Tag Archives: Marvel Comics

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

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: 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: 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.

[collapse]

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.

The Defenders: Comic TV With Dan

As we know, every summer I review the season of comic book TV, and look at who did what best. When there were only seven shows I was looking at, it was fun and easy. Then it was eleven. Then thirteen. And they just keep coming.

So instead of reviewing like 20 shows next June, we’ll tackle them one by one over the next 11 months, as they end. Then hand out virtual trophies in June, as per usual. Fun!

Fun for me, anyway, but let’s drag y’all along for the ride.

To begin with…

The Defenders

It feels like it’s been longer than two and a half years since the Marvel Netflix universe kicked off. Two seasons of Daredevil and one each of Jessica JonesLuke Cage, and Iron Fist have finally led to this: the Avengers of Marvel Netflix, The Defenders.

Well… they sort of all led to this. Instead of all four shows blending together against a greater menace led by the franchise’s best villain, like in Avengers, what we have here is Jessica Jones and Luke Cage being dragged (kicking and screaming, in Jessica’s case) into a mash-up of Iron Fist and the worst part of Daredevil. Which doesn’t seem like the best starting point, but, well… how shall I put this.

It’s okay.

It ain’t Invasion!, but it’ll do.

Premise

We open with a check-in on where the four leads are since last we saw them. Matt Murdock is doing his best to give up being Daredevil and focus on law; Jessica Jones is avoiding being a hero or taking cases and getting drunk; Luke Cage is fresh out of prison thanks to Foggy Nelson (probably used that whole “illegal fight club/human experimentation” thing to get some sentences commuted); and Danny Rand has been roaming the Earth with Colleen Wing hunting The Hand.

The Hand, inconsistent villains of Iron Fist and worst part of Daredevil, take center stage as the main villains. Alexandra (Sigourney Weaver), the previously unseen true leader of The Hand, has been alive for centuries, but is now dying of an unspecified but incurable illness, and has blown the last of their immortality serum on resurrecting Elektra to be their ultimate weapon, the Black Sky.

Sidebar: They actually do a decent job selling Elektra as an ultimate weapon, especially once we see that they don’t really need to conquer the world or anything. They already have global influence, they just need her to keep rival ninja death cults, K’un Lun warrior monks, or slightly enhanced crime fighters from getting up in their business. And she’s pretty good at that. Sure, when they flashed back to Alexandra acquiring Elektra, and her compatriot Sowande asked if she was still committed to this Black Sky plan, it would have been great if he’d added in “I’m just saying, turns out the Norse gods are real, one of them hangs out downtown, should we be adapting the plan?” But we’re very clearly past that. The movies and Marvel Netflix do not co-exist, let’s all just move on.

More of a sidebar than I meant it to be… where was I… yes. Short on time, Alexandra speeds up The Hand’s work to acquire more of The Substance, the key to their immortality. The trick is, doing so will level Manhattan. Jessica Jones goes looking for an architect they dragged into their plans, Matt Murdock tries to keep her out of trouble, Luke Cage tries to help Harlem youths dragged into Hand grunt work that keeps getting them killed, and Danny Rand hunts Hand operatives, and that puts all of them on course for a big joint throwdown at Hand HQ.

At the end of episode three.

Having five fewer episodes than most Marvel Netflix shows does not push them to move at a more rapid pace.

Because that’s the thing about Marvel Netflix, you see, as well as some other Netflix dramas. Their devotion to the streaming model means that they view the show as one eight-hour movie, rather than eight individual episodes. They have One Big Thing happen at the end of the hour to compel you to keep going, but then not much happens the other 40 minutes.

Well, not much in terms of action beats. There are plenty of character moments, chats between the leads (the four main heroes, Colleen, and Claire), intrigues among Hand leadership. If you’re hoping for a whole bunch of superhero action, this isn’t the place.

I think we know what is.

But if you want to watch four reluctant heroes from very different lives learn to work as a team and bond as people, you could do a lot worse. Actually maybe you couldn’t, because that was a very specific description I just gave, I’m not sure there’s more than one… well, it could be a lot worse.

Put another way, it’s talky. It’s very talky, short on action beats, and languidly paced, but the talky bits turned out to be largely worthwhile.

Strengths

Good team: The leads actually work well together. Watching them bounce off each other is interesting and engaging enough that you almost don’t notice how very, very talky the show is. Luke Cage and Danny Rand are actually a good enough duo that they come close to being the classic partnership they were in the comics. Matt and Jessica play off each other well enough I’m mad we’ll probably have to wait until a second Defenders season comes along to see them do it again.

Closing some holes: We do get some answers to nagging questions about the shared Defenders-verse. Why didn’t Daredevil show up to help Luke Cage or Iron Fist? Because after the friendship-ruining shitstorm of season two he’s been retired. What was up with the rival Hand factions in Iron Fist? The Hand has five ethnically diverse leaders, they work independently more often than not, and they do not tend to get along. What the hell was up with that giant hole from Daredevil season two? Seventeen months later they finally explain.

The Improving Iron Fist: Danny Rand is still a tool with a short fuse, no getting around that, and he surely does still like walking into a room filled with bad guys and saying “Hi, I’m Danny Rand, the Iron Fist, here to oppose you.” But having Luke and Jessica calling him out on his nonsense actually moves him towards being a better character. Hell, he even landed a couple of decent jokes and learned about privilege.

Jessica Jones: I have missed you, you delightfully abrasive drunk.

Daredevil fights good: The fight scenes might not be shot or edited as well as they could be, but at least the choreo and rehearsal times have improved since Iron Fist. Seeing Daredevil back in action is enough to remind us of when these guys were the best in the business at fight scenes. Not that they have the title back… so far that still belongs to Preacher.

Villains: Sigourney Weaver crushes it as Alexandra, and Gao and company are effective menaces for the foursome (plus Coleen). Even Bakuto.

And I’m pretty sure Matt found a big clue by playing the Daredevil opening theme on a piano.

Weaknesses

Underwritten support staff: They make a point of bringing in the key players from all four shows for at least parts of the season. But other than Colleen Wing, Matt’s old trainer Stick, and the omni-present Claire Temple, they do not have a lot to do. I’ll explain.

Foggy Nelson and Karen Page are mostly there to say “Aw gee, Matt, don’t be Daredevil, you don’t gotta be Daredevil,” which is perhaps the least interesting and most frustrating thing they could be asked to do. We want Matt to be Daredevil. Anyone telling him not to be Daredevil is wasting our time.

Jessica’s pals, Malcolm and Trish Walker, are basically just hostages, there to give Jessica skin in the game. Trish almost plays a larger role in the main story, then doesn’t. On three occasions. Waste of what was and probably will be a great character.

And most frustrating is Misty Night. The heads of Marvel Netflix clearly like Misty, and they should, she brims over with potential, but they just do not know what to do with her. She spends most of the season reduced to saying “Tell me what’s going on! You have to, I’m the police, and actually on your side!” only to remain in the dark. They go through more “I can’t tell you the truth for your own safety” moments in eight episodes than The Flash manages in 23, and that is… not positive.

Where the ninjas at? So The Hand turns out to be an international conglomerate with leaders from Japan (the only asshole who can’t be bothered to speak English), China, Africa, South America (I did not miss you, Bakuto), and Europe. That’s fine. That’s okay. But their soldiers not being ninjas anymore? Come on, man, that was the one cool thing about that group…

Massive spoiler here, just massive

So we’re still doing the whole “Swap villains in the third act” thing? Even if the first villain was great and the replacement is so-so? Even if having Elektra murder Alexandra and take over The Hand didn’t really add much? I mean I get that it seems like a neat twist, and maybe it would have been if Luke Cage hadn’t beaten you to it.

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Names: Can we be done with “The Devil of Hell’s Kitchen” now? He’s called Daredevil. Just call him Daredevil. Jesus. Put this next to “The Incredible Green Guy” and “The Blonde Dude with the Hammer” and it seems like Netflix thinks New Yorkers just like using the longest possible names for people. Which is clearly just madness. And it’s only people. World-altering alien invasions get called “the Incident” and everyone’s just okay with that. Double madness.

High Point

Worst Behavior. In the third episode, Defenders actually start meeting each other and having conversations. And it works pretty well. Then in the end, all four finally link up for that aforementioned epic throwdown against the, sadly, non-ninja Hand troops.

Low Point

The H Word. In the first episode, we catch up with all four leads, and not one of them is in an interesting place. Three out of four have basically been in limbo since their last appearance, with Matt and Jessica trying their best not to be superheroes and Luke Cage in prison. And Danny Rand is Danny Rand. It makes for a slow start. Avengers didn’t open by convincing its leads to be heroes again. Okay, fine, except Banner.

MVP

Kristen Ritter as Jessica Jones. Sure, she puts up the biggest fight to be part of the story, but she’s the most reliably fun part of the team. And her friends are trying to talk her into being a hero, not out of it. She also has most of the best lines (Luke Cage runs a decent second, especially his reaction to Danny’s origin), and gets a really satisfying hero moment at the end of episode four.

Tips for Next Season

Look… you have a lot of shows to make, a lot of characters to juggle, but you don’t film them at the same time, the leads aren’t Robert Downey Jr.-busy, there is now no reason that the leads can’t all guest star in each other’s shows. Before Iron Fist, we wanted to see Luke and Danny team-up. Post Defenders, we’re sold on it. And they all still live in the same city. There is no good reason to make us wait two or three years to see these people cross paths again.

One more spoiler. One more BIIIIIG spoiler.

Fine. Except Matt. Won’t be seeing him until Daredevil season three, which is… fourth? Fourth in the queue. 2019? Then-ish, unless they start making more of these each year. Man, they are going to sit on that cliffhanger longer than is warranted.

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Grade: B-

Yup. This was the right call. No way trying to do 20 of these in June was going to work.

Until next time, nerds.

Dan at the Movies: Spider-man Homecoming

Maybe you haven’t seen Spider-Man: Homecoming yet, and want to know what you’d be in for. Or maybe you have seen it, but haven’t been in a fight about your opinion yet. Nathan.

(No, not cousin Nathan, the uppity one– he knows who he is.)

Either way, I’m here for you.

Overall? It’s fine. It’s good. Definitely enjoyable. It doesn’t quite live up to Sam Raimi’s Spider-Mans at their finest, but is a marked improvement from the train-wreck Amazing Spider-Mans. As far as Marvel Studios films go, it’s not quite on par with Guardians of the Galaxy or Winter Solider, not bland and stupid like anything Thor-related… it’s about equal with Dr. Strange or Ant-Man. Fun, enjoyable, but I’m not in a rush to rewatch it like I was with Avengers or Wonder Woman. And kind of still am with Wonder Woman.

Anyone not seen Wonder Woman yet? Should we go do that? Real quick? No, you’re right, let’s finish this first…

I’m really not trying to damn this thing with faint praise, but the overall take is “Fine, fun, good, not Amazing or Spectacular or Web of or other adjectives associated with Spider-Man.” Now… I do have some complaints. But if I just make this review a laundry list of small grievances and nitpicks, it might seem like I’m calling it bad. And I’m not.

So here’s what we’re gonna do. For each nitpick, I’m going to also name something they did well, and we’ll see which I run out of first.

Good: The Boys

Okay. Props where props are due. Tom Holland nails it. He sells both the inherent teenage awkwardness and iconic battle-wit of Spider-Man. He also gets a new twist on the character to play. Tobey Maguire got the origin and the typical comic struggle between the difficulties of young adult life and the fact that Spider-Manning is both a complication to and a release from it. Andrew Garfield slouched his way through two films that were more concerned with setting up sequels and spinoffs that never were than telling a coherent story, but somehow still got the most charming romance.

Holland’s Peter Parker is the best for showing what a joy Spider-Manning is to Peter, while still giving us the first Spider-Man whose eyes are bigger than his stomach. Maguire and Garfield’s Spider-Men fought super-villains because they were the only ones who could (and often because said villains developed a mad-on for Peter and/or Spider-Man). Peter goes after Adrian Toomes and his crew because two months ago he was fighting side-by-side with Iron Man and the Avengers (against other Avengers, but still), and now he’s back to dealing with bike thieves and other low-level crime, and while being Spider-Man is still the best part of his life, he’s getting bored and frustrated. Peter wants to prove to Tony Stark that he’s ready for Avengers missions on the regular.

(Not mentioned: you’d think Tony would be eager for help, since I’m pretty sure there are only three non-fugitive Avengers at the moment and one of them needs technological help to walk, but whatever.)

Peter’s best friend, Ned, is also pretty perfect. He’s the nerdy, over-eager best friend who gets way too into being best pals with Spider-Man. He plays confident (well, him and the AI in the suit Tony made him), and gets a few hero moments of his own. Physically and in terms of characterization, Ned brings to mind Ultimate Spider-Man Miles Morales’ best pal Ganke rather than anyone in Peter Parker’s supporting cast, but since they’re understandably taking a break from the Osbornes in the wake of Amazing Spider-Man 2, why not create a new best friend?

(Other than if you don’t introduce Harry and Norman Osborne right away, then the Green Goblin story loses impact if you decide to do it later, and need to retcon in this “old friend” and his father we haven’t seen before, but maybe two movies is enough for the Green Goblin. Comics need to go back to the classics way more often than movies, because they have so many more stories to fill.)

No no no. Don’t get sidetracked on how three Green Goblin stories in 20 years is too many for movie audiences but not nearly enough for comics. Stay on target.

If you’ve seen the trailers, you’ve seen… 60% of Tony Stark’s screen time, something like that? But that’s okay. There is precisely enough Tony Stark in this movie. Enough that it never gets old or tired, or threatens to overshadow the actual lead of the movie.

Bad: Still not great with women, are we?

Zendaya does well as Peter’s sarcastic associate Michelle, so good at being wherever Peter is that one could almost assume she’s Peter’s own surly Tyler Durden. I do have one qualm about her character but I’ll come back to it because it’s not germane to “Marvel doesn’t write women well,” since she’s written as well as most of the men.

Marisa Tomei does well with Aunt May, for all that she’s given to do. May’s entire role basically breaks down to two things: worrying about Peter, and having any male character in her radius comment on how hot she is. Which is fairly reductive, for one, but also kind of weird?

Sure, every time they reboot Spider-Man they knock a decade off Aunt May’s age. Rosemary Harris was about 74 when she first played the role, Sally Field was 65, and Marisa Tomei is, in fairness, looking good at 52. But the characters don’t know any of that. They don’t know that Aunt May has historically looked more like Peter’s great-grandmother. People age better now than they did in the 60s. A high school student should have an aunt who looks more like Marisa Tomei than Judi Dench. She’s still more attractive than average, but… can we just all agree that it’s weird and a little bit creepy everyone needs to comment on it?

And then there’s Liz.

Liz is Peter’s love interest. And having said that, I have damn near summed up her entire character. She has little agency, no real development, she basically only exists to be an object of desire for Peter, and to give him a chance at her affections when he’s done nothing to be worth it and everything to let her down, but we’ll come back to that.

So, yeah, Marvel isn’t getting better at writing women in a hurry. Here’s hoping they figure it out before Captain Marvel.

Good: Michael Keaton

When people call Spider-Man 2 one of the all-time great superhero movies (and they do), Doctor Octopus is usually one of the main reasons why. But then Sam Raimi’s trilogy came out before 2008, the year that marked both the beginning of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the end of villain-driven superhero movies. Not a coincidence.

Before Iron Man, villains were as important a part of the movie as heroes. In fact, villains got top billing in two pre-Nolan Batman movies. Sam Raimi’s two better Spider-Man movies were as much about Norman Osborne and Otto Octavious as Peter Parker. In fact, the Raimi trilogy only ended on a sour note because Sony forced him to shoehorn Venom into what could have been a good (if unnecessarily retconny) Sandman story. And sure, Joel Schumacher went for quantity over quality with his bad-to-worse Batman movies, but quality was out of his reach from day one. The point is, truly great superhero villains seemed to peak with Joker in the Dark Knight.

Because, you see, Marvel changed the game. Starting with Iron Man, villains became almost an afterthought in their movies. Marvel villains are mostly two-dimensional personifications of the hero’s flaws. Iron Man fights arms dealers, Thor fights characters from Norse myths, and Captain America fights evil supersoldiers and/or manifestations of America’s failure to live up to its own ideals.

As a result, the bar for a good Marvel villain is staggeringly low. But there are a few questions to ask.

1) Is the actor good? Most of the time they are, since actors like being in giant hits, so Marvel ain’t starved for choice. There are exceptions. Ant-Man’s Yellowjacket had basically nothing to work with and Thor: the Dark World’s Christopher Eccleston/Malekith was so buried in makeup and voice modulation he never had a chance.

2) Do the villain’s actions and motivations make any sort of sense? Like I said… the bar is low. Winter Soldier and the first Thor do well at this. The endless series of evil arms dealers out to kill Tony Stark/Hank Pym and sell weapons make less sense, since nothing was stopping them from legitimately selling weapons. Ultron went from zero to “kill all humans” in an eyeblink. And, of course, Malekith’s plot from Thor: the Dark World is just word salad.

3) Is the villain a credible threat without resorting to Infinitely Respawning Henchmen? This is the least important, but it’s a definite nice-to-have. Loki in Avengers needed endless Chitauri to be dangerous (otherwise he couldn’t even hold his own against Tony Stark) and nobody expected Robert Redford to actually go toe-to-toe with Captain America. But then Avengers was about getting the band together and Winter Soldier was about an ideological fight, not a physical one. Well, an ideological fight with punching and explosions.

So… how does Michael Keaton do as Adrian Toomes, known to comics fans but never once referred to in the movie as the Vulture? Pretty damn good.

1) Is the actor good? Yes. The post-Birdman Michael Keaton Renaissance continues.

2) Do his actions and motivations make any sort of sense? Absolutely. Adrian Toomes is one of the better written Marvel villains. His origin is understandable, his motives relatable.

3) Is the villain a credible threat? Oh yeah. The Vulture swooping in is typically where everything goes wrong for Spider-Man. Fighting Toomes himself is much harder than fighting his chief henchman, The Shocker, a Spider-Man villain who could never carry a movie so may as well be a Giant Mook.

So, in short, and without going into spoilery details, Vulture might be one of Marvel’s very best villains.

Bad: We get it. Spider-Manning requires sacrifice.

So remember how Liv as romantic interest meant ignoring heaps of flaws from Peter? That’s because he bails on her constantly.

I get it. Being Spider-Man means doing the important thing instead of the fun thing. This is a classic trope, needing to ditch friends and loved ones to go stop a villain and save the city. But you can overdo it. You can overdo it so easily. Look at the second season of Arrow. It’s greatest flaw (well, definitely top two, depending on your views on Thea Queen) is that every time Oliver needs to have a business meeting or important personal conversation, Digg or Felicity will invariably interrupt with Arrow business. By the late-season moment when Oliver just needs a few goddamn minutes to convince Thea to sign a form to keep them from losing their house and nightclub, and Felicity immediately interrupts him, I was literally screaming at the screen. That is how played out that plot point was.

That was spread over six months. Peter bails on Liz to fight Vulture’s crew no less than four times in two hours. That’s too many. It’s too many trips to that well in one movie.

And it further weakens her character. Peter wants to take her to homecoming, and should that even have been an option after, at that point, he’s bailed on her threes times and come through for her zero times?

And furthermore… the homecoming dance, which lends its name to the subtitle (yeah, yeah, it’s called Homecoming because it’s Spider-Man joining the MCU fold, not because of the dance) has zero impact. It feels so inconsequential given that since Peter has never turned up for any of his non-Spider-Man obligations even once, we know there’s no chance Liz is having a fun Homecoming. Maybe if even one time he had chosen Liz or any high school melodrama/activity over being Spider-Man, even once, the choice of “dance or stop Vulture” would have had stakes, but instead it’s a foregone conclusion the second Aunt May drops him off at her house. When it’s a critical choice, the audience should not be thinking “Again with this.”

Here’s hoping they strike a better balance in 2019’s Spider-Man: Winter Formal.

Good: Peter and his suit

Peter’s experimentation with his Stark-designed suit’s full capabilities is fun, and mocks a few super-hero tropes. His swift and firm rejection of the suit’s more lethal capabilities is a nice break from the kill-happy Avengers, and… sadly… most recent Batman. And his experimentation with “enhanced interrogation mode” is a pretty fun mockery of the “spooky voices” employed by Green Arrow and Batman.

Bad: Michelle is who now?

This one’s a spoiler, but it’s spoiling something stupid. Make your choices and either read on or meet me at the speed round.

Michelle is the sardonic non-friend following Peter through his non-heroic escapades. Sure she treats him with disdain, but she must like him a little, given her dedication to being wherever he is, if only to mock his pain. Michelle’s a reliably fun character and Zendaya plays her well. But then at the end… look, I mentioned the spoiler thing… she says “My friends call me MJ.”

Dun dun DUUUUNNNN! Michelle is actually MJ, aka Peter Parker’s classic love interest, Michelle Jane Watson!

No. Wait. That’s not right.

It’s Mary. Mary Jane. That is what “MJ” stands for, and everyone knows that, because a) only characters in the comics actually call her “MJ,” not real people, and b) we’ve already had three massively successful (financially, anyway) movies refer to her as “Mary Jane.” Not Michelle Jane. That… that isn’t a thing. Nobody thinks that’s a thing.

So like “Laurel” Lance and “Curtis” Holt on Arrow, I’m forced to ask… why? What does changing her name actually accomplish? Were they worried that if Peter had a classmate named “Mary,” we’d know where that was going and not get invested in Peter and Liz? A fair concern. Once Lois Lane turned up on Smallville, it was hard to get too invested in Clark’s turbulent relationship with Lana Lang for the next… Jesus, four years? They kept Clark and Lana going for four years after introducing Lois? Man. That show had no plan. No plan at all.

Sorry. Got distracted.

But if that’s the case, even the Amazing Spider-Man movies managed to find a solution, and it was don’t have Mary Jane in the movie. Because unlike the hollow shell that is Liz, Gwen Stacy is the real deal. In comic continuity, Peter only ended up with Mary Jane because Gwen died, so there’s no sense in diminishing the one thing about the Amazing movies that worked by telegraphing where it’s going more than they already did. Sure it meant cutting Mary Jane out of the second movie, but Amazing Spider-Man was nothing if not willing to cut huge swaths of the movie out even if it left massive plot holes in their place.

Option two, don’t say her name until the end. Entirely doable. There were several other characters of note whose names were never spoken aloud, you could’ve gotten away with not saying “Mary” until the very end.

Or… and I have no evidence for this but it seems plausible… did they name their “MJ” Michelle so that Mary Jane Watson wasn’t black? Because if that’s the case, you fucking cowards. Have a black Mary Jane or don’t.

That might not be the reason. Again, I have nothing I can cite that says it is. But whatever the reason, it’s stupid. It’s just plain stupid. “Michelle Jane” isn’t a thing I can picture no reason to make it one.

I mean I look forward to seeing where they take her in Spider-Man: Spring Fling, but nothing’s going to make me consider this less stupid.

The Aforementioned Speed Round

Okay, let’s speed this up,

Good: The montage of Peter’s street-level attempted heroics was really fun.

Bad: Saying that the movie takes place eight years after Avengers, which came out only five years ago, makes figuring out the Marvel movie timeline really hard. But that’s a whole other blog’s worth of material.

Good: Peter’s suit-based arc works really well. Is he doing this for the glory of being an Avenger, or because it needs doing? (Sure the answer is obvious but it’s about the journey.)

Bad: The trailers gave away too much. There’s not a lot of suspense in the ferry fight.

Good: Donald Glover as Aaron Davis, uncle to Miles Morales. We might never see Miles on the big screen, but it’s nice they opened that door. Also Donald was fun in the role.

Bad: …Uh…

Good: Hannibal Buress and Martin Starr had some fun one-liners as Peter’s teachers.

Bad: I think I ran out. I think I’ve run out of complaints. Let me think… no, Ned, Vulture, Bokeem Woodbine as the Shocker, the ethnic diversity of Peter’s high school, Happy Hogan, the unexpected denouement cameo, the Captain America videos for high schools, all of that worked like gangbusters. Even the fact that high school crap like being popular and getting a date to the dance feel kind of inconsequential when you’re a couple of decades removed from high school isn’t really a flaw, because they are inconsequential compared to keeping giant sci-fi weapons off the street, that’s the point, that’s why he keeps bailing on things to Spider-Man at people.

So, yeah, there you have it. It’s not Earth-shaking, it never moved me the way Wonder Woman did, but it’s fun and decently paced and even when you’re really willing to pick nits the good outweighs the bad. It’s probably worth your time, and is almost certainly better than most of last summer’s tentpoles.

But go ahead and skip 3D and IMAX. I did, and I don’t think I missed anything.

Best of Comic TV 2017 Part 5: The Top Four

Okay, let’s wrap this thing up already. Hey, I’m as eager as you are, I started writing these in March.

Ladies and gentlemen, Danny G’s Top Four Comic Book TV Series of 2017. Brace yourself for some surprising comeback stories.

4. Arrow

Arrow had a couple of rough seasons there. After the operatic battle of Oliver vs. Slade in season two, they floundered through the mopey Ra’s Al Ghul story of season three and pushed magic and relationship drama too hard in season four, but in season five they found their groove again in a big way.

Strengths: Stephen Amell may have given his best performance this year, and Oliver Queen has clearly evolved as a person… even if he backslid on the whole “no killing” thing.

Oliver/Felicity drama was, as requested, kept to a minimum.

After two years of decreasing relevance, the flashbacks actually felt important this year. Past-Oliver’s journey towards being season one’s “The Hood” completed, and his return to the island of Lian Yu put a perfect capstone on his “five years in Hell.”

The flashbacks also featured the return of David Nykl as Oliver’s wacky Bratva buddy from his island days, Anatoly Knyazev. He’s always fun. Shame they’re not getting along in the present.

The new team worked out well. Wild Dog took some warming up to but he got there, Ragman was great (while he lasted), Curtis became Mr. Terrific, T-spheres and all, and the new Black Canary is nicely badass.

Speaking of the new Black Canary… I thought they were going to go the Jefferson Jackson route and invent a new character, but when her name turned out to be “Dinah Drake?” That’s the Golden Age and current Black Canary’s maiden name. They introduced a new Black Canary without creating a new Black Canary. Respect.

Episodes that not only featured but were named after obscure characters Vigilante and Human Target? Nice treat for me. Not “Third season of the Human Target TV show” nice but I’ll still take it.

Tobias Church was a great warm-up villain for the new team. Casting Wire veteran Chad L. Coleman certainly helped.

Prometheus might not have made the podium, but he may well be the most chilling comic TV villain this side of Kilgrave. And they found a great way to fool us as to who he was… 

Spoilery spoilers

Adrian Chase may have been an obvious answer in retrospect, but I was too busy thinking he was Vigilante. That is, after all, Vigilante’s name in the comics.

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Oliver forming his own Legion of Doom to face down Prometheus was pretty cool, and involved the return of Slade Wilson. That’s always worth celebrating.

Quentin and Thea made a better duo than I’d have guessed four years back.

Dolph Lundgren. Nice get, Arrow.

Weaknesses: Prometheus was so good at his job that it began to get oppressively dark at times.

…Did they just kill [REDACTED] in the finale? The actor certainly thinks so. Aw. I do not love that.

Why’d you guys write out Ragman? I liked Ragman. He was the best of the new gang. That was a dick move, you guys. I mean I’ll forgive it if Constantine helps him get his powers back next year, but until then…

Four years without a major cliffhanger and you pull that. Thanks, jerks.

High Point: “Invasion!” Now, naming the crossover episode seems as damning to the rest of the season as naming the premiere, but hear me out… “Invasion!” wasn’t just Arrow’s chapter of the big crossover, it was also their 100th episode. And in the middle of this time-travelling, space-faring battle between alien invaders and heroes from two alternate Earths, they managed a perfect, emotional, alumni-filled tribute to the previous 99 episodes. It gave Oliver just the right sense of contentment with his life for Prometheus to stroll in and destroy almost immediately after.

Low Point: “Spectre of the Gun.” Arrow tries to take on gun control, but spends so much time trying to play both sides of the issue that the best answer they come up with is “Gosh, that is a stumper.” After which Mayor Queen proposes “common sense gun laws both sides can agree on” with no, I say no elaboration as to what those might be.

MVP: Stephen Amell. He brought his A-game this year and it rooted the season.

Tips for next season: The end of this year and the end of the origin flashbacks screams “New beginning.” Let’s chase that. (Also how about that thing I said about Ragman and Constantine?)

3. Lucifer

…What. How. How. How did this happen. How did Lucifer go from last season’s guilty pleasure to this season’s appointment viewing? Three words: The Goddess Charlotte. The arrival of Lucifer’s Mother brought the show’s mythology to a whole new level, making it so much more than just a crime procedural about Lucifer helping a straight-laced police detective solve murders. Although it is still that.

Strengths: Nearly every member of the cast was given better material this year. Dan went from “Detective Douche” to a more relatable, likable, rounded out character; Amenadiel went from stubbornly trying to drag his brother back to his post in Hell to struggling with a loss of faith in his Father in the face of his Mother’s arrival; Maze began to define herself outside of “Lucifer’s flunky;” Dr. Linda became the first of the human characters to realize Lucifer isn’t just pretending to be the ex-King of Hell, and had to wrap her head around having clients/friends that include angels, a demon, and the co-creator of the universe; Aimee Garcia is a delightful addition as the perpetually upbeat CSI Ella Lopez; even Trixie, Chloe and Dan’s daughter, was a more fun character this year. And Lucifer himself got a lot more to play with, as his family dynamics expanded beyond “I hate my Dad” and “Screw you, Amenadiel.” Basically, nearly every part of this show was working on a whole new level.

Nearly.

Weaknesses: Two problems.

First, while the new mythology is unquestionably a value add, it did sometimes mean that the murders-of-the-week didn’t get the attention they needed. And given that they took up a chunk of the screen time and were the focus of at least three characters each week, that’s not ideal.

Second… Detective Chloe Decker, in theory the second of two leads, was stuck in a difficult place this year, narratively speaking. While they did give actress Lauren German some fun or meaty material to play with, she was kept at arms’ length from the central plotline, and for an awkward reason. At the mid-season break, Charlotte learns a major secret about Chloe, one she herself doesn’t know and isn’t in a position to understand. So it’s Clara Oswald’s Impossible Girl story all over again… the story is about Chloe, but Chloe herself can’t participate in it, which ultimately weakens her as a character.

High point: “Weaponizer/Monster.” Lucifer and Amenadiel’s little brother Uriel comes to town, on a mission to bring down their Mother. For Lucifer the show and Lucifer the character, everything hits a new level from here.

Low point: …Honestly hard to think of one. My first guess would be “Lady Parts,” for Lucifer’s weirdly newfound obsession with distraction as a lifestyle, but no episode with such a memorable “girl’s night,” drunk Amenadiel joining undercover work with Lucifer and Dan, or less-drunk Amenadiel sulkily defending his choice in drinks (“But cosmos are yummy,”) could be a low point. And hedonistic, carefree Lucifer needed a last ride before Uriel’s arrival. Hmmm… I guess “Homewrecker,” maybe? I mean I don’t remember disliking it but it seems largely forgettable compared to the others.

MVP: Totes Tom Ellis. He was already the best part of this show last season, but he reached new levels this year.

2. Legends of Tomorrow

Does the Berlanti Cape-based Action Fun Factory only have so much fun to go around? Because while The Flash lost a step this year, Legends of Tomorrow found it. They went from the Joey Bishop of the DCW Rat Pack to the Frank Sinatra. They– was that enough metaphors? Too many?

Cutting loose the boat anchor (never enough metaphors) that was the Vandal/Hawkgirl plot certainly helped. Freed of their weakest characters (and, sadly, two of their best for parts of the year), Legends season two took on a more classic story structure: a race to collect the various parts of the magical MacGuffin before the bad guys get it and do something bad with it. It’s a classic for a reason, and it allows for more give and take, successes and failures, making for a more dynamic arc than last year’s “The Gang Continues to Fail at Killing Vandal Savage,” or indeed “Will Flash beat Savitar this week? LOL, no, it’s only April.”

Plus they made better use of time travel as a central plotline, meaning more fun time travel adventures and less brooding around the Waverider about how they haven’t made any progress. Legends of Tomorrow became the most fun and most clever show in the DCW-verse’s line-up.

Strengths: The Legion of Doom. A great showcase for three of their best villains. John Barrowman and Neal McDonough brought just the right amount of evil camp, and played well off of Matt Letscher’s Eobard Thawne. And they all had concrete and clear motives, unlike some of the year’s villains.

The Legends themselves were pretty great this season. Amaya/Vixen was a far better character than the departed Hawkgirl. Just far better. Nick Zano’s Nate Heywood strutted into the cast like Dwayne Johnson in Fast Five: the missing ingredient we didn’t even know we needed. The nerd-fun of the show got cranked way up as historian Nate and scientist Ray Palmer geeked out over time travel and movies together. Ray stopped finding new ways to screw up every week, bringing an end to the Ray Palmer Screw-up Counter. A more sedate Mick Rory/Heat Wave became a more interesting character. Arthur Darville got to flex a little more this year. And Amy Pemberton, after over a season and a half as the voice of the Waverider’s computer Gideon, actually got to be on screen. And it worked out to be delightful.

More, better, and better used time periods.

The finale found a fun and interesting way to raise the stakes and make the Legion as dangerous as they deserved to be.

Weaknesses: Thanks to Arthur Darville filming the third season of Broadchurch back in England, Rip Hunter went missing for sevenish episodes. That’s a lot of episodes without one of my absolute favourite characters. And with Captain Cold not back full-time from season one, that was two absolute favourite characters gone. That only left me, like, three absolute favourite characters! Four with Damien, I guess…

I guess there’s no keeping love and romance drama off the Waverider, huh. Well, it was better this year, at least.

They rushed “Doomworld.” Rushed it and didn’t commit to it.

Can’t say I’m super happy with how they used Rex Tyler and the Justice Society. Or more to the point, how they didn’t.

High point: Either “Raiders of the Lost Art,” in which Rip returns, stopping the Legion means convincing a young George Lucas to stay in film school, and the action beats get Star Wars-y… or “Fellowship of the Spear,” in which Captain Cold returns, stopping the Legion requires help from a young J.R.R. Tolkien, and the plot becomes Lord of the Rings-y. Sure, the bit wasn’t subtle either time, but it was charming enough to work.

Low point: “Shogun,” which is best summed up by the “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia” meme Reddit gave it…

No one was their best self that week.

MVP: A tough call with Victor Garber and Brandon Routh in the cast, but it’s Caity Lotz as Sara Lance. Taking over as captain in Rip’s absence, she became a great leader, and worth hanging the finale on. Also, with the man who killed her sister in the Legion, she had the highest stakes without going full “Vandal kills my family.”

Tips for next season: More like that, please. And stop writing out Rip Hunter he has to be on this show forever I can’t take any more time travel shows writing out Arthur Darville.

1. Legion

…Where the Hell did this show come from?

[checks IMDB] Oh. The creator of the Fargo TV show. Gotcha.

The thing about Fox’s X-Men cinematic universe is that they do not super care about how all of their properties link together. While this could prove frustrating to anyone trying to figure out how the timeline of the X-Men films works (spoiler: it doesn’t), it means that creators are free to pitch something like Logan, which doesn’t fit neatly with the rest of the franchise, but also doesn’t care. They’re just doing their own thing and trying to do it well. Marvel Studios is selling themselves on “Everything is connected, trust us,” so it sticks out when something obviously doesn’t fit (looking at you, Defenders). X-Men? Their projects have an atmosphere of “Don’t worry about it, just relax and enjoy.”

And thus did Noah Hawley sell the FX network on an X-Men show that features several mutants, but never explicitly admits the existence of the X-Men*. And thanks to the loosey-goosey nature of the X-Men franchise, its self-contained nature doesn’t irritate the viewer like, say, Claire Temple deciding to fly to China to fight ninjas rather than call Daredevil. In fact, the whole show works like gangbusters.

*They hint at Professor Xavier kinda strongly toward the end, though.

Strengths: Legion is more visually daring and inventive than any show on TV, superhero or otherwise, this side of American Gods. (And there is no shame in coming in second to American Gods.)

The costumes, the sets, the angles, every single aesthetic choice is a little fascinating.

Jemaine Clements of Flight of the Concords turns up around the half-way point, and pushes the show to a whole new level of surreally cool.

I mentioned the thing about Aubrey Plaza killing it on this show as Lenny, right? Well it bears repeating. She’s the highlight of a cast that’s already above average across the board.

At a tight eight episodes, it’s all thriller, no filler. Marvel Netflix could learn a thing or two about Legion’s pacing.

You don’t need to have seen a single X-Men movie or have read a single comic to follow the story.

David and Syd, the slightly star-crossed lovers who can only touch each other in the astral plane, are competitive with Alex Danvers and Maggie Sawyer as my favourite couple in comic TV.

The supporting cast is really solid too. Maybe they didn’t make the “supporting cast” podium, but there’s not really a weak link.

Not many TV shows could write a soundtrack better than what Blake Neely does for the DCW shows… but Jeff Russo pulls it off.

I’m personally fascinated by how timeless the show makes itself. The characters have a modern feel, but the costumes and sets are out of the 60s/70s, and they’re packing 30s-style tommy guns. It really frees the more continuity-obsessed mind from trying to place it in X-Men continuity when you can’t even be sure what decade it takes place in.

The eeriest rendition of “Rainbow Connection” you’ve ever heard.

At the very end, they managed something with the sinister mutant-hunting Division Three that Supergirl and Agents of SHIELD couldn’t with Cadmus or the Watchdogs: they gave the group based around hunting a minority (mutants, in this case) depth and levels. They dared us to sympathize with someone they’d set us up to hate.

Weaknesses: The season finale could have contained more closure. But hey, at least we already know season two is on the way. Eventually.

High Point: I wanted to say Chapter Four, which opens with Jemaine Clements talking directly to the audience about the two types of stories we tell children, but then Chapter Seven blew the doors off the place. The chalkboard, David’s “rational self,” Bolero… it’s hard to think of a scene from this episode that wouldn’t have been the single best scene from any other show.

Low Point: The worst thing I can say about any episode is that Chapter Six, from a narrative viewpoint, isn’t really my bag. But without it, you couldn’t do Chapter Seven the way they did. 

Spoiler

Of the three shows that did “Heroes wake up in an artificial reality created by the villain,” Legion did it best. Legends of Tomorrow rushed it and under-sold the Doomworld dystopia, whereas Agents of SHIELD spent nearly their entire third act in the Framework. SHIELD was too hot, Legends too cold, Legion was juuuust right.

[collapse]
And it gave us this scene, which (trust me) does make perfect sense in context. I’m really not selling this as a “low point,” am I…

MVP: Dana Gonzales and Craig Wrobleski, the cinematographers. The visuals alone would have pushed this show into the top five. Best shot show I’m watching.

Tips for next season: Look… you don’t need to do it, but Patrick Stewart has apparently said he’ll reprise Charles Xavier one last time to be on this show, and I simply do not see how it could possibly hurt. Or get James McAvoy. Or have meeting Stewart-Xavier trigger a psychically implanted memory of McAvoy-Xavier. You never need to say “X-Men,” and we certainly do not, Lord but we do not need Wolverine to show up, but maybe just this one thing?

And that’s the end. The highlights of the best 13 of 15 comic book shows. Well, the best 12 and Iron Fist. Was it only two years ago that I only ranked seven shows? Man. Well, at least next season this process won’t get even more comp–

…Oh no.

SON…

…OF…

…A…

…BITCH.

*Sigh.*

Okay. Meet back here next summer. Until then, Other Things.

Best of Comic TV Part 4: Middle of the Pack

And we continue.

8. Supergirl

Supergirl vs. Riverdale was a tougher call than I could have expected a few months back.

The shift from CBS to the CW had an impact in ways I wouldn’t have expected, resulting in a different show than last season. But the important elements remained. And what ultimately pushed it above its teen soap competition is that the writers looked at Trump’s America and said “Hell no.” Witness ex-Wonder Woman Lynda Carter as the President and the title of their finale, “Nevertheless She Persisted.”

They never settled on a primary villain, no. Lillian Luthor and Cadmus took the lead for the first act, but then in the end the villain plot shifted to “Mon-El’s Mother Has a Savage Overreaction.” But I’m not calling that a weakness, like I did elsewhere, because in this case? The villain doesn’t define the season’s arc. Supergirl’s season isn’t “Supergirl Vs. So-and-So.” It’s “Supergirl and Mon-El: a Star-Crossed Romance.” Now whether the central plot of the season being Kara’s challenging relationship with newcomer Mon-El is a strength or weakness depends entirely on your own perspective.

Strengths: In season one, National City’s alien population was limited to Supergirl, Martian Manhunter, and the escapees of Kryptonian prison Fort Rozz. All of a sudden there’s a large population of non-criminal aliens, enough that they have their own bar. Many of them are refugees, and now the DEO is as dedicated to protecting aliens as tracking them down. At a time when the ruling party of their country is trying to build border walls and ban Syrian immigrants, when Marvel Comics has turned Captain America into a full-on Nazi, Supergirl came out as proudly, vocally, passionately pro-refugee and pro-immigrant. This is what Supergirl (and SupermanDC films) should be, the hero standing firmly beside what’s right, even when the mob is trying to back what’s wrong.

They really spent the summer looking at the previous season and asking “What works, what doesn’t, how can we simplify.” Winn left CatCo to work for the DEO, centralizing all of Kara’s superheroing there. Kara and James Olsen had no chemistry, so their romance came to a screeching halt, and her romance with Mon-El felt more earned.

Alex realizing her sexuality, coming out, and finding love with Maggie Sawyer wasn’t just one of the best done romances on TV this year, it also did real good in the world.

While he has nothing, and I mean nothing in common with his comic book namesake, Snapper Carr worked out well. Curmudgeonly? Sure, but every time he clashed with Kara he not only had a reason, he was usually right. He opposed Kara’s hiring because she had no experience. He wouldn’t let her print an opinion piece as news. Later he wouldn’t print her story on aliens being abducted only because she lacked verifiable sources. When he fired her, he had cause, and when she understood that and made it right, she was welcomed back. Snapper was a curmudgeon, yes, but he was a curmudgeon because he cares about responsible journalism. Snapper Carr never would have let Karen Page publish her stupid grade school essay about “what makes a hero” and call it “news.”

Also, props to the writers for allowing Kara not to be brilliant at her new reporter job right away.

Lena Luthor. She’s complex, she’s interesting, her friendship with Kara is well-done, and the seeds of its destruction are well-planted.

Not all of the fandom agrees with me, but I found Chris Wood effortlessly funny and charismatic as Mon-El.

I’m glad they didn’t have Winn become consumed with bitterness over being rejected by Kara and turn to the dark side, because Jeremy Jordan is delightful in that role and I prefer him as he is.

Weaknesses: A sad consequence of moving production to Vancouver was losing Calista Flockhart as Cat Grant for most of the season. Her triumphant return for the last two episodes instantly reminded us how much she’d added.

Also gone? Maxwell Lord and Lucy Lane. After being major players in season one, they not only vanish, no one even says their names.

The writers had no idea what to do with James Olsen this year. As interim CEO of CatCo he did virtually nothing, partially because CatCo stopped being a hub for the story and partially because having Kara run to James when Snapper was mean to her would have been an awful character choice. So they turned him into a masked vigilante, but still could only barely fit him into the story.

On that note. “You can’t be a superhero, James, you don’t have powers!” says Kara, weeks after calling Green Arrow one of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. I guess she has higher standards for heroes on her own Earth?

Cadmus were fairly one-dimensional as villains (“We hate aliens! Grr!”) and Rhea, Queen of Daxam, wasn’t much better (“My son has a girlfriend? I’ll conquer her planet!”). I dig that they represent the worst parts of the current US administration (xenophobia and elitism, respectively), but it doesn’t make them interesting. Plus they’re still pushing Livewire as Supergirl’s “nemesis.” No, man, just no.

High point: I don’t love what calling the season premiere the high point implies about the season to come, but it is legitimately hard to top “The Adventures of Supergirl” and “Last Children of Krypton.” Tyler Hoechlin made his debut as Superman, and not only was he a great Man of Steel, he and Kara made a wonderful double act.

Low point: “The Darkest Place.” Supergirl falls into one of my least favourite tropes from last year, and Hank Henshaw returns, declaring himself “The Cyborg Superman.” Which wouldn’t be a bad thing, only in the context of the show, it makes basically no sense.

MVP: Chyler Leigh as Alex Danvers. There is no emotional beat this woman can’t sell.

Advice for next season: That portal thing that happened at the end of the finale? That’s a time portal, right? To the 31st century? Opening the door for the Legion of Superheroes? It had better be.

7. Agents of SHIELD

I will give Agents of SHIELD this… no show on this list has been so devoted to self-improvement and course correction. Each season has managed to improve on the one before it, meaning season four is their best work. Splitting the season into mini-arcs (Ghost Rider, LMD, and Agents of Hydra) made for a season that rarely felt drawn out. When the show moved from Ghost Rider to LMD after the winter hiatus, we had a sense of closure on Ghost Rider and its main villain before things began to transition to Dr. Radcliffe, his poor choices regarding robots, and the Framework. That said… trying to address all three arcs with one finale proved a leettle tricky.

Strengths: All of the main cast did great work this year. Fitz and Simmons in particular excelled as the heart and soul of the team (even if sometimes the heart was supposed to be Daisy).

Diego Luna as Ghost Rider was better than I ever expected the third, least popular, and objectively least cool (He doesn’t. Even. Have. A motorcyle.) Ghost Rider to be. His arc got the season off to a good start.

John Hannah’s well-meaning but ethically flexible mad scientist, Dr. Holden Radcliffe, was a great addition to the year’s blend of magic and sci-fi. He flipped from ally to enemy and back again in ways that made sense. His melancholy last scene was pretty much perfect.

As indicated earlier, Mallory Jansen did an amazing job as Aida, Holden Radcliffe’s prototype Live Model Decoy.

I’ve liked Jason O’Mara since the US remake of Life on Mars, so having him as Jeffrey Mace, the new Director of SHIELD, was a bonus. One day he’ll be on a show for more than one season. One day.

The artificial world of the Framework allowed for the return of the late Agent Triplett and for a satisfying coda to Grant Ward, truly heroic for the first time, even if he was just computer code.

Weaknesses: The Watchdogs were bad. They were just bad. Okay, sure, I am on board with demonizing hate groups, especially now. So maybe humanizing a group of people based around hating people different than them wouldn’t have been a great idea. The problem is, they were the main villain for most of the LMD arc and frequent villains throughout Ghost Rider, and they just weren’t interesting. Also, even with everything that is happening in the government now, I find it hard to believe that a Senator could go on TV and say “I don’t care if a known hate group was proved to be behind the attack, I still think it was [metaphor for real-world minority],” and not get called out more.

The Senator and Watchdog stooge in question, Senator Nadir, was played by Parminder Nagra. I normally like Parminder Nagra. But Senator Nadir was so devoid of interest that I rolled my eyes when I saw her in the credits. They ruined Parminder Nagra.

The head of the Watchdogs is so one-dimensional that even the other characters don’t care about him or his motivations. And yet of all the villains this season, he’s the only one still alive. Great. More of his nonsense to come. (It doesn’t help that he’s played by Zach McGowan from Shameless. Once you’ve seen a close up of someone singing “Kiss From a Rose” while orgasming it’s a little hard to take them seriously as a figure of menace.) Ghost Rider and Agents of Hydra could have propelled this show into the top five, but man, the Watchdogs just dragged it down.

I wasn’t thrilled with how they ended poor Jeffrey Mace. It felt hollow.

Having Mack refuse to leave the Framework because he couldn’t leave behind his artificial daughter just added weaker drama to a finale that wasn’t exactly struggling to fill the time. “Mack, this world isn’t real” might not have been persuasive, but “Mack, this world isn’t real and is in the process of being turned off” should have been.

High point: “Self Control.” LMD may not have been their best arc, but it ended strong, as four of the core team is replaced with LMDs. But which? Things get tense as the robots begin to take over and the humans desperately try to figure who they can trust.

Low point: “Wake Up.” Senator Nadeer begins to overstay her welcome as it becomes clear that May ain’t escaping the Framework any time soon.

MVP: Mallory Jansen came close, but it has to be Iain De Caestecker. Fitz and Simmons finally a couple was adorable. Fitz working with Radcliffe on Aida made it seem like maybe this whole LMD thing might be a good idea. Fitz in the Framework was chilling. Fitz trying to come to terms with what he did in the Framework was heartbreaking.

Advice for next season: …Wait up. Is it happening? Are you doing it? Is SWORD showing up? Oh do say yes. But besides that… you hit a wall at the end of this season, where your ambition eclipsed your budget. What could have been an epic showdown between Ghost Rider an ex-robot with a body made of dark matter and filled with Inhuman powers became as brief and anti-climactic as the worst fights from Smallville because you ran out of money. Budget better.

5. iZombie

If there’s one thing that marathoning the first two seasons of iZombie while waiting for the third to wrap up taught me, it’s how good this show has been at discarding plot elements that don’t work. Liv’s family hasn’t been seen since the premiere of season two, and nobody missed them. Major’s addiction to utopium was mercifully brief. Would-be crime lord Blaine is way more fun as a loveable rascal than the teen-murdering pure-villain of season one.

That said… previous seasons balanced murders-of-the-week with a season-long villain arc that has historically built to a satisfying and (often literally) explosive finale. This season… we had zombie-run military organisation Fillmore Graves trying to build a home for the zombie nation, a group of paranoid gun nuts hoping to wipe out the zombie nation, and like a half dozen various mysteries and conspiracies, only some of which paid off in the end.

Still good… just a little more scattered.

Strengths: The cast is fantastic. Rose McIver always makes the many minds of Liv Moore a fun ride, but the supporting cast all had great material this year and none of them let it down. Major got to be more fun (seriously, Robert Buckley is too good at comedy to keep getting the grimmest plots every year), Rahul Kohli got the flex his dramatic muscles more as Ravi (though his dry wit remains a highlight), Clive got to be in on the secret at long last (technically that happened last season, but here’s where it kicked in, plotwise), Blaine had himself a roller coaster, and Payton is a regular now. There’s no weak links in that gang.

My rewatch also taught me that they established the District Attorney of Seattle’s name is “Floyd Baracus” early season two. Given this show’s established love of gag names, how did it take me a year to spot “DA Baracus?” I pity the fool who doesn’t get that one.

Another veteran of creator Rob Thomas’ cult favourite series, Veronica Mars, showed up in the back half of the season, as Jason Dohring plays Fillmore Graves’ stern commander Chase Graves. That was a fun addition.

Rolling on D&D geek brain, Liv gathers the gang for Dungeons and Dragons to trigger a vision. One of the gang’s reaction is… priceless.

A Clive-centric episode did a great job explaining two facts we learned about him in season two: his hatred of abusive fathers, and his obsession with Game of Thrones.

The side effects of the zombie cure opened the door to a new twist on the brain business. Let’s just say that a bunch of zombies on enhanced choreographer brain was the best thing ever.

There are plenty of zombie stories out there, but zombies and humans trying to find a way to live in harmony as discovery looms close? That’s new.

Weaknesses: Season one had the cohesive plot of Meat Cute: Blaine’s brain-supply front stocked with murdered teenage runaways, and Major’s quest to bring it down. Season two was all about Max Rager, and CEO Vaughn du Clark’s attempt to clean up the zombie problem while using them to perfect his new drink, SuperMax. Both ended with big bang climaxes at the central business in question. This year… it’s just this mishmash. The climax does less to pay off the season’s stories than it does to set up next year. Some of those stories don’t really get paid off at all. To wit…
-Fillmore Graves CEO Vivian Stoll had a vendetta against the zombie who turned her husband in order to extort him for brain money, ie. Blaine. But having set that plot up, it vanished into the ether mid-season, never to be paid off.
-So… did the people behind the zombie family murder in the premiere also steal Ravi’s zombie cure doses? How did they know about them? They never came back to that. The cure was simply wished to the corn field so that Liv couldn’t have it.
-And were they also behind the murder of the dominatrix from Spanking the Zombie, and the subsequent murder of the guy who did it? I guess, but I’m not positive why. That one also just fizzled out and really added nothing.

The problem with making the surprise murderer/conspirator the character you least suspect is that it also might be the character you least care about. Everything hinged on that reveal and it was kind of… meh.

Payton tells apparently amnesiac Blaine, who she knows to have been a murderer, drug peddler, and scoundrel of the first order, “We can only hook up if you don’t get your memories back,” and expects him to come clean if they do. Come on, Payton, you are smarter than that. Feigning amnesia to get with you wouldn’t even make Blaine’s top ten sins. I know he’s easy on the eyes but come on.

Perpetual henchman Don E. is sometimes fun, but… he’s the most annoying kind of side-villain. The one who assumes that because he works for a guy with a plan, he can be the guy with the plan, yet his every attempt fails catastrophically. Eventually I get tired of Don E. screwing over Blaine and causing catastrophes in his solo work and just want to see him get stomped on.

Major is still getting the grimmest storylines. They’re better than his one-man crusade against Meat Cute and his fling with utopium, but “shunned by society” Major is still a bummer. No, I’m not making a “major bummer” joke. I am above that (right at this moment), and it would only lead me into ranting about how great that comic book was.

High point: “Spanking the Zombie” provided one of the more fun brains for Liv; fun return appearances for Ken Marino’s slimy defence attorney and Daran Norris as Johnny Frost, the weatherman (and eventual anchorman) who manages to be a person of interest in Seattle’s most scandalous murders; and a heartbreaking choice for Major. So it’s definitely either that or “20 Sided, Die,” featuring Team Liv’s D&D session.

Low point: I think “Some Like it Hot Mess” is what knocked Liv out of contention for best female lead. The first of too many “train wreck brains,” brains that barely help with the murder-of-the-week but do wonders to screw up Liv’s life. Last year’s low point was also a train wreck brain episode, and for a reason. On Smallville I’d call such occurrences “Red Kryptonite episodes,” in which Clark’s personality is changed just long enough to break any progress his relationship arcs had made in the last fifteen episodes, and they are never something you want to be compared to. That said… after Liv sloppily dances her way across the morgue, Ravi’s reaction of “Hot mess club girl brain, you say,” was priceless. Also, if you enjoyed Blaine and Payton as a couple, you’re wrong and I don’t like you. Okay, that was too mean, you’re alright, let’s get a beer sometime.

MVP: Still Rose McIver. Everyone crushed it at points of the season, but like or hate her current brain, no one crushes it like Rose. (I also love that Liv in human-passing wig and makeup is Rose McIvor with her natural hair and skin tone. If Liv had had to disguise herself as a human from Rose’s home country, New Zealand, that would have been even better.)

Advice for next season: …I got nothing. Pretty sure you just blew up the whole premise in that finale, so I don’t know what to tell you. Except maybe give Major a freaking break.

5. Preacher

Preacher is based on a cult but beloved graphic novel from the 90s, but managed to find a way to be satisfying to fans of the comic while still charting their own path. They provided what would have been easily the most gonzo show of the year, had the trippy Legion not come along.

Strengths: The cast is superb. All of them. I could spend another 500 words praising them individually but it’s just all of them. Okay I’ll mention one in particular… Jackie Earle Haley. He’s amazing in basically everything and it’s not different here.

The direction is really solid. A lot of the CW shows get flashy in the action scenes then go more basic in the dialogue, but Preacher has a consistent visual flare that puts it a cut above.

The characters are, on the whole, all pretty fascinating.

It looks like they’re moving Arseface from his role as running gag in the books to replacing the spectral John Wayne as Jesse’s spirit guide. I dig it. That makes sense if you read the comics. I don’t have room to explain it here.

It feels like I’m underselling this one but this got so damn long, you guys…

Weaknesses: Sometimes it felt like they spent the first five episodes throwing crazy shit at the screen before they finally got around to telling a story with it. It’s primo crazy, but it takes a while to form a narrative, and that doesn’t help the pacing. That said… the plot became more cohesive as the show went on, which gives Preacher the edge over iZombie, which went the other way.

Also, if you don’t follow the comics, some of it won’t make much sense. They get around to explaining why every second episode has some sinister cowboy, but the guy in the white suit with the alarming taste in movies? Sure, I know who that is, but Johnny or Jenny First-timer won’t, and they won’t find out until season.

And I didn’t love how disconnected Tulip was from the main story. She’s just off on her own, in the slowest-moving plot, trying to talk Jesse into joining her for some vengeance. It’s a plot that by necessity spins its wheels, since there aren’t many places it can go, and meanwhile there are freaking angels getting in fights with a vampire.

High point: “Sundowner.” Jesse learns the truth about Genesis, there’s an incredible and hilarious fight scene, and we’re not even at the credits yet. The plot kicks into high gear and still finds time for some great character moments.

Low point: “The Possibilities.” Jesse has this new power he’s finally noticing, but Tulip wants him to go get revenge on a former associate of theirs, and nobody knows Cassidy’s a vampire, and this is the one where you start to wonder if all of these elements are going to come together in some sort of satisfactory fashion. And I’m telling you, newcomers might not remember that “Grail Industries” is a thing by the time you get back to that.

MVP: Joe Gilgun as Cassidy. Any scene he’s in pops.

Advice for next season: You have our attention. Stop trying to get our attention with wave after wave of unconnected gonzo craziness and just tell the story. (Which, two episodes into the second season, it seems like they are.) Oh, if we’re doing Jesse’s childhood, could you make it less grim than the comics did? Five months that story ran and four of them were just oppressive. (Fifth was damn satisfying, though.)

Okay. Next time, we finish this.

Best of Comic TV 2017 Part 3: The Rankings Begin

Let’s get down to it. Time for the rankings.

13. Iron Fist

Oh lawdy, did they bollocks up this one.

Strengths: …um… David Wenham seemed to be having fun? And Ward Meachum somehow went from “irredeemable asshole” to “most fascinating character.” Not positive how that happened.

Weaknesses: I believe I have spoken on this in no small detail. But to recap… it’s a bland, scattered, cautionary tale about corporate edict steering the creative side. Iron Fist wasn’t made because someone was passionate about bringing Iron Fist to the screen. At least I assume not, because it’s impossible to guess what their dream Iron Fist story might have been from this mishmash of conflicting story threads. No, they needed an Iron Fist show to finish setting up The Defenders, so they hired people to film one. And given the amount of time we waste on Rand Enterprises corporate drama, and how little kung fu superheroing takes place, it doesn’t seem like any of the writers actually wanted to be doing Iron Fist. The entire season has the feel of everyone involved saying “Eh, it’ll do.”

And you only gave the lead 15 minutes to learn his fights? No wonder they look like you filmed a rehearsal. Jesus, people.

High point: Episode 12, “Bar the Big Boss,” could have been the most satisfying Marvel Netflix season finale since Jessica Jones, save for two things. 1) The plotlines it wrapped up (in decent fashion) had only started two episodes ago; 2) It was not, in fact, the season finale. It’s like they wrapped the show, put a nice bow on it, and suddenly remembered they needed to do one more. But, you know… everything before that moment was as good as Iron Fist got.

Low Point: The joke would be “With the entire season this bland, it’s hard to pick,” but it’s episode two, “Shadow Hawk Takes Flight.” Nothing of merit happens in this episode that couldn’t have happened in episode one. Two episodes in, and the show was already spinning its wheels.

MVP: Tom Pelphrey as Ward Meachum. In my 10,000 or so words tearing Iron Fist apart back in March, I took many a shot at Ward, and how cartoonishly dickish he was from word one. What I didn’t find time to get into is how well Tom Pelphrey nailed it. In a show that didn’t so much have “character arcs” as “a bunch of largely random and often self-contradictory so-called ‘character beats,'” Tom Pelphrey made Ward’s journey from “utter tool” to “drug addict on the verge of a nervous breakdown” to “legit friend and ally to Danny” actually feel like a somewhat natural progression. Sure I’ve complained that the Meachum plots were often dead air, and will continue to do so, but still, props to Tom for managing that much with a character I was ready to write off by the end of the first hour.

Advice for next season: You did everything badly. Everything. Every single thing about your show was on the spectrum from “flawed” to “terrible.” And until you grasp that, maybe a second season isn’t the best idea. But since it seems inevitable, start here: Danny Rand is a superhero with magical kung fu powers. Anything that is not serving that concept, drop it. If that’s not what you want to write for, quit.

And schedule time to rehearse some decent fight scenes, damn your eyes.

12. Luke Cage

After two years of Marvel Netflix topping the list, we have arrived, readers, at The Year When Marvel Netflix Got Its Ass Kicked by the CW.

And it’s not because everyone on the CW was trying their best.

Strengths: The soundtrack is pretty killer. The “battle for the soul of Harlem” between Luke and Cottonmouth had promise. As did Detective Misty Knight. And not enough good things can be said about Mahershala Ali (who doesn’t seem to know how to give less than a great performance) and Alfre Woodard as Cottonmouth and Black Mariah. Mariah and her henchman /mentor Shades have a fascinating relationship in the back half. Also, given how gleamingly white most superhero properties are (13 shows covered here, 11 with white protagonists), it’s refreshing to have a show so unapologetically black, and invested in the history of Harlem.

Weaknesses: Hoo boy.

Maybe Marvel Netflix should try shorter seasons. They are having real trouble filling 13 episodes. Luke Cage starts slow, gets interesting in the middle, then falls apart at the end. And it’s not just 

the death of Cottonmouth,

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it’s the fact that it’s followed by absolute garbage. They had two strong villains, but they throw them both aside in favour of Diamondback, who is just dull and empty. And he comes out of nowhere! Not Diamondback the gun dealer, no, but how did they spend an entire hour on Luke Cage’s origin and they still couldn’t set up this supposed childhood best friend of Luke’s until he bursts out of the shadows, with zero context, screaming “It was me all along!” I get, I get that if they introduced him earlier we’d have guessed he was a villain, but just because the twist is obvious doesn’t mean you get to just skip the build-up and go straight to the reveal. The twists on The Flash aren’t exactly hard to spot, but they make them work. Moving on.

No, I’m not. Because the other thing that sucks about Diamondback is that the whole “battle for the soul of Harlem” goes right out the window. Diamondback ain’t give a fuck about the soul of Harlem, he just wants to destroy Luke for reasons we didn’t even know were a thing ten minutes ago.

Remember back when I wrote about hard truths for geek media, and listed a bunch of plot holes between all of the Marvel Netflix shows? Well, all of them were from Luke Cage. (Iron Fist not having dropped yet.) Again, I get not wanting to have all the Defenders meet before the big show, but in this case? The absence of Daredevil and Jessica Jones only makes sense if you assume Manhattan is the size of greater metropolitan Los Angeles. If Luke were in Compton, and Jessica in Burbank, and Daredevil broodily guarding Anaheim, then sure they wouldn’t cross paths much. But as it stands, they’re all a ten dollar cab ride away from each other, so a highly publicised hostage situation involving Luke should have drawn everyone else’s attention.

And Misty Knight would have been a contender for female lead, except for this… she’s set up as this master detective, able to rebuild a crime in her mind just by examining the scene. But a) she can’t tell her partner’s on the take, b) she can’t tell Luke’s a good guy, and c) she falls for the laziest frame-up I’ve ever seen. Diamondback throws on a hoodie, kills a cop, and runs off shouting “Luke Cage! I’m Luke CAAAAAAGE! Argle bargle bargle Luke CAAAAAAAGE!” and everyone falls for it! If it’s that easy to frame a guy, then I’m off to New York to shoot at bankers while shouting “MITCH MCCONNELL, MOTHERFUCKERS!”

High point: Probably “Manifest,” where shit gets serious and Mariah makes her big play.

Low Point: “You Know My Steez” provides a perfunctory-at-best final battle between Luke and Diamondback while they desperately try to pretend that the “battle for the soul of Harlem” didn’t end six episodes earlier. And then they end on a cliffhanger that will have to resolve, and be resolved quickly, on The Defenders. Because if Luke spends more than an episode in a different city than the other three, that will suck. Iron Fist’s cliffhanger wasn’t great, but at least they can put a pin in it for a while.

MVP: Mahershala Ali as Cottonmouth. Was a time I wanted to give this to Claire Temple, who usually ends up a highlight of each Marvel Netflix show, but every highlight of this show you could name revolves around Cottonmouth somehow. Could’ve been Mariah if Diamondback hadn’t sucked the air out of her plot the second it got its sails up.

Advice for next season: Look, I’m not saying don’t have a third act plot twist. I’m just saying don’t throw out your only interesting plotline for something lame and hackneyed. Actually avoid “lame and hackneyed” altogether if you could. Just… just do better. Do significantly better.

And try to make The Defenders a little bit fun? “Invasion!” set the bar pretty high.

11. Powerless

Powerless put a lot of work into being as funny as it was, from binning their original concept as an insurance company to firing the showrunner who pitched it being about an insurance company to spending a few episodes experimenting on the best way to write this new idea. And don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed their approach of being Better Off Ted with DC references, but the problem with being similar to Better Off Ted is that that is a damned hard show to live up to.

Look, you should probably just go watch Better Off Ted and come back. I can’t promise I’m done referencing it and it’ll just get confusing if you haven’t seen it, and it was so good you guys.

Strengths: When they really steered into the “Life in the DC Universe” angle, it worked well. When lead character Emily accidentally started dating a henchman of the Riddler (played by iZombie’s Robert Buckley, whose comedy skills are sorely underrated), for instance. That episode was hilarious. Danny Pudi and Alan Tudyk were reliably funny, and I came to enjoy Ron Funches (even if he’s no Donald Glover, Danny Pudi’s former partner in crime from Community). Natalie Morales made a good Green Fury, which is not a character I expected to see a live action version of any time soon.

Weaknesses: Sure the show is set in the DC Universe, but it also weirdly avoided it, or misinterpreted it. Charm City? DC comics doesn’t have enough made up cities? Do we need to keep inventing new ones? Couldn’t this have just taken place in, like, Sacramento or something? Also, their depiction of Crimson Fox and Jack-o-Lantern were way, way off.

Beyond that… Emily never really found her stride as a lead. I get what they were going for, but it never fully clicked. And I never fully warmed to Wendy, the annoying co-worker. She didn’t turn me completely off the show like Mimi from Drew Carrey, but I didn’t love her like Danny Pudi’s Teddy or Alan Tudyk’s boastful yet insecure Van Wayne.

High point: Either “Sinking Day,” where the staff has to host a delegation from Atlantis to win their business, or “Emily Dates a Henchman,” in… which… well, you can probably guess.

Low point: The pilot, “Wayne or Lose.” While undoubtedly an improvement over the original pilot, they had not fully found the fun yet. Might explain why they didn’t really find an audience.

MVP: Gonna go with Danny Pudi as Teddy. Reliably funny with a more likeable character than Alan Tudyk’s Van Wayne.

Advice for next season: Sadly this won’t be necessary. I guess it’s too much to hope that Emily and her team could find work in Star City at… whatever Queen Consolidated is these days. Palmer Technologies? They’re still around, right? Yeah. Yeah, that’s too much to hope.

10. The Flash

Okay, so, remember when I said not everyone at the CW was trying super hard?

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy The Flash, and would rewatch all 23 episodes of season three in one sitting before reliving the back third of Luke Cage or episode two of Iron Fist, but… From tied for first two years ago to tenth. That certainly looks like an alarming slide. How did it happen? The same reason Ocean’s 11 is one of my absolute favourite movies but I would break from shackles to avoid Ocean’s 12: they lost the fun. At first Arrow was the brooding one and Flash was the fun one, but then last year Supergirl was the fun one, and this year it’s Legends of Tomorrow, and each time The Flash gets sulkier, but you know what? You’re allowed to have more than one fun one, CW.

Strengths: Still the most unapologetically comic-booky show on the air, and after Iron Fist, I am officially calling “refusal to be comic booky” a weakness, not an equally valid choice. The cast is still quite solid, even if their characters were on the sulky side this year. And while the season arc wasn’t particularly well paced, they stuck the landing better than last year with a more satisfying finale. The long-awaited Killer Frost arc worked out to be everything we’d hoped.

Tom Felton turned out to be a great addition to the cast. His Julien Albert was a reliably well-done character, his arc from Barry/Flash’s rival/enemy to genuine friend was well done, and I’m glad he appears to be sticking around for another year. I do wonder… did he officially request no “Harry Potter” jokes? Because Julien name-dropped Planet of the Apes but Cisco made zero Potter references.

Two words… Jesse Quick. More of her next year? (Fine, seven words.)

There was never much doubt who Alchemy was going to be, but they went somewhere interesting with it. The Alchemy reveal was so much more than “Well of course it was that guy.”

The reveal of Savitar’s true identity wasn’t a surprise, as they drew it out long enough for the internet to have guessed it months earlier, but it did have one interesting twist. And the best part is?

Giving away the ending, if you care.

After “Barry messing with time” was the metaphorical big bad of half of the season, the literal Big Bad actually was “Barry messing with time.” If this is the end of Barry messing with time (and please let it be), that’s a good way to end it.

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Weaknesses: After threatening to destroy the entire multiverse last season (if there is such a thing as “too comic booky,” it is the line “You’re using the magnetar to destroy the multiverse”), they went far more personal this year… the big threat turned out to be “Iris is going to be killed and then Barry will be sad.” A more personal arc isn’t the bad part, but devoting over half the season to Iris being refrigerated isn’t great.

The best villains have understandable, even relatable motivations. Savitar wanted “to be a god.” To what end, exactly? I mean… does he want to remake the world, or… what’s the end game here, guy? And why was killing Iris at one exact moment, no earlier or, it turns out, no later so important to that?

Brooding Barry and sulky Cisco got old.

The time travel mechanics on The Flash don’t make tons of sense and clash with how time travel works on Legends of Tomorrow and there’s never going to be an explanation besides “speedforce, bitches,” and if that bothers you I can’t help you.

After a season of anticipation, the Flash/Supergirl musical was kind of a let down. The songs didn’t drive the story like they should in a musical, and… who exactly is the Music Meister and why did he do all of this? I don’t know. I don’t think they know.

The filler villains-of-the-week are just getting thin.

High point: “Infantino Street” is a close second for having Barry and Captain Cold work together on a heist that involves King Shark, and if you don’t love every part of that you don’t get me. But I’ll say it’s “Attack on Gorilla City/Attack on Central City.” Could they afford a two-part episode involving Barry fighting an army of gorillas? Not entirely. Was it great? Yes. Certainly the best Grodd episodes yet. Plus two Harrison Wellses, Jesse Quick working with Kid Flash, Julien excited for a field trip to Earth 2, and a great Wells mentor moment, as “Harry” Wells of Earth 2 helps Barry turn away from killing. That’s how that’s done, Iron Fist.

Low point: “Untouchable.” A half-assed meta-of-the-week, “How could you keep this secret from me,” Iris in danger as plot point, and “I wasn’t fast enough!” It’s all of Flash’s worst or most tired narrative devices in one big slurry.

Advice for next season: You’ve leaked that next year’s big bad won’t be a speedster. That’s good. Evil speedsters were getting played out. Some other things you could move on from… 1) Villains from the future who know everything about Barry and the team because from his perspective they’ve been fighting for years. 2) The Big Bad being Barry’s fault. Maybe the opening monologue could not involve “I did a thing and exposed our world to new threats” next year. 3) “We have to keep this secret from the team.” Come on, guys, that has worked out zero times.

And above all… your filler villains are getting weak. I know the Big Bad can’t carry every episode, because the pacing can’t handle it, and I know you can only afford so much Gorilla Grodd, but this is what the Rogues should be for. You need better filler villains, you need the Rogues to unite… short version? You need Captain Cold back. In just the worst way.

9. Riverdale

I mean what the hell. What the hell. I started watching this as a lark, expecting to hate-watch it for a month, have a good laugh, and move on, and now I’m legit hooked on it. Sure, it’s soapy trash with a familiar brand slapped on top of it, but it’s the best kind of soapy trash with a weirdly appropriate brand slapped on top of it. The teen characters are decently complex, to the point where even uber-mean girl Cheryl Blossom has her moments of humanity. The parents can be a bit more straight-up-evil, especially the gothic horror parents that are Cliff and Penelope Blossom and the vicious, judgmental, often cruel Alice Cooper.

Alice Cooper as in Betty’s mother, not the heavily made-up 70s rocker of the same name. Though what a show that would be…

Strengths: I kind of love the Betty/Veronica friendship that springs up in the opening episodes. And by episode two, they steer away from the Archie/Betty/Veronica triangle as hard as they can. Okay, there’s a hint still there, and probably always will be, but Betty and Veronica refuse to allow it to come between them, nor allow Archie to define them. They’re too clever, too strong, too independent to allow some redheaded wannabe-singer’s affection to rule their lives. (One of them gets with Archie eventually, but it’s earned.)

“Emo crime novelist/narrator” doesn’t sound like Jughead, but it works better than you’d think.

Luke Perry is surprisingly good as Archie’s dad, well-meaning construction company owner Fred Andrews. He’s the only good parent on this show, but not so glowingly good that he becomes some sort of saint.

For a show based around a grimmer, darker version of Riverdale and its denizens, Archie is still unflinchingly good. Sure, he makes mistakes and hurts people now and again, but not because he’s malicious, because he’s a 16-year-old boy and thus is statistically likely to be an idiot. He’s no boy scout, but Archie Andrews always wants to do right by his friends. And even his enemies.

There are some interesting and twisted turns on the road to finding out the who and why of Jason Blossom’s murder.

The producers really take “But does this character need to be white” to heart. Josie and the Pussycats went from one-third to entirely black, Reggie’s Asian, Veronica Lodge and her mother (and, based on the recently announced casting, her father) are Hispanic, and it all works. If characters with the aggressively white names “Hiram and Hermione Lodge” work as Hispanics, ain’t nobody got an excuse to keep whitewashing everything.

As hinted earlier, there is a scene in the finale with Archie and a frozen river that might be in the top three but is still one of the most moving scenes of any show on this list. Way better than anything in Iron Fist.

Weaknesses: For the supposed main character, Archie surely spends a lot of the season in the least interesting stories. Everyone else has murder, intrigue, an evil father figure manipulating the town from prison, a secret asylum, teen homelessness, a brewing clash between the rich and poor sides of town… and while all of that is happening, Archie just wants to sing and play football! Truly, nobody suffers like Archie Andrews.

Perhaps this happened because while all of the other stuff was being established, Archie was busy in their one real misstep: young, sexy Miss Grundy having an affair with Archie. It was gross and weird. Thankfully it didn’t last long.

Sometimes the dialogue, especially Veronica’s, can be a little too hip and self aware. From trying to decide which Truman Capote book Riverdale reminds her of in the pilot to saying “At the risk of failing the Bechdel Test” before asking Betty a question about Archie in the finale, it’s sometimes a little much.

I get why people think that Jughead liking girls is a step backward for asexual representation, since that just recently officially became comic canon. I don’t mind it, but I do mind his blasé attitude towards hamburgers.

Colour-blind casting is good, but a point was raised to me not long ago… with the exception of one scene in which Josie informs Archie that he can’t possibly understand the realities of life as a black woman, there’s not really any insight into race. The fact that the Lodges are Hispanic and Reggie is Asian is never brought up, so what their racial experiences would be like is unexamined. Look, guys, I’m very, very white, so I don’t know what to tell you here. I honestly don’t know which outweighs which, colourblind casting or having something to say about what challenges football star Reggie would have being Asian in a small town. A topic for people with more experience than I have.

High Point: Chapter Six: Faster, Pussycats, Kill! Kill! has a few major revelations in the Jason Blossom case, a good showcase for the most underrated character, Val (my favourite of Josie’s Pussycats), and really shows us exactly why Josie is the way she is. And some decent songs.

Low Point: Chapter Ten: The Lost Weekend. Betty ignores Jughead’s negative views towards birthday parties, Archie is a dick about Val, Cheryl Blossom loses what humanity she’d gained, and a revelation about Alice Cooper’s past doesn’t go anywhere. There is a key moment between Archie and Veronica, though.

MVP: Lili Reinhart and Camilla Mendes as Betty and Veronica. This is not a show about Archie and his Pals and Gals. This is Betty and Veronica’s show, which they graciously allow Archie and Jughead to be in. Betty and Veronica are forces of nature when challenged, and Lili and Camilla are crushing it.

Advice for next season: I’d hoped for an exciting casting announcement for next season’s probable main villain, Hiram Lodge, but they went ahead and cast someone I’d never heard of and have never seen in anything. Damn shame. Grabbing a Lou Diamond Phillips or even a Richard Grieco would have been fun and on-brand given how many 80s/90s icons are playing parents on this show. So you let me down there, but you do have a way to make it up to me. Four words… Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Do it. Make it happen. I don’t care if it doesn’t make sense, I want this more than anything.

And as to how the finale ended? Undo it. Undo it. UN. DO. IT.

I thought I could fit all 13 rankings into two posts. How naive I was. Turns out I had a lot to say about Riverdale.

I’ll try to speed this up and spend less time slamming Iron Fist. It’s just, it’s just, it’s a cautionary tale for nearly every instance.