The king is dead, long live the king!

Boseman’s version of T’Challa is so powerful that it will endure undiminished, even despite his death

 A colleague responded to the news that the actor Chadwick Boseman had died of cancer aged just 43 by posting to Instagram of her son – who’s maybe eight or nine and white British – in costume as the Black Panther giving a crossed-armed Wakandan salute. This is one of many reminders, that the role of T’Challa had not merely made Boseman famous: it had turned him into an icon.

His face, his character and his costume are recognisable the world over. Of the five highest ever grossing films at the US box-office, 3 featured Boseman playing T’Challa. There was a time when Black Panther was the only film ever to have a cinematic release in Saudi Arabia. One of its central action set piece was filmed in Korea whilst I was still living there. In the run up to the film’s release it seemed like the country was plastered with the image of Boseman in the Black Panther armour astride Busan’s Diamond Bridge.

That an African-American actor playing an African character, drawing inspiration from comics authored by the most influential African-American intellectual in decades, amongst an overwhelmingly black cast, brought to the screen by a mostly black crew became such a global phenomenon shattered Hollywood’s assumption that whiteness was uniquely universal. Therefore, T’Challa will have had a special resonance for black audiences seeing someone like them not only take centre stage, but do so in our culture’s mightiest epic. However, that’s not my experience to explain but I want to note that it’s there and that it matters – a lot.

That said, as I’ve already discussed this portrayal had abundant appeal to non-black audiences as well. I hesitate to speak for all white people, but I doubt many of us spent much of Black Panther wishing Martin Freeman’s Agent Ross and his dodgy American accent had been given more screentime. The film – and Boseman starring role in it – demonstrated that blackness and Africaness  were only a barrier to mainstream appeal if studios made it one.

Boseman was crucial to making this possible. Marvel’s original plan had been to have the Wakandans speak with British or American accents, until Boseman – perceiving that this would rather uncut the idea of the kingdom as a part of Africa that had been allowed to develop free of the stain of colonialism – told the studio this was a “dealbreaker” for him.

Indeed, Boseman played an unusually decisive role in shaping his character. T’Challa made his first appearance in the MCU in Captain America: Civil War which was shot before Ryan Coogler was chosen to write and direct Black Panther. The Russo brothers, Civil War’s directors, were reluctant to impose their vision on the central character of someone else’s film. Therefore, they asked Boseman to read some of the comics and then relied on his interpretation of T’Challa. It is, therefore, to Boseman’s considerable credit that T’Challa not only immediately felt like a fully rounded character but that his evolution across three further films felt perfectly natural.

(*Spoilers begin*)

That evolution is interesting and unusual because it is as much ethical as it is emotional. The young king is reliably noble, but his sense of this demands of him shifts. In Civil War, he goes from seeking retribution for the murder of his father, to seeing a parallel between this motivation and that which has propelled the film’s villain to commit his atrocities. In his stand-alone film, he is initially guided by the inherited assumption that as king his role is to ensure Wakanda stays isolated from the violent world around it. This is very directly challenged by the return to the kingdom of a cousin who the previous king and Black Panther – T’Challa’s father – had abandoned in the US as child to experience the cruelty and injustice that American society visits on people with dark skin. T’Challa rejects his cousin’s demand that Wakanda conquer the rest of the world, but accepts his charge that its isolationism has been an act of moral cowardice. He responds by opening the kingdom up to the world and sharing the fruits of its technological and social progress.

(*spoilers end*)

A different actor might have depicted T’Challa with an effortless suave or swagger. Boseman was more subtle than this. He always injects a note of unease into T’Challa’s interactions. The earnest young king feels the weight of his kingdom upon him and is reluctant to relax lest he let it slip.

Paradoxically, this makes it easier for us in the audience to imagine him commanding the authority necessary to see off a dangerous demagogue, rallying people for an apparently hopeless fight against an alien invasion and undoing millennia of aloofness from the outside world. There’s a whole sub-genre of management advice devoted to the benefits of leaders showing vulnerability. And Boseman’s T’Challa is a perfect fictional representation of this. He is nervous because he wants to do the right thing, hence it functions as a visible sign of his moral convictions. Similarly, his guardedness is a sign of his honesty. We instinctively know that character like Robert Downey Junior’s Tony Stark deply glib, frenetic, oversharing as a defence mechanism, grabbing attention away from unacknowledged feelings and unsavoury motives. Boseman thereby uses dignified reserve to convey trustworthiness.

This not only adds credibility to his character, but makes their dramatic arc work. If a character’s evolution is primarily about shifting ethical values, then for the audience to feel this has dramatic weight, they must sense that morals are crucial to the character.

*Spoilers begin*

Hence when having been almost killed by his cousin, T’Challa finds himself on the ancestral plane and confronts his father about abandoning a child, we are not only getting the personal drama of a man whose spent his life fearing that he will fail his father, realising that in fact his father has failed him, but Boseman shows us the drama of a statesman making the historic decision to embrace a shift of moral paradigms.

*Spoilers end*

I submit that it is no coincidence, that the two films in which Boseman’s T’Challa plays the largest role – Civil War and Black Panther – are also the smartest and most thematically rich entries in the MCU canon.

The subtlety, humanity and gravitas of his acting, combined with an inherently interesting character to create a magnificent performance. His death will inevitably mean it is viewed with a twinge of sadness. However, none of its power will be diminished. If anything it is likely that Boseman will now become even more emblematic: the James Dean of generation that feels some of the weight of responsibility that T’Challa does and rebels with cause.

Thanks to Boseman, T’Challa will be a name to conjure with across the globe and down the generations.

6 Ragnarok reactions

N.B: Unless you’re REALLY spoiler-phobic this post should be ok for you!

1 – I liked it a lot. It’s funny, exuberant and inventive. It’s the MCU turned up to 11.

2 – It is by far the best Thor film to date. A large scale purge of the supporting characters pays off. While obviously very accomplished as actors, the likes of Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins and Stellan Skarsgard always seemed uncomfortable being in these films. Their replacements punch their way into Ragnarok already embracing their OTT camp glory. Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie feels ready to join the main Avenger’s line-up from the get-go. And if we can see Taika Waititi’s Korg or Jeff Goldblum’s grandmaster again that would be great. Obviously that could be in another Thor sequel, but they both seem like they’d fit-in well in a GOTG adventure.

3 – Casting Cate Blanchett as the villain serves to illustrate the difference between a good actor and a great one. Marvel villains have generally been uninspiring. Even capable actors struggle to do much with their generic objectives and motivations, modest screentime and clunky dialogue. Blanchett doesn’t so much overcome those hurdles as devour them. The likes of Lee Pace and even Mads Mikkelsen struggle when their characters get into full flow: they need to deliver dire declamations with conviction, without seeming silly. Blanchett needn’t worry. Her performance is hammed up to a level beyond the pantomime, but even at Hela’s most overwrought, Blachett inhabits her, such that you never wind up questioning, a character who on even cursory examination is totally ludicrous. This video illustrates the point rather well.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BauEj6-HVRQ/?hl=en&taken-by=marvel

4 – Ragnarok has a decidedly antipodean flavour. It was filmed in Australia, its director is a Kiwi, and much of the cast is from that part of the world. That helps make it feel distinct from the rest of the MCU. I felt that was reflected in a humour that’s a bit looser and more than the hyperverbal Whedony quipping you get in most Marvel movies. Not that I mind hyperverbal Whedony quipping, but some variety is pleasant. [Edit: put it this way. Marvel dialogue is generally very coffee. Ragnarok is more larger]

5 – The synth heavy score is exactly what this movie needs.

6 – If I had to find fault with Ragnarok, I would be point-out that:

  • he action scenes look cool but nothing more. I never really became invested in what was happening in them. Instead I’d enjoy the spectacle whilst waiting to return to the characters interacting entertainingly.
  • It takes about 20 mins to really click into gear. Doctor Strange’s inclusion felt unearned.
  • Idris Elba remains chronically underused, and Hiddleston feels sidelined to an extent that is suprising given the popularity of his character.

But honestly, I was having a riot, so none of this really bothered me.

7 – I am conflicted about the trailers. They stepped on many of the best moments, but were also really entertaining in their own right.

The MCU ranked from best to worst

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*Warning contains mild spoilers and copious anorakiness*

As I have now seen Spider-Man: Homecoming, now seems like an apt time to update my ranking of the films and TV shows in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).

I fear that this will be the last time I am able to do something like this and have it still be comprehensive. The number of TV projects is escalating and I doubt I will be able to keep up.

So, for possibly the final time, let’s take this from worst to best:

#27 Iron Fist (2017)

Although the superhero genre is often criticised as homogenous and unimaginative, virtually all the films and shows on this list bring at least something distinctive to the table. Iron Fist is a sorry exception. It shows you nothing new. It could still have been ok if it was executed well, but it isn’t. The lead is miscast, the plot is diffuse and aimless, and for a series supposedly about martial arts it seems weirdly uninterested in them.

[Check out: Is Iron Fist as Bad as Everyone says?]

#26 The Incredible Hulk (2008)

About as dull as Iron Fist but since it is a film rather than a TV series, it mercifully feels far less interminable.

#25 Iron Man II (2010)

It’s all set up and no pay off. The filmmakers seem to have purposefully avoided anything too interesting lest that prevent them being able to use it later. Perhaps because of this, the story and script are a mess. It wastes Sam Rockwell (a serious crime) but gives us plenty of Gwyneth Paltrow (an even worse crime).

That said, it is the first time that the ambition of what Marvel was doing began to seem real, and the energy of Downey Jnr’s performance pushes along even this misjudged entry in the saga.

#24 Thor: The Dark World (2013)

This exemplifies a lot of the weakness of the MCU: generic villains, theoretically high-stakes that never feel real, a plot driven by MacGuffins, and CGI heavy battles that look like nothing. That said it does have the substantial redeeming feature of lots of scenes that involve Tom Hiddleston delivering dialogue written by Joss Whedon, which is a combination that really works!

#23 Thor (2011)

It has more plot and character development than the Dark World. Otherwise, the problems are similar.

#22 Agents of Shield [series 1] (2013)

For a long time, this series fell very flat: too much TV budget CGI, characters lacking in depth, an arc that seemed to go nowhere, and a tone that was too childish for the material. Sometimes it worked as dumb fun. More often it was just dumb.

Then two-thirds into its run, a development in the films forced the show to reconfigure itself for the better. It gained focus, became darker and ditched most of its dafter habits.

Still that poor two-thirds of a series ways it down a lot.

[Check out: Agents of Shield hits the ground strolling and My agents of shield wish list]

#21 Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

This was the first film to hint that Marvel could do smarter things with the MCU. The by no means straightforward evolution of Steve Rodgers into Captain America is well played with nice twists, like how the military’s first instinct is to use him for propaganda. The best part, however, is Hayley Atwell managing to elevate Peggy Carter from a generic supporting role to the core of the film. However it gets the basics wrong and largely falls flat as a result. The actions scenes are bland beyond words. As a result, the film actually tails off as it reaches its climax.

#20 Iron Man (2008)

Ignoring what it started, this is an efficiently done but mostly generic sci-fi action film. While Downey Jnr is very good as an anti-hero morphing into a hero – and Bridges is a decent villain – it is apparent with hindsight that the Iron Man films have the weakest supporting characters of any strand of the MCU.

#19 Jessica Jones [season 1] (2015)

This should have been way higher than it is. So many individual elements are superlative. Ritter is an engaging lead. Tennant is an even better villain, arguably the best Marvel has ever produced. The show is also thematically ambitious and insightful. Yet it doesn’t work. There are too many duff supporting characters, and the structure is a mess. A fairly simple story did not really stretch to the length of its run, so the screenwriters kept having to derail the plot’s progression.

[Check out: The Tragic Failure of Jessica Jones]

#18 Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

This had exactly the opposite problem to Jessica Jones. It tries to pack too much material into too little time. The result is still entertaining but also rather frustrating.

[Check out: Avengers: Age of Ultron (review)]

#17 Luke Cage [season 1] (2016)

I went with this series more than with Jessica Jones even though it has a lot of the same structural issues (and a pants big bad). The (often slapstick) action scenes are superior, the selection of supporting characters is better, and its stylistic choices are very apt. A lot of fun even though the final episodes are Iron Fist level bad.

[Check out: Magic and Mean Streets]

#16 Agents of Shield [season 2] (2014)

As we’ve already mentioned, this show’s first season varied wildly in quality. Fortunately, the second retained the quality of the superior latter episodes. It also added some genuinely entertaining supporting characters to its ensemble.

#15 Daredevil [season 2] (2016)

It begins with Matt Murdoch taking on the Punisher – perfectly played by Jon Bernthal – and it’s brutal and compelling. But six episodes in, he’s taken into custody, and the season moves onto some far less compelling nonsense about magical ninjas. If those early episodes had been on their own, then it would have been near the very top. As it is they are still quite enough to carry this series to a place above almost all the Marvel/Netflix collaborations.

#14 Doctor Strange (2016)

The plot, jokes and acting provide plenty to enjoy. However, it’s the strange – geddit! – and spectacular visuals that win this film a place high up the pecking order.

#13 Agent Carter [season 2] (2016)

It doesn’t really do much to develop its titular character, nor does it have its focus, clarity or thematic depth of the first season. It does, however, retain its appealing ensemble, period style and effervescent lead. The plot also remains compelling, just not quite as compelling.

#12 Iron Man 3 (2013)

Not only the best of the Iron Man films but also the first demonstration that the Avengers was not a fluke. A lot of people dislike both the twist and separating Tony Stark from the suits for a substantial portion of the runtime. However, I found both of them to be pleasant surprises that kept this instalment from feeling like a re-tread.

#11 Ant Man (2015)

Many of us will mourn the Edgar Wright version of this film that might have existed. Nonetheless, what we got is still a joy. It’s Marvel’s funniest project this side of Guardians. That a lot of that humour depends on visual flair suggests that the film retains at least some of Wright’s spirit.

#10 Agents of Shield [season 3] (2015)

AKA the point that fans of the show got to stop feeling a little embarrassed for liking it. It kicked the quality up a gear for a second time largely because of the acting. Up to this point the central cast had seemed only competent (and sometimes not even that). For much of the second season, they were outshone by supporting characters. However, at this point they really showed they could deliver stellar performances. The best showcase for this is 4722 hours, which sees Elizabeth Henstridge (AKA Simmons) carry a fantastic genre shifting episode almost single-handedly.

#9 Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

It’s still funny, it’s still charming, and it still makes you care deeply about a racoon and a tree. It actually improves on its predecessor in several ways. It makes fuller use of Michael Rooker and gives Dave Bautista more chances at scene stealing. Most importantly however, is that in Kurt Russel it gets a substantial villain upgrade. But inevitably it cannot recreate the surprise of the first one.

#8 Spider Man: Homecoming (2017)

Homecoming has been out in the world for barely a week, yet it already seems like the natural way to tell a Spiderman story. The relationship between it and the Raimi and Webb directed outings, now looks like that between Sherlock Holmes and Murders in the Rue Morgue, you can see what they were going for, but it gets there. It will henceforth seem wholly obvious that Peter Parker should seem like an actual high schooler, that quipping should be a key part of his repertoire, that his adventures should connect up to the rest of Marvel’s heroes, and that the Vulture will now be in the starting lineup of Spiderman villains and that he should be depicted like Michael Keaton plays him in Homecoming.

The only thing that keeps it out of the very top tier of the MCU is that the action sequences are a bit ho-hum. Other than that, everything else is nit picking.

#7 The Avengers (2012)

It is big yet it is also clever. It required staggering craftmanship to have this many moving parts click into place and create an elaborate tapestry of superhero awesomeness. Also made Bruce Banner/the Hulk work on screen for the first time.

#6 Daredevil [season 1] (2015)

Marvel could reasonably be accused – from time to time – of cheesiness. That’s not a danger for Daredevil however. It is a bracing blast of bleakness and brutality. Zack Snyder has given gloominess a bad name, but here it is serving a purpose. We get rich themes from Catholicism to the nature of violence via gentrification. That and spectacularly choreographed fight scenes and Vincent D’Onofrio bringing us the MCU’s best villain.

[Check out: The Lord said run to the devil]

#5 Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

The strange thing about Guardians is that it presents itself as the most cynical of the films in the MCU, yet at the same time, it is – apart from its own sequel – also the most sentimental. That contradiction would undermine most films, but it is the making of Guardians. It has so much humour and brio that it manages to sell you on the idea its core characters are at once both heroes and anti-heroes, who have the most likable qualities of both.

[Check out: Hooked on a feeling]

[Please don’t check out my initial reaction to the first trailer which is rather embarrassing in hindsight.]

#4 Agents of Shield [season 4] (2016)

I’m not kidding. It really is better than the Avengers! It is far more ambitious than it has any right to be. It starts out delivering its own version of Ghost Rider into the MCU and then riffs on Age of Ultron, Blade Runner, Westworld, the Matrix, and the Man in the High Castle. Even more remarkably all of them are executed with aplomb.

#3 Captain America: Civil War (2016)

The Avengers series – of which this is an instalment in all but name – has always been in danger of being crushed by the weight of characters and plots it carries. The scaffolding that holds it up is the dynamic between Evans, Downey jr and Johansson; foregrounding that makes for an excellent story.

#2 Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

The most tightly structured and plotted of the films. It benefits from keeping the scale relatively contained. At least for its first two acts, the Winter Soldier is admirably earthbound, light on CGI and relatively naturalistic in its tone. That is perhaps best embodied in the emphasis on hand-to-hand fights that feel much more real than ones with spaceships, robots and lasers.

#1 Agent Carter [season 1] (2015)

It is a shame that the best part of the MCU is also probably the least viewed.

The most obvious reason for this is Hayley Atwell as the titular hero. She manages to make a character with one foot in the ‘Golden Age’ of Hollywood and another in Whedonesque TV dramas, seem very natural and completely real.

However, the show as a whole is equally excellent. The 1940s spy story is an entertaining genre to play with, and Agent Carter uses it conventions to full effect: it is full of fedoras, poorly lit alleyways, sinister contraptions, and even more sinister Eastern Europeans. However, it also manages to transcend those same conventions. Most obviously by putting a woman at its heart, and rather starkly depicting the injustice of the sexism she faces. It also subtly and effectively depicts a society living in the shadow of a devastating war, as virtually every character is wrestling with some kind of trauma arising from WWII.

Lest that make it sound like a gloomy affair, I should also point out how funny it is. A particular comic treat is the double act of Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark and James D’Arcy as the original human Jarvis, who between them deliver an impressive Jeeves and Wooster pastiche.

If you have not seen it – and given the low viewership figures that led to its untimely cancellation you probably haven’t – then I would urge you to seek it out. It is only a short season – just eight episodes – so it is not a big commitment but it is one that will be repaid many times over.

[Check out: Agent Carter (review)]

 

 

 

Is Iron Fist as bad as everyone says?

The Daily Show joked that Trump should make his wall out of Iron Fist’s first season because it was ‘impossible to get through.’ Well I did the impossible and here’s my take.

Iron Fist? Is that like an Iron Man spin-off?

No, but you’re not hugely off. It’s another part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Only this is one of the grittier, ‘street level’ TV shows Netflix have been making, along with Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage.

So, what’s the story?

Danny Rand is the son of a billionaire. Ten years ago, when he was still a boy, he and his parents were on board a private jet flying to China. It crashed, killing both of them and leaving him stranded in the Himalayas. He’s rescued by warrior monks and raised in the mystical city K’un-Lun. In the present, he returns to New York to take back control of his parent’s company and work through the issues arising from their death.

An orphaned heir to a multi-billion-dollar trust fund goes to Tibet and then comes back to Goth-…I mean New York City, becomes a superhero and fights for control of Daddy’s business empire. Are you sure you didn’t watch Batman Begins by mistake?

Well, I’m assuming the creators would insist that despite the plot similarities,  they have made something original and distinct. While Bruce Wayne relies on technology for his powers, Danny Rand’s are more mystical. In K’un-Lun not only was he trained in kung-fu but he also became the immortal Iron First.

The what now?

Some kind of chi powered superwarrior apparently. The upshot seems to be that he can make his fist glow, at which point it is bullet proof and super strong.

IronFistTA

Honestly, that sounds pretty lame.

It is, and it’s indicative of the whole misguided enterprise.

The main difference between Batman Begins and Iron Fist is that the film is a masterpiece, whilst this series is atrocious.

Given the way you titled this post, I thought you were going to keep me in suspense about whether it’s any good?

I could try but that would require me saying nice things about it for a while before turning around and going ‘however….’. Alas, the show undercuts my efforts to offer any fulsome or even convincing praise for it.

There are some good fight scenes. There’s a nicely kinetic one in a moving truck. Danny has an entertaining encounter with a drunken martial arts master, who nonetheless nearly defeats him. However, they are needles amongst an indifferent haystack. Some of that is down to poor directing. Most of the action is edited too quickly, which turns the fights into a blur. However, a larger problem is that Danny is played by Finn Jones, an actor who looks like he learned kung fu yesterday. In a show literally called Iron Fist, you need the lead actor to be able to throw punches that look like they’d hurt, and Jones can’t. When we see Danny in action, his movements appear so weightless that he seems like he’s been inserted with CGI.

A lot of reviewers looking for positives have settled on (sections of) the supporting cast. Jessica Henwick’s performance as Coleen Wing – Danny’s partner in crime fighting and love interest – has rightly been praised. And Ms Henwick deserves that. She’s charismatic, convincing and looks like she can actually do martial arts. But all that means is her awe of and attraction to the drippy, petulant and unimposing lead feels unconvincing. Less noted, but for my money even more able was, Sacha Dhawan as a warrior from K’un-Lun, who arrives towards the end of the series. However, the conceit of this character is that he thinks that Danny is unworthy to be the Iron Fist and that he himself would have been more deserving recipient. That made his presence a rather too effective critique of the show itself. Elsewhere, Rosario Dawson and Carrie Anne Moss return, playing characters we met in earlier Netflix shows, and they are great. Unfortunately, that means that when they are on screen, they serve mainly to highlight how not great everything happening around them is. Otherwise, if I were to praise the acting, I’d mostly be praising the ability to persevere in the face of terrible writing. This is especially true of David Wenham, who is saddled playing an overripe and frankly ridiculous villain, but nonetheless pushes forward with an impressive intensity and commitment.

For a while, I was at least hoping I could faintly praise it for not suffering the same sharp decline in quality as the other Netflix shows. They started out excellent but over their run became a slog. Iron Fist’s first few episodes are atrocious but it seemed to recover somewhat, as Danny moves from aimlessly wandering New York to actually superhero-ing. However, the cliché and contrived finale is probably the worst episode of all, so I can’t even tell you that it gets less worse as it goes along.

So, if those are the (not very) good points, I dread to ask what the bad ones are?

But you have to right?

Yeah….

The major problem is characterisation. Many of the key players lack depth or definition, and spew clunking dialogue that makes them rather wearisome.

That’s especially true for the lead. As I’ve already alluded to, Finn Jones is terribly miscast. Which, in combination with some terrible writing, is deadly. The character who is on screen the most is grating in the extreme. That’s partly intentional: his unusual upbringing has left him with a poor sense of social graces and damaged him so that he’s prone to emotional outbursts. The problem is that it doesn’t really come across like that. Rather, he seems petulant and needy.  Worse still, we get no sense that deep within him lies a true hero. When he announces that he’s ‘the immortal Iron Fist’, a warrior who earned mystical powers by ripping out the heart of a dragon, it is about as convincing as me claiming to be Miss Universe 2014.

There has been some criticism of the show for failing to cast an Asian actor to play Danny. I don’t know how strong that specific charge is. In the comics, Danny has always been depicted as white, and that fact serves to highlight his status as an outsider in K’un-Lun. Nonetheless, the charge of cultural appropriation is one that has bite where Iron Fist is concerned. This show riffs off a tradition of martial arts films that bring with them a lot of ideas from East Asia. These make their way into the story but its engagement with them is woefully shallow. Danny may spout about ‘Chi’ or ‘the Bushido code’ but one feels like if you asked him ‘what Chi is specifically’ or ‘what’s in the Bushido code’, he’d reply with a blank stare. That adds to the shows other credibility problems.

The worst thing about Iron Fist, however, is that it is silly and takes itself seriously. It is fine to be either of those things. I saw Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume II, last week and it is so utterly ridiculous that it contains not only the talking racoon and sentient tree from the first film but also adds a new character called Ego, the living planet. However, it knows it’s ridiculous and is determined to have fun with it. It is positively swimming in knowing humour. Iron Fist by contrast seems oblivious. It thinks it really is Batman Begins. It tells you with a straight face that Finn Jones is ‘the immortal Iron Fist’ and expects you to go with it. That’s also a joke, just not a funny one.

So you wouldn’t recommend Iron Fist?

Nope. It is a procession of grinding mediocrity. Watching the whole series felt like being taken on a thirteen-hour hike round a car park. If like me, you are watching it to be caught up in time for the Defenders. Don’t bother. Read the plot on Wikipedia instead. Believe me when I say that reading an encyclopaedia entry will be more exciting than spending time watch

Magic and Mean Streets

Cage and Strange.png

Doctor Strange saves our universe from threats that emerge from other dimensions, whilst Luke Cage battles gangsters in Harlem. What does it mean to say two such wildly different stories take place in the same fictional universe?

 

I’ve mostly kept this spoiler light but have thrown in some more spoilery notes at the bottom. If you haven’t seen the film and the show yet then don’t read them.

A minor but recurring character in Luke Cage – the latest collaboration between Netflix and Marvel – is a hawker who stands on street corners in Harlem offering footage of “the incident”. By which he means the battle between alien invaders and the Avengers at the end of their first film. Assuming Youtube exists in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), his business model seems rather shaky. Nonetheless the show’s creators clearly felt the need to remind the audience that the stuff they are seeing theoretically occurs alongside the adventures of Tony Stark, Steve Rodgers and Co. Perhaps the showrunners doth assert too much. You can certainly see why audiences might doubt this. None of the characters from the films appear, the events of the show have no bearing on the arc of the films and the tone is radically different. Luke Cage’s powers are being strong and bulletproof, which seems rather mundane next to say the ability to summon lightning from a hammer. His opponents are not aliens, demi-gods or killer robots but gangsters and corrupt police and politicians. And the stakes are lower: he is fighting to defend a neighbourhood rather than the world.

This contrast is heightened further by the arrival of Doctor Strange. The latest Marvel film tells the story of a brilliant but arrogant surgeon, who having been crippled in a car accident makes a desperate attempt to overcome his injuries by turning to mysticism. That puts him on the path to being a powerful sorcerer and sets him up for a confrontation with evil powers. This is a film in which people have the ability to bend buildings, reverse time and travel between dimensions. It all seems pretty far removed from Luke Cage’s street level adventures.

Despite these huge disparities, Doctor Strange and Luke Cage share a key strength: an impressive style borne of a clear hinterland.

Both of their source materials arose from Marvel trying to expand their range of comics to reflect new social movements. With Strange it was the counter-culture and the new age. The panels of his comics look like illustrations of an acid trip and Pink Floyd even included some of it on one of their album covers. Luke Cage, or the Hero for Hire as he then was, was Marvel’s take on blaxploitation: its hero is a black man who speaks in street slang – or at least his white creators’ idea of what street slang was – and got his powers as the result of a miscarriage of justice.

The visuals of Doctor Strange are appropriately mind-bending. They have been repeatedly compared to those of Inception, and you can see why. Characters can manipulate space and time so that, for example, roads bend upward and people fall down them. But that actually understates the weirdness of Doctor Strange. The characters in Inception dream only of earthbound locations. By contrast, those in Doctor Strange travel to all kinds of strange dimensions with appropriately out there colour schemes.

This opens up new possibilities for action sequences. Director Scott Derrickson doesn’t exploit them perfectly. In a film where the audience cannot rely on their knowledge of the conventional rules of physics, it was probably unwise to have so many fast cuts and so much juddery camera work. Those decisions render some of the fights illegible. However, they feel a lot fresher than the conventional Marvel fare, In particular, Derrickson finds slapstick humour amongst the oddness of the proceedings.

For very different reasons, Luke Cage also depends on the latter quality. Most of the time there is little that the show’s street level villains can do to put its bulletproof hero is physical danger. So wisely the episode directors try to make confrontations funny rather than tense:

However, this isn’t really a show about action. It’s far more about a place: Harlem. I don’t know if the picture it presents is true to the real place but the version we see in Luke Cage certainly feels like a real place. This show’s Harlem becomes a stage on which to evoke African American life. It luxuriates in the dialects, history and, above all else, the music of that community. And because virtually the entire cast is black, we see a full gamut of characters of colour rather than just the usual stereotypes. This winds up illustrating why diversity in the media is an artistic as well as a social virtue: Luke Cage brings to the fore themes and narratives that are relatively neglected by TV that is mostly made by and for white people.

For all their strengths, Luke Cage and Doctor Strange do both suffer from structural flaws. Much has been made of the fact that Doctor Strange sticks closely to the conventions of the superhero origin story. I’d suggest this is less of a problem than the fact it feels like it is rushing through that narrative. There’s a lot of telling where we might hope for showing. Only Strange himself has a fleshed out character arc, the supporting cast are mostly neglected. One key character experiences a dramatic transformation in just two pieces of exposition.*

By contrast, Luke Cage manages to fully flesh out its story. Unfortunately, it does so about 8 episodes into its 13 episode run. At which point it starts adding flab rather than flesh. This sadly is a familiar problem for the Marvel/Netflix shows.

And speaking of familiar problems, the villain in Doctor Strange is underwhelming. While Marvel movies tend to work despite their failure to produce noteworthy adversaries, if they are going to cast Mads Mikkelsen, probably the world’s premiere menacing European, you’d hope they would give him something interesting to do.

Bad guys is one of the things that the Marvel TV series have generally done better than the films but sadly Luke Cage doesn’t. The villains we initially encounter are fairly interesting but the big bad is too broad by far: a grounded series really didn’t need a cartoonish enemy who almost seems to be licking his lips as he theatrically quotes Bibles verses in a manner that is supposed to be menacing but is mostly just annoying.**

I’d also suggest that neither project really lands its attempts at making deeper points. Doctor Strange tries to set up an ideological conflict over the role of time in human life. But this feels tacked on with the vindication of the good guys’ position being presented in exposition rather than emerging organically from the story.

Luke Cage does better and there’s nothing wrong with it moving from depicting African American lives in general to tackling the specific issue of police violence against the community. However, I don’t feel it has any new points to make on the subject nor is its depiction of it especially potent. So it’s not a problem but nor is it

Despite gripes like these, both Doctor Strange and Luke Cage are stylish and entertaining projects that I’d heartily recommend.

Having spent a fair amount of time noting the similarity of their strengths and weaknesses, let me return to the observation that they are of course very different enterprises. Which begs the question what does it mean to say that they happen in the same fictional universe (or I suppose given Doctor Strange’s powers multiverse)? I suppose it implicitly creates the possibility that Strange and Cage might someday meet. But that seems unlikely. The disparities between their powers would be too great: an existential threat to Cage would be trivial to Strange. He and the rest of Marvel’s grandest and most powerful characters are off limits to the TV series. But that I would argue is their strength. It means that the TV series have to become distinct from the films rather than a cheaper and more regularly produced facsimile of them. The series based on DC comics like Gotham and Supergirl can make use of iconic characters like Superman and the Joker. But Marvel’s can’t and that forces them to explore the cracks of a world in which superpowers exist, to ask about the lives of ordinary people in such a reality and to understand its details. The films may be spectacular but the TV series are in many ways more interesting.

 

Spoilers:

* Even Chiwetel Ejiofor can’t make Mordo going from being a bit pissed with the Ancient One’s compromises to mercilessly hunting down his fellow sorcerers seem convincing without at least some time being devoted to it.

**And did it really have to go all Spectre? Why do the hero and villain have a link going back to childhood? Isn’t that an implausible co-incidence? And why does his motivation have to be daddy issues?

Best things I’ve read recently (18/09/15)

Marvel Music, Miserable Kids and Masses of Being Mean to Liam Fox

 

Britain is woefully unprepared for the thing I told it to vote for, says Liam Fox (Newsthump)

“Describing other people as ‘fat and lazy’, Fox criticised Britons for not doing anything like enough to mitigate against the consequences of his actions, and said he expected everyone to pull their finger out to make his fantastic notion work.”

Fat and Lazy by Chris Dillow (Stumbling and Mumbling)

“For many of us the fact that some businesses are “fat and lazy” was a key reason to favour remaining within the EU. When Brexiters told us that Brexit would allow us to reach free trade agreements with non-EU nations, our response was a fear that exporters would not quickly or sufficiently step up sales to non-EU countries. You can think of “fat and lazy” as micro-foundations for the gravity models of trade which underpinned the economic case (pdf) for Remain.”

Maybe Stop Asking Kids to Recap Their School Day by Cari Romm (The Science of Us)

“Adolescents may have fun at school with their friends, but they are also in close quarters with scores of peers they didn’t choose,” Damour wrote. “The rough adult equivalent would be to spend nine months of the year in all-day meetings with 20 or more random age-mates — and be expected to bounce home and share enthusiastic updates.”

Tweet of the week:

Video of the week:

Podcast of the week:

This week’s Newsquiz is fantastic or more specifically the spectacular section about Bake Off is. While I have my reservations about Radio 4’s topical comedy, it does have one big thing going for it: Susan Calman.

5 things Civil War has that Batman v Superman needed

Why Marvel won the battle of the battling superheroes

*Abundant spoilers from the get-go*

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War are in many regards very similar films. Both films feature superheroes. Both films centre on those heroes fighting each other. In both films, the impetus for that conflict is the collateral damage that resulted from the superpowered battles in previous films. Both films begin with a scene in which the parents of one of those heroes is murdered, which allows them to inherit the vast wealth they will one day use to build the suits of armour than will enable them to become superheroes. After these murders, both films then move onto an action sequence in Africa, the casualties of which turn the public against heroes.

Yet they differ in one really important regard: Civil War works, while BvS doesn’t. That’s not just my view – though it certainly is that too. On Rotten Tomatoes, Civil War has a resounding score of 90% whilst BvS elicits a measly 27%. There are cases where audiences and critics, whose reviews power Rotten Tomatoes, disagree but this is not one of them. BvS hasn’t lost money, in fact it’s made rather a lot of it. But a film featuring Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman would always manage that. It has, however, underperformed. A project this massive ought to be aiming to be one of the year’s biggest hits. Yet it’s not only been comfortably outgrossed by Civil War but also by Zootopia. The Jungle Book is not far behind and had Deadpool opened in China it would almost certainly have topped BvS too. And it’s only May.

Worse still its failure has likely depleted the supply of goodwill surrounding the franchise which will likely hurt the box office takings of future instalments. So where did Marvel go right and DC/Warner Bros go wrong? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Humour

Let us start with the most commonly voiced complaint about BvS: it is a bit of a slog. Its combination of brooding characters, a gloomy colour palette and a story that focussed on the suffering of ordinary people that superheroes create. That makes it a rather dour affair.

The same could be said of Civil War – it is a film where at one point it appears that Steve Rodgers is going to smash in Tony Stark’s face – but for the fact the darkness with jokes. Falcon and the Winter Soldier bickering over legroom in a Renault Clio is not simply amusing: it also helps us relate to those characters and prevents the tone of the film becoming morose.

That said, I don’t think this is the crucial distinction it is made out to be. It’s quite possible to make a superhero film of any quality in any tone. The Dark Knight is gloomy and fantastic, the Fantastic Four is gloomy and excruciating.

The sad reality is that the problems with BvS went way beyond a lack of jokes and couldn’t have been fixed just by throwing some in.

2. A function for its shoehorned in hero

The narrative of BvS did not require Wonderwoman. Likewise Spiderman is more or less extraneous to Civil War’s story. But in order to set up future films they had to be in there.

Both films make a virtue of this commercial necessity. Wonderwoman’s entrance into the final battle is the only fist pumping moment in BvS. However, she is underused and her presence appears to have confused Chinese audiences unfamiliar with her character.

Spiderman is better used: a wisecracking, exuberant and innocent teenager gatecrashing the film counterpoints the darkness that would otherwise pervade the proceedings.

3. A plot that makes sense

After the aforementioned scene of Bruce Wayne’s parents being (once again) murdered and an impressive flashback to the carnage at the end of Man of Steel, BvS moves to a scene in Africa. Louis Lane and some of her colleagues are kidnapped by a warlord they are supposed to be interviewing. As soon as the hostages are out of sight, a group of private military contractors arrive and begin shooting people. Then Superman arrives and rescues Lane.

Something probably has been lost in the process of summarising that scene but not much. It’s as nonsensical as it sounds. None of the elements besides Superman and Lane have previously been introduced. Nor is there a proper through line between this scene and the one before or after. This makes it hard for the audience to place it in context.

Even if you manage to, there’s still a definite lack of internal logic. The confrontation in Africa was apparently orchestrated by Lex Luthor, so Superman would be blamed for the deaths caused by the mercenaries. But it’s never explained why anyone thinks Superman, who has super-strength and can shoot laser beams from his eyes, would shoot people.

There are definitely problems with the plotting of Civil War but they are relatively minor. The introduction of a number of the heroes is rather contrived. But I’d rather be thinking “it’s so obvious what the writers are doing here” than “I haven’t got the faintest idea what the writers are doing and apparently neither have they”.

It’s also probably fair to say that appreciating Civil War depends on having seen the proceeding Marvel films. But at this stage we really need to accept that Marvel isn’t making films but a TV series new episodes of which are shown in cinemas biannually. You can’t join the MCU after 13 episodes and fully comprehend it, anymore than you could Breaking Bad.

While Marvel lean heavily on things they have previously shown in their movies, DC/Warner Brothers rely on you knowing stuff they’ve never shown and don’t explain. The formation of the Justice League and the arrival of the villainous Darkseid are foreshadowed. In a Marvel movie, this would have been done in post-credit sequences or easter eggs. Batman v Superman sticks them into the main body of the film. If you’re an audience member who realises these sequences are basically irrelevant to the story you’re currently watching, they are jarring and mess up the rhythm of the film. If you don’t and you, therefore, try to incorporate them into your understanding of that story, then it becomes even more baffling.

4. An understanding of what its heroes are fighting about

In Civil War, the UN gives tells the Avengers that their activities need to be regulated. A faction lead by Tony Stark wants to accept that regulation, whilst Steve Rodgers and his allies reject it. There are wrinkles and complications but fundamentally that is what the audience needs to know to follow the film’s conflict between superheroes.

Any decent hero vs hero story needs to be able to boil down its central conflict to a sentence or two. Six X-Men films are a battle about whether Mutants can co-operate with humans or whether conflict is inevitable. In Season 2 of Netflix’s Daredevil, the Punisher thinks it’s acceptable to stop criminals by killing them, whilst Daredevil rejects that view and tries to stop him.

In Batman v Superman, Batman and Superman are not two sides of a single dichotomy. Indeed, their reasons for fighting each other are tangled and rather hypocritical. Batman thinks Superman is too powerful and produces too much collateral damage, even though he is himself rather powerful and has himself produced plenty of collateral damage. And Superman dislikes Batman being a vigilante despite being a vigilante himself. The lack of clarity about why they were fighting in the first place makes it hard to invest in the conflict or to understand its sudden resolution.

5. A decent villain

Speaking of unclear motivations let’s turn to Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor. I like Eisenberg and think he does a good job with the material he’s given. But that’s not great. Luthor as an entitled tech bro could work – indeed I predicted it would – but the execution is really sloppy. It’s clear what his immediate objective is: kill superman. But what lies behind that? He seems to have been damaged by his abusive father and – for some reason – that makes him resentful of Superman. At points he seems to share Batman’s misgivings about the inherent danger of the existence of a being as powerful as Superman but later goes on to create one himself. There seems to be some religious thing going on but what it means is unclear. There are no signs of Luthor having a faith that might be feeding into his motivation. I suppose he could have become a disciple of Darkseid but if so that only happens in the film’s final act long after his plan began. Alternatively maybe it is his self-belief that is powering his actions: his arrogance is palpable and perhaps killing the most powerful creature on the planet is to him what stealing paintings is to Thomas Crown. But why then all the ponderous Revelation lite warbling? Perhaps, he simply wants Superman out of the way, so the Man of Steel can’t intervene with his plans to blow up California in order to inflate the values of his landholdings in Nevada or whatever supervillains are into these days. But if Superman is an obstacle that must be cleared away in order to carry out a larger plan, what is that larger plan? Any of these would have been fine – ok maybe not the abusive father one but the others seem OK – but rather than choosing one or finding a way to mesh several together BvS leaves Luthor to blunder directionless through a film he’s supposed to be driving the narrative of.

By contrast, Daniel Bruhl’s Zemo is an understated highlight of Civil War. A lack of screen time means that Marvel villains often wind up being rather generic. They are vaguely evil, they want to destroy and/or rule things, which they will proclaim in a booming voice before being killed in the final act.

Despite Bruhl having even less screen time than his predecessors, he makes a far greater impression. The comic book character with whom he shares a name is a leader of Hydra who has surgically attached a purple mask to his face. The name turns out to be a red herring. The film’s Zemo is a villain rather than a supervillain. He’s a soldier whose family was killed during the events of Age of Ultron and, not unreasonably, blames the Avengers. With no powers of his own, he can’t possibly defeat them in a direct confrontation, so he manipulates them into battling each other.

He works better than the average Marvel villain for a number of reasons. Having gone in expecting him to be a character similar to the one Reed Diamond plays in Agents of SHIELD, he came as a welcome surprise. And Bruhl is a very capable actor able to bring plenty of pathos to his performance without becoming hammy in the way many of his counterparts do. And his character meshes with the film’s broader theme: that revenge is an inherently destructive motivation. It’s also true that being less objectively dangerous, makes him seem more sinister. His motivation is mysterious and his cruelty is more apparent: killing someone by drowning rather than using some supernatural mcguffin just feels more real.

To wrap up…

Zack Snyder’s vision for the DCU has come in for a lot of criticism and there is plenty to criticise. His pursuit of darkness for darkness sake leads him to, for example, complain that in the Nolan Batman films, the hero goes to “a Tibetan monastery and…[is]…trained by ninjas. Okay? I want to do that. But he doesn’t, like, get raped in prison. That could happen in my movie.”

But the errors that really bothered me were not to do with the concept but the execution. The visuals and some of the action sequences are clearly the product of the kind of obsessive craftsmanship that can only arise from a genuine love for the task at hand. But that just makes it all the more glaring when everything else is so slapdash.

This contrast is clearly a reflection of Snyder’s priorities. His back catalogue makes clear that what matters to him is whether stuff looks ‘epic’. If it does then nothing else seems to matter. What is less clear is why Warner Bros – having spent $250 million on the film and presumably wanting to see a return on it – apparently collaborated in this indifference. Man-child auteurs may disdain narrative coherence and relatable characters but audiences probably won’t. Had the studio pushed for an additional rewrite to rationalise the plot and the character motivations – and perhaps also throw in a joke here or there – Snyder’s grisly vision intact would have remained intact but would have led to a far better film. Indeed, Warner Bros might have wound up the with something like Captain America: Civil War.

I ranked every Marvel film and TV series because I’m that cool [updated]

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A year ago I made a ranking of every part of the MCU. But this being Marvel, that universe has grown by 25% since then. So to celebrate the fact Civil War is nearly here, I’ve done an updated version.

16. Iron Man 2 (2010)

Pros: The first film to move beyond hinting at a broader universe and start fleshing it out. It also introduced us to Black Widow, and Don Cheadle is a better James Rhodes than Terrance Howard.

Cons: It’s all set up and no pay off. The filmmakers seem to have purposefully avoided anything too interesting lest that prevent them being able to use it later on. Perhaps because of this the story and script are a mess. It wastes Sam Rockwell (a serious crime) but gives us plenty of Gwyneth Paltrow (an even worse crime).

Summary: The film that sacrificed itself for the good of the rest of the MCU.

15. The Incredible Hulk (2008)

Pros: Nothing in particular.

Cons: Nothing in particular.

Summary: It’s really forgettable.

14. Thor (2011)

Pros: The scenes set on Earth are mostly fun.

Cons: Despite having superthesp Ken Brangh directing, the faux Shakespeare stuff doesn’t really work. That’s unfortunate because that’s most the scenes and the bulk of the most dramatic ones.

Summary: A film where some physicists taking readings in a backwater town in New Mexico is more interesting than the action sequences. That’s not a good thing.

13. Thor: the Dark World (2013)

Pros: Loki only really came into his own when Whedon’s writing injected him with some menace and panache. The improvement carries over into this film, with by far the best scenes being the Whedon penned sparring between Thor and Loki. They are a joy to watch.

Cons: I really could not care less whether Thor manages to prevent the Dark Elves unleashing the Aether at the centre of the convergance.

Summary: Ideally Thor: Ragnarok will just be Tom Hiddleston delivering Whedon one-liners.

12. Jessica Jones (2015)

Pros: Rytter is great as the titular hero but Tennant is even better as Kilgrave. Rather than planning to take over the world, he’s essentially a superpowered stalker, and all the more menacing for it. That allows the show to explore some weighty issues around violence against women.

Cons: The supporting characters are nowhere near as good as the two leads. And the story is stretched beyond breaking point. As a result it becomes messy and unsatisfying.

Summary: Has this been six episodes long it might have been great. At twice that length it is unsatisfying.

11. Captain America: the First Avenger (2011)

Pros: The by no means straightforward evolution of Steve Rodgers into Captain America is well played with nice twists like how the military’s first instinct is to use him for propaganda. The best part, however, is Hayley Atwell managing to elevate Peggy Carter from a generic supporting role to the core of the film.

Cons: The actions scenes are bland beyond words. As a result, the film actually tails off as it reaches its climax.

Summary: The first film to hint that Marvel was capable of doing smarter things. However, it gets the basics wrong and largely falls flat as a result.

10. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Pros: A great ensemble deliver great lines among some nicely done action scences featuring one of Marvel’s better film villains.

Cons: Having so many different subplots and characters pulling in different directions nearly pulls the film apart. It just about holds together but often feels meandering and overlong.

Summary: Too much of a good thing?

 9. Iron Man (2008)

Pros: Started the whole MCU, revived Robert Downey Jnr’s career and made post-credit stings a thing.

Cons: It’s a bit hammy in places.

Summary: If you ignore what it lead to, it’s a pretty generic blockbuster. Naught wrong with that mind.

8. Ant Man

Pros: Turns its silliness to a definite advantage. Rudd is probably Marvel’s most likeable lead. And the battle aboard a toy train set is the franchise’s most inventive sequence.

Cons: The story is generic and predictable. I also dislike the use of ethnic stereotypes to make jokes.

Summary: Indisputably entertaining.

7. Agents of Shield (2014-15)

Pros: It took a while getting there but it is now genuinely good telly. It’s pacey, delivers plenty of cliffhangers and has found interesting character dynamics to explore. And surprisingly for a show that started out rather cheesy it’s become darker and more violent than the movies. It also provides some of Marvel’s best villains.

Cons: Very little good can be said about the first sixteen episodes. They were corny with terrible CGI and a meandering story arc. It’s got a LOT better but it still has weaknesses. The most grating of which is overuse of on the nose exposition. It is also held back by the strange dynamic whereby it has to react to the movies without being able to influence them.

Summary: Quality wise this has been a rollercoaster: in gestation it looked like a sure hit, then it seemed like it was dead on arrival, but even more remarkably it turned itself round and is now a quiet triumph.

6. Iron Man 3 (2013)

Pros: Impressive stripped down action sequences, a plot that makes sense and as much as it annoys comic purists, the twist is hilarious.

Cons: Gwyneth Paltrow is still in it.

Summary: Proved that Marvel could live up to the standards it set itself with the Avengers.

5. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Pros:  Rivals Scott Pilgrim as the funniest comic book film ever. Plus the sheer boldness of making a film with a racoon and a tree at its heart.

Cons: Marvel loves its McGuffins almost as much as its underwhelming villains. This film has two of the latter chasing after one of the former. It’s an indication of how good this film is that this only mildly undermines the fun of the movie.

Summary: If you didn’t enjoy this, I despair of the possibility you will ever be entertained.

4. The Avengers (2012)

Pros: Successfully married sci-fi epic and office comedy with phenomenal results.  Created a new sub-genre: the superhero ensemble. In Mark Ruffallo, we finally get the movie Hulk we deserved, who let us not forget at one point destroys a massive alien spaceship with a single punch.

Cons: The plot is occasionally a bit thin (*cough* failsafe *cough*) and it introduced Thanos which on the evidence of Guardians was a mistake.

Summary: Whoop, whoop!

3. Daredevil (2015)

Pros: All that juicy weighty morally ambiguous darkness. The simultaneously beautiful and horrifying fight choreography. The compelling Punisher storyline from the second series. And most of all it has Vincent D’Onofrio as a villain we can believe in and therefore get really scared by.

Cons: The second series is weaker than the first. As I said, I like the stuff with the Punisher but that gradually peters out. In its place there is some nonsense about ninjas, which given the tone of the rest of the show comes across.  D’Onofrio’s much curtailed role means he doesn’t ground the proceedings in the same way.

It’s also worth mentioning that neither series is suitable for Marvel’s young fan base.

Summary: Daredevil is to Marvel, what Daniel Craig’s 007 is to the Bond franchise.

2. Agent Carter (2015)

Pros: You know how I was raving about Hayley Atwell earlier? Well given her own series she doesn’t disappoint. It is not only funny and exciting but also has a real empathy for underdogs. In contrast to the huge movies centered on white men, Agent Carter tells its story from the point of view of outsiders – women, people of colour, immigrants and the disabled – who have to live with the consequences of the superpowered theatrics. It also manages some great humour – much of it courtesy of Dominic Cooper and James D’Arcy playing Howard Stark and his long suffering butler Edwin Jarvis – and lots of period detail and style. And it’s further confirmation that Marvel TV has way better villains than the films do.

Cons: The first season is near flawless. The second falls short of that standard. The storytelling is a bit pedestrian and it doesn’t really advance Carter as a character.

Summary: The most underappreciated entry on this list. Seek it out if you get the chance.

1. Captain America: the Winter Soldier (2014)

Pros: Another great ensemble. Fight scenes inspired by the Raid and a car chase based on the French Connection.  I love how it adopts of a Seventies political thriller and the fact that it uses the space afforded by having a lead character called ‘Captain America’ to highlight the fact that not everything the American government does is desirable.

Cons: You can knit pick the plot and the massive battle scene at the end rather undermines the more grounded feel of the rest of the film.

Summary: The best.

Looking forward to Daredevil season 2

I loved the first season of Daredevil – the Marvel/Netflix team up about Matt Murdoch, the blind lawyer who becomes a costumed hero defending his New York neighbourhood. When I reviewed it, I said:

A show that’s nastier, more demanding and frankly rather brutal winds up being just about the most satisfying thing Marvel has done…

So I’m excited about the upcoming second series. For a couple of months, Netflix have been taunting fans with teasers that only gave us crumbs of new material. But today we went from glimpses to a decent look at the season 2.

There’s a new trailer out and I was impressed. Obviously it’s possible to make a good trailer from a bad show. But, what this one shows is encouraging.

It seems like Daredevil is going to build on the strengths of the first season without simply replicating it. It’s staying intense: the trailer starts with hints of a murdered family and continues in that vein. That’s reflected in a gothic tone: there are skulls, crucixes and dingy lighting galore. And we get another villain whose conviction they are actually the hero is given believable depth. But the divide between Daredevil and the Punisher is very different from that between him and Fisk. It’s essentially a battle of vigilantes. And it looks like that will be used ask whether Murdoch’s resolute adherance to his personal moral code excuses his operating outside the law of the land.

My only real fear at this point is that taking on a villain whose a lone wolf rather than the head of a nefarious organisation may not stretch out to 13 episodes. That was what tanked the other Netflix/Marvel collaboaration: Jessica Jones. But there may well be a way round that especially if Elektra’s prescense provides a meaty subplot. So on balance, count me down as an optimist.

 

The tragic failure of Jessica Jones

No one could accuse Netflix and Marvel of not making an impact with Jessica Jones. Krysten Ritter’s heroine is already widely loved, David Tennant’s mind controlling villain Kilgrave is praised as Marvel’s best ever, and its bold challenge to rape culture and foregrounding of the experience of an abuse victim have drawn justified praise. It is also impressively stylish. Indeed, I could so easily now be writing a fawning review.

Instead, I am going to say Jessica Jones doesn’t really work. Its great elements are compiled haphazardly, and its good ideas get swamped by its dull and indifferent ones.

At the root of these problems is the show’s attempt to fill 13 hours. For all its thematic complexity Jessica Jones actually has quite a simple plot. Part of what makes Kilgrave menacing is how mundane he is. He doesn’t want to rule the world – just one woman. That is a clever conceit but it creates problems when stretched. To see why contrast Jessica Jones with Daredevil, the previous Marvel/Netflix team up. It was a more conventional superhero story. So there was plenty to watch as the hero peeled back the layers of the villain’s organisation and plan. In Jessica Jones there is just Kilgrave. And the writers don’t know how to create enough variety and structure into this confrontation to fill a whole series.

So they wind up derailing their own story to prevent it reaching its climax in under 13 hours. That results in a lot of repetition, contrivances and filler. Points that were made effectively – such as Kilgrave’s cruelty to strangers – are remade for no good reason. At various point characters do things which are explicable only as ways to extend the proceedings, which robs them of plausibility. And a lot of space is given to uninteresting sub-plots that leech momentum out of the main story. Really who cares whether a lawyer who Jessica sometimes works for is divorcing her wife? The result of all these efforts to stop the series reaching its crescendo too early is that it never does. Tension ratchets up and down more or less at random, and there’s precious little forward momentum. Indeed I spent the final chapter waiting for rather than anticipating the end. Or put another way watching it became a chore.

Jessic_Jones

NEW YORK, NY – MARCH 10: Krysten Ritter filming “Jessica Jones” on March 10, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Steve Sands/GC Images)

Most of this could have been avoided if the series had been eight episodes long like Agent Carter. Even trimming it back to ten episodes would probably have made a sizeable difference.

There may well be some merit to Oliver Sara at Vulture’s suggestion that the show should swim against current trends and adopt a ‘case of the week’ structure. It would be possible to have Kilgrave gradually emerge from these individual cases in a way analogous to how Moriarty hovers in the background of Sherlock even when he is not the main antagonist. You could avoid episodes full of dead space if they each had their own arc. That in turn probably would have allowed the series to expand to the network TV standard run of 22 episodes. Either way, Netflix dropped the ball by commissioning 13 episodes.

I would incline to trimming the series because expanding it would not solve the show’s other major problem: its supporting characters. Many of whom would have been best left out altogether. The most obvious candidates for the cut are Jessica’s comic relief neighbours, who jar with the tone of the rest of the show and whose inclusion seems to mystify even critics who gave it otherwise glowing reviews. Fortunately, they occupy a modest amount of screen time. A bigger problem is Sgt Will Simpson. He’s depicted by someone who’s been to the Brett Dalton School of delivering one-note tough guy performances yet the writing of his character is all over the place. I think he’s supposed to be aggravating and winds up being so. Just probably not in the way the writers intended. Removing all his lines and all the scenes centred on him would have been a good step towards getting proceedings moving more smoothly. Of course the deficiency of the secondary characters is made all the more obvious by how good the hero and villain are.

That’s the tragedy of Jessica Jones. There’s an excellent show buried inside the limp one that’s currently showing on Netflix. The first hour gripped me sufficiently hard that even as grew disgruntled with the rest of the series, there was no question of not finishing it. And the episode where Jessica faces the dilemma of whether to try and change her abuser is one of the best hours of TV I have seen this year. But these glimmers of greatness are too few and far between. The show meanders its way into a rut it is unable to escape from and ultimately winds up as Marvel’s weakest TV project to date.