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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.

BIRDS OF PREY and the DC Movie Visual Aesthetic

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.
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There is a scene around halfway through Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) where One Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), bon vivant, high-spirited thief, and ex-girlfriend of the Joker, enters a police station and fights her way through multiple officers, on her way to abduct a young pickpocket. Rather than leaving all-out carnage in her wake, Harley employs a serious of non-lethal methods: a beanbag gun, confetti bombs, and brightly colored smoke. (She also beats the shit out of a few of them, but no one appears to die.)

Normally, this would seem like another superhero movie hedging its bets, indulging violence while avoiding any real consequences—and to some degree, it probably is that. But Birds of Prey has an emphatic R rating (albeit seemingly more for the convenience of saying “fuck” as often as it wants than for its occasional gore), so these nontraditional weapons serve a purpose beyond appeasing the MPAA. The color-coordinated smokebombs and glitter explosions aren’t calling cards Harley Quinn leaves behind so much as the character art-directing her own music video as she goes along.
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The SportsAlcohol.com Podcast: Dark Phoenix and the X-Men Movies

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.
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It’s been almost 20 years since the first X-Men movie made the world safe for high-quality big-screen superheroes, and somehow the ensuing film series is only now winding down, with the release (and flop!) of Dark Phoenix, combination sequel, prequel, and remake that marks the final big team X-Men movie greenlit before Disney finalized its acquisition of Fox. While New Mutants and maybe another Deadpool remain on the docket at DisneyFox, it seems likely that the X-Men as a full-fledged franchise is going away for a while, likely to re-emerge as part of MCU Phase 7 or whatever. So this seemed like a good time for Rob, Sabrina, Nathaniel, Marisa, Jesse, and Jon to sit down and talk about all things XCU: Dark Phoenix, the series as a whole, the highlights and the failures, and, of course, Michael Fassbender’s beautiful face. It’s a lengthy but somehow also zippy discussion and we all wind up making fun of Beast at some point for some reason. Poor Beast. But long live the X-Men!

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Shazam! is another superhero movie that’s not like all the other superhero movies that aren’t like other superhero movies

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.
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Shazam!, based on the DC Comics hero originally called Captain Marvel and originally not published by DC Comics, stars Zachary Levi, who once appeared in a Thor movie for Marvel Studios. Levi plays the hero; the bad guy is played by Mark Strong, who also played a supporting role (and unrealized future bad guy) in Green Lantern, based on the DC Comics hero, but unconnected to the current DC Comics movies. Shazam! also co-stars Djimon Hounsou, who also has a supporting role in Captain Marvel, currently in theaters, a separate character from Shazam, the former Captain Marvel, and based in part on the Marvel Comics hero originally called Ms. Marvel.

Shazam! is about a teenager learning to wield his superpowers responsibly, like Marvel’s Spider-Man; it’s also concerns the effects of those superpowers on family dynamics—sort of like The Incredibles, a Disney film which is not based on a comic book, but owes a lot to the Fantastic Four, whose movie rights were recently welcomed back into the Disney fold when Disney completed its purchase of 20th Century Fox’s film division. The end credits of Shazam! feature charmingly scrawled drawings of the main character’s superheroic antics, followed by a post-credits scene goofing on another superhero, both elements that recall Deadpool, an offshoot of the X-Men series, which was also recently absorbed back into Disney via Fox. Disney, of course, owns Marvel, and Captain Marvel, but not Shazam!, which belongs to Warner Bros., which owns DC, which bought the character from Fawcett, the company that originally published stories about Shazam, back when he was called Captain Marvel.
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The SportsAlcohol.com Podcast: Spider-Man Movies, Ranked

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.
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Longtime readers and listeners of the SportsAlcohol.com World Wide Web Brand may have noticed that we kinda dig on Spider-Man. In fact, one of our most popular pieces ever, and the site of our only (so far) bona fide comment war is about Spider-Man 3; our first-ever podcast episode was about The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and we’ve recorded on related films since then; Rob has written about Betty Brant while Marisa has written about the songs of Spider-Man.

So yeah, we dig on this.

To celebrate the release of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, we did something different: Marisa, Rob, and Jesse threw together a straw poll to rank out every major Spider-Man and Spider-Man-adjacent movie of the past 20 years. That’s right: In this podcast, we talk about them all. The animated highs! The amazing lows! The venomous middles! It’s all here, in a compact hour-long episode with multiple post-credit scenes! Basically, it’s a Spider-Man extravaganza for our new age of superhero abundance. It’s the next best thing to what I know you’ve all been craving: PICTURES OF SPIDER-MAN. While you wait for your photographer to come back with those, have a listen to us!

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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.
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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

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Top 10 Reasons Spider-Man 3 Is Better than The Amazing Spider-Man

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.
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When Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man premiered in July 2012, the general reaction seemed to be: well, it’s better than Spider-Man 3, obviously. A few passionate defenders called Amazing a better, more faithful representation of the Peter Parker and Spidey of the comic books than the Sam Raimi take, but for the most part, the movie seems to have been met with something between an affectionate shrug and an encouraging smile. But at least it was better than Spider-Man 3. Obviously.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (for serious, you guys still aren’t going with The Spectacular Spider-Man for a sequel title?) opens this weekend to kick off the summer movie season, and while the early reviews seem a bit more mixed than its predecessor’s, it almost certainly won’t be treated with the same level of derision as Spider-Man 3. Obviously.

Now, I haven’t seen The Amazing Spider-Man 2 yet. There will be a SportsAlcohol.com editorial summit on Friday night to determine what the deal with this movie is. But I have seen The Amazing Spider-Man, and the thing about that movie is: it’s not as good as Spider-Man 3. Not nearly.

The thing about Spider-Man 3 is: it’s actually pretty good.

Not as good as Spider-Man and certainly not as good as Spider-Man 2. To be sure, Spider-Man 3 is the weakest of Raimi’s de facto trilogy, and has two major problems that feed into each other: overcrowding and retconning. Before we get to the good stuff, these problems should be addressed.

The supposed problem of villain overcrowding has been noted at least since Batman Returns in 1992, and indeed, the first series of Batman movies seemed to add bad guys indiscriminately for easy stakes-raising. But as Christopher Nolan’s Batman series has shown, multiple villains don’t have to mean jammed-up storylines: that trilogy managed to include Ra’s al Ghul, Talia al Ghul, the Joker, Two-Face, Scarecrow, Mr. Zsasz, Bane, Carmine Falcone, and Catwoman. Some had bigger roles than others, of course, but that’s pretty much the same number of villains that populate the Burton/Schumacher films.

Unfortunately, Spider-Man 3 adheres more to the Schumacher model of villains, only it’s applied to the entire cast. Apart from the introductions and transformations of Flint Marko (the Sandman) and Eddie Brock (Venom) and the revival of the Green Goblin in the guise of Harry Osborn, Spider-Man 3 adds Gwen Stacy (played by Bryce Dallas Howard) and her police-captain father while continuing to utilize its beloved supporting characters (Aunt May, J. Jonah Jameson, Betty Brant, Curt Connors) and, if anything, upping the screentime afforded to Harry Osborn and Mary Jane Watson. The movie also serves its themes of internal conflict by having several main characters toggle back and forth between personalities, essentially piling on additional characters even when familiar ones are onscreen: Peter Parker bonds with an alien symbiote that brings out a dark side to his personality. Harry Osborn loses his memory (and thirst for vengeance against Peter/Spider-Man), then regains it. Mary Jane has a real flirtation with Harry, then is manipulated by him when he re-evils.

The movie has so little actual room for its characters that it ret-cons them into the earlier films whenever possible. Flint Marko turns out to be involved in the death of Peter’s Uncle Ben, just to give him some convenient incentive to seek symbiote-encouraged revenge. Less of a direct retcon but perhaps even more ridiculous, Bernard Houseman (John Paxton), the Osborn butler for the entire series, decides late in the film to come forward and tell Harry that his father was a murderous lunatic and that Parker did not kill him, and for some reason this and only this can convince Harry to renounce his evil ways (and for some reason Bernard did not see fit to share this information sooner).

Individually, most of the movie’s characters get a moment or three where they shine. Narratively, though, Spider-Man 3 is a mess. Both of the overcrowding and retconning stem from a script that seems unfinished at best; check out that patchwork bit where local news narrates Spider-Man’s big climactic fight with Venom and Sandman. There is also, as mentioned, some whiplash-inducing twists and reversals between Peter, Harry, and MJ in terms of who is wronging who and for what reason.

AND YET: Narrative is overrated sometimes. Spider-Man 3 is a lot of fun and far more good than bad. It came out a year after X-Men: The Last Stand, and for some reason that movie got a pass as a mild disappointment from a lot of fans, while Spider-Man 3 is still held up as something as a disaster. It’s not a disaster! It’s a pretty good movie with a pretty weak script! Surely you’ve heard of this practice before. It also takes Spider-Man to some new places, which is a lot more than I can say for The Amazing Spider-Man insisting that it’s taking a different approach while more or less remaking the first Raimi movie with a minimum or imagination. If we’re going to say that Marc Webb didn’t make a terrible Spider-Man movie, then we as a culture need to admit that Sam Raimi never made a terrible Spider-Man movie.

And so:

Ten Great Things about Spider-Man 3, In No Particular Order

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