It feels like, lately, every time I turn around, I'm surprised that it's time to start compiling my list of monthly favorites. How is it already the end of September!? Looking back at my favorites over the summer, I leaned heavily into Disney, Marvel, and true crime content. Unsurprisingly, this month was no different. My favorites included Marvel's What If..?, the fourth season of Watcher's Puppet History, John Hoffman and Steve Martin's Only Murders in the Building, and Destin Daniel Cretton's Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. I don't know why I keep returning to the same genres; maybe I'm just a sucker for patterns?
What were some of your favorite films, television shows, web series, books, or podcasts from September? Let me know what you're looking forward to or would recommend seeing in October!
Director: Bryan Andrews
Cast: Jeffrey Wright, Chadwick Boseman, Samuel L. Jackson, Danai Gurira, Piotr Michael, Debra Wilson, Mark Ruffalo, Mick Wingert, Jon Favreau, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Renner, Karen Gillan, Clark Gregg, Tom Hiddleston, Sebastian Stan, Leslie Bibb, Frank Grillo, John Kani, Josh Keaton, Jaimie Alexander, Seth Green, Michael Patrick McGill, Alexandra Daniels & Tom Vaughan-Lawlor
Where to Watch: Disney+
"What If…?" flips the script on the MCU, reimagining famous events from the films in unexpected ways. Marvel Studios’ first animated series focuses on different heroes from the MCU, featuring a voice cast that includes a host of stars who reprise their roles.
I will preface this review by saying that if you haven't seen What If...? yet and are interested, I would highly recommend watching Loki first to better understand alternate timelines and multiverses. But that all being said, I've really enjoyed the first season of What If...? As a perpetual what-iffer myself, it's been genuinely interesting to see what Marvel does with this concept.
While some episodes have seemed a little...fan-fiction-y, for lack of a better term, overall, the storytelling has been solid; episode 1.4, "What if...Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?" has been my favorite episode so far. The animation won't be for everyone—I don't mind the more graphic style—and not all of the live-action Avengers have reprised their roles for What If...?, which I think has made a negative difference. Still, if you're a Marvel fan with a Disney + subscription, I would definitely give this series a chance.
DYK? An episode pitch involving the Guardians of the Galaxy was suggested for the first season, but it had to be scrapped after series writer A.C Bradley was told that she had inadvertently written half the plot of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.
Puppet History S4
Creator: Shane Madej
Cast: Shane Madej & Ryan Bergara
Where to Watch: YouTube
Puppet History is a dark comedy edutainment game show hosted by The Professor (Madej), a puppet character who teaches Bergara and a variety of special guests about various events in history as they compete to win the "Coveted Cup of the History Master" by correctly answering multiple-choice questions based on The Professor's lessons.
Class is back in session! After spending years watching Ryan Bergara and Shane Madej on BuzzFeed's Unsolved series, I made sure to follow them over to their own YouTube channel. And my favorite web series on their channel? Puppet History. I imagine that Puppet History is like an AU if Princeton from Avenue Q had pursued a B.A. in History instead of a B.A. English. So far, my favorite episode this season has been José Rizal: The Philippines' Reluctant Revolutionary. I probably would not have known about José Rizal's story, and his contributions to the Philippine Revolution had it not been for The Professor's lesson.
While I do recommend giving Puppet History a shot, especially if you're interested in little-known historical facts and stories and don't mind irreverent humor with a musical number or two thrown in, it's fair warning to note that this show will not be for everyone. It's weird. Like, really weird. Like, why is that blue Elmo constantly screaming about jellybeans and genies level weird. This series is chock-full of inside jokes and callbacks to prior seasons, so I would recommend starting from the beginning if you're new to Puppet History.
DYK? The Professor enjoys jellybeans and carries them around with him in his satchel.
Only Murders in the Building
Creators: John Hoffman & Steve Martin
Cast: Steve Martin, Martin Short, Selena Gomez, Aaron Dominguez, Amy Ryan, Vanessa Aspillaga, Julian Cihi, Jackie Hoffman, Jayne Houdyshell, Nathan Lane & Da’Vine Joy Rudolph
Where to Watch: Hulu
Only Murders in the Building follows three strangers, played by Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez, who share an obsession with a true-crime podcast. After a murder in their building, the three neighbors decide to start their own show that covers their investigation of the murder.
Growing up on a steady diet of Murder She Wrote, as well as every iteration of Law and Order, CSI, and NCIS (honestly, why are there so many?), detective stories and true crime are kind of in my blood. And, with the popularity of podcasts like Serial, Small Town Dicks, My Favorite Murder, and Suspect, it's entirely plausible that a group of strangers would band together after a murder in their building to document their own investigation of the murder.
That's what you get with Only Murders in the Building, starring an unlikely trio like Martin, Short, and Gomez. Martin and Short? Always a classic combo. But adding Selena Gomez to the mix is a pleasant surprise—I wasn't terribly familiar with her acting work going into OMitB, but I think she's a great addition to the main cast and grounds Martin and Short's washed up, 1980s detective drama T.V. star and micromanaging, down-on-his-luck Broadway director.
My favorite episode so far is also the series' most recent episode, "The Boy from 6B." In a nearly silent episode from the perspective of a Deaf character, "The Boy from 6B" is such a great contrast to the dialogue-heavy show. The silence highlights the characters' usual interpersonal dialogue and the irony that they're trying to produce a successful podcast based on their own investigation. It is incredibly effective and, in my opinion, successful, and I hope to see more episodes like this from other shows in the future. With three more episodes left in the season and a confirmed second season on the way, I can't wait to see how this murder mystery plays out.
DYK? Despite his more than 50-year-long career, Only Murders in the Building is series co-creator and actor Steve Martin's first regular starring role in a television series.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Cast: Simu Liu, Tony Chiu-Wai Leung, Awkwafina, Fala Chen, Meng'er Zhang, Michelle Yeoh, Florian Munteanu & Ronny Chieng
Martial-arts master Shang-Chi (Liu) confronts the past he thought he left behind when he's drawn into the web of the mysterious Ten Rings organization.
Like I said earlier, I've been returning to the same genre over and over again these last few months. While I don't think it's a coincidence that these cinematic action films came out in summer (because they don't), Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was a solid addition to the summer blockbusters in amongst the machine guns and explosions. Shang-Chi offers gorgeous fight choreography, family drama, an excellent supporting cast, a realistically scary villain in Tony Chiu-Wai Leung's Xu Wenwu (a.k.a the real Mandarin), and a fantastic performance by Simu Liu as Shang-Chi. And, with Marvel recently announcing Shang-Chi as a "new Avenger," I'm interested to see how this character will be utilized in future MCU projects.
And for my soapbox moment: While I think Scarlett Johanssen's solo film Black Widow is about 10 years overdue, Shang-Chi's inclusion in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is way overdue. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is the MCU's twenty-fifth studio film. It's also the studio's first film with an Asian leading protagonist. Considering that a Shang-Chi project has been in development since the early 2000s, that's pretty sad. Hopefully, Liu's Shang-Chi will have a similar effect as Chadwick Boseman's T'Challa/Black Panther in raising the visibility of POC characters, particularly within the superhero subgenre.
Now, here's hoping that Marvel continues that forward progress with Iman Vellani's Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel and Danny Ramirez's Joaquín Torres/Falcon. Greater visibility of diverse POC characters will ultimately lead to better representation across the genre.
DYK? In December 2018, Simu Liu tweeted at Marvel asking for the role of Shang-Chi. On July 20, 2019, Liu retweeted the tweet thanking Marvel for "getting back" to him.