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THE FALCON AND THE WINTER SOLDIER’s macho problems

Maggie is a for-real writer. We're kind of surprised that she would lend her name and her words to SportsAlcohol.com, but we're certainly not complaining. Her first novel, The Cost of All Things, can be ordered here.
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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.com Podcast: SNL at Home (and Season 45), Reviewed

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.

Several SportsAlcohol.com friends & fam are regular reviewers of the NBC late-night comedy-variety series Saturday Night Live, and we make it our business to check in with the show every season to see how it’s progressing. We did this in 2019, 2018, 2017, 2015, and 2014. The 2020 check-in for SNL was a particularly strange one, as the show switched to non-live, socially-distanced compilation specials for its final three episodes of an abbreviated 18-episode run. Nathaniel, Michael, Marisa, and Jesse got together (virtually) to talk about how these episodes switch up the SNL dynamic, and other highs and lows of Season 45.

We are now up to SEVEN (7) different ways to listen to a SportsAlcohol podcast:

The SportsAlcohol.com Podcast: Streaming Recommendations for Quarantine

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.

Well, it’s been a few months and many of us are still at home in some manner of quarantine, which means we’re all looking for shows and movies for our boredom-and-anxiety-alleviating streaming regimen. In this multi-part special, a SportsAlcohol.com all-star crew goes around and recommends a whole bunch of #content for you to enjoy while stuck at home. Marisa, Sara, Nathaniel, Jeremy, Ben, Jon, and Jesse all weigh in on all different kind of stuff on all different kinds of streaming services, whether you’re rocking Netflix, Amazon Prime, Criterion Channel, Hulu, Disney Plus, HBO, or even, yes, Apple. The first installment covers Netflix, Amazon, and some feature films; the second focuses on Hulu, Disney Plus, and Apple!

We are now up to SEVEN (7) different ways to listen to a SportsAlcohol podcast:

The SportsAlcohol.com Podcast: Checking in with SNL and Adam Sandler

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.

Certain pockets of the SportsAlcohol.com editorial team have a soft spot for Adam Sandler, so when we heard that the Sandman would be returning to his launching pad Saturday Night Live for his first-ever hosting gig, it struck us as the perfect time to do our annual but irregularly timed Saturday Night Live check-in. So Marisa, Jesse, and Nathaniel stayed up late to watch the episode and talk about both Sandler’s performance, and the show’s performance all during its 44th season. So listen up, because we have a microphone and you don’t!!!!

We are now up to SEVEN (7) different ways to listen to a SportsAlcohol podcast:

4 and 3 and 2 and 1: Counting Down the Best Episodes of Broad City

Sara is big into reading and writing fiction like it's her job, because it is. That doesn't mean she isn't real as it gets. She loves real stuff like polka dots, indie rock, and underground fight clubs. I may have made some of that up. I don't know her that well. You can tell she didn't just write this in the third person because if she had written it there would have been less suspect sentence construction.
Sara

When Broad City premiered back in January 2014, it was easy to underestimate. Pitched as an affable stoner millennial version of Laverne and Shirley, it didn’t quite announce itself as the “voice of a generation,” like another hyped-up NYC-set girl-centric show. But as one of the first female-produced series to get a full order from Comedy Central, it had to thread a more delicate needle, smuggling in its fiercely feminist, queer worldview amongst the requisite scatological and drug humor, proving itself the more subversive in the process. Not that the women of Broad City would ever think of themselves as competing with anyone else. Ultimately what makes the show so memorable and endearing is the central partnership of Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer and the specificity of the city they inhabit. The genuineness of their love for one another and the seat-of-the-pants mode of their survival felt more realistic to me as I navigated the same metropolis for over a decade (minus the Vicodin-induced Bingo Bronson sightings, regrettably). That I was preparing to leave New York just as the final season of Broad City premiered seemed oddly right. But wherever the series decides to send Abbi and Ilana next, their legacy will continue to live on in shows as varied as HBO’s High Maintenance and Insecure to TBS’s Search Party, and in every “Yaas Queen!” shouted to the heavens. Before we bid farewell, in true SportsAlcohol tradition, let’s celebrate with the five best episodes of this singularly absurd, delightfully daffy show.
Continue reading 4 and 3 and 2 and 1: Counting Down the Best Episodes of Broad City

The SportsAlcohol.com Podcast: Riverdale, Season 2

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.

Hey, remember how last year we watched Riverdale all season long and then wanted to talk about it? Well, your SportsAlcohol.com Riverdale fan club may be down a member (I see you, Maggie) (and I understand) but a bunch of us are still watching this hot teen mess and we needed to talk it out: the ever-metastasizing stupidity of Archie, the evil lurking inside Betty (IS IT, THOUGH?), the gang obsession of Jughead, and whether or not Veronica is, in Marisa’s words, “pulling an Orphan.” In this brisk, enthusiastic episode, we find things to praise about Riverdale Season 2 among our many complaints and questions. Psyched for Season 3, guys!

We are now up to SEVEN (7) different ways to listen to a SportsAlcohol podcast:

  • The SportsAlcohol.com Podcast: SNL Midseason Check-In 2018

    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.

    The SportsAlcohol.com crew includes a lot of regular Saturday Night Live viewers, so we’ve made it an annual tradition to get together and check in with the show at various points to see how it’s doing. We can do this because a famous space cowboy is hosting, or a famous piece of total garbage is hosting, or because that famous piece of garbage is president now and must be repeatedly addressed by the show, or, this year, because WE LOVE YOU NATALIE. So Marisa, Nathaniel, Michael, and Jesse stayed up even later than usual after the recent Natalie Portman-hosted episode of SNL to podcast about this most recent episode (the show’s last for about a month), the recent run of episodes including hosting gigs by Will Ferrell, Jessica Chastain, and Sam Rockwell, and how Season 43 has been going so far: in politics, in cast members, in sketches that only a handful of people love. If you’re a fan of the show, you’ll probably enjoy hearing us yak about what we love and hate. NOW SAY SOMETHING NICE ABOUT JAR JAR BINKS.

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

    The SportsAlcohol.com Podcast: Best TV of 2017

    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.

    Hey, you guys watch TV, right? So do your pals at SportsAlcohol.com, so Marisa, Sara, Nathaniel, and Jesse got together for an end-of-year TV podcast where we discuss our recent Top 12 list and go beyond it, talking about shows that didn’t make the cut, and sometimes offering different opinions than those offered in our blurbs. Curious what we thought about recent episodes of Riverdale or what we loved/hated about the second season of Master of None or who loved Twin Peaks the most? This is the TV podcast for you.

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

    Halt and Catch Fire Reaction, “Who Needs a Guy?”: Dry Your Eyes

    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

    Halt and Catch Fire is an interesting way to take the temperature of our current television climate. It is a very, very good show, with all of the hallmarks of a prestige cable drama, and yet it’s nobody’s favorite. Still, we’ve been covering Halt and Catch Fire since the first season, and Marisa has always found something about it that spoke to her personally, so she decided to write about the individual episodes as it heads into its final stretch. Read her reaction to the previous episode, “A Connection Is Made,” here

    Halt and Catch Fire isn’t really a show that depends on being spoiler-free, but if you haven’t seen “Who Needs a Guy?” and plan on catching up, you probably shouldn’t read behind the cut.

    Continue reading Halt and Catch Fire Reaction, “Who Needs a Guy?”: Dry Your Eyes