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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 – 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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Marvel and Netflix’s Iron Fist (Review)

Iron Fist is a spectacular failure.

There are a lot of different reasons for this. On a purely practical level, so much of the show disappoints. The cast are bland and forgettable. The dialogue is awful. The stunt work is pedestrian. The direction is sterile. The special effects work looks like it was lifted from the later nineties. The editing is jarring. The attempt to recreate foreign locales looks like something from nineties television. These are all very significant problems with the production, aspects that would be irritating on their own, but come together to create a larger problem.

However, the flaws with Iron Fist are even more fundamental than this. Iron Fist is a show with an interesting premise but a complete lack of ambition. The show has no sense of its own identity or direction, its very existence dictated by external factors. It is a series that exists simply because it must exist, not because the writing staff had something interesting to say or because Danny Rand was the perfect hero for this cultural moment. Iron Fist exists because there is a slot in the schedule that needs to be filled, and Iron Fist aspires to do nothing more than fill it.

This is perhaps the most severe problem with Iron Fist. It is not that the show is bad, although it is definitely bad. The unforgivable flaw with Iron Fist is that the show is boring.

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Iron Fist – Snow Gives Way (Review)

So, what is Iron Fist about?

To be fair, it is a tough question to answer. The final Netflix series, publicised as “the Last Defender”, seems to have been a hard sell. Indeed, the emphasis on the show’s position as “the Last Defender” recalls the marketing of Captain America: The First Avenger. In both cases, Marvel was selling a property that posed a creative challenge by tethering it to a looming mass-market crossover, counting on its position as “the last piece of the puzzle” to draw in audiences that might otherwise hold little interest in the material.

Fist first.

And, by and large, Iron Fist is defined by these outside demands. Any audience member trying to figure out what Iron Fist is or what purpose it serves will arguably get a better sense of that by tracing the outline established by the other Marvel Netflix shows. Iron Fist is not a television show that defines itself, instead existing in a narrative and marketing space that has already been defined for it by the demands of other multimedia. Iron Fist is not so much a television show as a bunch of stuff that fits in that space before The Defenders.

That much is evident even as early as Snow Gives Way, the first episode of the Netflix series. The pilot is arguably as instructive in what it fails to do as it is in what it actually accomplishes. It eats up fifty minutes of airtime without providing the audience with any real sense of who these people are, what they want, or what the series is trying to say that isn’t on the agenda already set up by the other Marvel Netflix shows.

He’s acting. Really hard.

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Non-Review Review: Doctor Strange

Some Marvel films succeed by pushing against the house style to provide a clear and unique artistic sensibility, like Iron Man III and Guardians of the Galaxy, films that are undeniably informed by the stylistic sensibilities of their directors as much (if not more than) the concerns of the shared universe. Those films are never distinctive enough to compare to the work done by Tim Burton or Christopher Nolan, but they stand out from the rest of the Marvel production slate for their willingness to tell a different story in a different style.

Some Marvel films suffer from their adherence to the production company’s house style. Just about anything interesting was smothered out of Thor: The Dark World, which frequently seemed to have been written and edited by a computer algorithm designed to amplify the well-received elements of the first film and graft them on to a familiar structure. Even some of the relatively strong films on the slate are not immune, with Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War unable to follow their bolder ideas to conclusion.

It's a kind of magic...

It’s a kind of magic…

However, there are also films that succeed through their understanding of the studio’s house style and sensibilities, working firmly within the structures and boundaries of what might be termed “the Marvel Cinematic Method.” These films do not just acknowledge the expectations imposed upon these blockbusters, they play towards them. In doing so, they embrace the stability and consistency that such a tried-and-tested approach affords, affording the production team the opportunity to craft enjoyable adventures starring likable actors doing fun things.

The original Thor is perhaps the best example of this approach. Often underrated and overlooked in assessments of Marvel’s cinematic output, Thor ranks among the very best of the company’s feature film slate by virtue of its willingness to embrace the stock superhero story at the heart of the script and focus upon making its cast likeable and its plot moving. There is a solid argument to be made that Thor is the purest solo superhero movie produced in quite some time, dating back to Richard Donner’s Superman. No irony or deconstruction in sight. Just simplicity.

Hair today...

Hair today…

Doctor Strange wisely opts for a similar approach. There are very few surprises to be found in the plotting and structuring of the film. The movie unfolds almost exactly as the audience expects. All the pieces are there, and they are assembled with the reliability of the very expensive watch that the title character chooses to carry around as a memento. The arrogant lead character humbled by tragedy. The nihilistic opponent who embraces the end of all things. The romantic co-lead. The stoic supporting character immune to our hero’s charm. The fallen mentor.

Doctor Strange is not particularly interested in subverting or twisting these stock elements. Instead, it focuses on honing them to a fine point, executing them with the help of a spectacular cast and a knowing grin. More than that, the relative simplicity of the plot framework allows director Scott Derrickson to hang some really impressive choreography and set pieces. The Marvel films have been (fairly) criticised for a certain textural “sameness”, and so the visual and aural stylings of Doctor Strange come as a breath of fresh air.

Strange fascination.

Strange fascination.

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Netflix and Marvel’s Luke Cage – Season 1 (Review)

Luke Cage is an exceptional black superhero show.

Those twin concepts cannot be divorced from one another. The thrill of Luke Cage is how skilfully and how cleverly executive producer Cheo Hodari Coker interweaves those two strands. Luke Cage is not simply a story about Harlem that happens to feature superpowers, nor is just a superhero story that happens to feature African American characters. Coker carefully crafts the show that those two parts of itself become inseparable and indivisible. Luke Cage relishes its superhero storybeats, and bringing them together in service of a different kind of protagonist.

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It feels entirely appropriate that Luke Cage should be the focus of this series, the first superhero story of the franchise age to focus on a black protagonist. (There are a number of earlier examples from Blade to Catwoman to Steel, but those largely predate the current shared-universe-driven popular consciousness.) Luke Cage was the first black comic book hero to have his own on-going monthly title, and one of the earliest high-profile examples of a black superhero character not to incorporate “black” into his name, like the Black Panther or Black Lightning.

Of course, it feels shameful that it took this long. Hawkeye has somehow managed to appear in four blockbuster feature films before Marvel Studios produced a franchise film with a black lead actor. Spider-Man has been rebooted three separate times, but Black Panther will not open until 2018. Guardians of the Galaxy came out of nowhere long before Marvel Studios or Warner Brothers opened a summer tentpole superhero film with a minority or female lead. Meanwhile, Marvel has an influx of blonde white guys named Chris.

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As such, Luke Cage is definitely overdue. And it keenly understands this. Every aspect of Luke Cage is filtered through an African American perspective that helps to give it a vibrance and energy that revitalises the format. In terms of plotting and structure, Luke Cage is perhaps the most traditional superhero story since Thor. However, the true beauty of the thirteen-episode miniseries lies in the improvisation around those beats and how the production team choose to hit the requisite notes. Luke Cage feels like an extended jazz album riffing on old standards.

However, as delayed as this appearance might be, it still feels perfectly attuned to the climate of late 2016. As Method Man reflects in and interview with the Sway Universe podcast in Soliloquy of Chaos, a great example of how keenly Luke Cage engages with black culture, “You know, here’s something powerful about seeing a black man that’s bulletproof, and not afraid.” That has never been more true.

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Luke Cage – Moment of Truth (Review)

There is a lot to be said for how the Netflix television series choose to introduce their central characters.

The first season of Daredevil opens with the eponymous vigilante laying a brutal smackdown on Turk and breaking up a people-smuggling ring, clearly establishing the world of the show and the character’s rougher edges. The second season opened with a similar action set-piece in which the masked hero tracks a bunch of armed robbers to a downtown church leading to a suitably atmospheric image. Jessica Jones lifted its opening scene from Brian Bendis and Michael Gaydos’ Alias, with the hero smashing a deadbeat client through the glass pane on her door.

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These are all sequences intended to set up the year ahead. The first season of Daredevil is preoccupied with the question of whether Matt is trying to do good or whether he is simple enabling his own baser impulses. The second season of Daredevil is much more of a traditional superhero tale with prophecies and ninja cults, along with super assassin ex-girlfriends. The broken glass in the door to Jessica’s office becomes a recurring motif across the first season of Jessica Jones, a reminder of how the character is constantly clearing up the shattered remains of her life.

In contrast, Luke Cage opts to introduce its character in a very different manner. Although Moment of Truth inevitably builds to an action set piece, that action set piece is tucked away neatly in the final minutes of the episode, feeling almost like an afterthought. Instead, Moment of Truth sets the tone for the season ahead. It opens with an extended conversation in a barbershop that covers topics from the merits of former Los Angeles Lakers (and Miami Heat) coach Pat Riley to whether Al Pacino has an “eternal ghetto pass.”

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It is a very relaxed conversation. And in many ways, Luke Cage is a very relaxed kind of show. That is in many ways the best thing that can be said about the series and the worst thing that can be said about it. Luke Cage unfolds at a pace that might be affectionately described as stately and cynically dismissed as glacial, taking its time hitting expected beats. However, the greatest strength of Luke Cage is the confidence and verve with which it hits those marks. Luke Cage is a pleasure to watch, a show charming enough that it earns enough goodwill to take its time.

Luke Cage starts as it means to go on. Charming and comfortable in itself, relaxed and confident. Despite the plotting a structural similarities that run through the season, this is a decision that immediately distinguishes itself from Daredevil and Jessica Jones. Like its lead character, Luke Cage walks tall and acts like it is bulletproof.

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