From WandaVision to Hawkeye: Grading the Marvel Disney+ Experiment

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From <i>WandaVision</i> to <i>Hawkeye</i>: Grading the Marvel Disney+ Experiment

The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s official* foray into television began in January of 2021 with the launch of the high-concept limited series WandaVision. Since then, three additional live-action shows—The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, Loki, and Hawkeye—have hit Disney+ and further developed existing supporting characters in the MCU while also introducing new ones and setting up storylines that will play out in future movies and shows. From the long-awaited birth of Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and the return of fan-favorite trickster Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to the introduction of the multiverse and Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld), the shows complement the more than two dozen films that have entertained moviegoers for more than a decade.

This opportunity to spend quality time with characters we’ve come to love but not necessarily know for several weeks every few months is a fan’s dream come true (even if we cynically also recognize the series exist primarily to support the growth of Disney’s streaming service). But the shows—of which some are ongoing and some are limited series—have not all been created equal. Some stand on their own with satisfying narratives outside of the major arc of the MCU, while others feel like they exist only to move people from Point A to Point B in the movies. Meanwhile, some feature street-level heroics while others offer universe-expanding mythology.

This is no doubt by design—after all, everything Kevin Feige does has a purpose. The different levels of depth and breadth being offered means Marvel’s Disney+ shows can appeal to a variety of audiences, all of whom have varying interests and knowledge levels. They also serve different objectives within the overall MCU. It’s smart from a business perspective, but it can make for a lopsided viewing experience.

So, a year into the Marvel Disney+ experiment, we’re taking stock of each show (in order of premiere dates) to determine its quality, and whether this chapter has thus far been a success or a failure for Marvel.

*Most of ABC’s and Netflix’s Marvel properties are technically set within the world of the MCU, but they’re not considered to be part of the official phases of the MCU, so they’re not included.

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WandaVision

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Overall quality: A
Rewatchability: A-
Ability to stand alone: C+
Effectiveness as a TV show: A
Effect on MCU at large: B

WandaVision was the best possible show to launch Marvel’s Disney+ experiment. A meditation on the lasting effects of grief and trauma told through a high-concept love letter to the sitcoms of yesteryear, the show is as compelling and mystifying as it is bold and creative. Wanda Maximoff (Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) are front and center in a story that reveals the depth of the former’s powers and revives the latter in a reality-bending bubble that allows the couple to live out Wanda’s suburban fantasies—albeit at the expense of the people Wanda has inadvertently trapped and forced to play roles in her happily-ever-after. While most are innocent bystanders, Kathryn Hahn’s villainous witch Agatha Harkness is not, and she stands out as the most charismatic villain since Tom Hiddleston’s Loki. But the series—which details the origin stories of Scarlet Witch and White Vision—is also memorable for the ways it encouraged fans to engage with its mysterious narrative every week. Not since Lost has a series asked fans to participate and theorize and attempt to figure out what’s going on (and then blow it all to hell).

Beyond the narrative and the way it deepened our understanding of the characters, though, the show also excels at being a TV show. The format, with nearly every episode being in the sitcom style of a different decade, is an homage to the medium, complete with opening titles and built-in commercials. Although episodes are serialized, they are also self-contained, so WandaVision works well as a TV show. While prior knowledge is helpful, it can stand alone as a puzzle box show while also serving as something of a prologue for the film Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. It’s successful at every turn (save for some familiar third act messiness), which makes WandaVision the best of the four MCU shows to date. Considering the unique framing and the narrative tightrope the writers had to walk each week, that’s saying something.

Final Grade: B+


The Falcon and The Winter Soldier

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Overall quality: D+
Rewatchability: D
Ability to stand alone: C
Effectiveness as a TV show: F
Effect on MCU at large: B

With all due respect to Bucky Barnes’ haircut, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier might be one of the biggest letdowns of the MCU to date. Fans were promised a fun buddy comedy in the vein of Lethal Weapon that would establish the new Captain America. What they received was a show that, for all its good intentions with regards to telling a timely story about trauma and race in America, drags at every turn.

As Sam (Anthony Mackie) attempts to come to terms with whether he wants to pick up the shield for a country that doesn’t stand up for, respect, or protect Black men, Bucky (Sebastian Stan) works through the lingering trauma of being brainwashed and forced to be a killing machine. Both are complex, character-driven narratives that carry these men and their stories into the next chapter of their lives and the MCU (Mackie is set to start in the next Captain America movie). There are brief glimpses of what both actors can do when given the opportunity. But the characters and their personal arcs are ultimately hamstrung by a middling plot involving misguided vigilantes and a government-appointed replacement (Wyatt Russell) for Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) who could have been a compelling foil and a metaphor for the way the U.S. treats its veterans if the narrative had been able to withstand the weight.

Where The Falcon and The Winter Soldier really falters, though, is in its structure. It’s technically not a TV show but an honest-to-goodness six-hour movie (that sound you hear is every TV journalist sighing), with act breaks to signify the end of an episode rather than any narrative conclusion. The pacing is off to the extent that Sam and Bucky aren’t even reunited until the second episode, and the bulk of the finale is just action after action (the show is hardly the only Marvel product that struggles with this though). It’s unfortunate that a show as highly anticipated as The Falcon and The Winter Soldier—Sam and Bucky’s reluctant/antagonistic friendship had historically been a high point of the MCU—should fail to deliver in such spectacular fashion.

Final Grade: D


Loki

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Overall quality: B
Rewatchability: B-
Ability to stand alone: C-
Effectiveness as a TV show: C
Effect on MCU at large: B

There is a small chance Loki exists only to keep Tom Hiddleston in the MCU. Few characters are as universally beloved as Loki, and few actors have embraced their place within the madness quite like Hiddles has (after all, no one else has appeared at San Diego Comic-Con in character). So if that’s why Marvel conjured up this series after killing the God of Mischief in Avengers: Infinity War, far be it from me to complain. But there is room for improvement in the series, which feels somehow both necessary and yet also expendable.

Carried by Hiddleston’s innate charm and his chemistry with co-stars Owen Wilson and Sophia Di Martino, the show finds the 2012 version of Loki from Avengers: Endgame fighting against the Time Variance Authority, which is said to exist to keep order in the universe by maintaining the timeline. By introducing the concept of the multiverse through variants and Jonathan Majors’ He Who Remains (aka Kang the Conqueror, who had already been announced as appearing in Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania, or a variant of said person), it cements its place within the larger MCU arc. But the existence of variants also allows the series to tell a poignant, if familiar, story about how we’re shaped by our experiences and that people can and do change depending on the choices they make.

However fulfilling the narrative is on that level, though, Loki is average as a standalone product and as a TV show, which is unfortunate because there is an easy fix: include a few episodic adventures of Loki traveling through time and space before digging into the larger, serialized story about the TVA and its many secrets, and you’d have a much stronger, more effective television show. A longer episode order might have also helped Loki’s evolution feel less rushed (remember, this isn’t the man who stood up to Thanos [Josh Brolin], but the man who had just tried to take over the world in The Avengers). While we should consider ourselves lucky to even have this time with Loki, one can’t help but hope for something just a little bit better in Season 2; maybe something that lets Loki have a bit more fun.

Final Grade: C+


Hawkeye

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Overall quality: B
Rewatchability: C
Ability to stand alone: A
Effectiveness as a TV show: A
Effect on MCU at large: B-

Say what you will about Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) and his place within the MCU films, Hawkeye is a gift. Although the show sometimes struggles with tone and Vera Farmiga seems to be in a completely different series, it successfully merges the larger world of the MCU with the Netflix Marvel shows while introducing viewers to a member of the next generation of heroes: Kate Bishop (Steinfeld). Her energy and stubbornness is the perfect match for Renner’s dryness as a tired Avenger who just wants to go home (for Christmas). It’s the mismatched buddy comedy The Falcon and The Winter Soldier was not. The show also features Rogers: The Musical, Lucky the Pizza Dog, and Clint LARPing, which gives it a fun and lighthearted quality. This counterbalances the emotionality of Clint still trying to get over Nat’s death; the arrival of Yelena (Florence Pugh), who wants to kill Clint for what happened to her sister; and the fact Echo (Alaqua Cox), the Tracksuit Mafia, and Kingpin (Vincent D’Onofrio) aren’t always satisfying villains.

Also working in the show’s favor is the fact it deals primarily with Clint’s history as the violent Ronin—something we only glimpsed in Avengers: Endgame—and not a universe-level or mythology-changing threat. This allows it to stand on its own, while the fact it’s structured like a TV show, with a few pacing issues but several well-placed cliffhangers, makes it one of the better Disney+ products in terms of its effectiveness as television. It’s also an emotionally satisfying end to one chapter in the MCU and the beginning of another.

Final Grade: B


The Verdict

Although WandaVision might have been the best show to launch the Marvel experiment on Disney+, in hindsight, it was probably also the worst, because everything that came after it failed to live up to the high expectations it set. Still, there has been a lot to like with regards to the Marvel shows on Disney+. Simply getting to spend more time with these characters, most of whom were shortchanged on the big screen, has been a treat for viewers—especially when it comes to Wanda and Vision (let Bettany do more comedy, please!). Not every show is necessary to understand what’s going on in the films, and not every show will play a significant role in the ongoing success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but the same can be said about the movies. And perhaps with the exception of The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, the shows don’t feel like failures either. (Even then, that show had its moments: Bucky and Yori’s friendship, Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ arrival, Carl Lumbly’s entire arc, Uncle Bucky).

The success or failure of these shows also depends on what one’s expectations are going in. No one knew what WandaVision was before it premiered, so it was a pleasant surprise in addition to being an emotionally satisfying story. Meanwhile, many viewers didn’t think much of Hawkeye prior to its debut because the character had failed to leave a mark during much of his run in the MCU, but the show is packed with action and is a lot of fun week to week. In comparison, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier and Loki were both highly anticipated series and teased as one thing but turned out to be something slightly different. As such, that affected our response to them, regardless of how good or bad the shows actually are.

Moving forward, as Marvel starts releasing shows that don’t center around legacy characters, some of these issues will likely shift or disappear altogether, which means the real test is still to come. But from a business standpoint, these four shows did exactly what Marvel and Disney needed them to do in 2021: increase subscriptions for Disney+. And from a fan standpoint, most of them were also tasty, well-timed snacks that held us over between Marvel movies.


Kaitlin Thomas is an entertainment journalist and TV critic. Her work has appeared in TV Guide, Salon, Polygon, and TV.com, among other places. You can find her tweets about TV, sports, and Walton Goggins @thekaitling or read more of her work at kaitlinthomas.com.

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