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Non-Review Review: Avengers – Infinity War

There is a solid argument to be made for the Marvel Cinematic Universe as blockbuster television series that only releases three or four films in a given year.

There’s a lot of evidence to support this argument, perhaps most notably the directors chosen for “phase two” of the grand experiment. Joss Whedon might have directed Serenity and Much Ado About Nothing, but he remains known for his game-changing work on television series like Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse. Removing Patty Jenkins from Thor: The Dark World and replacing her with Alan Taylor only reinforced this sense. Drafting in the Russo Brothers from Community to direct Captain America: The Winter Soldier cemented the notion.

Purple reign.

Indeed, the elevation of the Russo Brothers within the Marvel Studios hierarchy with Captain America: Civil War and with Avengers: Infinity War suggests the obvious similarities between managing the sprawling continuity of the shared cinematic universe and the day-to-day management of a television show, where individual instalments might be credited to individual authors, but it is also important to maintain consistency of tone and vision across the entire line. Infinity War suggests the sort of organisational ability associated with long-form television storytelling more than any single cinematic narrative.

There are moments in which this approach works. Infinity War is full of knowing winks and callbacks, allusions and references. There is a sense of set-up and pay-off to certain threads and arcs seeded across the eighteen previous films within the established brand. Characters get emotional scenes that play upon established relationships and dynamics, which are clearly articulated within the film itself, but building off years of watching (and rewatching) these actors play off one another in these roles. There is an undeniable weight to Infinity War that simply would not be possible without that television storytelling style.

Avengers assembled.

At the same time, there are reminders of the limitations of this approach, of the challenges of balancing individual stories with a larger plan for the narrative universe in which they unfold. This is particularly notable because Marvel Studios recently shifted towards a more director-friendly approach in some of its standalone productions. Guardians of the Galaxy and Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 are both undeniably James Gunn productions. Black Panther could only have come from Ryan Coogler. Thor: Ragnarok worked as well as it did because of the unique directorial stylings of Taika Waititi.

Watching Infinity War, it becomes clear how far these directors deviated from the established style sheet, and the difference in approach between these directors and the Russo Brothers. It occasionally feels like Infinity War was constructed by people who watched those movies, without understanding why they worked as well. There is a tonal awkwardness when these characters are woven back into the fabric of the shared universe, in a manner that is occasionally unquantifiable but sometimes fundamental.

Guardians… Get In There?

Infinity War is good, clean fun. Perhaps too good and too clean. In order put the jigsaw pieces together, all of the rough edges have been sanded off. Anything that might generate friction has been stripped away, creating the impression of a very smooth and very functional storytelling engine. Midway through the film, Thor ruminates upon the existence of fate and how it has led him towards this particular moment and beyond to a greater purpose. Doctor Steven Strange perceives one single happy ending to this crisis.

There is a sense that Thor and Strange perceive the vast narrative machine of Infinity War working around them. It is an impressive machine, if a somewhat inhuman one.

Things look pretty Stark.

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New Podcast! The X-Cast X-Files Podwatch – Episode #92 (Alone/Essence)

I’m thrilled to be a part of The X-Cast X-Files Podwatch, a daily snippet podcast rewatching the entirety of The X-Files between now and the launch of the new season. It is something of a spin-off of The X-Cast, a great X-Files podcast run by the charming Tony Black. Tony has assembled a fantastic array of guests and hosts to go through The X-Files episode-by-episodes. With the new season announced to be starting in early January, Tony’s doing two episodes of the podcast per day, so buckle up. We’re in the home stretch.

I’m popping in for the penultimate episode of the eighth season, drawing the curtains down on the eighth season by discussing Alone and Essence with the wonderful and insightful Chris Knowles.

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Non-Review Review: Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

The most appealing aspect of the original Guardians of the Galaxy was its awareness of its arrested development.

James Gunn and Nicole Perlman crafted an ode to juvenile nostalgia, anchored in a protagonist who found himself drifting away from Earth following the loss of his mother. Superhero movies work best as extended metaphors or homages, as a vehicle to render the human experience in operatic terms. Guardians of the Galaxy was the tale of a young man who had lost touch with reality in the moment that he lost his mother, and who had escaped into an acid dream of eighties space opera tropes.

Mohawking his wears…

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 works best when it remembers this. If the first film explored Peter’s retreat from the death of his mother, then the second explores his relationship with his absentee father. Once again, the film is saturated with eighties iconography. Early in the film, Peter confesses that he used to pretend that David Hasselhoff was his father. It is hard to tell whether he is trading up or trading down when he meets a bearded Kurt Russell.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 has a very straightforward set of character and thematic arcs. The movie maintains a clear throughline, focusing on the relationship between fathers and sons. The film is not subtle, even working in Cat Stevens’ Father and Son. Of course, that archetypal relationship has been explored repeatedly and thoroughly within mainstream pop culture and particularly superhero cinema. Nevertheless, it provides a clear focus to Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, a sense of momentum and direction.

Turn up the volume.

This throughline is essential, because Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 suffers from significant bloat. The second act of the film is a mess, one compounded by a number of questionable creative decisions that seem to have been made because these beats are expected from the second film in a blockbuster franchise. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 follows the science-fiction sequel playbook just a little too well, occasionally losing sight of its characters and the chemistry between them.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 does not work as well as Guardians of the Galaxy. In large part, this is because it feels like a self-conscious sequel rather than an organic extension of the original film. James Gunn never forgets what worked about the original film, but he also cannot resist the urge to go larger with it.

A hole lot of trouble…

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Adversity in Diversity: Marvel’s Next Generation Heroes…

Much digital ink has already been spilled about the comments that David Gabriel made of the weekend.

Gabriel is the Vice-President of Sales at Marvel, and he was speaking to ICv2 about the company’s underwhelming performance in recent times. The company’s massive “All-New, All-Different” launch in late 2015 appears to have done little to stem the attrition, offering a brief boost that has not halted the decline. Addressing these concerns, Gabriel suggested one very clear reason for the audience’s lack of enthusiasm about these comics. “What we heard was that people didn’t want any more diversity. They didn’t want female characters out there.”

Gabriel’s statement has opened up a new front in the culture wars, drawing attention from a host of high-profile new sources not necessarily known for their history of comic book reporting or their understanding of the medium’s inner workings; The Guardian, The Independent, The Irish Times. In a very strange way, this was seen as real news, in a way that news inside (as opposed to “related to the multimedia franchises of”) the comic book industry rarely is. There was clearly a lot tied up in that interview given by an industry figure to an industry publication.

The reason that this story broke out so strongly is quite simple. This debate is part of a larger debate about representation in popular culture. It emerges in the same climate as the debates about cultural appropriation in Iron Fist and whitewashing in Ghost in the Shell. It arrives at a time when the public at large is increasingly attuned to the need for diversity of representation in media and diversity in talent. It was a story that was surprisingly important to a lot of people who don’t read comic books, because it resonated beyond comic books.

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Iron Fist – Rolling Thunder Cannon Punch (Review)

Iron Fist draws its influences from the strangest possible places.

As a rule, the Marvel Netflix shows are heavily rooted in the reinvention of Marvel’s street level heroes that began around the turn of the millennium. There are generally two key creative figures associated with this era, artist-turned-editor Joe Quesada and writer Brian Michael Bendis. Working the bunch of street-level properties, these two figures invented and reinvented a number of characters and concepts that would become a cornerstone of this shared television universe.

Hitting the wall…

Sometimes the influence was rather direct. Jessica Jones draws fairly heavily and literally from Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos’ twenty-eight issue run on Alias. Sometimes that influence was more conceptual. Luke Cage tells its own unique story, but it is heavily influenced by Brian Michael Bendis’ rehabilitation of the title character during his runs on Alias and New Avengers. In some ways, Daredevil is an outlier, drawing on the iconic eighties run by Frank Miller, but it is still heavily influenced by millennial runs by Brian Bendis and Ed Brubaker.

Given this existing framework, there is a very obvious influence from which the creative team might draw. Written by Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction, and illustrated primarily by David Aja, The Immortal Iron Fist was launched in November 2006. The run was launched during the tenure of Joe Quesada and spun directly out of Daredevil. It was also praised by critics and adored by fans for its radical and thoughtful reinvention of the Iron Fist mythos. It was also just plain fun, with Michal Chabon summarising it as “pure, yummy martial-arts-fantasy deliciousness.”

More like bored room, am I right?

With all of this in mind, it seems like Iron Fist should not have to look very hard for an influence. The Immortal Iron Fist was a comic that reinvented a long-forgotten character in a way that made him accessible to modern audiences that had never latched on to Danny Rand. More than that, by focusing on the history and legacy of the title, Fraction and Brubaker had found (some small way) to defuse the potential racial controversy simmering beneath the production. Emphasising the tradition of K’un Lun, The Immortal Iron Fist diversified the mythos.

And yet, in spite of all of that, Iron Fist chooses to draw most heavily and most overtly from the original appearances of Danny Rand in Marvel Premiere and Iron Fist, a run largely forgotten by history and notable primarily as a stepping stone to much greater things.

Hardly gripping.

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Iron Fist – Shadow Hawk Takes Flight (Review)

Who is Danny Rand?

It is a question that any television show should be asking of its lead. The audience will be spending an extended period of time with this character in this world, so the character needs to be interesting and compelling in their own right. The other Netflix Marvel shows made a point of answering this challenge out of the gate. Into the Ring made it clear that Matt Murdock was a ball of repressed rage buried beneath Catholic Guilt. AKA Ladies’ Night established Jessica Jones as a self-destructive super-strong survivor. Moment of Truth sets up Luke as the immovable object.

There are probably easier ways to make sure that Finn Jones stops giving interviews.

There is a recurring sense that Iron Fist understands that establishing its lead character is an important thing to do. Certainly, Snow Gives Way spends enough time on Danny Rand asserting his identity as the sole heir of the Rand Corporation. Shadow Hawk Takes Flight locks Danny in a psychiatric institution in which he is forced to prove his identity to people who believe that he has lost his mind. These are all plot points that, in theory, hinge upon Danny demonstrating who he is. They are, in theory, a solid way to introduce the character to audiences.

However, in practice, there is a recurring sense that Iron Fist simply doesn’t care about making Danny Rand interesting. Iron Fist seems to think that it is enough that the character exists and loosely resembles a superhero. Just like Iron Fist seems to think that it is enough that the show exists and loosely resembles a superhero show.

Not quite a glowing endorsement.

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The X-Files: Season 11 (IDW) (Review)

This June, we’re going to be taking a look at the current run of The X-Files, beginning with the IDW comic book revival and perhaps taking some detours along the way. Check back daily for the latest review.

The X-Files: Season 11 is a relatively lean beast.

The X-Files: Season 10 seemed to struggle to map out a clear direction or identity for itself. This was most obvious in the context of the comic book’s mythology, as writer Joe Harris and his collaborators frequently found themselves revising and rewriting the mythology from one story to the next. All the elements introduced in Believers were reduced to a footnote in Monica & John. Although Gibson Praise made his first reappearance in the final pages of Believers, the mythology only truly galvinised around him over the course of Elders.

xfiles-endgames1

In contrast, The X-Files: Season 11 has a very clear idea of where it is going and room for a minimal amount of distractions along the way. While the art team on Season 10 changed quite frequently, the nine comic book issues that comprise Season 11 are all handled by the core team of writer Joe Harris, penciller Matthew Dow Smith and colourist Jordie Bellaire. There is a consistency and focus to the run that is striking. There is no time for exploration or improvisation. Everything serves its purpose in the context of the story being told.

This is a double-edged sword. While it does reduce the chance of an endearing standalone story like Chitter or Immaculate, it does afford the run a purity and energy that was somewhat lacking as Harris had to revise and rewrite his mythology while the revival miniseries moved closer and closer to public announcement. In some respects, Season 11 feels kind of like the version of The X-Files that some fans wanted when the revival was announced. It is an efficient attempt to resolve dangling plot threads and bring closure to the story being told.

xfiles-homeagain2

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