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.

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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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Unsustainable Connectivity: The Looming Problem of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

If you haven’t heard of Marvel or what they’ve been doing for the last eight or so years, you might think you’ve been living under a rock.  A large rock…blocking the entrance to a cave…on the surface of Mars.

Nearly a decade ago, Marvel kicked off a new age of superhero movies, making them cool and relevant again.  But more so than that, Marvel did something unprecedented.  While most of their movies have a self-contained storyline featuring a particular hero, they are all part of a larger narrative arc that takes shape over many movies, not just one.  And this isn’t just something that takes place over a small trilogy of movies.  No, dozens of movies take place within the same universe and almost all of them tie in together in some way.  You would think that asking audiences to follow this massive narrative would be an impossible task, but despite the overwhelming nature of it Marvel has found tremendous success.  And their success has influenced other studios as well.  The new Mummy movie with Tom Cruise is meant to be a reboot movie and an introduction to a larger universe of monsters from Universal movies.  Along with that, there is an upcoming King Kong movie (Kong: Skull Island) that will tie into a larger universe featuring the new Godzilla from the 2014 movie.

So Marvel’s success has definitely been influential and has changed the landscape of movie making.  And I must commend them for their success.  They have proven that it is indeed possible to build a larger narrative that extends beyond just one movie or one franchise, that is possible to bind several franchises together into one mega-franchise.  It’s an impressive feat.  However, it is not one without problems.

Let’s not beat around the bush here.  You’ve seen the title, so you have an idea of where I’m going with this.  While the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU for short) is an incredible accomplishment, it is starting to become unwieldy.  Nowadays to watch the latest Marvel movie it feels like you have to sit down and watch the five movie previous just to understand what is happening within the larger framework.  You might be able to follow the self-contained story, but there are often references to things that you might not understand because you’re not up to date.  I felt that way when I saw Avengers: Age of Ultron.  There were elements of the movie that I simply didn’t grasp because the movie didn’t bother explaining them.  It was assumed that I had watched the movies before it.  That’s why I initially thought the strange romantic relationship between Black Widow and Hulk was just something they established in another movie, although I later found out that it first appeared in Age of Ultron.

And there will always be that one person.  You know the one, the person that says “well if you read the comic books…”.  Yeah, that person.  Maybe you even are that person.  Whatever the case may be, assuming that a viewer has this backlog of lore from other movies can be dangerous and alienating if not handled properly.  Of course, with the internet this isn’t as big of a deal as it could have been, since interested fans can just go look up information that they’re missing online.

But the real problem seems to be the disconnect between the television shows and the movies, particularly the Netflix originals.  Before we get to that however, we need to take a look at a show that came out before the Netflix ones.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a show centered around a group of special agents that investigate strange occurrences around the world.  It ties into the MCU in the sense that some of the episodes (as far as I know…I haven’t exactly watched the show) deal with the aftermath of events in the movies, such as Thor: Dark World.  The problem with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D is that it features one of the more notable “cracks” in the continuity of the MCU.  Agent Phil Coulson was introduced in the original Iron Man and was killed off in the first Avengers movie.  But he was then brought back to life for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a move that creates a strange sense of dissonance between the films and the shows, especially considering that Coulson’s death was instrumental in making sure the Avengers finally got their act together and worked as a team.  Coulson is never referenced again in the films, making it seem as though he’s dead in the films but alive in the television shows.  Which makes no sense, considering the shows and the movies are supposed to all be connected and part of the same universe.

But my biggest caveat about the MCU comes from the Netflix original shows such as Daredevil.

If you’ve seen any of the Marvel movies, you’ll know that they are goofy, light-hearted, heavy on explosions and over the top action.  But if you then go and watch one of the Netflix shows like Daredevil or Jessica Jones, the tone difference is so sharp that it might as well be part of a different universe entirely.  For example, Daredevil is gritty, dark, and full of deep character drama.  It features a storyline heavy on personal demons, character flaws, and a villain who isn’t just a shell full of evil intentions.  It’s about Matthew Murdock, a lawyer who moonlights as a vigilante fighting what often feels like a losing battle against a massive criminal underworld.  It’s one of the best things to come out of Marvel in a long time and I highly recommend it to anyone who likes a dark tone to their stories.

The problem is, like I said, that the show’s tone feels so counter-intuitive to the rest of Marvel’s lineup.  This wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if you could just ignore its connection to the larger universe, but the show prods you every now and then, forcibly reminding you that it is indeed part of the MCU.

In the very first episode of Daredevil, an event only referred to as “the incident” is referenced multiple times.  If you’re a Marvel fan, you’ll likely connect the dots and understand that they’re referring to the first Avengers movies, where an alien portal was opened and an extra-terrestrial army wreaked havoc on New York.  But the event is described in such vague terms that, as one article I read a while ago put it, it’s not unfair to assume that some people might think they’re talking about 9/11.  Not only that, but early on in the show Daredevil is rescued by a nurse after a failed attempt to save a kidnapped boy.  She becomes the first person in the show to know his true identity as Matthew Murdock.  Later on, Matt takes her to his apartment in an effort to keep her safe.  While there, she cracks a joke about how she was hoping he was a billionaire playboy, which is an obvious reference to Tony Stark/Iron Man.

And that’s where my problem is.  If I take Daredevil to be a larger part of the Marvel universe, which they so clearly want me to, how can I take Murdock’s struggles seriously?  He lives in a world with green rage monsters and super-powered super soldiers.  All of his fights could be resolved simply by Iron Man flying over and dropping a few bombs.  And what makes this even more ridiculous is that Daredevil takes place in the same city that Iron Man lives in!  So where is he during all this time?  For that matter, where is the rest of the Avengers team?  Does no one give a crap about Daredevil’s part of the city?  I find that hard to believe, especially after the massive series of explosions that rock the city around episodes five and six.  You’d think at least one of them would show up and be like “hey guys, what’s going on here?”

If you could just ignore this and watch the show as a self-contained piece of work, that would be one thing and it would be fine.  But Marvel seems intent on insisting that everything connects and it wants you to be aware of it.  I mean, how are the Netflix Marvel heroes supposed to stand up to the ones from the films?  Daredevil has super-human senses and an awesome fighting ability for sure, but Thor is a freaking god.

A GOD for crying out loud.

The comparison just doesn’t add up, and I have no idea how Marvel is going to handle that.  Who knows?  Maybe they’ll prove me wrong.  Maybe they’ll find some ingenious way of tying it all together.  But at the moment, I can’t help but feel their obsession with this inter-connectivity may end up proving to be their downfall.  Only time will tell I suppose.

 

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

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What’s in a Story? Part 2: Making the Story

A little over a year ago, I wrote a post called “What’s in a Story?  The Importance of Narrative Fiction” where I talked about, what else, the importance of fiction.  I decided I wanted to write a second part to it, specifically talking about what makes a story entertaining or engrossing to people.

The most obvious thing right out of the gate is characters.  Everyone loves a good character in a story, whether they’re good or bad.  Sometimes, we find that we may enjoy the villain’s side of things more than the hero’s.  This was definitely true of the first season of the Netflix show Daredevil.  This is not the say that the hero, Matthew Murdock, was any kind of slouch in the proceedings.  He had a very nice bit of conflict throughout the season where he was constantly confronting himself about how far he was willing to go.  But in the end, Wilson Fisk (the villain) stole the show for me.  I won’t spoil anything for those who haven’t seen the show yet, but Fisk’s backstory is incredibly disturbing, depressing, and gripping.  He’s one of those villains that actually has a noble goal, but the means he is using to get there are very much a problem.  Without the conflicting nature of Fisk I doubt the show would have been nearly as engrossing of an experience for me.  It’s one of those strange experiences where you actually understand where the villain is coming from, which isn’t something we often get from modern superhero fare.

This is what characters can do for a story.  They inject it with life.  They give it a lasting impact, make it stay on your mind for a long time after its inevitable conclusion.  This is a big part of the reason why movies like Interstellar stay with me for so long, because the characters in it are so well written.  They give the world they reside in a certain believable quality that it otherwise wouldn’t have.  They are the people who you follow through the story, beginning to end.

But characters aren’t the only thing that can engage you in a story.  It’s the obvious thing to turn to when talking about books or movies, because they are by their nature scripted and focused.  But what about video games?  Games can have great characters and story on par with movies (just check out the Uncharted video game franchise for an example of an action movie turned video game), but there is also a sense of agency that the player of these games has.  He can choose where to go and what to do to a certain extent, depending on how the game itself is designed.  Some games, like Myst, take advantage of this agency, driving the player to explore and discover the story on their own.  But what makes the story of these types of games engrossing?  What makes them tick?  The answer lies in the setting.

Setting can have a major impact on any story, be it in a game, book, or movie.  But it can have special significance in a game, being that the interactive nature of the medium often immerses you in it in a way that books and movies can’t touch.  In a book, you imagine the setting in your mind.  In a movie, you follow the setting as the director and writer have envisioned it.  In a game, you decide what places to explore and what is important.  Of course, the game developer has to design the setting, so in essence you are still seeing exactly what the person who created it wanted you to see, but the little details the designer may not have found important might speak to you in a way that they didn’t anticipate.

Let’s look, for example, at Dark Fall: The Journal (I know, again right).  I’ve spoken about this game many a time on this blog, but here I want to call it out for a very specific reason.  Dark Fall has a strong sense of setting.  In the game itself, you interact with no physical characters (a ghostly voice belonging to a child guides you for the first few minutes, but you never see him of course).  You play as the brother of Pete Crowhurst, an architect redeveloping the old Dowerton train station and hotel.  After receiving a cryptic and alarming message on your answering machine, you travel to the station to find out what’s happening.  When you arrive, you find nothing and no one.  But you are not alone…

In Dark Fall‘s case, your character is merely a shell, a way to interact with the world and its characters.  The people in this game are no Walter White.  They won’t regale you with a gritty story of succumbing to greed and slowly transforming into a monster.  They’re just ordinary people who lived their lives.  But the way the game presents their stories is what makes it so interesting.

Take, for example, this letter you find in one of the hotel rooms:

 

Dark Fall The Journal (9)

 

 

If you are unable to see the picture for some reason, I will transcribe it for you:

“Betty,

Whats going on?  You told me no one would know I was in this room!  Someone tried the door a while back, I didn’t open it, course.

Then bout half hour ago someone knocked and whispered my name, it aint you, I would know your voice anytime.

If your mam finds out I’m in here she’ll blow her top!  She’ll tell me dad too, and then we’ll really be done for.

I’ll wait for a bit, and then leave this note in the storeroom.  Hopefully you’ll find it, before who ever it is finds me!

 

Thomas

XXXX

P.S. Bring us some more beer, love.”

 

It’s bits like this that made the game for me, these little snapshots of people’s lives that have been left sitting there.  Considering you never physically interact with any of these people (they did disappear after all), the little touches are what makes the game so interesting.  The style of writing clearly belies Thomas’ out of country origins, and his subdued manner hints at the idea that Betty is the dominant one in the relationship.

But what I like more than all of that is this little bit: “I’ll wait for a bit, and then leave this note in the storeroom”.  Well, it appears the note never got there…

A little does indeed go a long way, especially where horror/ghost stories are concerned.  Dark Fall is effective not because it throws the ghostly nature of things directly into your face, but because of the feeling that these people were just going about their everyday lives, having fun and dealing with personal issues when suddenly they just up and vanished.  It’s the sense of a life interrupted.

I may have only talked about setting and characters when it comes to making a story tick, but they are by no means the be all end all.  There are plenty of ways to make a story engrossing.  You can even make a story that has no dialogue entertaining, like the movie Apocalypto (I have admittedly never watched it, but the lack of dialogue was one of its bigger selling points).  It all really comes down to knowing what is important in the type of story you are trying to tell.  If it’s a horror story, setting can often be more important than character.  If it’s a gritty crime story, characters are going to be the driving force.  It’s easy to say that a good story is one that’s believable, but harder to say what makes that story believable.

And in the end, it’s all about getting the reader/audience/player to be willing to suspend their disbelief, if just for a short period of time.

 

Well that’s all I’ve got for this week.  Tune in next Wednesday for another post and as always, have a wonderful week everybody!

Also, don’t you just hate it when someone writes a sequel to something out of the blue?  Yeah…*eyes dart back and forth suspiciously*…me too……

Bye!

 

Daredevil: Season 1 Review (Netflix Series)

Warning: minor spoilers below.

Everything has a beginning.

Daredevil is a superhero that hasn’t gotten a lot of treatment over the years.  The last major thing I can remember about him was the Ben Affleck movie, which I remember being an okay movie at the time I watched it.  I can’t honestly tell you much about it (I was like fourteen or something when I saw it).  But now that Marvel is kicking up their expansion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).  For those uninitiated MCU is a term that refers to the interconnected movie universe they’re building, where all the superheroes essentially exist in the same world.

The new Netflix Series Daredevil is the latest in a line of Marvel television shows.  For those of you who don’t know him, Daredevil is a superhero who was blinded as a kid by an accident involving some kind of toxic waste.  However, this accident gives him heightened reflexes and senses, making him an incredibly powerful fighter.  He is based out of New York (Hell’s Kitchen specifically, at least in the new television show).

I’ve already talked about the one-shot fight scene at the end of the second episode, so I won’t mention it again here (you can read my thoughts on it if you like).  In any case, the show kicks off by immediately showing the aftermath of the accident that blinds Daredevil (real name Matthew Murdock).  His father runs to him as he lays in the middle of the street, injured and covered in a strange liquid.  A passerby reveals to his father that if it wasn’t for Matt pushing him out of the way, he would have died.  And so begins the hero’s tale.

Daredevil is definitely a slow-burner type of show.  The first few episodes focus more on his character, who he is and why he does what he does, rather than showing a bunch of epic fight scenes.  Murdock is a lawyer by day, trying to set up a practice with his best friend Foggy Nelson.  In the first episode, they help out a woman named Karen Page, who becomes their intern secretary and one of the main characters for the show.  Of course, there are still fight scenes in these early episodes, but they’re few and far between.  Most of the second episode deals with the aftermath of a failed rescue attempt by Murdock to save a kidnapped boy (we don’t actually even see the attempt…the episode jumps in right after he fails and we see him being rescued by a nurse).  One of the show’s biggest strengths is its use of tension, and the second episode is great at that.

Speaking of tension, the big bad in this first season doesn’t even appear until the last minute of the third episode.  We hear vague hints of him and we see his followers enacting his plans, but we don’t actually get a glimpse of him until then.  He is played by Vincent D’Onofrio (who you might remember from Full Metal Jacket or, more recently, Law and Order Criminal Intent), and he pulls off a masterful performance in this season.  One of the things that struck me is that the villain is a complex and complicated one, which is different from most comic book style shows.  Instead of being a one-note bad guy with a lust for destruction and/or power, the villain in this show seems to believe he is doing the right thing for his city, despite his methods being extremely destructive and violent.  There’s even a romantic subplot that develops between him and a curator at an art museum.

I particularly liked that the villain in this particular season wasn’t super-powered or anything.  He’s just a big, strong guy who happens to wear a lining of armor underneath his suits.

Let me put this out there: this show is dark.  Very dark, and not just in the lighting.  The phrase “darkest before the dawn” comes to mind.  Before things inevitably come to their conclusion, things get very grim for the main characters.  I won’t spoil anything, but the latter half of the season is incredibly intense and doesn’t let up.

The grim nature of the show translates to the fight scenes as well.  Bones snap and break the skin.  People are impaled, bludgeoned to death, and burned alive among other things.  I can definitely say that if you are squeamish at all, you probably shouldn’t watch this.  But if dark and gritty is your thing, and you don’t mind a bit of the old brutal violence, then by all means go right ahead and watch to your heart’s content.

I hesitate to say much more about this show for fear of spoiling some of its finer moments, but I will say this: it’s probably one of the finest superhero origin stories I’ve seen in a long time.  It reminds me a lot of the Christopher Nolan Batman movies, both in tone and in the character of Daredevil himself.  Peppered throughout the episodes are flashbacks to Murdock’s childhood, where we see him coping with his blindness as well as other tragic events.  Daredevil’s story is one of joy and sorrow in equal mix.

I honestly don’t have anything particularly bad to say about this show.  I griped about the one-shot fight scene (link here), but that was really the only part of the show that fell flat for me.  Once the show gets going, it doesn’t let up.  It’s quite the roller-coaster ride, pardon the cliché.  The only other thing I can say is that there are some vague elements of mysticism that don’t really go anywhere in the season, but that’s mostly because it’s setting up what I’ve heard are some of the more bizarre elements of the Daredevil story, which we will most likely see in the next season and maybe beyond, depending on how far they decide to go with the show.  I know this particular series is a lead-in for The Defenders, which is a TV series that will see Daredevil team up with several other heroes in New York City.

In any case, I highly recommend the show for those of you who are into gritty, character-based stories.  It’s one of the finest origin stories I’ve seen yet.

 

That’s all I have for this week.  Tune in next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week everyone.