Film review: Morbius

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Morbius.

It’s Morbin’ time! While working my way through my lunch (a plate of egg and chips – yum) I was in need of something to watch… so I fired up Morbius. This film has acquired a reputation since its release that has not eluded me, and despite the fact that I generally like to watch things free from critical opinions, the general dislike for Morbius – the film sits at 17% from critics on Rotten Tomatoes – has been unavoidable.

But when I looked ahead to cinematic points of interest at the start of the year, Morbius had actually ended up on my list. From my perspective as someone who isn’t into comics and doesn’t care too much about their cinematic adaptations, it’s somewhat of a rarity to take even a passing interest in a project like this. But because Morbius is produced by Sony and not affiliated with the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe, I felt there was the potential, at least, for a decent one-off film.

The titular Dr Michael Morbius.

The premise of Morbius is interesting, and as someone who hasn’t read any of the source material I was curious to see what the film would do with its “doctor-becomes-a-vampire” concept. As someone who is disabled, the idea of looking for a cure or a medical solution, no matter the cost, is a relatable and understandable one, and while Morbius certainly put a fantasy spin on that concept, the bare bones of the project felt like it had a good starting point.

There were some sequences during the film’s opening act that successfully communicated at least some of that feeling. Jared Leto gave his character’s disability a relatable spin, if not always a completely believable one, and as the foundation for the story I felt that the way it was handled was okay. There are certainly more realistic and sympathetic presentations of disability in cinema, but I daresay that most viewers aren’t coming to a film like Morbius to see the day-to-day life of a disabled person. The life-limiting condition afflicting Dr Morbius and his friend wasn’t even named; I inferred that it was a fictional ailment, and given that the story didn’t have a lot of time to spend on the minutia, that was probably the right call.

There was potential in the “desperate to find a cure” angle that the film could’ve made more of.

The sequence toward the beginning of the film showing younger versions of the central characters was surprisingly raw, and I didn’t expect to see such a brutal depiction of bullying when I sat down to watch Morbius. Though it was hardly anything that hasn’t been seen before in other films and television series, the way in which young Lucian/Milo was taunted and then beaten by a gang of youths was powerful stuff – all the more so because of his nameless health condition. In fact, that sequence was probably the closest that Morbius got to being uncomfortable in terms of its violence; much of the rest of the fighting and gore was pure fantasy.

Jared Harris excels in every role I’ve ever seen him perform, and although there’s one specific moment that we’ll come to with his character that didn’t work, for my money Morbius was a better film for his inclusion as Dr Nicholas. He approached the character with the same seriousness as his roles in projects like Lincoln and Chernobyl, lending Dr Nicholas an outsized gravitas that grounded the character and every scene he appeared in. Even when dealing with some fantastical and silly storylines, Harris gave a wonderful performance.

The bullying sequence toward the beginning of the film.

There was, however, an odd moment as Dr Nicholas was killed off. As he spoke his final words to Morbius, there appeared to be some very clumsy audio work. A different take on the line – or perhaps a new line – had clearly been recorded later and very poorly spliced into the scene, and the result was that Dr Nicholas’ mouth didn’t move in sync with the words he spoke. If it hadn’t been a close-up shot focused on his face perhaps it would’ve passed by unnoticed, but it didn’t – and a combination of poor editing decisions led to what should’ve been one of the film’s more powerful moments falling flat.

Speaking of falling flat, I had a hard time following the motivations of the film’s villain. Milo – a.k.a. Lucian, former friend of Dr Morbius – seems to be a fairly bland “evil for the sake of it” villain, with no real motivation other than “I can kill people now, so I will.” I didn’t find that aspect of his character interesting in the slightest, and it gave the film a very uninspired and uninteresting feel from the moment it became obvious who was going to be the villain of the piece.

Matt Smith’s character.

I’ve only ever seen Matt Smith in a couple of other roles outside of Dr Who, so I was curious to see how he’d get on when tackling a villain. There was a fun Dr Who reference, as Smith emphasised the word “eleven” at one point early in the film (his was the Eleventh Doctor). However, I found his performance to be somewhat over-the-top, especially once his character had undergone the transformation into his vampiric form. There was the potential for a more nuanced approach leading to a more sympathetic villain, and while we got glimpses of that through Milo’s initial desperation for a cure at any price and later as he died, in between was pure pantomime. Smith’s performance did nothing to damp down that aspect of what was admittedly a poor script.

In fact, those past couple of sentences could encapsulate Morbius in general. What started out as a film with an interesting premise and characters – including the title character – who behaved understandably in light of life-limiting illnesses quickly devolved into an incredibly basic “good guy versus bad guy” CGI-heavy action flick. Nuance and character development went out the window as the film raced through a series of increasingly silly – and increasingly unexplained – action sequences.

One of several CGI-heavy fight sequences.

At first we seemed to be on course to see Dr Morbius discover and hone different abilities. Following his initial transition aboard the ship, he began noting down different feelings and sensations, developing and refining his echolocation, speed, agility, and strength. Learning to “fly” or glide was perhaps a step too far, but it might’ve worked had there been more of a buildup to it. But what I couldn’t understand was how Dr Morbius had the ability – seemingly from nowhere – to summon bats. And more than that, where did all those bats come from? There weren’t that many in his lab when we saw them earlier in the film, yet he seemed to summon thousands out of mid-air at the film’s climax.

There were attempts in Morbius to use light, shadow, and fog in clever ways, concealing parts of what was happening on screen or allowing things to be seen through a haze. These perhaps didn’t work as perfectly as they could have, but I will credit director Daniel Espinosa with making an attempt to use the camera in different ways rather than relying wholly on CGI.

Dr Morbius in his prison jumpsuit.

CGI animation work in Morbius is rather divided. On the one hand, wider shots generally looked quite good, and the “smokey” effect used for Dr Morbius and Milo’s fast-paced vampire moves was a neat one that I hadn’t seen used in that way before. On the other, the CGI faces used for Dr Morbius and in particular Matt Smith’s Milo were poor, despite what I’m sure was a high budget and the best efforts of some talented animators.

The vampire faces seemed to take those used in the likes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a starting point, perhaps trying to blend in more bat-like features such as flattened noses. As concepts, there was nothing particularly wrong with the way they looked – but the animation work used to bring them to the screen wasn’t up to par, and the faces ended up feeling artificial and video game-y, particularly when the characters “roared” or made other oversized movements.

Though the designs were neat, I was unimpressed with the execution of Morbius’ CGI faces.

One sequence in particular bugged me, and I’ll try to explain why. This isn’t something unique to Morbius by any means, and I’ve spoken before about how the choice of filming location can impact a production. In this case, a particular sequence in which Milo and Dr Morbius argued and battled was supposedly set in a New York City subway station – but it was painfully obvious that it was, in fact, shot at a London Underground station. This completely snapped me out of the film, and I just don’t really understand why so many productions like this use inappropriate or just plain bad filming locations.

The London Underground and the New York City subway are pretty different from one another, with completely different architectural and design aesthetics, so why choose a London Underground station for a shoot like this? If filming was taking place away from New York, couldn’t a small section be recreated on a sound stage? Why go to all the trouble of a location shoot only to pick a location that’s completely obviously wrong? I just don’t get it. Maybe I’m nitpicking… but I think a lot of viewers – or at least viewers in the UK – will have picked up on the fact that that sequence was not filmed in New York!

The London Underground has such a distinctive look that I don’t understand why it was chosen to stand in for the New York subway.

So that’s about all I have to say, I guess. Morbius is not entirely without redeeming features. Jared Leto, Jared Harris, and Adria Arjona all put in great performances with the material they had available, and there were some clever concepts and ideas in the film’s opening act that, had they been in focus for longer and explored in more detail, could have led to a more interesting film overall.

As it is, Morbius descended quite quickly into being a fantasy-action film with a bog-standard “goodies versus baddies” premise. I didn’t find any of its fantasy elements to be frightening or horrifying – and coming from someone who can be quite sensitive to jump-scares and the horror genre, I think that says something. Morbius is far from being the worst film I’ve ever seen, nor even the worst comic book superhero film I’ve seen, but it’s hardly anything spectacular or worth devoting a lot of time to.

I don’t think that Morbius deserves the 0/10 that some folks seem to insist on awarding it; it has enough of a saving grace thanks to some solid performances and a decent opening act to avoid that fate. But it’s not a film I’m in any hurry to revisit.

Morbius is out now and can be streamed for a fee on Amazon Prime Video, Google Play, iTunes, and more. DVD and Blu-ray versions will follow later this year. Morbius is the copyright of Sony Pictures Entertainment and is based on Morbius, the Living Vampire from Marvel Comics. This review contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

(When) Will Marvel reset the MCU?

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for multiple films and television series in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, including Avengers Endgame and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.

As I was watching The Falcon and the Winter Soldier recently, I got thinking. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (or “MCU” for short) has been running since Iron Man kicked things off in 2008, meaning it’s been in continuous production for more than thirteen years at time of writing. There have been 23 mainline Marvel films released in that time, as well as more than 380 episodes of television across 13 different shows, totalling several hundred hours of viewing. All of this is complicated, and as I’ve said previously, keeping up with Marvel can feel like a full-time job!

None of that means that a franchise needs to go through a reboot, though. Star Trek is going strong after more than half a century and 800+ episodes of television, and aside from the three films in the Kelvin timeline there hasn’t been a resetting of Star Trek; all of its shows and films coexist happily in one setting. But Marvel is arguably different.

2008’s Iron Man kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

One of the key elements of the MCU’s setting is that the superheroes and supervillains we meet all inhabit the real world right alongside us. This version of Earth is very similar to our own, but it’s one in which superpowers exist. The early films in the MCU depicted the way in which ordinary people came to terms with this idea, and how government agencies and others sought initially to keep things under wraps.

But now that’s all changed, and Marvel’s superheroes are known figures – almost celebrities – in their world. That change may not seem like a big deal, but what it does is chip away at one of the world’s foundational ideas: that superheroes could be among us right now and we just don’t know it. As Marvel’s world has changed and undergone progressively more massive events – culminating, at least thus far, in Thanos’ snap and the resultant disappearance and reappearance of half the world’s population – its original premise of being “the real world plus superheroes” has disappeared.

Sam Wilson (The Falcon) was recognised by members of the public in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.

Attempts to recreate that are going to be met with challenges that weren’t present in earlier iterations of the MCU. And to be fair to Marvel, thus far the franchise has set the bar when it comes to creating a persistent, connected world. But that world is as much a constraint at this point as it is a highlight, because every story going forward as the MCU enters “Phase Four” has to be able to fit in with the very different world that was created by the events of Infinity War and Endgame.

We saw this as the underlying premise for the main storyline in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. And in that series it worked well, building on the idea that the changes that happened were popular with some people and unpopular with others, as well as showing us glimpses at a world trying to figure out how to get back to “normal” – or what “normal” even means after such life-changing events. That concept can be explored in more detail and will undoubtedly be interesting – but it isn’t what attracted so many fans to the franchise to begin with.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier showed us the first real look at a post-Endgame world.

As the next part of the MCU’s story builds on the events of the last few years, I have two concerns. The first one is that storylines will become convoluted, with any new film or show almost drowning in backstory and lore to the point of being offputting or even incomprehensible for anyone other than a fully up-to-date Marvel superfan.

Secondly, the MCU has to contend with the fact that Avengers Endgame felt like the end of a story. Several principal characters were killed off, and after the events of Infinity War brought the Marvel world to a crushing defeat, Endgame came along and saw the heroes save the day. They made it to their “happily ever after” – and figuring out what comes next is always a major challenge. Following up a monumental story like Endgame risks feeling anticlimactic and small, or worse, repetitive.

Endgame felt like the end of a story.

Having cheered on the Avengers as they saved the universe from Thanos, will fans show up in such numbers for the next supervillain who threatens all life? Endgame was, briefly, the highest-grossing film of all time. Maybe Marvel peaked?

All of this leads me to the crux of this argument: comic books often reset their characters and storylines. After a while, when writers feel they’ve taken the characters and stories as far as they can, or when stories are played out or too convoluted to continue, comic book companies have historically had no problem at all stepping in and just resetting everything. In DC comics – Marvel’s main competitor – the Crisis on Infinite Earths storyline in the mid-1980s effectively erased the backstories and past adventures of many superheroes, streamlining the convoluted DC universe into a much simpler form that continues to this day.

Crisis on Infinite Earths was a DC crossover event that reset the storylines of many DC superheroes.

As the Marvel Cinematic Universe rumbles on, getting more complicated and further away from the real world with each iteration, it makes jumping on board for new fans difficult, and it makes keeping up with every project feel like a full-time job; miss the latest show or a couple of films, and suddenly it’s hard to figure out who’s who and what’s what. That’s combined with the fact that some stories are going to feel small or even anticlimactic when compared to the likes of Infinity War and Endgame.

Not long ago I took a look at a number of television shows that ran too long. Shows like Supernatural, Lost, and The Walking Dead were great at first, but after they peaked they stumbled through a period of decline, failing to live up to past successes. I don’t know if Infinity War and Endgame represent the peak of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – the best may still be to come. But sooner or later the franchise will hit that peak, and when it does, it seems inevitable to me that a comic book-style reset is on the cards.

The Walking Dead, like many other television shows, peaked. It then entered a period of decline.

The MCU wouldn’t necessarily go back to the drawing board and remake past films. The legacy of characters like Iron Man, Captain America, and the Hulk could pass to new iterations of those characters with new actors taking on lead roles in stories inspired by earlier films, but remaining distinct from them. New backstories could be created, perhaps based on different versions of the superheroes from other editions of their comic books. Marvel has decades of history to draw on, and many superheroes have very different origin stories and personalities than the versions we’ve seen on screen in the last few years.

We’re undoubtedly going to be seeing Marvel and some version of the MCU remain a powerhouse for parent company Disney and the Disney+ streaming service for many years to come – perhaps even decades. I’m not suggesting for a moment that Marvel is simply going to pack up and disappear; there’s too much money on the table for Disney to allow that to happen! But as the MCU continues to expand, taking different characters in different directions, sooner or later that sense of it being convoluted is going to begin to bite.

Marvel Studios will continue to churn out new films and television shows.

I find this to be the case with Star Trek, at least to some extent. When talking to a friend or colleague about Star Trek, if they’re unfamiliar with the franchise it can be hard to know where to start. 800+ episodes and more than five decades of history and lore is intimidating to the point of being offputting, and for some people, simply getting started with Star Trek feels impossible without a guide. New and different iterations of the franchise – like Lower Decks as an animated comedy, or the upcoming Prodigy as a kid-friendly show – can be helpful jumping-on points for newbies, but even then I know the sheer size and scale of Star Trek, as well as its reputation, can be enough to put people off.

Marvel isn’t at that point yet, but it’s getting close. When I was talking to my brother-in-law, who’s a huge Marvel fan, about Infinity War, he recommended that I watch several other films first so that I’d “understand what was going on” better. This sentiment, while well-intentioned by someone who genuinely cared about me getting the most out of a film he liked, can actually have the opposite effect. Marvel is already becoming complicated – too complicated for some casual viewers to drop in and out of comfortably.

A trio of secondary characters in Avengers Infinity War.

Perhaps Disney and Marvel executives feel that, given the size of the MCU’s fandom, they can afford to put off casual viewers. If the fanbase is signing up for Disney+ and buying Marvel merchandise in droves right now, what’s the harm in continuing to make every series and film inextricably tied together? That attitude, if indeed it is prevalent over at Disney, is short-sighted in the extreme.

Any franchise taking such an approach will find its growth stunted, and when existing fans slowly but surely drop out, there won’t be many people lined up to replace them. That’s the danger in trading solely on nostalgia, too – eventually your existing fans either switch off or die off, and if there are fewer people jumping on than there are jumping off, the franchise will sputter and eventually fail. Marvel is undoubtedly a long, long way away from that right now, but every twist and turn in the MCU saga, and every would-be new fan dissuaded from getting started with a convoluted and complicated franchise is a problem for the comic powerhouse.

Does Endgame – briefly the highest-grossing film of all time – represent the peak of Marvel’s success?

Different franchises handle expansion in different ways. In Star Trek, for example, while there can be benefit to be gained from wider knowledge of other iterations of the franchise, for the most part, each television and film series is self-contained. It’s quite possible to be a fan of Deep Space Nine without ever seeing an episode of The Original Series, The Next Generation, or Voyager; a viewer in that position has lost practically nothing, understands basically everything going on, and while they’re missing some background about certain factions and some of early Star Trek history, all of that is explained within the show itself. The same applies to modern Star Trek productions – perhaps with the exception of Picard.

Marvel stands in contrast to that. Every film and show connects in a nakedly obvious way to every other film and show. Characters, factions, themes, and whole storylines cross over from one part of the franchise to another, and while it’s perfectly possible right now to sit down and watch just one or two films or one television show, a viewer who does so is clearly missing out. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier tried to mitigate this as best it could, but even so there’s no denying that a fan who’s seen every Marvel project will have got more out of it than someone who hasn’t.

In contrast to the way the MCU works, a Star Trek fan can watch just one series in the franchise without missing out on too much or getting lost with themes and stories that cross over.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is one big, interconnected world. That is its strength, as we’ve seen Marvel films bring in audience numbers and a level of financial success that are quite literally unprecedented, as well as facilitating the transformation of comic book superheroes from nerdy niche to mainstream blockbusters. But that interconnectedness may yet prove to be a weakness, too, if more and more viewers find that new iterations of the MCU are too dense and require too much prior knowledge to properly enjoy.

Based on all of that, it seems inevitable to me that Disney and Marvel will eventually hit the reset button. Whether it happens in five years or fifteen, I think there will eventually be a resetting of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. How it will work, and whether it will revitalise the franchise and propel it to further success in future are all open questions, and we won’t know for sure until it happens. Watch this space!

All titles mentioned above are the copyright of their respective broadcaster, distributor, production company, etc. The Marvel brand – including the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Avengers Endgame, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and all other titles mentioned above – is the copyright of The Walt Disney Company. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier – miniseries review

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, as well as for other titles in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, including Avengers Endgame.

I’m a little late to the party on this one; The Falcon and the Winter Soldier premiered back in late March. But it’s taken me till now to get around to watching it, so this review is just going to have to be “better late than never!” Superheroes and comics aren’t really my thing, and thus it takes something a little more down-to-earth to really pique my interest in the genre. Some Marvel stuff has been okay – I liked the first couple of seasons of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for example.

2019’s Avengers Endgame had a big impact on the Marvel cinematic universe, killing off major characters and shaking up the superheroes’ world in a significant way. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was my first point of contact with this post-Endgame environment, and going in I was at least a little curious to see how the miniseries would respond to those major changes.

Sam Wilson – a.k.a. the Falcon.

Having decided to skip the very weird-looking WandaVision earlier in the year, and not being 100% caught up on every Marvel film or television project, I have no doubt that I missed some in-jokes and references that bigger fans would have understood. But a show like The Falcon and the Winter Soldier appealed to me for precisely the reasons something like WandaVision didn’t – it looked to be a fairly straight-laced action series.

So that was my mindset going in, and you know what? It was perfectly entertaining action fare. A little over-the-top at points, but nothing too immersion-breaking. The miniseries format definitely suited The Falcon and the Winter Soldier; six episodes was great, and watchable over the course of a couple of evenings, but I wouldn’t have wanted a full fifteen- or twenty-episode season. That might’ve been too much!

James “Bucky” Barnes – a.k.a. the Winter Soldier.

Though there were plenty of superhero and comic elements in the miniseries, for the most part it stayed true to its action-oriented premise, with leads Sam and Bucky getting into scrapes as they teamed up to take on a group of terrorists. Though there were mentions of some of the wackier elements of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, for the most part the main story of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier could have worked without any of the superhero trappings. Simply swapping out superheroes for generic action heroes wouldn’t have ruined the story – and perhaps it’s for that reason that I enjoyed it!

The interplay between the two leads was one of the main draws of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. And in that sense it was a risk – both of these characters were very much secondary supporting players in their earlier appearances. Giving them a centre-stage moment could’ve backfired on one or both of them, yet they managed to share the limelight without one overshadowing the other. Both characters bonded over their past relationships with Captain America, but each brought something different to the table as well. The unexpected chemistry between Anthony Mackie’s Sam and Sebastian Stan’s Bucky went a long way to making the show a success.

The interaction between the two main characters was the highlight of the series.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier attempted to raise the stakes by crossing over into dramatic territory, focusing on the personal and family lives of its principal characters. Though some of this could feel a little forced at times, what it succeeded in doing was showing the post-Endgame world outside of the limited environment of superheroes. Many smaller interactions – from Bucky’s attempt at dating to Sam and his sister’s visit to a bank – were changed and defined by Thanos’ snap and its aftermath.

Since its inception more than a decade ago, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has strived to create a persistent world. The monumental events of one story aren’t forgotten in another, and the setting doesn’t simply reset itself in between iterations. This is a double-edged sword in some ways, as it can feel like keeping up with Marvel is almost a full-time job given how many productions there have been. But The Falcon and the Winter Soldier made a creditable effort to strike the right balance between being part of that broader ongoing story while being understandable to more casual viewers. There were elements from past Marvel outings that played into the story, and fans more familiar with those films than I am almost certainly got more out of it. But the series does try to be self-contained, and many of the character introductions and story elements don’t require background knowledge as The Falcon and the Winter Soldier does its best to tee them up. It’s not perfect, but that’s part and parcel of jumping into a series which is one part of a broader story.

There were plenty of callbacks and references to past Marvel outings.

The introduction of a “new” Captain America was interesting. In the second episode, both Sam and Bucky have to contend with this notion, and the way they both react is genuinely interesting, and the series explored it well given its limited timeframe. Though I have to say I felt Captain America’s burgeoning villainy was obvious even from the moment he was introduced, setting that moment aside, the way Sam and Bucky reacted to someone taking on a role pioneered by their friend was emotional – and at the same time an interesting look at the way mantles like Captain America are passed from individual to individual in comic books.

I’m not much of a comic fan, as already mentioned. But in comic books, especially those which have been running for a long time, it’s not unusual for superhero roles to be passed down to new characters. In Marvel, for example, there are multiple individuals who have been Spider-Man, with these roles occasionally being recast or reworked as new comic books, series, and storylines are developed. To fans who’ve become attached to the original incarnation, sometimes these changes are met with controversy, and though The Falcon and the Winter Soldier doesn’t dive into this kind of fandom critique in depth, elements of the Captain America storyline seemed to give that notion more than a passing glance. Marvel has come in for criticism in recent years from fans unhappy with new or evolving superheroes, and it felt like this was perhaps a nod to that controversy.

Sebastian Stan as Bucky.

Laying atop that layer of subtext, though, were the stories of two very different men who were both emotionally invested in Steve Rogers and Captain America. Seeing someone new step into those shoes was hard for both Sam and Bucky – and laid the groundwork for their unlikely bond, both in terms of the way the narrative played out and in terms of their personal connection.

In the story of Captain America himself – John Walker – we see a man struggling to live up to an inherited legacy. This is something many folks have some experience with – being unjustly compared to someone older, more experienced, or even just a more successful family member. The feeling of a responsibility being overwhelming – and not knowing how to deal with that – as well as a degree of so-called “imposter syndrome” were present in the character as well. Walker embodies the worst aspects of how to respond to such a situation, but the way in which it manifests and slowly builds over a couple of episodes, beginning with smaller insecurities before escalating, is strangely relatable. Credit must go to actor Wyatt Russell, who put in a stellar performance in the role.

Wyatt Russell’s Captain America was a different and interesting take.

Art and entertainment reflect the times in which they were created, and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier had distinct racial themes that mirror events in the United States over the past few years. I’m not the right person to comment on such narrative elements, but I would say that they didn’t overshadow the series. Considering the way race relations in the United States have progressed (or should that be “regressed?”) over the last few years, it’s not surprising to see racial themes making their way into entertainment and popular culture.

Race relations and America’s chequered past wasn’t the only political theme, as The Falcon and the Winter Soldier also looked at issues of immigration and particularly the way refugees are welcomed – or ignored. Indeed, the show as a whole was more politically charged than I expected going in. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, and the way The Falcon and the Winter Soldier set up its refugee theme was very much fictionalised – these are people who “returned” following the events of Endgame. As I often say when it comes to the Star Trek franchise, using a fictional lens to look at real-world issues can be both powerful and effective, and it was both here. The moral ambiguity in Karli’s fight, and the way even the protagonists could empathise with her goals, was handled impressively.

Falcon actor Anthony Mackie and Sarah Wilson actress Adepero Oduye on set with director Kari Skogland (centre).
Photo Credit: Chuck Zlotnick for Marvel Studios

There were certainly some very contrived moments as the narrative rumbled on – the trio’s lives being saved in Madripoor by utter chance being just one example – but not so many that I felt the integrity of the overall story was too badly damaged. Such things are par for the course when dealing with both comics and action flicks, after all!

The moment in the fifth episode where Sam cashes in family favours felt like a storyline lifted almost directly from 1946 Christmas film It’s A Wonderful Life – an homage I never thought I’d find in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. It was certainly a contrivance, but as above it wasn’t an especially heinous one. Some contrivances are more easily shrugged off than others, but suspension of disbelief is a prerequisite when setting foot in a fictional world. As long as a story isn’t overflowing with such things, I’m content to let them slide.

The Falcon in flight.

Filming locations and sets used in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier were impressively diverse. I was concerned upon seeing the opening mission to “Tunisia” that we were going to see an over-reliance on one or two environments being recycled, but for a series that took its protagonists to different parts of the United States and the world, the series did a solid job with most of its settings; there were genuine differences between the locales visited – the kind of thing one might expect to see from a blockbuster action film. Last year I had criticised Star Trek: Picard for its samey filming locations, so it was great to see what Marvel and Disney can do when they throw their money around!

Erin Kellyman, who took on the challenging role of budding revolutionary Karli, put in a solid performance. I wasn’t especially impressed with her when I’d seen her in Solo: A Star Wars Story a couple of years ago, but when given a broader role, one with greater range, she did a perfectly creditable job. I’m not sure that the whole “the villain is a young girl” revelation still works as a twist or storytelling shock, though – just as it didn’t when Kellyman had a similar moment in Solo. That aside, Karli made for an interesting adversary – someone whose methods may be extreme, but whose overall philosophy is difficult to condemn. Comic books often deal in black-and-white: virtuous superheroes who want to save the world and flat-out evil supervillains who have dastardly ambitions. Karli was, in that sense, a breath of fresh air, even when compared to the likes of Thanos.

Karli was the main adversary for the duo to tackle.

One storyline that I felt didn’t work very well was the decision to bring back the random villain’s henchman from the opening act of the first episode to be a kind of supervillain with a grudge against Sam in the final part of the last episode. This nameless character had no impact on the entire narrative aside from being a goon to outsmart to set up Sam’s character, and his return just didn’t feel like it mattered in any meaningful way – most significantly for Sam, but also for the character himself. Revenge is a motivation of sorts, but as a mercenary who seems to have only been in it for the money, and a one-dimensional mercenary at that, I just didn’t buy it. It was a contrivance, really, and a way to bring in another hurdle and a villain to be dispatched.

So to wrap things up, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was an enjoyable romp. I’d certainly rank it as one of the better Marvel projects that I’ve seen, and while I won’t be diving into every new film and show that the comic powerhouse churns out, I’m sure I’ll keep an eye out for other similar projects in future – including a second season, which may or may not be coming next year.

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is available to stream now on Disney+. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier – along with other films, series, and properties mentioned above – is the copyright of Marvel Studios and The Walt Disney Company. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Marvel’s Avengers looks an awful lot like Battlefront II…

One of the things that seemed weird to me about Marvel’s Avengers – the new video game, not the film series – is that the game seems to be using a visual style very similar to the Marvel Cinematic Universe… but without any of the actors’ likenesses. I wondered why they hadn’t been able to negotiate with the various actors like Robert Downey Jr., Scarlet Johannson, etc to use their faces or even get them to provide their voices to the title. Given the popularity of the MCU, that struck me as odd. But perhaps now we know why – the game is going to be very controversial.

If I were an actor in the films or an agent/advocate for them, I’d take one look at Marvel’s Avengers and think to myself just how glad I am to be able to say I have nothing whatsoever to do with it. The controversy the game is drawing for its incredibly aggressive monetisation and microtransaction policies is going to be toxic – and any brand or individual associated with that should watch their backs.

Star Wars Battlefront II generated a lot of controversy in 2018 for its in-game monetisation, and while it’s up for debate whether Marvel’s Avengers will reach that level, it’s trending in a very similar direction. Every single aspect of the game seems designed to extract as much money from players as possible – in a game that charges £50/$60 to purchase in the first place – with a £66 deluxe edition, of course.

Battlefront II released to widespread controversy.

When the game was announced as one of these always-online, “multi-year experience” games, the writing was on the wall. In recent years we’ve seen such titles as Anthem and Fallout 76 try to go down that route, and practically no game which does so manages to avoid controversy. Even by the low standards of this type of game, though, Marvel’s Avengers is taking the piss.

One of the Marvel franchise’s most iconic characters – Spider-Man – is going to be a console exclusive on the PlayStation 4. There are tie-ins with all sorts of random companies, each providing in-game rewards for purchases or subscriptions. There’s an in-game currency which can be bought with real money. Each character – of which there are six at launch (or seven if you’re playing on PlayStation 4) will have their own paid “hero cards”, which seems like a necessary feature to get the most out of each character.

In short, if you can think of a crappy anti-consumer business model used by a recent video game, publisher Square Enix has thrown it into Marvel’s Avengers.

One of several in-game marketplaces ready to vacuum up players’ cash.

The £10 “hero cards” per character is perhaps the most egregious of all the monetisation tactics. It means that players who want to fully experience the game – a game that they have already paid full price for up-front – will need to continually shell out more and more money, perhaps even spending double the initial asking price. That’s not accounting for other cosmetic items, skins, costumes, etc. that are all going to be paid for. The only thing the game doesn’t seem to have is lootboxes – something they make a big fuss about as if expecting gamers to reward them for it.

I’m not a big fan of Marvel, or of comic books in general. But some games with a comic book setting can be decent, and if this were a single-player action title with a big budget behind it I might’ve been tempted to give it a try. Not like this, though. Not with the game being in such a state. People who had early access to play through the beta version have even been reporting back saying that underneath all the aggressive microtransactions, the game isn’t actually all that good.

Marvel’s Avengers may not be as exciting as this promo artwork suggests…

So a 6/10 title is going to cost easily upwards of £100 if you want to buy the deluxe edition and all of the battle passes and in-game currency and cosmetic extras… and you still can’t get iconic character Spider-Man unless you spend all that money on the PlayStation 4 version. I don’t know about you, but to me it’s beginning to sound like it might not be the best value proposition in the gaming world right now.

The Star Wars brand has been dragged through the mud in recent years – admittedly not just because of decisions in games. But the release of Battlefront II and the controversy and backlash it generated tarnished the overall brand to a degree, and I can’t help but feel Marvel is in serious danger of making a very similar mistake. The fact that both Star Wars and Marvel are owned by Disney is worth noting; clearly the company is fine with going all-in on these kind of aggressive money-making tactics.

If I were a Marvel fan, I would have been looking forward to the franchise’s biggest game in a long time. But I’d be looking at the underwhelming game drowning in microtransactions (if we can call £10 “micro”) and feeling sick to my stomach. This is barely even a game – it’s a shop, designed to rope players in and force them to spend more and more and more money. If the core game underneath was decent, perhaps players would be willing to do that. But if reports from those who played the beta are accurate, there isn’t even the kernel of a good game at the heart of this mess.

Ms. Marvel in a promo screenshot.

And perhaps that’s to be expected. The best games are passion projects – titles developed because the team behind them genuinely loved the idea and wanted to see it fully realised. Everything about Marvel’s Avengers feels corporate and soulless, like the game has been conceived in a boardroom full of men in suits who looked at the list of franchises they own then tasked some poor team of developers with making a money-printing machine. These are people who looked at the success of titles like Fortnite and Grand Theft Auto Online and – without understanding anything about them – said “make me one of those!”

The sad thing is that there are many comic book fans and fans of Marvel who would have loved the chance to work on a fun title and bring the superheroes to life for players. But it seems like none of them got a look-in, or if they did they saw this sad, corporate shell and walked away. The suits in charge don’t care, and what has been built is a game where the nicest thing anyone can say is that it looks pretty. Visually impressive, but mediocre and drowning in attempted monetisation.

Disney tried this a couple of years ago in partnership with Electronic Arts. The result? Star Wars Battlefront II, a game so controversial it literally got politicians involved and will probably end up getting in-game gambling banned in at least some areas of the world. It will be hard for Marvel’s Avengers to fail quite so spectacularly, but it seems like they’re willing to try.

Marvel’s Avengers is due for release at on the 4th of September on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC, and Stadia. Marvel’s Avengers was primarily developed by Crystal Dynamics and published by Square Enix. The Marvel franchise is the copyright of the Walt Disney Company. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.