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THE FALCON AND THE WINTER SOLDIER’s macho problems

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Here’s my question: Why is The Falcon and the Winter Soldier such an unpleasantly macho show?

To me, macho means an exaggerated manliness expressed in violence, put-downs, and other displays of dominance. Think Rambo, think Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham flexing and growling in each other’s faces, think (if you must) of frat bros doing keg stands or smashing cans on their chests, think of ads for trucks, think of a posture, a strut, an attitude — a capital-M Man trying to one-up another capital-M Man. Women are peripheral in macho stories, and if they appear at all, they can also be macho: think Gina Carano in everything she’s ever done.

The way I’m thinking about it, machismo is not necessarily toxic masculinity, though it’s surely related in ways it would take another essay to get into. Macho is the camp version of masculinity, which means sometimes it’s so exaggerated it’s funny. (e.g., The Rock flexing so hard he busts out of his arm cast.) But it also means that macho characters often have a “code” that requires them to protect those “weaker” than them (which is everyone). Machismo may not be completely corroding and perverting the way that toxic masculinity is; it’s just annoying. Don’t we have anything better to do than try to prove who’s a bigger man?

In Falcon and the Winter Soldier, I can see why John Walker, the new Captain America, would lean into his machismo; he’s got to prove himself up against a legend, he didn’t start the series with superpowers, so he needs a posture and a competition to prove he’s worthy of the shield. (He’s also a morally ambiguous character.) But he’s not the only one who feels over-machoed. Sam and Bucky posture and preen, punch and growl. Even Bucky’s therapist is a tough army gal, not here for your feelings, and when they meet up with old pal Sharon she’s been transformed into a cynical, brash mercenary. All added up, it feels like a nasty swamp of faux toughness, everyone trying to best each other at every opportunity, often punishingly so.

This attitude is epitomized in the couples therapy scene. The scene seems to have been conceived to pander to a slashfic-leaning audience. Imagine Sam and Bucky talking about their feelings face to face? Knee to groin, even??? And yet the scene as written and played reveals nothing about either of the characters except that they don’t want to be beaten or admit they have any flaws. More frustratingly, it doesn’t even make sense. Why are Sam and Bucky even in the room together? What questions is she trying to dig into, and why does she think this would help her actual patient, Bucky? What the hell does she care about their relationship? The only thing worse than being pandered to is being badly pandered to.

That scene, though, seems to hint at what the show was trying to do — and illustrates how it ultimately failed. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was given the assignment to explore the emotions of these two formerly supporting characters, jointly dealing with the loss of their mutual best friend, but it wound up totally incapable of coherently stringing together a scene about that central loss.

I am aware that you can’t talk about loss in the MCU without bringing up WandaVision, and there’s no way to get around the fact that Falcon may look even more macho in comparison to the MCU’s most feminized product yet. WandaVision is literally a show about wanting to be a mom in the suburbs instead of fighting the end of the world. Its (anti-)hero and main villain are women, and the conflict is all about overpowering people’s minds rather than beating up their bodies. It even (famously? infamously?) takes a stab at defining grief and love. It’s also inventive, visually distinct, clever, and coherent — all areas where Falcon and the Winter Soldier suffers in comparison.

Though the ratio of male-led MCU films to female-led projects is still pitifully low and most of those projects are basically action movies, I would not consider the MCU in general particularly macho. From Iron Man’s first appearance he pokes fun at the tough army men driving him around. He’s a salesman and showman, and gets into the punching and hitting business by accident. His eventual best friend is a mild-mannered science nerd (most of the time). He’s a mentor to another nerd, this one a self-effacing eager teen. Captain America has a macho bod but he maintains the careful, watchful goodness he had before his transformation. Thor knows he’s perfect so doesn’t have to prove himself against anyone else. Ant-Man is goofy, Doctor Strange is obsessive. The Guardians of the Galaxy aspire to being macho but they’re misfits who don’t fit the mold.

But Bucky and Sam continued to play the macho game throughout their series, and I’m left trying to figure out why. The two of them have always been sidekicks (or in Bucky’s case, a villain). Then they lost Cap. Without the hero/sidekick relationship, perhaps they must resort to macho posturing, jockeying for the main-hero spot. Maybe the show is trying to tell us something about them as characters, as unpleasant as it is to sit through.

Or maybe it’s less a conscious choice and more of an unexamined default setting. It’s possible that in the absence of coherent, perceptive writing, these attractive, charismatic actors are reverting to a posture of machismo. Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan have been handed an opportunity to prove themselves, too. They aren’t given enough to do, and what they are given is muddled and unclear. So they puff up their chests and try to fake their way through it.

So much of what made Sam and Bucky interesting characters in the films is driven out of the TV show. In the movies, Bucky’s soulfulness shone through even when he was a killing machine, and Sam’s sunny, relaxed attitude allowed Steve Rogers to take a breather from saving the world. The show thinks it’s continuing that soulfulness and light, but how can it, when the characters are so obsessed with who’s the bigger man?

In the show, Bucky’s best line is a tossed-off “I’m right-handed.” Stan’s best acting is the sudden, horrible shock on his face when Ayo releases his arm — a moment he is instantly beaten, his macho strength gone. None of his awkward therapy sessions or tortured confessions work as well as those tiny moments. Sam’s best scene is when he tries to talk Karli down, his empathy his only superpower. In that moment — and when he hangs out with his adorable nephews — he seems competent, purposeful. Contrast that with his incoherent speech to reporters at the end of the show, which drives home how little show has earned any of its sweeping statements.

While Bucky and Sam muddle around trying to win some ill-defined prize, Zemo hangs around in the background, a nerd in a leather duster. He’s the one major character who isn’t painted with the macho brush. He’s totally unconcerned with who holds the shield. He lets his money speak for itself, and his schemes play out while he watches, invested but also disinterested. When the other characters are busy beating each other up, he saunters coolly out of the room. And even though he’s one of the worst villains in the MCU, fans seemed to like having him in the show–anything to contrast the constant one-upmanship. In contrast, the show indulges its most egregiously macho moment late in the season, with the undeserved redemption of John Walker. The show allows him to wander back into the action at the end and fight for “good” with absolutely no repercussions for being a straight-up murderer. Just because he can punch and he’s temporarily on the right side of things! Palling around with him taints the other characters by association.

Despite all of this, I have a lot of affection for Sam and Bucky. I want better for these characters. Imagine if the show had allowed a little warmth for its characters to radiate through, even if it meant sacrificing their images as the toughest guys in the room.

Stop Calling WandaVision Weird!

Gripes
There are contrarians, there are iconoclasts, and then there is SportsAlcohol.com co-founder Marisa. A contraiclast? Her favorite Springsteen album came out this century, so she is basically a controversy machine.

Also, she is totally not a dude!
Marisa
Gripes

WandaVision, currently airing on Disney+, is many things. It’s a superhero show. It’s a love story. It’s a fun romp through the pantheon of television history.

In a lot of ways, it’s what I’ve been asking of Marvel in many, many, many of our MCU-related podcasts, where I plead for the studio to focus on fewer Avengers, tell smaller-scale stories, and do something that feels distinct from the rest of the 20-plus entries in the franchise.

But there’s one thing that WandaVision is not: weird. It’s also not completely original (by design!), unique, or bizarre. And yet.

WandaVision Reviews

WandaVision can’t — and doesn’t — have it both ways. It can’t rely on its audience to recognize sitcom tropes, and then also exist apart from them. And I don’t believe the show is really trying to. I think it wants you to feel the timeworn plot patterns, spot the inspirations in the decor, ease into the comfort of the laugh track. From the show’s debut, any TV fan can tell that one episode is going to feel like the ’50s, with all those conventions, the next is going to take on the ’60s, and so on.

In fact, my biggest complaint about WandaVision is that sometimes the idea of it is more fun than actually sitting down to watch it. (Except for Vision’s magic show. That was great.) I get that Wanda has Bewitched-style powers, and she’s going to use them to get out of a scrape with The Boss and try to whip up a big dinner, and that it’s going to backfire. There is joy in watching it because of Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany’s performances, but the way it unfolds is not particularly refreshing. Even the idea of a classic sitcom parody is not, by itself, something especially new.

Of course, it’s not just a classic sitcom parody. But the way the story hints at something bigger going on is not weird, either. It’s straight out of The Truman Show.  Or Lost. I’ve only seen the three episodes that are available to the general public so far, but I know when I start each one that, a couple scenes in, there’s going to be some kind of hint that not everything is as it seems, and then at the end there’s going to be, well, an even bigger hint that not everything is as it seems. Maybe the show will change course and we’ll stop living in TV Land, or maybe the parts that exist outside the sitcom world will take up a bigger slice of the running time of each episode. Maybe she’ll have to fight The Powers That Be — the ones that made our heroes retreat into the imagined safety of a blissful TV marriage. Maybe that’ll involve more typical MCU-style hangars and control rooms. Or maybe not. But I have a feeling that, whatever the reveal is, it’s not going to be shocking. I will come back and sincerely apologize if this show does anything that genuinely surprises me.

So why do people keep calling it weird? I think there’s something else implied that isn’t being said. WandaVision is weird…for Marvel.  (It’s not even the weirdest recent Marvel property! Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse is weirder! It has a talking pig! Legion, as frustrating as I find it, is weirder! It has an astral plane!) While WandaVision sits comfortably within television tropes, it exists apart from the hardened Marvel formula.

At this point, Marvel shouldn’t be getting credit for moving one standard deviation away from its current status quo. It should’ve been at least this creative the whole time, if not moreso. Was it a long game — making movies so samey that they get oohs and ahhs the minute they decide to change course, even the tiniest bit? Probably not. But I hope this encourages the Marvel suits to take more, and bigger, risks across the board, and not just compartmentalize tiny nods to weirdness into a handful of episodes on Disney+. I want more talking pigs!

The SportsAlcohol Podcast: Spider-Man: Homecoming

Rob is one of the founders of SportsAlcohol.com. He is a recent first time home buyer and it's all he talks about. Said home is in his hometown in Upstate New York. He never moved away and works a job to pay for his mortgage and crippling chicken wing addiction. He is not what you would call a go-getter. This may explain the general tone of SportsAlcohol.com.
Rob

The last Spider-Man movie, Amazing Spider-Man 2, was the subject of SportsAlcohol.com’s very first podcast. Over three years later, we’re back with an ever-more-slightly-better-produced episode about the third cinematic reboot of Marvel’s flagship character this century. Topics covered:

  • Betty Brant
  • Dennis Miller
  • Women named Marisa
  • How bad we are at podcasts

Also, as mentioned in the podcast, check out Rob’s take on Betty Brant

SPOILER WARNING: This podcast assumes you’ve seen every movie every made with Spider-Man

How To Listen

We are now up to SIX (6) different ways to listen to a SportsAlcohol podcast:

The 16 Handles Theory of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Gripes
There are contrarians, there are iconoclasts, and then there is SportsAlcohol.com co-founder Marisa. A contraiclast? Her favorite Springsteen album came out this century, so she is basically a controversy machine.

Also, she is totally not a dude!
Marisa
Gripes

So, this is something I’ve been thinking since we recorded our Captain America: Civil War podcast. In the podcast, we asked whether or not Marvel house style trumps director style, and if that makes a difference when watching a movie set in the MCU.

Since then, what I realized is that, for me, watching MCU movies now feels like going to a 16 Handles where 15 of the handles are broken. Sure, the toppings are different, but it’s always the same flavor underneath.

Nothing about it is bad. It’s dessert! Who doesn’t love dessert? I go to 16 Handles all the time. But, if you asked me what my best dining experience was last year, I’m never going to say, “Oh, it was that time I went to 16 Handles,” because I go there so often.

In the case of the MCU, the directorial flourishes are the toppings. Sure, you can say that the movies are all different because Guardians of the Galaxy is a little jokier, while The Avengers is a little more epic. But, still, they’re all MCU movies, which means they follow a Marvel template, with the same Marvel story beats in each one—it’s basically the same dish each time.

I didn’t always feel this way. Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger were different enough from each other that I didn’t feel like I was being served the same thing repeatedly. Captain America was period, so it had a totally different vibe. Thor, for better or for worse, was steeped in Kenneth Branagh’ ornateness—it didn’t feel like a touch of decoration slapped on top of a typical superhero movie. And, since I don’t think Jon Favreau has much of a voice of his own, the voice that comes through the most in Iron Man is Downey’s.

I believe Rob said in the podcast that the first installment of each character’s franchise is the one that’s allowed to be a different flavor, but that’s not really true for me anymore. There wasn’t much distinct about Ant Man, except that one bit with the Thomas the Tank Engine that I bet dollars to donuts is a remnant from the Edgar Wright script.

With Doctor Strange, Black Panther, and this new incarnation of Spider-Man on the horizon, I hope Marvel gets its part-one mojo back, or lets the movies get a little bit weirder and different and a little disconnected from each other. If not, it’ll be fine. I’m not against empty calories. But I’d be so much more excited if I was sampling something entirely new each time.

SportsAlcohol Podcast: Captain America: Civil War

Rob is one of the founders of SportsAlcohol.com. He is a recent first time home buyer and it's all he talks about. Said home is in his hometown in Upstate New York. He never moved away and works a job to pay for his mortgage and crippling chicken wing addiction. He is not what you would call a go-getter. This may explain the general tone of SportsAlcohol.com.
Rob

Mother’s Day Weekend means that all the SportsAlcohol got together to watch and talk about Captain America: Civil War
Spoiler Warning: Lots of spoilers about this movie and the MCU in general

How To Listen

We are now up to SIX (6) different ways to listen to a SportsAlcohol podcast:

Fantastic Four Achieves Peak Fox Marvel

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

“Does it hurt?”

“Every time.”

That is an exchange from the first X-Men movie, which came out just over fifteen years ago. It’s a succinct example of why Bryan Singer’s film works so well, despite many superficial limitations. The question is posed by Rogue, a young mutant who has just met one of her own kind, the taciturn Wolverine. She’s asking about the metal claws that pop out through his skin, and Wolverine’s response, as played by Hugh Jackman, isn’t an emo lament. It’s plainspoken: sad but not whiny, and a little funny in its ruefulness. It conveys character through dialogue without exposition. Those handful of words (and the actors bringing them to life) say: Wolverine is a badass with metal claws, and every time he brandishes them, he feels a twinge of pain.
Continue reading Fantastic Four Achieves Peak Fox Marvel

The SportsAlcohol.com Podcast: Avengers Age of Ultron

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

Avengers: Age of Ultron is the latest megahit from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it’s full of fun stuff to nerd out about. Rob, Nathaniel, Jesse, and Marisa saw the movie together over the weekend and talked about their Avengers Age of Ultron experience, touching upon superhero special effects, character balancing, the qualities of a good robot villain, comic book origins, the future of nerdery, and frenzied suggestions for post-credit tags that should have been. The discussion has many spoilers for the film so it will probably be more fun if you see the movie before listening to it.

This also marks the one-year anniversary of our foray into podcasting, with an episode featuring the same four nerds who got into Amazing Spider-Man 2 this time last year. If you like our thoughts on Age of Ultron, check out our past year’s worth of podcasts on sci-fi movies, superheroes, rock and roll, TV shows we love and hate, and plenty more.

    We are up to five different ways to listen to a SportsAlcohol podcast:

  • You can subscribe to our podcast using the rss feed.
  • I’m not sure why they allowed it, but we are on iTunes! If you enjoy what you hear, a positive comment and a rating would be great.
  • I don’t really know what Stitcher is, but we are also on Stitcher.
  • You can download the mp3 of this episode directly here.
  • You can listen in the player below.

Problems With The Daredevil Movie Besides Ben Affleck

Rob is one of the founders of SportsAlcohol.com. He is a recent first time home buyer and it's all he talks about. Said home is in his hometown in Upstate New York. He never moved away and works a job to pay for his mortgage and crippling chicken wing addiction. He is not what you would call a go-getter. This may explain the general tone of SportsAlcohol.com.
Rob

Something has been building inside of me. I can’t hold it in any more.

It probably started during the run up to the release of Mark Steven Johnson’s Daredevil movie. This was during the height of media scrutiny of Daredevil star Ben Affleck’s relationship with Jennifer Lopez. If you weren’t watching a lot of TV in the early 00’s, it’s hard to describe exactly how over-covered their relationship was. People were sick of it, so they made jokes. It really took hold during the Bennifer backlash when it was reported that Ben Affleck filmed a cameo for the Elektra film but it was cut due to an anticipated negative reaction. It grew when Affleck was cast as Batman in the forthcoming Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. A lot of people made jokes. I found exactly one funny.

Then, the unthinkable happened: a legitimately good live action adaptation of Daredevil happened. I’ve already mentioned that this has profoundly affected me. The release of Netflix’s Daredevil show roughly coincided with the release of the first trailer for Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice as well as the discovery of Affleck’s boneheaded attempt to suppress information about a slave owning ancestor from a TV show about his heritage. I was at trivia the other night when the host had a question about this brouhaha, puncuated by a snickering joke about how distraught Ben Affleck must be now that his legacy as Daredevil has been overshadowed.

SO many jokes. Please keep laughing, but know this: Ben Affleck is not the problem with the Daredevil movie. Not even close.

I feel so weird being a Ben Affleck apologist. I have a lot of affection for him from his work in Kevin Smith’s films during my teenage years, but it’s not like I keep up on his oeuvre. It’s just that the hate is too much. At some point in time, it became cool to hate Ben Affleck. Just saying his name became a punchline. However, if you watch that Daredevil movie more than once, you see he’s practically an asset to it.

That being said, there are a couple of things I want to make clear:

1. I wasn’t happy when Affleck was cast in the Daredevil movie. I didn’t think he’d be terrible, but Guy Pearce was rumored at one point and that’s basically how Daredevil looks in my mind.

2. I don’t think this movie is good. It’s not good. I would know. I’ve watched it several times, including the director’s cut.

Thanks to SportsAlcohol.com co-founder Jesse for the necessary research materials
Thanks to SportsAlcohol.com co-founder Jesse for the necessary research materials

3. I don’t think Ben Affleck is that great of an actor and his performance here isn’t some great revelation. It’s just that he brought his usual steady, workmanlike talent to this and people call it the Affleck Daredevil movie like he’s problem. He’s not! These are the real problems:

[There are spoilers beyond this point, but do you really care?]

Continue reading Problems With The Daredevil Movie Besides Ben Affleck

So you finished watching Daredevil, now what?

Rob is one of the founders of SportsAlcohol.com. He is a recent first time home buyer and it's all he talks about. Said home is in his hometown in Upstate New York. He never moved away and works a job to pay for his mortgage and crippling chicken wing addiction. He is not what you would call a go-getter. This may explain the general tone of SportsAlcohol.com.
Rob

I have long loved Daredevil, the blind, Catholic lawyer/superhero. I was excited about the new Netflix series featuring the character and ready to love it  for just being better than the Mark Steven Johnson movie. I was not prepared for it to become a commercial and critical hit, but it’s now Netflix’s most popular show and the second most pirated show behind Game of Thrones . Reviews have been very positive, and it’s inspired a lot of great writing about gentrification and urban development. It’s a great time to be a fan of Daredevil.

I’m not one to quibble, but I’m lying I am one to quibble. Quibbling is what I spend most of my free time doing. This whole piece is born of quibbling. There is one  type of inevitable blog post that springs up around a successful comic book adaptation and I have found all the ones for Daredevil lacking: the recommended reading list. There isn’t a website around that hasn’t posted a list of Daredevil comics it thinks you should read. These lists are wrong. They are merely a compilation of google searches for well-regarded Daredevil stories. A character with a fifty-plus year history has tons of stories and not all of them will be relevant to fans of the TV show, even if they are critically acclaimed. I love the current Daredevil series written by Mark Waid, but it so tonally different from the show it could be a different character. Why would I put an origin story on the list when Matt Murdoch’s origin has been retold countless times and the show has maybe the best one?

Below I’ve put together a list of stories that embody different aspects of the show’s take on the Daredevil mythos and should appeal to people who watched it without feeling like it’s just drawings of what they just saw. Even this list is imperfect as I can’t find the better stories that highlight Karen Page as a solo character in print anywhere.

You can find most of these stories digitally either on Comixology or through Marvel’s great Unlimited subscription service, but I’m posting amazon affiliate links where available because it’s time we cashed in on how much I care about Daredevil.

So without further ado, the comics you will actually want to read if liked watching Daredevil on Netfilx:

Continue reading So you finished watching Daredevil, now what?