Thursday, March 23, 2017

Moving Comics Part 1: Power Men and Iron Fists

Iron Fist - 2017 (Netflix)
Luke Cage - 2016 (Netflix)

The Marvel Netflix shows to date have been generally quite good, though not flawless.  They are built for binge watching, featuring storylines that propel you through the series, instilling a desire to consume the story as fast as possible.  As I've noted with Daredevil seasons 1 & 2 and Jessica Jones there tends to be lag periods late in each run as the showrunners have to draw out their ongoing plots over 13 episodes leading to a few draggy episodes along the way.  It seemed that the Netflix crew had been slowly solving this as they go, with season 2 of Daredevil and Luke Cage both featuring enough engaging diversions and side-tracks that there were less holding patterns and more character movement (if not always story movement).  But Iron Fist, sadly, feels like it's almost completely comprised of holding patterns.  Where the other Netflix shows felt like ten episodes of story drawn out over thirteen parts, Iron Fist feels like a movie's worth of story painfully stretched over it's 12 and a half hour run time.

Iron Fist makes too painfully aware the fact that these Netflix series don't have much sense of fun in them.  They're self-serious to a fault, as a result, the flaws become more pronounced, and tend to linger in the mind more than the positive aspects.  Iron Fist doesn't need time to let the flaws float to the forefront, they're glaringly obvious from the beginning.  Blase acting, wildly erratic characterization, tragically predictable (and direly boring) story threads, sub-par martial arts choreography, lazy production values, and a total lack of defining aesthetic.  Where Iron Fist fails most of all though is in a completely uncompelling and unconvincing lead.

Finn Jones (late of Game of Thrones) took a lot of shit when the casting for the show came out.  There was pre-casting hope that Iron Fist would deviate from its "white savior" origins to feature an actor of Asian descent in the lead, a direction they obviously didn't go with.  There would have been many great reasons for this type of proactive switch, chief of which would be putting an Asian character as the leading man of a high-profile series where he's the hero and also the romantic lead, something actors of Asian descent rarely get to do in American entertainment.  There's really only two reasons not to do it, one being that Iron Fist is traditionally white (a poor excuse in any book) and the other being that his being a white guy is necessary for the story.

To be painfully honest (and I stress the painfully here), having a white actor play Danny Rand -- a whiny, mopey, petulant, spoiled rich kid who managed to steal a great power from a true champion and then abscond with it for his own petty reasons (it's white entitlement to the Nth degree) -- was kind of necessary for the story being told here.  It would be less convincing if an Asian actor were in the role...not that such an actor couldn't pull off spoiled, rich and entitled, but I would go as far as to say, for the story they're telling here, it's rather crucial that Danny is white.  At the end of the season, it becomes clear that Danny's outsider status in K'un Lun and his selfish nature, his personal crusade and his lack of responsibility aren't positive character traits, and despite being sage and wise, the leaders of K'un Lun almost certainly made a mistake in choosing Danny as Iron Fist.  In the show, Danny said he wanted the role of Iron Fist simply to take it, which just screams white entitlement from the mountaintops.  He earned it, but he also literally took it.  The role of Iron Fist is meant to be protector of K'un Lun and Danny abandoned his post almost immediately, like Indiana Jones stealing the ingot at the start of Raiders of the Lost Ark and running like mad to escape with it to the "civilized world". 

That all said, he's not a very likeable character, and the direction the showrunners chose to go with him, at almost every turn, seemed a misstep.  The colonialism analogy they perhaps sought to exploit is never adequately dealt with.  On top of that, Finn Jones clearly doesn't have much of  a sense of who this character should be or what his motivations are scene to scene.  He speaks most of the time in a whispery growl that conceals any real acting skill or emotion.  He pouts, he whines, he gets angry, and mostly just looks confused, but Jones portrays these with only surface level acting.  There's no sense of conflict, no sense of awareness of a man who has had fifteen years of training in meditative and martial arts.  Jones and the scriptwriters' portrayal of Danny Rand is almost child-like, as if he were still the 11-year-old who crashed in the Himalayas and were frozen in time, then came back to reality with a certain set of skills but no emotional growth or wisdom.  Naive and juvenile, particularly in Jones' hands .  Somehow the badass Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) falls in love with him.  Deep into the show's run, Jones started to remind me of Hayden Christiansen as Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars prequels.  He was a young actor who likewise didn't have a sense of who his character was beyond the surface level emotions and wasn't given much guidance in delivering his lines convincingly. On top of that, Jones' physical performance certainly doesn't smack of someone who's really trying to give it their all. 

What the other Netflix shows had that Iron Fist does not is a solid supporting cast.  Here, beyond Colleen Wing, our main supporting cast is the Meachum family.  Ward (Tom Pelphrey, channeling Eric Roberts like no man should) and Joy (Jessica Stroup, given the most inconsistent character in the show) were Danny's best friends as a child, while their father, Harold (Lord of the Rings' David Wenham attempting - but failing - at scenery chewing), was Danny's father's partner and best friend.  Ward and Joy now run the Rand business and are threatened by Danny's return.  Harold died from cancer shortly after Danny and his family "died" in a plane crash, but was resurrected by the Hand (sworn enemy of K'un Lun) and has been in hiding for 15 years, manipulating Ward and Rand Industries from the shadows.  These threads do all fold together, and would be satisfying in a more compressed format. Dragged out as they are they feel inessential, to the point that Ward and Joy seem to have their own story operating independently from Danny's which just feels like filler.  Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) and Jeri Hogarth (Carrie Ann Moss) both return from other shows, and their characters, having been previously defined by better showrunners, breathe some life into this staid cast (Clare has a particularly good rapport with Colleen).  But still Jones tends to suck the air completely out of most of the scenes around him (though he has the odd moment where it seems like he accidentally gets something across effectively, mostly when partnered with Henwick).  It seems clear well before the halfway point of the series that Danny Rand  a supporting character neither charming nor compelling enough to hold the lead (he's the Joey of the Defenders group of Friends).

The show features dueling clashing soundtracks, with an 80's-inspired synth score and title sequence that seem stolen almost directly from Tron Legacy, and a hip hop soundtrack mix from 2002 that I find hard to believe 11-year-old Danny would actually have listened to.  It takes on some dumb relevance between Danny and Colleen, but I think is hamfistedly meant to presuppose a kinship with Luke Cage, you know... because rap.  Both soundtracks are actually highlights of the show, but neither fit the story or its themes or characters well.

The fight choreography is an uneven mix.  Jones evidently didn't learn martial arts to any great degree (the fact that I long for a Keanu Reeves caliber performance here is painful to me) and it shows even to the untrained eye.  His movements scream "poseur", inauthentic and flawed.  His fighting is slow and sloppy and the camerawork fails to make up for it with lots of distance shots, quick cuts and inserts, and bad body doubling.  Henwick is a lot more adept at fighting, and her fight sequences easily outshine any others on the show.  Episode 12 features Colleen in a duel in the rain that is one of few highlights in the show.  While Episode 8 features another, with Danny in a fight (hood-up for stuntperson) against a "drunken master" (played by a thoroughly charming Lewis Tan -- who could have made a great Danny in a much different iteration of this show [and I just learned he was close to actually being such] -- shows he has some impressive action chops, but when your comparison in drunken mastering is always going to be Jackie Chan, you're always going to come up short).

Iron Fist isn't necessarily unwatchable, but it's vastly substandard compared to what's come before in Marvel's Netflix offerings.  That it visually makes actual New York City look like Vancouver standing in for New York City is telling.  It doesn't take advantage of its setting in any meaningful way and never doesn't feel like a 90's syndicated, made-in-Canada genre program.

Compare Iron Fist to Luke Cage, Marvel/Netflix's previous entry in their Defenders set-up.  Luke was introduced in Jessica Jones as a love interest with a haunted past.  He was an ace supporting character who, like Danny Rand, has some difficulty being the lead of his own show.  However where Iron Fist fails in support cast and style, Luke Cage delivers.

Luke Cage is rife with supporting players, from Simone Missick's defining role as police detective Misty Knight, to Mahershala Ali's breakout performance as mob boss Cottonmouth (which alone deserved an acclaim, his later Moonlight Oscar-win a just reward for the nerds in the crowd), to Alfre Woodard's Black Mariah, to Theo Rossi's Shades, to Ron Cephas Jones's ever lurking performance as Bobby Fish, to Frank Whaley as Misty's corrupt partner Scarfe (erm, spoiler) and Erik LaRay Harvey just chewing scenery as Diamondback (and lest we forget Frankie Faison as the inspirational Pop and the requisite Claire Temple intervention with Rosario Dawson).  While Luke Cage feels a little neutered compared to his comic book counterpart (in the comics Cage is much more aggro while Mike Coulter's Cage is more hesitant and reflective) and perhaps too conservative and even a little dull, the supporting cast brighten everything up around him.

The show has style in spades, a vibrant neon palette with yellow, blue and pink washes that hearken to a four-colour world while stepping outside of any comic book confines.  Of all the Marvel Netflix shows, Luke Cage is its most playful, going bigger and broader in its storytelling, as a reflection of it's big and broad title character.

Another stylish aspect -- one which practically makes the series --  is its soundtrack.  There's an impeccable score by the team-up of composer Adrian Younge and hip-hop producer extraordinaire Ali Shaheed Muhammad but that's not even what I'm referring to.  Luke Cage incorporates a host of amazing live performances from Raphael Siddiq, Jidenna, Charles Bradley, Faith Evans, Method Man (who also acts as himself against Luke Cage in a cameo) and Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings all to an utterly compelling effect.  It sets a scene, provides mood and atmosphere, and formidably entertains.  Cottonmouth's club in the show gets used (and abused) an awful lot, but few shows have so effectively used a single set to such an extent.

Unlike the other Netflix Marvel shows, which try to tell one large arc with a few small diversions, Luke Cage as a season is practically cut in half as a result of the two distinct key opponents Luke faces in Cottonmouth and Diamondback (Black Mariah rounds out this iteration of Marvel's Serpent Society and is a constant fixture of more subtle manipulation) and is better off for it.  Luke Cage more than any of these series embraces his comic book origins, most specifically in the episode detailing the origin of Luke's powers.  It's gaudy and goofy and silly in a way these Netflix shows otherwise direly try to avoid or temper, as such it feels drastically out of place, but at the same time it's just so unabashedly wonderful and, dare I say it, fun.  Likewise the flashbacks for Mariah and Cottonmouth embrace a Blaxploitation aesthetic, while still providing real gravitas and meaning for the characters. Luke is a massive, super-strong, virtually indestructible hero, so it makes sense some of his opponents would use external factors (like friends, family, loved ones, Luke's secrets) in combating him, while others would find technological ways of fighting him.  Even still, Luke's own worst enemy in his show is his reticence to fight, to expose himself, to commit to his cause.  The self doubt angle isn't a bad one for a show about a man who can't be hurt, but it's something Luke Cage in the comics doesn't seem to face, and therefore feels antithetical to eat up so much real estate in the show.

Beyond being the most lively Marvel Netflix product, Luke Cage also arrived at a very important time.  During a rash of young black men being needlessly shot an killed by police across the United States and the resulting Black Lives Matter movement, a powerful, proactive, bulletproof black man became instantly iconic.  The show seemed to have some trepidation in having Cage face off against police, and when they did do it, they didn't go too overtly topical with it.  But within the show, they acknowledge the symbolism of Luke Cage (Method Man does a live rap about it), and it feels good, it feels hopeful and inspiring.  Again, it's only slightly disappointing that Luke is so hesitant a hero and so congenial compared to his comic book counterpart.

As I noted, these Netflix shows aren't flawless.  Luke Cage's worst folly is actually the fight sequences, which are almost all clumsy and clunky.  Luke is a bull tearing through a china shop, and that gracelessness shows in almost every fight.  Where the show's talented directors excel in virtual every facet, the way they shoot fight sequences is almost universally poor.  One particular moment keeps sticking in my mind, a shot of Mike Coulter early in the series fumbling to find his grip on the sweater of a bad guy extra firing a gun on a staircase above him.  That this moment, part of a longer sequence in the fight, remained in tact speaks to the limitations of the budget of the show.  The strive for longer, uncut fight scenes was a good idea in theory, but without clever choreography, it tends to get tedious and uninteresting fast.  Cage's strength and invulnerability could have been used much more creatively.

Of all the Netflix Marvel shows, Luke Cage is the one I want to revisit the most, primarily because of the live performances but characters like Misty and Cottonmouth became instant favourites.  I still think Jessica Jones has had the strongest season as a whole, but Cage has so much more style.