Marvel took the movie world by storm with The Avengers, a little film one or two of you may have seen. One of the most important aspects of The Avengers was the fact it wasn’t the first movie to features its protagonists, all of whom had appeared in the preceding movies Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk,Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger, either as the leads or as co-stars.
A staple of the comic book world, the crossover was something that had never really been tried in the movie world before and audiences loved it.
With a few reservations. The most notable of these was that there wasn’t a huge amount of diversity in that superheroic line up: lots of straight white men as leads and usually as the villains, too, but women, people of colour et al were either in the supporting cast or completely absent. And while the movies have slowly added black characters such as Falcon and Black Panther and bumped up the role of supporting superheroine Black Widow to the point where Captain America: Winter Soldier was as much about her as about Captain America, solo movies with black or female superheroic leads are still a little way off.
So, when Netflix and Marvel announced they would produce a series of comic book TV shows together, three things were almost compulsory. The first was lower budgets. That meant having none of the movie universe characters in any of the shows, which meant having to pick completely new characters. The second was that there would be crossovers, which in turn would lead to one great big TV series featuring all the new heroes. The third was diversity would be key.
And thus we have a new group of superheroes: ‘The Defenders’. Not to be confused with ‘The Avengers’, obviously. The Defenders is also the name of the ultimate TV show at the end of the list.
The sequence started with Daredevil, a really superb opening featuring probably the one character many people would have heard of, thanks in part to the Ben Affleck adaptation over a decade ago. Daredevil’s also blind and a lawyer who does pro bono work defending the poor and helpless from big business.
That was quickly followed up with the suprisingly excellent feminist deconstruction of the entire genre, Jessica Jones, and then Luke Cage, an affair almost plotless because rather than being a superhero show, it largely was more interested in discussing black culture, history and what is the true and correct course of action for the modern black man of honour. A quick second season of Daredevil proved less satisfying, as it ditched gritty reality to pit our hero against a bunch of immortal ninja called ‘The Hand’.
All the same, for all their pros and cons, diversity – globs of it everywhere.
Which makes Marvel’s Iron Fist something of an odd choice. Because although it fits well with Mark Zuckerberg’s idea of diversity, it’s almost a slap in the face to the other shows’ efforts.
Young Danny Rand, the white male son of white corporate mogul billionaries, is on their private jet to China when it crash lands in the mountains of Tibet. Coincidentally, that’s just as the mystical city of K’un-L’un appeared from heaven on its 15-year regular cycle, journeying between planes of existence. Taken in by the warrior monks who guard K’un-L’un, the orphaned boy is trained in their ways and eventually succeeds all trials to become ‘the Iron Fist’, K’un-L’un’s ‘living weapon’ who uses the power of the heart of the Shou-Lao the Undying dragon, to defend the city from the Hand, whenever it appears on Earth.
However, when K’un-L’un returns to the Earthly plane again 15 years later, Danny abandons his post and heads to New York where he discovers the Hand are already in residence at his parents’ company, Rand Enterprises. Soon, he must prove who he really is, take back his company from the bad people who now run it, and stop The Hand.
Yep, that’s right: Iron Fist wants you to care about boardroom politics and a spoilt, immature billionaire who wants to clear his family name.
Bad decision by Marvel and Netflix? Well, actually, despite some very odd decisions, a very shaky start, and a very long list of flaws, Marvel’s Iron Fist turned out to be really, really enjoyable stuff – due in part surprisingly because it features Sacha Dhawan (Outsourced, 24, The Tractate Middoth, Line of Duty, An Adventure in Time and Space) as a sarcastic warrior monk named after a Swiss ski resort.
In the US: Monday, 10/9c, NBC In the UK: Tuesdays, Amazon
Three episodes into NBC’s Taken, a prequel of sorts to the movie franchise, it’s now reasonably clear that the show wants even less to do with Liam Neeson’s European family drama than the first episode intimated. Instead, what it really wants to be doing is a slightly smarter version of 24, but without the full-on, balls-out belief in the efficacy of torture that being on the Fox network brings.
What it really doesn’t want to do is have prequel Liam (Clive Standen) acting in any way even remotely resembling Liam Neeson did in the movies. Things like being a father, working by himself for no-one but himself, having contacts. That kind of thing.
So, each week since the pilot, we’ve had our Clive off with his team, doing team things together, at the behest of boss Jennifer Beals. He’s not learning his very particular set of skills, either, since he already has them. Unlike in the pilot, though, there’s absolutely no reference to the movies, no foreshadowing, no characters who’ll show up in the movies.
Indeed, beyond the fact it’s called Taken and features ‘Brian Mills’, there’s nothing Takenish about it. Even Standen’s hint at a Northern Irish accent in the pilot has disappeared, perhaps suggesting it wasn’t deliberate, although getting him to be a soccer player in the third episode suggests the producers want to hint at some kind of European background, at least.
That said, the scripts are a lot less stupid,Standish is a vastly more compelling lead and the action scenes are about 1,000% better than those of 24: Legacy. Certainly, you can usually rely on each episode to serve up an unexpected fillip to a fight or a scene that you’ve never seen before in a TV show.
But other than that, in its foundations, it’s unremarkable. There’s nothing unique about its set-up, characters or scenarios that you won’t have seen in a dozen other TV shows. Characterisation is shallow, perfunctory and uncompelling, and there’s certainly nothing that makes you think, “Ah, that’s why Liam Neeson is so frightened of Paris in the movie!”, for example.
If you can get by purely on action scenes and the occasional signs of intelligence, Taken‘s worth a punt. If you miss 24 and find 24: Legacy an unsatisfactory replacement, give Taken a whirl. But if you need involving plots, dialogue and characterisation, Taken‘s not for you.
It’s “What have you been watching?”, my chance to tell you what movies and TV I’ve been watching recently and your chance to recommend anything you’ve been watching.
Grrr. Aargh. Sundays. They really make this whole thing harder. As of last week, there was already The Good Fight, Billions, Time After Time and Making History, but now American Crime is back and there’s The Arrangement to watch, too. So, given I do actually have a day job and the whole of Marvel’s Iron Fist is coming out on Netflix this Friday, let’s face facts and accept I’m going to be a week behind with everything that airs on Sunday from now.
All the same, Time After Time will be getting a third-episode verdict later this week, seeing as I reviewed the first two last week; and I’ll be casting my eyes over the first two episodes of The Arrangement (US) as well, so there is at least hope in sight.
Elsewhere this week, I reviewed the first episode of Making History and passed verdict on The Good Fight, which means that after the jump, I’ll be looking at the latest episodes of: 24: Legacy, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, The Flash, Imposters, Legion, Lethal Weapon, The Magicians, Powerless and Taken, as well as the season finale of Man Seeking Woman. The observant will notice I haven’t watched Fortitude or Prime Suspect 1973 this week. Sorry about that, although it probably says something about both them that I haven’t pushed myself to watch either.
However, I did watch the first episode of the new season of The Americans, which I’ll also be covering after the jump. And in other news, I’m going to drop not one but two regular shows this week. Can you guess which?
I also managed to watch a movie at the weekend, mind.
Arrival (2016) Mysterious aliens ‘the heptapods’ arrive on Earth, but they don’t speak Earth languages. It’s the job of linguist Amy Adams and theoretical physicist Jeremy Renner (a ‘Christmas Jones’ on the plausible casting scale) to try to learn how to communicate with them and find out what they want.
Arrival was heavily hyped as the new 2001 of intelligent science-fiction movies, so we went into this with high expectations, particularly given what language nerds lovely wife and I both are. Disappointed we were. Disappointed.
While there was a little bit about the difficulties of learning any language, this was a bowdlerised version of the original book’s linguistic intrigue…
The heptapods have two distinct forms of language. Heptapod A is their spoken language, which is described as having free word order and many levels of center-embedded clauses.… Unlike its spoken counterpart, Heptapod B has such complex structure that a single semantic symbol cannot be excluded without changing the entire meaning of a sentence.
…in much the same way as The Martian changed the original book’s constant Macgyvering-in-extremis into a far simpler tale of surviving against the odds.
Even so, despite some beautiful visual direction, Arrival is largely a film in which Renner and Adams repeatedly go into a room, see some circles, then go away again, interspersed with Adams thinking about her dead daughter. Tension and excitement there are not.
That said, there is a point in the movie when Adams finally learns the aliens’ language where Arrival comes together, everything becomes clear and the movie becomes a much more interesting piece thanks to a couple of properly genius ideas. There are a couple of scenes that probably will linger for a long time in the memory, too.
Not so much the new 2001, then, so much as the new (spoilers, because they’re very, very similar) Interstellar.
It’s “What have you been watching?”, my chance to tell you what movies and TV I’ve been watching recently and your chance to recommend anything you’ve been watching.
March is here and with it comes Spring! Snowdrops, wee fluffy little bunnies and chocolate eggs are on the way, as are a big bunch of new shows. This week, on top of passing an impending verdict on The Good Fight, I’ll also be reviewing two US time travels shows that aired last night: Time After Time and Making History. Not sure why they waited until Timeless finished before starting, but they did. There may be some other things, too, but I’m lazy and haven’t looked yet.
A few other new shows have also appeared on our screens, although none of them really warranted proper reviews:
Prime Suspect 1973 (UK: ITV) It’s hard to look back now through the distant mists of time, past sequels and remakes to 1991, when Lynda La Plante’s Prime Suspect appeared on our screens. An amazingly good piece of TV that makes you weep for what’s happened to ITV – and indeed BBC – drama in the quarter-century since, it still stands the test of time and I heartily urge you to watch/rewatch it, since it’s currently available to view on the ITV Hub for free.
A career-transforming piece for star Helen Mirren, it saw her playing DCI Jane Tennison, a discriminated against Met Police detective who has to win over her male colleagues in order to first get, then close, a case against a possible serial killer, back when those were still rare things in the media. Flipping traditional structures on its head, the show was more about the accumulation of evidence and building of a case than whoddunnit, since we know probably whodunnit right from the outset – although some of the show’s power comes from its ambiguity and whether they’ve genuinely got the right man.
These days, ITV (motto: “Is it a crime drama? Is it a period crime drama? No? Then it’s not on ITV”) seems to have given up on creating truly original new shows in favour of developing prequels to its back catalogue (what next? Brideshead Revisited: The Prep School Years?). So, following on from the success of Inspector Morse‘s origin story, Endeavour, we now have Prime Suspect 1973, in which a young Jane Tennison (Emerald City‘s Stefanie Martini) is a mere WPC learning the ropes of policework in between having to make cups of tea for the male officers. But the murder of a teenage prostitute and the benevolent support of the investigating DI (The Astronaut Wives Club‘s Sam Reid) give her an opportunity to shine.
Based on Lynda La Plante’s own prequel novel, Prime Suspect 1973 is at least decently executed. Thematically, it sits nicely as a rejoinder to Life On Mars’ ‘white male privilege’, pointing out that Sweeney-like fun might have been good for certain people, but women, minorities, the unluckiest members of the working class and others all tended to get shafted. It also deals neatly with class, with Maida Vale posh girl Tennison having to work extra hard to prove her interest in the working class populace of Hackney. And it does all this without sticking the boot in, giving us nuances and exceptions to show reality is a lot messier than simplistic sociological theories.
Martini is surprisingly good and makes for a nicely mardy young Tennison. It’s also a cracking touch to get Cracker‘s ‘Panhandle’, Geraldine Sommerville, to play her mum. But Aussie Reid is slightly odd casting and his choice of accent throws off all the questions about Tennison’s poshness, since he sounds posher than she does. Period detail is pretty decent, even if some of the sideburns look stuck on, but it seems at times like it’s trying more to look like Life On Mars’ idea of 1973 than actual 1973. Still, props for the use of Pink Floyd’s ‘Time’ in the soundtrack.
But is it even a tenth as compelling as the original or even La Plante’s dry run at a Prime Suspect prequel, Above Suspicion? Not at all. I might stick around for episode two, though.
The Blacklist: Redemption (US: NBC) I abandoned The Blacklistafter its second season got too convoluted and daft, even by its own standards. The last I heard, Tom Keen (Ryan Eggold) – evil husband of Megan Boone – was an orphan raised by Lance Henriksen to do evil spy things and was going undercover to be a German neo-Nazi.
Turns out that since then, we’ve discovered that his dad and mum are still alive and are Terry O’Quinn and Famke Janssen, the latter being a blacklister who runs a secret organisation that does things for the government that would otherwise be too dangerous. Plus he and Boone are back together, have a baby, and rather than play at being a German neo-Nazi, Eggold’s now a house-husband.
Except The Blacklist: Redemption drags Eggold away from all that to go on undercover missions for Janssen, although only because O’Quinn wants him to inflitrate her organisation. Why? Because. Except Eggold must never reveal that he’s actually working for O’Quinn. Why? Because.
At least, that’s what I’ve gleaned.
On the face of it, a spin-off from The Blacklist with Eggold is a good idea, since he was actually one of the best things about the original series. But the producers do nothing to help turn that idea into a viable drama. As you can tell from above, it’s all so convoluted and too unforgiving in its set-up that anyone who didn’t bother watching season 3 and beyond of The Blacklist (is Red still having problems?) is probably going to give up on the impenetrable mess before they’re five minutes in.
Yet even if they do decide to stick with it, it’s just atrociously written nonsense that makes even less sense than the mothership, but with no James Spader to make it palatable and none of the original’s unique format.
Chicago Justice (US: NBC; UK: Universal Channel – starts March 30, 9pm) Time was that famed producer Dick Wolf only needed Law & Order to show you the two sides of the two groups in the US criminal justice system who represent the people: the police, who investigate crime; and the district attorneys, who prosecute the offenders. Now, he needs two different TV shows altogether just to show Chicago’s system. Maybe that’s because it’s Chicago and things are done differently there.
Launched in a triple episode with Chicago Fire and Chicago PD (all the victims were dead so no need to visit Chicago Med, I guess), Chicago Justice is all about Chicago public prosecutor and former baseball player Philip Winchester (Strike Back, The Player). There are other public prosecutors (Carl Weathers, Anna Valdez) but the show’s not so fussed about them here because they’re not the sons of Michael Moriarty’s character in Law & Order.
Chicago might have a bit of a rep for corruption, but here Winchester gets to hurdle a very low morality bar by fighting sleazy Bradley Whitford’s sneaky defence lawyer tricks and spurning helpful but false confessions to prove using truth, justice and the American way that a teenager stalker did in fact burn to death 39 kids because he was evil.
The script stops short of going “ooh, the Internet and that Facebook and the Tumblr – they’re full of the bad kids who spend too much time indoors rather than playing all-American baseball” and if you squint, there’s a useful message in there that you could potentially extract about consent, privilege, radicalisation online, etc. But it’s such a ham-fisted piece of work that Winchester might as well be riding a horse wearing a white cowboy hat as he shoots a moustache-twirling villain.
Still, that’s what the audience for these shows wants. Me? Not so much.
After the jump, the regulars: 24:Legacy, Billions, The Flash, Fortitude, The Good Fight, Imposters, Legion, TheMagicians, Man SeekingWoman and the season finale of Cardinal.One of them is getting a promotion – can you guess which, tigers?