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.

Nerds are thinking about a Disney/Fox deal the wrong way

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The possibility that Disney may buy part of Fox – including crucially in this context its movie studio 20th Century Fox – has excited the attention of the geekier parts of the internet for one specific reason:

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For those of you who are not familiar with the landscape of superhero movies, let me recap quickly. Both the X-Men and the Avengers were characters that originated in Marvel comics. However, you do not see them on the big screen together because in the 1990s, Marvel was losing money and to stay afloat it sold the movie rights to its most popular characters. Fox bought the X-Men and the Fantastic Four, and has been making movies featuring those characters ever since. Then in the 2000s, Marvel began producing its own movies based on the characters it hadn’t sold the rights to. Against the odds these second-tier hereos like Iron Man, Captain America and Black Widow proved to be the basis for the most profitable franchise in movie history. Then Disney bought Marvel. The result was that the movie versions Avengers and the Fantastic Four wound up owned by two different companies, each making its own movies, set in its own fictional universe. If one company attempted to use the other’s characters in its movies it would be sued for breach of copyright.

However, this would all change if 20th Century Fox became part of Disney. The problem is – as Scott Mendelssohn of Forbes – notes is that it would also change a lot of other things and not necessarily for the better:

Last year, Walt Disney had a jaw-dropping 26% of the domestic box office while Fox had 13%. With Fox and Disney combined into one entity, it’s plausible to see Walt Disney’s theatrical output controlling close to 40% of the theatrical business. With that kind of hold, the Mouse House could essentially rewrite the rules for how its movies are seen in theaters (higher ticket prices, higher percentages back to the studios, exclusive auditorium control, etc.) in a way that wouldn’t remotely help the likes of Universal or Warner Bros.

Disney has already gotten heat this year for somewhat more draconian terms for domestic theaters planning to show Star Wars: The Last Jedi (because it knows that much of the money isn’t going to come from the overseas business). It justifiably got torn to shreds for blacklisting Los Angeles Times journalists from Thor: Ragnarok press screenings after the paper reported unfavorably on Disneyland’s tax-related relationship with Anaheim. While Disney relented quickly, arguably because Coco needed the critical buzz more than Thor, such a move could well be solidified with that much control of the market.

And while Walt Disney is a publicly traded company and not a charity, this wouldn’t necessarily be good for the overall industry. Fewer major studios mean fewer places for artists to pitch their work, and thus potentially a less diverse slate of movies and television shows. Less competition could also drive down compensation for said artists, and Disney would be powerful enough to (if it chose to) essentially set the status quo for compensation for the next round of union negotiations. But at least we’d get a decent Fantastic Four movie, right, guys?

To this list of worries, I would add a concern that a larger Disney would have more political power. Given the company’s role in, first, turning American copyright law from a useful system for incentivising creators into a means for large companies like Disney to monopolise the use of valuable characters for generations, and then, lobbying for trade treaties that globalise this perversion of the system, that’d probably be a malign development.

Besides all this, I’m not even sure the massive superhero team-up fans want is really desirable. The MCU seems to be going along fine. Fitting the X-men and mutants in would require a lot of – probably detrimental – crowbarring. Better to let Fox try and make its properties work in isolation. Logan showed that can lead to interesting results.

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.

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.

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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

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.

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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.