Posts Tagged ‘Marvel’
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!
Given the depth and power both the writing and Ritter brought to the material involving trauma, which remained the series’ strongest point throughout the run, it’s tremendous shame it didn’t extend to other areas of the show. This is especially the case for Tennant and Kilgrave, whose constant, transparent evil lets real abusers, able to hide or temper it, off the hook: “See, we’re not like that!” That the show is dealing with a difficult and horrifically underrepresented subject ought to obligate it to do better than “good enough”; recognition alone is the start of a conversation and the bare minimum of merit, not the be-all and end-all. While nothing here was offensive or insulting, nor was anything inspired or inspiring. Considering the potential, that’s a crime. Case closed.
I reviewed the season finale of Jessica Jones for Decider. This was a very frustrating, disappointing series.
Here, I suppose, is where we’ve got to grapple with the most unsurmountable problem the show faces: the flat performances of its two leads. With only one episode to go, my earlier reservations about the work being done by Krysten Ritter and David Tenant have blossomed into full-blown dislike. There’s almost nothing to Ritter’s acting here beyond dead-eyed, monotone sarcasm, pitched up into anger or down into tears at appropriate moments. Tennant, in turn, is a scenery-chewing gentleman villain, unrelated to and unrecognizable from any comparable figure in real life.
The gravity of the situation is consistently undercut. This begins almost immediately, right there in the restaurant where Hope stabbed herself to death and four others came within a hair’s breadth of hanging themselves. Jessica wants to orchestrate a cover-up in order to avoid entangling the cops in Kilgrave’s web, but her goofball neighbor Robyn, who unleashed the telepath as part of an extremely dumb plan to get to the bottom of her brother Ruben’s death, isn’t having it. “We tell our truth,” she says, “for Ruben.” Then, referring to Hope, whom Jessica has shrouded under a tablecloth, “For tablecloth girl.” Nothing says “We take this seriously” like a cutesy nickname for a distraught woman who just slit her own throat! I get gallows humor, but this is too much too soon, and it jibes with neither Hope’s death nor Robyn’s horrifying close call.
About the best thing you can say about Jessica Jones’s tenth episode is that Carrie-Anne Moss and Robin Weigert have a horrifying fight scene. With encouragement from Kilgrave and an accidentally lethal last-second rescue by Pam, Jery and Wendy’s vicious divorce turns violent, with the doctor attempting to make emotional “death by a thousand cuts” the lawyer dealt her all too literal. The assault goes on for an uncomfortably long time, with Wendy counting out every slash of the knife against the body of the woman she once loved more than anything. She winds up dead with a glass table embedded in her skull, staring forward with dead unseeing eyes at the woman it turns out she didn’t see clearly in life either. The superhero genre is powered by the use of violence as metaphor, a spectacularly physical way of speaking the unspeakable, and this is as good as the show has ever gotten in that area. Too bad the rest of “AKA 1,000 Cuts” fails just as spectacularly.
The biggest problem with the episode is structural. Since it begins with Kilgrave locked away safely in his soundproof, hermetically sealed, electroshock-equipped prison cell, we know that he’ll have to escape by the time it ends. I mean, there’s five more episodes left in the season, including this one, when he gets locked up, right? If he doesn’t get out, what are they gonna be about, Trish and Simpson getting engaged and picking out items for their wedding registry? And if he has to escape, that requires someone on the other side of the glass to do something to help, either by going inside and falling under his control or letting him have access to the outside and control whoever he wants—in other words, doing something unimaginably stupid.
There’s a certain irony to “AKA WWJD?”, the title of Jessica Jones’s eighth episode. Asking “What would Jessica do?”, it then does something the series has consistently failed to do throughout the season so far: something (anything!) surprising. Often unpredictable, frequently subtle (at least by superhero standards), it’s the show’s best episode so far, by far.
Still, Ritter fares better than David Tennant, who leaves no scenery unchewed in our longest glimpse of Kilgrave in action to date. His ranting and raving in the squad room where he confronts Jessica is 100% Boar’s Head ham. The false humility, the sudden rages, the skin-crawling professions of love—some of this is the writing’s fault, no question, but every choice he makes in trying to sell it is rote and predictable. Contrast this with Vincent D’Onofrio as Daredevil big bad Wilson Fisk. From his physical comportment to speech patterns, he was a wholly original creation. The performance ran the risk of alienating the audience by doing something superhero stories rarely do: forcing them to watch something they’d never seen before. Tennant feels like a copy of a copy of a copy of a mash-up of a Bond villain and Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal Lecter by comparison. Meanwhile he’s supposed to hold down half of this show’s emotional bargain. Like Hogarth’s wife Wendy, you don’t have to take this deal.
I reviewed the seventh episode of Jessica Jones for Decider. Sorry, Whovians.
“You are a hard-drinking, short-fused mess of a woman,” Luke Cage tells Jessica Jones. “But you are not a piece of shit.” Thesis statement! Yes, Luke has reason to reassess the latter part of that description later in the episode. But either way, this line from “AKA You’re a Winner!”, the season’s sixth episode, tidily sums up the show’s vision of its lead character: Sure, she’s an alcoholic asshole fuckup, but she’s got a heart of gold! If this is an interesting archetype for you, great, go with God. If not? You’re in for a slog.
One sentence did more to damage my appreciation of Jessica Jones than any other. It wasn’t anything any of the characters said, or even anything a TV critic wrote. It was something mysignificant other said to me as we watched “AKA The Sandwich Saved Me,” the show’s fifth episode. “Does Kilgrave need to speak to people directly to control them?” she asked. “Seems like it,” I replied. Her response: “Then why don’t they wear earplugs?” I believe that’s what Mortal Kombat calls “FATALITY.”
I reviewed the fifth episode of Jessica Jones for Decider. More like Justokay Jones, amirite?
The title character herself is not getting any more interesting. While the handling of abuse and trauma is as incisive as ever, so too does Jessica remain a glowering hardass stereotype in every other respect. Some of this is down to the writing, which sets her up in cliched scenarios like the ol’ sad shower scene (I don’t know about you, but I’m rarely sad in the shower—my bouts with melancholy usually take place on the couch) and forces her to deliver wooden lines like “Not tonight, Hogarth. Not tonight.” But, and I hate to say this, some of it is Krysten Ritter, who seems more and more miscast as the series continues. As good as she was in Breaking Bad, investing a supporting character with a mainline dose of audience empathy, she’s doing very little with this part beyond glaring, sneering, and occasionally sitting in silence. Sure, they can have her do a Pete Venkman twirl on a street corner or cry a single Frodo Baggins tear when she discovers her junkie neighbor Malcolm has been Kilgrave, but like when she trashes the room she’s been lured to by her anti-gifted client for an assassination attempt, the emotional displays feel forced since her affect is otherwise so stonefaced. If this show is ever gonna soar, something’s gotta break.
I reviewed episode four of Jessica Jones for Decider. I’m not crazy about it.
Actually, the Kilgrave concept itself—in the sense that this story and this story alone is what the season will be about—is working much better as of this episode. Unlike Daredevil, which kept its protagonist and antagonist in the dark about one another for some time and featured many mini-mysteries along the path to their final confrontation, Jessica Jones has been all about the title character and her nemesis tracking each other down from the jump. The decision to focus so monomaniacally on the mano a mano conflict between the detective and the telepath could feel either fitting or forced; around the point where Jessica learns Trish plans to have her fellow victim Hope on her radio show and freaks out, it fell firmly on the former side of the line. “He’ll be listening to her and thinking about me,” Jessica warns her friend, a wholly appropriate reaction. After all, we’re talking about a stalker on one hand and the woman he traumatized on the other—of course they’d think about each other all the time. The narrative simply reflects this sad emotional truth.
Unfortunately, the complexity, nuance, and willingness to take chances with the genre has yet to extend beyond these two areas. Put it this way: Aside from her zesty sex life with Luke and her ongoing attempt to process what Kilgrave has done to her and others, is there anything about Jessica Jones as a character you haven’t seen a million times before? Whether we’re talking about private-detective tales or young-woman-in-the-city stories, this exact combination of sarcasm, alcoholism, broken friendships, and regret is as common as spandex in superhero comics.
Speaking of comics, I’m loath to compare TV shows to their source material all that much, but in Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos’s original Aliascomics, Jessica was much less of a hardboiled stereotype, exchanging the live-action version’s sardonic stoicism for the jittery, high-energy banter common to the writer’s work. The result was a lively, lived-in character who felt more like a real person trying and failing to live up to her extraordinary circumstances than a noir archetype peeled straight from pulp fiction. The point isn’t “The book was better,” it’s that what’s on the screen isn’t working, irrespective of what happened on the page.
Superhero stories geared toward adults always run the risk of trying too hard to establish their serious-business bonafides. But that seemed wholly unnecessary for this series, which is so deeply tied to Jessica’s rape and trauma that there’s no need to take things over the top elsewhere. By this point in the episode, we’ve established that Kilgrave stole a man’s kidneys and left him a suicidal cripple between abducting and raping multiple women, recklessly hijacking the minds of countless people along the way. Did we really need to watch him make a terrified little girl piss her pants in a closet to get the message that he’s a piece of shit? The suffering of children is a tool in the artist’s arsenal not to be used lightly, and while it’s clearJessica Jones is taking the trauma inflicted on victims of violence seriously, it’s less apparent that it knows not to gratuitously gild the lily.
Compare this to our first prolonged exposure to Daredevil’s big bad. When we meet Wilson Fisk, we already know he’s used his massive fortune—and his equally imposing physique—to seize control of New York City’s underworld and real-estate market alike. But instead of watching him throw his weight around (sorry), we see him awkwardly flirting with an art-gallery owner, first at an exhibition and then over dinner. This bold, mold-breaking choice humanized the supervillain in a way we’ve never seen a live-action superhero project attempt before. And the show stuck with it, too: While it never shied away from depicting the ugly brutality of Fisk’s gentrification plan, it also showed him to be a man with actual, honest-to-god friends, who cared about him as much as he cared about them. Ultimately, he and his gang were as much a surrogate family as Matt Murdock and friends, making the conflict between them that much more compelling. This isinteresting, folks, and it made for a compelling, unpredictable hero-vs-villain narrative.
Making Kilgrave an unmitigated monster is a legit choice, don’t get me wrong—it’s not like I’m clamoring to see the softer side of a serial rapist—but it’s cutting off Jessica Jones from exploring a rich vein of character and story. Imagine Game of Thrones if, instead of complicated figures like the Lannisters, the Hound, and Stannis Baratheon, all the antagonists were raw uncut psychopaths like Ramsay Bolton, Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane, and those crazy bald cannibals from Season Four. Their thoroughly black hearts make them entertaining enemies, but it’d be tough to sustain the show without a bit more shading.
How high can highlights take you? How much strength does a show require for its strong points to overpower its weak spots? How does the whole become more than the sum of even its most important parts? Jessica Jones, the hotly anticipated second series in Marvel & Netflix’s partnership, tells the story of a private eye, so perhaps it’s appropriate that it’s got me searching for answers myself. Its pilot episode, “AKA Ladies Night,” contains some of the most powerful moments and challenging themes in the entire Marvel oeuvre. I’m just not sure that’s enough to declare the case for its quality closed.
I’m covering Jessica Jones for Decider! I’ll be posting a review a day every day till I get through the whole season. First up: My somewhat skeptical take on the pilot.
In the last three days I watched the last four Marvel movies.
Thor: The Dark World (dir. Alan Taylor): Wafer-thin characters and worldbuilding offset by charismatic performances and cheeky action sequences. I don’t quite understand the white dwarf sexual gravity exerted by Tom Hiddleston on large segments of the audience, but he and Chris Hemsworth are clearly having a ball every minute they’re on set. Same with Kat Dennings and Stellan Skarsgard and even, in this one at least, Natalie Portman, who’s only ever been good in Closer (and I guess Leon) but is fun here.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (dir. the Russo Brothers): Exciting, well-staged action from start to finish — very much the cinematic child of the Ed Brubaker run on the comics, where the characters felt solid and rooted in physics but operating at the absolute peak allowed, like they rolled a 20 for every saving throw. Not street level, super-street level, if that makes sense. Chris Evans is shockingly likeable in that role, which is hard for both him as an actor and that character if you’re a commie like me. I’ve never bought Johansson as Black Widow, but okay, fine. Mackie was fun as Falcon, Redford was Redfordian as the evil suit, and I liked the future Crossbones guy. A solid message regarding the out-of-control security apparatus, too, that wasn’t undermined by Black Widow’s “you need us” testimony at the end the way I’d been led to believe it was. Best of the lot.
Guardians of the Galaxy (dir. James Gunn): A decent enough tonal and design throwback to ‘80s/early ‘90s sci-fi/action/popcorn fare — the Kyln prison looked like something out of Total Recall — but it overshot fun and hit shrill time and again. The fight scenes were poor, like a sort of warped version of the Captain America ones: All of these characters are way powered up, yet the nature of the story required them to be brawlers, so you were left with this down-and dirty fight choreography that just revealed how phony the physical effects were. And none of these lovable losers were as lovable as the film needed them to be, or clearly thought they were. How about that Chris Bautista though, huh? Funny stuff. Though that reminds me: Over and over again, the Marvel movies go to the most generic-looking blue-skinned-cosmic-type villains in the whole Marvel Universe. Laufey, the Frost Giants, Malekith, Kurse, the Dark Elves, Ronan, the Sakaarans, the Chitauri — it’s like they took their pointers from Guillermo Del Toro’s still-baffling decision to boil the entire Mike Mignola bestiary down to a shitty redesign of the frog monsters for Hellboy.
Avengers: Age of Ultron (dir. Joss Whedon): Nowhere near as confusing as advertised. Nowhere near as sociopolitically noxious, either; jesus, if ever there were an illustration of my Golden Rule of Internet Argument — interpret with minimum good faith, attack with maximum rhetorical force — it’s the litany of charges leveled against this relatively innocuous film, that’s for fucking sure. Whedon’s an awful director of action, you can never tell what the physical stakes are for any particular move or blow or strike or dodge. But he’s good with teamwork, with selling the idea of this group as a group. With the exception of that cornball farm shit back at Hawkeye Acres, all the personal-trauma stuff worked very well too. James Spader was very funny as Ultron, and Paul Bettany’s Vision reminded me of something I’ve heard from many older superhero fans, which is that once upon a time the Vision was the top-dog “cool” Marvel character, like Wolverine has been ever since. Sure, I can see that. Like all Marvel movies, even the best, it’s almost aggressively bereft of style, so the emphasis on charm is a necessary saving grace.