is determined to go it alone if need be, but before he can make his exit from the bowling alley, he’s met by a hostile invading force of yet more Lokis, around a dozen in number.  Apparently, Kid Loki is the king of…something — the bowling alley? — and Hammer Loki has betrayed him to the leader of the invaders in a move to take the throne for himself.  Naturally, near everyone involved is double-crossing near everyone else, and a general melee breaks out that would not be at all out of place on Adam West’s old Batman television series.  All that’s missing are the BAM’s and the POW’s, and again, gentle reader, what are we doing here?

Meanwhile, reconstituted in the Void following her disintegration at the TVA, Sylvie nearly falls victim to Alioth.  She’s saved by the timely arrival of Mobius driving a pizza delivery car.  While running from Alioth, Sylvie reaches out with her enchantment ability and has a brief vision of space and a castle.  Hmm.

Having made their escape from the bowling alley thanks to Classic Loki’s magic, Classic, Kid, Alligator, and our Loki wander the countryside, lamenting the treacherous aspects of their essential natures.  “We cut the throat of every person who trusts us, and for what?” says Classic Loki.  “We cannot change.  We’re broken.  Every version of us, forever.”

“And whenever one of us dares try to fix themselves, they’re sent here to die!” cries Kid Loki.

Our Loki says that’s why he needs to escape the Void; because nothing can change unless the TVA is stopped.  “And you trust her?” says Classic, asking about Sylvie.

“She’s the only one I do trust,” says Loki, adding that he believes Sylvie offers the only chance of stopping the TVA.  Never mind that Sylvie is nowhere in evidence, and Loki has no way to contact her and no reason to believe that she’s anywhere nearby.

Classic Loki agrees to help, but balks at approaching Alioth, which he says is a death sentence.  “We’ll get you to it, but that’s as far as we go.”

When asked about how he plans to kill Alioth, Loki says, “Get inside, find its heart or brain or whatever, and then, you know…do it in.”  Inspiring plans for inspiring times.

After watching Alioth devour a warship (the USS Eldridge, of Philadelphia Experiment fame!), the Lokis are reconsidering their plans when Mobius and Sylvie drive up in the pizza delivery car.  Reunited at last, Sylvie provides an upgrade to the ‘kill Alioth’ scheme:  enchant it.  As Sylvie puts it, enchanting Alioth makes at least as much sense as attempting to paper-cut a giant smoke monster to death.

Back at the TVA, Ravonna interrogates the captive Hunter B-15.  It’s another of this show’s investigations that doesn’t tell anyone anything they didn’t already know.  Hunter B-15 tells Ravonna that Sylvie’s aim is revenge and that Sylvie intends to kill whoever’s at the top of the TVA food chain.  Ravonna will never find Sylvie before Sylvie finds whoever’s running the TVA.  Why?  Because Ravonna only wants it; Sylvie needs it, and oh my goodness, but that’s a bad line.

Side-note:  Why does the TVA bother with turning Variants into thugs (and how do they do it, while we’re on the subject)?  It’s not like there’s any shortage of volunteers who’d be more than willing to dress up like stormtroopers and travel through time disintegrating people and things.  It seems like any petty sadist who’s reasonably physically fit would do, no brainwashing necessary.

In the Void, it’s the quiet before the storm.  A little echo of Saving Private Ryan (1998).  Mobius says that he intends to go back to the TVA and tell people the truth, though I’m curious who he intends to tell and why he thinks they’d believe him.  Loki and Sylvie share their own moment on a wind-swept hilltop.  (Loki conjures a shared blanket for the two of them, and Sylvie complains that “it’s not very snuggly.”  Honestly, if we’re going the sitcom route anyway, I could’ve done with a lot less TVA and a lot more charming romance.  With their posh diction and hesitant courtship, the natural home for these characters isn’t this super-hero bullshit; they’re better suited to Richard Curtis vehicles like Four Weddings and a Funeral or Notting Hill.)  Sylvie worries that she won’t be able to trust Loki not to betray her ‘in the final moments.’  Loki says that’s not who he is anymore.  Just two Gods of Mischief, sitting on a hill, talking about trust.  Neither of them know what’s next, but should they succeed in toppling the TVA, Loki suggests that perhaps they could find out together.

Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino): “It’s not very snuggly.”

Quiet time over, the Lokis and Mobius stand on a height, observing Alioth’s approach (descent?) over a vast plain of ruined debris from across time and space.  Mobius asks what the next move is, and Sylvie offers up a neat (if obvious) bit of exposition, just in case anyone wasn’t paying attention:  “The TVA needs to be brought down.  We don’t know who created it or where they are, but that thing out there does.  When it hit me earlier, I linked to it.  It was brief, but I caught a glimpse of something, and I think if I can get close enough to it, I can enchant it, and it’s gonna take me to whoever’s behind all this.”  Helpful.  She hands Loki the TemPad she took from Ravonna, giving him a chance to escape the Void, but he insists on staying.  Where Sylvie goes, he goes.  Loki hands the TemPad to Mobius, who offers to take Classic, Alligator, and Kid Loki with him, but they refuse (“This is our home!”).  Weird.

Exit Mobius.  Loki and Sylvie head down to the plain to put their plan into motion, and it appears to be going horribly wrong before they’re saved by the timely intervention of Classic Loki, who uses his magic to conjure up a version of Asgard to distract Alioth.  He pays for it, bravely, with his life, but the distraction works:  with Loki’s help, Sylvie manages to finally enchant Alioth, and the mists part to reveal the space and fortress of her earlier vision.

There’s not a lot in this episode that I think works, but this moment, when Alioth is finally enchanted and taken over, does the trick.  Note again, as with the conclusion of episode 3, how music and sound editing play their part in adding to the momentum and payoff of what’s happening.  Add the use of color — all that green! — and we’re given an effective conclusion to the episode.  Nice work.

____

Trivia:

  • The episode’s title comes from the comic in which Thor and Loki first appeared, Journey into Mystery, which ran from 1952 – 1966, when it became Thor.  Thor first appeared in Journey into Mystery #83 (Aug 1962), Loki in JiM #85 (Oct 1962).
  • The first appearance of Alioth was Avengers:  The Terminatrix Objective #1(Jul 1993), by Mark Gruenwald and Mike Gustovich.  The Alioth of the comics is less monstrous and more sentient than the show’s Alioth, and not anyone or anything’s servant.
  • We’re past due mentioning it, but Ravonna’s first appearance was Avengers #23 (Dec 1965), by Stan Lee, Don Heck, and John Romita.  The comic and show versions don’t seem to share much more than a name; that said, the comics’ Ravonna has a tie to Kang the Conqueror, time traveling bad-ass, so it’s possible the show version will too.
Spidey Super Stories #39, Mar 1979
  • The helicopter with Thanos’ name on it outside the Lokis’ secret lair is an in-joke, taken from Spidey Super Stories #39 (Mar 1979).  The series was non-canonical, produced by Marvel and the Children’s Television Workshop for younger readers.
  • We see a Mjolnir buried underground above the secret lair, and yes, that’s a frog Thor in a jar, and no, that jar would not even sort of be enough to hold him.  Thor was turned into a frog in Thor #363 (Jan 1986), story and art by Walt Simonson.  He was restored to his proper form — obviously — but another former human turned frog now holds the mantle.  He’s known colloquially as Throg.  Seriously.  His hammer is a tiny sliver of Mjolnir.  The movement and detail in the shot itself puts me in mind of Wes Anderson; The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), say, or Isle of Dogs (2018).
Vote Loki #1, Aug 2016, by Christopher Hastings and Langdon Foss. Cover by Tradd Moore and Matthew Wilson.
  • The comic that inspired the Vote Loki variant who invades the bowling alley was inspired, logically enough, by Vote Loki (2016), a satire by Christopher Hastings and Langdon Foss.  Loki runs for President!
  • There are a few time travelers and would-be masters of Limbo in the Marvel Universe.  The general weirdness and lack of high-tech armies or demons surrounding the Palace Beyond the Void of Time argues for Immortus, though that’d be a pretty deep cut.  Immortus has a convoluted history, and may or may not be any number of other characters at different points in time.  Immortus’ first appearance proper was Avengers #10 (Nov 1964), by Stan Lee, Don Heck, and Dick Ayers.

That’s it.  We’re on to the final episode!  As always, please let  me know about any questions, comments, or quests for revenge!

Categories
Marvel

Loki, Ep. 4: The Nexus Event

Welcome to our continuing episode-by-episode examination of Loki.  As always, there are spoilers ahead.

Writing Opposite of Cool is a weird mix of love and assessment, investment and detachment.  It usually involves an attempt to accurately view a given thing while standing eyeball-deep in the middle of it.  Film adaptations need to be assessed on their own merits, but when it comes to Marvel, my own intimate familiarity with the source material makes comparison between print and film versions unavoidable.  I’m almost always fighting the urge to deal with the show I wish I was watching instead of the show in front of me.  It’s possible I’d like Loki a lot more if I were coming at it without any prior knowledge…though let’s allow that without prior knowledge, I probably wouldn’t be watching it in the first place.

I have a friend who started watching Loki before I did, while I was still toiling away on Falcon and the Winter Soldier.  Like a lot of people who watch these Marvel movies and shows, she doesn’t read comics.  She had questions.

kelly kapoor how dare you gif | WiffleGif

The first was, Should it even be possible for a mortal agency like the TVA to capture a god like Loki?  I’m not sure the TVA quite qualifies as a mortal agency, but sure, I think it’d be possible to capture this particular god if he didn’t see his captors coming and / or he fatally underestimated their capabilities.  Essentially, they could do it if they surprised him and got lucky.  But understand, capturing Loki wouldn’t be the problem; it’s keeping him that would prove the real difficulty.

The second question was, How could the TVA design technology sufficient to thwart Loki’s powers?  This is kind of tricky.  In the comics, at least, the only real ‘powers’ possessed by Loki are those native to his species.[1]In the Norse myths, Loki does a great deal of shape-shifting, changing into birds and fish and the like.  There’s a lot of shape-shifting in general among the figures of Norse … Continue reading  As the child of frost giants, Loki is untouched by frost and cold.  Like his Asgardian cousins, he is immortal,[2]Technically, the Asgardians aren’t immortal, they’re just extremely long-lived; they eat golden apples to extend their life-span.  Seriously!  See Neil Gaiman’s ‘The … Continue reading and immune to all earthly ailment.  By human standards, Loki is immensely strong and durable, but he’s physically normal (at best) by Asgardian or frost giant standards.  His strength and durability are less powers, in other words, than they are just traits of his species.  Where Loki ruins the curve is his intelligence and knowledge of sorcery.  I can buy that magic wouldn’t work in the halls of the TVA, but Loki’s real ‘power’ lies in how clever and charismatic and shockingly unburdened by decency he is.  He’s the God of Trickery, the ultimate master of scams and schemes and confidence games.  He practically invented lying, and what he didn’t invent, he most certainly perfected.  So unless the TVA utilized something that could affect Loki’s mind, I wouldn’t hold out much hope for keeping him in check.

The third question — the one to which all the other questions were really leading — was What is a god, anyway?  

And that…that’s a goddamn good question.

If I’m not mistaken, the official line from the MCU is that the gods of Asgard aren’t gods aren’t all, but are instead some species of jumped-up alien.  In Thor:  The Dark World (2013), Odin (Anthony Hopkins) bluntly states:  “We are not gods.  We’re born.  We live.  We die.  Just as humans do.”  I’ve speculated at length in earlier entries of Opposite of Cool as to why Marvel Studios elected to go this route, so I won’t rehash it here; but suffice to say that this relegation of Asgard to the realms of the mundane is drastically different from the comics.  The Aesir of the comics aren’t simply more powerful and longer-lived than their human counterparts; they exist on a different plane altogether, elevated not just in prowess, but also in their concerns and outlook.  Everything about them is different.

It may be easier for us to describe the gods by what they’re not:  not human, not normal, not mundane.  They’re something else.  Something other.

If we can skim the surface of theology for a moment — and if you’ll pardon the blasphemous pretension that we can possibly gain some clarity about pagan figures of myth from the Bible — there’s an idea about holiness that I believe I ran across in Robert Alter’s translation of the Hebrew Bible.[3]Specifically, The Five Books of Moses — Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  I was unable to find evidence of the specific idea I was searching for there;. I was, however, able to find some echoes of it at Christianity.com in an article entitled ‘What is Holiness?  How Can We Be Holy?’:

Holiness is a word that can make us feel uneasy.  It seems lofty, threatening, alien.  We instinctively sense that God’s holiness has dangerous overtones.

and

The Hebrew word for “holiness” is qōdes, a word that highlights the realm of the sacred in contrast to everything common and profane. The adjective qādôš, “holy,” refers to God and what belongs to him.

Even more to the point, expounding on the same idea, there’s ‘Biblical Concepts of Holiness’ from The JPS Torah Commentary by Baruch A. Levine, which I found at MyJewishLearning.com:

Holiness is difficult to define or to describe; it is a mysterious quality.  Of what does holiness consist?  In the simplest terms, the “holy” is different from the profane or the ordinary.  It is “other,” as the phenomologists define it.  The “holy” is also powerful or numinous.  The presence of holiness may inspire awe, or strike fear, evoke amazement.

For most of the people reading this, the word holiness denotes a quality of moral purity…but that’s a later gloss.  The meaning that we’re dealing with for our purposes is as Professor Levine defines it:  a state of being that encompasses the sacred, indescribable qualities associated with God, distinct from the everyday profane world of matter.

Odin, All-Father of Asgard, from Journey into Mystery #123, Dec 1965, by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Vince Colletta.

The idea of beings who live their immortal lives on an elevated plane fundamentally alien to mortal men runs all through Thor creator (adaptor?) Jack Kirby’s work.  Kirby also created the Eternals (adapted for yet another Marvel film slated for release in November 2021), and Galactus and the Silver Surfer, as well as the New Gods for DC.  All of these characters are bigger than life — small wasn’t in Jack Kirby’s vocabulary.  Anthony Hopkins may have elected to play Odin “like a human being,”[4]Hopkins:  “I just play Odin like a human being, with maybe a little more dimension.  I grow a beard, look hopefully impressive, and keep it as real as possible.”  From the … Continue reading but in Kirby’s hands, Odin is a near-omnipotent pillar of creation, the All-Father of Asgard:  massive, regal, and all-powerful.  There’s nothing even sort of ‘normal’ about him.

The gods even speak differently, with Thor co-creator Stan Lee employing a sort of King James / Shakespeare-lite style of archaic English for the immortals.[5]As with all things Stan Lee, I suspect he employed this device with one foot in sincerity and the other in parody.  Realistically, it makes no sense at all for Norse and Greek gods to speak in this majestic, highly stylized English, but A) realism was never the point, and B) the practice winds up serving the same function that having nobles speak in poetry and commoners speak prose serves in Shakespeare:  it sets the gods apart.  Even their speech is elevated.

The elevated high English of the Gods of Olympus, from Thor #129, Jun 1966, by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Vince Colletta.

What is a god, anyway?  The answer:  not us.

Which leaves our God of Mischief (and us, watching him) in kind of a weird place.  Because while Loki often refers to himself as a god in this series, he’s consistently portrayed as a more or less ordinary dude.  There’s none of the majesty or grandeur we find in the comics; certainly nothing different from the profane or ordinary.  Instead of awe and fear and wonder, there’s this lusterless space filled with whatever Marvel Studios is aiming for with this character:   slapstick combo w/ medium diet rom-com, hold the gravitas.

Our episode opens in Asgard…but not the Asgard with which we’re familiar.  This is the Asgard of Sylvie’s past.  She’s a little girl, playing with miniature dragon figures and a toy longship when a TVA dimension door opens.  In strides Hunter A-23 — the once and future Ravonna — and three TVA goons.  “There’s our Variant,” says Ravonna.  “On the authority of the Time Keepers, I hereby arrest you for crimes against the Sacred Timeline.”  The TVA apprehend the girl and hustle her through the door, leaving a reset charge behind.

Young Sylvie is put through the same TVA process we saw Loki put through in episode 1.  She’s brought before the judge, but instead of an intervening Mobius, Sylvie makes her own luck.  She bites Ravonna, stamps hard on her foot, and steals her TemPad.  Before anyone can do much of anything other than make eye contact with her — you get the feeling faces are being burned into memory — Sylvie has opened up her own dimension door and disappeared through it.

Ravonna recollects all this in the present, before gathering herself to appear before the Time Keepers in their ever-so-misty throne room.  We’re not privy to Ravonna’s conversation with the Time Keepers, but we see her exit from the chamber, looking upset.  Mobius asks if she’s okay.  She says she’s not; appearing before the Time Keepers is a jarring experience in the best of circumstances, and these are not the best of circumstances.

“But they can’t blame you,” says Mobius.

“They can, and they do,” says Ravonna.  She points out that one dangerous variant nearly breached the chamber with the Time Keepers before escaping with another variant that Ravonna herself gave permission to Mobius to keep around.  No bueno.

Mobius concedes the point, and the difficulty of keeping the Sacred Timeline stable, but says if the Time Keepers want him to find Loki and Sylvie, he needs access to Hunter C-20.

Ravonna says access is impossible.

“Look,” says Mobius, “when we found her, she kept saying, ‘It’s real, it’s real.’  Over and over.  I need to find out what that meant, and what else she saw when she was with the Variant.”

Ravonna tells Mobius that C-20 is dead.  Mobius is surprised, says he doesn’t get it.  C-20 seemed fine when last he saw her.  Ravonna tells him C-20’s decline after her rescue was steep, and that nobody knows about her death; they don’t want people to panic.

“Every moment those variants are out there, we’re all in danger,” Ravonna tells him.  “Find them.”

Back on Lamentis, Loki has found Sylvie, who’s chosen a quiet(er) spot away from the main city to watch the end of the world.

“I’m sorry,” he says, sitting next to her.

“I remember Asgard,” Sylvie tells Loki.  “Not much, but I remember.    My home, my people, my life.  The universe wants to break free, so it manifests chaos.  Like me being born the Goddess of Mischief.  And as soon as that created a big enough detour from the Sacred Timeline, the TVA showed up, erased my reality, took me prisoner.”

I was under the impression that the TVA reset charges only affected offending objects and people within a given vicinity.  That’s how we’ve seen them work up to this point, so I’m not sure what to think about Sylvie’s statement.  It’s possible she’s just mistaken, though you wouldn’t think she’d still be laboring under any misconceptions on this score.  She’s had ample opportunity to test and observe the effects of the TVA’s reset charges; she may well know more about what they can and can’t do than the Hunters who usually carry them.  She might be lying, though that seems unlikely; I can’t think of any character in the MCU who’s ever lied without making it transparently obvious that they were doing so, and in any case, there wouldn’t seem to be much point to lying in this particular time and circumstance.  So Sylvie may know something we don’t, or it may be that the showrunners are playing fast and loose with the effects of the reset charges.  In the comics at least, the TVA doesn’t have the power to just up and erase whole swathes of reality.  Do they have that power in this show?  Who knows?

Sylvie relates her escape from the TVA as a child, and how she ran for a long time.  “Everywhere and everywhen I went caused a Nexus Event, sent up a smoke flare.  Because I’m not supposed to exist.  Until eventually I figured out where to hide.  And so that’s where I grew up.  At the ends of a thousand worlds.  And now…that’s where I’ll die.”

Credit where it’s due:  the special effects of the dying planet in the purple sky above Lamentis is spectacular, awesome in scale and scope.  They did a really good job here.

Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) prepare for the end on Lamentis.

Loki and Sylvie reach for one another, one last fleeting connection at the end of the world…and back at the TVA, a red line on a monitor begins branching from the main timeline.  The two Lokis are but moments from dying along with Lamentis when they’re found and rescued / apprehended by the TVA.

I’ve got questions.  While I really like the idea of love and kindness and comfort between two versions of the same God of Mischief causing a major Nexus Event, I’m curious as to how this works.  I thought the whole point of hiding in an apocalypse was that nothing one did would matter, because there’s no possible change to the timeline (and again, this is less objection on my part than just curiosity).  Along the same lines, if you’re the TVA, why not just let the two Lokis perish on Lamentis?  Problem solved.  I could buy the idea the TVA has to know what caused the Nexus Event, or that the independent Mobius saves Loki and Sylvie for reasons of his own, but we’re not given much indication one way or the other.  As always with the MCU, it’s hard to discern the purposeful from the overlooked or simply mishandled.

Loki and Sylvie are separated at the TVA, each taken to a different chamber.  Mobius accompanies Loki, the pair hurling recriminations at each other; there are evidently some hurt feelings here.  Before Loki is forced through yet another dimension door — this one, as we’ll soon see, a punishing time loop — Loki tells Mobius that the TVA is lying to him.

The pocket dimension Loki is forced into is a small sliver of Asgard.  While he’s getting his bearings, an angry Sif (Jaime Alexander) enters stage right, holding a lock of her own (badly) cut hair.[6]You can read the mythic version of how Loki cut off Sif’s hair in Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology, ‘The Treasures of the Gods.’  She’s very angry, and has every right to be.  She calls him a conniving, craven, pathetic worm, and gives him a convincing smack across the face.  “I hope you know you deserve to be alone and you always will be,” she tells him.  He’s protesting against the efficacy of the TVA’s punishment when she gives him a brutal knee to the crotch and then punches him before storming off.  Ouch.  No problem, says Loki; when this happened in real life, he picked himself up, took a nice hot bath, had a glass of wine, and never thought about any of it again.  He’s quickly disabused of that option, as every 20 seconds or so after one encounter ends, another angry Sif appears, saying the same words and going through the same actions.  Again…ouch.

Meanwhile, back in what passes for reality at the TVA, Mobius pays a visit to Ravonna’s office, requesting to interview Sylvie while Loki ‘marinates’ in the Time Cell.  Ravonna tells him to just stick with his Loki and figure out what caused the Nexus spike.  Nobody gets to speak with Sylvie; she’s just too dangerous.

Mobius runs across Hunter B-15 in the halls outside Ravonna’s office.  She asks if Loki said anything to Mobius, and Mobius tells her that Loki said the TVA was lying to him.  Something in that answer seems to click with B-15, who’s even more tightly wound than usual, but she doesn’t share her concerns with Mobius.

In the Time Cell, Loki admits to yet another angry version of Sif that he knows he’s a horrible person.  He’s a narcissist who craves attention and is scared of being alone.  Sif foregoes the knee to the nuts and the punch in the face this time around, but delivers the more devastating blow:  “You are alone and you always will be.”  It’s like a curse.

Mobius retrieves Loki from the Time Cell, and begins asking him about Sylvie.  A curious feature about Loki:  so far, the heart of every episode has been a two-party conversation.  It was Mobius’ interrogation of Loki in the first episode, their conversation in the cafeteria in the second episode, Loki and Sylvie on the train in the third episode, and now this scene.

“So you’re, what?  Partners?” asks Mobius.

“Absolutely not,” says Loki.  “She’s difficult and irritating, and she tries to hit me all the time.  No.  Not partners, no.”

“Yeah, I guess you don’t do partners…unless, of course, it benefits you and you intend to betray them at some point.”

“It was a means to an end, Mobius.  Welcome to the real world.  Down there, we’re awful to one another to get what we want.”

“Now I gotta have a prince tell me how the real world works?  Why don’t you just tell me what caused the Nexus Event on Lamentis?”

Loki has neither the desire nor much incentive to tell Mobius anything of the sort…until Mobius plays the Sif / Time Cell card.  Loki gives Mobius a transparent tale of purest bullshit, about how he and Sylvie have been partners from the start.  The plan is proceeding nicely, and that when Sylvie has played her part, Loki will dispose of her.

“Well, we saved you the trouble there,” says Mobius.  “She’s already been pruned.”  Mobius tells Loki his own tall tale of B-15 eliminating Sylvie.

“Good riddance,” says Loki, struggling to maintain a poker face.

Mobius laughs.  “Look at your eyes.  You like her.  Does she like you?”

“Was she pruned?”

“I mean, no wonder you have no clue what caused the Nexus Event on Lamentis.  Both of you are just swooning over each other…”

“Mobius, tell me the truth…”

“It’s the apocalypse.  Two variants of the same being, especially you, forming this kind of sick, twisted romantic relationship.  That’s pure chaos.  That could break reality.  It’s breaking my reality right now.  What a [sic] incredible seismic narcissist.  You fell for yourself.”

“Her name was Sylvie.”

“Ah.  Sylvie.  Lovely.  How do you spell that?  Is that with an I-E or just an I?”

“Is she alive?” Loki shouts.

“For now,” says Mobius.

Loki sighs with relief.  “Mobius, listen, if what Sylvie told me about this place is true, it affects all of us.  You’re all variants.  Everyone who works at the TVA.  The Time Keepers didn’t create you.  They kidnapped you from the timeline and erased your memories.  Memories she can access through enchantment.  So before this, you had a past.  Maybe you had a family, a life.”

There’s a long silence.  “Nice try,” says Mobius, but you can see the words have hit home.  “That was good.  You two…what a pair!  Gosh!  Unbelievable.  Wherever you go, it’s just death, destruction, the literal ends of worlds!  Well, I’m gonna have to close this case now, ’cause I don’t need you anymore.  Yeah, or as you might say, our interests are no longer aligned.”

Two guards enter to push Loki into the Time Cell again.  “You know,” says Loki, “of all the liars in this place — and there are a great many — you’re the biggest.”

“Why?  ‘Cause I lied about your girlfriend?”

“Oh, no.  That I can respect.  I mean the lies you tell yourself.”

It’s a well-written scene, so far as it goes — all these ‘heart of the episode’ scenes have been good, at least on the surface.  My problem here is that we’ve got a trickster god who only ever seems to be the victim of tricks, who can’t seem to tell a decent lie to save his life (literally, in this case).  Virtually every single time we’ve ever seen Loki in the MCU, someone’s gotten over on him.  The Black Widow, Tony Stark, the Hulk, dark elves, Sylvie, and now Mobius.  In every case, Loki’s been revealed as a chump; a stumbling, gullible mark who’s too busy sneering about his own superiority to even notice that he’s getting fleeced.  Mobius is able to both lie at will and see right through any lie told to him by the God of Lies.  Loki should be the best liar, bar none, mortal or immortal, to ever draw breath.  It should be all but impossible to detect his lies, or to put a lie past him.  And Loki, of all people, getting indignant over the sanctity of the truth at the end of this scene?  Again:  what are we doing here?

Following her enchantment at the hands of Sylvie back in episode 2, we find Hunter B-15 is increasingly shaken over what I presume are the resurgent memories of her old, pre-TVA life.  She grants herself an audience with the captive Sylvie.  “Come with me,” B-15 tells her, opening a dimension door and disappearing through it.  An intrigued Sylvie follows her through.

Mobius (Owen Wilson) and Ravonna (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).

Meanwhile, in Ravonna’s office, she and Mobius are having a quiet drink, celebrating what looks like the end of the Variant Loki case.

“If you could go anywhere, anytime, where would it be?” asks Ravonna.

“I can go anywhere, anytime.”

“You know what I mean.”

A long pause, then Mobius says, “Why wouldn’t you let me interrogate Sylvie?”

Ravonna says she couldn’t take the chance on Sylvie escaping.  Mobius tells her Sylvie wouldn’t have escaped.  Ravonna points out that Loki escaped during Mobius’s first interview, and presses again for where Mobius would go given all of time and space from which to choose.

“I like being here now, with you, doing the work,” says Mobius.  Maybe Mobius is a Loki variant.  He’s certainly better at being Loki-like than Loki is.

“Fine,” says Ravonna.  “I received word from the Time Keepers.  They want to personally oversee the variants’ pruning, and they want you there too.”  Certainly nothing ominous about that.

“It’s about time,” says Mobius.  “Great.”  Another pause.  “When did you first notice what was going on with C-20?”

Ravonna does a whole lot of deflecting.  C-20 was fine, and then she wasn’t.  That’s the story.  “C-20, the Variant…all these questions.  What are you getting at?”

Mobius says he doesn’t know, just that something seems a little off.  Let’s recognize again that Owen Wilson has an inordinate gift for sounding like he means something other than what he’s precisely saying.  He brings a deep ambivalence to every role I’ve ever seen him play, like all his characters suffer unresolvable internal conflicts about every situation they find themselves in.

Ravonna switches gears, tells Mobius the truth is that the Sylvie scares her, and she didn’t want to see anything happen to Mobius.  C-20 had lost her mind, wasn’t even able to form words at the end.  She just didn’t want to see that happen to Mobius.  She adds some more about friendship and the fight for the Sacred Timeline.  It’s a good speech, says Mobius.  He makes some noise of his own about being her favorite analyst, and when he asks where she’s going to put her latest trophy — Sylvie’s sword — he takes advantage of Ravonna’s distraction to pocket her TVA terminal, exchanging it for his own.

The dimension door Hunter B-15 and Sylvie step through leads back to the Roxxcart in Haven Hills.  B-15 asks Sylvie what she did to her.  Sylvie tells her that she showed B-15 her life before the TVA.  B-15 wants to believe it’s a trick, a deception, but no; Sylvie tells her she can’t create memories (though if she could, how would you ever know, and why would you have any reason to believe her one way or the other?).  B-15 asks Sylvie to show her.  Sylvie does.  “I looked happy,” says B-15, weeping.  I wish we could’ve seen some of these memories — I think it would’ve been more effective — but I guess we’ll have to take B-15’s word for it.

“What now?” asks B-15.  What now, gentle reader, is maybe we ask why Sylvie has killed upwards of two or three dozen TVA agents instead of un-enchanting them.  Even discounting the multiple murders, this memory restoration thing seems pretty effective, and had she played her cards right, Sylvie could’ve placed several of her own sleeper agents inside the TVA to devastating effect, or just had them accompany her on her Time Keeper assault.  All kinds of ways a proper Goddess of Mischief could’ve gotten her thing on.

Mobius has made his way to the TVA’s file section to take a surreptitious look at Ravonna’s terminal.  He finds a video file with a lucid and very much alive C-20 talking about her memories from before her time with the TVA — that’s what was real — and realizing that she, along with everyone else at the TVA, is a variant.  “I’m ending this,” says a woman’s voice.  The voice is revealed to belong to Ravonna, her face appearing in the video before it ends.

Realizing that everything he thought was true is a lie, Mobius’s next stop is the Time Cell to retrieve Loki.  He tells Loki that he thinks the Nexus Event that he and Sylvie caused could bring the whole TVA down.  Mobius asks Loki if he swears that Sylvie didn’t implant the memories in C-20.  Not that Loki would know any better than Mobius, but Loki says he believes Sylvie.  Mobius is rightly less than totally re-assured.  “So I just have to trust the word of two Lokis?”

“How about the word of a friend?” says Loki.  Good God.

“You were right about the TVA,” says Mobius.  “You were right from the beginning.  And if you want to save her, you need to trust me.  Can we do that?”

Mobius tells Loki he can be whoever and whatever he wants to be, even someone good.  I’m not sure that’s true — the very idea that gods and goddesses of mischief exist at all would strongly suggest otherwise — but it’s kind of Mobius to say so.

Ravonna and a squad of TVA thugs are waiting for Mobius and Loki when they emerge from the Time Cell.  “I think you have something of mine,” says Ravonna.

“You know where I’d go, if I could go anywhere?” Mobius says after handing the terminal back.  “Wherever it is I’m really from.  Yeah, wherever I had a life before the TVA came along.  Maybe I had a jet ski.  That’s what I’d like to do.  Just riding around on my jet ski.”

“Prune him,” says Ravonna, and her chief thug dials up his nightlight glowstick and does exactly that.  Mobius disintegrates in a nimbus of sparks and light.  The thugs march Loki off to the chamber of the Time Keepers.

Death (?) of Mobius (Owen Wilson).

Ravonna goes to retrieve Sylvie, who’s waiting patiently, her hair still wet from the rain at Haven Hills in 2050.  B-15 is nowhere in evidence.

“Who was in here with her?” asks Ravonna.  Told it was B-15, she orders an alert put out; B-15 too has been compromised by the Variant.

Sylvie’s marched out of her chamber, and joined with Loki outside the corridor to the elevator leading to the Time Keepers’ sanctum.  Riding in the elevator, Sylvie asks Ravonna, the former A-23, if she remembers her.

“I do,” says Ravonna.  “What do you want to say to me, Variant?”

“What was my Nexus Event?  Why did you bring me in?”

“What does it matter?”

“It was enough to take my life from me, lead to all of this.  It must’ve been important.  So what was it?”

“I don’t remember,” says Ravonna.  It’s as good a time as any to begin asking why Ravonna, who at the very least knows the full truth about the origin of the TVA’s agents, is so committed to the Time Keepers’ cause.

The elevator doors open, and Ravonna ushers Loki and Sylvie into the throne room of the Time Keepers…and sure enough, Loki wasn’t wrong; the Time Keepers do have a kind of funktastic space lizard thing going.  “Gracious Time Keepers,” announces Ravonna, “as promised:  the Variants.”

“After all your struggle,” says Space Lizard #1, “at last you’ve arrived before us.”

“What do you have to say for yourselves before you meet your end, Variants?” says Space Lizard #2.

“Is that the only reason you brought us here?” says Loki.  “To kill us?  I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve been killed, so go ahead.  Do your worst.”

“You and your bravado are no threat to us, Variant,” says Space Lizard #3.

Sylvie tells them she doesn’t think they believe that.  “I think you’re scared.”  She tries walking toward the Time Keepers, but Ravonna has her on the time loop leash.

Space Lizard #1 tells Sylvie she’s wrong, and nothing but a cosmic disappointment.  “Delete them,” he tells Ravonna.

Nothing left to say and nothing left to lose, Sylvie again starts making her way to the Time Keepers, only to be kept at bay by Ravonna and her time leash…at first.  Enter Hunter B-15 through the elevator behind Ravonna with her own time leash remote control, which she uses to dismantle Loki and Sylvie’s collars altogether.  “For all time,” says B-15.  “Always.”  She tosses Sylvie her sword, swiped from Ravonna’s office, and it’s on.  B-15 goes down early, so it’s Sylvie and Loki vs. four TVA space lizard bodyguards.  Sylvie, the better fighter, dispatches her two opponents early, and begins fighting with Ravonna.  She knocks out Ravonna with a punch to the face as Loki finally dispatches his opponents.

With no one still standing between them and Sylvie and Loki, the Time Keepers try stalling.  “You’re a child of the Time Keepers too, Sylvie,” says Space Lizard #1.  “We can talk.”

Sylvie thinks otherwise, and throws the sword Loki’s given back to her through the throat of Space Lizard #1, decapitating him.  The Time Keepers just laugh, and then shut down.  The head that rolls down the stairs to land at Loki’s feet is the head of a robot, still sparking where the sword went through the neck.

“Fake,” says Sylvie in wonder, picking the head up and examining it.  “Mindless androids.”

“It never stops,” says a tired, frustrated Loki.  “Then who created the TVA?”

“I thought this was it,” says Sylvie, throwing the robot head aside.

Given a moment to spare, when they’re not in mortal danger from time-traveling thugs or the end of the world, Loki tries to put words to his feelings.  “Sylvie, I have to tell you something.  We will figure this out.”

“How do you know that?”

“Because…back on Lamentis…this is new for me.  Um…”

“What?  What is it?” she says.  Loki touches her shoulders, drawing closer to her…but before he can say or do any more, he’s disintegrated, pruned from behind by a revived Ravonna.  Sylvie quickly disarms her and threatens her with the business end of the glowstick.

“You’re going to tell me,” says Sylvie.  “Everything,”

Cue credits to Brenda Lee’s ‘If You Love Me (Really Love Me).’  We need to give it up for whoever picked the music for these ending credits scenes, because they fucking nailed it.  I’m guessing Music Supervisor Dave Jordan…?  He has a long resume that includes most Marvel-related projects — including the Netflix projects — and about a hundred others besides.

But wait…!  There’s a post (mid?) credits scene!  An apparently not-dead or reduced to atoms Loki awakens to some ruined urban landscape.  “Am I dead?” he wonders aloud.

“Not yet,” says a voice, “but you will be if you don’t come with us.”

Loki sits up to see a quartet of figures studying him.  At least two of them are variant Lokis.  One — played by Richard Grant! — is a classic-looking Jack Kirby Loki.  Another looks to me like a version of Kid Loki.  The kid is holding a caiman — sort of a little alligator — sporting a little Loki helmet.  Not sure what’s up with that.  And there’s one more fellow wielding a hammer built out of what looks like a large wrench.  The hammer would argue for a Thor variant, but the look of him, what he’s wearing and holding, might argue for Phastos, an Eternal.  If so, that’d be another extremely deep cut for this show; Phastos is legit obscure.

I’ll admit, I’m intrigued.  Kid Loki and Richard Grant.  Who wouldn’t find that interesting?

____

But for the very end, not a lot of comic-related errata this go-round.

  • Kid Loki, a younger and somewhat better-intentioned incarnation of the trickster god, made his first appearance in Thor #617 (Jan 2011), courtesy of Matt Fraction and Pasqual Ferry.  Much of Loki’s character development since this point has involved Loki trying to find a way to gain a greater level of control over his own destiny.  If you’re the God of Mischief, Lies, and Tricks, is that all you’re allowed to be?  Or is it possible to be something more, to call your own shots and decide your own course?  The jury’s still out.
  • Phastos the Eternal is an inventor and weapons-maker.  He’s sort of the Tony Stark of the gods, if you will, minus the armor.  The Eternals are a race of god-like immortals, created by the enigmatic space-spanning Celestials.  Strange side-note:  in the comics, Thanos is an Eternal.  He’s from a different offshoot of Eternals than Phastos — a different branch of the family, if you will — but an Eternal all the same.  Phastos made his first appearance in Eternals #1 (Oct 1985) by Peter Gillis, Sal Buscema, and Al Gordon.
  • Nothing to do with comic books, but I couldn’t help noting the similarities between Loki and Sylvie’s fight in the Time Keepers’ throne room and Rey and Kylo Ren’s fight in another throne room from The Last Jedi (2017).

And there it is.  Fire away with any comments, questions, or corrections.  We’ll see you next episode!

References

References
1 In the Norse myths, Loki does a great deal of shape-shifting, changing into birds and fish and the like.  There’s a lot of shape-shifting in general among the figures of Norse mythology.  For our purposes, I’m largely restricting my explanations to the Marvel Comics character.
2 Technically, the Asgardians aren’t immortal, they’re just extremely long-lived; they eat golden apples to extend their life-span.  Seriously!  See Neil Gaiman’s ‘The Apples of Immortality,’ Norse Mythology, p. 179.
3 Specifically, The Five Books of Moses — Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
4 Hopkins:  “I just play Odin like a human being, with maybe a little more dimension.  I grow a beard, look hopefully impressive, and keep it as real as possible.”  From the production notes of Thor:  The Dark World.
5 As with all things Stan Lee, I suspect he employed this device with one foot in sincerity and the other in parody.
6 You can read the mythic version of how Loki cut off Sif’s hair in Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology, ‘The Treasures of the Gods.’
Categories
Marvel

Loki, Ep. 3: Lamentis

Welcome back to our episode-by-episode examination of Loki.  Spoilers, you say?  Why, yes…and plenty of them!  So be sure to watch the episode first.

With a title like ‘Lamentis,’ a reasonable person might well anticipate this episode of Loki would be all about regrets and the paths not taken.  If you make no claims to being reasonable, I’ve got some good news for you:  the title refers to a planet, and that’s it.  None of that tricky subtextual foreign movie shit going on here, no sir.  What you see is what you get.  No more and maybe even a little less.  And if you do make claims to being reasonable, well…you can go ahead and check your high-falutin’ notions about theme and metaphor at the door.  Trust me, you won’t be needing them.

I find myself struggling with Loki in a way I didn’t with its predecessors, WandaVision and Falcon and the Winter Soldier.  That’s because those previous shows, even at their worst, were about something, certain and sure-footed in a way that Loki isn’t.  What issues WandaVision and Falcon had were ones of execution, plot logistics and the like (Falcon in particular was shaky in its details).  Loki, though, is flawed in more fundamental ways, beginning with its title character.  I don’t know how I’d improve any of this without scrapping the whole mess and starting over.  It’s conceptually ill-conceived at the molecular level.

I don’t expect slavish fidelity to source material in comic book adaptations — anyone who wants the comic book experience can simply go read a comic book — but I’m mystified by the decision to render a character who’s complex, subversive, funny, perverse, brilliant, and fun into a witless dipshit whose only outstanding traits are delusion and incompetence.  What’s the thought process here?  Why turn the God of Mischief into just a regular guy…and not a particularly interesting or capable guy, at that?  It’s not just this series, mind you; it’s Loki’s — and Thor’s, and Odin’s, and Asgard’s — treatment in the MCU in general.

I don’t get it.

I don’t mean I don’t understand what’s going on; the plot, what there is of it, is clear enough.  I mean I don’t know why this show exists, what it’s after, where we’re going with it.  Why was it made?  What are we supposed to take from it?  It’s not an action vehicle.  It’s not clever enough to exist as satire, not funny enough for comedy, and doesn’t have enough meat on its bones to even remotely qualify as dramatic.

So what is it?

Now, it’s understood that no one’s expecting high art here, so you can spare me the tired argument that I’m applying critical sensibilities to stories that are at once both above and below such considerations.  I get it that no one ordered themselves a Disney Plus subscription in the hopes of broadening their artistic or intellectual horizons.  Martin Scorsese compared Hollywood franchise properties to theme parks, and along those lines, we can accept that Loki, like every Marvel Studios project before it, is the cinematic equivalent of carnival food:  high concept entertainment deep fried in marketing oil.  Nutrition isn’t the point.  I’m not even sure flavor is the point.  This isn’t to say these productions are utterly devoid of art — there are creators who’ve obviously poured a great deal of effort and even love into some of them — but where and when we do find art, it’s a happy accident; the residual by-product of people who are, in technical terms, very good at what they do.

Problem is, even if we toss out all pretensions to art and just go with entertainment, Loki often fails to hurdle even that relatively low bar.  Nothing wrong with carnival food, but it should at least be well-made, tasty and fun to eat.  We will get to something well-made and fun to eat before this episode is over, though we’re going to have to wait until the very end to get it.

Episode 3 opens with a bit of enchantment, set right before our Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and the TVA arrived last episode.  The variant lady Loki (Sophia Di Martino) — who we’ll learn is calling herself Sylvie — is sitting with Hunter C-20 (Sasha Lane), abducted last episode, talking over a couple drinks in a bar.[1]Brain freeze, a.k.a. sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia, does not ‘freeze the synapses in your brain.’  That’s not a thing.  Sylvie is attempting to find out from C-20 precisely where the Time Keepers are and how well they’re guarded.  I’m not sure how C-20 would know any of that, but sure.

Hunter C-20 (Sasha Lane) and Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino) at the bar.

Two things of note in this bar scene:

First is that the daylight portion of it shares a purple-ish color scheme with what we’ll see later in the episode on Lamentis.  I’m not convinced it means much — I’m not convinced it means anything at all, in fact — but it’s a purposeful choice that’s at least interesting, if for no other reason than that it’s purposeful.  We’ll take what we can get with this series.  The night portion of the scene features a lot of green and yellow, colors associated with Loki.  Set design and photography are often strengths of Marvel projects, even when the narrative end of things are not quite up to par.  You can see where the money went.

Second is that Hunter C-20 says she remembers this place, the bar where she and Sylvie are sitting, sucking down brain-freezing drinks.  That’s curious.  How and why would a creature created by the Time Keepers remember a place like this?  That question will at least be addressed, if not answered completely, before this episode is over.  As for the enchantment, the bar is a place pulled from the entranced C-20’s memories; in reality, C-20’s body is right where we saw it last, at a Roxxcart in Haven Hills, AL, circa 2050, in the middle of a class ten apocalyptic event.

After the execution of her reset charge scheme at the end of last episode, we saw Sylvie step through a dimension door, Loki not far behind her.  Her destination, we learn, is the TVA itself.  With all available Minutemen deployed out into the field to ‘protect the timeline,’ Sylvie arrives to find mostly empty halls.  The few guards that remain are no match for her.  Clearly, Sylvie not only has a different gender, but a whole different skill set — kung fu and enchantment — than the Loki with whom we’re familiar.

Conveniently arriving near the locker where his knives were stored by Hunter B-15 last episode, Loki retrieves them and sets about tracking his counterpart.  He catches up to Sylvie, who’s just dispatched two more guards with the superiority of her kung fu, outside the doors of Ravonna’s office.  The two Lokis start fighting, with the guy who got tossed around by a bumpkin last episode somehow holding his own against the woman who just Matrix-ed her way up and down the halls of the TVA.  Turns out Loki can fight exactly as well (or not) as the script calls for in any given scene.  You need him to get manhandled by Country Hoss?  No problem.  Hold his own against Sylvie?  Sure.  Get picked up and literally thrown out the window of a fucking train by nameless goons?  Why not?

The two Lokis are interrupted by Ravonna and a pair of guards, brandishing those nightlight batons that make cool cocking rifle sounds but don’t actually do cool cocked rifle stuff.  I ask again, gentle reader, how much easier would the TVA’s life be if they equipped themselves with weapons that didn’t require them to physically fight at close range with their opponents?  They wouldn’t even have to invent or develop or maintain such weapons; just dip into the time stream and take whatever they want.[2]It happens in real life without disrupting the time stream, so the TVA should be able to manage.  A single AK-47 or anti-personnel grenade in this situation — hell, maybe even just a gas-mask and some pepper spray — and this whole Loki variant matter gets solved right quick.

Ravonna (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and minions.

Ah, well.

What happens instead is a feeble attempt at a hostage situation, Sylvie threatening to kill Loki if Ravonna comes any closer.  Ravonna tells her to go for it — possibly the most sensible thing anyone from the TVA has ever said — and attacks.  Before Ravonna can land a blow, however, Loki pickpockets a ‘TemPad, a device that can send the user through time and space to specific destinations, and uses it to open a dimension door, through which he and Sylvie fall…

…into a dark room somewhere.  Sylvie recovers her TemPad temporarily, only to find that it’s out of power when she tries to send Loki off into the time stream.  After another bout of harmless tussling and plenty of grunting — it’s like watching two refugees from Downton Abbey engaging in a frustratingly polite and futile fistfight — Loki manages to get the TemPad again.

“Just give it back,” says Sylvie.  “You don’t even know how to recharge it.”

“Of course I do,” says Loki.  “You’re not the only tech-savvy Loki.”

“Don’t ever call me that.”

“Tech savvy?”

“No, a Loki.”

Loki makes the TemPad disappear in a flash of green light, but before he and Sylvie can renew their struggle, a small meteorite zips through the roof and into the ground at their feet.

“Was that one of your powers?” says Loki.

“Where did you send us?” says Sylvie.

The answer:  Lamentis-1, a moon that in 2077 a planet is “about to crash into and destroy.”  According to Sylvie, of all the apocalypses saved on the TemPad, Lamentis is the worst.

Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) on Lamentis. So much purple…

The pair escape the tent-like room they were in and take refuge in a more secure mining shack.  They reluctantly agree to work together, seeing as how each needs the other to get off Lamentis.  Sylvie complains that Loki interrupted a plan that was years in the making.  If only she’d have thought to charge up her TemPad while doing all that planning, think how different things might’ve turned out.

Sylvie estimates that she and Loki have about twelve hours before Lamentis is destroyed.  They travel to a nearby town that’s mostly abandoned, but learn from a woman on its outskirts that there’s a train leaving for a massive evacuation vessel.  That’s convenient, and certainly good news for our desperate travelers.  History says no one makes it off the planet, but it’s possible that a vessel the size of the ark could provide the power to recharge the TemPad.

The line for the train is remarkably orderly considering the world’s about to end.  You might imagine that the civilians would be willing to try overpowering the guards in an attempt to hijack or be allowed on the train, and / or that the guards might be clustered together in some sort of defensive posture anticipating just such an attempt, but no.  While there’s some complaining, it’s mostly about having to wait in line for such a long time, and first class getting seated first.  No one seems all that bothered about the prospect of their home planet’s impending doom, whether they have a ticket for the train or not.  I guess they just do it different on Lamentis.

Loki and Sylvie manage to get on the train with a combination of illusion projection (or duplication casting, or whatever we’re calling it) and enchantment.  The inside of the train is spacious, a swanky bar with a kind of Baz Luhrman on downers vibe.  Loki and Sylvie talk about magic, their mothers, and their love lives, and just…no.  These are supposed to be gods of mischief.  Who would know better than Loki not to believe anything that came out of Loki’s mouth?  It’s empty, meandering nonsense.

Sylvie falls asleep and wakes up to Loki leading the train car in a rousing chorus of some drunken song or other.  So much for keeping a low profile.  Someone complains to the manager — thanks a lot, Karen — which leads to guards showing up to ask our heroes for tickets they don’t have.  The fight that ensues ends with Loki getting picked up and thrown out a window and off the train.  Still needing to retrieve her TemPad, Sylvie follows him out the window.

She needn’t have bothered.  Not only has Loki squandered their ride to the evacuation vessel, his ignominious exit from the train has destroyed the TemPad.

Q:  Why doesn’t Sylvie separate Loki’s head from his shoulders and leave it rolling around in the purple dust of Lamentis, once she learns he’s broken the TemPad?  Surely, she could do things much more efficiently on her own without a graduate of the Star-Lord School of Mission Failure dogging her every step.  If not for Loki, she’d probably have already killed the Time Keepers and be sucking down margaritas at the far end of history.  So why keep him alive?

A:  It’s just not that kind of show, gentle reader.  Consequences aren’t a thing here.  Also, it probably just never occurs to her, because thinking isn’t really a thing here either.

Two Gods of Mischief at wit’s end.

Out of time and any better options, Loki and Sylvie elect to head for the evacuation vessel.  Why not?  History says the ark is destroyed before it leaves Lamentis, but as Loki points out, “It never had us on it.”

The walk to the ark is a long one.  Loki points out that Sylvie knows a lot about him, but he doesn’t know the first thing about Sylvie.  “I just need to know if I can trust you,” says Loki, the God of Lies and Mischief, to an alternate version of himself from another reality.

To put his mind at ease and even the scales, Sylvie tells him how she enchants people.  She has to make physical contact and then grab hold of their mind.

“How?” says Loki.

“Depends on the mind,” says Sylvie.  “Most are easy and I can overtake them instantly.  Others, the stronger ones, it gets tricky.  I’m in control, but they’re there too.  In order to preserve the connection, I have to create a fantasy from their memories.”

“And you call me a magician,” says Loki, in what sounds like genuine wonder.

“That young soldier from the TVA, her mind was messed up.  Everything clouded.  I had to pull a memory from hundreds of years prior, before she even fought for them.”

“What?” says Loki.  “What’d you say?  Before she joined the TVA?”

“Yeah.  She was just a regular person on earth.”

“A regular person?”

“Loved margaritas,” says Sylvie.

“I was told that everyone who works for the TVA was created by the Time Keepers.”

“That’s ridiculous.  They’re all variants, just like us.”

“They don’t know that.”

By this point, Loki and Sylvie are close enough to hear the final boarding calls for the evacuation vessel.

“Do we trust each other?” says Sylvie.

“We do, and you can,” says Loki, who told Agent Mobius two episodes ago that trust was for children and dogs.

With the evacuation vessel announcing five minutes to launch, the natives are somewhat restless, chanting to be let on.  “They’re going to let these people die,” says Loki, which I’m pretty sure is exactly what he was planning to do back on the train before he broke the TemPad.  Also, history-wise, all these people dying is already in the books.  Isn’t that whole point of it being an apocalyptic event?

Loki and Sylvie’s desperate, spectacular attempt to get to the ark is far and away the best filmmaking we’ve seen in this series.  Our heroes fight their way through panicking crowds, combative goons, deadly meteorites, and collapsing buildings, getting all the way up to the foot of the evacuation vessel…only to see history abruptly reassert itself as a huge chunk of the disintegrating planet over their heads crashes right through the ark, destroying it.  Eyes glazed with exhaustion and defeat, Loki and Sylvie watch as their last, best hope crashes down in flames.

The end of the world as we know it.

Cue credits, and Bonnie Guitar’s 1957 hit, ‘Dark Moon.’

Typically, the more scrutiny and thought applied to one of these super-hero efforts, the more readily apparent its flaws, but the opposite effect happened with the last three minutes of this episode:  the more I looked at it, the better it got.  Loki and Sylvie’s quest to make it to the evacuation vessel in time is a three minute and change one-take shot that runs from the 33:07 mark to the credits at the end of the episode.  It’s not really a one-take shot — technically speaking, it’s actually a series of shots spliced together to mimic one long take — but why nitpick?  It does the job.  It’s exciting, visually interesting, and for once imparts a sense of urgency to the events on-screen.  But for a very effects-heavy one-take at the beginning of Avengers:  Age of Ultron (2015) that lasts almost exactly a minute, I believe this is the only one-take shot in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.[3]This doesn’t count Daredevil‘s Raid-inspired one-takes on Netflix.

There’s some really fine sound editing here too.  There’s a lot going on, sound-wise, and this could’ve easily just been a confusing wall of noise.  Instead, we’re able to clearly hear each individual component.  Impressive.  And in addition to the sounds of people and objects in the environment, note how the music rises, increasing in tempo and urgency, beginning at 35:35 and then ending ten seconds later with the destruction of the ark.  That’s good stuff!

We can see and hear a similar effect in conjunction with sound editing and music — note the rising refrain starting at roughly the 2:50 mark — here in this spectacular four-minute one-take from Creed (2015), by director Ryan Coogler (who also directed Marvel’s Black Panther):

I know I’ve given this series and this episode in particular low marks, but credit where credit’s due:  the last few minutes of this episode are for real.[4]In addition to our actors, Tom Hiddleston and Sophia Di Martino, the people most responsible for this scene are director Kate Herron, director of photography Autumn Durald, and editor Calum … Continue reading

____

Last call for geek stuff:

Loki: Agent of Asgard #11, Apr 2015, by Al Ewing and Lee Garbett.
  • Sylvie’s tiara has one of its horns broken off.  It’s as yet unexplained on the show, but in the comics, Loki’s tiara was broken in similar fashion after a beating by his brother Thor.  That happened in Loki:  Agent of Asgard #10, Mar 2015, by Al Ewing and Lee Garbett.
  • There is a Lamentis in the comics; it’s out on the far edge of Kree space, and made its first (and so far as I know, only) appearance in Annihilation:  Conquest Prologue #1, Aug 2007, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, and Mike Perkins.  Its reference here in Loki is just about as deep as a deep cut can get.  Very, very obscure.

And that’s a wrap.  Questions, comments, death threats, and whatnot, please let me know!  See you next week!

References

References
1 Brain freeze, a.k.a. sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia, does not ‘freeze the synapses in your brain.’  That’s not a thing.
2 It happens in real life without disrupting the time stream, so the TVA should be able to manage.
3 This doesn’t count Daredevil‘s Raid-inspired one-takes on Netflix.
4 In addition to our actors, Tom Hiddleston and Sophia Di Martino, the people most responsible for this scene are director Kate Herron, director of photography Autumn Durald, and editor Calum Ross.  There’s also a small army of sound technicians, set designers, stunt people, and special effects specialists.  A lot went into this scene!
Categories
Marvel

Loki, Ep. 2: The Variant

Welcome back to our episode-by-episode examination of Loki.  Fair warning, there are spoilers ahead.

Before we start, let’s recognize that Disney’s anti-piracy game is strong.  Whatever brief window there was that allowed me to take screenshots to better explain the visual tricks of the trade is now apparently closed.  I’ll do my best to work around it, but alas…things were a lot easier when I could just grab what I was looking for right from the scene in question.

Last week’s episode ended in a lethal ambush of TVA Minutemen by the variant Loki, and this week’s episode begins the same way.  This time it’s in 1985, in a tent at a Renaissance Fair in Oshkosh, WI.[1]Mark Gruenwald, the late Marvel editor and writer on whom Agent Mobius is based, was an Oshkosh native, so I imagine the location was chosen for his sake.  The ambush is set to Bonnie Tyler’s ‘Holding Out for a Hero’ — shades of Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Baby Driver (2017), but without the clever syncopation — and this time, in addition to dead TVA agents and stolen reset charges, the variant Loki kidnaps a still-living agent, C-20 (Sasha Lane).  Why?  Who knows?  I’ve got questions, gentle reader.  So many questions, which we’ll get to in due course.

Back at the TVA, Miss Minutes — a sort of animated TVA instructional program that’s somewhere between an artificial intelligence and a hologram — is quizzing Loki on what happens when nexus events branch past red line.  According to Loki and Miss Minutes, when a nexus event branches past red line, the nexus event can no longer be reset, which can ‘lead to the destruction of the timeline and the collapse of reality as we know it.’  And that’s never happened?  Ever?  What exactly would the collapse of reality as we know it look like?

In response to the Oshkosh attack, Mobius gathers a team that includes Loki and Hunter B-15.  According to Mobius, the TVA has ‘pruned,’ or eliminated, more versions of Loki than almost any other variant.  The powers of these Loki variants generally include shape-shifting and illusion-projecting (which our Loki insists is actually duplication casting, a completely different power)…but not, you’ll note, time traveling.  Hmm.

Loki asks why the TVA doesn’t simply arrive at a point in time before the ambush.  Mobius says that nexus events destabilize the time flow; with the branch still changing and growing, they’re obliged to show up in ‘real time,’ whatever that means.  Quizzed about reset charges, which ‘prune the affected radius of a branched timeline, allowing time to heal all its wounds,’ Loki notes that pruning sounds like a nice way of saying disintegrate everything in its vicinity.  Mobius doesn’t dispute the point.

If I’m understanding all this correctly, the TVA in Loki is dedicated to the maintenance of a single time line.  In this model, envision time like a long stretch of river.  The TVA knows where the river starts, where it ends up, and every twist, turn, rapid, and shallow along the way.  The TVA’s job is to maintain the flow of this river — what they call the Sacred Timeline — and to stop any potential distributary streams, i.e., nexus events, from becoming separate rivers in their own right.  Got all that?

The Gang Visits the Renfair.

Two things with the TVA and this Sacred Timeline business:

One, all of this is a lot different from the comics, where the TVA oversees (or tries to oversee) all of time and all of its infinite branches, across the entire universe, only stepping in when something or someone threatens to damage the structure of time and space in a manner that genuinely could collapse all of reality.  The TVA of the comics doesn’t subscribe to any sort of This is how it was meant to be philosophy.  In a universe of infinite possibilities and branching timelines, there’s no such thing as This is how it’s meant to be.  Nor are the TVA much concerned with life or death or moral conduct.  They’re bureaucratic monitors, not enforcers; less police, and more like the DMV, say.  When they do attempt to enforce something, they outsource it to mercenary specialists.

Two, with the TVA of the show and its singular maintenance of a singular timeline, there shouldn’t be any now or then.  Going back to our Sacred Timeline as a river analogy, so far as the TVA is concerned, all things are simultaneously happening, have already happened, and will happen.  The TVA is dealing with the entire river at once, and not experiencing its flow from any one point on its shores.  The TVA knowing an event isn’t supposed to happen doesn’t make sense unless they have knowledge of what should happen.  Another way to look at it is that the TVA are caretakers of a Sacred Book, and they’re constantly poring over it to make sure no one has amended the text.

The team moves to investigate the crime scene in the tent, discovering that Hunter C-20 is missing.  They’d have probably discovered that a lot faster had anyone thought to bring a flashlight, but we forge the chains we wear in life.  “He’s taking hostages now?” says Mobius.  “The Variant’s never taken a hostage before.”

One of the Minutemen suggests that maybe the variant Loki pruned C-20.  “A Loki couldn’t have gotten the jump on C-20,” says an indignant Hunter B-15.  It’s a bold statement, considering a Loki has gotten the jump on at least eight entire teams of Minutemen in the past ‘week’ or so.

When the Minutemen prepare to spread out to search for C-20, Loki tells them that if they leave the tent, they’ll end up like their predecessors.  “I see a scheme,” says Loki, “and in that scheme I see myself.”  Uh huh. 

If anyone in the TVA had more than two brain cells to rub together, they’d know right off the bat that Loki’s full of shit.  One, Loki’s always full of shit, and two, why should Loki care if a bunch of Minutemen get waxed?  He’d probably wax them himself if he thought he was up to the job.  Instead, the TVA agents stand around listening while Loki gives a Littlefinger-inspired speech that’s a mess of self-aggrandizing hot air, and then they prune the timeline with a reset charge.  Mobius’s investigative team knew the variant Loki was responsible for the attack before they left the TVA, so literally the only thing their investigation turned up was that C-20 is missing instead of confirmed dead.

It never seems to occur to the TVA that the dead Minutemen might just be collateral damage, and that the real target of the variant Loki’s attacks are the reset charges each team carries.  That’s par for the course with the TVA — they’re a remarkably brainless bunch, even by MCU standards — but does it occur to Loki?  It should — in fact, it should be impossible for it not to — but does it?  As a general rule, the MCU doesn’t do duplicity.  Just off the top of my head, I can’t remember any instance in any MCU movie or TV show where what we saw or heard wasn’t essentially true.  It doesn’t leave me hopeful for a show about a guy who’s supposed to be the best liar creation has to offer.

Ravonna Renslayer (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).

Back at TVA HQ, Agent Mobius meets up with his supervisor, Ravonna (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the judge from last episode.  She’s understandably a little conflicted about Mobius’s conscription of the God of Mischief.  “Look, I know you have a soft spot for broken things,” says Ravonna.

“I don’t think so,” says Mobius.

“Yes, you do,” says Ravonna, “but Loki is an evil, lying scourge.  That is the part he plays on the Sacred Timeline.”

“Maybe he wants to mix it up.  Sometimes you get tired of playing the same part.  Is that possible?  He can change?”

What Ravonna should say is, Are we still talking about Loki?  What she says instead is, “Not unless the Time Keepers decree it, and then it shall be so.”

“And how are the old Time Keepers?”

“How do you think?”

“I don’t know, ’cause I’ve never met them.”

Ravonna tells Mobius that the Time Keepers are monitoring every aspect of the case, and that Mobius is down to his last chance with Loki.

Mobius sets Loki to reviewing ‘each and every one’ of the Variant’s case files, to see if there’s anything the TVA missed.  “Well, you’re idiots.  I suspect you probably missed a lot,” says Loki.

“That’s why I’m lucky I got you for a little bit longer,” says Mobius.  “Let me park you at this desk, and don’t be afraid to really lean into this work.  Here’s a good trick for you:  pretend your life depends on it.”

The ensuing research scene owes a visual and sonic debt to David Fincher’s Se7en (1995), mirroring as it does Detective Somerset’s trip to the library with Detective Mills’s concurrent research at home.  Even the music — Bach’s Suite No. 3 in D Major — is the same.

Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in Loki (2021), d. Kate Herron, dp. Autumn Durald
David Mills (Brad Pitt) in Se7en (1995), d. David Fincher, dp. Darius Khondji

The threat of imminent disintegration does indeed seem to motivate Loki beyond his usual bluster and bullshit.  Looking into the destruction of Asgard, Loki notices that no time variance is detected.  Loki rushes to find Mobius, who asks him if he’s read every file pertaining to the Variant.  “The answer isn’t in the files,” Loki tells him.  “It’s on the timeline.  He’s hiding in apocalypses.”  Essentially, Loki explains, if a time traveler sticks to apocalyptic events, nothing the time traveler says or does will make a difference or be noted, as the environment and everyone in it is destined for destruction in any case.

To test Loki’s theory, he and Mobius travel to Pompeii and the catastrophic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD.  Loki contrives to make quite the scene, but sure enough, once the volcano erupts…zero variance energy, no branching in the timeline.  “The TVA would never even know we were here,” says Loki.  “If it were me, this is where I would hide.”

Mobius sums it up:  “Doomsdays.  The Variant’s been ambushing our soldiers and hiding out in doomsdays to cover his tracks.  In order for this theory to hold, the disasters have to be naturally occurring, sudden, no warning, no survivors.”

I’m not sure that tracks.  Couldn’t the Variant just as well hide in the distant, pre-human past?  And why would the disaster need to be naturally occurring?  Wouldn’t any sufficiently catastrophic and lethal event do?  Ah, well.  Why nitpick?

“How many of those could there be?” says Loki.  I’d have guessed about a zillion.  Mobius says he doesn’t know, but that he and Loki are going to find out.  Their endurance gives out before they find the answer — I guess even gods and creations of the Time Keepers are susceptible to fatigue, and aside from Miss Minutes, the TVA doesn’t seem to have any use for computers.  The pair find themselves in a TVA cafeteria, having a discussion that begins at jet skis, proceeds to faith, and concludes with one of those leaps of deductive reasoning you only ever see in the movies.

Mobius has a magazine at his desk that features jet skis, which Mobius admires as a beautiful union of form and function.  Mobius has never ridden a jet ski, but he likes to read about them, as they remind him of what the TVA is fighting for.

“You really believe in all this stuff, don’t you?” says Loki.

“I don’t get hung up on believe, not believe.  I just accept what is,” says Mobius.

“Three magic lizards…”

“Time keepers.”

“…created the TVA and everyone in it, including you?”

“Right.”

“See, every time I start to admire your intelligence, you say something like that.”

“Okay, who created you, Loki?”

“A frost giant of Jotunheim.”

“And who raised you?”

“Odin of Asgard.”

“Odin, God of the Heavens.  Asgard, mystical realm beyond the stars.  Frost giants…listen to yourself.”

“It’s not the same thing.”

“It’s exactly the same thing, because if you think too hard about where any of us came from, who we truly are?  It sounds kind of ridiculous.”

I’ll point out here that it’s not exactly the same thing, or even close to the same thing:  Loki literally is a frost giant, has personally been to Jotunheim, was raised in Odin’s household as a prince, and lived the majority of his life in Asgard.  None of that is a matter of belief or a tenet of faith for Loki — it’s all straight fact — whereas Mobius by his own admission has never actually met his creators.

“Existence is chaos,” continues Mobius.  “Nothing makes any sense, so we try to make some sense of it.  I’m just lucky that the chaos I emerged into gave me all this:  my own glorious purpose.  Because the TVA is my life; and it’s real because I believe it’s real.”

Loki concedes Mobius’s belief, but if everything is written — past, present, and future — then there’s no such thing as free will.  And how does it all end?  Mobius claims it’s a work in progress.  What then, Loki asks, are the Time Keepers waiting for?  (He doesn’t ask how it can be a work in progress if the TVA’s claim to know everything that’s supposed to happen is true, but I wish he would have.)  According to Mobius, while the TVA protects the past, the Time Keepers are ‘toiling away in their chamber, untangling the epilogue from its infinite branches.’

“I see,” says Loki.  “So when they’re finished, what happens then?”

“So are we,” says Mobius.  “No more nexus events.  Just order, and we meet in peace at the end of time.  Nice, right?”

There’s no way any Loki from any reality would find any of that nice.  “Only order?  No chaos?  Sounds boring.”  He’s not wrong.

“I’m sure it does to you.”

“You know, you called me a scared little boy,” says Loki, “but I know something children don’t:  that no one bad is ever truly bad, and no one good is ever truly good.”  It’s a god-awful, ridiculous line — you don’t even have to delve into the realms of super-hero fantasy to find people who are truly bad or truly good — but the mention of scared little boy triggers Mobius’s memory of the young French boy from episode 1.  The boy had some Kablooie candy given to him by the Loki Variant that obviously was not native to 16th century France.  According to Mobius, Kablooie was only sold regionally on Earth from 2047 to 2051.  Looking for apocalyptic events during that time span, Loki narrows the event down to Alabama in 2050.  I’m not entirely sure how he narrows it down to that, but he does.

Kablooie

Now, if I were Mobius, I might be thinking that the variant Loki had given that candy to that boy with a purpose.  If I were a particularly cynical and suspicious TVA agent, I’d worry that it was the Loki in front of me who was leading me to virtually every conclusion I had.  And I might even wonder if the Loki in front of me and the variant Loki were not in fact the same Loki at different points in time, or if the two were not perhaps in cahoots.

Mobius gets Judge Ravonna to sign off on a detachment for 2050 Haven Hills, Alabama.  Ravonna is rightly skeptical — “And this is all based on a theory from the variant who just blew your previous mission?” — but okays the mission, with the provision that the blame will fall squarely on Mobius if it doesn’t work out.  What would that look like?  Would Mobius be retired / recycled and replaced with a superior version?  Mobius 2.0?

The leader of the Haven Hills detachment is Hunter B-15.  After she nixes the idea of Loki being given his knives by Mobius, she gives the briefing:  “Roxxcart is a vast superstore common to the era.  It consists of a series of sprawling sections, including a large warehouse.  This warehouse is being used by civilians as a shelter trying to ride out the storm.  Remember, this is a class ten apocalypse.  While the Variant shouldn’t know we’re coming, he could be hiding anywhere and should be considered hostile.  So stay alert.  Every time there is an attack, the Variant steals a reset charge.  He’s planning something.  We just don’t know what.  So keep an eye out for the missing charges, and if you see a Loki, prune it.”

No one raises a hand to remind B-15 that the God of Mischief is a shape-shifter, so how would any of them know whether they saw a Loki or not?  Also, if the TVA is as certain as they seem to be that they’re going to find the variant Loki at this apocalyptic event, why not just drop a bomb, eliminate the entire mess at one go?[2]I couldn’t help but think of Jessica Chastain’s implacable Maya from Zero Dark Thirty (2012):  “Quite frankly, I didn’t even want to use you guys, with your dip and … Continue reading  Maybe the TVA doesn’t have bombs, and rave-stick truncheons are the pinnacle of their weapons technology.  Who knows?

The Gang Visits Roxxcart.

It isn’t a terribly large team that’s sent to the apocalyptic event — it doesn’t look any larger to my eyes than the teams that the variant Loki has already successfully eliminated — and their firepower is further diminished when Hunter B-15 elects to split the team to search separate locations.  Maybe the TVA suffers from a personnel shortage as well as a weapons technology deficiency, the Time Keepers too preoccupied in their chamber to make more TVA agents.  Over the objections of Mobius — “Of course he’s a threat!  Do you not remember the Time Theater?  That’s why I want him with me!” — B-15 takes Loki with her.

Time Theater?

All of it is being watched by the variant Loki on the Roxxcart security cameras, who sets some kind of timer for 20 minutes before leaving.

Walking through the giant Roxxcart store, Loki and B-15 come across a young man shopping for Azaleas (“It’s a hurricane sale,” he explains.  “Half off.”).  When B-15 gets close to him — which, you know, she wouldn’t have to do if she had a weapon with a range longer than her arm — the young man reaches out, a green energy aura passing from him to her.  He collapses, and the now-possessed B-15 turns around to face Loki.

“Is he dead?” our Loki asks of the collapsed young man.

“No.  They usually survive,” says the variant Loki / B-15.  “So.  You’re the fool the TVA brought in to hunt me down.”

While the two Lokis get acquainted, Mobius and his team locate the missing Hunter C-20.  “It’s real,” she says.  “I gave it away.  The Time Keepers.  I gave it away how to find them.”

After the possessed B-15 passes her possession on to a store clerk, our Loki tells the variant Loki that he’s going to overthrow the TVA, and he could use a qualified lieutenant.  The variant Loki declines the offer:  “I’m not interested in ruling the Time Variance Authority.”

“If you don’t want to rule the TVA, then what do you want?”

“It doesn’t matter.  You’re too late.”

Loki notices one of the reset charges on a nearby-shelf, and mistakes it for a bomb, despite having seen plenty of reset charges up close.  “I see,” he says.  “That’s your plan.  Lure us all here so you can blow the place up.”

While Loki’s talking, the possessed store clerk disappears into the shadows, and is replaced by a possessed burly redneck — he’s called Country Hoss in the credits! — who proceeds to beat Loki up.  Loki straight-up tussled with Thor in past movies, but now he’s getting his ass whupped by the Cable Guy.  Loki’s the son of a frost giant.  He shouldn’t be getting tossed around by the likes of Country Hoss, no matter how possessed Country Hoss is.

Loki takes his beating, but recovers in time to watch Country Hoss set the final reset charges.  “Brace yourself, Loki,” says Country Hoss, and then collapses, his possession at an end.  Loki turns to see the variant Loki herself — yes, herself — there in the flesh.  “This isn’t about you,” she says.

Variant Lady Loki (Sophia Di Martino).

The timers on the reset charges hit zero, and they all begin to go off at once.  Dozens of them, disappearing into little dimension doors that open up beneath him.

The screens at the TVA begin to light up like Christmas trees.  “Somebody just bombed the Sacred Timeline!” says one distressed TVA monitor.  He’s not wrong; branches begin spreading off the Timeline in dozens, maybe hundreds, of spots.

Back at the Roxxcart superstore, the variant Loki opens up a TVA dimension door — she’s pretty handy with their technology — gives our Loki a little wave, and steps through.  Mobius and his team come running hard on her heels, calling for Loki to wait.  Rather than stick around to face pissed-off TVA hunters and possible disintegration, Loki elects to follow the variant Loki through the dimension door just before it disappears, leaving the frustrated TVA agents behind.

Cue credits!

____

Let’s get pruned…

  • I don’t know how I missed it from episode 1, but the TVA’s set design borrows heavily from Fritz Lang’s influential Metropolis (1927).
TVA skyline, Loki.
  • I strongly suspect we’re going to find that there’s more than a little Wizard of Oz-style bullshit going on behind this Time Keepers story.  I also strongly suspect we’ll discover the variant Loki herself was or is a rogue agent of the TVA.  In the mythology, Loki is a shape-shifter, not tied to any one gender or even any one species, so I wouldn’t completely rule out the idea that the variant Loki is our Loki at a different point in time.  I don’t think it’s likely — probably too fussy for the MCU — but I wouldn’t rule it out.
  • In the comics, agents of the TVA are, with rare exceptions, all the same.  Part clone, part drone.  They don’t have personalities, don’t even have faces, and they’re not human in any sense of that term as we’d understand it.  Their ‘lives’ are spent monitoring their timeline, and that’s what they do.  In the show, Mobius says that everyone in the TVA was created by the Time Keepers.  So why create them as individuals?  The TVA agents in the show all look and act distinct from one another.  Casey at the front desk says he spends his life at the desk, but Mobius takes breaks to read jet ski magazines and eat lunch, and we see from this episode that he feels the effects of fatigue.  TVA hunters seem to experience pain and fear and death as humans do.  They can be knocked out, stabbed, beaten, etc.  They’re male and female.  Why?  Do the hunters get together to make little hunters?  Why wouldn’t the Time Keepers make all their TVA creations the same, and create them in vast multitudes?  If a hunter team gets eliminated, why not just make more hunters?
City skyline, Metropolis.
  • At the risk of coming across as a miserable, pedantic bastard, the TVA’s weapons (or lack thereof) make me squirm with the most severe displeasure.  All of history, past and present, to choose from, and the best weapon they could steal or invent is a stick with a night light on the end of it?  One that makes cocking rifle sounds but doesn’t actually do cocked rifle stuff?  The hunters would literally be better off carrying slingshots, or even paint-ball guns.
  • Loki’s first appearance as a woman was Thor #5 (Jan 2008) by J. Michael Straczynski, Olivier Coipel, and Mark Morales.  The female aspect didn’t last long; he’s still traditionally represented as a male character, with the understanding that such things are kind of fluid where Loki’s concerned.
  • Roxxcart is a huge WalMart-type super-store likely being run by Roxxon, the Marvel Universe’s official evil energy corporation.  Roxxon’s first appearance was Captain America #180 (Dec 1974), created by Steve Englehart and Sal Buscema.
  • The variant Loki’s wave at the end of the episode made me think of Hermione Corfield from We Hunt Together (2020).
We Hunt Together GIF by Showtime
Hermione Corfield, We Hunt Together (2020).

And that’s that. Questions or comments, please let me know!

References

References
1 Mark Gruenwald, the late Marvel editor and writer on whom Agent Mobius is based, was an Oshkosh native, so I imagine the location was chosen for his sake.
2 I couldn’t help but think of Jessica Chastain’s implacable Maya from Zero Dark Thirty (2012):  “Quite frankly, I didn’t even want to use you guys, with your dip and Velcro and all your gear bullshit.  I wanted to drop a bomb.”
Categories
Marvel

Loki, Ep. 1: Glorious Purpose

Welcome to our episode-by-episode examination of Loki. Be warned that there are spoilers ahead.

One of the downsides that come with adapting comic book source material into live action movie material is an often unpleasant and entirely unavoidable clash with realism, defined as the quality or fact of representing a person, thing, or situation accurately or in a way that is true to life.  The great strength of comics as a medium lies in its capacity to manipulate perception in specific and distinctive ways:  to distort time at will, expanding or compressing events for narrative effect; to play fast and loose with the visual properties of objects and people (an obvious plus for super-hero stories); and the incorporation of more than one point of view at a time, something I think might be unique to comics.

None of the medium’s natural strengths translate to film.

In movies and television, we’re restricted to a single point of view — what the camera shows is what we get — and even the most fantastical stew of CGI-generated imagery still moves along in something like real time, typically anchored by human actors with both feet still planted in a world of predictable gravity and mundane physics.

Cinema offers its own set of benefits, of course.  If the movies can’t duplicate comics’ shifting points of view and sleights of hand with time, neither can comics match the movies for immediacy and kineticism.  It’s one thing to imagine the way a thing moves and sounds; it’s something else altogether to see that thing on a wide screen and hear the deep rumble of it over a movie theater’s sound system.

The point here is that movies by their nature can’t help but impose some level of realism over their subject matter and the way that subject matter is presented.  Even in animation, where nothing shown onscreen ‘exists’ in any real world sense, it’s still information presented to the viewer in a linear way with a singular POV, with every viewer receiving that information in the same way and at the same pace.  None of this is to say that the shift from comics to movies is inherently negative; it isn’t.  What we’re talking about here is a process that involves the exchange of one medium’s natural strengths and weaknesses for another’s…but it is a factor, one that the Marvel Cinematic Universe both benefits from and contends with.

Most Marvel properties and characters are rooted in obvious, easy to explain concepts.  It’s part of their enduring charm.  The explanations for said concepts may be (and usually are) utterly preposterous, rooted in pseudo-science or half-baked mystical nonsense, but they’re explanations all the same:  simple, sturdy, and requiring little to no further cosmological tinkering to work.  Practically everything we see in the MCU may be unrealistic, strictly speaking, but it nevertheless fits just fine within the practical ‘what you see is what you get’ framework of the MCU.  If one allows for the existence of super soldiers and talking space raccoons and sorcerers supreme in the first place, the rest of it — most of it — isn’t that big a jump…

…until we get to Thor and Loki and the gods of Asgard.

The introduction of Asgard to the MCU brings with it an entire mythological eco-system and a whole new set of requirements for the suspension of disbelief.  There’s a complexity, an irrationality to all things Asgard that, coupled with the primal corporate instinct to avoid at all costs invoking the ire of a small but always vocal minority of religious nutbars, has often left Marvel Studios squirming with palpable discomfort.  It’s easy enough to fit Captain America, say, into the ‘real’ or ‘normal’ world and still have it look and act more or less like the real or normal world.  Asgard, though?  That’s a much bigger ask, and can perhaps only be accomplished by bleeding the myth of the sweep and charm and fantasy that made it worthy of inclusion in the first place.  Or, as the case may be, reducing the whole matter to farce.

But I digress.

My point is, the MCU is a cinematic franchise whose fundamental appeal is one of realism:  through the magic of cinema and high production values, we’re afforded the opportunity to see something that had only ever existed on a page brought to a semblance of life.  It’s not an accident that Captain America, the MCU’s most successful franchise concept, lies at one end of that realism spectrum, while Thor, its least successful concept, narratively speaking, lies at the other.  Captain America fits smoothly into the MCU’s natural cinematic lean towards realism.  Thor and Loki and Asgard don’t.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) from Thor: Ragnarok (2017).

Consider:  the word gods shows up but once in Thor (2011) and once again in Thor:  The Dark World (2013), and in both cases only to disavow the notion of godhood altogether.  The first Thor movie appears with some mythological elements still intact:  it has Nine Realms, the rainbow bridge Bifrost, Yggisdril the World Tree, Jotunheim, frost giants, etc.  By the time we get to Thor:  Ragnarok (2017), however, most of those elements have either been left behind, or have suffered extensive surgery, excising nearly all trace of mythic context from the narrative corpus (looking at you, Valkyrie).

In the comics, the gods of Asgard are just that:  gods.  They live in a heavenly, if exceedingly war-like, realm of magic and fable and legend that’s not accessible to mortals.  They contend with giants and demons and trolls, their immortal lives drawn on an epic scale.  (They even speak in a different, fancier font than everyone else!)  The slickest and smartest (and, it must be admitted, least honest) of the gods of Asgard, the Loki of the comics is the Prince of Lies, the God of Trickery and Schemes, the master of the confidence game in both its short and long varieties.  Loki largely exists to obliterate the status quo.  Any status quo, even one from which he stands to benefit.  He’s a relentless agent of chaos.  The God of Fucking Things Up for the Sake of Fucking Things Up.

The Loki of the movies…?  Not so much.  Mostly what Loki does in the movies is lose, badly and often, in ways both large and small.  Movie Loki has been fatally reduced to a chump. He’s a square; a mark.  Less the God of Mischief than the God of Self-Deception and Delusions of Grandeur.  Virtually every time we see Loki in the MCU, someone’s getting over on him.  How and if Loki (the series) manages to bridge the gap between the trickster god of comics and mythology and the rather dim-witted comedic punching bag we’ve seen to this point in the MCU will ultimately determine its success.

Our story opens with a flashback to the time-traveling events of Avengers:  Endgame (2019), with the Avengers’ quest to retrieve the Infinity Stones and reverse the effects of Thanos’s erasure of half the life in the universe.  The plan runs into something of a snag thanks to the Hulk’s displeasure at being told to take the stairs, and the Tesseract — a blue cube containing the Space Stone — winds up at the feet of the captive Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who picks up the cube and vanishes…

…re-emerging to fall from a hole in the sky.  He lands in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert (he apparently doesn’t have the best grasp on working the Space Stone) in a visual callback to Tony Stark’s similar crash landing in Iron Man (2008).  Some puzzled locals show up to see what’s going on.  Loki takes the opportunity to jump on a rock and proclaim his mission statement:  “I am Loki of Asgard, and I am burdened with glorious purpose.”

Iron Man (2008)
Loki (2021)

Before Loki or the less-than-suitably-awed locals can do or say much of anything else, shimmering dimensional doors appear, with black-armored police types stepping through it.  They identify themselves officers of the TVA — the Time Variance Authority — and promptly, forcefully arrest Loki for “crimes against the Sacred Timeline.”  They slap a time-looping collar on him and hustle him through one of the dimensional doors they arrived in, leaving behind a lantern-like device to “reset the timeline.”

TVA headquarters has a distinctly 70’s vibe to it, all done up in the rust ochre that seems to characterize that decade’s color scheme, with a lot of conspicuously archaic analog devices in evidence, sporting levers and knobs and big clunky buttons.  It’s decor and technology by Fallout.

Loki is subjected to various indignities of processing, given a TVA prison jumpsuit in place of his ‘fine Asgardian leather,’ and kept in line by the time-looping collar:  if he tries to run, a push of a button brings him right back to where he started.  On the way to his arraignment, Loki learns from a PSA that plays on a loop that long ago, there was a vast multiversal war featuring countless timelines that nearly resulted in the destruction of everything.  According to the TVA, the all-powerful Time Lords brought peace by reorganizing the multiverse into a single timeline, what they call the Sacred Timeline.  Now, the Time Lords protect the proper flow of time for everyone and everything…but occasionally, someone drifts off course.  These drifters are called Variants, and their discursions from the Sacred Timeline create new timelines called Nexus Events, which the Time Lord-created TVA exists to forestall and / or eliminate.  How much of any that is true remains to be seen, of course.

Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and Agent Mobius (Owen Wilson).

Before we get to Loki’s arraignment or trial or sentencing — as we’ll soon see, it’s an all-in-one sort of deal — we’re introduced to Agent Mobius (Owen Wilson), a self-described specialist in the pursuit of dangerous Variants, investigating the murders of several TVA agents, or Minutemen, in a church in France in the year 1549.  It’s the sixth attack of a TVA team in the last week (though what does that mean for an agency that runs time and operates with ready access to any and all points in it?).  A young local boy claims the Devil, represented in a stained glass window, is responsible for the murders.

Back at the TVA, Loki is ushered in for his trial, charged with sequence variation 7-20-89.[1]My feeling is that number alludes to something, but I’ve yet to discover what.  “How do you plead?” asks the judge.

Loki, scoffing:  “Madam, a god doesn’t plead.”  For a guy who’s been clubbed, put in a jumpsuit against his will, and fitted with a time-looping dog collar all before the series was ten minutes old, Loki sure does a lot of scoffing.

“Are you guilty or not guilty, sir?”

“Guilty of being the God of Mischief?  Yes.  Guilty of finding all this incredibly tedious?  Yes.  Guilty of a crime against the Sacred Timeline?  Absolutely not, you have the wrong person.”  Loki suggests that the culprits the court should be after are the Avengers; they’re the ones who traveled through time and interfered with the natural order of things.  He’s got a point, but the court doesn’t agree.  Her Honor finds Loki guilty and orders him to be reset, which appears to be a fancy euphemism for put to death (but may also serve as metatextual comment on the process Loki will undergo during the course of this episode).

Fortunately for Loki, Agent Mobius arrives to have Loki remanded to his custody, and conducts him to an office to hold a sort of interview with him that serves as both origin story and transformational self-reflection.  Loki remains doubtful about the process.

“Not big on trust, are you?” says Mobius.

“Trust is for children and dogs,” says Loki.  “If the TVA truly oversees all of time, how have I never heard of you until now?”

“‘Cause you never needed to,” says Mobius.  “You always lived within your set path.”

“I live within whatever path I choose!”

“Sure you do.” Owen Wilson’s natural breeziness serves him well here in playing Mobius. There’s something about the way Wilson phrases things — not just in this role — that suggests neither agreement nor disagreement, or sincerity or insincerity. It’s a verbal shrug of the shoulders, like nearly every statement he makes has a If you say so disclaimer attached to it.

Mobius asks Loki what he plans to do if returned to his own timeline.  Loki says he’ll complete his quest to be king.

“You want to be king?” says Mobius.

“I don’t want to be, I was born to be,” says Loki.

“I know, but king of what, exactly?”  Mobius wonders why someone like Loki would want to be king.  Loki gives the reason he gave in Avengers (2012) about the pitfalls of freedom and the perils of free will:  “For nearly every living thing, choice brings shame and uncertainty and regret.  There’s a fork in every road, yet the wrong path always taken.”

“You said ‘nearly every living thing,'” Mobius says, “so I’m guessing you don’t fall into that category?”

More scoffing from Loki.  “The Time Keepers have built quite the circus, and I see the clowns are playing their part to perfection.”

“Big metaphor guy.  I love it!  Makes you sound super-smart.”

“I am smart,” says Loki, and you wonder if even he believes that, given that we’ve literally never witnessed him saying or doing a single thing that could be considered remotely smart.

“Okay,” says Mobius.  He pulls up a video file, what he calls a sampling of Loki’s greatest hits, beginning with the conclusion of Avengers.  “It’s funny.  For someone born to rule, you sure do lose a lot.  You might even say it’s in your nature.”

When Mobius suggests, with good evidence (again from Avengers), that Loki likes hurting people, making people feel small and afraid, Loki objects:  “I know what I am!”

“A murderer?”

“A liberator,” Loki says.  “I don’t have to play this game.  I’m a god.”

“Of what, again?  Mischief, right?  I don’t see anything very mischievous about this.”

Mobius talks about Loki’s penchant for escape, how he’s really good at doing awful things and then just getting away.  That introduces a bizarre flashback bit with Loki as D.B. Cooper that looks and sounds great.  Weirdly, it’s easily the most character-appropriate moment Tom Hiddleston has ever been allowed to have as Loki:  he’s suave, articulate, devilishly handsome, and charismatic as the day is long.  In truth, gentle reader, I’d just as soon have ditched this TVA business altogether in favor of an episode devoted entirely to the doomed love affair between our charmed and charming flight attendant (Erika Coleman) and the God of Mischief, but alas…that wasn’t the hand we were dealt.  Whatever the aesthetic benefits of the scene, however, it’s still kind of a hot goddamn mess, and serves as a microcosm of the MCU’s treatment of Asgard:  glossy but depthless, kind of amusing, goes nowhere (though I assume we’ll see our stewardess again before this series is over).  Loki hijacked a plane because he lost a bet to Thor?  What kind of God of Mischief loses a bet to Thor?  Does this dude ever win at anything?

Loki (Tom Hiddleston) as D.B. Cooper.

Back in the interview, Mobius tells a frustrated Loki that he wants him to be honest about why he does what he does, that he seeks a deeper of understanding of “what makes the fearsome God of Mischief tick.”

Loki says he knows what the TVA is:  an illusion.  “It’s a cruel, elaborate trick conjured by the weak to inspire fear.  A desperate attempt at control.”  Loki insists his choices are his own, even after hearing his own words from Avengers on the replay file:  The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life’s joy in a mad scramble for power

“Precisely,” says Loki, God of Projection.  “I was…I am on the verge of acquiring everything I am owed, and when I do, it’ll be because I did it.  Not because it was supposed to happen, or because you, or the Time Variance Authority or whatever it is you call yourselves, allowed me to.  Honestly, you’re pathetic.  You’re an irrelevance.  A detour.  A footnote to my ascent.”

Mobius shows Loki scenes from a future he hasn’t yet lived:  the death of his foster mother Frigga in Thor:  The Dark World.  A death Loki inadvertently helps cause.  “The TVA doesn’t just know your whole past, we know your whole life, how it’s all meant to be,” say Mobius.

Loki throws a little tantrum when Mobius mentions his mother and gets time-looped for his troubles.  “You weren’t born to be king, Loki,” says Mobius.  “You were born to cause pain and suffering and death.  That’s how it is, that’s how it was, that’s how it will be.”

Mobius helps Loki up off the floor — which is a perfect opportunity for Loki to pocket the time-looping device — and then the interview is interrupted by the TVA hunter who arrested Loki in the first place.  She and Mobius step outside for a moment, and Loki makes good his escape from the interview room.

With Mobius and a team of hunters in pursuit, Loki retraces his steps and recovers his Tesseract, only to find it doesn’t work in the no-time (no-place?) of the TVA.  Worse, he finds evidence of the Infinity Stones of other timelines, common as dirt and utterly useless.  It’s a sobering discovery.  He time-loops back to the interview just as the hunter in charge — IMDB identifies her as Hunter B-15 (Wunmi Mosaku) — arrives to reset him.

Alone in the interview room, Loki restarts the video file that was being played by Mobius.  He sees his mother’s death from Thor:  The Dark World, sees his father Odin’s farewell and his redemptive team-up with his brother from Thor:  Ragnarok…and finally his own violent death at the hands of Thanos from Avengers:  Infinity War (2018), which is where the file ends, obviously.

Loki is still laughing about it, tears in his eyes, when Hunter B-15 finds him.  “What’s so funny?” she says.

“Glorious purpose,” he says bitterly.

Loki gets the best of the ensuing fight, using the time-loop device to take his collar off and put it on Hunter B-15.  No doubt thinking of the truncheon to the face he took at the beginning of this episode, Loki revs up the time-loop effect as high as he can manage and banishes Hunter B-15 to another part of the TVA complex.

It’s Mobius who finds him next, just sitting there with the useless Tesseract in his hands. Loki tells him that he doesn’t enjoy hurting people.  He does it because he feels he has to.  “It’s part of the illusion,” he explains.  “A cruel, elaborate trick conjured by the weak to inspire fear.”

“So you do know yourself,” says Mobius.

“A villain.”  It’s not the first time Tom Hiddleston’s take on Loki has had echoes of Shakespeare’s Richard III, and here it is again:  the idea that villainy as a character trait, at least for Loki, was not chosen so much as it was imposed by whatever laws of the universe make a creature the god of something.

Mobius tells Loki that he can’t offer him salvation, but maybe something better:  a function.  “A fugitive Variant’s been killing our Minutemen.”

“And you need the God of Mischief to help you stop him?”

“That’s right.”

“Why me?”

“The Variant we’re hunting,” says Mobius, “is you.”

The episode’s final scene takes place in 1858 Oklahoma, with a team of Minutemen arriving to find a spear-like item dating from the early third millennium.  Smelling oil, they assume someone from the future found a time machine and came back in time to strike it rich.  They’re about to destroy the item and reset the timeline when they discern a figure out in the darkness.

The Hermit, a.k.a. the Variant

The figure — presumably the murderous Variant Loki — stands in the dark with a lantern, resembling the Hermit from the Tarot.  Whether intentional or not by the showrunners, the evocation is an apt one.  The ninth card of the Major Arcana, the Hermit’s meaning suggests that you are in a phase of introspection where you are drawing your attention inwards and looking for answers within.  You are in need of a period of inner reflection, away from the current demands of your position.[2]I found this exact text on several Tarot sites, but was unable to determine the original source for it.  If anyone knows who actually wrote it so I can cite it properly, I’d be … Continue reading  I’d say that fits.

The Variant Loki, if that’s who it is, drops the lantern, igniting the oil on the ground and burning the TVA hunters to death.  Are they even human? Earlier in the episode, we’re told the Time Lords created all the agents and works in the TVA. They certainly look human. They seem to die and suffer like humans too.

Cue credits.

____

Like Ratatoskr, gnawing at the roots of the World Tree…

Journey into Mystery #85, Oct 1962, by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby, and Dick Ayers.
  • Loki’s first official modern appearance in the comics was Journey into Mystery #85 (Oct 1962), created (or reimagined) by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Stan’s brother Larry Lieber.  Loki has undergone some serious man’s reinterpretation over the last dozen years or so, becoming a more nuanced, complex character; by my reckoning, this more modern vision of Loki first appeared in J. Michael Straczynski and Olivier Coipel’s Thor series, which began in 2007.
  • For anyone wanting to read more about the Norse myths featuring Odin and Thor and Loki and the rest, there are a great many books available on the subject.  I recommend Neil Gaiman’s brief and easily digestible Norse Mythology.  And if you’ve never read Gaiman’s Sandman (1989 – 1996) in which the gods of Asgard play some part, well….you really should do that, and not later, but now.
  • Conceived as a sort of cheeky in-joke about the constraints and rigors of Marvel Comics continuity, the first agent of the Time Variance Authority made his appearance in Thor #371 (Sep 1986), courtesy of Walt Simonson and Sal Buscema.  Mobius and the TVA in all its inefficient, bureaucratic glory first appeared in Fantastic Four #353 (Jun 1991), again by Walt Simonson.
  • At the time the TVA was created, the late editor and writer Mark Gruenwald was the continuity guru of Marvel Comics, so part of the TVA in-joke was that Mobius was drawn to look like Mark Gruenwald.  The gag continues here in Loki, with Owen Wilson looking more than a little like a better-looking, movie-star version of Gruenwald.  If Gruenwald’s name sounds familiar to you, that’s because we just got done referencing him in the posts for Falcon and the Winter Soldier.  Gruenwald was the creator of both the Flag Smasher and John Walker, the U.S.Agent.
  • In the comics, while the TVA is certainly ready and willing to proclaim sole dominion over all matters time-related, in reality (?) they’re obliged to contend with the likes of Kang the Conqueror and Immortus and other time-travelers and manipulators.  I suspect we’ll find quite a bit of bullshit in the TVA’s official story before we’re through with Loki.
  • D.B. Cooper was an otherwise unidentified man who hijacked a Boeing 727 Northwest Orient Airlines flight between Portland and Seattle on November 24, 1971. After a stop at Seattle-Tacoma Airport to collect $200,000[3]Over $1 million in today’s money. and four parachutes, the plane took off again, ostensibly headed to Mexico. Somewhere over heavily-forested southwest Washington, the hijacker opened the rear door of the plane and jumped out into a stormy Pacific Northwest night…and that’s the last anyone ever heard of him. The case remains unsolved. This information was taken from the D.B. Cooper Wikipedia page, which I reckon is as good a starting place as any for anyone eager to lose themselves down this particular conspiratorial rabbit hole.

And that is that!  As always, if you’ve got questions, complaints, comments, or death threats, lay ’em on me.  We’ll see you for episode 2!

References

References
1 My feeling is that number alludes to something, but I’ve yet to discover what.
2 I found this exact text on several Tarot sites, but was unable to determine the original source for it.  If anyone knows who actually wrote it so I can cite it properly, I’d be grateful.  Info on the Hermit and the Tarot in general can be found at Tarot Bites.
3 Over $1 million in today’s money.
Categories
Television

Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Ep. 6: One World, One People

Welcome back!  It’s the final entry in our episode-by-episode examination of Falcon and the Winter Soldier.  As always, spoilers abound, and this article assumes you’ve seen the sixth and final episode of the series.

It strikes me, watching ‘One World, One People,’ how Falcon and the Winter Soldier serves as a microcosmic example of the Marvel Cinematic Universe at large.  Everything the MCU does well can be found in this series:  the quality and charisma of its actors; the self-assured polish of its cinematic craft; its notions about heroism and responsibility; and the sheer joy of seeing the characters and concepts of Marvel Comics brought to life.  Alas, the series also offers plenty of what the MCU doesn’t do well:  low stakes and a general lack of any real peril or consequences; the glossy blandness of a well-worn narrative formula; and a Game of Thrones-like disregard for time and distance, and cause and effect.  Like almost everything the MCU has ever offered up, it’s an uneven mix of excitement and disappointment:  thrilling, gratifying, maddening, and frustrating all at the same time.  As much fun as Falcon and the Winter Soldier has been — and it’s been a lot of fun, more often than not — very little of it holds up to even the most casual scrutiny, which pushes my particular needle closer to the maddening / frustrating end of the spectrum.  Not enough to ruin my enjoyment of the series, but enough that I find myself constantly wishing that this or that thing was done just a little differently.

The opening scenes and visual set-up of episode 6 made me realize that I probably haven’t given as much credit as warranted to director Kari Skogland and director of photography P.J. Dillon.  Look at this, from the opening seconds of the episode:

In addition to how good it looks — that lighting and composition! –the sequence lets us know who the players are among the Flag Smashers, and more important, lets us know where they are and what they’re doing, how they fit into this plan that’s still something of a mystery to the viewer, all in just a couple seconds.  We hear Karli’s the movement is ready pronouncement from last episode in voice over, culminating with It’s time and the appearance of the title card.  Nice stuff.

Would that this video extended ten or fifteen seconds in either direction.  We’d see Karli at the beginning, literally coming into focus, and at the other end, we’d see the suggestion of a heavy police presence and a lovely overhead tracking shot of the scene constrained by buildings at the margins of the screen.

Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman) unfocused, entering from the right…

..and focused, moving to center.

I say suggestion of a heavy police presence because what we see on the screen suggests more than it actually shows.  A television news voiceover gives us further info:  “We have breaking news.  There’s a complete lockdown at the GRC meeting in lower Manhattan where authorities are saying they’re tracking multiple threats from groups seeking to stop the GRC’s vote on global resettlement.  There is a no-fly zone in effect and the NYPD has the area secured for the moment.  Everyone is urged to stay clear.”

A lot of people dressed as police officers in a limited area, with the red background to orient the eye…

…which gives way to this overhead shot, the distinctive red background now at the top of the screen, and our view constrained at the margins by the buildings on either side.

We’ll see variations on these same tricks applied to the GRC council meeting and its members.  The chamber the GRC members are meeting in is bathed in the same emergency red as the front of the building, as are the adjacent hallways and stairways.  As for the GRC members, both in this episode and the last, virtually all of our attention will be focused on just three members:  our ubiquitous Senator / Government Official from the USA, a representative from India, and a representative from the Philippines.

Falcon and the Winter Soldier is full of stuff like this — all the stills I’ve used here occur in the first two minutes of this episode — and for all my howling about the narrative and logistic lunacy that hangs over the series, it should be acknowledged here that Skogland, Dillon, and the series’ editors[1]Roseanne Tan and Marvel Studios veteran Jeffrey Ford were the editors for ‘One World, One People’ usually do a really good job of disseminating information in a visually clear, concise, and interesting way.  (Speaking of photography and set design, you may be wondering why the GRC meeting is at night.  Could be because there’s a pressing urgency to get the vote done…or it could be because everything looks cooler at night, and it’s easier to control the quality of light.  You be the judge.)

With Sam close, en route by way of a new flight suit we’ve yet to see, Bucky is the first to arrive on the scene  — interesting that he’s known to local law enforcement and given free rein to come and go behind police lines, instead of, you know, being arrested for aiding and abetting the recent prison escape of an infamous terrorist — and he’s joined by the fugitive (?) Sharon Carter, using the same Mission Impossible-like disguise the Black Widow used to infiltrate Alexander Pierce’s inner circle back in Captain America:  The Winter Soldier.[2]A Google search tells me this face and voice disguise is called a Photostatic Veil, also known as a Nano Mask.  Now we know!

Sam says he’s called in some backup, and I assume he means Sharon.  The only other backup he could possibly be talking about is John Walker, and given how things were left last episode, that strikes me as unlikely.  Assuming Sharon is the backup Sam’s referring to, it’s a little odd to see her here, considering that last we checked, she was in Madripoor, halfway around the world.  If Madripoor is where we’re told it is, on the Indonesian archipelago, that’s at least 9500 miles from New York.  So either Sharon was a lot closer than Madripoor when Sam called her — cooling her heels in Newark, say, or on Long Island, which would be curious in and of itself — or else she took the Drogon Express from Dragonstone to Manhattan.

Karli, spotting Sam from the air, orders her people to start the plan in earnest.  Said plan involves the evacuation of GRC representatives by two different modes of transport, truck and helicopter.  The helicopter is being piloted by a Flag Smasher, while there’s a plan afoot to hijack a pair of trucks with the GRC people inside.  The plan is a little fussy and improbable, sure — all of Karli’s schemes are a little fussy and improbable — but not the fussiest or most improbable thing I’ve seen in the MCU, or this series, or even this episode so far, so…sure.  Let’s roll with it.

Sam arrives in dramatic fashion, crashing through the window near the top of the GRC building and taking out a Flag Smashing minion, not as the Falcon…but as the new Captain America, in an updated flight suit done up in red, white, and blue.  Now we know what was in the case from Wakanda that Bucky delivered last episode!

The new Captain America (Anthony Mackie) makes his debut.

When Sam gets reports from Bucky and Sharon that no one is moving toward the building, he puts it together that Karli’s trying to force people out of it…and no sooner has he figured that out but he takes a hard kick in the chest from a Flag Smasher who whips off his mask to reveal his face:  Batroc has arrived.

“You cost me a lot of money,” he tells Sam.  “I wonder how much I can get for your new bird costume?”

“A baguette and a few French fries?”

“The robes don’t make the monk,” Batroc tells him — cool line! — and the fight is on.

While an overmatched Sam struggles with Batroc, Sharon recognizes Lennox, one of the Flag Smasher super-soldiers, dressed as GRC security.  She and Bucky split up, Sharon following Lennox, while Bucky tries to get ahead of the evacuation from another part of the building.  He’s intercepted by an official-looking woman with a call for him on a cell phone.  It’s Karli.

“Aren’t you tired of fighting for the wrong side, Mr. Barnes?” she says.

“I’ve done this before, kid.  I know how it ends.”

Karlie tells him that she’s fighting for something bigger than herself.  Bucky reminds her that she’s hardly the only one who’s ever done so, and that in the end she’s going to remember all the ones she’s killed.  He implores her not to go down that path.

“If that’s how you feel, you should sit this one out,” she tells him.  She thanks him for taking her call, telling him he’s been a big help.  The phone call has managed to delay Bucky from his assigned task of covering his end of the evacuation.

Meanwhile, Sharon has followed Lennox down to the parking garage, where the bulk of the GRC members (including the representative from India and our own extremely hard-working Government Official) are being loaded into the evacuation vehicles.  Lennox shuts each truck’s back door after the people have boarded, then surreptitiously places a high-tech locking mechanism on the back.

The trucks leave, Lennox reporting to Karli that the hostages are en route, ETA six minutes, while Bucky steals a motorcycle from the parking garage to pursue the trucks.  Sharon manages to plant a device on Lennox in a kind of reverse pickpocket move.  It goes off after Lennox gets in his own vehicle, emitting a lethal gas that Sharon calls a mercury vapor (“among other things”) that effectively burns the flesh off the poor fellow.  It’s a cruel way to go.  R.I.P., Lennox.

As Sam continues his fight with Batroc, some members of the GRC council are boarding the helicopter on the roof.  Sharon tells Sam he needs to speed things up, as the helicopter’s about to leave.  Sam appeals to Bucky for help, but Bucky’s engaged in his own high speed pursuit with his stolen motorcycle.  “I don’t fly, man.  That’s your thing.”

The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) in pursuit.

Sam elects to play it smart:  he disengages from Batroc, throws his shield through one of the windows, and uses his wings to catch it and then pursue the helicopter.  Not much point in sticking around to take an ass-whupping from Batroc while the Flag Smashers get away with valuable hostages.  Sam catches up to the helicopter easily enough, but of course the pilot is armed and has several hostages, so stopping the helicopter or taking out the pilot while leaving the passengers unharmed requires some ingenuity.  Sam uses the tech on his suit to determine that one of the passengers — it’s our representative from the Philippines! — has the training necessary to fly a helicopter.

Karli and the Flag Smashers on the ground have gathered at the rendezvous spot.  While they don’t yet know what happened to him, they do know that Lennox isn’t responding.  That throws something of a wrinkle into the plan, but Karli’s not ready to abandon it just yet.  “Worst case scenario,” Karli says, “we kill the hostages.”

This idea is met with doubtful silence and raised eyebrows.  Karli may have readily stepped over the line into murder, but her fellow super-soldiers, it appears, are somewhat less than eager to join her in this regard.

“We’re supposed to use them to negotiate,” one of them says.

“To stop that vote,” says Karli.  “Either way, our message gets out to the world.  It doesn’t even matter if we die.  The movement is strong enough to continue without us.”  It never seems to occur to Karli that her followers might not be quite so eager to kill and die for the cause as she is.

“Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.  Hold tight, move fast,” Karli says.  “One world.”

The slogan’s call is met with uncomfortable silence.  The lack of response seems to take Karli by surprise, but doesn’t everything?

One world,” she repeats.  This time she gets the grudging one people response she was expecting.  Her fellow Flag Smashers are committed, at least, if not exactly enthusiastic.

As Sam is saving a pair of NYPD officers from a helicopter damaged in pursuit of the GRC helicopter, Karli and her Flag Smashers stop and hijack the trucks with the GRC hostages…just in time for Bucky Barnes to catch up to them and engage.  Karli orders one of the trucks to be lit on fire:  “We need a diversion.  Give him someone to rescue.”  It’s a smart plan, and it does indeed divert Bucky from beating Dovich’s ass.  Bucky breaks off from Dovich and begins attempting to rescue the hostages from the truck, which is no easy feat what with the fire and the locking device Lennox placed on the back door earlier.

Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman), Flag Smasher

Score one for Karli, but it’s a momentary victory at best, for John Walker has arrived on the scene, pissed off and looking for blood.  “Morgenthau!  Let’s finish this!”

“I didn’t mean to kill your friend,” Karli says, “I don’t want to hurt people that don’t matter.”

It’s a heartless, tone-deaf statement even by Karli Morgenthau standards, and it takes even the tactless John Walker by surprise.  “You don’t think Lemar’s life mattered?”

“Not to my fight.  I just want the people on that truck.”

If Karli was hoping to somehow calm Walker down with this ill-considered line of reasoning, she fails dismally.  Walker attacks, and finds himself taking on Karli and three other Flag Smashers at once while Bucky frees the hostages from the burning truck.

We’ll circle back around to the question of how on God’s green earth it’s remotely possible that Karli and her Flag Smashing companions could straight-up tussle with the likes of John Walker and Bucky Barnes.  For now, let’s say that Walker and Barnes get the worst of it, with Walker knocked down (but not out, as we’ll see) and Barnes knocked down into a nearby construction site.

Sam contacts the helicopter-qualified representative of the Philippines — he first texts her and then literally calls her — and outlines his plan to have her take over the controls of the helicopter once he removes the current pilot…which he does, using his hurled shield to open the helicopter’s door, and then flying through to take out the pilot, who he drops, still alive, in the Hudson River.  The representative from the Philippines conducts herself admirably, gaining access to the pilot’s seat and getting control of the helicopter in short order.

Meanwhile, in round 2 of Walker vs. Morgenthau and associates, John Walker is beginning to gain the upper hand after a shaky start.  Karli herself isn’t too doing too badly, but as angry as Walker is, she doesn’t seem to be able to manage much more than to slow him down.  She does well enough, however, that she’s able to reach the remaining, unburnt truck still full of GRC hostages.  She drives the truck off the road and through fencing, intending to sent it crashing down into the construction site where Bucky and Dovich are still squaring off, but the truck instead comes to a treacherous resting point on the skeleton framework of an unfinished building.

John Walker tries pulling the truck back to safe ground, but before he can manage it, he’s attacked by Karli and a pair of Flag Smashers, which sends all four of them plummeting down into the construction site below.  The truck begins to fall as well, but before the fatal plunge can take place, its fall is arrested.  Captain America has arrived.  With his flight suit and powered drones, Sam pushes the truck back up to safety.  A drone burns through the locking mechanism Lennox had placed, and the hostages are freed.

A crowd sees Sam do this — all faces of color — and one old fellow, beaming with pride, says, “That’s the Black Falcon there, I tell you!”

A younger man next to him, filming the event on his phone, says, “Nah.  That’s Captain America.”  It’s maybe a little cheesy, but there’s something wonderful about a cheesy moment that works.  I’m a sentimentalist at heart.  For all my criticisms about the frequent squirrelliness surrounding the plot and logistic elements of Falcon and the Winter Soldier, the embrace of Sam Wilson as Captain America is something the showrunners have managed with purpose and deliberation to good effect.

Karli attempts to take advantage of the distraction by picking up a spear-like piece of iron and throwing it with deadly intent.  The Winter Soldier plucks it out of the air, similar to the catch Steve Rogers made on Proxima Midnight’s spear in Avengers:  Infinity War.  There’s a pause — I like to think it takes a moment for everyone to fully digest the startling martial mastery they just witnessed — and then Karli starts to charge, but is struck and knocked off her feet by Captain America’s shield.  It caroms off of her to her fellow Flag Smashers in turn, and returns to Captain America’s hand as he lands in the construction site.

Karli, regaining her feet, pulls her mask off.  She looks sad, tired, frustrated, a little beat up.  It’s been a tough day for Karli Morgenthau.  Seeing Sam for the first time up close, in his Captain America costume, she says, “You of all people bought into that bullshit?”

“I’m trying something different,” Sam says.  “Maybe you should do the same.”

Karli looks unconvinced by this appeal to reason, but whatever she was planning to say or do next, it’s interrupted by the appearance of Batroc on the street above, who begins pumping smoke grenades down into the construction site to cover the Flag Smashers’ escape.  Batroc’s not the only late arrival; we see Sharon Carter make her appearance as well.

Batroc jumps down into the smoke, hands Karli a pistol, and the Flag Smashers gather and flee into a “tunnel on Williams, heading south,” according to Bucky’s update to Sharon, where they split up, pursued by Sam, Bucky, and John Walker.  Once again, what would action movies do without empty factories and construction sites?

Sam pursues one set of prints — he can see the prints on the ground with his infrared-capable goggles — while Bucky and Walker pursues the other set.

Before anyone can catch up to anyone else, Karli encounters Sharon Carter.  The two women point their respective pistols at each other.  “I’m disappointed in you,” says Karli.

“That’s what I was going to say,” says Sharon.  Clearly, these two know each other.  They lower, but don’t holster, their pistols.  “You know, when you came to Madripoor, you reminded me of a young me.  I took you in, gave you an opportunity….and you betrayed me.”

“Because you wanted to control a world that hurt you; but I wanted to change it.  I’m not interested in power or an empire.  I have bigger dreams.”

“What?  Like this?  Come back and work for me again.  All of you.  We can make a difference together.”

“You just want me because you need your muscle back.  Without us super-soldiers, how much power does the Power Broker really have?”

Sharon considers Karli’s point.  “More than you,” she says.  She’s a cynical beast, this Sharon Carter.  She’s also, as predicted, the Power Broker, and I don’t want to say I told you so, gentle reader, but I think we can we at least agree that Sharon’s revelation shouldn’t be a surprise for you.

Batroc appears.  “So you’re the Power Broker.”

“You hired Batroc to spy on me,” says an indignant Karli.

“Karli, you know I’m always prepared,” says Sharon.

Karli tells Sharon to get out of her way, but Batroc’s had enough of everyone.  He points his gun at Karli, tells them both he’s done with games, and that he wants Sharon to pay him four times what she said she would, or he’ll tell the whole world who she is.

“I don’t do blackmail,” says Sharon, and promptly shoots Batroc[3]Apparently killing him, according to CBR..  Sharon in turn is shot by Karli, taking one of those action movie gunshot wounds that’s more minor inconvenience than actual medical problem.  The sound of the gunshots brings Sam to the scene.  Still aiming at Sharon, Karli tells Sam to stay back.

“So what’s next, huh?” Sam says.  “You kill ten this time, then, what, a hundred?  Where does it end?  Please.  Let me help you.”  As back in episode 4, while I don’t doubt Sam’s good intentions, I’m wondering what possible ‘help’ he could render, or thinks he could render, so far as Karli’s concerned.

Karli tells Sam not to try and manipulate her — Karli has a sensitivity to being manipulated, possibly because she knows deep down that she’s easy to manipulate — and moves to shoot Sharon.  Sam attacks to stop her, and a fight begins, with Karli motivated by anger (and perhaps shame), and Sam by a reluctance to fight with Karli.

While this fight is going on, Bucky and John Walker have arranged for the other Flag Smashers to be taken into custody by a clever use of the Flag Smasher app, leading Dovich and company straight to a small army of well-armed NYPD.  Live by social media apps, get corralled and arrested by social media apps.

Sam’s tactic of limiting himself to mostly defensive action in his fight with Karli leads to his defeat and separation from his shield, and looks like it’s about to cost him his life when Karli retrieves her pistol and points it at him.

Luckily for Sam, Sharon shoots first, mortally wounding Karli.  Sam rushes to her; Karli has enough life left in her to whisper, “I’m sorry,” before dying.

Sam gathers Karli in his arms, takes her out of the tunnel and flies up to the street, gently alighting like an angel on the street where the GRC representatives and sundry emergency personnel have gathered.  (You’ll note that Sam’s landing is shot slightly slower than normal, giving it a heightened importance.)  He gives Karli’s body to the paramedics, and ignores questions from the press (“What happened to the Flag Smashers?”  “When did the government make you Captain America?”  “Is it still Falcon, or is it Captain Falcon?”) as he walks towards the hostages he helped save.

“Sam, thank you so much, from all of us,” says Ayla, the representative from the Philippines.

“Sincerely,” says the Senator / Government Official.  “You did your part in dealing with these terrorists, now we’ll do ours.”

“Are you still going forward with resettling the borders?” Sam asks.

The representative from India affirms it’s so, that GRC peacekeeping troops will begin relocating people soon.  “The terrorists only set us back a bit.”

“You gotta stop calling them terrorists,” says Sam, the press capturing his words and broadcasting them live.  Sam points out that ‘peacekeeping’ troops carrying weapons are forcing millions of people around the world into resettlement camps.  “What do you think those people are going to call you?”

India asks Sam if he thinks it’s fair for governments to have to support people who were resettled five years ago, at the start of the Blip.

“Yes,” says Sam.

“And the people who reappeared,” says the Senator, “only to find someone else living in their family home, they just end up homeless?  Look, I get it, but you have no idea how complicated this situation is.”

Sam allows that the Senator has a point — Sam doesn’t know how complicated it is — but that everyone finally has a common struggle now.  “For once, all the people who’ve been begging, and I mean literally begging for you to feel how hard any given day is…now you know.  How did it feel to be helpless?  Now if you could remember what it was like to be helpless and face a force so powerful it could erase half the planet, you would know that you’re about to have the exact same impact.  This isn’t about easy decisions, Senator.”

“You just don’t understand.”

“I’m a black man carrying the stars and stripes.  What don’t I understand?  Every time I pick this thing up [meaning the shield], I know there are millions of people out there who are gonna hate me for it.  Even now, here, I feel it.  The stares, the judgment.  And there’s nothing I can do to change it.”

“Yet I’m still here,” says Sam.  “No super serum.  No blonde hair, or blue eyes.  The only power I have is that I believe we can do better.”  Out in Baltimore, Isaiah Bradley and his grandson Eli are watching Sam on television, disbelief giving way to deep pride and approval.

Sam reminds the GRC people that they control the banks; that they can move borders, or feed a million people with a phone call; but who’s in the room when they make those decisions?  The people who will be impacted?  Or just more people like themselves?[4]I couldn’t help but think of ‘The Room Where It Happens’ from Hamilton when Sam said this.  Sam reminds the GRC that Karli died in an effort to stop them, and none of them have even asked why.  They need to step up, or the next Karli will…and that’s not something anyone wants to see.

“You people have just as much power as an insane god…or a misguided teen-ager.  The question you have to ask yourself is, how are you going to use it?”

Sam joins Bucky at the periphery of the gaggle of press and emergency personnel.  He passes John Walker on the way, and the two give each other a respectful nod of recognition.  “Nice job, Cap,” Bucky tells Sam.  They find Sharon Carter nearby, leaning against a car; she’s busy tending to her gunshot wound and refusing to go to a hospital.

“I’m sorry for how things ended,” Sharon says.  Clearly, neither Sam nor Bucky realize that she was the Power Broker all along.  “For what it’s worth, suit looks good on you.”

Sam tells her he didn’t forget his promise concerning her pardon, and turns his attention to a city official as Bucky leads Sharon off, presumably in the direction of proper medical care.  The official tells Sam that they have eyes on the last Flag Smasher that fell into the Hudson; he’s hurt but not down.  “Can you help?”

“Always,” says Captain America, and takes majestically to the air.

The remaining captured Flag Smashers are being loaded onto a truck, destined for imprisonment at the Raft — the very same prison housing Zemo.  The soldier who shuts the door on the Flag Smashers goes all Hail Hydra with it:  “One world, one people,” he tells Dovich, who gives him a confident and conspiratorial nod in return.  An escape from captivity looks like it may be a real possibility…

…right up until the truck explodes in a lethal fireball, killing everyone in it.  In a nearby vehicle, we see Zemo’s man-servant, Oeznik, putting away his detonator.  Oh, that tricky Baron Zemo!  We see Zemo himself at the Raft some unspecified time later, getting news of the Flag Smashers’ demise on his transistor radio and looking mighty satisfied with himself.

Later, in Washington D.C., the Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine is also getting the news.  “Hey Walker, check your phone!” she says.  She shows Oliva, Walker’s wife, the report on her cell phone.  The two are waiting for John to emerge from where he’s changing.  “Looks like our friend Zemo kinda got the last laugh, right?  Wow.  Couldn’t have worked better if I planned it myself.  Oh, well…maybe I did.  No, I’m kidding.  I didn’t.  Or did I?  Anyway, it’s going to save people a lot of paperwork and a lot of redacting and a lot of shredding.”

Walker emerges in a black, red, and white version of his Captain America uniform.  “Now this is more like it,” says Val.  “Things are about to get weird.  So, when they do, we’re not gonna need a Captain America.  We’re gonna need a U.S.Agent.”  She tells Walker to keep his phone on.

John Walker, U.S.Agent (Wyatt Russell) and Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (Juia Louis-Dreyfus).

In New York, Bucky takes Sam’s advice and comes all the way clean to his friend Yori Nakajima about his part in the death of Yori’s son.  It’s intensely painful and unpleasant — is there any real way to make amends for something like this? — but perhaps both men are better, more at peace, for the admission.

Sam visits the Bradleys in Baltimore, the ever-surly (and always funny) Eli answering the door:  “What you want, Black Falcon?”  He ain’t a Falcon no more, Isaiah says, but he’s still black.

“I saw what you did out there,” says Isaiah.  “And so, it seems, did everyone else.  I heard the GRC was standing down on those plans of theirs, so you must have done something right.”  Isaiah tells Sam that he’s special — not Malcolm, Martin, or Mandela special — but special.  “So…a black Captain America, huh?”

“Damn right,” says Sam Wilson.

Isaiah tells Sam that the fight he’s taking on isn’t going to be easy.  Sam allows that he might fail, might even die.  “But we built this country.  Bled for it.  And I’m not gonna let anyone tell me I can’t fight for it.  Not after what everybody before me went through.  Including you.”

“Shit,” says Isaiah, sounding cynical but looking proud and emotional.  “I almost bought that.”

Sam tells Isaiah and Eli he has something to show them.  He takes them to the Smithsonian,[5]About 40 miles or so down I-495 from Baltimore, according to Google. where a new section has been added to the Captain America exhibit.  This new section tells the story of Isaiah Bradley and his until-now forgotten and ignored brothers in the super-soldier program.

According to Redditor blue10075 and Games Radar, this is what the plaque beneath the new bronze statue of Isaiah Bradley says:

Isaiah Bradley is an American hero whose name went unknown for too long.

Isaiah was one of a dozen African-American soldiers who were recruited against their will and without their consent for participation in human testing in pursuit of the Super Soldier Serum. Most did not survive. The few who lived through testing were sent on secret missions during the Korean War. During the conflict, against all odds, Isaiah Bradley rescued his fellow soldiers and 25 other POWs from behind enemy lines.

However, fearful of the ramifications of a black super soldier, some individuals within the government tried to erase Isaiah’s story from history. His family was issued a falsified death certificate. And for decades, the truth of his unflinching bravery was buried.

How cool is that?  (Answer:  it’s pretty goddamn cool.)

“Now they’ll never forget what you did for this country,” Sam tells Isaiah.  “Never.”  A visibly moved Isaiah Bradley shakes the younger man’s hand and then embraces him, tears in his eyes.

The Isaiah Bradley Exhibit at the Smithsonian.

Back in Louisiana, we’re seeing what one world, one people might look like, with what looks like a grand (re)opening for Wilson Family Seafood.  Lots of people, lots of food, lots of dancing, and even a Bucky Barnes appearance.  Sam takes pictures with the flirty locals, while Bucky plays around with A.J. and Cass, and chats up Sam’s sister, Sarah, all to the tune of Curtis Harding’s retro-sounding, horn-driven ‘On and On.'[6]You can find out more about Curtis Harding at his website, curtisharding.com.  His music is available on iTunes; the song ‘On and On’ is from his 2017 album, Face Your Fear.  Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes take stock of themselves and each other, the sun setting over the Gulf of Mexico.

Cue closing title card — Captain America and the Winter Soldier — and end credits.  It’s an ending that sticks its landing for me.  However shaky the plot and narrative elements of the series may have been — and they were often plenty shaky — when the show worked, it worked because of the warmth and humanity of its characters.

A black Captain America?  Damn right.  Especially when it’s this Captain America.  I love that Sam Wilson is portrayed as consistently, unambiguously heroic throughout this entire series.  Kind, brave, responsible, and capable.  There’s never a moment where you doubt Sam’s good intentions or the kindness of his heart.

Can you help?

Always.

Sam’s not just worthy of being Captain America.  He’s perfect for it.  You may remember, way back in episode 1, the first words we hear in this series are the ones that were shared between Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson at the conclusion of Avengers:  Endgame.

How does it feel?

Like it’s someone else’s.

It isn’t.

What that opening left out was what came immediately after:

Thank you.  I’ll do my best.

That’s why it’s yours.

Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) and Captain America (Anthony Mackie).

____

This, that, and the other…

  • Sam Wilson’s first appearance as Captain America was in Captain America #25 (Dec 2014), by Rick Remender and Carlos Pacheco.  Near as I can determine, Sam’s Captain America suit was designed by Pacheco.  The show’s suit, which hews pretty closely to Pacheco’s design, was put together by the series’ costume designer, Michael Crow; you can read about Crowe’s work on the suit and other costumes on the show here.
  • Captain America: Sam Wilson #1, Dec 2015, by Nick Spencer and Daniel Acuna.

    As in the show, the comics too grappled with the notion of a black man wearing the mantle of Captain America, primarily in Captain America:  Sam Wilson #1 – 24 (Dec 2015 – Sep 2017) by writer Nick Spencer and various artists.  Spencer’s comic was more confrontational than the show, with most of the book’s villains espousing an unmistakably conservative / Trumpist philosophy, and the often-polarizing Spencer didn’t bother tip-toeing around anyone’s white male victimhood.  Plenty of characters — mostly white, mostly male — in the comics found plenty of reason to object to Sam Wilson, and plenty of people — mostly white, mostly male — outside the comics, in real life, found plenty of reason to object to Nick Spencer.  What Nick Spencer thought about it all, I couldn’t say, but my guess is that his reaction more or less mirrored our own collective national dismay at the rise — or exposure — of Trumpism:  you knew this sort of brain-dead, malevolent racist bullshit existed, but the sheer scale of it, the numbers of your fellow Americans who gleefully subscribed to it, was shocking.

  • As of this writing in the comics, Steve Rogers is Captain America and Sam Wilson is the Falcon.  Joaquin Torres is also the Falcon, and yes, I know it’s weird.
  • My Problem with MCU Fights, Part I:  Practically without exception and across the board, the inhabitants of the MCU are less capable than their comic book counterparts.  Not just in a physical way as it applies to doing super-hero or super-villain shit, but in every way.  The movie versions of Marvel characters aren’t as smart, aren’t as polished, aren’t as powerful, aren’t as formidable, functional, or dangerous as their comic versions.  My guess is that Kevin Feige, the guy ultimately responsible for Marvel Studios product, puts a premium on clear cause and effect:  whenever and wherever possible, x should lead to y in a direct and obvious way, and if that means leaving some nuance and complexity on the table, well, that’s the trade-off.  It’s a storytelling policy that largely limits the Marvel movies to working in and with one dimension at a time.  With rare exceptions, what you see is exactly what you get…even in cases where what you see ought to be something other than what you get (cf., Carter, Sharon).
  • My Problem with MCU Fights, Part II:  Along with this diminishment of functionality is a maddening ‘equalization’ of combatants, where almost everyone is roughly as capable as almost everyone else.  It’s like a video game where everything levels up at the same rate, resulting in an equality between foes that shouldn’t be happening.  Sam’s no chump, but he spends most of his time flying around on mechanical wings, whereas Batroc’s specialty is kicking people in the face.  Not a fight Sam should want to be in, especially indoors, where he can’t really use those wings to good effect.  Any Flag Smasher vs. the Winter Soldier?  (Maybe all the Flag Smashers vs. the Winter Soldier.)  That shouldn’t even be a fight.  Even if he’s not trying to seriously hurt or kill his opponent, Bucky Barnes has forgotten more about fighting than most of the Flag Smasher have been alive long enough to learn.  Karli vs. John Walker?  Marvel.com lists John Walker at 6′ 4, 270 pounds.  Big guy.  Wyatt Russell, the actor who plays John Walker, is 6′ 2, and nowhere near as bulky as the comic character; based on his body type, let’s put him somewhere in the 210 – 220 pound range.  Erin Kellyman, the actress who plays Karli Morgenthau, is 5′ 6.  She looks plenty strong and athletic to me.  Sam refers to her as a teen-ager, so after shaving a few pounds off for youth, Karli probably weighs in somewhere between 120 and 130 pounds.  Assuming all other things are equal — they’re not, or shouldn’t be, but let’s say for the sake of argument they are — Karli’s giving up nearly 100 pounds to Walker.  Just saying, 5′ 6 person who knows how to fight vs. 6′ 2 person who knows how to fight, the 6′ 2 person is likely to win that tussle.  And that’s fine.  It’s perfectly reasonable to have unequal combatants, and I’d argue it’d be more exciting to see characters coming up with ways to deal with opponents that are unlikely to be defeated in a fair fight.  Some things, you can’t just punch your way through it.
  • My Problem with MCU Fights, Part III:  People rarely get hurt in these fights, or show any ill effects whatsoever from being punched, kicked, pummeled, and straight up thrown through walls and the like.  They don’t even get tired.  Now, I’m not saying that I expect or even want the MCU to be ‘realistic’ when it comes to the effects of violence — super people are gonna be super people, after all, and these are PG-13 productions — but there should be some consequences.  A super-soldier with a metal arm punches you in the face, that should hurt.  There should be an immediate reaction to that, and the reaction in most cases should be crumpling to the ground devoid of consciousness.  Somebody call an ambulance.  The problem with the lack of consequences is that it diminishes the threat, and thus the suspense, of these confrontations.  It’s hard to care about what happens in a fight if there’s no risk of anyone getting hurt.  Most MCU fights, people barely get inconvenienced…and seeing as how all of these movies and shows devote a high percentage of their running time to climactic fights, the glaring absence of consequences winds up being a big deal.
  • Karli and her fellow Flag Smashers don’t seem to be immune or even resistant to small arms fire.  Why nobody thought to just bring a submachine gun or a pistol to deal with them, I couldn’t say.
  • Erin Kellyman, in these fight scenes revolving around the hostages, plays Karli as sad, tired, caught up in something that’s gotten out of her hands.  I’d love to know if that was the actress herself deciding to play it that way, or if it was a directorial decision.
  • I was this week years old when I realized that Wyatt Russell, the actor who plays John Walker, is the son of Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn.
  • As of this writing, the Georges Batroc of the comics is alive and well.
  • The scene featuring Sam’s conversation with the GRC, from angelic touchdown to his walking away, lasts over four minutes.  I’m not positive, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn it’s the single longest scene in the entire series.
  • It’s probably just a coincidence, but Baron Zemo and Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine favor the same color scheme, black and maroon.
  • John Walker’s first appearance as the U.S.Agent was Captain America #354 (Jun 1989), by Mark Gruenwald, Kieron Dwyer, and Al Milgrom.  The show leaves the runner on base with regard to Walker’s mental health, avoiding the subject altogether.
  • Neither here nor there, but in the course of asking Google some questions to bolster my nearly non-existent knowledge of basic New York City geography, I ran across this insanely cool site, Geek Trippers, which lists nearly every shooting location Falcon and the Winter Soldier has to offer, along with notes and pictures.  If you’re a fan of the show, you’d be doing yourself a disservice by not going to look at it.
  • A post-credits scene shows Sharon Carter receiving the pardon Sam Wilson promised her, as well as an apology from the US government as represented by our very industrious but oddly nameless Senator / Government Official.
  • Sharon Carter as the Power Broker.  I’ve got questions.  So many questions.  If Sharon only became the Power Broker after the events of Captain America:  Civil War, then how does Zemo know anything whatsoever about her, even by reputation?  He’s been sitting in prison the entire time Sharon’s been in Madripoor.  If Sharon’s the Power Broker, why lead Sam, Bucky, and Zemo, as well as a small army of bounty hunters in pursuit of a bounty she herself appears to have placed, straight to her serum maker Nagel?  I don’t see any angle from which that makes a lick of sense.  If Sharon was working on her own in Madripoor, without CIA backing, wouldn’t the agency have some questions about her time there and her connection with this Power Broker business?  I’m not saying the CIA would know everything about the shenanigans Sharon has been getting up to, but you’d think they’d know something…and that something, added to her off-the-books theft of Steve Rogers’s shield and Sam Wilson’s flight suit back in Civil War, seems like it would be more than enough to keep them from just giving Sharon her old job back, no questions asked.  And whether she was or wasn’t backed by the CIA, either way, wouldn’t she provide more value just staying in Madripoor?  It tracks that the CIA would want or need its own player on the ground there.  Sharon has the cover story and plausible deniability already in place, and knows the local game and all its players.  Why not just keep Sharon in Madripoor in her rogue agent role?

Longest.

Post.

Ever.

Thank you reading.  Please hit me up if you’ve got questions or comments or yearn to argue to the death over fictional characters and the universe they inhabit, because your humble correspondent lives for that shizz.

Next up:  Loki!

References

References
1 Roseanne Tan and Marvel Studios veteran Jeffrey Ford were the editors for ‘One World, One People’
2 A Google search tells me this face and voice disguise is called a Photostatic Veil, also known as a Nano Mask.  Now we know!
3 Apparently killing him, according to CBR.
4 I couldn’t help but think of ‘The Room Where It Happens’ from Hamilton when Sam said this.
5 About 40 miles or so down I-495 from Baltimore, according to Google.
6 You can find out more about Curtis Harding at his website, curtisharding.com.  His music is available on iTunes; the song ‘On and On’ is from his 2017 album, Face Your Fear.
Categories
Television

Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Ep. 5: Truth

Welcome back to our episode-by-episode examination of Falcon and the Winter Soldier.  As always, there are spoilers ahead, and this article assumes you’ve seen up through the fifth episode.

A climactic fight at the top of the hour notwithstanding, most of the penultimate episode of Falcon and the Winter Soldier feels like a deep breath before the final leg of a marathon.  It’s a time for the show to take stock of its human element and present its central thesis in a clear, unambiguous way.  With a notable exception or two, most of the episode’s running time is devoted to people at long last saying what they really mean…or perhaps finally realizing what it is they mean to say.

At the conclusion of last week’s episode, in retaliation for the death of his partner Lemar Hoskins, John Walker killed a member of the Flag Smashers in a manner that was very deliberate, very brutal, and most of all, very public.  At the start of this episode, we see him fleeing on foot directly following last week’s events, arriving at an empty factory in an industrial park.  The camera work here is out of focus, unsteady, never still, suggesting Walker’s tumultuous frame of mind.  Just about the time Walker calms down long enough to muster at least the pretense of having his shit together, the Falcon and the Winter Soldier arrive.

Bucky and Sam attempt to reason with Walker, but when Sam tells Walker it’s time to give up the shield, Walker predictably takes all their talk as a ploy to separate him from the Captain America identity.  “You don’t want to do this,” Walker warns the pair.

Bucky, who’d probably had enough of Walker’s shit before even meeting him, says, “Yeah, we do.”

And it’s on.

(L-R): John Walker (Wyatt Russell) and Winter Soldier/Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) in Marvel Studios’ THE FALCON AND THE WINTER SOLDIER exclusively on Disney+. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

It’s a rough, brutal fight, the sort of fight no one sane would want to have with John Walker.  Armed with the shield and his new-found super-strength, Walker proves a formidable challenge, but Sam and Bucky eke out a narrow victory, stripping the shield from Walker, breaking his arm in the process, and beating him into unconsciousness.  A battered Bucky Barnes retrieves the shield and drops it on the ground near an equally battered Sam Wilson, who’s had the wings torn off his flight suit, and departs without saying a word.

In the aftermath of the fight, we learn the authorities have landed hard on a number of GRC resettlement camps, but none of the raids have turned up Karli or her inner circle.  According to Lieutenant Torres, last seen in episode 2, the killing of a foreign national by Captain America has caused an international incident, and “folks higher up on the payroll are all over it now.”  I would’ve thought Karli’s intentional bombing of a GRC building with GRC people still in it might’ve stirred folks higher up on the payroll to be all over it, but apparently not.  With Karli’s trail gone cold, and Bucky in pursuit of Zemo, Sam elects to return to the States.  Torres asks about Sam’s broken wings, salvaged from the fight with Walker.

“Keep ’em,” says Sam.

Back in Washington D.C., the public removal of John Walker as Captain America is taking place:  “John F. Walker, it is the order of this council that you are no longer to act in any capacity as a representative of the United States government or its military.  You are hereby stripped of your title and authority as Captain America, effective immediately.”

John Walker (Wyatt Russell) and his wife Olivia (Gabrielle Byndloss).

When Walker requests permission to submit mitigating evidence to the Senatorial committee sitting in judgment of him, the chairman tells him in no uncertain terms that what’s going on here isn’t a negotiation, it’s a mandate, and that Walker’s past service to the nation is the only thing keeping him from court-martial and a prison term.

“I lived my life by your mandates!” an angry Walker tells the committee.  “I dedicated my life to your mandates!  I only ever did what you asked of me.  What you told me to be, and trained me to be, and I did it.  And I did it well.”

The committee chairman remains unmoved.  “You will be given an other than honorable discharge, retroactive to the beginning of the month.  You will hold no rank in retirement, and receive no benefits.”

“You built me,” says John Walker.  “Senator, I am Captain America.”

“Not anymore.  And if you continue to demean and denigrate the priorities and dignity of this council, you will spend the rest of your life in the US Disciplinary Barracks.”  The chairman says this last bit to Walker’s back, as Walker has sensibly elected to dismiss himself from these proceedings.  “Consider yourself extremely fortunate, Mr. Walker, and return the shield to us with expedience.”  That the committee doesn’t seem to realize that Walker no longer has the shield perhaps tells us something about their diligence and commitment to fact-finding.

Out in the hall, Walker’s wife Olivia is trying to talk him down from the ledge, proposing that he focus and take things one step at a time, beginning with visiting Lemar’s family.  In the midst of this talk, an unexpected visitor intrudes:  the Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (a swaggering Julia Louis-Dreyfuss).

After introducing herself, she sits down between Walker and Olivia and points out the obvious:  “Look, I would’ve killed the bastard too.  Nobody in there is mad at you about that.  I mean, you would’ve been doing them a favor by taking out the whole lot.”  She tells Walker that the committee’s members have interests to protect, and that he did the right thing in taking the serum, that doing so has made him very, very valuable to certain people.  It’s the second-best decision he’s ever made in his life, she says; the first, tied with marrying Olivia, will be taking Val’s calls in the future.  “Oh, by the way:  don’t worry about the shield.  I know you don’t have it.  Here’s a little dirty state secret:  it doesn’t really belong to the government.  It’s kind of a legal grey area.”  She tells him she’ll be in touch.

The cynic in me wonders why the committee didn’t simply pony up the old ‘the video doesn’t show the whole encounter’ defense, along with the tried and true ‘the victim failed to comply’ on Walker’s behalf.  Val’s not wrong:  no one cares about Walker killing some asshole terrorist, and the same committee that hung him out to dry would have been pleased as punch if he’d gone ahead and scratched Karli and her entire team off the board, so long as he did it with a modicum of discretion.  It’s not the deed, it’s the optics; or to put it another way, Walker’s not being removed as Captain America for committing murder, but rather for his spectacularly poor judgment.  The committee’s problem is that Walker did what he did in public, in front of dozens of cell phone cameras recording the event for social media posterity…and even so, given the post-Trump, post-insurrection circus of malleable fact-fuckery we’re all currently living in, I’m not sure it would matter.  In real life, it’s not a stretch to imagine the MAGA crowd reconfiguring the cold-blooded daytime murder of a helpless combatant into a righteous show of American dominance vs. terrorism….and it’s the MAGA element that would’ve given John Walker the shield and mantle of Captain America in the first place.  They’d keep John Walker under wraps for a month or two, while Lindsey Graham and the My Pillow guy appeared on Fox News to proclaim the murder wasn’t as bad as it looked, and anyway it wasn’t murder, and when all is said and done, isn’t John Walker a hero for doing what’s necessary?

Back in Riga, Karli and her inner circle visit their old camp to find it empty of inhabitants, only a few belongings left behind.  According to the notices posted, the camp was suspected of harboring and abetting international fugitives, and shut down after a raid.  It’s yet another example of an outcome that’s precisely the opposite of what Karli had hoped to achieve…though, as one might guess based on her previous reactions, that’s not her takeaway from recent events.  Instead, she prepares for further escalation.

The Winter Soldier finds Baron Zemo at the monument for Sokovia.  Zemo’s not hiding, not running, doesn’t seem to have any master plan, unless getting caught or killed by Bucky Barnes is the plan.  He warns that Karli has been radicalized beyond salvation and urges Bucky again to do what Sam won’t.  When it looks like Bucky is about to shoot him, Zemo appears calmer than Bucky does.  He looks Bucky in the eye and nods, as if giving his blessing.  Bucky points a pistol at Zemo’s face and pulls the trigger…but the hammer falls on an empty chamber.  Click.  Instead of a shooting, the Dora Milaje arrive on the scene to take custody of Zemo.  This outcome doesn’t seem to disturb or disconcert Zemo any more than the prospect of being shot in the face did.  As for Bucky’s dramatic pretense of shooting Zemo, your guess is as good as mine as to what that was all about, or what it was meant to achieve.

Baron Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) being taken into custody by the Wakandans.

“Ladies,” Zemo says to the Wakandans, then to Bucky:  “I took the liberty of crossing off my name in your book.  I hold no grudges for what you thought you had to do.  Good-bye, James.”  It’s news to me that Zemo’s name was in Bucky’s book, but okay.

As the Dora Milaje escort Zemo to a waiting airship, Ayo says they intend to take Zemo to the Raft, an underwater prison meant for super-human detainees, last seen in Captain America:  Civil War (2018), where he will live out his days.  Why wouldn’t they just take Zemo back to Wakanda?  Who knows?  She tells Bucky it might be prudent for him to avoid Wakanda for the foreseeable future, but they part on more or less friendly terms, with Bucky asking for one last favor.

Sam’s first stop back in the States is to visit Isaiah Bradley in Baltimore.  He brings the shield with him in a sort of portfolio case, but Isaiah tells him to leave it covered.  “Those stars and stripes don’t mean nothin’ good to me.”

Sam says he’s looking to understand…but understand what?  What happened to Isaiah?  How Isaiah feels about it?  He doesn’t specify, but Isaiah says, “You understand.  Every black man does.  Whether you want to deny it or not.”

“Don’t do that bitter old man thing with me.”

“If you ain’t bitter?” Isaiah says.  “You’re blind.”

Isaiah tells Sam he used to be like him, until he opened his eyes, saw men who’d served in World War II, who fought for their country only to come home to find crosses burned on their lawns.

“I’m from the South,” says Sam.  “I get that.  But you were a super-soldier, like Steve.  You could’ve been the next –”

“The next…what?  Huh?  Blonde hair, blue eyes, stars and stripes…the entire world’s been chasing that Great White Hope since he first got dosed with that serum.”

“Steve did not put you in jail.”

Isaiah Bradley (Carl Lumbly) and Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie)

Isaiah shows Sam pictures of his long-gone wife, the letters she wrote that he didn’t get to read while he was in prison; relics of the life Isaiah Bradley was owed and never received.  Isaiah recounts how he and a handful of his fellow soldiers — black soldiers — were experimented on with different versions of the serum without their consent or knowledge, given shots without knowing what was in them or why they were being given.  These prospective super-soldiers were then sent on missions, even though many of them weren’t stable, and over time they began to die off.  When Isaiah’s surviving companions were captured, Isaiah overheard his commanding officers debating whether or not to bomb the entire P.O.W. camp to destroy all evidence.  “But those were my men,” says Isaiah.  “My brothers.  Not evidence.  So I bust out of the facility one night…and I brought them boys back.”

Not that it made a damn bit of difference, says Isaiah.  It wasn’t long before he was the only one of his group left.  For his rescue efforts, he was given 30 years in prison and experimented on painfully, relentlessly, his captors trying to figure out why the serum worked with him and not with the others.  According to Isaiah, a kind nurse took pity on him and had him declared dead, effectively removing him from the system.

It’s to Sam Wilson’s credit and his kind-hearted, optimistic nature that he yearns to put this situation with Isaiah Bradley right, or at least as right as it can be after all these years and all this injustice.  Sam wants to do something, tell somebody.  The world is different now, Sam knows people.

“Man, that’s why you’re here?” says Isaiah.  “You think things are different?  You think times are different?  You think I wouldn’t be dead in a day if you brought me out?  You want to believe jail was my fault, because you got that white man’s shield.  They were worried my story might get out, so they erased me.  My history.  But they’ve been doing that for five hundred years.  Pledge allegiance to that, my brother.”

(I just want to point out how good Carl Lumbly as Isaiah Bradley is here.  He knocks it out the park with tremendous dignity and emotion.)

What Isaiah says next gets to the thematic heart of what Falcon and the Winter Soldier is all about:  “They will never let a black man be Captain America.  And even if they did, no self-respecting black man would ever want to be.”

Goddamn.  No beating around the fucking bush for Isaiah Bradley, no sir.

I’ve criticized the MCU loudly and often in the past for being bland, formulaic, and thematically one dimensional.  I’ve a life-long love of super-heroes, Marvel super-heroes in particular…but let’s face it, most of the movies that make up the body of the MCU aren’t really about anything other than people in colorful outfits trading punches and snappy one-liners in a bouncy CGI fun house of low stakes and shameless fan service.  It’s a formula that’s worked like gangbusters — financially, at least, if not artistically — so it’s hard to blame Marvel Studios for rinsing and repeating their way through most of 23 movies over ten-plus years.

But this…

It’s to Marvel Studios’ enormous credit that not only did they not shy away from the black Captain America aspect of Falcon and the Winter Soldier, they made it the central point of the series.  They didn’t have to.  Plenty of fans would no doubt have been just fine with an unambitious six-course meal of super-hero fights, special effects, and deep cut cameos.  In fact, going off the often ugly backlash received by the comics that served as the source material for this series — which we’ll address in more depth next week — there’s a vocal minority of fandom out there who are outraged over having to suffer what they see as the imposition of Marvel’s ‘liberal agenda.’

Racist and misogynist ass clowns notwithstanding, that Marvel Studios did their level best to make this series about something — race, representation, justice, responsibility, and competing ideas about what it means to be an American — gives me some small hope for the future quality of the MCU.

Shaken by Isaiah’s revelations, Sam returns home to his family in Louisiana.  The family’s boat sale has fallen through, but Sam vows to find a way to fix the boat.  When he discovers that his sister Sarah is still feeding poor neighborhood kids, Sam asks how many people in the community still owe their parents something.  “All of them,” she says.  “All that’s left, for sure.”

Sam decides to call in his family’s favors, asking his neighbors and life-long friends for help…and such is the Wilsons’ reputation for good will and high character that those friends do turn out to help, lending their time and their expertise when they have no other resources to give.  Another unexpected friend also shows up to lend a hand:  Bucky Barnes.

Ostensibly he’s there to drop off a large case — the favor he requested from Ayo and the Wakandans — but one gets the sense that maybe Bucky simply has no better place to be and nothing better to do.  One small repair job leads to another — the Wilson family’s busted down boat has no shortage of maintenance tasks awaiting — and it seems natural that Bucky would stick around to help.  A bit of mutual interest between Bucky and Sam’s sister Sarah probably doesn’t hurt either; the brief overtures of tentative flirtation between the two have a lot of warmth and charm.

Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) and Sarah Wilson (Adepero Oduye).

As the day’s work winds down, Bucky asks Sam if he thinks Karli’s going to throw in the towel.

“I think she’s gonna double down,” says Sam.

“Any idea how to stop her?”

“I got Joaquin working on something.”

“Well, Zemo says there’s only one way.”

Meanwhile, Walker is visiting with Lemar’s family, his parents and his sister.  Curiously, Walker repeats his story that what it was Nico Kovacszik, the man Walker killed, who was responsible for Lemar’s death, and not Karli Morgenthau.  It’s unclear to me whether Walker genuinely believes this fiction, or to what extent his belief might be willful or the result of some mental instability.  Lemar’s parents seem to buy Walker’s story readily enough, and appear comforted by it.  Lemar’s sister, not so much.

Out in Madripoor, Sharon Carter is getting up to some tricks, calling up our old friend Georges Batroc, last seen leaping from an exploding helicopter in episode 1, to offer him a job.  He doesn’t sound all that happy to be hearing from her, judging by her end of the conversation.  She tells him that if it weren’t for her, he’d still be rotting away in that Algerian prison.  When he’s finished with his outburst, she tells him she can offer him double this time, implying that she’s hired him in the past.  Again, I’m not saying Sharon’s definitely a CIA agent running this Power Broker operation and using her clout from halfway around the world to spring mercenary terrorists from prison, but I’ve yet to see or hear anything that argues against it.

In Louisiana, Sam and Bucky, having been shooed away from work on the boat by Sarah, set up some shield practice for Sam in the yard.

“Feels weird,” says Sam, “picking it up again.  The legacy of that shield is…complicated, to say the least.”

“When Steve told me what he was planning,” says Bucky.  “I don’t think either of us really understood what it felt like for a black man to be handed the shield.  How could we?  I owe you an apology.  I’m sorry.”

“Thank you.”

Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) with the shield of Captain America.

“Whatever happened with Walker, that wasn’t your fault.  I get it.  It’s just that shield’s the closest thing I’ve got left to a family; so when you retired it, it made me feel like I had nothing left.  It made me question everything.  You.  Steve.  Me.  You know, I’ve got his book, and I just figured if it worked for him, then it’d work for me.”

“I understand, man,” says Sam, “but Steve is gone.  And this might be a surprise, but it doesn’t matter what Steve thought.  You gotta stop looking to other people to tell you who are.”

Sam tells Bucky that to get well, he needs to put in the work.  That what he’s done so far in his book hasn’t been amending but avenging.  Bucky’s been doing what’s good for him, instead of going to the people in his book and doing what’s good for them.  It’s good advice.  Sam and Bucky part ways in a good place, Bucky telling Sam that when he has a lead on Karli, drop him a line and he’ll be there.

After all the work they put in, Sam’s sister decides against selling the boat, and after talking with her, Sam takes what may be the first real steps in becoming his own version of Captain America.  Sam acknowledges the injustices done to Isaiah Bradley, “But what would be the point of all the pain and the sacrifice if I wasn’t willing to stand up and keep fighting?”

Sam begins training with the shield in earnest, in a sort of Rocky-like montage, with the encouragement of his excited nephews, A.J. and Cass.  The way the sequence ends, with Sam looking at his nephews with love and pride, you get the sense that there’s an extra weight — I wouldn’t call it a burden, given the unpleasant connotations of that word, but there’s an extra something there — to being a black Captain America.  Sam Wilson as Captain America carries that weight for the A.J.’s and the Casses and the Eli and Isaiah Bradleys of the world in a way that Steve Rogers never had to, or would have been able to, for all that man’s considerable greatness.  Like the shield, like the Wilson’s family fishing boat, Sam Wilson as Captain America represents a set of values, a shared communal history, that goes beyond his own personal experience.

In New York’s Bryant Park, Karli Morgenthau and her companion Dovich are meeting up with none other than Georges Batroc.  Karli tells Dovich she hired Batroc to even the odds.  Karli explains that Sam recently cost Batroc a small fortune not long ago, and he’s been looking for revenge ever since.  Karli doesn’t seem to be aware of the Sharon Carter angle.

“So we’re working with criminals now?” says Dovich.

“Haven’t you heard?” says Karli.  “We are criminals.  Georges gets his payback and we get a killer.  It’s a bargain on both sides.”

Batroc asks if he was invited for a picnic.  “A test, of sorts,” Karli tells him.  “We’re everywhere and nowhere.  That’s why we’ll win.”  She activates her social media alert, the same sort we saw just before the Swiss bank robbery back in episode 1.  “We’re going to make sure the GRC vote never happens.”

“Hey,” says Batroc, “I’m not here to be part of your movement.  I’m only here to kill the Falcon.”

“You’ll get your chance,” Karli promises.

George Batroc (Georges St. Pierre) and Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman): “I’m only here to kill the Falcon.”

That evening, Sam is contacted by Lieutenant Torres.  He’s noticed a pattern of social media pings in Europe just before the Flag Smashers would hit a given target.  The latest such ping, he tells Sam, was detected in New York.  Sam, watching the news about the GRC vote on television, puts two and two together.  “Great work, Joaquin.  I’ll take it from here.”

In New York, the GRC is meeting in their UN-like chambers, discussing the coming vote — interesting that the same Senator[1]Played by Alphie Hyorth, he’s referred to only as Government Official in the IMDB credits. who presided over the John Walker debacle seems to be the unofficial chairman of the GRC assembly — when the lights go dark and the communications are scrambled.  Back in Louisiana, Sam Wilson at last opens the case given to him by Bucky Barnes, courtesy of Wakanda.  What he finds therein is a mystery for next episode.

Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) opens the case from Wakanda.

A post-credits scene — the first for Falcon and the Winter Soldier — shows John Walker in the apparent process of making a new shield for himself.  Not sure how that would work; so far as I know, John Walker doesn’t know shit about metallurgy, and even the poorest working duplicate of Captain America’s shield would require rare materials that’d be prohibitively expensive and nearly impossible to obtain.  Think a normal person trying to obtain a specific type of uranium.  It’s not really a DIY kind of project.

____

Got to scrape the shit right off your shoes:

  • What would action movies do without abandoned factories?
  • You do remember that in the comics Joaquin Torres becomes another Falcon, yes?  Of course you do.  In much the same way that there are currently two characters running around in the Marvel Universe calling themselves Spider-Man, Peter Parker and Miles Morales, so too are there two Falcons.  I know.  It’s weird.  Even more weird, while Sam Wilson’s wings in the comics and in the movies are artificial, Joaquin’s wings in the comics are part of him, the result of experiments conducted on him by none other than Karl Malus, the Power Broker…the very same Power Broker that gave John Walker and Lemar Hoskins their powers.  Created by Nick Spencer and Daniel Acuna, Joaquin Torres first took on the Falcon role in Captain America:  Sam Wilson #6 (Feb 2016).
  • Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine, Strange Tales #168, May 1968, by Jim Steranko.

    (In)Famous page featuring Val and Nick Fury from Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD #2, Jul 1968, by Jim Steranko.  Note the holstered pistol!

    While I doubt any appearance by any character could possibly surprise me as much Isaiah Bradley’s appearance surprised me, an appearance by the extremely obscure Contessa Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (played by the wonderful Julia Louis-Dreyfus, no less!) comes awful close.  Created by the stylish, influential, and boundary-pushing Jim Steranko, the Italian super-spy and SHIELD agent first appeared in Strange Tales #159 (Aug 1967).  I can’t speak to all mainstream comics, but certainly so far as Marvel was concerned, Val was the first of her type.  Practically all the female characters who’d appeared in Marvel comics up to that point were either earnest, somewhat innocent teenagers, or else were earnest, somewhat innocent matrons.  The Black Widow was still a few years away from sporting her slinky black leather outfit (a version of which we still see in the movies today), and Quicksilver was still defending his sister Wanda’s honor from lecherous pigs like Clint Barton when Val came along.  Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane Watson were appearing in Amazing Spider-Man, and Susan Richards, the Invisible Girl, was in Fantastic Four, but the nameless floozies hanging out with Tony Stark aside, you never really got the sense that any of the girls or women in Marvel comics were getting up to anything more risque than riding around on the back of Peter Parker’s motorcycle without a helmet, say.  They certainly weren’t running around half-dressed and getting up to skanky Italian shenanigans in Nick Fury’s apartment without a chaperone.  Not until Steranko created Valentina Allegra de Fontaine, at any rate.

  • The Raft of the Marvel Universe is in New York, connected to Ryker’s Island.  It otherwise functions in the comics much the same as it does in the movies.  The Raft first appeared in Alias #26 (Nov 2003), and was created by Brian Michael Bendis, Michael Gaydos, Mark Bagley, and Art Thibert.
  • Truth: Red, White, & Black #7, Jul 2003, by Robert Morales and Kyle Baker.

    It wasn’t a rescue op that sent Isaiah Bradley to prison in the comics, but his theft of a Captain America costume.  The details of the costume’s theft and the mission Isaiah took it on can be found in Truth:  Red, White, & Black #4 – 7 (Apr – Jul 2003) by Robert Morales and Kyle Baker.

  • As of this writing, Lemar Hoskins, a.k.a. Battlestar, is still alive and well in the comics.

That’s it for us this week.  The final episode of Falcon and the Winter Soldier beckons!  As always, if you have any questions or comments on anything you’ve seen here — or if you have Marvel Comics questions in general — please let me know!

References

References
1 Played by Alphie Hyorth, he’s referred to only as Government Official in the IMDB credits.
Categories
Television

Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Ep. 4: The Whole World is Watching

Welcome back to our episode-by-episode examination of Falcon and the Winter Soldier.  As always, there are spoilers ahead, and this article assumes you’ve seen up through the fourth episode.  I’ll beg the reader’s patience in advance; I quote dialogue fairly extensively from this episode, as much of what people say here reveals character and provides depth to the series’ ongoing themes:  power, powerlessness, race, class, and communal responsibility.

Hope and cynicism, death and zealotry.  No doubt it sounds strange coming from someone who’s devoted as much of their life to cataloging and absorbing these stories as I have, but I believe the only really inherently compelling thing about the characters populating super-hero universes is the extremity — the purity, the certainty — of their belief systems.  There’s an entire constellation of overlapping (and often conflicting) motives, methods, and philosophies at work in this episode, but one thing practically everyone here has in common is a devout belief in the essential rightness of their cause, or at least that their actions, however questionable, will be justified by the end result.  And as we’ll see, competing ideas about Captain America — both the person and the legacy — will once again come into play, and then some.

Our story opens around a campfire in Wakanda a half dozen years past, Bucky Barnes staring pensively into the fire, Ayo of the Dora Milaje standing nearby.  “It is time,” says Ayo.

“Are you sure about this?” he asks her.

“I won’t let you hurt anyone,” she says.  It’s not a threat but reassurance.  She begins repeating the Russian code words that have in the past activated the kill on demand Winter Soldier…but this time, though the words bring up a host of incredibly unpleasant and haunting memories and associations, Bucky Barnes remains Bucky Barnes.  Sebastian Stan has been good in all his appearances as the Winter Soldier, but he gets to stretch his talents here in a way that he’s rarely tasked to do.  His eyes fill and overflow with tears.  It’s a lifetime’s worth of guilt over having been made an instrument of murder, and relief that he can no longer be used as such.

“You are free,” says Ayo, and if that seems wildly optimistic — can or even should anyone be free of something like this? — her point is taken, and well-meant.

Back to the present in Latvia, and Ayo’s got some hard questions for her old friend Bucky Barnes.  Namely, she’s awfully curious as to how, after all that Wakanda has done for him, Bucky could conspire to free Zemo, the man who killed Wakanda’s king, T’Chaka.[1]It happened in Captain America:  Civil War (2016).  Bucky’s swiftly diminishing cache with the Wakandans buys him a little time.  “Eight hours, White Wolf,” Ayo tells him, “Then we come for him.”

A nice bit of composition, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) on the left and Ayo (Florence Kasumba) on the right.

Bucky returns to Zemo’s safe house and tells his companions the Wakandans are in Riga, after Zemo.

“It was sweet of you to defend me, at least,” says Zemo.

“Hey, you shut it,” says Sam.  “No one’s defending you.  You killed Nagel.”  That’d be Dr. Wilfred Nagel, the designer of the current super-soldier serum, last episode in Madripoor.

Zemo gets off what may be the funniest, most deadpan line in MCU history:  “Do we really have to litigate what may or may not have happened?”  Like everyone in the room wasn’t standing right there, two feet away from him when he shot a creepy scientist guy in cold blood.

While Sam is reasonably insisting there’s nothing to litigate — “You straight shot the man!” — Bucky reads the news that Karli Morgenthau and her Flag Smashers have bombed a GRC supply depot, killing three and injuring another eleven, and have issued demands promising more attacks if their demands aren’t met.

“She’s getting worse,” Zemo says, and strongly suggests that there’s really only one way to complete this particular mission.  He questions whether Sam and Bucky have the will to go that far.  Sam tells him Karli’s just a kid.

“You’re seeing something in her that isn’t there,” says Zemo.  “You’re clouded by it.  She’s a supremacist.  The very concept of a super-soldier will always trouble people.  It’s that warped aspiration that led to Nazis, to Ultron, to the Avengers.”

Sam admits that Karli’s radicalized, but insists there must be a peaceful way to stop her.  Zemo disagrees:  “The desire to become a super- human cannot be separated from supremacist ideals.  Anyone with that serum is inherently on that path.  She will not stop.  She will escalate until you kill her.  Or she kills you.”  The camera pushes in close on Zemo when he’s saying this, suggesting both that he believes what he’s saying, and that it’s important to him.  Zemo’s notions concerning supremacy and the desire to be powerful is something that he and other characters will kick around for the rest of this episode.

Bucky thinks maybe Zemo is wrong.  He reminds Zemo that the serum never corrupted Steve Rogers, the original Captain America.

Zemo concedes the point, but, “There has never been another Steve Rogers, has there?”

Reasoning that the recently deceased Donya Madani was something of a community leader, Sam wonders if the refugee community suspected of harboring Karli might have a sort of service or ceremony for Madani.  It’s as good a lead as any.

Meanwhile, Karli and her fellow super-soldier Flag Smashers are seen absorbing media accounts of their supply depot operation.  One of the dead workers was a father of two who’d only been on the job for a week.  If any of the Flag Smashers have regrets about being made de facto accomplices to murder, they don’t say so.  In response to the violence, we’re told the GRC has begun formally drafting legislation, the Patch Act, which would restore traditional border regulations…precisely the opposite effect that Karli had intended.

Arriving at the GRC Resettlement Camp building in Riga — a place Zemo remembers hosting ‘fabulous dinners and parties’ in his youth — Sam, Bucky, and Zemo try questioning the residents about Donya Madani.  They’re met for the most part with sullen stares and closing doors.  It struck me as curious that there didn’t appear to be any security or GRC personnel whatsoever present.  No guards, no administrators, no liaisons, no one to take note of the comings and goings of anyone in the camp, and nothing to stop outsiders from strolling in at any time to stir up trouble or take advantage of some very vulnerable people.  Also, it’s not as if Karli Morgenthau is some unknown person working under cover of anonymity.  She’s all over the news, she’s highly distinctive physically — no one’s going to mistake Karli Morgenthau for anyone but Karli Morgenthau — and plenty of people know that she has ties to the refugees in these various GRC camps, if not ties to this specific camp.  I’m just saying, it’s a little surprising that Zemo, Sam, and Bucky are apparently the first and only hounds to bark up this particular tree.

Sam does at least manage to find a teacher willing to speak to him, if only to tell him that, despite knowing who he is and perhaps even believing that he has the best intentions, outsiders to the camp aren’t to be trusted.  Zemo, smarter and more pragmatic, has better luck, appealing to the camp’s children with a bag of candy.  From them, he learns when and where Donya Madani’s funeral will be.

Candy from strangers. Baron Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) and the fine art of bribery.

Throughout this series and through this episode in particular, it’s Sam Wilson who, over and over, evinces Captain America qualities:  not just bravery and capability, but also kindness, compassion, and empathy.  It’s Sam who advocates for approaching Karli peacefully, and it’s Sam who’s able to articulate the Flag Smashers’ position, the reason for their bitterness and resentment, to Zemo and Bucky:  “Karli is the only one fighting for them, and she’s not wrong.  For five years, people have been welcomed into countries that have kept them out using barbed wire.  There were houses and jobs.  Folks were happy to have people around to help them rebuild.  It wasn’t just one community coming together, it was the entire world coming together.  And then, boom, just like that, it goes right back to the way it used to be.  To them, at least Karli’s doing something.”

What Karli’s doing practically as they speak is retrieving the remaining vials of the super-soldier serum from their hiding place in a cemetery, at the grave of her companion’s grandfather.  According to the IMDB credits, this companion’s name is Nico, played by Noah Mills, and I assume he shares a last name, Kovaczsik, with his grandfather.  Karli wonders whether she’s doing the right thing, using the serum to make more enhanced humans sympathetic to their cause.  Nico tells her that his grandfather, a resistance fighter who fought Nazis, used to say that if you were doing something and it made you scared, it was probably because it was the right thing.  Nico admits to being a fan of Captain America as a kid, and that he didn’t think there could be another Captain America until he met Karli.  Nico says that people need a leader that looks like them, that understands their pain.  “Someone who understands that today’s heroes don’t have the luxury of keeping their hands clean.  What we’re doing will outlive the legacy of that shield.”

“That shield is a monument to a bygone era,” says Karli.  “A reminder of all the people history just left out.  If anything, that shield should be destroyed.”

It’s interesting that each Flag Smasher in this scene unwittingly echoes the thoughts and guiding principles of some of their opponents.  Nico’s belief that the ends justify the means, that a harsher new era might need harsher new heroes to respond to it, is very similar to statements we hear from John Walker and Lemar Hoskins.  And Karli herself, with her myopic absolutism, finds her ideological counterpart in Baron Zemo.  Things are this way, this way and no other, however one might wish it otherwise.  In many ways, Karli and Nico either are, or are well on their way to becoming, the very thing they’re opposing.  You become what you fight.

Nico Kovaczsik (Noah Mills) and Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman), Flag Smashers.

Sam contacts Sharon Carter back in Madripoor, looking to get an extra set of eyes on the camp.  Sharon allows that she might still have access to a satellite or two (no surprise, if she’s still the CIA agent I think she is).  (It makes me wonder why Walker and Hoskins, a pair of operatives openly, actively employed by some branch of the government or other, don’t seem to be utilizing their own available assets in this manner, but why nitpick?)  Sharon tells Sam that the killing of Nagel has angered the Power Broker and stirred up a whole mess of trouble in Madripoor, and like everything Sharon says, it might be true, or it might be complete bullshit, or some unholy marriage of the two.

No sooner do Sam, Bucky, and Zemo set foot out their door on the way to Donya Madani’s funeral but they come face to face with John Walker and Lemar Hoskins.

“How’d you find us now?” asks an exasperated Bucky.

“Come on,” says Lemar, “you really think two Avengers can walk around Latvia without drawing attention?”  He’s got a point.  Bucky hasn’t exactly been operating in stealth mode; instead, he’s been walking around by the cold light of day with a world famous super-hero and an equally infamous terrorist in a Superfly coat.

Walker advocates for hitting the funeral hard and fast, but Sam argues for talking to Karli alone, and he’s backed up by Lemar, who reasons that if there’s a possibility for ending the matter peacefully, why not take the chance?  Walker grudgingly acquiesces, but I’m not sure he should.

One, Walker’s not wrong when he suggests that the time for reason is past; Karli did blow up a building with people still in it, purposefully and with murderous intent, and no one’s going to be forgiving or forgetting that any time soon.  Two, at last count, Karli had at least a half dozen enhanced super-humans with her, and for all Sam Wilson or John Walker knows, could now have a dozen more (she doesn’t, but none of the people pursuing her know that).  Three, however well-intentioned he may be, Sam Wilson is just speaking for himself.  He’s not in a position to offer deals, immunity, reduced sentencing, increased supplies to the camps, or any other thing that Karli doesn’t already have.  What is Sam really offering?  A life sentence in prison next to Zemo?  There’s zero motivation for Karli to surrender; doing so won’t make life any better for her or for the people she’s attempting to represent.

Walker handcuffs Zemo to a furnace in the basement of the building where the funeral is being held and tells Sam he’s got ten minutes, then “we’re doing things my way.”

There are maybe a hundred or so refugees or mourners at the service.  Karli delivers a speech that’s one part eulogy, one part revolutionary oration.  She notices Sam on the floor above, watching and listening as the service concludes.

When the people have gone, Sam approaches Karli, telling her he came alone.  “I just want to talk,” he says.

“Bold of you,” says Karli.

Sam tells her that he’s sorry for her loss, that he understands Karli’s frustration and helplessness, but that this doesn’t need to be a war.  Karli says the war was started when people were kicked out of their new homes and on to the street.  “People around the world need me. Millions of them.”  It’s a weird mix of youth, rage, idealism, and megalomania that Karli has going on.

“You want me to stop because people are getting hurt,” she says, “but Sam…what if I’m making the world a better place?”

“It’s not a better place if you’re killing people.  It’s just different.”

That makes Karli laugh.  “You’re either brilliant, or just hopelessly optimistic.”

“Can’t I be a little bit of both?”

“No.”

Meanwhile, an increasingly shaky John Walker — observe the unstable handheld camera work in his shots — is close to jumping the gun on his own ten minute mark.  When Bucky stops him from going in, Walker brings up the super-soldier serum running in Bucky’s veins, speculating on how all this is really easy for him.  It’s an odd note of insecurity from a guy who’s holding Captain America’s shield and has three Congressional Medals of Honor sitting on his trophy shelf at home.

Sam Wilson floats Zemo’s supremacist idea to Karli.  No surprise, Karli doesn’t see herself in those terms at all.  “That’s ridiculous.  Everything I’m doing is to end supremacy.  These corporations and the beasts that run them, they’re the supremacists.”

“You’re killing innocent people.”

“They’re not innocent.  They’re roadblocks in my journey and I’d kill them again if I had to.”  You can hear how young she is here, in her projection of certainty.

“Wow.”

“No, no, I didn’t mean it like that.  You tricked me into sounding like…”

“Like what?”  Like a supremacist, I’d imagine, though Sam doesn’t say so.  “I’m not your enemy.  I agree with your fight.  I just can’t get with the way you’re fighting it.  And I’m sure she [Donya Madani] wouldn’t either.”

Whatever Karli might’ve said or however she would’ve responded is lost as John Walker makes an unwelcome appearance, announcing that Karli is under arrest.  Karli punches Walker and flees, with Bucky in pursuit.  She loses him but comes to face to face with Zemo, who’s escaped his cuffs — people like him always find a way — and promptly shoots Karli with a pistol he’s procured from God knows where.  As she scrambles for cover, the pack she has with the remaining vials of super-soldier serum come loose, spilling out on to the floor.

“Is this what I think it is?” says Zemo.  He begins smashing the vials, while Nico hustles in and helps move Karli to safety.  Before Zemo can smash all the vials, Captain America’s shield hits him in the head, knocking him out cold.  John Walker notices one last vial that’d rolled away, and puts it in his pocket just before Sam, Bucky, and Lemar arrive on the scene.

John Walker (Wyatt Russell) ponders the possibilities of a future with the super-soldier serum.

Nico reports to Karli afterward that all the vials of the serum have been destroyed.  While Karli and her fellow remaining super-soldiers come up with a plan for separating the Sam Wilson / John Walker contingents, and then killing Captain America, Sam is back at Zemo’s safe house, contacting Sharon and asking her to keep her satellite coverage on Walker.

Baron Zemo is recovering with a stiff drink and a cool compress on a nearby couch, and why Walker didn’t just take custody of him while he was unconscious, I couldn’t say.  Zemo asks Sam if he was ever offered the super-soldier serum.

Sam seems to find the question amusing.  “No.”

“If you had been, hypothetically, would you have taken it?”

“No.”

“No hesitation.  That’s impressive.  Sam, you can’t hold out hope for Karli, no matter what you saw in her.  She’s gone.  And we cannot allow that she and her acolytes become yet another faction of gods amongst real people.  Super-soldiers cannot be allowed to exist.”

“Isn’t that how gods talk?  And if that’s how you feel, what about Bucky?  Blood isn’t always the solution.”

Bucky returns — “Something’s not right about Walker,” he says — and hard on the heels of that, Walker himself shows up, kicking open the door and strolling on in.  “All right, that’s it, let’s go.  I’m now ordering you to turn him over,” meaning Zemo.

“Hey, slow your roll,” Sam tells him.  “Let’s be clear, shield or no shield, the only thing you’re running in here is your mouth.  Now I had Karli, and you overstepped.  He’s actually proven himself useful today, and we’re gonna need all hands on deck for whatever’s coming next.”

Walker bristles up.  “How do you want the rest of this conversation to go, Sam?  Yeah.  Should I put down the shield?  Make it fair?”  He puts down the shield, while his partner Lemar Hoskins looks at him like he’s maybe lost his goddamn mind, and then…

Three members of the Dora Milaje of Wakanda enter, who announce their presence with a spear thrown across the room and embedded in a wall between Sam and Walker.

Ayo, speaking Wakandan, tells Bucky, “Even if he [Zemo] is a means to your end, time’s up.”  In English:  “Release him to us.  Now.”

Walker attempts to introduce himself to Ayo.  “Hi.  John Walker, Captain America.”  She just looks at him, a withering glare that says I’ve met Captain America, and you, sir, are no Captain America.  Getting no response from Ayo, Walker says, “Well, let’s, uh, put down the pointy sticks and we can talk this through, huh?”

Ayo (Florence Kasumba) stares down John Walker (Wyatt Russell).

“Hey, John,” says Sam.  “Take it easy.  You might want to fight Bucky before you tangle with the Dora Milaje.”

“The Dora Milaje don’t have jurisdiction here,” says Walker.

“The Dora Milaje have jurisdiction wherever the Dora Milaje find themselves to be,” says Ayo.

Walker tells her he thinks they just got off on the wrong foot, and claps a hand on her shoulder.  Ayo rolls for initiative, and an ass-whupping commences, courtesy of the king of Wakanda’s ceremonial wives.  Walker and Hoskins get a beat-down while Sam, Zemo, and Bucky (“Looking strong, John!”) watch.  Sam and Bucky finally intervene when it looks like Walker and Hoskins are about to be fatally dispatched by the Milaje, while Zemo takes the opportunity to finish his drink and make himself scarce.  He escapes into the bathroom and locks the doors behind him.

Sam and Bucky don’t fare much better than Walker and Hoskins, though in their case, both they and the Milaje are probably reluctant to really let loose against people they consider friends.  Ayo ends her fight with Bucky by disconnecting his cybernetic arm from his body, something Bucky didn’t know she could do.[2]This arm was designed by the Wakandans and given to Bucky in Avengers:  Infinity War (2018).  She opens the doors behind which Zemo disappeared, to find a hidden tunnel he’s used to escape, while Walker’s Milaje opponent — according to IMDB, her name is Yama, while the third Milaje is named Nombie — has taken Captain America’s shield from him.  With Zemo gone, Ayo tells Yama to leave the shield; she gently hands the shield back to a thoroughly defeated Walker, and the Milaje depart.  “They weren’t even super-soldiers,” a dazed and dispirited Walker tells Lemar.

Later, recovering over coffee (and signing autographs, of all things!), Walker asks Lemar if he had the chance to take the super-soldier serum, would he do it.  Lemar says he would, without hesitation, thinking about all the lives that could be saved.  “You wouldn’t worry about how it might change you?” Walker asks.  Power just makes a person more themselves, reasons Lemar, offering Karli Morgenthau and Steve Rogers as examples.  If you found yourself thinking at this juncture that the sensible and steady Sergeant Major Hoskins would’ve been a far better choice for Captain America than the impulsive, insecurity-driven John Walker, well…you’re not alone.

Back in Louisiana, Sam’s sister Sarah (Adepero Oduye) takes a call from none other than Karli Morgenthau, and like nearly everything Karli does, it’s perhaps the right motive married to the wrong method.  The shots of Karli and Sarah in this scene share a sort of compositional harmony, each of them mirroring the other.  Karli and Sarah often share the same side of the screen, and share the same type of close ups with out-of-focus backgrounds.  The camera wavers slightly forward and back on some of Karli’s shots, perhaps suggesting some uncertainty on her part with regard to her tactics.  When the two women disagree, they tend to switch sides of the screen.

Parallel shots, with Karli (Erin Kellyman)…

…and with Sarah Wilson (Adepero Oduye).

“I’ve seen you on the news,” says Sarah.  “You’re the leader of the Flag Smashers, those terrorists, right?”

“Revolutionaries, depending on whose side you’re on.”

“Is there a reason you’re calling me?”

“I’m trying to figure out if I need to kill your brother.  I thought I could trust him.  I got the impression that he and I had some things in common, but then it turns out he’s working for your new Captain America.”

“I didn’t choose him,” says Sarah.

“Who would you have chosen instead?”

“My world doesn’t matter to America, so why should I care about its mascot?”  The camera is very close in on Sarah here, as with Zemo earlier, suggesting both the truth and the intensity of her statement.

“I like you, Sarah.  You remind me of me.”

“Karli, if you believe one thing, believe this:  my brother is not working for that man.”

“I hope you’re right.  I need to meet with Sam.  Alone.  I’m gonna send you the coordinates to pass along.”

“Why me?”

“Because he needs to know that I’m serious, and I need to know that he won’t betray my trust again.  Otherwise, instead of meeting Sam here, I can always meet with you, and A.J., and little Cass there, maybe out back, by the dock?”

Sarah relays the message — all of it — to Sam, who advises her to take her boys and head somewhere safe.  Karli instructs Sam to come alone, but he brings Bucky along despite the instructions, and suits up as the Falcon.  As might be imagined, Sam is none too pleased about the threat to his sister and his nephews.

Karli tells him she would never hurt his family, nor does she want to hurt Sam; she tells him that he’s just a tool in the regimes she’s looking to destroy, that he’s not hiding behind a shield, and that killing him would be meaningless.  Instead, she asks Sam to join her, or at least ‘do the world a favor’ and let her go.  Before Sam can make any reply, he’s contacted by Sharon Carter, who’s keeping track of John Walker by satellite.  She tells Sam either Walker has found the Flag Smashers or they’ve found him.  I’m not entirely sure how she’s found Walker, but okay.

Sam realizes the trap Walker’s in, and sends Bucky to help after a brief confrontation with Karli.

Walker and Lemar have arrived at an unknown location (we’re not told where this is or how or why Walker and Lemar learned of it).  The two unwisely split up, with Lemar brutally overpowered and tied up.  By the time Sam arrives, Walker is actively fighting with the Flag Smashers…and has clearly taken a dose of the super-soldier serum, evincing super-human strength and durability.  Bucky arrives on the scene shortly thereafter, and this time, it’s the Flag Smashers who are surprised and outmatched.  Super-human strength or no, the Captain America / Winter Soldier contingent have a lot more training and experience than the Flag Smashers do.

Even so, Nico and Karli very nearly manage to get the upper hand on Walker, who’s narrowly saved by the timely intervention of Lemar, who’d managed to free himself from his constraints.  Angry and in the heat of the moment, Karli strikes Lemar with her full force, sending him flying into a stone pillar.  If Lemar’s not dead, he’s at the very least not moving and gravely injured.  All the participants, Flag Smashers and Avengers alike, are stunned by the sudden escalation of violent consequences….yet one more thing that’s gone directly contrary to Karli Morgenthau’s expectations.

In the face of Walker’s mounting, vengeful rage, the remaining Flag Smashers wisely decide that discretion is the better part of valor, and take the opportunity to flee for their lives.  It works for most of them…but not for Nico Kovacszik, grandson of a resistance fighter, who Walker sees after crashing through a window in pursuit.  He chases Nico into a public square, savagely beating him and then plunging the edge of his shield into a helpless Nico’s chest.  Cell phone cameras record it all — this new Captain America committing brutal murder, the iconic shield covered in a young man’s blood — while Karli watches, stunned and horrified, from one vantage point, and Sam and Bucky from another.

The whole world is watching.

John Walker, Captain America (Wyatt Russell).

____

Odds and ends…

  • Black Panther #1 (Nov 1998), 1st appearance of the Dora Milaje, created by Christopher Priest and Mark Texeira.

    The Dora Milajae are the king of Wakanda’s all-female cadre of personal bodyguards.  By tradition, they are ceremonial wives, ‘married’ to the king and to the nation, and their ranks include at least one member from each tribe in Wakanda.  The Dora Milaje were created by Christopher Priest and Mark Texeira, and made their first appearance in Black Panther #1 (Nov 1998).

  • As stated earlier, the obvious parallel for Karli is Zemo, but the parallel for the displaced GRC community Karli belongs to is the Wilson family (as well as the Bradley family, out in Baltimore):  they’re two sets of people who aren’t really part of a society that surrounds them on all sides.  Sarah’s claim that America doesn’t care about her world, so why should she care about its mascot echoes Colin Kaepernick’s, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”  One of the things Falcon and the Winter Soldier is explicitly about is the prospect of having not just a new Captain America, but a black Captain America…and not a secret black Captain America like Isaiah Bradley, but a public one.  To their credit, Marvel and the showrunners haven’t shied away from this aspect of the show at all.
  • Baron Zemo again is the MVP of the episode.  Without Zemo to drive things forward, where would everyone else be?  Sitting around at home, wondering what to do next.
  • There’s an ongoing motif of masks and dehumanization in this series I find interesting.  Whether its the Flag Smashers, John Walker, or Baron Zemo, the wearing of masks in Falcon and the Winter Soldier signals a setting aside of humane ideals and behavior in favor of open violence and the raw exercise of power and domination.  The masks are used to hide or cover humanity.
  • I rather wish the showrunners had gone some other direction with John Walker, or rather, picked a specific direction for him.  Crazy or not crazy?  Capable or not capable?  The show can’t seem to decide from one moment to the next.  It’s jarring to go from the John Walker who wants to do his best, who believes in the ideals of Captain America and genuinely seems to want to live up to them, to the John Walker who’s a petulant –and maybe completely crazy — bully, threatening to burst into tears because he got beat up by some Wakandan girls.  All of which, I guess, is another way of saying that I wish the show would have just hewed closer to the comics version of John Walker, whose weird mix of positive and negative traits is highly compelling.  That John Walker wouldn’t be caught crying on the floor after getting his ass whupped.  This wouldn’t be the first fight Walker had ever lost, and it’s unlikely it’d be the last.  Everyone in the room — including Sam, Bucky, and Zemo — has lost fights, and plenty of them.  They’re a little like professional athletes in that sense; no one likes to lose, but it’s part of the game.  I think Walker would reason that if he wants to win fights, he needs to fight better, and that’s about as far as his existential introspection on the matter would go.  Walker would likely be of the opinion that his defeat was his own fault; he underestimated a quality opponent, and this was the entirely predictable result.  Better luck next time.  The John Walker of the comics is an asshole, but he’s a capable asshole, and I wish we could see him here.
  • On the subject of Walker, I’m perfectly fine with Wyatt Russell’s portrayal of him, particularly in Walker’s quieter, more human moments.  Russell gives Walker a dimension and a gravity he wouldn’t otherwise have; I just wish the showrunners could have picked a lane for the character he’s playing.

That’s it for this episode!  Questions or comments, please let me know.  See you next time!

Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) and Sam Wilson, the Falcon (Anthony Mackie).

References

References
1 It happened in Captain America:  Civil War (2016).
2 This arm was designed by the Wakandans and given to Bucky in Avengers:  Infinity War (2018).
Categories
Television

Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Ep. 3: Power Broker

Welcome back to our episode-by-episode examination of Falcon and the Winter Soldier.  As always, spoilers abound; this article assumes you’ve seen up through the third episode (and optimally Captain America:  Winter Soldier and Captain America:  Civil War for good measure).

Ostensibly titled for the oft-mentioned but as yet unseen Power Broker (proper noun), episode 3 of Falcon and the Winter Soldier brims with would-be power brokers (common noun) and grasping intermediaries.  There’s hardly a person in this episode who isn’t intent on using someone or something else to get what they really want.  Throw in the strong possibility that a good many of them might well want something other than what they claim they really want, and hijinx ensue.  It’s a lot of fun, but, as we’ll see, labors mightily to hold up to even the most casual scrutiny.

As they stated at the end of last episode, John Walker and his partner Lemar Hoskins are attempting to track down the Flag Smashers by targeting the civilians who’ve been providing them with shelter and assistance.  A weirdly sedate raid on an underground internet operation in Munich yields nothing but defiance and contempt from the operator.  Out of options and out of leads, Walker thinks that maybe he’ll have better luck tracking Sam and Bucky’s trail to his targets.  The camera at one point is briefly out of focus and off-kilter when close in on Walker, suggesting disorientation or a loss of control on his part.

Sam and Bucky visit Zemo in Berlin, where he’s been imprisoned since the conclusion of Captain America:  Civil War (2016).  Bucky reasons that Zemo’s extensive knowledge of Hydra infrastructure can help them track down the super soldier serum.  It’s a little surprising to me that Sam can’t get a bank loan in his own home town, but apparently has little trouble in swinging an impromptu interview with Zemo in some kind of Berlin supermax.  It’s even more surprising, given recent history, that no one seems to have any issues with putting Zemo and the Winter Soldier together in the same room, but what do I know?

Zemo is played to snarky smug perfection by Daniel Bruhl, and comes across as dangerous and funny, all at the same time.  I think people often assume that I take exception to MCU characters’ lack of fidelity to their comic versions, but Zemo is one of those instances where I find the motives and personality of the movie version preferable to what we see in the comics.  He’s the MVP of this episode.  Zemo claims he has some ideas about where to begin searching for whoever’s behind the super-soldier serum but of course he can’t do it from inside a prison cell.

Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) and Baron Zemo (Daniel Bruhl)

And so, the ink on his pardon hardly dry, Bucky Barnes unilaterally determines to engineer a prison break for Zemo, the logic and logistics of which elude me entirely.

For starters, as of this point in the show, what exactly are the Flag Smashers guilty of?  They’re enhanced super-humans, sure, and their lack of being registered as such might be illegal (though merely being super-human isn’t).  They’ve robbed a bank, and stolen a few truckloads of medical supplies, which they intend to distribute for free to desperate refugees.  Definitely illegal, but still…breaking Zemo out of prison — a guy who bombed a UN assembly and killed 12 people, including Wakanda’s King T’Chaka — to help find and apprehend some thieving idealists?  That’s disproportionate crazy sauce, like deciding to treat common cold symptoms with open heart surgery.  And that’s assuming you can trust Zemo, which you can’t.  At all.  He’s as slippery and snake-like as anyone the MCU has on offer.

More, how on earth did Bucky and Zemo coordinate all this?  Surely the goings-on in Zemo’s cell are monitored and recorded.  Did Bucky give Zemo the keycard we see in Zemo’s copy of Machiavelli’s The Prince?  If so, where did Bucky get it, and how’d he get it to Zemo?  If not, where did Zemo get it, and why on earth would he show it to Bucky Barnes, of all people?  The plan seems to hinge on Bucky having the opportunity to drop a message to specific inmates that he doesn’t know and has never seen, and then having those inmates react in a specific way at a specific time.

Just saying, it’s a plan with a lot of moving parts that would seem to require not just an unreasonable amount of luck, but also maybe telepathy, teleportation, and clairvoyance for it to work.

Whatever the case, Zemo manages to free himself from prison, and rendezvous with Sam and Bucky at a garage I presume he owns.  If Sam has any objections to Bucky making him an accomplice to springing the most infamous terrorist on earth from prison, he keeps them to himself.  Zemo collects a snazzy leather coat and his purple mask from the comics, and tells Sam and Bucky that to track the source of the super-soldier serum, they’ll “have to scale a ladder of lowlifes,” with the first stop being a “mid-level fence” named Selby.

Selby runs the Princess Bar in Madripoor, a (fictional) rogue state island nation in the Indonesian archipelago, so it’s fortunate that, in addition to the well-stocked garage full of classic cars and small arms, Zemo also owns a private jet, that comes complete with a white-gloved man-servant, Oeznik.

“So all this time you’ve been rich?” says an incredulous Sam Wilson.

Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), Baron Zemo (Daniel Bruhl), and Falcon (Anthony Mackie)

“I’m a baron, Sam.  My family was rich until your friends destroyed my country.”

Looks like he’s still rich, and commands the loyalty of some very capable accountants and executors to keep all these cars and jet planes out of asset forfeiture, but I digress.

On the long flight to Madripoor, Zemo strains at the leash, testing the limits of what he can get away with.  He taunts Bucky about the little book with the victims of the Winter Soldier written in it, taunts Sam about Marvin Gaye’s ‘Trouble Man,’ and taunts both heroes about the legacy of Captain America they’re each struggling to live up to or escape out from under.  Really, for a character who doesn’t appear at all in the series, there’s an argument to be made that at its heart, Falcon and the Winter Soldier is a story about competing (and conflicting) ideas about Captain America:  Sam’s, Bucky’s, Walker’s, Karli’s, even Zemo’s.

“You must have really looked up to Steve,” Zemo tells Sam.  “But I realized something when I met him.  The danger with people like him, America’s super-soldiers, is that we put them on pedestals.”

“Watch your step, Zemo.”

“They become symbols.  Icons.  And then we start to forget about their flaws.  From there, cities fly, innocent people die.  Movements are formed, wars are fought.”  To Bucky:  “You remember that, right?  As a young soldier sent to Germany to stop a mad icon.  Do we want to live in a world full of people like the Red Skull?”

The conversation goes another direction from that point — the latest in a long and unfortunate MCU tradition of dropping the pursuit of interesting ideas pretty much the moment they’re introduced — though we’re probably safe in assuming that no one sane wants to live in a world full of people like the Red Skull.  I think it likely Sam and Bucky would insist that there’s a world of difference between Steve Rogers and the Skull, while Zemo might point to his vanished country and his long-dead family and say the difference in motive isn’t enough to make up for the similarities in result.  Would that we could’ve heard that conversation instead of spending time on the nonsensical details of an impossible prison escape.

The first act of the episode ends with Karli Morgenthau attending the death of an elder or relative — we learn her name is Donya Madani, ‘Mama Donya’ to Karli — in a crowded infirmary in a Latvian Global Repatriation Council (GRC) camp.

Zemo’s Madripoor plan involves Zemo playing himself, Bucky playing his mind-controlled Winter Soldier role, and Sam masquerading as “a sophisticated, charming African rake named Conrad Mack, a.k.a. the Smiling Tiger.”  When Sam laments that he’s the only one dressed like a pimp, Zemo says that only an American would assume that a fashion-forward black man looks like a pimp.  Zemo warns Sam and Bucky that no matter what happens, they have to stay in character (and never mind that the handsome, very obviously American Sam Wilson doesn’t look, sound, or act continentally African in the least).

Madripoor skyline

The trio crosses an empty bridge into Madripoor, and are met by a car mid-span.  I had questions:  Presumably Madripoor has an airport; they couldn’t have just flown in?  The car couldn’t have met them wherever they landed?  Where or what does this bridge connect to, and why isn’t there any traffic on it?  The bridge does look cool — in real life, it’s the Troja Bridge in Prague, Czech Republic, spanning the Vltava River — so there’s that, I guess.  But why not have Sam in his Falcon suit flying around the area, while Zemo and Bucky make it happen on the ground?  And hey, while we’re at it, where does Sam keep his Falcon suit when he’s not using it?

Unanswered questions notwithstanding, the showrunners hit a home run with the look and feel of Madripoor.  From the boats in the harbor to the glass and steel high-rises of High Town to the ubiquitous graffiti covering every available surface in Low Town, it’s a depraved Blade Runner-ish carnival of sleaze, neon, drugs, piles of cash, heavy weapons, and scary-looking people.  It’s better than I imagined it from the comics.

The Princess Bar is crowded, moody and atmospheric, one part night club, one part prison yard.  The presence of the Winter Soldier spreads an uneasy tension through the crowd.  Zemo tells the bartender that they have business with Selby, and at the mention of that name, a nearby stranger pulls their hood more closely over their face and makes an unobtrusive exit.  The bartender asks “Conrad Mack” if he wants his usual, which apparently involves ingredients freshly cut from the innards of a snake, and if you’re wondering, Gentle Reader, how it is that the bartender knows the Smiling Tiger well enough to keep live snakes on hand for his favorite drink but not well enough to realize that Sam Wilson and Conrad Mack are not the same guy, well…join the club.

A sketchy looking fellow rolls up on Zemo, tells him that word came down from on high:  Zemo and his entourage aren’t welcome here.  Zemo tells the fellow he’s got no business with the Power Broker, which seems to satisfy him, at least momentarily.  “Every kingdom needs its king,” Zemo explains to Bucky.  “In Madripoor, he [the Power Broker] is the judge, jury, and executioner.”

Yet another shady denizen of the Princess Bar approaches Zemo, and this time, Zemo orders Bucky to handle things the Winter Soldier way:  with the judicious application of devasting, bone-crunching violence.  Bucky leans into his work, putting it to half a dozen outmatched opponents, while Sam looks on, shocked and horrified.  “It didn’t take much for him to fall back into form,” remarks a sardonic Zemo.  He’s not wrong, and it’s worth considering that this — the Winter Soldier, and all the violence and carnage that comes with him — is Bucky’s natural state, his default setting.  Viewed from the vantage point of the events in the Princess Bar, the notion that any amount of therapy from a court-ordered psychiatrist could somehow have a positive effect on this lethal instrument of death and mayhem is laughable.

Just before it looks like some shooting is about to start, the bartender tells Zemo that Selby will see them now.  A concerned Sam asks Bucky if he’s good, but what is there to say?  The unbreachable gulf between who James Buchanan Barnes wants to be (or who he says he wants to be) and who the Winter Soldier is just got shamefully exposed in no uncertain terms.  Depending on how you want to look at it, it’s a huge mental health setback for Bucky, or it’s probably the best the Winter Soldier has felt in months or maybe years.  Maybe it’s both.

There’s a stylish slow-motion entrance for our heroes into Selby’s backroom den, set to the tune of Edith Piaf’s ‘Le Petit Homme,’ that’s so much fun I don’t even care that it doesn’t seem to connect to anyone or anything going on here.  It’s possible that the shot of gambling tables on a bank of video monitors and the French-language song hearkens back to the Princess Bar’s thematic ancestor, Rick’s Cafe from Casablanca (1943).  It’s also possible that the showrunners just thought dudes walking in slow-motion while an Edith Piaf tune played would be really cool, and that’s as far as the reasoning went.

The sequence perhaps owes something to this similar slow-motion intro in Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973), the Rolling Stones’ ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ providing the soundtrack:

And it also put me in mind of O-Ren Iishi and associates arriving at the House of Blue Leaves in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Volume 1 (2003), to the rough-as-fuck sounding ‘Battle Without Honor or Humanity’ by Tomoyasu Hotei:

(Something cool and subtle here:  the first half of this video, O-Ren’s lowest henchmen, members of the Crazy 88’s, are shot at more or less regular speed; O-Ren’s lieutenants, Sophie Fatale and school girl bad-ass Go-Go Yubari, are shot in slow motion; and O-Ren herself shot slowest of all, giving her a floating, regal gravity that the others don’t possess.  She’s also the only one who looks directly into the camera, Hannibal Lector style, and the only one dressed all in Japanese funereal white.)

Selby turns out to be a faux-hawked middle-aged woman played with scene-chewing gusto by Imelda Corcoran.  In exchange for information from Selby about the super-soldier serum, Zemo is offering the Winter Soldier and the code words to control him.  Selby is intrigued — “I’m glad I decided not to kill you immediately.” — and offers a man named Dr. Wilfred Nagel as the culprit behind the serum’s creation, who is or was working for the Power Broker.

Before she and Zemo can get deep into the nuts and bolts of their deal, however, Sam Wilson gets an inopportune call on his cell phone.  Selby insists he answer it, on speaker, no less.  It turns out to be Sam’s sister Sarah, last seen in episode 1, calling to talk about the family’s boat situation.  Sam tries to bluff his way through it, but his sister makes short work of Sam’s cover as a charming, sophisticated African rake.

Selby orders her henchmen to kill her visitors, but before any of that can happen, a shot from outside punches through and takes out Selby.  Sam and Bucky easily overwhelm her remaining henchmen.  Sam worries that Selby’s death will be pinned on them, perhaps not realizing that neither the legal framework nor the moral will exist in Madripoor to pin anything on anyone.  Zemo advises Sam and Bucky to leave their weapons — why?  who knows? — and follow him, but hardly are they out the door before a general message goes out, like a criminal amber alert, that Selby is dead and there’s a thousand bit coin bounty offered for her killers.  According to what I’ve read, that translates to something like $58 million dollars,[1]https://cointelegraph.com/news/latest-episode-of-the-falcon-and-the-winter-soldier-involves-massive-bitcoin-bounty which is a preposterous sum in retaliation for the killing of a “mid-level fence.”  If anyone cared $58 million worth about Selby’s well-being, she’d still be alive.  Also, if the MCU’s Madripoor is anything like the comics’ Madripoor, there’s not a soul in this part of town who wouldn’t cheerfully feed our heroes feet first through a wood chipper for the price of a round of drinks and a Groupon for Uber Deluxe.

Sam, Bucky, and Zemo are quickly recognized and marked out on the street, and general gunfire quickly breaks out.  Chased to an alleyway, the three are saved by an unknown sniper who then makes their way down to the street.  It’s the figure in the hood from the Princess Bar, who turns out to be none other than Sharon Carter (Emily Vancamp), last seen in Captain America:  Civil War (2016).

Sharon Carter (Emily Vancamp). She’s kind of awful now.

According to Sharon, she’s been on the run since the events of Civil War.  Unlike Sam and even Bucky, Sharon says she didn’t have the Avengers to back her up, so here she is, off the grid (sort of) in Madripoor.  (There’s some reason to think that Sharon’s tale is a hot n’ stinky bowl of brazen lies and outright fiction; more on that momentarily.)  Since they seem to have some common interests and shared history, Sharon offers to hide Sam, Bucky, and Zemo at a place she has in High Town.

Sharon has picked up the life and demeanor of a dealer of high-priced stolen art — “At some point I thought if I had to hustle, I might as well enjoy the life of a real hustler.” — with a side-line in deep cynicism.

When Sam attempts to apologize for her current circumstances, Sharon says, “Look, you know the whole hero thing is a joke, right?  I mean, the way you gave up that shield, deep down, you must know it’s all hypocrisy.”

“He knows,” says Zemo, “and not so deep down.”  Say what you will about Baron Zemo, he never misses a chance to stir the turd.

Sharon asks how the new Captain America is, and Bucky tells her not to get him started.  “Please,” she says, “you buy into all that stars and stripes bullshit.  Before you were his [Zemo’s] pet psychopath, you were Mister America.  Cap’s best friend.”

“Wow.  She’s kind of awful now,” Bucky tells Sam.

Sharon has heard of Nagel, and knows he works for the Power Broker.  Sam asks for her help, and says he can get her name cleared.  Myself, considering his role in Zemo’s escape, I rather doubt Sam’s going to manage to get his own name cleared, never mind Sharon’s, but that’s the pitch.

Sharon tracks Nagel to the docks, where Nagel operates out of a secret lab fronted by a shipping container.  She says she’ll watch outside while the three question Nagel.  Nagel, a nervous and furtive sort, says that he was brought into Hydra’s Winter Soldier program after the failure of the Siberian subjects seen in Civil War, and then recruited by the CIA after Hydra fell.  Nagel says the CIA had super-soldier blood samples from an American test subject (Sam will later assume that Nagel is talking about Isaiah Bradley), and after “much labor,” Nagel was able to isolate the compounds.  According to Nagel, not only was he able to recreate the important elements of Professor Erskine’s formula, he was well on his way to improving on it…but before he could complete his work, Nagel became part of the unfortunate half of the universe removed from existence by Thanos in Avengers:  Infinity War (2018).  When he returned, five years later, the program had been abandoned, so he came to Madripoor, where the Power Broker was happy to fund the recreation of his work.

Nagel says he made twenty vials of his super-soldier serum, but they were stolen by Karli Morgenthau.  He says he doesn’t know where Karli is, but that she contacted him recently, asking if he could help someone named Donya Madani, who was dying of tuberculosis (which we know she succumbed to).  Sam asks what happened to Madani, and Nagel shrugs.  “Not my pig.  Not my farm.”  Nice.

While all this interrogating is going on, Sharon is outside, fighting with bounty hunters and mercenaries who have arrived.  Zemo has searched the lab and, unknown to Sam and Bucky, procured a pistol for himself.

Bucky asks if there’s any serum in the lab, and Nagel says there isn’t.  Sharon arrives, telling the group they’re out of time, and then Zemo up and shoots Nagel in cold blood with the pistol he found.  And right after that, some bounty hunting fool with a rocket launcher shoots some heavy duty ordinance at the lab.  The group escapes the now-burning lab, and a firefight ensues.  It’s Zemo who saves the day, exploding a gas line, going all Lethal Weapon on most of the remaining bounty hunters, and then procuring a cool convertible in which to escape.  The group parts ways with Sharon at the docks, with her reminding Sam to get her that pardon he promised her.

Once they’re gone, Sharon meets a woman — fellow agent?  employee? — waiting with a car.  “We’ve got a big problem,” Sharon tells her.  “Actually, a couple of them.  I’ll tell you in the car.  Let’s go.”  Hmm.

The second act ends with Karli again, scouting a GRC supply depot in Vilnius, Lithuania.  Karli and one of her fellow Flag Smashers talk a bit about their time in Madripoor.  Her companion reminds her that the Power Broker is bound to come looking for them again.  Karli tells him it won’t be a problem.  She’s heard Nagel was killed in Madripoor, and they’ve got the last of the serum.  “The Power Broker’s about to come begging.”

Meanwhile, John Walker and Lemar Hoskins have discovered that Sam and Bucky were at Zemo’s prison the day of his escape.  Lemar’s skeptical that springing Zemo is a thing Sam and Bucky would’ve done, but John Walker has no doubts.  He proposes again following Sam and Bucky’s trail, reasoning that if he and Lamar get the job done, no one will much care about how they got it done.

Armed with Donya Madani’s name and circumstances, Sam’s friend Lieutenant Torres is able to track her down to Riga, in Latvia.  Zemo says he has a place they can go, because of course he does.

On the way, in the plane, Sam considers that maybe he was wrong to give up the shield.  Maybe he made a mistake.  “You did,” says Bucky, and says that a new Captain America is needed, and it’s not going to be John Walker.  Bucky says he’ll take the shield from Walker himself if need be.

Back in Latvia, Karli Morgenthau makes the critical jump from thieving idealist to murdering zealot.  After overpowering the guards and stealing supplies from the GRC depot, she detonates an explosive, destroying the building and the half dozen or so guards who were still restrained in it.

“There were still people in there!” her companion says.

“This is the only language these people understand,” says Karli.

In Riga, Zemo tells Sam and Bucky about his now-extinct country of Sokovia, cannibalized by its neighbors and erased from the map.  “I don’t suppose any of you bothered visiting the memorial?  Of course not.  Why would you?”

Arriving at Zemo’s safehouse, a distracted Bucky Barnes tells his companions he’s going on a walk.  After Sam and Zemo enter the safehouse, Bucky reaches down, picks up a small metal ball from the ground.  He finds another one around a corner, and walks down an empty side street.  “You dropped something,” he says, holding up the ball, looking around and finding no one, then:  “I was wondering when you’d show up.”  He turns around…

…and comes face to face with Ayo of the Wakandan Dora Milaje, last seen in Black Panther (2018).  You do remember that King T’Chaka of Wakanda was one of Zemo’s bombing victims, yes?  Ayo does.

“I’m here for Zemo.”

Ayo (Florence Kasumba)

____

I’ve got a raging fever and the only cure is more cowbell.

  •  The principality of Madripoor first appeared in New Mutants #32 (Oct 1985), created by Chris Claremont and Steve Leialoha.  The Princess Bar first appeared in Marvel Comics Presents #1 (Sep 1988), created by Chris Claremont and John Buscema.
  • Madripoor’s skyline here is all CGI, modeled on the likes of Hong Kong and Singapore.  On a semi-related note, it struck me how much the Madripoor section of this episode looks like Ridley Scott set and art design with Tony Scott cinematography — that color-saturated look — with maybe just a hint of Michael Mann thrown in for good measure.  The main movies that spring to mind for the look and feel of Madripoor are Blade Runner (1982, d. R. Scott), Man on Fire (2004, d. T. Scott), and Collateral (2004, d. M. Mann), though I’m sure we could point to others by each of these directors and to the many people they’ve influenced.
  • There is a Conrad Mack in the comics, and he is indeed known as the Smiling Tiger, but he’s neither charming nor sophisticated nor African.  He first appeared in New Warriors #19 (Jan 1992) created by Fabian Nicieza and Mark Bagley.
  • During the fight in the bar, dig the Winter Soldier music / sound effect from Captain America:  Winter Soldier (2016), deployed at roughly the 20:25 and 20:35 – 40 marks!
  • Sharon Carter, a.k.a. Agent 13 of SHIELD, first appeared in Tales of Suspense #75 (Mar 1966), created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Dick Ayers.  The Sharon Carter of the comics shares some of the cynical pragmatism of the Sharon we see here.  A get it done whatever it takes type of person.  As played by Emily Vancamp in the movies, she made her first appearance in Winter Soldier.
  • Ayo of Wakanda is primarily a character in the movies — she first appeared in Captain America:  Civil War — but was backdated to an unnamed character in the comics.  I believe her first real, named appearance was Black Panther #1 (Jun 2016); she was created by Ta-Nahesi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze.

Speaking of Sharon Carter, let’s address Sharon and her Madripoor story for a moment, and consider the strong possiblity that the whole thing is complete bullshit.

  • Exhibit A:  Bucky Barnes is going to get a pardon for the events of Civil War and Sharon Carter isn’t?  That sounds weird right off the bat.  I think it’s far more likely that Sharon’s outlaw status and Madripoor’s lack of extradition buys her some cover to work her craft.  She’s smart enough, capable enough, and fierce enough to survive and even thrive in Madripoor…exactly the sort of person any self-respecting spy agency would want to run a plausibly deniable operation on their behalf in a foreign locale.  Independent enough to go deep cover as a way of life, but (probably) dedicated and principled enough not to go completely off the reservation.
  • Exhibit B:  Nagel admits to working with Hydra, and following their dissolution / rebranding, for the CIA.  The CIA operates on foreign soil, and I think it’s reasonable to assume that they’d have some interest in a super-soldier program.  They’d certainly have the clout and the funding to run it.  And who do we see working for the CIA at the end of Captain America:  Winter Soldier?
  • Exhibit C:  Who shot Selby?  At first glance, an agent of the Power Broker seems like the most likely culprit, but if so, why shoot Selby, and not the far more dangerous Zemo or Bucky Barnes?  Take out Zemo or Bucky, that’s the end of the investigation.  Sharon seems surprised by Selby’s death, or at least acts like she’s just learned of it, but if it wasn’t an agent of the Power Broker who shot Selby, Sharon would be the next most likely suspect.  We know she was in the area, we know she can shoot, know she had the weapon on hand to do it with, and would have had good reason to shoot Selby instead of Sam or Bucky, who are friends, after all, or are at least as friendly with Sharon as anyone is likely to get.  But what about Zemo?  Good question.
  • Exhibit D:  It’s Sharon who supplies the location of Nagel’s lab, but it’s Zemo who actually discovers the hidden method to get into it.  It’s Zemo who finds the hidden pistol — almost like he knew just where to look — and it’s Zemo who uses it to shoot Nagel (assuming that is Nagel; it’s not like anyone in the room would know if he wasn’t).  Right after that, a guy with a rocket launcher destroys the lab.  Now, I’m not saying there’s a conspiracy afoot, butif one were trying to throw off interest in one’s secret operation but wanted to keep the assets of the operation relatively intact and were reluctant to simply kill the people investigating the operation, this might be the way to go about it.  Fake the main researcher’s death, destroy a replaceable lab that’s had its genuinely valuable assets moved during the previous night — during a party, say — and there’s a good chance the investigators will simply assume there’s nothing left to investigate and go away.  As for Zemo, it’s worth asking here:  is it super-human operatives that Zemo objects to?  Or is it super-human operatives that don’t work for Zemo that he objects to?  Because ideology aside, in terms of his intelligence, capability, and moral flexibility, if you could find something to offer or motivate him, Zemo might make a pretty good partner for someone in the spy business.  He knows the game, knows the players, and is able to mix with high and low elements of society with equal facility.  All of which is to say, if Sharon is running some sort of operation, Zemo would be an easier and more natural partner for her than the impulsive Winter Soldier or the relatively naive Sam Wilson.[2]Note that all this only applies to the MCU versions of these characters; the comic versions would play out much differently.  For one, the brilliant and grandiose Baron Zemo would be more of a rival … Continue reading

My guess is that Hydra-leaning elements within, or cooperating with, the CIA are running the Power Broker operation, and that Sharon is their primary agent.  The agency has the money, resources, experience, and motivation to back a program like this, and Madripoor has neither extradition nor oversight.  In this scenario, there is no one person acting as the Power Broker; the Power Broker is instead an invisbile, omnipotent figurehead.  Let’s note that at no point does anyone admit to having ever actually met the Power Broker.  A secondary guess is that Sharon herself is the Power Broker, hiding in plain sight.  I don’t see anything that definitely says she is, mind you…but then, I don’t really see anything to say she isn’t.

There are couple problems with my Sharon’s Story is Bullshit theory.

One is that is that it’s difficult for me to untangle here what’s intentional trickery and what’s just narrative laxity, or exercises in style.  The Sharon story I’m proposing only makes sense if most of what we’re seeing is purposeful and deliberate, and I’m not entirely convinced it is.  I’ll be surprised indeed if we get to the end of Falcon and the Winter Soldier and find nothing but purpose and deliberation in our wake.

Another is that I’ve no answer for the speed or staggering amount of the bounty offered for Sam, Bucky, or Zemo.  The bounty is levied quickly enough that I can only assume that the person or agency that shot Selby also put out the bounty.  Who else could have done it?  Aside from Sam, Bucky, Zemo, and the shooter, who else would even know Selby was dead?  People who worked for Selby, yes…but the people who worked for Selby would conceivably have their own immediate problems in this scenario, and if they could afford a $58 million bounty to avenge their boss, they probably wouldn’t be working for Selby or anyone else in the first place.  If we assume the Power Broker put out the bounty, again, why not shoot Bucky or Zemo or Sam instead?  Solves the investigation problem right quick, and you know Selby’s not going anywhere.  You can always get to her later.  And if it was Sharon who did the shooting, why put out the bounty?

The bounty hunters at the dock are similarly problematic.  If they’re Power Broker-affiliated mercenaries, why blow up the lab?  If the bounty hunters are after a bounty Sharon herself created, that seems awfully risky, both for herself and for her allies.  Her fight on the docks with the bounty hunters looks real, and I hardly see the point of staging a fight with knives and live rounds if no one’s around to watch it.

It’s a lot to chew on.  We’ll see next episode whether or not we’re able to start digesting it.

Comments or questions?  Let me know!

References

References
1 https://cointelegraph.com/news/latest-episode-of-the-falcon-and-the-winter-soldier-involves-massive-bitcoin-bounty
2 Note that all this only applies to the MCU versions of these characters; the comic versions would play out much differently.  For one, the brilliant and grandiose Baron Zemo would be more of a rival than a partner; he’d be funding his own program.  For another, Bucky and Sharon are likely to just up and shoot Zemo on sight, no questions asked.  I don’t see Sam willing to work with Zemo under any circumstance.