Final Space

Now that Infinity War is out, I’m free to talk about stuff that isn’t Marvel. And what better way to transition out of those giant box office juggernauts than with a relatively obscure cartoon by a D-list YouTube celebrity?

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Final Space
Creators: Olan Rogers, David Sacks
Starring: Olan Rogers, David Tennant, Tika Sumpter, etc.
Music By: Shelby Merry and Jake Sidwell
Rated TV-14

Gary Goodspeed is finishing up a five-year prison sentence in deep space. He’s only had a crew of annoying robots for company during that time, so he’s overjoyed when an adorable little green alien, whom he dubs Mooncake, bumps into his ship, the Galaxy One. Unfortunately, it turns out that Mooncake is actually a planet-destroying super-weapon, and the evil Lord Commander is after it for nefarious purposes. Gary teams up with a grumpy bounty hunter named Avocato and a scientist named Quinn (who also happens to be his unrequited crush) to protect Mooncake and save the Earth–nay, the universe–from Lord Commander’s schemes.

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“‘Universe’ sounds way cooler.”

Pretty much ever since I discovered YouTube, Olan Rogers has been among my favourite YouTubers. Whether it was his early skits with the BalloonShop channel, his later skits on his own channel, or dramatic stories about his life, his goofy-yet-wholesome brand of comedy has always been one of the few things guaranteed to cheer me up whenever I’m feeling down. If you’ve never heard this man tell a story, you should remedy that immediately. Here’s a link to a classic to get you started.

So naturally, I was thrilled when I found out this guy had made it big and started his own cartoon show on TBS. And for the most part, Final Space is exactly what I would have expected from Rogers. The humour is very much in the same vein as his YouTube stuff, relying on odd euphemisms (“Dear Heavenly Lightning Lord!”), other colourful turns of phrase (“I didn’t expect that hurt coin deposit in my sadness savings!”), and general absurdity. But it also throws in a lot of morbid, black comedy…which mostly works even better in the world where this story takes place.

And the world of Final Space looks great. Heck, space itself is the best-looking thing in this show. The character designs may be cartoon-y, but the backdrops, the spaceships, the supernovae and the occasional apocalyptic destruction just look like beautiful sci-fi art. The soundtrack, which I think I can best describe as indie space rock, adds several layers of atmosphere and perfectly complements every emotional moment. It’s one of the better soundtracks I’ve heard in a show, cartoon or otherwise.

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“Play the good stuff, HUE!”

But the best thing about the show is easily its characters. Gary is a bit of an acquired taste (even more so, I imagine, for anyone unfamiliar with Olan’s style of humour), but he’s often hilarious, and always a great guy at heart. Quinn is all the heroism with none of the stupidity, Avocato is as cool as he is cat-like, and David Tennant, again, shows his skill at creating villains I love to hate with his unrecognisable Lord Commander voice. Even the show’s robots have a wide range of personalities, from the everlasting annoyance of KVN to the patient, loyal HUE. And Mooncake is just ridiculously adorable.

As eclectic as they are, all the main characters have one thing in common: they’re all flawed, and they all know it by the end.  Gary is impulsive and irresponsible, Quinn is stubborn and tends to put her trust in the wrong people, and Avocato is a ruthless mercenary trying to atone for a dark past. But throughout the show, they strive to become better people and often succeed, mainly because of their undying loyalty and friendship with each other. Gary himself sums it up best: “All of us are broken. It’s just a matter of how much, and how far we’re willing to go to fix it.”

Even though I found it quite funny, I think calling Final Space a comedy would be a stretch. The jokes are just the sprinkles on top of the show. At its gooey centre,  this is an epic space opera about a ragtag group of heroes facing down impossible odds to save each other and the world. For every moment that made me laugh, there was at least one other that tugged at my heartstrings.

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In space, no one can hear you cry.

Oh, and there’s quite a lot of gory death–sometimes deliberately over-the-top for comedy’s sake, and sometimes played straight. The show also has something of an atmosphere of impending doom. Each episode begins with a flash forward to a future in which Gary is drifting alone in space, slowly running out of oxygen with only HUE for company, so we don’t start off with a whole lot of confidence in a happy ending.

Final Space is only 10 episodes long, and each episode is only about 20 minutes, so it has to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time. For the most part, it does this admirably (I imagine years of experience with YouTube shorts helps with that). Hardly a single moment feels wasted, and the writing manages to pack a ton of character development and a rather complex plot into the allotted time. Still, the format does limit its storytelling a bit. I would have liked to see more backstory for some of the characters, and the romance between Gary and Quinn really suffers from the compressed timeline. It’s pretty much your basic “loser falls in love with girl way out of his league, gradually wears her down with persistence and a winning personality” story from every comedy ever. The show at least tries to make their relationship feel natural (it helps that Gary really is a good guy at heart), but there’s just not enough time for it to work. Fortunately, there have been hints on the Twittersphere that Season 2 will be longer.

 

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Statistically speaking, relationships formed during the apocalypse tend to be short-lived.

Other than that, and a few jokes that didn’t land for me, the only thing I don’t like about Final Space is that its soundtrack hasn’t been released yet. I need that in my life.

Disclaimer: This is the first cartoon for adults I’ve ever gotten into, so I don’t really know how it compares to stuff like Rick and Morty or Futurama. If you’re a fan of the genre, you might come in with very different expectations than I did. But coming in as a fan of Olan’s YouTube channel, and with no other background info whatsoever, I kinda loved it.

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To the max-core.

It should be noted that, based on his videos and the way he interacts with fans online, I think Olan Rogers might be one of the most decent human beings working in entertainment right now, so I was somewhat predisposed to like this show just because of that. It’s hard not to want a guy like Olan to succeed, especially when he seems so genuinely grateful for the success he’s had already.

But while its humour might not be everyone’s cup of tea, and its story occasionally falters,  I do think this is a good show on its own. It’s got flavours of Firefly and Guardians of the Galaxy, and just a hint of Doctor Who, but Final Space  is very much its own thing, and it’s one of the more imaginative sci-fi stories I’ve encountered in a while. It surprised me, made me laugh, and took me on a wild emotional rollercoaster. I can’t wait for Season 2.

Grade: A-

 

 

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Marvel TV

Starting in Phase 2, Marvel Studios started to branch out from the big screen and add a few TV shows to their Cinematic Universe. Now there are quite a few of them out there, with five new ones rolling out just last year.  I’m not going to do a full review for all the Marvel TV shows, firstly because that’s too large a time commitment even for me, and secondly because there are quite a few I haven’t seen. They’re spread out across so many different streaming platforms that it would cost me something like $50 a month just to get access to them all. Right now, my budget pretty much limits me to what’s on Netflix.

However, I would like to say a few words about the shows I have seen. Overall, they’re much less consistent than the movie universe, ranging in quality from terrible to absolute masterpieces. They also range widely in terms of how closely they follow the movies’ timeline. Some of the shows, particularly Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., are profoundly affected by the events of the movies, while others, like The Punisher, seem to have little to no connection with the rest of the MCU. Unfortunately, all of them have been completely ignored by the movies so far, so I can’t say any one of them is a “must-see” in order to understand the MCU. A few, though, are must-sees for other reasons.

Here they are, ranked from worst to best:

7. Iron Fist

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Yeah, I’m not a fan of this one. Mainly because it’s a martial arts show in which the main character clearly does not know martial arts, and all the fights are lame. Also, the main character’s origin story involves punching a dragon, yet we never see so much as a glimpse of said dragon onscreen. The way I see it, if a dragon is involved in your story in any way, you are duty-bound to portray that dragon onscreen. Some stuff in the show is well done–I particularly enjoyed the Meacham family drama–but it tended to be stuff that didn’t have anything to do with Danny Rand (the Immortal Iron Fist, Protector of K’un-L’un, Sworn Enemy of the Hand), or his main plot. For my full thoughts, see my review.

6. The Defenders

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This was the show that brought all of the Marvel/Netflix heroes together, and I think it should have been a lot better than it was. Not that it was terrible, but I found it poorly paced (like most of the Netflix shows), and without a big enough threat to justify such a team-up. It was a lot of fun to see all four heroes getting together, though, and coming right off the huge disappointment that was Iron Fist, I was willing to give it a bit of a pass. Again, see my review for more.

5. Luke Cage

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This show offers a compelling, six-episode miniseries about a very likable hero going up against a couple of menacing, but somewhat sympathetic villains in order to protect the neighborhood he loves. Unfortunately, it lasts for 13 episodes. Along the way, the interesting villains get replaced by an annoying cartoon and way, way too much time is spent on trivial subplots and dull conversations. But at least it’s got some great music. More details in my review.

4. Jessica Jones

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Here’s one I’ve never gotten a chance to review before. I haven’t seen Season 2 yet, but Season 1 is a well-written, wonderfully acted story about a bitter, alcoholic private eye with super strength trying to bring down the psycho who ruined her life before he ruins more lives. It’s full of great characters, good action, and solid commentary on real-life issues that never devolves into preachiness. But it’s also…just so darn depressing. Part of that is a pacing issue. In order to fill out 13 hours of runtime, the show has to keep coming up with ways for the villain, Killgrave, to stay ahead of the heroes until the end. And because he’s by far the most irredeemably evil villain in the MCU, and one of the most powerful, that means most of the show ends up being about him doing terrible things to people. That gets old after a while. Also, like with Luke Cage, the show spends a little more time than I’d like on irrelevant subplots. Still, it’s hard not to enjoy Krysten Ritter’s brilliant performance as the lead character, and her sarcasm and gallows humour does lighten the mood a bit. And David Tennant is, if anything, a little too good in his role as the villain. I plan to do a proper review of Season 2 once I get a chance to watch it.

3. The Punisher

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Like most of the other Netflix shows, this one suffers from unnecessarily slow pacing and too many subplots. But it’s also a thoughtful look into the mind of a man broken by war and violence, and a rare revenge story that doesn’t glorify vengeance for its own sake. The acting is stellar and the action is brutal. I can’t say I enjoyed every minute of it, but I found watching it to be a surprisingly emotional and thought-provoking experience. See my review for more.

2. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

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Out of the ones I’ve seen, this is the Marvel show with the strongest connection to the movie universe. Starting just after the events of The Avengers, it follows the adventures of Agent Phil Coulson (yes, he’s alive) and a crack team of SHIELD agents as they seek to protect the human race against superpowered threats and shut down rival organizations like Hydra. It got off to a slow start, but its quality went up like a rocket halfway through Season 1, after the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and hasn’t really come down since. It’s just a very fun show, full of spy-vs.-spy intrigue, heartfelt character growth, and some quite decent superhero action. I’m not a huge fan of Skye (her actress is usually less than impressive), but all the other characters on the team are great, particularly Fitzsimmons and Coulson himself. You gotta love a show where a middle-aged dad figure with a receding hairline gets to be a super-cool secret agent. And with the problems that have plagued the Netflix shows lately, you have to love a show that can keep things fast-paced and interesting for 22 episodes per season. I think there’s a reason this is the longest-lasting Marvel show so far.

1. Daredevil

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I’ll be honest: I mostly started this list so I could talk about this show. Until very recently, Daredevil was my favourite product of the MCU, period. Part of my problem with the other Netflix shows is that I’m constantly tempted to compare them with this one, which came first and has yet to be equaled in sheer awesomeness. Its fight scenes are some of the most intense, well-choreographed, and brutally realistic that I’ve come across in any medium. Its dialogue is just as intense and high-stakes as the action, with hardly a single throwaway line that doesn’t reveal something vital to a character or a piece of the plot. The acting is incredible across the board, but Charlie Cox as the lead, Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk, and Jon Bernthal in his debut as the Punisher still manage to stand out from the pack. But the show’s true strength is in its characters. Matt Murdock, aka Daredevil, is my favourite Marvel superhero because he’s the most complicated. A lawyer by day, vigilante by night, and Catholic all the time, he constantly struggles with the morality of what he’s doing, trying to fight off his own darker impulses even as he fights the many natural and supernatural baddies that threaten Hell’s Kitchen. The show also makes the bold choice of giving some of its villains the same amount of character development as the hero, showing that even the most villainous of people can have some virtues, too. Even side characters like Foggy Nelson and Karen Page have a lot of layers to them, and go through some major changes over the course of the series. Granted, the show’s quality took a bit of a dip in Season 2, mostly thanks to an annoying love triangle, but I’m still happy to rewatch it whenever I get a chance. Here’s hoping Season 3 will keep the good times going instead of following the other Netflix shows’ downward trend.

And yes, if I ever get a chance to watch Agent Carter, Inhumans, Runaways, or Cloak and Dagger, I’ll be sure to review them. But for now, these are my rankings for Marvel TV.

Seriously, if you haven’t seen Daredevil yet, go watch it now.

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-

 

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.