Purgatory is other people

My quick review of Staged

Fiction will almost certainly have a lot to say about coronavirus: the initial cover-up in Wuhan is ripe for a Chernobyl style docu-drama, the frenetic scenes on hospital wards will be fantastic fodder for medical procedurals, odd couples forced to quarantine together will doubtless become a rom-com staple, and a legally enforceable “stay at home” orders will add believability to horror films which would otherwise be undermined by asking the question “why don’t they just leave?”

Staged depicts a very different version of the crisis. Indeed, it captures a reality many of us have experienced but seems almost impossible to present in an entertaining way. Let’s call it the paradox of the pandemic: the defining characteristic of day-to-do life amidst the most dramatic events of a lifetime has, in the main, been dullness.

The show – told in 15-minute episodes almost entirely filmed in the ensemble’s homes – follows the cast of a play mothballed due to the virus. Their director tries to encourage his two leads – Michael Sheen and David Tennant playing fictionalised versions of themselves – to continue rehearsing over Zoom. Like most videocalls for work it does not go well.

That the central characters are all comfortably off creative types means that they are almost entirely shielded from the true horror of the pandemic. All they need to do to is to stay in their nice homes. However, the very simplicity of that requirement starts to become a problem. They are high achievers who have grown used to the adulation of audiences. Therefore, they don’t really know how to cope when an endless series of videocalls and chores begins to substitute for having a real purpose. That leaves them bored, aimless and confused.

What writer/director Simon Evans – who also stars as writer/director Simon Evans – grasps is that this frustration can be mined for comic tension. That the characters are so filled with anxious energy yet have nothing to do with it, gives a natural reason for them to become irritable and do silly things that wind each other up. And with a cast as charismatic as Staged has, it is great fun to watch them bicker.

At the same time it is deeply relatable. It helps in this regard that the show was entirely written and produced whilst still under lockdown. It’s almost entirely set in the characters homes and is mostly dramatised video calls. This gives it an authenticity which will likely be hard to recapture later on. We should treasure it as a record of the absurdity millions of us have endured amidst tragedy. Well  for that and Judi Dench telling Tenant and Sheen to “stop fucking about!”

All hail the Mandalorian

*This post contains mild but only mild spoilers*

A long time ago in a Galaxy far, far away: Palpatine died, Vader redeemed himself at the price of his life, the Death Star was destroyed, and the Empire was overthrown. But of course, Star Wars fans know there is no happily ever after: Sideous will be reborn, Ben Solo will take up the mantel of Vader, new planet killing weapons will be built and they will serve the First Order.

But even before all of that: what sort of world’s did the heroes of original trilogy create?  That is the question the characters of the Mandalorian have to grapple with. They live in the gap between the fall of the Empire and the rise of the New Republic, which is a space dominated by warlords and gangsters, where the Jedi are but a legend, and the choices necessary to survive preclude simple allegiance to either the light side or the dark.

This is an environment the titular Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal) appears well adapted to. He is perpetually encased in a helmet and armour, which literally and metaphorically separate him from the people around him – less ‘the Man with No Name’ than a man with no face.

He is a bounty hunter, and a formidable one at that, bound by a “Guild Code” which makes it taboo to ask the kind of questions which might lead to reflections on the morality of his line of work. That is until a client pays him to hunt down an unusual quarry and maintaining this amoral outlook becomes impossible.

It is glorious. Some of the best TV and the best Star Wars I have ever seen. Here are some of the reasons it works so well.

1. The music

This might seem like a random place to start but bear with me: it perfectly distils the feel of this series.

Each episode is scored by Ludwig Gorannson – who also wrote the orchestral music for Black Panther.

Now, Star Wars has always drawn inspiration from Westerns. So, it is natural for the Mandalorian to tell a story with the tropes and conventions of the Western genre set in the Star Wars universe. Gorannson’s music reflects this dual character, creating something which sounds like the product of a collaboration between John Williams and Ennio Morricone. It is luscious but also dripping with menace. It bears listening to all by itself.

2. Talent

Gorannson is far from the only very capable person working on the Mandalorian.

It is the first live action Star Wars TV show and it had pride of place in the virtual shop window of Disney + at its launch. So, the ‘House of Mouse’ has put a reported $100 million behind making it a success.

That allows for a cast featuring not only Pascal but also – amongst others – Giancarlo Esposito, Taika Waititi, Gina Carano, Ming-Na Wen, Richard Ayoade, Amy Sedaris, Nick Nolte – voicing a 3ft foot orange alien, which somehow still looks like Nick Nolte – and Werner Herzog. Yes, that Werner Herzog!

However, it is Pascal who is most impressive. He is not only depicting a character who is honour bound always to wear a helmet – meaning he has to depict the character without using his face – but also one who is modelled on the taciturn Clint Eastwoodesque cowboys, so he’s not got much dialogue either. Therefore, he has to lean heavily on physicality to create the character. Generally, when he makes a movement it is sharp and deliberate – an effect accentuated by the armour he’s wearing.

3. It looks phenomenal

Disney have also been able to attract Jon Favreau, the director of Iron Man and the Jungle Book, to co-write and act as showrunner, as well as directing several episodes. As you would expect given his pedigree – and the calibre of the other talent behind the camera – it looks fantastic. Better than a lot of the films. A succession of different planets and spaceships are lovingly rendered; CGI never looks like CGI and they have the capacity to put some impressive action set pieces on the screen convincingly.

4. Storytelling

Having invested in visuals, the filmmakers able to let them to do a lot of the storytelling. For example, at one point a simple turn of Mando’s helmet will convey that he has decided to take a mission. This style of course, suits the story’s protagonist.

It also provides a conspicuous contrast with a lot of sci-fi shows. The Mandalorian never subjects us to clunky dialogue that goes like: “ever since the War of the Two Planets, the Neptunium and Plutonian kings have been locked in a struggle for the heart of Rohana, the princess of Titan, a beautiful fish creature with a talent for lockpicking. Now in order to impress her, each man has sent a challenger to compete in the zoidbergaloid races of venus…”. (Or, perhaps worse still: “somehow, Palpatine returned”!)

It turns out that being rather spare with its dialogue makes for leaner storytelling that moves at a brisker pace and better episodes overall.

5. Excitement and tension

The action sequences in the Mandalorian take advantage of the possibilities provided by the Star Wars universe – among them droids, jet packs and tie-fighters – but can use them in ways that more align with its crunchier sensibility. For example, in the opening sequence the Mandalorian defeats an opponent by crushing them in a set of sliding blast doors.

These sequences benefit from being located in a notably nasty and unpredictable universe, where it seems well within the realms of possibility that something unpleasant could happen to characters we care about. That helps dial up the tension.

6. Baby Yoda

Let’s address the mudhorn in the room: Baby Yoda (or to give him his official name “the Child”) became an internet sensation for a reason. With his huge eyes, twitching ears and haphazard walk,  he is quite possibly the cutest creature ever to emerge from sci-fi.

That might seem incongruous in an otherwise dark show. However, this mismatch is what makes him a narrative necessity. In a deeply corrupt part of the galaxy, his adorable wide-eyed innocence serves to upend the status quo.

7. Making sense of Star Wars

So far, it appears that in story terms the Mandalorian is at most perpendicular to the Skywalker saga, it does provide an important thematic connection between the original and the most recent trilogies. It depicts the continuing appeal of the Empire to some and, by extension perhaps, why there would be support the arrival of the First Order.

One of the villains asks our hero: “Look outside: is the world more peaceful since the revolution? I see nothing but death and chaos.” The seedy and violent worlds the show depicts, do not allow that point to be easily dismissed.

It not only shows us those who sympathise with the Empire but also those who distrust the democracy which has taken its place. An imperial army slaughtered the Mandalorian’s people, but it does not follow from this that he or the other victims of the old regime, we meet have faith in the democracy which has replaced it.

At one point, when he is clearly troubled by a particularly odious group of ne’er-do-wells, the head of the bounty hunter’s guild suggest with a complete lack of conviction: “well, if it bothers you, just go back to the core and report them to the New Republic”. The Mandalorian wearily dismisses that option as “a joke”. The Mandalorian thus depicts the sense that a tyranical order might be preferable to no order at all.

This marks a departure for Star Wars has generally shown the lure of the dark side from the point of view of characters for whom it offers incredible power. In the Mandalorian, we see its appeal from a different – and more relevant angle: that of those who see no realistic prospect of escaping the darkness, so hope that the right kind of darkness will grant them relief from a life of terror.

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

Going out with a misfire

Sherlock’s final episode was by far its worse

 

Author’s note: I meant to publish this close to the time Sherlock‘s finale was broadcast but was travelling and I got distracted. Hope at least some of you are still interested in reading it.

<Spoilers>

I was six when my Dad started reading me Conan Doyle as bedtime stories. So if I describe myself as a lifelong Sherlockian that is only a very mild exaggeration. As nerds tend to be, I am extremely exacting when it comes to adaptations of my obsession and I was sceptical of the whole notion of a modern update of the character. Despite that I almost immediately came to adore Sherlock.  It was clearly made by people who knew the source material and had captured its spirit. At one point I wrote that:

The idea that we are living in a golden age of telly is now commonplace. The programs used as evidence of this are typically American cable shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men. But given Sherlock’s fantastic writing, acting and plotting it deserves to be up there too.

I kept faith with it when it began taking a lot of flak. The quality undeniably dropped in the third season but it could only be realistically deemed as bad if judged by its own stellar standards. The mysteries were definitely less exquisitely crafted than before and indeed seemed mostly to function as playground for the characters but as those characters were still a riot to watch that was hardly a fatal flaw. Sherlock was still soaring, just at a lower altitude than before.

Therefore, I am rather disappointed to report that its final episode is genuinely poor. Not less good, not worse but actually bad.

It was not totally without merit. As has often been the case, even when the  narrative failed the actors still delivered. It was genuinely sad to see Molly being humiliated again, Mycroft trying to sacrifice himself and Moriarty being theatrically reptilian as per usual. But these character moments didn’t really lead anywhere. Indeed, Molly’s appearance felt less like a fitting send off than a final insult and Moriarty seemed to be there mostly as a form of fan service.

And much of the narrative depended on undermining the coherence of the characters. You or I might not notice that we are repressing memories or looking at an optical illusion simulating glass rather than real glass, but the preceding four series have made it clear that Sherlock would have. However, his unexplained intellectual dive was nothing compared with his brother’s, who goes from being established as the smartest character in this universe to being so dumb that he lets his evil genius sister meet Moriarty without supervision!

A bigger problem, however, was that the proceedings seemed to be in the wrong genre. It appeared to be set in a Bond villain’s lair run by a opponent nearer in conception to something from a horror movie and in execution to something from Doctor Who. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with genre shifts – executed well they can make a show – but a finale is an odd place for one and the effect was jerky and discordant. The whole episode felt contrived and overwrought.

The whole episode felt contrived and overwrought. The first half was rushed and marked by abrupt shifts in location and tone. And once we got to the meat of the story it hardly felt worth it: facing off against Euros felt less like the organic end to Sherlock’s journey than a contrivance to drag him there. It all seemed rather daft. At one point an exploding drone forces the heroes to leap from the windows of Baker Street accompanied by terrible CGI flames. In another, the villain appears to possess the power of mind control. And as already mentioned the Holmes brother’s intellects take a dive for no reason. That such a smart and entertaining show has apparently ended with a collage of dumb, unsatisfying moments is a grave disappointment.

The best things I’ve read recently (19/11/2016)

Men’s day comes to parliament with hilarious results, China’s selective refugee policy and some worrying rumours about Dr Who

Men of the Commons leave Men’s Day debate to the women by John Crace (the Guardian)

Conservative Paul Beresford was also keen to stand up for men, though he began by insisting he was a feminist because he had a wife and daughters. “Men tend to find themselves at the very top or the very bottom of the ladder,” he observed, a point rather contradicted by his own mediocrity. “We’re encouraging women to be scientists and company directors, so we must do more to help men be hairdressers and tea ladies,” he went on to say, before adding: “I think of the male suicide rate every time I hold the door open for a lady.” As non sequiturs go, that takes some beating.

The upper Han: who is Chinese? (the Economist)

China’s Han-centred worldview extends to refugees. In a series of conflicts since 2009 between ethnic militias and government forces in Myanmar the Chinese government has consistently done more to help the thousands escaping into China from Kokang in Myanmar, where 90% of the population is Han, than it has to aid those leaving Kachin, who are not Han. Non-Chinese seem just as beguiled by the purity of Han China as the government in Beijing. Governments and NGOs never suggest that China take refugees from trouble spots elsewhere in the world. The only large influx China has accepted since 1949 were also Han: some 300,000 Vietnamese fled across the border in 1978-79, fearing persecution for being “Chinese”. China has almost completely closed its doors to any others. Aside from the group from Vietnam, China has only 583 refugees on its books. The country has more billionaires.

Doctor Who Casting Rumors Have Us Scratching Our Heads by Kyle Anderson (Nerdist)

According to The Mirror‘s source:

“BBC management wants a return to the format from the David Tennant era, when you had a dashing male lead and young female companion.

“Merchandising has dropped off sharply in recent years and there is a strong desire to boost the show’s popularity among kids.”

Now, I have a lot of opinions about this, and most of them are to call this utter hogwash. Want some bullet points? Great!

  • The show hasn’t been on for a full calendar year. You want to wonder why merchandising has dropped? Maybe because there’s no show to get people excited about new adventures and new monsters to turn into toys.
  • I haven’t seen nearly the amount of toys and merchandise surrounding the Capaldi era as I did with the deluge surrounding Matt Smith.
  • Also, Matt Smith’s tenure culminated in the 50th Anniversary, when global interest in the show was at an all time high.
  • Pearl Mackie hasn’t even fucking been on the show yet! How can you already say they she’s not going to connect with kids if all of we’ve seen of her is a two minute teaser?
  • The idea of a “return to the format from the David Tennant-era” is incredibly short-sighted and regressive. If there’s one thing the show doesn’t need, it’s a formula that has become so passe.
  • Whether or not Capaldi (who is 58) will vacate the role following series 10, the one thing the BBC absolutely cannot do is have more of the same regarding casting choices. There badly needs to be a shakeup in terms of who plays the Doctor–i.e., not a white guy–and while the source doesn’t say “white” regarding the dashing Tennant-esque Doctor, it shows a clear desire not to think outside the box one iota. When HASN’T there been a dashing Doctor and a young female companion?

Podcast(s) of the week

There are two this week. Ezra Klein’s interview with Ron Brownstein about the psephology of Trump’s victory is fascinating and definitely worth your time. So is the World in Words on the young Arabs in Dubai who speak English better than what is supposedly their mother tongue.

Video of the week

Tweet of the week

Magic and Mean Streets

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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?

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.

In praise of Samantha Bee

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Her new show is loud, brash and the funniest satire out there.

Fans of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show and the Colbert Report have been in something of a holding pattern for the past few months. Since Stewart retired and Colbert went off to host the Late Show there’s been something of a void.

Trevor Noah is an able comedian and custodian for the Daily Show. However, something has undoubtedly been lost since Stewart’s departure. Noah treats American politics as a comedy, whereas his predecessor appreciated it was a tragedy. Stewart’s humour was propelled by exasperation at a news media that was variously crass, disingenous and trivialising. That sense of mission gave his work a richness and a weight that Noah has failed to replicate. Indeed, at times the younger man has seemed in danger of succumbing to that triviality. I’m of course being unfair because I’m spoiled by American satire. Look at Russell Howard or whichever moron the BBC is currently hoping will engage apathetic young people in polictics and you realise how smart and insightful Noah is. But he still seems like a downgrade into glibness for the Daily Show.

John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight is easier to commend enthusiastically. It’s simultaneously funny and earnest which is not an easy combination to pull off. But it’s essentially using comedy as a vehicle to get us to watch deep dives into policy questions and social issues. Highlighting injustice and making you laugh is a worthy task. But it compliments the Daily Show of yore rather than substituting for it. We still need someone to convince us that despite the insanity of the current news cycle there are sane voices out there.

On the evidence of her first episodes as a host of Full Frontal, Samantha Bee seems well equipped for that job. Like Stewart she is indignant at what she’s seeing on the news but she doesn’t dilute that anger with sadness. According to Bee, Trump is a “sentient caps-lock button” and Cruz “has stage 4 cancer of the personality”. Her persona is essentially that of someone perpetually grappling with the question “WTF?” – which just at the moment seems stupendously reasonable.

There’s an intensity to her show that’s lacking from the more detached work Oliver and Noah do. They mostly elicit chuckles but she regularly gets gut punch laughs.

It’s also worth flagging up that she’s the only female host of a late night show. And she fills that role unapologetically. Female comedians are often required to make themselves ‘acceptable’ by cultivating the impression they are either either kooky, sultry or motherly. Bee avoids all of these archetypes.

That’s going to be fun to watch as Clinton runs for president. The former New York Senator is a frequent victim of the double standard whereby a woman who’s forceful and direct is dismissed as shrill. Unlike Clinton, Bee has the freedom to directly tackle such crap:

I suspect that misogynists are going to be the butt of many of the show’s best jokes:

I look forward to it.