Choosing the Top-Tier MCU Films, Fast

I should be working, not blogging, so I’m gonna make this really quick.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier — To me, this marks a turn in the entire franchise, because it’s a spy movie first, a superhero movie second. That opened the door wider, I would argue, for other directors to do interesting things (though they have not capitalized as much on that as I would have expected).

Infinity War & Endgame — It wouldn’t be a list of mine without cheating, so these go on the list together. There is no precedent for what the Russo Brothers pulled off with these two movies. Legendary.

Captain America: Civil War — Very underrated. This is probably in my top three, if I measured it only by the number of times I’ve put it on when looking for something fun.

Spider-Man: Homecoming — Best MCU Spidey, and I don’t think it’s close. Michael Keaton as Vulture is a top-five MCU villain. Balances the Peter Parker and Spider-Man stories very well. The twist is amazing. More Tony Stark. I don’t know what’s not to like here.

Thor: Ragnarok — Great, campy fun. Jeff Goldblum! Valkerie! Planet Hulk subplot! Peak Tom Hiddleston! Some pretty great Dr. Strange stuff early on! Hela is a drag though, and her scenes are boring, so I skip them.

Black Panther — Requires no explanation.

Avengers — Classic.

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Enjoy the Golden Age of TV While It Lasts

Last week, prompted by a question in class, I reflected on my all-time favorite shows and then followed up with some additional lists of faves. When writing it, I had to make a conscious choice not to fill it with shows from the last several years. Andor, for example, which was just nominated for a couple of Critics’ Choice Awards, strikes me as an almost impossibly good show (here are a few articles that articulate why); The Crown, too, is doing a very difficult thing very well. Deutschland 83/86/89, a German show, should have made one of my lists; my bad. Some of this is definitely recency bias, which I’m extremely susceptible to regarding media, if I’m not remaining conscious of it. But that’s not all it is.

This has been a Golden Age of Television (either the second or the third, depending on who you listen to, the first being the 1950’s, I Love Lucy era). Sam Adams had a good piece at Slate a few years ago that detailed why TV has been so good (“prosperity and uncertainty”), even while arguing that the era was ending in 2019. There was a lot people didn’t know in 2019 about how the next few years would go, and the COVID pandemic extended the era by a few years, since so many of us were trapped inside watching Netflix and the like. But here at the end of 2022, the streaming business as a whole is starting to feel like a party where everybody has stayed too long, a party where some of the guests begin to regret decisions they made only a couple of hours earlier. In 2023, I suspect, people are going to start shutting off the lights.

Between 2016 and 2022, Netflix’s content spending went from a little under $7 billion to $18 billion. Disney spent a whopping $30 billion in the past year. Amazon spent almost half a billion dollars on The Rings of Power alone. Apple, relatively modest, spent around $6 billion. It’s a ridiculous arms race before you even get to contracts for streaming sports.

Investors in these companies have to wonder what end goal they’re chasing here. Yes, Netflix is profitable. But Disney’s board just fired their CEO, in part because he didn’t seem as alarmed as investors that they were spending so much. Amazon and Apple don’t even need streaming, given their other, actually profitable businesses. It was one thing to spend this much when everyone was at home streaming TV, and borrowing money was free. With a possible recession looming, interest rates higher and still rising, and media stocks tanking, that level of spending on content makes no sense.

All of which suggests there will be fewer new shows in the coming years, and fewer big-budget shows. What does this mean for the kind of shows we do see? Would Andor even have happened in a leaner economic environment? Would WandaVision? What would it mean for shows like Our Flag Means Death or Reservation Dogs or Euphoria? These questions will have to wait for another post…

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Solution 2

I never got there on my previous post, which was already too long. The second solution to the problem of Top Five All-Time Shows list is to make a whole bunch of Top Five All-Time Shows Sub-Lists. So here I go:

Top Five Shows That Were Brilliant Until They Went Totally Off the Rails

1. Game of Thrones — Best sci-fi/fantasy show of all time, or incoherent nonsense? Viewers who stayed through the end got both!
2. The X-Files — Science fiction and fantasy shows seem especially susceptible to going off the rails. Maybe that’s because so many of them start off with a huge, mind-blowing concept, and start running before they’ve figured out where it’s going.
3. Arrested Development — Has any show gone from elite to unwatchable faster?
4. Downton Abbey — Jen insists that Downton Abbey does not belong on this list, but once Anna was done so wrong,
5. Lost — I guess I don’t know if this was brilliant before it went off the rails. Anybody who didn’t know by the middle of season two that the creators didn’t know where the show was going deserved what they got.

Top Five Shows I Hate That Everybody Else Seems to Love

1. The Office (American version) — I will die on this hill. There were moments, sure. But most of the comedy was just bland and obvious, and not half as subversive and deliberately cringey as the British version.
2. House of Cards — In an early episode of Netflix’s first real breakthrough show, slimy politician Kevin Spacey gets a brick thrown through his window. It is so bleedingly obvious that he is behind the attack himself, for political purposes, that it seems like that can’t possibly be the point of the episode. And yet, 45 minutes later, the shocking twist is dramatically revealed that he paid someone to do it himself, and isn’t he diabolically clever. Unintentionally hilarious, but not enough to hate-watch.
3. Peaky Blinders — A boring waste of Cillian Murphy’s talents.
4. Boardwalk Empire — If Mark Zuckerberg programmed an AI to write TV scripts by feeding it scripts of The Sopranos and Deadwood, it would end up with something more interesting than Boardwalk Empire.
5. Big Bang Theory. I can’t keep this up. Everybody’s entitled to like what they like. I don’t need to ruin it with snark.

Top Five Three Shows That Are Still Going

1. Andor — I cannot shut up about how good this show is. The only Star Wars film made in the past 35+ years that was genuinely good without any huge caveats was Rogue One, which treated the characters like human beings. Tony Gilroy returns to one of those characters here, in a show entirely different than everything else they’ve done with the franchise on Disney+. Here is a twelve-episode meditation on the on-the-ground effects of living under a fascist regime, and on the development of an effective Rebellion to fight the Empire in spite of hopelessness. The writing in this show is some of the best I’ve seen in any sci-fi/fantasy media of any kind, and definitely the best writing of the entire Star Wars franchise, original trilogy included.
2. The Crown — This show has a chance at my actual, all-time Top Five when it’s all done. I didn’t love the latest season, but the first four were good enough that a strong sixth might put it there. Considering the challenge of maintaining a consistent tone when changing all the actors every couple of years, it’s astounding they’ve been able to do it this well for this long.
3. Stranger Things — One critic I respect says this should not make the list, because it has fallen too far since season one. It’s a valid point. After the first or second season, it was bound for certain top-ten territory, but not any more. Still, it deserves a chance to come back with a solid concluding season.

Five Shows I’m Embarrassed Not to Have Seen, In No Particular Order

Sandman — I was absolutely in love with this comic when I was in high school, and yet I have only seen the first episode. Teenage me is furious, but I just haven’t made the time.
Lovecraft Country — I can’t believe that I didn’t see this in time to be outraged when it was not renewed for a second season. Honestly, I feel partially responsible.
Sons of Anarchy — I already have too many sympathizing-with-horrible-human-beings type of shows in my life, but I’m told this is good.
The Americans / Homeland — Two different shows that I constantly get mixed up with one another. One of them is supposed to be amazing, but I’m not sure which one. Thus, I watch something else. Someday I’ll get it figured out.
Hannibal — Mads Mikkelsen is always brilliant, and yet serial killer shows/movies are just not my thing anymore.

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My Top Five Shows

Today a few students asked me what my all-time top five favorite TV shows were, and I was unexpectedly stumped. Yes, a couple of them occurred to me, but instead a whole lot of inadequate possibilities swam before me. How could this be? I’m not constantly watching shows, but I’ve certainly see enough TV in the past decade that I should be able to come up with five shows that at least could be in my top five. But nothing. Blank. Even after leaving school at the end of the day, I was haunted by the question.

Lists of this kind are always hopeless. What would be the criteria? Is it about how much I loved it at whatever age I was at at the time I watched it? Or would it just be today, what do I think are the best five shows? Is it about the writing? How groundbreaking they are? Do I put dramas and comedies on the same list? How can I compare a show with a mind-blowing first season that fell off a cliff after that with a show that was steadily really good for five seasons? What if it was good at the time, but it doesn’t hold up to viewing in 2022? Or what if I haven’t ever re-watched it, or don’t even have any interest in re-watching it? Taking all these questions together, I came up with two solutions.

Solution 1: Don’t think about it too hard. And so I present to you:

My Top Five Shows Of All Time

5. Mad Men

This is one of the very few zeitgeist shows that Jen and I were actually in on from the beginning. I remember hearing an NPR story about it the day before it aired, watching the pilot, and, like many others, falling in love with it right away. Jon Hamm was made to play Don Draper (and maybe little else, based on what I’ve seen since), and the entire first season is so beautifully written and plotted. Historical dramas set in the mid-20th century have become popular during the content glut of the past ten years (The Marvelous Mrs. MaiselThe Queen’s Gambit, The Crown), but nothing I’ve seen has come close to Mad Men‘s combination of period, character, costuming, music, and design. Yes, the show faded toward the end as many do, but it recovered enough in the final season — unlike some other notable candidates for this list — that the show as a whole wasn’t tarnished.

(Note: This should not be construed as a recommendation to watch Mad Men, or any of the other shows on this list, until you’re adults.)

Continue reading

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Schrödinger’s Blog

So obviously I’m trying to blog on here again, and Jen asked me about it the other day. “What do your students think?”

“Oh, they don’t know about it,” I said. “I haven’t told them.”

So here I am, blogging to no one, at least for another few days until I tell people about it. This is not that different, I think, from the student experience. On the one hand, your teacher assigned you this blog. On the other hand, you’re not sure if he’s reading it. Until it is commented upon, in some way or other, the blog post is both read and unread.

I can’t tell whether this is a benefit or a detriment to students. For some, the idea that actual people will read their blogs is cause for alarm; for others, the idea that nobody will read it is deeply demotivating. Some, I imagine, both hate the idea of readers for fear of what they might think, and also think of it as busy work if nobody reads it. I started this assignment for AP Language with the belief that the best imagined reader for most of us is (1) a like-minded someone who will understand us the way we want to be understood, and (2) probably not our English teacher. (I had a lot to say about it.)

And yet I am finding a lot of freedom here in the liminal space between having readers (you, reader, are imagined as my AP Language students) for whom I am writing, who give me purpose to start a new blog post, and knowing that no one is reading yet (which perhaps frees me from worrying about the judgment of others). There’s obviously no correct answer here, but I hope that you find some motivation in the idea that people may actually read what you have to say.

Oh, yeah, one more thing: All the blogs go live at the beginning of second trimester.

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Finding Meaning in a Tired World

I read this awful piece from the Wall Street Journal by Andy Kessler the other day, and I’ll probably make all you students read it too. It begins thusly:

You hear these all the time now. “I want a career with a purpose,” which usually means an activist. Or “I need a good work-life balance,” which suggests someone doesn’t want to work very hard. Gimme a break.

It will perhaps not shock you that this former hedge fund manager* thinks so little of the purpose or balance of other people’s lives, but it was striking. If the idea behind the Quiet Quitting movement is that people have been pushed to the limit for a long time, and now there’s finally a moment when workers have the upper hand, and are going to use that upper hand to push back, then “Gimme a break” is a flaccid response. Is this the best argument against — and I bet Kessler doesn’t like this phrase either — self-care?

Wanting a career with purpose, it seems to me, has motivated people into all kinds of careers other than activism, for a long time: social work, health care, and education being a few among them (again, I sympathize that a hedge fund manager may not be able to relate to this, though I might have thought he would be able to imagine it). I wouldn’t say that I got into teaching primarily for a sense of purpose, I found one there. And I find it hard to believe that most average people in many, many lines of work would not, if pressed, connect their work to some kind of meaning beyond the making of money. One of the remarkable features of Studs Terkel’s classic oral history Working (1974) is that he interviews all kinds of people in all kinds of careers, and so many of them talk about the meaning, or lack of meaning, in their work. Here’s Sharon Atkins, “a receptionist at a large business establishment”:

Until recently I’d cry in the morning. I didn’t want to get up. I’d dread Fridays because Monday was always looming over me. Another five days ahead of me. There never seemed to be any end to it. Why am I doing this? Yet I dread looking for other jobs. I don’t like filling out forms and taking typing tests.

There’s more to say about this, but in the interest of modeling good blogging-as-thinking, I will leave it off for now with this question: What other options do we have for helping to give people meaning for necessary work besides (a) saying “gimme a break” or (b) paying people to not work?

[* This is not to sincerely impugn the humanity of hedge fund managers, some of who understand the importance of purpose and balance in people’s lives. They are, as Ken Robinson once said about university professors, “just another form of life.”]

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What’s Wrong with the MCU?

Certain members of my family have been of this opinion for some time, but after seeing Black Panther: Wakanda Forever this weekend, I’m having to face up to it as well: The MCU has lost its way. About a year ago, being very excited about the lineup for the next twelve months. We were getting the Spider-Man crossover. A new Thor movie from Taika Waititi, who had killed it with Ragnarok. A Dr. Strange movie exploring the Multiverse. And another Black Panther film from Ryan Coogler.

I can’t be the only one who looks back at the group now and thinks that every one of these films was a mess. Going back farther, by my count, the Marvel Studios has made one really good film since Avengers: Endgame, which was Shang-Chi. Great characters, great actors, great directors; lengthy, tedious movies. How? I have three theories, presented here from most optimistic to most pessimistic.

Why aren’t these movies working anymore? Image Credit:

1. COVID. Films of this scale are huge productions involving hundreds, if not thousands, of creative and technical players. And for most of Phase Four we have been constrained by a global pandemic. How many sessions of people sitting down together to work on the finer points of plot outlines, dialogue, logistics, etc. were lost? How many of the people involved were dealing with big distractions, as everyone’s lives were disrupted? Maybe it was inevitable that this kind of production was going to suffer during this period, and, as we continue to adjust back to this new normal, the ship will right itself.

2. Niche Comic Book Plots are Too Convoluted for Mainstream Film. The plot of every Phase One MCU film can be explained in one sentence. After submitting to a medical experiment, weakling Steve Rogers is transformed into super-soldier Captain America and fights in World War Two to defeat the Nazis and HYDRA. Kidnapped by terrorists, genius arms dealer Tony Stark builds himself a super-suit and deals with the consequences of his past actions. Nick Fury assembles a team of superheroes to stop an alien invasion. Now try this with, say, Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness or The Eternals or Spider-Man: No Way Home.

3. The MCU Should Never Have Worked In the First Place. Name the second-most-successful 30-film franchise. You can’t, because nobody has ever attempted to do what they’re doing at the clip they’re doing it. Star Wars is the closest, at around a dozen films, and the fastest they’ve ever turned them out is the stretch between 2015 and 2019, when they produced one per year for five years. This had wildly uneven results, ending with a film so bad that they decided to just stop making Star Wars movies for a while. No other superhero franchise has survived past five films, and the Warner Bros.’ DC films are laughably bad. Who else belongs in the conversation? The James Bond franchise is probably the most successful, because it does a hard reset with every new Bond actor.

Meanwhile, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever earned $180 million domestic over just the first few days, so it’s very possible that the powers that be do not see this as a problem that needs fixing.

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The Case for Recasting T’Challa

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever releases this weekend, a movie that I wasn’t sure would get made two years ago. When news broke that Chadwick Boseman had died of cancer, the tragedy went beyond just losing a tremendous actor and, by all accounts, a beautiful person. In Captain America: Civil War, Boseman had brought to life a larger-than-life Black superhero at a time when studios were still not convinced that a Black superhero could be financially successful. It seems ridiculous now. Ryan Coogler blew up that myth to the tune of a $700 million box office with the first Black Panther film, and did so in a movie that leaned way into the Afro-futurist aspects of the mythology. By the time Boseman made his fourth appearance, in Avengers: Endgame. he had inspired countless young Black fans, who had finally been given a hero who looked more like them the white guys named Chris who had fronted most of the MCU films up to that point. It was not going too far to say, when he died, that the world had lost an important Black icon.

Understandable, then, that MCU boss Kevin Feige has insisted, over and over, anytime anyone bothers to ask him, that they are not going to recast T’Challa. How could they? Once the sequel was announced, fans debated who might take over the role from T’Challa, however they account for his death; the answer is the worst-kept secret in the MCU, but this is a spoiler-free blog, and the answer is beside the point. My argument here is that, even though their reluctance is for a good reason, they should recast him. And I believe they will.

Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa/Black Panther (Matt Kennedy/Marvel, via The New York Times)

The rationale for recasting is, ironically, the same as the rationale for why they shouldn’t: Boseman’s performance of the role meant too much. But that’s exactly it: The love for his performance in part demonstrates the hunger for a character like T’Challa. And while they can get away with handing the mantle off to another character, T’Challa is too important a character in Marvel Comics to allow the tragedy of Boseman’s death to rob Black audiences of the most important Black hero in their canon. They did a similar thing with Captain America, handing Chris Evans’ shield to Anthony Mackie’s Falcon. But do we really believe we’re never going to see Steve Rogers in a movie again, when we’ve had six actors lead a movie as Batman in the past thirty years?

Actually, I think they’ll recast T’Challa and Steve Rogers in the same movie. And Tony Stark. And Nick Fury, and whoever else they need to because of age or contracts:

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Two years ago today, I sent away my AP Lang class with a flippant, “If we never come back from spring break, it’s been a pleasure being your teacher.”


Of course, we didn’t come back from spring break in person, and for many of those students it was, in fact, the last time I saw them. I think a lot of people are thinking back ruefully about our naïveté two years ago (aside from the then-doomsayers who are, I assume, taking morbid victory laps).

I suspect like many of you, I had to find some ways to spend the time that I suddenly had at home. When you have kids, the time more or less fills itself, but we had to do something. I started off trying to engage my students with online work, but no sooner had I emailed them than the District wrote all teachers, saying “DON’T GIVE STUDENTS ONLINE WORK. WE WILL GIVE YOU FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS SOON.” So then I had to figure out what I was going to do with the extra time we had. The increased anxiety about COVID was not conducive to reading or writing for me; I had a hard time focusing on thinking. I needed something active, something constructive, something that would allow me to shut off my brain.

So I started building a wall.

A small section of my COVID Wall, built from Chilton Steppers, which sounds like an old Vaudeville act.

I had planned to do some landscaping since the previous summer. We had torn out an old ramp that wrapped around the corner of our house, and between the sidewalk and where the ramp had been were a million orange tiger lilies, attractive for about one week of the summer and trashy the other fifty-one weeks of the year. So I had ordered a whole bunch of Chilton steppers, wide, flat stones intended not for building a wall but for laying out on, say, a patio. My plan was for the stones to be freestanding, using no mortar or adhesive to keep them in place, so I thought wider was probably better anyway, so they would be less likely to shift over the colder months. The stones had arrived late in the summer of 2019, too late to begin the project. They sat alongside my driveway through the fall and winter.

Then, lockdown. Faced with beautiful weather, unable to communicate with students. This, I decided, was the time.

I would not say I knew what I was doing, but I was fine with that. I’m not a “how hard could it be” kind of guy when it comes to projects like this, but one thing I had learned from my dad was that if you have access to YouTube, along with some humility, patience, and common sense, you can figure these things out. I dug out the flowers and a whole lot of dirt, and laid the first layer of stone about one-third of the length I envisioned it. I started in the middle for some reason, instead of at one end or the other. Stone by stone, I laid them in place, one on top of the other, trying to consider their complementary colors (they were not at all uniform, as you can see above), their shapes, the lines created where one stone ended and the next began, and just kept on laying them. I may write more about the process later, but the point here is that, although I would have eventually gotten this work done, for me the building of it will always be associated with that first spring of COVID, when the world seemed more still than it had been in a long time, and life was paused.

I tried some other things out as well, but I’ll save those for future posts. What did you try during the pandemic? Did any of it continue to be part of your life when things returned to (at least somewhat) normal?

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Goings On Around the Internet

Have you heard of joro spiders? Do you like sleep? If you said no to both, learn about this enormous new* species here.

Photo Credit: “Joro Spider” by jdnx is marked with CC BY 2.0

I am very excited for the new Obi Wan Kenobi show.

Although it does draw fresh attention to the fact that George Lucas didn’t think through his decision to make robes the default Jedi uniform (warning: language!).

Not a surprise, but another study says that mask mandates were effective in curbing the spread of COVID-19.

And finally, my Denver Broncos finally have a quarterback for the first time since Peyton Manning retired. Don’t understand the people thinking they gave up too much — if you’re a quarterback away and you go out and get a future Hall of Famer, I don’t care what you had to give up. Patrik Walker of CBSSports agrees with me.

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