The song is built around a pair of somewhat unusual metaphors. Verse 1 has “Darling, I need you like ships need the sea.” Verse 2 gives us “Darling, I need you like birds need the sky.” Of course, images of birds and sea and sky are familiar. But exactly what she’s doing with them struck me as novel.
Often we speak and sing of love in terms of attachment—someone to hold onto, someone to cling to. Our lover supports us, providing solidity and reliability. They might be called an anchor, in nautical terms.
And this isn’t wrong. One of the great virtues of love is to give us something to keep us steady and secure; someone to fall back on, someone who stands by us. I need only mention another excellent Emily Hearn song, “Not Walkin’ Away”: “Oh, you’re a pain to be around / Oh, but you’re my solid ground.”
At the same time, it’s also familiar to see love as lifting us up, enabling us to soar. The support we’ve just talked about can be a launching pad, stimulating us to be our best selves—as innumerable songs tell us. Of course, that kind of support requires a good deal of generosity and selflessness in the lover. It is by no means a sure thing; our relationships are frequently imperfect, and there are also plenty of devastating depictions of relationships that hold us back and confine us. But love at its best is an enabler and not a constraint.
“Like Ships Need the Sea,” however, goes even further. The singer’s lover is to her as the sea is to a ship. It’s as if the beloved himself is a kind of endless field for exploration and discovery. The sea not only supports the ship afloat, but carries her to new horizons; the sea is the vast expanse through which wonderful journeys are made.
If this aspect weren’t clear enough, the same relationship is expressed again in a different analogy, birds and the sky. We might say that the air upholds birds (“the wind beneath my wings”) as the sea upholds the ship; but “sky” is a more intangible concept than “air.” We see it less as support than as aspiration. The open sky is the very paradigm, for humans, of limitless expanse. We have the image of launching ourself into an endless range that can carry us anywhere. The lover is the very universe in which we can live and move and have our being.
To my mind, it’s a very effective pair of metaphors.
We talked last time about the openness of the F&SF fan to endless possibility: anything can happen. Hearn’s song speaks of love in the same way. It is, we might say, a F&SF fan’s kind of love.
Thus, in chapter 6 of Time Signature, it’s natural for Trina to make an oblique reference to “Like Ships Need the Sea.” She wants the kind of love that opens her out, not closes her in. It’s crucial to her that love lead to new horizons. And that’s the peculiar challenge she faces in the story. Is what she’s being offered that kind of love?
One of the things I like about reading science fiction and fantasy is that you never know how things might turn out.
Of course certain genres of stories come with expectations. In an adventure epic, we can be pretty sure the good guys will win. In a traditional romance, the couple generally gets together at the end. But what’s different about F&SF, as opposed to what we might call mainstream or mundane stories, is that the worldwide situation at the end can be radically different from the one at the beginning.
I’m talking here about big-picture changes. Of course things can and do change for the people in the story. But in a mainstream story, the world around the characters is pretty much fixed. Our main character may win a million dollars, but the overall distribution of wealth doesn’t change. Our hero and heroine may fall in love and marry, but it won’t be front-page news. In a TV hospital drama, the imperiled patient won’t be cured because aliens suddenly arrive with a universal regeneration technique that makes illness obsolete; the cure will come on a more individual scale.
The World At Stake?
In a science fiction story, however, world-changing events may occur. The movie Independence Day depicts an alien invasion after which, as I pointed out in a previous post, things will never be the same. A nifty new invention may change the world. Discovering people with strange powers among us may affect our whole history, for good or for ill. A revolution may succeed in overthrowing the oppressive tyranny. Things will not always reset to their “Gilligan’s Island” starting point.
Not all F&SF stories involve such events. A perfectly good fantastic tale may result in changes only for the central characters—in Jo Walton’s Among Others, for example, or Becky Chambers’ latest, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within (2021). But the potential is there. The set of possible outcomes has a wider range: the resolution does not have to confine itself to the resolutely mundane.
Even mainstream thrillers where it appears The Fate of the World Is At Stake—James Bond, say—usually don’t take that step. The world-changing fate is averted, the status quo is restored. Even the possibility of radical change is usually hidden from the general public; there’s no sense that Bond’s exploits are a nine-day wonder in the press. On the contrary, we have the sense that the people at large never know how close they came to nuclear destruction or whatever the menace-of-the-week is. When such a thriller actually does postulate a major change for the world—as in, say, Tom Clancy’s now-outdated Red Storm Rising (1986), or the more recent book by Elliot Ackerman & James Stavridis, 2034: A Novel of the Next World War (excerpted in the February 2021 issue of Wired)—I’m inclined to think of it as science fiction for exactly that reason.
Hope and Unease
This open-endedness is an effective counter to both complacency and despair.
When stories teach us that even big overarching parts of our life can change, we are less inclined to rest in the comfortable assumption that the status quo will always remain. This is a good thing, because it keeps us from taking things for granted. America could become a dictatorship; it behooves us to make sure it doesn’t. The world could suffer an ecological catastrophe. An asteroid could strike the Earth again; that’s why we track near-Earth objects.
But it’s equally important to recognize that the big world-picture could also get better. It is easy, especially in a cynical age like our own, to assume that current evils will always be with us; things will continue to get darker and more depressing. But that’s merely taking the status quo for granted again. We cannot assume that there will always be racial discrimination, that some people will always go hungry, that Earth’s ecology will degrade. Not knowing what is going to happen means we can hope for better things as well as fear worse things.
We can thus take comfort, as well as warning, in the open-endedness of the future.
Had she really thought the world didn’t change? She was a fool. The world was made of miracles, unexpected earthquakes, storms that came from nowhere and might reshape a continent. The boy beside her. The future before her. Anything was possible. (Inej’s thoughts, in Leigh Bardugo, Crooked Kingdom (NY: Henry Holt and Company, 2016), ch. 44, p. 529.)
F&SF fans, then, are encouraged to be both cautious and expectant about the future. That doesn’t prevent them from being either naïve or discouraged—we see plenty of both. But they are a little more likely to look toward the future with interest and curiosity.
The Knowing Time Traveler
That attitude is tenable as long as we’re living in the present. We don’t know what’s going to happen next. But what if we did? Suppose we had the ability to travel in time back to an earlier era—permanently. What would it be like to live one’s life knowing, as settled history, what the future holds?
There’s an entire subgenre of time travel romance that deals with contemporary people going back in time to live with a lover in the past. The most well-known story of this sort is probably Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander (1991), first of a lengthy series, which was in turn developed into a TV series. Here Claire Randall, a mid-twentieth-century nurse, is magically transported back to the eighteenth century to fall in love with Scotsman Jamie Fraser. While I’ve only read the first novel, and the tale evidently gets a good deal more complicated later, Claire seems happy to give up her twentieth-century life to reside somewhere in the past.
Of course one could always look forward to the unknown personal events of one’s own life, which presumably wouldn’t be enshrined in the historical record—unless one’s presence itself changes the overall course of history, which sets up an entirely different kind of story. When we go back and change the past, as in L. Sprague de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall (1939), or (in a notably more complex fashion) Angela Quarles’s Must Love Breeches (2014), we’ve rewritten history, and we no longer know what’s going to happen. (I’ve commented on some aspects of changing history in a previous post.)
But if our personal lives stay under the radar, so to speak, then we already know the broad outlines of our future from our erstwhile history books. That might be useful: Quarles’s heroine, in the epilogue, reflects that “she’d not been above using her knowledge of upcoming historical events to safeguard her family and their finances.”
On the other hand, for a science fiction fan who enjoys the open-endedness of not knowing what will happen, such a life in the past might be hard to bear. We could no longer wonder whether extra-terrestrials might land tomorrow, or new medical breakthroughs be made, or whether unexpected political events like the fall of the Soviet Union might occur. From this perspective, living immured in the past might seem like a prison, rather than a comfortable resting place.
This is the situation I set up in Time Signature for my heroine Trina. She’s a lifelong F&SF fan; her eyes have always been fixed on the future. When she begins to take seriously the notion that she might be asked to live her life in the past, how does she grapple with that? What kind of comedy might develop from this somewhat unusual romantic obstacle?
I had a good time finding out, and I hope you may as well.
My science fiction romantic comedy novella Time Signature debuts tomorrow, May 10, available wherever fine ebooks are sold. In honor of the occasion, I’m going to say a few words about one of the interesting aspects of writing this piece—the challenge of building a story in a world someone else has created.
The Wild Rose Press likes to develop series of books based on a common setting or theme. The common element is announced, and authors are invited to submit stories to fit. The stories may be of different kinds: contemporary romance, historical romance, romantic suspense, paranormal romance, and so forth. But the common thread ties them together.
A couple of years ago, TWRP announced the Deerbourne Inn series. The creators placed a charming old inn in a small town in Vermont. They described the layout of the inn and the town, the surrounding landscape, a set of inhabitants, noteworthy events, and the like. Then they turned the writers loose. At this point, I count no fewer than twenty-six books set in the Deerbourne Inn locale. This small town, in other words, is crawling with lovers seeking their happy endings.
In a Wild Rose chat, I asked whether, among all these varieties, a science fiction (rather than fantasy) story might also fit. Sure, why not, was the response. And, having raised the question, I thought of an angle: a chance to play around with the classic time travel romance tropes and, perhaps, turn them around in unexpected ways. I ran the concept by Nikki Andrews, who was at that time my TWRP editor. She thought it might be fun. And thus Time Signature was born.
The advantage of spreading out the efforts of exotic worldbuilding make science fiction a natural venue for shared worlds. But even in more mundane settings, there are advantages to be gained. A standalone non-fantastic contemporary novel must still stand up a set of characters, places, companies, and the like to populate the story. A writer who’s invented such a panoply of features for a set of tales (like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County) has to put a lot of work into developing these details. Bringing in a whole corps of authors to help in that enterprise can create a richness of detail that would be hard for a single writer to achieve. (We can’t all be J.R.R. Tolkien.)
Thus, before I put electrons to screen in Time Signature, I already had a range of details to draw upon. The inn and its staff were “already there.” If my characters wanted to have dinner at a restaurant in town, I had a selection of eateries available. More important, my main character Trina Kellander, a musician, could perform in town at the “Mad River Garden Party,” a summertime event already defined in the Deerbourne Inn corpus.
The Joys and Tribulations of Consistency
The flip side of these advantages is the need for consistency. Nothing throws a reader out of a story faster than some blatant discrepancy in the details. If it takes 39 minutes to get from Willow Springs to Montpelier, it’s unlikely the return trip will take three hours—barring traffic jams, severe weather, or the like. (And if Trina makes the trip in fair weather, we can’t have another character suffering a torrential downpour in the same location at the same time.)
Achieving the consistency needed for a successful suspension of disbelief is hard enough for one author. For a whole herd of authors, it’s a major issue. How do we maintain the coherence that makes the shared world seem real?
Beth Overmyer’s recent guest post on writing a series mentioned the notion of a “bible”—reference notes that record details, from a character’s appearance to the theory of magic. The bible is essential to a shared universe. It’s the only way writers can stay consistent on key details without bogging down in endless inter-author consultations.
The Deerbourne Inn bible establishes the location of the fictional town of Willow Springs (which actually coincides with a real small town on the Vermont map—allowing me to use Google Maps to determine the travel time to Montpelier). It lays out the structure of the inn, its history, the owner and staff, a bevy of secondary characters at the inn and in the town, the shops and facilities in Willow Springs (right down to the high school mascot), and special events. Characters introduced in the individual stories, up to the last update to the bible, are also listed. The bible is accompanied by a street map of the town, making it easier to visualize geographical relationships. (We’ve not yet progressed to the level of having a GIS layer for an electronic map. But that innovation’s probably not too far away.)
However, it’s impractical to include all possible details in the bible—especially when 26 different books are involved. This makes it harder to be sure whether a given fact has been established somewhere, or whether one is free to invent it. My ebook copies of the Deerbourne Inn stories I read while writing TS are festooned with blue highlights to indicate facts that I might have to take into account at some point. And still it’s not easy to tell.
Case in point: My characters take a hike up into the nearby hills, and stop to look back down at the inn. What color is the façade? I couldn’t find a reference on that particular point. If I were writing a standalone story, I would simply have made up a color on the spot (and, of course, carefully notated it back into my background notes for later reference). But I was reluctant to do that here; someone else might have made a passing reference to the color in a story I hadn’t read. I dodged the issue by simply not mentioning a color—often the simplest solution to a consistency problem.
At the same time, meshing your story smoothly into an existing framework has a joy of its own. I enjoyed doing my best to meld TS seamlessly into the continuity of the locale and the stories.
The greatest fun, however, came in the opportunity to integrate other authors’ characters and locales into the story as it developed.
My heroine Trina needed a best-friend-forever in town—someone she could talk to as the plot developed. It occurred to me that a secondary character in Amber Daulton’s Lyrical Embrace, the sister of her hero, would make a fine confidante. Like Trina, Ruby Haynes is a musician; that created a natural connection and explained a shared history. And Ruby’s breezy good cheer made her a perfect foil.
I had a great time consulting with Amber and making sure my portrayal of Ruby was consistent with the original. What kind of drinks would they share? What would Ruby name a baby? The circle was completed when the baby I’d named turned up again in Amber’s subsequent Deerbourne novel Harmony’s Embrace. Like a volley in tennis, passing these story elements back and forth is a satisfying experience.
In a similar way, I found a way to make use of a specific location created by Tena Stetler for her novel Mystic Maples. I checked with Tena to make sure my description meshed correctly with her conception of the locale, and wrote it into TS as part of the already-existing background.
The Draw of a Shared World
There’s a unique charm to finding connections and crossovers in the stories we like. As with Easter eggs in a movie or a game, we delight in discovering an unexpected convergence. Over and above the heightened realism of a universe in which consistent features recur, it’s just fun to see the web of connections grow. Time Signature gave me the opportunity to weave a new layer into the tapestry of the Deerbourne Inn world; I hope that will please readers as much as it does me.
One of the functions of imagination is to make odd, sometimes random connections. In this case, the random connection is between two very different stories about women with almost the same name. The “Addie” in V.E. Schwab’s The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue (2020) is Adeline, a young girl of the seventeenth century who becomes immortal—at a price. In the 2015 movie The Age of Adaline, the titular Adaline is also immortal, for entirely different reasons. Yet both face certain issues that resonate particularly well with us today.
Addie’s Dark Deal
Addie LaRue doesn’t set out to become immortal. A village girl in seventeenth-century France, she wants to avoid being shunted into an unwanted marriage that will trap her in this small country backwater, isolated from the larger world she longs to know. Although she’s cautioned by her eccentric mentor never to deal with the gods that come out after sunset, Addie incautiously promises her soul to a Darkness in return for freedom from these entanglements.
This supernatural entity grants her wish in a way that’s as tricky and cruel as any fairy-tale curse. Addie will be free of entrapment because everyone she meets will forget her once they’re out of her presence. She won’t die or change until she willingly gives up her unremembered life; but she can form no lasting relationships.
Addie’s family fails to recognize her when she returns to the village. A good Samaritan who’s convinced to help her forgets about it as soon as she leaves to bring food, and never returns. If she pays in advance for a room, the innkeeper has forgotten the payment next time they meet. Addie is, of course, prevented from explaining her predicament to anyone, even if they would believe her.
Much of the story takes place in the present day, where we meet Addie living by her wits from moment to moment, as she has for three hundred years. While the wish gone wrong is a classic fairy-tale trope, this is not a fairy tale; it’s more like science fiction. Schwab does an amazing job of showing us the logical ramifications of the curse and how a highly sympathetic character copes with them.
Then the ground shifts when Addie meets a young man in a bookstore who—somehow—does remember her name. This leads to a haunting illustration of human life and how we live it that, as a perceptive book review notes, is hard to forget.
The Perpetual Reboot
No one can remember Adeline from one meeting to the next—even a lover waking up in the morning. In this respect, her situation resembles what we find in other stories that deal with memory issues, or with repeating circumstances that only the main character can recall. Bill Murray’s character Phil Connors in Groundhog Day (1993) finds himself with a similar problem: when he finally wants to form a permanent relationship with the woman he’s falling in love with, the permanence is all on his side. He has to win her affection again every day.
The same result occurs, from an opposite cause, in the movie 50 First Dates (2004). Lucy Whitmore, the girl Henry Roth becomes interested in, has suffered a traumatic short-term memory defect: she remembers her life up to the date of the accident, but each night she forgets everything that’s happened after that time. Her family and friends find ways to cope with this—but she knows them from before. Henry, who wants to get to know her, has no previous relationship to build on. Like Phil, he has to ingratiate himself with her—court her—each day anew.
Addie’s case is harder. No one remembers her from day to day; she is prevented from making any permanent mark on the world. But the hardest part is similar. She can form no lasting relationships. The essential loneliness of the main character is each case is what makes the stories so poignant.
In that respect, there’s a similarity to Diana Wynne Jones’s eerie story The Homeward Bounders (1981). Jamie, the narrator there, is condemned to wander from one alternate world to another whenever a “move” is made by supernatural players who game with human lives. Like Addie, he can’t be killed or seriously harmed—but he can never find a home. “You wouldn’t believe how lonely you get” (chapters 2, 14).
Adaline’s Accidental Immortality
In contrast to the stories mentioned above, which mostly depend on fantasy tropes of one sort or another to set up the situation, The Age of Adaline is straight science fiction—though it’s not advertised as a “science fiction movie.” A voice-over narrator explains to us that when Adaline Bowman, born in 1908, falls into a freezing lake in 1937 and then is revived by a lightning strike, the “principle of electron compression in DNA,” which will be discovered in 2035, causes her to stop aging.
This fact only gradually becomes apparent to her. We see it through a narrative sequence that jumps back and forth in time, just as in Addie LaRue. As her birth date recedes, but she does not visibly age, people look at her more and more oddly—say, in a traffic stop where the policeman examines the date on her driver’s license. Eventually the FBI takes an interest. Adaline escapes and begins changing her identity every so often to conceal her real age.
Adaline’s situation resembles that of the long-lived “Howard Family” members in Heinlein’s classic novel Methuselah’s Children (1941, 1958). She lives a perpetual “masquerade.” She is not quite so deprived of permanence as Addie; she can live for a while in a given identity, build up a bank account, buy a home. Ultimately, however, she has to keep moving. Her problem is in a way the opposite of Addie’s: Adaline needs to keep from being remembered (by the wrong people).
But this deprives her of long-term relationships just as in Addie’s and Phil’s cases. We see Adaline’s (latest) dog die, reminding her that she will outlive anyone. Her first husband died young, before her immortality began; for her, love means growing old together—but she can’t have that. Becoming involved with an “ephemeral” can only lead to tragedy in the end.
As a result, Adaline shies away from long-term commitments. It is too emotionally wrenching for her to confront the fate reluctantly embraced at one point by Lazarus Long, one of Heinlein’s Methuselah’s Children characters, who does marry a short-lived ordinary human in “The Tale of the Adopted Daughter.” But Adaline finds the lack of such relationships more and more a grief as time goes on. As a character who’s learned her secret tells her (at 1:27): “All these years you’ve lived, but you never had a life.”
Reaching for Continuity
The long lives of Addie and Adaline have their compensations. For example, by living for so many years as a youthful adult, one builds up a sizable store of skills. Addie knows many languages; so does Adaline. Phil in Groundhog Day becomes a whiz at the piano by taking a one-hour lesson on each of his innumerable repeating days. Adaline can win a game of Trivial Pursuit; she also seems to a friend to drive like a maniac—but she can do this safely, since she’s had more experience than any professional race-car driver and still has the reflexes of a 29-year-old.
But these pragmatic advantages aren’t worth the isolation they must endure. Not the inability to connect—but the inability to forge a permanent connection, as we see in the desperate moments at the end of a cycle in several of these stories. At one point, Addie reflects:
Sure, she dreams of sleepy mornings over coffee, legs draped across a lap, inside jokes and easy laughter, but those comforts come with the knowing. There can be no slow build, no quiet lust, intimacy fostered over days, weeks, months. (p. 100)
We are fond of admiring the freshness of love’s beginning: most romances stick to the courtship stage. But we may not be as attentive to the charms of continuity. At p. 171, the one man who can remember Addie calls her his “date”:
Date. The word thrills through her. A date is something made, something planned; not a chance of opportunity, but time set aside at one point for another, a moment in the future.
In an article about the fast-moving changes in our culture, a recent article in Wired observes:
. . . what most of us long for, whether we realize it or not, is continuity – the sense that our lives are part of an ongoing narrative that began before we were born and will continue after we die. (Meghan O’Gieblyn, “Cloud Support: Am I Obligated to Join TikTok?”, Wired, March 2021, p. 25)
We want to be remembered, to be held dear, to make a mark on the world. The burden with which Addie grapples is the inability to achieve those things.
We honor freedom, the ability to be unconstrained by the past; and that is both true and good. But that value too can be taken to an extreme. Addie LaRue serves as a kind of reductio ad absurdum of the absolutism of freedom. The “god” who cursed her says jeeringly:
You asked for freedom. There is no greater freedom than that. You can move through the world unhindered. Untethered. Unbound. (p. 149)
What we want, as ever, is the happy medium—or, to put it differently, to have our cake and also eat it. We are willing to expend our freedom to make commitments in relationships, even though this necessarily involves giving hostages to fate—we can always lose the ones we love. We do this because it’s the only way we can achieve other good things: “inside jokes and easy laughter,” shared memories, the comfort and the pride of a relationship seasoned over many years.
Not remembering can be a problem; being remembered too well can be a problem too (as we are keenly aware in these days when the Internet preserves all our youthful indiscretions forever). The ways in which these two Ad(e/a)lines respond to memory, and seek after continuity, are well worth a look as we employ the freedoms and build the permanences of our lives.
It’s now becoming apparent just how big a risk Marvel Studios took when they decided in Avengers: Endgame (2019) that those disintegrated by the “Snap” would not return until five years later (the “Blip”). What the post-Endgame shows are giving us is a tantalizing, but incomplete, new world. Obviously, however, in order to comment on it, we’ll have to issue a
Once time travel was on the table, it would have been simple for Marvel to set up the plot of Endgame to put things back the way they were. I fully expected the heroes to go back and undo the Snap altogether. But instead the storytellers took a different tack; see our previous discussion in Changing the Past – Or Avenging It (2019).
The post-Endgame new world is radically changed. It’s no longer simply our own world with superheroes added. The immense loss, and then the return of the lost, almost more disconcerting, has created a world-wide trauma. This doesn’t just violate the iron law that a series of adventures must always return to the status quo ante; it veers away from a principle that’s almost inherent to superhero stories. Famed comic book writer Kurt Busiek observed:
One of the most charming elements of the superhero story, for me, lies in the fact that the world it all happens in is our world—that this fantastic, furious, cosmic stuff happens in what could be the skies over our heads—and sure, it should transform the world into something unrecognizable, but it doesn’t . . . It’s not a realistic world, but it’s a fascinating one. (Astro City: Life in the Big City (1995-1996), Introduction, p. 9)
That’s no longer true in the MCU. Between the Blip, and the potential of the alien technology left lying around after the Battle of New York (see Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)), and the immediate awareness of extraterrestrial threats that motivated Nick Fury into forming the Avengers in the first place (see Captain Marvel (2019)), we’re not in Kansas any more. The screenwriters have abandoned the comfortable world of the serial comic book for the permanent change of more serious science fiction.
The New Shows
Marvel’s output since Endgame explores the ramifications of the now-completed Avengers saga.
Spider-Man: Far from Home (2019) has Peter Parker joining his high-school classmates on a summer field trip to Europe. Fortunately for the plotline, his closest friends Ned Leeds, Betty Brant, and Flash Thompson, and his crush MJ, were also among the “Snapped” and thus are still Peter’s age—unlike those of their former classmates who lived through the intervening five years.
The story doesn’t really make a lot out of the dislocation caused by the time lag. It does, however, tell us that Tony Stark had posthumously turned over to Peter control of a powerful orbital weapons system via an AI called “EDITH.” In a sense, this automated defense system is the fulfillment of Stark’s long-time dream—handing over the defense of Earth to robots who can fight without sacrificing human lives. That didn’t work out so well, however, in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). Nor does its course run smooth in Spider-Man, where Peter is tricked into handing over to a super-villain control of a system that could allow him to dominate the world. One begins to think Stark was barking up the wrong tree.
The TV series WandaVision (2021) deals more directly with the fallout from Endgame. The death of Wanda Maximoff’s android husband, the Vision, in the Infinity War is the underlying tragedy that drives this very peculiar series. Wanda herself is the principal antagonist in this storyline, since her grief has driven her to transform an entire town into a re-enactment of the life she wishes she could have led. Yet she is portrayed sympathetically, on the whole.
Less sympathetic are the people supposedly in charge of resolving the problem. These include some admirable characters, such as the eccentric Darcy Lewis from Thor (now an astrophysicist in her own right) and FBI agent Jimmy Woo. But the force in charge of addressing Wanda’s fantasy-in-a-bubble is an organization called SWORD, a complement of sorts to the more familiar SHIELD. The SWORD forces are run by one Tyler Hayward, who ends up as the real villain of the piece. Since SHIELD has already turned out to have been a cover all along for the nefarious Nazi-derived organization Hydra (see Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)), Marvel’s “secret agencies” are batting 0 for 2.
Nor are things looking up in the currently running series, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Cap (Steve Rogers) had turned over his emblematic shield to Sam Wilson, the Falcon, at the conclusion of Endgame. Sam, feeling unworthy of Cap’s mantle, turns the shield over as a museum display rather than using it himself. This noble humility is betrayed when someone—the U.S. government?—instead gives the shield to a newly-appointed Captain America, John Walker. At the halfway point of the six-episode series, Walker is not a bad guy—yet—but he isn’t much of a good guy either; he shows signs of going off the rails a bit, as apparently happened in the comic books.
The same could be said of several other forces. A “Global Repatriation Council” seems to be responsible for resettling refugees from the Blip; but their behavior seems high-handed and violent. The enemies against which the authorities want to mobilize Sam and Bucky Barnes (the “Winter Soldier”) are the “Flag Smashers”—but they’re not entirely villains, any more than the GRC are heroes. They want to ‘smash flags’ not to destroy civilization, but to destroy nationalism. And they devote themselves to helping the refugees, albeit by unlawful means.
It gets still more complicated. Sam and Bucky ally with Baron Zemo, the anti-superhero villain of Captain America: Civil War (2016). They meet up with Sharon Carter, a SHIELD agent and passing romantic interest for Steve in previous movies, now an embittered outlaw on the run. When they find the mad scientist who’s making super-serum for the Flag Smashers, he says that “When HYDRA fell, I was recruited by the CIA.” (Huh?)
It’s unclear—to me, at least—exactly who Sam and Bucky are working for, if anyone. That’s a deeper question than it seems. The Civil War sequence sought to grapple with the classic superhero issue of vigilante action. Do superheroes act wholly on their own, or do they answer to someone?
The conflict among the Avengers was about independent action and distrust of authority. They put that aside to deal with Thanos. But in the post-Thanos world, relying on the authorities seems even more dubious than before. The MCU seems to be descending into what TV Tropes calls “black-and-gray morality.”
The New World Order
Who are these authorities, anyway? Who’s in charge?
It’s murky. In WandaVision, SWORD can bring in a massive armed force to surround an American small town for days on end. Is it an agency of the U.S. government? FBI agent Jimmy Woo cooperates with them—for a while—so maybe SWORD is at least on good terms with the feds. But where does it get its authority? (This was never very clear even for SHIELD in the comics, much less in the movies, where it initially appeared to be run by the Omniscient Council of Vagueness.) In F&WS, Bucky is getting a presidential pardon, but is required by somebody to attend therapy sessions. Possibly he was never actually discharged from the U.S. military. But we don’t really see who gave Sam the mission he’s on in the opening episode. Presumably John Walker, the wannabe Cap, was appointed by the government—though how long he’ll stay in line is anybody’s guess. Meanwhile, Tony Stark’s orbiting satellite defense is apparently in the hands of a New York teenager. Well, there could be worse caretakers . . .
If we ask who’s in charge on the superhero end, the situation is even worse. I can’t tell if the Avengers are still in operation. Most of the central characters who held things together in earlier episodes are gone: Steve, Tony, Natasha, Thor. When a bank loan officer asks Sam probing questions about his income, he seems to have no answers. The right person to ask might be Pepper, who at least must be in charge of the Stark fortune. I’m not sure whether the Sokovia Accords are still in effect, giving a tenuous respectability to the costumed vigilantes. If so, SWORD is violating those accords, according to the Wikipedia squib.
At this stage, it would seem to be dubious to put much trust in either the government(s) or Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.
Where We’re Headed
In a weird sort of way, the post-Return Marvel world has become a sort of proxy or allegory for the COVID-19 pandemic (which didn’t occur in the MCU). The whole world is under major unexpected stresses. Traditional economic and political and legal institutions are unsteady. Everyone is trying to adapt to a new way of life, all at once.
The overall impression I get is rather dystopian. We see plenty of crime, civil unrest, and lawlessness, but not much that’s positive. The decent characters like Sam and Darcy and Jimmy are not in positions of power. It’s rather a letdown after the brilliant, if costly, victory in Endgame.
On the other hand, a period of dislocation and disorientation would not be surprising after the kind of upheavals the world has gone through in Marvel’s composite story. A more promising trajectory may yet emerge. I can’t say that’s evident from the new stories so far, though. Maybe Wakanda will emerge from its isolation and lead us to a brighter day—though in real life we’ve lost Chadwick Boseman, too. Maybe Nick Fury will pull another rabbit out of his hat. Or maybe dumping the Fantastic Four and the X-Men into this jumble will somehow make things more rather than less clear.