Justice League

“That man won’t quit as long as he can still draw a breath. None of my teammates will. Me? I’ve got a different problem. I feel like I live in a world made of cardboard, always taking constant care not to break something, to break someone. Never allowing myself to lose control even for a moment, or someone could die. But you can take it, can’t you, big man? What we have here is a rare opportunity for me to cut loose and show you just how powerful I really am!”

Just thought I’d preface the review with a quote from one of the greatest Justice League stories ever made for a screen. Sadly, it’s not from this movie.

Warning: The following contains spoilers for Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. You know, in case you care.

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Justice League
Director: Zack Snyder (and a bit of Joss Whedon)
Writers: Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon
Starring: Gal Gadot, Ben Affleck, Ezra Miller, etc.
Music by: Danny Elfman
Rated PG-13

Superman is dead. A cave troll and some very stupid writing have left planet Earth without its greatest hero. This has not only given most of the world’s population a major case of the blues, it’s also left us without a sure-fire defense against alien invaders. So naturally, an alien invades: a fellow by the name of Steppenwolf, who brings an army of Parademons (basically giant bugs that feed on fear) to help him find three ancient artefacts hidden on Earth, which, if united, would turn the world into a copy of his apocalyptic home planet. In order to stop this threat, a newly non-homicidal Batman teams up with Wonder Woman, The Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg to form what will become the Justice League.

My expectations for this movie were on the low end, to put it mildly. I hated Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman, and since Justice League was mostly being made by the same people, I mostly expected it to be another dumpster fire–especially when I read rumours about a lot of chaotic re-shoots and re-workings going on behind the scenes. The only reason I paid money to see it before the DVD release was because of Wonder Woman–and trust me, it’s a sad day when the promise of Batman isn’t enough to get me into a theatre.

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I mean, normally I’d pay money for this shot alone.

So I was pleasantly surprised when this turned out to be…not a complete dumpster fire. Justice League is not a great movie. It’s not even really a good movie, by most standards. But I enjoyed it more than I didn’t, and it’s leagues (heh) ahead of all the other non-Wonder Woman DC movies so far.

I think it’s mainly because this movie, unlike some of its predecessors, focuses all its energy on the most important part of storytelling: the characters. I felt like I knew where all the major characters were coming from, and I found them all quite likable. Batman is much more human than he was in his previous movie, and far less stupid, coming up with many new methods of dealing with his problems that don’t involve shooting them. Wonder Woman is her usual gorgeous, awesome self. The Flash is endearing and hilarious. Aquaman is a little too “surfer dude” for my taste, but he has his cool moments, and it’s pretty awesome to see his water-controlling powers come to life in live-action. The only character who didn’t really do much for me was Cyborg. I’ve always found him boring in other incarnations, and this movie didn’t do anything to change that. But that might just be me.

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Also, his CGI body weirds me out.

Not only do most of these characters work on their own, they’re great together. The best scenes in the movie involve the whole team hanging out and talking. Batman and Wonder Woman have a great relationship (Possibly a romantic one? Will I get my cartoon ship yet?) and, surprisingly, he’s a really great mentor figure to The Flash. Flash and Cyborg also have some nice camaraderie, even though I don’t care for the latter all that much.

Unfortunately, while good central characters are the most important part of storytelling, having a good plot is also kind of important. And this movie doesn’t have that. Steppenwolf is one of the most pathetic villains I’ve ever seen in a superhero movie, which is saying something. He has no personality, he doesn’t look intimidating at all, and his goals couldn’t be more generic if they tried. This movie’s story is such a copy-paste job from other, better movies that I could predict every single plot point at least five minutes before it happened. There’s no suspense. There are no stakes. At no point did I believe that the world or the Justice League were in any real danger. And no, constantly showing one single family in danger (in a place where at least a few hundred people should have been living, no less) did not help with that.

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There’s a reason this guy isn’t one of Darkseid’s more famous minions.

The movie also feels extremely rushed at times. It’s less than two hours long, and it felt like large chunks of footage must have been cut out at the last minute. In fact, everything I’ve heard about the behind-the-scenes drama seems to support that conclusion. There are a lot of jokes, doubtless to make up for everyone complaining about the first two movies’ self-seriousness, and most of them work, but some feel rather forced and out of place. But at least there aren’t as many unintentionally hilarious moments as in some other Marthas–I mean, movies.

Now, I’m going to get into some spoilers here, because it’s impossible to fully discuss my feelings on this movie without them. But I should clarify that this is only a spoiler for people who A) know nothing about the Justice League, B) don’t watch many superhero movies, and C) have never been to any of the nerdier corners of the internet. If that describes you (and you still somehow want to see this movie), don’t read on.

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Just enjoy this picture of Barry Allen smiling.

SPOILERS AHEAD

Yeah, Superman comes back to life in this movie. It is indeed shocking that the DCEU wouldn’t permanently kill off its most recognisable character after two movies, but there you have it.

The funny thing is, his entire existence here feels like one massive apology for those other two movies. First, Batman spends the first half of the movie talking about how Superman was “a beacon of hope for the world,” which is laughable if you remember what he was like before, and how the public viewed him in BvS. I mean, I’m all for forgetting those movies ever existed, but if Justice League was going to do that, Supes shouldn’t have been dead in the first place.

Then, when he does show up, it turns out he’s undergone a complete personality change, so that he actually acts like that “beacon of hope” we know and love from just about every other incarnation of the character. The movie goes out of its way to show him rescuing civilians, joking around with his teammates, using under-utilised powers like his ice breath, and even smiling. And you know what? I really enjoyed that. Henry Cavill is still not my favourite actor, and his digitally-removed moustache did him no favours in some scenes, but at least he finally felt like a Superman I could root for.

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“I really like being alive.”

Overall, I think Justice League would be great if it was a DC Animated Original Movie. In terms of pacing, story quality, and action, it’s about on par with Justice League: War or one of the other middling cartoon features. But as the very first big-screen appearance of arguably the most iconic super-team of all time, it leaves much to be desired. I’m hoping this was the first step towards a truly great DC team-up movie, and not the death knell of the franchise (which I’m worried it could be).

But for now, I’m afraid that if you want a really fun, intelligent, well-written Justice League story, with great characters and great action, your best bet is still a kids’ cartoon.

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For one thing, it’s got a Green Lantern.

Grade: B-

 

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The Punisher Season 1

We started off the month with a fun, colourful Marvel comedy about a Norse god who fires magic lightning at other gods during big space battles. So now it’s time for something completely different.

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The Punisher
Creator: Steve Lightfoot
Starring: Jon Bernthal, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Amber Rose Revah
Music By: Tyler Bates
Rated TV-MA

Warning: Both the review and the show assume you have seen Season 2 of Netflix’s Daredevil.

The latest Marvel/Netflix show opens with Frank Castle, aka the Punisher, hunting down the last surviving members of the three gangs that killed his family. His revenge seemingly complete, he grows a beard, changes his identity, gets a job as a construction worker, and tries to live something resembling a normal life. To no one’s surprise, he fails. But it’s okay, because it turns out his revenge isn’t as complete as he thought. No, his family’s deaths were part of a larger conspiracy that began during his combat days in Afghanistan and could reach all the way up the ranks of the U.S. military and CIA. Frank teams up with a hacker called Micro, who has also been screwed over by the government, to find the masterminds behind this conspiracy and take them down. Meanwhile, a Homeland Security agent named Dinah Madani is investigating the death of her partner in the same part of Afghanistan where Frank served, and a couple of Frank’s war buddies become interested in his fight for very different reasons.

First of all, I want to point out that this show has the second best opening title sequence of the Marvel/Netflix ‘verse so far. Slow, gritty, Western-styled theme music reminiscent of Johnny Cash plays over a montage of guns being assembled and fired in slow motion, until they all come together to make the Punisher’s skull logo. Watch that title sequence, and you know exactly what you’re in for with this series.

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Brought to you by Disney.

I went into this with very mixed expectations. On the one hand, the Punisher (or more specifically, Jon Bernthal’s performance as the Punisher) was easily the best thing about Daredevil‘s second season. On the other hand, the Marvel/Netflix shows have been going steadily downhill ever since that season, and as much as I loved Frank in his supporting role, I wasn’t sure he had enough story and substance to carry a whole show by himself. Besides, in case you couldn’t tell from the name, or the fact that his logo is a skull, the Punisher is a bit…intense. I have a strong stomach for TV violence, but I do have limits, and Frank pushed them even in his relatively short subplot on Daredevil.

Some of my fears were well founded. This first season suffers from the same pacing problems that have plagued every Marvel/Netflix show since Daredevil Season 1. It’s not as bad as Luke Cage or Iron Fist, but it does drag a bit towards the middle, and I feel it could have been shortened to nine or ten episodes without losing anything super important.

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I wasn’t always THIS glued to the screen.

But I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of story we got in this show. I was worried it would be nothing but a 13-hour bloodbath with barely any plot…which, no doubt, is what some other fans were hoping for. Instead, this show gives us a complex story, tons of character development, and some fairly hard-hitting social commentary. Even when the characters are just sitting around and talking, I’m usually not bored, because I’m actually interested in these characters and what they have to say. I think that’s the main reason the slow pacing didn’t bother me as much as it did in some of The Punisher‘s sister shows.

The Punisher’s first appearance established that much of his unique brand of brokenness comes from his experiences as a Marine serving in Afghanistan. This show fleshes out that aspect of his backstory significantly, showing how the war was already starting to turn him into the Punisher before his family’s deaths finished the job. The show also uses his issues as a jumping-off point to examine the problems that face many modern veterans coming home from combat: from the difficulty of finding a job to PTSD to the feeling of isolation from “normal” society. To say the U.S. military isn’t shown in a very favourable light here would be an understatement. Most of the high-ranking officials we see are corrupt scumbags who care more about grabbing power for themselves than protecting their country. The veterans we see, even those who end up committing terrible crimes themselves, are universally portrayed as victims of a system that has lied to them, used them, and cast them aside like worthless pawns. When superhero shows tackle real-life issues, it doesn’t always go smoothly, but in this case I found it heartbreakingly effective. While this show may have exaggerated things a bit, it’s no secret that real-life vets often have a tough time coming home. And while I have no first-hand experience with the subject myself, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some of the biggest Punisher fans I know are active or ex-military.

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“I don’t know what the rules are anymore.”

It’s 2017 in America, so of course the whole gun control debate comes up as well. But the show doesn’t really take a stance on the issue. It ridicules the extremes on both sides by way of a slimy, hypocritical gun control advocate and an NRA member who acts like a walking, talking right-wing Twitter troll. Frank himself just does his thing without worrying about the politics. He’s the kind of guy who would find a way to keep a fully-stocked gun arsenal if he were in Sweden…and even if he couldn’t,  the average gun-toting American still wouldn’t stand a chance against him.

Speaking of gun violence, there is some. Also some fist violence. And knife violence. And bomb violence. And…let’s just say that, even in a show where Frank manages to go several episodes without actually “punishing” anyone, this is still, by far, the bloodiest thing the MCU has produced. I had to look away during some of the fight scenes in the last few episodes. But while it may be a bit excessive at times, most of the blood and gore feels earned. It’s not there merely for shock value–it’s just a part of the world the Punisher lives in, thanks to the way his crappy experiences have twisted his mind. It also helps that it’s made very clear just how messed-up Frank is, and that he and people like him are presented as tragic, broken figures rather than heroes. I often wonder how much of something one can show onscreen without glorifying it, but I think this show comes pretty close to showing lots of violence without making it seem “cool” or lessening its impact.

I said pretty close. I mean, there is a car chase at one point. And the Punisher’s one-liners can be pretty hilarious.

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HRUUUUUUUHHH!!!

And speaking of things that don’t need to be on screen, there are also a couple sex scenes towards the middle that I really could have done without.

But what makes the show work is that it focuses more on the characters than the violence. Jon Bernthal continues to be incredible in the title role, providing Frank with some much-needed humanity while still selling his animalistic rage whenever he’s in Punisher mode. His supporting cast is great, too–particularly Ebon Moss-Bachrach as Micro and Ben Barnes as an old friend of Frank’s named Billy Russo. One of the most enjoyable parts of the show for me was the bromance that develops between Frank and Micro, despite their very different personalities. Frank’s relationship with Karen Page also gets some more time in this show…and whether you want to interpret their bond as romantic or not (it’s somewhat ambiguous), I think Karen is definitely at her best when she’s with Frank. And vice versa. Madani makes some rather poor choices over the course of the season, but she’s still very sympathetic. A veteran named Lewis who struggles with PTSD gives us a surprisingly emotional subplot. And all the villains are despicable enough to deserve everything they get at the Punisher’s hands.

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I ship it.

The online reaction to this show has been mixed so far, from both critics and fans. I can understand why. If you’re squeamish about blood and violence, this is going to be too much for you. If you’re a die-hard fan of the Punisher comics, it may not be violent enough for you. If your political views are too far to either the right or the left, there are some bits here that will offend you. It’s extremely different in tone from any other MCU work–even the other Netflix shows. And then there are those annoying pacing problems.

But personally, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this show. It moved me emotionally, and it made me think hard about some real-life problems in my society. Overall, I think The Punisher is tied with Jessica Jones as my second favourite Marvel/Netflix show. It doesn’t quite reach the heights of Daredevil, but I’m not sure any superhero show can.

I’m just happy to see the Netflix ‘verse returning to form. Welcome back, Frank.

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“You scary, beautiful man!”

Grade: A-

 

Thor: Ragnarok

He comes from the land of ice and snow, from the midnight sun, where the hot springs flow…and he has never been this much fun.

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Thor: Ragnarok
Director: Taika Waititi
Writers: Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, etc.
Music by: Mark Mothersbaugh
Rated PG-13

The third Thor movie begins with our hero on a quest to avert the destruction of Asgard, about which he’s been having ominous visions ever since Avengers: Age of Ultron. But when he returns home after a seemingly successful mission, he finds that Loki has impersonated Odin in order to take over the throne–again. Thor tracks down the real Odin with Loki’s reluctant help, only to find that they’re too late: in the Allfather’s absence, his oldest and most powerful child–Hela, the goddess of death–has escaped from prison to wreak havoc on Asgard. And just to show she’s not an empty threat, the first thing Hela does after showing up is destroy Thor’s hammer and banish him and Loki to a planet of castaways. There, Thor is forced into a gladiatorial death match against none other than his old friend the Hulk, while Hela turns his home world into a new version of, well, Hel.

Sounds pretty dire, right? Pretty worthy of a title referring to the end of days and the death of the gods in Norse mythology? Well, the funny thing about Ragnarok is that it’s a comedy. And I’m not talking about a movie like The Avengers, which has lots of funny bits but is still primarily an action flick. Nope, this is a quirky outer-space comedy that happens to have action in it.

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“He’s a friend from work!”

I’ve read a lot of comments from comic fans on the internet who take issue with this. And if you went into this movie expecting it to be a dark, serious epic, I can definitely understand being disappointed. Despite all the earth-shattering events that happen to Thor in this movie, there’s hardly a moment that seems meant to be taken seriously. But while turning a story like this into a comedy is a bit of an odd move, it’s such a brilliant comedy that I, personally, wasn’t bothered at all.

I’ll be honest: Thor has never been my favourite Avenger. He’s got some great lore behind him, and Chris Hemsworth is great in the role, but he’s always felt weighed down by annoying supporting characters, a spotlight-stealing villain, and less-than-inspired storytelling. This movie fixes all those problems. With the exception of Loki and Heimdall, all of Thor’s side characters either fail to show up or get killed within the first 20 minutes. They are then replaced with new and excellent side characters: a hard-drinking Valkyrie with a heart of gold, a hilarious talking rock named Korg (played excellently by the director), the conflicted evil henchman Skurge, and Jeff Goldblum as himself. We also get the Hulk at his most interesting (and articulate), and Hela, played by Cate Blanchett at her absolute hammiest. It’s an amazing cast full of actors who appear to be having the time of their lives.

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And now we know what Dark Lord Galadriel would’ve looked like.

This is also the first Marvel movie in which Loki has made sense to me. He started out as a sympathetic, Shakespeare-style villain in the first movie, and has since gone back and forth between a cartoonishly evil megalomaniac and a brooding anti-hero, depending on who’s writing him, so his motivations have never seemed all that consistent. Ragnarok clears it up: he’s the God of Mischief, so he’s always looking to play a trick on someone. Whether it’s the good guys or the bad guys mainly depends on his mood. And here he manages to have some great character moments and one-liners in this movie without ever stealing the spotlight from Thor.

Speaking of the God of Thunder, he’s at his best here, showing just how far he’s come from the arrogant, immature prince of the first movie by showing real brains and leadership in a number of desperate situations. His relationship with both Bruce Banner and the Hulk, which wasn’t really explored in previous Avengers movies, gets some welcome screen time in this one. He also gets to throw around more lightning and thunder than ever before, and it is awesome.

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Honestly, God of Lightning might make more sense as a title.

What amazes me most about Ragnarok, though, is that it feels just as much like a Taika Waititi film as it does a Marvel film. Marvel tends to have such a tight grip on its properties that the directors of individual movies often don’t get much of a chance to show off their own unique styles. And sure, this movie has some of the Marvel staples–an army of faceless mooks for the heroes to mow down, a gratuitous Stan Lee cameo, lots of references to past and future MCU films–but it’s also missing some of the most annoying Marvel tropes, like blatant product placement and a boring villain (Hela isn’t the best MCU villain by a long way, but she sure isn’t boring). And based on what I’ve seen of his earlier work in indie comedies, the humour, dialogue and storytelling style in this movie are all Waititi’s.

One of Waititi’s storytelling strengths is the ability to make a funny movie about serious events, without cheapening the events themselves. So when Thor and company undergo major traumatic experiences in this movie, I still feel their impact, even if they’re immediately followed by jokes. More importantly, it’s clear that the characters feel the impact. Thor may be an overall cheerful guy, but he’s not just going to shrug off something like the loss of Mjolnir in a second. The jokes are there to help the audience–and the characters, in some cases–avoid getting bogged down in depressing stuff. There are a few moments in the movie that I wish had carried just a bit more dramatic weight, but for the most part, it has a good balance between comedy and tragedy.

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“We’re not doing ‘get help.’ It’s humiliating.”

If I were in a nitpicky mood, I could point out a few possible flaws in Ragnarok: one or two rather obvious green screen shots, a couple minor plot points that weren’t fully explained, etc. But let’s be real. This movie has a battle between a zombie army, a giant wolf, the Hulk, a Valkyrie wielding a Gatling gun, and the God of Thunder at his most thundersome, all scored to “Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin. Why in the Nine Realms would anyone want to nitpick something that awesome?

Instead, I’ll just be grateful that Thor has finally gotten the movie he deserves.

Grade: A for Asgard

The Defenders

The team-up between all four of Marvel/Netflix’s superheroes is finally here. Let the hallways of New York City beware!

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The Defenders
Creators: Douglas Petrie and Marco Ramirez
Starring: Charlie Cox, Krysten Ritter, Mike Colter, Finn Jones, Sigourney Weaver, etc.
Music by: John Paesano
Released: Aug. 17, 2017
Rated TV-MA

Warning: This review contains mild spoilers for Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist.

This show picks up our heroes’ stories right where their individual shows left off. Danny Rand and Colleen Wing are hunting down agents of the Hand in Cambodia. Luke Cage has just been released from prison. Jessica Jones is reluctantly getting back into the private eye business, when she’s not busy drowning her remaining mental trauma in booze. And Matt Murdock is back to being a full-time lawyer, having given up the red suit after all the trouble his dual life caused his friends in Daredevil season 2. But a series of seemingly unconnected events–an unusually strong assassin who confronts Danny, a string of murders in Harlem, and a missing architect whose wife comes to Jessica for help–set the four of them on a collision course. Their personalities and backgrounds couldn’t be more different, and they don’t always get along, but when the ultimate goal of the Hand is revealed, they all have to work together in order to save their city.

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They’re basically the poor man’s Avengers.

I’ve had mixed feelings about the solo shows that led up to this one. Jessica Jones and Luke Cage both had plenty of strong points, but also some pretty glaring flaws. And Iron Fist was a let-down in almost every way. On the other hand, I think Daredevil is the greatest live-action superhero show ever made, and by far the best thing the MCU has produced. So my expectations going into their team-up were….cautiously optimistic. And I wasn’t disappointed.

To me, the most enjoyable part of this show is watching the four heroes interact. Like the Avengers in their original movie, much of the Defenders’ charm comes from their clashing personalities. It takes a while for Jessica to get on board with defending the city, since she doesn’t think of herself as a hero and mainly wants to be left alone. Unlike any of the others, Daredevil’s worried about maintaining his secret identity, and Luke Cage, being the nicest of the bunch, just wants to help people while avoiding violence as much as possible. The different baggage each of them brings to the table leads to some dramatic conflicts, but also lots of comic relief. Jessica’s snark vs. Matt’s deadpan seriousness is particularly enjoyable.

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“Jessica Jones, stop talking.”

Going into this show, I was expecting Iron Fist to be the weak link of the team, since his was by far the worst of the solo series. And he kind of is…but fortunately, the writers seem to be aware of that. Danny spends most of this season getting firmly put in his place by the rest of the team. Good guys and bad guys alike beat him up throughout the season, Luke responds to his selfish whining by telling him to check his privilege, and everyone constantly makes fun of his name and backstory. And yet, he’s still more impressive here than he was on his own show. He uses his actual Iron Fist power more often in the first three episodes alone than he did in 13 episodes of Iron Fist, and even his regular martial arts choreography has improved tremendously. He’s still a bit lame compared to the others, but this series did a lot to remove the ill-will I had against him.

The rest of the team members are in fine form here. The kind-hearted, optimistic Luke Cage sort of acts like the Captain America of the group, providing them with a moral centre–and a very handy bullet shield. I forgot how much I appreciated him as a character, and I’m almost warming up to the idea of him and Claire Temple as a couple. (Almost.) Jessica Jones is as bitter, sarcastic, and all-around jerk-ish as ever, but this series brings out more of her heroic side. It also gives her more opportunities than ever to show off her superpowers and detective skills, which is nice.

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Just three normal folks on a subway. Nothing to see here.

But not surprisingly, Daredevil is still the best thing about this show. His character is the most compelling, and his subplots add the most depth to the overall story. Charlie Cox is also the best actor on the Defenders team, in my opinion, though Krysten Ritter is a close second. Naturally, Daredevil ends up as the team leader, and does a pretty good job at it overall, although his personal connections to the Hand sometimes get him and his allies in trouble. While other characters are more important plot-wise, his emotional conflict is really the heart of this series. Out of the four solo shows, I think his will probably be the most affected by events in The Defenders (with the possible exception of Iron Fist), and I’m excited to see where it goes next.

Now let’s talk about the villains. This show finally brings together our favourite evil ninja army’s founders, the “Five Fingers of the Hand,” onscreen. Previous Big Bads Madame Gao and Bakuto are among them, of course, but it turns out their leader is Sigourney Weaver’s character, Alexandra. I think she’s great in the role. There aren’t many over-60 women alive who can be as genuinely intimidating as Sigourney, and she easily dominates every scene she’s in. But in the end, I don’t think the show does as much with her character as it could have. She doesn’t get the detailed Kingpin-style backstory or complicated motivations I was hoping for, and she’s ultimately not as important to the plot as she seems at first. But the show has one female baddie I enjoyed more than I expected: Elektra. As promised by the trailers, she’s back from the dead and more dangerous than ever. And I honestly like her so much better as a full-fledged villain than as an anti-hero. My feelings are still mixed on her relationship with Matt, but at least I can sympathise with his ongoing desire to save her.

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“It’s just a city. You’ll get used to watching them fall.”

The side characters don’t get quite as much screen time here as they did on the solo shows, which is to be expected, but they’re still fun to watch. Claire is as perfect and amazing as ever, and this series truly shows how important she is to all four heroes. Foggy, Karen, Trish, Malcolm, Misty Knight, Colleen Wing and Father Lantom all get at least a moment or two to shine. But if you’re expecting a Punisher cameo, as I was, you’ll be disappointed.

The fight scenes in this season are almost Daredevil-quality. None of them blew me away quite as much as the best fights on that show, but they’re all exciting and well-choreographed, especially the Defenders’ first hallway fight. (I like how hallway fights have become the Marvel/Netflix trademark.) The cinematography is pretty cool and striking in general. Each of the Defenders has a colour associated with them on this show (red for Daredevil, blue for Jessica Jones, yellow for Luke Cage, and green for Iron Fist), and that colour is always prominently featured in their solo scenes. Scenes with all four of them together generally have all four colours on display. Meanwhile, scenes with their enemies are predominantly black and white. Doesn’t really affect the story much, but I thought it was a nice cinematic touch.

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That moment when you’re the only superhero on your team who actually wears a costume.

 

One of the biggest problems with the non-Daredevil solo series was their slow pacing, so it was probably a wise decision to cut this show down to just eight episodes. The story certainly never drags the way it did in Luke Cage and Iron Fist, but I can’t help feeling it could have been a lot more epic if it was longer. Maybe that’s just me being an unpleasable fan, but both seasons of Daredevil managed to keep things interesting for 13 episodes, so it seems there must be a way to strike a balance between “too slow” and “too short.”

One more little quibble: There is a massive fake-out death at the end of this show. I don’t think it’s even a spoiler to call it a fake-out, since it’s one of those Marvel deaths that no one at all familiar with the franchise would ever expect to stick. But the show still wastes a pretty good amount of time trying to convince the audience it’s real, and that annoyed me. To be fair, though, it would have annoyed me more if it had been real.

The Marvel/Netflix partnership still hasn’t produced anything else as good as Daredevil, but this series comes pretty close. The love and respect I have for most of the characters, especially Daredevil, is enough to overshadow its few flaws. I’m very much looking forward to future team-ups and solo series in the gritty corner of the Marvel Universe.

Now, if you’ll allow me a moment of fangirling, I would like to point out the best moments of this show: the part where Matt Murdock played his own theme song on the piano (badly) and it was absolutely adorable, and the part where he encouraged another disabled person to keep fighting and my heart melted into goo. Okay. Fangirling over.

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HE IS TOO GOOD FOR THIS WORLD.

The Defenders is excellent Netflix binge material, and I highly recommend it to all Marvel fans.

Grade: A-

My Faves: Young Justice

I know I’ve mentioned this show briefly before, but it got taken off Netflix yesterday, and I’m feeling sentimental.

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Young Justice
Creators: Mostly Greg Weisman and Brandon Vietti
Starring: Danica McKellar, Jesse McCartney, Nolan North, Khary Payton and so, so many others…
Aired: 2010-2013-2018?
Rated TV-PG

As the name might imply, this is a show about a team of young superheroes–or teenage sidekicks, to be more precise–who work alongside the Justice League. It starts when fellow sidekicks Robin, Kid Flash, and Aqualad go on an unauthorised mission together and end up saving Superboy, a Superman clone, from the evil lab that created him. Their mentors still don’t think they’re ready for the Justice League, but after seeing what the four kids are capable of, they agree to let them form a super-team of their own. Miss Martian, Martian Manhunter’s niece, and Artemis, a Green Arrow protege, are quickly added to the group (presumably to balance out the testosterone), and eventually it expands to include more than a dozen former sidekicks. But after a few covert crime-fighting missions together, the Team (no, they never get a proper name) begin to realise most of their enemies are connected through a shadowy organisation called the Light. And they’ve barely scratched the surface of the Light’s nefarious plans.

This was one of the first DC shows I ever watched in full, and it was a great gateway into the rest of the DC universe. It has a gigantic cast, plucked from every corner of comic continuity, and almost every character is at his/her best. I went into this show knowing a little bit about Batman, Superman, and the Flash, and that was it. I came out of it as a huge fan of the rest of the Bat-family (particularly Nightwing), the rest of the Flash family, Blue Beetle, Miss Martian, and quite a few other heroes I’d never heard of before. And as I’ve become a more informed fan, I’ve just come to appreciate this show’s unique take on many of its characters even more.

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For example: Best. Lex Luthor. Ever.

But the main reason I love this show has nothing to do with my love for DC. It has to do with my love for smart stories about smart characters. The cast of Young Justice is almost entirely made up of master strategists, cunning manipulators, and double agents, all trying to outwit each other at once. This naturally leads to a convoluted plot full of unexpected twists, in which nothing is quite as it seems in the beginning. It’s great fun. And the fact that many of these smart characters are teenagers, who do occasionally act like normal teens when they’re not saving the world, does surprisingly little to hinder the fun.

In fact, the characters are a big part of what makes this show work. Like Justice League Unlimited and other great super-team shows before it, Young Justice manages to give every one of its many, many main characters a chance to shine. (At least for the first season. More on that later.) But on this show, it’s usually more than just a moment in the spotlight. Each member of the original Team has a layered personality and a complex character arc that lets them grow and change naturally over the course of the show, which is pretty impressive, considering each episode is only a half hour long and a lot of that time has to be spent advancing the plot. While some of the protagonists’ actions can seem dumb or annoying at first, there’s almost always an understandable reason behind them. The show also doesn’t shy away from showing the kind of impact a crime-fighting lifestyle could have on a teenager. Everyone on the Team struggles with issues related to their job, from Robin’s fear of becoming as ruthless as Batman to Miss Martian’s insecurity and anti-heroic tendencies. Not to mention the drama that naturally results from a bunch of hormonal teens working together. But they all manage to rise above those issues whenever the day needs saving, which is fun to see.

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They’ve even got a sweet day-saving ship!

Unlike some of my other “faves,” however, I will admit this show has flaws. Its soundtrack and voice acting aren’t nearly as good as anything in the DCAU, for example, and it tends to rely a little too heavily on exposition. Also (and this is a minor spoiler, so…sorry) Season 2, dubbed “Young Justice: Invasion,” starts five years after the first season’s cliffhanger ending. I have very mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it means a lot of important character development happens offscreen, which is usually a bad thing for any story. It also introduces a ton of new characters, some of whom never get enough development for us to really care about them, and it stretches the suspension of disbelief a bit, since some of the major plot points from Season 1 really shouldn’t have taken five years to resolve. On the other hand, some of the new characters do get plenty of development, and they’re fantastic. Blue Beetle and Impulse are the stand-out examples, but there are others. Also, skipping ahead five years means Robin ages into Nightwing, which is always a good thing.

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For…multiple reasons.

Story-wise, the second season is as good or better than the first, and after the first few episodes, the time skip problems get much less irritating. So overall, I’d say the good outweighs the bad. Which is also true for Young Justice as a whole. It has some of the best animation I’ve ever seen in a TV show, tons of cool action, and unforgettable characters. It’s also incredibly tightly plotted. Not a single episode could be considered “filler.” Not a single character is expendable (except maybe Lagoon Boy from Season 2, because he sucks). Not a line of dialogue is ever wasted.

And yet, this show only has two seasons at the moment. It seems to have endured Firefly levels of sabotage from Cartoon Network, where it first aired, with long hiatuses being imposed with no warning, episodes airing at the wrong times, etc. It was cancelled after the second season, and the reason I’ve heard cited most often is that it wasn’t selling enough toys. But thanks to ongoing fan support and tons of views on Netflix, it’s been renewed for a third season, to be called “Young Justice: Outsiders”! I’m pretty excited. Even though it won’t be on Netflix, apparently. And I have to wait until 2018, apparently.

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I need a time machine.

In the meantime, there are always DVDs…and if you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing this show, I highly recommend  you make every effort to do so.

Grade: A for Aster

Spider-Man: Homecoming

There comes a time when every spider-boy must become a Spider-Man.

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Spider-Man: Homecoming
Director: Jon Watts
Writers: Jon Watts, Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers 
Soundtrack composer: Michael Giacchino
Stars: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, etc.
Released: July 7
Rated PG-13

The movie starts immediately after the events of Captain America: Civil War. Peter Parker is extremely excited about meeting the Avengers and fighting alongside some of them, and considering Tony Stark specifically sought him out for the job, he assumes this is going to become a regular thing. But after two months, nobody has called him back for another mission, or even an Avengers costume party. So he goes on with his life: going to school, hanging out with his best friend Ned Leeds, and swinging around New York City in his new high-tech suit, attempting to stop crime as the “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.” When he runs into a gang of thieves who have gotten their hands on alien tech, Stark tells him to let the experts handle it. But Peter has a little bit of teenage rebellion going on, and staying away from dangerous criminals isn’t really his style.

Like I said in my Civil War review, I thought Spider-Man was one of the most enjoyable things about that movie. But I was still a little wary about his solo outing, and not just because I spent a good nine months being bombarded with over-long trailers for it. (I don’t need to see half the movie beforehand in order to get excited for it, thank you very much!)

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I think I watched this scene a dozen times before the movie came out.

I’m a huge fan of the original Sam Raimi movies. Yes, all three of them. They were my first introduction, not just to Spider-Man as a character, but to superhero movies in general. So they have a huge nostalgia value to me, but they’re also just incredibly fun movies. To this day, I still haven’t seen many action scenes that can top the train fight in Spider-Man 2, and supervillains don’t get much better than Willem Dafoe as Green Goblin and Alfred Molina as Doc Ock. Also, J.K. Simmons is the only person who should ever be allowed to play J. Jonah Jameson. Even though Andrew Garfield arguably gave a better performance as the title character than his predecessor, I couldn’t stand the Amazing Spider-Man movies because they felt like unnecessary and inferior re-tellings of a story I already liked. So as we approached yet another re-boot, I tried not to get my hopes up too much, despite my usual love for the MCU.

My fears were (mostly) unfounded. This movie brings as much fun, humour, and excitement to its storytelling as I’ve come to expect from Marvel. And at no point does it feel like yet another re-telling of the story Raimi told so well 15 years ago. This movie wisely continues to assume that audiences already know all about Spider-Man’s origin story, so apart from a brief reference to the spider bite and some subtle hints that Aunt May is still mourning Uncle Ben, it doesn’t come up. Instead, we get to know this version of Peter Parker after he’s already decided to be a hero, and the story focuses on his journey to becoming a good one.

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First lesson: Make sure you’re alone BEFORE you take your mask off.

Because at first, he is reeaaallly bad at being Spider-Man. Turns out it takes more than superpowers and a high-tech suit to effectively defend New York City. It also helps to be able to tell when someone is stealing a car (as opposed to just getting into their own) and to know how to avoid unnecessary property damage. Spider-Man sure causes a lot of destruction for someone whose hero and mentor signed the Sokovia Accords to prevent that sort of thing. In fact, most of the big problems that arise throughout the movie are, directly or indirectly, his fault. Then again, he is only 15, and despite his inexperience, his heart is definitely in the right place. Over the course of the movie, he learns how to be a better fighter, even without the Stark gadgets, and finds a purpose for his powers beyond trying to prove he’s a grown-up Avenger.

Basically, this is your typical high school coming-of-age story…except it’s about Spider-Man. While there are plenty of action scenes, a good chunk of the movie is about Peter dealing with normal high school problems, like trying to win a big trivia competition or asking his crush out to the homecoming dance. Although high school movies aren’t normally my cup of tea, that aspect of the movie was actually my favourite. It allows us to see more of what life is like for normal people in the insane Marvel universe, and provides some great laughs along the way. For example, Peter’s school shows educational videos narrated by Captain America (apparently Cap even filmed a PSA about puberty, which is AMAZING). Peter’s friend Ned is also an excellent source of comic relief.

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“Can you summon an army of spiders?…Do you lay eggs?”

Before I get into my problems with the movie, I have to talk about the villain, Adrian Toomes, or Vulture. He’s the best MCU movie villain yet. That’s partly thanks to Michael Keaton’s excellent performance, and partly thanks to a very effective surprise twist concerning his character late in the movie, but it’s mostly because, out of all the villains in the franchise so far, Vulture is the most…human. He’s just a regular blue-collar worker who turned to dealing in illegal high-tech weaponry to provide a better life for his family, and he only goes after Spidey when he gets in the way. It’s such a refreshing change of pace from the usual “Let’s destroy the world because muahaha!” motivation of Marvel villains. This is the second decent villain they’ve had in a row, though, so maybe it’s a sign of permanent change.

Looking at this movie strictly on its own merits and in terms of its place in the MCU, there’s not a lot wrong with it. I could complain about the blatant product placement, or about how weird it is to see Spidey using high-tech gadgets and an AI, but those were minor issues that didn’t really detract from my enjoyment of the film. It’s a fun, breezy adventure with good actors, decent action, and a clever, funny script.

But that’s all it is.

This movie is so much better than the Amazing Spider-Man movies that I’m hopeful it may cause them to fade out of public memory entirely. It has fewer problems than Spider-Man 3 had, by a long way. But in my opinion, it still falls short of the standards set by the Raimi trilogy as a whole. Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 may have had flaws, but they also had high moral stakes and a compelling arc for the hero. That version of Peter Parker had a motto–“With great power comes great responsibility”–and the whole trilogy, even the much-maligned third movie, was about his struggle to live up to that motto, despite various temptations to abuse his power or ignore his responsibility. Like all post-Raimi Spider-Man movies, Homecoming studiously avoids the “great responsibility” line for reasons that are unclear to me. And I miss it. This version of Peter Parker never wavers from his heroic intentions, which is great, but it also means his internal conflict is limited to trying to prove he’s a “grown-up” hero to Tony Stark, which is a comparatively weaker arc. The movie also misses an opportunity to show real consequences resulting from his inexperience (conveniently, no one we care about is ever hurt because of his mistakes) and have him learn a lesson about, well, responsibility. I was left wishing for more.

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But hey, at least he managed to get his mask off in the final fight.

Not every Spider-Man movie has to be an iconic superhero classic, though, and this movie isn’t trying to be one. It’s simply a light-hearted high school story with superheroes, and if that’s all you’re expecting when you walk into the theatre, you’ll probably be satisfied. Despite my nit-picking, I laughed my head off at all the jokes (especially the Captain America PSAs), and I still think Tom Holland makes a fantastic Spider-Man.

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Best. Cameo. Ever.

Oh, and the final stinger is totally worth waiting through the end credits. Your patience will be rewarded.

Grade: A-

The Flash

It’s high time for me to talk about my other favourite DC superhero.

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The Flash
Creators: Greg Berlanti, Geoff Johns, Andrew Kreisberg
Starring: Grant Gustin, Candice Patton, Danielle Panabaker, Carlos Valdes, Tom Cavanagh, etc.
Aired: 2014-Present
Rated TV-PG

The Flash is the second of (currently) four shows that make up the CW’s DC universe, usually dubbed the “Arrowverse.” And it is by far the best. The third season just hit Netflix, but things got started back in Season 1 with 11-year-old Barry Allen witnessing his mother’s death at the hands of a mysterious figure who appears in a bolt of lightning. No one believes his version of the story, so his father is blamed for the murder. Fast forward a decade or so, and Barry’s working as a (ridiculously young) CSI tech in his hometown of Central City. Ever since the incident with his mother, he’s been obsessed with finding proof of the “impossible,” and he gets his wish one night when a particle accelerator at nearby S.T.A.R. Labs explodes, causing him to get struck by SCIENCE!-infused lightning. When he finally wakes up after a nine-month coma, Barry discovers he has super speed. With the help of the team of scientists who were working on the particle accelerator (Harrison Wells, Cisco Ramon, and Caitlin Snow), he learns how to use his powers to become a superhero. Good thing, too, since he’s not the only person who got superpowers in the explosion, and most of the other new “metahumans” in Central City put them to less than altruistic purposes. When he’s not chasing them down, The Flash works to find out what happened to his mother, woo his longtime crush Iris West, and, of course, fight the Big Bad of the season, who usually has similar powers to his own.

So why is this the best of the Arrowverse–and, in my opinion, the best CW show ever? Well, for one thing, out of all the live-action superhero stories I’ve seen, this is the one that best captures the comic book spirit. It makes absolutely no attempt to make its stories more “grounded” or “mature” than their source material, but instead does its best to embrace the wackiness at every opportunity. It’s got colourful costumes, goofy dialogue, giant psychic gorillas, convoluted time travel, parallel universes, and enough technobabble to make Spock’s head spin. There are big crossover events with the other shows in the Arrowverse (which tend to be hit or miss, thanks to those shows’ inferior nature). Every season ends with an epic finale, but along the way there are plenty of light-hearted episodes dealing with the metahuman of the week. There’s even a freaking musical episode!

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And it’s amazing.

That’s the first reason I got hooked on this show: it’s just so darn fun. The action is cool, there’s a good amount of humour sprinkled throughout, and most of the stories are campy and cheesy in the best possible way. What has kept me watching, though, even through some of the show’s less fun episodes, are the characters. Every member of the main cast is extremely likable in their own way. Barry himself is the kind of hero who will stop a bank robbery, give the would-be robber a heartfelt talk about how to change his life, and then re-paint someone’s garage on the way home. All while making awful speed puns. He’s a caring, optimistic hero who tends to inspire people both in- and out-of-universe. Of course, he struggles with his own set of flaws, mainly not thinking things through before doing them (a logical flaw for a speedster), but he usually manages to work through those things and emerge as a better person.

Then there’s the supporting cast: Detective Joe West, Barry’s loving, supportive father figure/Commissioner Gordon figure; Caitlin, the frosty-tempered but warm-hearted S.T.A.R. Labs team medic; Iris, who starts out pretty one-dimensional but eventually grows into a strong woman worthy of the Flash’s affection; and Harrison Wells, who is technically a different character every season because he keeps getting replaced by alternate-universe versions of himself. But whether he’s a wise mentor, a grumpy anti-hero, or the designated comic relief, he’s always entertaining thanks to Tom Cavanagh’s flexible acting skills. My personal favourite character, though, is Cisco. Not just because he’s the biggest nerd in an already nerdy cast (always an endearing trait), but because he is, if possible, even more principled and pure-hearted than Barry. He’s always quick with the jokes and one-liners, but he’s also perfectly capable of saving the day when he needs to. All these characters share a very heartwarming bond of friendship, proving over and over again that they’d do anything to help each other.

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And no wonder. How could you look at Cisco’s adorable face and NOT love him?

With occasional exceptions, the show also tends to have excellent villains. The Big Bads have, so far, always been evil speedsters with personal grudges against Barry, which did feel a tad repetitive by the third season, but each one still manages to be menacing in his own unique way. My least favourite is Season 2’s Zoom, because he got the least amount of characterisation, but even he wasn’t bad. The other two evil speedsters, the Reverse-Flash and Savitar, are equally great in my book. But there are plenty of memorable meta-of-the-week villains, too. The Trickster is the closest thing we’ll ever get to a live-action Mark Hamill Joker, and he even manages to make an epic Star Wars reference. Grodd is the aforementioned psychic gorilla, and while his CGI appearance sometimes leaves a bit to be desired, he’s still plenty intimidating. Then there’s the cool, sarcastic, morally conflicted Captain Cold, whom I love with all my heart, whether he’s fighting for or against Team Flash.

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He’s just a really chill guy.

Of course, while it is a glorious DC comics show, The Flash is also a CW show, and it comes with many of the problems that that implies. There are far too many romantic subplots, and they take up far too much screen time. Lots of conflicts arise because the characters don’t communicate well enough, or make stupid decisions, or just happened to be written by someone who decided they should be arguing that day. The special effects are not exactly cinematic in quality, and neither are all of the supporting actors. But as someone who has watched more CW junk than she’d like to admit, I have to say that those flaws are much less noticeable in this show than in most of its fellows. The romance is annoying, but it never overtakes the main plot. The special effects aren’t perfect, but they’re far from terrible for TV. And some of the conflicts may be unnecessary, but at least they’re usually resolved within an episode or two rather than being dragged out through a whole season, as I’ve seen happen elsewhere.

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I guess you get over your problems quicker when you can run faster than the speed of light.

I’ve heard some people say The Flash has gone downhill with each season. While I can understand why some might think that way–the repetitive story arcs, the more serious tone of Season 2, etc.–I’m not sure I agree. Yes, the first season is probably still my favourite, but that’s mostly because it was my first introduction to The Flash and his universe. Later seasons may have had similar Big Bads, but they also brought in more great characters, more development for existing characters, and, of course, more comic book wackiness. Season 3 also brought a significant change to the show, one that seems like an exceptionally bold move for the CW (though it has plenty of precedent in the comics). Of course, it could all be undone within the first few episodes of Season 4. For now, though, I maintain that The Flash, with all its flaws, is a thoroughly enjoyable show that brings several wonderful superheroes (and supervillains) to life.

If it keeps up this way, I’ll be running back to this show for years to come.

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“Run, Barry, run!”

Grade: A-

P.S. In case anyone was wondering about my opinions on the other shows in the Arrowverse, the short version is: Arrow’s pretty good for the first two seasons, then gradually becomes unwatchable by Season 4; I couldn’t finish the first season of Supergirl because it was preachy, overly political trash; Legends of Tomorrow is good whenever it focuses on characters who were introduced on The Flash.  Also it has Rory Williams playing the Doctor, so there’s that.