A Review of Marvel’s “Jessica Jones”

Jessica Jones is a very interesting choice of characters for Marvel’s second installment in their direct-to-Netflix Defenders chronology, particularly because she’s never a Defender. For a more general audience, though, this is an even more interesting choice because Jessica Jones isn’t the sort of comic book character that’s “mainstream” in the geek knowledge-base. She’s more niche geek, if you will. That said, she’s played a role in the Avengers and crossed paths with other characters from Hell’s Kitchen, notably Daredevil and, more consistently, Luke Cage, so this series makes sense in a courageous way from Netflix’s perspective.

For those who don’t know, Jessica Jones receives her superhuman abilities in childhood following an accident, and her attempts at being a hero (de-emphasized in the writing of this series) don’t end well as she falls into the hands of Zebediah Kilgrave. She instead becomes a private detective. In the series, this is less from a desire to do good than it is to “make a living in this…town,” but she’s also good at it, although catching others in extramarital affairs is less than glamorous.

I liked the directorial choice to emphasize the “private eye” element of this story, because it’s part of what sets Jones’ character apart. The opening score is outstanding, full or noir-ish appeal blended with modern edge that captures the character and her landscape perfectly. The score becomes extremely important as the series progresses, because it doesn’t recur regularly. In fact most episodes open without it, and the entire opening credits sequence is only used to mark a new act, as it were, in the story. The directors make use of this creative decision quite effectively.

Overall, the writers have been very faithful to the characters, as well. We see adapted origin stories, as is expected at some level when the stories move to the screen, but they are still handled mostly with respect to the canon. We see a fringe villain introduced, and I’m very impressed with Rachael Taylor’s (of Transformer’s fame) portrayal of Jessica’s friend, Trish Walker…aka Patsy Walker, aka one of Marvel’s oldest heroes, Hellcat. While we don’t see any costumed identity launched in this season for Trish, we certainly see a respectable groundwork laid for her, which I’m in hopes Marvel will develop further.

The writers have also impressed with their introduction of Luke Cage. This was sort of necessary, as it would be impossible to divorce Jones’ and Cage’s stories and still remain faithful to the comics canon (their romantic involvement anchors multiple story arcs). Cage is gritty and real. His conversation over breakfast with Jones about the nature of their abilities and the stories of their acquisition is pleasing to any serious fan in its brevity and light-heartedness. One of the things done well here is that the characters are all picked up well after their origins. We don’t see them acquire their powers, we only see how they’ve learned to adapt their lives to having them. These are characters, as Captain America phrases it in the printed version of Civil War, who are “close to the street.” They don’t don costumes and fight alien invasions (at least not yet). They fight to survive the evil around them, and hopefully save some other lives in the process.

What’s particularly compelling about Jessica Jones as a character is that she flees from heroism, but, in the literature at least, only after trying to use her abilities for good in that way. Here, we don’t see Jones wanting toward being a hero in an overt way. Although her impulse is to save those in trouble when she has the option, her goal is survival. Still, we see this survival instinct as only a secondary desire to revenge, to the point that she is willing to sacrifice several other lives in order stop Kilgrave late in the series. She even tells Trish at one point, “I’m still not the hero you want me to be.”

Another outstanding point in the series is both the writers’ treatment of, and David Tenant’s performance of, Kilgrave. Felt as much in his absence in early episodes, descriptions of him from other characters paint him in a manner to match the very visible outcomes of the use of his powers. That is, we see Kilgrave’s actions before we meet him, and the result is a villain that is, without question, terrifying. Kilgrave leaves the viewer disturbed, shaken, and questioning their own thoughts on many evenings after watching one of these episodes. This could be the most insidious villain we’ve seen from Marvel Studios to date, and that’s no small accomplishment.

Unfortunately, what the writers and directors did well in plot and treatment, they nearly destroyed with lack of taste. Something that sets apart Netflix’s presentation of the characters of Hell’s Kitchen is their brooding realism. The violence is more violent (something that detracted heavily from Daredevil’s first season), the darkness darker, the passions more full in this depraved section of New York. The directors of Jessica Jones made poor decisions to take sexual elements that were necessary to the story and transform them into the most racy and most crass scenes possible, giving minutes of graphic screen time to the plot point that two characters slept with one another. Similarly, a lot of screen time is given to two attorneys whose romance, while hardly worth mentioning in the overall plot of the season, was given extended time in multiple episodes, as though only there for public opinion points, not for the story. While the violence is not as overstated as Daredevil, there a several moments when the resulting gore certainly is. The blood and shock value is numbing, causing the viewer to detach rather than engage the evil acts of Kilgrave.

That’s just bad art.

Then, there’s the dialogue.

For everything that the writers did well in plotting this season, they fell short of in dialogue. The banter between characters does manage to have a few scattered bright moments (likely due to the actors’ performances saving the scenes), but, overall, interactions between characters (especially those who are not leads) leaves much to be desired. Most distracting is the writer’s love a very specific obscenity.  While there are very notable exceptions in which a very good writer can get by with this, this isn’t that writer and not one of those moments. When one character’s speech cadence is marked by an obscenity as a pausal phrase, then that’s a character. When every character’s speech cadence uses the same, that’s the mark of a writer who cannot find the characters’ voices. This distracted me severely enough to make me miss important information more than once.

That’s just bad craft.

There’s an intentional harmony, or at least an attempt at one, made in several moments here…a discord between Jones’ heroic impulses and the pragmatism forced on her by her environs. There’s a glimpse of the costume that she wore in the comics as Jewel that delights fans, for certain, but also references so subtle as to be easily missed when she intervenes on behalf of those who can’t help themselves, and another characters tells her at one point, “You’re a good person, Jessica Jones.” Jessica simply swaggers away, maintaining her facade that she needs no one else around, and continues to survive. This lack of overt heroism, however, is not as much of a detractor from Jones’ character as one might imagine. Rather, it actually makes her more compelling, an extremely human struggle to move past trauma and take the journey from anti-hero to hero, which is where we see our tough-as-nails P.I. in the last scene.

Jessica Jones is a fascinating character full of potential, someone original that gives a lot of depth to the Marvel Universe on the page. She can give this depth to the on-screen universe, as well, if she can survive poor writing and directing. This season, while it did a lot of good things, was mostly lost to bad taste. I hope that future installments will be back to (at least) the level of what began with Daredevil. If you intentionally dig for the good as you watch this season of Jessica Jones, you’ll find it. Otherwise, it will seem like every other program that you might watch on HBO, and you’ll move on. If you’ve never met the character before, that would be a shame, but it’s true.

A Review of “Daredevil”, Season 1

Distorted image of Daredevil by Xpectrp. Used under Creative Commons.It shouldn’t be any secret that I started reading comics when I was very young. While the X-Men were really my first comic book experience, the were a gateway drug that led me to many other adventures in the medium.

I couldn’t tell you how old I was, but I remember the afternoon clearly. My mother was sitting in the other room with someone who was selling magazines…I think it was a neighborhood kid selling them as a school fundraiser or something like that, but that sort of fades to the background. Mom called me into the room and showed me pages of Marvel comics that were available as subscriptions. She told me that I could choose one.

My heart skipped a beat. Any title that I wanted, delivered to our house every month?? This was utopia. I remember carefully perusing the options available. This was huge, an important decision. I eventually selected a title of which I had only read a couple of issues at that point, but one which had intrigued me. Daredevil: The Man Without Fear.

For the next year, the issues arrived, wrapped in brown paper, and I devoured them. I played Daredevil, hurling pretend billy clubs at imaginary foes. There was something about the character that fascinated me, and, though my reading interests went elsewhere over the years, Daredevil was always one of my first long-term relationships with the Marvel universe.

I love that enterprises such as Netflix are beginning the adventure of creating their own series and movies, rather than being beholden to an antiquated industry that controlled creative expression and it’s distribution. Because I, like most fans and serious readers, sort of just pretend that Affleck’s feature film as Daredevil didn’t really happen, I was thrilled at the announcement that Netflix was releasing an entire season of a live-action Daredevil series at once. This actually sort of saved my Netflix subscription, because, as their access to films seems to be dwindling, the sure way to keep me subscribed is to promise numerous original series of comic book heroes. I had high expectations for the series, as Marvel Studios has produced such incredibly high quality work of late.  I had read interviews with the director discussing how the approach to directing a series in which most viewers would be seeing multiple episodes in one sitting was very different. On release day, I blocked off my schedule. This was taking me back to one of my first loves in comic book literature, and I couldn’t wait.

The writers stayed remarkably true to the original story and characters, developing each in a thorough way. The series was remarkably character-driven, and each action sequence was complimentary, with no fighting as a primary through-line. This is the mark of a well-done comic book story on the screen, because it’s all too easy to allow shallow plots and well-choreographed combat to dominate at the expense of characters that have realized so much potential on the page. When these compelling characters are allowed to guide the story arc, fascinating explorations of the human condition can occur. This is precisely what Netflix has allowed to play out in these thirteen episodes. So much of the nature of a hero is explored here. What differentiates a hero from a vigilante? What are the ethics involved in taking the law into one’s own hands? What is the obsession that would drive someone to push away his friends and loved ones in a tunnel-vision quest for justice? These are some of the ideas that are unpacked at length in this series.

Something with which I was particularly impressed is the time that was given to dialogue and character development. When you essentially have thirteen hours with which to work, the opportunity to develop characters and play out  dialogue is just so much greater than what one could do within the confines of a 2 hour film. The exchange between Matt and Foggy after Foggy has learned Matt’s dual identity is given most of an episode. The quality of the writing of this series is also extremely high (the Kingpin’s speech, “I am the ill intent,” in the final episode is positively chilling).

Part of what’s so interesting about a character like Daredevil is his motivation. Matt Murdock is less motivated by defending others than he is forcibly stopping evil. He denies being a hero one episode, and in another asks his priest why God “…put the devil in me.” While Matt Murdock is troubled by what he is doing and wrestles with its consequences, so has the Kingpin wrestled, and determined that he is pre-destined to be evil. Both compelled and unable to stop, each on opposite sides of a moral and theological divide. This is just the stuff of which good superhero narrative is made.

My chief complaint with the series…and the only reason why I would not recommend it to all audiences…is the overly gratuitous violence in many of the fight scenes. While these scenes are necessary and are not forced onto the narrative, they are filmed in a way that seems focused entirely on shock value, and actually (and sadly) detract from the excellent story being told.

Overall, this is an excellent addition to the Marvel canon and continues forward the creative manner in which Marvel Studios has crossed their universe over between film and small screens. Daredevil is apparently to launch a new section of the Marvel Universe for viewers (Defenders, anyone?), and it has most certainly set a high bar for all comic book television series moving forward.

For anyone interested in the character, or already a fan of Marvel on the screen, this is a series that you’ll want to watch. If you’re a bit squeamish of a higher-than-expected level of blood with your adventures, then proceed with caution. Daredevil is not for the faint of heart.

Image attribution: Xpectro under Creative Commons.

A Review of “Gotham”, the Pilot Episode

I haven’t watched television in a while…I suppose it’s the “off-season,” or whatever you want to call the summer hiatus in which most of us spend more time in movie theatres than in front of a television. As you know, I’m quite…sparing…about what programs I’ll actually invest my time to watch, so there were a small handful of shows the premieres of which I eagerly awaited. One of these was Gotham.

Sort of a no-brainer, because I’m a long-time fan of the Batman mythology, and because of my well-known superhero infatuation in general. For all of my interest in the show, I was suspect, however, that it would receive a similarly tragic treatment to what has been done to other DC Universe characters such as Green Arrow (and, judging by the trailers, the Flash) by the CW. I held my skeptical nature at bay, however, and was quite looking forward to the pilot episode’s arrival on Hulu.

What the show did well was capture the uniqueness that is Gotham City. From a visual standpoint specifically, this was quite impeccable. I was impressed with the sweeping city-scape shots that set the stage for what we were about to witness.

The pilot episode leads, of course, with the shooting of Bruce Wayne’s parents in front of him, the horrendous event that we know will fracture him for life and lead him to become the Dark Night Detective. This scene was actually shaking in its realism, possibly the most violent rendering that I’ve watched of Batman’s origin…not so gruesome as to be off-putting, but jarring enough to set up what the program has the best opportunity to do: be a gritty police drama set in an early Gotham City that is struggling for its soul. The scene in which a young detective Jim Gordon sits and talks with Bruce Wayne at the scene of his parents’ murders, while slightly bogged down with dialogue that could have been fleshed out a bit, is still a very elegant scene within the context of the mythology, and does an outstanding job of drawing the viewer in.

There has been good work lately in the comic literature with the early history of Jim Gordon rising through, and cleaning up, a corrupt police department, which is what Gotham is trying to bring to the screen. Cliche aside, it showed some promise, but the story of the investigation of the Wayne murders unfolded with some loose connections that caused the story to nearly unravel at times.

And speaking of unraveling…what were they thinking with the shots of Gordon’s foot pursuit? Sheesh…

The writing of this first episode was, quite honestly, loose and disconnected. There were campy lines, tossed in with a dis-jointed plot, and too many characters being interwoven in too many ways that will be difficult to reconcile later…at least in a way that stays true to an established Batman mythos.

I can imagine the difficulty that the producers are facing here: keeping long-time fans with knowledge of the literature and new fans that have come aboard in recent films balanced enough to keep returning to watch. Even if you’re a casual fan, though, the sheer number of Easter eggs packed into one episode is sort of overwhelming. Edward Nigma sort of works as a crime lab technician…sort of. It looks like Oswald Cobblepot will play a central role in this season, but as we watch the events that will make him the Penguin unfold, we’re left with more than a bit of cognitive dissonance: the upcoming criminal a cowardly narc, who is traumatized enough by one forced swim to stalk out of the water in a seeming nod to the first three Batman films that we prefer to believe never happened, and then cut someone’s throat for…a sandwich? At least he begins in a nightclub, and that much of the character is historically true. And the young Catwoman? What exactly are they attempting to accomplish by her slinking around Gotham, already costumed, and witnessing these formative events in Bruce Wayne’s life?

What’s masterful about Gotham City in the DC Universe is it’s dark, horrific penchant for violence mixed with an insanity lurking beneath the surface, an insanity that produces a seeming carnival of villains that are as laughably odd as they are terrifyingly lethal. This is the world that spawns a fragmented, tortured hero such as Batman…the only world that could. If Gotham is doing what it’s name indicates, and focusing on the city that the Batman sacrificially defends…a city that is a character in its own right throughout the mythology…then we could do with significantly fewer attempts at early depictions of villains. This is obviously to be the story of Jim Gordon, the everyday hero that inspires the hero that the Batman will be. What Gotham should be…the area in which its strength and potential lies…is a violent police drama that chronicles the secondary characters, such as Bullock and Montoya, who are introduced here (the latter a bit heavy-handedly), but, with the exception of Bullock, lost among a growing list of shallow character depictions. Gordon and Bullock are off to a great start. Hopefully, the writers will focus on developing them further, along with Montoya, and tell us the story of how Gotham became what it is by the time we first see the Batman.

Overall, I left this first episode disappointed. Of course, pilot episodes are notoriously difficult to pull off, and historically bad, so I think the program should definitely be given the benefit of two or three episodes before rendering a definite opinion. In all honesty, though, I’ll watch the second episode because I’m a Batman fan, not because the pilot gave me much for which to return. This was largely an exercise in unfocused storytelling and unrealized potential.

Reflections on Season 4 of Haven: Why Audrey Parker Can’t Survive

Screenshot of Haven DVD coverI’m always a week or five behind television serials, having “cut the cord” long ago and fitting the Hulu or Netflix viewing into my free time. All that to say, I just finished season four of Haven over the weekend. I’ve watched Haven since episode one, and I’ve been hooked since then. For those of you who don’t follow, the program is loosely based on Stephen King’s novella, The Colorado Kid. Set in a small town called Haven that is situated in Maine, a town that goes through bouts of supernatural affliction known as “the Troubles” every few years, we are greeted in the first season by Audrey Parker, an FBI agent who is in town to investigate both the troubles and the mystery of what happened to the Colorado Kid.

If you’ve never watched but your interest is piqued, spoilers follow.

We’ve watched with fascination as the supernatural tale of Audrey’s reincarnations has played out, as she searches for her identity and fulfills her calling to save those troubled in Haven from their curses. She’s the “good guy,” the superhero, if you will, to the town, one of a set of influences seemingly placed there by outside forces to keep the evil that is the Troubles as bay, to save innocent lives, to prevent the wrong from wreaking havoc on the right.

Except, in season four, the writers have taken Haven through a fascinatingly new twist in the story arc.

After Audrey seemingly sacrificed herself at the end of season 3 to save the town, we find her returning to a Haven continuously troubled this season, and with others following her back from her extra-dimensional journey, as well. One of these men is evil for the sake of evil, and claims to know who Audrey was before she was Audrey, or any of her previous incarnations. What is slowly revealed over the course of the season is that Audrey has not always been good…in fact, far from it. She and this newcomer, William, originally created the Troubles for the pleasure of watching others suffer, and Audrey is now returned to Haven every few years, without a memory, to save the town as penance for her past wrongs.

So, Audrey is still a hero…just of a sort of Ghost Rider nature, if you will.

The cliffhanger upon which we end season four, as I’m sure you know if you’re still reading, is that Audrey has been overcome by Mara, her original identity who is as evil as one might imagine for someone who made the Troubles, and makes her intention to save William, her true evil love, from the abyss quite clear.

Audrey, it would appear, is gone.

Now, she was gone at the end of season three, as well, but was brought back, and, while I was admittedly incredulous at first, the writers made it work. After all, heroes return from the dead all the time, as any comics fan knows. The writers actually wove quite an engaging web as we watched Audrey slowly re-appear, and I’ve been impressed with Emily Rose‘s range as an actor to give depth to the different incarnations of Audrey Parker as she has.

This time, however, the writers have taken us to only one end result that I can find: Audrey has to die.

I mean, really, though. She has to stay dead, too. It’s the only option.

The reason is the same that led me to be incredulous at the beginning of season three. While I can see ways to bring her back within this story arc, all of them would play a bit shallow, I think, and any of them would make this move about hooking the viewer and bringing in ratings. It would be about continuing the story in a similar formula to which the audience has grown accustomed, and wouldn’t move the story forward. The writers have taken the program in a brilliant direction this season, and have now placed themselves into a corner. They have to let Audrey die and the evil Mara continue, because to do otherwise would be untrue to the story. Television serials are notoriously flippant toward their stories for the sake of return viewers, as we know: House died a slow and miserable death, and Bones lost everything that made it worthwhile three seasons ago. What has to happen here is that Haven has to continue, but without Audrey, because the story is about Haven…just as she and Nathan place the good of their town before their own, so must the writers. The story about Haven needs to continue, and it must go on with Audrey’s death.

Not that I’m happy about this. I like Audrey Parker, and I’ll be the first to say that it’s unbelievably tricky to keep a program like this moving without its protagonist. Yet, that is the challenge that the writers now face. Given what’s they’ve done this season, I know they are up to the challenge. The question is, will they go the way that they must?

A Review of “Alphas,” Season 1

Super-hero science fiction isn’t as common on television as the big screen, and I’m not sure why. The genre lends itself to serial writing…after all, that’s what comic books are: serial story arcs. I haven’t seen a good super-hero story on television, though, since Heroes, a program that began near perfection but didn’t survive the writer’s strike.  So, when I saw the first trailer for Alphas, I was excited, because I was hoping for a positive and deep re-visiting of the genre for the small screen.

And, overall, the Alphas kept me watching (I borrowed a play from Karen’s book, and binged on an entire season in a couple of days). The story centers around the discovery of individuals all over the world developing super-human abilities, and how the world’s governments deal with this phenomenon. The super-humans, called Alphas, are feared and hated by the general public, and factions from both sides are convinced that normal humans and Alphas can never co-exist and that war between the two is inevitable, while others remain passionate about co-existence between the two. This latter position is led by Dr. Rosen, who has formed a secret team of Alphas who use their abilities to search out and help new Alphas who are discovering their abilities and are uncertain in what to do with them.

Sound familiar? It should. Stan Lee pioneered this concept a long time ago with a fictional team that you may have heard of called the X-Men. I was struck within the first episode that Alphas is essentially a re-imagining of the X-Men mythology with some notable changes. Dr. Rosen is a Professor X character, but is not an Alpha himself (although his daughter, we discover, is). The team comes complete with a Jean Grey equivalent, as well, in the character of Rachel. The notable twist on the concept in the Alphas is that this team is not a team of outlaws or vigilantes, but rather an official (if secret) investigative arm of the U.S. government. The team learns to live together in their diversity (again, this should sound familiar) as they learn to became secret, super-powered law enforcement agents.

That major twist is just enough to keep the viewer returning to the Alphas, because they use it to raise and explore very interesting issues. Evil Alphas, for example, are whisked off by the government to a secret hospital where they are warehoused and treated as less than human in order to protect society. Dr. Rosen wrestles daily with the moral and ethical implications of this. How much can our government be trusted to protect us? Who watches the watchmen? These are all the sorts of questions explored by the Alphas.

The explorations, though, don’t go nearly as deep as one would like in any given episode, and I would expect a better treatment of them, as thorough as I would expect in a comic book. The pacing feels strange at times, and occasional breaks in continuity between episodes (a character has a heart attack at the end of one episode and is up and running at the beginning of the next) make a suspension of disbelief challenging at times. The character ideas are more realistic than the X-Men, but the writing feels clumsy and awkward at times.

That said, this was the first season, and many programs don’t come into their own until the second. The cliffhanger certainly kept me anticipating season 2, which I suppose is a good marker for success. If you’re a fan of the super-hero genre, Alphas is a worthwhile program to explore. Don’t compare it to Heroes, because anything set up against the first season of Heroes will fall short. Accept it as what it is, and I think you’ll appreciate it. Not the best I’ve seen in the genre, but certainly a show that holds its own.