Review of Luke Cage, Season 2

“Look… We can take Door Number 1, 2, or 3. Guess what? All the prizes suck!” — Luke Cage

Continuing my tradition of reviewing every season of the Marvel/Netflix shows, I present my observations re season 2 of everybody’s favorite bulletproof brutha from Harlem, “Luke Cage”. (See review of season 1 here.) But, before I go any further, I must lay down the requisite…

SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!

It was great to see Claire and Misty and Bobby again; not so much Mariah and Shades. More on that later. First, though, a few words about the primary newcomers: Bushmaster and Nightshade.

Not surprisingly, this version of John ‘Bushmaster’ McIver varies quite a bit from that in the comics. The comics version was indeed a muscular Black man from the Caribbean (though St. Croix, not Jamaica), but he wore a white and gold costume. He was a Maggia-connected crime boss whose main foe was Iron Fist and whose primary obsession was Misty Knight. He even hired Luke Cage to kidnap Misty. His strength and durability came from forcing Dr. Noah Burstein to replicate the process he used to transform Cage (aka Carl Lucas) back at Seagate Prison. No martial arts, no addiction to some nightshade concoction, and no connection to or grudge against the Stokes family.

I can see why the writers/producers changed several aspects to fit into the Netflix series story, but it still annoys me. The character (ably played by Mustafa Shakir) was better than season 1’s ‘Diamondback’, and at least as complex as ‘Cottonmouth’ had been. Still, I’m not sure I want him to return. (Plus, the Patois he and his Jamaican cronies (and family) spoke was a pain to try to follow, though I have to admit I got better at it as time went along.) His was a tale of vengeance, grounded in an inter-family feud fueled by murder & betrayal a generation ago. But, he seemed inconsistent in both his rationale and his brutality. I felt little sympathy for him, only for those who suffered because of their nearness to him.

While Tilda Johnson was never actually called ‘Nightshade’ on the show, the comic version is. That ‘Nightshade’ was a Harlem-bred sista with a penchant for revealing, black leather outfits. (That is, until she took over the name and full-body costume of ‘Nighthawk’.) Rather than a doctor with an affinity for “natural remedies”, the comics’ Johnson was a brilliant young student who used her extensive knowledge of genetics, cybernetics, and physics to build her criminal career. She apprenticed under Yellow Claw (who gave her the costumed identity of ‘Deadly Nightshade’), fought the likes of Captain America and SHIELD, escaped from prison and built a small criminal empire, only to be brought down by… Power Man and Iron Fist. At one point, she joined Misty Knight’s Crew of villains hired to fight other villains. Later, the vigilante Nighthawk saved her life, and she turned over a new leaf, becoming his partner/weaponeer/mission control.

Shakir and Dennis

Obviously, the comics version has quite a different look, vibe, and history than we see on “Luke Cage”. She develops connections of a sort to Luke and Misty on the show, of course, but they are very different. The connection to the Stokes family and legacy is totally new. So far, the TV version hasn’t done anything illegal, either, except maybe that one time she helped Bushmaster attack the nightclub. (Patty Hearst Syndrome?) The actress (Gabrielle Dennis) is certainly easy on the eyes, but I’m not sure how I feel about this version of ‘Nightshade’ or whether I want her to return.

Now, on to the rest of the show…

It was a pretty good plot, all things considered, and it really accomplished a lot. However, I feel I should at least mention the matter of pacing. As discussed in a previous post, even the best of these Netflix/Marvel series could benefit from slightly tighter pacing, and this was no exception. I can’t remember specifics anymore, but at a few points, things just seemed to drag a bit. I’m not quite sure how to fix this.

I do know that I would love to see more (super)heroics — fights, surveillance, rescues — by our heroes, especially Cage. What we did get to see was great when it involved the henchman and other normal folk. When it came to Cage’s fights with Bushmaster, though, Cage looked pretty stupid. It wasn’t until their final showdown that he seemed to have learned anything. Or, maybe he was just more focused?

Luke has always relied on his size and his fists, and the experiment gave him enhanced strength and a bulletproof hide. (Now, apparently, even the Judas-rounds aren’t lethal, either.) Most of the time, he can just plow through the punks and gangsters that come after him. But, after his encounters with Diamondback last season and Bushmaster this season, I hope he finally realizes that he needs to fight smarter. I don’t expect him to become a student of the martial arts, but I’m hoping Danny and/or Colleen can give him a pointer or two. Speaking of…

Despite my disappointment with the Iron Fist series and character, I actually didn’t mind that Danny Rand showed up here. He and Luke had some good scenes, especially the warehouse fight. He finally chopped some of the curls, which I thought gave him a more masculine look. He also seemed slightly less odd, more mature, more sure of himself. Still kind of annoying with the constant “be still” and chi stuff. But, I understand that he was trying to help Luke get “centered”, so he could be more at peace and more effective.

Shades and Mariah

I gotta say, both the writing and acting was particularly good. And the characters were not two-dimensional, either. As the story moved along, we learned that the main characters and their stories were much more complex than expected. Even Mariah and Shades (though I still dislike them). In fact, some of the best acting was a) in the argument between Luke and Claire (ep.4?), b) the dialogues between Shades and Comanche (ep.6), c) some of Misty’s stuff (both working the case and dealing w/ her injury), d) the bits between Luke (aka Carl) and his father (played by the late, lamented Reg E. Cathey), and even some of those scenes between Mariah and Shades and between Mariah and Tilda. Powerful stuff!

Regarding ‘Black Mariah’ herself, here’s a nice summary by Kim Taylor-Foster at “Fandom”:

“One of the most interesting things about Mariah Dillard is her ability to manipulate. And not only the people around her, but the audience too. On numerous occasions, we feel for her. Her crocodile tears work on us, and every time we fall for it. She’s not so bad, we think. Circumstances have made her like this; there’s some good inside; she’s misunderstood; she’s coming around – but every time she reveals she’s the unfeeling, selfish “monster” her daughter describes her as.”

Yep. Mariah had an interesting journey into darkness in these two seasons of “Luke Cage”, and I, for one, am happy that she finally met her gruesome end. (I actually anticipated how it was gonna happen, too.)

As in season 1, I wasn’t sure what to think of the Shades character, and I’m not sure how much of that is due to the writing and how much due to the acting. Regardless, I was actually a bit surprised that Shades finally said “enough is enough” to Mariah — even more so that he gave a full confession to the cops and helped to put her away! Despite the horrible things we have seen him do, we discovered that he has self-imposed limits, parameters within which he operates. As Mariah got increasingly brutal and involved in things she never could have imagined just last season (prior to killing her cousin, anyway), Shades found himself stretching his own limits, and not in a good way. I can respect his final decision, even if it was long overdue and there was, of course, a strong element of self-interest and self-preservation.

Misty Knight’s journey was entirely different but at least as interesting. The combination of dealing with her injury (followed by getting the prosthetic arm), trying to figure out her place in (or outside of) the police department, and then the specifics of the case(s) she was working on — made the more difficult by Cage, Det. Tyler, and even the late Det. Scarfe — all made for a physically and emotionally exhausting few days, I’m sure. While I’m happy that Misty’s value was recognized by the top brass who offered her the Captain’s position at the end, I’d rather see her move toward becoming a private investigator and teaming up with Colleen Wing, like in the comics. But, hey, at least she now has her bionic arm!

Misty and Luke kickin’ butt

As for our hero, Luke Cage, the dude has been put through the physical and emotional wringer yet again and, I think, has come out all the stronger for it. The character really is developing into a true hero, even as he stumbles through everything life throws at him. He’s often reluctant (especially at the beginning) and often makes mistakes. But, with the help and advice of family & friends (whether solicited or not), he pushes through and gets the job done. I would’ve liked if Claire had stuck around for more episodes, but I understand why she had to go, both character-wise and plot-wise. I’m sure it helped Cage to know that at least she was out of the line of fire, so to speak. After the various dominoes (and players) fell, someone was going to fill the power vacuum. Cage decided that he was the logical choice to save his home from the various criminal organizations, so he “stepped up”. I like it, though I also understand Misty’s reservations. It remains to be seen just how “dirty” he will get in his efforts to protect Harlem. But, we’ll probably have to wait until Season 3 for that.

After we were introduced last season to the reason for Cage’s estrangement from his father, Rev. James Lucas, I didn’t think the writers would pursue it any further. I was wrong. At first, I thought it was an unnecessary complication to season 2’s plot and, of course, Cage’s life. I also didn’t think I would like the Rev character. But, when I realized that he was genuinely penitent for his past marital infidelity and his treatment of Cage (er, Carl), I wanted them to make peace. And, lo and behold, they did! With Cathey’s subsequent passing, it’s a shame they won’t be able to follow up on this reconciliation.

As with the first season, intertwined in the plot was some “social commentary” — i.e., re racism, oppression, the struggle for minorities (especially Blacks) to “make it” in America, police corruption, etc. Also, as I said before, “If the ‘commentary’ had been more heavy-handed, it might have annoyed me; but, it did sound/feel authentic to me.” I will also note the constant use of the N-word. Unfortunately, that is probably also authentic. It was a bit jarring to me at first, but then I realized that this series is essentially a 13-hour, ‘R’-rated movie. So, nasty words and profanity is to be expected. In retrospect, I’m a bit surprised (and pleased) that other “harsh language” was not more common. Only one “love scene”, too, as I recall.

A few random comments:

o Is it just me, or did Cage’s hoodie in the first fight not get any bullet holes? All the others did.
o The ‘Night Nurse’ song was kinda stupid.
o If Hollywood ever needs someone to portray Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), Alfre Woodard would be perfect!
o Nice cameo by Colleen Wing! Both the scene in the dojo ring and the one in the bar were appreciated, as we got to see Misty come to terms with her injury & situation. Plus, we got a great fight scene!
o Misty sure adapted to her prosthetic arm in a hurry! Ya gotta love comic-book science….
o Did you catch the Stan Lee “cameo”?

I would like to think that this season was also the end of the Stokes/Dillard arc. I would really like to see someone/something totally different for Luke to battle in the presumed third season. But, given the way things were left, I’m guessing we will see Tilda/Nightshade return to “get what’s hers” (i.e., the nightclub) — possibly with Bushmaster’s help, possibly in competition with Bushmaster. I hope we’ll see more of Annabella Sciorra’s Italian mob-queen character, Rosalie Carbone. (If so, will Punisher show up? They have a history…)

Final score: I gave season 1 of “Luke Cage” a B/B+. Season 2 rates a little higher, I think — say, a B+, bordering on A-.

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How to Improve Marvel’s Netflix Shows

“There’s always room for improvement.” — various people at various times

I was thinking about Marvel’s Netflix shows the other day and remembered an article about them that I’d seen a couple months ago. The author, Max Farrow, notes:

“[W]e can’t help but admit that 2017 was something of a stumbling block for the superheroes of Netflix. For all the grit and timeliness of The Punisher, several factors ensured that neither The Defenders or Iron Fist managed to inspire that much enthusiasm in fans. How can Marvel and Netflix get their mojo back, then? What can they do to get their superhero shows on track once more?”

He suggests five ways to do just that, so I figured we could look them over, and I’ll add a few reactions and comments of my own….

1) Stop Killing Villains

Farrow lauds the “fleshed out and highly memorable” main villains (especially as compared to some in the movies) and the “titanic talents” (e.g., Ali, Tennant, Weaver) that have portrayed them. But, he finds it somewhat odd and disappointing that at least twice a major villain has been offed part-way through the series.

“[T]his isn’t to say that show execs can’t, or shouldn’t, kill villains off full-stop. Unique and unpredictable storytelling is a fantastic quality in a series. But, having villain number three die midway through a season is precisely why Netflix shouldn’t opt for it again.”

I agree with him. These were strange moves that interrupted the flow of the respective stories. If they can attract such talent for these roles, why kill them off early? (Of course, it’s possible that they may only want to sign on for 5 or 6 episodes, and that would be a shame.)

2) Kick Ass, But More Efficiently

Farrow lays it out:

“The Marvel/Netflix shows may be gritty character studies, but we wouldn’t love them as much without their alleyway (or corridor) brawls. However, it’s been two years since Daredevil and Frank Castle dished out some quite frankly jaw-dropping beatdowns in Daredevil season 2. Aside from several notable moments in The Defenders, there’s been very little in the way of truly electrifying showdowns since. So, why are these kinds of moments becoming scarcer?”

As Farrow acknowledges, “action scenes are expensive and tricky to film.” But, no matter how “real-life” these shows are, they are still about characters with amazing superpowers and fighting skills. People who tune in expect to see these powers/skills used and, hopefully, not only executed well but in ways that seem authentic and make sense.

“From Daredevil’s radar-sense to Jessica Jones’ limited flight, honing on in [sic] these iconic abilities in fight scenes could really make the Marvel/Netflix shows stand out. Moreover, given enough resources and planning time, a great choreographer would be able to turn these prerequisite punch-ups into something truly special.”

Yes, indeed.

3) Planning Makes Perfect

Unlike the (mostly) “efficiently cohesive, detailed world” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Netflix shows, according to Farrow, seem to struggle with reminding us of their interconnectedness. In particular, he points to “The Defenders” and its slow ramp to get viewers up to speed on “picking up where each of the solo shows left off” and “a lot of work into maneuvering [the characters] into suitable positions for the story at hand.”

At first, I thought he was being a little hard on the writers/producers regarding efforts to a) show us what our heroes were currently up to and b) orchestrate their eventual “team-up” against their common foes. I mean, that’s a lot to juggle. Plus, more generally, the appearances of ‘Claire Temple’, ‘Karen Page’, and other supporting characters help to remind us of the shared city in the other series. But, after re-reading Farrow’s comments, I have to admit he makes some good observations.

“A bit more pre-planning would be hugely beneficial in this regard. Moreover, it would help any inter-show crossovers to feel more natural, such as in the rumored second season of The Defenders. Plus, it will allow for terrific new stories to be told, which change and shape the wider Marvel/Netflix world.

Sure, the shows all feel alike with their similarly grungy Manhattan, but it’s strange how inconsequentially huge events – such as Kingpin’s bombings – are rendered within the context of The Defenders.

It’s even stranger when we consider that all of the characters operate only a few blocks away from each other as well.”

I can’t help but agree with him there, too. This leads into the next gripe/suggestion…

4) Get To Grips With The Wider MCU

When “(Marvel’s) Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” debuted on ABC back in 2013, it was essentially a spin-off that followed the “Battle of New York” seen in the first Avengers film. Agent Phil Coulson was the crossover player (with an appearance or two by Nick Fury), and there have continued to be references to stuff from the films sprinkled about in the TV series. Unfortunately, despite the hopes of the fans, connections between Netflix’s Marvel-based series and the MCU movies have been quite slim, with references even fewer and farther between.

“This hasn’t been hugely detrimental to these shows, though. Moreover, The Punisher barely features any inter-world connections and still manages to tell a rich and compelling story without relying on references. However, it is getting to the point where passing lip-service to iron suits isn’t going to cut it anymore.

At what point in the MCU timeline does Daredevil’s showdown with Fisk take place? A year after The Avengers? No one knows. Plus, the lack of Defenders references from the movies are conspicuous by their absence. Surely S.H.I.E.L.D. would have a use for someone like Matt Murdock?”

Farrow is fair to note the various challenges of things like logistics, varying development times, the “notoriously fractious relationship” between the movie and TV divisions, etc. Still, if the Netflix series are firmly set in the same world as the MCU, and I hope they are, then they really need to make a better effort to make that clear. It would only make sense, and it would further please the fans who value such continuity.

5) Shorten The Series

Farrow contends that the thirteen-episode structure of each season of the Netflix shows — except for the “The Defenders” mini-series, of course — is just a tad too long. I’ll let him explain…

“Regardless of what theme each show is exploring, at their hearts they’re superhero stories, right down to their adrenaline-fuelled needs. That isn’t to say they can’t be deep or cerebral (these shows have frequently proved that it’s possible), but they do need that burgeoning, dramatic tension to keep them chugging along.

Unfortunately, because of their structure, the Marvel/Netflix shows can’t sustain this drive for the time that they’re required to. Even the best of these series are forced to tread water for some period of time, be it the opening episodes of The Punisher or those where Kilgrave’s imprisoned in Jessica Jones. When this happens, the bloat sets in and the show grinds to a halt.

Again, it’s not that we don’t love spending time with characters like Jessica Jones. But if the show around them suffers for it, then something’s got to give. And that something is the series’ length.”

My instinct is to deny it. I mean, I love my superheroes (regardless of how much I complain), so the more episodes the better. Right? But, after briefly reflecting, I have to admit that Farrow is probably right, and I’ve even had similar thoughts. Most (each?) of the Netflix shows could probably have been improved by tightening up the writing/pacing, thereby cutting each season down to 10(?) to 12 episodes each.

I’m tempted to add a point or two of my own, but you all already know my gripes and preferences from the reviews I’ve done on these series. (See ‘Review Posts’ link at top of page.)

So, what do you think? Is Farrow unfair or otherwise “off” in his assessments? Am I an “unfaithful” fan for generally agreeing with him? Is ‘Kilgrave’ overrated, ‘cuz Tennant makes Whovian fangirls swoon? Should I stop asking questions? Just wonderin’…

Review of Jessica Jones, Season 2

“It took someone coming back from the dead to realize that I’ve been dead, too. The problem is, I never really figured out how to live.” — Jessica Jones

As I watch a series that I know I’m going to be reviewing here, I try to notice things and jot down observations and ideas as I go. When I started watching the second season of “Jessica Jones”, I had a few thoughts, of course, but I couldn’t get into it. It was just more of surly, drunk Jessica treating herself and her friends, family, and associates badly. (I don’t find Krysten Ritter particularly attractive, either, so there wasn’t even that very shallow aspect to enjoy.) Some of those supporting characters were doing mean or stupid things, too. To be honest, I wasn’t sure I wanted to write this review, but I felt sort of obligated.

SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS!

Then, I started to notice something else. I began to see the parallels between the individual characters’ stories, and I appreciated more what the writers were doing. Yeah, OK, maybe it was obvious to you. But, sometimes I get so wrapped up in other stuff that the finer points — or, perhaps it’s the “big picture”? — get past me.

Trish/Patsy: On the one hand, Trish is so wrapped up in her career, that she’s willing to throw away a relationship with a genuinely good guy. On the other hand, she’s so obsessed with somehow obtaining superhuman abilities of her own, ostensibly so she can be a champion for the people, that she ends up throwing away her career and putting her own health and safety — her life, really — at risk. Along the way, she lies to and manipulates her friends and family, alienates fans, and threatens to destroy someone else’s career (though that guy sorta deserved it). And don’t get me started on her overbearing mother….

Malcolm: This poor guy can’t seem to catch a break. His boss (Jessica) verbally abuses him and constantly takes him for granted. The woman he has a crush on (Trish) finally pays attention, even sleeps with him, but it turns out she’s just using him for her own, selfish reasons. He gets the crap beat out of him, and Trish almost gets him — a recovering addict — hooked on something new and dangerous. His loyalty is constantly being tested. Like they say, with friends like these…. One of the ways he “copes” is by engaging in a few one-night stands — looking for affection or approbation, I suppose. In the end, at least, he starts making some hard choices and gaining some independence.

Jeri: I can see why they replaced frumpy, hetero, male Jeryn Hogarth with an attractive, lesbian version. Much more “exciting”, and it gets the LGBT vote. But, this gal does not have it all together. Her former employee/girlfriend is suing her, and her law partners are trying to kick her out of her own firm. Then she’s diagnosed with ALS. What does she do? Parties with ladies of the night, gets dirt on her partners in order to blackmail them, and sleeps with the homeless girl (and protected witness, of sorts) that she’d given sanctuary in her home. The normally sharp Ms. Hogarth allows herself to be conned into thinking she’d been healed, then her home is burglarized by those she trusted. Ouch!

Janet McTeer as Alisa Jones

Alisa: The character of Jessica’s previously-thought-deceased mother, played by Oscar-nominee Janet McTeer, is introduced. Happy reunion? Not exactly. Turns out, Alisa is the superpowered individual who has been hunting & killing people in Jessica’s orbit. The experiments that gave her the powers (like Jessica’a) also gave her a hair-trigger temper, so she’s got serious “anger management” issues that put those around her in danger. Thus, the faked death and her isolation — with the mad doctor responsible, who she’s fallen in love with — for 17(?) years. Once she finally meets her daughter, they clash both physically and ethically. Will she survive on the run (with or without Jessica), or go to prison for the rest of her life, or is she destined to be killed by law enforcement?

Jessica: As previously mentioned, our protagonist still struggles with many issues, mostly derived from childhood trauma and psychic (and perhaps physical) rape/torture by Killgrave, which she “deals with” by constantly drinking, acting like a jerk, and occasionally banging a random stranger. (Of course, with her enhanced constitution, it takes 3x the usual amount for her to get buzzed, let alone drunk.) Another big factor is the fact that she killed Killgrave (last season), and it is eating at her, such that she wonders if that makes her a “murderer”. Her P.I. business is barely surviving, and now a larger firm is attempting to eliminate the competition one way or the other. Her landlord wants to evict her, and the new super is more than happy to help — at least, at first. Her friends (i.e., Trish and Malcolm) are always “nagging” her. And, then, her murderous mother (who is even stronger than Jessica) enters her life, and Jessica is torn about whether or not to assist the cops in bringing Alisa in versus letting Alisa (and the doc?) escape versus going on the run with her herself. Meanwhile, she has to constantly (try to) keep dear ol’ mom from ripping limbs off of people who she feels threatened by or beating them to death. Oh, plus, she then finds herself (somehow) in a relationship with the formerly hostile new super, which adds unwelcome wrinkles to whatever plan she adopts for the future. Sheesh! Given all of this, I guess I do feel badly for our reluctant hero. She has good reasons to feel angry, frustrated, and to put up those defensive “walls”.

So,… all of the primary characters are dealing with some pretty heavy issues — identity crises, varying types of abuse, perceived betrayal, uncertain futures, etc. –, both personal and business-related. In response, they abuse various substances, have frivolous sexual encounters, do some other rather selfish things, even commit crimes. I’m guessing they all know what the right thing to do is, but it’s a struggle, and they all screw up on several occasions. If they were my friends, I’d be rather disappointed in them, even while trying to be sympathetic regarding their respective “issues”. I have to admit, though, it all sadly has a pretty realistic feel to it. And realism, after all, is a hallmark of these Netflix shows. (Except for, you know… the superpowers stuff.)

On another, related matter…

Personally, I thought the “love scenes” — which there were more of, this time around — were a bit gratuitous. I mean, yes, they made sense within each character’s journey and how they were dealing with stuff. But, we don’t need to see/hear, for example, Jessica getting humped in a bar restroom or Jeri getting high (and making out) with lesbian/bisexual hookers to get the idea. There are less in-your-face, more PG-rated ways of letting an audience know what’s going on (or about to, or just did). Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer more restraint and self-censorship. I guess the assumption is that if they’re doing ‘R’-rated violence, they “have” to do ‘R’- (or, at least, PG-13-) rated sexuality? However, I do appreciate that there wasn’t much, if any, nudity — although, I may have missed something when fast-forwarding past those scenes.

Despite this, I liked Season 2 better than the first one. As terrific as David Tennant’s portrayal of Killgrave was in Season 1, the subject matter was not to my liking. Of course, the theme of “abuse and how to deal with it (or not)” has become central to the series. But, this season felt a bit more… comfortable(?), I guess. I dunno. I also liked the hopeful note that the finale left on for some of our main characters: Mal’s new job, Trish’s recovery (and then some), Jessica’s settling into her new relationship with Oscar. (I suspect, though, either she’ll screw it up in Season 3 or something bad will happen to him. Shame, too, ‘cuz I like Oscar. And his kid.)

Overall, I give Season 2 of “Jessica Jones” a solid ‘B’, maybe ‘B+’.

The Harsh Realities (and Strange Appeal) of Stranger Things

Hey! I wasn’t sure I’d have a post for this week, since I flew home late last night from my vacation and haven’t gotten back to my regular schedule, yet. But, then I came across this review of “Stranger Things”, which I thought I’d share. I haven’t watched the show, but Thomas P. Harmon’s thoughtful and articulate review piqued my curiosity, so I may have to add it to my viewing schedule.

I’m just going to cite a few sections here and there, where Harmon gives some helpful background, observations, and/or assessment of the series. It is somewhat SPOILERish, though no major details are revealed….

“Netflix’s return to Hawkins, Indiana, [for its upcoming second season] should prove a test as to whether the show can maintain what made it a standout in this new media environment: namely that it resisted many of the sentimentalizing or dehumanizing elements of contemporary film and television. It did this without preachiness, without subservience to politically correct pieties or ideological dogmatism. The beating heart of Stranger Things is its moral depth and seriousness, which is the strangest thing about it…. [T]he show stars children but is intended for adults, and [it] neither sentimentally overemphasizes cheap innocence nor wallows nihilistically in degradation, violence, and gratuitous sex….

Stranger Things leans heavily on its 80s milieu. The kids on bicycles, the painstaking attention to period set design, the dated hairstyles, and the 10-hour Dungeons & Dragons sessions are all there. The show slyly cultivates a sense of loss about those things: We have traded the imaginative, social experience of D&D for passive screen time in which the game does the imagining for you. We are also drawn to the unencumbered freedom the children have tearing around the town of Hawkins, and to the preteen-friendly space the boys set up in the basement of the Wheelers’ house. There they can exercise a limited sovereignty appropriate to children on the cusp of adolescence without constant adult intervention and supervision. Still, the sense of loss is not without a healthy critique: We quickly recognize that the children’s freedom is a product of parental neglect….

The show’s fundamental lack of sentimentality is evident when comparing it to the master of self-conscious sentimentality, Steven Spielberg. His films Close Encounters of the Third Kind and especially E.T. were obvious source material for the plot, characters, and look of Stranger Things. The kids on bikes, the realm of children’s freedom away from neglectful adults, the sinister government scientists up to no good, and the elfin visitor from another place who combines touching vulnerability with extraordinary power, are all there. E.T. and Eleven even disguise themselves in blonde wigs and perch on bicycles driven by our boy heroes. But that is where the similarities end. As if they sensed, appropriately, that their Gen-X audience would recoil without it, the Duffer brothers added the realism and perception of modern film sensibility — without the Spielberg touch….

Unlike the scientists in E.T., the adults in Stranger Things don’t characteristically lack feeling or love; they either lack the knowledge of how to act on their love appropriately or the will to do so. They lack virtue, in other words. Their imaginations and desires have been stunted by a soul-sucking suburban existence that demands very little of them outside the very basics. The boys, on the other hand, are capable of helping Eleven because they live more fully relational lives…. [T]heir highly developed imaginations have both prepared them to accept the existence of “stranger things” and to deliberate about what to do in the face of them. They have received an imaginative training in courage, which prepares them to face the dangers of searching for Will in the face of quasi-demonic powers and of protecting Eleven from the adults who wish her harm. This is no sanitized vision of childhood emotional innocence versus the unfeeling reason of adulthood….

Despite the truncation of parenthood we see in the series, it is also true that there are glimpses of better things. When we see fatherhood and motherhood exercised well, it is in remarkably traditional terms…. At the conclusion of the series, even the hapless Wheelers and the distracted Joyce have changed the way they interact with their children. The adolescents’ domain in the Wheelers’ basement is left mostly intact, but now Jonathan Byers appears in it at the end of the evening to find his brother and drive him home. The freedom of the children is fundamentally upheld, but also moderated by the prudent — but not intrusive — attention of their elders.

Stranger Things doesn’t just avoid the sentimentalism and dehumanization of too much popular entertainment; it pushes back against it. The first season was deeply moral without being moralistic. In so doing, it worked against the regular assaults on innocence and human dignity in much of what passes for entertainment today. If this season can avoid those same cheap traps, it will continue to be a standout in today’s “golden age” of serial television.”

I encourage my readers to read Harmon’s full article.

Have you watched any “Stranger Things”, yet? If so, what do you think of Harmon’s review? If not, did this review make you more likely to watch it or less so?

Review of The Defenders (Netflix)

“It’s been a long week.” — Jessica Jones, “The Defenders”

The much(?)-anticipated “The Defenders” mini-series has finally been released, capping off the first four Marvel/Netflix series. I finished watching it a few days ago, so I have a few thoughts to share….

You probably figured I’d put out some sort of review, right? Regular readers already know how I feel about the actors and these versions of the characters from my earlier reviews, so I won’t say too much on that front. (Too many to link to here; just do a search on “Netflix” or go to the Reviews page linked above.) I assume most people who are interested in the show have already watched it, but I’m adding a Spoiler Alert, anyway.

SPOILER ALERT!! SPOILER ALERT!! SPOILER ALERT!! SPOILER ALERT!! SPOILER ALERT!!

Let’s start with… I liked the opening/closing credits music. It reminded me of a cross between those for Daredevil and Iron Fist.

I also really appreciated the getting-to-know-each-other scene at the Chinese restaurant, after our heroes survived their first team-up. It was reminiscent — probably intentionally so — of the shawarma shop scene at the end of Avengers.

Our heroes all remained very much in character. Luke Cage and Jessica Jones did their usual strong-guy/gal thing, smashing, slamming, punching, and kicking the crap out of The Hand’s lackeys. Nothin’ pretty. Luke also got to play “human shield” on occasion. (I think he actually enjoys it, despite the costs to his wardrobe.) Once he was on board, Matt Murdock / Daredevil re-confirmed that he’s the best fighter of all of them, in my opinion. However, he also takes some chances — specifically, re Elektra — that put himself and others in danger. Of course, the writers can make even foolish decisions turn out to be the “right” ones in the end.

Each of these three, at some point along the way, had their doubts about taking on The Hand, preferring to stay out of the “war” or just not ready to go “all the way”. But, they realized the threat that The Hand represented to the people of New York (and likely beyond), and they stepped up. They knew they might not survive, but they were the city’s only real chance. That’s what makes them heroes.

I would really love to see Daredevil pair up with Cage. That could be an awesome partnership. (Cage and Rand, not so much.)

Not surprisingly, I thought Danny Rand / Iron Fist was quite disappointing. Without the chi-powered fist, his fighting skills are still mediocre — clumsy-looking, even. Good thing The Hand seems to only have mediocre-level soldiers, rather than the ninja-assassins from the comics. (Elektra aside, of course.) He also continued with the part-petulant child, part-stranger-in-a-strange-land bit, while never understanding why people aren’t impressed by his “I am the immortal Iron Fist” claims, followed by tales of dragons and mystical cities. Sheesh! Either give it a rest, or at least show off the “fist” a bit earlier.

Colleen Wing’s presence mostly made up for that of her boyfriend. She’s attractive, passionate, willing to do what needs to be done, and brings some much-needed skill with bladed weapons to the good-guy side. She seems to start many fights by charging at her opponents, which doesn’t seem too smart to me, particularly when it’s a superior fighter like Bakuto. Then again, it’s not like she’s gonna surprise him/them, especially beginning from several feet away. Maybe the head-on approach is best, just to get the fight underway?

Some of the best acting in this series was in scenes with the Colleen and Claire characters, especially the one where Colleen briefly broke down in tears. Well done, Miss Henwick.

Claire’s how-did-I-get-myself-into-this reflections and lines were welcome as usual. She really is the heart of the (non-)team, and not just because she is the acquaintance that they all had in common. She also probably surprises no one more than herself that she is still in the thick of it and, well, not dead, yet. Like Colleen said, Claire’s a hero, too.

It was nice to see Malcolm, Trish, Karen, and Foggy, too, and to find out what they were up to since we last saw them. There wasn’t much for them to do in this story but hide out. But, it made sense in the plot to have them involved, since they were the closest associates of our heroes. However, it still seems odd to have them essentially camp out in the police station, when the cops never really understood what The Hand was or how dangerous they were.

Misty Knight… yowza! (Ahem, sorry.) The lovely Detective Knight returns! Yay! (“Detective Knight” sounds like a twist on a certain Distinguished Competition’s pointy-eared vigilante, doesn’t it?) She continues to be frustrated by our heroes, but she comes through in the end and supports, even aids, them. Yay, again! She pays a dear price for it, though, since she (finally) loses her arm. Triple-yay! That’s right, I’m glad she lost her arm, ‘cuz that means she will probably, eventually, get a super-strong bionic arm, just like in the comics. (I have a feeling her benefactor will be Rand, though, instead of Stark.) Then, she just needs to become a P.I. and partner with Colleen Wing, and I’ll be a happy man. (Especially if they get their own series!)

It sort of makes sense that Stick would be the one to unite — however reluctantly — our heroes. Or, at least, try to keep them together after that initial big fight. (Btw, since we already know these Netflix shows take place in the same world as the films, it would have made sense to have someone say something like, “Why not tell those Avengers guys? Let them HANDle it!” OK, maybe without the pun.) I’m a little surprised that they killed him off, but not real disappointed. For one, he was getting annoying; for two, with The Hand out of commission (thankfully, at least for now), there’s little reason for Stick to show up, and this should help our heroes — well, Matt, anyway… and Elektra — move on.

I hate to say it, but Sigourney Weaver looked… old. But, then I realized she’s 67, so she’s allowed to have a few wrinkles and such. Don’t know that I would have thought of her as a villain for this series. But, as the Alexandra character was written, she was a decent choice. We suspected they would bring Bakuto back, as well as the ever-present and deceptively powerful Madame Gao. The other two new Hand leaders — Murakami and Sowande — seemed formidable at first. But, the latter was too easily defeated, and the former was ultimately not that impressive.

I have mixed feelings about the whole Elektra thing. I mean, we already knew she was being resurrected by The Hand, so she’d probably be involved in another series storyline. And, it makes sense the way it was done and why. I think. Her betrayal of Alexandra was a surprise, which made for a nice plot twist. However, I don’t understand why she suddenly became so cold, amoral, etc. I guess it had something to do with her soul being affected (seared? tainted? infected?) by her brief time on “the other side”. I don’t remember hearing a good explanation for her behavior, but maybe I just missed it or didn’t put the pieces together.

If Elektra survived and if she eventually returns (though hopefully not for awhile), I hope she becomes more the assassin-for-hire that comic readers are familiar with. One with a damaged, yet still present, moral compass and ethical code.

The overall plot wasn’t bad, though it seemed to take a little while to get moving. Definitely room for improvement here and there, which might have been do-able if they had another episode or two to work with. Or, maybe fewer episodes would have forced them to tighten it up and get to the good stuff sooner. For the most part, though, the four heroes’ individual stories came together fairly well. It all flowed OK (though the earlier episodes were a bit rocky), and there was some good character development. (Even Rand.) Most of the interaction between our heroes was good, too, and I appreciated the occasional doses of humor.

Open questions: Why didn’t the NYPD file a report? Why wouldn’t they charge our heroes with terrorism? I’m not saying there isn’t a plausible way around it, with Jeri Hogarth (and Foggy, of course) coming to their aid. (Even “The Defenders” sometimes need a legal defense of their own, right?) But, the “wrap-up” at the end seemed too easy.

Overall grade: When feeling generous, I’m tempted to give “The Defenders” a solid ‘B’. Other days, I might go as low as a ‘C’. So, let’s split the difference and go with a ‘C+/B-‘.

Upcoming, Live-Action Superhero Series Round-up, part 1

I’ve said it before, but superhero genre fans are truly blessed these days. In addition to the the many live-action adaptations on the big screen, we have more leather- and spandex-clad heroes with special powers and skills on TV now than ever before — from DC’s various series on regular TV (“Arrow”, “The Flash”, “Legends of Tomorrow”, & “Supergirl” on CW; “Gotham” on Fox (no costume-wearing heroes in this last one, though)); Marvel’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” on ABC and “Legion” on FX; and, Marvel’s Netflix-original shows (“Daredevil”, “Jessica Jones”, “Luke Cage”, “Iron Fist”). I suppose I should throw in DC’s “Preacher” (AMC), though I don’t care for the concept and would hardly call him a hero. (Same goes for “Lucifer”.)

There were also the late, lamented “Agent Carter” by Marvel and “Constantine” by DC, both of which had loyal fan followings but still got canceled. And, of course, there have been a few that were talked about a lot but fell through — e.g., DC’s “Teen Titans”/”Blackbirds” and Marvel’s “Mockingbird”/”Marvel’s Most Wanted”.

But, there are more on the way…. Over the past couple years or so, several other comic book adaptations have been rumored, discussed, planned, and in many cases gone into production. I thought we’d take a quick look at each of them — those I am aware of, at least. (Given that I’m a bit pressed for time, though, I’m splitting the “round-up” between this week and next. Hope you don’t mind.) Let’s begin with…

Netflix

o “The Defenders”: Anyone paying attention is aware that the heroes from the first four Netflix shows have always been intended to co-star in a mini-series as Marvel’s best ever non-team, “The Defenders”. I don’t think this particular line-up has ever seen print, but anything to get our heroes fighting together and likely among themselves in time-honored Marvel tradition. It debuts this August 18th.

o “The Punisher”: The popular, gun-toting anti-hero was so popular in his appearance in Season 2 of “Daredevil” that the powers-that-be decided a spin-off show was in order. I believe I’m on record as being in favor of this, as long as they do right by the character. Last I read, this one’s scheduled for release in Nov. 2017.

o More?: A little over a year ago, rumors began that Netflix was planning to add to their stable of Marvel-based series. Specifically, Moviecreedlive reported, “Our sources have revealed that Blade, Ghost Rider, and Moon Knight are lined-up to join Netflix.” These all make sense, given the darker, street-level tone of their other series. However, I haven’t heard/read anything more about this, other than the discussions of MK replacing Iron Fist, when the latter was having trouble getting some direction. (No comment.) Of course, “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” has since introduced a version of Ghost Rider, so I don’t know how that might affect Netflix’s plans. Since Marvel has been keeping its Netflix properties independent from other shows & films, it might not matter at all. Personally, I’d love to see the original Ghost Rider, with host Johnny Blaze, brought to Netflix.

On the other hand, a different report around the same time said that Marvel/Netflix were next developing series for She-Hulk, Cloak & Dagger, Bullseye, and Elektra. The odd one out here seems to be She-Hulk. Not only do they already have one show about lawyers — Shulkie is also an attorney named Jennifer Walters — and two characters with super-strength, but the character doesn’t really fit the dark-n-gritty tone of the other shows. Plus, they’d need a decent CGI budget. The other three make more sense, though I haven’t read/seen anything more about Bullseye or Elektra. Most likely, it was an April Fool’s joke, anyway, since the article was published 4/1/2016. However, I’ll talk more about Cloak & Dagger in a minute — or, rather, in Part 2.

Finally, the possible Netflix show that makes the most sense to me would be the one rumored to spin off the Misty Knight character from “Luke Cage”. Ideally (for me), she would get her bionic arm and team up with Colleen Wing (from “Iron Fist”) to form “Knightwing Restorations”. (They could use that as a title, or “Daughters of the Dragon”.) It has been confirmed that Knight & Wing will both show up in “The Defenders”, so maybe it will set up events that lead to a spin-off then. Unfortunately, there has been no further news on this front, either.

That’s it for now. Continued next week…

Review of Luke Cage (Netflix Series)

”There’s something powerful about seeing a black man that’s bulletproof and unafraid!”  — Method Man in “Luke Cage” cameo

I’m a day late with this post — sorry ’bout that. Blame it on my having been on vacation for over a week and now trying to catch up on stuff. Speaking of vacation, I managed to finish watching “Luke Cage”, so I decided to push up my review by a couple weeks.

luke-cage-netflix-cast-600x264

Primary cast for “Luke Cage”

As some of you probably realize, the “Luke Cage: Hero for Hire” character was created in the 1970s to capitalize on the Blaxpoitation film craze. Much of the writing — by white guys unfamiliar with actual Black culture — involved stereotypes and often inauthentic dialogue. Nowadays, some people would call it downright racist, but I don’t think that was the intent. “Ignorant” and “misguided” would be fairer descriptions of the creators/writers themselves. Some of the storylines were pretty hokey, too, but that’s par for the course in comics. Still, Cage is a beloved character who has evolved over the decades, often written by Black writers, and losing much of the Blaxploitative aura.

The challenge, then, for Netflix’s production was to make a series about this character, in a particular environment, that resonated with the person of color in 2016, while drawing heartily from the source material and providing nuggets of nostalgia. Not an easy task, but I thought showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker et al. did an admirable job.

Let’s break it down, beginning (as usual) with the main characters….

Luke Cage (aka Carl Lucas): I probably wouldn’t put cage in my personal Top 10 Marvel characters, but I have read enough material with him in it that I find him an intriguing character. So, I’m really glad he’s getting the live-action treatment. I have commented previously regarding the choice of Mike Colter to play the role, so I won’t repeat it here, other than to say Colter continues to do a great job as this Luke Cage. It’s a more toned down, stoic, and definitely not stereotypical version of the character, which probably works better than trying to adhere too closely to the 70s version. I also understand why the original, disco-influenced, bright yellow-n-blue costume with upside-down steel tiara and huge chain for a belt would not have worked for 2016 sensibilities (not to mention Cage/Colter’s self-respect). However, I very much appreciated the “Easter egg” that had him in a version of that outfit in the flashback scene following his prison escape. The handful of “Sweet Christmas”es were great, too.

In case you didn’t know, the comics version of Lucas/Cage was never a cop, though his father was. He did go to prison as the result of being framed by Stryker. Why they made him a former cop (also framed) for this series, I’m not sure. Maybe to strengthen the idea of his instincts to help and protect people? (Given the attitude toward cops by a lot of the Black community these days, that’s a little surprising.) It irked me at first as an unnecessary change, but I’m OK with it.

Finally, I would have liked to see Cage get truly enraged when fighting a group of bad guys. I don’t know if they didn’t do this in order to avoid the “angry Black man” stereotype, or just because this version of Cage is generally more reserved. Still, I want to see what he’s really capable of when ticked off. He also had that opportunity in his big fight with Stryker, but they opted to do that differently, too. (It was kind of frustrating, IMO.) Otherwise, I thought Cage’s characterization was pretty good, especially for a current-day, live-action adaptation. (See related comments under ‘Plot’.)

15-luke-cage-1-w529-h352Cornell ‘Cottonmouth’ Stokes: Mahershala Ali is a talented actor, and I’ve appreciated him since first seeing him years ago. He has a reserved intensity that really worked for this role. The Stokes character is a complex mix of mid-level underworld boss, businessman, street punk, and frustrated musician. I could feel the stress and annoyance he felt as his mini-empire began to crumble around him, all while being badgered by his cousin, who had her own issues and selfish concerns. The fact that he was far more than a two-dimensional villain made him all the more intriguing. I have to admit, though, that his tendency to burst out in often-derisive laughter got to be tiresome toward the end. (And what a sudden, gruesome “end” it was!)

Incidentally, the original “Cottonmouth” was an older guy with a white unibrow and mustache, sharpened gold(?) teeth, and an affinity for green pimpsuits with a matching hat. He was also the guy whose drugs Stryker stole and framed Lucas with. I’m not surprised they decided to throw most of that out, but at least this version was still a drug dealer and a snappy dresser! Also, as far as I can tell, he is still alive in the Marvel Comics Universe.

Det. Misty Knight: Giving the beautiful Simone Missick the role of Misty Knight was close-to-perfect casting. She has the look and talent (and big hair) that brings this strong, confident, intelligent woman to life. She’s a little different than I picture Knight, but not enough to be an issue.

I had forgotten that Knight was a cop before becoming a private investigator, but I’m happy that the powers-that-be retained this for the Netflix version. I’m a little unsure what to make of her “special ability” to reconstruct a crime scene in her mind. Is this supposed to be superhuman? Or, just an unusual, but still “natural”, finely-honed talent of a police detective? On another matter, I was surprised at how quickly her arm healed. I thought for sure it would need to be amputated, thereby providing an opening for her to get a bionic arm. (In the comics, she lost the arm in a bomb blast.) But, nope… didn’t happen. Either way, I enjoyed the character, and I’m glad we’ll be seeing more of her in future series.

(Black) Mariah Dillard: I always enjoy Alfre Woodard’s performances, but this was one of those characters that I can’t decide about. Well, I despise the character for many reasons, which I guess is what we’re supposed to do, even though I sorta-kinda feel bad for her, too. But, I can’t decide if Woodard was the right person to play this role. For some reason, she seemed out of place. Or, maybe it was just me, struggling with what to think of the character. In the comics, “Black Mariah” was an even more despicable character, but she looked more like an obese version of the “Mama Mabel” character we saw in flashbacks. (Btw, Mabel was played by Samuel L. Jackson’s wife, LaTanya Richardson Jackson.) I will say, though, that Woodard did a fine job with this complex character, showing her frustrations with her cousin and her career failures and being “forced” to do things she would rather not. Her relationship with Shades, though, has taken a couple of disturbing twists and turns. Speaking of…

Hernan ‘Shades’ Alvarez: Apparently, there is a “Shades” character from Stryker and Lucas’s shared past in the comics. He was a fellow-member of The Rivals gang who ended up in Seagate Prison, where he was one of those abused by the sadistic prison guard, Rackham. But, many of the details are very different from what we saw on-screen — e.g., no connection with Mariah. Theo Rossi’s version is sort of interesting, yet something about him bugs me. Not sure if it’s the character or the actor. (I’ve never watched “Sons of Anarchy”, but I know I’ve seen him in something.) I was looking forward to seeing Shades get his butt handed to him, either by Cage or Misty, but it didn’t happen. I’m guessing he’ll show up again….

Missick, Dawson, Whaley, Rossi

Missick, Dawson, Whaley, Rossi

Det. Rafael Scarfe: The comics version was indeed partnered with Misty Knight, but he also had a history with Colleen Wing, Danny Rand, and Daredevil. He was a good cop who later “went rogue”, but he was never corrupt. So, it makes one wonder why they totally rewrote the character for Netflix. I guess they wanted another character from the comics that was relatively disposable. (I’ll note that the original was tougher and less cynical.) Frank Whaley did a good job with him as written, but it was a waste of a decent character, if you ask me.

Claire Temple: I was glad to see Rosario Dawson’s “Claire” not just pop up again but get fleshed out a bit more. She is both a likable and useful character, and I appreciate how she has become a friend, encourager/motivator, and budding romantic interest for Cage. (Question: Will Cage ever partner with, and eventually marry, Jessica Jones, as in the comics?) She is a welcome thread tying the different Netflix/Marvel series together, though she isn’t scheduled to appear in “Iron Fist”. I like that she’s a girl from the ‘hood who can take care of herself, but I also like that she is apparently gonna take martial arts training from Colleen Wing. Good for her!

Willis ‘Diamondback’ Stryker: While the snakeskin suit worn by the comics version would probably have been too much, I thought this over-the-top villain was played quite well by Erik LaRay Harvey, who even looks like the original. I don’t remember seeing Harvey in anything else, but I thought his portrayal of this murderous psychopath was right-on. Stryker isn’t exactly complex and is not much more than an eccentric thug, when it comes down to it. But, if that’s what they were going for — and pretty close to the comics, too — then that’s what they got. What I didn’t like was that they minimized the character’s fascination and proficiency with knives, both conventional and modified. Not sure where the Bible obsession came from, either. On the other hand, they did keep the childhood friendship with Lucas/Cage, followed by betrayal.

Now for a few supporting players…

I loved Frankie Faison as “Pop” and was sorry he wasn’t in more episodes. He was a voice of reason, encouragement, and (when necessary) admonishment, not just to Cage but to the younger guys who frequented the barbershop. Dare I say it, “Pop” was a much-needed father-figure to some. I think the character was new for the series, which is fine. The chess-playing Bobby Fish (Ron Cephas Jones) was, I think, another new character and one I enjoyed. As an older guy, he also had some wisdom to lay on the younger folk, and I liked his efforts (with Cage) to keep the barbershop an ongoing concern in Pop’s honor.

Dr. Noah Burstein and his controversial experimentation on select prisoners at Seagate was, of course, straight out of the comics. This version was ably played by Michael Kostroff. It was good to see Reva (Parisa Fitz-Henley) show up in a few episodes, even if it still left a lot of questions regarding Cage’s and her relationship. There is also now some question about her knowledge or participation in Burstein’s experiments and possibly Rackham’s fight club. I should note that Reva in the comics had nothing to do with Seagate and was actually the girlfriend of young Willis Stryker, then of young Carl Lucas, and the cause of the rift that developed between them. Regardless, as a love who was tragically lost, she represents a crucial element to the history and person of Carl Lucas / Luke Cage.

Additional, essential elements to the story…

luke-cage-logoPlot: I thought it was a pretty decent plot, as these things go. Not stellar, but not bad. We see our hero struggling to figure out both who and what he is — ex-cop, ex-con, Black man, disillusioned preacher’s son, victim of betrayal, hero?, vigilante?, freak?, etc. — all while confronting threats to himself, his friends, and his community. He wants to be left alone, but at core he is a good man who can’t stand by while injustice is done to those he cares about. Colter did a pretty good job conveying this struggle, and I admit that someone with more muscles but less acting experience would not have been able to pull this off.

There is also the aspect of the “social commentary” — i.e., racism, oppression, and the struggle for minorities (especially Blacks) to “make it” in America. It was laced throughout much of Stokes and Dillard’s speech, as well as popping up here and there from others (e.g., Pop, Bobby Fish). There were false accusations made against Cage, resulting in the cops hunting for him. But, the accusers were both black and white, cop and criminal, so it didn’t come off as race-based. If the “commentary” had been more heavy-handed, it might have annoyed me; but, it did sound/feel authentic to me. Also, Cage’s mini-speech at the police station (in the finale) helped to explain the mindset (his in particular), as did Method Man’s on-air rap.

There were a few plot holes and unanswered questions. For example, what about the Judas Bullet wound in Cage’s shoulder? Was there shrapnel in there, or was it a through-and-through? But, I don’t remember any glaring inconsistencies. (Feel free to comment below on anything you remember being mishandled or that should have been resolved but wasn’t.)

Lastly, I loved the many “Easter eggs” — i.e., references to people, places, and events from the Marvel-based movies and the other Netflix/Marvel series, as well as a couple that haven’t appeared, yet. It really helps the fans know that the creators are building an interconnected “universe” with all of this stuff, and that they respect the source material we all grew up on.

Music: Right from the outset, this series had a distinct sound and feel to it. It began with the opening theme, which had a definite 70s vibe (though it could have been a bit stronger, imho). But, it continued with the jazz and R&B tunes performed in Stokes’ nightclub, Harlem’s Paradise. The live acts at the club are all real-life professionals — e.g., Charles Bradley, The Delfonics, Faith Evans — whose music spans the 60s thru the 90s and beyond. I’m not personally a fan of the style (though a couple tunes were catchy), but the songs fit the setting of the series and sometimes the particular scenes.

F/X: Of course, I am primarily referring to the demonstrations of Cage’s superstrength and durability. There were occasions where I thought he put a little too much effort into something that should have been very easy for him (e.g., ripping a door off its hinges). But, overall, I liked the way he smacked, shoved, and tossed around punks and crashed through doors and walls. His shrugging off of bullets was on point, as well, including the fact that the ricochets can be dangerous. And Cage’s irritation at frequently needing to replace his bullet-ridden clothes made for a bit of welcome humor.

luke-cage-netflix-trailerThe “Judas Bullets” could have used a little more explanation about their origin and how they were able to bore into Cage’s flesh. (Or, did I miss it?) But, they were a good plot device for making Cage vulnerable (to a select few) and putting his life temporarily in jeopardy. I appreciated the nod to the source material by having the Judas bullets (and special gun?) be manufactured by weapons dealer Justin Hammer. Same goes for Stryker’s special gear, except that the “supersuit” looked kinda goofy, and it made no sense to me why Cage didn’t just punch or rip off the power pack early on in their big fight. (Of course, then there wouldn’t have been much of a fight….)

The Verdict: Overall, despite the things I was a little disappointed in or would have handled differently, I very much enjoyed “Luke Cage”. I rank it slightly below “Daredevil” and above “Jessica Jones”, and I look forward to seeing Cage (and Claire and Misty) in “The Defenders”, as well as (hopefully) a second season of his own.

Fan-Cast: Jessica Jones

“#@&*%$!!”  — Jessica Jones, on any given day

Because no one demanded it, but I said I’d do it, here are my fan-casting efforts for Jessica Jones. When I did Luke Cage last month, I mentioned that I had skipped over Ms. Jones and would get back to her. I am actually following up on that sooner than I thought I would, for a change. As usual, I hope ya like it!

Jessica Jones

"The Pulse" cover by Mayhew

“The Pulse” cover by Mayhew

Once upon a time, Jessica Cambell was a sweet, young high-schooler and classmate of Peter Parker. Then, she and her family were in an auto accident, where they were killed and she was exposed to radioactive chemicals and fell into a coma. Months later, Jessica woke up, was eventually adopted by the Jones family, and soon discovered she had superhuman powers. Inspired by Spider-Man, she had a brief and not-very-successful career as a costumed superhero named “Jewel”. This ended thanks to an encounter with the supervillain “Killgrave, the Purple Man”, under whose psycho-pheromonal thrall she remained for eight months, and during which she fought a few of the Avengers.

After recovering from Killgrave’s influence, the psychologically-scarred and embittered Jones tried being a hardened vigilante named “Knightress”. That didn’t go well, either, but at least she met Luke Cage. Retiring the costume and alias, Jones started up a private detective agency called “Alias Investigations”. Many of her cases involved superhumans of one sort or another. So, naturally, she also crossed paths with several heroes — e.g., Daredevil, Spider-Man, Captain America, various other Avengers and X-Men. She even briefly dated former Ant-Man, Scott Lang. Some in the superhero community didn’t like that she sometimes took on cases involving her former colleagues, but she also assisted the heroes on occasion. She also became best friends with Carol Danvers (aka Ms. Marvel, later Captain Marvel), and she worked with, dated, had a kid with, and married Luke Cage. At one point, she worked as an investigative journalist, doing research (among other things) for Ben Urich on stories involving superhumans. When Cage was leading a faction of the Avengers, Jones took up the identity of “Jewel” again for awhile, but then rechristened herself “Power Woman”.

Jessica Jones - smokingSome artists have drawn Jones as a typically gorgeous heroine with hourglass figure. Personally, I prefer a more realistic approach, such as Michael Gaydos’ version in the “Alias” series and the last few issues of “The Pulse”. I also really like Mike Mayhew’s covers (see first pic). She’s still quite attractive — what I would call “cute” — and has a pretty good figure, but she doesn’t look like a supermodel. When she was a private investigator (and maybe as an investigative journalist), she was rather rough around the edges — i.e., jaded, hard-drinking and smoking, swearing like a sailor. She may have let herself go a little physically, then, too. While I haven’t read very many stories of her life after having little Danielle, I’m guessing that she cleaned up her act a bit. Probably got in better physical shape, too. Not surprisingly, she is fiercely protective of her family; and, while a reluctant hero, she will put her life on the line when necessary.

[Btw, here’s what the executive producer of Netflix’s “Jessica Jones” had to say about F-bombs and skin… “Melissa Rosenberg Reveals What Marvel Wouldn’t Let Her Use in ‘Jessica Jones'”.]

Cover by David Mack

Cover by David Mack

Jones is a fairly slim, white female with varying shades of brown hair (or pink, when adventuring as “Jewel”). Marvel’s wiki lists her as 5’7″, 124 lbs. Obviously, we want an actress to portray her who is at least in the ballpark heightwise — say, 5’4″ to 5’9″. Her age could vary, depending on how early the writers/producers want to start the story. The Netflix show opted to hire someone in her early-to-mid-30s (Krysten Ritter, 5’9″, b.1981) to play Jones close to that age — 30ish(?). That’s fine, though given that she was probably still a teen during her time with Killgrave, I figured she was in her mid-20s when she started the P.I. gig. So, I could also see casting someone under 30 who can pass for mid-20s.

Who do I have in mind? Glad you asked…

The first person I ever thought of for this role was Linda Cardellini (5’3″,b.1975), known for roles in Scooby Doo movies (live and animated), “ER”, and recently as Hawkeye’s wife in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Alas, she is both too old and too short. Sarah Jones (5’3″,b.1983) of “Alcatraz” and “Vegas” could be great, but she’s too short and too classically pretty. I think Jamie-Lynn Sigler (5’3″,b.1981) could be great as Jessica Jones, too; but, I had to cut her due to her height, too. Chloe Bennet (5’6″,b.1992) of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” also has the right look, she fits the younger age requirement, plus she’s right in our desired height range. But,… she’d have to pull double duty as two Marvel characters, and that would be weird. And, that brings us to our 3 finalists…

Jewel Staite

Jewel Staite

Genre fans will, of course, recognize the appropriately-named Jewel Staite (5’5.5″,b.1982) from her roles on “Firefly”/Serenity and “Stargate: Atlantis”. She has also appeared on “Warehouse 13”, “Supernatural”, “The Killing”, and “Legends of Tomorrow”. I tend to think of her as sweet Kaylee from “Firefly”, but she has played more mature characters, of course, even those with a bit of a hard edge. So, I think she could pull off the “Jessica Jones” character just fine.

 

 

Vanessa Ray

Vanessa Ray

Vanessa Ray (5’4″,b.1981) came on my radar in the first season of “Suits”, but then she got the regular gig as a police officer on “Blue Bloods”. She’s cute/pretty with a slightly funny nose, such that she reminds me of a cross between Gaydos’ and Mayhew’s versions of Jessica Jones. She barely meets our height requirement, but I think her look is just perfect for the role. (Assuming she goes brunette, of course.) I’d love to see her sink her teeth into a darker, edgier character like Jones.

 

 

Tamara Duarte

Tamara Duarte

Youngest (and slightly tallest) of my candidates is Tamara Duarte (5’6″,b.1991), who I first saw on a few episodes in the final season of “Haven”. She has also appeared in shows like “Warehouse 13”, “Being Erica”, Dead on Campus, and “Longmire”. I think she has a really good look for “Jessica Jones”, and her character on “Haven” shows she can play cynical, bad attitude. If a series or movie was in need of a 20-something version of Jones, Duarte might be their best bet.

Alrighty, that’s another Fan-Cast down and out for the world to see. (“Down and out”. Heh!) Got problems with my choices? Fire away!

* All ideas copyright Christopher Harris, 2013-2016.

Fan-Cast: Luke Cage

“Sweet Christmas!”  — Luke Cage, very 70s-sounding catchphrase

Naturally, when I started fan-casting the stars of the Marvel/Netflix series, I began with Daredevil and his primary supporting characters. For some reason, I skipped over Jessica Jones, but I’ll get back to her. Then, due to some attention he/it was getting in the press, I jumped to Iron Fist, even though his series won’t debut until 2017. Now, I decided to go ahead and fan-cast Luke Cage, whose series will debut at the end of this September.

Of course, we have already met the live-action Netflix version of Luke Cage in the “Jessica Jones” series, as played by Mike Colter. As I said in my review of that series, “Mike Colter is a better Luke Cage than I had anticipated, though ideally the character should be a little taller, have more muscle mass, and act/sound a bit more “street”, in order to be faithful to the source material.” I stand by that. However, it is becoming increasingly evident how difficult it is to find someone who has the right look, build (especially w/ big muscles), and has any acting talent. (More on that in a moment…)

Luke Cage

Luke Cage - old-styleFor those who aren’t all that familiar with Luke Cage from the comics, I’ll try to boil it down for you…. Carl Lucas was a gangbanger from Harlem who eventually tried to go straight. His best friend, William Stryker, was still in the gangs and made the mistake of ticking off the Maggia (aka The Syndicate). Maggia thugs gave Stryker a serious beating, until Lucas stepped in and fought them off. Unfortunately, Stryker blamed Lucas for his girlfriend breaking up with him, so he framed Lucas for heroin possession. Lucas went to prison, where he was consumed with rage and resentment, and he was not exactly a model prisoner. After a transfer to Seagate Prison in Georgia, he also became the target of a brutal prison guard. Lucas agreed to be experimented on by Dr. Noah Burstein, who had developed a variation of the Super-Soldier process. The sadistic guard tried to sabotage the experiment, in hopes of injuring or killing Lucas. In the end, the experiment was more successful than anticipated, and Lucas gained superhuman strength (which has greatly increased in the years since), stamina, and durability (including bulletproof/knifeproof skin).

Luke-Cage-Marvel-Comics-Max-era-aLucas used his new powers to break out of prison and escaped to New York, where he adopted the name “Luke Cage” and worked as a “Hero for Hire.” For awhile, he gave himself the professional moniker “Power Man”, but he later dropped it. Over the years, Cage has battled many conventional and costumed and/or powered criminals, including his old friend Stryker. He was eventually cleared of criminal charges and became friends and even colleagues with many superheroes — e.g., Fantastic Four, Daredevil, Spider-Man, Punisher, etc. He has worked in various incarnations of the Defenders, Avengers, and (briefly) Fantastic Four. But, he is best known for his repeated partnering with Danny Rand, aka Iron Fist, sometimes under the business name of “Heroes for Hire”. Cage and Rand are also frequently joined, personally and/or professionally, by the bionic-armed Mercedes “Misty” Knight (who will debut in “Luke Cage”) and the katana-wielding Colleen Wing (who will debut in “Iron Fist”). In later years, Cage met, befriended, dated, fathered a child with, and then married the superpowered Jessica Jones.

Luke Cage - very ripped white t-shirtLuke Cage is a very tall (6’6″), heavily-muscled (400+ lbs.), African-American male. The early 70s version (see 1st pic) has him with a short afro, and in the early 2000s (see 2nd pic), it was a bit closer cropped. Nowadays, he shaves his head and sometimes has a little facial hair (see 3rd pic). He is generally a pretty laid-back, cool cat (does that sound 70s?). But, if he gets ticked off, look out! He is a “self-taught hand-to-hand combatant with years of street fighting experience” and additional training with Iron Fist. He can also toss around Mack trucks and go toe-to-toe with some of the biggest superpowered bruisers out there. He has a big heart (metaphorically speaking) and is steadfastly loyal to his friends, come thick or thin. He is smart, self-educated in the law, knows several languages, and is an inspiring and charismatic speaker. But, any portrayal of the character should not forget that he spent several years in a criminal gang in Harlem, and he feels most comfortable on those streets.

I’m pretty sure Cage was in his early 20s when he got his powers. For a live-action depiction of his “origin”, I certainly wouldn’t want the actor to be over 30; mid-20s would be better. But, given Cage’s physical attributes, it is hard enough to find someone that comes close, no matter what age. And, of course, it would be nice if he had some acting talent. As usual, I considered several actors and athletes, most of which I rejected for being too old, too short, too pretty, too ugly, not black enough (e.g., “The Rock”), etc. I figured my best bet was to ease up on the height requirement — say, keep it to at least 6’2″ — and then find someone under 40 with some muscles and, if need be, hope he is willing to bulk up even further. Terry Crews (6’2.5″,b.1968) looks great and is in amazing shape, but he’s already in his late 40s. Similarly, wrestler Bob Sapp (6’5or7″,b.1973), whom I suggested to play “B.A.” in The A-Team, though he is a few years younger. Others I looked at include Henry Simmons (6’4″,b.1970), LaMonica Garrett (6’2″,b.1975), Mario D’Leon (6’5″,b.????), Boris Kodjoe (6’3.5″,b.1973), Billy Brown (6’2.5″,b.~1970), Michael Jai White (6’1″,b.1967), Erik King (5’8or10″,b.1963), Mark “Rhino” Smith (5’10”,b.1969). Then, I went looking at a few more wrestlers, bodybuilders, even football players. [Note: It is amazing how many professional bodybuilders are/were under 5’9″!] I found Quentin “Rampage” Jackson (6′,b.1978), Bobby Lashley (6’1″,b.1976), Phil “The Gift” Heath (5’9″,b.1979), Lee Haney (5’11”?,b.1959), Ettore Ewen (aka Big E Langston) (5’11”,b.1986), Lincoln Brodrick (6′,b.1984), and, finally, my top three candidates for Cage…

Brian Orakpo

Brian Orakpo

Brian Orakpo (6’3or4″,b.1986) obviously has the required minimum height and muscles, accompanied by athletic prowess. He is a linebacker who played several years with the Washington Redskins, before moving to the Tennessee Titans in 2015, and he is known for both his speed and strength. But, his main advantage here is his youth. On the other hand, as a professional football player, he has the least experience as an “entertainer”. I have no idea if he has any acting talent.

Titus O'Neil

Titus O’Neil

Titus O’Neil (6’4″ (billed at 6’6″),b.1977) — real name Thaddeus Michael Bullard Sr. — is a retired pro-footballer who is now a popular wrestler with the WWE. He is older than I would prefer. Otoh, he is (obviously) another biiiig dude who could play our hero. The fact that he is used to playing a role and performing for the audience gives me hope that he might have some acting chops, as well. O’Neil and Orakpo both have fairly deep voices, too, which I think Cage should have.

 

 

Ezekiel Jackson

Ezekiel Jackson

Rycklon Stephens, aka Ezekiel Jackson (6’3or4″,b.1978), is another tall and (very) muscular wrestler — formerly WWE, now independent — who just might do “Luke Cage” justice. He is the most massive of our three candidates, which works in his favor for this role. As with O’Neil, I am cautiously optimistic of his acting ability. Unfortunately, his voice isn’t as deep as those of the other two, which works slightly against him. Still, can you imagine finally having a superhero on-screen with a physique like that?

Comments?

* All ideas copyright Christopher Harris, 2013-2016.

Bits-n-Pieces

I didn’t have time this week to do a regular-size piece on any one subject, but there were a few recent news items that I’ve been thinking of briefly commenting on. So,…

star-trek-axanarItem #1:  First up is the latest development re the suit against the producers of fan-film Star Trek: Axanar. The film short, “Prelude to Axanar” (2014), got a lot of good feedback, and Axanar Productions has been able to raise over $1 million, so far, for the full-length film. But, Paramount/CBS must have gotten nervous, especially since the production quality rivaled their own. So, they began legal proceedings a few months ago, claiming trademark infringement on multiple elements: species (including Vulcan ears), themes, characters, costumes, settings. Producer/actor Alec Peters predicted as much and was ready for a fight. (Or, perhaps a diplomatic negotiation? Good thing he is an attorney in his “day job”.) The most recent dispute is over the right to use the Klingon language. Sigh!

From what I understand, the planned film is set to adapt ideas from a 2-book module in the FASA Star Trek role-playing game: Return to Axanar/The Four Years War. It follows the events of a serious conflict between the nascent Federation and the Klingon Empire in the 2240s — i.e., two decades prior to ST:TOS. Sounds cool. I guess maybe I should watch “Prelude to Axanar” to see what all the hubbub is about….

Item #2:  There had been quite a lot of speculation about what race the title character would/should be in Netflix’s “Iron Fist”. Originalists like me wanted a white guy, while others thought an Asian or mixed actor would be more appropriate. Now that the very white Finn Jones (“Game of Thrones”) has been cast, the controversy has heated up even more, with those who wanted Danny Rand to be white (as he has always been in the comics) being called “racist”. Gimmeabreak! People throw that term around so much and so unfairly these days that it has lost its punch. (No pun intended.) I read an article a few months ago by an Asian guy who did not want Iron Fist to be Asian, either, but his reason was different. If I remember right, he didn’t want the first major Asian superhero to be a martial artist, ‘cuz it feeds a stereotype. Not sure I agree, but I understand and sympathize with the position. I guess he isn’t too thrilled about the rumor that Shang-Chi will make an appearance in “Iron Fist”.

Item #3:  Spider-Man news! Everybody is talking about the wall-crawler’s cameo at the end of the new trailer for Captain America: Civil War. I loved it, though it sort of ruins the surprise (if Spidey’s appearance is a surprise, anymore) within the movie itself. Still, I understand why they did it. I also love Spidey’s costume. It isn’t quite the comic original, but it is much closer and more like what a teenager would put together than the suits the Maguire and Garfield versions had. (Here’s a Youtube “Costume Breakdown” of the suit.) Also, in case I haven’t mentioned it, I am very happy with the casting of Tom Holland.

A second bit of Spidey-related news is that the Venom movie may happen after all. I have mixed feelings about this. I wasn’t thrilled with the version from Spider-Man 3, but my enthusiasm for the character had waned loooong ago, since its overuse in the 1990s and 2000s. If they want to do a solo film for this creature/villain/anti-hero, fine, but there are other characters I’d rather see get the live-action treatment.

Item #4:  Jessica Jones, Supergirl, and Agent Carter have each been renewed for another season. This is great news! I’ve mentioned (in my review of the show) that I was disappointed in several aspects of the Jessica Jones adaptation, but I liked it enough that I’ll probably watch a second season. I’m rather curious what the plot and main villain might be. Similarly, my “Initial Impressions of Supergirl” post included some negatives, but I continue to enjoy the show and am glad to see that the studio has seen fit to give it another season. (I may need to do a follow-up review, once Season 1 finishes.) As for Agent Carter, I never reviewed it, but I am enjoying that one quite a bit, as well. So, I’m thrilled that Hayley Atwell et al. will get a third season.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find them - posterItem #5:  On the fantasy front, you may have already heard about the release of a script book for the Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts I & II play and maybe the confirmation that there are three Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them films planned. But, unless you are a Potterhead (or whatever they call themselves), you may not be aware that J.K. Rowling is now writing material about other wizarding schools in other countries & continents at the Pottermore website, with particular emphasis on North America (since that’s where the new movies will take place). I checked it out, and so far they are relatively brief pieces. But, they do help to answer a few questions, fill in the blanks, pique our curiosity even more, etc., regarding magic in the rest of Harry Potter’s world. Looks like fun!

Item #6:  A fifth installment of Indiana Jones, starring Harrison Ford and directed by Steven Spielberg, has now been officially (re-)confirmed and even a tentative release date announced: July 19, 2019. Woohoo! That’s just a few days after Ford turns 77, so I hope he doesn’t overdo it! (That’s what stuntmen are for, right?) I also hope he and Spielberg can “make up for” the Crystal Skull and end the series on a high note. I’m rootin’ fer ya, guys!

The End.

UPDATE 5/13/2016:  Regarding #4 above, it looks like I jumped the gun. What I had read about “Supergirl” was, I believe, merely the optimism of one of the producers. However, it has now been announced that the show has been renewed for season 2 but is moving over to CBS’s cousin, the CW. (Now, they just have to figure out how to reduce its huge budget without losing quality or beloved characters.) Unfortunately, the news is not good about “Agent Carter”. Don’t remember what I read that gave me the idea it had already been renewed, but it (and I) was wrong. The show’s future has been in limbo all this time… until now. ABC has finally decided to cancel it. (At least, we’ll see Hayley Atwell in her new series: “Conviction”.) They also decided not to move forward with the “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” spin-off, “Marvel’s Most Wanted”. No word, yet, on if they’ll try to bring the Morse & Hunter characters back into the fold.