CW Years, or, Black Lightning

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ZAP ATTACK

If the CW’s stable of DC Comics-based television shows are good for one thing (they’re good for many but bear with me) it’s gaggles of attractive young Canadians wadding through seas of dead parents and betrayal towards inevitable mac-attacks with other attractive young Canadians, undoubtedly breaking the heart of a third gaggle of attractive young Canadians.

So imagine my surprise when I saw that the protagonist in the CW’s latest superhero show, Black Lightning, is played with instant gravitas by Cress Williams, who is a 47-year-old man, which basically makes him 1,000,000 in CW years. At 47 years old, Williams’ Jefferson Pierce is the DCW’s equivalent of Frank Miller’s aging, crotchety, Dark Knight Returns Bruce Wayne. Which actually turns out to be a pretty apt comparison when considering the show’s pilot.

At the onset of Black Lightning, Pierce has hung up the titular moniker for some time, opting instead to improve his community, Freeland, as a high school principal. But a rise in gang violence perpetuated by the growing threat of The 100 Gang. It’s a problem that effects the entire community, to the chagrin of both Jefferson and his two daughters.

Kind of like how in The Dark Knight Returns Bruce Wayne isn’t Batman anymore and instead he improves Gotham by driving race cars while contemplating suicide, but a gang called the mutants is wreaking havoc on Gotham and it pisses Bruce Wayne off, much as it annoys young Cary Kelly, daughter of two local deadbeats.

The Dark Knight Returns is a worthwhile point of comparison when considering Black Lightning as the disparities between the former, a staple of 1986, and the latter, a show that is ever so 2018, reflect a changing attitude towards heroism.

Frank Miller’s Batman is a dick. Always has been, always will be. He is essentially and old, rich, white guy who disagrees with the direction the world around him is taking and in response uses his economic resources to beat the culture around him to death with his personal ideology. Cary Kelly, the kindling of a youthful, feminine power in TDKR, does not have opinions of her own in the narrative. She’s an acolyte. The culture around her is more her own to inherit than Batman’s to cling to, but despite the fact that she actually lives in Gotham, rather than in a mansion, she’s indoctrinated rather than consulted.

While Jefferson Pierce certainly wouldn’t shirk the opportunity to align his daughters’ worldviews with his own, that isn’t the cards he’s dealt. Black Lightning is less a show about deciding to engage in heroism and standing up to villainy than it is a show about deciding how to stand up to that villainy.

Enter a white guy blogging about race.

Jefferson Pierce and his family are confronted with everyday evils, little treacheries like being pulled over by the cops based on the color of their skin. In many ways, they don’t have a choice as to whether or not they react to the world’s ills because more than Barry Allen or Kara Danvers, the world’s ills seek Pierce and his family out. But how to go about reacting and combating those ills is a topic of open debate in the show. Vigilantism? Protest? Social media? Education?

Spoilers, Black Lightning becomes Black Lightning again in Black Lightning. And when he does so, he doesn’t saunter down the middle of the stage to the bowed heads of a subdued, formerly directionless youth. Black Lightning takes a trope we’ve seen before, the grizzled, retired hero called back into action, and confronts it with a youthful eye that is not worshipful, but skeptical.

He might be 1,000 CW years older than the likes of The Flash, Supergirl, or the Green Arrow (who himself is getting into his CW 80s) but make no mistake, Williams is just as charming and engaging as CW’s established superhero protagonists, and the world around him has the potential to provide a show that is just as philosophically engaging as it is ludicrously-costumed.

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Ups and Downs and Loop-De-Loops, or, The Punisher

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Spooky attack!

Do you like roller coasters?

Metaphorical roller coasters?

The Punisher, Netflix’s latest Marvel television series, is something of a ride. You know what it is before you go on it. You can look at it from the outside and get the gist, and you’re opinion of it, I suspect, will largely hinge on your eagerness to get on the ride to begin with.

The roller coaster in question? One of the oldest around: revenge. Straight-up, brutal, Old Testament vengeance.

Like any good revenge narrative, The Punisher isn’t necessarily a fun ride, but it’s one that is easy to insert yourself into because of the primal nature of the story and the out of this world portrayal of the titular vigilante Frank Castle by Jon Bernthal.

In many ways Castle is an agent of fantasy, of wish fulfillment. While the healthy majority of us hopefully aren’t chomping at the bit to have our families murdered, or to beat a guy to death with a sledgehammer, there’s likely a little Punisher in each of us. Whether it’s the feeling we get being cut off in traffic or the simmering resignation forced upon us when we see power abused without consequence there’s a universality to what The Punisher can offer: a world in which justice and one’s own righteousness are intertwined and absolute, in which they are elemental forces of sheer will tapped from a bottomless, primordial well.

Bernthal finds the fine balance between embodying those forces like a bloody monument and portraying the misery of a battered and broken human being. His grunts and silences and screams and scowls breathe life into Frank Castle so that we are able to not only tap into the aforementioned universality of his motivations, but his humanity as well. He is one of easily one of the greatest casting decisions the Marvel Cinematic Universe has ever made. We can move through the story with him, in some respects we can move through the story as him. He is the car on the tracks of this rollercoaster and it is exactly the car you want to be in.

If, that is, you want to be on a rollercoaster.

Like any other revenge yarn, engaging with The Punisher is chasing a dragon of sorts. Fully immersing yourself in Frank Castle’s quest requires a suspension of one’s better angles in the hopes of achieving that sweet nirvana of vicariously reaping brutal revenge. Inconsequential means to an inconsequential end, given that we’re talking about watching a television show, but a bargain that still isn’t for everyone.

The Punisher is also fueled by the sort of superhuman masculinity at the center of many revenge yarns that may turn some viewers off, though it makes efforts to explore and subvert that trope and its potential toxicity

If you like the character of Frank Castle, smart money says you’ll enjoy Netflix’s take on The Punisher, and even if you aren’t a fan of the character there still might be a chance that Bernthal’s stellar performance could win you over. Like any metaphorical roller coaster, you don’t have to get on to get a pretty good idea of what you’re getting in to. It goes up. It goes down. It does loops and spins. If that isn’t for you it isn’t for you, but man if it is for you holy crap the ups and downs and loops and spins on this thing are insane.

 

The Defenders, or, The Avengers: Appendices

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Mike Colter: statue of human perfect. And three other jabronies.

Like the first Avengers film before it, season one of Netflix’s The Defenders is tasked with bringing together the worlds and aesthetics of various intellectual properties (in this case the Netflix series Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist) into a single cohesive unit. However, The Avengers was and is the vanguard of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the banner behind which everything from Thor to Inhumans to Foggy Nelson must fall in line. Where The Avengers had the opportunity, and burden, of defining a universe, The Defenders has to define itself within an already established world.

Essentially, The Defenders has to do what The Avengers did, in the shadow of what The Avengers did.

Fans will be happy to find that over the course of its eight episode first season the series is able to stake a claim to its own identity both in relation to its own tributary shows and in the context of the MCU at large.

Daredevil (Charlie Cox), Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter), Luke Cage (Mike Colter) and even Iron Fist (Finn Jones) react to and interact with one another believably and enjoyably, never betraying the world of each individual character built within their own shows. Some of them, Cox in particular, deliver their best performances yet. Watching these four disparate elements find their way to tracks set on a collision course for one another is exciting and propels the early episodes of the season forward at a brisk pace. But once the titular cabal come together things get particularly interesting for the MCU.

Since the first season of Daredevil Netflix’s Marvel series have used the destruction of New York City in the first Avengers film as a jumping off point, but The Defenders solidifies the first phase of these series as a Tolkien-esque appendix to The Avengers, the kind of tucked away supplemental material that elevates the text from which it is derived.

The Defenders and its four preceding shows weave a tale of trickle down responsibility. The Avengers descended upon an unsuspecting New York City with thunder and monsters and fury, saved the day and irrevocably altered the status quo of the planet in one fell swoop, then left. Though likely unknowingly, The Avengers abandoned their responsibility for the new world order they established, one that took hold in the streets of New York. In their place ninjas and blind lawyers and nefarious business tycoons and bullet proof men fill in the cracks in the city like militias in an abandoned colony.

If The Avengers were equated to Return of the King (spoilers for Return of the King) The Defenders would be the burning of the Shire, a reminder that even heroism can have unintended consequences and that even hardships brought on by demigods and superhumans can be overcome by folks on the street.

The Defenders weren’t in Civil War and they may not show up in Infinity War (though they totally should) but the Marvel Cinematic Universe is better and more nuance for their presence in it.

Star Wars Rebels Season Four Preview, or, I Saw an Episode of Star Wars Rebels You Probably Haven’t Yet! Neat, Huh?

Last month I was able to make my wistful daydreams a reality and not only finally attend Star Wars Celebration, but also wake up at 4am to stand in line and finally sit down for a LucasFilm Animation panel in person. At the panel, for Star Wars Rebels, I was able to see a screening of an episode from the show’s upcoming fourth and final season, Heroes of Mandalore Part I. Below, some spoiler-free thoughts to tide you over until Rebels returns this fall.

Oh who am I kidding, I just wanted to brag about seeing the episode first.

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Did you have the wherewithal to con your way into a children’s pass to Star Wars Celebration? I bet you didn’t.

If Heroes of Mandalore Part I is any indication, Rebels’ fourth season may prove to be its most energetic yet. The episode is essentially two acts, each of with centered on an aerobic-heavy action sequence. The episode finds our heroes more confident and capable than ever as they take on an UNDISCLOSED of UNDISCLOSED at UNDISCLOSED to UNDISCLOSED UNDISCLOSED’S UNDISCLOSED.

My take away from this episode really was the action. Humor and drama are both present and deftly wielded, but more than any previous episode I can think of, Heroes of Mandalore felt relentless and almost out of breath. The second action sequence in particular felt akin to something between Indiana Jones and (a more grounded) Fast and Furious. There’s a lot of momentum in this episode, which is a promising sign given that the Rebels panel also brought with it tidings of the show’s ending with this coming season.

That aerobic momentum is what you want from a final season, a sense of barreling for the finish line like an insane person, limbs flailing, breath be damned. The episode left me with the impression that Rebels’ would have a lead boot on the pedal for its final season.

Also that part where UNDISCLOSED UNDISCLOSED SPOILERS SPOILERS HAHA I SAW AN EPISODE OF REBELS YOU PROBABLY HAVEN’T SEEN YET UNDISCLOSED SPOILERS was something else!

Star Wars Rebels Season Three, or, Oooooo Oooooo Growin’ Up

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*laugh track*

Coming off of one of the GOAT achievements in Star Wars storytelling with its second season finale, Star Wars: Rebels’ third season launched the interquel animated series into adolescence in more ways than one.

Rebels has always been something of a Star Wars sitcom in that it revolves around a core family with parents and kids and a grandpa and family pet. This season the family dynamics began to shift as the kids, Sabine and Ezra, started to come into their own as young adults, leaving the rest of the family (and the audience) uncertain, annoyed and surprised by their developments. But beyond its characters, Star Wars: Rebels as show exhibited signs of maturation in its third season.

The more Rebels defines itself as an entity the more comfortable it has become in interacting with other clearly defined Star Wars entities. In a sense it’s like the show has gotten old enough to have play dates with other corners of the Star Wars mythos. Part of the excitement of season three was watching week to week as Rebels reached out and interacted with the Prequels, the Clone Wars, the Original Trilogy, the old expanded universe and now it’s closest sibling, Rogue One. With two years of fairly insular soul-searching under its belt, Rebels is now sure-footed enough to interact with other Star Wars stories without being utterly overpowered by them. By the time the season finale rolled around Rebels was actively, seamlessly consorting with elements from The Clone Wars, the expanded universe, Rogue One and the Original Trilogy.

Rebels may not be entirely out from under the shadow of its predecessors, The Clone Wars (never forget, never forgive, Disney), but Star Wars has never felt like more of a single, cohesive narrative than it does on this show.

Fist of Darkness a.k.a. Fistpocalypse Now, or, Iron Fist

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I don’t know, some joke about Iron man playing rock-paper-scissors.

For all the casting controversy surrounding it, Netflix’s newest Marvel Series, Iron Fist, does very little to assuage concerns viewers may have had regarding the cultural appropriation of a white guy from New York kung-fuing about. Iron Fist has always been white, but his origins are propped up on the same antiquated ideas that fuel as The Last Samurai, or Farcry 3, or that one where some honky joins a bunch of blue cat people and can immediately fly their magic pterodactyl better than any of them – a white guy comes across an “exotic” culture that far outdates his own and is wondrously able to learn and harness the facets of said culture far better than any of their native practitioners, in ways that are nothing short of prophetic. That’s the starting point of the source material for Netflix’s new show, and it’s one they hold to.

As a boy, Danny Rand (played by Finn Jones) and his parents get in a plane crash in the Himalayas. While his parents are killed, Danny is taken in by the monks of the mystical city of K’un-L’un. Fifteen years later he returns home to New York City, having been trained by the monks and surpassing all other denizens of the ancient city to become the Immortal Iron Fist, a living weapon.
Not only did Marvel take zero initiative in trying to freshen up this decrepit, hackneyed narrative, not only do they neglect the opportunity to provide even a minimum of self-reflection regarding the trope that props their tale up, they double down on all of it, presenting a story that hinges entirely on unapologetic cultural appropriation.

Netflix’s Iron Fist is an exercise in colonialist sentiment.

Make no mistake, the power of the Iron Fist is a resource, and a rare one at that, considering it exists in a city that is only accessible once every fifteen years and requires one fight an undying dragon. Danny Rand acquires that resource, used for the protection of K’un-L’un, and takes it away from its stewards, bringing it home with him to New York City to aid him to his own nebulous, insular, vengeful ends. Iron Fist is a story about the complete displacement of a city’s essential natural resources (the dragon karate superpowers of K’un-L’un) to a place that by no means has any pressing need for them (at a minimum, NYC has Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Doctor Strange and Spider-Man on neighborhood watch, but damnit they need an Iron Fist too), by a guy who’s scarcely, if ever, gives the whole thing a second thought as he’s to wrapped up in what the resource can do for him. And when viewers finally encounter another citizen of K’un-L’un who calls Danny out on his actions, the accuser is vilified, made to look petty and jealous.

Daredevil’s explorations of guilt and vigilantism may not have been anything new, but they were something to chew on. Jessica Jones and Luke Cage gave us an intellectual four course meal with their discourses on everything from surviving abuse to the corporate prison system. Inversely, the literary depths found in Iron Fist are in its shortcomings: the empty spaces the show doesn’t fill in, the angles it fails to consider, the unfortunate sentiments it (hopefully) doesn’t realize it’s perpetuating.

Amongst its flaws, Iron Fist boasts an excellent performance from Jessica Henwick as Colleen Wing, a gripping score from Trevor Morris and a location that was also in John Wick, but on the whole, even without its problematic foundation, Iron Fist is largely dull. Hopefully it will stand as an example for more adventurous, nuanced storytelling in the future of Netflix’s neighborhood of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Monomyth: The Sitcom, or, Crashing

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The Hero with a Thousand Faces

Crashing, the new HBO comedy from comedian Pete Holmes and executive produced Judd Apatow, is the closet you’re going to get to a sitcom written by Joseph Campbell.

Based on Holmes’ real life experience as a burgeoning stand-up in New York, Crashing follows the sort of mythological, archetypal story beats seen in galaxy-spanning epics, here applied to a story with a scope as small and as vast as one guy’s life.

At the start of Pete’s journey he leads a comfortable, suburban life with his wife outside of New York City. The twin suns of Pete’s humble beginnings are preconceived notions of adulthood and unimaginative sex. He isn’t leading a bad life, but it’s clear that he’s leading an unfulfilled one, defined by known quantities.

Enter the inciting incident: marital infidelity.

Pete’s wife cheating on him is the archetypal call to action, the pull to something bigger, and like so many calls to action before it, Pete’s initial reaction is to reject it. But, like Luke Skywalker rushing back to a burning farm, Pete finds there is nothing for him in his old life.

From there he is whisked from adventure to adventure, pairing up with various comedic Buddhas that form a wide swath of unconventional mentors for our intrepid hero from week to week.

In applying the narrative ebbs and flows of archetypal mythology to a smaller, more intimate story than we are used to seeing them in, Crashing shows the power of the story beats and characters we know so well. These are ideas that ring true for a Jedi and superheroes precisely because they ring true for far more terrestrial, pedestrian protagonists as well.

Three episodes in, Crashing promises to be something between a sitcom and a saga. Anyone with a penchant for waxing poetic on The Hero’s Journey will find something to chew on watching Holmes’ cross the threshold.