Thoughts on WandaVision, Judas and the Black Messiah, Nomadland, The Dig, and more.
It’s worth remembering that WandaVision wasn’t supposed to the the MCU’s first foray into television. When the pandemic delayed Falcon and the Winter Soldier to March 2021, this deeply weird and potentially polarizing series — the gateway to a Phase 4 where anything goes — found itself next on deck. So in one sense, the expectations on it to carry Marvel’s banner forward in the post-Endgame landscape were a bit unfair. However, WandaVision has managed to generally defy those expectations anyway, thanks to its clever conceit, a committed ensemble, and a weekly release schedule that has kept people debating for the past two months.
I should also say that as a fan, I love what the series is doing. Created by Jac Schaeffer and with every episode directed by television veteran Matt Shakman, WandaVision is at once a fun comic book adventure, and a loving homage to television itself. The recreations of sitcom classics from Bewitched to The Brady Bunch to more recent fare like Malcolm in the Middle and Modern Family are impeccably detailed, down to the ever-changing opening credits, and Shakman and his wildly overqualified cast handle the tonal shifts with ease. I’m convinced that if Elizabeth Olson, for one, had been born fifty years earlier, she’d have been the biggest small-screen star on the planet. She’s ludicrously good — expressive, funny, and wholly committed no matter what the trap-door plotting throws at her. It’s also enormous fun to see Paul Bettany cut loose (shades of the criminally underrated A Knight’s Tale), and Kathryn Hahn, as has been well-documented elsewhere, is a national treasure.
And yet, despite the sheer entertainment that WandaVision provides every Friday, something has still been bothering me: the fact that the “MCU” stuff, and even Wanda’s own character arc — until today’s penultimate episode, at least — is the least interesting part of it. While I dig how it’s integrated previously marginal characters like Darcy (Kat Dennings) and Agent Wu (Randall Park), and how Teyonah Parris really pops as Monica Rambeau/Spectrum(?), I find that I really don’t care very much about S.W.O.R.D., or what the clearly nefarious Director Hayward (Josh Stamberg) is planning. The biggest reveals — the suggestions of a multiverse of mutants, featuring Evan Peters from the X-Men franchise; “Agatha All Along” — are undoubtedly cool. But where previous MCU entries (generally) stood on their own, coherent enough for moviegoers who’d never heard of Infinity Stones, WandaVision divides viewers into two camps: those deep enough in the lore (or internet theorizing) to respond with fake surprise when Agnes is revealed to be Agatha Harkness, and those who respond with complete befuddlement.
In short, WandaVision is the first truly insular MCU experience, hinging everything on the two least-developed Avengers and twists that make comic readers say “well, duh” while others — like, say, my mom — scratch their heads. There’s still one super-stuffed episode to go, and the series could very well manage to give Wanda and Vision a compelling, emotionally-centered resolution that doesn’t just tease The Next Thing coming down the pike — but if it doesn’t, I worry Marvel will have lost sight of what made it so successful in the first place.
Judas and the Black Messiah (HBO Max)
I’m writing this section while in the middle of Texas’ winter catastrophe, exacerbated by the negligence of politicians more interested in pushing ridiculous grievances than actually governing. Many individuals and aid groups have pulled together to provide for their neighbors, an inspiring outpouring of generosity and collectivism in an infamously isolationist state. It’s a fitting time to consider this film’s historical context. Before his assassination in 1969 at the hands of the FBI, Black Panther leader Fred Hampton saw urgent needs in his own community; while the media was focused on his organization’s militancy, the Panthers offered food, healthcare, education, and dignity for Black Chicagoans oppressed by the system. That, in the jaundiced eyes of J. Edgar Hoover, is what really made him a “radical threat,” and why the FBI enlisted Bill O’Neal to worm his way inside and create the opportunity to snuff Hampton out at the shockingly young age of 21.
Judas and the Black Messiah leads inexorably to that tragic night; the dread is palpable even as the rhetoric soars and the cast leaps off the screen. It’s more than a little remarkable, even in 2021, for this film to even exist as the product of a major studio like Warner Bros. It’s not hard to imagine the concessions that director Shaka King had to make; how much additional attention the narrative had to give to “conflicted white agent” Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), who in the end wasn’t all that conflicted, or to Hoover, who gets more odious each time he is portrayed on screen (here he is played by Martin Sheen, and looks like The Penguin). But ultimately the film is about the two men of the title, and two sensational performances: LaKeith Stanfield as the former, and Daniel Kaluuya as the latter.
Stanfield’s sleepy-eyed twitchiness is well-suited for the role of O’Neal, who ingratiates himself to the Panthers with quick thinking, shows of loyalty and his agency-provided car. His journey is even more tragic than Hampton’s, because he believes right up until it’s too late that he still has control over the situation, and will have to live with the guilt until he can bear it no longer. Judas’s opening scene, a long tracking shot keeping O’Neal’s back to camera, suggests that he is a mystery even to himself until he finds corrupted fulfillment alongside the Panthers. By contrast, Kaluuya’s performances as Hampton is so ferocious the camera can barely keep up with him. At every moment his eyes and sly smile suggest he intuits more than he lets on, whether he’s having a tender moment with his girlfriend Deborah (Dominique Fishback, outstanding) or thundering from a church pulpit in the film’s most unforgettable scene, but he is doomed to die never knowing just who betrayed him. Kaluuya has demonstrated his range and intensity in Get Out and Widows, but this ought to launch him into the stratosphere — and onto the Oscar stage, if there is any justice.
When someone who will not be named swept into office claiming the support of America’s “forgotten men and women,” it was with people like Fern (Frances McDormand) in mind. (Never mind that his solutions left much to be desired and much of his base consisted of middle-class and above; the narrative is the narrative.) The “nomads” at the center of Chloe Zhao’s quiet and grace-filled film, many of whom play lightly fictionalized versions of themselves, may have entered into van life by necessity, but they stay because they’ve fallen in love with it — the freedom, the hardscrabble ethos, and the unblemished tapestry of the American West. Nomadland is less a narrative than a pseudo-docu-tone poem, with McDormand’s Fern holding the determined center of an ensemble hand-picked from the real communities and locations put on screen.
In Fern’s case, her town — Empire, Nevada — was wiped off the map in 2011 when the gypsum mine closed (the same mine where her husband was killed). With no retirement savings and no other prospects during the Great Recession, she takes to her elaborately-renovated Ford Econoline as an itinerant worker, following a seasonal circuit alongside fellow nomads (like a quietly lovestruck David Strathairn as “Dave”) that leads her from an Amazon warehouse, to national parks, roadside dives, beet processing plants, and back again. She learns how to deal with blown tires and the right-size bucket to relieve herself in. She meets people like Linda May and Swankie, who also appeared in Jessica Bruder’s 2017 book of the same name. And despite the efforts of her well-off sister (Melissa Smith) to help her settle back down, Fern’s committed to the lifestyle — whether out of pride, or something she can’t articulate.
All this and more is captured with remarkable sensitivity by Zhao, who wrote the script on the fly and edited the film herself, and her cinematographer/partner Joshua James Richards. Authenticity has been Zhao’s calling card her entire career, from Songs My Brothers Taught Me to 2017 festival hit The Rider (and now, perhaps improbably, the MCU machine for The Eternals); there are few better at capturing a sense of place or verisimilitude for those who inhabit it. For Nomadland, that means Zhao and her team — including an as-good-as ever McDormand, meaning she is extremely good — traveled the country in vans for months, looking for the right faces and personalities to help tell the story. The result is something wholly original, empathetic, and beautiful in its own way.
The Dig (Netflix)
Simon Stone’s second feature is gorgeous to look at. Mike Elay’s handheld cinematography seems heavily inspired by Terrence Malick in how it meanders across the Suffolk countryside, bathing the film’s characters in natural light. Jon Harris’s editing is similarly Malickian — frequently, dialogue scenes will be heard long before they are seen on screen. The only thing it’s missing is a shot of a hand passing through a field of wheat, though in this case, that image is merely replaced by sequences of dirty fingers patiently working through soil that has lain undisturbed for a millennium and a half. If the writing was as poetic as the visuals, The Dig would be close to a masterpiece, a lovingly-crafted story about time and all its effects: the moments we live through, the moments we discover, and the precious little of it we are afforded to make our marks on the world.
The weaknesses of The Dig can be traced to the novel on which its based, written by John Preston in 2007. It tells a dramatized version of the famous Sutton Hoo discovery of 1939, in which an amateur archaeologist named Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes, with a thick Ipswich dialect) helped discover an Anglo-Saxon ship burial on land owned by Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan), a widow who just “has a feeling” about one of the many mounds dotting her estate. His efforts are not taken seriously by the British Museum until the true age of the artifacts are discovered — it was, and remains, the most spectacular finding in modern British history. But with World War II on the horizon, there’s much work to do in a short period of time, and much interpersonal drama to invent for narrative purposes.
Moira Buffini’s script is nevertheless engaging enough, despite its many historical liberties. The Dig‘s straightforward earnestness also feels like it’s from another time — perhaps the 90s heyday of Miramax — rather a typical Netflix hit. The performances from Fiennes, Mulligan, and Lily James (as a fellow archaeologist with marital troubles) are excellent. But I would have liked a little less melodrama and a little more history in a film about a major historical discovery; the film doesn’t really go into detail on just what kind of items are found, and only scratches the surface on their significance. While we all love seeing stuffed shirts put in their place by someone as underestimated as Brown, I think the man himself would have wanted to focus on the work, and the captivating stories of Viking warriors suggested by it.
- So we finally, finally dove into Justified, finishing Season 1 last week. While it wasn’t quite the knockout that I’m told it becomes in later seasons, I did enjoy it. Especially Walton Goggins. Seeing him pop up mere days later in our rewatches of Community and Ant-Man and the Wasp was a treat.
- After picking up on positive buzz for Season 2, we also just got into For All Mankind on Apple TV+. The alternate history series — imagining the fallout from the Soviet Union beating America to the moon — is compelling right out of the gate, with standout performances from Joel Kinnaman, Sarah Jones, and Sonya Walger, among many others. Really thought-provoking stuff with strong characterizations. We’re hooked.
- With the kids we’ve been binging Nailed It! on Netflix. My favorite thing about it is how everyone involved treats the show as a lark, poking fun at the conventions of the competitive-cooking genre without cynicism or cheap shots. It’s just a good time.
Looking ahead to… I’ll finally be catching Minari very soon, so look for my thoughts on the Oscar contender next month… Raya and the Last Dragon brings Avatar-style myth both to theaters and Disney+ (3/5)… after WandaVision wraps up, it’s time for Falcon and the Winter Soldier (3/19, Disney+)… no, I won’t be watching the Snyder Cut.