Lights in the Dark Forest: 2021 in Review


My journey through the dark forest of 2021 began with Wanda Maximoff. (Source: TVLine)

“Believing in rom-communism is all about believing that everything’s gonna work out in the end. Now, these next few months might be tricky, but that’s just ’cause we’re going through the dark forest. Fairy tales do not start, nor do they end, in the dark forest.”

I can’t write about Ted Lasso.

But every time I think about 2021, I come back to this quote.

(And maybe that’s why I can’t write about it.)

So much of the last two years has felt like a long walk through the dark forest. And in 2021 things felt like they got even darker. So it was hard for me to watch a show—whose first season had given me so much comfort—take its characters through that dark forest and not quite out of it yet.

I didn’t like that Ted Lasso had changed.

And I felt that way about a whole lot of media this year. From The Rookie’s decision to all but abandon the challenging storylines that had made the first half of its third season so compelling to Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s emotional farewell that took its characters in different directions, some changes were for the better and others less so, but it still seemed like a lot of the media I had used for comfort through the toughest parts of early pandemic life had changed.

And I hate change.

When I look at the only piece of scripted television that motivated me to write on an almost weekly basis, the only one that consistently moved me and stayed with me in a meaningful way, it was a show about a woman who resists change so strongly that she creates an entire new reality to escape the fact that her life had changed in deeply painful ways.

WandaVision is a show about a woman in the dark forest who spends so much time refusing to admit she’s in there that she builds herself a home and a life in the middle of it because even if it’s an illusion of control, it’s still better than the terror and unknown of the dark forest.

Control—however fake, however fleeting—feels better than uncertainty.

I don’t have a lot in common with Wanda Maximoff. I don’t have her powers or her tragic backstory or her tortured romance with an AI system turned sentient. But her need to hold on to some sense of control in a world that feels scary and lonely? That I get.

I spent the beginning of this year trying to build a world that I could control—a place that felt like nothing had changed even though everything had changed (both inside and outside of me).

There’s a reason WandaVision was the show that produced the most writing from me.

When I couldn’t control anything else, I wanted to control this little corner of the internet. I wanted it to be what it was when things felt better and brighter. I wanted to be who I was when things felt better and brighter.

Because, like Wanda, I didn’t want to acknowledge one of the truths of the dark forest: You don’t come out of it in the same place you were when you went in.

Slowly, steadily, my writing has started to move toward that truth. NGN has started to move toward that truth. Instead of being Westview—a place created to desperately hold onto a piece of the past because the present is sad and the future is scary—it’s growing into something that feels more real, something that feels more honest. It may not be sitcom shiny—a beacon of constant positivity where every problem is fixed and hurt is healed by the end of a post—but it’s stronger because of its messy reality.

I’m stronger because of my messy reality.

I’ve changed so much this year, and that means my writing changed too. And that’s part of life. Change is a part of life.

You can’t grow if you refuse to change.

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“The Truth Is Enough”: Wonder Woman 1984 and the Cost of Perfectionism


This world was a beautiful place just as it was. And you cannot have it all. You can only have the truth. And the truth is enough. The truth is beautiful”.

Wonder Woman 1984 is a flashy homage to 1980s superhero movies. It’s a love story. It’s a story about grief. It’s a story about family. It’s a story about the need for people to collectively choose the greater good over their own selfish desires.

That’s the beauty of an effective piece of media. It can mean something different to every person who interacts with it.

For me, Wonder Woman 1984 is a story about perfectionism.

It’s a story about what we lose when we chase the facade of a perfect life instead of standing in our truth and loving our lives—and ourselves—for all of the messy imperfections, losses, and struggles that make us who we are.

The plot of this film is based around three wishes: Max Lord’s wish for unlimited power, Barbara Minerva’s wish to be special, and Diana’s wish for her love, Steve Trevor, to return to her. Each of these wishes is made (not always knowingly) out of each character’s belief that their lives would be perfect—that the cracks in them left by trauma and loneliness and loss would be filled—if they could just have that one thing.

As Max says, “You can have it all. You just have to want it.”

For a moment, we get to see these characters having it all. We get to see Max turning his facade of power and prestige into reality. We get to see Barbara turning heads and charming crowds. And we get to see Diana gloriously, deliriously happy with Steve.

It’s perfect. Max gets his revenge on the businesspeople who doubted him and embarrassed him in front of his son. Barbara gets the attention she’s always craved—and the power to handle herself when that attention turns violent. And Diana gets to have Steve in her life—and her bed (or, more specifically, his futon)—again, eating breakfast and going to work the way he’d told her about all those decades ago. This is what perfection looks like for these characters; this is what they’ve always thought their lives were missing. This is what they saw in their mind’s eye when they looked with secret envy at successful oil magnates and confident coworkers and happy couples.

But what does it cost them?

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Nothing to Prove: A Story of Soccer, Success, and Self-Worth

“I have nothing to prove to you.”

Those words were said earlier this year by Carol Danvers (aka Captain Marvel), but they could have just as easily been said by Megan Rapinoe (aka captain of the World Cup winning USWNT).

Superheroes think alike, I suppose.

In fact, there are many comparisons that can be drawn from one captain to another. Both have short, eye-catching haircuts. Both speak with a commanding presence. Both have no time for people who abuse power. Both stand up for what they believe is right, even when it makes them a target. Both became their most powerful selves when the world needed them the most.

And both are fiercely, beautifully, and unapologetically confident.

When I first started noticing the backlash directed at Rapinoe and her USWNT teammates, it reminded me so much of that small but vocal chorus of whiners after Captain Marvel who thought both Carol and the woman who plays her—Brie Larson—came off as “arrogant” and “unlikable.” Both sets of critics are cut from the same cloth—an unyielding fabric that doesn’t seem to want to bend and mold to a new era for women, an era in which we no longer have to downplay what makes us special, treat our skills with a sick kind of self-deprecation, or stand in the shadows because the world isn’t ready for what we look like in the sunlight.

On Sunday, when Rapinoe stood in her now iconic pose—arms spread wide, chin high, chest out—after scoring the first (and ultimately game-winning) goal of the World Cup final, the world saw what we look like in the sunlight. And it was breathtaking.

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It’s About What You Believe: A Letter to Diana of Themyscira (aka Wonder Woman)

This is the latest in my series of letters to inspirational female characters that will be compiled in a book alongside letters from my fellow fangirls and fanboys. If you are interested in being part of The Fan Mail Project, I’m still taking submissions on a case-by-case basis, and you can check out all the information here

WW poster


Dear Diana,

I never thought I’d write a letter to you. Growing up, I didn’t read many comic books, so when I was getting ready to see Wonder Woman, I had only the slightest idea of what to expect. I thought you would kick ass and that your story would be empowering—not just for me, but for so many young girls who get to grow up now with your story as a part of their superhero movie pantheon—but I didn’t expect to see much of a reflection of myself in you.

You see, I’m not exactly built in the typical “strong female character” way. But then I discovered something amazing during my first viewing of Wonder Woman: neither are you. I sat down in that darkened movie theater and expected to see a woman whose strength would inspire me to want to be more like her, but what I ended up seeing was a woman whose strength has inspired me to want to be more fully myself.

“Strong” and “tough” are often synonyms, and, for most of my life, it’s been hard for me to see myself as strong because I’m about as far from tough as it gets. When it comes to how women are perceived—both in life and in the media—it’s typically the tough ones who become leaders, who earn people’s respect, and who get things done. No matter how often we tell women that vulnerability and openness can be a strength and not a weakness, it’s hard to believe when most female heroes in the media only smile when it’s a huge moment of character development and when most people in life are told more than once to “toughen up and stop being such a girl” when they openly display emotion.

For years now, one of the first phrases that comes to my mind when I’m asked to describe myself is “painfully sincere.” I think I was born without the ability to mask my true feelings about anything, and for decades, I’ve seen that as one of my greatest weaknesses. People have preyed on that part of me since I was a kid.

“They’re just saying that because they can tell they’re getting to you.”

“You’re an easy target. It’s fun to get you riled up.”

“Don’t let them know it bothers you, and they’ll stop.”

“You can’t hide that you’re mad at me. I can see it all over your face.”

“Katherine, your brow is furrowed. You must be confused by the assignment.”

“Calm down!”

“Why do you care so much?”

I spent so long hating that part of me—my emotional transparency, my painful (in more ways than one) sincerity. And then I saw you, and I saw how we were allowed to truly see you. I saw your indignation, your sadness, your childlike sense of wonder, your hope, your frustration, your joy, your desire, your confusion, and your conviction. You felt no shame in your emotions—whatever they were. You showed what you were feeling as you felt it, without ever feeling a need to hide your emotions or push them down to appear stronger or more in control.

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Nerdy Girl Goes to the Movies: Captain America: The Winter Soldier


Title: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Rating: PG-13

Cast: Chris Evans (Steve Rogers), Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff), Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury), Anthony Mackie (Sam Wilson), Robert Redford (Alexander Pierce), Sebastian Stan (Bucky Barnes), Cobie Smulders (Maria Hill)

Director: Anthony Russo and Joe Russo

The Basics: Captain America: The Winter Soldier begins with Steve Rogers (aka the eponymous Captain America) still struggling to adjust to the modern world after being awoken from a frozen state that he remained in since the 1940s. His sense of unfamiliarity in this colder, bleaker world is made worse by his growing sense of distrust for S.H.I.E.L.D., the government intelligence and defense agency he’s a part of. Steve’s suspicions turn out to be more than just unfounded fears; a faction within S.H.I.E.L.D. is planning to use advanced surveillance methods to kill millions in the name of the greater good. Steve—along with Natasha Romanoff (aka Black Widow) and Sam Wilson (aka Falcon)—must confront old and new enemies, but one new enemy (the mysterious Winter Soldier) might not be so new after all. Captain America: The Winter Soldier succeeds not just as a highly entertaining superhero blockbuster; it also feels darker and more thematically complex than any Marvel Cinematic Universe film that came before it, while still being driven by the sharp writing, strong character development, and charismatic performances that have made Marvel films huge box-office draws season after season.

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Nerdy Girl Goes to the Movies: Iron Man 3


Title: Iron Man 3

Rating: PG-13

Cast: Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark), Gwyneth Paltrow (Pepper Potts), Don Cheadle (Colonel James Rhodes), Guy Pearce (Aldrich Killian), Rebecca Hall (Maya Hansen), Jon Favreau (Happy Hogan), Sir Ben Kingsley (The Mandarin), Ty Simpkins (Harley Keener)

Director: Shane Black

The Basics: The third installment of Marvel’s successful Iron Man franchise finds Tony Stark still haunted by the alien attack he helped fend off in The Avengers, throwing himself into the construction of Iron Man suit after Iron Man suit in a feeble attempt to keep his PTSD at bay. However, when the Mandarin, a terrorist waging war on the United States, brings destruction to Tony’s doorstep, he is forced to rely on only himself (and young Harley Keener) to protect those closest to him and the country as a whole. In the process, he confronts the question of whether or not Iron Man can be a hero outside of his suit. Iron Man 3 is the best of the franchise. Its action-packed moments were breathtaking, but the film was even more impressive in its quieter moments of character development. And, as always, it was anchored by a charming, funny, and surprisingly nuanced performance from Robert Downey Jr.

M.V.P. (Most Valuable Performer): Any superhero movie is only as good as its superhero. What’s made the Iron Man films stand out above almost any other in the genre is the easy charisma Downey lends to Tony Stark. His rapid-fire delivery and natural sense of “cool” make it impossible to see where actor ends and character begins, and that’s always been the selling point for this franchise. Downey was once again excellent in Iron Man 3, but the real strength of his performance was not in how cool he made Tony appear but in the exact opposite: the sense of barely-contained anxiety he brought to every scene. Yes, he was still brilliant in his smooth-talking, sharp-shooting moments of dialogue, but he was even better in the moments where he had to convey to us just how damaged Tony had become since the events of The Avengers. This time, his fast-paced delivery hinted not at a “too cool for school” attitude but instead at a crippling panic he’s trying to push down with every word spoken. In this film, Downey had to show more sides to Tony than ever before, and he proved himself more than up to the challenge.

Scene Stealer: Child actors can often make or break a film. A bad one makes you roll your eyes or cringe with every line of dialogue, but a good one brings an energy to a film that only a child can bring. I think it’s safe to say that Ty Simpkins is one of the good ones. I would have never thought that the missing emotional piece in the Iron Man franchise was a little boy, but Simpkins’s performance added a warmth to Iron Man 3 that was absent in both the first and second films. His chemistry with Downey was incredible; the scene where Harley talked to Tony during one of his panic attacks was one of my favorite moments in the film. He was sweet but not cloyingly so, and his solid delivery was a strong match for the great things Downey can do with dialogue. Best of all, his presence in the film added another dimension to Tony as a character and brought out another side of Downey as an actor. The genuine bond between Tony and Harley was such a pleasant surprise, and it really helped make this the best Iron Man film yet.

Bring the Tissues? I think you can leave the tissue box at home for this one. While there were plenty of strong emotional moments, there weren’t any that reduced me to tears.

Should I Stay or Should I Go? Stay until after the credits are all over for a hilarious scene featuring one of my favorite members of the cast of The Avengers. It does nothing to tease future movies or enhance this one’s plot in any way, but the surprise cameo was probably one of my favorite parts of Iron Man 3.

Most Memorable Scene: While Iron Man 3 was elevated above traditional “popcorn flick” status by its moments of serious character study, it was also an incredibly entertaining thrill ride—and in no scene was that more evident than in the film’s climatic action sequence. The moment when all of the Iron Man suits appeared on command was a gorgeously triumphant moment, and the action that followed was a breathless adrenaline rush. Coupled with the emotional stakes in the scene for Tony and Pepper, this was everything I love about big action movies rolled up into one incredibly fun scene.

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Nerdy Girl Goes to the Movies: The Amazing Spider-Man

Title: The Amazing Spider-Man

Rating: PG-13

Cast: Andrew Garfield (Peter Parker), Emma Stone (Gwen Stacy), Rhys Ifans (Dr. Curt Connors), Sally Field (Aunt May), Martin Sheen (Uncle Ben), Denis Leary (Captain Stacy)

Director: Marc Webb

The Basics: Some parts of the Spider-Man story we’ve seen on the big screen before: the life-changing spider bite, the loss of Peter Parker’s father figures, the journey from masked vigilante to superhero…But some parts are new to moviegoers: Peter’s struggles with being abandoned by his parents, his first love with fellow science prodigy Gwen Stacy, and his battles with Dr. Curt Connors’s alter ego The Lizard. The Amazing Spider-Man takes a story we’re all familiar with (thanks to 50 years of comics and Sam Raimi’s recent trilogy of films) and makes it profoundly personal.This is a superhero movie that at times feels like a small character study, with moments of real warmth and surprising depth amid the action and special effects.

M.V.P. (Most Valuable Performer): Spider-Man is literally Andrew Garfield’s dream role (just watch his speech at last year’s Comic-Con if you want proof), and you could feel it in every moment he was onscreen in this film. His total dedication to making both Peter Parker and Spider-Man human and relatable is a beautiful thing to watch. Physically, he deftly balances the mannerisms of Peter the gangly teenage boy and the surprising grace of Spider-Man the superhero. That dichotomy carries over into every aspect of his performance. He gives Peter the perfect combination of sadness, sweetness, and anger. His Peter is a loner by choice, living with the weight of being abandoned and then orphaned. It’s only when he’s with Gwen that we see that weight lifted, and Garfield shines in his moments with Emma Stone. This is a different kind of humanity that Garfield gives to Peter – not the crushing sadness of being an orphan but the incredible joy of being in love for the first time. He’s by turns awkward, playful, and warm – adding a lightness to the film that is very much appreciated.

Garfield also brings new life to Peter’s persona as Spider-Man. This is the Spider-Man of the comics: sarcastic and full of quips. Spider-Man is who Peter is without inhibition, under the protective mask of anonymity. The balance between Spider-Man’s inherent heroic streak and his sense of humor is deftly handled, and I don’t think that would have been the case without an actor of Garfield’s caliber in both Peter’s glasses and Spider-Man’s suit.

Scene Stealer: Gwen Stacy is no ordinary “superhero girlfriend,” and no ordinary actress could bring to life her beguiling mixture of beauty, bravery, depth, and intelligence like Emma Stone did in this film. She brings her own spark to one of the most iconic significant others in the Marvel universe, and it’s a spark that ignites some of the most charming and memorable moments in the film. Whether she’s bantering with Peter, using her scientific skills to save New York City, or showing a rare glimpse at the vulnerability behind her perfectionist exterior, Stone’s Gwen is a fully-realized character, and so much of that comes from the vitality Stone brings to the role. We know she can do comedy – and she’s excellent in her comedic scenes in this film – but she also has a talent for showing real emotion in dramatic scenes. She and Garfield bring out the best in each other as actors just as Gwen and Peter bring out the best in each other in the film.

Bring the Tissues? Yes. There are some truly moving moments in this film: the farewell between young Peter and his mother; Uncle Ben’s murder and Peter’s reaction to it; two poignant scenes of vulnerability between Peter and Gwen – one in her bedroom and one at his doorstep; and a scene featuring tower cranes that some might call cheesy but I call a moment to celebrate the heroism of the common man. Also, there’s a scene between Peter and Aunt May that will have me getting misty-eyed every time I see a carton of organic eggs (which, thankfully, doesn’t happen too often).

Should I Stay or Should I Go? Stay until about halfway through the credits for a mysterious confrontation about Peter’s fate. Who’s the man with the hat? It’s a question to keep us guessing until the next installment arrives in theaters.

Most Memorable Scene: In terms of cinematic spectacle, the centerpiece of the film (and one of its most stirring moments) is the aforementioned scene in which crane workers help an injured Spider-Man across the skyline of Manhattan to his final confrontation with the Lizard. However, the most memorable thing about the film as a whole is the blinding chemistry between Garfield and Stone. That chemistry shines throughout the film, but it’s at its strongest in two scenes that transcend the “superhero” genre and could stand on their own in any romantic film: Peter asking Gwen on a date (and Gwen accepting) in the most awkwardly endearing way imaginable and Gwen tending to Peter’s wounds while confessing her fears of the men she loves going off to save the world and never coming back.

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