Spotlight: Star Trek Discovery (first three episodes)

It’s been a long time coming.

“Star Trek: Discovery” is the first Star Trek television series to air since the end of “Star Trek: Enterprise”, which ended its run twelve years ago back in 2005.  In terms of its place within the Star Trek universe, “Discovery” is set between “Enterprise” and the original “Star Trek” television show.  And it has nothing to do with the reboot movies.

But the question is, was the wait worth it?

 

The USS Discovery.

 

I must admit…I was initially skeptical of the show when I saw previews of it.  I was afraid it was going to go too far into the dark, gritty realm of things.  But after watching the first three episodes, I can safely say that while the tone is a bit more grim than the usual Star Trek fare, it works for the time period of the show.

When the show starts, we find ourselves not actually on board the Discovery, but rather a ship known as the USS Shenzhou.  The first two episodes can basically be considered one as they form a two-part pilot which serves as a prologue to the series.  In the first two episodes, we meet Michael Burnham (played by Sonequa Martin-Green) the first officer of the Shenzhou, who is quickly established as the main character and the lens through which we view most of the events.

The two-part prologue does a good job of setting the backdrop for the rest of the series.  We see the Shenzhou encounter the Klingons, an encounter which sets into motion the war between the Klingons and the Federation (something fans will remember being part of the original series as well).  To be fair, the first two episodes are a bit uneven.  There’s a little too much witty quipping at the beginning for my liking, and some moments feel a bit rushed for time’s sake.  An example of this would be from the second episode when the Vulcan character Sarek, who from what I can tell was Burnham’s mentor as a child, telepathically speaks to her over thousands of light-years because they once melded minds a long time ago.  It’s a scene that just feels out of place and weird, not to mention its only purpose is so that Sarek can essentially tell Burnham not to give up.

Speaking of Burnham’s childhood, that’s something the pilot episodes handle really well.  We get snippets of Burnham’s past which fleshes out her character as someone who has experienced tragedy and hardship, as well as dealing with differences between cultures (Burnham ends up living with Vulcans for some years).  It helps set her up as a conflicted and nuanced character, one who will make drastic decisions whose consequences impact the arc of the show.  I would have liked a little more time spent on these however, as most of the flashbacks last less than a minute.

 

Michael Burnham

 

I don’t want to say too much more about the first two episodes so as not to spoil it for people who haven’t watched it yet, so let’s move on to the third episode.  While the first two episodes feel more similar to the recent Star Trek movies, the third episode introduces us to the meat of the show.  It picks up six months after the events of the pilot.  Burnham’s circumstances have changed a lot, and against her will she finds herself suddenly on board the USS Discovery.  There, she meets Captain Gabriel Lorca, who is immediately mysterious about his motivations.  In fact, Discovery’s whole mission is shrouded in mystery.  In the third episode we do get a decent bit of information about what Discovery is trying to do, but even so at the end of the episode it’s hinted that there might be more going on.

In terms of quality, the third episode is definitely the best.  It’s the most consistent and engaging of the three I’ve seen, and it sets up a nice, enticing mystery for us to get invested in.  Some might object to the whole “science co-opted by military” theme going on, but I think it makes sense considering the time period.  Starfleet is desperate for an edge in the war against the Klingons, so it makes sense that they might resort to more drastic measures.  And I like the idea that no one is perfect.  Sure, everyone loves Captain Kirk and Captain Picard, but they were men for a different time.  Television is much different than it was back in their eras, so it wouldn’t make sense to just replicate their shows but with higher quality effects.  Hardcore Trek fans may nitpick on a lot of things, but Star Trek needs to show that it has a place in a more nuanced storytelling landscape.

My only major concern with the series is that, due to it being a prequel to the older Trek Shows (aside from “Enterprise), everything they do might turn out to be moot.  For example, that big information reveal in the third episode revolves around the Discovery’s main experiment, something that would give them a drastic edge in the war against the Klingons.  Only we know that it can’t work out because it’s never used at all in any of the other shows.  My fear is that this will become a recurring trend with “Discovery”.  They’ll build up these new, awesome experiments Discovery is doing, only they’ll all fail because the continuity of the Star Trek universe demands it.

That being said, one of the small things I enjoyed was that “Discovery” has elements of wonder in it, something that I missed from the recent movies (which are basically just sci-fi action flicks with a Star Trek skin).  There’s a scene in the first episode where Burnham is struck with awe at the majesty of space, and it’s something that stuck out to me.  Hopefully, that sense of wonder doesn’t get completely lost in the mix, because it was a crucial element to why I liked Star Trek in the first place.

I have been impressed with what I’ve seen so far, so I highly recommend it to any sci-fi fans looking for a new show.  Sure, you have to subscribe to CBS’s All Access program to watch it, but if there was one show that would make it worth it, it’s “Discovery”.

Although there are…other ways you could watch the show.  Don’t worry, I won’t tell.

 

Thanks for reading.  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

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Spotlight: The Defenders

Warning: spoilers for “The Defenders” and some of the other Netflix shows will follow.  Read at your own risk.

So it’s finally here…the event we’ve been waiting for.  “The Defenders” brings all four of the Netflix superheroes together so they can kick some butt.  And maybe throw bad guys through a building or two (I really gotta stop making that joke).  But the real question is, was it worth it?  Is “The Defenders” everything we hoped for?  Is it everything we wanted…nay…deserved?!

Well…yes and no.

But before we get into the nitty-gritty of the show, I wanted to point out a couple small details I appreciated.  After “Iron Fist” and its bland title sequence, I was glad to see they brought back the nuance for “The Defenders”.  During the title sequence, we see each of the four characters forms overlaid over aerial maps of New York.  Now, I can’t be certain considering I know basically nothing about New York, but I believe that each character is overlaid over the particular part of the city where they live and operate.

 

 

So Daredevil would have a part of Hell’s Kitchen while Luke Cage would be laid over Harlem.  But the detail in the title sequence goes beyond that even.  I didn’t really pick up on this until near the end of the first episode, but each character has a particular color associated with them, a color that you can see during the title sequence itself.  During the show, scenes that particular character dominates are color corrected to have an abundance of that character’s color.

 

So Luke Cage’s scenes have a yellow glow to them…

 

…while Matt Murdock/Daredevil’s scenes are full of vibrant red.

 

Jessica Jones has a deep blue, while Danny Rand is green.  This little detail takes to the sidelines once the characters finally start to meet up with each other, but it’s still a cool aspect of the show.  It’s not essential, but it’s these little things that fans love.

But anyway, on to the main event.  Like I said before, the answer to the question “was it worth the wait” is a little bit of a mixed bag.  The breakdown (at least for me) seemed to go like this: the first half of “The Defenders” is great while the second half gets a little sloppy.  I thoroughly enjoyed the first four episodes, watching as each of the heroes runs into their own problem to solve.  It was nice checking back in with these characters and seeing what they had been up to, although the first episode does spend more time on Luke Cage than anyone else.  Which makes sense, considering he was being carted off to jail at the end of the first season of his show, so they have to deal with that to get him back into place.

It was fun watching each of these characters do the thing they do best, with a slow buildup towards the inevitable meeting of the heroes.  The problem is that after these four characters meet and begrudgingly agree to work together, the show seems to lose a bit of momentum, as the next few episodes mostly feature the characters sitting around and debating their next move before the final showdown begins.

And it’s at this point that you realize just how weak Danny Rand is as a character when compared to the other three.

 

 

 

Now, to give some credit to the writers, they at least tried to give Danny a more interesting arc than just “I’m the Iron Fist…it is my destiny to destroy The Hand…blah blah blah”.  In the first episode, Danny has a nightmare about the apparent massacre of the people of K’un-Lun, showing that he feels guilty over leaving them.  The problem is that, after the first episode, this is never mentioned or referenced again.  In fact, Danny is played as more of a laughingstock than anything else, especially in the second half of the season.  Any time someone mentions that he’s the Iron Fist, everyone else in the room seems to have the same reaction of “the hell are you talking about?”  A good example of this would be when Murdock tells his friend Foggy that Danny’s the Iron Fist and Foggy remarks “I’m not even going to pretend I know what that means.”

I didn’t mind this approach at first, but the more I thought about it the more it bothered me.  You see, instead of trying to fix the flaws in Danny’s character they turned him into a literal joke.  The other characters pretty much just make fun of everything he says.  They took the lazy route and played Danny up for laughs instead of trying to make him feel deserving of a place on the team.  This is made all the more insulting once you realize that Danny is integral to the entire plot of the show.  The Hand needs him to complete their master plan.  Without him, their whole scheme falls apart.  In this sense, Danny feels less like a character and more like a maguffin, existing only to move the plot forward toward the inevitable battle against The Hand.

And speaking of The Hand, their big leader in this show is revealed to be a woman named Alexandra, played by none other than Sigourney Weaver.  Initially, I was excited to see her in this show, because Sigourney Weaver is a total badass.  Remember “Alien”?  Remember “Aliens”?  Yeah…total badass right?  But here she’s given very little to do aside from look imposing and make not so subtle references to the fact that she’s older than she appears, like when she calls Istanbul Constantinople.  She also has some very cringe worthy dialogue later on, even breaking out the “we’re the same, you and I” speech at one point.

 

Alexandra (Sigourney Weaver)

 

 

She is given a motivation though.  At the beginning of the show we are shown that she’s dying…all of her organs are systematically shutting down one by one.  This encourages her to push The Hand’s plan into fast-forward mode, despite the objections.  Because as it turns out, The Hand’s immortality revolves around a mysterious substance that they have run out of.  This bit didn’t make much sense to me, considering that we’ve seen people resurrect in the other shows without the help of this substance.  So why now do they suddenly need more of it?  Seems to me like another maguffin to get the plot where it needs to go.  Because, as it turns out, they used the last of this substance on Elektra.

Speaking of Elektra, what the hell is her motivation here anyways?  After her death at the end of the second season of “Daredevil”, Elektra is brought back to life by The Hand.  But her memory is erased so she can be turned into The Hand’s ultimate weapon.  Through some more not so subtle moments, we realize that this conditioning isn’t going to last forever, and that Elektra is starting to remember who she was.  But the thing is, once she remembers who she is, she still serves as an antagonist for no apparent reason.  If she remembers who she is, then why the hell would she be fighting against the man she supposedly loves?  It makes no sense.

And what’s so important about her being the “Black Sky” anyways?  Everyone goes on and on about it, but it’s never clearly explained what it actually means.

However, despite the flaws, “The Defenders” is a fun time.  The best scene is definitely the fight at the end of the third episode, where all four of the heroes come together for the first time and battle a bunch of The Hand’s henchmen.  But after that, the show starts going downhill.  It never gets to the point of being unwatchable, but through some strange plot choices and sloppy pacing, the second half definitely isn’t as strong.  I especially didn’t like the shenanigans they tried to pull in the last episode.  I won’t say much out of fear of spoiling it for those who haven’t watched it, but I will say this: they try to make you think that one thing happened, only to turn it around in the last thirty seconds of the show and be all like “ha we tricked you” even though most people will probably see it coming from a mile away.

At the very least, there isn’t any pointless filler.  Each episode moves things along the main plot.  So while it might not be everything we hoped for, it’s still well worth a watch, especially if you’ve gotten invested in the characters.

And now, if you’ll indulge me, I’m going to go on a more personal rant…

I really wish The Hand hadn’t been the villains for “The Defenders”.  It takes things to such a cheesy, comic book level that it’s hard to take seriously sometimes.  It’s a group of frickin’ immortal ninjas for crying out loud!  Part of the reason I really enjoyed these Netflix shows at first was because of how different they felt from the standard superhero fare.  The first season of “Daredevil” hardly feels like a superhero show at all.  It plays like a gritty crime drama but with a superhero twist.  But as time went on The Hand became more and more apparent as Marvel rushed things out the door in order to get them into place for “The Defenders”.

I would have liked to see the four heroes fight against a crime syndicate for their first outing together.  Now I know someone is going to say it…”but…The Hand is a crime syndicate”.  It is, but it’s still a crime syndicate of immortal ninjas.  I would have wanted to see them face off against regular criminals, not a bunch of silly mystical types who, despite all the hype over being super secretive, take some really obvious actions.

A whole army of ninjas clad in black rappelling up the side of a hospital?  Sure seems stealthy to me!

I think it would have been more interesting if, for example, Wilson Fisk had been exposed but not captured at the end of “Daredevil” season one.  He could then escape to run things from the shadows and give the heroes a threat to deal with when they finally came together.  And with the addition of Danny Rand, they could have started teasing the existence of a mysterious organization known as The Hand.  Then, after the four heroes came together and defeated Fisk once and for all, The Hand could step out of the shadows and reveal that they were manipulating Fisk the entire time.  That would then give The Defenders another threat looming over them as they go about their own business.  Because, with The Hand gone, there’s no bigger threat anymore, not to mention that Danny Rand’s character has no purpose anymore, since his whole thing revolved around The Hand’s defeat.  I can’t really see their next big villains standing up to a bunch of supernatural martial artists.

And with that, I’m off.  Blog writer AWAAAAAY!

 

Thanks for reading.  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

Spotlight: “Iron Fist” Season One

Warning: spoilers for season one of “Iron Fist” follow.

…Oh boy……

Ever since “Iron Fist” premiered on Netflix back in March, it’s been panned by many critics.  It’s easily considered the worst of the Marvel Netflix shows and possibly even one of the worst shows on Netflix period.  The reception to it was so bad that Finn Jones, the actor who plays the main character in the show, blamed Donald Trump for the negative perception of the show.  According to him, because of the wide distrust of the president people can’t root for Danny Rand because he’s a white billionaire superhero.

 

This is the appropriate reaction to what you just heard.

 

But I digress.  “Iron Fist” is currently sitting at a 37 on Metacritic and a 17% on Rotten Tomatoes.  Why?  Were critics just being unfair?  Was the show really made more for the fans like Finn Jones also suggested?  Or was there something else, a reason that the show was so negatively received?

Well, as it turns out, there was a reason.  You see, “Iron Fist” season one is boring.  Like, really boring.  I have to admit that I struggled watching through the entire thing.  That’s not to say that there aren’t good points to the show, but they’re faint pinpricks of light in an otherwise gloomy sea of tedium.

And the problem starts with Danny Rand himself.

Now, to be fair to Finn Jones, I don’t think he’s a bad actor.  He does a serviceable job here.  The main problem is the character.  But before we get into that, we have to give some backstory.  As a kid, Danny Rand was in a plane crash with his parents in the Himalayan mountains and was the only survivor.  After being rescued by a pair of mysterious monks, Danny spends his formative years in a place called K’un-Lun, a mystical monastery that is only accessible every fifteen years.  There he learns martial arts and gains the power of the Iron Fist, turning him into a mystical living weapon.  He returns to New York fifteen years after his supposed death and tries to reclaim the life he once had.

The thing is, Danny Rand is perfect…too perfect.  In fact, he’s so perfect he’s boring.  He spouts off Zen sayings left and right.  He’s in total control of his emotions (at least in the beginning).  And he’s practically unbeatable in a fight.  I mean he walks into the dojo of Colleen Wing (one of the side characters) and almost immediately schools her in martial arts.  It’s ridiculous.  And then later on, any time his company runs into a scandal, he always does the morally righteous thing.  And I mean always.  There’s nothing interesting about his character because there’s no flaws to his character.  At least, not until like three-quarters through the season when the writers suddenly decide that his guilt over the death of his parents clouds his judgement and renders him unable to summon the Iron Fist most of the time.  If this was implemented from the beginning of the season, that would be one thing.  But the way it just shows up later is jarring.

 

The impeccable Danny Rand.

 

Danny Rand reminds me of that stereotypical rich guy who constantly shares pictures of his vacations on Facebook or Instagram.  You know the type: you constantly see them posing in sun-bathed tropical locales or other exotic locations.   And they’re always spouting off life wisdom like they know that’s best for everyone else.

But enough about Danny.  What about all the side charac-

They’re boring.  Just…boring.  Aside from Colleen, the dojo teacher that becomes his love interest, none of the characters really have anything important or interesting going on (except for maybe Joy…I found some of her scenes to be kind of interesting).  I don’t care about the day-to-day business of the Rand corporation.  I don’t care about corporate backstabbing.  And I certainly don’t care about a boring subplot dealing with painkiller addiction.  Seriously, screw that noise.  It’s like the show is caught between being a bad superhero show and a bad soap opera.

And the pacing…oh god the pacing.  It’s so off.  Like I said before, the main problem with “Iron Fist” is that it’s just boring.  I hope you like martial arts poses because I swear that at least sixty percent of this show is people striking martial arts poses and talking about what they’re going to do next instead of, you know, actually doing it.

 

Who cares about plot when you can strike some sick poses brah?

 

Even the title sequence is boring.  “Daredevil”, “Jessica Jones”, and “Luke Cage” all had nuance in their title sequences that hinted at certain aspects of their characters or overall themes for the show.  What does “Iron Fist” have?  A silhouette of a man leaving inky trails all over the place as he strikes a bunch of poses.

 

Whoo…it’s so good guys. I’m not even being sarcastic…

 

And speaking of pacing, my god the show has no idea how to build or sustain momentum.  When the show isn’t being dull and full of people talking or striking poses, things seem to happen way too quickly.  For example, the end of the first episode has Danny being drugged by his former friends Joy and Ward Meachum, then being placed in a mental hospital.  And then he breaks out of the mental hospital at the end of the second episode.  Like…what?  This is the kind of stuff you do in the middle of the season, not at the beginning.  Not only that, but the show spends the first four episodes or so dealing with Danny trying to prove his identity.  And there isn’t even a real payoff to it.  The conflict is abruptly resolved and the people trying to keep Danny from getting back into the company are suddenly like “hey Danny we’re your friends again…we can just forget about that whole mental hospital thing right?”

There are so many little things with this show that I could complain about.  A villain becomes a not-villain only to suddenly become a villain again later on in the season.  The characters spend way too much time talking about duty and honor.  The last episode feels like it belongs in an entirely different season.  Certain things just happen without any real explanation (I still don’t understand how Danny suddenly winds up in a freaking penthouse after being kicked out of Colleen’s dojo).  Characters make decisions that don’t make any sense.

It’s a mess.  But if I keep going, this review will go on forever.

In the end, I feel like if the show had been done with a lighthearted tone, things probably would have worked out better.  The silly nature of Danny’s character and all the overemphasized martial arts combat doesn’t really blend well with the show’s dead serious tone.  But even if they did go for a lighter tone, then it just wouldn’t fit with the other shows.  Any way you slice it, “Iron Fist” just fails to deliver.

And yet, it was still Netflix’s most binge-watched drama.  Kinda sad when you think about it, but that’s the power of Marvel.  People will watch it regardless, especially because of how the stories are interconnected.

All I can say is that I hope “The Defenders” was worth it.  Because Marvel has seemed to be in a hurry to get that out the door for the past couple of years, and that has led to a decrease in quality for the Netflix shows.  The second season of “Daredevil” felt disjointed at times, with two major arcing plots that didn’t seem to mesh together well.  The second half of “Luke Cage” season one saw a complicated villain being swapped out for one that had very little depth and whose only motivation is revenge against Cage.  But clearly, “Iron Fist” was hit the worst.  There’s so much unnecessary subplot that could have been left out in favor of focusing on making Danny not suck as a character and giving him an origin story that’s actually enjoyable to watch.  But as it stands, “Iron Fist” season one is only worth watching for the connection to “The Defenders”.

If you watch it on its own hoping for a good standalone story, you’ll most likely end up disappointed.

 

But hey, at least there’s martial arts poses…right?

 

Thanks for reading.  Check back next Wednesday for a new post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

Spotlight: Dunkirk

Warning: minor spoilers for Dunkirk follow.

I’ve never been a big fan of war movies.  There’s only so many times I can be told that “war is hell” by watching a ragtag group of soldiers make their way through hell and back before it gets old.  This is why, despite the Oscar buzz around it, I’ve never been particularly interested in seeing “Hacksaw Ridge”.

Enter “Dunkirk”.  All of the pre-release hype surrounding the movie billed it as something totally different.

And you know what?  For once, the hype wasn’t wrong.

“Dunkirk” is about the event itself more than the people involved in it, which on its own is unique for the genre.  But the movie takes a non-linear approach as well.  The story is told from three different points of view: on land taking place over a week, on the sea taking place over a day, and in the air taking place over an hour.  This means that as we move through the movie, we see events happen from these different perspectives.  For example, at one point in the movie we watch as a couple of spitfire pilots take down a bomber that had just sunk a large warship.  From up in the air, we see people bailing out into the water, but because of our distance from it we don’t feel the full impact.  Then later, we see that same event but from the people down at sea level, which instantly makes the event far more harrowing than it was before.

This happens more than once throughout the movie.  The three points of view weave in and out of each other (for example, we see the three spitfire planes from the “air” perspective fly over the boat from the “sea” perspective).  My only gripe with this narrative style is that at first it can be a little disorienting.  The movie spells out for you at the beginning the time frames each perspective takes place over, but it still might take viewers a little bit of time before they understand what is meant by “one week”, “one day”, and “one hour”.  That, combined with the disjointed nature of the plot, might be a little off-putting to some.

I was also thrown off a little by the fact that the land segment was titled “the mole”.  I didn’t find out until after the movie, but “the mole” refers to the large concrete jetties they used to facilitate the evacuation of troops.  It’s a nice detail, but it seems inconsistent when the other segments are simply titled “the sea” and “the air”.

Despite these minor qualms though, the unique chronology of the film is what makes it so great.  It tightens the pacing, making sure that we’re never at ease or too far away from the action.  And this is underscored by the tense soundtrack, which features a low ticking noise that gets faster and louder the closer you get to something bad happening.

This non-linearity becomes an integral part of the film’s themes as well.  “Dunkirk”, at its core, is about the small victories in the face of a massive failure.  Historically, the battle of Dunkirk was a bitter and devastating defeat for the Allies.  They were forced to retreat all the way to the town of Dunkirk, where they were surrounded by the Germans and had to wait for rescue.  The movie captures the sense of hopelessness the event must have inspired in the Allied soldiers.  And the non-linear style of it allows us to see the struggles from land, sea, and air, which gives us a compelling overview of the entire event instead of focusing on a small group of people within the event itself.

The movie does give us key characters to observe all the happenings through, but in the end it is about the Dunkirk battle itself.  And even though we feel a sense of triumph by the end, it is tempered by the knowledge that this was a bitter defeat for the Allied forces.  The movie culminates with a reading of the famous “we shall fight on the beaches” speech by Winston Churchill, but the rousing words are at one point superimposed over a shot of empty infantry helmets lying on the beaches, reminding us of the toll Dunkirk took.

In many ways, “Dunkirk” succeeds.  It succeeds at being a non-linear narrative.  It succeeds at being a tense and thrilling movie.  It succeeds at giving us an in-depth look at a historical event that is likely not well-known in popular culture.

But most of all, it succeeds at reminding us that “war is hell” in its own unique way.

 

Thanks for reading.  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

Spotlight: “Luke Cage” Season One

Warning: some spoilers for the first season of “Luke Cage” follow.

I’ve been a big fan of how the Marvel Netflix shows each have distinct feels so far.  Far too often superhero stories fall into the same basic storyline: hero starts as not hero, confronts flaws in character, becomes hero, throws bad guy through a building or two (wait I think I made that joke already).  The Netflix shows may not stray too far from that formula, but they manage to explore their characters in ways that are far more intriguing than any we’ve seen on the movie screen thus far.

And going into “Luke Cage”, I was fascinated to see a modern superhero story actually deal with the character’s race.

“Luke Cage” is set within the Harlem neighborhood of New York City, which is well-known for its largely African-American population.  It is considered a huge center for black culture within the city as well, and that is displayed prominently in the first season of “Luke Cage”.  Famous musicians from R&B, rap, and other genres even show up on the show as themselves and play their songs.  Their music is often used to underscore a montage of action within the show as well.

 

 

It’s an impressive display of culture from a genre that typically doesn’t get much deeper than “good guy fight bad guy…overcome shortcomings”.

The first half of the season is great.  It centers around Luke Cage and a club owner known only by the name Cottonmouth.  Cottonmouth is a lot like Wilson Fisk from “Daredevil”, in that he is a complex character who isn’t totally evil.  Early on in the show a respected member of the Harlem community is killed and Cottonmouth is visibly shaken by it, due to the fact that it happened as an indirect result of his actions.  He didn’t want it to happen, but it did.  And that’s what makes him a great character.  He’s not outright malevolent.  He’s obsessed with his reputation sure, but he’s not at all someone who just wants to destroy things or kill the hero.  In fact, when the season begins, Luke Cage actually works for Cottonmouth as a dishwasher before things hit the fan.

 

Cottonmouth

 

And speaking of the Harlem community, that’s another aspect of the show I liked.  Compared to the other shows, “Luke Cage” has a very good sense of place.  It attempts to capture the look and feel of Harlem and make that an integral part of the show’s plot.  In the end, the battle between Luke and Cottonmouth is essentially a battle for the future of Harlem.  This is reflected in the title sequence as well, with various icons of Harlem being overlaid over Luke’s body.

 

The title sequence also hints at the show’s connection with African-American culture and history.

 

Luke himself is a very quiet character.  He doesn’t say much, and when he does, it’s short and to the point.  He’s stoic, but intimidating.  His abilities are two-fold: superhuman strength and unbreakable skin, which leads to an impressive sequence early on where he storms a criminal headquarters and strolls through a hail of gunfire like it’s nothing.

 

Luke Cage doing his Terminator impression.

 

The first half of the season does a great job balancing action with character drama that feels nuanced and believable.  Unfortunately, “Luke Cage” starts to fall apart during the second half.

At around the halfway point in the season, Cottonmouth is removed from the picture and we are introduced to a new villain.  With no foreshadowing, we are suddenly cued in to the fact that Luke somehow knows him.  And, in a move similar to Blofeld in the James Bond movie “Spectre”, he proclaims that he is the mastermind behind the bad times in Luke’s life.  Luke going to prison for a crime he didn’t commit?  All him.  Cottonmouth?  Also all him.  If there was a bit more setup to the character and his introduction, I might be more willing to buy into the whole business.  But as it stands, you can’t just shove a new character into my face and pretend he’s some kind of mad genius.

More to the point, he’s a boring villain and a terrible replacement for Cottonmouth.  All he wants is revenge on Luke for some vague, past transgression that we don’t get much information on until near the end of the season.  And even then, all it really amounts to is “daddy issues” (which brings “Spectre” to mind all over again).  Instead of actual character depth, he just walks around spouting Bible quotes to give the illusion of depth.

A villain who feels vindicated in his actions by religious belief?  Gee…how original.

The show starts to suffer from some pacing issues as well later on.  Right before Cottonmouth leaves the scene, we have an episode that ends in what would appear to be a major triumph for our heroes.  But then it’s all undone within the first ten minutes of the next episode, which makes it pointless and a waste of the viewer’s time.

And then there’s the climax, which commits one of the worst sins a superhero story can commit.  Out of nowhere, the villain dons a suit that gives him the exact same powers of Luke Cage.  There’s no lead up to this.  There’s no hint at it ever happening.  It just…happens.  He just opens a crate, mutters a Bible verse, and then later on he confronts Luke with his goofy new attire.  Instead of actually having a tense standoff between the two characters, the show cheats and gives us a bog standard fist fight.

Speaking of the ending, I enjoyed that “Luke Cage” tried to go with a not-so-happy, unresolved ending that showcased a more grim attitude towards things.  But at the same time, with “The Defenders” releasing in just a couple of months, it makes me wonder how this is going to stand the test of time.  It’s obvious that they’ll have to resolve the cliffhanger-ish ending of the season in “The Defenders”.  What’s going to happen if someone five years from now sits down and watches the first season of “Luke Cage” and thinks “man…I want to know how what happens next”.  Are they going to start up season two and be utterly confused as to why everything already seems to be resolved?  That’s the problem with these massively interconnected universes…unless you research the chronology you’re likely to get confused.  Because the shows don’t really offer much of a hint as to which one takes place.  Even looking at the year on Netflix isn’t really going to help because of how much content Marvel generates.

But that’s a topic for another time.  Overall, I would say “Luke Cage” was solid to good.  The supporting characters were all well done, and I liked the inclusion of Claire, the nurse (you’ll remember her from “Daredevil” seasons one and two as well as her brief appearance in the first season of “Jessica Jones”).  The culture and the setting were all interwoven with the plot and the character to create a unique show that, despite being a superhero tale, also manages to deal with topical issues relating to race.  Even though the season falls apart in the second half, I never felt like I wanted to shut it off entirely.  There were still parts of the show that were interesting to watch.

All in all, still worth a watch in spite of the problems.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

Spotlight: “Jessica Jones” Season One

Warning: some spoilers for season one of “Jessica Jones” follow.

The Marvel Netflix shows are some of the most interesting takes on the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU for short).  They represent more grounded takes on a world that includes Norse gods and hulking green steroid monsters.  They represent a moral ambiguity that underscores a franchise typically full of characters whose main struggle is “I’m not powerful enough” before they discover “oh wait, yeah I am” and then promptly throw the bad guy through a building or two.

I’ve already talked about “Daredevil” season one and two.  “Daredevil” was the start of the Netflix shows, representing a darker, more nuanced superhero story.  And while season two started to collapse under the weight of its multiple plots, season one still represents some of the best Netflix has to offer.

So, going into it, I had no idea that “Jessica Jones” would feel so different.

Like “Daredevil”, “Jessica Jones” is dark, but even from the show’s title sequence you can tell its tone is different.  The opening sequence for “Daredevil” showed the world being filled in bit by bit, which was a representation of the main character’s unique perspective.  By contrast, the title sequence for “Jessica Jones” plays with shadows and silhouettes.  It features many shots of windows and perspectives that imply being watched or observed, which ties into Jones’ career as a private investigator.

 

A shot from the title sequence.

 

 

It was about midway through the first episode when it hit me: “Jessica Jones” is essentially a modern noir story.

The aspects of the show line up: a private investigator with a tragic past, a piano-heavy soundtrack underscored with hints of jazz, and voice-over narration done by Jessica herself.  I’m not familiar enough with the character or the comics she comes from to say for sure, but it feels to me like the show is steeped in that tradition.  At its core, “Jessica Jones” is still a superhero story, making the noir elements mere icing on the cake.  But it’s enough to give the show a unique style all its own amidst the other Marvel Netflix shows.

“Daredevil” season one was all about Matthew Murdock coming to terms with who he wanted to be as a hero and the lines he was willing to cross.  We followed him as he grew into the hero he needed to be.  By contrast, “Jessica Jones” keeps things from us and much of the season is about uncovering those parts of her past to better understand her as a person.  It becomes clear by the end of the first episode that Jessica tried the hero thing before and something went terribly wrong.  The bad times in her past are centered around a mysterious figure named “Kilgrave” who has the ability to control people’s minds.

Jessica is guarded and masks her feelings with sarcasm.  At the outset it seems that she’s done trying to play the hero, but she’s quickly drawn back in when a new client sets her on a collision course with her old nemesis, Kilgrave.

 

Jessica, brooding as always.

 

They could have easily pulled Jessica too far down the sarcastic, gloomy route and made her an unlikable protagonist.  But her sarcastic quips and grim worldview are punctuated by glimpses of a person who wants to believe better, who wants to do good.  During one of the episodes, we get flashbacks of Jessica before Kilgrave that show how she gradually comes to the realization that she wants to help people.  Even her job as a private investigator after the fact clues us in to her inclination for helping people, despite her outward attitude.  The show succeeds at bringing us into Jessica’s world and letting us learn who she is bit by bit.

One aspect of the show that worked better than I would have expected was the introduction of Luke Cage, another Netflix Marvel hero who was later given his own show.  I’ve talked before about the inter-connection of Marvel’s universe and how that could become a problem, but that isn’t the case here.  Rather, the inclusion of Luke Cage feels natural.  His past and Jessica’s intertwine, which is evident from the start when we see Jessica spying on him in the very first episode.  The progression of their relationship and how it ties in to the greater plot of the season is done very well here.  It never feels forced or added for the sake of tying it in to the larger Marvel universe.

Another aspect of the show I was surprised by was the villain, Kilgrave.

 

Kilgrave.

 

Played by David Tennant, Kilgrave is a very different beast from Wilson Fisk in “Daredevil”.  Fisk was a character who believed he was changing the city for the better, albeit through extreme and violent methods.  By contrast, Kilgrave has no such noble goals.  He’s selfish.  He’s vain.  He’s unhinged and positively psychotic.  And he has an unhealthy fixation on Jessica, especially considering she’s the only one who’s ever escaped from his control.  Tennant was a great choice for the character too, providing that charming yet unpredictable nature to the character and making him a memorable villain.

That being said, I found it strange that they decided to not reveal his face until near the end of the third episode.  Anyone who knows David Tennant or has seen him in other shows will be able to tell that it’s him from the moment he says anything, so waiting on that reveal just seems a little pointless.  Even the pre-release stories for “Jessica Jones” had already confirmed David Tennant would be playing him.

All that being said, Kilgrave is a great villain and provides a very personal adversary for Jessica to face.  But not everything is perfect with the first season.

I’ve mentioned before how “Daredevil” season one decides to refer to the day when literal aliens invaded and blew up half the city in the first “Avengers” movie simply as “The Incident”.  It’s a weird, out-of-place choice that almost feels like they’re trying to distance the Netflix shows from the movies because of their wildly different tones.  “The Incident” shows up again in Jessica Jones, this time in the form of a minor character (read: very minor…as in they only appear in one episode) who has grievances with super powered people because of losing someone during the siege of New York.  It ends up feeling forced and has no purpose other than being a red herring.

There’s also a subplot featuring a police officer Jessica saves early on in the show.  It’s revealed later on that he is part of a mysterious research group with a doctor that developed some kind of combat enhancement drug.  It comes out of nowhere with no real buildup and doesn’t resolve itself by the end of the season.  Rather, its whole purpose seems to be to tease a future plot, as very late in the season it’s revealed that this mysterious group may have ties to Jessica and how she got her powers.

And that’s another thing that bothered me with the season.  Early on, after Jessica learns that Luke has powers as well, they have a brief conversation about where they got them.  Luke tells her his came from an experiment and Jessica says hers were an “accident”.  For much of the season, I assumed Jessica knew exactly how she got her powers and it would be revealed later on.  But as it turns out, Jessica has no idea.  During the final episode, she has a line where she mentions that she looked into her past before but kept hitting dead ends.  But it isn’t until near the end of the season that there’s any hint of that.  So when she says “accident”, we’re not really clear what she means by that.

Despite these issues, “Jessica Jones” is well worth a watch.  The pacing takes a dip during the last few episodes and the final confrontation doesn’t feel as climactic it should be, but overall it’s another great entry into the Marvel Netflix shows.  Its style and tone are quite different from “Daredevil”, so if you go into it expecting a similar outing, you might find yourself surprised and put off at first.  But if you give it a chance, “Jessica Jones” provides you with a wonderfully deranged villain and a gripping personal story.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week!

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here or follow me on Twitter here.

Spotlight: Daredevil Season Two

Warning: spoilers for Daredevil season one and two follow.

Season One of Netflix’s Daredevil was nothing short of amazing.  It was a dark, gritty superhero origin story that managed to weave an intricate plot with complex characters.  Even the villain, Wilson Fisk, was a well-rounded character who had a compelling reason for doing what he was doing.  Daredevil was the show that put Netflix originals on the map, the first one that everyone was talking about.  And for good reason.  It was a breath of fresh air in a genre that has commonly been full of cheeky, light-hearted stories.

It showed us a whole new side to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).

Coming off of season one, expectations for season two were sky-high.  Everyone wondered where they were going to go, what characters they were going to introduce.  Daredevil spent the entirety of the first season coming into his own as a superhero, so what conflict would season two bring to the table?  How would season two fare compared to the stellar season one?

Unfortunately, perhaps in part due to season one’s excellence, season two comes off as disappointing in a lot of ways.  That’s not to say season two is bad.  It’s still very much watchable, but compared to the first season it feels a little lopsided.

Let’s start at the beginning.  As season two opens, we get to see Daredevil doing his work, taking on crime in Hell’s Kitchen.  Matt Murdock (Daredevil’s true identity) is still trying to make it as a lawyer, and his friend Foggy Nelson is still coming to terms with the fact that Murdock is Daredevil.  At the start of the season, we are introduced to a new threat.  An apparent army of people is going around and killing off gang members in professional ambushes.  Murdock, Foggy, and Karen Page (their secretary whom they met in season one) take on a client who managed to survive one of the attacks.

Season two starts off great, following in the footsteps of season one.  If you know anything about what season two’s story is, you’ve likely guessed that the “army” doing the ambushing is really just the work of one man: Frank Castle, AKA The Punisher.  His reveal is great, as the shows spends almost the entire first episode teasing the danger of this new threat before dropping the revelation of “it’s just one guy”.  Immediately following that revelation we watch as The Punisher storms a hospital, looking to kill the client our main characters have taken on.

The Punisher serves as a foil to Daredevil’s character.  In many ways he’s the man Daredevil almost becomes in season one when he considers whether or not he’s willing to kill Wilson Fisk.  The Punisher challenges his notions of right and wrong.  Most of the third episode is Daredevil being chained to a rooftop arguing with The Punisher about the morality of being a vigilante.  There’s a fascinating difference between the two, and The Punisher is a great tragic character in his own right.

Unfortunately, after the excellent fourth episode (Penny and Dime), things start to go downhill.  The fourth episode almost feels like it could have been a season finale.  It’s epic, dramatic, and full of great character development.  But then, The Punisher is almost unceremoniously pushed to the sidelines for the introduction of another character: Elektra.  Compared to the epic reveal of The Punisher, Elektra’s introduction just comes across as silly.  She appears at the end of episode four in Murdock’s apartment, literally throwing a knife at him before basically saying “what’s up lover?”  And Daredevil reacts like he’s dealing with a freeloading college buddy who wants to crash on his couch.

I was never able to buy into his relationship with Elektra.  Considering how mild-mannered they made Murdock seem in season one, it just seems strange that he would so easily be swept off his feet by someone as frankly psychotic as her.  In the flashbacks detailing their former relationship, it takes her literally trying to make him kill someone before he starts having second thoughts.

And Elektra’s plot line is rather dull by comparison to The Punisher’s.  Once she shows up, the show devolves into Daredevil and Elektra running around to different places and beating up either Yakuza thugs or ninjas who are part of a mystical cult known as “The Hand”.  But despite all the action, very little actually happens during the middle part of the season aside from some pointless drama.  For some stupid reason, Murdock decides not to tell Karen or Foggy about Elektra, which just leads to a bunch of drama over him being late for court over and over again.  Of course, he eventually tells Foggy but it’s too late at that point.  Things start to fall apart and both Karen and Foggy harshly rebuke Murdock for his actions.  And not only that, but Elektra appears immediately after Murdock all but confesses romantic feelings toward Karen, which creates this barely touched on “love triangle” element.

Oh, and remember how I said I didn’t buy the fact that Murdock and Elektra got into a relationship?  That’s actually explained later in the season as being part of some plan, which leads to the groan-inducing “it started as a mission, but then I fell in love with you” line.  Some of the writing later on in the season feels so ham-fisted, which pales in comparison to the excellent first season.

And that’s part of the problem I think.  Season one was just so good that expectations for season two were through the roof.  Even so, the rough patches are hard to ignore.  The Punisher plot line, which in my opinion was the far more interesting one, doesn’t get nearly as much attention as the plot involving The Hand.  And while The Hand plot gets interesting later in the season when they start showing some of the weird, creepy stuff they’re doing, it still feels like a disservice to The Punisher.  In fact, The Punisher is relegated to the sidelines so hard that he literally shows up during the final fight sequence of the season just to snipe a few ninjas in the head and say “see you around”.

I really wish they would have devoted a whole season to The Punisher and then a whole season to The Hand (or the other way around) instead of trying to cram both of them into one season.  But I know why it ended up being that way.  The Hand is going to be the main enemy in The Defenders, which is a cross-over show featuring the four Netflix Marvel heroes teaming up.  And the first season of that show picks up a few months after Daredevil season two.

As I said, season two isn’t terrible or unwatchable.  It’s just disappointing because it could have been so much better.  Here’s hoping The Defenders will be worth it.

 

Thanks for reading!  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week!

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