Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Idiot Boxing: Ash vs Evil Dead, season 1 (2015); Luke Cage, season 1 (2016)

Oh, how very, very long have we waited to see Ash back and
smashing ghouls in the face with the butt of his shotgun?
Far too long, I says.
Ash vs Evil Dead, season 1 (2015)

The comedy horror genre is such an interesting one, in that it is deceptively tough to master. Still, one of its great pioneers, Sam Raimi, has shown us that he can still tap into the magic formula and give us some hilariously violent gore and one-liners with this first season of a show that was a long time in coming.

Ages ago (1987, to be precise), a friend of mine with a truly quirky sense of humor became obsessed with the movie Evil Dead II - an odd flick that had plenty of truly creepy elements to it, but also had a ton of bizarre and comical flourishes. I confess that I really didn't understand my friend's undying devotion, although I did watch the movie with him no fewer than a half dozen times. Clearly, there was something that was compelling about it, even if I couldn't fully grasp what it was. Years later, though, I was able to go back and see just how singularly brilliant writer and director Sam Raimi was, and just how entertaining and unique leading man Bruce Campbell was. They teamed up for the sequel Army of Darkness several years later in 1992, and it was fun if not quite the novel, odd masterpiece that was Evil Dead II. Still, the entire trilogy had inspired a strong cult following - one which constantly asked for more from the dynamic duo of Raimi and Campbell.

Nearly 25 years later, those wishes came true. Last year was the first season of Ash vs. Evil Dead. It picks up roughly 30 years after Evil Dead II (the continuity never addresses the events in Army of Darkness). Ash Williams is living in a trailer home and is essentially a loser in every sense of the word, although you would hardly know it from the swagger that he has. Despite living hand-to-mouth in a broken down single-wide and working as a lowly clerk at a discount retail chain store, he struts about and grins as if he were God's gift to humanity. Especially female humanity. While he hasn't had to battle the forces of evil in nearly three decades, this all changes when he foolishly and accidentally unleashes the Deadites upon the earth once again. He is forced to team up with two of his coworkers - Pablo and Kelly - to take down the ghoulish monsters yet again.

Ash with his new partners in Deadite slaying - Kelly and
Pablo. These two are pretty solid as slightly more grounded
comic relief. They make for a good trio. 
The show hits all of the marks that fans of the films would be looking for. While not every gag hits and not every sequence is noteworthy, there is enough in each episode to keep it all entertaining. And nearly every episode has at least one classic, laugh-out-loud moment. And while much of the plot serves as an excuse to just have Ash and his companions shooting and chopping up Deadites, there is actually a story arc happening. It's certainly not as tight as some of the very best horror or science-fiction out there, but slick, meticulously crafted stories are not what you come to this party for. You tune into Ash vs Evil Dead to see Bruce Campbell trade one-liners and bloody shots with hellish creatures. And that's what the show gives you.

The first season is not on par with Evil Dead II, but it would be unfair to expect it to be. That cult classic can never truly be equalled, even by its own creator Sam Raimi (who is a major part of this new show). Still, Ash vs Evil Dead does a really nice job tapping into a horror vein that we really haven't seen since Army of Darkness. And it certainly does feel good to take another hit from the king, baby.

Luke Cage, season 1 (2016)

Arguably the best Netflix Marvel show yet, which is saying something.

The character Luke Cage was introduced in last year's A.K.A. Jessica Jones, also on Netflix. While Cage played a fairly key role in that series, he was ultimately a secondary character who was in a handful of episodes and ultimately was sidelined during the season's grande finale showdown. He was an intriguing character who begged to have some of the questions about him answered, and Luke Cage does an exceptional job of it.

We last saw Cage recovering from a point-blank shotgun blast in Hell's Kitchen, where he was assisting Jessica Jones in her pursuit of Kilgrave. We now find him a little farther north, in Harlem, where he is laying quite low, working two rather menial jobs as a barbershop janitor and a restaurant dishwasher. Soon, however, he finds himself in the middle of a gang war involving Harlem natives whose cirminal enterprises are deeply entrenched in the drug trade and politics of the region.

This show is easily one of, if not the best, of the four Netflix Marvel show seasons yet (I'll probably need to rewatch the first season of Daredevil before I make that claim, as it was the reigning leader). The tone of the Netflix shows is now abundantly clear - they will take their time and focus on characters far more than the movies can. It was done extremely well with the first seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage does arguably an even better job of it. Cage was shown to be a powerful, intriguing character with depths hinted at during his appearances in Jessica Jones. In his own show, all of those hints are fully realized, as we get a very well-rounded, conflicted character whose reluctance to use his powers comes from a very understandable place. And Cage is wonderfully fleshed out through the quips and charm that he displays when he does let his guard down, not unlike what was shown in Jessica Jones.

As much as the title character, Luke Cage makes the location of Harlem its own character. The show spends plenty of time digging into the extremely rich history of the African-American presence in the area, including its politics, art, sports, and music. Oh, the music. But I'll get to that later. It was nice to finally see a high-quality fantasy action film or show that features a mostly minority cast. Nearly all of the characters are tied to the African-American roots and traditions that are either deep within Harlem itself, or deep within the general experience of being black in the United States. Many of these themes are right out in the open, such as the importance of men's barber shops as safe, comforting places, or finding a workable definition of being a righteous man amidst chaotic conditions. Others are perhaps hinted at, such as Luke Cage wearing a hoodie, which could be seen as a recognition of the Trayvon Martin slaying several years ago. In so many places, Luke Cage looks racial issues squarely in the face, and the show is better for it.

Luke in front of Pop's Barbershop - a very authentic feeling
slice of Harlem, where Cage, Pop, and the locals talk sports,
politics, the neighborhood, or just bust balls.
Of course, it is a Marvel Cinematic Universe show, not a social science documentary. And Luke Cage gets the fun comic book stuff right. Cage's powers of super strength and unbreakable skin might not be the flashiest or most creative, but the writers of the show made entertaining use of his abilities and showing them off. While there are several excellent fights and show-downs, my favorite occurred in episode 3 - "Who's Gonna Take the Weight?" Here, Cage walks right into a heavily fortified Harlem building with nothing more than a grim face and a really bad attitude. While bullets deflect harmlessly off of him and he hurls one thug after another out of his way, the fun is immeasurably enhanced by the background track "Bring the Ruckus" by New York City natives The Wu-Tang Clan. The sequence was, for me, as fun, impressive, and satisfying as the single-take warehouse beatdown sequence in the first season of Daredevil. I've even gone back to rewatch that sequence a few times, and I still love it.

Mentioning the Wu brings up one area of Luke Cage that is head and shoulders above every Marvel film or show done to date - the music. From the opening theme to the closing credit music, Luke Cage features the baddest and most appropriately attitude-laden tunes in the MCU. While many of the jams fall in the genres of hip hop, rap, or modern rhythm and blues, there are more than a few songs that throwback to the great jazz and funk tunes of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Guardians of the Galaxy has a great soundtrack, but it is intentionally out of place with its setting, in ways that are as goofy as they are effective. From the singles to the orignal score, the soundtrack of Luke Cage completely belongs right where it is, and will be hard for other shows to match.

My only complaint about Luke Cage is one that I can level at the other three Netflix Marvel shows - that they haven't yet seemed to completely master the 13-episode season. I do greatly appreciate that the shows, with roughly 11 hours of time to work with, are able to dig deeply into the characters and their environments. Still, all four shows have had moments where things seemed to be dragging just a bit. Luke Cage was not an exception. It's not necessarily that the shows are getting off on tangents or getting repetitive; it is more the case of certain scenes and sequences featuring dialogue or character exchanges that lack the sharp drama or sizzle of the very best parts of the season. Such things tend to stand out if you watch the entire season over the course of a few days.

Obviously, I was impressed by Luke Cage. The Netflix wing of the MCU is clearly in great shape right now, with only one more character to introduce before Cage, Daredevil, Jones, and Iron Fist team up in the Defenders mini-series slated for later next year. I'm excited for it.