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Non-Review Review: Wind River

Taylor Sheridan’s loose “Frontier trilogy” imagines the frontier as the sight of America’s original sin.

Like Sicario and Hell or High WaterWind River is set in what might be considered a modern-day equivalent of the “wild west.” It is a harsh and brutal world, one in which people fight a losing battle to make sense of that violence. Sicario imagined the frontier as Mexico, a tale of lawless retribution set against the backdrop of the already-lost War on Drugs. Hell or High Water imagined that frontier in Texas, a modern tale of bank robberies and land grabs. Wind River pushes that frontier to vast frozen surroundings of Wyoming, putting Native Americans in focus.

In the wild white yonder…

As the trilogy has moved North, it has also shifted tones. Sicario was confused and angry, struggling to explain the horrors that were unfolding. Hell or High Water blended that anger with a sense of wistful nostalgia, reflecting on the tragic irony of manifest destiny eroded by late capitalism. Wind River is just profoundly sad, a meditation on loss that seems more exhausted than angry. It is a tale about those people left behind on what remains of the frontier, about violence that is too easily overlooked and ignored. There is no rage here, no passion. There is just fatigue.

Wind River is a western set in the forgotten part of the west. It is a western set in the snow, on a Native American reservation. It is the story of a frontier that is too readily forgotten.

In cold blood.

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The Defenders – Royal Dragon (Review)

Royal Dragon might just be the best episode of The Defenders. It is also the smallest.

Royal Dragon is in many ways the runt of the litter. It is an episode relatively low on action beats, particularly given that it is sandwiched between the closing scenes of Worst Behaviour and the opening scenes of Take Shelter. It also has a relatively small primary cast. There is no sign of supporting players like Colleen Wing, Misty Knight, Trish Walker, or Claire Temple. The episode also confines most of the four heroes to one location for the bulk of the runtime, even if Jessica Jones gets to take a breather. It could easily be the “bottle” episode.

Hero shot.

Royal Dragon is also an episode that accomplishes relatively little in terms of plot momentum or forward movement. There are no major revelations in the episode, with a lot of the exposition covering information that the audience already knows from the other four shows. In some ways, Royal Dragon feels like a void at the centre of the season. It does not tangibly push the season forward. In many ways, the cliffhanger is arguably just a retread of the ending to Worst Behaviour; these four heroes, standing together against impossible odds.

At the same time, Royal Dragon luxuriates in this space and this emptiness. It is an episode that essentially locks its four leads together in a confined space for most of the runtime, which affords the writing staff the opportunity to have the characters slow down and process what has happened to them, to bounce off one another. Royal Dragon allows for the first extended interactions between various combinations of these four players.

A taste of teamwork.

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The Defenders – Worst Behaviour (Review)

One of the big issues with The Defenders is that it works a lot better as a weird cross-cutting fusion of four different television series than it does as a single cohesive narrative.

The H Word and Mean Right Hook feature a few small crossover between primary and supporting characters; Foggy and Luke, Misty and Jessica, a fight between Luke and Danny, a quick tease of Matt and Jessica. Otherwise, the four lead characters seem to operate in isolation from one another, continuing threads and themes from their own shows, even as they inch closer and closer together. Worst Behaviour and Royal Dragon finally bring the big four characters together, while still trading on the incongruity of this team-up.

Privileged information.

This tension provides the first half of The Defenders with a compelling narrative hook, an interesting set of internal conflicts between various genres and styles and conventions. In contrast, a lot of this tension evaporates in the second half of the season, as The Defenders figures out exactly what it wants to be in Take Shelter and Ashes, Ashes, before devolving into a familiar and distracting chaos with Fish in the Jailhouse and The Defenders. The first half of the season is compelling, because it seems to be about more than wave-after-wave of generic ninja.

As the team begins to cohere in Worst Behaviour, worlds begin to collide. There is something sublime and ridiculous, as the audience comes to realise that a blind vigilante might coexist alongside a super-strong alcoholic private investigator, a bulletproof social crusader and a billionaire martial arts expert. It is weird, wonderful and jarring. The Defenders manages an interesting frisson in Worst Behaviour.

Lift off.

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The 250, The Bottom 100, Episode 3 – Crossover (-#35)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, The Bottom 100 is a subset of the fortnightly The 250 podcast, a trip through some of the worst movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, Preston A. Whitmore II’s Crossover.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 35th worst movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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The Defenders – Mean Right Hook (Review)

The shared universe is a feature of comic book storytelling that has gradually crept into the mainstream.

In some ways, it is a logical escalation of the concept of sequels, a way of expanding storytelling opportunities in a way that beacons in fans of existing properties. The shared universe is a prime example of modern pop culture’s investment in intellectual property ahead of personality, where the familiar concept behind a film or television series is often as attractive as any star headlining. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is perhaps the most successful example, spanning movies, novels and television shows all (in theory) set within the same fictional world.

It’s a big universe out there.

The shared universe has become the default mode for big-budget storytelling in the twenty-first century, a structure towards which studios aspire. The most obvious examples are the shared comic book universes from Disney and Warner Brothers, with another coming from Sony in the near future. However, there are countless other examples. Disney has begun constructing standalone stories within its Star Wars universe. James Wan has built up an unlikely blockbuster horror shared universe.

The Defenders is an interesting beast, the culmination of a shared subuniverse. It brings together the primary characters from Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist in their own weird little corner of the shared Marvel cinematic universe.

Devil in the details.

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Marvel and Netflix’s The Defenders (Review)

The Defenders stumbles in familiar ways.

The series is nominally a crossover between the four Marvel Netflix series, a small-screen version of The Avengers providing a point of intersection between Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist. In theory, this is the perfect opportunity to bring together four television superheroes to face a larger threat. There is something inherently cool in the idea of a crossover, in watching worlds collide and watching protagonists folded into a larger ensemble.

However, things are not so simple. The Defenders prejudices some of its constituent elements more than others. Most notable, it is overseen by Marco Ramirez and Doug Petrie, the producers on the second season of Daredevil. It also carries over several elements from that season, including the hole in the ground from Semper Fidelis and the death and resurrection of Elektra from A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen. More than that, The Defenders carries over the mythology of the Hand and the Iron Fist from Iron Fist, putting heavy focus on Danny Rand.

From the outset, The Defenders effectively handicaps itself by leaning on the two weakest pillars of this multimedia empire. The second season of Daredevil was a disjointed mess packed with poor writing and stuffed with generic ninjas. The first season of Iron Fist was a collection of Orientalist stereotypes crammed into a cheap and poorly constructed origin story fashioned from whatever meat that Daredevil had left on the bones of the template that Christopher Nolan had established in Batman Begins. These are not foundations for an epic.

More than that, this emphasis on the second season of Daredevil and the first season of Iron Fist comes at the expense of the three strong seasons of Marvel’s Netflix output. The Defenders never captures the emotional power of Jessica Jones, nor the street-level perspective of life in New York conveyed through Luke Cage. Even more basically, The Defenders never even tries to create the same sense of pulpy thrill that defined so much of the first season of Daredevil. Instead, The Defenders focuses on ninjas and mystical nonsense.

The central plot of The Defenders hinges on the revelation that the island of Manhattan has been built on a volatile foundation. The Defenders could just as easily be speaking about itself.

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The Defenders – Episode 1 (Review)

It’s a hell of a town.

One of the most striking aspects of The Defenders is its emphasis on New York City. Of course, the Marvel Universe has always been centred on the Big Apple. Decades before Fantastic Four #1 laid the foundation stone for that elaborate shared continuity, Marvel Comics #1 established New York City as a hub for characters like Namor, the Angel and the Human Torch. The city has a long and rich shared history with the comic book publisher, allowing visitors to take tours of iconic comic book locations and even lighting the Empire State Building in the colours of The Amazing Spider-Man.

Matt’s got the devil off his back.

Of course, this long-standing association between New York and the Marvel universe has inevitably bled over into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Most obviously, The Avengers places its iconic long pan around the eponymous heroes right in front of Grand Central Station. Spider-Man: Homecoming features its hero swinging through Queens and the suburbs. However, most of these scenes are shot on location outside New York; Atlanta and Toronto frequently double for New York.

In contrast, the Netflix Marvel series have all shot in and around New York. Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist all went to the bother of filming Manhattan, rather than trying to recreate the city using another location. In many ways, it feels like these series unfold in a more authentic and grounded version of New York than the corresponding feature films, right down to the fact that their skylines all feature the real-life MetLife Building instead of the fictional “Avengers Tower.”

Trish Talk.

The Netflix shows did not always engage with a particular vision of New York. Iron Fist was so confused about its own identity that it never engaged with the city around it. Jessica Jones never invested in Jessica’s surroundings, but it still found time to include the city itself in the title character’s goodbye tour in AKA Top Shelf Perverts. However, both Daredevil and Luke Cage were very firmly rooted in their own versions of the Big Apple. Daredevil imagined a pre-gentrification eighties urban hellscape, while Luke Cage celebrated the history and culture of Harlem.

Given that The Defenders is being overseen by showrunners Marco Ramirez and Doug Petrie, it makes sense that the series would have a very strong sense of place. Ramirez and Petrie were previously in charge of the second season of Daredevil, which imagined a version of New York that seemed trapped in the urban decay of the late seventies and early eighties, Bang even evoking the Summer of Sam in its introduction of the Punisher while the ninjas that populate the second half of the film look to have escaped a particularly dodgy seventies exploitation film.

Cage re-match.

However, The Defenders is not particularly interested in one individual version of New York. It is not a show that is firmly rooted in one single idea of the Big Apple, not a story that unfolds against the backdrop of one individual conception of the urban space. Instead, The Defenders is particularly interested in the capacity for these various iterations of New York to overlap with one another. The opening credits offer a visual expression of this approach, suggesting the series serves as a point of intersection.

The Defenders is a series built around the infinite potential of New York, this idea of the city as a space in which narratives collide and coalesce, where separate stories might come together and where people on their own journeys might find common cause with one another. The Defenders seems to accept that nightmarish cityscape of Daredevil is hard to reconcile with the uncaring urban environment of Jessica Jones or the vibrant community of Luke Cage. However, The Defenders also insists that they are are all facets of the same city.

Oh, and Danny is there too.

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