Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Retro Trio: The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005-2012)

Director: Christopher Nolan

Once in while, I'm in a mood to watch a movie which will give me a balance of not challenging me with anything new but still being rich enough to avoid dullness. Often, a good action or adventure movie I've seen before does the trick for me in these situations, so when just such a mood recently struck me, I fired up director Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy. Over a few nights, I re-watched Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises.

I think this trilogy is an impressive accomplishment. I own all three, and I enjoy returning to them every few years. This will not change, though there are certain gripes which I have developed regarding a few aspects of the series, as much out of over-familiarity as anything else. Let's get those out of the way:

One thing that irked me is that Bruce Wayne's scientific and detecting genius is almost completely absent. In fact, it is virtually spat upon. Since his very inception in Detective Comics in 1940, Bruce Wayne/Batman was noted for his intellect. He was virtually a Sherlock Holmes. Still, in Batman Begins, after Bruce Wayne is gassed with Scarecrow's hallucinogenic toxin, he awakes to have Lucius Fox rattle off the advanced chemical processes he needed to perform in order to produce an antidote. In response, Wayne simply states, "Is that supposed to mean anything to me?" Wayne's utter inability to comprehend Fox's chemistry jargon has always struck me as a severe oversight in terms of one of Batman's greatest strengths - that he is supposed to be phenomenally brilliant, especially with the forensic sciences, including biochemistry. Almost never in the entire trilogy is his scientific intelligence exhibited. The real shame is that it wouldn't have taken much effort to include it. My guess is that Christopher Nolan was so very focused on Bryce Wayne's tortured psyche that he ignored his considerable intellect, despite the fact that it could have been another avenue along which to explore his obsessive personality.

There's absolutely no way that the Joker (right) could have
been sure that his fellow crew member wasn't going to just
blow him away before his full plan unfolded. Just lucky,
I guess. This happens quite a bit. 
Another general area which exhibits cracks is in the little details and transitions from one plot point to the next. All of Christopher Nolan's movie's virtually crackle with great energy and pace, so that the eyes and mind are stimulated through the entire picture. However, when one watches his movies a second or third time, certain unanswerable questions arise. This was true with Memento, Interstellar, and every movie in between. In the Dark Knight trilogy, they are sprinkled around in plenty of places. In The Dark Knight, during the Joker's interrogation scene, how did the villain know that he would be able to break out at exactly the right time to call and set off his bombs while Wayne raced to save Rachel and Dent? In The Dark Knight Rises, how on Earth does even Batman recover from a broken back and return to peak fighting condition in a few short months? Though none of them ever torpedoes the overall stories, a few of these nagging little problems can be found in each film.

One of my lesser issues is that the dialogue can, depending on the mood I am in, feel overly polished. While there are plenty of thoughtful and brilliant lines (as I'll explore later), I sometimes cannot help but smirk at how nearly every character has a slick, clever line right on the tip of his or her tongue, at virtually every turn. Again, this is a minor issue, as many of the lines are great, but it does rob the characters of a certain level of authenticity.

And oh yes, Christian Bale's and Tom Hardy's respective Batman and Bane voices were strange and distracting choices. But they don't bother me nearly as much as they clearly bothered a lot of people. On to why I continue to return to these movies...

The Dark Knight trilogy did for superhero movies what Alan Moore and Frank Miller did for popular superhero comics two decades earlier: they brought a sense of maturity, depth, atmosphere, and intellect which simply had not been there before. Even some of the really enjoyable superhero movies from before Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, like Tim Burton's Batman and Bryan Singer's first two X-Men movies, still bore hallmarks of PG-rated "bubble gum" comic books. Sure, there was a touch of psychological depth in them, but they still remained primarily plot-driven stories which relied a bit more on colorful visuals than on probing character study. With his Batman trilogy, Nolan decided to take a very close look at Frank Miller's work with Batman in the 1980s, when the writer and artist dug into the damaged and arguably unhinged mind of "the world's greatest detective." Nolan combined this with the question, "What if a real billionaire truly went sort of nuts and decided to take justice into his own hands by pummeling criminals?" Nolan decided to set this story in a world which asked us to suspend our disbelief far less than any previous superhero movie, especially in terms of the powers and abilities of the primary characters. This was very different territory for the movies, and I've greatly appreciated it. Admittedly, things get a bit sillier in the final installment, but it doesn't spoil Nolan's overall realistic take on costumed vigilantes.

Though not a primary character, Lucius Fox was one of the
most consistently entertaining through the trilogy. Morgan
Freeman was the perfect choice to play the sly tech genius.
I also feel that any viewer, even those who have major issues with this series, must admit that there is some rather strong writing throughout the trilogy. Yes, I also get a tad annoyed that so many characters speak in slick, unrealistically clever and didactic epigrams. But there are some truly great lines, all the same. When Jim Gordon, at the end of Batman Begins, says, "I never thanked you", Batman's response "And you'll never have to" is solid gold. In The Dark Knight, virtually every exchange involving the Joker has hypnotic gravitas. I particularly enjoy The Joker's exposition to a burned Harvey Dent on the connection between chaos and the blindness of justice. There are plenty of others, and even minor characters like Lucius Fox and Alfred have some great one-liners, further enhanced by the impeccable deliveries of world-class actors Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine. Even after seeing these movies multiple times, I still derive no small pleasure from the dialogue.

On a purely aesthetic level, the movies look fantastic. Nolan always showed a keen eye for pleasing visuals, even back to his first color pictures Memento and The Prestige, there is often a brilliant color palate and expertly-arranged sets that are wonderfully pleasing to take in. The trilogy is no exception, exhibiting the "Blade Runner" feel that Nolan wanted for Gotham City just as well as the expansive long shots in the Himalayas or Hong Kong. And working within those scnes are some outstanding actors. Certainly some actors and performances are better than others, but I have a very hard time saying that anyone in the Dark Knight trilogy (or any Nolan movie) turned in a bad performance. Even Katie Holmes was tolerable, and that was about as bad as it got for the entire series.

While the trilogy has its detractors and those who might even argue against some of the above-mentioned aspects which I enjoy, I'm a fan. 

Friday, April 22, 2016

Idiot Boxing: Silicon Valley, seasons 1 & 2

The five original members of Pied Piper. Each and every one
is capable of providing gut laughs, and not just from laughing
at them. They all dish out more than a few great comic barbs
at each other and the bizarre, self-obsessed characters who
populate the tech world in
Silicon Valley.
Creator: Mike Judge

It seems appropriate to do a review of Silicon Valley's first two seasons, with the third season beginning in just a few days:

When the man behind Office Space decides to do a show based on geeky computer programmers trying to build a viable startup in Silicon Valley, you know there's a good chance for it to work. Thankfully, this HBO show lives up to its potential.

Season 1 is the "origin" story of the lovably nerdy Charlie Wiseman, a extremely talented computer programmer who works at a low-rent "think tank" run out of a modest house in Silicon Valley. Charlie and a handful of fellow programmers are aspiring to create the next "big thing" in software. Charlie creates a compression program, dubbed Pied Piper, which appears to be just the sort of cutting edge game-changer that could grow into a billion-dollar company. The trick is navigating the treacherous waters of greedy, jealous, and self-involved tech billionaires and their cronies, who all want some or all of Charlie's creation.

As you might expect, Charlie and his fellow programmers fit into some of the known stereotypes for computer wizards. Mainly, they are extremely intelligent with computer language, but can be inept in other areas of life. The refreshing thing is that the core group of five guys are different enough that they never become stale. Charlie and Dinesh are probably the most typical - socially awkward, especially around women, despite their considerable smarts. Others, though, are more unique. Their business consultant and partner, Jared, lacks any computer skills and much of a backbone, but he does possess essential business acumen. The antisocial and quietly combative Gilfoyle seems completely comfortable in his own skin - a skin which houses an unrepentant Satanist (yes, that's true, and yes, it's hilarious). The self-styled "leader" of the crew is Ehrlich Bachman, whose ego, overconfidence, and penchant for bombastic displays of grandiosity make for a welcome and comedic balance to the more reserved engineers of Pied Piper. And unlike a show like The Big Bang Theory, Silicon Valley rounds its characters out so that they are more than laughably awkward brainiacs.

Though a comedy first and foremost, there is the dramatic
thrill of watching the Pied Piper guys work to try and build
something from the ground up.
Though it may not hit as often as the Mike Judge classic Office Space, the writing is plenty solid. Using Silicon Valley as the setting gives the writers an immensely fertile ground for bizarre characters who can interact with each other in hilarious ways. Bachman's hiring of Mexican thug muralist Chuy to paint the Pied Piper logo in season one and the Piper team's agreement to work for a pornography company in season two are highlights, but there are plenty of other memorable interactions.

What makes the show work beyond the comedy is that there is actually a compelling underdog story at work. Charlie Wiseman's attempt to turn his brilliant idea into a different kind of company is a noble one. The compromises he has to make, though couched in humorous details, feel authentic enough to add just the right amount of drama to the proceedings.

I'm glad I've discovered this show while it is still relatively young. I'm also hopeful that HBO will avoid the mistake that so many network shows make in dragging a successful series out far too long. Mike Judge and the other showrunners seem to have a clear idea of their main story arc, and I'll be glad to watch and laugh along as it all unfolds. 

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

New Release! Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

Director: Zack Snyder

I tried. I really did. But Dawn of Justice lived down to my carefully-tempered expectations.

Even upon its announcement nearly a year ago, I was skeptical. I did not especially enjoy Superman: Man of Steel from 2013. I found it overly grim, with an overthought plot and a lack of compelling characters. When I heard that writer and director Zack Snyder had been pegged to do Dawn of Justice, I was not terribly enthused. When I also heard that this was to be the first in a new extended movie universe based on DC, then it clearly became that long-standing comic book company's attempt to catch up with Marvel and its outrageously successful Cinematic Universe. As an opening salvo in any sort of competition with Marvel, Dawn of Justice falls bafflingly short.

The most basic elements of the story aren't terrible. During the events of Man of Steel, when Superman's clash with General Zod kills thousands upon thousands of people, Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) begins to feel that humans are helpless in the presence of such immensely powerful beings. Behind the scenes, a young Lex Luthor begins to manipulate this fear into a battle between his arch-nemesis Superman and Wayne's crime-fighting alter-ego, Batman. While not exactly the most original idea, this story is something to work with and has potential for some engaging narrative and clever ideas.

The problem is that the unfolding of the plot is a mess. The story jumps around from place to place so rapidly that it is difficult to get your bearings. With few smooth transitions, we go from Bruce Wayne brooding about his murdered parents to Clark Kent's romance with Lois Lane to Lex Luthor's thin plot to have Superman killed to Lex Luthor's confusing plot to incorporate Kryptonian technology. Shoehorned into this are an odd, flash-forward nightmare vision that is as coherent as a bad acid trip and irrelevant sneak-peeks at other DC superheroes to come in future movies. When the movie's not trying to cram in little previews and allusions for their next several movies, it's trying to cover up the cracks by giving us lots of glossy action. While there are a few modestly interesting sequences, they are brief and rare. Many of the most interesting visuals and ideas are taken from the source comic books, mostly Frank Miller's iconic 1980s mini-series The Dark Knight Returns.

The title fight isn't nearly as exciting as you might hope.
There are a few half-decent moments, but far too much Bats
simply throwing Supes through walls, and vice versa.
The lack of narrative cohesion isn't helped by the fact that characters are simply thrown at you, with little or no explanation as to their backgrounds or motivations, perhaps assuming that most or all viewers simply knew who they were. The movie could probably have gotten away with this if there had only been one or two iconic characters, each with appearances in earlier films that telling their stories. Here it doesn't work, though, thanks to the multiple reboots within the last decade. This Batman is not the Nolan Dark Knight Batman, and he's never been seen in anything prior to this movie. The same with Lex Luthor. Yes, most of us know Lex Luthor, but this is a re-imagined version whose character and motivations are never explained. Wayne, Luthor, and virtually every supporting character such as Alfred are given little to no time to become of much interest to us viewers.

Many people have bashed Ben Affleck, and he's probably deserved it for some things. However, his acting in this movie is not the problem. In fact, nearly all of the actors are fine. The exception is Jesse Eisenberg's take on Lex Luthor, which I found to be annoyingly twitchy, making the iconic and villainous genius seem more like an insane schizoid than the powerfully intelligent, dominant, and sometimes gleefully evil force that have made up some of the best iterations of the character. I will say that Gal Gadot plays a solid Wonder Woman, but she is the only worthy revelation in the film.

Perhaps the greatest offense here isn't the movie itself, but rather the bucketloads of cash that it raked in during its opening weekend. Despite open skepticism from reliable critics and an avalanche of negative reviews, fans turned out in droves. I can't act overly incensed, as I threw my $11.50 into the DC and Warner Brothers coffers. Still, I fear that these companies will misread the huge opening weekend as validation of their current template. The Marvel Cinematic Universe may have its weaknesses and impending pitfalls, but even its weakest movie (The Incredible Hulk, in my opinion) is better than Dawn of Justice. Not exactly the best way to kick off a massive film franchise, to be sure. 

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Marvel Cinematic Universe Phase 2 Binge (Yes, again)

Call it what you want, but the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is my go-to film and TV series for popcorn entertainment. I've already done a few posts on the various films and shows, all of which I've now seen anywhere from two to more than a half dozen times. They give me the comfort of well-produced and often well-written fantasy action story when I want a break from heavier, darker, more profound films.

With the forthcoming film, Captain America: Civil War, set for imminent release, I went on this recent binge over roughly a six-week period, during which I watched every single movie, short film, and TV series episode that comprises Phase 2 of the MCU, released between the summers of 2013 and 2015. All told, the tally is six feature films, 65 TV show episodes, and two short films.

After plowing through these many hours of comic book-inspired movie entertainment, I feel that Phase 2 has the chance to end up being the single greatest "Phase" that the MCU will ever produce. This might be a bold prediction, given that there are quite literally dozens of movies and hundreds of TV shows episodes planned for release in the coming five to ten years, when Phases 3 and 4 unfold. Still, I'm already seeing some signs of weakness in the MCU, narratively if not commercially. But I'll get into this after my revisit of Phase 2.

To watch all of these shows, I went into full "nerd mode" and meticulously watched them in the exact order in which they were released, either on the big screen, on television, or on blu ray home video release (for the short films). This was to try and maintain the narrative cohesion that has been steadily built as each show is released. My thoughts:

Iron Man 3 (2013) My original review is here

This movie has grown on me since its release. I never thought it a bad movie by any means, but things which previously annoyed me have since grown less irksome. The overall plot is still one of the better ones in the MCU, thanks to semi-maverick writer/director Shane Black's mischievous sensibilities. The story arc brings different elements together nicely, and I am still firmly in the camp of loving what the story did with "The Mandarin." While Killian is not the most original villain in the MCU (another icy-cold, hyper-intelligent, rich white guy in a suit), he was more compelling than others of his ilk. Downey Jr. is still spot-on in this one, and Black's script is packed with gags that still hold up really well.

Agent Carter One-Shot (on the Iron Man 3 blu ray)

Flat-out awesome. After her great but somewhat limited role in the first Captain America movie, I had hoped for more of the tough soldier Peggy Carter. This short film gave us a glorious, 15-minute glimpse of the heights the character can be brought to, thanks to crisp writing and actress Hayley Atwell. This short had to be what sold the execs at ABC on giving her a mini-series.

Agents of SHIELD, Season 1 (Fall 2013 to Spring 2014)

This bold concept took a good two-thirds of the season to really find it's footing. Once it did, though, it was amazing. When one semi-binge watches the entire season over 10 to 14 days, it comes off as a strong season. However, parts of the first 14 or 15 episodes are a bit clunky in terms of dialogue and character development. It was always clear that it had a good foundation of plot elements, building towards a major resolution, but it takes a little too long to build steam. Still, once you get to the episodes immediately before and everything after The Winter Soldier was released, the show completely takes off and never looks back. Those final 6 episodes are among some of the best moments that the MCU has given us.

Thor: The Dark World (2013) My original review is here

Still one of the most mediocre entries in the MCU catalogue. The concept of The Aether is curious. The Kursed is an exciting enemy, being a Dark Elf version of The Hulk for Thor to fight. Seeing Friga go out was an unexpected twist. Of course Tom Hiddleston's Loki tends to steal nearly every scene. And the world-jumping fight between Thor and Malekith is fairly fun. Still, there are quite a few lame and misplaced jokes, Malekith is a rather boring villain, and I've long since had it with Jane and Darcy.

Hail to the King (on the Thor: The Dark World blu ray)

Really solid short film that entertains, responds to many fans' major complaint about Iron Man 3, and sets up interesting possibilities for the MCU's future. The tale follows a journalist who is interviewing Trevor Slattery, the flaky actor who was posing as "The Mandarin" in Iron Man 3. Ben Kingsley returns and goes all-in with a great comedic performance of the dopey, burnt-out Slattery. Just when you think that the entire 12-minute short is a throw-away comedy piece, things get crazy real and extremely relevant in a hurry. Anyone who was upset about how The Mandarin was handled in Iron Man 3 would be well-advised to track down this short and revise their opinion.

Fun Fact: Hail to the King was the final "Marvel One-Shot" made. The studio has stated that there are no plans to make any more. I find this curious and unfortunate, given that a few of them have been really good. 

Captain America: The Winter Solder (2014) My original review is here

This movie is my "1.b" to The Avengers "1.a" status as best movies in the MCU. Though I had seen it four times prior to this viewing, I was again riveted by everything about this movie. The story is smart and tackles relevant issues that go well beyond comic hero fantasy. Nearly every joke in the script hits. There are virtually no wasted scenes or interactions. The action is some of the best you will ever find in any movie, and the acting is high-quality. If any criticism can be leveled at the movie, one might argue that there are a few references that could be lost on those who haven't seen the first Captain America, but these are minor enough that they hardly weaken this amazing sequel. As of right now, one could argue that this movie and the TV shows right before and after it have been the peak of the MCU.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) My original review is here

I hold pretty much the same opinion of this movie that I did when I first saw it. Really fun, and I greatly appreciate its unique place in the MCU. However, Guardians seems to be the most consistently, if only slightly, overrated of all of the MCU movies. I have seen list after list ranking this movie as the absolute best movie in the entire MCU, and I just can't agree with that assessment. I could argue for it being the third-best, but I cannot see how it is better than The Avengers or The Winter Soldier. Though I don't find it on-par with those earlier films, I still love the oddly charming bond between Rocket and Groot, the humor of Drax's insane zeal for combat and death, and Peter Quill's sarcastic hero/scoundrel. I love how it does bring back the fun of 1980s sci-fi adventure movies, though its third act lacks the novelty for me to thrust it into all-time classic status.

This movie allows me a chance to bring up a bone I've been picking regarding certain action character actors in the MCU (or any action movie): One thing that will always bother me about Guardians of the Galaxy is the casting of Zoe Saldana as Gamora. The woman is simply not an athlete. She's certainly a decent enough actress, and yes, she's gorgeous. But when a character, male or female, is meant to be a world- or galaxy-class fighter and assassin, then damn it, they better move like it. Anyone who has played or watched enough contact sports knows the violent and powerful efficiency with which such athletes move, and it can be painfully obvious when an actor can't. Zoe Saldana can't. Neither can Scarlett Johannsen or Adrienne Palicki, both of whom play nigh-unbeatable hand-to-hand fighters in the MCU. In contrast, Hayley Atwell moves like a fighter. So do Ming-Na Wen and Evangeline Lilly. I don't know if any of that latter group can actually fight, but they sure move like they know how to throw a real punch and adopt fighting stances like they can truly knock out some fools. These three mainstays of the MCU prove that you can find attractive, skilled actors who can actually convince us viewers that they know how to fight.

End of rant. At least for one more paragraph...

Agents of SHIELD, Season 2 (Fall 2014 to Spring 2015) My original review is here

From start to finish, the second season of this show was excellent. Learning from its mistakes in the first season, the show came out swinging with a clear purpose, well-paced plotting, and great dynamics between the characters, old and new alike. While I have issues with Bobby Morse and even Hunter, to a lesser extent, the additions of characters like Mack and even villains like Cal and Gordon made this season distinctive and entertaining. It's also great to see Simmons and Fitz become significantly more than "the nerds/comic relief" on the team.

My only running issue with this season (and the series, up to this point) is Adrienne Palicki as Bobby Morse. For one thing, there is my peeve about actors who can't move like the supposed world-class fighters they are playing (see Gamora rant above). For another, I don't think she's much of an actress. In a lesser show, this might not stand out as much, but there are too many strong acting jobs being done in Agents of SHIELD for me not to notice. Whereas Ming-Na Wen conveys Agent May's strength with quiet grimness and convincing yet subtle posture, Palicki seems to project toughness by doing little more than pushing her chest out, thrusting her chin up, and throwing in the occasional icy glare. I have a really hard time buying her as a globe-trotting super spy. Morse and Hunter are actually set to get their own show, which I can't be terribly excited about. However, their departure is likely to strengthen Agents of SHIELD, in my view.

Agent Carter, Season 1 (Winter to Spring 2015)

A great fulfillment of the promise of the Agent Carter short film released the previous year. While it lost just a tiny bit of steam towards the very end, this 8-episode mini-series was a tight, well-written combination of great characters, the theme of gender discrimination, and a solid story in which the fantastic elements added the right amount of spice to the more human drama. This was also another MCU addition which stands on its own feet, rather than relying on previous films or shows for its strongest materials.

Murdock's talks with his neighborhood priest add plenty
of heart and depth in ways that the feature films and even
network shows can't or won't attempt.
Daredevil, Season 1 (Fall, 2015) My original review is here.

After rewatching the first season of this Netflix series, I still love it. Yes, Vincent D'Onofrio's performance as the Kingpin still bothers me as overly twitchy, and the character is not written with enough strength or domination for my liking. Everything else is gold. Unlike the MCU movies or even the network shows, Daredevil was given plenty of room to slowly reveal characters' depth. Seeing Matt Murdock anguish over his desire to punish and even kill men whom he deems as evil is palpable. I particularly enjoyed his several conversations with the local priest. It's great to see a "comic book" movie not shy away from religion as a story element (and I'm agnostic), as it is a very large part of many people's lives. I had wondered, going into this second viewing, if these extended verbal exchanges would drag. Not in the least. On the contrary, they strengthen the show immensely.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) My original review is here.

Since it's release, director Joss Whedon has admitted how tough it was to juggle the many elements at play in Age of Ultron. Even after four viewings, this is very clear. The MCU had heaped a ton of ingredients onto his cooking counter, some of which didn't quite work together. I do still enjoy the movie, on the whole. The basic story is a good one, which brings together several elements in a clever way. I also think that the action scenes, if not quite as consistent as the first film, are entertaining (I still love the Hulk vs. Veronica/Hulk Buster fight). There are really only two things which irk me about the sequel. One is that there were simply too many characters. Any sort of depth or character exploration, outside of Tony Stark's psyche, was left in the dust. The other is a general bugaboo of mine regarding Joss Whedon: often, the man simply can't rein in the snappy dialogue. It's fine and good when you have known brokers in sarcasm like Tony Stark, Black Widow, or Hawkeye firing off one-liners (I can even buy Ultron, who is supposed to be based on Stark's personality). But it feels forced and out of place when usually troubled or stoic characters do the same, even if the lines themselves are amusing. It simply sounds off-key when The Vision, the arms dealer Kang, or Baron Von Strucker are dropping pithy little side comments, especially in the middle of tense action scenes. When such otherwise-grim or literal characters spout off little jokes, it's too easy to see Joss Whedon's fingers on the keyboard.

I still enjoy this movie, but it may end up as the harbinger of the things which can weaken and seriously erode the strength of the MCU. Namely, character overload. More on this below.

Ant-Man (2015) My original review is here. 

This was my second viewing of this one. It's fun, but I feel it received a bit more love than it actually merited, not unlike Guardians of the Galaxy. I do still enjoy this movie's relatively independent spirit. Paul Rudd makes a great Scott Lang, and Luis is still the best comedic sidekick in the entire MCU. There are plenty of great little gags throughout the movie, and the visuals for the micro-verse are fun. The movie does suffer a bit from lack of creativity, in that it follows typical "origin story" pathways and features (yet another) villain who is the "evil, white-collar white man". And Cross isn't nearly as interesting as Obadiah Stane, Alexander Pierce, or Aldridge Killian. I'll still always enjoy this movie, but I'll also always wonder if it wouldn't have been better had the brilliant Edgar Wright not left the project midway through production.

Will this big fellow oversee the the destruction of the MCU as
we know it, literally and figuratively?
State of the MCU After Phase 2

We're now only about 7 months into Marvel's four-year long Phase 3 set of movies and TV shows. It was already a behemoth, and it is only growing more and more. While the massive Phase 2 had a grand total of 73 movies, TV shows, and short films, Phase 3 is likely to have at least twice as many. The potential for overload is hard to ignore.

I am currently unsure of what to expect going forward. Based on season 1 of Daredevil and Phase 3's Jessica Jones, I think that the Netflix shows may be where the real future lies for the MCU to remain lively and relevant. Even the very best movies and network TV shows, like The Winter Soldier and season 2 of Agents of SHIELD, have never completely broken out of the standard superhero story formula. The Netflix shows, however, have been given the freedom to delve into alternative film styles such as noir. With no ratings restrictions and over 11 hours to work with, the 13-episode Netflix season allows for far deeper exploration of more complex motives, characters, and plots. Daredevil and Jessica Jones, as much as I liked them, have just scratched the surface.

My greatest fear is that the MCU may lose the ability to tell creative, fun, self-contained stories in its movies. I cannot imagine how confusing much of Age of Ultron must have been to someone who had not seen several of the preceding MCU movies, so reliant was it on those earlier films for its backstory details. When I see the trailers for the upcoming Captain America: Civil War, with its dozen-plus superhero cast, I fear that any chance of character depth is going to be left in the dust. It is almost at the point where Marvel should cease calling the movies Thor or Captain America, but instead simply number them MCU 14, MCU 15, etc., with a subtitle indicating which character is supposed to be the "primary" one among the dozen-plus superguys and gals who will be in each movie.

Should my biggest concern be realized, I will have to wonder if the MCU will ever have a period when it puts out strong and relatively stand-alone movies such as the best ones in Phase 2. More and more, I doubt it. On top of this, I already detect a dropoff in the quality of the network TV shows. While Agents of SHIELD has actually gotten stronger, the second season of Agent Carter was rather disappointing. Recent news also indicates that an upcoming series has been greenlit for Bobby Morse and Hunter from SHIELD, two of my least favorite characters. I'll give these series an honest shot in the future, but my hopes are not high.

I still assume that a Phase 4 and others will be coming, as the franchise is still raking in obscene amounts of money. However, I feel that the only way the MCU can continue creating strong movies is for them to go through a contraction of sorts, whereby most of the superpowered characters are killed off, allowing a restart of sorts. While the mad Titan Thanos could certainly be a part of something like that, I doubt such an extinction event will happen. This means that the stories and character list will become diluted and convoluted. If this does happen, then I think we fans of the MCU will look back very fondly on Phase 2 as the strongest era in the entire series. I hope Kevin Feige and the other heads of the MCU can prove me wrong. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Terminator Series (Including Genisys)

Terminator Series: An Achronological Overview

I recently watched the latest Terminator movie, Terminator: Genisys. It was the first in the series that I had seen since Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), due to the generally poor reception of the third and fourth films in the franchise. After watching Genisys, however, I felt the urge to take in the whole series, albeit out of the order of their release.

I already know that Terminator is a masterpiece, and the sequel was a wildly entertaining, game-changing sci-fi action movie. I've seen those two movies more times than I can remember, and I know I'll love watching them again. With this in mind, I first went back to the third and fourth movies. Perhaps odd, but arguably appropriate for a series heavily involving time travel.

Let's begin at the end...

Terminator: Genisys (2015)

This was the fifth film in the series. 

Director: Alan Taylor

How does Hollywood keep getting this wrong?

I should state right away that I didn't find Terminator: Genisys to be an outright disaster. It had just enough going for it that I was curious about the resolution. Still, it's difficult to see how several filmmakers, armed with obscenely huge budgets, have now gone into James Cameron's oh-so-fertile science-fiction landscape and failed to create anything remotely as fun, entertaining, or engaging as the original two films.

Genisys actually begins with a decent setup. In the future, with commander John Connor on the cusp of leading humanity to an ultimate victory over Skynet, the machine system sends a Terminator back to 1984 to execute Connors's mother, Sarah. This is, of course, the backstory which leads into the well-known tale of the original Terminator. However, a twist comes when the T-101 (a CGI in-his-prime Arnold Schwarzenegger) is stopped while attempting to steal the clothes off of a trio of punks. Halting the T-101 is a noticeably aged version of himself (the real Arnie). It turns out that this T-101 had been sent back even earlier into the time of Sarah Connors's childhood, in order to protect her against attackers sent by Skynet. The human who was sent back to 1984, Kyle Reece, arrives shortly after the 1984 T-101, and is stunned to find a savvy, already-battle-trained adult Sarah Connor and her Terminator-protector on top of the situation.

This initial twist on the original tale is not a bad one, despite essentially overwriting the classic original story. The Genisys twist sets up an interesting mix of the first two films, whereby Sarah, Kyle, and the protective T-101, whom Sarah calls "Pops," must fend off attacks from the T-1000 and other threats. Unfortunately, things become convoluted at an insane pace. All too quickly, the story packs in multiple Terminators, another time jump to 1997, and even the appearance of the adult John Connor in 1997. Once you start trying to find the logic between all of the time jumps and the causalities behind the time ripples involved, the tale loses its narrative cohesion. Sure, there was a paradox or two in the original movies, but these were easy to overlook in the name of suspending disbelief. In Genisys, however, the writers seemed to be trying to bury us viewers with time-travel jargon and mumbo jumbo, in the hopes that we wouldn't notice the mounting logic problems.

The action itself is standard big-budget Hollywood fare. There are explosions aplenty, car chases, helicopter pursuits, and a mildly interesting underground fight. It borrows/steals from its predecessors much of the time, with a few dashes of originality in terms of visuals and stunts. This would have been more palatable had the characters and dialogue been more engaging, but these elements were flat. Emilia Clarke and Jai Courtney are only decent at best, and they simply don't compare to the performances of Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn. It didn't help that the script featured too many misplaced attempts at levity and awkward attempts at drama which failed to facilitate any chemistry between the leads.

With some better writing and editing, this movie could have been a nice addition to the Terminator canon. As it is, however, it is a mediocre science-fiction action flick on the level of the second and third Matrix movies.

From here, I decided to take two steps back, into the middle of the series...

Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machines (2003)

Director: Jonathan Mostow

A mildly entertaining third entry in the series, with a surprisingly and somehow satisfyingly bleak ending.

Unlike Genisys, Rise of the Machines seeks to maintain the narrative integrity and continuity of the first two films. Moving ahead to 2003, roughly 10 years after the events in Judgment Day, we find John Conner (Nick Stahl) in his early twenties and drifting around the United States. His mother Sarah has died of natural causes, and while the events which took place a decade earlier should mean that humanity is safe from the possible threat of Skynet, John is unable to fully accept it. His nagging dread is realized when a new Terminator, model designation T-X, arrives in 2003, wearing female human skin. This "Terminatrix," as she is called, is actually on a mission to kill both John Connor and his future wife and former high school classmate, Kate Brewster (Claire Danes). Also arriving on the scene is the familiar T-101 (Arnold Schwarzenegger), who has once again been tasked with protecting Connor, as well as Brewster.

 Without the natural menacing look, actress Kristanna Loken
often seemed to spend too much time trying to appear fierce 

by looking out from under her eyebrows.
The rest of the plot has a few interesting turns to it, while others don't hold up under close scrutiny. The ever-present bugaboo of paradoxes is a bit more prevalent in this film that in its predecessors. The T-X Terminatrix features upgrades that at first add fascination - she can take over and control machines; her right arm can morph into various weapons; she has the "liquid metal" malleability of the T-1000 - but they soon bring up unanswerable questions about her tactics, or lack of, in pursuing her quarry. She never becomes nearly as frightening as the original T-101 or the T-1000. It also didn't help that the actress playing the T-X, Kristanna Loken, seemed to be trying a little too hard to look menacing. This may have been the fault of the director, but the fear factor was often ruined.

There are plenty of action scenes in the movie, though I found most of them merely typical for a large-scale Hollywood blockbuster. The acting was solid, though they had to do with a lukewarm script that, like Genisys, tried to shoehorn a few jokes into places where they didn't fit the tone of the scene.

The part which I found oddly redeeming was the ending. Spoiler alert (but hey, the movie came out 12 years ago): they don't save the world. Skynet takes over, and we end with Connor and Brewster locked in a secure underground bunker, waiting for the nukes to inevitably start falling. It's a pretty hardcore downer of an ending, but I actually appreciate the film going in this direction. It speaks to the inevitability of certain predestined horrors, which is very much in keeping with the orignal Terminator.

I then went a step forward, to one of the most critically panned Terminator movies...

Terminator: Salvation (2009)

This was the fourth film in the series.

Director: McG (yes, that's the guy's name)

Observation: films can actually be OK when your expectations have been set at rock-bottom.

Since its release six years ago, I had not heard a single positive recommendation from friends or through critiques of Salvation. This was the main reason that I only just got around to watching it. I must say, though, that I did not find it to be the non-stop onslaught of horrible cinema that I was expecting. It's certainly not a great movie, and I would rank it as the fourth-best in the Terminator series, but I found some redeeming qualities in it.

Salvation begins in 2003, in a prison where inmate Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) is about to be executed for homicide. A contrite and resigned Wright signs a release which will allow the young company, Cyberdyne, to use his body for scientific purposes. Wright is then put to death.

Fast forward to 2018. It is now roughly 15 years after Judgement Day has occurred, and humanity is being hunted to extinction by Skynet's killing machines. A hardened, adult John Connor (Christian Bale) is a charismatic leader in the human resistance movement against Skynet. During a raid on a Skynet base, Connor discovers a room filled with human bodies in various states. After Connor flees from a Skynet response group, A youthful-looking Marcus Wright emerges from the rubble. Wright initially heads towards where his home was in California, but soon learns what has happened to the world while he was supposedly dead. He also soon becomes enmeshed in the lives of Kyle Reese, John Connor, and the entire resistance movement.

Though the CGI is top-quality, the color palette and mood
never expand beyond the drab greys browns evident here.
The weaknesses of the film are obvious. It is overly dark, both aesthetically and tonally, with far too many grating, gravelly voices, dark or drab sets, and scenes taking place at night. The script only has a few moderately memorable lines. Most of the actors oversell the intensity. All of these things, taken together, make it clear why so many people lambasted this movie on its initial release. As a sequel to the first three films, Salvation is a bleak affair.

All the same, I found there to be merits amidst the drab shadows. The primary one is the character Marcus Wright. The mystery behind his resurrection and motivations are interesting plotlines through most of the film, and I found their resolution fairly satisfying. I also found the general story of Skynet's plot to infiltrate and eliminate the human resistance to have more smarts and integrity than either of the time-travel-mashups that we got in the third or fifth films. Maybe more people would have appreciated these elements a bit more had the movie not been shrouded in such an unattractive veneer.

This is a tough one to recommend to anyone except those like me: viewers who stayed away because of all of the negativity surrounding the movie. I think you may find some redeeming qualities that are worth your viewing time. The best idea is to have few to no expectations going into it.

And now for dessert, I go backwards three steps, to the masterpiece that started it all...

The Terminator (1984)

Director: James Cameron

This is the one that not only started it all but was also James Cameron's monster breakthrough. Say what you will about Cameron's overblown sense of self-importance, his first major work as a director and screenwriter is the stuff of aspiring filmmakers' dreams.

Nearly all science-fiction or movie fans know the story. A killer cyborg is sent back to 1984 from a possible future in which machines have been eradicating mankind from the planet after a ubiquitous defense program became self-aware. The cyborg, or Terminator, is on a mission to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), who will give birth to John Connor, the man who will lead humanity to overthrow the army of killer machines in the future. Sent to protect Sarah is Kyle Reese, a soldier in the human resistance whom John Connor sent back to ensure that he would even be born.

The original Terminator holds up quite well. James Cameron, who wrote and directed the movie, had an excellent sense of how to create a film story which went well beyond the few interesting ideas that were its foundation. While it does have roots in science-fiction - robots and time travel - the story creates characters whom we actually care about. The movie very quickly lays out the time travel aspect, and there is intrigue present from the earliest moments. We see the arrival of the Terminator and Reese, but we must wait to get the full story on exactly who they are and why they have traveled back in time to find Sarah Connor. Several elements of horror and suspense are utilized as we see the Terminator coldly execute several people. Terminator may be a "science fiction" movie, but it incorporates and executes more than a few elements of solid film making, regardless of genre.

Schwarzenegger played the iconic title role, but Michael
Biehn's performance as Kyle Reese is one of the best you'll
ever see in any type of action movie. 
In watching the movie this time (my first in many, many years), a few things stood out. One was just how efficient the direction was. With this, his very first feature film, James Cameron showed that he had an amazing sense of exactly what to include and (more importantly) not to include. There is an excellent balance between slow and even humorous moments, which humanize Sarah and Reese to make them very sympathetic, and the tension-filled action sequences. The balance in tone is exceptional. Even more than this, though, I noticed just how skillfully Sarah's development is handled. In the 100-odd minutes of the movie, there is a very organic revelation of her grit and toughness. Thanks to the script and acting of Linda Hamilton, we see a young woman have her soft exterior stripped away to reveal an authentically tough person. This is something that could easily have been botched, but Cameron avoided the many possible pitfalls. I would also be remiss if I didn't mention the great performance of Michael Biehn, who went all-in as the desperate and tortured protector Kyle Reese. He sells the urgency of the story with impressive fire.

There are some moments that are a tad slow, and several scenes which solely rely on the then-cutting edge effects to dazzle the audience. As great as they were in 1984, most of these effects pale in comparison to what movie-goers have seen in the past 20 years. That said, the final action sequences do still have some power left in them, even these 30-plus years later.

The Terminator is still a landmark action movie. It has lost some luster in the 30 years since its release, but it still does things that other, lesser action movies could learn much from.

I'm not totally sure what the tagline
"It's Nothing Personal" actually means
on this movie poster.
Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)

Director: James Cameron

Some may label me a blasphemer for this, but this movie has lost a lot of its magic for me. Certainly not all, but a lot.

By now, the story is well-known. Roughly 10 years after the events of the first film, Sarah Connor's son, John (Edward Furlong), is an untethered rebel. His mother is in a mental institution and he spends his time hacking into ATMs and avoiding his foster parents. He is soon discovered by two Terminators - one, a model T-1000 (Robert Patrick), sent back in time to kill him and the other sent back to protect him, with this latter being the same model (Arnold Schwarzenegger) that tried to execute his mother a decade earlier. John and the Terminator help Sarah escape the mental ward and go on the run from the T-1000. A manic Sarah eventually breaks away to try and kill the man who will eventually design the Skynet program which leads to nuclear holocaust.

For pop science fiction, the plot still holds up fairly well. I actually appreciate some of the very dark themes and aspects raised in such a "Hollywood" movie. There is one particularly grim nuclear holocaust vision that is graphic enough to still give you nightmares. James Cameron also shows off his considerable skills as a technical director in this sequel, just as he has in every movie he's made. It was also fun to go back and once again see an Arnold Schwazenegger at his absolute peak. Though an iconic '80s action star, he really only made a handful of truly exceptional movies, with Judgement Day being one of them.

The then-revolutionary morphing technology still holds up,
but it has long since become a ho-hum standard in movies.
That said, Judgement Day has simply gone the way that most of James Cameron's movie have gone: from monstrous commercial success and pop culture phenomenon to a bit of a relic. Many of the elements that made the movie so fun to watch when I was younger simply do not have the same appeal any more. This movie introduced "morphing" effects, which changed the game of movie visuals forever. At the time, seeing the T-1000 shift from one form to another was well worth the price of admission. Now, though, such effects have long since been outdone (by Cameron himself, in fact), and now they cease to amaze.

Another of the movie's teeth that has dulled in my eyes is its reliance on extended action sequences. Especially during the finale, the action grows rather dull. For nearly 30 minutes, we get car chases and warehouse pursuits which hold very little actual suspense or engagement for me any more.

This all may sound harsh for a movie that set the bar for its blockbuster action kin for years after its release. Unfortunately, I could not help but be a tad bored for several, sometimes long, stretches of Terminator 2. It's a shame, as I was really hoping that this one would hold up as well as the original.

Final Takeaways

The Terminator series, for as massive as it has been for over three decades now, is actually rather mediocre as a whole. One could easily argue that it has done nothing but grow weaker since the original, not unlike many film series. The disappointing thing is that there seems to be plenty of untapped potential for cool movies here; yet it goes unexplored in the name of simply trying to outdo earlier film in the series by simply piling on more of the same elements: time travel, explosions, and the ever-aging Schwarzenegger as that last piece of nostalgia to hedge the filmmakers' bets. At least in these days of constant reboots, we can always hope for a successful revitalization.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Retro Trio: Bridget Jones's Diary (2001); Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011); First Blood (1982)

Bridget Jones's Diary (2001)

Director: Sharon MaGuire

One of the stronger, more accessible rom coms that I've seen, if not exactly a movie that I'll put on my all-time favorites list.

The title character (Renee Zellweger) is a hard-drinking, chain-smoking, unlucky-in-love, 30-something bachelorette who works at a publishing company. She makes a resolution to cut down on her vices and make every effort to find a decent man. Unfortunately, she soon falls for Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant), a handsome, funny, womanizing rogue who is a manager at her company. Bridget engages in a fun, sexually satisfying affair with Cleaver, though she does remain curious about another man on the periphery of her life, Marc Darcy (Colin Firth). Darcy is a much dryer, serious lawyer whom Bridget knows through family friends. Bridget's feelings become even more confused when more details emerge about Cleaver's past friendship with Darcy, and the former's unwillingness to fully commit to Bridget.

This is a more singular rom com, as its protagonist is unusually degenerative. Jones's loneliness is fairly standard fare for the rom com genre, but her humorously chronic attempts to drown her sadness with booze and cigarettes make her much more accessible than similar, more poised and innocent protagonists. She is a nervous type who has "diarrhea of the mouth," which results in her embarrassing herself more than any other person possibly could. It all makes for solid comedy.

The two most appealing aspects of the movie are the acting and the adult nature of it. I can appreciate the foul-mouthed exchanges, mostly between Bridget and Cleaver, which make the characters more enjoyably earthy. The actors are all perfect in their roles, with Hugh Grant especially standing out as the attractively hedonistic and sleazy Cleaver. Colin Firth plays the stuffy Darcy masterfully, and these two polar opposites offer plenty of opportunity for Renee Zellweger to show off her comedy acting chops.

My viewing partner for this one was my wife, who has seen the movie more times that she can count. It was nice to be informed that the movie, just as the source novel, drew from Jane Austen's classic Pride and Prejudice (I suppose Colin Firth playing a character named Darcy should have given it away). I can appreciate such updates, and it gives the tale some welcome intelligence and literary heft.

While the Bridget Jones character may come off as an incompetant clown a little more than her creator, author Helen Fielding, might have liked (my wife assures me that this is the case), it hardly spoils anything in a light-hearted film like this one. This is never going to be a movie that I'll go out of my way to watch, but I'll be happy to put it into the holiday rotation to see every year or two.

Don't lie - you know you enjoy the cuteness.
Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011)

Director: Jennifer Yuh

A fun enough sequel, though not as enjoyable as the original (which I reviewed here).

The tale picks up some time after the first movie. Po (voiced by Jack Black) is now a legitimate kung-fu master, working with the Furious Five, defending locals from evil-doers. Not far away, the exiled son of a powerful family - Shen (Gary Oldman) - plots to return and overthrow the country. Shen also has an obsession with avoiding a prophecy which states that a black and white warrior will utterly defeat him. This is about all there is to the main story, which is far less interesting than the story of Tai Lien in the first movie.

The other story elements include learning much more about Po's past, and it also follows Po's quest to further master kung fu by "embracing inner peace," as his master Shifu puts it. These parts to the story are fine, but the tale isn't quite as engaging as the previous movie. This is the general theme of every aspect of this sequel: decent enough, but a weaker version of the original.

From the dialogue to the visual action, all aspect of this movie are slightly less clever or entertaining versions of the themes and gags set up in the first movie. Plenty of the lines are funny, but not quite as funny. Some of the action is a visual treat, but not as much of a treat as the original, as this movie relies more on overly long fighting sequences. You get the picture.

Unlike the first movie, which was a complete story in and of itself, this second movie clearly had an eye on an assumed third film. Panda 2 plants seeds the for a plot which will obviously bear fruit in the next film (released earlier this year, in fact). This is fine, but it leaves more dangling plot threads by its end, which can make for a slightly less satisfying narrative.

This is still a good series, and I'll check out the third film. I do hope, though, that it can be a little more like the original.

First Blood (1982)

Director: Ted Kotcheff

Somehow, some way, I had never watched First Blood at any point in my meat-eating, suburban-living, red-blooded, all-American Gen-X'er male life. I finally decided to fill in this glaring blank on my dance card of '80s tough guy movies, and it was well worth it.

Based on a short novel of the same name, First Blood follows several brutal days in the post-war life of Vietnam veteran John Rambo. Rambo is a drifter of sorts, and he wanders into a small town in Michigan after finding out that one of his platoon buddies had died from complications of exposure to Agent Orange. In the town, the local police officers try to bully the somewhat ragged-looking Rambo out of town. The quiet veteran, however, civilly refuses. He is then promptly put in jail.

In the jail, while being physically abused, Rambo suffers a severe PTSD flashback and lashes out, badly beating several police officers and escaping into the nearby woods. Over the next few days, the police refuse to back down, hounding Rambo to the point that he accidentally kills one of them in self-defense. The situation escalates to the point that more troops arrive, along with Rambo's former commanding officer, Colonel Troutman. It becomes clear that Rambo was not only a war hero but also one of the fiercest and most capable soldiers he had ever trained. What unfolds is a showdown between an ignorant local law enforcement team and a man who has been trained into a lethal killer but who also suffers from untreated psychological trauma.

It's easy to see why this movie obtained such respected status. Yes, it is a survival story and a case of one-versus-many, which both have a certain macho appeal. On these fronts, the movie still hits its marks. Beyond this, though, the movie taps into some very dark psychological territory that standard action movies were rarely exploring in the early 1980s. Rambo is presented as a tragic figure, rather than simply as the "wrong man to mess with" which so many imitation characters tried to emulate.

Some of of the scenes and sequences are a bit overlong, and a few points are belabored a bit much. Still, this was a really good movie that I wish I had seen long ago. It does further beg the question, too, of what if Sylvester Stallone had managed to keep his narcissism and ego in better check? The guy was in some outstanding movies early in his career, with First Blood being of particular note. If he had aspired a little more towards artistic integrity over fame and cash, he probably could have many, many more excellent movies on his resume, and far fewer movies like Rambo III, Cobra, and Rocky 5.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Idiot Boxing: Daredevil, season 2

I'm starting to worry a bit about the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Not panicked - just worried a bit.

I really liked the first season of Daredevil. It had its issues, to be sure, but on the whole I found it to be a fascinating, skilled, and creative break from the ranks of the previous MCU movies and shows. The first season had the time and inclination to delve deeper into the darker recesses of characters' minds, and it used effective dialogue as much as engaging action to comprise a compelling tale. This sophomore season is, while not bad, a bit of a letdown for me.

This 13-episode season carries out two primary stories. The first is a new wave of massacres taking place in Hell's Kitchen, seemingly by someone who has a deadly serious ax to grind with several organized crime gangs. We come to find out that it is a lone vigilante, Frank Castle (who is soon nicknamed "The Punisher"), who has an insatiable bloodlust for criminals. The other plot line involves a larger scale, more ancient menace which has a mysterious interest in Hell's Kitchen and which was alluded to in the first season. This latter threat brings Matt Murdoch back in touch with an old, dangerous flame from his college days at Colombia - the wealthy and beautiful Elektra Natchios.

The Punisher's story is mostly great, though there is a lull in the middle episodes. While he's out on his killing spree, the tension is palpable. His initial meetings with Daredevil and other characters are packed with energy, either kinetic or emotional. Jon Bernthal is outstanding as the tortured, murderous Frank Castle, who required an impressive range to play convincingly. Once Castle goes on trial, though, the story drags over roughly four of the middle episodes, with minimal progress. Around episode nine, though, things pick back up and remain strong until a somewhat flat ending in the final episode. The Punisher arc in this season was, to me, the very best thing about it. By the second episode, I was itching for Bernthal to get as much screen time as he could, and this desire only strengthened as the series continued.

Bernthal's Punisher was by far the best turn
that any of the three actors who have played
the tortured character has provided.
Outside of Frank Castle's impressive storyline, I found a disappointing number of weak elements and distractions. I had serious problems with Elektra, both in the way she was written and in the way she was portrayed. While I like the notion of having a past lover be a woman who was in touch with Matt's wild, destructive side, I felt that the execution was clumsy. Through all of the flashbacks and the reunion of Matt and Elektra, I never felt that their passion was fully organic. The most natural scenes between them were Matt's very cold reception of her when she first returns (very understandable, considering how they had parted). However, for unclear reasons, Matt's cold and decade-long disgust of Elektra melts with confounding speed. Even though it's rather obvious that she's manipulating him from the beginning, he very quickly becomes a rather dopey, love-struck boy again. I felt that there was potential for him to fall back in love with her, but the writers did a rather ham-fisted job with it that simply made Matt come off as, at best, a bit dumb or, at worst, poorly written.

The overall story arc was compelling. However, there were often little details that nagged at me. Why does Castle need to buy a black market police scanner from a pawn shop when he's obviously skilled enough to steal one from a police cruiser? Why does Matt sometimes not hear or smell common thugs until they're ten feet away from him? (He could smell bad cologne from two flights of stairs down in season 1). It seemed like nearly every episode had one of these little oversights, and they would take me out of the show just a little bit.

One of the great merits of the first season were the fight scenes. Season two provides plenty more, with a few very memorable sequences which stack up well with the very best of the first season. However, it seemed that the creators overdid things just a bit this time around. There are simply more fights, longer fights, and many fights which offer nothing particularly interesting. None are terrible, but I did find myself zoning out during several of the sequences, especially towards the later episodes. I also didn't completely buy actress Elodie Yung as a world-class assassin and combatant. She moves more like a dancer than a hand-to-hand fighter, which is painfully obvious in a show like Daredevil, where nearly every other fighter comes off as fairly authentic.

Karen Page's humanity, and Woll's performance, go a long
way to keeping a lot of otherwise loose aspects of the show
together and moving along a bit more organically.
I found Deborah Ann Woll's performance as Karen Page to be, along with Jon Bernthal's, the best of the entire cast. Paige's storyline is probably the most authentic feeling of the group, and Woll brings it off expertly. I do feel that a major opportunity was missed, though, in that we never see Page bring up her murder of the Kingpin's assistant, Wesley, the previous year. It seemed completely logical that this could serve as a rationale for her otherwise strange connection to Frank Castle, but the writers either didn't realize it, or they were overly subtle with how they incorporated it. So subtle that it wasn't even there.

The second season of Daredevil was by no means "bad". Still, I do find it to fall victim to a slight sophomore slump. This makes the last two MCU shows - the second seasons of both Agent Carter and Daredevil - a lull for the franchise. I'm still fully on board with the MCU, and I'm excited for Civil War and the upcoming Luke Cage  series. However, I am still wondering if we are now seeing the beginning of the end of meeting the consistent high quality of the ongoing chapters.