Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. // Easy, Breezy, Beautiful, Firefly

Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. pretty much begs for the Firefly comparison. The cast is similar; the set is similar. It is, in plain sight, a spiritual successor to Joss Whedon’s short-lived masterpiece. But it’s weaker. Like, a lot weaker.

The big problem is how Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has formatted itself. It’s a monster-of-the-week semi-serial where the characters are given an assignment, which they do in a neat 42 minutes. And while it and Firefly share many similarities, one worked and the other (so far) hasn’t really.

What made Firefly‘s narrative so effective was that its drama was primarily within the ship Serenity itself. Mal had a problem with Simon’s handling of his volatile sister, so he went and warned him about consequences while showing compassion. When Wash and Zoe encountered friction in their marriage, they hashed it out on the bridge or at the dinner table. The main dramas played out within the confines of their home. There are entire episodes set only within the ship that feel just as, if not more important, than the outside adventures.

On Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. however, the drama is external. The only time we see the team react is when they are on assignment. Characters are really only tested by action scenes, superficial technobabble puzzles, and adventures. There is little human drama to be had within their airplane.

First, it’s partly the fault of the setting itself. The production team made the decision to furbish a home-away-from-home like a cocktail bar at a swanky hotel. It’s pristine and impersonal. I don’t feel at home here. Where’s the kitchen? Who’s feeding everybody? Are they just going to leave that Nazi super weapon on the counter like that? Doesn’t a large airplane have all kinds of storage space? As an audience member I need to feel like “home base” is familiar and comfortable. I can’t do that when the surroundings are stark and we’re jetting off to other locations every ten minutes. They introduced the plane through the on-board detention cell, too. Which was unsettling. Seriously, what? Serenity never had a brig! It had a lovely kitchen and bunks with posters and artwork and clothes on the floor. That’s how you signal “home.” You make it feel like a home.

Secondly, it’s the characters. Firefly had the sense to take its nine very different personalities and coop them up in a space that compelled them to interact. By nature of being an adventure-of-the-week show, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. does the opposite, to its detriment. Relationships develop more naturally if your characters have to exist within a relatively static narrative construct. It’s why the neighbors always come over in a sitcom versus just calling on the phone. If your people are always going off somewhere, you can’t get to know who they are in their quieter moments.

But importantly, the agents of Shield are BOOORING with a capital “B’. Characterization means dick when everyone’s been drawn thin as a piece of paper. Half the main cast are completely interchangeable. Really, three beautiful nerds? And did they name two of them “Fitz” and “Simmons” just to make that joke? They cashed that joke in super early and now we’re stuck with mediocre Peggy Sues in a feeble attempt at “being relevant in a digital world.” And I can see the “Jayne” character’s turncoat from a mile away. They’ve been keeping him too generic to be anything less than a wildcard. And which one’s going to die first? This is a Joss Whedon joint after all. The problem is that I couldn’t care less who because they’re all nothing people, a complete waste of an ensemble.

And enough with the quipping crap. Everyone in this show talks like they’re in an action movie. “Let’s blow this popcorn stand!” “I thought you’d never ask!” People don’t talk like that. And I can’t get to know you as a person if everything you say comes out like a catchphrase. Imagine that person? You’d invite them out for drinks once and after realizing your mistake never return their texts because they suck.

I will say that Phil Coulson is a bright spot. Clark Gregg’s very likable and it’s fun to watch him pull the strings of a rouges gallery of prima donnas. You get the sense that he’s an adventurer but tired of the song and dance.

Anyway. We’ll see how it plays out. If it’s going to continue the monster-of-the-week format I have a feeling it’ll grow stale pretty quickly. An episodic setup was not how I pictured a show connected to so many other narrative threads to go. How all these incidental NPC’s fit into the larger Cinematic Universe is a stumbling block for me, too. I don’t know if it takes some of the punch away from the Avengers or what. I can’t put my finger on it.

In conclusion: “Blah, blah, blah, The Winter Soldier, Hydra infiltrates.” “It’s all connected!”

Give me a break. In order to justify it’s existence the show’s got to be more than just a daisy chain of scattered wow moments that “connect the dots.” I’d like to think Marvel’s raised the bar high enough to not have to sink to that kind of amateurism. And I see you, Joss Whedon! Hiding over there behind that pile of cash and your brother, who keeps getting jobs. This is the kind of crap you pull for shoot-from-the-hip web series, not billion-dollar mega franchises. The bones aren’t in place here and I’m underwhelmed.

Bojack Horseman: Episodes 1-4

Will Arnett, Aaron Paul, Amy Sedaris, Allison Brie

BoJack Horseman is a new adult cartoon from Netflix. It centers around Bojack, a washed-up actor who hit it big back in the nineties with a Full House-era family sitcom. He now spends his days languishing in his Hollywood mansion in the waning limelight of his past. He’s petulant, mean, and obsessed with himself. We catch up with him attempting to write his autobiography, the tell-all book he’s wasted a year and half trying to put something down for. His publisher demands a ghostwriter, and we’re introduced to Diane, the pretty girlfriend of BoJack’s sitcom rival, oblivious Mr. Peanutbutter, a golden retriever. He’s also housing a homeless succubus named Todd, and has an on-again, off-again relationship with girlfriend/agent Princess Carolyn, a pink cat person.

BoJack Horseman - BoJack at BarThe world of BoJack Horseman is a weird mix of anthropomorphic animals on human bodies and regular people. It’s a little off-putting and there’s almost no reason for it. The show barely draws attention to the animal factor and when it does, it makes offhand, very obvious jokes. BoJack makes “raspberries” when he sighs and claims to need gallons of beer to actually get himself drunk. The rest of the cast is just various animals. It’s hard to look at, in a way. It’s not funny. And if the show thinks it can coast off the novelty of a horse in everyday situations, it’s already outstayed its welcome playing it so flat.

I appreciate that the show is vaguely serialized. I’m sure Netflix is at the point now where they can trust creative teams to go and produce a show with little oversight. There’s at least the teasing of an arc. But I wonder who “proofread” this show before it aired. For one thing, it’s not very funny. I think it got one guffaw out of me for the entire first episode. Jokes fall really flat and their punchlines are obvious, lowest common denominator stuff. It’s not totally crass, but the scripts aren’t very intelligent. The voices are jarring as well, mostly because I know these actors are better than the material.

The main conceit isn’t even all that edgy, either. The show thinks it’s critiquing celebrity and reality TV culture, but its protagonist is the embodiment of that idea, completely sold on the lifestyle and un-redeemable. BoJack’s a former has-been, but he hasn’t learned anything in the interim. He’s done no soul-searching, no retribution for the jerk he’s always been. At one point he sets Todd up to debut his music passion project and then torpedoes it for his own selfish insecurites. I kind of hate him. The show even tries to sell him as a victim of a rough childhood, with no sense of perspective regarding people who never got so lucky in their jobs. I find it hard to get behind his desire to write an honest book when he’s just not that likable as a character. I wouldn’t even read a piece of junk like that anyway, so why do I care?

It’s not great. It’s not clever. It’s not even becoming familiar, making it palatable, like shows often do. I’ll stick with Bob’s Burgers.

The American: Cold, Calculated

George Clooney, Violante Placido

The American is a quiet drama about a gunsmith who sells his services to spies and covert operatives. It stars George Clooney as a basically nameless man at the end of a long career, at a loss for what he cares for most.

This is not an action movie. Clooney is not youthfully overpowering and vengeful like Jason Bourne. He has a quiet calculation and cool that clearly comes from decades of experience. He talks muzzle velocity and magazine capacity like others talk about the weather. He doesn’t question his associate’s request to fire rounds just over her shoulder from long range because it’s most likely not an unusual request.

This is about the fictionalized unseen side of espionage, then. That man that handed James Bond a manila envelope just before he got in a taxi and sped away? That man was in India too, staying in a nondescript room, avoiding locals and biding his time until he was needed for his mission. What’s his day-to-day? Does he frequent coffee shops or whore houses? How does he like his tea? It’s an interesting take on the genre that doesn’t get much exposure.

Clooney’s gunsmith is an empty man. At this point in his life, though long and colorful, he has nothing to care about, nothing of value he’s brought from place to place. So he’s grasping for some modicum of want and companionship.

He eventually develops feelings for a tragically stuck prostitute named Clara. Playing the whore with a heart of gold, that she would spark some type of passion in his life fits. The gunsmith doesn’t need a woman to love full-time. The hole in his heart searches for any out-of-the-ordinary kindness, which is why why he grows fond for a woman who is merely honest and forward with him. He mingles with the town’s priest against the warning of his employer for the same reason. The lone wolf nearing the end of his life begins to realize that he’s lonely.

The American is a beautifully shot study about how even inconsequential men need some semblance of meaning in their life. Clooney’s cold-blooded craftsman needed to know that his panicked, grizzly death would amount to something more than a newspaper footnote. If he could flicker hope in the heart of his and another’s soul then his meaningless life wouldn’t have been for naught.

Watchmen: Who’s Watching?

Jackie Earl Haley, Billy Crudup, Malin Akerman, Patrick Wilson

Let me preface this by saying that I am not a Watchman fan. The graphic novel was put in my hands a couple of years ago and I enjoyed it very much. The book resonates with people, and is deservedly the ultimate example of graphic novel as legitimate literature. But that’s as far as I go with the Watchmen.

I say that because a large part of the backlash the film received upon release stemmed from differences in the adaptation. Of course, “the book is always better, blah, blah, blah.” There will always be those people. And when they’re comic book nerds, it’s an uphill battle with a tornado at the top. Just look at Ben Affleck. The Middle East is exploding and everyone’s mad about Batman. Anyway, I’d like to think I’m about as neutral a party as one can get with regards to reviewing the film. I’m initiated, but not fanatic. So let’s go.

If you haven’t seen it, Watchman is an adaptation of Alan Moore’s graphic novel of the same name. It centers around a group of former “masked heroes” in an alternate 1985. The Cold War rages on; the world waits with baited breath as the nuclear clock counts the minutes to midnight. It’s complicated, visually spectacular and populated with conflicted heroes dealing with irrelevancy, old age, abandonment, and weakness in the face of global destruction.

One the perennial criticisms of the comic is that it was considered almost “unfilmable.” Admittedly, the book is non-linear, covering two generations of heroes, and peppered with various interludes (and a comic-within-a-comic) that would probably break any sort of thematic momentum in a movie. But director Zack Snyder wisely condenses the Watchmen’s early adventures and history into the opening credits. It’s important to show that these people have been molded by and live in this world. In the case of Dr. Manhattan of course, the world has bent to his influence. But it’s not an origin story, thankfully. More than the book, which is written as much more of an epic, the film feels appropriately like the coda to these people’s lives. They lived; their parents and mentors lived. They were done with this sort of thing. The film captures that reluctance well, particularly in the relationship with Nite Owl and Rorschach.

Rorschach is front and center here, a ruthlessly principled vigilante hellbent on discovering who’s been murdering costumed heroes. Played by Jackie Earl Haley, he’s the best part of the film and is pitch perfect as the sociopath antihero. Rorschach has lived on the street for years, cultivating a sharp misanthropy and bitterness toward his former crime-fighting partners, whom he believes have abandoned him by giving up their capes. He shows up from time to time to steal food and act ornery. After Nite Owl and Silk Spectre rekindle an old flame and get a taste for the violent fun they used to enjoy, they spring Rorschach from prison and bring him back to Nite Owl’s lair. The two men’s subsequent butting of heads is my favorite scene because both men eventually come to understand each other and form a friendship. Nite Owl realizes the loneliness that Rorschach must have been bottling up and Rorschach accepts that despite his moral resolution, it’s necessary to forgive in order to repair relationships. It’s a good moment.

Now, this wouldn’t be a Watchmen review without some discussion of the ending. If you haven’t seen it, there will be SPOILERS to follow. You’ve been warned.

In the comic, the world comes together to fight the universal threat of alien invasion as a way to end the escalating global conflict. A giant alien squid is dropped into the middle of New York and rampages through the city. Ozymandias, pulling the strings, aims to end the Cold War by forcing the superpowers to put aside their differences and battle the alien menace. The reasoning being that an extraterrestrial threat is apolitical and therefore humanity’s obligation. It’s always struck me as a bit of a deus ex machina. It’s clever, but to my knowledge the squid idea was never strongly foreshadowed in the rest of the book. The film’s approach was much simpler and more in line with the universe. The world of course feared Dr. Manhattan, the god-like being able to affect matter and time at his will. The Cold War stuck around largely because of the world’s trepidation of his being used as a weapon of American hegemony. It makes more sense then to illustrate Dr. Manhattan as the lightning rod he is and rally the world against him than it does to distract by introducing an outside threat. The film makes very clear that his continued presence is the reason for the crescendoing global panic. It keeps the story simpler and more self-contained, which works to it’s advantage.

It is interesting though, why Zack Snyder would choose to do it. Otherwise, the film is a carbon copy of the book. As I understand it, he used much of the comic’s panels to frame his shots. It certainly mirrors the lovely color palette and art direction. Again, Rorschach looks lifted from the page. So with such singular dedication to detail and tonal preservation, it seems odd to jettison the ending. It nevertheless works better.

So watch the Watchmen. It’s fun, entertaining, and probably the best it’s going to be. Which is to say that it’s very good, all things considered. As a lesson in boiling down a book to fit a movie that works, it should be taught in film school.

Should Firefly Be Revived?

NO. Firefly/Serenity should not. In fact, outside of comic books and other franchise tie-ins, Firefly should never get any sort of series continuation ever again.

Steady your heartbeat, Browncoat. I have no news. In fact it’s unlikely you’ll see Whedon and company circling back to any of their former titles anytime soon. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was nominally his subsequent show instead, and after delivering so righteously with The Avengers, and now taking Batgirl with Warner Bros. and DC, Joss Whedon will be unavailable for the next few years. That means Dr. Horrible, too.

Firefly benefits from shining brightly and going out relatively strongly. The series ended abruptly, yes. And you can argue that “The Message” is the actual ending, rather than “Objects in Space.” (I will rebut that argument in a moment.) But the story is brought to a fitting conclusion by Serenity. Mal and company realize that staying one step ahead of the law is no longer a sustainable tactic, and the crew finds some meaning in life they were otherwise running from.

“Objects in Space” is the ending to the show because we need to set up River for the movie. She’s the linchpin to their troubles and needs closure with respect to her past so that she can eventually grow. Tonally, “The Message” has a farewell quality to it and we all know that it was this episode that the cast and crew discovered the show’s cancellation. But River is central to Serenity‘s conflict, and her interactions with Jubal Early in “Objects” reveals more than previously shown. Up until that point, we see her only as a force to act on other characters. She’s dangerous and capable of delivering serious hurt. But how her condition affects her self-esteem and self-worth is rarely touch upon until “Objects.” She reveals her emptiness and helplessness as a prisoner in her own fractured mind. But the audience never really empathizes with River as her role is that of an instigator. She’s a seventeen year old girl though; the guilt is probably overwhelming.

It’s crucial then that we understand River’s true feelings because we need to be convinced that her and her brother’s departure from the ship is in the best interest of everyone. Remember, they are wanted fugitives and the lightning rod for much of the show’s conflict. The audience knows it will hurt too. Simon’s integral to the well being of the crew and resourceful when direly necessary, but without Mal’s protection and experience, he and his sister are vulnerable.

One of the finer points of Firefly is that the story was meant to be fluid. We catch up with the crew as they’re picking up passengers we eventually grow familiar with. But it’s likely that they’re not the first group of outsiders to reside on the ship. People come and go and Mal is essentially aimless. He loves Serenity, but I suspect could ultimately part with it if it meant saving a member of his crew/family. Wash and Book are of course the big examples of life after Firefly. The crew must now learn to live without Wash’s voice of reason and Book’s apparent moral compass.

This is why a sequel wouldn’t make sense. The characters are done. Most importantly River is done, having found some semblance of peace. “I’m alright,” she admits as she learns the identities of the voices in her head and the truth behind her abruptly detoured existence. Her taking the wheel of Serenity post-climax symbolizes the personal shift she has undergone. She’s in control of her own life now.

Whatever adventures might follow would not carry the emotional weight of the film and cheapen the crew’s implied last stand. We can safely assume that Mal and company go on to other capers, but we don’t need to see them. It’s enough to know that they’ll be “alright.”

None of that matters of course because I’d be first to drop a month’s pay into that Kickstarter if it ever happened. I’m a sucker.

Skyfall: Review

Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem

While it hasn’t benefited from decades of rose-colored glasses and nostalgia like others, Goldfinger and From Russia with Love, for example, Skyfall nevertheless is by far the best James Bond film. The most competently made, the most reverential in tone, it is a high-quality film and the most compelling installment of the canon to date.

Directed by Sam Mendes, Skyfall is exciting, fun, and reverent. It treats its source material with a respectful eye, nodding to such staples as Bond’s car of choice, his iconic weapon, and his women. It excels in deftly blending nostalgic homage with modern sensibility. Here, Bond is broken, beaten, and lost. And that’s where it went wrong for some people.

But I disagree. In fact it needed to happen. When Casino Royale opened in 2006, it was a revelation. Fast, high-octane; Daniel Craig was dynamic and believable as a rough-around-the-edges, post-911 version of the Cold-War horse. His Bond wasn’t suave. He wore his wounds openly and spoke without flourish. He projected a muscular, powerful presence; his hair was not quaffed but short and utilitarian. He was calculating, lethal, and his reckless resolve resulted in mounting collateral damage. It was fresh and incredible.

Compare that to Bond’s previous outing, Die Another Day. In it, 007 literally base jump-surfs down a frozen waterfall and drives an invisible car into a fortress made of ice, later microwaved from space. It was silly, and audiences today simply don’t buy such fantastic, illogical set-pieces anymore. Plus the decade’s old continuity of the franchise was becoming something of a punchline. Bond’s getting older, yet is being played by successively younger actors.

Casino Royale was a necessary restart. Daniel Craig’s Bond is not going to make a quick escape on a jet pack or slide a boat over a wedding. He’ll parkour all over a construction site and dodge sabotaged subway trains spilling through caverns like liquid, but his adventures are rooted in some semblance of logical reality.

But the new continuity came dangerously close to jumping the shark with Casino Royale‘s sequel, Quantum of Solace. It was bad. Of course, the film comes with an asterisk, being a victim of the Writer’s Strike. But it was weak in a number of ways in spite of that. (I like to think of it as a coda of sorts to Casino Royale, not a complete movie. It helps.) For starters, it was edited together at a bewilderingly rapid clip. The quick cuts confused my sense of geography within the scene. They were also incongruous; without explanation Bond is suddenly jumping his motorcycle onto a field of small boats. A chase sequence is for no reason inter cut with a race.

The direction was illogical, as well. Bond waits outside a locked gate, clearly far enough away to be out of earshot. The audience is treated to a boring, lengthy bit of expository dialogue, to which Bond then responds to as if he had heard the whole thing. It isn’t even original. It borrowed its personal redemption ending from The Bourne Ultimatum, a superior film.

So here’s where Skyfall‘s stylistic choices begin to make sense. The story needed a reboot, ironically enough. The rote action movie that was Quantum of Solace came from a creator who didn’t get it, didn’t get the magic of what made Daniel Craig’s Bond so much fun. In order to get back to that realistic setup, Skyfall‘s filmmakers understood that it required deconstructing the character and building him back up within the construct of the real world.

Skyfall is about the end of the classic spy era, or at least the romantic expression of it. It’s fitting that Daniel Craig is growing weary of the role. He’s looking older, more used up. The physicality of the job is becoming more of a challenge. That’s exactly how Bond should be feeling. He’s slowly being outmoded by technology and enemies that operate hidden in plain site, not abstractly from elaborate lairs. Today’s villains aren’t plotting world domination, they’re after money and inciting regional conflicts. Bond’s skills as a shoot-first arbiter and high-society butterfly are no longer useful to an infinitely more complex and grey world. It’s no longer strategically sound to storm into a heavily guarded fortress. He’s learning that falling back to familiar ground to make a stand can be more effective. Even Agent Q’s job doesn’t exist anymore. Covert operations don’t really need a plucky old man tinkering with fantastic do-dads in a basement. They need brilliant twenty-somethings, programmers, no-nonsense.

It’s the execution of the past-meets-present premise that elevates this film above all the others. The tone more closely matches the stakes the character faces everyday.

The classic James Bond is a protagonist steeped in Cold War-era mythology, West vs. East, capitalism vs. communism. However we live in a radically different world today where simplistic good vs. evil themes don’t resonate with audiences like they once did. Villains today are often victims themselves; heroes are flawed and irrational. Bond as the man’s man about town, a caricature, doesn’t jive with the realistic setting. He, like other protagonists, must deal with struggles and shortcomings that inform his actions and philosophies.

It breaks down like this: Daniel Craig’s Bond is a man who’s trained his entire life to become a highly skilled specialist only to be beaten by the changing times. As Skyfall progresses, the plot ratchets down the action intentionally. The biggest action scene is the opener whereas the finale is low-key and personal. He’s his action-hero self before he gets shot, reckless and unfaltering. But by the end of the film, Bond’s had to readjust his expectations of success and deal with the inevitability of his inadequacy. He’s reluctantly come to the realization that brute force and blunt thuggery are the tools of a younger man, a man he no longer is.

I’d like to see the sequel take this into consideration, Bond’s age handicapping his acrobatic abilities to the point of doing damage, of blowback. A protagonist who previously relied on physical strength and power to achieve his ends, now having to cope with that lost ability, would make for a compelling Bond film. A film like From Russia with Love, for example, low key to a fault and linear in story.

What I most like about Skyfall is its maturity. It’s the best Bond film because it features all the classic 007 elements, but seats them firmly in the present and makes that conflict central to the story. Bond is dealing with obsolescence and age while MI6 itself is proving incompetent in the face of universal accountability and instant technology. It’s story is grounded in human emotion; it’s action is logical and in service of the story. And it’s finally gotten the Bond Girl right. And it’s not Moneypenny or Severine. It’s M. Intelligent and well-written, M in Skyfall is at last a worthy companion to the modern James Bond. She’s cold but trusting. She’s encouraging, authoritative, a mentor, and a surrogate mother all at once. She’s a female character with complex motivations, wants, and wit to match the male protagonist’s. You know, how woman actually are.

It’s about time, too. Maybe audiences don’t buy straight-laced heroes like Superman any more, but we definitely don’t abide subservient damsels in distress anymore. And that’s progress.