If anything proves the Netflix corner of Marvel’s cinematic and TV universe has found its groove, or perhaps in this case its soul groove, it is the second season of Luke Cage.
Marvel’s partnership with Netflix to weave together four shows set in New York City has reached an interesting place, after three years of regularly airing content. The Punisher added a fifth main show to the mix late last year after The Defenders, a much-touted coming together of Cage and fellow heroes Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist, underwhelmed a great many. Iron Fist’s first season last year suffered a critical mauling, while people have been lukewarm on Jessica Jones’ recent second season – after it raced out of the gate in late 2015 with a powerful piece of comic-book television. In other words, the Netflix corner of Marvel is drifting a touch, and is in sore need of a booster to remind people of how good it can actually be.
It looks like Luke Cage may, therefore, have returned at just the right time.
There has been an interesting response to the dominant Avengers: Infinity War this weekend as it romped home to a record-beating opening weekend in the States, and a remarkable $600 million plus global take home. Aside from the legion of critics, professional and amateur, who have all lined up on either side of whether the film is good or bad (and most reactions seem positive), the issue again seems to concern fandom. In this instance, whether Infinity War is for anyone who isn’t already a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
A piece in The New Yorker has been widely circulated, with people criticising and defending an article which suggests Infinity War suffers for the fact it does nothing to ‘introduce’ the myriad amount of Marvel players to new audiences. Some are suggesting that it doesn’t have to, given its place as the first part of a finale to an ongoing saga—which I discuss more in my review—but some have on the other side of the fence suggested this kind of storytelling by Marvel Studios, and how the fandom have responded to it, is yet another form of ‘gatekeeping’.
That fandom are, once again, erecting a big ‘KEEP OUT’ sign and planting it firmly in the entrance of every cinema from Middlesbrough to Manhattan.
Say what you like about Avengers: Infinity War but nobody can deny one thing: it is breaking new cinematic ground. For decades there have been sequels. For decades there have been franchises. For decades we have seen continuing universes on both the big and small screens, sometimes overlapping, develop characters and storylines. Marvel Studios differ in their approach. This is the first time anyone has, over a ten-year period, created and structured a cinematic franchise in the narrative style of a ‘season’ of television.
This is something I have discussed when talking about the Marvel Cinematic Universe before because it has cast a shadow over the mainstream cinematic landscape which is likely to stay for years, perhaps even decades, to come. Kevin Feige, producer supremo, has been the constant here; ever since 2008’s Iron Man turned Robert Downey. Jr from disgraced character actor into the biggest movie star in the world, Infinity War has been the goal. While undoubtedly tides have changed, production realities have emerged, and details have altered, Marvel have been working to a decade-long plan to unite the Avengers against Thanos, the Mad Titan, and his plan to wipe out half the universe with the combined Infinity Stones.
Let me tell you a story about Marvel, more specifically my relationship with the Netflix corner of the Marvel Cinematic/Television Universe. Having just digested all of the second season of Jessica Jones, the latest entry in the Marvel TV stable, it’s time we had an honest chat about these shows and how there’s a problem I just cannot get past.
Jessica Jones had a really impressive first season, and still could well stand as the strongest run in what, at the current count, stands as eight thirteen episode seasons that have encompassed the Netflix TV corner set in and around Hell’s Kitchen in New York City, with a ninth on its way in the next few months. Melissa Rosenberg’s adaptation of the comic Alias Jessica Jones (the Alias dropped in part to prevent confusion with ABC’s spy-fi drama of the same name) made a star of the biting and droll Krysten Ritter as Jessica, a super-powered private detective with a caustic attitude and few social skills, and told a quite violent, harrowing and dramatic story all about an abusive, controlling relationship & the psychological scars of rape. It was, on the whole, pretty superb television.
If you grew up in the late 1990’s across into the new millennium, you almost certainly remember The League of Gentlemen, if you’re British at least. Then unknown performers Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith burst on the TV scene and delivered for the BBC a sketch comedy as successful as The Fast Show and Monty Python’s Flying Circus before it, only skewed far more away from social comedy or absurdity, and closer to a grotesque, eccentric inversion of Northern lifestyle spliced with Hammer horror movie homage. Running for three series and a Christmas special, the League got in and out before anyone could start to find them wearing; constantly evolving their visual and narrative style, telling witty, bleak and inventive stories, and ending with the hope they would make more. Almost twenty years since they began, they have, with three new Christmas specials on the horizon. But why now?
It’s fair to say there has been something of a Renaissance for 90’s and ‘Noughties’ television in the last couple of years. The old guard have been popping up all over the place, revamped, reimagined and revived for an entirely new audience. The X-Files, early in 2016, returned with its two key original characters and a shortened, six episode run, followed swiftly by a condensed, compact revival of Prison Break for an erstwhile fifth season. This was after, in the autumn of 2015, popular superhero series of the mid 00’s Heroes returned for a mini-series called Reborn.
This year’s most profound revival has been, almost inexplicably, Twin Peaks, in which David Lynch crafted a third season almost twenty years since the end of the second, baffling and confounding audiences in equal measure on both sides of the Pond – some say it’s genius, others say it’s ponderous. Even Star Trek, a 90’s mainstay of television which dominated the science-fiction landscape for more than a decade before drifting into mid-00’s obscurity, returned with a new lease of life thanks to Discovery, its new series set ten years before the original 1960’s run. These aren’t the only examples but they all have one crucial element in common – all of them, to a series, have met with a mixed response.
With the advent of Justice League, many fans and commentators are once again discussing the concept of the ‘Cinematic Universe’, given the formative attempts by DC Comics over the last several years to emulate the rampant success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the first truly successful and revolutionary cinematic model of an overarching mythological world of characters and narratives informing one another. Inevitably with the internet, it’s leading to a war of trolls – Marvelita haters and DC sceptics waging a pointless conflict over territorial ownership and trying the answer the utterly subjective question – ‘which is better?’. For every critic who tells you the MCU is technically stronger as a tapestry, you’ll easily find more than enough ‘DCEU’ defenders to race in with their Amazonian swords and claim everything Marvel has done is powerfully overrated. There can be no victor in such a battle.
In truth, discussion of the Cinematic Universe has never gone away. Hollywood and the blockbuster movie system has been utterly consumed and dominated by the power of a connected storytelling model, following the template Marvel Studios laid down. It has arguably changed the very fabric of the cinematic franchise. Following the essential advent of the ‘blockbuster’ in the mid-1970’s with Jaws and of course Star Wars, it took Hollywood a while to truly embrace the idea of creating what we accept as a ‘franchise’. Sequels had always existed – we can go back as far as 1916 indeed for the first recognised follow up, Thomas Dixon Jr’s The Fall of a Nation, which carried on the story from DW Griffith’s historically polarising The Birth of a Nation – but it was truly the 1980’s that gave birth to the notion of a franchise, once Star Wars developed sequels to George Lucas’ game-changing original movie and developed an entire cinematic eco-system around the property.
Sequels, nonetheless, remained *sequels*. Film number two. Taking the characters and situations from the first successful picture and moving them in new directions, though not always. Many sequels in the 80’s and 1990’s simply re-trod all of the same beats people loved about the first movies, mostly with diminishing returns. That’s what made The Empire Strikes Back so powerful; it took Star Wars and those characters truly in new, challenging directions and forever altered their destinations. Not every sequel took such a bold leap forward for its characters and narrative. Many played it safe, an accusation oddly levelled at some of the recent cinematic universes which were born out of the ashes of continuing storylines.
Spider-Man: Homecoming is probably the cheekiest title Marvel have ever given one of their films, simply for the fact the subtitle is both literal and figurative. Spider-Man, probably Marvel’s most famous superhero alongside the Hulk, finally comes home with Jon Watts’ entry to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Sony Pictures have owned the rights to the character for many years and have made repeated attempts over the last fifteen to launch a franchise with our friendly neighbourhood web-slinger. The first time, under Sam Raimi’s direction, we had the original Spider-Man trilogy starring Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker. There he fell in love with Kirsten Dunst’s Mary-Jane Watson and battled the Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus and Venom (plus half a dozen more in the third film it seemed). Poor critical buzz partly put paid to a planned fourth Raimi Spider-Man film after 2008.
Then came the reboot. Out went Raimi, out went Maguire. In came upcoming star Andrew Garfield as Peter and Marc Webb, best known for the divisive (500) Days of Summer, behind the lens. Emma Stone joined as Gwen Stacy, the other well-known Peter Parker love interest, and this time he battled a new Green Goblin and, again, thanks to the power of sequelitis, half a dozen bad guys including Electro in the second film, which also Sony planned to use as a backdoor way of teeing-up a Sinister Six spin-off movie. Despite how the two leads impressed, the knives were again out critically and any chance of a trilogy died a swift death.
The famed Sony hack was the first indication they were hatching plans with Marvel to bring Peter Parker into the MCU. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 came out in 2014 and just two short years later, at the start of 2016, another rising star in Tom Holland popped up to portray the character in Captain America: Civil War. In a film rammed with established superheroes, within a story very much in the middle of an ongoing story arc eight years to that point in the making, Holland shone brightly immediately in his extended cameo. He *was* Spider-Man, and he was back where he always should have been.