The Past Month on TV #67

This month: real-life grief in HIV/AIDS drama It’s a Sin; superhero grief in WandaVision; and “good grief, what have they done to The West Wing?” in a charity special. Plus, more classic Twilight Zone.

It’s a Sin
It's a SinThe latest series from writer Russell T Davies is a story he’s been mulling for a long time — I seem to remember it first being mentioned in his book The Writer’s Tale, which chronicles his final couple of years on Doctor Who, over a decade ago now. It’s had a bumpy ride to the screen, with the pitch being rejected by several networks, and eventually the planned eight episodes being negotiated down to just five. If this were a lesser writer then you’d assume the concept must have some fundamental flaw(s), but perhaps it was just the subject matter that scared so many commissioners: it’s about the emergence of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s, told from the perspective of a gang of mostly-gay twentysomethings who’ll see the disease rip their world to shreds. Not exactly a cheery topic, and one still affected by taboos and ignorance all these decades later. But that’s why this is a story that needed to be told, and here it’s safe in the hands of a master screenwriter.

That matters, because the series is balanced perfectly. You expect this story to be tragic and sad, and it is, but it’s also not some kind of misery-porn. It doesn’t hide from the devastating effects of the virus, but nor is it dwell on them unnecessarily. Nor does it sanctify the victims — they didn’t deserve what happened, but they’re human beings. Some of them deny its existence, even as evidence mounts. Some don’t take the proper precautions. Some are nice and sweet. Some are selfish. They’re human, and that’s the really important thing. Yes, this is a sad drama about young lives cut tragically short, and a condemnation of the cruel way some people (family, friends, colleagues, politicians) chose to handle that. But, more than that, it’s a celebration of those people whose lives were lost. The reason it’s so good, and so worthwhile, is because it never forgets that they weren’t just “people who got sick and died”, but people who lived.

WandaVision  Episodes 5–8
WandaVisionWandaVision had seemed to settle itself into a nice little groove in its first few episodes, each edition spoofing a different era of sitcom with an occasional hint at what was really going on, before episode four came along to blow that up with a raft of revelations about what had been happening outside Wanda’s little fantasy all this time. I was worried how the ensuing episodes would deal with that, as we’d been promised more eras of sitcom spoofery, but now the cat was kinda out of the bag. Well, thankfully it didn’t do the ’90s thing of following an arc-plot-heavy episode with a series of non-arc episodes that act almost as if the big developments didn’t happen. Instead, we got what I thought was a pretty nice balance between continued era-specific sitcom emulation and the exploration of what was actually going on. The latter meant sacrificing the mystery and some of the strangeness that helped those first few episodes feel so unlike anything the MCU has attempted before, but in its place we got the comforting familiarity of mystery box-style plotting. It’s certainly not as special, but it is engaging in its own way, and led to some nice surprises (Pietro) and unsurprising inevitable reveals (it was Agatha all along!)

Now, the stage is set for the finale. Many people have expressed surprise that the show will be able to wrap everything up in a single episode. We’ll see, but I have three thoughts on that. One, don’t discount the MCU’s ability to focus hard on plot and therefore cram an awful lot into a relatively short space of time. Two, there might be less to wrap up than we think — a lot of the pervading mystery is thanks to multitudinous fan theories, and the show has already suggested it might not be being as complex as some think. And three, we know Wanda will be a major part of Doctor Strange 2, so don’t write off the idea that this series will actually leave a lot open-ended for that movie to pick up on. It would be a shame if it did that too much, because it would render the whole series as little more than a backstory-expanding prequel to the movie, but I don’t for a second believe the finale will tie everything up in a neat bow only for Wanda to return afresh in Doctor Strange — the two will surely be connected. Only a few days until we get our first idea of how…

A West Wing Special  to Benefit When We All Vote
A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All VoteIt’s been a very long time since I watched any of The West Wing, and I never saw it in full, but I always meant to go back and watch the whole thing properly. I thought watching this one-off charity reunion thingy might ignite my interest in finally doing that. And, indeed, this did make me want to go back and rectify that — by, ironically, clearly not being as good as the show used to be.

I don’t know if this actually aired in the UK in the end, because it’s very much focused on getting Americans to vote in last November’s election. To achieve that, the original cast of The West Wing reunited to reenact a season three episode of the show, Hartsfield’s Landing, which is all about voting and democracy and stuff. The fact it was made in 2020 means it had to deal with COVID protocols, although that doesn’t really factor in the final result (some behind-the-scenes clips are thrown in to reassure us that they observed all the stuff they should observe) — I presume that performing it in an empty theatre with sparse props and scenery is more to do with evoking that “this is a one-off for charity” thing than a pandemic necessity.

Anyway, as for what I was alluding to in my opening paragraph, the direction and staging of this production are nicely done, but I think you can feel that the cast are no longer on well-practised form to deliver the snappy dialogue as it’s meant to be done, and some of the original episode’s B-plots struggle in this setting by being parts of arcs that were never meant to stand alone like this. Of course, the entire thing is really just an excuse on which to hang voting PSAs, which are delivered by some celeb cameos that are kinda fun… even if the entire point is (a) limited to the US, and (b) now expired. Though it does make for a surprisingly condensed and sad reminder of how the US has, despite its unwavering national self-belief, consistently failed to actually be an exemplar of how free and fair democratic elections should work.

More of  The Twilight Zone
This week has brought news that the Jordan Peele revival of Twilight Zone (the launch of which first provoked my visits to the original series back in March 2019) has been cancelled after two seasons. I haven’t started that version yet (I’ve been watching these ones!), but it seems a shame — it’s such an iconic show, you feel it should do well in any era. But we’re spoilt for choice with TV nowadays, and I don’t recall any real chatter around the release of season two, so this cancellation is hardly surprising.

What You NeedThat news aside, let’s return our gaze to the 1959–64 iteration of the programme. Having already reviewed many of the best and worst episodes of that original run, I’m now covering episodes that happened to pique my interest. First up this month, What You Need, which jumps straight onto my list of the series’ best episodes. It’s the story of a peddler who can provide people with the one small item that will be of invaluable use to them shortly, and the punter who wants to exploit this power. The episode has a nice balance of sweet whimsy and darkness; the length is perfectly paced for the half-hour; and, although it’s not got one of Twilight Zone‘s famous massive twists, the end is fitting and in-keeping. It’s nicely directed too, particularly the scene where the punter confronts the salesman in his apartment. An excellent episode that deserves to be better regarded.

Next is an episode that some do hold in high esteem, The Night of the Meek, which is effectively a Twilight Zone Christmas special — it originally aired on 23rd December 1960, and it certainly plays up to its airdate. It’s about a drunken department store Santa, adorned in a grubby costume and matted beard, who can’t even show up for work on time, but who nonetheless has more Christmas spirit at heart than any of the sober, responsible people he encounters. It’s a little bit twee and cheesy, but also kinda charming in that “only at Christmas” way. It’s a shame it was one of the half-dozen episodes shot on videotape, because it looks absolutely terrible and that emphasises the tackiness. If it looked slicker, it might come across a bit classier, and then it might earn the “you’ll want to watch it every Christmas” accolade that I feel should be the ultimate goal of any Christmas special or movie.

Person or Persons Unknown has a good setup: a man awakens after a drunken night out to discover no one remembers him and there’s no evidence he ever existed. It’s the kind of existential psychological horror that’s the fuel for many a good TZ tale, and it does play well for a while, but writer Charles Beaumont doesn’t have a proper ending to offer us, resorting to that most clichéd of cop-outs, “it was all a dream”. It’s a shame, but not exactly a surprise: the episode offers no clues about where it might be going or why this might be happening, so you begin to think Beaumont either has something very clever hidden up his sleeve or the reveal is going to be a tacked-on disappointment. Sadly, it’s the latter.

I Sing the Body ElectricFamed sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury’s only formal contribution to the series, I Sing the Body Electric, is another case of a great premise writing cheques the rest of the episode can’t cash. Here, rather than running out of steam, the places it takes us to are morally questionable and raise more questions than they answer. The plot is almost like a sci-fi twist on Mary Poppins: a widowed father is struggling to bring up his three kids, so they get a robot grandma, but one of the daughters doesn’t like her. It’s eventually revealed that the daughter’s distrust stems from the belief that her dead mother “ran away” and she thinks robot-granny will do the same — but it’s okay, because granny’s a robot and can live forever. Hurrah! Maybe your mileage will differ, but the idea that mothers who die have run away from their kids, or that this grief is best handled by giving the kid a parental figure who will never die, all seems a bit distasteful. And that’s before we get to the ending, where we learn that RoboGran’s consciousness will gather with others of her kind so they can share what they’ve learned. It’s spun as if this is somehow a good thing, but to me it sounds like a prequel to The Matrix

That good ol’ Twilight Zone staple of a man confused by his predicament arises again in Judgment Night, set aboard a passenger ship crossing the Atlantic during World War II. Maybe it’s just a coincidence of the visual style of 1960s US TV, but the way it’s shot feels very in-keeping with all those ’40s movies set on passenger ships, which helps make its setting feel authentic — if this had been made as a film in the ’40s, it would look exactly the same. Everyone aboard is concerned they’ll be sunk by a U-boat, with our protagonist particularly het up about the idea. Of course, we eventually learn why. The twist isn’t hugely surprising — it’s the kind of thing you expect from TZ and so can predict — but, like I’m finding of many episodes in this middle-ground between the series’ best and worst episodes, it’s a solid piece of work.

Also watched…
  • Dial M for Middlesbrough — The third in Gold’s annual series of comedy murder mysteries (after 2017’s Murder on the Blackpool Express and 2018’s Death on the Tyne) aired at Christmas 2019, but I’ve only just dug it out from the depths of the DVR. I thought it was the best one yet. It’s a kind of magnificent silliness, from the first murder (which involves impalement by a swing ball pole punctuated by a perfectly-chosen pop song on the soundtrack) to outlandish plot twists (a hidden Chicago hitman) to Jason Donovan chewing up all the scenery as a former love interest for one of our heroes (complete with flashbacks to 1999 that look ever so ’80s. I guess it takes pop culture a long time to make it up north…) I presume they had to sit out 2020 because of the pandemic, but I’d welcome another outing this Christmas, please.
  • For All Mankind Season 1 Episode 1 — Finally made a start on this Apple TV+ series (which is currently releasing its second season). Season 1 review next month.

    Next month… I’m gonna review For All Mankind — didja not just read that bit? Also the WandaVision finale, plus more of “More of The Twilight Zone”.

  • The Past Month on TV #66

    After it had to sit out 2020 entirely (who knows why that happened?!), the Marvel Cinematic Universe is back — but now on TV! *gasp*

    Also this month: the continuation of another film-turned-television franchise in Cobra Kai; the examination of film by television in new episodes of Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema; and television that has nothing much to do with film in Staged series 2 and more classic episodes of The Twilight Zone.

    WandaVision  Episodes 1-4
    WandaVisionWandaVision isn’t the first television series set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (in fact, it’s the thirteenth); nor is it the first to feature characters and actors from the movies (that’s been the case in at least two others, off the top of my head); but it is the first to be produced by the same division that makes the movies, so it’s set to be a lot more important (read: not totally ignored) going forward. Indeed, it’s already been reported that the events of this series tie directly into the storylines of the next Spider-Man 3 and Doctor Strange 2, at least.

    So it’s a little surprising, then, that this marks such a departure from the regular style and feel of Marvel’s films; much more so than any of their previous TV series did. The setup is that somehow Wanda Maximoff, aka Scarlet Witch, and her robot lover Vision, who died, are living in a world modelled after classic TV sitcoms, and they’re perfectly unaware that there’s anything weird about this. The show emulates these old TV formats down to a tee — it’s not simply that they’ve cropped it to 4:3 and desaturated it to black-and-white, but it’s the camera angles, the acting styles, the set and costume design, the laughter track… The whole vibe of ’60s and ’70s sitcoms is neatly evoked, and the cast are clearly having a ball playing in a different era, with stars Elisabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany particularly up to the task. Plus, the fact this is a nine-episode series, rather than another two-hour action-adventure blockbuster, also allows the show to indulge in old-fashioned standalone-episode storylines, so that each episode feels like a self-contained unit of entertainment, rather than just part of a long movie cut into nine segments

    But, of course, something fishy is going on, and when that begins to break through the show cleverly subverts its own format: when a guest starts unexpectedly choking at a dinner party, Wanda urges Vision to use his powers to save him, and the directorial choices suddenly become much more modern, briefly breaking the spell for us as much as the characters, but without doing anything obvious like switching to colour or widescreen. There are increasing flashes of this Twilight Zone-y, Twin Peaks-y, Stepford Wives-y oddness in future episodes, I guess to reassure regular MCU viewers that this is all going somewhere, rather than just being a bit of fluff.

    And then we reach episode 4 (spoilers follow). I think we all expected this — i.e. an episode set ‘outside’ that explained (some of) what was going on — to come along at some point. It had to, really. But I thought it would be teased and teased, as it was in the first three episodes, as the show gradually moved through more eras of sitcoms, until eventually we’d start getting to real answers around maybe episode 7 or 8. It’s a very fan pleasing episode — as well as some answers, there’s also a host of roles for minor characters familiar from other MCU outings — but it does slightly concern me for the next five episodes. We know the show is heading back into Wanda’s world, because they’ve promised spoofs of sitcoms from the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s, but surely it can’t expect to go back to a “sitcom of the week” format and that be sufficient? Now that they’ve opened up the outside, they can’t expect us to just watch Wanda cosplay different eras of sitcom history while learning nothing more about the bigger situation, can they? We’ll have to tune in next week to find out…

    Staged  Series 2
    Staged series 2The David Tennant- and Michael Sheen-starring (or is that Michael Sheen- and David Tennant-starring?) filmed-over-Zoom sitcom about lockdown life was a hit during one or other of the 2020 lockdowns, so here it is again — just in time for the 2021 lockdown, as things turned out. The second series is very much a follow-up — a sequel, if you will — rather than merely “more episodes of the same”. In fact, it’s a meta-sequel: the first series exists as a fictional project in the world of the sequel. This isn’t a continuation of the storyline(s) we watched in the first series; it’s a follow-on from the fact the first series was a success. Got that? The title card sometimes calls the series Staged², and one feels that’s more than just a typographical play on Staged 2.

    That said, what we get in practice is more of the same: actors and creatives bickering about a project over video calls. But this time, rather than a play David and Michael are lined up to star in, it’s a Hollywood remake of Staged that won’t star them. Gasp! Cue a parade of famous-face guest stars as potential new cast members. No spoilers here, because the “oh look, it’s him/her” factor is part of the fun, just as it was in the first series; although, frankly, none of this series’ lot (and there are quite a lot) can pull off the same element of surprise as series one’s biggest names. However, this time the celebrity cameos dominate, with David and Michael spending most of the middle episodes meeting people who might replace them. Even bingeing the series over a couple of days, the plot feels spread thin, with very little actually happening to sustain the two hours (yes, across eight episodes it runs only two hours). The subplots that helped fill out series one (Michael’s neighbour; Georgia’s novel; in the extended cut, Lucy’s relationship; and so on) are gone, with nothing significant in their place. There is a sporadic subplot about Georgia, Anna, and Lucy prepping a charity sketch, which makes for some welcome interludes, but that’s only two or three scenes across the whole series.

    And yet, ironically, the show tends to be most fun when nothing happens at all, and we’re left with David and Michael chatting to each other. When they’re separated, having different one-on-ones, it’s enjoyable to discover the foibles of another big-name guest star, but the “huh, it’s Person X” element wears off quickly and we want to go back to our leads hanging out. Fortunately, the last two episodes ride in to save the day, first with probably the best pair of guest stars of the series, then with a quite touching finale that simply abandons all the remake schtick to just be about David and Michael’s friendship as lockdown comes to an end. It’s a sweet, touching farewell to a show that I would guess has now run its course, but was a tonic while it lasted.

    Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema  Series 3
    Secrets of Cinema: Cult MoviesA trio of new editions of the critic’s explanation of cinematic genres, which play like the best Film Studies lectures you could imagine. Each explores and explains its chosen subject in depth, often spinning out into tangential and related branches of film history — see the episode on pop music movies, for example, which is primarily concerned with movies about pop stars or musicals starring pop stars, but takes a moment to explore the phenomenon of pop stars as proper actors, such as David Bowie’s secondary career. It’s like Kermode and his writers (which include the insanely knowledgeable Kim Newman) can’t help themselves: there’s so much interesting stuff to talk about, so many connections and parallels, and they’re going to squeeze as much of it in as possible. Cited examples are copious and wide-ranging — if an episode is about a subject you’re interested in, be prepared to see your watch list grow. The best of this trilogy is the third, on cult movies; a genre, as Kermode explains, that is defined not by filmmakers but by audiences. It’s also a particularly wide-ranging field, but one whose contents engender genuine love — what makes them cult movies, after all, is that someone loves them. Kermode helps us to understand why.

    Cobra Kai  Season 2
    Cobra Kai season 2The third season of this Karate Kid TV spinoff/continuation debuted at the start of the month, but I’ve been pacing myself: it’s a really good show and I didn’t want to just burn through it. While I thought season two lacked the moreishness I experienced during season one, I attribute that partly to its quality not coming as a surprise. Also, not tasked with having to set up the whole premise of the show, it can dig a little deeper into what’s already there. That includes more references to the movies. The first is remembered as an ’80s classic; the sequels as an old-fashioned case of diminishing returns — in that situation, many modern revivals choose to ignore the less-favoured follow-ups. Not so Cobra Kai, which this season explicitly references and flashes back to Karate Kid 3 on several occasions. Part of the series’ strength is fleshing out and making real some of the “kids’ movie” logic of the originals, and this season takes on a particularly tough target: the former sensei of Cobra Kai, John Kreese. He’s a bit of an “evil for evil’s sake” villain in the movies, but the series works to add some explanation for that, and even asks if it’s possible that he could be rehabilitated and redeemed, much as former bully Johnny Lawrence has been (or, you might say, is in the process of being).

    The series isn’t just stuck in the past, continuing the rivalries between the high-school-aged students of Cobra Kai and competing Miyagi-Do dojo, both on the karate, er, mat (is that what it’s really called?) and in the romantic realm. I suppose it gives the show a “something for everyone” angle, with both teen melodrama and the reflectiveness of its older characters (one of the season’s best episodes sees Johnny catch up with his old gang from school, one of whom is dying from cancer). All of which builds to a stunning climax: as the kids return to school after the summer break, the opposing factions end up in a karate battle that sprawls through the halls and stairways of the school, fellow students watching and egging them on. It takes up half the episode, including the best hallway fight oner since Daredevil — yes, such lofty comparisons are merited. But, as parents always say, “if you keep doing that, one of you’s going to get hurt”, and so of course it ends in (various kinds of) tragedy. What will happen next?! Oh, season three is already calling to me…

    The Twilight Zone
    The Twilight Zone: SteelSo far on my journey through the original 1959–64 series of The Twilight Zone, I’ve covered ten selections of the best episodes and three of the worst, as chosen by various critics. With 85 episodes still to go, I’m leaving the opinions of others behind (for the time being) to check out some episodes that caught my attention for one reason or another — not because they’re acclaimed as good or derided as bad, but something about the premise grabbed me while I was perusing all those various rankings.

    First up, The Bard, in which an enthusiastic wannabe TV writer uses a magic spell to bring Shakespeare back to life, and persuades the Bard to be his ghostwriter. Serling uses his years of experience to make this a satire of the TV industry, but it’s a pretty mild one — probably due to a mix of the era (when I guess the general public wouldn’t have had too much of an idea about the behind-the-scenes of TV) and the fact Serling still had to work in the industry. Also, it was apparently written in a hurry, and it shows: there are some good lines and moments, but various things don’t pay off or go anywhere. Plus, even the story angle is slightly misjudged: surely the gag here is that Shakespeare’s writing appraised by modern TV execs would be a flop; that TV execs would reject the “greatest writer of all time”. Well, at least we get to see Shakespeare punch a pretentious Method actor (played by a young Burt Reynolds), so there’s that.

    Based on the same Richard Matheson short story that later inspired Hugh Jackman CGI-fest Real Steel, Steel is set in the future year 1974 (remember, this was made in 1964), when boxing has been outlawed and replaced by robot boxing. The episode centres on one bout, between our heroes’ knackered old B2 robot and a more modern B7, against which the B2 doesn’t stand much chance, despite the hopes of its owner, played by Lee Marvin. I’ve not read the original story, but that’s a broadly similar plot to the film; except here things go in a more Twilight Zone direction: when the B2 breaks down entirely, Marvin decides to enter the ring pretending to be it. The ending tries to spin what occurs as some kind of moral about mankind’s tenacity and optimism, but that feels like a bit of a stretch — the remake reimagining the concept as sports/action entertainment is actually a better use of the concept.

    The Twilight Zone: The Old Man in the CaveAn altogether different vision of 1974 is presented in The Old Man in the Cave. This time, it’s a post-apocalyptic world after “the bomb” was dropped, and what’s left of humanity makes do as it can in the remnants of the old world. In particular, one town has survived by following the guidance of an old man who lives in a nearby cave, who seems to know where to plant food, what tinned goods are safe to eat, what the weather will bring, and so on. When a militia turns up (led by James Coburn) planning to bring order to the region, the townsfolk are faced with the choice of continuing to listen to the old man or side with the militia’s view that he’s actually an oppressor and they’re a lot nicer. It turns into a neat little sci-fi fable — the finale says it’s about the error of faithlessness, but I’m more inclined to say it’s about trust in experts vs selfishness and greed. The townsfolk have followed this expert’s guidance for a decade and it’s kept them alive, but that life hasn’t been easy or fun, so they’re tempted by the fantasy sold by the newcomers: that you can have whatever you want; the expert is keeping you down for no reason. Naturally, it can only pan out one way. It’s a story whose moral seems only more pertinent today.

    The Rip Van Winkle Caper also catapults us into the future, as a gang of gold thieves cryogenically freeze themselves to wake up 100 years after their crime, when their loot won’t be ‘hot’ and, as a bonus, will have benefited from 100 years of inflation. But crime doesn’t pay, even in the Twilight Zone — doubly so in this episode, where the crooks bring about their own destruction even before we reach the episode’s ironic twist. As a sci-fi lesson in where greed gets you (nowhere), it’s not the series’ greatest parable, but it’s not bad.

    The Twilight Zone: A Kind of a StopwatchThe same could be said of A Kind of a Stopwatch, which takes on a perennial “what if”: what if you could freeze time? It wasn’t an original idea even when this episode was made in 1964, with Serling once saying he received dozens of pitches a year along those lines. He didn’t think any of them had an original enough take on the concept to be worth adapting, until this one. Frankly, I’m not sure what’s so special about it. That’s not to say it’s bad — it’s a reasonably well handled version, although it falls victim to the series’ regular bad habit of having the main character take much longer than the audience to understand the rules of the situation. But the episode’s real flaw comes at the end, when the punishment doesn’t fit the crime: the main character’s fate is not an ironic twist especially suited to him. It’s that which stops Stopwatch from reaching TZ’s true heights; that leaves it a solid “good” episode when it could possibly have been a great one.

    Things to Catch Up On
    It's a SinThis month, I have mostly been missing It’s a Sin, Russell T Davies’s new drama about a group of friends coming of age amidst the emergence of AIDS in the ’80s. It’s only a couple of episodes in on Channel 4, but the whole five-part series is already available via All 4 (FYI, it’s out in the US on HBO Max in mid-February). I intend to binge the whole thing and review it next month.

    Next month… more WandaVision, more Twilight Zone, plus whatever else the TV Gods still have left in the pre-pandemic tank and/or have managed to produce during the various lockdowns.

    The Past Month on TV #35

    In this month’s TV review: wah gwaan in Luke Cage season two, and “what’s going on?!” in Westworld’s finale.

    Luke Cage  Season 2
    Luke Cage season 2The ninth season of the MCU on Netflix takes us back to Harlem for the continuing adventures of the eponymous bulletproof black man. It’s hard to imagine a more timely superhero for America (maybe if he was an immigrant too), not that the series’ is actually all that concerned with such issues, aside from passing nods and references. Instead, it’s more of a gangster crime drama: the still-standing season one villains, underworld power couple Mariah and Shades, intend to go legit by selling their illegal gun business, using the profits to invest in social projects for Mariah’s beloved Harlem. Standing in their way is Bushmaster, a superpowered patois-speaking Jamaican gang leader, who has a long-held grudge against Mariah’s family — and he’s come for retribution.

    This focus on the conflicts between the villains has led some critics to reckon that Luke Cage has been sidelined in his own show. That’s true to an extent: because we’re privy to Mariah, Shades, and Bushmaster cooking up and executing their separate schemes, Luke is left to kind of wander around, trying to figure out stuff we already know. At the very least, the series is as interested in its villains as in its heroes — I reckon if you totted it up, Luke and Marian’s screentime would be pretty comparable. On the bright side, this is a very character-driven season — it’s as concerned with who these people are and how they’re changed by events, rather than just the mechanics of the plot — and Luke is certainly no exception. For one, his estranged father is in town — a superbly nuanced turn from the late Reg E. Carney (who the season is dedicated to, appropriately), which lends a different perspective again.

    Plus, picking up and running with a theme from the first season, Luke is now famous as “Harlem’s hero”, but this is going to his head a bit, negatively affecting his relationship with Claire. The series does a good job of reflecting the celebrity status of superheroes, something the other Marvel films and series haven’t really touched on. If these events were even vaguely real, there’s no way Luke Cage could hang out in Harlem without being noticed. So now there’s an app to track his whereabouts, merchandise, sponsorship offers, his actions make headlines, and wealthy fans are willing to pay for him to make personal appearances. Luke espouses an ambivalent relationship to all this: he’d rather it wasn’t happening, but it does have its uses — and those prove seductive.

    Rulers of HarlemMike Colter remains a likeable lead, but, again, it’s a villain who steals the show: as Mariah, the brilliant Alfre Woodard is perhaps the best thing about the whole series. Her performance is consistently fantastic, selling every twist and turn of character the writers throw at her. The season is as much about what events do to her as it is about Luke. She isn’t entirely alone, though: there are plenty of great performances, and scenes to showcase them, throughout the season. Occasionally there are some really bloody terrible ones though, like the time detective Misty Knight and her captain argue loudly about a shared secret while they’re in a room full of other cops. Is that bad writing, bad acting, bad direction, or all of the above?

    And sometimes the good stuff is spread a bit thin. There are points, especially midseason, where it feels so goddamn slow. Or maybe not slow, but long. Episodes seem to just keep going. One is called On and On, like some kind of joke at our expense. This is the case with so many of these streaming shows, though — most of them need more plot and/or tighter storytelling. I guess part of the problem is the 13-episode diktat, which presumably the showrunners have no say over. It’d be better if they could make the season the length it needed to be, rather than spin wheels to make it last as long as it has to. That said, most Luke Cage episodes use the full hour “time slot”, and a couple run over it, so if maybe they’ve kind of reclaimed the padding…

    Talking of other shows, the last time we saw Luke Cage in Luke Cage he was headed off to jail, but he starts this season free as a bird. Oh, and another major character is missing an arm. MCU fans will know that, since the last season, The Defenders happened, in which we saw these major changes to these characters’ status quo. There are vague nods at explaining some of that for anyone who skipped the team-up miniseries, but, really, it assumes you’ve watched it; and that ‘issue’ crops up again later in the season, with a couple of guest appearances by characters from Iron Fist. If you’re not interested in any of the other Marvel/Netflix series and don’t want to invest eight hours to find out a couple of linking story points (because The Defenders’ main plot has nothing to do with Luke Cage’s storylines), then maybe you need to read a plot summary on Wikipedia or something.

    Heroes for hireThe flip side to all that is that this interconnectedness will perhaps be comic book fans’ favourite thing about the show — the way it casually references other series, or suddenly brings their characters in for a guest spot, is just like how comic books operate. It’s pretty constant too: barely an episode goes by without a significant reference to or cameo appearance by someone from another Marvel/Netflix show; and these aren’t all mere Easter eggs, but sometimes quite important or vital pieces of plot or character development.

    For all its variability, Luke Cage finds its groove as the season goes on, and the final few episodes feel like an improvement (though I’d still contend they’re longer than they need to be). It all builds to a finale that feels almost low-key — I mean, there’s war on the streets and a lot of minor characters die, but that’s almost incidental, because it’s all about the characters, their relationships to each other, and how those find (or fail to find) closure. No spoilers, but it ends in a really intriguing place for season three. That’s not been officially commissioned yet, but surely it’s inevitable. It’ll be interesting to see where they take things next.

    Westworld  Season 2 Episodes 8-10
    Riding into the sunset (metaphorically)And so Westworld’s sophomore run rides into the sunset, and I think it’s left behind more questions than answers.

    When the show’s first season finally came to expose its secrets, there was a lot of oohing and ahhing — the twists and reveals, whether you’d guessed them or not, retroactively made a lot of sense, and suggested a good deal of cleverness on the part of the writers. Season two’s finale, on the other hand, seems to have been met with a collective “…huh?” Even plenty of people who enjoyed it confess to not understanding everything that was going on, while others have just given up at this point.

    Personally, I’m somewhere in between. There’s a lot to like and admire about the closing hours of season two, not least the production values: the show looks fantastic, and the acting is top notch. But I won’t dismiss the argument that the writers have disappeared up their collective arse, because there’s a lot of tricksiness and jiggery-pokery going on here that is sometimes hard to unravel — a stark contrast to the end of season one, I think, which managed to make the games it had been playing clear. Perhaps in their bid to outwit Reddit users, Westworld’s second season seems to have been jumping through hoops merely to be cleverer than its viewers, and I’m not sure that’s paid off.

    Dark DoloresExhibit A is the “Hale was Dolores all along” revelation. It’s a neat twist, almost up to season one levels, were it not undermined by the season’s own structure: Hale hasn’t been Dolores all along, and the muddled timelines make it hard to recall how many scenes we’ve had with “Halelores” (as the writers apparently dubbed her). In fact, one of the ways they hid her in plain sight was to limit her screen time: apparently she only popped up in episodes three and seven. Those scenes are littered with subtle clues to her identity, however, though I guess the Redditors missed them — probably because they couldn’t keep track of which timeline we were in either.

    There’s so much else going on here that I don’t even know which bits to pick out. I guess that’s part of the problem: with so many conclusions saved up until the finale and then all stuffed in at once, there’s just too much to digest and process in one almighty hit. One of my long-held suspicions has definitely been confirmed though: despite the plot of the series’ movie inspiration, co-creator Jonathan Nolan isn’t really interested in making a thriller about a robot rebellion at a technologically-advanced theme park, but instead has set out to make Person of Interest 2.0, for good or ill. That’s only going to become more apparent next season, I think, which is set to leave the titular park behind entirely. It’ll be interesting to see how many viewers it takes along with it…

    Things to Catch Up On
    Preacher season 3This month, I have mostly been missing Preacher’s third season, which started this week. Well, I only watched the first two episodes of season two in the end, so I’m very far behind. There’s also another Marvel TV series, Cloak & Dagger (which is passingly referenced in Luke Cage, apparently). That’s releasing new episodes weekly (on Amazon Prime this side of the pond). So many of these weekly shows I now wait to be complete before I binge them, but then I don’t get round to it (cf. Star Trek: Discovery, Black Lightning, etc). Finally, I happened to spot there had been a French sci-fi series called Missions on BBC Four, just before it disappeared from iPlayer, so now I’ve got all of that downloaded too.

    Next month… you know, I have no idea. I know it’s the summer, but there must be something coming up? Maybe I’ll finally take the chance to dig into my massive backlog.

    Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

    2015 #130
    Joss Whedon | 141 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Avengers: Age of UltronIt feels kind of pointless reviewing Avengers: Age of Ultron, the written-and-directed-by Joss Whedon (and, infamously, reshaped-in-the-edit-by committee) follow-up to 2012’s “third most successful film of all time” mega-hit The Avengers Marvel’s The Avengers Avengers Assemble Marvel Avengers Assemble. In terms of consumer advice, you’re not going to watch this sequel without having seen the first, and therefore “more of the same (more or less)” will suffice for a review. In terms of a more analytical mindset… well, what is there to analyse, really? I’m not sure this movie has anything to say. “Of course it doesn’t, it’s a blockbuster,” you might counter, which I think is unfair to blockbusters. Not to this one, though. Nonetheless, I have a few thoughts I shall share regardless.

    Firstly: Marvel’s initially-stated goal of keeping each of their film series separate enough that you don’t need to watch them all has clearly gone out the window by this point. Okay, you really needed a fair bit of knowledge from The First Avenger and Thor to fully understand Avengers Assemble (indeed, as I noted at the time, that first team-up movie is practically Thor 2), but I reckon you could get by without. In between, things have got worse: jumping from any of the pre-Avengers films to their post-Avengers sequel without viewing the team-up movie renders them semi-nonsensical, and now swathes of Age of Ultron make little sense without at least having seen Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which fundamentally shifted the status quo of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

    That’s not all, though, because Age of Ultron is also concerned with setting up the future. Far from being self-contained, there’s heavy-handed set-up for Avengers 2.5: Civil War Captain America: Civil War, Thor: Ragnarok, and the two-part Avengers: Infinity War. Titular threatEven though the first half of that is still three years away, we’re still very much on the road to it. Heck, we have been practically since the MCU began, thanks to those frickin’ stones (if you don’t know already, don’t expect me to explain it to you), but now it’s overt as well as laid in fan-friendly easter eggs. The titular threat may rise and be put down within the confines of Age of Ultron’s near-two-and-a-half-hour running time, but no such kindness is afforded to the myriad subplots.

    Said threat is Ultron, a sentient robot born of Tony Stark’s work, who seeks to make the world a better place by obliterating humanity. As played by James Spader, it seems like Whedon has created a villain in his own image. Oh sure, every character speaks a little bit Whedon-y, but Ultron’s speech pattern, syntax, tone, and sense of humour is often reminiscent of how Whedon himself sounds in interviews; and if you told me Spader was doing a Joss Whedon impression for the voice, I’d believe you. Considering the well-publicised behind-the-scenes wrangles the film went through, especially in post-production, it does make you wonder how conscious it was — Whedon casting himself as a villain with good intentions who’d like to destroy the Avengers. Something like that, anyway.

    A behind-the-scenes story Marvel Studios are more keen to emphasise is how they did a lot of real-world-related stunts for real, like in the Seoul bike/truck/Quinjet chase, for instance (you know, the one where Black Widow is on the bike in the film but controversially not in the toy because of the “no girl toys!” rule). Behind-the-scenes features on the film’s Blu-ray detail the extent they want to in closing down real locations, performing dangerous or hard-to-achieve stunts, and so on and so forth. You have to wonder why they bothered, because there’s so much CGI all over the placeNo one wants to play with Scarlett Johansson (not just obvious stuff like the Hulk, but digital set extensions, fake location work, even modifying Stark’s normal Audi on a normal road because it was a future model that wasn’t physically built when filming) that stuff they genuinely did for real looks computer generated too. All that time, all that effort, all that epic logistical nightmare stuff like shutting down a capital city’s major roads for several days… and everyone’s going to assume some tech guys did it in an office, because that’s what it looks like. If you’re going to go to so much trouble to do it for real, make sure it still looks real by the time you get to the final cut. I’ll give you one specific example: Black Widow weaving through traffic on a motorbike in Seoul. I thought it was one of the film’s less-polished effects shots. Nope — done for real, and at great difficulty because it’s tough to pull off a fast-moving bike speeding through fast-moving cars. What a waste of effort!

    Effort invested elsewhere has been better spent, however. For instance, this is a Joss Whedon movie, so we all know somebody has to die. Credit to Whedon, then, for investing in a thorough attempt at misdirection. He goes all-out to imply that (spoiler!) the bucket shall be kicked by Hawkeye: the archer has suddenly got a bigger role; we get to meet his family; every time there’s a montage and someone starts discussing sacrifice or the inevitability that they won’t all survive, it’s Barton who’s on screen; he’s the most sacrificeable Avenger anyway, the only one with neither his own movie nor fan demand for one; and Jeremy Renner’s dissatisfaction with the role he got in Avengers 1 has been well documented. If anything he goes too far in that direction — it’s so obvious Hawkeye’s for the chop that it’s not wholly surprising when there’s a ‘twist’ and (bigger spoiler!) the even-more-dispensable Pietro Maximoff (he apparently has just seven lines in the entire film) is the one who make The Ultimate Sacrifice. Which is… neither here nor there, really.

    Double troubleThe really daft thing is, Whedon specifically added Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver… wait, are Marvel allowed to call them that? I forget. Anyway, Whedon added the Maximoff twins because, as he said himself, “their powers are very visually interesting. One of the problems I had on the first one was everybody basically had punchy powers.” I know Hawkeye’s power is more shoot-y than punchy, and we all know X-Men used the silver speedster even better, but still… Well, I guess it’s not his problem anymore. Nor is the fact the film ends with a radically new status quo, including most of the big-name heroes having sodded off to leave a 66%-replaced Avengers line-up… which will be completely shattered almost instantly in next year’s Captain America: Basically The Avengers 3. But hey, nothing lasts forever, right? Or even a whole movie, it would seem.

    Other people’s opinions, and the expectations they foster, have a lot to answer for when you first watch these films months after release. I found the first Avengers to be massively overrated — only sporadically fun; not that funny; in places, really quite awkward, or even dull. I couldn’t really enjoy it; it just was. This sequel, on the other hand… isn’t underrated, but comes with so much negative, niggly baggage that, with lowered expectations, I was able to just enjoy it on a first viewing. I found it funnier than the first; I thought the characters and their relationships were smoother. It’s still flawed (the Thor arc is clearly bungled; the climax is too much; stuff they did for real, at great expense and difficulty, looks like CGI; and so on), but no more than the first one. I think people’s over-hyped memories make them think it’s worse than it is by comparison. Then again, there’s no accounting for taste — there are definitely things people have criticised about the movie (the level and style of humour; the focus given to Hawkeye) that were actually among my favourite parts.

    Some assembly requiredAt the end of the day, what does it matter? Age of Ultron isn’t so remarkably good — nor did it go down so remarkably poorly — that it deserves a reevaluation someday. It just is what it is: an overstuffed superhero epic, which has too much to do to be able to compete with its comparatively-simple contributing films on quality grounds, but is entertaining enough as fast-food cinema. Blockbusterdom certainly has worse experiences to offer.

    4 out of 5

    Avengers: Age of Ultron is on Sky Movies Premiere from Boxing Day.

    This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

    Ant-Man (2015)

    2015 #181
    Peyton Reed | 117 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    The final film in ‘Phase Two’ of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is perhaps the most fun Marvel movie since Iron Man kicked off the whole shebang seven years ago.

    It’s the story of a burglar, Scott Lang (Paul “he’ll always be Mike from Friends to me” Rudd), who is enlisted by ageing genius Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) to pilfer something from Pym’s old company, now controlled by his former protégé and villain-in-waiting Darren Cross (Corey Stoll). Pym discovered/created something called the Pym Particle, which changes the distance between atoms and allows objects and people to shrink or increase in size. He hid his dangerous technology from the world, but now Cross has developed his own version and is seeking to sell a weaponised version to the highest bidder — which naturally includes some very nefarious characters.

    Marvel are currently fond of mixing “superhero” with “another genre” to produce their movies — which makes sense, given the standard two-or-three superhero narratives were already becoming played out by the time Iron Man came along, never mind in the raft of movies Marvel Studios have released since. Here, “superhero” is mixed with “heist movie”; more specifically, “heist comedy”. It’s superheroes by way of Ocean’s Eleven, basically. In the key position, you’ve got Lang in the Ant-Man suit, able to shrink, infiltrate places, and control ants to help him; but then he’s got a whole support team: Pym planning and overseeing; Pym’s daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), the inside woman; and a gaggle of Lang’s criminal friends (Michael Peña, David Dastmalchian, Tip ‘T.I.’ Harris), brought in to help them hack security ‘n’ that.

    Nonetheless, some have criticised the film for not being especially original. I mean, originality’s good ‘n’ all, but c’mon, what do you expect when you sit down to a superhero movie from the primary purveyor of superhero movies? Ant-Man may blend elements from a few other genres into the superhero mix, but, yeah, it’s a superhero movie that, at times, plays like a superhero movie — just like everything else Marvel Studios has produced (with the possible exception of Guardians of the Galaxy). If that’s not your thing, fine, but there’s nothing so spectacularly rote or generic about Ant-Man when compared to the rest of Marvel’s output that it deserves to be singled out. In fact, if anything, it has a higher dose of originality than its peers. And it doesn’t climax with a giant flying thing crashing to Earth, the first Marvel movie you can say that about for years.

    Where the film really succeeds, however, is in being — as noted — fun. Sometimes the structure is a little wonky, sometimes the dialogue is a little off, sometimes it’s a little heavy on the exposition, sometimes this and sometimes that, but it never stops moving at a decent clip, is never too far away from a good laugh, and offers some strong action sequences too. The very nature of the titular heroes’ powers offers us something new. Okay, there have been plenty of shrinking movies before, but not like his. Macro photography and CGI have been used to great effect to bring us into his world, and the fact he can shrink and grow at will adds a real kick to fight scenes.

    It remains tough to talk about Ant-Man without referencing The Edgar Wright Situation. I mean, you could ignore it, but then it becomes the elephant in the room. If you somehow missed it: writer-director Edgar Wright pitched Ant-Man to Marvel as a movie before Marvel Studios even existed, back in 2003, and had been developing it on and off ever since. The ideas he brought to the table — an action-adventure-comedy style, being a special effects extravaganza but with a lighthearted tone — influenced how the studio approached Iron Man and, consequently, the whole MCU. Nonetheless, Ant-Man wound up positioned as the 12th film in the studio’s slate, finally going into production after a decade of prep. Wright had a script almost finalised, he’d cast the film, a release date was set… and then he left due to “creative differences”. And the internet was on his side because Edgar Wright has made Spaced and Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz and Marvel are a studio and studios are always wrong.

    The full extent of what these creative differences were hasn’t emerged yet, because it wasn’t that long ago (inevitably, they will one day), but it must’ve been pretty major to walk away from a project you’d been working on for so long and were so close to finally realising. Some reports say Wright wanted the film to be completely standalone, with absolutely no ties to the wider Marvel universe. I kind of hope there’s more to it than that, because while the final version of Ant-Man isn’t completely standalone, it’s one of Marvel’s less connected efforts. Okay, it references S.H.I.E.L.D., Hydra, and the Avengers, and there are cameo appearances by characters from other parts of the universe (including Lang having to fight an Avenger), but its story doesn’t feed directly from a previous MCU film, nor does it make setting up another one an inherent part of the plot. In short, it’s nicely connected — it’s definitely part of the universe — but you don’t need to know a great deal to enjoy it on its own.

    After Wright left, the screenplay was rewritten by a host of scribes (far more than the two extra writers ultimately credited). Other things they’re responsible for include bulking up the supporting characters, especially Hope, which works pretty well, and Lang’s friend Luis (Michael Peña), which we should all be thankful for: Peña’s Luis is one of the best things in the movie, an enthusiastic motormouth who’s consistently entertaining whenever he’s on screen. He’s the standout from an ensemble that is generally strong, with Rudd proving a likeable lead and Douglas committing to the material in a way you wouldn’t necessarily expect an older actor to with ‘just a comic book movie’.

    Would Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man have been better than Peyton Reed’s? We’ll never know. Well, one day we’ll have a good guess, because one day what changed will all come out. Wright still has a story and co-writer credit, so obviously a lot of his material survived. Nonetheless, the movie we’ve ended up with doesn’t feel like a compromised, homogenised, studio-controlled disaster. Chances are Wright could’ve brought greater visual and storytelling flair to proceedings, but Reed doesn’t do a bad job, especially when it comes to sequences in miniature. The final fight takes place on a children’s playset, doesn’t involve giant things falling epically out of the sky (is it the only Phase Two film to avoid that trope?), and is one of the best climaxes in the entire Marvel canon. Sometimes less really is more. Especially when “less” includes Thomas the Tank Engine. Whoever thought you’d see Thomas the Tank Engine in a Marvel movie?

    I hope Ant-Man will be an important touchstone in what Marvel Studios do going forward. It proves smaller-scale adventures can work — not in the sense that it’s about a hero who shrinks to a few centimetres tall, but in that it’s a story focused on a couple of characters trying to steal something from a building and defeat one guy, not about saving an entire city or an entire planet. That doesn’t mean it’s a story that doesn’t have stakes, they’re just different stakes. It’s a refreshing change of pace at this point. It’s also pretty much standalone, with nice nods to the shared universe but without being dependent on other films (either before or to come) for its story. Guardians of the Galaxy did that too, but how many other recent Marvel movies is it true of? Even the highly-praised Winter Soldier is a long, long way from being immune to that fault.

    Still, I doubt many people are going to call Ant-Man their favourite Marvel movie, although I think it might be the most pure fun I’ve had watching an MCU film since… well, ever. And I like fun.

    4 out of 5

    Ant-Man is available on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK now, and in the US from next week.

    It placed 20th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

    This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.