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.

Popularity and Controversy: “13 Reasons Why” and the Discussion Around Suicide

You’ve probably heard of the Netflix show “13 Reasons Why”, even if you haven’t actually watched it.  Controversy has surrounded it ever since it was released at the end of March.

For those who don’t know, “13 Reasons Why” centers around the suicide of a fictional high school student named Hannah Baker.  Following her suicide, her friend Clay receives a box of tapes, each with a message Hannah recorded before she died.  In the tapes, she lists the reasons why she committed suicide…or rather the people who drove her to it.  Since the show came out, there’s been a swirl of controversy surrounding it, as people have argued that the show glorifies the act of suicide.

 

 

Now, I’m going to add a disclaimer here: I’ve never actually watched the show myself.  So everything I’m about to say comes from that perspective.  Take that as you will.

“13 Reasons Why” was originally a book written by author Jay Asher, which released in 2007.  Asher himself recently spoke about the book and the show at the Twin Cities Teen Lit Convention in Minnesota.  According to an article on Fox 9’s website, critics have called the plot dangerous because it depicts high school counselors as unsympathetic to Hannah’s plight.  Asher himself says that he’s dealt with criticism ever since the book released and he believes the Netflix show is sparking discussion on an important and difficult issue.

“The only thing that bothers me, is when people try to shut down conversation about it.  To me, that is the most dangerous thing,” Asher is quoted as saying.

Some people even tried to have the book banned when it came out ten years ago.

There’s been a lot of talk about “13 Reasons Why” glorifying suicide, but not much talk on how it glorifies suicide.  Most of the news stories I see talk about how schools are warning parents about the show and encouraging them to have a discussion with their children.  This is all well and good, but I find it hard to believe that the show is somehow glorifying the act of suicide when it is so clearly a tragic story.  And when I watch the trailer I just don’t see the problem.  To glorify something means to represent it as admirable, and I don’t get the sense that it’s trying to make suicide look like the right thing to do.

It seems to me, as an outsider who isn’t really a part of the conversation, that a lot of people are jumping on the controversy bandwagon in an effort to appear socially conscious.  It reminds me of when people buy those ribbons or bumper stickers in support of some cause and proudly put them on display for everyone to see.  In the back of my mind I always wonder, “do they actually care about the issue?  Or is it just a status symbol for them?”  The same kind of thing could be happening with “13 Reasons Why”.  People go on about how it glorifies suicide but they don’t really explain how it does or why they think that.  Instead, many of them say “don’t let your kids watch the show” and just leave it at that.

And that is not a solution.

Here’s the thing: when you present something as “forbidden” to kids, it tends to entice them to find out more.  If you simply refuse to discuss something with a child, then it leaves them unprepared for it when it happens.  They won’t recognize the signs if one of their friends starts to contemplate killing themselves.  And if they don’t recognize the signs, then they can’t help.

Suicide isn’t easy to talk about.  That’s understandable.  But ignoring the subject does more harm than good.

Personally, I’m glad that “13 Reasons Why” has generated controversy.  Controversy can be good because it sometimes encourages discussion.

And discussion is important, no matter how uncomfortable it might be.

 

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 and 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!

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here.

I also have a Twitter account.  You can follow me here.

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.

You can like the Rumination on the Lake Facebook page here.

Spotlight: Stranger Things Season 1

People have a lot of nostalgia for the 1980’s.  And why shouldn’t they?  It was the era of Spielberg.  It was the era of movies like E.T. and Back to the Future.  Stephen King was writing books like ItThe Mist, and Cujo.  It saw the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), which is widely credited for saving the video game market after it crashed.  Plenty of modern pop-culture nods are taken from the 1980’s, and even the book Ready Player One has nothing but reverence for the decade.

But nostalgia is a tricky thing.  If we aren’t careful, it can turn our vision rose-colored, obscuring any unpleasant details of the past.  While we owe the 1980’s a lot in terms of pop-culture, nothing is perfect.  E.T. and The Thing might be fondly remembered from the decade as powerhouse movies, but there was plenty of garbage to go along with it.  And while Mario and Zelda are revered video game franchises that continue to this day, there were plenty of games that came out that were cheap cash grabs with little in the way of intelligent design choices and frustrating controls.  Not to mention that back then there wasn’t much in the way of seeking out reviews for games, so often kids were stuck with what they got.

This is the line that Stranger Things straddles.  Stranger Things is a Netflix original series that released this past July, and follows the residents of a small town that deal with mysterious happenings that begin with the disappearance of young Will Byers.  The first season is eight episodes long, and from the start the influence of the ’80s is obvious.  The show opens with a group of kids playing Dungeons and Dragons.  After being told that they have to quit for the night (as it is a school night) the group split up and head home.  However, Will Byers isn’t seen again after that night.  He disappears after seeing something strange that chases him through the woods near his house.  It is his disappearance that strings everything along throughout this first season.

And I must say, what a damn good showing.

There is a reason why Stranger Things basically rocketed to the top of many Netflix queues.  It’s smartly paced and expertly written.  The characters are well acted and fleshed out over the eight-episode span.  And even despite the dark tone the show has a lot of the time, it manages to be incredibly charming.  This is especially due to the kids.  If you remember Freaks and Geeks, that show from the end of the ’90s, it feels similar to that.  It has that same charm of being part of a group of outcasts, the “freaks” so to speak.  Stranger Things even has the bully characters, who will show up every now and then simply to give the kids a hard time.

In this way, the kids feel essential to the tone of the show, which is ironic because part of the reason Stranger Things wound up as a Netflix show was because every studio the Duffer brothers (the creators of the show) pitched the show to wanted to cut out the kids as characters and make it more about the adults.  After having watched the show, I can’t imagine it without them.  I’m glad the Duffer brothers waited until they found a place that would honor their original vision.

But what about the adults?  How do they fare compared to the kids?  I would say just as well.  Everyone in this show seems to fit into their roles, even if their characters aren’t initially likable (the sheriff seems a little grouchy at first, but you quickly come to realize that he’s just reserved due to tragedy in his past).  I was particularly struck by Winona Ryder.  She plays Joyce Byers, Will’s mother, and gives a very convincing performance of a mother who’s just lost her child.  Throughout the season (especially the early episodes) we see her breaking down many times, especially so when she starts experiencing some strange events.  Predictably no one believes her and they’re convinced she’s just making it up in her head to cope with the grief.  This affects Joyce greatly, and her pain feels genuine.  It’s not easy to act a role like that without it feeling like you’re either underplaying it too much or being too melodramatic.  It’s a fine line, but Ryder walks it gracefully.  She stands out as one of the best parts of the season along with the kids.  All the other adults fit their roles, but I’m going to avoid talking about them to cut down on spoilers.

As I said earlier the show’s pacing is nearly pitch-perfect.  Each episode is briskly paced, keeping you engaged with what’s going on without feeling like it overstays its welcome.  They also keep handing you little bits and pieces of the mystery to keep you enticed while leaving you just enough in the dark that you want to learn more.  It never feels like X-Files or Lost, shows where you couldn’t be blamed for thinking they would never explain anything because they spend so much time building up the mystery.  Part of this is due to the difference in formats.  With Stranger Things being only eight episodes, they can’t spend a whole lot of time being mysterious.  They have to grab you, entice you, but give you enough to feel satisfying in its short run.  Compare that to the twenty-odd episodes in each season of X-Files and Lost, and you see how those shows can feel like they’re being dragged on too long.

Now that I’ve spent so much time hyping up how good the show is, the question becomes is there anything bad about it?  Well I can safely say that most of my gripes are minor.  Sometimes the special effects can look a little hokey and the CGI-ness of them is obvious.  One of the episode cliffhangers is resolved within the first five minutes of the next episode, despite the fact that the cliffhanger suggests that the solution should be much more difficult than that.

My only major gripe is with one of the characters.  It has nothing to do with the acting, just more with the character’s purpose.

Minor spoilers follow below.  You have been warned.

Early on in the season we are told about Lonnie, Joyce’s ex-husband.  He’s introduced as a small red herring for the characters, as the sheriff initially suggests that most of the time when children go missing they’re simply with a relative or someone they know.  Will’s older brother Jonathan goes to visit Lonnie in around episode three I think, but Lonnie shows up later on in the season to help console Joyce.  At first, when we hear about Lonnie, it sounds like he’s a total jerk-off who mocked Will for liking things like Dungeons and Dragons.  But when we actually see him in this later episodes, he seems like he might actually be a little more caring then we’ve been led to believe.  But this is where the show drops the ball.  Instead of doing anything interesting with him, all it seems to lead up to is a dramatic shouting match between him and Joyce, the only purpose of which is to cement in our minds the fact that she is the better parent of the two.  It feels like unnecessary drama that could have been filtered out.

Spoilers over.

Aside from that, I can’t really find anything bad to say about the show’s debut season.  It manages to be charming, enticing, and satisfying all at the same time.  And it sets up a few enticing tidbits at the end for the next season, which is said to be releasing sometime next year.  All that remains to be seen is if the show will fall victim to the “sophomore slump”, which is a term that means that the second season of a television show is often a bit of a letdown.  And when a show like this has such a strong first season, such a thing could be devastating for it.

But all that’s in the future.  If you’re looking for a good mystery with well-developed characters and elements of horror, Stranger Things is right up your alley.  If your alley is dark, spooky, and full of monsters that is.  Whatever man, I won’t judge.

 

That’s all I have for this time.  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.

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.