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Disney’s superhero K-drama Moving is running circles around the MCU

The Hulu show is doing what the MCU used to

Jeon (Cha Taehyun) in superhero costume raising a fist Image: Hulu

It’s a weird time to be a fan of superhero storytelling in the U.S. On the one hand, it’s still the dominant genre of many of the biggest films and TV shows being made by major Hollywood studios. On the other, most of the superhero fare that has actually made it to a big or small screen near you in the last few years has been uninspired, predictable, and more interested in not pissing anyone off than becoming someone’s favorite story.

In part because of the current state of Hollywood, most of the best superhero storytelling that is happening right now is international TV and film. The best superhero show currently “airing on television,” for example, is produced by Disney, but it’s neither a Marvel story nor on Disney Plus (at least not in the U.S., where it is being released in weekly bunches on Disney-majority-owned streamer Hulu). It’s a multigenerational, multigenre superhero saga, made by the Korean TV industry, and it’s running narrative circles around its MCU-set Disney Plus cousins.

Moving (무빙) starts small, mostly as a supernatural coming-of-age drama. It follows Kim Bong-seok (Lee Jung-ha), a sweet teenage boy living with his mom in a sleepy suburb, desperately working to keep his supernatural power a secret. When Bong-seok’s emotions get the better of him, which happens a lot for a teen boy, he begins floating into the air.

The show’s early episodes articulate the work that goes into keeping Bong-seok’s power in check. His protective mom, Mi-hyeon (Han Hyo-joo), loads him down with weights in the morning, and makes sure he is always eating as much as possible to keep him heavy. When Bong-seok feels his emotions start to rise, he recites the digits of pi (incorrectly, we eventually learn) to try to distract himself from the feelings and keep his feet on the ground. It mostly works. Until Bong-seok meets transfer student Hui-soo (Alchemy of Souls’ Go Youn-jung), a teen girl with superpowered secrets of her own, who lives with dad Jang Ju-won (Ryu Seung-ryong). Hui-soo makes Bong-seok happy, and that makes him want to fly.

This story would be enough as a charming, superpower-themed drama. However, Moving, which is based on a webtoon of the same name, has much grander ambitions — and the budget, a reported $37 million, to support them. The first seven episodes, which were released in one fell swoop on Aug. 9, combine the coming-of-age sweetness of Bong-seok and Hui-soo’s burgeoning relationship with a ruthless action subplot about a mysterious man with a supernatural invincibility, Frank (Ryoo Seung-bum), who is hunting down and killing superpowered adults. The fights that ensue are brutal, explicitly violent, and always include Frank trying to determine if his target has kids. Sent by the U.S. government, Frank is tasked not only with killing an entire generation of Korean superpowered individuals, but also rooting out the next superpowered generation for some vague, ominous purpose.

Again: This story would be enough as a blend of modern-day teen superhero drama and ruthless action thriller. But again, it gets more ambitious. Taking a six-episode (and counting) narrative detour to the 1990s, when Korea was transitioning from a military dictatorship to a democratic government, to tell the stories of how Bong-seok and Hui-soo’s superpowered parents met, fell in love, and were co-opted into secret government missions (not necessarily in that order). Because we started this story in the present day, we know that Bong-seok’s mom and Hui-soo’s dad both become single parents, lending a tragic dramatic irony to all that unfolds in these flashbacks. The result is a masterful execution of genre blending, as Moving uses story structures from spy thrillers, Richard Donner-esque superhero romance, and gangster cinema to help us understand and care about this unexpected narrative detour.

Kim Doosik (Zo Insung) hovers in the air looking down at a man crawling on the ground) Image: Hulu

When the MCU first properly launched, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige intentionally leaned into different genres for each superhero’s cinematic story, giving each of the early film efforts a distinct vibe and set of story rules. This worked well for attracting and keeping a general audience largely unfamiliar with superhero conventions. Iron Man was a timely action blockbuster, rooted in real-world anxieties about the ongoing war in Afghanistan and the U.S. military industrial complex. Captain America: The First Avenger intentionally channeled the same kind of nostalgic adventure energy that made the Indiana Jones franchise so popular decades earlier. And Thor, albeit less successfully than the previous two examples, leaned into high fantasy elements to introduce the god character into the MCU.

This is a strategy that MCU has, more or less, brought into its Disney Plus TV era — to less-than-stellar results. After all, the media audience of 2008 is not the media audience of 2023. The average viewer is not only much more literate in superhero storytelling specifically, but in story structure and genre in general. We get bored more quickly, and it is much easier to access something else when we do. In this media landscape, many MCU stories can feel myopic in their subject and genre focus, forced to stay on their own narrative ground, even when it doesn’t make sense for the story, lest they accidentally reveal a character insight or plot point earmarked for a future Marvel project. For a superhero genre that gets much of its wonder from a sense of possibility unrestricted by real-world rules, it’s kind of a bummer.

Compared to most Western media, K-dramas are much more practiced at playing with genre. This is especially true when it comes to the inclusion of supernatural, fantasy, and sci-fi tropes in romantic fare. While Squid Game has become the poster child for K-drama success in the West, its real-world setting and nihilistic vibes make it an outlier within the K-drama landscape, much better known for romance-centric plots that often also include a genre twist like body-swapping or time travel. Moving is not what I would call a standard K-drama, but the series’ deft genre blending and its willingness to follow its characters’ stories wherever they may lead — including three decades into the past, or into the organized crime genre — is classic K-drama. It’s the kind of multigenre, emotion-driven storytelling that American superhero stories could learn from.

Lee (Kim Sungkyun) staring down an opponent looking focused Image: Hulu
Frank (Ryu Seungbum) standing in a dimly lit room holding a gun with a silencer Image: Hulu

The second season of Loki (coming later this fall) seems like it could get playful and expansive with its genre work, but I doubt it would match the scale or emotional scope of Moving. Moving packs more story — including well-executed, cleverly constructed fight and action sequences — into a single episode than many superhero series give us in an entire season. And, unlike most big superhero blockbusters these days, the action rarely feels obligatory and instead fits into the character work of the show.

Moving works because its characters feel like living, breathing, feeling people with recognizable dreams — like being a good parent, finding a good job, or getting into an affordable college. If the superhero genre rose in popularity following 9/11 and was directly tied to contemporary Americans’ anxieties about our role in global warfare, then Moving is so goddamn refreshing because, like most of us viewers, a majority of the characters are just trying to get through the day. Their dream is not to save the world, but to find a small, good role to play in their society, their neighborhood, their family.

With its focus on parents who give up any larger superpower ambitions in order to protect their kids, Moving dares to suggest that the greatest power lies not in physical might or the accumulation of political power, but rather our commitment to loving and to being loved. This kind of story is often treated as a small one. What Moving dares to do, using the biggest genre of our time, is make its exploration epic.

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