A Hallway Fight with Something to Say, or, Daredevil Season 3

daredevil season 3

This. Devil’s on FIRRRRRRRRRRRRRRE!!!!!

I’m pretty far behind on the Netflix Marvel Microverse. I’m about two episodes into the season two of Jessica Jones, I haven’t started the second season of Luke Cage despite my best intentions to do so and I’m just never going to watch the second season of Iron Fist. But gosh darn it I love me some Horn Head, so when Daredevil Season 3 debuted on Netflix last Friday I dove in, continuity be damned.

Two episodes in I was bemoaning the creative decision to make these shows ensemble affairs, rolling my eyes through subplots and characters I never would have given the time of day to had I encountered them on wild television with no Daredevil in sight. It’s a shortcoming, akin to stretching what could be done in ten episodes out to thirteen, that is present in this season of Daredevil just as it is in every preceding Netflix MCU entry.

You will get to know the friends and family of Daredevil’s friends and family. You will have character backstory laid out beat by beat over the course of meticulous flashbacks that all fail in efficiency and effectiveness in comparison to the character background provided by Jon Bernthal’s stunning monologue in last season’s “Penny and Dime.” You will sit in on so, so, so many meetings in so many offices in New York City.

But in the end, Daredevil Season 3 flourishes in spite of these familiar faults.

There were moments in the season’s second episode in which I found myself thinking “I hate this.”

By the end of Episode 3 I’d stumbled upon a cautious optimism that, by the end of Episode 4, bloomed into elation and appetite that sustained me through a frenzied viewing of the rest of the season.

Where Daredevil has, in its previous two seasons, proven less concerned with the world outside our windows than the likes of Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, or even the Punisher, here it dives full-bore into the bewildering state of American politics in 2018.

In its waning episodes, when the show most directly states its ideas and concerns, they feel earned, organic, even profound. The ideas and discourse throughout the season are by no means hidden, but I for one never felt myself being lectured to or beat over the head with an ideology, and so when Matt Murdock finally declared “some people are so rich and powerful the system cannot handle them” it felt frighteningly true, like an inescapable, outraged epiphany.

Here, Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk is almost revealed anew, an already established villain and a lauded performance recontextualized by real world events far beyond Kingpin’s control. Daredevil Season 3 gives us a chess match between leviathan economic, social and legal constructs, calling the worth of all of them into question, casting the Man Without Fear, and thus the audience, adrift in the uncertain waters between them.

What if this is the end of the system? The end of the old rules? Of how things are supposed to work? Of establishment? What if the human contrivances built to impose justice and morality have abandoned us?

Fisk demands Matt Murdock and company grapple with these questions and in doing so enflames very contemporary insecurities. More impressive than just how ably the show hammers at these insecurities, however, is that despite these nagging uncertainties still dangling like loose story threads in the real world, Daredevil Season 3 actually manages to arrive at something of a satisfying, thoughtful ideological conclusion.

The profundity of that conclusion, and the insecurities that lead to it, are sold in no small part by Charlie Cox turning in a spectacular, career-best performance as Matt Murdock. The places he goes and the authenticity he brings with him throughout these thirteen episodes is astonishing. Also of note is Jay Ali’s FBI Agent Rahul Nadeem, who feels as though he walked through a door in our world directly onto this operatic, philosophical battlefield. Ali is an actor I’ll definitely be on the lookout for in films and television to come.

Though this season of Daredevil is still hindered by the aforementioned, tradition Netflix MCU shortcomings, the usual slump that occurs a little over halfway through these shows is nowhere to be found here. Once the season kicks into gear around Episode 3 the stakes and intensity rarely, if ever, stagger, building to a momentous final confrontation.

Season 3 of Daredevil pushes itself to be more than gritty and adult, coming to the table thoughtfully and confidently with something to say about the world, and these thirteen episodes greatly benefit from that push as the comprise the best season of Daredevil yet.

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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

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.

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.

Luke Cage, or, Eat Your Heart Out Hell’s Kitchen!

luke-cage

I got nothing. This is badass as hell.

Much as I love Netflix’s Daredevil and Jessica Jones, there’s something of an underlying buzzing in my ears I get the entire time I watch them. Nothing huge, but it’s there. A small, persistent nagging in the back of my head throughout the adventures of the first two Defenders. As much as I hate to use such a word when referring to any sort of genre entertainment, there’s a part of those shows that just doesn’t feel realistic. I know, I’m rolling my eyes too, but stay with me. I don’t mean Jessica Jones’ superpowers or Matt Murdock’s hyper senses. I mean the neighborhood.

Hell’s Kitchen sucks.

Not the real New York neighborhood, mind you, but the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s recreation of it as Frank Miller’s wet dream. It can require a big enough suspension of disbelief that the events of two seasons of Daredevil and a season of Jessica Jones take place in a neighborhood that is less than one square mile in size, but I don’t have a problem with that. Superheroics are built on suspending your disbelief. What I do have trouble grappling with is just how unbelievably crappy and unlovable Hell’s Kitchen is. It doesn’t feel like a city worth saving, because it doesn’t feel like a city. It feels like an antagonist with one defining characteristic: utter shittiness. Marvel’s Hell’s Kitchen isn’t a place people live, it’s a place ninjas and human traffickers go to get strung out and collect STDs.

And it’s not just Hell’s Kitchen. This is a trend throughout gritty, realistic vigilantism. Gotham City is cool because that’s where Batman lives. Other than that, it’s pretty terrible place filled with pretty terrible people. Similarly, I really couldn’t have cared less if the fictionalized Hell’s Kitchen burned to the ground. Not because it’s portrayed as a bad neighborhood with a high crime rate, but because it’s portrayed as a high crime rate possessing the concrete and steel of a city block.

Netflix’s latest Marvel outing, Luke Cage, has gotten no shortage of much-deserved praise for its representation and portrayal of anyone that isn’t a white dude, but it also does something else few, if any, other superhero stories have managed to do: create a setting that feels alive and breathing.

The Harlem of Luke Cage doesn’t just feel like a real neighborhood, it feels like a community. The MCU’s Harlem has history. It has heroes and villains that can’t fly or deflect bullets. It has hangouts and landmarks. I feel like I can imagine the places kids would be playing Pokemon Go.

Harlem feels like a community where people live, where people sleep at night and go to work in the morning. That believability goes a long way when a stranger with bulletproof skin comes to town. Not only does it serve to ground the series, it serves as character motivation for Luke Cage himself. I believe that Luke Cage wants to defend Harlem because I want him to defend Harlem because I can believe the Harlem the show presents is an actual human being’s actual home.

Those characters who call Harlem their home play just as big a role in instilling the show with a sense of life.

Luke Cage may be the most intellectual superhero story committed to film. Sure there are plenty of superhero adventuress that boast smart writing and cerebral themes, but Luke Cage boasts smart characters. Not quippy or clever, mind you. The characters that inhabit Luke Cage’s Harlem are intelligent. You gain insight into who they are based on the books they’re reading and their opinions of them. Conflicts in Luke Cage are just as likely to take the form of discourse as fisticuffs.

It’s an exciting development for superhero storytelling. We’ve seen smart heroes before. Peter Parker is smart. We know he’s smart because he makes sci-fi things. Reed Richards is smart. We know he’s smart because he makes sci-fi things. Luke Cage and his opponents and associates are smart. We know they’re smart because they engage in intelligent conversation and express and discuss thoughtful opinions about the world around them.

The prospect of discussing a piece in The Atlantic with Luke Cage is just as daunting as the prospect of arm wrestling him.

Like the show’s depiction of Harlem, the intelligence of its characters breathes life into the fictionalized world of Luke Cage. Its characters are aware of the world around them. They read about the world around them and they talk about the world around them because they have a stake in the world around them, which ultimately makes the audience believe in the world around them.

I love Daredevil and I love Jessica Jones, but after watching Luke Cage get shit done in Harlem, it’ll be hard to go back to the relentlessly bleak matte painting of a gutter that is Marvel’s Hell’s Kitchen.

 

Jessica Jones, or, Better Late Than Never Right? RIGHT!?

While collecting my thoughts on the first season of Marvel’s latest Netflix offering, Luke Cage, I realized much to my dismay (and after an embarrassing amount of perusing my own blog) that I’ve yet to post anything on the first season on Jessica Jones. This is particularly inexcusable given I watched the entire first season the weekend it came out. What am I doing with my life, am I right? Egg on my face! Given how thought-provoking that show is and how much I enjoyed it I’d be remiss if I didn’t discuss it before I post about Luke Cage later this week.

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Telephone!

Jessica Jones is the follow up to Netflix’s premiere foray into the Marvel Universe, Daredevil. Like its gritty, TV-MA predecessor, Jessica Jones amps up the sexuality, language and general bleakness and is probably two or three episodes longer than it needs to be. But Jessica Jones is no Daredevil retread. In fact, Jessica Jones is the furthest thing from the tropes and expectations of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to ever come out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

That starts with Jessica Jones herself, brought to life by Krysten Ritter, who absolutely inhabits the role. Ritter’s performance feels like it’s being circled by the same historic prestige that’s latched on to Linda Carter’s Wonder Woman. Jones isn’t what we as an audience have been groomed to think a superhero is. She never goes on self-righteous, brooding rants about “my city” this and “my city” that. She doesn’t have a crusade. She doesn’t partake in hallway fights. Jessica Jones is not a costume with delusions of grandeur trying to overcome overwhelming odds on behalf of a populous that is unaware she’s taken ownership of. She’s a woman with her sights set no higher than survival.

Queue arguably the most fascinating antagonist the Marvel Cinematic Universe has birthed thus far, the subtlety named Kilgrave, a man with mind control and zero moral or ethical shackles.

Kilgrave is as deplorable and terrifying as he is intellectually stimulating, due in no small part to the performance of David Tennant, who I guess has done some genre work in the past. He is a force of unchecked power and prosperity that Jessica Jones and her friends and acquaintances can do little more than hope to survive. He is the living, breathing personification of the patriarchy, a white man to whom the rules simply do not apply. His true power is privilege, a privilege he may not have specifically asked for, but one he deftly wields and refuses to apologize for nonetheless. When Kilgrave walks into a room, everyone else in the room begins living a life stacked in someone else’s favor.

Ritter’s Jessica Jones squaring off against Tennant’s Kilgrave is truly binge-worthy, but more than that, and more so than anything else Stan Lee has made a cameo in, the first season of Jessica Jones is a story that deserves thoughtful consideration.

The first season of Jessica Jones is the paragon of what Netflix’s brand of more mature superhero storytelling can be. It isn’t content to simply trade in bright colors and quips for violence and nudity, it trades in villains wearing Halloween costumes in the making for villains that embody systemic sexism, racism and oppression in the modern age.

Good luck finding your kid that LEGO set.

 

Daredevil Season 1, or, Marvel’s New DC Movie

One of the myriad tricks to Marvel’s cinematic success over the better part of the last decade has been the careful curation of a sort of in-house tone, an ever-present throughline that helps a millionaire being kidnapped in a Middle Eastern warzone and a talking raccoon in space feel somehow connected. There’s a spectacle to it that, as big as it gets, never outgrows being poked and prodded by sassy quips. It’s a big tone, and a funny tone, and at this point Marvel has it down to a science, ably applying it to the skeletons of various film subgenres to great effect. But in the recently unveiled first season of Marvel’s Daredevil on Netflix the subgenre skeleton to which Marvel has applied their magic may have been too potent for even the most sardonic Whedonism to overcome.

Iron Man 3 was something of a buddy cop movie. Thor: The Dark World wove threads of heavy fantasy. Many touted The Winter Soldier as a political thriller. Guardians of the Galaxy was a straight up space opera. Yet all of them felt distinctly similar. Distinctly Marvel.

With Daredevil, Marvel has taken their fun, quirky blockbuster personality and applied it to the grit and despair of a Batman Begins or a Man of Steel, and with all the talk of “this city,” and “my city,” and “your city” Daredevil regularly feels like a spiritual sibling to Arrow. Daredevil feels like Marvel’s take on a DC Comics movie.

A XENOMORPH

A XENOMORPH

The grit in question isn’t exactly out of left field given the subject matter. Despite Daredevil’s current comic book adventures by Mark Waid and Chris Samnee focusing on overcoming despair, Daredevil was brought to prominence decades ago by Frank Miller, whose time with the hero focused on wading in it.

The Daredevil TV series smartly avoids the more preposterous depths to which Miller took Matt Murdock, at least for now. The writer’s maverick street savior ideology is still very present, but at its most extreme it’s funneled into the character of Stick, rather than dispersed throughout the show as a whole.

The darker, grittier works of writers like Miller are largely responsible for the clout that began to surround the words “graphic novel” in every other movie trailer in the late 00’s. They boast a psychology that Christopher Nolan masterfully adapted in his Dark Knight Trilogy, but it’s the same psychology that many Man of Steel detractors cite as having ruined Zack Snyder’s take on Superman, and with each successive darker, grittier take on a proven character or franchise that cornerstone characteristics of DC’s film output seems to be trying audiences’ patience and growing more and more outdated.

So how successful is the blend of Marvel’s box office conquering fun and DC’s arguably outdated grit?

Pretty damn successful.

Daredevil is a kick ass show. Charlie Cox instantly proves himself both a charming Matt Murdock and a badass Daredevil who commands an audience’s attention whether he’s brutalizing junkies or getting a latte with a priest. Cox’s supporting cast isn’t hurting for acting chops either. Vincent D’Onofrio in particular turns in a fascinating performance as The Kingpin, his Wilson Fisk feeling almost like Charlie Brown. Almost. The fight scenes on display here are next level and the cinematography and score are consistently inspired. But by the end of the 13 episode first season it’s hard to deny that the DC influence seems to have overtaken that patented Marvel tone.

I love this show. Its release last Friday wreaked havoc on my sleep schedule throughout the entire week. I’m a caffeinated beverage away from tying a black T-shirt over my eyes, suspending a trash bag from my ceiling and punching the night away. But Daredevil isn’t exactly fun. It’s exciting and suspenseful and badass but towards the end of the season in particular the show feels less like Marvel’s take on a gritty crime drama than just a straight up gritty crime drama. There’s nothing wrong with that, but where I found myself excited by the prospect of Tony Stark meeting Rocket Raccoon while I watched Guardians of the Galaxy, watching Daredevil I thought of Matt Murdock crossing paths with Captain America and the pairing felt undeniably strange and disjointed.

Is Groot really flying around somewhere above those antlers?

Is Groot really flying around somewhere above those antlers?

I can’t wait to get more of Daredevil flip-kicking punks all over Hell’s Kitchen, but it’s worth noting that I’m more inclined to believe that Daredevil and his city are bouncing back after being devastated by two brooding Kryptonians than I am to believe it’s the same city the Avengers defended from Loki.