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The Defenders – The H Word (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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Iron Fist – Dragon Plays With Fire (Review)

With Dragon Plays With Fire, it is almost as though Iron Fist remembered that it had its own story to wrap up and that it was not simply a lead-in to The Defenders.

The bulk of Iron Fist has been dedicated to setting up characters and concepts for use in The Defenders. Most notably, the series has devoted a lot of attention to developing the Hand, even repurposing large parts of the Iron Fist mythos to set Danny up as a key part of The Defenders by aligning him against the Hand. Shadow Hawk Takes Flight revealed that the Iron Fist was “sworn enemy of the Hand”, while The Blessing of Many Fractures suggested that the Hand played a role in the death of Danny’s parents.

“This makes me so angry that I might flash back to my parents’ death again!”

Iron Fist spent so long playing into The Defenders that it would easy to forget that the series has own narrative arc to fulfil. Indeed, it even seems like Iron Fist itself forgot about those obligations, to the point that Bar the Big Boss played almost like a season finale with Danny vanquishing Bakuto and the Hand before heading home with Colleen for some funky Tai Chi action. However, at the last minute, Bar the Big Boss seems to remember that Iron Fist still has to resolve the whole Harold Meachum business, and possibly set up a second season.

The result is that Dragon Plays With Fire is an incredibly rushed piece of television, covering what feels like multiple episodes worth story in the space of fifty minutes while also cramming in a bunch of sequel hooks to both The Defenders and a hypothetical second season of Iron Fist. The finale is deeply disappointing, much like the season before it. More than that, it is a constant reminder of how little of its own identity was afforded to Iron Fist.

“Oh hey, it’s the ending of Star Trek: Nemesis, everyone’s favourite Star Trek movie!”

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Geoff Johns’ Run on Justice League – Throne of Atlantis (Review/Retrospective)

23rd July is Batman Day, celebrating the character’s 75th anniversary. To celebrate, this July we’re taking a look at some new and classic Batman (and Batman related) stories. Check back daily for the latest review.

Geoff Johns on Justice League should be one of the defining superhero comic books of the twenty-first century.

After all, Johns has done a lot to define DC over the past decade or so. Johns is one of the defining voices in superhero comics. He has enjoyed long and successful runs on iconic characters. His work sells well and has generally garnered positive reviews over the course of his career. Johns knows how to “centre” a character and to help cut to their core. 52 is generally regarded as a high watermark of twenty-first century DC comics, and Johns is the only one of the four authors still consistently working at DC comics.

Everybody out of the water!

Everybody out of the water!

So putting Geoff Johns on Justice League is a no-brainer. Indeed, many fans had been expecting a high-profile run from Geoff Johns on the title long before the “new 52” relaunch. Given Johns’ successful runs on Action Comics, Green Lantern and The Flash, writing all of these characters together should be a recipe for success. When it was announced that writer Geoff Johns and artist Jim Lee would be handling the relaunched Justice League title, it seemed like a veritable worldbeater of a title.

In sales terms, Johns’ Justice League remains a success. However, it has been less satisfying from a creative standpoint. Artist Jim Lee departed the book after a year – with several fill-in artists along the way. However, even with DC drafting Ivan Reis to replace Lee, Justice League is not as satisfying as it should be. There are lots of reasons for this, but the biggest problem with Johns’ Justice League is that it always seems so fixated on what is happening next that it never appreciates the moment.

She really sweeps him off his feet...

She really sweeps him off his feet…

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Justice League International: Volume 2 (Hardcover) (Review/Retrospective)

In light of the massive DC reboot taking place next month, launching with a Geoff Johns and Jim Lee run on a new Justice League title, I thought I’d take a look back at another attempt to relaunch the Justice League, emerging from the then-recent Crisis on Infinite Earths.

I loved the first collection of Justice League International (even though I don’t think the book was called Justice League International yet). It was the perfect example of fun self-aware superhero comics that didn’t need to wallow in grime and darkness to feel confident in themselves. It was wry and cheeky, but still sincere enough that it never seemed too cynical. And, in fairness to Giffen and deMatteis, they actually told some good stories with nice grasps on the characters involved. This second collection can’t help but feel a little bit lighter, somehow, less significant – too tied up in other things to have enough fun on its own terms. Which is a shame.

Built on a solid foundation...

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Marvel Crossover Continuity

In August, I decided it would be… interesting to take a look at the event-driven storylines that Marvel was producing between 2005 and 2010. So, for sixteen weeks (and more, if you consider the occasional bonus back-up feature), I reviewed one of the many “events” Marvel produced during the period. I’ve grouped the particular strands of continuity together below for easy of browsing (also providing the original date of publication). I hoped that exploring this particular aspect of the medium might grant me some insight into why big events like this continually upset on-going stories being told by writers in individual characters’ books. It was an interesting experiment, even if I doubt I’ll be engaging with the core of the Marvel Universe so thoroughly any time soon.

Note: It is incomplete. I had planned to follow The Avengers through to Siege, but it looks like my reviewing schedule caught up with them – for the same reason I haven’t got around to The Thanos Imperitive yet. I will return to this thread in the future.

Avengers-Based Continuity

It was a good decade for The Avengers as a franchise, with Marvel consciously pushing the franchise to the forefront – not just in comics but in other media as well. If the nineties and early naughties belonged to the X-Men (with X-Men: The Animated Series on the airwaves, Bryan Singer’s X-Men in cinemas and crossovers like Age of Apocalypse in comic books), this was very clear attempt to take that back. Brian Michael Bendis was tasked with turning the Avengers into Marvel’s prime franchise and succeeded – most of the “big” comic book events of the decade revolved around them. That said it was certainly a controversial restructuring of the book, with a line-up crafted to feature more popular characters like Spider-Man and Wolverine instead of more obscure characters like Quicksilver or the Scarlet Witch.

The Avengers branched out into other media too. Iron Man demonstrated that Marvel’s “big three” could hold viewer interest in cinemas, and promised a series of crossovers on the big screen that would see The Avengers assemble under the direction of Joss Whedon. As a brand, Marvel made sure these characters were everywhere.

The stories featuring these characters over the decade form something of a larger meta-story which seems to reflect on the superhero genre as a whole. Although Bendis’ New Avengers opens with a supervillain breakout, the characters spent more time fighting each other than bad guys (Civil War, World War Hulk). When they did fight bad guys, they were more often than not corrupted mirrors of themselves, be it the Skrulls who had managed to so perfectly imitate heroes despite being villains (Secret Invasion) or government-sanctioned psychotic “Dark Avengers” (Siege). It was a story about how difficult it was to be a hero in the last few years – in the wake of the “dark age” of comic books – and a deconstruction of the effectiveness of a group of individuals like this to actually make a difference. You could even argue that this was a grim reflection of real world political and social uncertainty – particularly mistrust of authority (it’s telling how much time these heroes spend going “rogue”). Of course, this is open to interpretation, and many fans were less than pleased with the execution of this particular tale.

“Cosmic Marvel” Continuity

Marvel’s Cosmic Universe got a much-needed revitalisation this decade, offering perhaps a better-plotted and more straightforward avenue for Marvel’s crossover events. Although Jim Shooter had done great work with many of these characters in the nineties (with Infinity Gauntlet and so forth), they had mostly remained in relative obscurity before the relaunch.

The distinguishing aspect of these stories is the way that they are structured. Rather than a big event coinciding with countless tie-ins across countless books, most of these stories would open with a single prologue issue which would branch into a handful of miniseries running for a set number of issues, before dovetailing into a main series. This meant that every issue remotely connected with a series could be collected in a hardcover. Admittedly the titles become more entangled in continuity as they went on (with War of Kings tying in directly to Ed Brubaker’s The Rise & Fall of the Shi’ar Empire story arc in Uncanny X-Men), but by and large these series served to avoid pointless tie-ins and an exceptionally convoluted continuity (everything you needed was included in the books themselves).

They’re the best crossovers that you weren’t reading.

X-Men Continuity

The last decade has been an interesting one for the X-Men, as both the books and the characters have found themselves looking for purpose. Grant Morrison’s New X-Men posited a world where mutants would be the dominant species with a few generations and proposed to move the “mutants as oppressed minority” metaphor firmly into the twenty-first century, where the worries weren’t (at least for the most part) about government-sponsored genocide or legal rights, but cultural and social questions about the way that mutants and humanity live together. This was clearly a step too far, as Marvel decided to essentially wipe out the mutant population, feeling there were too many mutants in the Marvel Universe. This was done with three words from a psychotic Scarlet Witch rather than a more subtle approach (like simply reducing the number of mutants featured in various books).

Suddenly the X-Men found themselves facing extinction, and this became a driving narrative force for the book. It was as if the line was actively rebelling against the editorial mandate forced upon them. Instead of granting narrative clarity, the edict had instead complicated things. It also forced the X-Men away from their widely-loved position as a civil rights metaphor and towards a more straight forward “find the cure” narrative. It also served to isolate the franchise from the rest of the Marvel Universe (except for Wolverine, of course, who is everywhere) – the X-Men were always busy doing their thing and trying not to die out rather than assisting with Civil War or Secret Invasion. The solution to this narrative thread is entirely predictable, but it does offer a clear structure to the X-Men stories from the period.

It’s interesting to note that while all the major Avengers titles from this period (New/Mighty/Dark Avengers) have been consistantly collected, the X-Men books have not been. Ed Brubaker’s run is quite difficult to collect in one consistent format, as is Matt Fraction’s – and both are writing for what should be “the flagship book” of the X-Men publishing line, Uncanny X-Men. This makes it considerably harder to follow than the Avengers franchise, for example.

Secret Invasion (Review/Retrospective)

This is the twelfth in a series of comic book reviews that will look at the direction of Marvel’s shared universe (particularly their “Avengers” franchise) over the past five or so years, as they’ve been attempting to position the property at the heart of their fictional universe. With The Avengers planned for a cinematic release in 2012, I thought I’d bring myself up to speed by taking a look at Marvel’s tangled web of continuity.

Well… that was anti-climactic.

Well, at least green and red go together...

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X-Men: Messiah War (Review/Retrospective)

This is the eleventh in a series of comic book reviews that will look at the direction of Marvel’s shared universe (particularly their “Avengers” franchise) over the past five or so years, as they’ve been attempting to position the property at the heart of their fictional universe. With The Avengers planned for a cinematic release in 2012, I thought I’d bring myself up to speed by taking a look at Marvel’s tangled web of continuity.

Messiah Complex is billed as the “second instalment” of the X-Men “Messiah Trilogy”, following on from Messiah Complex and leading into Second Coming. The arc essentially follows Hope, the first mutant baby born in the wake of the infamous House of M crossover and the quest by various factions to exploit her – will she be a salvation of Marvel’s erstwhile bunch of mutants, or their ultimate damnation? Messiah War essential combines the two on-going X-Men books launched in the wake of Messiah Complex, with Cable following Hope and the time-travelling X-Man as they flee those who wish the child harm and X-Force following Wolverine’s bunch of “black-ops” “darker and edgier” X-Men strike force. Of course, the only way it could get more nineties was if you threw in Deadpool, Apocalypse and Stryfe… oh, wait. They did.

Has the bar been raised?

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