Just finished watching the first spooky season of Evil. It stars Mike Colter (of Marvel’s Luke Cage fame) as a priest-in-training tasked by the Catholic Church with examining possible cases of demonic possession. He is ably assisted by a sceptical psychologist played by the feisty Katja Herbers. Think in terms of Mulder and Scully from the legendary X-Files and you won’t go far wrong. Certainly, there’s plenty of chemistry between the leads in the style of Duchovny and Anderson. Things get decidedly hot under the (priestly) collar, that’s for sure, especially when a dastardly demon (played quite deliciously by Michael Emerson) decides that our two investigators either need to be morally corrupted or removed from the game-board entirely. It’s just the fate of all humanity at stake, after all. I’m happy to say the series is far from formulaic, however: some episodes really are quite disturbing. It scores a nearly divine 8.5 out of 10 from me. And if it sounds like your sort of thing, you might also want to check out my new title, The Book of Demons, which provides you with a history of demonology and considers why the number of exorcisms being conducted today is on the increase: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Book-Demons-J-Dalton/dp/1913562247/ref=sr_1_1?crid=AIITVR4LEM4R&dchild=1&keywords=book+of+demons+dalton+kristell+ink&qid=1628844655&sprefix=book+of+demons+dalton%2Caps%2C165&sr=8-1.
Review by Nadine Dalton-West, T @andiekarenina, nadinedaltonwest.com
It’s been a high-stakes few months over at Marvel Towers. Big cinema releases have been hammered by the pandemic. Long-form TV shows have, somewhat counter-intuitively, become disposable eyeball-filler for a world that has spent far too long on the couch. It’s hard to make a seismic television event when your beautiful fantasy epic is binged and forgotten somewhere between Queen’s Gambit and Prodigal Son, consigned to “watched it at some point during lockdown” oblivion. It’s hard to get people’s attention when their attention spans are broken.
When you serve up the dry biscuit of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier as an hors-oeuvre, it’s even harder.
So both TV show Loki and movie Black Widow had rather a lot on their to-do lists: re-enthuse a jaded fanbase, convince people there’s life beyond the Infinity Stones, re-assert the very purpose of the MCU. And – as we will see – it’s worth remembering that the actual purpose of these stories is just that: to tell us stories. Stories which make us care, stories which give us some of that wonder we got when we were children, and our comics came out weekly, and we craved that “but what will happen to these people?” moment like a good narcotic. For me, Black Widow succeeded on these fundamental terms; Loki failed. This is why. Spoilers abound herein – don’t read on unless you’ve seen both Loki and Black Widow!
Now Loki has some good qualities. Aesthetically, it’s a triumph: the TVA’s Soviet-spliced-with-Mad-Men styling is gorgeous; the cartoon clock called Miss Minutes is deliciously sinister; the brutalist concrete set looks like an endless nightmare where you’re trapped in The Barbican and can’t find the lifts. Tom Hiddleston does his best with the material, and his best is decent, although I’d like to put in a personal request to the producers to let the guy wash his hair: I’m not sure the god of mischief would be any the less compelling if the poor lad was allowed a bottle of Head & Shoulders once in a while. Owen Wilson is fine. There is, it’s true, an alligator.
…And I’m out. Seriously, that’s it. This entire series screams “wasted opportunity” from start to finish. Firstly, the timey-wimey stuff is so crass and poorly handled that you realise there is zero jeopardy. No one dies: everyone comes back. Every fight therefore ends with someone being vapourised but then lo, here they come again, because timey-wimey and multiverses, yeah? Ditto the time doors: wanna crank up the suspense by stranding our protagonists on a doomed planet where – as they tell us about seventeen times – NO ONE GETS OFF THE DOOMED PLANET? We literally sit there waiting, as do the protagonists, for someone to open the time doors just behind them, just in time. Infinite multiverses and timelines? Ok, so tell me why I should care. This specifically ISN’T our Loki (it’s a 2012 Loki who jumps out of the MCU main timeline), and neither are any of the other Lokis, literally none of whom is any good whatsoever. There is a whole episode which looks about to revel in the playfulness of having a hundred different possible Lokis and then pours it all down the drain for a running gag about a reptile and Richard E. Grant in a costume only fractionally more silly than everyone else’s. The Timekeepers are so obviously not real to anyone who has seen any tv show or film ever in their lives that the so-called reveal is thunderingly dull (and is one of several moments where the writers of Snowpiercer might fancy calling their lawyers.)
The One who Remains? Fundamental storytelling rule 101: why on earth should we care? We haven’t met him. We haven’t even had him foreshadowed. He’s a Crapus-ex-Machina. And he’s also an example of how appallingly this series treats its Black characters: they are evil or disposable, with paper-thin development, there to simply throw the focus back onto a tedious white couple who have less chemistry than a rock and a slightly different rock.
Now when we examine Black Widow, we can actually see a few key similarities. Both works are “dead end” narratives: they don’t advance the MCU’s storytelling. (Falcon and Winter Soldier and Wandavision, on the other hand, are entry-points into key new developments for Captain America and Doctor Strange respectively – they are connecting narratives for what comes next.) Loki and Black Widow are not: they are backtracks which tell discrete stories in little cul-de-sacs within the main narrative. Black Widow fills in a set of Natasha Romanov backstory beats, but still leads to the same graveside, just as Loki takes a possibility from one moment where Loki grabs the Tesseract and follows that sidebar, a sidebar which stands alone. In this sense, both works have a bit of “but what are they FOR?” syndrome about them.
Where Black Widow works is this: its humble purpose is in telling us a human story (and maybe Loki got it right all along in that being burdened with “glorious” purpose is a curse, not a blessing.) We care about this family. From the opening scene which is as exciting and suspenseful as any Marvel pre-credits sequence I’ve seen, we are positioned alongside two children who want simple things – their “parents”, their favourite song, to watch lightning bugs – and who are dragged apart by a harrowing series of events. When that family is thrown back together more than 20 years later, they have to figure out what they really mean to each other. This then develops one of the entire MCU’s key and recurring themes: found family. From the Avengers to the Guardians, this is how comics actually hook their nerds – we are all oddballs who eventually find people who are our tribe, and those people are not normally our biological family. This concept has universal resonance, underpins so much of MCU storytelling, evokes real emotion, is tender and poignant and is whatever Loki and Sylvie’s strange onanistic relationship is not.
Furthermore, when Black Widow throws you a big bad, Taskmaster, the character is seeded, developed, absolutely terrifying as a fighting machine, and a genuine threat to our protagonists. All of this, from the start, alongside THIS big reveal being foreshadowed and earned, and indeed genuinely necessary for Natasha’s redemption arc. And there’s more: the chase scene through Budapest is as huge and crash-bang as any action sequence Marvel has served us, the Moonraker nods are clever and really well-followed through in the climax, and the banter is funny. Red Guardian’s big speech pomposity is repeatedly punctured by those around him; Yelena points out that real superheroes probably don’t take ibuprofen; Johannsen’s “stick your butt out” landings are thoroughly mocked.
Fundamentally, though, Black Widow makes you genuinely worry about a collapsed pig called Alexei. Loki just puts antlers on an alligator and points at it, over and over, shouting “look at the alligator”, with ever diminishing returns.
When I heard that this movie was coming out, I had to ponder the question ‘What’s it for?’ I mean, was it really gonna offer anything new, anything that hadn’t already been done in Marvel movies? Turns out, I should have had more faith. Where the Captain Marvel movie has similar themes to Black Widow, to be sure, Captain Marvel is quite confused in terms of genre, and the plot sees the lead become ludicrously omnipotent at the end (leaving it nowhere to go after that). By contrast, Black Widow seems much more grounded and authentic. I know, it’s an odd thing for me to say such a thing, especially when the movie’s full of impossible action sequences, and so on, but there’s more integrity and continuity to the emotional trauma and character development in Black Widow that makes the SFX of far less immediate concern. Indeed, there’s nice humour ridiculing the very choreographed, ‘posed’ and voyeuristic (‘male gaze’) style of action sequence that’s typical of Hollywood and traditional Marvel movies.
There can be little argument that Black Widow might/should be described as a feminist movie. It revolves around the central relationship between two sisters, exploring the nature of ‘sisterhood’. They’ve been stolen, emotionally neglected and physically abused by an evil patriarch (General Dreykov, played by Ray Winstone, with a very dodgy Russian accent indeed) who is hellbent on producing an army of obedient female super-soldiers so that he can rule the world. Yes, it’s a very cliched scenario (hence the movie doffing its cap bigtime to the Bond movie Moonraker). And, yes, the way I’m describing its themes risks making it sound like a very dogmatic or preachy affair. BUT fear not! The movie has a light touch (not much clunky exposition or lecturing at all), typical Marvel bantz (Joss Whedon style) even in emotionally fraught moments, and some nicely arranged fight sequences (ironically/knowingly done).
The ‘male’ tradition of superheroes is affectionately mocked – the Red Guardian character is an anachronistic scream. There’s no soppy hetero love story getting in the way. There’s only female drive and a lack of apology. And the story of the wider MCU is actually moved along. This movie pulls off a lot (with style) and represents a valuable contribution to the oeuvre. 8 out of 10 from me! Hurrah!
In the last dozen years or so, there have been 19 Marvel (MCU) movies. More than one a year on average. The pattern seems to be that the second movie in each mini-sequence is a dud – Thor 2 and Iron Man 2 very much spring to mind (although I really wish they didn’t). The good, of course, is that MCU movies have in the main been far far better than the DC superhero (DCU) movies. Thor Ragnarok (Thor 3) was undeniably entertaining and Black Pather was a triumph. There again, MCU movies are very formulaic, relying almost entirely on ‘male bantz’ (macho heroes boasting about their prowess – even Black Panther is ultimately phallocentric) and then a big special FX scrap. It really has to be asked, then: do we need a movie like Avengers Infinity War in which all the different mini-franchises collide and there are more superheroes than minutes in the movie’s actually running time (2hrs40mins!) ? Really? Isn’t it just going to be a horrendous mess without time for genuine characterisation?
Well, Infinity War just about pulls it off, to be honest. The trick, you see, is that the movie follows the baddie’s (Thanos’s) story rather than the story of any do-gooder. We get to understand the baddie’s rationale for his extreme actions and engage with him intellectually even if we cannot identify with his cosmic ambitions. We expect him to lose out ultimately, but that is not necessarily the case in this movie. He is a being of devastating power who actually brings proper jeopardy to the ‘good guys’. Indeed, a host of major heroes end up dead (not gonna spoil who, but it’s a bit shocking).
So, as the audience, we are caught between following Thanos’s quest (almost empathising with him as he makes terrible personal sacrifices) and rooting for the likes of the annoying Iron Man, the overly square Thor and the ridiculously immature Spiderman. At the end of the movie, the audience I was with sat in stunned silence – with no certainty about how to react to what they had just seen. They all hung on to see if there’d be an extra scene after the credits to make everything ‘feel better’. I ain’t gonna tell ya.
So how would I rate the movie? Well, I do rate it. Just not with a score. It’s a movie that is there on its own terms. Very much worth a look… but I’m a Marvel fanboy who knows a lot of the MCU mythos. If you’re not up-to-date, you might end up entirely bewildered by it all.
Marvel’s new series on Netflix has an 18 certificate, and with good reason. There is plenty of brutal violence in The Punisher, violence that is occasionally gratuitous and stretches credibility. For all that, it is a compelling watch and actually has… heart (a bloody and eratically beating one, but one that just about keeps going) . You see, the writers have made it all character-driven and there are no throw-away characters. Each protagonist and antagonist has a moral dilemma and a rationale for how they behave. We pity Frank Castle (the war vet whose family have been murdered) as much as we root for him as he seeks a vigilante’s vengeance. There are bigger themes explored too, including how far two human beings should risk trusting each other, how society uncaringly uses people, how lying can protect others, and so on. All in all, then, it’s well worth the viewer’s time.
It isn’t perfect, of course. In addition to the graphic and voyeuristic violence (no, it isn’t doing something clever with this), the plot tempo suffers in individual episodes and there is a lot of annoying repetition (presumably to remind dumber viewers of what’s going on). Yet such things are entirely forgivable when there are genuinely moving scenes, neat plot twists and great acting from Jon Bernthal in the lead (you might know him as the Deputy Sheriff in The Walking Dead), from Ebon Moss-Bachrach (a humorous techno-geek side-kick who keeps Frank Castle in touch with his humanity) and from Ben Barnes as the baddie.
Those who are coming to The Punisher just because they’re Marvel fans won’t be disappointed either. There is crossover with Daredevil via the Karen Page character and with Luke Cage via The Turk (a fave petty criminal of mine). Certain plot moments figure significantly in the Daredevil series, but they are told from a different perspective in The Punisher series.
The ‘mood’ of The Punisher series is far closer to the gritty and realistic Jessica Jones series than it is to anything like the hammy/cheesy Iron Fist or The Defenders. (That’s a good thing, believe me.) And the plotting is far, far better than in Luke Cage. And the issues explored are smarter than in Daredevil. So… The Punisher is a definite step forward in many ways. Check it out.
So, Channel 4 (UK) launched the new superhero series Agents of SHIELD this week. Was it any good? Bubble gum stuff really… which in Dalton’s world simply isn’t good enough. Missed opportunity. Look, I’m an oldschool Marvel fanboy, I even used to work in a comicbook store. The stuff that is being peddled on C4 at the mo just lacks the grit of the comics I used to read. There was no menace whatsoever. The ‘baddie’ was simply a misunderstood guy who fell in with evil scientists cos he needed the money to look after his family.
The episode had the required wise cracks that are a hallmark of Marvel, and enough babes and dudes to satisfy the eye, but the plot was just too thin – made even thinner by the fact that there was a commercial break every five minutes, meaning that actual screen time for the entire episode can’t have been more than 40 mins of the entire scheduled hour. To be generous, then, it was hard for the writers to fit in character introduction on top of a compelling plot. Something had to give, and sadly it was the plot. Maybe the jury’s still out, though, since there were plenty of nods towards larger themes that still need to play out, and hints about a clandestine movement working against SHIELD. So, I’m gonna give it a second episode, but it better start delivering overtime! … Especially when there are series like Game of Thrones being produced that are of a much higher standard.