Archive for jessica jones

Review: The Punisher

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 1, 2018 by Magadh

A chamber in a dark castle in the mountains of northern Latveria. Around a stone table, mid-level executives sit, nervously fingering silver goblets filled with virgin blood. Torches flame and splutter on the walls.

 

At length, a tall and shadowy figure rises at the head of the table. Above his head, inscribed in letters of fire, the word “Marvel” floats in the empty air.

 

“Thank you for coming, gentlemen,” he says in a voice that sounds like the lid of a coffin creaking open. “We have a problem. We are losing the fight to DC. Our talent is fleeing, our readership is declining. The days are growing dark!”

 

The bravest of the mid-level executives stands up. “Not so, my dark lord. We still have the MCU. Age of Ultron grossed more than a billion dollars even though it had 37 central characters and no discernable plot.”

 

“Be not deceived,” the dark figure intones. “Batman v Superman grossed nearly as much even though absolutely nobody wanted to see it. Zack Snyder has cornered the market on dark, soulless superhero noir. He even managed to drum up $800 million for Wonder Woman!” He speaks the last words as if they burn like eternal flame in his mouth.

 

“We could release a Black Widow movie. Lots of people want that. Or how about Rogue? I have writers among my minions who could produce a salable script inside of a week.”

 

“No no! Our fans do not want lady movies! I know it in my bones. I feel it in the air and in the earth. It is with men, and the killing of the occasional female, that our destiny lies.”

 

“Perhaps Stan Lee can help us,” pipes up a voice from the far end of the table.

 

“No! He must not be awakened! The sarcophagus must remain closed for another two cycles! We must solve these problems among ourselves.”

 

“Sir, I have it,” says the chief of the mid-level execs. “We can make a Punisher series for Netflix. It has everything: darkness, violence, man pain, all the things our viewers want.”

 

“Yes…yes! That could be just the thing,” the dark figure muses. “Everyone loved him the second season of Daredevil, even more than the swarms of ninjas. But it will need to be epic. Man pain of this magnitude cannot be communicated briefly.”

 

“The number of the episodes shall be 13, in conformity with your will,” opines the lead exec.

 

“But wait,” pipes up the voice from the end of the table once more. “Aren’t we committed to doing another series of Jessica Jones next?”

 

“Speak not to me of Jessica Jones and her lady problems,” thunders the dark figure. “They shall be swept away in a hail of man fire and a wave of man blood! So I have spoken, so let it be done!”

 

And with that, the dark scene fades away.

 

the-punisher-season-1This is very much how I imagined the origins of the Punisher stand-alone series when I first saw the trailers for it a couple of months ago. As a character, the Punisher is a product of the anti-crime hysteria that arose with the end of the postwar boom in the early 1970s. It should come as no surprise that the first of the Death Wish movies was released in the same year, or that Travis Bickle made his debut shortly afterward. The economic downturn in the leading economies of the industrialized world and the perceived decline in American power dealt severe shocks to the national psyche, and whatever bitterness was not directed at the Soviet Union, its proxies in Southeast Asia, or (after the oil shock of 1973) the Middle East, filtered down to the purported wave of criminality on American streets and in American neighborhoods.

 

Frank Castle, like Paul Kersey (played with homicidal intensity by Charles Bronson in five iterations of the Death Wish franchise from 1974 to 1994), had lost his family to the unrestrained greed and brutality of the criminal element. Unlike Paul Kersey, and this was the unique element that the Punisher added to the genre, Frank Castle was a former Marine Corps sniper who turned skills learned in the military toward the goal of exacting vengeance on the mafia (which was directly responsible for his family’s death) as well as on criminals in general.

 

There is an interesting generational difference between Frank Castle and Paul Kersey. The latter is a middle-aged architect, probably old enough to have served in Korea and only haltingly prepared to turn to homicidal violence as a means to address society’s problems. Castle, as did so many young men in the early 1970s, had cut his fighting teeth in Vietnam and returned to the United States fresh memories of mayhem and the skills to undertake it. Straight up vigilantism, in which the targets were to be killed rather than simply trussed up and handed over to the proper authorities, was a novelty for American comics. Although originally meant as a sort of secondary character, Castle was popular with readers. It will come as no surprise (to anyone who doesn’t know it already) that the Punisher came to real prominence as a character in a run of Daredevil done in the early 1980s by Frank Miller, he of dark inclinations and moderate neo-fascist politics.

 

In that series, and in several others right up to the present day, the Punisher has been presented as a sort of other side of the coin in terms of strategies for dealing with evildoers. This has most often been the case with Daredevil, as Matt Murdock’s (often somewhat paradoxical) commitment to the validity of the system of criminal justice, as well as broader moral codes precluding the taking of human lives when not immediately necessary, contrasts starkly with Frank Castle’s “when I put ‘em down they don’t get up” ethic.

 

There is little in the way of surprise that Marvel decided that the Punisher would be a good subject for a stand-alone series in its collaboration with Netflix. His appearance in the second season of Daredevil was the best thing that show had going for it, especially since the second half of the series was devoted to the slaying of hordes of (already dead) ninjas and the pursuit of a gigantic hole of (at that point) indeterminate significance. Just as an aside, the question that I had after watching Daredevil Season 2 was: suppose you’ve got 200 zombie ninjas to get from place to place in New York City. How in the hell do you do it? It’s not like you can just all get on the subway. Does The Hand own its own limo service? Now that I think about it I’m sure they do, but are you going to roll up the stretch Humvee with the dancing pole in it to get your ninjas from place to place? Maybe you would. My experience with zombie ninjas is relatively limited.

 

In any case, Frank Castle really did add something to Daredevil. My most comics-aware friend and I argued for days about the difference in approach between Frank Castle and Matt Murdock. Her view, and given the otherwise moderate nature of her character, was that Murdock was being hypocritical since he had no real way of being sure that the extremely rough treatment that he was dealing out to be guys was, in practice, not going to be lethal to them. In any case, she argued, Frank Castle is dealing with some very, very bad people, so it’s probably all for the best that he kills them. Also, and with this part of her argument I had rather more sympathy, Frank is altogether honest, whereas Murdock’s dishonesty with people (particularly Foggy Nelson and Karen Page) was likely to put them at even greater risk than simply telling them the truth.

 

Much as I love Daredevil, and people who know me will know that my interest in that particular character is just this side of obsession, I had to admit that she was right. Of course, I still think that there is a non-trivial difference between the possibility that one might kill or permanently disfigure one’s opponent and seeking to kill them as the first tactic out of the box. On the other hand, it really did no good not telling Foggy and Karen about his avocation, since they were in danger either way, and knowing the actual situation might have allowed them to make an informed choice about whether or not they were cool with that. One thing you’ve got to admit about Frank Castle, when he says something you can be pretty certain that it reflects the state of the world as he knows it.

 

[Before going further I should now point out that there are spoilerish things in what follows. If you intend to watch the series (and strongly suggest that you do) you might want to put off reading this until you’ve done so. Unless you don’t care. Then just plow ahead.]

 

The first five episodes of Punisher were pretty much exactly as I feared. They were slow, overwrought, and featured so many flashbacks to Frank’s dead family that I came to feel that I’d rather that he put me out of my misery than have to watch even one more. You might think that, given the spasm of catastrophic violence with which Frank blazed out of Daredevil Season 2, the list of names on his list of those-upon-whom-vengeance-must-be-taken might be relatively small. But you would be wrong. Much time and effort are expended in episodes 1 through 4 or so establishing that the conspiracy that led to the killing of (the vast majority of) the Castle family was rather more extensive the previously supposed.

 

Ripping their plot from the headlines (or at least of the headlines from a few years ago), it turns out that the whole thing related to a secret CIA running assassination program in Afghanistan. Indeed, one of the most excruciating episodes in the whole series explores a great depth the kind of program that anyone with a lick of sense assumes is going on there all the time. Frank’s foil, as he sets out on the project of ejecting those responsible for his family’s death from this mortal coil is a neurotic former intelligence analyst who, having discovered the operation, was forced to fake his own death and now spends half of his time plotting his revenge from a computer lined bunker and the other half voyeuristically checkout out his family on the spy cameras he installed in their home. I suspect that this was meant to demonstrate the intensity of his concern for his family but invariably came off as creepy and controlling instead.

 

Pursuing the case in parallel fashion is DHS operator Dinah Madani (played by Amber Rose Revah whose previous work include the character of Mary Magdalene in The Bible), who both my friend and I found rather irritating in the first few episodes. This has a lot to do with the fact that the writers have her engage in a romantic fling with another character (Billy Russo) who might as well have “Main Perpetrator” tattooed across his forehead. They seemed very much to be setting up the all too frequently seen “woman gets played” trope. This turns out not to be the case, or at least to the extent that it does, it sets up a massive turning of the tables which adds a very interesting dimension to the plot. In too many thrillers to count, the bad guys are the sort of infallible supermen, only brought to heel in the end by the countervailing superhuman efforts of the hero (usually male and bleeding profusely). But Madani’s turning of the tables on Russo, while not quite succeeding in the way, or to the degree that she intended, still shows that he is fallible and this makes the plot significantly more interesting, and more palatable.

 

Karen Page also makes a few turns in this series, and to very good effect. I must admit to being a bit skeptical of Deborah Ann Woll. Her extensive run in True Blood didn’t give one much to go on in terms of what might be expected of her as a dramatic actress. But she was quite good in both series of Daredevil, especially the second one in which her experience of having straight up plugged a guy with his own gun in Season 1 gives her a basis on which to relate to Frank Castle. My friend, who managed to get through the whole of the series a few days before I did, swore up and down that the relationship between Frank and Karen Page, which is not quite romantic but not simply friendly either, made a lot of sense. I told her I thought she was nuts but (as usual) she turned out to be right. Frank and Karen’s relationship works because he is always and unfailingly honest with her. Unlike Murdock, who simply couldn’t understand that Karen’s need for honesty trumped all the other stuff, Frank only speaks truth to her. She knows it and respects it. Also, unlike Matt, who wants to argue the ins and outs of the superhero code, Karen really just wants to ask Frank where it will all end, once he goes ahead and does what he says he’s going to do.

 

TheDefenders-s01e03-1As an aside, and unrelated to any other serious topic, I ship Messica (i.e. the relationship between Matt Murdock and Jessica Jones). I know with certainty that this will never happen. Canon calls for Jessica Jones to be with Luke Cage, and that’s fine, although I have a little trouble believing that the fact of Jessica’s having killed Luke’s wife wouldn’t present problems, Killgrave mind control or no. The writers of The Defenders did a really nice little vignette with Matt and Jessica that highlighted how well their personalities work together. They’re both damaged by things that happened to them in childhood, and both have a sort of challenging relationship to the truth. Jessica would probably be better for Matt because she doesn’t need to hear the full story about every last thing. Also, she’s pretty indestructible and very much able to take care of herself, so being with Matt wouldn’t engage his (very irritating) savior complex. Perhaps most importantly, Jessica is willing to talk to Matt in a way that he takes seriously and that would keep him in line. One of my very favorite scenes in any of these Marvel/Netflix productions is the one in which Matt Murdock tries stop Jessica Jones (who he’s only just met) from doing something dangerous to which she responds, “If you grab me like that again, I’ll punch you so hard, you’ll see.” It was a message that Matt needed to get, delivered in such a way that he got it.

 

Much as I started out to write an unstintingly negative review, I actually found Punisher at least reasonably enjoyable in the end. There is no magical Kunlun bullshit, and Finn Jones is nowhere in sight (although it would have been nice to see Frank bust a cap in him, but anyway…). There is also a refreshing absence of ninjas, and (unlike in the case of Daredevil) there isn’t any attempt to force the characters into relationships that don’t make sense. It does contain one of the most gratuitous and amateurish sex scenes I’ve ever witnessed (you’ll know it when you see it). It is graphically and catastrophically violent, but anyone spinning up Punisher in the first place should be prepared for some grisly images. To its credit, Punisher manages to integrate some story elements that, if they don’t quite disrupt the expected order of things, at least make it more bearable than thirteen unreflective hours of splattered brains, spurting veins, and man pain would have been. Having said that, I do also want to point out that there are a lot of things that I would have preferred to see. These include a Daredevil series without significant ninja intervention, a Jessica Jones series that focuses on her work as a P.I. and doesn’t involve Killgrave, and an Iron Fist series in which Danny Rand falls into a jet intake in the first five minutes and everyone moves on with their lives.

 

I recognize that you can’t always get what you want. And the fact of the matter is that the whole Marvel/Netflix thing is likely not long for this world, since Disney bought Marvel and is planning to offer its own streaming service in 2019 (or so rumor has it). But for the time that they have left together, and for anyone else planning on doing superhero miniseries, it is really worth thinking hard about whether whatever project you’ve got going can actually support the number of episodes you have planned. Punisher was ok, but all the stuff that went on in episodes 1-5 could have been much condensed without serious loss. Jessica Jones had a lot of dead space, Daredevil Season 1 had interminable scenes of bad guys sitting around talking about doing bad things, and Season 2 was going pretty good with the Matt/Frank interplay until it jumped the shark and boarded the express train for Ninja-ville. Defenders was, oddly enough, somewhat too short, although it seemed to drag on at the end due to a surfeit of (you guessed it) ninjas. Perhaps the larger lesson here how you do what you do is at least as important as what you’re doing to begin with.

 

John from the East Side

The Return of Jessica Jones

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , on March 20, 2017 by Magadh

jj2I’ve been a little behind in my comic reading, so I’ve only just gotten current on the run of Jessica Jones that’s going on right now. This was a title that I had (and to an extent still have) high hopes for. Jessica Jones is an interesting character and, Brian Michael Bendis (who wrote the original Alias series of that title) is running the show again, and it comes with a reader’s advisory tag, which at least means that people confronting life threatening emergencies won’t respond by saying “oh darn.” Having gotten through the first arc I will say that, although I enjoyed it, the presentation of Jessica Jones has, once again, not quite lived up to the excellence of Bendis and Gaydos’s original.

 

Ok, I’ll admit it, I’m kind of obsessed with Jessica Jones. I blame my pal Meredith, who first turned me on to Brian Michael Bendis’s original arc from Alias that ran from 2001 to 2004. When I got done with it I was pretty much ready to give up reading comics because I wasn’t sure there was anything better left to do. Bendis’s arc had an undeniable brilliance. It combined elements of continuity and discontinuity to tell a compelling story. For instance, the creators used collage in a way that I have not seen very often (especially in Marvel-linked titles). They also brought in J. Jonah Jameson in just about the most interesting way I’ve ever seen. There’s a seriously hilarious sequence in which Jessica Jones is out on a date with Scott Lang. They’re having dinner at an outdoor restaurant when Dr. Octopus rolls by being chased by Spider Man. They spend a moment considering whether they’re going to do something about it, and then Scott Lang says something like, “I don’t really have my gear with me” and they go back to their date.

 

Jessica Jones is interesting because, and precisely to the extent, that she doesn’t fit the traditional mold of the comic book super hero.  Bendis created a character that is an expression of the complex web of agency and fallibility in which human beings live their lives. She was an Avenger, but decided that she didn’t really fit in there. Instead of going out as a solo costumed hero, she chose the more low key life of a private investigator. This is clearly meant to be read as an outgrowth of her will to define and defend her own agency. Being part of the Avengers means compulsory teamwork. Being an individual costumed hero also means being beholden to others, perhaps to the public at large, but at least to screwball pseudo-populists of the like of J. Jonah Jameson. Working as a private eye allows her to control the obligations that she takes on.

 

And therein lies a further point of interest. Although Jones is a reluctant hero, she also feels a certain obligation to help people who are vulnerable. While this sort of duality in terms motivation is not entirely unheard of in the world of superheroes, more often than not it is rendered in the key of macho which effectively drains its emotional force, at least for readers older than about 12. Bendis has really done the world a service by presenting us with a female superhero who doesn’t have to be perfect, who gets drunk sometimes, who fails sometimes, and who is still dead set on living her life on her own terms and no one else’s.

 

The central event in the Bendis narrative is Jones’s encounter with Zebediah Killgrave (alias the Purple Man), a deeply nasty individual capable to compelling people to unquestioningly obey his commands. There’s a lot of backstory to this guy, the essential points of which can be picked up here, but suffice to say that this former Daredevil villain is seriously horrifying. Jones’s interaction with him is particularly grim because he takes from her the one thing that she views as most essentially hers (agency), turning her into a weapon for the accomplishment of his ends.  Ultimately, Jones is able to free herself from his control (and breaks his neck) because Jean Grey had implanted a psychic defense trigger in her mind after an earlier encounter with him. Once she knows she has a choice, the reclaims her agency, dispatching Killgrave in the process. The panel below is one of my favorite ever:

jj1

Needless to say, I was really excited when it was announced the Marvel was going to be partnering with Netflix to bring out a full fledged Jessica Jones series. I didn’t know much about Krysten Ritter at the time (although I’ve since watched Don’t Trust the B**** in Apartment 23 and quite enjoyed it), but it seemed to me that casting David Tennant as the Purple Man was a pretty good sign.

 

jj4Sadly, the end product didn’t quite live up to expectations. Partly it had to do with some unfortunately plot decisions. At one point, Jessica Jones decides that the way to show people Killgrave’s power and criminality by getting herself thrown in a supermax prison. Ok, clearly it’s very difficult to demonstrate mind control to people, but this is a plan that couldn’t possibly work, and, although I think it was meant to reflect her desperation, it ended up making her seem stupid. Later on in the show, Jessica Jones manages imprison Killgrave in a room where his voice is muted (his power is based on the interaction between his voice and some sort of microbe that he exudes). She comes up with a plan that involves introducing Killgrave’s parents into the room. Shockingly, this plan also goes horribly, horribly wrong and anyone who thought about it for around two second beforehand would have been able to predict this.

 

At a more general level, I really wish that we had gotten to see a bit more of the Jessica Jones PI aspect of things. Killgrave was made creepier by his absence. In fact, his proxies were much more frightening than he was when he was actually on screen. Although Tennant played him to nauseating perfection, it would have been better if we’d seen him less. But there was simply no way to do that given the fact that they had cast a big name like Tennant. It wasn’t his fault, and in a way it wasn’t fault of the people producing the show, since I’m sure that they reckoned (correctly) that Tennant’s name would draw viewers who might not be all that interested in the character of Jessica Jones. Still, it meant that they had to turn him into a middle of the screen type of villain, which didn’t really do the overall atmosphere of the show any favors.

 

jj3I had high hopes for the new comic version, and these hopes may still be fulfilled, but I’m afraid the first mini-arc hasn’t quite filled the bill. We start with Jessica Jones having just gotten out of prison, for what we are never actually told, but it’s something that compromised her relationship with the Avengers as well as with Luke Cage, the father of her child. The arc starts off strong, with some interesting interplay between Jones and Cage, and with some of the kind of JJ as detective material that one really wants to see. But then it spirals off into some weird things that don’t seem to develop JJ’s character very much. Worse yet, from my perspective anyway, is the connection that it forges with the Civil War II arc which a) went of for too long already and b) wasn’t all that interesting to begin with.

 

One of the things that the comic version has going for it is that, unlike with the MCU and their Netflix partnership, it’s possible to include some other superheroes  without paying whatever gigantic sum it would cost to get Chris Evans or Robert Downey Jr. (to say nothing of Scarlett Johansson) into the action. So it would have been nice to see some other superhero type interactions over and above the obligatory stuff with Carol Danvers and a somewhat entertaining Jessica Drew cameo.

 

What the original comic series has going forward that this new version seems to lack is a kind of emotional depth. It’s not as if the story isn’t entertaining, but there doesn’t seem to be the same collage-like approach to creating the character that made the first iteration so entertaining. Admittedly this isn’t entirely the fault of Bendis and co. In the first place they did create a very high bar. And in the second, they were very much working with a tabula rasa in terms of Jones’s character, since she hadn’t been developed very extensively at all up to that point. Still, it would be nice to see a bit more of the little story pieces that add up to something more than the sum of the parts.

 

Just so we understand each other, I think this is worth getting. The artwork is dark and beautiful and sometimes almost looks like woodcuts. They’ve had a series of covers done by David Mack (who also did the covers on the rerelease of the original series), predominantly in watercolor (or at least so it looks to me) and those are really beautiful. Given the creative team involved and the willingness of Marvel to put money into this title (since there’s going to be a second JJ series after she appears in The Defenders later this year), there’s every reason to believe that they can up the level of quality to what it was in the original. But it hasn’t quite gotten there yet.