You Don’t Have to Save the World

I used to binge watch all the time, plowing through entire shows in days sometimes. I kind of miss doing that, especially since so much of the pacing behind many streaming shows now relies heavily on being able to binge them. All that said, I finally finished the third (and it turns out final) season of Daredevil on Netflix.

I was a huge fan of Daredevil when it first came out, and though Jessica Jones first season had some problems, I was still incredibly pretty pleased with it. Then I started losing interest. I enjoyed season 2 of Daredevil but it just didn’t feel as compelling as the first season, and I never made it past the first episode of Jessica Jones‘s second season. I manage to get through the first season of The Punisher, but only just, same with The Defenders.

Let’s not even talk about this disaster.

There are a lot of reasons these later seasons failed to grab me, but today I want to talk about one reason in particular.

You Don’t Have to Save the World:

Epic Plots in Storytelling

Daredevil wasn’t trying to save the world in the first season, he was just trying to improve the lives of the people living in his tiny corner of it. Same with Jessica Jones, Kilgrave was never out to destroy the world, but he still needed to be stopped. These were very personal stories, pitting two characters against each other, making the stories character driven. Fisk and Daredevil were struggling to make Hell’s Kitchen a better place but in radically different ways. Jessica Jones and Kilgrave were in an even more intimate struggle of retribution and justice.

Unfortunately the delusions of grandeur that would eventually sink both these shows was introduced in their first seasons. Daredevil goes off on a tangent to hunt “Black Sky,” and Jessica Jone’s first season has a stupid conspiracy theory about some evil company turning people into superheroes. And unfortunately in the second season of both shows they focus on these plots to the detriment of everything else. Basically the stakes of both shows go from personal struggles to trying to save the world. Taken in a vacuum that might be okay, but this is Marvel.

Marvel already has an exhausting schedule of movie releases where various heroes try to save the world, and the main problem is that the TV shows can’t compete with the movies in terms of stakes. Daredevil’s second season tries to sell the audience on Black Sky being some potentially world-ending weapon, even though it never specifically tells us what the hell it can do. Meanwhile less than a year before that season aired, we got Avengers: Age of Ultron and the incredibly vague threat of Black Sky doesn’t really compare with Ultron’s plan of human extinction. And now these shows have to compete with Thanos’s plan of wiping out half of all life in the universe, and they simply cannot compete with something like that. And they shouldn’t be trying to.

I honestly don’t even know where the Marvei films can go after defeating this threat.

Not every story has to be about saving the world and that’s something season 3 of Daredevil proves beautifully. The stakes are considerably smaller in scope, once again pitting Daredevil against a resurgent Wilson Fisk, yet it felt so much more important at the same time. I couldn’t bring myself to care about Black Sky or whatever the hell she was going to do in The Defenders, but I was at the edge of my seat wondering if Daredevil would actually kill Fisk. That personal drama, the struggle between those two characters, was more powerful than anything the ridiculous ninja clan plot managed to produce. To be fair though, this is hardly a new problem, and not one limited to Marvel.

One of the most disappointing examples of this is in Fantastic Beasts. Here was a story that could have been absolutely wonderful, following a bumbling but good natured magical zoologist on his adventures. This film started out so promising, and I went in thinking that returning the thunderbird to its natural habitat would form the core of the plot. With the bureaucracy of the magical government serving as the antagonist, this story had everything it needed. Ten minutes in I already had an image of the ending in my head, as the thunderbird was released into the Arizona wilds as an exhausted but euphoric Newt looking on while the music swells.

I wanted to see the Thunderbird flying through the Grand Canyon.

And then it all went wrong. There was a conspiracy of dark wizards, some dude name Grindlewald who is basically Voldemort version 1.0, and a plan to enslave all the muggles or something, I don’t even remember. As a result the fun adventure story we could have had, watching Newt bumbling his way across the world on his way to release a rehabilitated Thunderbird, was lost in exchange for a run-of-the-mill Evil Wizard Does Evil Things Because He’s Evil. The fantastic visuals we could have had, Newt exploring forests, swamps, and deserts, replaced with the oppressively gray and black London. And the Thunderbird, who’s return home should have formed the emotional core of the film, is reduced to a simple plot device; a lazy way for the writers to justify the amount of destruction they inflict on London for their flashy over-the-top battle scene.

Commercially I know why this was done, Warner Brothers wanted another set of films to capitalize on The Harry Potter franchise. And in typical corporate thinking, they twisted a fun adventure story into an almost dystopian story of evil, cliched wizards. The shame is that they could have still had their cinematic universe, they were just in too much of a rush to get there. Ironically Marvel did this exceptionally well, they didn’t start their franchise with Thanos trying to wipe out half of all life, they didn’t even start with the Avengers. They started with Iron Man, and slowly built up from there, spent an entire decade building the foundations for Avengers: Infinity War.

The first Iron Man remains one of my favorite in the MCU.

Not every story has to be about saving the world, and that’s a trap a lot of science fiction and fantasy falls into. The whole world doesn’t have to be at stake to make an exciting story, just put the character’s world at stake and you’ll have my undivided attention. Or if you absolutely have to have a world-ending threat on the horizon, keep it in the background.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt succeeded because the whole “save the world” storyline took a backseat to the more interesting personal drama. Geralt spends most of that game simply looking for Ciri and wanting to keep her safe, that’s all he cares about. The world-ending danger of the White Frost was more Ciri’s story than Geralt’s (more on that in a future update), and since it was Ciri’s job to save the world, it allowed Geralt’s story to be more character driven. Geralt indirectly saves the world by saving Ciri, but I never felt like that was the main narrative drive, the real goal was to save the girl that Geralt thought of as a daughter. I keep coming back to something a friend of mine told me years ago:

People don’t care about events. How do those events affect the people they care about, that’s the question.

-My good friend BJ.

It’s absolutely true, both in fact and fiction. You can have the most cataclysmic event you can think of on the horizon, but unless you make me care about the characters and what affect it will have on them, I won’t care. There simply has to be more at stake than “the world will end if we don’t succeed,” and again Marvel’s films do this well. Infinity War had so much more going on than Thanos’s plans for galactic genocide; Scarlet Witch being forced to kill Vision, Thanos reluctantly killing Gamorra, Thor’s quest for vengeance. It didn’t rely solely on the threat Thanos posed to the galaxy, if it had, it would have been a far less powerful film.

Easily one of the most heartbreaking moments in the film.

You don’t have to save the world to tell a story; just save the character’s world, even if that means simply saving their friends.

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Luke Cage: Invulnerable Skin, Vulnerable Story

We originally met Luke Cage in Jessica Jones where he was tending bar in Hell’s Kitchen, the man with unbreakable skin. Much like Superman this presents a problem for the writers: how do you generate any kind of danger when the character is invulnerable. Unlike Superman’s writers, who just said “fuck it, more punching”, Luke Cage’s writers tried to find a way around it. By building Luke Cage’s personal relationships, as well as his relationship with Harlem at large, they could generate tension by threatening his friends and home.

Unfortunately this attempt is let down by rather flat and uninteresting characters, and too much focus on a single barbershop rather than the neighborhood at large. So then they said “fuck it, let’s add some alien bullets that we can shoot at Luke Cage” and called it a day.

I still enjoyed Luke Cage, and compared to your average TV show it’s still a good bit of entertainment, but when compared to the first season of Daredevil and Jessica Jones it falls short… by quite a distance.

Luke Cage:

A Storytelling Review

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Luke Cage starts off slowly with Luke laying low, working as an assistant in a barbershop in Harlem working for a man named Pops. Now I thought Pops had the potential to be a truly unique character. Whereas I thought Pops was merely a reference to his age and paternal attitude, it’s revealed that it’s a nickname based off the sound his fists made when hitting someone and that he was once a feared gangster in the neighborhood. That’s a pretty dark backstory for someone I originally took for the “kindly old man who dies” trope. Yet Luke Cage tragically glosses over what could have been a unique character, and leaves many unanswered questions. Why did he leave the gangster life? How did he come to own the barbershop? What’s with the swear jar?

This glossing over of important characterizations is one of the crippling problems with Luke Cage, because it happens with pretty much every character not named Luke. In fact, even Luke has a hard time feeling real.

The result of not spending enough time on establishing the characters is that none of it really makes an emotional impact on the audience. I knew Pops was going to die the moment I saw him, it was practically tattooed on his forehead, but that doesn’t mean his death should have been so… meaningless. Yes his death serves as the catalyst for Luke Cage’s revenge, but for me, I didn’t feel anything for Pop’s death and I should have. I should have been angry or sad, preferably both, I should have been thirsting for vengeance.

Everything I felt when Fisk strangled Ben Urich with his bare hands in the first season of Daredevil.

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Pictured: A much better mentor character than Pops.

But if the protagonists and supporting cast felt shallow, they were the Marianas Trench of characters compared to the tide pools of the villains.

Perhaps I’ve become spoiled by amazing villains like Fisk and Kilgrave, but the villains of Luke Cage are some of the most boring you’ll ever encounter. Cottonmouth had some potential to be a sympathetic villain with the reveal of his past, becoming a murderer at the insistence of his crazy aunt/adoptive mother. A musician trapped in the life of a thug could make for a damn compelling story, but unfortunately they don’t reveal Cottonmouth’s history until midway through the season and he’s killed off shortly afterward.

Worse yet, his musical talent isn’t shown very often. He plays the piano a few times, but really if he’s such a talented musician, Luke Cage should have spent more time showing it to us. A couple of scenes where Cottonmouth plays a beautiful piece of music on the piano and giving his henchmen orders would have gone a long way. Juxtapose the beauty of his musical talent against the ugliness of his vicious, gangster personality. Instead they tell us about his musical talents instead of showing it, with his Uncle painstakingly spouting exposition about how Cottonmouth could go to Juliard. Unfortunately Cottonmouth dies almost immediately afterward.

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Sorry, did I say unfortunately, I meant thankfully. Dude is seriously annoying.

I understand what they were shooting for here, they wanted us to feel sympathy for Cottonmouth just before his end.

In most stories we’re rooting for the villain to get his comeuppance. Yet one of the best ways to emotionally toy with your audience is to humanize the villain, or even redeem the villain, so that when the end comes there’s a tragic angle to it. This was done with Darth Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi, Inspector Javier in Les Miserable, and countless others. It’s an old trick and an effective one. In fact Luke Cage tries to pull this twice, once with Cottonmouth and once with a corrupt cop.

The trouble in this case is that Cottonmouth just isn’t characterized well enough to feel much sympathy for him, the show waits way too long to reveal his tragic backstory and though it’s hinted and foreshadowed extensively, that’s not enough to redeem him. Throughout the show I had a hard time understanding Cottonmouth’s motivations for… well much of anything. While obviously a villain is there to solely provide the protagonist with an obstacle, I should never actually feel that that’s the case. I should feel like Cottonmouth has other goals and objectives outside the story. That would have made him feel more real.

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This card door had more stakes in the story than Cottonmouth.

But instead of that they gave us someone who’s only defining characteristic is his extremely awkward laugh, a laugh that tells us he’s trying to channel the Joker way too hard.

What made Fisk a great villain wasn’t just because he had a unique way of speaking that made for some truly spine-chilling speeches; Fisk was a great villain because he was treated as a character first and villain second. Fisk was passionate, and I count his love affair with Vanessa as one of finest romances I’ve ever seen; Fisk was righteous, or at least thought of himself as such, he wanted to deliver people from poverty and help the city he truly loved; Fisk was ruthless, he was so convinced of his own righteousness he was willing to do anything to accomplish his goals. We saw the humanity in Fisk and that made him feel real.

And if you haven’t seen this speech, you definitely need it in your life.

By contrast, Cottonmouth feels more like a prop than a character, an inanimate obstacle to be overcome rather than a character to be dealt with.

Unfortunately as weak as Cottonmouth is as a character, he feels like a character from Breaking Bad compared to Diamondback. Diamondback is a complete cipher. He’s not introduced until the tail end of the show and when he does he’s over the top, even when compared to Cottonmouth’s over the top performance and that’s saying something. Throughout the show Diamondback is made out to be this powerful criminal kingpin, someone on the level of Fisk or at least near to that level. Everyone fears him. And yet we never actually see anything resembling a powerbase for Diamondback.

With Fisk, great pains were taken to show his organization’s strength; his political allies, his legal shelter companies, and his illegal operations. Diamondback gets none of that. In fact when he finally arrives in person, the first thing he does is take over Cottonmouth’s operation just so he can shore up his goon-count to take on Luke Cage. He then hides in warehouses owned by Cottonmouth because he apparently doesn’t own any of his own safehouses in the neighborhood he supposedly runs.

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He even steals the man’s wardrobe.

This is especially problematic when Diamondback starts pulling out advanced technology, presumably straight from his ass. How does he have access to this technology? Where did he get the funds to purchase them? The Judas Bullet, the only bullet that can harm Luke Cage, is made out to be this incredibly expensive item. The price of just one Judas Bullet makes Cottonmouth do a double take, and yet Diamondback fires these things off like they come in big boxes at the local Walmart. Later he arms the local police with Judas Bullets, albeit a cheaper version, and he seemingly does this in a matter of hours. How did he do that? Does he have a massive industrial base where he can manufacture weapons on demand?

Because if he does, that absolutely needed to be elaborated on! Instead the show asks us to take it at face value, and I’ve come to expect better from Marvel TV shows.

Perhaps the worst part is the reveal of Diamondback’s backstory; he’s Luke Cage’s half-brother. None of this was foreshadowed, Luke barely even mentions his father and he never refers to having a good friend as a young boy. It comes seemingly out of nowhere and because of that it lacks any emotional resonance, and in fact makes the whole thing seem trite. And because I couldn’t really bring myself to care about any of this, their final battle really felt like an anticlimax to me.

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The most boring fist fight since Superman and Zod, though fortunately it’s shorter.

Of course most of these problems can be traced back to one fundamental flaw: trying to frontload too many future plotlines into the show. This problem began to pop up in Jessica Jones, with some random cop Kilgrave mind controls turning out to be some secret super soldier. He was obviously being set up to appear as a villain in the future and that was made blatantly obvious by the way the show’s pacing came to a lurching halt every time he showed up. Then of course there was the foreshadowing of an evil corporation who may or may not be responsible for giving Jessica Jones superpowers.

In Jessica Jones these problems were distracting, in Luke Cage it’s crippling. First of all, rather than simply telling us why Luke Cage is in prison and maybe add some actual depth to him, they coyly dance around it. They spend quite a while showing us the illegal medical experiments at the private prison where Luke is kept; no doubt this was for planting seeds establishing a big overarching nemesis that will run across all of Marvel’s Netflix series. Then there’s the doctor that helps Luke escape prison and who eventually becomes his lover, they only hint at her death and late in the show we find out she was complicit in the illegal research being conducted. The origin of the Judice bullets are another story thread that will probably link back to the same evil corporation. Then there’s the growing suspicion and resentment towards superheroes. The list goes on and on.

The first season of Luke Cage spent so much time setting up future plotlines that it forgot to tell a decent story to string it all together. Nothing in the above list is elaborated upon, nothing meaningful related to the audience, no payoff. It’s all just “to be continued” and with so many story threads trailing off into nothing… we’re left feeling unsatisfied.

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That’s what she said! (I’ll show myself out)

Rather than use the first season of Luke Cage to introduce a dozen different plots, it should have focused on the truly important story: Luke Cage becoming the protector of Harlem.

Because the best parts of Luke Cage are when he’s using his powers to help random people.

I found him helping the Asian couple keep their restaurant far more satisfying than the entire final fight with Diamondback, and stopping the robbery at the corner store made him feel more like a hero than any of the convoluted plots to take down Cottonmouth. If Luke Cage had tightened its focus on helping the neighborhood, coming to accept his role as its protector, and had him go head to head with Cottonmouth alone, we would have had a much better show. Unfortunately as it is, Luke Cage spreads its focus too thinly for any of the storylines to have any real impact.

There’s a lot of potential here, it could go on to be a show just as good as the first season of Daredevil.

But if Marvel continues using these characters as mere launchpads from which to launch yet more TV shows and franchises, then the foundational characters will simply wither and crumble away, and the whole Cinematic Universe will come crashing down.

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And with all the plots Marvel is stacking on top of each other, it won’t take much for it to come down.

 

Captain America: Civil War

I’ve always enjoyed Captain America’s movies more than any other in the Marvel cinematic universe. While I also enjoy the other Marvel movies, aside from Thor which I’ve never been able to get into, the Captain America movies have been consistently top quality in my opinion. Of all the heroes, I find the Captain the most relatable and human member of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Yet in spite of all that, I was afraid Captain America: Civil War would be disappointing. Mainly because I was afraid of three things happening:

  1. The Civil War would be sparked by something horribly contrived and be neatly resolved by the end.
  2. None of the heroes would actually be harmed in the movie.
  3. That it was going to be an Avengers-lite movie and Captain America’s role would become secondary in his own movie.

Fortunately though I was wrong on all fronts. The Sokovia Accords, and the incident that sparks its inception, seemed like a realistic reaction to superheroes (though you can argue whether that’s a good or bad thing in a series dedicated to superheroes.) There are consequences to the fights, and they escalate in a way that builds the narrative. And despite the huge lineup of heroes, the movie remains centered around Captain America.

In short, Captain America: Civil War continues the proud tradition of being the best films in the series and has an excellent narrative that will have interesting effects on future Marvel films. It’s a fun movie that takes a look a look at the human side of Marvel’s biggest superheroes.

[For the sake of simplicity I’m referring to all the characters by their superhero name, except for Bucky because I like that name better than Winter Soldier.]

Captain America: Civil War

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The beginning of Captain America: Civil War was the worst part of the movie, mostly because I had no idea what was going on. Captain America, Black Widow, Scarlet Witch, and Falcon are tracking down a criminal attempting to steal a biological weapon. The problem being that I had no idea who this criminal was, though it was made obvious he had some history with the Captain. It’s the first noticeable sign of strain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it was only a matter of time before the weight of carrying so many stories eventually began to show. I only found out who this criminal was (Brock Rumlow, AKA Crossbones) after searching IMDB for the purposes of this article, so now I remember he was the goon who tried to capture the Captain in the elevator at SHIELD headquarters in Winter Soldier. If you’re familiar with the comic books you’ll probably have an easier time recognizing him thanks to the crossbones on his uniform, but for those like me that only know superheroes through the film franchises, you’ll likely feel a bit lost as well.

Yet the fact I didn’t know who it was at the time didn’t really affect my enjoyment of the story, as this villain’s only real job in the narrative is to provide the inciting incident that sets off the story. When Crossbones realizes he’s lost he distracts Captain America by telling him about Bucky, the Winter Soldier, which throws off Captain America long enough for Crossbones to detonate an explosive vest he’s wearing. Fortunately the Scarlet Witch manages to contain the explosion with her telekinetic powers, saving Captain America. Unfortunately, she can’t contain the explosion long enough and as she’s trying to levitate Crossbones into the air, the vest explodes and takes out an entire floor of one of the nearby office buildings. Worse yet, the explosion kills missionaries from a highly reclusive nation called Wakanda, sparking international outrage as people blame the Avengers for their deaths.

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Though it really seems like they should be blaming the guy with the explosive vest instead. 

Alone this incident seems pretty minor, and it seems like a gross overreaction to what was clearly an accident. Then the Secretary of State, played by the ever persuasive William Hurt, presents a rather compelling argument: the Avengers have been indirectly responsible for several near world-ending catastrophes, violating the national sovereignty of several nations (including the United States) in the process. Now I’ve got to give Marvel props for pursuing this storyline, because it’s a risky move, and it’s already sparked a lot of debate among fans and critics.

Can Marvel superheroes exist in a world where they have to obey laws? A lot of the appeal of superheroes is their ability to act outside the law. I mean does anybody really want to see Iron Man don his superpowered tank/suit and then read criminals their Miranda rights and then wait six months for the trial to start so he can give testimony. No, we want to watch Iron Man carry a nuke through an inter-dimensional rift. So I can see why some people are concerned with this turn in the narrative, because it could easily backfire. However if Civil War is any indication, I think Marvel is in safe hands and I applaud the writers for confronting ideas that are usually taken for granted in superhero stories.

I love the story possibilities presented and Civil War took full advantage of them. Iron Man agrees with the Secretary of State and thinks the Avengers need to have some constraints and be held accountable to someone. Captain America believes that the Avengers need to remain independent or risk being used by the government for political purposes, or worse, being stopped from helping people because of politics. What I love about this conflict is that both sides have merit and both characters have their reasons for believing in their convictions. I was afraid Iron Man or Captain America would be shoehorned into being a bad guy, and that they’d be forced to act against their character in order for the narrative to work.

Fortunately the exact opposite is true, and both Iron Man and Captain America’s beliefs are all extensions of their characters and the events in previous Marvel movies.

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Turns out wiping out an entire city actually has consequences.

Ever since the The Avengers, Iron Man has been suffering from PTSD and while it was kind of addressed in Iron Man 3, it’s not a condition that can be cured by blowing up a bunch of Iron Man suits. More to the point, Iron Man wants someone to be accountable to because he doesn’t want to be in charge anymore. He’s the de facto leader of the Avengers, and that responsibility has been wearing him down. To be honest I didn’t like Age of Ultron, but I did like that Iron Man was confronted with his greatest fear: the death of his friends. He created Ultron, in part, so that he wouldn’t have to be the leader anymore and some larger entity could care for the safety of Earth. And when Ultron went rogue, Iron Man felt responsible for that too, crushing him beneath the psychological burden of guilt and fear. For all the power his Iron Man suit provides, his mind is still human.

Civil War, not content to sit on this previous character building, adds even more backstory by introducing us to Iron Man’s father. It shows us that Iron Man’s sarcastic rebelliousness against authority figures started with his attitude towards his father. His father died with the last words from his son being those of sarcastic indifference, a regret Iron Man holds to this day. So while Iron Man finds himself resenting authority figures, he’s also terrified of being without them.

With all this in mind it makes perfect sense that Iron Man, who once gave an Ayn Rand inspired speech in Iron Man 2, has come to see government oversight as the only way forward.

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Though I’m pretty sure this guy is going to turn evil at some point. 

Meanwhile Captain America has his own reasons for his conviction in maintaining the independence of the Avengers. He began his life as a soldier fighting in World War 2 against a nation that used its military to perform the most horrific atrocities mankind has ever seen. Then later in The Winter Soldier, he uncovered a secret Hydra conspiracy to take over SHIELD and that wasn’t even the worst part. The worst part was that the United States government signed off on using the Helicarriers to effectively implement martial law without anyone ever knowing it. So he’s seen bureaucracy corrupt and destroy nations, and doesn’t want to become the unwitting weapon of an evil conspiracy, or be prevented from helping people because of some deadlocked oversight committee.

Captain America has always been the epitome of the individualist spirit, the belief that even a single person can make a difference. A belief that’s further reinforced by the death of his old girlfriend, and her eulogy which reminds Captain America of why he fights.

Still, Civil War‘s pacing is dead on and the Avengers don’t simply dissolve into a brawl the moment the Sokovia accords are presented. Instead, Captain America agrees to back out gracefully and leave the others to sign the accords if they choose. At the signing of the accords though, a bomb is set off, killing the king of Wakanda and implicating Bucky in the ensuing investigation.

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Dude just can’t catch a break. 

Obviously Bucky has been framed but that knowledge doesn’t detract from the story because Civil War is wise enough to not present it as a mystery. Instead the writers at Marvel used it to set the stage and stakes of the ensuing battle.

Captain America breaks ranks, and a multitude of laws, in order to save Bucky from the police. During the fight they encounter Black Panther, who turns out to be T’Challa, the son of the assassinated Wakanda king. He appears with a suit made of the same material as Captain America’s shield, and while there’s a brief mention of how he got the suit, I’m honestly okay with Black Panther just showing up. At this point not every superhero needs their own movie dedicated to their origin story, and Black Panther’s desire for revenge is the perfect starting point for him. He slides effortlessly into the Marvel canon without derailing the pacing of Civil War.

After the fight Captain America, Falcon, Bucky, and Black Panther are taken into police custody. Once again, Captain America is given the chance to sign the accords, but this time it’s presented as an ultimatum: sign or go to jail. Which is exactly the wrong way to approach Captain America, since he’s one of those people who would go to jail for their convictions before sacrificing them.

While the Avengers argue over the Sokovia Accords, a man posing as a psychologist is brought in to evaluate Bucky. Using the keywords implanted into Bucky’s brain, the imposter learns the location of the laboratory where Bucky was created and escapes. Leaving Captain America and Bucky on the run again.

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Nope, not even one break.

With the Avengers split in two, both sides start to gather allies. Captain America and Falcon get their gear returned to them by Sharon Carter, the granddaughter of Captain America’s former girlfriend. I want to take a brief moment here and say that I found Captain America’s new romance with the granddaughter of his former girlfriend both awkwardly shoehorned in, and incredibly creepy in a Woody Allen kind of way. It felt completely unnecessary to the story since we never see the two together again, but it’s a minor bump and doesn’t take long to get back into the real story.

Hawkeye frees Scarlet Witch, who was being held in “protective” custody by Vision (you know, the worst unstoppable and overpowered hero to come out of Age of Ultron) while Iron Man recruits Spider-Man to the cause.

I’ve got to say I love this new Spider-Man, the actor absolutely nails the performance and best of all, Civil War doesn’t rehash the Spider-Man’s tragic backstory. I desperately hope the new Marvel-Sony Spider-Man (lots of hyphens) movie keeps this as his introduction, because do any of us really need to see Uncle Ben die again? We all know the story now.

Meanwhile Captain America recruits Ant-Man to his cause. I never saw the Ant-Man movie, because it sounded like an utterly ridiculous premise, but his performance in this movie alone makes me want to see that movie now.

With each side assembled, Captain America and Iron Man confront each other at an airport.

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I love how this scene was setup, because it perfectly reflected the character’s personalities in the fight. Iron Man is, let’s face it, arrogant and brash. So when he disables the helicopter Captain America is running towards, he lands with War Machine and begins sarcastically quipping about the people you meet at the airport. Iron Man or War Machine alone could beat Captain America, and together he doesn’t stand a chance.

I want to give Robert Downey Jr. a special mention here because his performance while he’s talking to Captain America is what really sells the emotion of this upcoming fight. You can see the stress etched on Iron Man’s face, and the desperation to end this gnawing at him as his sarcasm quickly gives way to anger and resentment. He almost looks on the verge of tears, at least it did in my opinion. Anyway, back to the fight.

Iron Man is so confident in his victory that he unveils his new Spider-Man ally, using him to take Captain America’s shield. Iron Man lays all his cards on the table because he’s certain he’s got a winning hand. Captain America though, is a soldier and a veteran of countless battles, battles where he was often outmanned and outgunned. So instead of arraying his team in a big clump like Iron Man, he splits them up tactically to take advantage of Iron Man’s artless strategy of brute force. Ant-Man is hiding on Captain America’s shield, since he knows that would be the first thing Iron Man would try to take. Hawkeye is positioned to provide cover and free Captain America from any constraints. And Bucky and Falcon locate the jet the Avengers use so they can hijack it.

Iron Man takes the bait and his entire team disperses hunting down the members of Captain America’s team.

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Fortunately it’s not a straight up brawl like the concept art depicted.

I know I don’t usually mention anything other than the writing, but I really want to give credit to the fight choreographer(s) who put this scene together. It would have been easy to pull a Snyder and just use a bunch of explosions and punches to keep our eyes happy before moving onto the next scene. Civil War doesn’t do that though. Instead the fight ebbs and flows naturally, and everyone’s characters fight like you’d expect them to.

It’s also made clear from the onset that everyone on both sides is actively holding back, aside from Black Panther who is consumed by rage at this point. Iron Man intentionally misses with his missiles, using them only to distract Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch. Meanwhile, Spider-Man, being a kid, has never been in a real fight. I think the best part of this fight is when Bucky tries to punch Spider-Man, who blocks it and says “Dude, you have a metal arm? That’s awesome!” because the look on Bucky’s face is priceless.

Theoretically the super strong and agile Spider-Man should be able to mop the floor with Falcon or Bucky or even Captain America. But he’s a kid, who has never fought a battle in his life, and so he finds himself outmaneuvered by the more experienced fighters. Which is what I mean when I say the characters fight in a way that you’d expect them to.

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A quick wit is no match for experience.

Another great thing about this fight is how well it flows not only narratively, but in terms of tone. One of my biggest gripes about the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe is that tonally it’s all over the map, going from a serious life or death struggle in one moment to hilarious hijinks the next.

The battle at the airport starts out with a light tone with plenty of humor provided by Spider-Man and Ant-Man. But as the battle progresses, the heroes get tired and injured, and tempers begin to flare. Slowly the action ramps up as they begin holding back less and less. The final act of the battle turns exceptionally dark. Tired and frustrated as Captain America and Bucky make their escape in the Avenger’s jet, War Machine asks Vision to shoot out the engines on Falcon’s wing suit. Vision misses and instead destroys the Arc Generator in War Machine’s suit, causing him to go into a free fall.

War Machine hits the ground hard and it’s pretty clear he’s not getting back up anytime soon.

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A line has been crossed.

Even though it was caused by friendly fire from Vision, Iron Man blames Captain America for War Machine’s injuries who has ended up paralyzed from the waist down. There’s no coming back from this moment, even when the Avengers get back together, this baggage is going to follow them. The tension is palpable, and when Black Widow confronts Iron Man about backing down, he looks just about ready to hit her. Iron Man goes to a very dark place, and I’m not sure how he’s going to get out of it.

For a few moments there, after Iron Man finds out that Bucky was framed, it seemed like he might admit he was wrong and let bygones be bygones. At least until the imposter doctor, a member of Sokovian Intelligence whose family was killed, shows Bucky killing his mom and dad.

The fight that follows is unlike any of the other fights I’ve seen in Marvel films. It’s brutal. Almost savage. All restraint that once held them back is gone, and Iron Man, Bucky and Captain America are now actively trying to kill one another. You can feel the raw emotions behind their blows, and it’s easily the most outstanding fight scene in Marvel films history.

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Iron Man is eventually disabled, with Captain America holding himself back from taking a killing blow, and that’s how the movie ends. But the Civil War is far from resolved. That’s what excites me most about Captain America: Civil War, I have no idea how the Avengers come back from this. Bucky sends Iron Man a note at the end of the film promising to be there if needed, but Iron Man doesn’t seem entirely convinced. And I honestly hope it’s not that easy. To my eye the Avengers look irrevocably broken, and I’m excited to see how they resolve that.

The biggest mistake Marvel could make at this point is to resolve this in the first fifteen minutes of their next movie, as it would undermine all the terrific storytelling that was on display in this movie. I’m hoping, and judging by the Marvel’s release schedule I think I’m right, that healing the wounds the Avengers suffered in this movie will be slowly resolved over the course of several movies.

We’ll see what the future brings, but for now I’m incredibly hopeful going forward and I hope Marvel continues to produce quality movies like this. I recommend everyone see this movie if you’re a fan of any of the Marvel universe. It’s not going to make you cry, but it’s definitely an emotional rollercoaster that will make you feel the anger and frustration of both Iron Man and Captain America.

Because this is a Civil War.

 

Jessica Jones: Marvel’s Darkest Side

It’s no secret (or perhaps it is since I never got around to doing a review,) that I love Daredevil. It was the first Marvel franchise where I was actually on the edge of my seat during the fight sequences because, unlike the immortal demigods of the Avengers, Daredevil could be injured. Horribly, horribly injured. I think half of the show’s budget was used on practical effects to simulate all the compound fractures they kept showing on screen. It was brutal and visceral, and featured a hallway fight sequence that may be one of the greatest martial arts fighting scenes I’ve ever seen.

More than that, Daredevil understood the gravity of the situations he was in. Gone was the sarcastic quipping of the Avengers as collateral damage and civilian casualties are occurring all around them.  Daredevil painstakingly prevented civilian casualties, and when civilians were killed by his enemies, he was genuinely enraged. This was a Marvel franchise that actually got me emotionally involved in the characters, it told a story that fascinated me, rather than just distracted me on a hot summer day.

Jessica Jones is not Daredevil. Jessica Jones isn’t even Marvel, at least not in the way we’ve come to know it. This is a different, darker Marvel. Jessica Jones is far less physically violent than Daredevil, but that violence is replaced by a far more disturbing kind of mental and emotional violence. It’s a story that shows us an abusive relationship in excruciating detail, it will make you uncomfortable and it will make you want to take a shower at some point. But if you’re ready to explore the darkest depths of human depravity, Jessica Jones is all too ready to take you there.

Netflix’s Jessica Jones

A Storytelling Review

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Jessica Jones is easily Marvel’s most powerful and darkest installment in its cinematic universe. And while I’d love to recommend it to everyone, the simple fact of the matter is that not everyone is going to like it. It’s a great show, but if you come in expecting a typical superhero show, you will be bitterly disappointed.

For one, this isn’t a superhero show. This is a personal revenge story and gender-reversed noir detective story that just happens to have superheroes in it. Unlike every other franchise in the Marvel Universe, New York City isn’t in mortal peril. No one wants to destroy the world. No one is looking for infinity stones or the secret of immortality. It’s just Jessica Jones trying to survive after an unthinkable trauma, and her quest to hunt down the man responsible.

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This bastard right here.

When I said this is a gender-reversed noir detective story, I fucking meant it. The hard-boiled private detective is Jessica Jones, the reporter looking for a scoop is Trish Walker, and the unscrupulous defense attorney cheating on their spouse is Jeri Hogarth. Fifty years ago, all those roles would have been male. And as for the “Femme Fatal,” the alluring seductress who is either involved with or is in herself the inciting incident that puts the story in motion?

That’s played by none other than David Tennant (pictured above.)

A standard femme fatal uses her sex appeal to lure the protagonist into his own downfall, much like the Sirens of Greek myth. Kilgrave’s power isn’t sex appeal, though he does have that in spades, but instead he’s a superpowered um… Menne Matal? No… that can’t be right. Anyway, he controls people’s thoughts. But not just their thoughts, their desires. How Jessica describes her experience with Kilgrave is absolutely chilling. Unlike say, Borg mind control, you’re not simply compelled to do something against your will.

You’re compelled to want to do whatever Kilgrave wants. His desire becomes your desire. I can’t think of an idea more repugnant than that.

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Well, except for the real world equivalent. Speaking of which, everyone should watch The Hunting Grounds because it’s fucking horrifying and we need to do better as a society. 

So now not only are you acting against your will, but when you’re finally free of Kilgrave’s influence, you’re left to deal with the horrific guilt. Because you wanted it. He compelled you to want it, but the desire was still there.

That’s the villain Jessica Jones is up against and with the power to command whomever he chooses, he’s not easy to take down. Again though, Jessica Jones doesn’t follow the usual superhero structure. There is no escalating sequence of battles culminating in a climactic fight here, instead the entire season is a game of cat and mouse. Or perhaps cat and cat might be a better analogy since Jessica Jones and Kilgrave circle each other, probing each other’s weaknesses and waiting for the right moment to strike.

If you’ve ever seen any old detective movies you’ll feel right at home. First there’s the investigation, painstakingly hunting for clues and last known whereabouts of Kilgrave. This is by far the best part of the show, and takes up a fair amount of the show’s run time. I found Kilgrave to completely and utterly terrifying. His calm but cold voice, the manner in which he held himself, the calculating and meticulous planning he relied on. You barely even see him at first, just in the flashes of memory that Jessica suffers from.

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Watching Kilgrave get repeatedly bitch slapped by a bus is pretty satisfying.

Though just as brilliant as his ominous introduction, is his clever deconstruction as we get to know the character. Kilgrave seems to be so powerful at first and so incredibly intelligent, the kind of cold calculating sociopath you’d expect. But when Jessica is forced to move in with Kilgrave, you get a glimpse at just how insecure and immature this man is. It’s a credit to David Tennant’s acting ability that he can go from confident and utterly terrifying mind-controlling pyschopath, to a cringe worthy man-child that throws a tantrum when things don’t go his way. Which is exactly what he is.

Kilgrave is revealed to be nothing more than a twelve-year-old boy who never had to grow up because his ability to command people meant he could do whatever he wanted. He’s also the stereotypical abusive boyfriend/spouse, if something bad happens to his partner (in this case Jessica) well she secretly wanted it! Or she did something to deserve it! Or she doesn’t know what she wants! Any excuse will do, as long as he doesn’t have to admit that he’s brutalizing people.

But the fact of the matter is that Kilgrave is just a troubled human being. I began to pity the man after a while, despite his horrible actions, because he was just so overwhelmingly insecure and afraid. As Jessica continues to press him and defy his control, Kilgrave’s suave, confident facade cracks and falls away to reveal the trembling, scared little boy he’s always been.

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Kilgrave just wants his mommy!

It’s the exploration of Kilgrave’s character, the ramifications of his actions, that truly separates this show from typical superhero stories. Unlike Tony Stark’s crises of faith he has in every Marvel film he’s in, all of the traumatized characters in Jessica Jones experience their trauma in a realistic and authentic ways. The violation they feel and the different ways they deal with it all feel real; guilt, shame, rage, insecurity, fear. Well, they feel real aside from one stupid part at the end when they all form a lynch mob for a horribly contrived reason.

As much as I love this show, it’s not without its problems. One problem is when the show tries to use Simpson as some kind of alternate villain. It’s not that I mind that Simpson ends up being a superhero/villain, this is the Marvel Universe, every other person you meet probably has some kind of weird ability.

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Even if that ability is being the world’s unluckiest nurse. 

No the problem wasn’t so much that he was revealed to be a superhero so much as he was boring and contributed nothing to the story. His power is dull; he’s like an even less interesting version of Bane, his only ability is getting ramped up on a super steroid. He takes a few too many of Underdog’s pills and goes berserk. It’s boring. Combined with the fact that Simpson’s character was so two-dimensional he was basically just a line segment in some scenes, and this new threat just fell utterly flat.

Compared to the incredibly complex character of Kilgrave (and the incredible gravitas of David Tennant), Simpson was utterly anemic as a threat. I didn’t feel an ounce of tension during his fight with Jessica and Trish, instead I just got extremely impatient waiting for them to deal with this incredibly dull diversion so we could get back to the actual story of the show: stopping Kilgrave.

Simpson needed a much more realized backstory.
I’m sorry, but no amount of “slowly walking away from a cool fire without looking” can make him interesting.

And I know, he’ll be back in the next season of either Jessica Jones or Daredevil, and then they’ll probably give us a proper background on him, give him actual motivations beyond ‘roid rage, and he’ll probably make a cool bad guy. But Marvel, you don’t have to shoehorn upcoming characters into every franchise you own, we all know you have a cool cinematic universe where everything is connected. We don’t need to be constantly reminded of that by forcing future villains into shows and movies at the expense of pacing and story. I thought he was properly foreshadowed as a future villain even before he started popping pills.

There was an intensity to him that seemed off even at the start, he revealed he had been a black-ops interrogator at some point, and he had both the expertise and the recklessness disregard for human life to want to use a bomb in a residential neighborhood to kill one man. That was all he needed, his eventual return as a villain was already foreshadowed. But instead of stopping there, they introduced the mystery doctor and his red/white/blue pills (real subtle with the imagery there guys.) And he mucked up the first season by needlessly slowing it down for a completely needless and drawn out fight sequence.

Now when he inevitably returns, I won’t be thinking “yes, I fucking called it!” and be excited to see how his character evolves. When I see him again I’ll just groan and say “oh god, not this douchebag again.” Which is a shame because he does have the potential to be interesting, but you ruined it by awkwardly forcing him into a story where he didn’t belong. He can probably be used again at some point, but when he reappears he’ll have to work twice as hard to make the audience think of him as anything other than that annoying guy from the first season of Jessica Jones.

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They should have just disappeared Simpson into a black van at the end of this scene and left his disappearance a mystery.

The other main problem was that, as much as I enjoyed how dark Jessica Jones was, it may have been a bit too dark. Daredevil had both an incredibly endearing romance plot between his law partner and secretary, plus several incredibly funny scenes, to counterbalance the ultraviolent tone. Jessica Jones doesn’t have that, Jessica’s life is ripped apart so utterly and so completely, that by the end you’re just kind of numb to it. Hope killing herself should have been an emotional climax, a heart-wrenching death that should have put fury in my heart, but honestly I barely blinked an eye. By that point Kilgrave had amassed such a body count and Jessica Jones had been through so much trauma, Hope’s death barely even registered with me.

Even at the end, with Kilgrave finally dead and her free of him, the show doesn’t let up in its dark, gritty tone for even a single moment. The final shot is of her back to drinking alone in her office while she desperately tries to ignore the people calling her for help. She could have at least cracked a smile at some point, or ended it with her moving back in with Trish for some semblance of human connection. Anything but a return to the status quo that left her just as miserable as she was to begin with.

Visual Metaphor
Though I did like the visual metaphor of the broken window.

Of course another significant part of why the emotional impact fell off towards the end is that there just wasn’t enough story to stretch out over 13 hours. Jessica almost catches Kilgrave about a half-dozen times over 13 episodes and while some of these near misses are great at building the tension, after a while it becomes clear it’s just needless padding. The worst example of this is when Kilgrave manages to escape again when a lynch mob tries to kill Jessica thanks to the deranged ravings of a crazy woman. It felt contrived and unnecessary.

Despite these problems, Jessica Jones is still an amazing show and it’s worth a watch for David Tennant’s amazing performance if nothing else. Still, this is not a Marvel series for everybody. If you like the cartoony, lighthearted action of the movies and want more of that, this is not the series for you. If you find implied rape, mental and physical torture, and gruesome deaths too horrifying to contemplate – DO NOT WATCH THIS SHOW! 

Marvel’s Jessica Jones takes us into the very darkest corners of the human psyche; mankind’s predatory instinct to conquer and dominate everything around it. It explores in detail what happens when people are able to bend others to their will, the trauma caused when people are mentally and physically violated, and the sick motivations of the people willing to inflict that on their victims.