Review and Comments: Daredevil Season 2 (Netflix, 2016)

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Review and Comments:  Daredevil Season 2 (Netflix, 2016)

Short Review:

Good, but not as great as the first season.  It has more fights, explosions, and killing than Season One.  It has gone more to the supernatural side of Daredevil stories and lessened the realism significantly.  Still does some very clever things with theme and character, but has a more complicated narrative structure that occasionally wobbles and feels a little overfull.

 

Longer Review:

I loved Season One of Daredevil.  I thought it was a gritty, ‘realistic’, down-to-earth superhero show that made the incredible seem plausible, did interesting things with character, and focused on telling a good story.  It was thematically consistent, and, in terms of genre, kept its sights firmly on the street crime elements that gave it an authenticity and credibility.   Season Two didn’t quite hit the same notes for me.  Don’t get me wrong, it is still better than the vast majority of other superhero shows, but the first season was so good that this time around my expectations were perhaps a little too high.   Of course you can’t really hold the show responsible for not meeting every viewer’s expectations, but when the first season creates them, you really hope that the follow up at least meets them.  But there are some aspects that just didn’t work as well for me this time.

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Another Review: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (dir. Zack Snyder, 2016)

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Another Review: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (dir. Zack Snyder, 2016)
This one by me.

 

Short Review:

Not as bad as you have been led to believe, but not the greatest film ever. A Batman focused film that serves to make you hate Superman even more, launches the DC cinematic universe, and make you wish that they had just made a Wonder Woman film and left the men in tights at home.  It looks pretty though.

 

Longer Review:

If online reviews and reports are to be believed Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is one of the worst films ever made, is a travesty of modern film making, superhero films, and storytelling, and that the entire cast and crew would have been better staying in bed and drinking Mai Tais.  Nerds, geeks, comic fans, and film critics have been bizarrely united in their hatred and vitriol concerning this film.  Let me be among the first to say that I am shocked, shocked I tell you, to find out that sometimes things on the internet are exaggerated and that their reportage can lean toward hyperbole.  BvS will never be my favourite superhero film, but it wasn’t that bad and I have definitely seen far worse (Ghost Rider/Green Lantern/Batman and Robin/Man of Steel).  I know that I have already posted my friend’s review of the film, but clearly I think that my opinion is far more important.

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Review: The Sandman Overture by Neil Gaiman with JH Williams III

Sandman Overture

 

 

 

 

Review: Sandman Overture by Neil Gaiman with JH Williams III (artist), Dave Stewart (colour), Todd Klein (Letterer) and covers by Dave McKean

 

Sandman Overture, like all the Sandman stories is a wonderful collaboration between Gaiman as author and the artists and comic professionals who bring the story to life and give it the distinctive visual vibrancy and immediacy one has come to expect from the series.  Indeed, despite my great admiration for a lot of Gaiman’s work, were it not for the artistic input from his collaborators this 6 volume story would have lacked a lot of its punch.

 

If you are already familiar with The Sandman you can skip this paragraph.  The central character of the series is Dream, one of the Endless.  The Endless are the anthropomorphised expressions of abstract ideals that through their existence define the universe.  Destiny, Death, Destruction, Dream, Desire, Despair, and Delirium.  Each of the Endless are immortal, for a given value of immortal, and each has enormous power, especially within their sphere of influence.  For Dream, that sphere is, of course, dreams, but more than that, it encompasses fiction, stories, narratives of all sorts, and, to a certain extent, reality.  Because by defining the unreal we know that the real exists as all else.  The Sandman series officially ran from January 1989 to March 1996, and was followed by anthology editions, and several spin-offs and related titles.

 

Sandman Overture is a prequel (what is with the popularity of prequels these days? Are we so afraid of moving on that we want more of the same?) and focuses on the events that immediately precede the opening of the first issue of The Sandman or the opening chapter of Preludes and Nocturnes.  So essentially it tells the story of what weakened the character of Dream so much that he could be caught in the spell of the Victorian occultist Burgess that began the series back in 1989.  Throughout its pages it drops hints and mini-reveals that add resonance to the main series, and, to some extent, explore the relationships of the Endless.  It is an essential purchase for The Sandman completist or collector, but in many respects it is a bit of a let-down.  Given Gaiman’s great strength as a short story author, and his command of this material, this universe, and this character, I have to admit that my expectations were high.  Perhaps too high.

 

Gaiman’s Sandman has never been afraid to eschew standard narrative conventions and a fair number of issues have been as experimental as any modernist novel, so it is somewhat disappointing that the story presented here, despite appearances, it actually fairly pedestrian and prosaic.  The plodding travelogue, barely spiced up by exotic locales, moves inexorably toward a climatic finish that is robbed of power through the use of a plot device already seen in the main series, a deus ex machina, and, reader foreknowledge of the outcome… it is a prequel after-all.  We already know that Dream wins out, albeit in a weakened state, so much of interest is in how he wins out… which, unfortunately, is why the already used and heavily foreshadowed plot device and the deus ex machina are so disappointing.

 

To be fair to Gaiman, in many respects his hands were tied about what he wanted to do with this story.  It had to fit existing continuity, it had to end a certain way, and, if he wanted to please fans, it had to contain nods and cameos of certain characters and story elements.  No matter how high he wanted to raise the stakes, no matter how cataclysmic he made the challenge to Dream, the story was still going to end up in the same place.  This is, unfortunately, one of the major problems with many prequels, particularly those set just before the events of a well-established series.  So it is hard to fault Gaiman here, as there was little he could do about this particular aspect.  Therefore, unless you have almost no knowledge of the main series, there is very little dramatic tension present, at best there is some curiosity.  But, if you have no knowledge of the main series, much of the detail, context and required knowledge for unpacking the story is absent as few characters are explained, few relationships are actively detailed, and context is a thing left far, far behind.

 

This lack of context for readers unfamiliar with the main series makes the story fragmented and disjointed, full of characters who appear and disappear without meaning or context, and therefore it doesn’t really function as an entry to the main series.  So for the un-initiated it paradoxically appears to be both a simplistically linear travelogue and a strangely broken and nonsensical journey that lacks context.  For the initiated it is both a strangely pedestrian story, and delightfully insightful in regards to the storyworld, as it caters to the encyclopaedic need to know more about the world, and yet moves inexorably to a known conclusion.

 

It really is a case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

 

However, for those familiar with the series there are lots of details and nuggets of information and context revealed in this volume that will probably make you want to re-read the whole series from start to finish yet again.  This is definitely a volume that is an addition to the main series, rather than a stand-alone story.  Small moments in this story are deliberate nods and developments (or pre-echoes, as it is a prequel) of moments and character revelations in the main series.  The story itself is the expanded version of something actually referred to in the main series, giving a feeling of deepening the diegetic reality and building the world and universe out deeper and wider.   Yet… and yet… the story remains deeply underwhelming, bland and prosaic.  Where the main series followed Dream on a gigantic character arc that fleshed out his character and revealed his fatal flaws, and it jumped around backwards and forwards through his timeline letting us see multiple aspects of Dream, this is a fairly static portrayal of the character, locked in the least sympathetic aspects of his personality.  The emotional resonance of the main series is missing, primarily because you cannot deliver the same impact in six issues that you did over a long running series.  But while many of the individual issues of the main series focused on the stories of other people with Dream as a character in them, this focuses almost solely on Dream, and as a result adds information and background, rather than depth to his character, because Gaiman cannot change him here, his future is already set.

 

This lacks the style and power of stories like ‘Ramadan’, or the historical meta-commentary found in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, it lacks the narrative cohesion of The Dream Hunters and seems more like the fragmentary stories of Endless Nights without the framing of a story anthology.  It is burdened with the need to live up to an epic story cycle and to do so in only 6 issues whilst touching on cameos and appearances that will delight fans of the series, and it is just a shame that it does so at the expense of the story.

 

Perhaps one of the most damning aspects of the whole story is that it reduces Dream’s main series arc into one of simple predestination devoid of freewill and character growth.  A ramification that may or may not have been intended.  Certainly, it was an aspect of the main series that inspired debate and posed the question about inevitability created by decision, and inevitability created by fate.  However, in this volume, Gaiman comes down heavily on the pre-ordained, fate aspect, and therefore robs Dream’s character of agency and freewill in the main series.  This might not be a big deal to some, but to me this diminishes Dream as a tragic figure and turns him into an empty puppet.

 

But the comic is collaborative effort, and it is the artwork that really sells this volume and makes it worthwhile.  JH Williams III along with Dave Stewart present the reader with intricate, varied, and stunning pages and panels, that run the gamut of artistic styles.  You will be hard pressed to find a single page that exemplifies the book, except in terms of quality.  The book really does look gorgeous and it leaves you wanting a massively oversized version so that you can really take in all the detail.  While some of the pages and panel organisations cause you to rotate and spin the book in your hands, trying to puzzle them out, other are simply visual feasts that your eyes can devour again and again.  So many of the pages play with lay-out, panel design, and eye-tracking, to make you look, read, and look again.  This book is worth the purchase price for the artwork alone.  This is a book that engages the eyes, that challenges the brain, and that makes you pore over every page to take in the detail and sumptuous colour.

 

In summary, unless you are already a committed fan and collector of all things Sandman or you are a fan of beautiful artwork , this isn’t a great graphic novel.  But if you love artwork, if you love The Sandman then I am assuming you have already bought this and added it to your collection and won’t care about this review.

 

 

Review: Jessica Jones (Netflix, 2015)

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Review: Jessica Jones (Netflix, 2015)

Short Version:
A brilliant, mature, dark show that investigates the personal cost of abuse, violence, and notions of justice, and clearly demonstrates the range the superhero genre can encompass, all wrapped up in compelling drama populated by fascinating characters. Well worth watching.

Actual Review:
A TV show about the survivor of an abusive relationship who is a hard-drinking, bitter, and emotionally scarred private eye trying to take down her abuser, seems at odds with much of the public perception of superhero television, and in a number of ways Netflix’s Jessica Jones is as far from a traditional superhero series as you can get, and is all the better for it.

Jessica Jones, a Netflix Original series, is the 13 episode, live action superhero show based on Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos Marvel comic series, Alias.  Like its sister show Daredevil, and two planned future shows Luke Cage and Iron Fist, Jones is set in the same New York as the Marvel Cinematic Universe and occurs after the events of Avengers (2012).  But Jones eschews the grand, epic battle of heroes against countless nameless and disposable minions, and focuses intently, and uncomfortably, on the personal human cost of living, and surviving, in a world of superheroes and villains.  Make no mistake, this is not a children’s show, nor is it a rip-roaring excitement filled adventurous romp with no emotional consequence, this is a powerful show that examines the darkest parts of the superhero genre and the human condition.

 

Jessica Jones and Kilgrave

Krysten Ritter plays Jessica Jones, a hard-bitten, cynical, PTSD-stricken, alcoholic, running a shady one-woman PI firm in a dilapidated office situated in a grubby, and well realised, section of New York city.  Eking out an existence serving subpoenas, photographing cheating spouses in the act, and the occasional missing person’s case, in order to keep a roof over her head and her liquor supply constant, Ritter’s Jones is a far cry from the costumed heroes we are perhaps far more familiar with, yet the strength of her performance is that Jones feels more real, more substantial and more believable than even the grittiest superhero portrayed thus far, even if she has super-strength.  While Jones drops barbed comments and snarky come-backs like a jaded stand-up, Ritter imbues her performance with a vulnerability and fragility that highlights the character’s struggle to hang on and survive as a victim of extreme abuse.  Her very humanity and brokenness give the story its touchstone and allows for the tension, horror, and sense of threat to feel palpable rather than nebulous or cartoony.

Ritter manages to convey the complexity of Jones’ character with consummate ease and makes her portrayal seem both effortless and natural.  On the surface Jones appears crude, cold, callous and pragmatic, distancing herself from the world and those around her.  She is tough as nails and a no nonsense survivor ready to face down any physical threat and isn’t shy of a verbal put down or a judgemental swipe.  But underneath that calculated swaggering exterior Jones is a bundle of contradictory emotions and feelings, including guilt, self-loathing, fear, and extreme pain.  Despite this Ritter manages to convey that in her heart Jones is driven by a need to help and save people, that she is loyal to and protective of those she loves, and that she is a true hero doing the best she can to survive.  It is an impressive feat, and one that allows the audience to feel for Jones, to forgive her mistakes, and to become deeply invested in Jones’ development arc.

The main story is launched by a missing person’s case as Jones is hired to find Hope Shlottman by the worried young woman’s parents, but soon focuses on the re-emergence of a shadowy and abusive figure from Jones’ past, the despicable Kilgrave.  Played by David Tennant, Kilgrave is a master manipulator with the insidious ability to absolutely control people’s minds and actions, and possibly the most sinister and frightening of any Marvel villain thus far portrayed on screen.  While previous villains have had the ability to blow things up, wreak havoc and let slip the dogs of war, the invasive and disturbing power wielded by Kilgrave is far more intimate, and far more devastating on a personal level.  While other villains destroy buildings and bodies, Kilgrave destroys the mind, the soul and the heart of his victims, leaving them scarred, broken and screaming in his wake.  He calls into question their sanity, inspires paranoia, and rips apart their ability to trust anyone ever again.  He uses people as disposable puppets, and exhibits no compassion, remorse, or even an iota of guilt about his rape of their minds, and their bodies, and his destruction of their lives, even if he lets them live.

As the series delves into Kilgrave’s past with Jones the audience gains new and horrifying insight into what he is, what he did and what he continues to do to Jones.  A result of this is building admiration for Jones’ strength of will and huge amounts of sympathy and empathy for her struggle.  If we were perhaps hesitant at first to forgive her more egregious behaviour, seeing the monster of her past puts it in perspective.  As the extent and horror of Kilgrave’s plans and manipulations become more and more apparent, Jones’ paranoia, fear and trust issues become profoundly understandable and we gain insight into how destructive Kilgrave can be.  The more people he manipulates, the more twisted and sadistic his games, the greater the fear and paranoia of Jones’ character is translated through the screen and we soon start questioning the actions of every character, feeling tension every time someone knocks at the door or approaches Jones.

An amazing strength of the show, the writing, and Tennant’s acting, is that despite Kilgrave’s clear villainy, despite his sheer disgusting, depraved and evil nature, he is made understandable, watchable, and even entertaining at times.  Similar to how Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio) was portrayed in Netflix’s Daredevil, the audience is invited to understand Kilgrave, to see his motivations and to get into his head, without ever once excusing his abuse or absolving him of his guilt.   Kilgrave has motivations and reasons that run deeper than the standard villainy for villainy’s sake, and it is refreshing to see comicbook adaptations produce genuinely disturbing villains whose evil is traceable, believable, and recognisably possible.  It is a fine line to walk, and Jones accomplishes it effortlessly.

Supporting Characters

Grounding the entire story are the relationships with and around Jones with a host of beautifully flawed characters.  Rachel Taylor plays Jones’ foster/adopted sister Trish Walker, a former child star (with all the drama that entails) and now popular talk-show host, who also happens to be estranged from her manipulative, unscrupulous mother and former manager and agent, Dorothy (Rebecca De Mornay).  The dynamic between Jones and Walker is brilliantly realised, and the chemistry between Taylor and Ritter is fantastic to watch on screen as we slowly get deeper and deeper into their relationship and backstory, with all the complications and messiness of sibling love, exacerbated by the introduction of superpowers, child fame and an emotionally abusive parent.

Yet another of the complicated and flawed supporting characters is Jones’ main employer Carrie-Anne Moss’ calculating, cruel, yet polished and brilliant lawyer, Jeri Hogarth.  Easily viewed as villain, (she is a defence attorney after all) Hogarth is morally compromised due to being embroiled in an office affair with her secretary Pam (Susie Abromeit), while lying to her wife Wendy (Robin Weigert), she is willing to take risks at other people’s expense, is ambitious and wants to win at any cost, and yet, she is not all bad.  She takes on a pro-bono case at Jessica’s urging, and despite Jessica’s less than professional attitude, continues to hire her because she gets results.  Like so many of the characters on the show Hogarth has her demons and flaws but we are continually invited to understand her, even appreciate her.  The show is at pains to paint the characters as real people, warts and all.

Jessica’s life is made a little more complicated by bar man and fellow super-powered character, Luke Cage (Mike Colter).  While Cage acts as a love interest for Jones (or at the very least a lust interest), his character and relationship with Jones are deeper, more interesting, and certainly more involved than that.  A minor quibble, and something that rang as a little too neat and trite, is the convenient overlapping of Jones’ and Cage’s backstories and key events.  Despite this, Colter and Ritter have good chemistry on screen, and their halting exploration of a potential relationship, secrets and all, rings true, and seems far more believable and honest than most of the superhero fare out there.

The last two major supporting characters are Jones’ drug addicted neighbour, Malcolm Ducasse (Eka Darville), and tough cop Will Simpson (Wil Traval).  Providing something of a mirror of each other characters over the course of the show, Malcolm and Will explore the redemptive and destructive aspects of character development over the series, and how people deal with trauma, abuse and the aftermath.  How they each react to their experiences with Kilgrave is telling and provides a brilliant support structure to the main narrative.  (Personally I found both of their arcs a little too rushed with each character changing fairly dramatically over a short space of time, but this may be a side effect of binge watching the show and therefore not having the gap between episodes that would ease the transition.)

The greatest strengths of this show are the attention paid to character and the care with which realised, flawed and broken characters are portrayed on the screen.  No one person is without blemish, and those defects are genuine, deep, heartfelt scars, rather than glib or artificial flaws superficially grafted in an attempt to create slightly rounded characters.  Each of the characters on screen feels like a real person, and when the world portrayed contains super-powers this adds a huge element of believability and authenticity to the endeavour.  There is an honesty and integrity in how they are portrayed that grounds this reality and makes the tension palpable and resonate.  It is through the characters that the horror of the situation, the stakes, and the repercussions of the story find purchase.  Their misplaced guilt, their fear, the conflicting impulses of revulsion and desire, the self-loathing and blame, all these things become powerful hooks imbedded in each character that grab hold of the fictive reality and turn their characters into people.  People you care about.  People you are invested in.

As I said above, the setting is New York city, but rather than the glitz and glamour of the Big Apple Jessica Jones keeps its attention on the back streets, the alleys and the grittier side, much like Daredevil.  Given the detective noir beginnings it is also unsurprising that many of the scenes occur at night, or in seedy, slightly dilapidated surroundings.  The view is of the personal New York, the real New York, the lived in New York, and the people and individuals that create the story.  While there are moments when the bigger landscape swims into view, and some glimpses of famous locations, most of the time the show stays grounded in the characters and the importance of the people.  This is a story all about the individual and most of the locales are in keeping with this.

 

Conclusion

Jessica Jones is a superhero story, but it is one that uses the medium to do something more than recount a tired tale of derring-do or over the top action.  It uses superpowers and this modern mythic form to provide a lens to examine, explore, and understand the ramifications of abuse, to place the focus on how victims survive and the desperate plight that is created after the instigating event, and to illustrate the strength and heroism of survivors of trauma.  It does all this by providing a story set in an exaggerated world where allegory and symbolism take some of the shocking, debilitating horror away from a real world issue so that we can bear to look at it instead of turning our heads away with a sense of overwhelming helplessness.

Jones is great television, compulsive viewing, powerful and meaningful storytelling, and wonderfully demonstrates what a grounded superhero story can do.  Shows like HBO’s The Wire and The Sopranos took unflinching looks at real life issues to produce compelling dramas, and Netfilx’s Jessica Jones joins their ranks, shoulder to shoulder.  This is a show to watch and bodes extremely well for the future of Netflix and for superhero television.