Deadpool 2 is better than the first

The creative team behind them is 110% committed to getting it right.

When I was in college working toward my BFA in musical theatre I took a class early in my degree which involved a few acting exercises. One of those exercises will stick with me forever. We were split into pairs and told to have one person do everything in their power to make the other laugh while the other person tried to avoid said laughter. This is the sort of game you might play as kids just because kids are imaginative and it doesn’t require anything in particular, but it’s also a really good acting exercise. When you’re acting, especially live, things go wrong and you have to roll with it and not break character.

Anyway, the lady I was paired with tried her darnedest to make me laugh but she was making absolutely no progress. There are a lot of reasons that she couldn’t make me laugh but one of the biggest was her inability to fully commit. Nothing against her but acting was not her passion. As I recall, she switched to a fashion degree shortly thereafter. Telling a joke or being funny requires being committed. If you half-ass it because you’re worried about the response or looking stupid or any other reason you will look stupid and people will feel awkward and pity you instead of laughing at you.

As she was trying to make me laugh one of the guys in another pair jumped up on a platform behind half of the class. I don’t remember exactly how he went about it but he walked or ran until he fell off the platform and dropped suddenly and unexpectedly which caused everyone who could see him to laugh out loud, including me. He was fully committed to getting that laugh and it worked.

Deadpool 2 continues the creative team’s efforts from the first movie to be fully committed to what they’re trying to accomplish. Nothing is held back. The gore and blood and violence are there. The jokes similarly shove themselves into your eardrums without waiting for permission. Ryan Reynolds gives everything he has to fully realizing the Merc with the Mouth. He doesn’t hesitate when the time comes to be gross or crass he just goes for it. This is what makes both of these movies so good.

The moment that made this stand out in stark highlight was the climactic battle of the movie. I’m not going to get into spoilers but it’s an action movie so if you didn’t know there was going to be a climactic battle I’d think you maybe have no business watching Deadpool movies. The fight itself was very Deadpoolish but while it was going on they replaced your standard orchestra/choral singing with this song:

They could have used any kind of generic lyrics or gone entirely without and just had the choir voice vowel sounds and no one would have noticed or complained. A lot of people probably missed this joke entirely on their first run of the movie – though they do play it at the end of the credits to make sure you get the full effect. But Deadpool’s creative team doesn’t ask themselves, “What would be the cheapest or easiest way to get this done?” they ask themselves, “What would be the absolute best way?” and then they ask, “Can we add anything else to make sure it’s perfect?”

The only thing that worries me is that the fear that some people will see the ultra-violence or the crass jokes and think that that’s what’s really doing it for the Deadpool franchise and try to just ape those aspects. But, of course, that’s not entirely what’s going on here. A lot of peoople are enjoying those elements but what really makes these movies work is the complete commitment to presenting the most authentic version of Deadpool on the big screen as humanly possible. Any movie team that similarly commits to whatever it is they’re trying to do will likely meet with similar success.

Deadpool movies are not and will never be for everyone. You need to be old enough to deal with the stuff they’re going to show you and you also have to enjoy them. But if you  do enjoy the comics or enjoyed the first Deadpool film I can easily recommend this one even more because Ryan Reynolds and friends didn’t let their feet off the gas, at all.

Agents of SHIELD has a stakes problem

The characters are fun but they can’t get no relief!

he stakes of a story can be a difficult thing to arrange. When we gathered here a month or so ago to talk about Ready Player One one of the primary problems with the film was its lack of stakes. The biggest issue was that in an effort to add more comedy to the film the creators chose to make the antagonists into complete buffoons; this drastically reduced the threat those antagonists represented.

So the trick then is to simply include competent villains, right? Well, sure, but even that doesn’t guarantee success. Another issue that film faced was that the task went from being one that took extreme knowledge and skill to one that took luck and otherwise didn’t make much sense. If the audience can’t follow a logical path from the efforts of the protagonist to their victories then it’s hard for the audience to take it seriously. If the protagonist relies too much on luck – which is more or less what led Parzival to all of his discoveries – then that also makes it difficult for the audience to care.

But even those are just scratching the surface of the kinds of missteps that can reduce the stakes of a story. Take Disney/ABC’s Agents of SHIELD for example. The antagonists in this TV series are frequently competent and sometimes more than competent. But the stakes are still an issue. The first reason is obvious to anyone who both consumes comic book stories and has done any reading on this topic: people coming back to life.

I won’t spend a ton of time on this subject because it’s been pretty extensively covered by other pontificators. I do want to say that there is room in stories for false deaths that still maintain stakes. (I can think of one recent example that still worked pretty well.) Like any story trope they can be overdone but just because there is a fake death or two doesn’t automatically ruin the stakes of a given story; a story can have stakes that are other than those of whether the heroes live or die and if there is foreshadowing that dead characters may return then it can still work out OK. I think death reversals fail primarily when they aren’t foreshadowed in any way and are done just as fanservice rather than in service of the story. SHIELD wouldn’t even exist, after all, if they hadn’t revived the allegedly dead Phil Coulson from his murder in The Avengers. Another terrific example is the characters who have returned from death in a certain HBO series. However, when too many characters – good, evil, or both – come back too many times for too little reason it can begin to wear on the audience’s ability to care about what’s happening through confusion or simple apathy.

The fake deaths aren’t the only problem SHIELD has, however. By far the larger issue lies in the number and depth of the threats the team faces on a regular basis. Just for the sake of comprehension let’s go over every threat faced in just part of this current season of Agents of SHIELD. SPOILERS for the first 17 episodes of the fifth season of SHIELD follow.

Spoiler alert! Turn back if you don't want any spoilers!

  • Time travel to the future
    • Mindless alien predators
    • Intelligent super-powered aliens
    • Greedy humans
    • Scared humans
    • Super-powered humans
    • Betrayal by alleged allies
  • A need to return to the past
  • Imminent alien invasion
  • Other aliens with hidden motives
  • Prophecy of the destruction of the planet.
  • Time loop.
  • The branding of SHIELD as enemies – again.
  • The destruction of multiple obelisks which somehow forms a phenomenon that brings nightmares to life.
  • The return of HYDRA. AGAIN.
  • Multiple superpowered enemies with varying motives.
  • The impending death of the team leader who has already died twice.
  • A prophecy that they must allow their leader to die.
  • Yo-yo has her arms cut off.
  • Fitz has a split personality.
  • Talbot’s impending betrayal

All of those threats or obstacles occur within 17 episodes of this season, usually more than one at a time. And I’m probably forgetting at least some of them. None of these threats are treated as minor and there is absolutely no break between them. The moment they deal with one problem two more sprout in its place. It’s frankly exhausting.

The fact that Agents of SHIELD never allows a moment’s rest for its hero creates a few problems. The most obvious one from a logical standpoint is that it ruins the believability of the story. Whatever superpowers some members of the team have, they’re all still mostly human. That means they need things like food, sleep, rest, and even relaxation. The constant inundation of enemies and disasters means they might get to eat and occasionally sleep but they’re never resting or relaxing. There are always three or more threats that need to be solved RIGHT NOW.

The other issue is probably pretty familiar to people who spend a lot of time writing stories or are knowledgeable about how they are written but might be less so for other people. Stories operate on the idea of building up tension and bring the story to a conclusion. That release of tension allows for catharsis. That’s a technical sounding term but it just basically means the relief of strong emotion or tension. A good climax will build up all kinds of strong emotions and tension in audience members. The conclusion of the story will relieve them – usually replacing them with exhilaration or sadness depending on the kind of story. This is true of a romance where the climax might be the final moment of will-they-won’t-they and it’s true of an action story where the climax is probably the final confrontation between the hero(es) and villain(s).

Because SHIELD has so many concurrent threats there’s never a release of tension. OK, great, they stopped evil villain A over here but there’s still natural disaster B and ticking time bomb C to deal with. But those won’t be solved until two weeks from now and by then we will have introduced threats D, E, and F. In a way this even goes back to another piece I wrote about filler episodes, a few months back. SHIELD hasn’t had a recognizable filler episode in at least a year and it really could use a handful to just let the characters breathe both literally and metaphorically.

The lack of a break between threats also causes them each of them to blend into a kind of white noise. As an audience member, without that catharsis, how can I judge how dangerous the latest HYDRA plan is versus the impending alien invasions versus the prophecies that Daisy will destroy the world? And if I can’t tell how dangerous they are, how can I care at all? Much less take them seriously. It’s all a swirl of loud noises and flashing lights and after a while I’m just blind and deaf instead of terrorized.

SHIELD has tripled down on these issues the last few weeks by having the cast break the fourth wall a bit and make frequent jokes about how they never stop fighting six different kinds of danger at the same time. It’s a bit baffling that the writers clearly understand what it is they’re doing without making any attempt to rectify it.

And, for the record, stakes are a complicated topic and it is possible to have all those threats and still have a strong story. But if you’re going to do that you need to eventually solve all of them and give your heroes a break. The natural point for that to occur is at the end of the season but SHIELD likes to use that time to set up the next huge threat as a cliffhanger. The cliffhanger should probably be dying as a TV trope, anyway, but that’s an entirely different article.

The first season of the show was hardly perfect, but one thing it did do right was deal with threats in a manner that allowed for occasional resolution. There was definitely a serial plot happening in the background but it was broken into episodic stories which allowed for at least a measure resolution at the end of episodes. Yes, the show was a bit campy, but that part hasn’t actually changed. The ways in which the show has improved since then include accepting the campiness and making it a part of its identity instead of trying to pretend it wasn’t there.

It’s unclear how long the show can maintain this break-neck pace without ever providing any resolution to anything and maintain viewership. Honestly, it’s unclear what kind of viewership the show is currently enjoying. It’s in the middle of its fifth season which doesn’t sound like a show that is barely crawling along but I rarely hear people talk about it and it seems entirely possible that Marvel/Disney just might not have noticed the losses they’re taking on it because of the massive profits they’re making everywhere else.

On the other hand, a quick google search of the show suggests multiple outlets were begging people to come back to the show around December of last year because it was good again. So maybe I’m completely off-base. I know I suggested on Twitter that the show was not very good because of the issues I outlined above and received nothing but disagreement. So maybe I’m the clueless one this time.

One thing that should be obvious from my writing about the show at all is that I am absolutely still watching it. It’s one of only two weekly televised shows I keep up with on a semi-regular basis (the other, Once Upon a Time, is approaching its series finale) so that should tell you a little something about how enjoyable it can be beyond the complaints I’ve raised here. The stories may not be well-conceived or always well-written but the characters are charismatic in their own ways and there is absolutely worse dreck on television. If you’re looking for a show with a great deal of technical writing proficiency you probably want to look elsewhere but if you’d like a mindless, campy melodrama then Agents of SHIELD might be just the show you need.

Can we get a movie about Black Panther’s Okoye?

The Wakandan General stole the show, for me.

Before I start gushing about how amazing General Okoye was, I want to pause briefly to talk about the movie as a whole. It was really awesome! There. Review over.

No, I’m kidding of course. The action was good, though the opening fight sequence was a bit dark at least in the particular theater I saw it in. The politics were interesting in a way that The Phantom Menace has dreams and nightmares about. The expanded cast of characters – in particular, the aforementioned General, played by Danai Gurira; Wakanda’s top spy and love interest to the titular Black Panther, Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia; and the kingdom’s super-energetic top tech guru, Princess Shuri as played by Letitia Wright – were all terrific. If you’ve not seen it I definitely recommend it. If you’ve already seen it you should probably watch it again; the more I think about the movie the more the subtexts expand into my mind. That’s a great trait for a movie to have and definitely lends to rewatchability – that’s the technical term, of course.

Now I’ll dig into some spoilers, so you’ve been warned.

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First some nitpicking

OK, I want to take one more tiny detour into Nitpick land before I talk about how awesome the general was. If you don’t want to see any negativity or nitpicking, I don’t blame you at all and please skip on down to the header that says “GENERAL OKOYE IS THE MOST AWESOME!!!!” But I’m a native nitpicker – my sixth post ever on this website was just nitpicking for 4000 words, after all – so y’all are just going to have to get used to this quirk of mine or ignore it, I’m afraid.

I spent the entire second half of the movie annoyed at it to the point that I basically stopped enjoying myself. Killmonger had just killed Klaue and lugged him to Wakanda to use as a kind of party gift in order to convince the Wakandans to hear him out. I had several problems with the plan at this point:

  1. Killmonger obviously knew where Wakanda was and has the resources to go there at any time. If all he needed was Klaue’s body to get in, then there was no reason to go through with the heist, the sale, or the jailbreak. He could have killed him at the start and been done with it.
  2. He already had a royal ring. That seems like it should have been enough to get him in there and questioned about its origin and authenticity all by itself.
  3. There doesn’t seem to be any way Killmonger could have known about the specific internal politics of modern Wakanda in order to think that his plan to give them Klaue was a particularly good one.

I discussed this with my friend and discovered that I had missed a strong possibility on at least the first point: that Killmonger, as a black ops specialist trained in the art of destabilizing governments and by all accounts very good at it, might have gone through with the other stuff in order to make Wakanda/King T’Challa feel or appear weaker in order to give himself a better chance of convincing people to allow his coup attempt. That all seems quite reasonable once it’s explained even though it doesn’t end up mattering in the slightest – only one person is upset by T’Challa’s inability to bring Klaue in and that person would have been just as happy to have Klaue delivered to him without making T’Challa look stupid first. I’m still a bit annoyed I missed it, though. But hey, no one’s perfect.

As to point two, the same friend argued that they would have assumed it was a fake. I still think that it would have been concerning enough to the people in charge to get him an interview/interrogation with high ups – which is ultimately what bringing Klaue earned him – but that part’s a little bit debatable. So, in the interests of fairness, I’ll simply concede that one. Bringing Klaue in the way it was done gave Killmonger a stronger position to deal from than the ring alone would have. Fine.

It’s the third point that I still have trouble with. Killmonger is a master secret agent, fine. But Wakanda is also the most technologically advanced AND most secretive nation on the planet. For decades, centuries, maybe millennia they have been hiding their true nature from the outside world. You can’t accomplish this task for that long without some serious paranoia, tech, and the willingness/competence to use it. And it isn’t like Wakanda’s blood thirst for Klaue was super well-known or even all that wide-spread. As events unfold it becomes clear that exactly one person in the upper levels of Wakanda’s government cares enough about Klaue’s death to escort Killmonger directly to the council of elders and king without passing go or collecting two-hundred dollars: their chief of border security, W’kabi. Every other person at the top of the government wants him dismissed, arrested, or killed even after he brings them Klaue until T’Challa accedes to his request for a formal challenge.

In order for Killmonger’s plan to succeed he either needed high-level, sensitive, personal information about W’Kabi’s state of mind or he had to get incredibly lucky when he guessed that the country would be happy to see Klaue’s corpse and just happened to bring it to the one person for whom that actually happened to be true. I suppose it’s possible that Killmonger did that level of spy work before he formulated his plan, but it’s never once shown, discussed, or even alluded to. I had a long discussion with my friend about whether such a thing was necessary or not and I plan to talk more on that subject, later, but I’ve already spent more words on this subject than I had intended to.

Of course, none of this diminishes Michael B. Jordan’s excellent performance. Any issues here, real or imagined, lie directly at the feet of the writers. This is the kind of tiny thing that many people can and will completely ignore. But, like I said, I’m a nitpicker and I pick nits. As Geico would say, “It’s what he does.”

GENERAL OKOYE IS THE MOST AWESOME!!!!

OK, with the nits picked and out of the way let’s talk about the most awesome character in the movie. Wakanda has an elite force of royal bodyguards made up of women that is known as the Dore Milaje. Of all those badass ladies the most badass of all is their general, Okoye. Despite the fact that she is tasked with guarding a superhuman king who can run faster and jump higher and further than she ever could. The writers made an excellent choice in allowing her to find ways to make things work instead of becoming an annoying nag – think Obi-Wan Kenobi’s relationship to Anakin in The Clone Wars but how much worse that would have felt here – and Ms. Gurira plays it great. From the very start of the movie, she saves the Black Panther in the opening fight when he freezes upon seeing his ex.

Her best moment in the movie, however, comes when she chooses not to fight. After Killmonger appears to kill T’Challa in the ritual combat Nakia rightfully fears for the lives of his mother and sister and rushes them to safety. She sneaks back into the city/palace for supplies and steals one last infusion of Black Panther skills in the form of the heart-shaped plant and then goes to the general to assure her that she has successfully hidden T’Challa’s family and to recruit Okoye for the rebellion she’s plotting.

Keep in mind at this point no one really knows what Killmonger is going to do next, only that he acquired the throne legally according to the Wakandan justice system. And Okoye is forced to choose between her duties and her loyalties. In a move that may have stunned many, she chooses her duties. This reminded me strongly of the early history of the United States. You can read more about it on your own time but in 1801 the US faced its first transition of power from one ruling party to another. This was something that largely wasn’t done, many countries were still using royalty and nobility as their system of governance, and there was a lot of fear that a civil war would break out because of it. Okoye’s choice here was an important one because it meant she was supporting the laws of the country she loved to ensure the stability of her country. Imagine if instead of Killmonger one of the other noble families had challenged T’Challa and beaten him. And that T’Challa’s family and closest friends had started a coup. It would have been a civil war in their country. Okoye was working to ensure that she didn’t help set any such precedent and it was a great moment for her character. It doesn’t hurt at all that Gurira played the conflict and resolve perfectly.

Now, of course, the very instant she saw a way to make the law work to her advantage – T’Challa returned alive and so the duel wasn’t actually completed – she immediately started working against Killmonger, again. She did this even though it meant fighting against someone with superhuman ability. Even more impressively, she did this even though it meant possibly fighting to the death against her lover, W’Kabi, who had gone along with Killmonger’s plans gleefully. It was a re-affirmation of her core character; she never loses sight of her duties and always chooses Wakanda even when it would conflict with her personal feelings. So impressive is her willingness to stand up for what she believes in that W’Kabi doesn’t mess around when she holds her spear to his throat and informs him that she will kill him if he doesn’t lay down his weapons.

I would happily watch a movie that focused on her character more because other than maybe Shuri I felt like she was always the most interesting character on-screen whenever she showed up in a scene. She had to make multiple difficult choices and she got to kick some serious bad guy booty. I’m honestly still shaking my head at how easy she made it look to fight hand-to-hand and with a spear in such close quarters against villains larger than herself and while she was wearing a dress and heels during the casino scene. According to IMDB, she is going to be in Avengers: Infinity War and I can’t wait to see her do more excellent work.

Learning from Stranger Things Part 1

Stranger Things 2 was AMAZING. The polar opposite of recent reviewee The Defenders.

Remember a couple weeks ago when I pretty much threw 2 episodes and a series worth of review together in one rushed piece to conclude my watching of The Defenders? Some of you wanted me to expand on that a bit. Now, I honestly didn’t really care to do that. I found the entire thing to be a disappointment and didn’t want to dwell on it any further. That’s why you got what you got to begin with. But rejoice, because I have a new framework to work from!

You see, since we last spoke I watched the entire second season of Stranger Things. The first season was terrific and the second season was in no way a let down. It does almost everything right. I know I spend a lot of time being critical of the media I talk about so you might think I get my kicks from picking on things – and I do! But it’s so much more fun when a show makes me work for it. And Stranger Things season 2 absolutely makes me work for it.

In that final review of The Defenders I noted that it failed as a TV show in just about every way imaginable. Stranger Things 2, on the other hand, succeeds as a TV show in just about every way imaginable. Some people argue that The Defenders was designed to be binged and I just watched it the wrong way but I promise you I could have broken apart Stranger Things 2 in exactly the same way and still have a quality show. As I noted before I started writing about Netflix’s attempt at a Marvel team-up just because the show is designed to be bingeable does not mean it cannot or should not be able to stand on it’s own from an episode to episode basis. I really wish now that I had skipped The Defenders entirely done an episode by episode breakdown of Stranger Things 2. The problem is there was infinitely more pressure on me to catch up on ST2 than there was TD. My friends were watching ST2 and they wanted to talk about it with me. That simply wasn’t true of far less hyped comic book show.

So what do you need to make a good TV show? I would argue that to make a good TV show you simply need to take all the pieces that make up a TV show and make them good. Makes sense, right? So what are the things that make up a TV show? In broad strokes they are:

  • Characters
    • Characters should feel and want things
    • Characters should act on those feelings and desires.
    • Characters should relatable – not necessarily likable
    • Characters will conflict. Make these conflicts reasonable and interesting. Avoid bad cliches.
    • Characters should drive the plot, not the other way around – if your characters do something unusual for them in order to move the plot then you’ve forsaken the characters in the name of good plot.
  • Story
    • The story should make sense
    • The story should be interesting – it may not be unique, that’s hard to do. Twist it, spin it, bop it if you can. Honestly, though, if you accomplished all the character goals you’re 99% of the way here even with a paint by the numbers plot.
    • Twin to the final point point about characters, the plot should be driven by what the characters want. This important enough to warrant mentioning in both places: characters control plot, not the other way around.
    • Chapters of the story, episodes in TV parlance, should progress the overarching story in a serialized plot. Both episodic and serialized tv shows should have chapters with self-contained plots as well.
  • Visuals
    • Identify the visual focus for your series and make sure you nail it every time. If you’ve got especially bad special effects (i.e. Birdemic) then you’re going to kill your audience’s suspension of disbelief. The visual requirements will be unique to every show, but they’re always there to some degree.
    • Make sure there is enough lighting, even during night or otherwise dark scenes, to convey your visuals. Unless the confusion and terror of the darkness is part of what you’re conveying in that moment – do not overuse this.

Starting next week I’m going to try and break these things down even further to explain how to do it well and how to do it poorly using The Defenders and Stranger Things 2 as the primary examples. I might throw some other TV shows or movies in there while I am at it. Hopefully this will help you have a better understanding about what I meant a couple weeks ago and it will definitely give you a deeper look into my methodologies and thought processes for future criticisms. Obviously every TV show is different; they will have different things they are trying to accomplish, different focuses, and perhaps very different results that can be good in one place and bad in another.

SPOILERS follow for The Defenders and Stranger Things.

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For example, The Defenders chose to focus on a visual element: the fights between the super heroes and the super villains. Most action movies will choose a similar focus with only enough story and character to string together a series of interesting fight scenes. The problem with the attempts to do this in The Defenders is that it was essentially an eight-hour long movie. If you want to focus on fight scenes as the primary draw of your story eight hours is a lot of time to fill with fight scenes. This ended up causing trouble in multiple other areas.

Because they didn’t spend much time on story or characters but couldn’t just do fight after fight after fight without pause they ended up with a lot of pointless and boring filler material. Even so they had so many fight scenes that more time, focus, and money was obviously put into certain fight scenes. This left obvious and large disparities between scenes like the battle in the Midland Circle Boardroom – which was actually a pretty solid fight scene – and scenes like the one in the Midland Circle Garage or the Midland Circle Pit which obviously did not get the same amount of love, either in choreography or shooting. When you finally have the heroes directly face off against the villains but you can’t tell what’s happening for the lighting and number of cuts you have a problem. Similarly when your big finale fight scene starts with the heroes using a super power to knock everyone over but then stand around waiting for the enemies to get up and then obviously come at the one by one you’ve screwed up pretty badly.

On the other hand in Stranger Things the last thing they did was special effects. There were very few fight scenes which allowed them to pour attention to detail into ensuring that they were filmed in a way that allowed them to actually be visible to the audience. Contrast Steve’s battle with the Demodogs against the battle between the heroes and villains in the garage. Despite the fact that both fights take place in the dark it is far easier to see what’s happening in Steve’s fight which actually gives him a much greater opportunity to look cool during the fight despite the fact that he’s a teenager with a baseball bat versus a bunch of CGI monsters and the the Defenders are trained fighters versus other trained fighters using occasional super powers. Another good contrast is the Shadow Monster from Stranger Things as compared to the explosion at Midland Circle in Defenders. Despite both things being giant CGI effects one of these looks cool and intimidating while the other looks cheap and pits far too many actors who don’t react quite right to it making it look even worse. And remember, the latter wanted to be defined by what it showed you while the other showed you things in order to progress it’s story and grow its characters. Makes Defenders look even worse, doesn’t it?

One note that I want to leave you with that doesn’t really seem to fit in with any of the above stuff but was too obvious to ignore is that as I have been conceiving the idea for this series of articles I realized something about The Defenders. There is something weird going on with it, and other Marvel properties, recently. When Stranger Things 2 came out they had a huge advertisement blowout. Ads all over the internet, cast going on late night shows, they have a mobile game tie-in, and even a Google voice search tie in. Go to your android phone say, “OK Google. Let me to talk to Dustin from Stranger Things.” and it will take you through bits of the plot from the show while prodding you with trivia questions. The only reason I even realized The Defenders was coming out was because one of the writers I follow from Forbes wrote an article entitled, “If You Don’t Know Netflix’s ‘The Defenders’ Is Out Tomorrow, I Don’t Blame You”. Did you know The Punisher came out, yesterday? Once again, the only reason I know is because I saw a random headline on Yahoo referencing the show. Sure, both Marvel/Netflix collaborations got teaser trailers at one point but so did Stranger Things plus all those other things. It’s possible The Punisher lost a bunch of advertising opportunities because stripping away the details it’s really about an angry white man with way too many guns going to town with them – something we’ve seen far too much of recently, tragically. But at least as far as The Defenders I don’t know if it’s a matter of Netflix running out of money in their budgets for those shows, if they knew they were going to be bad so they just didn’t bother, or something else entirely.

In any case that’s just the beginning of the missteps in regards to Marvel’s properties versus what we have seen from The Duffer Brothers. Next week we’ll dig much, much further.

 

The one about Thor

Did you know Thor: Ragnarok came out last week? Well it did. And despite being the stereotypical nerd who stays at home and never socializes I even went and saw it. With friends and everything. Now me being me two things held true: I thoroughly enjoyed the movie and I have nitpicky things I want to talk about. Since the movie was generally good we will start with the bad things so we can end on a positive note:

SPOILER WARNING: Just gonna spoil everything in this movie.

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Things I didn’t particularly like:

Random Hela decisions. First of all, the Norse goddess of death is named Hel. Never in the history of anything has she been referred to as Hela. Apparently this was not an MCU decision, it was a Marvel Comics decision. That doesn’t make it less dumb. Also the whole battle-mode setup. It’s never explained what this is, how it works, or why it might be important. Without those things it’s just a dumb gimmick for no reason that wastes time. It really doesn’t help that in battle mode they did a little makeup thing under Cate Blanchett’s eyes which gave her a permanent squint and was generally not a good look for the character. The whole get up would have been far superior without that; I was constantly distracted with wondering whether she was supposed to be doing everything with her eyes closed.

The writing decision to kill off every single one of Thor’s male buddies within 5 minutes of Hela’s entrance. These men are supposed to be terrific, deadly warriors in their own right – that is why they’re good enough to go with Thor on his adventures to begin with – but all three died pretty unceremoniously. Heck, Zachary Levi didn’t even get a line before he died and only Hogun (yes, I had to look up the character’s name, too) actually put up any kind of a fight. And…uh…where was Sif? I guess they couldn’t kill her because they needed her for later stuff, but she just wasn’t around at all which was weird. Beyond that, no one ever mentions, considers, or mourns these fellows ever again after these opening scenes. Back in the first movie they fought incredibly bravely to help Thor after his father had cast him out of Asgard. In the second movie they fought valiantly once again in order to help Thor defeat the Dark Elves. But despite this movie improving on almost everything from the first two movies it demoted these stalwart fellows into mere red shirts to be smited in order to impress upon the audience how deadly Hela was.

The re-defined Hulk/Banner relationship. In every movie up until now Hulk could best be described as Banner with homicidal rage and little to no self control. In this movie Hulk has his own personality and Banner acts as if this has always been true, despite going so far in The Avengers to start a sentence as Banner and end it as Hulk. There was also not nearly enough time spent on how Hulk managed to take control from Bruce, why he did it, or any kind of indication about where the character(s) will be going from here. Heck, Bruce worried that if he transformed again he might not be able to return but that plot thread was completely ignored once the final battle was completed. I honestly can’t remember if he managed to transform back into Bruce but if he didn’t everyone was weirdly OK with it. In other words, it didn’t really affect the plot. He still Hulked out when he needed to and no one worried about it after that.

By far the biggest problem with the movie, though, was that it completely wasted a Karl Urban appearance. Karl is easily one of the more underrated actors in Hollywood and Marvel managed to land him in what should have been a fairly interesting role as the viewpoint character to show us what Hela was up to. Traditionally this role would have been one of three types of characters: The good guy who is pretending to go along with the villain in order to find out their weakness, the bad guy who hams it all up and just loves being evil (which is what his expression seemed to indicate in posters), and the good guy who was never that good and never wanted to be quite that bad and dies a heroic death of atonement at the end.

It appears that they were going for the last choice there, but they forgot to ever really put Skurge in a position where he had to make a choice. Or honestly any act at all. He mostly stood around and waited for the next thing to happen. As the description I gave above would indicate this character will usually be a nominal member of team good. He or she will feel underappreciated and then something will happen to exacerbate that feeling. The character will then join team bad, do a bit of evil to people he or she feels have wronged or ignored him or her but will eventually want to draw a line. Usually at this point the character finally resists and dies giving the heroes a chance to escape/resist and save the day.

This script jumped straight from a braggart trying to woo some ladies with his illusory power and intelligence to joining the bad guy without hesitation, despite no additional impetus to do so. Then it jumps again the point where the character worries that things are going too far and just hangs out there for a while without much happening. Finally it jumped from there to the point where the character is asked to decide whether they truly want to be evil. This moment is further under cut by the fact that the character doesn’t ultimately make a decision, a distraction allows him to put it off. Later we see him leading the enemy force against refugees and then attempt a cowardly disguise to join them when it looks like his team might lose. Finally he attempts to complete the redemption arc by sacrificing himself but this, too, is undercut by multiple problems.

The thing about the redemption arc is that you have to believe there’s some good in the character and the only sign we’ve seen of any good has been Urban emoting for everything he is worth that he is really, really uncomfortable with the situation he is in. Also, despite having ranged weapons and everyone who needed to be evacuated already on the ship that he needs to defend he leaps off of it to ensure that he dies in the attempt. Finally, the heroes completely ignore him and even the villain only gives him a cursory glance of contempt before flinging one of her magic stone spears at him and there is the weirdest, most awkward cut to the spear in his chest and he dies without uttering a word or being noticed by the heroes, still.

This is one of those situations like I described in a previous article where going with the established trope would have been better than avoiding it. Whenever they did a close up of Urban’s face you could nearly smell the frustration and indecision of Skurge, but they never gave him an outlet to act those things. It’s glaringly obvious that the problems lay entirely in the writing and direction. There was never a sense of momentum in any particular direction for Skurge – he was never good, evil, cowardly, or brave – he just followed Hela around and waited to die. It’s a damn shame because they could have given that role to a much worse actor and it wouldn’t have made any difference except to prevent me from getting my hopes up.

Things I liked a fair bit

Jeff Goldblum. One of the friends I saw this movie with noted that studios have stopped writing characters for Goldblum, they just give him a script and tell him to be himself. It’s a beautiful thing every time and this movie was no exception. It worked primarily because this movie was much more of a comedy than previous entries in the MCU, more on that in a minute.

The 80’s aesthetic. It was done surprisingly faithfully but also without being insulting, derivative, or devolving into pure 80’s cheese. The movie is a bit corny – as would be any movie that wants to be funny as badly as this one does – but it’s a modern kind of corny that does not grate or draw attention to itself like it would have had the movie gone full 80’s. The music was terrific and especially good in that it included a couple tracks from the inspirational decade  but was primarily brand new synthesizer work – an homage rather than a strict replication. This allowed it to differentiate itself from Guardians of the Galaxy which is made almost entirely of pop hits from the same time period.

Cate Blanchett, aside from her eye problem with the makeup, was delightful as Hela. One of the more interesting Marvel movie villains – which reminds me, I should definitely do a definitive ranking of those at some point. Her motives were delightfully straight-forward and she pursued them with a zeal and glee that made her a joy to watch.

The fight scenes. There was so, so, so, so much CGI in every fight scene. But it all looked great. The visual spectacle of Hela decimating the Asgardian army/guard/whatever was terrific even as it was devastating to someone who hates even red shirt deaths as much as I do. Watching Hulk and Thor go all out against each other was likewise terrific; in retrospect they actually had a very long fight scene, as such things go, but it didn’t feel overly long at all. The only miss was how confused and quick the moments between Hulk and Fenrir were. Fenrir is a pretty big part of Norse mythology and I would have liked to see him have a greater, scarier role in the movie. As it was when Hulk started to fight him it felt a bit awkward because the cuts and acting led one to believe everyone was terrified of this wolf but up to that point he had literally done nothing except be a giant dog.

The humor. I’ve actually seen quite a few people complaining about this, but I think this was a good thing. The first two Thor movies took themselves entirely too seriously at times considering the clumsy bro-god they feature. This movie allowed Chris Hemsworth’s interpretation of the mythological hero to shine much more than in the previous entries. Some people seem to think that the Marvel movies are getting to be too funny but I’m not entirely clear as to why they think that or why it’s supposed to be a bad thing even if it’s true. The only two Marvel movies I would classify as “nearly a comedy” would be Thor: Ragnarok and The Antman. The other movies all have good comedic moments but not nearly to the same degree as those two movies. This was the seventeenth movie in the MCU and that leaves only two comedic endeavors. I think the library can stand that ratio. Neither movie was a dumb comedy in the vein of Will Farrell or Adam Sandler, either. They’re smart, snappy action comedies that move quickly and do lots of good things.

The interconnectedness of the MCU as shown in this movie. I had someone complain about this a little bit, too, but I think this movie did the interconnectedness of the MCU in nearly the perfect way. Frequently for the stand-alone movies everyone asks, “Why didn’t anyone contact the rest of the Avengers?” this movie solves this problem particularly well by never allowing Thor a chance to contact them once it becomes apparent that he’s dealing with a deadly situation. We also got a direct tie-in to Age of Ultron in discovering Hulk’s whereabouts following that movie – admittedly they could have done better with this, as noted earlier – as well as a brief appearance by Dr. Strange that made sense, didn’t overstay it’s welcome, and made sure at least one Avenger knows he’s around and should be contacted when the next movie comes along.

In other words there was enough of the rest of the MCU to this movie to make sure the people paying attention could still feel connected but not so much that the people who weren’t would really feel all that left out. This was basically the promise of the MCU from the start – that it would feel like the comics with crossovers and team-ups being possibilities all the time. It remains unfortunate that this hasn’t extended to the various TV and Netflix series in the same degree, but it’s great to see them continue to follow through at the movie level.

Valkyrie and Tessa Thompson. I’d never heard of Tessa Thompson before seeing this movie but she and the character were both absolutely brilliant. Every single moment she was on screen was terrific – she frequently stole scenes without even chewing up any of the scenery, an astonishing feat – and I really can’t say enough about the actress or the writing for her character. If there is anything I’m more excited for in the future of the MCU than to see her doing more of her thing, I can’t imagine what it is.

The visuals used in depicting Valkyrie’s back story. It was a small thing in a short scene that didn’t tell the audience much they didn’t already know but great things are always built on small things. They were very reminiscent of classical art of valkyries and they looked absolutely terrific. Great decision married to great execution.

Still, the award for “Best Moment of the Movie IMHO” has to go to Hulk running past everyone to fight Surtur after Loki sets him loose on Asgard. I laughed and laughed and laughed even as I wondered if he’d actually succeed in defeating Surtur before the fiery being could destroy Asgard and force them to come up with another plan. Fortunately Thor was able to get his attention, but I chuckled over the bit all through the credit and out of the theater.

Thor: Ragnarok was a terrific movie and a great feature-length MCU debut for director Taika Waititi – who also voiced the loveable rock gladiator, Korg. I am almost as excited for any more work he does in the MCU as I am to see more of Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie. He managed to bring us easily the most enjoyable Thor film to date and despite that being a low bar he aimed high and mostly reached his goal. For the first time in the MCU I enjoyed a movie so much I think I’d be willing to see it in theaters a second time.

The Defenders: Final 2 Episodes and Wrap-up

You can do better than this, Marvel and Netflix.

SPOILERS FOLLOW for the entirety of the Netflix Marvel shows through The Defenders season 1.

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Sorry about missing last week but there were a few problems that precluded my ability to write on schedule. Beyond that the penultimate episode of this season was…dull. It culminated in what should have been the coolest, most fun battle we’ve yet seen: Luke Cage, Daredevil, and Jessica Jones versus Madame Gao, Bakuto, and Murakami. Unfortunately it was so dark and it was so chopped up to show the fight between Iron Fist and Elektra simultaneously that it was indecipherable and boring.

The final episode wasn’t significantly better. It leaned heavily on some comic/TV tropes in a way that was not enjoyable at all. Tropes are not automatically bad. There is power in using something familiar to help guide the audience through a complicated story or to a powerful catharsis. Unfortunately the tropes they chose to share with us in this episode of television didn’t try to accomplish either of those things and were some of the worst tropes in existence to begin with.

The episode starts with Luke Cage arguing with everyone else about how he won’t blow up the building because that’s just not how he does things. He doesn’t ever give a real solid explanation for why he doesn’t want to do it; he just doesn’t want to. The error in writing is compounded when he finally begins to capitulate – as we all knew he must even 5 minutes prior when he first started arguing – and he insists that if they’re going to do it they have to make sure no innocents gets hurt. They established at the end of the last episode, using Matt’s murky powers of blindness (which probably deserves its own post), that the building was already empty of all but Hand agents. So when Luke gives in it’s with a caveat that they’ve already established. Beyond that one has to wonder what the alternative was, for Luke. Did he intend them to all comb through the building – while the police were tracking them – to find every single Hand agent and ensure they were arrested, tried, and convicted so that they could never come back and complete their dastardly plan? He wasn’t thinking it through and that was pretty par for the course of the entire episode.

Misty Knight finds her way into the building using her amazing ability of…shooting a lock off of a door. So how come the rest of the cops aren’t all over the place early on? The cops also decide they need to evacuate a two-block radius to protect the civilians from the destruction of the tower. But the cops are all still sitting around their cars outside the building when it goes up. And of course it collapses straight down, neatly plugging the hole without damaging any of the nearby buildings.

Only a day or two ago Colleen suffered a nasty gut wound and didn’t even have it treated at a hospital but merely a little police department first aid. When she first suffered the injury she was pale and barely able to walk. But how does Misty find her? Fighting as if absolutely nothing were wrong. She even takes another nasty slash across her back but keeps on fighting. Daredevil does something similar as he fights Elektra, later. Watching heroes completely shrug off mortal or disabling wounds is tiresome and eliminates any stakes to the conflict which eliminates any audience participation, emotionally or intellectually.

Another thing that removes stakes from your story? Characters returning from the dead before the audience can even fully process that death. Especially when the character death was neither plausible nor suited to the story being told in the first place. When Daredevil “died” underneath the Midland Circle Tower I would be very surprised to discover that even 1% of audience members thought he was actually dead. Neither the story nor his personality really seemed to points toward his “sacrifice” being a necessity, either. It more or less happened to check off a box the writers apparently felt needed checking. I wish they would have asked themselves, “How awkward and annoying will it be for our audience to watch Karen and Nelson cry when they realize that Matt isn’t coming back while the audience is 100% sure that he is?”

I could go on about the various tropes and inconsistencies of the final episode – you know how bad I can get if you read my article about the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones season seven, Beyond the Wall,  – but I think we’ve probably covered enough ground. Unlike Game of Thrones, The Defenders has not yet earned enough good will from me to cause me to really dig in to all of the flaws.

The show started with a good deal of promise and an excellent cast but by the end it was another formulaic mess with poorly-lit, chopped up fight  scenes and a bland story that didn’t even give its characters a chance to grow. Much like season seven of Game of Thrones it suffered both from being too long and too short. Had the season been longer they might have been able to spend more time developing the villains and making them as interesting as their varied backgrounds promised they would be at the start. There might have been time to grow some of the heroes other than Matt Murdock, too. Maybe even tell a slightly more complex story. Had the season been shorter – perhaps 2-3 hours – we could have worried less about character growth and stretching things out; the simplified plot would have been perfectly serviceable in such a dumb action flick. Less screen time in that scenario would also have meant far fewer fight scenes which would have allowed the choreographers and actors to work harder on making the scenes that remained far better. We might also have avoided the heroes standing arguing for minutes at a time about things we all knew they were going to do, anyway. It doesn’t have to end this way, though. Marvel shows automatically bring in a certain number of audience members so there will inevitably be a sequel season. Hopefully the writers, producers, and directors can learn from the mistakes they’ve made and deliver a much improved season 2.

The Defenders: Ashes, Ashes

Marvel and Netflix need to solve their villain problem.

SPOILERS for all the Marvel/Netflix collaborations up to The Defenders season 1 episode 6.

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Each Marvel show has featured a different group of writers and directors, to this point. Even so they seem to have an over-arching plan in place that let them all come together in this season. The other thing that over-arching plan seems to have done is guided the shows into gradually making worse and worse villains. They started off strong with Daredevil season 1 Wilson “Kingpin” Fisk and Killgrave, aka “The Man in Purple” in season 1 of Jessica Jones. After that Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes and his cousin Mariah Dillard made for interesting villains before Cornell was killed off and Mariah was shuffled into the background.

That’s when things really started to spiral out of control. Diamondback was a dull, prototypical crazy man out for revenge against the hero for something the hero neither remembered nor ever had any control over. Don’t forget that technically before Luke Cage we actually had Nobu pull off your bog standard comic book resurrections of a minor villain into a more powerful form. Finally Iron Fist went completely off the rails by not having a clear villain with a distinct plan for the first half of the show followed by two different villains, one with more unclear goals and the other insane.

If you go back and examine all of these villains a pattern begins to emerge of what kinds of characteristics resulted in interesting villains versus boring ones that kill the momentum of their show:

  1. The villain should have a clear goal and the smaller the scope, the better. Good examples: Fisk wants to have complete control of Hell’s Kitchen so he can make it “better”. Killgrave wants to control the only person who has ever escaped his control. Cottonmouth wants to make money and improve his status.  Bad examples: Diamondback’s desire to kill Luke is both specific and small in scope, but the aims of the methods he used were frequently so obscure that it ballooned on itself – he also swapped plans and desires frequently based on the needs of the show rather than because it made sense for the character. The Iron Fist villains never had a clear plan other than to prevent Danny from becoming involved in whatever it was they were doing. Nobu wants Elektra in Daredevil season 2 so he can turn her into The Black Sky, but never tells us what that means or why he would want it. This plot twist also comes halfway into a season that had been about Daredevil vs The Punisher.
  2. The villain should always be working to further their plan. Good examples: Fisk never stops planning and plotting his domination of Hell’s Kitchen. Killgrave works everything around toward figuring out how to control Jessica. Cottonmouth is always manipulating, dealing, and working toward his goal of dominating Harlem and making himself untouchable. Bad examples: Daredevil season 2 flips between plot threads too often to further any plan very well for long. Iron Fist doesn’t have a villain for too long and it’s unclear what Bakuto actually wants to accomplish when he’s finally introduced. Diamondback takes frequent breaks to do things that make no sense with no explanation.
  3. The villain is better if they have a personal connection to the hero. Good examples: Fisk and Matt battle because they both deeply care about Hell’s Kitchen. Killgrave has known Jessica and wants to personally control her, again. Bad examples: Danny barely knows the villains from his show, Matt barely takes the time to get to know Frank Castle, does not know or understand Nobu.
  4. Based on Daredevil S2, Iron Fist, and Luke Cage we can see that a plan to change the villain partway through always results in a muddied and uninteresting story as well. It should be avoided.

That brings us all the way up to The Defenders. The advertised big villain for this show was Sigourney Weaver’s Alexandra. Fairly early in the process we discovered that she was one of five fingers of The Hand along with previously introduced villains Madame Gao and a resurrected Bakuto. We are also shortly introduced to African Warlord Sowande and a Japanese hunter named Murakami – both of whom honestly seem far more interesting and dangerous than the first three but which are given very little backstory. Still, there was some interesting potential here, that’s a very diverse group of people. Let’s plug them into our formula and see how it works out:

  1. At first blush their goal appears clear, they want to go back to K’un-Lun in order to get more substance so they can prolong their lives. Upon further review it’s a bit more obscure than that. If they can’t get to K’un-Lun then who destroyed the city so that Danny could find it that way at the end of Iron Fist? If they can get back to the city but they need Danny’s fist to unlock some secret room or treasure trove or whatever then why don’t they say that instead of “get back to the city”? Also it’s unclear what this magical substance is, how it works, and why they haven’t made any attempt to return to retrieve it until now when they are completely out. If they’ve been so close to running out for a while now why have they been sharing it with people like Nobu and Harold Meachum?
    The real problem, however, is the lack of clarity in their planned methodology. Alexandra is convinced that having five immortal, deadly martial artists each of whom lead massive armies, corporations, and perhaps whole countries is not enough to capture Danny Rand. They need The Black Sky to handle it. Everyone else disagrees with her, but they still allow her to use the last of “the substance” the resurrect Elektra into this form and then Elektra just runs around attacking things. Why is this the best method? Why was this ever an option at all?
    Also, remember the earthquake from the end of episode one? That was the entire motivating force for our heroes to believe that all of New York was in danger and absolutely nothing has come of that for more than half the season as the heroes and villains have bickered mostly among themselves.
  2. If none of them think they should/need to use The Black Sky there is absolutely nothing stopping them from just collecting their armies and attacking our heroes on their own. Even one of those armies should be enough to defeat 5 people. Eventually they’ll get tired and members of The Hand have never shown any hesitance in sending others to die. Instead they all stand around and insist that Alexandra is wrong and that she shouldn’t be their leader anymore. But then, despite all being in agreement and ostensibly individually equal in power to her, they do absolutely nothing. Inevitably the next time we see them is when they go to argue that she shouldn’t be leading them again.
  3. The only one of the villains with anything resembling a true personal connection to any of the heroes is Bakuto but that’s much more true with Colleen, currently sitting on the sidelines. Madame Gao has always been a background piece and the other three are all new to this series. None of them do anything to particularly make the conflict personal with our heroes or humanize themselves. Even Elektra as a bad guy doesn’t work because she’s actually The Black Sky, an entirely new being.
  4. They immediately started out with five villains, which muddies the waters even if they don’t switch things. Then Sowande was killed off unceremoniously without ever having a clear purpose or character. And finally, at the end of this episode, Elektra goes crazy – crazy villains are also boring unless they’re in strict control of themselves like Wilson Fisk – and kills Alexandra. At this point we realize that we never really understood much about her or her motivations, either. So now we are left with three backup villains and a new crazy lady.

This move might have been aimed at making the conflict more personal between Elektra and Daredevil, but even if that works – and I am guessing it won’t – it is a bad choice. For starters it leaves out our other three heroes. The other problem is that for as dull as Alexandra has been as the villain she was working on a secret plan this entire season. Killing her means that all the anticipation viewers have had as they awaited her denouement goes to waste. In fact, it signals to the viewers that they never should have bothered being worried about that at all. Foreshadowing is a terrific literary device used to set up a plot point and knock it down later in a way that satisfies reader interest and pays them off for reading or watching your story. They spent an awful lot of time doing little things with Alexandra that everyone hoped were foreshadowing something interesting. It wasn’t. So why should we care about anything that comes next?

They may have thought that they were doing something really interesting with a group of immortal villains who hate each other almost as much the heroes but mostly what it has led to is, as previously noted, a lot of internal bickering among the two teams which is honestly just not very interesting. It’s all well and good to watch Iron Fist and Luke Cage duke it out, but after a certain amount of time they need to put that aside so they can deal with the real threat. It still hasn’t happened three-quarters of the way through the series. There are two episodes remaining for the villains to give us a reason to actually fear or loathe them. Two more episodes for the heroes to give us a reason to cheer for them. Two more episodes for New York to actually be in danger. Here’s hoping those last two episodes are much more interesting than the first six.

The Defenders: Take Shelter

A comics-to-video trope rears its ugly head.

SPOILER WARNING through episode 5 of The Defenders, minor spoilers for DC shows on The CW.

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We could talk about how the fights weren’t nearly as interesting from a character perspective, to say nothing of the technical perspective, in this episode as most of them have been. We could talk about how Bakuto is still alive after all – shocking, I know. We could even talk about the scene where all of the sidekicks, friends, and love interests from our shows were all gathered together in one place – a missed opportunity for more crossover hijinks as well as problematic, logically.

Instead we are going to talk about the terrible, terrible comic trope that has appeared in very nearly every Marvel and DC movie and TV show: characters withholding vital information from other characters in the name of keeping them safe. In fairness to these intellectual properties, not revealing your status as a vigilante is safer for your friends and family. They’re far less likely to be prosecuted as an accessory if they have no idea what it is you are up to. However, most of the time, this isn’t the kind of ‘safe’ the heroes or other characters are referring to.

The most common form this takes is the super hero/vigilante/whomever refusing to tell a loved one about their secret identity  because they want to protect them from possible reprisal by the villains they battle. You see Barry “The Flash” Allen and Oliver “Green Arrow” Queen use this excuse on almost every single recurring non-villain – along with even the occasional villain still in waiting – in their respective shows. This is just flat out wrong. They are only in danger from the villains if those villains already know the hero’s true identity or if they have tied your secret identity and true identity together in a way that makes them think you can lead them to yourself – a common danger for Peter Parker. In either of those cases they might kidnap one of your friends to threaten you with; your friend not having a clue what’s going on does not protect them. In fact it does the opposite of protect them because it leaves them oblivious to the possible actual danger they are in because of your choices.

The absolute worst part about this trope is that the vast majority of the time it’s implemented the people being lied to find out anyway. Either the villain kidnaps them based on the criteria I laid about above or their natural curiosity combined with their closeness to the hero allows them to make some deductions. Frequently they could have taken steps to protect themselves – by distancing themselves from the hero, at the very least – or even sometimes offer valuable help. This trope is nearly always simply used as a delaying tactic to prevent the problem from being solved more quickly. It is lazy, sloppy writing and it is incredibly frustrating to viewers.

It shows up in an even worse form in this episode. When Colleen and Luke refuse to give details to actual law enforcement officer Misty Knight and Matt refuses to give details to actual investigative reporter Karen Page they use this idiotic excuse. The problem is that Misty and Karen have chosen professions where they do battle with evil, in their own ways, every day. They aren’t here to be safe. It isn’t the place of our “heroes” to protect them in this way. The ladies are here to do the same thing you guys are trying to do. At least in the case of Oliver not wanting to tell his mother or Barry not wanting to tell Iris it’s a case of protecting a loved one who has taken no interest, training, or resources with which to join the fight. Misty and Karen have those things and it does a disservice to them to refuse to allow them to do their part.

The other vital consideration is that The Hand already wants to kill them. That’s why you’ve sent them to relative safety in the police station break room. Telling them who The Hand is or what they are up to cannot put them in any more danger because they are literally already in as much danger as is possible for them to be in. Knowing the kind of enemy that wants them dead could only help them prepare to face that enemy if The Defenders fail to derail their plans in time. And you just know that they will. The Hand is absolutely going to storm that police station and dozens of people are going to die because none of them have a clue what’s coming because none of you are willing to try to explain it. And that is going to be on the heads of our four heroes plus Colleen. If Luke had said, “I do not have time to try to explain this right now. I have to hurry if I’m going to stop them.” That would have made some sense and been a much better excuse. Colleen could then have done the honors as they all sat around waiting to be attacked. What else does she have to do, right now?

This was a very disappointing turn for the show which should be better than this nonsense. For an eight-hour mini-series event it continues to pad it’s run-time with nonsensical filler in a way that simply should not have been necessary or allowed.

The show does deserve a bit of praise, however, for at least some aspects of the handling of Sowande’s death. First of all, the scene where the other four fingers bicker back and forth was a terrific scene, managing to accomplish multiple goals at the same time. When a show can fill in back-story without direct exposition like reading or narration it’s always a plus. Not only do we learn something of how the Fingers have been living their eternal lives but we also set up some conflict between these powerful warlords and establish that Sowande actually is in danger through the lens of people who have spent centuries being functionally unkillable suddenly feeling fear instead of a blatant single line of dialog untied to character motivations like you’d see in another show. When he dies in the next scene you can be safe in the knowledge that, unlike Bakuto, he won’t be coming back.

They also did a very credible job establishing how Sowande could escape without any of our heroes noticing. Their conflict is fairly realistic – I take issue with everyone complaining at Matt for not ‘laying everything out on the table’ when he didn’t keep it to himself for all that long, but it still makes more sense than many TV conflicts I’ve seen lately. The result of the escape attempt is also interesting in multiple ways. The visual of a beheaded Sowande is pretty powerful, it’s a eye-grabbber and an additional way of proving that he is really, really dead for sure. We see the intelligence, arrogance, ruthlessness and quick-thinking of Sowande followed immediately by Stick showing all of the same characteristics – just as we should expect from both of them, by now. Character driven events and explanations are always the way to go and Netflix followed through in those two scenes.

Get ready for next week when our heroes will inevitably suffer a setback and their friends will probably come under attack. It will be interesting to see if The Defenders is willing to let any of the named characters die.

 

The Defenders: Royal Dragon

A Marvel team that makes sense

Spoilers follow for The Avengers and The Defenders through episode 4.

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Remember watching The Avengers? That was a pretty good movie, at least the first time through as long as you didn’t think too hard about it. But the coolest thing about that movie was how it teamed up every Marvel superhero that Marvel had produced a movie for, to that point, plus a couple others. It had Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, The Hulk, Hawkeye and Black Widow. It was really fun to see all those people on screen together.

The thing is, if you step back for a minute, that team composition didn’t make a whole lot of sense outside ‘listen these are all the superpowered beings we could both find and convince to work with the US Government’. It was a team that included the very talented but not super powered archer Hawkeye, the dangerous but also not super powered spy Black Widow, the brilliant scientist with a special armored suit Iron Man, the other brilliant scientist with a super powered but allegedly uncontrollable alter ego, a super soldier, and a super powered humanoid being from another planet if not another dimension.

Beyond the fact that only one of those people doesn’t have a crippling flaw that should prevent them from being on a government sponsored super hero team there is a lot of overlap, there. They have two super-smart scientists which is probably one more than they need on a single team. They have one being that the US has no right to deal with on their own. Two people can fly, three have super strength, two-three have projectile weapons. Unlike say, The X-Men or even the Super Friends this team is basically just a weapon.

They also don’t really have a variety of temperaments, either. They have a pair of guys who are used to leading their own teams, three who have only ever worked alone, and one guy who can lead or follow as the needs of the situation dictate but also generally prefers to work alone. All of them are used to identifying targets and taking them out. It’s no wonder that they all ended up butting heads and getting in each others way while they waited for somebody to gather some intelligence for them.

The point is that in The Defenders we are treated to a team that makes a lot more sense.

Jessica Jones is a private eye with a terrific ability for deduction. Sometimes that takes the form of tracking down missing husbands who were kidnapped by shadow organizations, sometimes it means identifying the best way to deal with an imminent threat to someone she wants to protect, and other times it means being able to immediately deduce the secret identity of a superhero shortly after meeting him. She is the brains, the intelligence (in every sense of the word), and the tactician of this outfit. Danny and Luke’s plans up to this point have largely been, “Show up, see if anything needs punching, punch it, hope it drops information as loot.” A team needs those kinds of people but it also needs the people who can figure out what the enemy is up to and direct the punchers to where they can do the most good. While Daredevil has a bit more investigative talent than those two he just isn’t as good at it as Jessica is. He also can’t come up with effective plans like she does; once he identifies a threat he generally becomes as straight-forward as the other team members.

Luke Cage is the shield of the unit. In gaming terms he is the “Tank.” He exists to soak up attacks and damage so that others will be safe. This is true both in terms of abilities, given his impervious skin, as well as his temperament. The man lives to protect others. It’s been true of him even in his flashbacks and is generally the cause of all of his difficulties. His life would probably have been significantly easier if he could walk away and leave others to their fate. He barely knows Danny Rand/Iron Fist but the first time anyone levels a gun Luke doesn’t hesitate to step between them. Luke is also the first one other than Danny to insist that even though The Hand is clearly dangerous he wants to step up and try to protect people.

Daredevil is the team scout. His nimbleness which allows him to go where others cannot and to arrive there undetected when others would surely be seen allows him to gather intelligence that might not be able to otherwise be gained. Let’s not forget those super senses which allow him to know when enemies may be nearby that everyone else is clueless to. He also seems primed to act as the team’s conscience. Ready and able to ask if they should do a thing just because they can. Something Danny and Jessica could probably use, at the very least.

The Immortal Iron Fist is the team weapon and heart. I was a bit surprised to discover that Danny was actually likable for the first time ever, so far as I can recall, in this episode. He was charming when he announced to the others that he had used his wealth – his greatest or second-greatest asset, depending on your perspective – to pay several months rent to the owner of the Chinese restaurant they take refuge in as well as four of every item on the menu in order to secure its use as a temporary base. When he pled with them to join his cause in order to protect the world from whatever the nefarious plot of The Hand is he seemed genuine and earnest. If this team is to work, now, it will require him to act as the glue. And of course, much like Luke’s temperament predisposes him to protect others Danny’s predisposes him to dish out the punishment. He grew up viewing The Hand as an ancient sworn enemy and he will not rest until they have been defeated. His powered-up chi punch attack is also the team’s greatest and strongest offensive weapon.

Despite the fact that not much happened this episode – the actions of the episode can be summed up in two-three sentences if you break it down to its base elements – it really did a lot to flesh out why we should believe all of these loners would, could, and should work together. The decision to allow Jessica to leave and to come back was perfect both in terms of believability for her character and for what the team needed to give it a sense of reality. The only really disappointing part of this episode was that I had hoped they would flesh out the elevator scene from the original teaser trailer a bit more. Unfortunately that scene didn’t appear at all in this episode.

We are now halfway through the season, the team has been brought together, the enemies have been made clear, and another epic fight is brewing. Hopefully it will be as high quality as the last one in terms of cinematography, choreography, and character detail. We still don’t know what The Hand is actually trying to accomplish, right now, but hopefully as the season starts the downward slope the rest of the pieces will fall into place soon and give us a legendary finish.

The Defenders: Worst Behavior

Together at last!

SPOILERS follow for all Marvel/Netflix collaboration shows through The Defenders episode 3.

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So now we are three episodes into this mini-series/epic movie adventure and the heroes finally – finally – all meet up. The majority of this episode is filler. Most Netflix seasons are thirteen episodes long, this one is only eight, and it still has an entire episode that consists of people simply refusing to communicate long enough for them all to individually discover the same information so that they can all meet up together, but not until the very end of the episode. You would think that an organization that has spent so long in the shadows would maybe not leave three avenues of discovery so readily available, but here we are.

Those methods of discovery, by the way, are due to some sloppy, sloppy work by The Hand. Danny figures them out because they shut down three of their shell corporations on the same day and sent all the money directly to their home base. If you shut them down on different days or use a some intermediaries before combining the funds then that avenue would likely have been closed or taken months and months to follow instead of five minutes. Luke finds them because one of their cleaners, so unimportant as to be entirely unaware of what was happening, visited their home base and had to get a parking pass. There is no reason to ever bring your clueless-by-design cleaning crew to your home base. Recruit and pay them in neutral territory or at least somewhere less obviously tied to you. Jessica is the only one who had to do any real digging – which makes sense since she is the only practiced investigator in the crew – but was only able to do so because they lost track of the architect who got her involved in the first place. There is no reason for an organization as powerful and successful as The Hand to leave any of those threads dangling, much less all three of them. And of course our heroes discover them in such a way that leads all of them to just coincidentally show up at the base at the same time.

The show does make up for some of this narrative silliness by paying things off with the meet up. But it also has some pretty good fight scenes going for it even before that. The cold open lasts fifteen minutes until the opening credits, during this time we see Elektra revived as the Black Sky. It’s still not entirely clear what the purpose of the Black Sky is but apparently it keeps all of Elektra’s instincts – including the ability to speak and to fight – but loses her memory. She practices her fighting abilities against increasing numbers of enemies using blunt weapons under the eye of Sigourney Weaver. The director used some wide shots to show some good angles of the fighting without always flashing around in cuts. The writing choices allow all of Elektra’s opponents to be strictly stunt workers which precludes the need for a lot of the cuts; the use of all the black in costumes and weapons as well as the darkness allows for a lot to be hidden as well without cutting away. It’s a much more interesting fight scene than we saw before.

The ultimate culmination of this gauntlet is that immediately after defeating a largish group of enemies single handed without taking a single blow she is swarmed by even more ninjas with naked blades and the lights go out. When the lights come back on she stands alone in the middle of a bunch of corpses, blood everywhere. On the one hand it was apparently an impressive fight that we weren’t allowed to see; on the other hand it probably wouldn’t have been much different than what we’d already seen. Not showing the fight may actually have been the better choice in much the same way that Jaws is scarier for only rarely showing the monster shark.

Later on Sigourney Weaver uses Black Sky/Elektra to try to taunt Stick, Daredevil’s old mentor, into giving away the location of Iron Fist. He won’t do it and has apparently only been awaiting an opportunity for someone to bring a weapon near enough to him to allow him to escape. My favorite fight scenes in cinema have always been the ones with Jackie Chan. I love how he uses his environment and restrictions to do interesting things. There’s certainly something to be said for technique, speed, power, and all of that jazz. But the improvisational nature of his fights combined with his comedic timing have always made even his worst films very enjoyable for me. This fight is over with quickly but we do see a few moments of Stick using the fact that he is handcuffed to a pole to his advantage somehow as he continually crashes his enemies into it and uses it for leverage to deal with others. Eventually he takes one of Elektra’s swords and cuts his own hand off to escape. But not before, in a moment of sheer badassery, he punches Sigourney Weaver in the face with the stump where his left hand used to be. This fight scene isn’t funny or charming like a Jackie Chan scene, but Stick definitely gets across the message that he is so good he can use his restraints against you and so badass that he will literally punch you in the face with the bloody stump of his hand that he cut off himself without even flinching if that is what it takes to win.

The music and direction do a great job of building tension toward the end of the episode. Credit the writing staff and the director for not cutting the episode before the gang gets back together. This is one place being a Netflix show built for bingeing really works in the favor of even someone like me who is only watching one episode a week. Were this a show made for a regular television network everyone might have bumped into each other but the actual working together bit probably wouldn’t have shown up until the next episode.

Danny attempts to confront the executives of The Hand’s primary shell company with the information that he knows and can prove they are up to criminal activity. They are entirely unimpressed with this knowledge and the pretty lady who smiled and led Danny to the conference room pulls a pistol out of her skirt and levels it at the back of his head. Fortunately – or perhaps unfortunately, depending on how much you like Danny Rand – she doesn’t immediately pull the trigger and allows Danny to fight long enough for Luke, Jessica, and Matt to all show up and help him out. This is when we get another terrific fight scene which is as impressive for how it depicts each of our heroes fighting as for the actual fight itself.

Luke busts through a wall first to help Danny and one of his first acts is to stand between Danny and two sub-machine gun wielding bad guys. Danny’s fighting style is just as we should expect given his training and temperament. He is fast, stylish, and aggressive. Luke’s style is very mountain like. He doesn’t move with speed or grace – remember, for all the fighting he has done he isn’t really trained at all – but he happily punches and throws people directly into walls as the opportunities arise to use his brute strength without leaving himself or Danny open. Jessica fights similarly to Luke, they share that lack of training and the super strength that allows them to overcome it, but she isn’t impervious like he is so she’s forced to hang back and let the tougher and more agile allies do most of the fighting as she cleans up whatever they miss. Matt fights a rearguard action and while he has flashy moves the same as Danny they don’t come with as much power or nearly as much aggression – remember that Matt has been fighting an internal battle with himself over the violence he has perpetrated and his ever-increasing desire to perpetrate more ever since he took up the mantle of Daredevil.

The camera follows the action well, using cuts mostly to accentuate the insanity of the melee rather than to disguise the blows being dealt out. It makes sure to highlight each of our heroes at least a couple of times including a very Jessica moment where she knocks out one guy cold with a punch and then gives him an annoyed look as she hammers the elevator down button to prepare their escape. Danny also gets what might be my favorite Chi Punch, yet. He punches Elektra’s sword as she attempts to cut Matt in half and shatters it as well as knocking her back through a wall to give them the time they need to make their escape.

This episode exists solely for the purpose of reaching this final battle, and it shows. It makes a play at some interpersonal issues, some sociopolitical issues, and some investigative work but it all falls flat. The investigative stuff is especially boring after the first time someone figures out where it is they need to be, but the other issues just kind of get dropped so the episode can keep moving which saps them of any narrative power. The final battle is fun and interesting, though, and it’s exciting to finally see all of these heroes together at last. It also contrasts with the “fun and exciting” battle at the end of Game of Thrones’ penultimate episode in  season 7 in that everything that leads up to it at least makes sense even if it’s a bit uninspired. This allows people with a critical eye to enjoy the Defenders scene quite a bit more.

At last they are in the elevator from the teaser trailer and the excitement has begun. Now that The Hand has revealed themselves and our heroes have finally all gathered together the story should finally be able to build up some momentum and we should begin to see some of those awesome comic book hero team up moments we’ve been dying to see. If we’re lucky, we’ll even get to see Jessica knock some sense into Danny.