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The Defenders – Fish in the Jailhouse (Review)

The second season of Daredevil hangs over The Defenders.

This is not a surprise. Daredevil was the first Marvel Netflix show, and so it occupies pride of place in the line-up. It was the only series to get a second season before the release of The Defenders. More than that, the showrunners in charge of The Defenders are the same showrunners who oversaw the second season of Daredevil. It makes sense that Matt Murdock would find himself cast as the protagonist of The Defenders, and that the show would like a logical continuation of his arc.

Apparently the Dutch settlers made the mistake of building Manhattan on a load-bearing dragon skeleton.

In many ways, the story of The Defenders is the story of Matt Murdock. In fact, Matt Murdock is the only character to end The Defenders in a markedly different place than he began. He begins the show having retired his costumed life following the death of Elektra in A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen. Over the course of the show, he embraces his status as hero. He comes to don the costume again and to lead the nascent team in Take Shelter, just over half-way through the season. He ends The Defenders sacrificing himself to save the city, only to narrowly survive.

While the stars of Iron Fist, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage are all returned to a position where their first and second seasons might flow organically into one another, The Defenders almost feels like a truncated blockbuster season of Daredevil.

“Yeah, Thor: The Dark World did this gag first, but let’s just go with it.”

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The Defenders – Ashes, Ashes (Review)

As much as The Defenders is hobbled by the Hand, it is also handicapped by Iron Fist.

It is very clear that the production team heading into The Defenders intended for Iron Fist to be a springboard to the crossover, to move the last pieces into place before the big event miniseries. After all, Iron Fist was heavily marketted as “the Last Defender.” More than that, the series devoted pretty much all of its thirteen-episode runtime to fleshing out the Hand, the secretive ninja cult that would serve as the primary antagonists of The Defenders. There was a clear sense that the production team saw Iron Fist as something of an extended lead-in to The Defenders.

Sorry, Danny. But it’s true.

There was just one problem with all of this. Iron Fist was terrible. By all accounts, the show was the result of a rushed production cycle that explains some of the shoddiness in terms of practical effects and direction, but its biggest problems were more fundamental than that. Finn Jones was the weakest series lead of the Marvel Netflix series by a considerable distance. Scott Buck was the weakest lead writer on a Marvel Netflix series by a considerable distance. The result was a car crash of a television series.

Given that this car crash was intended to serve as the lead-in to The Defenders, this causes significant problems for the sprawling eight-episode crossover.

Luke is a real hero.

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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 – 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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Trial and Trailer: The Perils of Publicity in the Internet Era

It is a cliché to suggest that trailers are spoiling movies.

Clint Eastwood was complaining about the trend more than a decade and a half ago, lamenting, “Half the time you go and watch a film, you see eight or 10 different trailers and you’ve seen the whole plot line. There’s really no reason to go see the film.” While film fans might look back nostalgically on classic trailers like Alien or Point Blank, the truth is that movie trailers have always been a bit of a haphazard artform. The trailer for Carrie is as spoilery as any modern trailer.

At the same time, there is a definite trend in contemporary trailers – especially for big blockbuster releases – to ensure that the audience knows exactly what they are going to get. This is most obvious in trailers like Alien: Covenant or Spider-Man: Homecoming, which go beyond spoiling the entire plot thread to spoiling big moments from the film; memorable cameos or distinctive sequences. When dealing with spectacle driven films like Kong: Skull Island, there is a conscious effort to load the trailer with spectacle, revealing monsters and set pieces.

To be fair, this is arguably more of a problem with big budget summer releases. These trailers typically belong to blockbusters that have to absolutely saturate the market in order to build hype, releasing trailers more than a half a year before release or even offering trailers for trailers. It is inevitable that this desire to effectively carpet-bomb the media landscape with footage will reveal far too much about the film in question, particularly for those who task themselves with keeping track of this information. The sparse understated trailers for smaller films like Get Out are a blessing.

It is interesting to wonder what drives these creative decisions, why studios are saturating the market with trailers that seem to lay out every beat ahead of time and which effectively promise every twist that will be delivered over the course of the narrative. There is a lot to be said for the joy of seeing a film blind, without knowing exactly what is coming and how it will be delivered. It seems reasonable to argue that the job of a trailer is to tease, to offer the viewer a hint of what is in store, instead of mapping out how they might spend two hours of their lives.

However, while these views are quite common on the internet and among film fans, it is interesting to wonder whether they reflect the opinions and taste of the mass audience. Is this increasing tendency towards spoiler-heavy trailers that plot out the entire arc of a film are driven by the tastes of audiences? Is this how the majority of viewers want their entertainment delivered, even if they would never frame it in those terms?

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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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Iron Fist – Bar the Big Boss (Review)

It’s impossible to talk about Iron Fist without talking about cultural appropriation.

There are multiple reasons for this. The most obvious are baked into the character himself, from his origin all the way back in Marvel Premiere as a white guy who travels to a mystical Asian city and becomes better at kung fu than any of the inhabitants before returning to America. There’s also very much the conversation that has been happening around the television series, which has prompted larger debates about the role of Asian performers and culture in Hollywood. Finally, there’s the fact that show so expertly puts its foot in its mouth.

Shaping up…

Bar the Big Boss is the perfect point at which to address this. Again, for multiple reasons. The most obvious is that it represents the last point at which the most obvious aspects of Asian exoticism are in play; barring the closing scene of Dragon Plays with Fire, this episode is the end of the Hand and K’un Lun as narrative forces in the context of the larger narrative. It is also an episode that effectively allows Davos to lightly touch upon the issue of cultural appropriation before brushing his concerns aside by turning him into a stock villain.

But, really, the issue is so firmly baked into the Iron Fist mythos that it is impossible to talk about in isolation.

Warding off evil spirits.

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