If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you’ll know that I’m not exactly big on whatever we like to classify as nerd pop culture. I’ve never played a videogame (unless you count Tetris on my ancient Gameboy) and the last time I read a comic book was before the cold war ended – and even then my reading material mainly consisted of Mickey Mouse (or Archie at best). The only superhero movies I’ve actually watched are Nolan’s Batman trilogy, and I guess that says it all when it comes to my utter ignorance of the genre and the Marvel/DC extended cinematic universe.
Unless you count Jessica Jones, that is – which I honestly don’t. Superpowers aside, I enjoyed the Netflix show mostly because of the tone and actual storyline, and especially because a noir show about an alcoholic reluctant heroine and a villain who’s not two–dimensional isn’t something you come by every day. The superpowers, in this case, were merely a plot device, almost an afterthought, certainly no more than a means to an end. And that’s as much as my tolerance level would allow.
Enter the most recent Netflix addition to its collection of Marvel shows: the Punisher.
Jon Bernthal acting all tough and tortured, lots of action, even more violence and no superpowers in sight? Shut up and take my money.
The story is probably well-known to Marvel fans, as this isn’t the first time the Punisher makes an on-screen appearance (he became a fan favorite in Season 2 of Daredevil, not to mention the 2004 Thomas Jane movie of the same name), but I went in completely ignorant: Netflix suggested the show to me and who am I to refuse? [Although I have to say, I’ve watched a couple of suggested movies before and they were absolutely laughable. If you’re thinking about checking out the Babysitter or You Get Me, let me save you the trouble: Netflix might be big on production values and all that jazz, but these aren’t horror movies, not by a longshot. They do fit into the so-bad-it’s good category though, so if you want a laugh, then by all means go for it. But I digress.]
So, for everyone else who’s completely clueless when it comes to the MCU: Frank Castle, aka the Punisher is a former US Marine, badass to the core, who earned his moniker by picking off bad guys all over New York city and is currently presumed dead by everyone except his old army pal Curtis, who runs a support group for fellow veterans. Frank’s family was murdered by a mysterious villain not long ago, and he’s been living under the radar, working construction, venting his anger by knocking down walls with a sledge-hammer and keeping a low profile. He’s the strong and silent type, and he’s utterly lethal. The one thing that keeps him going is the hope that he’ll find out who’s responsible for his wife and kids’ murders and exact his revenge.
(I believe that the comic book character has already avenged their deaths and that’s where the story diverges from the comics, but I don’t mind either way.)
Enter Micro, a mysterious hacker living in a decrepit basement, in his bathrobe, creepily spying on his family via hidden cam. Ebon Moss-Bachrach recently played Marnie’s awful musician husband on Girls, so I was naturally predisposed to distrust him. As does Frank, when Micro discovers that the Punisher is still alive and makes first contact, but the two become unlikely allies and the weird chemistry they have going is interesting and utterly entertaining to watch.
Two more people complete the cast of main characters: Homeland Security agent Dinah Madani, whose feisty, driven nature takes a bit of getting used to before you can actually warm up to her; and Frank’s old army buddy turned private security entrepreneur Billy Russo, who, unlike Curtis, has no idea Frank is still alive.
I can’t really elaborate on the story or the character arcs without giving away most of the plot twists, so let me just say this: if you don’t mind graphic violence, this is one hell of a show to binge on. The action is frenetic but there’s a definite purpose to it. The story evolves organically, even for non-comicbook fans, but Frank Castle is a captivating figure right from the get-go. Despite the slow introduction (compared to the unrelenting pace that follows), we are instantly made aware that there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to this guy who likes to keep to himself and swing his sledgehammer at the wall. And when the brunt of it kicks in, the flashbacks provide ample backstory and insight into the main character and his motivations. The antagonists are over the top, as are the action sequences, but that’s to be expected; the show doesn’t denounce its comic-book origins: it embraces the camp and still manages to feel authentic.
In a nutshell: if fast-paced action and badass one liners are your cup of tea, you can’t do better than the Punisher this winter.
Being 2 for 2 on my Netflix Marvel catalog, I decided to bite the bullet and start checking the rest of the Marvel extended universe shows off my list. Except I went about it completely backwards. Since we haven’t had a Jessica Jones sequel to the brilliant first season in a while, I figured my best bet would be the ensemble show released a few months ago, featuring Jessica, Luke Cage, Daredevil and The Iron Fist.
Sadly, the show didn’t really live up to my expectations, because everything about it felt too cartoonish. The dialogue was corny, the delivery even more so, and the villains simply horrendous. I’ve never been a Sigourney Weaver fan and this show really doesn’t do her many favors; I had no idea who Elektra was going in, and the show did nothing to endear her to me. The entire plotline about ‘The Hand’ was also new to me, having skipped out on Daredevil, and unlike the villains on Jessica Jones and The Punisher, every single member was simply too awful and two-dimensional to be actually interesting. Even worse, the constant squabbles between the heroes, who had to work together to defeat their common enemies, became quite annoying after a point.
I don’t know if it was the much too cartoonish vibe of the overall show that turned me off, or the fact that I hadn’t been properly introduced to the whole idea of ‘superheroes forging rocky alliances to battle their common foes’ by way of the MCU movies that preceded the shows, but The Defenders simply left me cold, despite featuring several admittedly strong action scenes.
Since I didn’t get my proper Jessica Jones fix from The Defenders, I figured I’d just watch what I thought would be the next best thing; not exactly so.
Luke Cage wasn’t bad at all, but its overall vibe was so different, it was a bit jarring. Maybe it was the show’s attempt to mimic the 70’s blacksploitation movie feel (was it successful? I really wouldn’t know) or get its cues from Shaft, or maybe it was the whole black Harlem theme, which I am also completely unfamiliar with, but whatever it is about Luke Cage, it took some getting used to.
Which is not to say it wasn’t good. As was the case with The Defenders, the villains were slightly more cartoonish than I would like (compared to the awesomely intriguing Kilgrave or the bad guys from The Punisher), but Mahershala Ali is a joy to watch (spoiler warning: too bad he dies halfway through the show). That’s not really the case with Diamondback, however, although the worst offender for me is Mariah Dillard, whose acting is just atrocious. As far as the good guys go, Luke Cage is a pretty great character, and I was definitely glad to see Rosario Dawson reprise her role as nurse Clarie Temple, but Misty Knight was just annoying, and I can’t put my finger on whether it was the character or the actress’s delivery.
Still, the plot was interesting, especially Luke’s back story, and the fight scenes were fun to watch as has been the case with every one of these shows so far.
Moving down the list of Marvel shows (and going back in the timeline), I decided I’d finally give in to the hype and watch the blind lawyer-by-day, kickass-hero-by-night show that started it all on Netflix. This wasn’t my first crack at Daredevil: I tried to watch it when it first came out and found it quite uninsteresting. This time around, however, I was slightly more immersed in the superhero genre, and I guess the show made much more sense.
There’s a lot to praise about Daredevil. For one thing, Matt Murdock is much more relatable than all the other (super)heroes, and that’s a tall order for a blind guy with uncannily heightened senses and ninja fighting skills. He’s perfectly likable, he’s awesome in every fight scene, and his vulnerability makes him a much more interesting character than most superheroes.
Foggy Nelson is also great as the sidekick/comic relief, and Karen Page is an intriguing character – much more so in this show than in her brief Punisher appearances. And then of course there’s Claire, who’s become a permanent fixture on these shows, and I’ve enjoyed watching Rosario Dawson kick ass since her role as Abernathy in Death Proof. Add to that the Punisher arc in Season two, and you have several exciting plotlines on your hands.
I wish I could be more enthusiastic about Stick and Elektra. Matt’s mentor walks the line between anti-hero and straight up villain, and as fun as it is to see the dad from the Leftovers play a blind kickass warrior, the character falls short for me. Stick’s saving grace is the fact that he provides context for Daredevil’s motivations, and I appreciated the flashbacks that give some insight into Matt’s back story, but ultimately he’s a bit unconvincing.
What I really don’t get is Elektra. I’m sure the actress is lovely, but her accent is obnoxious and the character just felt… bland, if not completely unsympathetic. She’s a super-skilled fighter, but there’s too little backstory (and too late into the season) to make her as relevant to Matt’s character arc as the show paints her. Considering what happens in The Defenders, her development is simply not enough to warrant the effect she has on him or the sacrifices he’s willing to make.
What also lets the show down a bit are the villains. As with Luke Cage, they’re way too cartoonish to take seriously. Not so much the uber-villainous crime organization known as The Hand, whom I had already been introduced to in The Defenders, and who really couldn’t be portrayed as anything but cartoonish and over the top, but Matt’s arch-nemesis, Wilson Fisk.
For one thing, his flashbacks fail to justify his journey to supervillain status. If anything, his childhood experiences should have turned him into a much better man than his douchebag abusive father. But even if we have to accept him solely on the premise that he’s evil incarnate, he’s such an annoying presence that you end up hating his speech patterns and mannerisms much more than you actually hate the core of what makes his character evil. Wilson has an obnoxious cadence that would be Shatner-like if it were not so flat: Shatner’s delivery has some musicality to it, whereas d’Onofrio’s is just dull. He only appears menacing because he’s a big fat bald gorilla of a man (and because his character was written that way). Fisk’s love interest, Vanessa, has the personality of a napkin, and the fact that he went from zero to obsessive over the course of a couple of dates with her is as puzzling as the fact that he hadn’t fallen for a woman until well into his 50s.
Still, there’s so much to like about Daredevil to let Fisk ruin the experience for me, and even if Season 1 was slightly underwhelming, the second season definitely lived up to the hype – and coupled with the events of the Defenders, it left me wanting to come back for more.
Out of all the Netflix Marvel shows, I was most reluctant to start this one. All that new-age mumbo-jumbo about harnessing your energy and balancing your chi leaves me cold, and the concept of ‘the immortal Iron Fist’ still seems a bit ridiculous. Plus I just didn’t buy Ser Loras as a ninja warrior with a glowing gold fist – nor was I interested in his Asian sidekick. Still, the fact that this ‘Iron Fist’ dude is the ‘sworn enemy of the Hand’ made him slightly more interesting, so I figured what the hell, I might as well watch this one too.
The story starts a bit slow, so the first few episodes were quite boring. Unlike the other Marvel characters, Danny Rand initially comes off as a total wackjob (and remains… quirky throughout the series), which makes him unrelatable despite his very human plight to return home, prove his identity and search for the truth behind his family’s tragedy. The fact that the two Meachum siblings are completely bland and two-dimensional doesn’t help much, either.
As the plot advances though, the story slowly picks up. Once again, the main arc involves the Hand and the ubiquitous Madame Gao, while Danny forges an unlikely alliance his dad’s old friend, the Meachum patriarch, risen from the dead with the Hand’s help and kept hidden in a lavish penthouse and under Gao’s thumb.
Still, the story lacks the excitement of Daredevil or Jessica Jones. It’s not until the last few episodes of the season, and the inevitable plot twist involving Danny’s new love interest, a martial arts instructor who helps him take down Gao, that the show really seems to find its pace. What makes Danny’s story unique in terms of the requisite superhero vs. villain arc is the fact that the Hand doesn’t want to destroy, but rather use Danny and his powers for their own evil purposes. Even so, the ensuing war between factions within the Hand is confusing, especially given what I already knew about Gao and Bakuto from the Defenders.
One thing I did enjoy (aside from the admittedly awesome fight scenes) were the Game of Thrones references, even if they were unintentional: Danny’s friend Davos, referenced a couple of times before making an actual appearance, gave me a chuckle, as did the deadpan delivery of the line ‘Ward Meachum sends his regards’. Add to that the story about Danny fighting a dragon and I couldn’t help but still think of Finn Jones as Loras Tyrell, rather than Danny Rand. Still, despite the slow start, Iron Fist definitely exceeded my expectations and was enjoyable to binge-watch, if slightly boring.
With news about the Punisher being renewed for a second season, and the upcoming new seasons for Jessica Jones and Daredevil in the works, it’s safe to say well played, Netflix. You got me hooked.