Tag Archives: Comic TV

Requiem for a Devil: Comic TV With Dan

Comic book TV is everywhere these days, and it’s happening all year. So I’ll hand out awards and rankings in June, but in the meantime, we’ll be reviewing shows one by one as they wrap up.

This instalment: I come not to praise Lucifer, but to bury it.

Short version: Now that the show has ended its third, and as of this writing, final season (fingers crossed for the #SaveLucifer movement), let’s talk about how it took a silly premise (the Devil helps the LAPD solve murders) and made it into the best procedural on TV.

I lied about not praising it. Deep down I think you knew that.

(Also, they renewed Lethal Weapon without Riggs instead of renewing Lucifer? I know the actor was impossible to work with but Riggs is the Lethal Weapon, that’s why it’s called that. Don’t introduce a new guy, just recast, Murtaugh and some guy is not Lethal Weapon, it’s a garbage show for a garbage network. Whichever Fox exec made that call, know that I hate you and whoever hired you.)

Book One: Genesis

Things were– that “book one” thing was a mistake, I’m not going to be able to keep that going, why do I post these live

In the Beginning

Saved it. Go me.

They started simple, using only slight pieces from the Sandman-spinoff comic that inspired the show. Mostly the idea of Lucifer Morningstar abandoning Hell to live in Los Angeles and run a nightclub called Lux with help from his ally/sometimes lover, the demon Mazikeen (Maze to her friends). But to sell a show to a major broadcast network, it helps to have a safe, familiar hook. Say… solving murders. So that’s what they went with.

Lucifer Morningstar (Tom Ellis), fallen angel, king of Hell, and poster child for daddy issues and rebellion has abandoned his post to live and have fun among the humans instead of punishing them with eternal damnations and tortures. The one thing about his old life, or at least his former reputation, that he’s hung onto is making deals: he helps out the glamorous citizens of LA in exchange for favours down the line. No interest in souls, just favours.

His brother, the angel Amenadiel (DB Woodside), wants him back in Hell, where their father placed him. Maze, who I mentioned above (Lesley-Ann Brandt), has her own questions about why they’re hanging around LA instead of going home. But when a singer Lucifer had done a favour for is killed outside of his club, he’s outraged that the persons responsible might not be punished. Lucifer joins LAPD detective and former actress Chloe Decker (Lauren German) in hunting down the killer, and finds he has a taste for punishing murderers. And for Detective Decker. Much to the chagrin of Chloe and her estranged husband Detective Dan Espinosa (Kevin Alejandro). Helping out with their investigations is a little trick of Lucifer’s: he can look into anyone’s eyes and compel them to reveal their greatest desire.

“That’s it?” I said. watching the trailer for the pilot. “That’s their hook? The Devil is solving murders and his big advantage is he can make people say what they want? This is a terrible idea. There is no way I’m watching this show.”

Anyway I started watching the show.

And within half a dozen episodes it was clear that I wasn’t going to be stopping any time soon.

First of all, Tom Ellis crushes it as Lucifer. Long-time readers may recall I’ve mentioned this a couple of times. His Lucifer Morningstar has charm and menace, he can make you laugh and cry in equal measure, to quote Community I can see why women find Tom Ellis attractive to the point where I might just as well be attracted to him myself, he is riveting. And so many of his relationships proved reliably fun. His sibling rivalry with Amenadiel, his more traditional rivalry with Dan (or as Lucifer knows him, Detective Douche), the constant sniping with Maze, his newly-found therapist Dr. Linda Martin (Rachael Harris) and her frequently futile attempts to advise Lucifer on dealing with human emotions and relationships, and as mismatched duos of straight-laced cops and unusual consultants go, Lucifer and Chloe were one of the better pairs. Lucifer even makes a fun pairing with Chloe and Dan’s daughter Trixie. And as for my doubts about Lucifer’s desire-powers, his ability to draw out a suspect’s motive for killing (or more often than not, their lack of motive) works just as well, if not better, than consultants aiding the police through OCDhypnotism, math, or being an agoraphobic who’s good at chess. The show was so much fun to watch it didn’t really matter that it started out as, essentially, Castle but with the King of Hell in place of a mystery novelist.

The main plot for season one was pretty simple. Lucifer and Chloe solve crimes, while Amenadiel’s attempts to return Lucifer to Hell collide with Chloe’s recent past: a shootout at a place called the Palmetto that left a cop Chloe insists was dirty in a coma, alienating her from the rest of her precinct. The cop (Kevin Rankin) makes a miraculous recovery, not unrelated to Lucifer’s presence in Chloe’s life, and turns out to have been an even worse cop than Chloe thought, and he’s about to make life difficult for Chloe and Lucifer…

But that’s not what made Lucifer such an addiction. Season two would bring the show to new heights, thanks to one cast addition that changed everything, and one that merely brightened the room.

Behind the Procedures

“Someone escaped from Hell,” Lucifer tells his brother in the closing moments of season one.

“Who escaped?” asked Amenadiel.

“…Mum.”

It is a daring move for a show this rooted in Judeo-Christian icons to abandon the concept of monotheism, but Lucifer went for it in a big way. In Lucifer’s origin of the universe, the “Big Bang” takes on a whole new meaning, as Heaven and the universe were created by two beings, not just one. But God’s wife… Goddess, I suppose… grew annoyed with his fixation on Earth, and plotted against it so much that Her Husband had Amenadiel lock her away in Hell, where she didn’t exactly enjoy quality time with her son Lucifer. I’m pretty sure they blame all of the Old Testament wrath stuff, floods and plagues and whatnot, on Mrs. God acting out. It was an unexpected take, to be sure, and one that worked much better than Supernaturals choice to give God a sister… mostly because Supernatural never quite got around to coming up with a better name than “The Darkness.” Honestly. I know you were bound to run low on ideas in season 11, but damn, dudes. Sorry, where was I, right, Lucifer. Having escaped from Hell, she comes to Earth, taking over the body of the recently murdered high-powered defense attorney Charlotte Richards.

Tricia Helfer joined the cast as Mrs. God, known as “Mum/Mom” to her sons, “Charlotte” to the humans, and various unkind terms by Maze. Also joining the cast was Aimee Garcia as the precinct’s new CSI, Ella Lopez, a devout Christian (but the nice “God loves you and so do I” kind, not the “God loves me specifically so I’m-a judge the crap out of you” kind) with a mild history of car theft.

I mostly want to talk about Charlotte and what she did for the show here but attention must be paid to what a delightful addition Ella was. A constant beam of sunshine and support, a source of humour (not that the show lacked those), a giver of hugs… there isn’t a bad scene with Ella in it, and Aimee Garcia made her absolutely adorable. She might not have been the thematic game-changer that Charlotte was, but damn was I glad to have her around.

Anyway, Charlotte.

They pulled a trick on Lucifer that I’ve seen once before, on the last show I watched to evolve from casual viewing to something I would clear my schedule to watch live: Person of Interest.   With Person of Interest, a post-Dark Knight, pre-Westworld Jonathan Nolan pulled a con on CBS. He pitched a simple crime-of-the-week show, in which a reclusive billionaire calling himself Harold Finch recruits a lethal ex-soldier calling himself John Reese to help him prevent violent crimes, with the help of a computer Finch built that can predict crimes and feed him the identity of either the victim or perpetrator.

Simple, CBS-friendly procedural stuff. And then once the show was established, Nolan started writing the real show, and subtly grew it into an amazingly compelling paranoid techno-thriller about emergent AI, privacy in the digital age, government overreach, and what the wrong people might do with total access to our digital footprint. (I’ve spoken to co-star Amy Acker, who’s delightful, and she basically confirmed that’s exactly what Nolan did.)

So, too, did Lucifer use the format of a crime-of-the-week cop & wacky consultant show to lure in viewers before turning into a look at the complex relationships of divine beings, the residual anger Lucifer Morningstar feels for his father, and this new idea of God’s angry ex-wife trying to find a way back into Heaven… and what that might mean for her ex. And everything else.

And it worked like gangbusters. The Goddess Charlotte was fascinating: loving to her sons, indifferent to humanity, scheming with and against anyone in her orbit, and played to perfection by Tricia Helfer, who nailed Charlotte’s scathing indictments of humanity such as “All they do is eat! And later the food comes back changed, and not for the better.” And the show hit new heights when Lucifer and Amenadiel’s little brother Uriel came to town, and the stakes of their mother’s plans became clear. It put Lucifer in impossible positions, gave Tom Ellis incredible material to work through, and along the way gave every single cast member better material as well.

And yes, the weekly murder cases also continued, even if they were overshadowed by the divine melodrama. They are, however, less vulnerable to the trope that affects a lot of procedurals, in which the most recognizable guest star is always, always the killer (looking at you, Elementary). But for the most part, the cases-of-the-week exist to act as a reflection of whatever emotional journey Lucifer is on that week. Often because Lucifer forces them to act as a reflection of his emotional journey, because he can be extremely self-centred and finding a murderer is often just a means to working out whatever’s annoying him that week.

Look, Dr. Linda tries her best, but Lucifer is not great at processing emotions or managing human behaviour.

And, well, if I had one note for the show, it’s that Chloe is relegated to the murder-of-the-week plot, because while she does have a role to play in the celestial melodrama… season one reveals that Lucifer loses his invulnerability when Chloe is around, which proves tricky for him, and season two begins to hint why… since she doesn’t believe Lucifer is who he says he is, she is always at arms’ length from the non-Palmetto central plotlines. Which… isn’t great, as I explained… in…

I haven’t written up Doctor Who series seven yet. Dang. I would have such a good explanation to link to if I had. Well, short version, when a character is not allowed to engage with a storyline, even when it’s about them, it’s not ideal.

But this doesn’t mean Lauren German doesn’t make a meal out of the material she’s given. She absolutely does.

Cain Leaves a Mark

The Goddess Charlotte arc was, simply put, exceptional. Amenadiel questioned his faith in his father, Dan turned to improv to process his feelings over his ending marriage (and ended up sleeping with a literal goddess without knowing it), Linda was first to learn that Lucifer isn’t speaking in metaphors and that her new best pal Maze is a literal demon, Maze found a purpose outside of Lucifer, Aimee Garcia was adorable, and Tricia Helfer owned every scene she was in, it was great. So how would season three follow it? They found a new biblical figure to hang a season on.

Lucifer, having had a couple of key parts of his identity messed with, found himself at odds with a mysterious gangster calling himself “the Sinnerman,” who had taken over Lucifer’s habit of granting favours, only with more murders on the side. In the quest to find the Sinnerman and find out if he’s behind Lucifer’s recent changes, Lucifer stumbles across another person of interest: Cain, the first murderer, doomed to wander the Earth forever, who has been studying Lucifer and his associates and thinks Chloe might be his key to finally dying.

If I had one additional note for season three. After the Cain revelation, the show forgets that there ever was a killer gang lord called the Sinnerman until the last few episodes. Although it’s hard to blame them, even the characters know that “the Sinnerman” is kind of a dumb name, and everyone’s reactions to Lucifer casually mentioning that he ID’d the Sinnerman months ago and forgot to mention it was kind of priceless.

Plus Tricia Helfer was still around, as Charlotte Richards returned to her no longer dead body after spending a year in Hell, and found herself searching for redemption out of fear of going back. Helfer made Charlotte just as fun as Lucifer’s mother in her own way.

Much like his mother, Lucifer‘s relationship with Cain went from frosty to friendly to adversarial, they were allies and enemies and rivals. And along the way, there was a great flashback episode in which Linda’s ex-husband spent years trying to figure out how to bring Lucifer down (“Off the Record,” a season highlight*), Lucifer and Ella went on a road trip to Vegas (“Vegas With Some Radish”), Lucifer and Cain pretend to be married suburbanites (“Til Death Do Us Part”), and everyone was just so much fun… then the last two episodes cut our hearts out right in front of us.

And in the last moments of the season finale, they opened the door to a whole new Lucifer, and it kills me that we might not get it.

*One of the better moments in “Off the Record?” Lucifer reveals the chilling secret of Hell… “You humans… You send yourselves, driven down by your own guilt. Forcing yourselves to relive your sins over and over. And the best part: The doors aren’t locked. You can leave any time.” The damned imprison themselves.

Left Unfinished

While every season arc ended satisfactorily, from the Palmetto to Mother to Cain, there was so much more for them to do. I wanted to see Ella learn that one of her new besties was, in fact, the very Devil she was raised to fear. How would that affect her faith, already challenged by the end of season three? I wanted to see more of Lucifer’s siblings, especially his sister Azrael, the angel of death, who must have had some thoughts about what her brothers did with her flaming sword.

Neil Gaiman, listed as the creator, because he wrote the Sandman story in which Lucifer quit Hell, inspiring his spinoff comic, was apparently set to play the voice of God. Which might not have been quite as fun as Psych’s Timothy Omundon’s take on someone who seemed to be God in season two’s “God Johnson,” but damn I wanted to see that.

But more than that I just wanted more time with these people. With snarky, clueless-about-humanity Lucifer Morningstar, so perfectly played by Tom Ellis. With no-nonsense Chloe Decker, who never got to learn the secret about her own past. With stern Amenadiel, who showed that even angels can have doubts about their Heavenly Father. With Dr. Linda and Maze and Charlotte and “Detective Douche” and perfect, adorable Ella and even little Trixie.

Even with a few unanswered questions, I have to recommend this show. It was a great ride, and I don’t regret a second of it.

…Right, just a bit of housekeeping for the rankings…

Overall Grade: A-

That Lucifer forgot all about the whole Sinnerman thing for like 11 episodes kinda bugged me, and it wasn’t hard to spot the five episodes that were meant to be part of season two, but this was a damn good season of television, and the finale might be one of their best episodes.

I miss this show already. Someone bring it back to me.

#SaveLucifer

Images: Fox

Lightning and Thunder: Comic TV With Dan

Comic book TV is everywhere these days, and it’s happening all year. So I’ll hand out awards and rankings in June, but in the meantime, we’ll be reviewing shows one by one as they wrap up.

Last instalment: C-list X-Men characters gathered for a tale of family, bigotry, and what it might be like if America’s law enforcement agencies were openly and dangerously racist.

This instalment: DC characters gather for all of that exact same stuff only it’s actually good this time.

Short version: With Black Lightning, the Greg Berlanti Mask-Based Action Fun Factory tries something different, and boy howdy it works out.

Premise

As a teen, Jefferson Pierce developed lightning-based powers, which he would learn to use to protect his home of Freeland from local gang the 100. Nine years ago, Black Lightning and the 100’s leader, the super-strong albino and City Councillor-turned-criminal Tobias Whale had a vicious supposedly-final battle which both men limped away from thinking the other was dead. Badly wounded, Jefferson put Black Lightning away for the sake of his young daughters and in hopes of repairing his relationship with his soon-to-be-ex-wife Lynn… against the advice of his mentor and surrogate father figure, tailor/hacker/designer of superhero costumes/possessor of some suspicious skill sets Peter Gambi.

Today, Jefferson serves Freeland by shaping the minds of the black community’s youth as principal of Garfield High School, believing he can do more good steering kids away from gang life. His daughters are flourishing (Anissa is pre-med, Jennifer is still in high school and the more rebellious one), he’s inching towards reconciliation with Lynn, he hopes… but the 100 is stronger than ever, with such control over Freeland the good people of the city are forced into protest marches against the local crime lords. Which is risky business. I mean, think about how the cops respond to protest marches… Anyway, Gambi pleads with Jefferson that the city needs Black Lightning, but Lynn has him refusing to return to action… until the 100 come for his daughters. Jefferson comes out of retirement to save Jennifer and Anissa, but when he’s asked (and rightly so) why only his children were saved, Jefferson makes a choice…

“It is time that people know that Black Lightning is back.”

From there, he’s taking on the 100, their chief pimp/dealer Lala, a still-vicious Tobias Whale, and the sinister cabal that they’ve been reporting to… a cabal with which Gambi has an uncomfortable familiarity.

Also… habitual protester Anissa is developing powers of her own, and has some thoughts about how to use them.

And they’d better get their heroic ducks in a row, because there’s a new drug circulating called Green Light that’s highly addictive, and is giving people powers. Powers mixed with PCP-like rageouts.

Sidebar: Is it part of the Arrowverse or not? Who knows at this point. Black Lightning is its own thing for the first season, but I feel that they’ve left the door open for crossovers with the Flash, Green Arrow, and company should the desire strike them later. They establish that other superheroes exist in other cities, but don’t mention Central or Star City in particular. They name drop Vixen, who exists on Earth-1 with everyone else, but also Supergirl, who merely visits Earth-1 on special occasions.

And those name drops aren’t definitive, since they also established that superhero comics exist in this world, in an amusing Easter egg where Anissa and love interest Grace discuss comic characters the Outsiders, the superteam where their comic incarnations met. So is Vixen a legit hero, or a comic book character? Do the people of Earth-1 know Supergirl from the 2016 alien invasion and the 2017 alt-Earth-Nazi invasion, or are we somewhere else, somewhere with a Supergirl and a Vixen? It’s unclear, and will remain unclear until someone in the Berlanti group says “Screw it, put Black Lightning in the crossover this year,” or Team Flash makes it clear that Black Lightning is on Earth-47 or whatever. Until then, Black Lightning stands alone, but luckily, it’s more than capable of doing so.

Strengths

What we have here is the bulk of Luke Cage’s debut season polished up and done better.

Cast: There are some strong performers in this cast, most notably Cress Williams as Jefferson and Nafessa Williams as Anissa. China Anne McClain does well as the younger, brattier sister, though I do not comprehend why she’s second-billed instead of Nafessa Williams. Better agent? Anyway, by and large, the Pierce family kills it on a weekly basis, as does Damon Gumpton as the closest thing Black Lightning has to a friend on the police force. He’s neither racist nor on the take, so that’s a big advantage over most of the cops we meet in early episodes.

The 100: How fortunate for the series that Marvin ‘Krondon’ Jones III exists. Black albino actors who look capable of hoisting a grown man in the air and killing him with one hand cannot be that easy to come by, but Krondon is basically perfect for this role. Tobias Whale is a destructive force, a black man who hates other black men… well not exactly. As he explains to a henchman that’s been screwing things up, “No, I love black people. I hate incompetent, thick-lipped, scratch-where-it-don’t-itch Negroes like you.” If not on network television he might have used a different word than “Negroes.” He’s got a lethal assistant calling herself Syonide (who’s kind of fun to watch in a fight, if I’m being honest); gets his hooks into Jennifer’s boyfriend, a track star named Khalil; and later on has links to a difficult-to-kill gangster he calls the Tattooed Man, who has himself an interesting arc. Tobias Whale builds himself a small legion of super-goons, and they’re all pretty great, save for Khalil, who for the most part is just… eh.

Tobias is also well-developed beyond “evil drug dealer.” His childhood begins to explain how he came to be how he is, and he does have some moral lines. In one memorable scene, he executes a henchman for overstepping. “You killed someone’s mama?” he asks. “Any man that’d do that has no morals, no principles to live by, which means there’s nothing you’re not capable of, including becoming a rat.” And now he’s growing tired of being treated like a henchman by cabal leader/creepy mortician Lady Eve, and has thoughts about climbing the ladder.

Rise of Thunder: Before she even knows her father’s secret, Anissa sets out to become Freeland’s latest hero. There are some stumbles along the way. There’s a regrettable wig, a fun trip to a fetish store for costume pieces when it becomes clear that tights are not good fighting wear for her figure, and guilt over taking on a low-level drug dealer a touch over-zealously. But Thunder becomes every bit the hero Black Lightning is, strong, brave, clever, and she’s a gay hero of colour on top of it all.

Racial tensions: Having showrunners of colour means that Black Lightning joins Luke Cage in having the best examinations of the far-from-perfect race relations in the US. Twice in the pilot, Jefferson finds himself targeted by white cops who take an aggressive approach with black suspects. A government agency was using black youths as test subjects. And they touch on black people hating on other black people for not being, in their eyes, black enough. It’s a stark and honest take on American race relations, which is a nice change from having black people be the bigots. Looking at you, Gifted and Jessica Jones.

Vox Populi: The local Freeland news channel (which seems to be blissfully free of the Sinclair media propaganda machine) does person-on-the-street interviews at several major plot points, giving we the viewers a look at what the average people of Freeland think of Black Lightning and his crusade. It’s a fairly effective technique for conveying public opinion. My only beef is that the text crawl on the bottom of the screen never changes. Which… I guess it means you never have to pay attention to it, so that’s okay. Just saying, if one were to try to slip in a subtle reference to The Flash or Arrow that doesn’t get in the way of their own story, that would have been the place to do it.

Pacing: The multiple acts of Black Lightning’s first season help provide a steady clip for the show’s pacing. The season doesn’t lag the way Marvel Netflix shows tend to. Streaming shows are great for bingeing, but for strong episodic narrative it’s hard to beat broadcast.

Despite the fact that we’re not starting at the origin, but are in fact meeting Black Lightning nine years after he retired, the world of the show feels remarkably natural and lived-in. The history of the characters makes sense, and we understand the key relationships quickly. The people’s love for Black Lightning is crystal clear when he goes to storm Lala’s penthouse apartment, and the doorman not only sells out Lala without hesitation, he opens the door for him with a “Black Lightning! My man!” Someone else offers to hold the elevator, but Jefferson feels like taking the stairs, in order to stomp a few more gangsta asses on the way. 

I like how in addition to disguising his voice, Jefferson changes all of his vocal mannerisms, speaking more “street” as Black Lightning. He could teach Barry “reveal my identity to anyone who asks, except my girlfriend” Allen some tricks about keeping a secret identity.

There’s also solid action. Fight scenes have Arrow-level fight choreo (not quite Preacher but miles ahead of, say, Iron Fist), with occasional lightning-based effects thrown in.

Weaknesses

The Bigger Bad? Is this show a case of Villain Swap? At first, it’s all about Tobias Whale and the 100, but after Tobias and Black Lightning are briefly reunited, Tobias takes a few weeks off while the show’s attention moves to the ASA (American Security Agency). The ASA is the covert group that created Black Lightning when their attempt at a “vaccine” to make the black residents of Freemont “more docile” (openly and dangerously racist, remember?) accidentally gave people powers instead. Now ASA agent Martin Proctor is back in Freemont and restarting the experiment.

Eventually the show was going to come here. The ASA is a key player in Jefferson’s origin tale. Tobias Whale only became his nemesis because of ASA involvement. Gambi’s ties to the ASA, and through them Lady Eve and Tobias, were going to need explanation. It just… well, for the first few episodes it felt like this was going to be a season two thing. Season one would be Black Lightning taking on the 100, and in future seasons he could move up the ladder to the cartel pulling the 100’s strings. Instead, the 100 stepped aside and Proctor took over as the main villain.

It’s a more natural transition of primary villain than we saw on Luke Cage in its first season, or on Iron Fist every third episode, but it is still a swap of villain, and I did once identify that as a troublesome trend. In this case, though, I choose to defend it: the ASA made for a decent one-arc villain, tying the present say to Black Lightning’s hinted-at past. That’s good for one season. Tobias Whale, on the other hand, is the Nemesis. Black Lightning’s archest enemy.

And you shouldn’t write out the arch enemy in season one. You keep them around so they can go more rounds with the hero(es). And sure, death hasn’t exactly slowed down Reverse-Flash or Damien Darhk (yet), but it’s better to just keep the good villains around.

Other quibbles…

We get it. Thunder’s powers are linked to her breathing. Maybe you can trust us to remember that for a while? Because her big, echoey, “deep inhalation” sound effect is getting on my last nerve.

The Warriors’ James Remar does what he can with Gambi, but as an actor he is not quite on Cress Williams’ level.

Jefferson’s ex-wife Lynn spends a lot of the season being opposed to Jefferson being Black Lightning. As I’ve said in the past, this is rarely an interesting character choice.

I’m all for exposing conservatives as prone to being awful people, but maaaaaayyyyybe having sinister racist government agent Martin Proctor shout “Make America great again” twice in one episode was gilding the lily just a bit? Trust me, the first one landed.

High Point

Either “The Book of Little Black Lies,” in which Thunder suits up for the first time and Jennifer grapples with new knowledge, or “Shadow of Death: The Book of War,” (they’re all the Book of something) in which the ASA finds itself under siege from both the 100’s growing band of meta-villains and the entire Pierce family.

Also worth mentioning: “Black Jesus: The Book of Crucifixion” is less fun to watch than the ones I named, but its examination of the all-too-real threats faced by all African-Americans when confronted by white cops makes it one of the most necessary episodes.

Low Point

“Three Sevens: The Book of Thunder” is our obligatory ride on the “no, Main Hero, killing is wrong!” merry-go-round. Given that later on, they’ll go the same route as Daredevil season two and decide that “killing is wrong, but if you’re working with someone who happens to kill your enemies, hey, that’s okay,” it’s an awkward moral to push. And Khalil proves himself to be a jackass in Jennifer’s plotline, which is some go-nowhere filler stuff involving a mean girl nemesis whose attempts at cyber-bullying aren’t more effective or more interesting than her failed attempts at physically bullying Jennifer the previous week.

Anissa did use her powers to obliterate a Confederate statue, though, and that pissed off some easily-offended conservatives. So that was fun.

MVP

Nafessa Williams as Anissa Pierce. There are times when they’re simply using Black Lightning to tell Thunder’s origin story, and there ain’t nothing wrong with that.

Tips For Next Season

So Arrow has had at least half a dozen archers. Flash has had nine speedsters so far. Black Lightning uses electricity, and a new generation of Freeland youths are being given powers… so how long until Static makes an appearance? And why stop there? Why not bring in more of the Milestone Comics crowd? The 100 could find themselves at odd with the Blood Syndicate, Thunder could track down Icon and Rocket, Gambi could go head to hacker-head with Hardware... if Black Lightning intends to remain separate from the larger Arrowverse (we’ll see), there’s plenty of options for when you’re ready to expand beyond the Pierce family.

Overall Grade: B+

It’s honour, duty, family, and the shoddy state of US race relations with solid action and decent pacing. Not every piece fits together perfectly, but as first seasons go it’s solid and shows a lot of promise.

Might be the last full write-up for a bit. Most of the veteran shows don’t call for one and I’m not convinced Krypton deserves one. Guess we’ll have to find something else to talk about for a few weeks.

Image: CW

The Gifted not Quite a Gift: Comic TV With Dan

Comic book TV is everywhere these days, and it’s happening all year. So I’ll hand out awards and rankings in June, but in the meantime, we’ll be reviewing shows one by one as they wrap up.

This instalment: C-list X-Men characters gather for a tale of family, bigotry, and what it might be like if America’s law enforcement agencies were openly and dangerously racist.

Heh. “If.”

Short version: Fox’s Island of Misfit Toys is a lot less fun than the Arrowverse’s, I tell you what.

Premise

Theoretically set in the same, or at least a similar, world as the X-Men movies, things have taken a turn for the worse for America’s mutant population. A few years back, on July 15th, a mutant rights protest went bad, resulting in riots and violence. And where violence meets a whole bunch of mutant powers, collateral damage happens, resulting in new anti-mutant legislation. Worse still, both the heroic X-Men and the more violent Brotherhood have vanished, so there’s no one left to fight for the mutants in any context. All that’s left is the Mutant Underground, just trying to keep their people alive and out of the hands of the mutant-hunting agency Sentinel Services.

Years of government-mandated prejudice later, the Strucker family finds themselves in the middle of the fight in ways they didn’t expect. Kate Strucker (the delightful Amy Acker) is a nurse, while Reed Strucker (Stephen Moyer, from some obscure vampire show called True Blood) is a prosecutor specializing in mutant crimes. When their son, Andy, is pushed too far by bullies, the Struckers find out that both he and his sister Lauren are mutants. And the incident causes enough damage that the Struckers find themselves targeted by Sentinel Services, especially the dedicated mutant-hunter Agent Jace Turner.

They fall in with the Mutant Underground: John Proudfoot/Thunderbird, whose powers involve tracking, superstrength, and tough skin; Marcos Diaz/Eclipse, capable a firing intense bursts of heat and light; Lorna Dane/Polaris, with suspiciously Magneto-like control of metal, and who’s pregnant with Eclipse’s child; newest recruit Clarice Fong/Blink, who can open portals from one place to another; and several more support mutants. Together they must avoid Agent Turner, break various team members out of various prisons, and figure out how to deal with Dr. Roderick Campbell (Garret Dillahunt) and Trask Industries’ evil experiments on and against mutantkind.

Strengths

Race Wars: There’s a lot of diversity in the Mutant Underground. Hispanic, Asian, Native American… sure, the Strucker family are as white as it gets, but that’s actually better for the story. Only a middle-class white family could be that shocked by systemic racism in the US. Any POC family would see over-aggressive police, or doctors calling 911 on a guy in the emergency room because the woman he’s with is sporting a bruise, or neighbours forming a lynch mob on a dime, and say “Yep, sure, that’s white America for you.”

Which is to say, the first half of the season is an effective examination of systemic racism in law enforcement, corruption in prisons, and hate groups and hate crimes. And the fact that it’s all happening to pretty white people might make a certain mindset take it more seriously.

World Without Heroes: I wasn’t sold at first on the idea of an X-Men show with no X-Men in it. I wasn’t certain about Fox’s apparent lack of interest in a cinematic universe, with Deadpool and Logan and Legion and now The Gifted and soon New Mutants all existing in X-Men-related worlds with no connection to each other or the main X-Men movies whatsoever. And I have concerns that between this, Logan, and the fact that every main X-Men movie since 2006 has taken place in the past, Fox’s endgame seems to be killing off the X-Men at some point in the late 2000s, early 2010s. With the Disney buy-out in motion, one could wonder if Dark Phoenix is their “kill all of the X-Men before Kevin Feige reboots them” movie. But in the case of this show, a lack of X-Men works.

The entire premise, of mutants in desperate straights, hiding or on the run from Sentinel Services, works so much better when there’s no one to call for help. No super team giving mutants a good name by taking down Magneto and fighting villains while wearing colourful costumes. The real-world issues that The Gifted touches on are all complicated, and none have a solution as easy as “Just call the big-name Good Guys for help,” so it works that the Mutant Underground don’t have that option either.

Lovers in a Dangerous Time: Polaris and Eclipse are an engaging couple. It might have been nice if they hadn’t spent so many of the first few episodes apart, as Eclipse made a deal with the free Struckers and Polaris showed us how screwed up American prisons are. It took many episodes for the show to make a case for why the Struckers should be the leads and not Polaris and Eclipse, and it was not 100% convincing.

Blink and Thunderbird work well, too. Together, the mutant underground just about makes a team worth watching, save for the nonsense they tend to get bogged down in, which we’ll get to shortly.

Variety is the Spice: There are an impressive variety of mutant powers in play, and they’re all well-done visually. It’s still network TV-budget special effects, but they’ve got more money behind them than Legends of Tomorrow.

Skyler Samuels acquits herself quite well as the Frost triplets, telepaths with untrustworthy agendas.

If you need an actor to play a modern-day Joseph Mengele with no visible human emotions, you could do a lot worse than Garret Dillahunt.

The mutant riot that caused all of these draconian anti-mutant laws to be passed is rightly referred to as “7/15,” a term Americans would use. It is not called “the occurrence” or “the unpleasantness” or “the whoopsie-doodle” or, for those who don’t see where I’m going with this, “the incident.” Everyone gets this but you, Marvel Netflix.

Also they have yet to do a “forced to fight as underground gladiators” episode, and this show is a high risk for that, because historically rich people love to make minorities fight for their amusement, so every season they resist it is a triumph. Wouldn’t make a wager they avoid it for all of season two, though.

Weaknesses

No Plan: The Underground’s whole deal is that they’re trying to live up to the X-Men, to find a way to peacefully co-exist with humanity… but they never really seem to have a plan to make that happen. They spend the entire season either breaking people out of prisons/secret laboratories or trying to shut down said secret laboratory before it can do any more damage. There is zero plan for improving human/mutant relations, for undoing any of the anti-mutant laws. There is no hint that they might have a plan later. And this is a problem.

Without some indication that they have a plan to improve mutants’ lot in American life, what we have is a bunch of people hemming and hawing about using violence against the fascists, violent bigots, and mad scientists trying to commit a genocide against them, and that is… look, preaching non-violence is fine and all, but we are also back in a stage of history where people need to know that fascism must be fought. Not tolerated while you cross your fingers and hope that maybe eventually they’ll begin to see you as an actual person. As to those bigots…

Agent Turner is the Literal Worst: Agent Jace Turner is an asshole. He exemplifies what’s wrong with the American police. He is actually worse than the racist cops from Black Lightning because at least they’re honest enough to take bribes and be corrupt instead of pretending they’re the heroes. But I’m not convinced the writers know that’s the character they’ve created. Jace’s daughter died during the 7/15 violence, which should make him sympathetic, but it doesn’t. It just doesn’t. In the wake of 7/15, he decides that he doesn’t care which are the good mutants and which are the bad mutants, he just wants to round them all up and lock them away.

Which… this is their only major black character*. It’s not great having the one black guy in the main cast be the huge racist, saying he doesn’t see a difference between the “good ones” and the “bad ones.”

They sometimes seem like they’re trying to turn Jace into a good man unwittingly doing bad things, but he just isn’t. He sometimes furrows his brow in mild concern over the sinister and clearly immoral deeds of Dr. Campbell, but almost never raises a finger to stop them, and certainly enjoys the benefits of Campbell’s evil research. One time, after being shamed by his wife for letting his grief make him a monster and accessory to monstrous deeds, he agrees to trade down from cartoonish supervillainy to mere fascism, but that’s the episode that the Hellfire Club pulls some shenanigans and a whole bunch of his fellow agents end up dead, so it doesn’t take.

He’s a bad man who does exclusively bad things and pretends he’s somehow noble for doing it. Every time something bad happens to him and his, instead of seeing his side of things, I think “You had that coming, you jackbooted asshat.” And it is possible, it is utterly possible to take a character like this and make them sympathetic. I know this because Legion did it last year. In one cold-open montage, they took a clearly villainous character from the pilot and made us see his side of things, showed us how he’s the hero in his own story, to the point where he’s a regular this year and I’m thrilled about it. Sure, not every show can be Legion, but no show has an excuse not to try. Quality-wise, I mean. Not aesthetically. Probably shouldn’t try that.

*Some of the mutants have pretty heavy makeup, and one of them is black underneath it, but he’s not exactly a major character.

Pacing Problems, Always Pacing Problems: Every single plot point on this show takes longer than it needs to because we need to wade through a stream of “This is wrong” and “This is too dangerous, but what choice do we have” and “This is/isn’t what the X-Men would have wanted” and the ever-popular “I don’t want my kids mixed up in this.” There are 13 episodes in season one, and between them they have maybe eight episodes’ worth of plot. The rest is just constant hand-wringing.

Also the Struckers are not the show’s best characters, which is a problem, because they are the main characters. And it pains me to say that, because one of the Struckers is Amy Acker, and to reiterate Amy Acker is delightful. But the generic, cliche dialogue they feed her, and others… oy.

Actually, let’s add that to the list. There is some bland, clunky dialogue all over this show.

High Point

[Deep sigh] Let me think… “threat of eXtinction,” in which Reed discovers some dark family secrets, and some things about his kids’ powers, and he is not happy learning any of it. The Strucker family finally became as interesting as everyone else.

Low Point

I’ll say “eXtreme measures.” Eclipse has to repay a favour to the cartel he used to work for, while Reed and Kate Strucker [gasp] don’t approve of Lauren’s new boyfriend! Honestly, this episode could have been cut and nobody would have missed it. The only lasting thing it accomplishes is making Sentinel Services even more purely evil than they had already been, which just was not necessary.

MVP

Emma Dumont as Lorna Dane/Polaris. This show could have a great deal of potential if they shaved off a bunch of the side plots (I’m counting the main characters as a “side plot”) and focussed on Lorna, Eclipse, their unborn child, and their growing philosophical divide. They might never be Stewart/McKellan Xavier and Magneto, not even MacAvoy/Fassbender Xavier and Magneto, but they could be as close as network TV is likely to get.

Tips For Next Season

Ugh. That asshole evil scientist is going to become an evil cyborg, isn’t he. Damn it.

Okay. So. We have a schism in the Mutant Underground. Some want to follow in the X-Men’s “co-exist” footsteps, some want to join up with the Hellfire Club, go the Magneto route, and start punching back. That’s cool. That’s sensible. That’s a logical direction for the show to go. Classic X-Men stuff right there.

Couple things.

Their opponents were all way too willing to hunt down, lock up, and wipe out mutantkind. So the whole “don’t kill, try to not fight, just pursue peace” thing is already looking like the wrong call. When the Frosts killed a whole bunch of Sentinel Services officers, it was really hard to see why this was a bad idea. I felt about as bad for them as I did any Earth-X Nazis Green Arrow put down back in December. When you’re fighting Joseph Mengele and the SS, damn it, you hit back.

The whole X-Men vs. Brotherhood thing only really works if co-existence is somehow on the table, if humans are willing to accept mutants in their midst. In the wake of 7/15, that seems to be a pipe dream. There’s talk of pro-mutant movements, mutant-rights-friendly congressmen, and that Sentinel Services is on thin ice with the Department of Justice, but… kind of seems like Polaris’ choice in the finale has put an end to all of that. Seems like all the Hellfire Club has accomplished is cranking up the heat on the war between mutants and humans. So for the Underground, well, to quote a certain King of Men… “Open war is upon you, whether you would risk it or not.”

In short, you’re going to have to work much harder to make the Underground’s anti-violence stance make sense. If you don’t want us to side with the Hellfire club, then the Underground needs a plan.

Also, you’ve dropped a lot of hints about Polaris’ birth father. Say his name. Say “Magneto.” Say it, or drop it.

Overall Grade: C-

You’ve got the ingredients of a good show here. But a pile of sugar, flour, yeast, eggs, and vanilla dumped on the counter ain’t a cake just yet.

Next time in this feature: the CW breaks some habits with Black Lightning.

Photo: Fox

Praise Beebo and Pass the Cold Gun: Comic TV With Dan

Comic book TV is everywhere these days, and it’s happening all year. So I’ll hand out awards and rankings in June, but in the meantime, we’ll be reviewing shows one by one as they wrap up.

This installment: the Arrowverse’s Island of Misfit Toys continues to be its best offering.

Short version: Take two parts Doctor Who, two parts A-Team, one part Flash, and a dash of Brooklyn 99, and you get the most fun superhero show on TV.

Premise

The Legends are former assassin and team leader Sara Lance (White Canary); inventor and size-changing superhero Ray Palmer (the Atom); Justice Society of America member and protector of Zambesi Village Amaya Jiwe (Vixen); genius physicist Martin Stein and mechanic Jefferson “Jax” Jackson, who combine to become the nuclear powered Firestorm; forensic historian and metallic metahuman Nate Heywood (Steel, on the few occasions they bother to give him a codename); and pyromaniac former thief Mick Rory (Heat Wave).

They’re a band of misfits, outsiders, and one covert war hero (that’d be Amaya) who’ve made a life on the time ship Waverider protecting all of history, ever since they wiped out the last group in charge of that. (In fairness, they did have it coming.) At the end of last season, the Legends managed to prevent the assembly of villains they called the Legion of Doom from re-writing all of reality, but in doing so employed big enough paradoxes that they shattered all of time, causing countless anachronisms: people, animals, and the occasional building displaced in history. As the third season opens, the Legends are still wrapping their heads around the damage they’ve caused, when team founder/former captain Rip Hunter pops up. Seems that in the few minutes since he left the team, he’s spent five years (time travel) building a new agency to protect time and fix all of these anachronisms: the Time Bureau. And they’re quite adamant that they no longer require the Legends’ help, especially Rip’s protege, Ava Sharpe.

Six months of unsatisfying civilian life later (mostly, Nate tries to stay in the crime-fighting game, but tends to get upstaged by Kid Flash), the Legends decide they disagree with this assessment and steal the Waverider back in order to repair the damage they’ve caused.

But it turns out there’s a greater danger behind the anachronisms. Amaya’s people once imprisoned a demon named Mallus inside of the timestream itself, and the anachronisms are loosening his cage. Mallus recruits a new legion of villains to cause further damage to history in order to free him: returning villain Damien Darhk, his now-grown and similarly magically powered daughter Nora Darhk, Amaya’s least noble grandchild Kuasa, and on special occasions (ie. when the budget allows for it), Gorilla Grodd.

The Legends must occasionally avoid, sometimes work with the Time Bureau to find a way to shut down Mallus and what they tragically never called the Darhk Legion before Mallus conquers all of time. Conquers? Destroys? You know what I’m sure they explained but I kinda forget. Evil demon, needs to be stopped, after that I get fuzzy.

Along the way they pick up a cynical, magic totem-bearing hacker from their future named Zari Tomaz, who’s based on a DC-adjacent character whose superhero name they can’t really use anymore, lose a couple of team members to the annual Arrowverse crossover, and eventually bring Kid Flash on board as the Flash writers found it hard to come up with reasons why any threat they wrote couldn’t be stopped by two full-time speedsters by the second commercial break.

Strengths

Having trouble deciding where to start. So many to choose from.

Fun With History: Legends of Tomorrow has stuck with the one thing that propelled them from the weakest Arrowverse show in their debut season (and this was the same year as Arrow’s least popular season, so ouch) to their best last year: embracing a spirit of zany, time-travel fun. There is very little brooding on the Waverider, just high-energy shenanigans as they blunder through history, hoping that they’re breaking things for the better. (They basically make that their motto.) And they also have even more fun with their historical guest stars.

Back in season one, what few historical figures appeared were just drop-ins. The child that Martin Stein risks history to save from illness turns out to be HG Wells, which means I guess Stein didn’t need to bother? A student in a science class Ray Palmer teaches in the 50s turns out to be Bill Gates’ father. That’s it. That’s literally the whole thing. There was no payoff. No point. In season two, they started actually having fun with their historical figures, and in season three, they doubled down on it. With historical figures scattered through time, they find all new hijinks to get into.

In season three, Julius Caesar tries to recruit a fraternity’s spring break toga party; PT Barnum gets his hands on a sabre-tooth tiger; Helen of Troy sparks a literal war between studios when she turns up in the Golden Age of Hollywood, accidentally damaging decades of technological advancement by stealing a breakout role from actress/inventor Hedy Lamarr; Napoleon Bonaparte must be prevented from getting his hands on a copy of Abba’s “Waterloo”; Viking explorer Leif Erikson decides against bailing on his new discovery North America when his sister embraces a time-displaced, fuzzy, blue, Tickle-Me-Elmo-esque doll named Beebo as their new god of war, I swear I am not making any of this up. Those are all real episodes* and it is glorious.

(*Fine, the Napoleon thing was a background gag they came up with as an excuse to put most of the cast is disco clothes for a week, but still.)

(This isn’t to say that it’s always fun and games. Legends gets sad too. They cut me a couple of times this season, cut me deep.)

#Avalance: The relationship between Sara Lance and rival-turned-ally Ava Sharpe was well developed, and Ava made a fun addition to the show. She won over the audience for a reason. Also I kind of love that if social media can be believed, actresses Caity Lotz (Sara) and Jes Macallan (Ava) are pals now, and ‘ship their characters as much as their fans do. Also nice to be watching a CW show where a romance plot doesn’t incite riots from a portion of the fanbase.

Keeping Up With the Darhks: Neal McDonough’s Damien Darhk was a delight back when he was trying to kill Green Arrow, but he’s flourished as a nemesis for the Legends. The faster-paced and goofier atmosphere of Legends fits his style of gleeful villainy better than the dour, grounded aesthetic of Arrow. The sheer joy he takes in villainy makes him too fun a villain to ever want to see defeated forever, and Courtney Ford brings the same level of campy fun to Nora Darhk that Neal does to Damien. Throw in John Noble as the voice of Mallus and it’s a stacked deck of evil. Also, and this is important, Damien celebrates being resurrected with both his powers from Arrow season four and his memories from Legends season two restored by having a fight scene choreographed to 90s jam “Return of the Mack,” and it makes sense in context of the episode. Not so much in this clip but here it is anyway.

But other than being delightful menaces played by top notch actors, the villains are also deeper characters than you’d expect. Damien is driven above all else by love for his daughter, compromising his commitment to the plan now and again, and making him more three-dimensional than he’s ever been. Nora is trying to raise an ancient demon and build a relationship with her father, who she hasn’t seen since he was killed when she was a kid. Kuasa, also back from the dead (apparently?) after the events of the Vixen animated series (which I should try to watch sometime), just wants to undo the destruction of her village… and keep her grandmother from continuing to hook up with that nerdy super-powered historian from the future, which could erase Kuasa’s existence. Mallus… Mallus is a literal demon whose unprisoned existence would be bad, I guess? Look, they can’t all be winners.

Zari and Ray: Zari is a fun addition. Actress Tala Ashe has a great dry wit that worked well for the character. She also played wonderfully off of Brandon Routh’s more upbeat Ray Palmer, who this season was tweaked into a perpetually cheerful, unbreakably positive Ray of sunshine (sorry) with a love of musicals and a faith in people that gets him into a little trouble here and there. Together they’re a fun double act, and this has been Brandon Routh’s most entertaining season as Ray Palmer… which is saying something.

Also Zari was rightly praised as a positive, non-stereotypical Muslim superhero, especially for the episode where she tries to explain to perpetual glutton Mick why she’s fasting until sundown. There isn’t another comic TV show with a hero who observes Ramadan.

New Friends: Matt Ryan’s back as John Constantine! Delightful. I wanted this for two years and now it’s happening. Also Kid Flash moving here from Flash is a decent fit.

Weaknesses

WHAT DID I SAY ABOUT WRITING OUT RIP HUNTER. WHAT DID I SPECIFICALLY ASK YOU TO STOP DOING.

Fine, I guess this season they used him similarly to Flynn Rider on The Librarians. He turned up at the beginning, the middle, and the end, and in between was off doing more big-picture stuff while the team chased anachronisms, but I don’t like the way they seemed to be weaning the show off of him. I don’t like it at all.

Okay, fine, sure, with Sara captaining the Waverider and his protege Ava Sharp gradually taking over the Time Bureau, there isn’t a clear need for Rip, so maybe it’s not such a bad thing to… no, no, you cannot make me approve of this.

Moving past that… I love the fun tone, I definitely do, but maaaayyyyybe it undercut the stakes a little? All of time and space was theoretically under threat from Mallus, but I just didn’t feel it, you know? Last season they showed us what a Legion of Doom victory would look like, with Mallus they asked us to take their word for it. (We needn’t discuss Vandal Savage from season one. Ever again.)

High Point

…Man, this one is not easy. Which to pick? “Here I Go Again,” where Zari gets stuck in a time loop? They earned name-dropping Groundhog Day on that one. “No Country For Old Dads,” in which Ray, Nora, and Damien have to team up against Younger Damien? Real-life spouses Brandon Routh and Courtney Ford had amazing comic chemistry and it began the road to possible redemption for both Darhks. “Guest Starring John Noble,” (yes that’s what it was called, yes this is real life, apparently) in which the Legends notice that Mallus happens to sound exactly like Denethor from Lord of the Rings, and recruit actor John Noble to con Nora? That’s a lot of highlights and I haven’t even mentioned Rip Hunter and Kid Flash going to 90s Japan for drunk karaoke.

Forget the goddamned “Snyder Cut,” give me an extended edition of that.

But ultimately it has to come down to one of two episodes. I don’t know for sure that they had Leonard “Captain Cold” Snart’s Earth-X doppelganger Leo “Citizen Cold” Snart stick around for two episodes post-“Crisis on Earth-X” to ease the pain of the crossover’s conclusion, but if they did, it worked, and since Wentworth Miller’s take on the various Snarts has always been one of the highlights of the Arrowverse, the season’s high point can only be one of those two.

(“Crisis on Earth-X” doesn’t count, that really played as its own four-hour event, not episodes of each individual series)

But which to pick? “Beebo the God of War” introduces the cuddly giggling toy Beebo that the fans embraced as their new god, has a great planning montage, and involves Leo providing grief counselling via puppet. That’s a tough line-up to beat. But “Daddy Darhkest” has Leo and John Constantine, and one of the better Ray and Zari team ups.

Tough call. But I’m going with “Beebo.” They were on that week.

Low Point

Also hard. They really brought their A-game this year. I guess… maybe… you know what, I’ll admit it, “Amazing Grace,” in which pre-fame Elvis Presley gains dominion over the dead, ran out of steam partway through. And the white male preacher from 1950s Tennessee being convinced that rock’n’roll music isn’t evil by a black man and a Muslim woman after one speech rang kinda false. That combo would have trouble getting through to white southern preachers now.

MVP

There are so many people doing such good work on this show, and everybody except maybe Kid Flash gets a great spotlight episode (Kid Flash comes closest in his recruitment episode, but drunk Rip Hunter overshadows him. Poor Wally. Always the sidekick), but the heart and soul of this show (plus all of the best fight scenes… save for the final duel against Mallus that cannot simply be described…) remains Caity Lotz as Sara Lance. Oh captain my captain, long may she reign.

Tips For Next Season

You know, Constantine was such a fun addition for his two episodes (and two cameos) that you should consider making him a regular– oh, that’s happening? Huh. Okay.

I’ll just have a Coke, then.

(Also there’s a couple of things in the finale I’d like you to walk back, if that’s okay, thanks much)

Overall Grade: A-

My only concern is that they might go a little too far with the wacky irreverence. Like how Happy Endings started overdoing the rapid banter just a smidge in their third season.

Also...

Also, you can’t kill two of my absolute favourite characters AND my favourite villain in the same season and get a full A, you just can’t, that’s the way it is. I hold that nonsense against Game of Thrones, and I’m holding it against you. That’s three of my original five absolute favourite characters gone, with only three new absolute favourites added. Yes that evens out to the same number, shut up.

[collapse]

Next time in this feature… either I’ll finally get around to finishing The Gifted, or I won’t and it’ll be time to cover Black Lightning. Only a week left on that one. Maybe hop on Netflix and try it out.

Next time in general: my subconscious is a jerk.

Comic TV With Dan: Runaways

Comic book TV is everywhere these days, and it’s happening all year. So I’ll hand out awards and rankings in June, but in the meantime, we’ll be reviewing shows one by one as they wrap up.

This installment: you know how teens begin to suspect their parents aren’t all that great after all? Well, what if your teen suspicions that your parents are jerks were way, way more correct than you ever thought? Based on the first Marvel comic to be written in the same seasonal model as TV shows, surely Runaways should be an easy fit for TV, right?

Right?

Short version: If you think the CW superhero shows don’t have enough teenage melodrama, does Hulu ever have a show for you. Well… half a show.

Premise

Alex Wilder, Gertrude York, Nico Minoru, Karolina Dean, Chase Stein, and Molly Hernadez used to be the best of friends, hanging out during meetings of their parents, a group of wealthy philanthropists called the Pride: tech dynamos, scientists, construction moguls, and the leader of the Scientology-esque religion Gibborim. High school and the apparent suicide of Nico’s older sister divided the gang, but Alex attempts to get everyone back together during the latest Pride meeting… only for everyone to witness their parents ritually sacrificing a teenage runaway Gibborim had plucked from the streets for “help.”

Turns out Pride is up to something far more sinister than building a new school, and are working at the behest of a mysterious and extremely jerky man named Jonah, with an unknown past that– he’s an alien. Total alien. If they don’t want to spell that out for you in ten episodes, I’ll just go ahead and rip the band-aid off myself. Now the teens are the only ones who can uncover Pride’s real goals and try to stop them… if they can put their personal issues aside long enough to make it happen.

Along the way, they pick up gifts to help with the fight. Nico’s mother has a magic staff called the Staff of One. Chase, with help from his inventor father, builds a set of powered gauntlets. Gertrude learns that her parents have a dinosaur that responds to her thoughts, no you read that right. Molly has super-strength, though using it tires her out. Karolina can glow, fly, and fire energy blasts when she takes off the bracelet her parents have made her wear her whole life. And Alex… well, Alex has to rely on his wits. There’s always one who just has to make a superpower out of being clever.

And eventually, they may have to run away. As the title suggests.

If anyone still cares somehow, no, there are no references to the larger Marvel universe. None. Not even the half-assed references you get from the Defenders shows. Runaways flies under the Marvel banner, because they’re not stupid, but narratively they stand alone. And good for ’em, says I.

Strengths

There were a lot of complaints about the story in early episodes, specifically the fact that the titular Runaways had yet to run away at all. Sure, in the comics, that happened immediately. In the first issue, they were learning about their parents’ villainy, and by issue two they were on the run. On TV, they take a bit longer to get there. Essentially, they’re doing the same thing as Preacher: they’re taking the first story arc and making a season out of it. They’re taking their time to explore where the story begins instead of rushing past it.

There are good and bad points to this approach, but the header suggests which one we’re going to talk about first.

Not jumping to the running away part of Runaways allows a much more complicated dynamic between the teens and their various parents, and in the Pride itself. It’s been many years since I read the first volume of Runaways, but I don’t recall there being much definition to the Pride beyond what exact brand of supervillain they were: gangster, magician, alien, mad scientist, etc. Here, there are far more levels. There are shades of grey: some of the Pride are more evil than others. Some take to the human sacrifice thing pretty easily. Some are mostly good people stuck in a bad situation. And also having their benefactor around in person changes things up as well. In the comics, the Gibborim were a race of goat-like aliens that had bestowed gifts on the Pride, which we didn’t even meet until the end of the first volume. Here, it’s Jonah. Instead of mysterious goat-beasts, it’s Nip/Tuck’s Julian McMahon, which allows for more complicated relationships between the various Pride members and their extremely dickish benefactor. Not everyone is a true believer, and that is definitely something new.

Also, we dig more into the parent-child relationships, as each child is forced to see their parents in a new light. Instead of instantly becoming mortal adversaries (save for one Runaway who was secretly on the Pride’s side, a storyline the show might or might not pursue), they try to hide their new knowledge and grapple with what it means. Some kids start feuding with their parents. Some actually get closer to theirs. It’s a complex tapestry and a more realistic approach than “Cheese it! We live on the run now!” being their opening gambit. Not to mention it lets more and darker secrets slip out as the season continues.

Other strengths. The bulk of the parents are well cast, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s James Marsters as the brilliant but abusive Victor Stein; Ever Carradine as his long-suffering wife; 24‘s Annie Wersching as Karolina’s cult-leader mother; Alias’ Kevin Weisman (love that dude, he’s great, his character on Alias was the best… well, the best non-Bristow) and Brigid Brannagh as Gertrude’s dorky, cheese-loving parents (and foster parents to Molly); and Angel Parker and Ryan Sands as the cold, unflinching Wilder parents, a gangster and a lawyer who got their piece of the pie through the Pride and will yield it to no one, possibly even Jonah.

The teen cast, though not always on the adults’ level, are spot-on for each of their roles. Well, except maybe Molly, who is written as several years younger, but doesn’t really look it. (Making her latina works well, and reduces the whiteness of the group from two-thirds to only half–still really white, sure, but progress?)

Combining the Gibborim and whatever species comics-Karolina was into one singular alien, Jonah, was probably a good idea. Really, how many types of aliens does this story need?

That’s a pretty great dinosaur Gertrude has.

And props for breaking from the canon, comic-book relationships and saying “You know what, the gay girl gets a win, too.”

Weaknesses

Multiple times in this first season, Jonah or a Pride member would get caught doing something Hell of shady, and they would stare down the person who caught them, saying (often with murder in their eyes) “You have to trust me,” while providing no real reason why that should happen. That is the show speaking to us, the audience. To explain, let’s look at the flip side of their use of the Preacher model.

Stretching the first Preacher story from four issues to ten episodes worked, mostly because of everything they layered into it, which made the first season feel like more of a complete story. Jesse had an arc whose natural end was leaving Annville in search of God. Not so much with Runaways. In a way, this plays out like the average season of Game of Thrones. The various plot points build to a big event in episode nine, then the season finale is all about dealing with the fallout while setting the stage for the next season.

The problem here, though, is that the first story arc of Runaways doesn’t translate as well to a full season. The first volume of Runaways was meant to read as the first season, not the first arc. As a result, what we have here is a first season that offers zero closure on almost any storyline. We don’t know what Jonah’s really after, or what he even is, Geoffrey Wilder’s frenemy rival is still an ongoing thing, I think they only barely dealt with “Who secretly killed who.” And that’s not even covering the fact that when the season wraps up, the main plot has only just made it out of first gear. The gradual pace of the first episodes was forgivable when I thought they were building to a satisfying climax, but then the finale rolled around and it turned out we’d spent ten episodes only introducing the premise.

And if you’re going to go the Game of Thrones route, with each season only being one part of a bigger, more complicated story, man, you gotta be Games of Thrones level good. Because when everyone else is doing season arcs with beginnings, middles, and ends and you’re opening with one chapter of a multi-year arc? That is a risky move, and in this case, it felt like Runaways was writing a cheque we don’t know that they can cash. They’re Jonah, staring us down and saying “You need to trust me,” when the last two episodes did not make it clear whether I can.

So the ending had some flaws. What else?

The dialogue is often not naturalistic, and instead really awkward. There might be a way to make “The circumstances of my sister’s suicide are not something you can keep secret from me” sound natural but goddamn they did not find it. Someone at the first table read needed to be flagging awkward dialogue, and it just wasn’t happening.

The younger actors are not always on the level of their adult counterparts. Well, mostly Molly. Molly struggles the most. Nico and Alex… they just can’t always deliver the really weirdly awkward lines convincingly. And that’s understandable, it is, but… Veronica on Riverdale doesn’t always have dialogue you believe a human teenager would say, but damn it Camilla Mendes still sells it.

They must have blown their effects budget on the dinosaur, ’cause those are some 80s-direct-to-video effects they’re using when Karolina lights up.

High Point

Either “Kingdom,” when the kids suit up for the first time, trying out their new toys (minus the dinosaur) to protect Alex and discover what they can all do, or “Doomsday,” in which the kids suit up to try and stop the Pride’s big plan, and confront their parents for the first… time… actually that confrontation ultimately fell pretty flat. Yup, it’s “Kingdom.”

Low Point

“Hostile.” For whatever strengths the season finale had, I came into it thinking “So how to you top ‘Doomsday,'” and the answer turned out to be “Well we don’t.” “Hostile” is an episode you break for Christmas with, not for the season.

MVP

James Marsters gives Victor Stein the most dynamic character arc of any Pride parent, and I’m most afraid for the safety of the Yorkes, so that’s bonus points to Kevin Weisman and Brigid Brannagh.

Ideally, the MVP would have been Alex, the unnamed leader of the team, but that just didn’t happen. Love his hair, though.

Tips For Next Season

We’ve had ten episodes of setting the stage. Now tell a story. (Also, don’t even think about writing out that dinosaur.)

Overall Grade: B-

Was almost a B+ but then they forgot to write an ending and here we are. Still too much potential in the show to slip into C territory, though.

Next time… ugh. Fine. Time to finish The Gifted. Also some non-TV blogs to even things out?

Photo: Hulu

Comic TV With Dan: The Tick

Comic book TV is everywhere these days, and it’s happening all year. So I’ll hand out awards and rankings in June, but in the meantime, we’ll be reviewing shows one by one as they wrap up.

This installment: The Wild Blue Yonder is back on TV!

The Tick began as an independent comic from writer Ben Edlund, a loving satire of comic book superheroes in which a mental patient in a blue… outfit? With antennae? Or maybe it’s his skin?… anyway, he escapes, then starts fighting evil with the help of an ex-accountant named Arthur sporting a moth suit of unclear origin. It then developed into its most popular iteration, a 90s Saturday morning cartoon show featuring a softer satire of superheroes, dropping the mental patient angle and the notion that most sidekicks are required to have full, pouting lips for reasons they’re not sure about. The Tick and Arthur, would-be champions, guarded The City with the help of a cadre of fellow misfit superheroes, taking on bizarre and wacky villains ranging from Chairface Chippendale (his head was a chair) to Eastern Block Robotic Cowboy (a vending machine with robot arms, a stetson, and a Russian accent) to everyone’s favourite, The Evil Midnight Bomber What Bombs at Midnight. And one of the only villains to be imported from the comics, the 100+ year-old legacy villain the Terror (described by Tick as “One of the greatest villains of the 20th century! And parts of the 19th, I think.”)

Four years after the beloved cartoon ended, The Tick was adapted into a live-action comedy starring Patrick Warburton as the oversized would-be hero. The live-action version tried to bring back some of the edge of the comic version, while still being wacky superhero fun. Sadly it was short-lived, being sent to die as part of Fox’s futile attempt to bring down… what was it… whatever network shows were dominating Thursday nights in– 2001? Son of a bitch, time is a motherfu–

Anyway, now The Tick is back on television with a whole new take, thanks to Amazon Prime, with a 12-episode season that they dropped in two chunks, all of which is now available. And now we’re going to talk about it.

Short version: if you’re looking for the cartoon series brought to life, this is the wrong place. But The Tick show they’ve made worked out really damn well.

Premise

As a child, Arthur Everest saw his father die right in front of him… because when hyper-elderly supervillain the Terror (him again, this time played by the always impressive Jackie Earle Haley) nearly wiped out patriotic super-team the Flag Five, they crashed their ship onto Arthur’s dad. So young Arthur watched the Terror kill both his father and their city’s greatest heroes, after which the Terror strode up to him, gloated, and stole his ice cream. It’s a famous moment. Ended up on the cover of magazines.

Flash to the present, and Arthur is convinced that despite the world’s belief that the Terror was killed by the world’s first and greatest superhero, Superian, he’s still out there, still plotting. Arthur’s family, mostly his overprotective sister Dot (like Tick, Arthur, and the Terror, one of the four characters to appear in all four iterations of The Tick), thinks he’s dealing with mental illness in the wake of his childhood trauma. But Arthur gets unexpected support when the Tick, an immense blue superhero (now played by delightful British actor/Darth Maul voice Peter Serafinowicz) drops into his life. Superstrong and mostly invulnerable, the Tick claims to be taking his cues from destiny herself, and that part of destiny’s plan is that Arthur start wearing this experimental moth suit of unclear origin Tick just found while busting up an arms shipment Arthur was observing.

Arthur continues to search for the Terror while avoiding attacks from the Terror’s electric former henchwoman Miss Lint, dodging concern from Dot, dealing with his friendly but meandering stepdad, and managing a lumbering, somewhat clueless blue tank of a superhero. The Tick tries to guide Arthur to a heroic destiny, while also figuring who he himself is, what he is, where he came from, and why he gets a little fuzzy about his purpose when Arthur isn’t around.

Also Superian is dealing with a giant naked man known as the VLM (Very Large Man). That might be significant.

Fans of the cartoon should know… don’t expect to see any characters you know save for Tick, Arthur, the Terror, and Dot. Ben Edlund doesn’t own the rights to any characters created for the animated series, so no Die Fledermaus, Sewer Urchin, or American Maid. Nor their live-action counterparts from the Warburton series, Bat-Manuel and Captain Liberty (there is no way to make a version of Sewer Urchin that isn’t legally actionable). But the new supporting cast is pretty solid too.

In addition to Miss Lint and Superian, there’s Overkill, a rogue government agent turned murderous vigilante also hunting the Terror (Arthur’s description of their first meeting is priceless); Danger Boat, Overkill’s sentient aquatic headquarters, voiced by Alan Tudyk; Tinfoil Kevin, a surprisingly resourceful local homeless man; and Midnight, a talking dog that’s one of the only survivors of the Flag Five, voiced by Townsend Coleman, who provided the Tick himself his iconic voice in the animated series.

Those are players, how was the game?

Strengths

One of the main writer/producers is the Tick creator himself, Ben Edlund, who’s been busy in the years since the last two Tick series writing fan-favourite episodes of shows like Supernatural (basically any meta-episode) and Angel (he wrote the classic puppet episode “Smile Time,” and here reuses the phrase “Wee Little Puppet Man”). Which is to say, under his supervision, the show has tons of wit and a lot of heart. Despite some dark themes in the first act (we’ll get to that), there’s consistent humour, and it’s never a drag to watch. And the back half just soars. There are amazing lines in nearly every episode, and nobody knows better than Edlund how to write a great Tick narration monolgue.

Serafinowicz and Griffin Newman, who plays Arthur, make a great duo. Arthur’s panic, anxiety, and confusion over what to do next bounce well off of Tick’s clueless confidence, which is punctuated only by the occasional burst of existential uncertaintly. Arthur’s lovable, and the Tick is hilarious, and you can’t help but root for them to work things out and triumph over evil.

The rest of the cast is great, too. That Jackie Earle Haley is amazing as the Terror should go without saying, but he brings a wonderful joviality to Terror’s schemes. Yara Martinez is terrific as Miss Lint, beginning to question if she’s hitched herself to the right evil wagon. Valorie Curry presents what I suspect to be the best version of Dot thus far, a derby girl/med student/black market paramedic that is able to pick up details as to what the Pyramid gang are up to by healing their various crime-wounds. Brendan Hines brings just the right level of smug celebrity to Superian (whose name I like as a nonsense hybrid of various Superman clone names) without falling too far into douche territory. Alan Tudyk is predictably entertaining as the voice of Danger Boat.

Overkill is an interesting addition, with his dark, gritty, surprisingly graphic, stab-happy style of justice colliding with Tick’s Adam West-ian crusade for Sweet Lady Justice (Tick feels Overkill may need “The Talk”). It’s a great juxtaposition that ends up being a better Punisher/Daredevil team-up than Netflix is ever going to deliver. Also Overkill has a fun chemistry with both Miss Lint and Dot, when despite Arthur’s protests she inevitably becomes more heavily involved in the hunt for the Terror.

It’s not a huge thing but I love how Arthur figured out that only he could see or hear the Tick right in time for Dot to point out that no, in fact, she can see him just fine, he definitely exists. They set up the “Tick is imaginary” reveal well, then swerved away charmingly.

The lampshade hang over Arthur noticing that Tick’s costume received an upgrade after the pilot was shot and their full-season budget rolled in was cute.

Plus they fit in two Easter-egg references to the battle cries Tick and Arthur developed in the classic animated episode (which introduced the Terror), “The Tick Vs. Arthur’s Bank Account.” For the Tick, the classically nonsensical “SPOON!” For Arthur, the less iconic (and shorter-lived) “Not in the face! Not in the face!” That delighted me, especially the less-expected second one.

Weaknesses

You know it’s a little weird that so much of the first six episodes is devoted to exploring the very real mental issues brought on by Arthur’s horrific childhood trauma. It’s odd. It’s a darker take on Arthur’s origin than we’ve ever seen before, which was a key part in the tone being so drastically different from the two previous Tick series that it had me wondering who this radical departure from previous iterations was even for. People hoping for the exact sort of silly fun of the animated series, still the most popular version as far as I can tell, are in for a hell of a surprise.

Also, there’s way more swearing than I expected (limited mostly, if not entirely, to Overkill, which actually helps build the dichotomy of Overkill’s Punisher-style vigilantism vs Tick’s innocent, four-colour heroics). And you’ll catch some glimpses of VLM’s VL butt. And fair warning, VLM is not in shape.

But then you could also twist that into a strength, couldn’t you? This version of The Tick wastes no time trying to live or die on nostalgia. It doesn’t ask you to let it skate by on references to classic episodes (save for the odd Easter egg, like those battle cries I mentioned), and is aware that everyone who watched the cartoon as a kid either grew up or is being shown the DVDs by fans who grew up. So they’re doing their own, more grown-up thing. And if anyone’s going to reinvent the Tick for the current state of the superhero genre, nobody’s gonna be better at it than Ben Edlund.

Hmm. I’m kind of spinning the weakness into strengths, aren’t I. Let’s see…

Well, Arthur’s attempts to flee from Destiny and not wear his iconic moth suit surely did stretch on an episode or two longer than I would have liked. It basically took the entire first half for Arthur to accept heroism, which was a really great moment, but it wasn’t until right before the mid-season break, aw damn it that made it a perfect end-point before hiatus, I can’t even criticize this show…

That whole thing about Miss Lint being forced to share a condo with her ex got dropped pretty hard in the second half. I’d have to rewatch the series as a whole but it’s possible I could have used a little more of that? Also the Terror having an Alexa was kind of blatant as product placement goes.

And they came so close to including Eastern Block Robotic Cowboy. One cowboy hat. All it would have taken.

High Point

Can I just say “Episodes seven through twelve?” Or to put it another way, who among you thinks you can stop me from saying “Episodes seven through twelve?” Because I’m not sure I can whittle it down further.

Low Point

Ummm… hmm… well… maybe… “Secret Identity?” Arthur loses the suit, that was more of a setback than I wanted three episodes in.

MVP

There are a lot of talented people doing a lot of good work here, but it has to be Peter Serafinowicz. Townsend Coleman and Patrick Warburton were tough acts to follow in this role, but he’s nailing it with every single line. He’s called this “the best job [he’s] ever had,” and he’s making the most of it.

Tips For Next Season

This is gonna be tricky. But let’s see…

Really now… exactly how jealously is Fox guarding the rights to Chairface Chippendale? Could we at least have the scene from the comics where Tick tries to throw a sinister monolith into space? That’s a classic.

Honestly, though, just do this again and we’re probably fine.

Overall Grade: A

I finished it yesterday and I’m just about ready to rewatch the whole thing.

Until next time, remember… never let your sister talk you into the “normal” thing.

Picture: Amazon

Comic TV With Dan: Welcome Back, Jessica

Comic book TV is everywhere these days, and it’s happening all year. So I’ll hand out awards and rankings in June, but in the meantime, we’ll be reviewing shows one by one as they wrap up.

This instalment: Jessica’s back! Two and a half years after Jessica Jones’ first season arguably set the high bar for the Marvel Netflix franchise (only Daredevil’s first season can compete), was the best comic book show of the season according to highly credible sources, and after being one of the highlights of last year’s slightly disappointing team-up, Jessica Jones finally gets her follow-up season.

Man. It’s good that Netflix has started cranking these things out faster, because that was too long a wait.

So how’d it turn out? Marvel Netflix hasn’t been doing that well since. Is Jessica Jones season two a return to form, or another Iron Fist?

Short version: It’s okay. Not as good as it was, not as bad as it could have been.

Premise

We rejoin Jessica and pals… ex-child star-turned-radio-host Trish Walker; Jessica’s assistant, ex-junkie Malcolm; and high-powered attorney Jeri Hogarth… a year after season one, and some unspecified and unknowable amount of time since The Defenders. This is the first show starring a Defenders lead to drop post-crossover, but if you’re hoping to see how the big team-up has changed life at Alias Investigations, you’re gonna be disappointed. The events of The Defenders and her temporary super-powered cohorts are never mentioned, even in passing. Other than cameo appearances by Foggy Nelson (mostly to acknowledge that he still works with Hogarth and would care about her plotline) and Manhattan’s most persistent black market gun salesman Turk Barrett, the other Defenders shows are utterly ignored. There’s not even a visit from Marvel Netflix’s number one utility player, Claire Temple.

And you know what, that’s basically okay. First off, Jessica was so annoyed to be involved in Hand-based shenanigans that I utterly believe her not even wanting to mention them now. I can picture a few annoyed “I don’t even want to talk about its” getting thrown at Malcolm and Trish the week after it all happened, and then everyone moving on. Second, there’s not much call for guest appearances. Daredevil’s still off the board until his third season (maybe later this year?); this show has enough hand-wringing over the ethics of killing as is that an appearance by Claire would have just been redundant; and no circumstance exists where Jessica would even consider calling Danny Rand for help. Or conversation. So really, it’s just Luke Cage that’s conspicuous in his absence, given what a key part of season one he was, but it’s still fine. There was only one point, in episode 12, when I thought “You know what Jess, maybe this is the moment you call your super-strong, bulletproof pal in Harlem,” but given everything that had just happened in episode 11, Jessica was in no headspace to trust other people or ask for help. So I’ll allow it.

Weirdly this is the most that any Marvel Netflix show to date has referenced the Marvel movies. Captain America gets referred to by name, not simply as “the flag-waver,” and a threat hanging over the season is the Raft, the superhuman prison introduced in Captain America: Civil War. This isn’t enough to get me to rethink my position on whether the films and TV shows actually co-exist. There are still far too many ways they don’t, and accepting that they’re separate just makes things easier. But hey, kudos for the effort.

That was a bigger diversion than I expected. Where was I. Right.

Premise (For Reals)

One year after season one (two and half years ago for us, Marvel timelines are messy), Jessica is still haunted by having killed Kilgrave with her bare hands–hand. That people consider her a “vigilante superhero” potentially willing to kill people for money isn’t helping. She’s as lost in booze and anger as ever, causing a rival to exclaim “Super? You’re the weakest person I’ve ever seen.” Malcolm, her ex-junkie neighbour, is now working as her assistant/apprentice. Jeri Hogarth comes back into Jessica’s orbit when some bad health news requires some drastic actions. And most notably, Trish, Jessica’s adoptive sister/best friend, feels that the solution to Jessica’s rage issues is to look into how she got her powers in the first place.

It turns out some people don’t like Trish asking questions about the company behind Jess’ powers. When bodies begin piling up, Jessica starts chasing her own past, confronting the death of her family… and digs up some things she hadn’t expected.

I could criticize this season for ensuring that their sophomore outing has all of the tired tropes of a first season, those being origin stories and reluctant heroes, but… the fact is, Jessica’s origin hasn’t fully happened yet. It might never fully happen. She’s a reluctant hero because she hasn’t decided to be one yet. Maybe she never will. That’s Jessica, folks. Love her or watch Legends of Tomorrow. Or both. Yes, both. That one.

The Killer, as they’re referred to… damn. “The Killer.” That is seriously the only codename they think up. Marvel Television needs a Cisco Ramon to think up better villain names in just the worst way. The Killer becomes Jessica’s dark reflection: not only created by the same company, The Killer is also possessed of incredible strength, also isolated from society, and also driven by rage they can’t always control, only more so in all cases. The Killer is what Jessica is afraid she herself might become, especially with Kilgrave’s death on her hands.

How does it work? Well… there are good points and bad points.

Strengths

Ripping off the bandaid, “They’ve finally fixed their habitual pacing problems” is not on the list of strengths. It took the film branch nearly a decade to finally start writing decent villains, who knows how long it will take the Netflix branch to learn about pacing or episodic television?

That said, there is one improvement. In the back half, where Daredevil‘s second season and Luke Cage fell apart, Jessica Jones season two actually picks up speed. Instead of collapsing into Hand or Diamondback related nonsense in episode nine, they actually find their footing in episode seven. Sure it’s not all smooth sailing from there, but we’ll cover that below. This right here is the good stuff. And the first and most obvious strength of the show should go without saying, but here it is anyway…

Krysten Ritter is goddamn phenomenal. 

She was always good with the anger and the one-liners, but she gets some heart-wrenching material this season and she absolutely crushes it. Even when her material was weak or inconsistent, her performance never was. Someone give her an Oscar movie while we’re waiting for season three, because she is an incredible talent.

Also on that level this year? Carrie-Anne Moss as Jeri Hogarth. The early episodes drop some heavy stuff on her, and damned if she doesn’t rise to the occasion. And a good thing, too, because if not, her entire story would be under “weaknesses,” on account of it being only slightly connected to anything else that happens. Jessica is off dealing with mad science and the monsters it creates (and whether she might be one of said monsters), Jeri is confronting mortality and deciding who, exactly, gets to take anything else away from her (spoiler: it ain’t a long list), and sure the two stories share some common characters but they’re basically in their own worlds. Fortunately, thanks to Moss, Hogarth’s story is consistently one of the best parts of the show, connected to the main story or not.

Other strengths… Trish Walker isn’t her best self this season, but Rachael Taylor is still nailing it playing her. Jessica’s new love interest ultimately works as an arc, even if it starts with that old chestnut of “They dislike each other immediately, and we all know where that goes in the long run.” (Paraphrased quote courtesy of the late, legendary Terry Pratchett)

Good news: This is the first Marvel Netflix show to have Asian characters who aren’t part of or connected to a ninja death cult! Bad news: they are both still assholes. So… not a huge win for Asian representation.

I won’t tell you much about The Killer here, ’cause you should let the show tell you if that’s something you care about, but… they made some really interesting choices, and they pay off in Jessica’s arc. Also the “mad scientist” is an interesting ethical grey area. He’s not exactly doing ethical science, but he’s not a bad person. He’s authentically trying to do good, there are just a few shortcuts he really shouldn’t be taking but is anyway.

And seriously, I can’t remember the last time I ended episode nine of a Marvel Netflix show and didn’t think “Jesus, four more hours?” So good job putting all the bad pacing up front.

On that note.

Weaknesses

There is so much goddamn padding on this show. I want to say “If you can’t fill 13 episodes, don’t write 13 episodes,” but Defenders was only eight episodes and it was still badly paced, so honestly I don’t know what it would take at this point. Let’s take a quick tour of pointless subplots they stuffed this season full of in order to fill 13 hour-long episodes.

  • Trish’s storyline is about a recovering addict’s desperate need to feel as powerful as her adopted sister, and how it drove a relapse into addiction. So why did we spend so much of the first five episodes with her boyfriend, the impossibly noble journalist Griffin, only for him to be wished away to the fucking cornfield just as her story is hitting its stride? Did they think we needed to see her lose a boyfriend to understand her life was spiralling out of control due to addiction? Because we didn’t. Trish’s life had plenty going on to lose to addiction without creating and almost immediately tossing out a love interest. He was such a big deal and then he was just gone in an instant with no payoff whatsoever. Waste of time.
  • Also introduced this year is Pryce Cheng, a rival PI trying to push Jessica out of business. He eventually creates two inconveniences, one of which convinces Jessica she should work with the police, and the other of which is the third of at least four times that Jessica thinks “You know what, I take it back, The Killer does belong in jail,” and that is it. That’s not enough plot to require four episodes of building up a character and his go-nowhere conflict. He’s a main-credits regular, by the way, while the scientist who gave Jessica her powers is a “Special Guest Star,” despite being in exactly as many episodes and being far more important to the story. Which might be mostly about Callum Keith Rennie’s agent figuring “Special Guest Star” gives more status than being, at best, fourth-billed as a regular, but it suggests they plan to bring Pryce back next season, which… BOO. Pryce Cheng would lift right out of this season and nobody would miss him. He is dead air. Only worse.
  • There is a major reveal just before the halfway point but in order to ensure that it was at the halfway point… of a 13 episode season… they make getting there so convoluted. They reveal that Trish was sexually abused by a director so that they could threaten him into pressuring a hospital he donates to into giving them some information (what?) that points them towards a homeless ex-nurse that directs them to a mentally handicapped convict who gives them a name that leads to an encounter which points them to a university which sends them to a lawyer that can be pressured into sending Jessica to a house that finally leads to the reveal… what the hell. That journey takes six episodes. That is the very definition of padding. And every single thing that happens along the way (save for the homeless ex-nurse being tossed into Jeri’s arc) is basically meaningless to the back half of the show. I’m not saying that giving Trish a “Me too” story about an abusive director from her child star days was a bad idea, if they’d stuck with it then maybe it could have informed her need to feel powerful, but only including him to be one rung in a convoluted ladder then dropping it immediately is a weird choice.
  • A flashback episode at the midway point introduces an old boyfriend of Jessica’s who was apparently a pivotal figure in her early 20s, yet was never mentioned before that episode. And only once since. Kind of tacked on, there. (I will give the flashback episode this… for a spot-on satire of empty, insipid, top 40 pop music, Trish’s big hit “I Want Your Cray-Cray” is kind of a jam.)

Now, besides all of that, there are a few things beyond the padding that just don’t really work. To wit:

  • There’s a whole thing about prejudice against powered people. It doesn’t really work. Do you know why it doesn’t work, Marvel Television? Because you’re not the X-Men. Do not try to be the X-Men. The Gifted is kind of cornering the market on being hated and feared by the common people, don’t try to steal their bit. The Inhumans aren’t replacement X-Men and neither is Jessica.
  • Also, every person who’s prejudiced against the powered is a POC. Every single one of them. I don’t love that. There aren’t a ton of major POC characters on this show as it is, do they need to be the only bigots? Does the only black woman on the show for more than one scene need to use the phrase “you people?”
  • Jessica flip-flops back and forth over what’s to be done with The Killer (what I would not give for a better codename) constantly. Which wouldn’t be a bad thing if they’d handled it well, because she should be conflicted over this person, she should be torn as to what they deserve, but it doesn’t play out as being conflicted. It plays out as swapping back and forth as to which side she over-commits to. I should turn you in, I should help you escape, you need prison, you need help, you’re going to the Raft and that’s good, you’re going to the Raft and I’ll help you escape, nothing can redeem you, only I can redeem you… never grey area. Either she’s willing to do whatever it takes to bring The Killer to justice or she’s willing to do whatever it takes to protect The Killer from the police, and the change happens on a dime. One noble act changes Jessica’s mind instantly and utterly, even though last season Kilgrave proved that one noble act doesn’t change who a person is. It doesn’t play as Jessica being conflicted, it plays as Jessica being inconsistently written.
  • How is it that addiction and substance abuse are such a key element for two characters on this show, yet Jessica’s obvious alcoholism never comes up. Save for one moment where she admits she’s not the best person to be around when you’re an addict who’s fallen off the wagon.

So in short (too late, I know…), while there is a lot of good stuff in there, the first half is mostly filler and the second half forces Jessica’s arc to go in circles in order to fill enough time.

Stop doing 13 episode seasons. You don’t know how to fill 13 episodes.

High Point

AKA Three Lives and Counting. Jessica begins to unravel as her friends screw up, the line between her and The Killer begins to dissolve, and a familiar face is all too willing to push her over the edge. Absolutely their best hour.

Low Point

AKA Pork Chop. “So we need Jessica to cross a line on behalf of The Killer. Let’s introduce someone unambiguously evil so that her crossing the line isn’t so bad.”

“But we’re playing it as being super bad–”

“Yeah, sure, fine, but the audience should think he had it coming. We have all this cake, we just need to eat it, too.”

MVP

Krysten Ritter. She even makes Jessica’s third trip through the “You’re irredeemable, no wait maybe not” loop-de-loop mostly work.

Though props to Carrie-Anne Moss for selling Jeri’s arc so hard that it didn’t end up on the list of filler arcs that served nothing. That it was the most consistent and well-written arc of the season helped, but a lot of it was her.

Tips For Next Season

Look… are you married to this whole skeevy, power-hating-rival Pryce Cheng thing? ‘Cause I’m not loving it. Could he just shuffle off to whatever island for discarded supporting characters you sent Trish’s boyfriend to? Please? And maybe, in general, avoid having characters and plotlines with no payoffs. Write as many episodes as you need, but use them wisely.

Aside from that… I think Jessica hit rock bottom where “pushing away the people in her life” is concerned, only to end the season by reaching out and trying not to be isolated anymore. You need to build on that next season, not just regress. I wouldn’t normally think that was an issue, but you just did a second origin story for Punisher, so who knows.

And maybe in addition to repairing her relationships with her core cast, she could also try being willing to consult with Luke Cage or Matt Murdock or… nope, can’t think of a third person for that list.

Overall Grade: B

I thought it would be higher, but the season just takes so long to get out of first gear, and Jessica’s flip-flopping bugs me enough that it kind of blew the ending.

Next time: I’m probably finishing at least one of The Gifted, The Tick, and Runaways this week.

Photo: Netflix

Comic TV With Dan: We Gots us a CRISIS!

Okay, nerds, nerdesses, and innocent bystanders just stopping by, it’s time for the big game. The epic battle between good and evil, the superhero team-up I’ve been waiting months to see play out in all of its four-colour glory.

These guys?

No. I said “superhero,” “colour,” and “glory.” Not four people trying their very hardest not to be superheroes in a show about a ninja cult harvesting dragon marrow that somehow still manages to drain both of those concepts of fun or interest. No. Think brighter. Think DC.

THESE guys?

What? No. No no no. Not that one. This one. The good one.

The only Justice League we need.

Crisis on Earth-X, the biggest, most ambitious, and best of the annual Arrowverse (sadly I am still not influential enough to make “DCW-verse” catch on) crossovers has arrived, and did it ever–

Look, what do you want me to say about Justice League, exactly? We all must know the general consensus by now. It’s… fine. Fun but shallow. Enjoyable but occasionally forgettable. Forty minutes’ worth of footage was cut and it kind of shows, and not entirely from the fact that every trailer has a moment that got cut from the movie. The action scenes are often gorgeously shot, including an acrobatic duel between Batman and a burglar that might be one of the best-shot Batman action scenes ever… fine, not counting anything Lego-related… and it certainly tries to be more fun, but while many of the jokes land, sometimes it’s trying too hard to be “quippy.”

I wanted it to be Wonder Woman good, and instead it’s somewhere between Ant-Man and Age of Ultron. It’s a B- superhero movie that had the misfortune of coming out in a year when the genre was averaging A-. Logan, Wonder Woman, even Thor Ragnarok of all goddamn things, these were all home runs, improbable ones given the lower success rate of X-Men movies, the DCEU, and movies about Thor. And Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming weren’t entirely knockouts but had more than enough charm to smooth out their flaws. 

But enough about that. Not here to talk Justice League. Just Crisis on Earth-X. Just that. Probably just that. Almost definitely maybe probably just Crisis.

Evolution of an Event

The annual CW crossovers have been a tradition as long as there have been multiple DC shows on the network. Longer, really, since Barry Allen made his debut on Arrow the season before The Flash debuted, around the same time of year the crossovers normally happen.

First they were simple. A handful of Arrow characters went to Central City for Flash Vs. Arrow, so that the two CW leads could go two rounds against each other before bringing down meta-human bank robber Roy G. Bivolo, known to comics fans as either “Prism,” “Rainbow Raider,” or “the guy once deemed too lame for a crossover that introduced amped-up versions of Major Disaster and Killer goddamn Moth.” A day or two later (real time), a handful of Flash characters headed to Starling City so that Flash and the Arrow could team up against Rogues’ Gallery Also-ran Captain Boomerang. Simple, self-contained, fits easily into a marathon binge of either show, but had the fun of seeing the different casts and show styles bounce off each other.

That was the fun of Avengers, wasn’t it? Seeing Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and whatnot all flow into one team. Which is what Justice League could have been, except they’ve been trying to reinvent their tone so much that it’s hard to actually see it as a continuation of the previous four movies. Sure, it has references to Wonder Woman and continues stories from Man of Steel and Batman V Superman but it doesn’t have that Avengers-style-the-franchise-comes-together special feel, you know? Not like Crisis on Earth-X. Which is what this blog is about. Crisis on Earth-X. Not Justice League.

Ahem.

They amplified the crossover the following year, with Legends of Yesterday and Legends of Today, which set up the centuries-long Hawks Vs. Vandal Savage relationship that was central to the coming third DCW show, Legends of Tomorrow. Sure that one was held back by the same problems that plagued all the CW shows that season: too much narrative capital devoted to setting up the new spin-off, and an unsatisfying take on Vandal Savage, but it was still a fun two-parter. And the year after that, things got epic, as Flash, Arrow, and Legends came together (with special guest star Supergirl, whose own show wasn’t really involved) for the three-night, super fun, heroes vs. aliens extravaganza of Invasion! Watching Kara get to know Oliver Queen and the Waverider crew, and seeing everyone have a big post-victory party was just as much fun as seeing the combined heroes take down the Dominators. Plus each chapter still felt like an episode of that particular show. Flash addressed Barry’s Flashpoint screw-up, Arrow served as a perfect 100th episode celebration of the show’s past, and Legends brought time travel into the mix.

So the question seemed clear… how the Hell would they top that? Well, they found a way, readers, they found a way.

Barry and Iris’ wedding brings characters from all four shows to Central City, and it looks to be a happy day for all, but when the wedding is crashed by Nazi soldiers led by evil versions of Green Arrow and Supergirl, Team Arrow, Team Flash, the Legends, and the Danvers sisters have to square off with strange visitors from an evil planet.

The Faces of Evil

If one were to claim that the CW crossovers have flaws, one could argue that they have, in the past, let us down villain-wise. Vandal Savage, as discussed, was underwhelming, and a cameo by Neal McDonough’s Damien Darhk really drove that home. Prism was… well, Prism was a half-assed take on Rainbow Raider who existed to give Flash and Arrow an excuse to fight. And the Dominators provided some effective global menace, but they were a horde of CG aliens.

Fortunately their machinations meant that the plot never hinged on largely interchangeable CG aliens, and they had some concrete motives. Like in the event book that inspired it, they felt Earth’s high rate of meta-human development was problematic. Could be worse. They could have been an entirely CG villain with a horde of faceless minions, a magic space rock, and a vague-at-best motivation to take over/destroy the world.

Which is the shade I used to throw at the weaker Marvel villains, at least the ones not out to kill Tony Stark and sell weapons. But man alive no one lived up to that terrible archetype like Steppenwolf. Making him all CG was awkward any time they showed his face, and if you haven’t grown up on DC comics like me, who exactly this mook is and why he’s doing anything he’s doing might feel obscure at best.

Right, yes, Crisis on Earth-X. Earth-X, as any longtime DC fans knows, is the Earth where the Nazis won World War II, and are opposed by a small band of heroes known as Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters. Which essentially makes this a crossover between five shows, as Earth-X, the Freedom Fighters (possibly minus Uncle Sam), and the Reich’s top warriors were introduced in the CW Seed show Freedom Fighters: The Ray.

Having Nazis as your villains, and depicting them as absolutely, irredeemably evil shouldn’t be a big political statement, but it’s 2017, the New York Times is running sympathetic stories on actual Nazis, and here we fucking are. So watching the heroes of four shows and an online animated series tear into some Nazi stormtroopers is incredibly satisfying.

But what’s impressive is that they set out to create fully developed characters out of their main villains, making the Nazi Oliver Queen/Dark Arrow and his general Overgirl flesh-and-blood people without justifying their abhorrent beliefs. They’re monsters, but they’re still driven by love. Dark Oliver isn’t just out to conquer a new world, he’s out to save the love of his life. He and his followers believe that strength is virtue, that compassion is weakness, and that they’re doing the world a favour by ruling it. They’re wrong, and we know they’re wrong, and the back half makes a very clear statement of “This is what Nazis do and it’s terrible, are you listening, Republicans” but giving them human motives and emotions buried under the hate and intolerance makes them more interesting than, say, some rat-faced vet who lets vague talk about “real Americans” turn him into a mad bomber. Or a horn-headed CG alien named after a late 60s-70s rock band for reasons no rookie viewer will ever, ever know.

Back on topic… Also on team Nazi is an Earth-X Prometheus, who is not the Prometheus from last season of Arrow. He’s got a surprising identity that gives Oliver a meaty scene when they come face to face.

Plus, the Reverse-Flash is back! Not some Nazi version from an alternate Earth, but the one we know from Flash and Legends of Tomorrow, who admits that he probably should be dead by now, but never seems to recognize the Legends, so maybe this is from before his Legion of Doom days? Anyway, he’s back to looking like Tom Cavanaugh’s Harrison Wells, which I suspect is a cost-saving measure. The crossover was already hell of expensive, and having Tom Cavanaugh do double-duty saves them paying for Matt Letscher. Also it’s fun. Good as Tom is/has been as the Harrisons Wells of Earths 2 and 19, it’s been too long since he’s gotten to properly chew the scenery as the Reverse Flash. So as long as Stephen Amell and Melissa Benoist are pulling double duty, why not let Tom “Playing just one character on a show is for lazy people” Cavanaugh join in?

Our Heroes

Now these shows have big casts. Green Arrow leads a team of four other vigilantes, five if you count Felicity “Overwatch” Smoak. Flash has two part-time sidekicks and two superpowered assistants. Supergirl rolls with the Martian Manhunter and has Superman on speed dial, and the Legion of Superheroes just came to town. And the Legends are a full team of time-travelling would-be heroes. That’s way too many people. So obviously not everyone gets to play all the time. Some characters get sidelined for one to three episodes, some get restricted to quick cameos. J’onn J’onz, for instance, gets maybe three lines in the first five minutes of part one.

It’s like how Justice League tries to slip in cameos by various supporting characters of the heroes, to varying success. Connie Britton’s return as Hippolyta makes for an impressive sequence; JK Simmons makes a great Commissioner Gordon in his two scenes; Billy Crudup does his best impression of John Wesley Shipp’s Henry “Flash’s Dad” Allen in a scene that does okay setting up Barry’s character, but seriously feels lifted out of the first season of the TV show; Amber Heard gets handed much more ham-fisted exposition as Mera, but I’m still interested to see what she does with a proper role in Aquaman. I mean her scene was only a little more character-driven than Anthony Hopkins’ voice-over narration at the start of the bad Thor movies. Meryl Streep couldn’t have made “Here’s who Aquaman is in twenty words or less” work much better.

And we’re back… so while most of the shows’ casts get at least a little screen time*, if not necessarily on their own show, Crisis on Earth-X focuses on a smaller team. Specifically, Kara and Alex from Supergirl, each nursing a heartache; Oliver and Felicity from Arrow; Barry and Iris from Flash (and to a lesser extent Caitlin… Tom Cavanaugh is there all the time, but mostly as Thawne, not Harry Wells); and Sara Lance, Jax, and Martin Stein from Legends (and to a lesser extent Heat Wave), as Sara’s essentially the lead of Legends and the crossover helps wrap up a Firestorm arc that’s been running through the season. And in the back half, The Ray turns up, alongside his cohort, the Earth-X Leonard Snart. Good to have you back, Wentworth Miller, if only temporarily.

Oliver’s team and the rest of the Legends are mostly there to make the final heroes vs. Nazis showdown sufficiently epic. And sure, some arbitrary lines got drawn here. Sure, a solid entrance by Mr. Terrific, Wild Dog, and Black Canary was undercut by what happened afterwards. Sure, I wondered why Ray Palmer didn’t get an invite to the wedding if Barry’s former nemesis Heat Wave did. But that’s okay, and I forgive all, because when The Atom finally makes his entrance, it is a stand-and-cheer moment, and the rest of the late-to-arrive Legends keep that momentum going. Plus then Team Arrow, Vibe, Killer Frost, and the Legends get to kick the stuffing out of Metallo and it is niiiiiice…

The finale of Justice League works that well too, especially one Superman joins the fray. Partially because Superman is finally the Superman we’ve been waiting for. And also the League refusing to let Batman make a sacrifice play is a nice moment as well. And yes, that one has more production value and is more spectacular, but while seeing the League come together to kick Parademon ass is fun, seeing a dozen or so heroes beating the tar out of Nazis is a pretty great finale as well.

*Regular characters getting the week off are Lena Luthor, Samantha “Reign” Arias, Black Siren, The Thinker, and Thea Queen. Sorry, my brain needs to list them, and here we are.

Emotional Impact

Past crossovers have just been fun adventures with no lasting consequences. Not negative ones, anyway. In fact, Invasion! is when Barry finally found forgiveness for all that Flashpointing, and the musical crossover fixed Barry and Iris and Kara and Mon-El’s relationships… man, given how much work the seemingly all-powerful Music Meister put into getting Barry and Iris engaged, he surely was blasé about extra-dimensional Nazis crashing the wedding… no. No, leave it there, do not get into the weeds about Music Meister again.

But this… this isn’t just a crossover. They invoked the name “Crisis.” And that is not a word DC just throws around. When it’s a Crisis, Earths are in peril and people die. Permanently, for decades, or just for a little while, controversial or forgettable, a Crisis has a body count. This one is no different.

Some crossovers try for this, but don’t nail it. Think of Superman’s death in Batman V Superman, and how it had no emotional impact at all. Maybe because you didn’t like the movie at all so nothing did, or maybe because you know that come Justice League he’ll be back. See also Defenders. 

Spoiler

Matt Murdock sacrificing himself for the others meant basically nothing because Daredevil season three had already been announced. Daredevil’s “death” was just a way to get him off the board for a while so we wouldn’t ask where he was during Punisher.

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But Crisis on Earth-X was playing for keeps. And it…

It hurt.

A lot.

I went from cheering to crying several times over the course of the final hour, and actually yelled “Don’t do this to me” at the screen. A hero’s death, dying so others can live, it might be noble… but it doesn’t hurt much less in the moment.

Sorry. I thought I was ready to talk abut this. I was wrong.

This wasn’t an issue in Justice League. They were going for hopeful, inspiring, and a sense of wanting to see these characters in their own solo movies. Guess we’ll have to wait 13 months for Aquaman to see how well they managed that last one.

The Little Moments

Half the fun of these crossovers is watching characters from different series interact, and Crisis on Earth-X does not let us down. First and above all others, Sara Lance finally meets Supergirl’s sister Alex, and it is everything I wanted and more, given that in a satisfyingly roundabout way, meeting Sara helps Alex move past her breakup with Maggie. They also make a fun duo kicking Nazi ass together.

Heat Wave meets Killer Frost, which is fun. I’d love to see those two get into trouble for an episode or two. Barry, Oliver, and Kara work together so well (Nazi or otherwise) that it’s a shame they only get to do this once a year, twice at most. Eobard Thawne claims that at some point in his past/everyone else’s future, he fought Superman. A tease, or a promise?

Of course there are missed opportunities as well. Just like how we never really spend a lot of time with Aquaman, Flash, or Cyborg outside of the group context in Justice League because of all that cut footage. For instance, we’ve never gotten to see how Sara “White Canary” Lance feels about her late sister’s codename, Black Canary, going to newcomer Dinah Drake. They never interact at all, in fact. Also I haven’t gotten a proper Detective Joe West/Detective Officer Captain Deputy Mayor Quentin Lance* team-up in over two years.

And there are questions. Lingering things that I require answers to, and in one case won’t get them. The fact that the main Earth calls itself “Earth-1” and nobody calls them on it… when did the numbering of the Earths become a multiversal standard? What representative came to the Nazi world and said “You’re not Earth-1, that’s Earth-1, and you’re Earth-X, and we’re all going to pretend you don’t exist when we’re counting the total number of Earths if that’s okay,” and which super-Nazi said “Sure, that’s fair, Earth-X it is?”

But more importantly, and in this case I do need an answer… are we just ignoring the fact that the overeager server who was offering Barry a sparkling water and gushing about being at the wedding… that was clearly Barry and Iris’ daughter or granddaughter from the future, right? I mean it must be, she was way too excited about being at the wedding of a CSI and a reporter, but they just, but they just, they just moved on and she vanished and they never came back to it but I’m right, aren’t I? I must be right. Just tell me I’m right. Explain that. Explain yourselves, Flash writers not fired for sexual harassment.

*Dude has worn a lot of hats in six seasons.

To Sum Up

The one catch about Crisis on Earth-X is that for anyone watching, say, only The Flash, you’re going to be a little lost. Unlike Flash Vs. Arrow/Brave and the BoldCrisis on Earth-X doesn’t work as individual episodes. And unlike Invasion!, each show doesn’t maintain its own feel. That is, the Arrow chapter doesn’t feel more Arrow-ish. In fact, they cut the usual title cards and replace them with a unified Crisis on Earth-X title sequence combining images and themes from all four shows. And to those upset that they can’t just watch Supergirl this week because it’s full of other characters and plotlines from other shows, I say…

Nuts to you.

Because this was awesome and the only way to do it is to blend all four shows into one four-hour event, and I’m sorry that makes your Netflix binging harder, but watch all four, you numpty.

Once again narrowing down to Oliver and Barry in the end remains charming, but unlike following Invasion’s celebration with Oliver and Barry having a quiet drink, we needed something a little more celebratory to shake off the preceding, well, funeral. 

Gonna get into spoilers.

Some people complain that when Barry and Iris have their sudden, improvised, “finish what we started” wedding ceremony in front of no one but Oliver, Felicity, and Diggle, Felicity shoehorned herself and Oliver into it, making it a double ceremony without asking. Well, frankly, it’s not like she did this in the church. Barry ran to Star City to get Felicity and Oliver’s best friend just so they could do a three minute exchange of vows. It’s not that big a deal, and now Arrow doesn’t have to spend seven episodes on Oliver and Felicity’s wedding. It’s done. No mess, no drama, no derailing season six with Olicity wedding stuff.

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In the end, Crisis on Earth-X was amazing in the ways Justice League was just okay, and is a pinnacle example of why the Arrowverse hosts the best superhero shows on TV.

Watch and learn, Defenders.

And seriously. Was that Barry and Iris’ daughter? Was it!?

 

Comic TV With Dan: The Punisher

Comic book TV is everywhere these days, and it’s happening all year. So I’ll hand out awards and rankings in June, but in the meantime, we’ll be reviewing shows one by one as they wrap up.

This installment: a breakout character from Daredevil gets his own solo series.

Short version: fun if you like violence, but Marvel Netflix, we need to talk about your pacing problems.

Premise

Frank Castle, as established in Daredevil’s second season, has been on a violent rampage of revenge ever since his wife and children were killed in a gang fight that was somehow orchestrated by rogue operatives of the US military to cover up something that happened in Afghanistan, and now that I write it out it sounds pretty convoluted… man Daredevil got scattered in its second season.

Anyway, given that when we last saw Frank he was learning that his former CO and his bosses were behind the assassination attempt via gang fight, naturally we join him having opted not to care about that and live in lonely, quiet seclusion… in the city where he was very publicly tried for mass murder a year or so ago. It’s hard to tell with Marvel Netflix, their timeline is fuzzy.

But Frank’s retirement doesn’t last long, as a former intelligence analyst turned outlaw hacker calling himself Micro tracks Frank down in an attempt to go after those guys we thought he was already going after.

Frank sets out to kill everyone responsible for his family’s deaths (for reals this time), but a Homeland agent named Dinah Madani is trying to get justice for one specific part of all that stuff Frank and his comrades-turned-nemeses did in Kandahar.

So the question looms: what will win, vengeance against the military/CIA conspirators, or justice? Or are they both basically the same? No. They aren’t. They try to be clear about that, but… we’re here for all the gun battles, but they don’t want to endorse vengeful murder-sprees, per se… awkward.

And for a change, I’m not going to complain about lack of connection to other Marvel properties. First off, the Punisher as a protagonist works better on his own rather than surrounded by other Marvel characters. Second, Marvel Netflix and the Marvel movies are not connected, they just aren’t, let’s all accept that. And third, it’s not even a problem that the only link to the other Netflix shows is a few appearances by Daredevil‘s Karen Page. Daredevil is out of play until his third season; The Punisher might be set in New York, but it never makes it to Harlem, so no Luke Cage; nobody has need or desire of a private detective, so no Jessica Jones; and unraveling the events of the series requires covert intelligence connections, forensic abilities, situational awareness, and the ability to recognize basic patterns, and that rules out Iron Fist.

Strengths

John Bernthal remains great in the title role, capturing Frank’s rage, grief, and even flashes of charm. Westworld’s Ben Barnes shines as Frank’s former combat buddy-turned-private military contractor Billy Russo. 

Spoiler

And when he inevitably turns out to be one of the bad guys, as we all must have known he was going to, he’s utterly believable as Frank’s equal in violence.

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Agent Madani follows in the footsteps of Marvel Netflix’s frequent attempts to pair a male hero with a strong, badass female co-lead. Actually not the men, ’cause Jessica Jones had Trish Walker. But this one might be one of their better attempts. She doesn’t need constant rescuing like Karen Page in Daredevil, doesn’t consistently fail at the one thing she’s supposed to be good at like Misty Knight in Luke Cage, and she isn’t savagely undermined by her writing like Elektra in Daredevil or Colleen Wing in Iron Fist, becoming subservient to the male hero’s arc at the cost of her own. She always has her own motives and agency.

Micro works, and is well acted.

And if you do enjoy bloody, violent revenge stories, they do not let you down on that front. Well, in episodes with action beats. Which I think is most of them?

Weaknesses

If the “Secret military wrongdoing in Afghanistan” plot doesn’t do it for you, or rooting for a guy whose go-to solution to problems is murder doesn’t appeal to you, well, there’s not much else to enjoy here.

Rawlins, the man behind Kandahar and architect of the Castle family’s deaths, is kind of just a blank slate of “corrupt, criminal, torture-happy would-be patriot.” He lacks depth, humanity, or redeeming qualities of any kind. But then Punisher villains can’t really be nuanced. A Daredevil villain can come down to philosophical differences driving different ideas of The Good; a Batman villain can be driven by sympathetically tragic events in their past, like Kite Man (hell yeah); an X-Men villain can be a good man thinking he’s protecting humanity (I’m referring mostly to Legion, not The Gifted, police dude from The Gifted is just an asshole); but when you exist to be someone for Frank Castle to murder for our entertainment, you kind of have to be unambiguously evil. Which… I mean, that’s fine, but at least try to be fun like Damien Darhk, or engaging like Kilgrave. Rawlins is just there and you want him not to be.

Madani’s partner, Sam Stein, is incapable of speaking without delivering ham-fisted exposition. Like, really ham-fisted. “Quite a story. Doesn’t bode well for me, your newly-assigned partner.” As natural-sounding expository dialogue goes, he’s somewhere between a Star Wars text crawl and Narrator Smurf.

Let’s talk about Lewis. In the first episode, Frank lurks around his old military pal Curtis’ support group for veterans. It’s the one scene in that episode where he acts like a human person with emotions. One of the veterans is a gun nut, liberal-hating, “keep America for white Christians” asshole, and his rantings catch the attention of a younger vet named Lewis, who mutters “sic semper tyranis.” A weirdly educated remark for someone who falls for ignorant hate speech so quickly.

Here come the spoilery bits.

If that had been the last we saw of Lewis until episode nine, that would have been fine. But no, we spend swaths of the first two thirds of the series watching Lewis have PTSD, decide that the only cure to his PTSD is to be back in combat, get rejected by Russo’s company Anvil because he’s very clearly too unstable for any sort of combat, and then slowly but surely turn to domestic terrorism, all so that he can distract Frank Castle from the main story for two episodes near the end of the season. Which, okay, while putting the plot on pause, allows for a couple of key character beats to happen (two in two episodes, that’s not a lot), but there must have been a more elegant way to do them.

And sure, yes, an examination of how life on the homefront is difficult for vets would be good, if not necessarily germane to classic Punisher stories, but surely the right approach would have been to show how not all vets turn into Castle-style murder machines, not to imply that PTSD turns vets into domestic terrorists because mental trauma renders them incapable of not fighting. Lewis had all the love and support you could ask for, and still went mad-bomber, and that does not feel super respectful to struggling veterans.

I get it, man, I get what you were trying to do. When the second-amendment, concealed-carry douchecanoes show up to point at Frank Castle and say “That’s my guy! A good guy with a gun! That’s what we’re saying!” the producers can point at Lewis and his “Jews control the internet” mentor and say “You idiots aren’t the Punisher, you’re these morons.” But if that’s what he’s for, you did not need to spend ten episodes failing to build Lewis up as a character just to make him a third-act bonus villain. If a third-act bonus villain is even needed, which brings us to…

The Ever-Present Pacing Problems, or “It’s called episodic narrative, look it up.” If you needed to pad out the first season with all of these dull, reductive Lewis scenes, maybe it’s time to rethink your episode counts. It’s happening more and more with Marvel Netflix, so it must be said… if you don’t have enough story for 13 episodes, you don’t need to make 13 episodes. And there’s more.

It takes three episodes for the Frank-vs-corrupt-CIA-guy arc to kick off. Three episodes waiting for the show to catch Frank back up to where he left off when Daredevil ended. Three episodes giving Punisher a second, worse origin. Guys, it’s time you gave up the whole “The reluctant hero must be gradually dragged back into action” routine. Only Daredevil has ever managed to hit the ground running. Even The Defenders took three episodes to get out of first gear, and it was only eight episodes long. Punisher could have been a tight ten, if they’d sped up the first act and restricted Lewis to that first scene and his bombing spree.

Being on Netflix means people can and often will binge-watch, but not always. Stop treating each Marvel Netflix show as one really long movie and learn how episodic narrative works.

High Point

It’s easy to spot off-episodes of the first season, but it’s a little harder to name standouts. There’s sort of a baseline level of decent quality that they sometimes fall short of, but never really break past. I guess… either episode three, “Kandahar,” in which we examine Frank and Micro’s pasts as they have the most awkward “getting to know you chat” possible, or “Virtue of the Vicious,” a Rashomon-style examination of the long-awaited end of Lewis’ arc.

Low Point

With two flow-breaking Lewis-centric episodes and an hour-long torture session to choose from, it should be hard, but… let’s talk about episode one, “3 AM.”

First off, Frank hunts down the last members of the gangs whose gunfight left his family dead, despite knowing that his ex-CO arranged all of that, so really he’s just hunting down pawns in his ex-bosses’ sick game. Having killed the final possibly unrelated peon, Frank takes the iconic skull costume it took him 12 episodes of Daredevil to get around to wearing and burns it. Then moves back to New York and, despite being a notorious criminal with a very distinctive face, takes a job with a construction crew, knocking down walls with a sledgehammer. Knocking down walls. On a construction crew. Don’t tell me they’re a demolition team, why would a demolition crew need a cement mixer.

Save for introducing Curtis and Lewis the Rat-Faced Time Waster, they spend the next forty-five minutes, forty-five goddamn minutes, with Frank’s asshole criminal co-workers verbally harassing and threatening him while he silently ignores them, hammering his walls and thinking about his dead family all day and all night. Finally, in the last five minutes, when the assholes try to kill the one co-worker who was nice to Frank after a botched robbery of a mobsters’ poker game, his former self is unleashed upon the assholes and the mobsters they robbed. Which would have been a great jumping off point for a classic Punisher vs mob story, but is instead when Micro spots Frank, after months of waiting for him to notice that intel he’d slipped Frank back in Daredevil. If it had been Frank vs. the mob, sure, maybe I could see him needing to be convinced to take up arms, since this Punisher didn’t fight mobsters, he only hunted people he blamed for his family’s death. And some ninjas. But this is just the same vengeance rampage.

The Punisher had an origin. We did not need to drag him back to square one just so he could be reluctantly pulled back into the same vengeance spree he was on when we last saw him. Stop with the reluctant heroes. Stop it.

It’s a weak opening, designed to fill in anyone who didn’t watch Daredevil, while annoying anyone who did watch Daredevil by taking a huge and unnecessary step backwards.

MVP

Gotta be John Bernthal. Like Daredevil season two, the show is at its best when he’s on screen. Unlike Daredevil, that’s most of the time.

Tips for Next Season

He’s run out of vengeance, so it’s clearly time for an Equalizer-style grudge match between the Punisher and the mob. That would be some classic Punisher storytelling, far more on-brand than taking on black ops groups. Maybe try something like that.

Also… The first episode ends with Micro spotting Frank through “gait recognition,” which, no, what is that… and then says “Welcome back, Frank.” Garth Ennis’ “Welcome Back, Frank” is a classic Punisher story filled with humour (often black), memorable villains, oddball supporting cast, and frequent, innovative action beats, like a shootout in a morgue or a chase scene through a zoo, forcing Frank to use zoo animals as weapons. It is everything you should have aspired to, and if you’re not going to manage it, then keep Welcome Back Frank’s name out of your mouth.

Overall Grade: B-

Coming soon to this feature: can I find a source for Runaways? Let’s find out.

Dan Watched Inhumans and Wow But You Shouldn’t

Comic book TV is everywhere these days, and it’s happening all year. So I’ll hand out awards and rankings in June, but in the meantime, we’ll be reviewing shows one by one as they wrap up.

This instalment: what happens when the showrunner of Iron Fist doesn’t try so hard.

Short version: If you are watching Inhumans, then stop.

Premise

Behold, the Inhumans! Created centuries ago by the Kree (this is not specifically explained on the show), the Inhumans live on the far side of the moon, safe from the prying eyes of the humans below. Well, except for all of those Inhumans that lived in the secret village we saw in season two of Agents of SHIELD, who are never mentioned, and all of the new Inhumans that have been springing up in seasons three and four of Agents of SHIELD, who are begrudgingly acknowledged and a couple of whom even make appearances… but no mention of the government agency that worked so closely with them before ending up in space at the end of their last season.

So, like season two of Agent CarterInhumans continues the trend of other ABC shows being the only Marvel properties willing to very, very vaguely reference events on Agents of SHIELD. As little as they can get away with. Which… you know, Agents of SHIELD has been Marvel’s best TV show since Daredevil stopped trying halfway through season two, so maybe… whatever.

The Inhumans use a process called Terrigenesis to unlock their true selves, which sometimes just grants a power, sometimes causes a physical transformation (good or bad… just ask Eldrac, who got turned into a wall), and sometimes does diddly-squat, in which case welcome to the Moon Mines, you genetic failure.

The Inhumans are ruled over by Black Bolt (short for Blackagar Boltagon… not a joke) and his royal family. Black Bolt’s voice has incredible destructive power: speaking at a whisper hits like a cannon ball, and normal volume can obliterate a person. His wife, Queen Medusa (Serinda Swan, who in better days was Zatanna on Smallville, yes I just called Smallville better days, that’s where we are with this), has prehensile hair. I don’t know how to describe it to make it seem more dignified. Karnak (Ken Leung, of many things, one of which was Lost), one of the top warriors, can see and exploit the flaws in anything, and precisely plan any scenario in seconds. Gorgon… has hooves for feet and can stomp on things like super hard. Crystal is cute but boring. That is… she can, like… control the elements and whatnot, fire and air and… I mean she looks good in jean shorts but she basically adds nothing to this show except being the closest one to Lockjaw, the adorable giant teleporting bulldog.

And Maximus (Game of Thrones’ Ramsay Bolton, Iwan Rheon), Black Bolt’s brother, has no powers, but a serious lifelong case of throne envy. Which is where we find ourselves in the first episode.

They were really banking on us being on board with the apparent protagonists right from the top, because we open with Maximus staging a coup to seize the throne. The royal family retreats to Hawaii (sure), gets split up, and attempts to regroup so that they can retake their home from Maximus.

Maximus, by the way, won the support of the royal guard through his platform of “Maybe we shouldn’t take everyone who didn’t get powers in Terrigenesis and force them to work in the Moon Mines, maybe a rigid caste system based on genetic accident isn’t cool.” Black Bolt, therefore, is pro genetic-caste-system, which is problematic, but they compensate for Black Bolt being on the wrong side of history by ensuring that Maximus is the sleaziest sleeze in Sleazetown, dripping malice and creepiness every time he’s on screen.

Okay, let’s break this thing down.

Strengths

The big teleporting bulldog is pretty cute.

He’s a good boy who doesn’t get the pets he deserves.

And it’s short.

Weaknesses

Where. To. Start.

Every character is made the least interesting version of themselves possible, whether for budgetary reasons or just utter lack of vision from showrunner Scott Buck, who just a few months ago also failed to deliver an even slightly interesting take on Iron Fist. That he was given a second Marvel show demonstrates flawed leadership at Marvel’s TV branch, even if going from Netflix to network is the equivalent of being sent down to the minors. Right, the characters…

Medusa has super-strong prehensile hair, so of course that’s taken away from her immediately as Maximus shaves her down to a buzzcut. Sure her CG hair couldn’t have been cheap, and it looked bad, but the fact remains that they swiftly took away her most notable feature, and made it really rapey when they did it, and goddamn you guys that wasn’t cool. Karnak is a master strategist, so by the end of episode one, he walks off a cliff, I say again the master strategist walks off a cliff, and suffers a head injury that compromises his power. Black Bolt, king of Attilan, is overthrown inside of half an hour. Maximus, in the comics, is an insane genius, brilliant but untrustworthy, and here he’s just a power-mad douche incapable of thinking anything through. Eldrac is a person who got turned into a wall that can open portals and they barely even touch on that. Crystal… I don’t know much about comics-Crystal but she must have had more going on than looking cute in shorts. She couldn’t have less going on than she does here.

Look, every comic book show eventually does “Are they still a hero without their powers,” but a) it’s always a drag, and b) they don’t make it the whole first season. But this is just where our problems start.

Every single aspect of the show is punishingly bland at best. The dialogue is bad, the acting mediocre, the effects cheap, the characters uninteresting, and while Maximus is insufferably terrible it’s hard to ignore that fact that he seems to be right about everything. He doesn’t want to live under a genetic-lottery caste system and thinks maybe forcing 1400 people to live in cramped hiding on the moon isn’t the best call, and he’s right on both fronts. It takes 10,000 individuals to maintain genetic diversity. With 1400 people in Attlian it’s amazing that the Inhumans aren’t as inbred as an Austrian duke by now.

Sure, there’s apparently another reason they live in hiding, some larger danger hinted at repeatedly in the finale, hints almost assured to never be paid off, but it’s the Kree. They were hiding from the Kree, the aliens who created them, and in season two of Agents of SHIELD made it clear they thought that was a mistake worth erasing, that’s the deal, fuck you for making a show this bad and thinking you could lure us in to wanting a second season with such obvious cliffhanger-bait.

Medusa and Black Bolt keep wanting to give Maximus one more chance to turn things around despite him taking every opportunity to not be worth it. It gets old.

And it’s not a recent development, either. A flashback to Maximus and Blackagar’s youths shows young Blackagar moping about not wanting to be king, while his brother keeps shouting “I do! I’ll be king!” And when their father says no, it has to be the elder brother, Maximus literally says “But if he dies, I get to be king, right?” And Father-of-the-Millennium lets it slide. Sure, pal, nothing to worry about there.

The human scientist who teams up with Medusa is trying so hard to channel Arrow’s Felicity Smoak that I can only think of her as Faux-licity. Also she might be in love with Medusa. A more interesting show would have run with that.

My only theory is this. Head of Marvel Entertainment, Ike Perlmutter, has been desperate to introduce the Inhumans to the MCU as a replacement for the Fox-owned mutants (even though the Inhumans are terrible replacements for the X-Men, do not work as metaphors for oppressed minorities, and Fox’s The Gifted is proving why mutants do it better on a weekly basis). He tried to force Kevin Feige to make an Inhumans movie, only for Feige to break away from the rest of Marvel Entertainment and cancel the movie the second he didn’t have to report to Perlmutter anymore. So Ike made it into a TV series. Maybe, maybe Jeph Loeb, head of Marvel TV, knew that the only way they were going to shut Ike up about the damn Inhumans was to make the show, but make it Fant4stic bad so that the concept would lose appeal. And so they hired the Iron Fist guy to write it.

I mean that’s the only explanation that makes sense to me. They screened the pilot on IMAX. They read the script, saw the dailies, and then still felt comfortable putting the worst thing Marvel Studios has ever, ever done onto the largest screens possible and charged people money. I don’t see how that happens unless they are actively trying to fail.

High Point

…Um… “Make Way For… Medusa,” maybe? They finally managed to add a character I enjoyed, even if he’s one of the bad guys.

Low Point

“…And Finally: Black Bolt.” The season (and gods willing series) finale managed to be just as excruciatingly bland and pointless as the pilot while delivering a thoroughly unsatisfying conclusion (seriously, the final scene was entirely dull) and spending too much time setting up a second season that I cannot imagine anybody actually wants at this point.

MVP

Lockheed the giant dog, I guess.

Tips for next season

Fuck you. I shall think of this show as cancelled until ABC’s May upfronts confirm it as so, and then I will think of it no more.

Overall Grade: F

Like, it’s not even fun bad.

Gonna have to finish series five of Doctor Who just to wash that crap-fest out of my brain.