Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Some SPOILERS in here. Nothing too major, but don't say I didn't warn you.

For those of us increasingly resorting to Netflix for our fix of new TV, it seems lawyers are the in thing for 2015. Particularly lawyers with a shady secret. We’ve just had Better Call Saul, the Breaking Bad prequel focusing on Walter White’s ‘criminal’ lawyer, and now Marvel have used the streaming service to launch Daredevil, the first of several series exploring the grimier side of the Marvel universe. If you’ve read the comics or seen the Ben Affleck film (poor you), then you know the pitch: Matt Murdock fights crime in the courtroom by day and in the streets by night. 

With all thirteen episodes released in one go, Daredevil’s ready for you to binge right now, and is unlike anything Marvel’s done before. Whereas this franchise, in the cinema and on TV, has previously kept its action fun and its heroes heroic, Daredevil depicts a darker corner of the Marvel universe. It’s violent, it’s nasty, it’s gritty. It’s an urban crime thriller, drenched with blood and neon. I've read the series’ writers talking about having been tonally inspired by The Wire, but to me it feels much more like Breaking Bad – clearly a crime genre piece, and one rooted in real crime, but not overly bothered with realism, more with maintaining both rising action and a focus on a central group of characters. 

In the very centre of that group is Matt Murdock, played excellently by Charlie Cox, who makes Murdock’s bromance with colleague Foggy Nelson tumblr-baitingly adorable while retaining the gravitas needed for us to take his other persona seriously. I like how the show gets straight into the action – within five minutes of the first episode, a masked Murdock has beaten the crap out of some human traffickers. It avoids the trap of being yet another origin story and taking ages to get to the point, which not all Netflix shows about lawyers have achieved… let’s just say I’m glad Murdock didn’t spend the whole season writing up wills for the elderly while occasionally thinking “maybe I should buy a mask.”

But, on the other hand, while Daredevil avoids those trappings of the origin story, it kind of also is one. At least, Murdock develops his "Devil of Hell's Kitchen" persona throughout the series, only becoming the fully-formed hero known to comics fans in the final episode. At the start of the season, he fights crime, sure, but he’s vulnerable, and spends one whole episode needing to be stitched up because he’s had some serious shit beaten out of him – a weakness which makes him all the more compelling and makes it all the more cooler when he still manages to twat a bunch of gangsters at the end of this episode despite looking incredibly worse-for-wear. 

The iconic red costume isn’t seen until the final episode, either, but Murdock’s need to get some new gear is set up throughout the season, with nurse Claire (Rosario Dawson) recommending he invest in some armour so she can have a bit of a break. I was half-expecting the suit’s reveal to be a cringey moment, as the series had taken such a dark tone that it could easily feel out of place, but – you know what – it got away with it. This was in no doubt largely thanks to all the build-up the suit had received – I liked Murdock’s reasoning, from a cuppa with his priest, that he should dress as the devil because he’s a necessary figure to scare people onto the ‘righteous path’ (well, as an atheist, I don’t necessarily agree, but it works for the character and to justify the look).

But what works particularly well about the series is that it’s not just Matt Murdock’s story – it’s also Wilson Fisk’s. Fisk, also known to comics readers as the Kingpin, is Daredevil’s arch-enemy, the biggest mob boss in New York City, and here he’s given a story parallel to Murdock’s. Throughout the course of the series, he builds up his empire, gains territory in the city, and wrestles for control as it crumbles around him. Vincent D’Onofrio plays Fisk as a terrifying figure, with an imposing physicality and a tendency to take his anger out on sub-ordinates in the most brutal way possible, but also as a sensitive and troubled gent, unsure how to behave to impress his date. 

Fisk is significantly more developed and more compelling than any villain in the Marvel universe so far. Importantly, he has just as strong a backstory as Murdock, his conflict between “be a man”-type values and wanting not to “be cruel for the sake of cruelty” being clearly traced back to his experience with an abusive father. Just as importantly, the lines are blurred between hero and villain here more than anywhere else in this universe, with both Murdock and Fisk wanting to make Hell’s Kitchen a better neighbourhood, and this often coming up as a source of confrontation between them – the moment when the penny drops for Murdock that he, seen by the public as a madman in a mask, can easily be blamed for Fisk’s crimes, is a sublime twist.

Wilson Fisk is, without doubt, the Marvel Universe’s best villain to date, and the decision to focus on one main villain really works, even when the producers could easily have dipped into the pool of Daredevil villains available to them – maybe we’ll see Elektra or Bullseye in season two…

Though, of course, let’s not forget Wesley, Fisk’s assistant. Two reasons I loved Wesley:
  • They avoided the cliché of having the loyal, cultured butler-type character be a posh Englishman. Which is great restraint.
  • The face he does when he realises Fisk speaks both Japanese and Chinese and so all his translation has been pointless.
If the series has one weak point, it’s Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll). After Murdock and Nelson get her out of a sticky situation with her employer, a firm laundering money for Fisk, she takes a job as their secretary and launches her own investigation in her spare time. The problem is, she doesn’t really achieve that much, and far too often ends up needing to be rescued by Foggy, Matt, or reporter Ben Urich, who regularly tells her off for her clumsy and dangerous methods of investigation. After another recent Marvel series, Agent Carter, had such a kick-ass feminist lead, I kind of wish the main female character in Daredevil could take a more active role in her own story.

So, if there’s one improvement to be made in season two, it’s that Daredevil could have more active female characters. But, all in all, it’s no surprise that a second season has been commissioned on top of all the other shows Marvel and Netflix have in development. 

This is largely thanks to the great central set of characters (returning to that Breaking Bad comparison, the protagonist/antagonist dynamic is much more reminiscent of Bad than anything in The Wire) and also to the tone. It makes the Marvel universe ‘dark’, with some genuinely nasty moments of violence, but doesn’t lose the sense of fun – the lighter moments between Matt and Foggy are a good source of comic relief which prevent the tone from being ‘dark’ in the pretentious, brooding, ultimately annoying way characterised by the likes of Man of Steel. Thus, Daredevil fits well into the universe of Guardians of the Galaxy and The Avengers; indeed, the references to wider aspects of the universe cement this rather than feeling forced – the necessity of rebuilding a ruined New York City in particular. And there are even some hints at future series in there for fans to spot…

It’ll be difficult for Marvel to top this stylish and compelling crime thriller.

Unless the next series they do features, I don’t know, maybe David Tennant in an awesome purple suit. You know, something like that.
On 28.4.15 by KieronMoore in , , , ,    No comments

Visit Starburst for the full version of this review.

He’s most often seen dealing with perps in the streets of Mega-City One, but Judge Dredd’s world stretches much further – other stories have taken 2000AD’s leading lawkeeper to the Big Meg’s Soviet counterpart, into outer space, and, perhaps most notably, to the post-apocalyptic wasteland that most of America has become – the Cursed Earth.

The Cursed Earth was explored in this early adventure, which lasted for twenty-five instalments in 1978 and became known as the first Dredd ‘epic’. The west coast’s Mega-City Two has become plagued by a virus that turns its inhabitants into ravenous cannibals. With MC-2’s airports shut down, it’s up to Dredd to take the long journey across the wastes with the vaccine.

This story is essentially a backdrop to Dredd’s adventures along the way, a series of encounters with the brutality of Mad Max and the daft satire of the Fallout games. There is indeed a dinosaur, in fact several – escapees from a dinosaur theme park. And yes, this came before Michael Crichton penned Jurassic Park. Dredd also encounters flying rats, a futuristic death race, and Mount Rushmore with a couple of new additions.

It’s very silly compared to grittier modern Dredd and feels aimed at younger readers, but don’t let this fool you into thinking The Cursed Earth is shallow fare – 2000AD’s sharp satirical edge is present in radioactive bucket-loads, while the way this story depicts Dredd himself is very interesting – the usually stern Judge is the only guy standing up for the oppressed aliens, and, though he heads out into the Cursed Earth with a distrust of ‘muties’, the Dredd who arrives at Mega-City Two is one step closer to the Dredd who’d later stand up for ‘mutie rights’ in some of 2000AD’s most political stories.

Everything great about 2000AD is present in this astounding variety of weird and wonderful adventures, particularly its firmly British satire. The Cursed Earth is classic Dredd ramped up to 11, and it really is a joy.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

On 15.4.15 by KieronMoore in , , , ,    3 comments

Dredd may be a tough nut to crack, but some situations are too hazardous for even him – situations where Mega-City One’s real heavies are called in. The Heavy Mob follows the toughest mofos in Dredd’s world, from the daredevil Holocaust Squad to the hardened Space Corps, via a trip to old London town to meet Brit-Cit Brute.

The Holocaust Squad, introduced in John Wagner’s 1979 Dredd story Father Earth, are a unit thrown into incredibly dangerous situations with little chance of survival. Their own series then ran for two stories in the 1990s – Skyfall and Storm Warning. Robbie Morrison’s Brit-Cit Brute follows London-based bruiser Arthur Conan Newt. Newt’s stories will appeal to fans of Lobo’s hyper-stylised brutality, though both script and artwork can feel too over-the-top compared to Dredd’s grittier satire. Another Morrison script, Wynter, is a fairly standard cop-vs.-robbers story, elevated by its bleak Arctic environment. 

The stories so far all face a similar problem – this volume’s all-over-the-place composition means that, while we’re introduced to a wide variety of characters, they’re all very similar – big, tough, don’t like orders – and we never stick around long enough to get to know them before moving on to the next story.

Thankfully, the final two tales, both recent Dredd strips, make The Heavy Mob worth sticking with. Debris, set in the wake of the Chaos Bug, sees Dredd draft in Space Corps reinforcements against a self-declared independent City Block that’s stealing supplies from relief ships. The Die Hard-esque action is balanced effectively with in-fighting amongst our protagonists, as Colonel Easter wants to nuke the block, but their advisor Dolman insists on finding another solution.

Last but not least, Wagner’s Heart of Darkness-inspired Warzone sees Dredd and a Space Corps squad journey into enemy territory on a war-torn colony. It’s full of bloody, nasty action and nicely scripted character and world-building details, all adding up to an exploration of meaningless war. 

So what we have is a very mixed bag, lacking the focus of previous Mega Collection volumes. The complex, intriguing final two stories only just make up for the first bunch of brutes who we never really engage with, making this one for the hardened collector only.

Friday, 3 April 2015

Doctor Who may have celebrated its big five-oh in 2013, but March this year saw its tenth anniversary. Timey-wimey, etc., etc. I mean, of course, the tenth anniversary of Russell T Davies’ modern revival of the series, when the Doctor was introduced to a whole new generation – including myself – via the northern tones of Christopher Eccleston. And while Eccleston may be notoriously reluctant to return to the role, now is a better time than ever for his guilt-ridden Doctor to return in his own comic mini-series.

Set between The Doctor Dances and Boom Town, Cavan Scott’s Weapons of Past Destruction sees the Ninth Doctor travelling with Rose Tyler and Captain Jack Harkness, a team that worked brilliantly on screen and yet only spent five episodes together. What we also get here that was largely absent from Eccleston’s telly adventures is an exciting outer space setting; whereas series one’s stories centred around Earth, Scott’s script takes the TARDIS to the far away ruins of planet Excroth.

Thing is, Excroth shouldn’t be in ruins yet. Someone’s been mucking around with time, and the Doctor is, understandably, not keen on that. As they investigate, he and his companions come into conflict with two effectively imposing new robotic races – the bulbous Lect and the Unon, who are part-Centaur, part-Centurion. This first chapter is an action adventure that moves along very quickly, so we don’t really get to know any of the supporting characters, but hopefully more backstory will be given to these fellas in future instalments.

The leading trio, though, are very well observed, with entertaining dialogue that could easily come from one of 2005’s TV scripts. Scott has the underrated Ninth Doctor down to a tee – he’s full of anger, yes, but also full of joy, and is always the first to crack a grin as he stands up for the underdog. Rose pulls the short straw, skirting too close to the traditional companion role of asking the Doctor questions and getting in danger.

It’s definitely a comic that does make you want to come back for more, with fun action mixed with hints at a greater mystery to be solved. With only four more instalments in this mini-series, let’s hope it keeps up the quality and is successful enough for Titan to commission more Ninth Doctor adventures, as it’s great to be back on board with Rose, Jack, and my favourite Doctor. They were fantastic and – you know what? – they still are.