The Defenders, or, The Avengers: Appendices

thedefenders

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.

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That Parker Luck (Again (Again)), or, Spider-Man: Homecoming

spidermanhomecoming

I’m not actually going to come up with a Beats by Dre/Spider pun, but I’ll sure as hell let you know that’s theoretically what goes here.

When I started putting together some notes for my inevitably groundbreaking Spider-Man: Homecoming blog post a huge part of my thinking about the film involved the perceived tug-of-war between providing a fresh take on the character for fans who have seen Spidey in six previous films and providing a traditional take on the character for younger audience members who may not be familiar with Spider-Man because they were six when Tobey Maguire (did you know that’s how that’s spelled cause it was a shock to me) danced himself clean in Spider-Man 3.

Then I remembered there had been a whole other Spider-Man between then and now, one that came out in a post-Avengers world no less.

Spider-Man: Homecoming’s greatest weaknesses are arguably not its own. In a bubble its blemishes would perhaps go entirely unnoticed, but it can be hard to escape the fact that it is the second reboot of a franchise in five years.

Though one always has to keep in mind that every superhero film is somebody’s first, Homecoming doesn’t go out of its way at all to do anything particularly revolutionary with the character. While it spares audiences the drudgery of watching Batman’s parents be gunned down for the 27th time, in comparison to its IP forerunners Homecoming feels more like the transition between Dalton and Brosnan than Connery to Moore. Even thrust into the expanse of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, RDJ in tow, it doesn’t manage to make the exploits of a charming young man perpetually disappointing his love interest and alienating his Aunt in the name of responsibility feel any fresher than they did in 2012’s Amazing Spider-Man. Watching Peter Parker, this time played by Tom Holland who is quite likely the best Spidery yet, get himself into one secret-identity-SNAFU after another really drove home just how much I appreciate the unspoken heroism that is the MCU’s usual dismissal of secret identities.

Tired tropes aside, Homecoming does spare its audience the insufferable “she can’t know my secret identity because somehow that equates to protecting her” shtick. Contained to the film itself, Peter Parker’s secrecy is totally sound, but lined up with 15 years of cinematic Spider-Man storytelling, the frustrating social predicaments Peter finds himself in prove just as frustrating for a viewer who’s seen any other Spider-Man movie before.

Thus, the first two-thirds of Homecoming, while fun and charming, are not a revolution in cinematic Spider-Man, which may or may not be a problem, depending on the viewer.

The final act of Spider-Man: Homecoming, however, has the rare distinction of being a superhero film finale that is better than the rest of the movie preceding it, a feather even The Dark Knight can’t put into its cap.

In defiance of prevailing superhero wisdom, or lack thereof, rather than devolving into a mush of CGI and sky lasers so vast in scope as to be entirely devoid of relatability, Homecoming turns up the tension and emotional stakes and offers a third act with the sort of boiling intensity only Michael Keaton’s eyebrows and incessant gum chewing can truly communicate. It offers the kind of conflicts that are claustrophobic and thrilling, and the kinds of seemingly insurmountable challenges (brought to life by a brilliant and vulnerable performance on Tom Holland’s part) that make the promise of triumph all the sweeter.

Spider-Man: Homecoming didn’t fix what wasn’t absolutely shattered. It isn’t a new kind of Spider-Man movie and for many it likely won’t even be the best Spider-Man movie. But the revolutionary thinking that wasn’t necessarily applied to its protagonist isn’t just THWIPed into the empty sky. It might not go down as the best Spider-Man movie ever made (I don’t know, people really like Spider-Man 2), woven into Peter Parker’s larger narrative within the MCU it has abundant potential to be a chapter in the best Spider-Man story put to film.

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

ironfist

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.

Doctor Strange, or, Breaking Most of the Rules

doctorstrange

Pew pew!

Marvel’s 14th film, Doctor Strange, is all about flipping off the establishment.

After the titular Doctor Stephen Strange, the unlikeable Tony Stark of surgery, gets in a car accident that utterly destroys his hands, he scours the earth for a solution to his perpetually quaking fingers. His search brings him to the doorstep of The Ancient One and her sorcerer acolytes, who offer a solution to the limits of Strange’s body via the expansion of his mind, which it turns out, involves asking a lot of questions.

Nothing is sacred in the world of Doctor Strange. The culture of sorcery he immerses himself in is founded on questioning and redefining the rules of time and space in ways that leave the screen so cluttered with 70s prog rock special effects that it is legitimately impossible to take everything in.

But, like, in a cool way.

To The Ancient One and her ilk it seems the only certainty is the need to question anything deemed certain. Much to The Ancient One’s chagrin that rule doesn’t stop at her doorstep.

On his quest Doctor Strange is not only forced to question time and space, he’s forced to question authority and orthodoxy. He’s brought into a mystical microcosm that has torn apart the constraints of the larger world around it without ever taking too close a look at itself.

Intentionally or not Doctor Strange proves to be an incredibly appropriate superhero movie for November 2016. Its hero is ultimately tasked with never becoming stagnant. With never clinging to a worldview for the sake of towing the line. When his world as a surgeon is crushed around him he is presented with an alternative that shows him the flaws of his old life. But that alternative is not without flaws. Nor is the alternative to that alternative. Doctor Strange’s strongest attribute isn’t his newly-acquired understanding of the mystic arts or his newly-acquired ability to thinly veil his own jackassery, it’s his insistence on never taking any one sound bite from any one talking head at face value.

But despite the thematic through line of obliterating conventions and questioning dogma in spectacular 3D glory the film falls back on a particularly vexing trope I’d thought we’d moved past. The love interest for the sake of a love interest.

Rachel McAdams plays Dr. Christine Palmer, an ER physician who has a strained, romantic history with Stephen Strange. Rachel McAdams is great. She’s Rachel McAdams. True Detective Season 2. Spotlight. The script for Doctor Strange relegates her to what feels like a mark on some sort of blockbuster checklist you’d think the Sorcerer Supreme would have dismantled a thousand times over by now. This isn’t simply the case of an inexplicable kiss, à la Jurassic World or Civil War. It isn’t just the romance that feels artificial, it’s the entire character. Dr. Palmer has limited screen time and even more limited impact on the story overall. McAdams does as much as any performer could in the limited space the script gives her, but at best her character is written into the film as a benchmark audiences can use to tell Doctor Strange isn’t as big of a dick as he used to be. She ultimately feels like the girl shoehorned into a “boy” movie so that girlfriends will go too, a notion I’d hoped characters like Peggy Carter or Gamora or Black Widow had rendered obsolete. She isn’t given an arc or even afforded sufficient time to believably react to and acquaint herself with Strange’s new abilities (her introduction to and acceptance of Strange’s mystical powers is rushed to the point of feeling like an encounter with a new hair cut) and the movie suffers for it. That this is the capacity to which an actress of McAdam’s caliber joins the Marvel Cinematic Universe is upsetting, and a waste of talent. The debut of the new Wonder Woman trailer before the movie didn’t exactly lessen the blow.

Doctor Strange is a lot of fun. Its special effects are seriously next level. Its humor is on point. Its Mads is Mikkelsen. Strange’s consistent questioning of authority, establishments and institutions gives him, and his debut film, a unique and thought-provoking flavor. But an otherwise fun and exciting film is left with a few scuffs by the conventions it didn’t bother questioning. With any luck little kids will leave Doctor Strange with a healthy skepticism and a simulated LSD-trip hangover rather than antiquated ideas of gendered film.

 

Captain America: Civil War, or, What’s Your Policy on Late Work?

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Hawkeye, characteristically distracted.

I really, really liked Civil War.

Black Panther was dope as hell. Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers has inherited the mantle of Christopher Reeves’ Superman as the cinematic embodiment of a superhero. Tony Stark’s guilty conscious continues to pull the character along on a compelling trajectory. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo, co-writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and company manage to adeptly juggle a dozen plus different characters in a film that bounces between comedy and tragedy without giving the viewer whiplash.

I really, really liked Civil War. I just can’t for the life of me come up with anything insightful to write about it. It’s a roadblock I run into with pretty much every Marvel movie: they’re just too damn difficult to be pretentious about. I mean, the best I could come up with for Age of Ultron was that it was a comic book movie that was a lot like a comic book. Staggering, I know. Which is a bummer because now I can’t use that premise to write about Civil War.

What I can do, though, is come up with a vaguely insightful cop out for not writing anything vaguely insightful about Civil War. Which is to say that rather than do my homework I stared at it for an hour and eventually came up with a compelling excuse not to.

The Empire Strikes Back wasn’t defined by whatever the New York Times had to say about the film in 1980. It was defined over decades by the kids in the theater who saw it as eight-year-olds and again as eighteen-year-olds and again as thirty-year-olds on and on into adulthood, building an evolving relationship with a piece of cinema as they reencountered it at different stages in their life. It’s a relationship I have with Jurassic Park. When I was five it was cool dinosaurs eating people, but as I grew up it became a much funnier and much more intelligent movie.

The real insights into the Marvel Cinematic Universe are still years out. In two years kids who saw Iron Man when they were eight are going to be going to college. There’ll be adults that have grown up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Not just one film or a trilogy that they continue to revisit, but new entries continually unfolding as they grew up. What a perspective. What does Civil War look like to them? Does it feel like the Empire Strikes Back? Does it ring with a greater emotional nuance? What are the brief, forgettable snippets that ring true to them? The quiet, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments that’ll be referenced in the sitcoms these MCU kids grow up to watch and write?

They’re the ones who should be writing about Civil War. They grew up with Cap and Iron Man, I was already basically a grown ass man when this nonsense started. I can only emotionally invest myself in a film so much because I’m a grown up with real life grown up problems and real life grown up brainwashed, robot-armed friends. Kids gotta go to the movies for that kind of thing. Much as I adored Civil War I can’t imagine it doesn’t register deeper and truer with fans who either have a childhood attachment to these characters or are currently in their childhood.

So I guess I do have something to say about Captain America: Civil War. That’s stream of consciousness for you.

Civil War is like a formal statement of fact that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is going to be, like, a whole thing. Something people have a lifelong relationship with. Something characters in indie films quip and banter about. Something mainstream audiences know minute trivia about. And it’s going to be very interesting to see how that all shakes out in years to come. Who’s the MCU’s Boba Fett? Who’s its Admiral Ackbar? What’s its Tuskan Raider cry or Jawa chirp?

Nobody really gives a shit about some sixty-year-old’s story about seeing Star Wars for the first time on the big screen at the age of twenty five. We care about the first time a five-year-old saw Star Wars, whether it was on the big screen in 1977 or on VHS in 1996. I saw Iron Man the summer before I started college on the back of a headrest on an airplane, but there are kids who saw Iron Man in theaters when they were six, and saw the Avengers assemble when they were ten and now their voices are cracking and Civil War is raging. The retrospective think piece they write about Civil War when they start a blog in college is the one that’ll really be worth reading.

So, you know, I shouldn’t have to write one.

Yeah, either that or “a dog ate my blogpost” or whatever.

Perfect Timing, or, Ant-Man

Avengers: Age of Ultron was a massive movie. There was something like a million robots, upwards of five antagonists and one lavish, sprawling set piece after another, each in its own corner of the globe. What better way to follow up what is quite possibly the biggest superhero movie of all time than with what is most definitely the smallest installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe yet.

Get it? Cause small? Cause ants? Cause I’m talking about Ant-Man?

SMALL ATTACK

SMALL ATTACK

Ant-Man applies Marvel Studios’ trademark, money-printing charm to the heist movie, a genre that traditionally entails far smaller conflicts than world-ending androids. The marriage of Marvel style and the heist genre winds up delivering what in many ways is the polar opposite of Age of Ultron.

Where Age of Ultron pits a genocidal robot hive mind devising an extinction-level event up against a flying aircraft carrier of speedsters, witches and more benevolent other robots in a city turned into an asteroid, Ant-Man sees a bald guy trying his hand at corporate espionage only to come up against a convict and a van full of his friends in a final battle that plays out on a toy train set. It’s exactly what the doctor order after a movie as dense, and some would argue bloated, as Age of Ultron.

Ant-Man is also great in its own right, largely because it’s hilarious. Whether you’ve heard a thousand times already or not, enough can’t be said about how fantastic Michael Peña is as Luis, one of the aforementioned friends in a van. He manages to steal the show from any and all set pieces, action sequences and Michaels Douglas.

The movie isn’t without its shortcomings, however. It aggravatingly finds its narrative almost completely reliant on the increasingly asinine “don’t tell the entirely capable, grown woman anything because she needs to be protected” trope. But the best special effects any Marvel movie has boasted so far, coupled with Michael Peña’s out-of-the-park comedic performance make Ant-Man the perfect breath of fresh air between the much bleaker Age of Ultron and the upcoming Captain America: Civil War, which is sure to be a dire tale indeed.

 

Food For Thought, or, Race in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

There are some mild spoilers ahead for Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Iron Man 2.

They said I couldn’t read too much into Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Well I sure proved them wrong, didn’t I? Now they say I can’t read too much into Captain America: The Winter Soldier even more, and I’m about to prove them wrong again.

ZOOM ZOOM

ZOOM ZOOM

Consider this an appendix to my thoughts on The Winter Soldier, as well as something of an addendum to my musings on the most recent episode of the Pony Tricks Comic Cast. I don’t hold the below theories as fact, nor do I whole-heartedly advocate them, but there are some things I’ve noticed in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that I haven’t stopped pondering since seeing The Winter Soldier. I present them here as food for thought in the hopes that others might weigh in.

Let’s talk about sidekicks in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Going into Captain America: The Winter Soldier, one of the aspects of the film I found myself most excited for was Anthony Mackie (Hurt Locker, Gangster Squad, Pain and Gain) as Sam Wilson, a.k.a. the Falcon. And Mackie didn’t disappoint. Do I have a breadth of knowledge regarding The Falcon? Nope. In fact, I know exactly three things about Sam Wilson.

1. He’s a black guy.

2. He has a flying suit.

3. He was recruited into the Avengers with the express purpose of making the superhero outfit more racially diverse, wasn’t a fan of being labeled a token minority and straight up quit.

POSTER ATTACK

POSTER ATTACK

It’s that last one I’m most interested in, and while the Marvel films’ M.O. so far is to tread lightly in regards to most social issues, it’d be awesome if that actually got adapted into the movies. A gal can dream, no?

With that storyline in mind I couldn’t help but pick up on a few things in Captain America. I’ve already mentioned the fact that while Wilson and Steve Rogers discuss all the great strides America has made since World War II desegregation and civil rights are both absent – particularly blatant omissions considering in 1943, Captain America served in a military that would remain segregated for five more years. Just saying.

But let’s talk about something else.

Let’s talk about how Sam Wilson is relegated to a reliance on the white man for his power in The Winter Soldier.

Wilson has the skills to operate his Falcon flight suit, but is deprived of said suit as it is locked away in a vault somewhere. It isn’t until he mentions as much to Captain America and Black Widow that he is reunited with his suit, the implication being that Cap and Widow had to get it for him. Never mind that the suit itself was created by a white man, a product of Stark Industries.

One of the few black characters in the Marvel Universe gains his power from a suit created by a white man that has to be retrieved and given to him by another white man. Like I said, I’m proving them wrong again.

But what if I’m not reading too much into it?

Let’s take a look back at Iron Man 2. I know, I know, you don’t want too. But it wasn’t that bad you guys, c’mon. Remember Sam Rockwell?

I told you Iron Man 2 wasn't that bad. Remember this? Huh? Pretty awesome, huh?

I told you Iron Man 2 wasn’t that bad. Remember this? Huh? Pretty awesome, huh?

The circumstances under which James Rhodes becomes War Machine are eerily similar, if not identical to the circumstances under which Sam Wilson becomes Falcon.

James Rhodes is a pilot. He possess the skills already. But it takes a suit built by a white man, again Tony Stark, that he then must take from said white man, to elevate him to the status of superhero. And it’s later implied that Stark actively allowed Rhodes to take the suit.

There are a lot of superheroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Two of them are black. Both of them are sidekicks, and both of them are essentially bestowed their powers by white men.

Did Marvel actively set out to portray black superheroes as dependent upon white superheroes for their powers? Probably not. Is that even how they see themselves as portraying black superheroes? Probably not. But I find it problematic nonetheless.

Sure, Captain America had his powers bestowed on him by the federal government, but he also possesses an inherent goodness that made him the ideal candidate for the program. And the fact that the super soldier serum has never worked successfully on anyone else (Red Skull, The Abomination) implies Captain America does possess some sort of inherent difference that makes him unique.

Tony Stark creates his powers with his mind and his own two hands.

Bruce Banner turns himself into the Hulk as a result of his scientific prowess and research.

Thor is Thor by virtue of being Thor.

It’s true that Nick Fury is the man with all the answers, the glue that has thus far tied the Marvel Cinematic Universe together. But he isn’t a superhero. And as we discover in Winter Soldier, he was appointed to his position of power by a white guy.

With the arguable exception of Captain America, the Avengers are all self-made superheroes. But the same can’t be said for Falcon or War Machine. I’m not sure how I feel about that, but I couldn’t help but notice.

So what do you think? Am I on to something? Am I reading way too much into way too little? Do you agree? Do you disagree?

Like I said: food for thought.