Wonder Woman

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“Slightly short of a wonder.”

I’m not an enormous fan of either the Marvel or DC Cinematic Universes. Superhero films tend to bore me: the concept in general seems like lazy writing, and nor can I handle the subsequent contortions needed to generate a credible threat e.g. Kryptonite. The Dark Knight is the only film from either stable that I actually possess, mostly due to Heath Ledger’s incredible performance. The others I’ve seen, from Iron Man through to Suicide Squad, have been no better than popcorn pleasantries, without much to offer in the way of emotional heart. That’s the biggest improvement Wonder Woman offers: a heroine who, as personified by Gal Gadot, cares – indeed, perhaps too much. And through her passion, she makes the audience care.

There’s one scene which particularly demonstrates this. Diana (no-one ever calls her by the WW label here) has just arrived at the front in 1918 Belgium, and is experiencing the hell of modern war for the first time. She is horrified by the suffering of the civilians and refuses to accept the explanations of her partner, US Captain Steve Trevor (Pine) about why nothing can be done. She won’t accept it, and goes over the top on her own, leading by selfless example, to rescue people she’s never even seen. It’s true heroism, and the intensity of Gadot’s performance – with a nod to Pine for the set-up – gives it a wallop that in terms of sheer emotion, surpasses almost anything else delivered by Marvel or DC to date.

To reach that point, however, takes quite a lengthy set-up. We begin with the adorable young Diana, watching the other Amazons training on Themyscira, imitating their kicks and punches in a way a million 8-year-olds were likely doing on the way home from the cinema this weekend. Despite her mother’s wishes, Diana is trained and becomes the Amazons’ top warrior, just in time for Steve to show up, hotly pursued by the Germans. This is because he has stolen documentation of a rogue chemical warfare program, run by Doctor Isabel Maru and General Ludendorff (Huston). After helping fend off the Germans, at considerable cost, Diana agrees to go into the world at large, because she believes the Greek god of war, Ares, is behind the program. She’s not ready for the world. And nor is the world ready for Diana…

The positives here greatly outnumber the negatives, starting with the cast, who are almost universally spot-on. Gadot may not be muscular enough for some as an Amazon goddess, but I can honestly say, that was an issue which never crossed my mind during the (perhaps a little long) 141-min running time. Any possible shortcomings physically, are perfectly well-covered by the intensity and dedication of her performance. Pine, too, is excellent: he grounds the film, acting as the audience’s voice and offering up much the same comments as we would. There is romantic tension between Steve and Diana, yet it’s lightly enough handled not to interfere. The supporting cast…well, they provide solid support, led admirably by Etta Davis as Steve’s secretary. My main qualm might be Huston, who isn’t the supervillain every good superhero(ine) needs: he’s no Heath Ledger, put it that way. Dr. Maru might have made for a better antagonist, though the script has other intentions for her.

Technically, it’s good, rather than great. Jenkins does occasionally succumb to the fast-cut style of editing, and some of the green-screen work is frankly ropey. Witness the 8-year-old Diana falling off a cliff, for instance, which really does not look like comes from a $150 million film. The script is similar: the main twist it offers is one which I guessed almost immediately (if you’ve been watching a current TV show, you likely will too), though it didn’t damage my enjoyment too much. It is occasionally a little… well, smug? Is that the right word? I’m not sure, but that’s how exchanges about the war like this come off:
   Trevor: Maybe we’re all to blame.
   Diana: I’m not!
#WellActually… I’d say that being part of a group which hides in a literal bubble for two thousand years does not absolve one of all responsibility for the state of the world. To slightly misquote Edmund Burke, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good women to do nothing.” Anyway, this is me, cringing at the earnest obviousness of the above. Or obvious earnestness. That it stood out, however, indicates it was more a misstep than a consistent direction.

Good thing too. For I hate the way almost every major motion picture with an action heroine nowadays, seems to turn into World War One itself. From Fury Road through Ghostbusters to Rogue One, they become a battleground for gender trench warfare, with the camps lobbing verbal bombs at each other, and taking no prisoners. Look: if the goddamn movie is robust, it doesn’t matter whether you have a hero or a heroine, unless you make it matter. [That’s where George Miller was smart and Paul Feig wasn’t, perhaps reflecting the former’s superior confidence in his material – and he was justified there] Here, this is exactly what you would expect: the title is the movie. No kudos are deserved for it, nor any criticism. If you are somehow upset by the concept, stay away, and don’t whine about it. Nor is it the deeply life-changing experience some allege – or, at least, if your life is dramatically changed (by this or any other Hollywood product), I’d guess you have other issues. Or possibly, are aged eight.

I do wonder what the character’s creator, William Moulton Marston would have thought, seeing his bondage-heavy heroine turned into a glossy major movie. Especially since history is littered with not-very-good comic adaptations featuring female leads: Brenda Starr; Sheena; Supergirl; Tank Girl; Catwoman; Elektra; Painkiller Jane. To tell the truth, I think I was personally more relieved than anything, that this did not exhibit a similar degree of suckage. It was a very, very high profile effort, and failure, commercially and/or critically, would have had a severely dampening impact on any similar future productions. This doesn’t appear to have happened, and its success will hopefully open the door for more top of the line action heroines – some of which could end up being even better. Meanwhile, we’re bracing ourselves for the tidal-wave of little Diana Princes which will swamp our doorstep on Halloween.

Dir: Patty Jenkins
Star: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Danny Huston, David Thewlis

Heroines of F.U.R.Y.

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“The world’s first microbudget superheroine wrestling soft-porn film.”

Given the cover, you might reasonably have expected one of the above, but if you saw the rest coming, you’re a better judge of cinematic dreck than I am. It’s hard to work out exactly who would form an overlap between the various potential audience sections here. And even someone not averse to any of the categories (I’d probably qualify) might well be turned off by the poor production values and overall shoddy quality of this.

The film is set in “Metro City”, which was my first surprise, because a lazy reading of the synopsis had me believing this was “Mexico City”. My bad. Turns out Omega is putting together a squad of super-powered heroines, having discovered that someone, somewhere appears to be abducting their colleagues. Nothing good can come of this, naturally. The main focus is Cosmic Girl (Lane), who has only gained her costume and secret identity relatively recently, so is still coming to terms with her situation. But she’s just one of a slew of caped crusaders, including – I’ll pause to take a deep breath, and copy-paste from my notes here – Lady Victory, Sunder, Spyder, Starlet, Dusk and Lilith.

Which wouldn’t necessarily be bad, if it had delivered something along the lines of the wonderful, Electra Woman and Dyna Girl. But the actual tone becomes creepily apparent here almost immediately. In the first scene featuring Lady Victory, we’re treated to close-ups of her feet, cleavage, butt, crotch and cleavage again, before we get to see her face. Sadly, this turns out to be an accurate indication of the movie’s priorities, with the eye of the camera adopting a highly fetishistic approach to its subjects. That’s when the film isn’t toppling over entirely, such as the 10-minute sequence of Cosmic Girl masturbating on her bed, in full costume, which ends up coming – a word used advisedly – about the width of her gusset elastic from being hardcore porn.

Then there are the scenes in a wrestling ring. For it turns out, part of the point of the abductions is to put together a forced “fight club” for these “metahumans”, which is streamed online. The losers also have their powers stolen. Which is an idea with some potential. Or, rather, it might have, if anyone involved could actually fight, or give a credible illusion of fighting: this isn’t exactly Lucha Underground, shall we say. It turns out to be little more than a thinly-disguised excuse for some sub/dom play.

Look, I’m sure there’s a market for this kind of thing, and I’m certainly not one to judge it. But this is masquerading under the illusion of being a real film – it’s on sale at Walmart ‘n’ stuff – and that creates certain expectations, which the movie is woefully ill-equipped to meet. Admittedly, if you had the foresight to Google “Brookland Brothers”, the studio behind it, you would find yourself looking at a page of thoroughly NSFW links. However, the rest of us will probably be looking nervously over our shoulders for fear of a family member showing up, and wishing for an industrial-sized bottle of hand-sanitizer.

Dir: Tyler Benjamin
Star: Halsey Rae, Ashley Lane, Krisa Kouture, Christina Verdon

Electra Woman and Dyna Girl

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“They’re super, thanks for asking…”

Initially a web series, the eight episodes are combined into a feature-length production here, and it’s done well enough you can’t see the join. It’s inspired by a Sid + Marty Krofft creation from the mid-seventies, which parodied the Batman and Robin dynamic. Four decades later, when it seems every other movie is a superhero of one form or another, the updated concept works deliciously well, helped by a winning lead performance from Hart as Dyna Girl. She and her partner Electra Woman (Helbig) are low-tier superheroines – without any particular powers, in fact – who operate out of Akron, Ohio until video of them disarming (literally) a convenience store robber goes viral.

That gets them the attention of CMM, the top talent agency for caped crusaders, which necessitates a move from Akron to Los Angeles. With the fame and fortune comes its share of problems, as the more photogenic Electra Woman is seen as the lead, with Dyna Girl increasingly reduced to “sidekick” status. Worse is to follow, as the first supervillain in a long time shows up in Los Angeles, and the ‘Empress of Evil’ rapidly takes out Major Vaunt, the city’s top hero. Can EW + DG patch up their creative differences and save the City of Angels? [Or, at least, the City of Vancouver, attempting to stand-in for the City of Angels…]

I was genuinely and pleasantly surprised by this. I had no clue at all what to expect, having never even heard of the show before, and not even seen a trailer. But I greatly appreciated the dry wit, often bordering on sarcasm, not often seen to this extent in American films. Helbig and Hart are, apparently, YouTube stars, which may help explain the abundant references to social media and pop culture in the script. These may not date well, i.e. jokes about Uber discount coupons or filming with your phone vertical, and if you don’t know what a “Reddit AMA” is, much of the satire there may go over your head. For now, however, it hit the mark for me, and the entirely underwhelming nature of the heroines along with their (lack of) abilities and down-to-earth personalities made them far more relatable than the likes of Jessica Jones.

As you should probably expect, the action aspects are somewhat restrained. Yet these are more successful than you’d imagine and are meshed into the rest of the film nicely – the villains who are beaten up by our two leading ladies sell their punishment magnificently, which certainly helps! It’s also refreshing that there is basically not even the hint of any romantic elements here at all; EW & DG sleep in twin bunk-beds, above each other. This charming naiveté extends to other aspects, such as Dyna Girl’s adorably dorky hair-cut, which looks like the kind of thing you do to yourself in the mirror – if you had the attention span of Dory. The self-awareness here is almost off the charts, and this shows that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Dir: Chris Marrs Piliero
Star: Grace Helbig, Hannah Hart, Matreya Fedor

Wonder Woman trailer released

wonderwomanposterDC has always seemed to be stuck in second-place when it comes to their movies, trapped behind the behemoth which is Marvel and their “Cinematic Universe”. The underwhelming performance, both critical and commercial, of Batman vs. Superman seemed to solidify that. Combining perhaps the two biggest names in comic-book history should have led to equally spectacular results, but after the expected enormous opening, the film had no legs at all, pulling in more that debut weekend than it did over the entire rest of its theatrical run. They’ll be hoping for better with Suicide Squad which comes out in a couple of weeks, and have already set their tent-pole release for summer next year.  The much-anticipated Wonder Woman film, starring Gail Gadot, comes out on June 2nd, and the first trailer was released over the weekend at San Diego ComicCon.

It’s interesting that they have beaten Marvel to the action heroine punch. While Marvel have created TV Series such as Agent Carter and Jessica Jones, there’s still no firm word of any, say, Black Widow movie. Their only scheduled heroine is Captain Marvel, and that’s not due until March 2019; also announced at ComicCon this weekend, in what could be seen as a spoiling tactic, she will be played by Oscar-winner Brie Larsen. This delay leaves the floor open for DC, who will be seeking to wash away memories of the disaster which was Catwoman. Arguably, that 2004 film sunk the comic-book action heroine movie, single-handed, for more than a decade. [Truth be told, it’s not that bad. It ain’t good, certainly – but it’s no Batman & Robin] The stage was already set, with Wonder Woman making a supporting appearance in B.vs.S. And it’s this which brought me the first surprise about the trailer, because unlike that, it appears that Wonder Woman will be a period piece, set during the First World War. I guess being created by Zeus gives a lady certain advantages in the “aging gracefully” department.

While I don’t know the comics [Pretty much all I know of WW is Lynda Carter. Sue me] , this appears to be a deviation from them, which had her showing up in the Second World War. However, it would certainly explain why she more or less bailed on the human race for the next century, having experienced close to the worst that mankind could offer – with the emphasis firmly on “man” there. There’s some speculation we’ll find out Ares, the god of war, and WW’s nemesis, is behind everything, which would make sense. Given WW’s literally near-divine level talents, it would take some of equivalent power to pose much of a threat. Perhaps who she’s going to see with her Very Large Sword? However, in terms of sheer trailer-iness, I would say this comes close to hitting it out of the park. It lays out the basics of the story without giving too much away, showcases the look, provides some really cool moments of action, and leaves me wanting to head straight to the cinema and begin queuing up.

Of course, we’ve all seen movies that have had great trailers, yet the finished product has failed to deliver [the last Bond film comes immediately to mind]. There does seem to be a little too much Captain Kirk/Chris Pine in this. I hope they don’t bog things down with romantic subplot, for that would be insufferable. If he’s much more than the heroic sacrifice, whose death triggers WW into action, I’m not going to be happy. So I’m going to restrain myself from proclaiming this as the best action heroine movie of 2017 quite yet. But I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that’s what I’m saying on June 2 next year, when the film is released.

Painkiller Jane – TV Series

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“The pain and strain, stays mainly in the Jane…”

painkiller1Originally created as a comic-book by Jimmy Palmiotti and Joe Quesada in the mid-nineties, it told the story of its heroine, Jane Vasko, who became effectively immortal after an incident left her with superhuman regenerative powers. She can still be hurt, certainly – even knocked down – but she heals at a phenomenal rate, rendering her nearly unstoppable. Over the years since, she has crossed paths with a number of other characters, including Hellboy and Vampirella, and the show became a TV movie on SyFy in December 2005, starring Emmanuelle Vaugier as Jane. The film was also used to gauge interest in a potential TV series, and one duly emerged in April 2007, albeit with Kristanna Loken now in the role, and effectively pretending the movie didn’t exist. For example, Jane went back from being a soldier to the law-enforcement agent of the comic, albeit a DEA agent rather than an undercover cop, and the cause of her abilities also became rather less opaque.

Unfortunately, it still wasn’t very good, especially in the early episodes. This is actually my second attempt to review the show: after eight episodes or so in the my original effort, I realized I had entirely abandoned watching them, and simply had them on in the background while I did something else. The return effort proved my attention span was made of sterner stuff, though I admit that I might not have watched every single frame of every single show. But I did make it through to the end, which teases a second series that never materialized, SyFy deciding it would not renew the show in August, with half a dozen episodes remaining to be screened.

painkiller2Certainly, from a 2016 viewpoint, it seems overly familiar, treading territory we’ve seen, with variations, in X-Men, Heroes and Alphas, among others. The core concept here is the “neuro” – someone who has developed an inexplicable paranormal talent which might be anything from invisibility through mind control to fire manipulation. Jane encounters one such on a drug bust at a nightclub, and as a result, is recruited by Andre McBride (Stewart), who leads an undercover team dedicated to capturing and neutralizing neuros. The rest of the team are the usual bunch of shallow stereotypes e.g. computer wiz Riley Jensen (Roberts), ex-military muscle Connor King (Danby), etc. but Jane is “different” in that her first mission results in her neuro-esque ability being awakened, after she is defenestrated from a high-rise window. I say “neuro-esque,” since there’s an ongoing vague debate as to whether she should be chipped and shipped off to NICO, the internment camp set up for the “special”.

After that, however, the show rapidly became not much more than a series of “neuro of the week” episodes, effectively abandoning much real interest in its heroine and her abilities. To some extent, I can understand this: once you’ve established that she is, literally, bulletproof, what more can you do? There’s not much sense of threat. But outside of sporadic examples, the creators didn’t make sufficient use of Vasko’s abilities, which could certainly have come useful, as the most extreme example of “taking one for the team” Nor do they bother to give her much life outside the disused subway station which is her team’s super-secret lair. There’s a brief friendship with the girl next door, which comes to a sudden end with so little impact, it feels like the actress involved must have demanded a pay rise or something. Then there’s a boyfriend, and at least that relationship does end up having a point – like the rest of the show, however, it takes far too long to get there.

For after initially setting up an evil corporation as the Big Bad, the series seem to forget about them completely for the next 20 episodes, before suddenly blowing the dust of the company for the final episode. It seems likely that never-realized second season might have gone in that direction, though if that was always the intent, seems very odd to start off as they did. The budget was apparently jacked up for the final three episodes, allowing for the cast and crew to travel to Hungary and the NICO facility, where it turns out there have been various dubious medical experiments going on, involving reversing the chips implanted to disable the neuro abilities. There are some interesting moral questions raised in this arc, and it’s a shame the show chose to ignore them, until after it had been given the ace.

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That isn’t to say the show was entirely worthless up to that point. There were a few episodes which actually made use of the concepts and developed them in interesting ways. The one I liked most was Playback, about a neuro who could reset time to the beginning of the day. He was being used to plot the assassination of a visiting foreign politician, gradually refining his plan to negate the countermeasures of Jane and her team, as if this were Groundhog Day. Jane’s ability to take damage came in handy here, and the script was well-thought out, both in problem and solution; while they couldn’t foil the neuros plan, they could make the rest of his day such a bad one, he was compelled to rewind one more time. More of this smart invention would have been welcome, but the show instead seemed to run out of ideas almost immediately. I mean, a handful of episodes in, and you’re already going down the “ghost hunters” route? Why not just have a musical episode and be done with it?

AS in most things she has done – hell, even BloodRayne – Loken is fine, and seems to embrace the action aspects with enthusiasm. I’d say that gives her the edge over her predecessor, Vaugier, and the series likely solidifies her position on the B-rung of action actresses [“Can’t afford Milla Jovovich? Give me a call!”] It’s the writing that is the key weakness here, often giving the impression that they were making things up as they went along, never a good thing. Still, it may not be the end for Jane. In July 2014, it was announced that Palmiotti was producing an independent feature film version, with the Soska Sisters signing on to direct. While I’m not sure about them as a choice [I saw their horror film American Mary, and found it very much over-rated], and I haven’t heard anything much regarding the project since, it’s interesting that adapting Painkiller Jane appears to be every bit as difficult to kill off as the character herself!

Star: Kristanna Loken, Rob Stewart, Noah Danby, Sean Owen Roberts

Jessica Jones: Season one

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“The Jones’ town massacre.”

jjones1A low-key take on the whole Marvel Universe, this takes place alongside the likes of The Avengers, yet almost separate from them. This means there are a couple of references to more high-profile superheroes (the battle for New York depicted in Avengers is called ‘The Incident’), plus nods to, and characters from, Netflix’s other Marvel show, Daredevil. Otherwise, this is its own creature, and likely the better for it. The heroine is Jessica Jones (Ritter, possessing an Eliza Dushku vibe), a private eye who has been gifted – or cursed – with remarkable strength. While this does occasionally come in handy, as we see in the first episode when serving a subpoena to an unwilling recipient, she’s well aware of the downside that her talent might bring; in the comics, but barely discussed in the show, she had a brief stint as a superhero, which ended badly. Now, she largely keeps it to herself, rather than running around the city fighting crime ‘n’ stuff.

jjones2Our story starts with her taking on what looks like a mundane missing person job, the parents of the girl in question having been recommended to her PI services. The disappearance turns out to have been engineered by “Kilgrave” (Tennant), the pseudonym adopted by a man with the talent of mind-control. Jessica crossed paths with Kilgrave before, having been one of those under his mental thumb. The experience left Jones with post-traumatic stress, but she believed she had seen the last of him – only to discover that not only is he still alive, he is perhaps even more obsessed with Jessica than he was. Fortunately, she isn’t alone, with help from her foster sister, Trish Walker (Taylor), now a popular radio host, and Luke Cage (Colter), a barman who, like Jones, has an abnormal ability he prefers remain private. However, how can you defeat someone who can take anyone, even your closest friends, and turn them against you as spies or assassins?

If you are used to Marvel movies, this is very much understated in comparison to something like The Avengers or Guardians of the Galaxy, big, bombastic epics with a lot of things blowing up. It’s often easy to forget they share the same universe – but then, remember that “comics” aren’t a genre, they’re a medium. While the term “comic-book movie” has come to mean a certain type of film, the truth is the range actually includes titles as diverse as The History of Violence, The Road to Perdition and When the Wind Blows. It’s possible to imagine a version of Jessica Jones, with its heroine entirely free of all special abilities – you’d more or less have a modern noir, right down to the jazzy intro music and voice-over narration. Kilgrave would be harder, admittedly, since his powers are largely what he has allowed to define him, but perhaps he could become a creepy, stalkery ex-boyfriend.

Jones is certainly flawed, though how many of these flaws are the result of her first encounter with Kilgrave is uncertain, given the limited glimpses we get of her life before that. She now drinks heavily, can’t maintain a relationship with anyone, and is crabby and sarcastic. All told, not a very likeable individual, and this is reflected in the near-lone existence she has. As the audience spends time with her though, they grow to appreciate her better qualities, such as a ferocious loyalty which, once earned, is never lost. She’s relentless too: once she sinks her teeth into a case, you probably would have to cut off Jones’s head to get her to back off, though the pursuit of Kilgrave certainly has a significant personal element to it too. As well as strength, it appears Jessica has the ability to take damage and keep going; not just physical either, but also psychological and spiritual, because she goes through the ringer over the course of these 13 episodes.

However, she may still be overshadowed by Kilgrave, even during the early episodes where he is rarely seen. Unlike most traditional “comic-book” villains, Kilgrave has a philosophy that informs his actions, and even possesses a twisted morality of sorts. He wants, and indeed, is desperate for, Jessica to like him, without being compelled to do so through mind-control. Tennant is quite brilliant in the role: you’ll be astonished if you’ve only seen him in Doctor Who, less so if you’re aware of his excellent work elsewhere, such as in Broadchurch, or even as Hamlet. Kilgrave is a total dick, likely a clinical psychopath, with a short fuse. This may be close to the worst combination possible for someone given the ability to manipulate others like a puppet. However, Tennant manages to retain a good degree of humanity in his depiction of the character. Like many psychopaths, Kilgrave can be charming on occasion, and the differences between him and Jessica are not as obvious as you might think: they are both children of trauma.

jjones3Less effective, for me, were the supporting cast, and this aspect left the show short of “Seal of Approval” status [though I know many disagree]. The apparently obligatory, dysfunctional romance between Jones and Cage feels both too sudden and forced: I guess he needed to be established for his own, upcoming TV series, though I’ll probably not bother with it, any more than I did with Daredevil. Meanwhile, Carrie Ann Moss’s aggressive lawyer, oddly gender-swapped from the comic, never served any significant purpose over the course of this first season. More effective is the complex relationship between Jessica and Trish; one born of personal tragedies, on both sides, which still continue to resonate, years later. Still, I couldn’t help feeling that a 13-episode series was over-stretching the material; a few of the shows appeared a good deal more filler than killer, and I suspect a 10-episode order might have been better overall.

The other main weakness, to me, was some contrived plotting, such as the way in which an inexplicable immunity to Kilgrave’s powers becomes an essential part of the final arc. I can’t say if the comics dealt with it similarly, but for a series so grounded in gritty realism, suddenly to pull out something which felt more like a big lump of handwavey Kryptonite, was disappointing. Similarly, the final confrontation between Kilgrave and Jones also had the former behave in a rather dumb way, closer to that of a sixties Bond villain, than the smart and savvy psycho he’d been portrayed as over the previous 12 episodes. I guess you can take the television show out of the comic-book, but you can’t entirely take the comic-book out of the television show. Or something…

Those flaws noted, this is still likely the best action-heroine entry to come out of either Marvel or DC so far. The show has been renewed for a second season, although the time-frame for this is uncertain, and it may end up being queued behind other planned Marvel/Netflix series – not least The Defenders, their “low-rent” version of The Avengers which will team up Daredevil with Jones, Cage and Iron Fist. Additionally, the makers will need to figure out who or what will replace Kilgrave as the show’s “big bad”, a tough act to follow. If the future of Jessica’s day job seems highly uncertain at the end of this run, there are also hints that she is no longer going to  be quite the lone wolf operator that she was here, possibly building eventually toward that Defenders team-up. If not as jaw-droppingly good as some claim (“The best show on TV”?), its hard-boiled approach has to be commended, and is refreshingly unlike anything else available, from any source.

Creator: Melissa Rosenberg
Star: Krysten Ritter, Mike Colter, David Tennant, Rachael Taylor

Agent Carter: Season two

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“A movie based on a comic book? Sounds like a dreadful idea.”

The obviously self-referential parody of Peggy Carter’s line above indicates one of the main issues with this show: an uncertainty over whether or not it should be taking itself seriously. It wasn’t even clear if the network was doing so: sure, they gave it an extended run, the sophomore series running 10 episodes, two more than its original one. But somehow, they then ended up having to run most of those in double helpings, to fit them all in between a start that was two weeks later, and Agents of SHIELD‘s return. Probably no wonder it struggled for an audience, the premiere scoring less than half the ratings obtained by season one, then dropping a further 25% from there. Between that and its star signing on for another ABC series, legal drama Conviction, it would not surprise me if this is Carter’s swansong, despite an ending which hints at more. [Though recent rumors suggest it may survive to fight another season]

That’s a bit of a shame, as I felt the show was better this time round, not least because they dropped the tedious “Carter has to prove herself” subplot, which was flogged to death in the first season. Praise be, she is now regarded as competent enough to be trusted by those around her. It relocates Peggy Carter (Atwell) from New York to Los Angeles, where she helps Daniel Souza, the chief of the new SSR office there, investigate the mysterious case of a woman’s body found in a frozen lake. The trail leads to Isodyne Energy and their research into “zero matter”, an extra-dimensional energy potentially more powerful than an atom bomb. When the owner’s wife, actress Whitney Frost (Everett) is exposed to the matter, she develops abilities, but also a very bad attitude, and it’s up to Peggy and her SSR colleagues to stop her from cracking open our dimension.

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At its best, this is smart and a great deal of fun – it’s good to see Marvel providing not just a heroine, but a villainess, and, indeed, at one point Carter is forced to turn to her season one enemy, Dottie Underwood for help, completing a trifecta of female awesomeness. Much less interesting are the ongoing dismal efforts to shoehorn romance into the proceedings, even if last season’s focus of unresolved sexual tension, Howard Stark’s butler Edwin Jarvis (D’Arcy), suddenly turns out to have a wife. Instead, Carter’s affections are divided between Sousa and Isodyne scientist Dr. Jason Wilkes – though since the latter spends most of the season only tangentially connected to our dimension, this makes for more puppy-eye gazing than anything. All this is no less annoying than the first time round, and Marvel still seem unable to grasp that a heroine does not “need” a man, any more than their heroes “need” women. Nor did we really need a musical dream sequence, which I find the last refuge of the desperate show-runner, even if it did give us a quick cameo from Lyndsy Fonseca.

On the other hand, Atwell remains as good a figure as ever, and I did enjoy the dry stabs at wit, with the characters playing nicely off each other, in between romantic interludes. It also helped that there was a single, over-arching storyline, while its predecessor seemed to spend most of its time thrashing about, trying to find a direction. If the series is renewed, it’s those positive aspects I hope are emphasized in its third season: while there remains a lot of room for improvement, there is also significant potential, and it would be interesting to see how the show bridged the gap between its era and the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Star: Hayley Atwell, James D’Arcy, Wynn Everett, Reggie Austin

Agent Carter: Season one

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“Well short of Marvel-ous”

agentcarter01I read somewhere, that this was Marvel’s 20th media entry, between films, TV series, etc. and the very first to feature a female lead. To be blunt: it shows. Just because your series is set in the forties, does not mean it also has to perpetuate the attitudes of the time: the tagline for the teaser was “Sometimes the best man for the job…is a woman”, which is about four decades past its expiration date. Another example: right the way through to the end, the opening, “previously on” montage included a clip of Carter being told to answer the phones, even though it was entirely irrelevant to proceedings. But it does showcase the attitude present through the entire show, which felt almost apologetic about the entire concept. The series itself was basically a throwaway, feeling like a token gesture, given not even half of a regular order, being given a mere eight episodes to be shoe-horned into the schedules while Agents of SHIELD was on winter hiatus.

Given this short run, you’d think the makers would have wanted to trim all the excess fat off their storyline, especially since the period setting should free it up from the tiresome apparent need to tie all contemporary Marvel features into the same “universe”. Ah, but no. Instead, we get a lengthy thread, particularly in the first half of the series, focusing on Tony Stark’s dad, to the extent that Carter felt like a supporting player in her own show, just as she was in the Captain America films. Really, as someone who is not a “Marvel fan”, who can take or leave their product [The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy were both forgettably alright, and I bailed on Agents of SHIELD after a few episodes], I could give a damn. I was looking for a standalone story, not one that spent half its time apparently trying to tie itself to the apron-strings of other media entities. This may help explain why the show’s ratings plummeted, losing about 30% of its live audience by episode four.

That’s a bit of a shame, because it did actually improve over the second half. We got less of the “Hey, look! It’s a woman! In the forties! Doing stuff! Isn’t that just amazing!” attitude, and she actually got to investigate a genuine threat, rather than helping Stark’s butler bail his employer’s ass out. This uncovers a Soviet plot to train young girls as sleeper agents for embedding in the United States, which leads in turn to a plan to release a poisonous gas which induces murderous psychosis in those exposed to it, back in Times Square. This was much more interesting and entertaining, and it’s just a shame the show didn’t get there sooner, while the short order meant it ended abruptly thereafter, with nothing except a coda that I presume was some kind of inside reference. making sense to those familiar with the inhabitants of the Marvel universe. Which would not be me, so the only reaction it provoked was “It’s the Dream Lord from Doctor Who“, and I imagine that was not the intended effect.

The main reason to keep watching the show was Atwell, who fit the lead character like a white leather glove. She brought an immense degree of likeability to the role, and not having seen her in the Captain America films was not a problem at all. D’Arcy, as Stark’s manservant, Edwin Jarvis, also brought the right sense of outraged propriety to his role, and the pair had a decent quality of chemistry together, without the show needing to shoehorn in any unresolved sexual tensions. [Indeed, the lack of any real romantic interest for Carter was a plus, even if it was mostly because she was still pining for the missing Captain America] But beyond those two, and Bridget Regan as Dottie Underwood, a strong female antagonist, the supporting cast was largely forgettable. All the men with whom she worked at the SSR were basically interchangeable suits, and even Lyndsey Fonseca, who was Alexandra Udinov in Nikita, was given nothing much of significance to do in her role as a waitress who befriends Peggy.

agentcarter02The action, as you’d expect, was also very solid: particular highlights I remember include an excellent brawl in a diner, and a thrilling chase aboard a truck loaded with an explosive chemical. Atwell more than held her own in this aspect, showing why her colleagues’ relentless and repetitively dismissive attitude of Agent Carter rang false. But whether there will be a second series or not remains in doubt, with ratings that were short of the show for which it was standing in. Despite not having enjoyed this one very much, I’m still pulling for it, because there’s a severe shortage of action heroines on television at the moment and luke-warm success is better than nothing at all.  Though I desperately wanted to love this, I couldn’t, and can only hope for better from A.K.A. Jessica Jones, due to premiere on Netflix later this year. Perhaps Marvel will learn from the missteps here, and present us with a heroine truly worthy of the name.

Star: Hayley Atwell, James D’Arcy, Chad Michael Murray, Enver Gjokaj

The Pulptress, edited by Tommy Hancock

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

pulptressPro Se Press is a relatively new small press devoted to the tradition of pulp fiction, as exemplified by the U.S. magazines in the earlier part of the 20th century. Through their Pulp Obscura imprint, they rescue older classic stories from undeserved obscurity; and they’re a venue for contemporary “New Pulp” authors, who seek to keep the tradition and its spirit alive. Founding editor Tommy Hancock created the costumed character of the Pulptress as a role for a model to play in representing Pro Se at pulp conventions and other venues (debuting with great success at the first Pulp Ark convention in 2011). It wasn’t long before the idea of using her as a fictional protagonist was born; hence, this first Pulptress story collection of five tales, written by Hancock and four other invited contributors from the Pro Se family.

Our heroine is intentionally something of a mystery woman. As Hancock explains in the short introduction, she’s the orphaned daughter of two pulp era heroes, though we’re not told who (her real first name is Emily, but we don’t know her last name). Fostered by a few other pulp heroes, both classic and New Pulp, who taught her a lot that’s not usually covered in a typical education, she’s now in her 20s. Like Pro Se Press, she’s based in small-town Arkansas; but she travels wherever her mission leads her, and her mission is to help the innocent and take down the perpetrators of evil, working from outside the normal channels of law enforcement and with a variety of aliases. A mistress of disguise and possessed of gymnastic skills that are, I’d say, of Olympic quality, she’s also smart, trained in martial arts, and no slouch with a firearm. While she’s attractive, she’s also described at various points as “strong,” and “buff,” with well-toned muscles –as the cover art indicates, those aren’t antithetical ideas.

A potential problem in this type of collection can be that the individual authors don’t have enough common conception of the main character to make her seem like the same person from story to story. That’s largely not a problem here: the Pulptress is recognizably herself from beginning to end, and all five writers draw her with an appealing, good-hearted and easily likeable personality; she cares about others, and she’s got an obvious zest for the challenging and adventurous elements in what she does. Being adept at hand-to-hand (or foot-to-head, or fist-to-gut, etc. :-) ) fighting, her situation doesn’t require her to use a gun, or lethal force, in all stories, and you get the impression that bringing her (human, at least) opponents in alive is her preference; but as Ron Fortier’s “Butcher’s Festival” indicates, she can also handle situations where that’s not an option. (I didn’t view that as a contradiction, just a flexible response to different circumstances.) A more noticeable contradiction is in the area of speaking style. Like the older pulp yarns that serve as models, none of these stories has a large amount of bad language (some have none), and all the writers here avoid obscenity or misuse of Divine names. But in some stories, our protagonist will cuss some, while in others she doesn’t at all. Most people are more consistent in their speech than that, so it would be more realistic to let her be consistent as well. But this wasn’t a major problem for me!

The quality of the writing in all five stories is good; our authors each have their own style, but they all use description well and bring characters and settings to vivid life. (Andrea Judy’s evocation of the catacombs under the city of Paris is especially memorable; if she hasn’t actually been there, her research was exceptionally good.) The action scenes are (for pulp) realistic, in that we don’t have protracted fights between two combatants who absorb punishment well beyond human capacity and keep fighting; here, a knock-out blow to the head will do what that kind of blow actually does. Emily’s not Super Girl, either; she can be pushed to her absolute physical limit at times, and she doesn’t disdain help or rescue when it’s needed. An interesting feature of the stories is that they sometimes employ other series characters, whose paths cross the Pulptress’ to give her a helping hand: Derrick Ferguson’s Dillon, a black man whose race is underrepresented among pulp heroic figures (used by Hancock in “Black Mask, Big City”), Erwin K. Roberts’ The Voice, and Fortier’s Brother Bones. Obviously, prior knowledge of these characters would enhance those stories, but it isn’t required; I hadn’t encountered any of them before. (If you haven’t, these tales may whet your interest –I’d definitely like to read more Brother Bones stories!) Given my liking for the supernatural in fiction, it was an added plus to find that the menaces in two stories are supernatural, and another has a definitely supernatural important character.

Arguably, I hand out too many five-star ratings; but I loved these stories, and didn’t really see any serious downside here (though you’ll find the occasional minor typo or editorial snafu). If pulp action adventure is your thing, what with no sex, tasteful handling of violence (nothing gratuitous or over-stressed), a conflict of good and evil that you know in your gut the bad guys don’t have a prayer of winning, and a heroine you can respect and admire, you can’t go wrong with this one!

Editor: Tommy Hancock
Publisher: Pro Se Press, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

DC Showcase: Catwoman

catwomanThe character of Catwoman has had a mixed history over the years in other media than the printed page. TV has had the Julie Newmar & Eartha Kitt versions, a nod in Birds of Prey, and a teenage version of the character can be seen in the Gotham series which premiered last month. In film, we had Lee Meriwether in the sixties incarnation then, perhaps most famously of all, Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns [albeit only after Annette Bening, Nicole Kidman and Demi Moore all were linked to the part]. Then, there was Halle Berry’s Catwoman, still talked about in hushed tones as perhaps the worst comic-book adaptation of all time, and which arguably did more damage to action heroines than any other big-budget movie in history. Despite the massive success of the Batman reboot, it took eight years before the character would appear in another film, Anne Hathaway playing Selina Kyle in The Dark Knight Rises.

However, it’s the animated versions – perhaps the nearest medium to the comic book – which are of most interest here. That dates back as far as 1968, when she appeared, voiced by Jane Webb (who also played Batgirl in the show), as part of The Batman/Superman Hour on CBS. A decade later, Melendy Britt pulled the same double-duty as Webb, playing both the heroic Batgirl and villainous Catwoman, in The New Adventures of Batman, another CBS show that began in 1977 and also used the voices of Burt Ward and Adam West, start of the original TV show. But it was the nineties when the form really took off. Batman: The Animated Series was ranked last year by TV Guide as among the top 10 cartoons of all time, and its style was clearly influential on the cinematic reboot of the franchise under Christopher Nolan.

Adrienne Barbeau voiced the character of Catwoman here and in The New Batman Adventures, later in the decade. This marked a shift, with the actresses being used for the role, even if never seen, becoming increasingly high-profile. 2004’s The Batman had Gina Gershon as Catwoman in five episodes, and the feature Batman: Year One had Eliza Dushku, With the third anniversary of the latter’s release this week, what better time to showcase the Catwoman-focused short below, which was originally included as a bonus feature on the Year One DVD. In it, Selena Kyle/Catwoman attempts to bring both a Gotham City crime boss called Rough Cut and his smuggling ring to an end, but stumbles upon a mysterious cargo shipment far worse than just smuggled diamonds…