Posts Tagged ‘Marvel’

Netflix Turned a Creative Corner In 2017 With Originals Like ‘Dark,’ ‘Suburra’ and ‘The Punisher’

January 2, 2018

Call it the Lilyhammer of the Gods.

In February 2012, Netflix established its creative model right out of the gate. Its first original show, Lilyhammer, starred “Little” Steven Van Zant, fresh from playing a mobster on The Sopranos…as a mobster, albeit one who’s relocated to Norway for witness-protection purposes.

The road from Lilyhammer‘s quirky Sopranos rehash to Stranger Things‘ unabashed theft from ’80s pop-culture staples is not a particularly long one. All that changed was the company’s self-identification as a creator of original content rather than an online video store, and its subsequent accumulation of user data and development of a predictive algorithm to deliver the goods.

Many of the network’s original series —”original” being a relative term— speak to this desire to please the crowd with things that have already pleased them. Why have only one off-beat comedy about the mildly crazy lives of young people set in New York (Master of None), for example, when you can also have one in Chicago (Easy) and Los Angeles (Love) as well? It’s too bad Donald Glover titled his show Atlanta and took it to FX, or else I’m sure Netflix would have something on the docket for that youth-culture mecca as well. In a more traditional move, reboots are common, from the campy (Fuller House) to the acclaimed (One Day at a Time). And that little row of Netflix Original rectangles contains enough grim-visaged cops, crooks, and killers to look like a photo array you’d use to identify suspects in the world’s most focus-grouped crime.

Which is what makes shows like DarkThe Punisher, and Suburra: Blood on Rome stand out. From the outside, these 2017 debuts seem like status-quo programming. But each veered of the course they could have cruised down effortlessly, taking creative risks that yielded entertaining and provocative results.

Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, the third time it’s enemy action: Over at Decider I wrote about the possibility that Dark, The Punisher, and Suburra represent a creative turning point for Netflix, in which the sheer volume of material the network puts out is now enabling some shows to complicate and interrogate their genre elements rather than serving them up straight.

The 10 Best Musical TV Moments of 2017

December 20, 2017

2. The Young Pope: “Sexy and I Know It” by LMFAO

“Sexy and I Know It” is Paolo Sorrentino’s ambitious, emotional, confrontational series about an autocratic American-born pope in miniature. Granted, using LMFAO to represent your drama about faith, loneliness, power, corruption, and lies is a bit counterintuitive compared to, say, summing up Twin Peaks with a song from the Twin Peaks score. That’s the joke, in part: It’s very stupid, and therefore very funny, to watch the Holy Father dress up for his first address to the College of the Cardinals while Redfoo drawls about wearing a Speedo at the beach so he can work on his ass tan. Girl, look at that body … of Christ?!

But like so much of The Young Pope, there’s a much deeper and more serious meaning beneath the craziness and camp. To wit, the brand of tyrannical, uncompromising religion the pontiff formerly known as Lenny Belardo (Jude Law) embraces depends on craziness and camp. Look at the obscene decadence of his subsequent entrance to the Sistine Chapel, borne on a litter like an emperor of old. Listen to his megalomaniacal speech, demanding that the Church remake itself in his bizarre and imperious image. Watch how he demands his followers demonstrate their obedience by literally kissing his feet. It’s a contrast to the self-aware silliness of “Sexy and I Know It,” yes, but it’s a contrast achieved by taking that song’s boasts as deadly serious claims to superiority. He’s got passion in his pants and he ain’t afraid to show it. Spiritually speaking, anyway.

I wrote about the 10 best music cues on TV this year for Vulture. As is always the case with lists of this nature when I write them, it is objectively right and I shall brook no dissent.

“The Punisher” thoughts, Season One, Episode Thirteen: “Memento Mori”

December 1, 2017

There’s really only one thing I want to talk about where the season finale of The Punisher is concerned:

“You know, long as I was at war, y’know, I never thought about, uh, what would happen next, what I was gonna do when it was over. But I guess that’s it, y’know. I think that might be the hardest part: the silence. The silence when the gunfire ends. How do…how do you live in that? I guess…I guess that’s what you’re trying to figure out, huh? It’s what you guys are doing. You’re working on it. I respect that. I just…Um, if you’re gonna look at yourself, really look in the mirror, you gotta…yeah, you gotta admit who you are. But not just to yourself — you gotta admit it to everybody else. First time, as long as I can remember, I don’t have a war to fight. And I guess if I’m gonna be honest, I just…I’m scared.”

These remarkable words end the onscreen saga of Marvel’s most brutal antihero, a cold-blooded killer of Bad Guys whose logo has become literally emblematic of men, many of whom have been trained and authorized by the state to pursue a career in fully sanctioned bad-guy killing at home or abroad. They cut that whole dark myth off at the knees. More than that, they stand as a rebuke to the whole superhero genre, which as inspiring and uplifting as it can be nevertheless boils down to the idea that extrajudicial violence can put the world to rights. Here’s a superhero who wields that violence more effectively and remorselessly than any other — indeed, his proficiency in that violence is his sole superpower. And the message his show wants to leave us with about him? The note it chooses to end on? He kills because he’s scared not to.

I really can’t say enough about how stunning the final words of “Memento Mori,” The Punisher’s Season One finale, were to me when they slipped out of Frank’s mouth just before that last cut to black. There’s not a single live-action superhero adaptation I can think of that comes anywhere near that level of self-critique, or has anything approaching its courage to question the very wish-fulfillment elements its audience has come to see.

[…]

But that’s the story of The Punisher’s Netflix incarnation: A series that’s much better than it needed to be, could have been, and quite possibly even should have been when you consider the character’s pop culture profile. Its thoughtful approach to potentially fascistic subject matter, its suite of quietly powerful performances, its undercurrent of sexual and romantic tension, and its willingness to hold its protagonist’s feet of clay to the fire make it one of the best superhero adaptations of all time.

I reviewed the season finale of The Punisher for Decider. What a pleasant surprise this show turned out to be.

“The Punisher” thoughts, Season One, Episode Eleven: “Danger Close”

November 28, 2017

When I said in my review of the previous episode that Frank’s hotel battle was the all-out action extravaganza we were waiting for, I now realize I was wrong. It’s not action that a Punisher show promises—it’s punishment. And punishment is what we get. From director Kevin Hook’s eerie establishing shots of his nearly-abandoned headquarters’ empty rooms and corridors through the moment Frank suits up in his skull-emblazoned armor and into the ensuing massacre itself, the show positions Frank as an executioner rather than a soldier.

And he’s starring not in an adventure film but a horror flick. The way Castle dispatches the first few goons one by one, emerging from behind as if he’s a part of the walls themselves that somehow came alive, evokes the slaughter of the Colonial Marines when they enter the hive in Aliens. The industrial-basement setting is obviously a favorite of any number of forgettable genre flicks and shows by now, but when you factor in the gore and sadism you’re not far removed from mid-‘00s torture porn like Saw or Hostel. Meanwhile, Frank’s imposing physical comportment and even some of the music cues (I swear I heard a few Friday the 13th-style “chh chh chh”s) are straight-up slasher stuff, even before you see him walking around with a severed head.

Oh yeah, did I not mention the severed head? Maybe I should have led with that.

Frank Castle may draw on, and parallel, a long tradition of violent macho men famous during the character’s initial flourishing in the ‘80s and ‘90s. But neither John McClane nor John Rambo nor even the Terminator ever severed all the muscles in a man’s legs, allowing him to crawl across the floor leaving a snail trail of blood before finally plugging him in the head. The point is that while Frank’s rampage is thrilling in the sense of getting your blood up, you’ll never mistake it for anything but murder, as prolonged and ugly as it gets.

I reviewed the extremely violent eleventh episode of The Punisher for Decider.

“The Punisher” thoughts, Season One, Episode Ten: “Virtue of the Vicious”

November 26, 2017

“Virtue of the Vicious” is the knock-down drag-out action extravaganza we’ve been waiting for all season. Almost all of our major players — Frank Castle, Billy Russo, Dinah Madani, Karen Page, Lewis Wilson — are concentrated in a high-rise hotel, fighting through explosions, tear gas, and the gunfire of half a dozen different agencies and free agents in kill-or-be-killed scenarios. Secrets are revealed. Antagonists are killed. The Punisher escapes capture using a firehose and a zipline like a homicidal Tarzan. If that’s all the episode did, it would be fun to watch. But to my continued delight, it does much, much more than it has to.

Remarkably, the episode takes a fractured approach to its narrative structure, splitting itself between mutliple, overlapping, sometimes contradictory points of view and bouncing back and forth in time to cover the periods before, during, and after the attack. The effect is part Rashomon, part Lost, and all impressive in its willingness to break the Marvel/Netflix mold by risking confusion on the part of its audience, who could otherwise assume that when the show starts talking about an attack that had already happened, we’d somehow skipped an episode. (I had to double-check myself.) Like Vincent D’Onofrio’s bizarre stop-start vocal cadence for Wilson Fisk, or Tom Hardy’s Falstaffian theatricality as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, anything a live-action superhero adaptation does that’s more than the bare necessary-and-sufficient minimum to convey ideas and images should be celebrated.

I reviewed the hotel-fight episode of The Punisher for Decider. It’s nuts how strong the Frank/Karen – Bernthal/Woll stuff is, by the way.

“The Punisher” thoughts, Season One, Episode Nine: “Front Toward Enemy”

November 26, 2017

“Front Toward Enemy” makes the now-standard Marvel/Netflix move of bringing a secondary antagonist to the forefront of the narrative for a while, something the shows wouldn’t need to do if they had shorter seasons. This particular baddie, wayward young Travis Bickle wannabe Lewis Wilson, is most reminiscent of Jessica Jones’ mad supersoldier Will Simpson, aka Nuke, a veteran turned cop who goes berserk when his puppetmasters pump him full of performance-enhancing drugs. That character was given short shrift by his show, though, which despite all the pains it had taken to show he was a decent person driven to violence by forces out of his control wound up treating him like just another abusive creep. By contrast, no matter how bad Lewis’s crimes get — blowing up government offices, horrifically beating Frank’s friend Curtis before turning him into a human IED, hanging out in a house with the stinking corpse of the man he stabbed to death for days at a time — and no matter how reactionary the ideas he spouts in ranting sic semper tyrannis, give me liberty or give me death letters and phone calls get, he’s always shown as a guy who was broken and thrown away before he became anything else.

I reviewed episode nine of The Punisher, still quite a show, for Decider.

“The Punisher” thoughts, Season One, Episode Eight: “Cold Steel”

November 26, 2017

I have a lot to say about “Cold Steel,” the eighth episode of The Punisher’s first season. That’s because the episode has a lot to say itself. But (deep breath) here’s how I’m going to start: As weird as this feels to write…uh, The Punisher is an incredibly sexy show? Like, it’s sexy in the way that The Americans is sexy — a complex, uncomfortable form of sexiness that’s all the hotter and harder to shake for it.

Sometimes that speaks for itself, like in the shower scene between Dinah and Billy. (I mean, come on.) And once again, there’s careful attention paid to the eroticism of aftermath and afterglow. When Dinah gets dressed out-of-focus afterwards, then leans over to kiss Billy’s battle scar? Ooftah. And before long their intensely intimate half-naked embrace by the bedside gives way, unexpectedly, to Billy’s tale of his rotten childhood in an orphanage, where a “good Samaritan” who played with the kids broke his arm in three places after Billy fought off the man’s attempt to molest him. The man called him “pretty,” a word that clearly triggers his rage when he kills Sam Stein later in the episode, after hearing Stein call him that over a listening device. All the while, of course, Billy is running game on Dinah, making an honest confession of his troubled past as a way to better preserve his cover. From the sex to the deceit to the weaponized truth, it’s straight out of the Elizabeth and Philip Jennings playbook.

Then there’s Frank’s dangerous liaison with Sarah Lieberman, his partner Micro’s “widow.” When he arrives at her house with flowers as a pretext to check up on the malfunctioning camera feed to Micro’s headquarters, it sparks long-dormant feelings of emotional and physical closeness in Sarah. Actor Jaime Ray Newman is every bit as gorgeous as Jon BernthalBen Barnes, and Amber Ray Revah, so yeah, there’s that. But the real heat in her scene with Frank comes not from her looks, or his, but from the sense of growing desire — their inhibitions slipping away with wine, their body language slowly leaning into one another, the way the conversation dances around the issue at hand, the way her ostensibly platonic hug is an obvious pretext for her to work up the nerve to make the first move. When they finally kiss I was fanning myself, folks, not gonna lie. Wooooo, Lord.

There winds up being just as much to say about The Punisher Episode 8′s handling of abuse and trauma as there is about its handling of sex — you can see some of it above already — but sex sells so that’s what I’m using to link you to my review for Decider. As I say in the review, man, what an episode.

“The Punisher” thoughts, Season One, Episode Seven: “Crosshairs”

November 26, 2017

This is frequently the point where Marvel/Netflix shows run out of both story and steam. Both the woefully overrated Jessica Jones and the enjoyable but bloated Luke Cage made the mistake of dispatching their antagonists early (successfully imprisoning the telepathic rapist Kilgrave in episode 9 of the former, killing off the charismatic ganglord Cottonmouth in episode 7 of the latter), forcing them to generate preposterous plot twists (prison breaks, long-lost brothers, etc.) to run out the time for the rest of the season. Daredevil Season 2 did something similar by wrapping up its initial Punisher storyline by episode 4 before introducing secondary antagonist/love interest Elektra and eventually making the inert ninja master Nobu the season’s big bad, but since Castle never fully went away and Elektra was an entertaining substitute in her own right, it weathered things well enough. Of the shows from this corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe I’ve seen (life’s too short for Iron Fist and The Defenders), only the first season of Daredevil felt like it had a beginning, middle, and end that justified its length, rather than the other way around, and honestly even that could have been tightened up.

So I’m pleasantly surprised to see how engaged I remain in the questions and storylines remaining at this point in The Punisher. I fully expected Frank to successfully plug Agent Orange, a la Jessica locking up Kilgrave or Cottonmouth getting beaten to death by his cousin Mariah. But thanks to bulletproof glass, Frank blew it, and now I’m intrigued to see how he and Micro can overcome the obstacle of a target who sees them coming.

My review of The Punisher Episode 7 contains a brief Comparative Marvel/Netflix Studies lesson.

“The Punisher” thoughts, Season One, Episode Six: “The Judas Goat”

November 25, 2017

Frankly depicted basic-cable-explicit sex scenes have been a staple of the Marvel/Netflix shows since Jessica Jones, but I’ll admit to being shocked that this one got through. Aside from nudity on Dinah’s part (you see Billy’s butt later in the scene), there’s basically nothing left to the imagination here, from the movement of their bodies while they have sex and as they de-couple to Russo’s audible post-coital pee in the adjoining bathroom. I appreciate the candor, and the fact that the sex is the start, not the point, of the scene, which is really about the two characters arguing about trust. Sex frequently isn’t the point, but a way for people to get to, or away from, the point. I wish more shows saw it that way.

As for the trust issue, Billy is a pretty convincing liar on that front, waxing outraged that Dinah is investigating his late friend Frank Castle when he knows all along the guy’s alive and is trying to help his master Agent Orange bring him down. As he broaches the topic of Frank first with Dinah, then with his and Frank’s mutual friend Curtis, and finally with Frank himself — who comes out of hiding to meet him — I was actually becoming convinced that I’d read the guy wrong, that he wasn’t an obvious heel turn waiting to happen. That speaks to the strength of the writing and Ben Barnes’s performance (he does a lot with just his eyes and the timbre of his voice) at least as much as to my gullibility, I like to think.

But more so than on many other series, this double-cross makes thematic sense. So much of The Punisher is about catastrophic disillusionment — with the military, the country, life itself. It all feels like one big web of trauma connecting everyone in ways great and small. The episode begins, for example, with Frank’s most horrifying nightmare yet, in which both his family and Micro’s throw a welcome-home dinner party for him, only for masked special-forces goons to burst in, blow David’s brains out, then open fire on the children at point-blank range. Actor Jon Bernthal’s raw terror during this scene, in which he also dreams he’s tied immobile to a chair and can only watch, is reminiscent of Marilyn Burns’s tormented “final girl” Sally Hardesty in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which is a high compliment indeed coming from me. And it drives home the emerging idea that Frank resents David not for leaving his family, but for saving them, when he himself could not.

I reviewed episode 6 of The Punisher for Decider. These three grafs only partially demonstrate the range of the show. How about that?

“The Punisher” thoughts, Season One, Episode Five: “Gunner”

November 25, 2017

Hot sex, brutal violence, lingering trauma, and an unflinching depiction of the United States military-intelligence apparatus as evil. Maybe comic-book shows aren’t just for kids anymore!  “Gunner,” the fifth episode of The Punisher’s first season, is yet another strong installment, combining the visceral pulp thrills of the action genre with one of the most strident critiques of American power on TV this side of The Americans or Mr. Robot. What’s more, veteran Irish director Dearbhla Walsh (late of Fargo’s amazing and underrated third season) makes it all look good, in settings and situations varied enough for it to almost feel like showing off.

I reviewed episode 5 of The Punisher, a show that has quickly settled into “this show does a lot of things very well” mode, for Decider.

“The Punisher” thoughts, Season One, Episode Four: “Resupply”

November 25, 2017

“I don’t give a shit about the NYPD.” “When they first started Homeland, they wanted native speakers — Farsi, Pashtun, Arabic. The thinking was simple: Use the enemy to catch the enemy.” “You gonna give me a job mopping floors? Emptying trash? Is that ‘making good on the investment my country made in me?’ You’re just another liar in command.” These quotes, from three separate characters with very different motivations, sum up The Punisher’s take on cops, the surveillance state, the military, and mercenaries. Wild, huh? Marvel’s Blue Lives Matter/Take a Knee My Ass this ain’t, as “Resupply,” the series’ fourth episode, makes plain.

I reviewed episode 4 of The Punisher for Decider. This show is a real surprise.

“The Punisher” thoughts, Season One, Episode Three: “Kandahar”

November 25, 2017

Even when he’s not extrajudicially executing people, Frank’s actions are horrifying. The episode brings this home with a sequence that subverts the now-trademark feature of every Marvel/Netflix show, the hallway fight. Pinned down by enemies who deliberately set a trap for his infamously lethal unit (known in-country as “the American Taliban”), Frank launches a berserker attack against the building where the bulk of their opponents are holed up. What follows is the close-quarters combat you’ve come to expect, but in an entirely different format and tone. There’s no long take, no continuity of space and time — everything is jittery, choppy, and disorienting. Jump cuts skip past several seconds of action, as muzzle flashes toss us from one shot or enemy to the next. Incongruous fades stretch out time without actually marking its passage, as they do in traditional cinematic grammar. The music isn’t some hard-charging rock or hip-hop song, nor the usual ominous electronic burble, but “Wish It Was True” by the White Buffalo, a plaintive piece of what sounds like earnest country-grunge Americana until you listen to the lyrics: “Country, I was a soldier for you, did what you asked me to, it was wrong and you knew…the home of the brave and the free, the red white and blue — well, I wish it was true.” The music swells as Frank ends the sequence by bashing an already dead man’s skull in for what feels like half a minute, blood covering his face. It’s an unpleasant sequence, saying unpleasant things about the Punisher, the war, and their intersection in the public imagination, and using the street-level superhero genre’s own tools to do so.

I reviewed episode 3 of The Punisher, which by this point is revealing itself to be a very sharp show.

“The Punisher” thoughts, Season One, Episode Two: “Two Dead Men”

November 25, 2017

On a more frivolous note: Like most Marvel projects, even the middling ones, The Punisher gets far on sheer chemistry between its likeable, attractive actors. (Seriously: Take a quick dip in superhero-movie-fandom tumblr and you’ll see press-junket and behind-the-scenes gifsets aplenty which prove that the most important act of rebranding DC did with Justice League wasn’t lightening things up onscreen, but casting people — like Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Gal Gadot, and Amber Heard — who seem fun to be around, and who have fun around each other.) First in the scene where Frank meets up with his old ally Karen Page, then during Agent Madani’s dive-bar date with Castle’s former platoon mate Billy Russo, the physical connection between actors Jon Bernthal & Deborah Ann Woll and Ben Barnes & Amber Rose Revah respectively is just deeply pleasurable to watch. This has been true over and over across the Netflix end of the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Woll and Charlie Cox on Daredevil, Krysten Ritter and Mike Colter on Jessica Jones, Colter and Rosario Dawson on Luke Cage, and so on. But hell, turning superheroes into people you’d love to flirt with when you’re out together with friends some night, then waltz home tipsily daydreaming about the way their fingers held their glass, has been Marvel’s primary, and perhaps sole, innovation for the genre at least as far back as Kat Dennings freaking out about how hot Chris Hemsworth is in the first Thor flick.

I reviewed episode 2 of The Punisher for Decider.

“The Punisher” thoughts, Season One, Episode One: “3 A.M.”

November 25, 2017

The most chilling moment in the series premiere of The Punisher has nothing to do with the vigilante of the title. Nor does the show’s most searing, if subtle, condemnation of violence. They’re both found in a quiet conversation between his assumed-name alter ego “Pete Castiglione” and Donny Chavez (Luca De Oliveira), a young co-worker at the construction site where the former Frank Castle takes out his frustrations on the masonry day after day, hour after hour. Noticing Frank’s battle scars, Donny manages to elicit from the quiet man that he’d been in the Marines. So had Donny’s dad, says the younger man, a fact that made him something close to a superhero in his eyes. Donny goes on to explain that his father did three tours — two in Iraq, one in Afghanistan — before returning home to be killed alongside his mother during a drive home one night. “I was twelve,” he says. The war that had been going on long enough for his late father to complete three tours of duty by the time Donny was in the sixth grade is still going on today. As with Frank Castle’s bloody crusade, there’s no end in sight.

Written by showrunner and Hannibal veteran Steve Lightfoot and directed by Tom Shankman, “3 A.M.,” The Punisher’s debut episode, gets this latest Marvel/Netflix drama off to a thoughtful and compelling start by taking direct aim at the character’s most controversial aspect, his status as an emblem of redemptive violence, often embraced by agents of the state ostensibly tasked with protecting life rather than ending it,  and firing away. I won’t say there’s no way to look at the episode as a glorification of rough justice and misunderstood heroism — people have been misinterpreting the character in exactly that way for decades now, and there are no shortage of other shows since The Sopranos birthed the age of the anti-hero whose viewers have gotten things bass-ackwards — but if that’s the road you wanna go down, you’re gonna have an uphill battle.

I’m playing catch-up on linking to my work thanks to the busy holiday week, but I’m covering The Punisher for Decider, beginning with this review of the premiere. This show has been an unexpected pleasure to write about.

‘The Punisher’: Everything You Need to Know About Marvel’s Vigilante Antihero

October 4, 2017

Punisher comics have gotten pretty weird over the years
We know what you’re thinking: Gun-toting combat veteran goes kill-crazy against criminals after they murder his family – this concept is pure meat-and-potatoes street-level stuff, right? But we’re talking about superhero comics, folks. After a few decades of near-continuous publication, pretty much every character gets pushed out of his or her comfort zone, and our the Punisher is no exception.

Among his strangest adventures? The Punisher: Purgatory (1998-99), in which the then-dead vigilante was revived to serve as an angelic demon-slayer. The similarly supernatural FrankenCastle arrived a decade later; this knowingly screwball storyline saw the antihero, who had been killed once again, brought back as a Frankenstein-like monster, fighting alongside horror-tinged characters like Morbius the Living Vampire and Man-Thing. (In a word: No.) In 2012, the character got a sci-fi makeover in Space: Punisher – which featured, yes, the Punisher in space, punishing aliens and whatnot.

Years before his character-defining run on the character, Garth Ennis wrote the one-shot Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe, which pretty much does what it says on the tin. The 1995 special chronicles a short, bloody alternate timeline in which Castle’s family gets killed in the crossfire of an X-Men/Avengers battle, leading him to slaughter every single superhero and supervillain in the company’s catalog. He eventually turns the gun on himself. But for sheer WTF-itude, nothing beats 1994’s Archie Meets the Punisher, a crossover between Marvel’s bloodiest antihero and Betty, Veronica, Jughead and the rest of the Riverdale gang. Sure, it’s just a footnote in Punisherology, but crazy stunts like this are exactly what brought Archie back to pop-culture prominence over two decades later. A crossover between the Netflix Punisher show and Riverdale doesn’t sound completely out of the question now, does it?

In anticipation of the upcoming Netflix/Jon Bernthal series, I wrote a guide to the Punisher’s many multimedia incarnations for Rolling Stone. One thing this reminded me is that the showrunner is Steve Lightfoot, who was the Ed Burns to Bryan Fuller’s David Simon on Hannibal. That bodes well.

“Legion” thoughts, Season One, Episode Eight

April 5, 2017

“Don’t be afraid to care,” advises the Pink Floyd singer-guitarist David Gilmour in the prog-rock titans’ dreamy anthem “Breathe.” It’s a signature track on “The Dark Side of the Moon,” the perpetually best-selling concept album about modern life and mental illness that has soundtracked many a dorm-room bull session and chemically enhanced “Wizard of Oz” screening.

And given the propensity of “Legion” to make subtext text, I probably shouldn’t have been so surprised that the show would use this jaw-droppingly literal music cue for a pivotal scene in its season finale. Why not use a song with the lyric “All you touch and all you see is all your life will ever be” for an astral-plane confrontation in which David Haller’s life literally flashes before his eyes? Why not mesh the lyrics’ fatalistic take on the inescapable nature of death with a sequence in which David discovers how lethal it would be to free himself from the grasp of his nemesis, the Shadow King? Why not cap off a show renowned for its surreal, spacey visuals and structure with a song that comes pre-loaded with four and a half decades of psychedelic nostalgia?

The answer is right there in Gilmour’s line “Don’t be afraid to care.” Creator Noah Hawley and company crafted a show that stood out against its drab and unadventurous superhero peers, to be sure, and maybe that’s good enough. But it could have been great with a little more willingness to avoid the obvious, to go for magic rather than parlor tricks, to not use one of the most famously trippy songs in the history of rock ’n’ roll to tell the audience, “Wow, man — trippy, isn’t it?” A little more care is exactly what this episode, and the show in general, really needed.

I reviewed the season finale of Legion for the New York Times last week. I didn’t like the finale, or the season. I’ve seen semi-convincing arguments that the show is enjoyable when looked at as a silly fun superhero show with some unusual visual flair, but as that’s neither how it was sold nor, quite clearly, what its creators intended it to be, they must remain only semi-convincing.

They Are ‘Legion’: Tracking the Superhero Show’s Key Horror References

March 30, 2017

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While Lynch gets the “Legion”-related headlines, another director named David seems to have left an even deeper mark. That would be David Cronenberg, who made a name for himself with a series of body-horror films that depicted the disturbing interplay between mind and matter, often with a conspiratorial backdrop of sinister secret agencies or killer corporations out to harness psychic power for their own ends.

“Legion” paints in shades of Cronenberg’s “Videodrome,” with its pulsating inanimate objects; “Shivers,” with its parasite imagery; “The Brood,” with its story of a powerful telepath under the care of a manipulative therapist (played by Oliver Reed, who may have lent both his name and his machismo to the guru figure Oliver Bird); and most especially “Scanners,” with its all-out war between rival psychic factions and a protagonist who’s telepathically tormented by the voices in his head. (“Scanners” also features a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance from a very familiar-looking deep sea diver suit).

I wrote about David Cronenberg, David Lynch, and Legion’s other major horror influences for the New York Times. I have my beefs with Legion, but it’s porting its horror references into a whole different genre, as opposed to Stranger Things, which is just reheating them in the microwave and trying to pass of leftovers as a fresh-cooked dish.

“Legion” thoughts, Season One, Episode Seven

March 24, 2017

Fortunately for David, diagnosis is nine-tenths of the cure. Now that he knows the source of his sickness, he’s able to shake it off and break through the barriers of his mind. With a little help from his mutant friends, he shuts down the hospital hallucination they’ve all been experiencing, seizes control of his own body, subdues the Shadow King, stops the bullets fired at him and Syd mid-flight and lives to fight government mutant-hunters another day. Simple, really!

No, seriously. The real secret of “Legion” is that it is a simple story, when all is said and done. Unlike, say, “Westworld,” none of the show’s countless Easter eggs, deliberate details and plot-twist trickery are essential to understanding the story. They’re aesthetic elements, not narrative ones; they exist not to convert the show into a puzzle-box but to make it an objet d’art, successfully or not. The simplicity of David’s origin and of his nemesis, as revealed in this episode, should make that clear. (Even a passing knowledge of the Marvel comics upon which the show is based — in which the writer Chris Claremont established the founder of the X-Men, Professor Charles Xavier, as David’s father and cocreated Farouk as one of their most powerful enemies — would have made it clear to a sizable chunk of the audience already.)

But while this simplicity allows “Legion” to cut through the Gordian knot of needlessly byzantine plotting that has plagued other genre shows of recent vintage, the blade is double-edged. Lacking narrative necessity, the show’s stylistic flourishes are free to sink or swim on their own. By that standard, they too often hit bottom.

The climax of tonight’s episode is a case in point. It’s an all-roads-converge kind of deal, in which Syd and Kerry’s battle with Farouk’s alter ego Lenny in the hospital simulation; Cary, Melanie and Oliver’s struggle to shield Syd’s and David’s bodies from the bullets in the time-frozen real world; and David’s attempt to psychically shatter the doors of his mind-prison all sync up successfully at the last second, saving their skins and stopping the bad guys simultaneously.

But all that action should be enough to stand on its own without the cutesy context the filmmakers provide. What is gained by having the fight play out like a silent movie, shot in black and white with dialogue printed as intertitles and Lenny gussied up in Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp meets Johnny Depp’s Edward Scissorhands drag? Why is the musical accompaniment an EDM version of Ravel’s “Boléro”? Irony has its place in the frequently too portentous superhero subgenre, but here it undercuts the tension and terror without providing much compensatory value.

I reviewed this week’s penultimate episode of Legion for the New York Times. This show isn’t the worst thing on TV or anything like that, but at this point I am truly stunned that anyone thinks it’s great and am starting to mistrust critics who allege that it is.

“Legion” thoughts, Season One, Episode Six

March 20, 2017

Yet for all its intelligent design, the episode still feels as stuck in limbo as its characters. At no point are we in any doubt as to the nature of the situation: The devil with the yellow eyes has used David’s telepathic brain to construct a mental prison for him and his friends. We know they’re not crazy. We know their therapist is really their captor. We know the asylum in which they’ve been stowed is a simulacrum of the one David escaped in the pilot. We even know some of the dialogue they’re speaking, since it’s a deliberate repeat from scenes in that first episode. The only mystery is how they’ll break free, and since there are two episodes to go, that they will break free is a given. So it doesn’t take long for the novelty to wear off — and for the same weightless unreality that a dimly cognizant Syd complains to Dr. Busker about to begin taking hold of the viewer as well. Given the momentum the show had built as David gained control of his powers and then had them violently seized by his nemesis, devoting a full episode to this sense of stasis is a real shame.

It could be worse, however, at least if the ways in which the show really cuts loose in this episode are any indication. In a gravely miscalculated musical interlude, the devil-Lenny cavorts around David’s memories in a leotard and fishnets to the tune of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good.” The song’s recent fate as a weight-loss jingle was bad enough, but to see it reduced to the soundtrack for a psychic parasite’s bump-and-grind — occasionally shot in silhouette against monochromatic red, like a James Bond title sequence — is somehow even more dispiriting, doubly so given the showrunner Noah Hawley’s impeccable use of found music in his other FX vehicle, “Fargo.” Like the easy allegory of the entire asylum-limbo story line, it’s a case of infatuation with form impeding function.

I reviewed last week’s Legion for the New York Times. More on this show soon.