Marvel Rising: Playing With Fire Is The Best One

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Playing with Fire Ends Marvel Rising Decently Well

Playing with Fire marks the last Marvel Rising entry. As far as I can tell, the series died with this one. It’s been years since the last one. But, against all odds, they managed to end with the best episode.

And that’s almost entirely because of character-focused writing and a long enough run time to explore the themes. From basically the beginning, the series has been about family. Except for maybe the S.H.I.E.L.D. characters and Squirrel Girl, every character has some sort of conflict revolving around that topic. Gwen was hunted by her dad. Kamala argues with her mom. America lost both her moms. Playing with Fire shifts around multiple plotlines, being a true ensemble episode, but it remains cohesive by focusing on this core.

It also finally does something with the whole “people got sudden powers” thing. It even feels thought out. I can’t speak for how it interacts with the already established bigotry subtext, but within only Playing with Fire, there’s a clear arc. Dante got fire powers and burned a lot of things. He fled out of guilt. Then his sister goes looking for him. And, finally, as the story gets going, he loses his fire powers. Is Dante okay with that happening, and what should he do next? It’s not a very original superhero storyline, sure, but it still offers a conundrum for the character that feels unique to him. As an audience, you can think about what you would do, and it’s an interesting question.

But, of the many interlocking plotlines in Playing with Fire, my favorite is America’s. Sometimes superhero stories give their main characters tragic backstories, but don’t really think about them past their introductions. But her conflict, especially with Kamala, makes perfect sense. And the episode allows things to slowly build in the background. It’s not a revolutionary depiction of trauma or anything, but this is how real emotional conflicts often go. One party buries what’s upsetting them until it becomes impossible to ignore. The story even lets Kamala have a brief period of denial, where she doesn’t immediately recognize she’s being insensitive and defends herself.

I do have to comment, though, before moving on, about a few things. There are a lot of cultures/races represented, especially in this episode, and I can’t speak to how well or accurately it’s depicted. I’m glad they have a diverse cast, but there could be some stereotyping going on here, for multiple characters, and mixing in supernatural elements with clear subtextual parallels only complicated things further.

In terms of other possible mishandlings, there are also depictions of parental emotional abuse in Playing with Fire. It’s presented comedically, but it’s not funny. It could be genuinely triggering for some people. Even in much more serious media than this, I can’t think of a time I’ve seen a parent character tell their child they would love them more if they were different. I cannot imagine what living that long with parents like that would do to a person. It’s not hard to assume Zayla’s obsession with crime and hurting people is more a desperate grab for any parental approval. The more I think about what happens to Zayla, the more depressing it gets.

That all said, her being a mirror to Dante, being someone without powers whose parents want her to have them, is potent storytelling. If, somehow, Marvel Rising ever returned, I’d want Zayla to get more screen time—and hopefully, an arc where she gets away from her parents. Playing with Fire underutilizes her and what getting powers is like for her. Dante talks about the fire becoming harder to control, but we don’t really see Zayla having that issue once she steals it. Between that and her being able to effortlessly handle both superstrength and spider-agility, it feels like the whims of a fun action scene overwrote everything else.

There are also other writing issues. I called this the best episode, but that doesn’t make it a great episode. For one, Marvel Rising still doesn’t do fight scenes that well. Zayla, at one point, decides not to win the fight on a whim, switching to fire for no reason. It’s one step worse than the “no, fight me one on one” trope. And even when the powers are being used as expected, their results are inconsistent. America’s punches can shatter concrete—but humans survive them? Gwen’s webs are far too strong to be casually ripped away, but Kamala does just that. And, most annoying of all, fire isn’t treated like fire. It’s just an energy beam for whole scenes. Most things are at least a little flammable. Buildings should’ve been ablaze in the first minute or so of fighting—or at least a sprinkler system should’ve turned on. I can suspend my disbelief for only so many things at a time.

When I started reviewing all the Marvel Rising episodes, I don’t think I would’ve guessed the end results. Having a team-up of superheroes that don’t get as much media screen time was a great idea, but there’s a reason this series faded away into obscurity. The voice acting is usually good, and the plot ideas had a lot of potential, but there’s enough weird animation, clunky writing, and other issues that make the series not worth seeking out. If Playing with Fire had been the weakest entry, and Marvel Rising had improved as it went, then maybe this could’ve been something. But here we are. This is what we got. I’m left with minor disappointment, and there’s better superhero media for you to watch.

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