Posts Tagged ‘Marvel’
“Luke Cage” thoughts, Season One, Episodes 11, 12, and 13: “Now You’re Mine,” “Soliloquy of Chaos,” and “You Know My Steez”October 12, 2016
You could cut fully five hours of fat from Luke Cage without losing a single story beat or worthwhile idiosyncrasy. Seriously, it’d be possible to preserve every major plot point and every successful bit of local color, every musical performance and every smackdown, yet still delete enough dead air, aimless conversation, redundant dialogue, over-scored soundtracking, and endless scenes of people walking from place to place to create a version of the show that’s essentially as-is, but tighter and quicker and, frankly, better.
“Luke Cage” thoughts, Season One, Episodes Eight, Nine, and Ten: “Blowin’ Up the Spot,” “DWYCK,” and “Take It Personal”October 7, 2016
Erik LaRay Harvey is one of my favorite television actors of all time. As Dunn Purnsley, the silver-tongued, snake-eyed underling of Michael K. Williams’ crime-boss character Chalky White on Boardwalk Empire, he took what could have been an exceedingly minor character and made him an absolutely mesmerizing presence every time he appeared on screen. Watching him slide from one side to another in the various gang wars that rocked Atlantic City was riveting, as was simply listening to him, since like many performers on that show he developed a voice that was a period-appropriate pleasure to listen to. Purnsley radiated the sense that he was more than the sum of his parts; when his bosses noticed this, so did you.
Now he’s playing Willis “Diamondback” Stryker, the prime mover of all of Luke Cage’s misfortunes and the show’s Big Bad, and yet he isn’t being given anything half as interesting to do.
“Luke Cage” thoughts, Season One, Episodes Five, Six, and Seven: “Just to Get a Rep,” “Suckers Need Bodyguards,” and “Manifest”October 5, 2016
But that doesn’t stop this section of Luke’s first season from continuing to make the case for the series as one of the better live-action Marvel projects to date. As was the case with Daredevil — first with Wilson Fisk and his confidants Wesley and Vanessa, then with rival vigilantes the Punisher and Elektra — and in stark contrast to Jessica Jones, Cage takes the time and effort to complicate its villains. This starts with Detective Scarfe, played with sleazeball desperation by Frank Whaley. Yes, he’s snide and insufferable every time we see him with his criminal associates. But as his partner Misty Knight explains at length during the manhunt for him when he goes missing after a gun deal gone bad with Cottonmouth, Scarfe really did look out for her, mentor her, and support her when no one else on the force would. What’s more, he lost his son to a gun accident caused by his own carelessness. In the end, he confesses his crimes and dies trying to flee to safety at One Police Plaza, where he plans to turn himself in and testify against Cottonmouth and his army of crooked cops. Dies in the arms of a sobbing Misty, whose repeated cries of “No!” echo those of Luke himself when Pop died in his arms just a couple episodes back. In this way, the show deliberately makes a connection between the man it’s held up as secular saint and a crooked murderer, implicitly arguing that life has some inherent value no matter what you’ve done with it.
I reviewed the fifth, sixth, and seventh episodes of Luke Cage — spending a lot of time not just on Scarfe but on Cottonmouth and Mariah, who reach serious turning points, to say the least — for the New York Observer. Very happy with the direction the show has taken with its antagonists.
“Luke Cage” thoughts, Season One, Episodes Two, Three, and Four: “Code of the Streets,” “Who’s Gonna Take the Weight,” “Step in the Arena”October 3, 2016
Stated for the record: With four episodes of Luke Cage under my belt, I still have over two-thirds of the season to go. (That strikes me as a problem all on its own, but more on that later.) Yet I’d be enormously surprised if anything in the nine episodes that remain tops the sequence from episode three, “Who’s Gonna Take the Weight,” in which Luke raids the Crispus Attucks compound with the Wu-Tang Clan’s “Bring Da Ruckus” blasting in his earphones. Marvel’s “hip-hop variant” cover program (in which monthly superhero comics get a special makeover designed to look like classic album art from the genre) and snippets of Ghostface Killah in the first Iron Man (the character he took his alias Tony Starks from) notwithstanding, the nexus of hip-hop and superhero comics has waited a long, long time for a moment this huge. You could make the argument that using such an enormous song helps get the show over with the audience in a way it couldn’t pull of on its own — aka Stranger Things syndrome — but I’d beg to differ. Hip-hop in general and the Wu-Tang Clan in particular have derived so much inspiration from Marvel’s heroes and villains; clearly, the makers of Luke Cage were legitimately inspired in turn. It doesn’t feel like swaggerjacking — it feels like a twenty-one gun salute.
And the scene itself more than stands on its own two legs, or more accurately plows through an army of goons on them. Just as Daredevil defined its hero’s fighting style and his overall ethos in the massive hallway and stairway fights against the Russian mafia and a biker gang respectively that served as early highlights of its first two seasons, so too does Luke Cage establish its title character’s modus operandi. Where Daredevil used a combination of martial-arts precision and sheer ability to take a beating to best his opponents, Luke is both less elegant and less endangered. Armed with nothing more than a car door, a piece of rebar he peels from a smashed wall, a sofa, and the goons themselves, he simply strides through all of Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes and his cousin Councilwoman Mariah Dillard’s footsoldiers, grabs what he wants, and leaves. He’s the superhero as blunt instrument, too fed up with the bullshit to be anything but a closed fist in the face of any and every obstacle. (The political resonance there is unspoken but obvious.) What we see from him here is the same approach that will get him out of both his prison and the ruins of his apartment in the subsequent episode, “Step in the Arena”: He’s too confident, stubborn, and irritated by his enemies to be stopped. Not to put too fine a point on it, but he brings the mother[censored] ruckus.
I reviewed episodes 2-4 of Luke Cage for the New York Observer. I feel like you can start to see signs of strain by the end, but in the meantime the acting, writing, action, and cultural specificity remain strong.
Luke Cage’s biggest leg up on Jessica Jones, its predecessor and the launchpad for its title character, is who and how it cast. Though it emerged as the most acclaimed of the 2010s’ superhero TV shows, Jessica dumbed down and flattened out its lead as she was portrayed in the comics by writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Michael Gaydos, turning her from a good-hearted but self-destructive and entertainingly profane fuckup into a one-dimensional, glowering, sarcasm-spewing, hard-drinking, hardboiled-detective stereotype. This gave talented actor Krysten Ritter little to do but shoot people dirty looks in the same outfit for 13 episodes. The less said about David Tennant’s hambone turn as Killgrave, her telepathic abuser and nemesis, the better, as his scenery-chewing, mustache-twiddling performance did a tremendous disservice to the serious issues of rape and trauma the show attempted to address. (That attempt got it a lot of credit, more than the execution deserved). Carrie-Anne Moss and Robin Weigert were involved in a love-gone-horribly-bad storyline that had some bite to it at first, until the plot required Moss’s character to free a maniac in order to get a more favorable divorce settlement, a logical low point for the series (which is saying something). Everyone else in Jessica’s cast had the bland competence and attractiveness of cast members added to a CW show in its third season.
Cage, by contrast, boasts Jessica’s standout guest star Mike Colter as the title character (originally created by Archie Goodwin and John Romita Sr.), a wrongfully convicted ex-con granted bulletproof skin and super strength in an prison experiment, but who’s now trying to live low as he hides from his enemies and continues to mourn his late wife. Colter was the liveliest, most magnetic presence on Jessica Jones (at least until Rosario Dawson showed up in the final episode); here he’s given the spotlight all on his own, and he absolutely shines in it. It’s not just that he’s a convincing street-level superhero a la Charlie Cox’s Daredevil or Jon Bernthal’s Punisher, or that he’s equally adroit at conveying Luke’s sense of squandered opportunities and paycheck-to-paycheck struggling — it’s that this show requires him to be a romantic lead, in a big way. Despite Ritter’s humdrum performance, his romance with Jones generated a whole lot of heat. In this episode alone, whether he’s gently rebuffing the advances of a law student whose son gets his hair cut at the barber shop where he works or flirting and, eventually, fucking as-yet unnamed cop Misty Knight (Simone Missick, every bit his physical and chemical equal), he makes Luke seem as effortlessly charming as James Bond, finding a way to make each of his flirtations feel plausible and irresistible for both parties. Only a handful of actors in a generation have the blend of good looks, good-natured warmth, and genuine physical danger that such a part requires to really work. As one of the barbershop regulars puts it, “You either got it or you don’t.” Colter’s got it.
I’m reviewing Luke Cage for the New York Observer, starting with the pilot episode. You never can tell with pilots, especially for the Marvel/Netflix’s long-feeling 13-episode seasons, but this was better than Jessica Jones’s pilot, which by the low standards of that series was actually one of the better installments.
11. The Prisoner (1967-1968)
When mercurial writer-actor-director Patrick McGoohan parlayed his experience playing a secret agent on the British show Danger Man to create an espionage thriller of his own, he unexpectedly created the prestige drama 30 years ahead of its time. The Prisoner is a frightening, funny, philosophical, absolutely mesmerizing allegory in which McGoohan’s nameless title character, a retired spy dubbed Number Six by his mysterious captors, is imprisoned in a bizarre place called the Village. While crafting an escape plan, he’s subjected to psychological experiments designed to break him by a series of interchangeable superiors all named Number Two. It’s one of the mot visually striking and bracingly bleak shows ever; everything from Lost and Twin Peaks to The Americans owes it a debt.
A superhero story is only as good as its villain. Actually, pretty much any genre work based on conflict with a “villain” is subject to this same dependency. The X-Men didn’t take off as a concept for 15 years or so, until writer Chris Claremont and artists Dave Cockrum and John Byrne beefed up Magneto as their archnemesis and transformed leading lady Jean Grey, aka “Marvel Girl,” into the godlike Dark Phoenix. Once Lost cycled through its initial season of nonstop mystery and frustrated viewers with its Schrodinger’s Hatch, the introduction of Benjamin Linus midway through the second season sustained the show for years to come. And if you wanna get highfalutin about it, where would the great religious works — or the great religions themselves — be without Satan? Paradise Maintained just doesn’t have that same ring to it, you know?
In general, this principle has served Daredevil very well. Its first season was marked by an all-time-great character-meets-performer act of villain creation in the person of Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk; its climax was driven by putting these two completely incompatible yet equally compelling figures together in an alley and having them pound on each other until one of them stopped moving and the other was left standing. Season Two flipped the script by using DD’s fellow vigilantes as villains, with the Punisher, Elektra, and Stick’s unrepentant lethality driving Matt Murdock apart from his friends, his firm, and his entire normal life as he battled either to stop or save them.
But with Frank Castle cut free from the storyline that bound him to Murdock, Nelson, and Page and both Elektra and Stick firmly in pocket, these threats are neutralized, dramatically speaking. That left Daredevil to battle the faceless horde known as the Hand and its leader, the physically powerful but emotionally inert Nobu, for the season’s grand finale. And that made “A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen,” the Season Two finale, a chilly farewell.
I was left a little flat by the final episode of Daredevil Season Two, which I reviewed for Decider. That said, it’s still the best live-action superhero adaptation in nearly three decades.
Both of the ultraviolent vigilantes at the center of this season’s dueling narratives, the Punisher and Elektra, reached a point at which they could decide to become the cold-blooded killers people said they were, or figure out another way to fight. Frank Castle chose what was behind door number one, murdering his mentor-turned-enemy and seizing his arsenal of military-grade weaponry for his own. “If you do this,” Karen had warned him, “you are the monster they say you are.” Well, that settles that.
In fact, Frank takes the metaphor a step further. “You’re dead to me,” Karen shouts in dismay when it becomes apparent he plans to kill Schoonover for his role in the gang shootout that (coincidentally? it’s unclear) wiped out the family of his former subordinate. “I’m already dead,” Castle responds, allegorically identifying himself with both the grim reaper his superhero costume evokes and even with zombie-like warriors of the Hand, who pursue their bloody quest for domination from beyond the grave. Frank Castle can relate. The whole sequence is shot like a cabin-in-the-woods horror movie, leaving Karen as the “final girl” who survives the killer’s rampage.
Eleven episodes deep into the season and with only two more to go, Daredevil’s plotlines are proliferating at an alarming rate. The Blacksmith, a sinister druglord I’d previously assumed to be just a McGuffin to keep the moving parts running, has now taken on central importance as both Daredevil and Punisher attempt to track him down. The Kingpin is in play, as is his old associate Madame Gao, who’s simultaneously battling the Blacksmith herself and issuing dire warnings about “the real threat” to the city. Said real threat is most likely the Hand, run by another former Fisk running buddy, Nobu, and his ninja army. They’re re-kidnapping brainwashed teens, murdering nurses, and fighting Daredevil, who is also busy fighting Gao’s men, the Blacksmith’s men, and the Punisher. Some mysterious person, likely the Blacksmith but yet to be confirmed as such, is murdering people and framing Frank Castle for it, including the district attorney and medical examiner who covered up the government’s involvement in the shootout between the Mexicans, the Irish, and the bikers, orchestrated by the Blacksmith and responsible for the deaths of Castle’s family. Karen Page is another of their would-be victims, though she’s now been saved twice by the Punisher. Matt’s other ex-girlfriend, Elektra, is similarly the survivor of a hit ordered by her and Matt’s old mentor Stick, who is also fighting the Hand. She’s now tracking him down to kill him, a confrontation Daredevil is racing to stop. Also Karen Page got a new job as an investigator for the Daily Bulletin, Claire Temple quit her job after the Hand bought off her hospital, and Foggy Nelson got a job offer at the law offices of Jeryn Hogarth from Jessica Jones from his sexy ex-girlfriend. Does that about cover it?
So it’s a testament to Daredevil and to this episode, “.380,” that the chaos feels planned — that it’s Daredevil’s world, not his show, spinning out of control.
Daredevil is the only superhero show that matters.
Of all the things that “Seven Minutes in Heaven,” the ninth episode of Daredevil’s second season, does well, restaging the sensational hallway fight from Season One with the Punisher as its protagonist may be the smartest. Nothing drives home the moral, philosophical, tactical, and phyiscal differences between the two vigilantes quite like watching each of them tear through a small army of opponents in an enclosed space: With Daredevil, the worst that happens is that one of his foes gets beaned with a flying microwave oven; with Punisher, dudes get their eyeballs gouged out. As if to make the point that this fight scene reveals who Frank Castle really is even clearer, the sequence ends with an ersatz Punisher skull logo emblazoned on the man’s chest. It’s red on white rather than white on black, but I think we get the picture.
As a matter of fact, one of Daredevil’s most consistently impressive features is its ability to stage and shoot conversations in a visually engaging and communicative way. Take a look at the exchange between Matt and his mentor Stick in which the old man finally divulges the nature of “the war” he’s been issuing ominous warnings about for decades. First of all, what kind of recruitment technique is that? If you want to indoctrinate at-risk youth into your apocalyptic cult of holy-man assassins, you might try telling them the cool origin story at some point before they grow up and decide you’re a dangerous lunatic.
But second of all, the scene is shot with both intimacy and urgency. As the green-gold light that’s the show’s visual go-to bathes their faces, revealing Stick’s crags and crevices while simplifying Matt’s silhouette into a smooth and elegant series of curves, the camera moves almost constantly, up and down, back and forth, slowly enough not to make you seasick but emphatically enough to convey the lack of solid ground on which these two men’s relationship currently stands. This is only enhanced by the lack of the customary eyeline-match crosscutting; the basic pattern is there, but since these are two blind men, no eye contact is implied, leaving you unmoored in the words rather than rooted in their experience of each other. Throughout, Stick is usually placed at the far left side of the frame, while Matt will alternately be shortsighted toward that end of the screen or situated on the opposite side, again evoking his competing curiosity and skepticism. Forget the ninja stuff — this is fight choreography, alright.
“Semper Fidelis,” the seventh episode of Daredevil’s second season, was the most subduded and uneventful of the lot. Sure, the show attempts to ratchet up the drama in the beginning, marching the Punisher into court in slow-motion to tune of Inception-style BONNGGGGGGs, and positioning him in front of an American flag with all the subtlety of a shotgun blast. But hey, this is the Punisher we’re talking about. Subtlety is neither his strong suit, nor the strong suit of stories that wish to use his blunt-force allegory effectively.
Hey, anyone order a full-fledged Kill Bill homage? ‘Cuz in “Regrets Only,” the sixth episode of Daredevil’s second season, that’s what you’re getting. The ep opens with a crew of yakuza assassins in suits and ties zipping through Manhattan on motorcycles. Sure, they lack the Kato masks of the Crazy 88, and the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s “Date With the Night” provides the soundtrack instead of Al Hirt’s “Green Hornet” theme, but I mean, c’mon. Then there’s the first of two different fights in which Daredevil and Elektra wind up silhouetted against some kind of strikingly lit backdrop and/or behind some strikingly lit screen. “Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves,” baby!
Amazingly, Daredevil has joined Mad Men, The Affair, and Outlander in the pantheon of television shows that accurately convey the feeling of what my friend and favorite cultural critic Alyssa Rosenberg once described as “fuck fever”—an all-consuming lust so strong an actual human connection forms around it. Watching young Matt and Elektra together, or hearing them jokingly describe a future when they’re married with children whom they blow off in order to “spend our time doing better things…like sex,” you can see how sex really is enough fuel to sustain a relationship, even a serious one—at least until Elektra’s sociopathy intervenes and brings Matt to the brink of killing someone.
Okay, so maybe it’s overstepping to name this review after both the subject of the greatest Mad Men Don Draper pitch of all time and the title of the episode it came in. Entire books have been written on that series using the Carousel—Kodak’s slide-projector product and Don’s speech’s central metaphor for the mental time-travel loop of nostalgia—as an emblem. But consider the alternatives: I could have gone with “Drill, Baby, Drill!” or “Face-Off.” You’re welcome!
Put the ultraviolence aside, though, provided the images aren’t lodged in your brain. What makes “Penny and Dime,” the fourth and best episode of Daredevil’s excellent second season so far, so effective really is Draperesque. What is Frank Castle, after all, but a tall dark and handsome antihero with a shadowy past, hypercompetent at his job but discovering this cannot compensate for the happy family he’s been denied? And what is the Central Park Carousel but a larger version of the slideshow Don uses to remind himself of the people he loves, and the poor job he’s done at loving them?
The most compelling thing about Daredevil and Punisher’s rooftop heart-to-heart is what doesn’t get said. As many critics have noted, their argument centers on the relative lethality of their respective brands of vigilante justice: The Punisher kills, Daredevil doesn’t. Anywhere outside a superhero story, this is a pretty thin reed on which to hang a system of morality, since Daredevil routinely beats the living shit out of people, and tortures someone for information at least as often as Sarah Koenig posts new episodes of Serial Season Two. No matter how much Matt waxes eloquent about hope and redemption, forces that Frank snuffs out when he takes life, isn’t this a ridiculous, hair-splitting argument to have with a masked man who hurts people in the name of helping people?
Well, yes, it is — and just as it always has, the show knows this. “I don’t do this to hurt people,” Matt tells Frank, who responds with skepticism: “Yeah, so what is that, just a job perk?” “I don’t kill anyone.” “Is that why you think you’re better than me?” Frank presses. “No.” “Is that why you think you’re a big hero?” “It doesn’t matter what I think or what I am,” Matt insists “Is that a fact?” When pushed on the question of whether beating people is heroic, Matt simply refuses to answer. It’s just like when instead of telling Wilson Fisk that yes, one man really could change the system, he simply knocked the dude out. Daredevil the show knows that Daredevil the heroic figure is a mess of contradictions and impossibilities, and to its credit it never shies away from this, nor offers a half-assed explanation or excuse. It goes out of its way to point this out repeatedly, both in dialogue scenes like this one, and in its use of violence, which is uniformly ugly rather than antiseptically thrilling. Like Game of Thrones, it brings to the audience’s attention the brutality that genre pieces of its ilk usually would like you to forget, and like Game of Thrones it gets lambasted under the assumption that depiction equals exploitation, if not endorsement. But it’s the only superhero show I can think of that asks us to think about what happens when people hit people to stop them hitting back.
They call him the Punisher, and he’s got the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe in his crosshairs.
Don’t get me wrong: In “Dogs to a Gunfight,” the second episode ofDaredevil’s second season, the vigilante’s victims are still primarily career criminals, with the consciences of less lethal extralegal do-gooders like Matt Mudock (Charlie Cox) and company serving as collateral damage. But a character like the Punisher (Jon Bernthal) doesn’t just challenge the acceptable bounds of superhero violence and morality — he threatens the structural integrity of the shared superhero universe itself.
Fictional worlds like the MCU thrive on the idea that its characters can meet, team up, and/or fight, whether those crossovers are theoretical or actual. But in general — particularly in the comics, where massive “event” crossovers, however common, are still dwarfed in number by the month-to-month sagas of individual series — every hero stays in their own backyard, dealing with their own stable of villains, many of whom just so happen to be mass murderers. The Punisher, a mass murderer of murderers, upsets the applecart. With this guy floating around, why are the Green Goblins and the Wilson Fisks, the Jokers and the Lex Luthors, still alive and kicking? Wouldn’t he make tracking them down and taking them out a priority? Wouldn’t that force the other heroes to defend their worst enemies, vicious killers all — or reveal those heroes as choke artists, whose precious but deeply weird morality (punching people into unconsciousness or dangling them off rooftops for information is fine, killing mass murderers in the midst of a firefight is beyond the pale) is a meaningless, if not outrightly deceptive, fig leaf over the choice to let monsters roam free for the sake of further adventures?
This, even more than the violence he perpetrates, is what makes the Punisher such a fearsome figure. Superhero comics have numerous cracks in their suspension-of-disbelief bridges upon which it is ill-advised to lean too heavily: mutants, for example, have served as inspiring and empathetic audience-identification figures for generations of outcast groups — black, Jewish, queer, disabled, merely geeky, you name it — by fighting to protect both themselves and the world that hates and fears them. But none of the aforementioned groups can shoot laserbeams from their eyeballs, you know? There’s a reasonthe people of the Marvel Universe hate and fear mutants: They’re dangerous as fuck! This makes their appeal as a metaphor for civil rights or what have you more emotional than intellectual. We simply agree to look past that, the same way (say) we accept that a superheroic society in which gods and ghosts and sorcerers supreme routinely roam around in city streets is fundamentally the same as our own, in which the existence of the supernatural remains resolutely unverifiable. The Punisher, then, is a one-man distillation of a similar faultline in the superhero-universe metafiction, a perplexingly undeployed human drone strike against the countless metahuman Bin Ladens whom the Avengers or the Justice League allow to roam free. In his way he’s as threatening to the fabric of superhero-universe reality as a Lovecraftian god or Lynchian demon is to ours. He should not be, yet there he is.
Time to give the ’devil his due: Season One of the Marvel/Netflix Daredevilseries was the best live-action superhero adaptation since Tim Burton’s firstBatman movie in 1989. In Charlie Cox, Deborah Ann Woll, Rosario Dawson, Vondie Curtis Hall, Vincent D’Onofrio, Ayelet Zurer, Toby Leonard Moore, and (eventually) Elden Henson, it boasted the strongest cast of any Marvel project; The company’s actors are virtually always charismatic, but rarely are they called on to deliver the shading and subtlety these people were capable of. D’Onofrio in particular just slew it as Wilson Fisk, his pause-laden pressured speech and overgrown-baby bulk as far from a cookie-cutter villain as the genre has ever risked going. The cinematography enhanced the more restrained and refined mood created by the performances, lighting their faces like some DiBlasio-era Rembrandt.
The story, too, zoomed past the traditional good guy vs. bad guy set-up to tell the tale of two surrogate familes formed in the New York City crucible — one centered on Matt Murdock and his crime-fighting alter ego, the other on magnate/philanthropist/crime boss Wilson Fisk. Like any circle of friends, both groups truly cared about the city, and about each other. It’s just that for the latter crew, that love was ultimately selfish, toxic, and lethal. Their conflict was ultimately expressed in fight scenes that featured the finest choreography in any superhero film or TV show ever, hands down. Like all great fight scenes, they made spatial sense, took advantage of their unique environments, and served as physical metaphors for emotional turmoil. Put it all together and you have one of the vanishingly few superhero projects outside of comics that feel, to quote Boogie Nights, like “a real film, Jack.”
So yeah, you could say I’m a fan.
Longtime friend of the blog Elana Levin and her cohost Brett Schenker invited me on their Graphic Policy Radio podcast to discuss the season finale of Jessica Jones, as well as the whole season itself. It was contentious and fun. (Spoiler Alert: I’m Officer Simpson’s Bad Fan.) Give it a listen!