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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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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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Daredevil – A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen (Review)

This month, we’re doing daily reviews of the second season of Daredevil. Check back daily for the latest review.

And so we reach the end of the second season of Daredevil.

Except it is very clearly not the end. “This is not the end,” Elektra whispers as she lies dying in Matt’s arms. Although Elektra has hardly been the most honest or reliable character across the run of the season, she seems to be telling the truth. While the first season of Daredevil made a point to square away most of its characters and plot points at the end of the run, the second season consciously leaves things dangling. Nelson and Murdock has been dissolved. Elektra’s body has been stolen. The Hand are not defeated.

The dead only quickly decay...

The dead only quickly decay…

The first season ended in a relatively tidy fashion, with only a few oblique hints towards what the future might hold. The most significant of these loose ends, Wilson Fisk being taken to a holding cell, was consciously put on the backburner when the second season began. Although the second season would pick up on that storythread, it would not do so until the cliffhanger of Guilty as Sin leading into Seven Minutes in Heaven. There was a sense that the audience could have left Matt Murdock there and been happy. At least until The Defenders.

The end of the second season is much more ambiguous. There is no sense that anything is being left anywhere for an extended period of time. Whether those dangling plot threads will be addressed in a hypothetical third season of Daredevil or during The Defenders, it is clear that audiences are being kept on a hook.

"John Luther and James Bond both recommended this, so I thought I'd be foolish not to give it go..."

“John Luther and James Bond both recommended this, so I thought I’d be foolish not to give it go…”

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Daredevil – .380 (Review)

This month, we’re doing daily reviews of the second season of Daredevil. Check back daily for the latest review.

One of the strongest things that the second season of Daredevil has going for it is the three-act structure.

Pacing and structure can be concerns for Netflix television shows. After all, the distributor works on a completely different model than most television broadcasters. Instead of releasing a series on a week-to-week basis across a period of several months, Netflix releases all of a season at the exact same moment. As such, the focus and goals of a Netflix series are different from that a series developed through more traditional means. Netflix shows are consciously designed to be “binged” rather than to be digested in hour-long chunks.

He's the devil, that one.

He’s the devil, that one.

In some ways, this has seen the erosion of the episode as a functional unit of storytelling. If an episode of a regular television drama simply does not work, then the audience is left with a bad taste in their mouth for a week. If an episode of a Netflix drama does not work, the next episode is right there. In fact, Netflix makes it even easier by automatically moving the viewer to the next episode, meaning it takes more effort not to watch the next episode than it does to just keep going. With that in mind, an individual episode not working is not a deal-breaker.

In some respects, it is disappointing that Netflix has yet to truly embrace the potential of the streaming model. Storytelling that would be unthinkable in a weekly model are easier to work around when it comes to binging. In terms of playing with narrative formating, Aziz Anasari’s Master of None is probably the most ambitious of the “Netflix original” shows; the series bounces between its arc-based storytelling and more standalone pieces. In most cases, Netflix shows only really exploit the potential of the model when it comes to serialising their story.

Frank interrogates The Usual Suspects.

Frank interrogates The Usual Suspects.

That said, there is still some division between how streaming affects the plotting of comedies as compared to dramas. Comedies like The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Bojack Horseman seem to adopt a more conservative episodic approach to their episode-to-episode plotting; given that The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was moved to Netflix rather late in its production cycle, this makes in a certain amount of sense. Nevertheless, it would appear that the streaming model tends to lean towards a “single story told over [number] hours” approach to drama.

This is not inherently a good thing. One of the bigger issues with streaming dramas remains the attachment to classic television formal conventions, whether it is a set runtime or a predetermined number of episode. Not every story needs to be thirteen episodes, especially not on a streaming service. There is a question as to whether shows like Mad Dogs and Jessica Jones might have been better served with a shorter order. There is also a sense that the demand of telling a single story over a set number of hours leads to stalling and repeating.

Just a regular guy, talkin' about love and punishing.

Just a regular guy, talkin’ about love and punishing.

While a fantastically ambitious show in terms of storytelling and themes, Jessica Jones had an unfortunate habit of running around in circles in order to reach that thirteen-episode count. Early episodes like AKA Crush Syndrome and AKA It’s Called Whiskey wasted a lot of time on how to knock Kilgrave out. Kilgrave himself was introduced twice in both AKA Crush Syndrome and AKA It’s Called Whiskey. Kilgrave was captured and escaped no less than three times over the season, in AKA The Sandwich Saved Me, AKA Sin Bin and AKA 1,000 Cuts.

In many ways, Daredevil is a conventional piece of television drama. Part of that is down to structuring. Daredevil has a stronger sense of episodic storytelling than many contemporary streaming dramas. Within the second seasons, episodes like Guilty as Sin and Seven Minutes in Heaven are held together by internal themes like the idea of perpetual war as it links the season’s two plots and whether various characters are trapped within prisons of their own makings. Care is taken to ensure that something is accomplished between the start and end of a given episode.

Guy talk.

Guy talk.

More than that, the second season takes the idea further and very clearly structures itself into conventional three-act design. The first act introduces Frank Castle and pit him against Matt Murdock, running from Bang to Penny and Dime. The second act introduces Elektra and focuses on Frank Castle’s trial and incarceration, running from Kinbaku to Seven Minutes in Heaven. The third act completes Frank’s origin story while pitting Matt and Elektra against the hand, from The Man in the Box to A Cold Day in Hell’s Kitchen. The structure is very clear.

Unfortunately, .380 marks the point at which that structure begins to fall apart.

There's going to be hell to pay...

There’s going to be hell to pay…

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Daredevil – Penny and Dime (Review)

This month, we’re doing daily reviews of the second season of Daredevil. Check back daily for the latest review.

Penny and Dime closes out the first act of the second season of Daredevil.

It effectively brings an end to the “Daredevil vs. Punisher” section of the season, excluding a brief reprise in .380 towards the end of the year. It does so by offering perhaps the most straightforward “Punisher” story of the season, with Frank Castle effectively finishing the task of dismantling the Kitchen Irish so that his family might rest in peace and he might be remanded in custody. Bringing the arc to a close so early is a fairly bold move from producers Marco Ramirez and Doug Petrie. The temptation would have been to run the arc across the full season.

That's not creepy.

That’s not creepy.

In theory, the idea of structuring a thirteen-episode season of Daredevil as a collection of mini-arcs that coalesce makes a great deal of sense. In some respects it is a very “comic-book-y” way of structuring the season. It recalls Scott Snyder’s structuring of mega-arcs like Black Mirror or Zero Year into easily-digestible three- or four-issue chunks. The idea of spending four issues introducing the Punisher before moving on to another run developing his arc and introducing Elektra is a clever storytelling idea. It helps establish “binge-able chunks.”

Unfortunately, this is a rather mixed bag in practice. The second season of Daredevil is full of very clever ideas and is very meticulously crafted, but it lacks a sense of purpose and a commitment to realising these ideas. While Penny and Dime is a very neat episode in theory, it is fairly clunky in practice. It becomes even clunkier in hindsight.

Yeah, that's not creepy at all...

Yeah, that’s not creepy at all…

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