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-

 

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Stranger Things 2

Hold onto your Eggos, my friends! Stranger Things is back!

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Stranger Things 2
Creators: Matt and Ross Duffer
Starring: Millie Bobby Brown, Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Noah Schnapp, etc.
Music By: Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein
Rated TV-14

(Warning: The following assumes you have seen Season 1 of Stranger Things. Spoilers may abound.)

Season 2 of the ridiculously popular Netflix show starts in October of 1984, about a year after the events of the first season. The Byers household is back together again, with Joyce dating a supremely normal guy named Bob, and Will getting some much-needed therapy. The group of kids we followed in the first season have moved on from their traumatic experiences enough to focus on the really important stuff: celebrating Halloween and impressing the new girl at school. But all of them have a few lingering emotional issues, especially Mike and Nancy, who are still mourning their lost friends. As promised by the trailers, Eleven is alive and well after her apparent heroic sacrifice in the season finale, but she’s still in hiding. And it seems that, even after surviving a weeks-long ordeal of hiding from monsters in a terrifying hell dimension, Will Byers still can’t catch a break. He’s having frequent visions of the Upside Down–visions that seem a little too real. Visions that include glimpses of a huge, shadowy presence who seems very interested in the people of Hawkins, Indiana. Visions that are increasingly reflected in the mysterious blight poisoning the town’s crops.

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Dead pumpkins on Halloween are never a good sign.

One of the many retro sci-fi classics that have influenced Stranger Things from the beginning is Alien. It’s where the creators got the idea to have people cocooned and impregnated by a monster in the first season, but the series also seems to have borrowed some of its atmosphere of suspense and dread, along with the idea of giving the audience just a few scant glimpses of the monster until the grand finale. Well, if Season 1 was Alien, Season 2 is Aliens. It’s much bigger in scope, with more monsters, more action, and more Paul Reiser (he plays the scientist who replaces Dr. Brenner at Hawkins Lab). People tend to be split over whether they prefer the creepy, suspenseful horror movie that was Alien, or the full-blown action thriller that was its sequel. I suspect there’ll be a similar rift in opinions regarding this series. The second season is a bit more fast-paced and epic in scope, uses more big-budget effects, and tries some new ideas–like a particularly controversial episode that takes place entirely outside Hawkins. Some people may take issue with the changes in tone and be disappointed with the new season.

But I’m more of an Aliens fan myself, and to me, this second season does everything a good sequel should do. It expands the world of the original, raises the stakes, and moves the characters forward, with better effects thrown in as a bonus.

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Something tells me you’d need more than gasoline and a bat to defeat this thing.

Of course, this season is not perfect, any more than the first one was. The aforementioned controversial outside-Hawkins episode, while necessary to the overall story arc in my opinion, was placed in a rather odd spot considering what happens in the episodes immediately before and after it. And it contains a few annoying characters who I hope we’ll never hear from again. The season also spends more time than I would prefer on the ongoing love triangle between Nancy, Steve, and Jonathan. Outside that annoying subplot, Nancy and Jonathan are given less to do this season than before, which hurts both of their already less-than-strong characters. As for Steve…well, I’ll get to him later. Out of the characters introduced this season, the weakest is probably Max, the girl who moves to Hawkins with her step-brother in the first episode. She gets a few good moments in near the end, and her newcomer status creates some interesting situations with the boys, but for most of the season she seems to be there mainly so the group can have a new token girl.

My other complaints are pretty nit-picky, but they bugged me enough to mention. The larger budget for this season clearly allowed the creators to include more classic ’80s songs…but I think they went a little overboard including them in the soundtrack. I love classic rock as much as the next person, but if you use snippets of five different great songs within the first half hour of the first episode, the impact is greatly lessened. Also, a few other companies must have noticed the sales boost Eggo got from the first season, because the product placement is everywhere this time around. KFC and Three Musketeers candy bars practically get their own mini-commercials. It’s as annoying as it is inevitable.

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“It’s finger lickin’ good.”

Fortunately, all these flaws are overshadowed by the awesomeness of everything else in Season 2. I’m not quite sure where to begin, honestly, because everything about this story is so cool. First of all, the monster is ten times scarier this time around–not because it’s bigger, or scarier-looking, but because of what it can do. An extra-dimensional threat that can pop through your wall at any time is one thing; but an extra-dimensional threat that can send its evil essence to infect your world and your very soul, so gradually that you barely notice until it’s too late, is quite another. The army of mini-monsters it brings with it is just icing. There were hints of a larger supernatural world in the first season, but Season 2 is a straight-up cosmic horror story. My favourite kind!

But the monsters aren’t what make Stranger Things great. Neither is ’80s nostalgia, which is still present in spades this season. The heart of the story has always been about human interactions between the characters in the face of whatever threat they’re dealing with. And boy, does Season 2 give us some great character moments. We get to see a lot of new relationships between characters who didn’t really interact in the first season–like Dustin and Steve, who make a surprisingly awesome duo, and Chief Hopper and Eleven, who form a very touching (though complicated) father-daughter dynamic over the course of the season. And some characters who were a bit out of focus last year get much more development here. The best example is Will, who, despite driving most of the plot in the first season, barely got any screen time. That is more than remedied this season, as he once again drives the plot by becoming an unwilling conduit of the evil entering Hawkins. This means his actor, Noah Schnapp, finally gets to show off his acting chops–and it turns out he’s arguably the most talented in a cast full of amazing child performers. He delivers some of the most terrifying and heart-breaking moments in the season, and he pulls it off with a nuance plenty of adult actors would envy.

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“He likes it cold.”

Then there are the characters we already knew were awesome, but who become more so in Season 2. Steve Harrington, the annoying jock everyone hated at the beginning of the series, has fully graduated to “lovable action hero” status. He’s still flawed, to be sure, but it’s quite clear that he’s working hard to leave his old, irresponsible ways behind. With the help of his trusty nail bat, of course. His is one of the better character arcs I’ve seen in a TV show. Dustin and Lucas are also a bit more in focus this season. We even get to see enough of their home lives to learn that Dustin’s adorableness came from his mom and Lucas’s little sister is a force to be reckoned with. Lucas, whose paranoia sometimes got on my nerves in the first season, becomes much more likable here, and Dustin, the voice of reason last year, makes a few more mistakes this time around. And yet, he remains adorable.

Then there are the new characters we’re introduced to this season. Out of these, the best by far is Bob Newby, Joyce’s new boyfriend. He’s automatically awesome because he’s played by Sam Gamgee, but he becomes even more so after we learn that he’s a lovable dork who makes dad jokes, tries hard to cheer up Will, and shows unexpected bravery and brains in the face of danger, despite not liking scary movies. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Billy, Max’s step-brother, who fills in the “horrible jock we love to hate” slot that was vacated by Steve’s decision to become a decent person. With his hideous mullet, casual racism, and tendency to beat up children for fun, it doesn’t look like he’ll be leaving that spot anytime soon. But with the Hawkins Lab scientists showing a bit less malevolence than they did before, he does an excellent job filling the role of the season’s human villain. Then there’s Kali, the person most responsible for expanding the show’s horizons this season. She may not be the strongest character  Stranger Things has ever produced, but she does play a vital role in Eleven’s development, and I have to admit, I kind of like her style.

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Can’t compete with Punk!Eleven, though. 

All these character arcs and relationships build into a finale that is both epic and very emotionally satisfying. I got pretty choked up a few times in the last episode, both in a happy way and a sad way. My only concern is that I’m not sure how a third season can top this one, especially with most of the loose ends from Season 1 tied up already. But the finale makes it clear the Upside Down still has a few tricks left up its sleeve. Let’s hope the writers do, too.

Until then, at least the two seasons we’ve got are “totally tubular.”

Grade: A

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

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.

Batman Beyond

I am on a mission to experience every amazing TV show and movie that the DC Animated Universe has to offer. And the next stop on that journey is Batman Beyond.

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Batman Beyond
Writers and Directors: Loads, but mainly Butch Lukic, Dan Riba, Alan Burnett and Paul Dini
Starring: Will Friedle and Kevin Conroy
Aired: 1999-2001

Batman Beyond is the sequel series to Batman: The Animated Series, taking place in the same continuity. It starts off many years after Batman’s last chronological appearance in Justice League Unlimited, with a prologue that shows his decision to hang up the cowl after his failing health forces him to pick up a gun to defend himself. Twenty years later, Gotham is as crime-ridden as ever, and Bruce Wayne is a recluse with only his guard dog for company–until he runs into a teenager named Terry McGinnis, who stumbles upon the Batcave. At first Terry agrees to keep the secret to himself. But when his father is murdered for knowing too much about the dealings of a corrupt CEO, he decides to steal the Bat-suit (which has received a few upgrades over the years) and bring the killers to justice. Bruce isn’t happy about this at first, but once he sees Terry in action and understands his intentions, he agrees to teach him the ways of crimefighting. The rest of the show follows Terry’s adventures as the new Batman, battling foes that range from a gang of teenage Joker wannabes to the radioactive supervillain Blight, all while trying to keep his grades up. He occasionally clashes with Police Commissioner Barbara Gordon, picks up a part-time sidekick named Max, and is constantly guided by Bruce’s expert, if grumpy, advice.

This is actually the last major show in the DCAU that I watched, and not just because it’s a little harder to find than any of the others. I was honestly pretty reluctant to try out a show about a Batman who wasn’t Bruce Wayne or even any other member of the established Bat-family. How could some random kid from the future ever hope to be worthy of the name?

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And one with an emo haircut at that!

Well, as it turns out…he kind of is. Terry’s a compelling character in his own right, with a sarcastic sense of humour, a bit of a rebellious streak, and the same upright morals and compassion that helped make the original Batman great. And since the we never really got an origin story for the Dark Knight in this universe (except for the flashbacks in Mask of the Phantasm), it’s nice to be able to watch someone becoming Batman. Terry starts out as a hotheaded kid with a super suit and some natural athletic ability, but over the course of the show, he gradually becomes a better detective and fighter until he’s almost at the level of his mentor. Note that I said almost. Thankfully, said mentor is still a major character who appears in almost every episode. Even though he’s no longer the protagonist, Bruce has lost none of his awesomeness with age, and he delivers some of the show’s best lines and coolest scenes.

One of my favourite things about B:TAS was its dark, noir-style atmosphere. Atmosphere is also one of Beyond‘s biggest strengths, but this show ditches the noir in favour of cyberpunk. We’ve got flying cars (including the Batmobile!), super-advanced robots, futuristic slang, gene splicing as a fashion trend, and a city-scape that could have been ripped straight from Blade Runner. I love it. Not only does it provide a cool backdrop for the action, this setting also allows the writers to explore neat sci-fi concepts like artificial intelligence, instant gratification technology, the morals of messing with DNA, and dangers like nuclear waste and pollution.

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Gotham’s a lot…shinier, these days.

The funny thing about this show is that, from what I can find on the Internet, it seems to have been conceived as a way to get younger kids into Batman–thus the idea of making him a high school kid. But in addition to having just as much nuanced, mature writing as its predecessor, it’s actually far less child-friendly. It features lots of gruesome deaths that occur just off-screen, more brutal violence in general, and lots and lots of drug metaphors. Unlike in B:TAS, drugs are never mentioned by name (isn’t it weird how censorship changes over time?) but several episodes show the consequences of addiction in rather graphic detail by inventing sci-fi substitutes for real illicit substances. Many of the villains are still tragic, but this show really drives home the fact that “tragic” isn’t always the same thing as “sympathetic.” Beyond villains have a tendency to act like they could be redeemed, up until the last second when you realise that they were either faking those good impulses or they’re just much too far gone.

When you come down to it, this show is good for the same reason that B:TAS and every other show in the DCAU is good. It’s smartly written, constantly going beyond (heh) the basic superhero premise of “good guy fights bad guys” to explore deeper questions about what makes a hero and a villain. The voice acting is top-notch as always, as is the animation. And the theme song…well, like the one for B:TAS, it does a great job of establishing the story and the universe where it takes place in just a few seconds. And in the words of Terry, it’s “unbearably cool.” Take a look-see:

My problems with this series can basically be boiled down to three. 1) It establishes that Bruce and Barbara Gordon were in a relationship at one point. If I were to list all the reasons I think that pairing is sick and wrong, it would take up the rest of this review. I will never understand why cartoon writers are so obsessed with making it a thing. So in my mind, it never happened, and Barbara is just losing her memory in her old age. 2) Speaking of relationships, this show focuses on Terry’s just a wee bit more than I would like. One of the many things I love about the original Batman is that he never had a steady girlfriend who knew him as Bruce Wayne, so he never had to do what I call the “secret identity dance,” where the hero constantly has to make excuses to a love interest about why they’re sneaking out every night. Terry does a lot of that, and it’s rather dull as conflicts go. His girlfriend, Dana, is also rather dull. 3) I wish the show could have done more with Blight. He’s something of an archnemesis to Terry in the first season, and an effective one, but he just kind of disappears after that. Seems like a bit of a waste to me.

But those are minor issues, in the grand scheme of things. For the most part, this is an excellent show that lives up to its predecessor in almost every way.

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“Very good then, Mr. McGinnis. Welcome to my world.”

A note on formatting: In the version of the show that I watched (which I streamed from Amazon), several of the episodes are listed out of order. They’re self-contained enough that it’s not usually a big deal, but once in a while a character will mention something from a previous episode that you won’t get if you’re watching in the Amazon order. Also, like B:TAS, this show never got a proper finale during its own run, but it does have a movie (Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker) and its storyline gets wrapped up for good in an episode of Justice League Unlimited called “Epilogue.”

Whatever order you watch it in, I highly recommend this show, especially for fans of the original Batman series.

Grade: A

Iron Fist

Everyone’s favourite superhero team-up is back. That’s right: Marvel and Netflix made another show!

Iron Fist begins with Danny Rand returning to New York City after being presumed dead, along with his billionaire parents, in a plane crash that happened 15 years ago. But he’s really spent the last 15 years learning kung fu in the mystical land of K’un-Lun, which exists in another dimension, and now that he’s skilled enough to channel the Iron Fist, a magical punching power, he’s come back to try and make his home city a better place. So he’s basically Bruce Wayne if he were a hippie. Or Oliver Queen if he sucked less, or Stephen Strange if he were more into punching…you get the idea. This isn’t the most original show ever.

But the Meacham family, who have taken over Danny’s company, have other plans for the Iron Fist, as does the Hand, that ninja army that invaded New York in Daredevil season 2. With the help of a few fellow martial arts practitioners, Danny spends his first season trying to take down the Hand, avoid the Meachams’ schemes, and figure out what he’s meant to do with his powers.

You know, besides punch drug dealers. That’s a given.

This is the first Marvel/Netflix show to get panned by critics, and it’s not too hard to see why. First of all, a lot of people were biased against it before it even came out because, as mentioned above, it’s yet another story about a rich white guy who goes to a vaguely Asian place, learns kung fu, and ends up being better at it than any of the Asian people who taught him. It’s an old, old story with a ton of racial baggage, and it’s taken directly from the comics. So I’m not sure there was a way to avoid it in an Iron Fist adaptation. But it certainly won’t make anyone happy who was hoping for a more socially progressive Netflix show.

Even if you can overlook the problematic premise, this show has some pretty glaring flaws. For the most part, they’re flaws that the other Defenders shows have also struggled with. For example, just like Luke Cage, and Jessica Jones to some extent, this series is very badly paced. Hardly anything happens for the first three or four episodes, although things do pick up quite a bit once Claire Temple (my queen!) shows up and the Hand formally challenges Danny.

Colleen Wing’s awesomeness doesn’t hurt, either.

In my review of Luke Cage, I said I would have liked the show better if it were  a few episodes shorter, but I think Iron Fist has a different problem. I don’t wish it were shorter. I just wish the first few episodes had taken place, not in the white-collar offices of New York City, but in K’un-Lun, to show Danny training, develop his worldview and relationships with his fellow warriors, and, I dunno, maybe show the part where he got his powers from punching a freaking dragon! How do you give your character a backstory like that and not show it onscreen?  I can guarantee you, my opinion of this show would have gone way up if it had opened with our hero fighting a dragon.

What is the point of wearing your dragon-punching clothes if you’re not going to punch a dragon? Answer me that!

Speaking of our hero, I’m not a huge fan of Danny as a character. Finn Jones does a decent job playing him, and he comes across as a likeable guy with an appealing sort of innocence to him, but I just don’t buy him as a legendary kung fu warrior. Maybe it’s because he looks so much like a 20-something guy you’d see hanging around a pot shop in a Rocky Mountain tourist town, or the straight-faced bits of fortune cookie wisdom he’s always spewing, but I just have a hard time believing that anyone would be intimidated by this guy. It doesn’t help that most of his fight scenes leave a lot to be desired, especially compared to the ones in Daredevil. Overall, I found the Iron Fist to be the least interesting character in his own show. The side characters are a different story, which I’ll get to in a minute.

But all that being said, I think some people are being a little too hard on this show. It has its weaknesses, for sure, but it also has some notable strengths. Besides the pacing, one thing that disappointed me about Luke Cage was its lack of good villains. Iron Fist, thankfully, does not have that problem. The Big Bad of the season is Madame Gao, who has always been the most intimidating Defenders villain, and she hasn’t lost any of her old menace. The delightfully dysfunctional Meacham family brings a stronger inter-villain dynamic than I’ve seen since the first season of Daredevil, and the father, Harold Meacham, is a special kind of creepy. (Although that might just be because it’s so surreal to watch Faramir being a horrible father.) Even the minor Hand members Danny fights tend to be pretty memorable, especially the guy who nearly beats him while drunk and uses his liquor bottles as weapons. I kind of want a show about that guy now.

Apparently this delightful actor auditioned to play Iron Fist, before Finn Jones was cast. Hmm. Awkward.

The other “good” characters are just as interesting. Of course we have Claire Temple in all of her usual awesomeness, and she even gets to do a little fighting this time around, which is great. But I was also surprised by how much I liked Danny’s love interest, Colleen Wing. She’s a kind-hearted lady with a passion for teaching, who lives by a code of honour but still has some dark secrets up her sleeve. Plus she fights with a katana, and I have a major soft spot for katanas. Jessica Henwick does a great job playing her, and honestly I felt a lot more invested in her story arc than Danny’s.

All in all, I think this is a decent show that could have been a lot better. It’s got some great characters, some decent story ideas, and a few cool fight scenes. But this is the last stand-alone series before the Defenders team up, and it just doesn’t feel like it had as much effort put into it as its predecessors. The lead character is kinda bland, the action isn’t nearly as cool as it should be, and a lot of time that should have been spent on the awesome, over-the-top wuxia scenes you’d expect from a show like this is instead spent on corporate politics and pointless subplots. While it never sinks to the level of, say, Arrow, it never really rises above the unfortunate premise it shares with that show, either.

“My name is Danny Rand. After 15 years in heaven, I have come home with only one goal: to save my city.”

I just hope the actual Defenders show is better than this. Or that Daredevil season 3 and the Punisher series come out soon. Now that I’m thinking about it, one mediocre show out of a potential six isn’t really that bad. I’m not writing off the Marvel/Netflix team-up just yet.

Grade: C+