Posts Tagged ‘Marvel’
“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.
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.
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.
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.
Like the personalities inside the mind of David Haller, the superhero and horror genres coexist in a way that’s difficult to untangle. Superman, the ur-superhero invented by the Jewish-American creative team of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, has often been linked by scholars (though never by Siegel and Shuster themselves) to the myth of the golem. (“Frankenstein” author Mary Shelley is said to have been inspired by golem as well, although she never said so herself.) The mild-mannered scientist Bruce Banner turns into a raging behemoth as the Incredible Hulk, an echo of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Some heroes have powers that are outright demonic in nature, from Etrigan the Demon to the flaming-skull cyclist, Ghost Rider. “Blade,” the 1998 film about a vampiric hunter of the undead was the key precursor to the modern era of superheroic pop-culture hegemony.
And we haven’t even begun counting the villains, a rogues’ gallery of grotesques who evoke virtually every monster and murderer from myths and movies alike. None, of course, is more prominent than the Joker, Batman’s arch-nemesis, whose permanent grin was drawn directly from the expressionist silent horror film “The Man Who Laughs.”
In other words, the swashbuckling and world-saving are nice and all, but sometimes a good superhero story just wants to scare the pants off you.
The director Larysa Kondracki knows how to open an episode of television. On “Fifi,” the stellar late-season episode of “Better Call Saul” she helmed last year, she started of with a continuous shot of a smuggler’s truck weaving its way across the border that lasted over four minutes. This was just the start of a tour-de-force hour, in which Kondracki framed actor Rhea Seehorn’s starry-eyed attorney Kim Wexler like an ecstatic saint and Jonathan Banks’s sad-eyed killer Mike Ehrmantraut like the subject of a chiaroscuro portrait by a Dutch master. She seemed to intuit and internalize the already impressive visual palette established by showrunners Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, then surpass it.
In that respect, lightning just struck twice. On this week’s episode of “Legion,” Kondracki used her considerable talents to fulfill the promise of creator Noah Hawley’s iconoclastic but inconsistent pilot episode and its subsequent installments. Funnily enough, she did so with another multiminute opening shot. But instead of a swooping drone-cam drive-along with a drug-runner’s 18-wheeler, it was a woozy in-and-out close-up of a paunchy middle-aged mutant in a leisure suit, staring into the camera and breaking the fourth wall.
The mutant in question is Oliver Bird (Jemaine Clement, half of the folk-comedy duo Flight of the Conchords), the comatose husband of the mutant underground leader, Melanie (Jean Smart). Looking right into our eyes, he stumbles his way through a monologue about the two kinds of stories parents tell their children: fairy tales designed to uplift them with empathy, and cautionary tales meant to cow them with fear. “Good evening,” he says. “We are here tonight to talk about violence, or maybe human nature … ” He then backtracks. “We are here to talk about human nature.” Later, he overrules himself. “We are the root of all our problems,” he says, adding loftily, “Violence, in other words, is ignorance.” He then promises a five-act play (there are five episodes of “Legion” remaining) in which our hero, David Haller, will discover just what kind of story he’s in.
Whether it’s Oliver’s very ’70s leisure suit, his direct address to the audience, or an overall sense that suddenly this show, y’know, knows what it’s doing, this episode is the first time “Legion” has felt in the same league as the magisterial second season of Hawley’s “Fargo.” That period-piece gang-war epic was television at its most cinematic, a blend of operatically high dramatic stakes and equally operatic visual and sonic spectacle. In this case, the throwback references — jazz and the Kinks on the soundtrack, antiquated vinyl and reel-to-reel playback technology depicted with fetishistic reverence — are just the tip of the iceberg. (Semi-literally, given the frozen purgatory in which Oliver and David find themselves imprisoned.) Now, with Kondracki’s steady hand at the tiller, Hawley’s new series finally feels as substantial and assured as its predecessor.
I reviewed last night’s Legion for the New York Times. Kondracki’s a hell of a talent. She makes it look not just easy but logical.
The biggest tell in this week’s episode of “Legion” isn’t a line of dialogue or a plot development: It’s a window. Specifically, it’s a circular windowpane crisscrossed with an X — the X-Men logo familiar to any superhero fan. During a pivotal conversation between David Haller and his mutant minders, in which he asserts his will to plow forward with his mental training in order to find his kidnapped sister, the window frames his head like a halo, his face directly in front of the spot where the diagonal lines meet. We may never get a more tangible connection between “Legion” and the (sorry) legion of Marvel mutant movies that has led to the impending release of “Logan,” the sad-old-man swan song for the X-Men’s breakout character, Wolverine.
But this single Easter egg serves as a symbol for the whole episode, which sees David take charge of his “treatment” and force his new mutant family to burrow deep into his brain in order to unearth his buried memories — and, they hope, rescue his sister from the evil mutants who have captured and tortured her. After two scatterbrained episodes in which the show simultaneously attempted to establish its ostentatious visual aesthetic and its overcomplicated space-time-contiuum-shifting story line, the show now seems ready to get on with the business of making this superhuman a superhero.
I reviewed last week’s Legion for the New York Times. A step in the right direction. That said, the work Larysa Kondracki does directing this coming Wednesday’s episode makes it the show people said it was from the beginning. Hoo boy, just you wait.
“And so we ran on, into Summerland, and the place they said did not exist. And all the while, wolves were at our heels. Black masks, boots, and the one they call the Eye. We had come to do the work that must be done. To strip ourselves of the fog of the Life Before.” The second episode of “Legion” opens less with narration than with an incantation — prose calculated to conjure up a sense of wonder and terror straight out of a Galadriel speech in “The Lord of the Rings.”
To a limited degree, the show is capable of wonder and terror alike. Thanks in large part to the quiet and confident performances of Jean Smart and Jeremie Harris as Melanie Bird and Ptonomy Wallace, David Haller’s sojourn in the mutant refuge called Summerland does have that adept-in-training vibe vital to the origin stories of so many heroes, from Bruce Wayne to Arya Stark. And the continued presence of “the devil with the yellow eyes,” the corpulent demon who growls and grins at the periphery of the narrative, indicates that this is a series that could scare the pants off us if it so desired.
Yet there’s something that feels gimmicky, even chintzy, about the show’s manipulation of space, time, audio and video — the very stylistic innovations that seemed to set it apart from the superhero pack.
A quick cut during a flashback to one of David’s therapy sessions, for example, seems at first like just a way to represent his jitteriness. But later in the episode we learn it’s “real” — an actual glitch in his memory, a time jump created by his brain to hide something disturbing. We’re meant to get a little intellectual jolt out of this — “Ohhh, so that’s what that was!” — and we do … but it’s ultimately as insubstantial as a sugar rush.
I reviewed the second episode of Legion for the New York Times. It’s early and I’m in the liking-things business so I’m ready to be wrong about this, but this doesn’t feel like a terribly promising show to me at this point.
Take one of Hollywood’s most lucrative franchises. Combine it with one of the breakout auteurs of the Peak TV era. Drop it in the middle of a very crowded, yet largely undistinguished, field of competitors. “Legion,” the stylistically bold new X-Men spinoff from the “Fargo” showrunner, Noah Hawley, is designed to cause a sensation. Given the superhero genre’s odd combination of cultural omnipresence and cinematic anemia, it’s hard for it not to.
For all their reliance on feats of derring-do, superhero films and TV shows are, creatively speaking, a risk-averse lot. Since director Bryan Singer’s first “X-Men” film inaugurated the genre’s pop-culture hegemony nearly 17 years ago, precious little variety in tone or technique has been permitted by the major spandex factories.
Marvel, home of The Avengers, relies on a house style that coasts on the charisma of its attractive casts but has all the visual and sonic flair of an ibuprofen commercial. Its rival, DC, switched from making sometimes dull movies for smart teenagers (Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy) to often dull movies for dumb ones (Zack Snyder’s Superman/Batman films and the egregious “Suicide Squad”). On television, “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” and especially producer Greg Berlanti’s various DC properties have some zip, but no more genuine ambition than a syndicated ’90s action series. Marvel’s Netflix series are a step in the right direction. “Daredevil,” “Jessica Jones” and “Luke Cage” take relative risks with their moody visual palettes and their pairings of strong leads with idiosyncratic enemies who function like coprotagonists.
So there’s some precedent for “Legion,” the new superhero-ish series tangentially tied to the X-Men franchise from the writer, director and showrunner Noah Hawley. But for its true antecedents you have to search further back in the superhero timeline, to Lorenzo Semple Jr.’s stylish and self-aware “Batman” series from the late ‘60s. Or you could simply look at Hawley’s previous act of televised alchemy: “Fargo,” an anthology series in which the Coen Brothers’ Midwestern-noir classic is used as a springboard for a bold, bloody, often beautiful homage to their entire oeuvre. Perhaps in a desire to transform Hawley into an auteur-impresario in the style of Ryan Murphy or Louis C.K., FX, their shared network, tapped him to guide their all-important first foray into pop culture’s most lucrative zone.
In “Legion,” Hawley takes pages from his own “Fargo” playbook. The ostentatious use of classic rock on the soundtrack, scene and spatial transitions that call attention to themselves with graphic design or camera trickery, the sense (borrowed from the Coens) that reality is a sheet of thin ice that could crack and immerse you in the chaos beneath at any moment. It’s as fearless a creative statement as the genre has seen since Tim Burton’s original “Batman” movie in 1989. Whether it’s successful is yet to be decided.
I reviewed last week’s premiere of Legion for the New York Times, where I’ll be covering the show all season. Visually and tonally it was sharp; script-wise it was creaky as heck.
“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.