This week has been chock-full of new media to review, and it is still 24+ hours out from the return of The Walking Dead!
Fans of Joss Whedon’s earlier works will not be surprised that Agents of SHIELD hit its stride at the end of the pilot episode and kept right on going. Entertaining in and of themselves, Whedon eschews the easy Lego approach to ensemble drama. His characters do not get along at first, fit in well at first, or meld as a team. They grow together through shared conflict over several episodes where other writers are content to throw a single token adventure together in the pilot and ignore most differences after that. It is true that some very successful dramas do not use this effect. NCIS is fairly regular, but it’s almost impossible to tell by watching an episode which year it came from. A solid formula can in fact compensate for dynamism, but Whedon brings both to the screen. The traveling-troubleshooter genre has been around since I Spy and Mission Impossible (both of which warrant watching on Netflix or Hulu if you have time). I was first introduced to the formula with A-Team back in the eighties, but it still holds true. With Agents of SHIELD Whedon is building on a world he helped present with the previous Marvel movies, as well as relying on his proven character-building skills. Fans of Firefly‘s endless banter might be disappointed, but several series and films later, Whedon has become an established pro. His characters still whip out clever dialogue on a regular basis, but there is more meat to Whedon’s stories these days. Add the wit for flavoring and this series continues to impress me.
Changing comic allegiances for a moment, Arrow‘s first season lent a breath of fresh air to the superhero genre. Oliver Queen’s character began as a straight Batman knockoff, but fans have contributed to the Green Arrow’s growth over the years. Smallville‘s expansion of Oliver Queen’s story was welcome, but Arrow took the character along courses similar to Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Queen is a scarred, vengeful figure like the more modern Batman characters, with some noticeable differences. This vigilante kills if he must, though he does not always. He is a notoriously bad liar, which builds him a team as supporting character after character discovers his secret. He’s human. He can be hurt, wounded, poisoned, and more. The fight choreography is better than average, if slightly monocular (didn’t you know that all good martial arts come from the Philippines?) it is always entertaining. The second season opener did not disappoint. Several months after the end of the last season, characters have grown and reacted well. Diggle and Felicity journey to Oliver’s island to bring Starling City’s hero back, a great characteristic introduction with a huge spoiler in the opening graphics. By the end of the episode it is clear that the ruined tanker by the beach will play a large roll in this season’s flashback storyline. One of the reasons that I love Arrow is that beneath the slightly campy superhero violence some interesting ethical questions lurk. At first the series seems to be about attacking the 1%, which poses an interesting problem since the Queen family itself and those they love are one-percenters. Arrow‘s season two pilot illustrates that there is never enough vengeance to fill the pain of loss or injustice, as a group of Hood imitators illustrates. It asks questions about the use of lethal force, and the role of a man and his family. The answers are not always consistent, but Arrow deserves praise for asking the questions in the first place. There are nice technical adaptations as well. I’m looking forward to this season.
The Tomorrow People appears to be a Frankenstein creation. Not that the series is about a young man discovering that he or his father is Frankenstein’s monster, but that the series is entirely cobbled together from parts of older ideas and shocked into a lurching semblance of life. This is equal parts X-Men, The New Mutants, The Matrix, Alias, and a touch of Escape to Witch Mountain. There is nothing here that someone else hasn’t done better. And, nauseatingly, of course the villain must be named Jedekiah, because all truly corrupt people have the only Judeo-Christian names in a series. The mythology hinges on really pathetic understandings of evolutionary theory, personifies mother nature as having some grand master plan, and relies on punctuated equilibrium. If you want to look at a character trying to work a corrupt organization from the inside, I suggest Alias. At the risk of engaging literacy, check out some classic X-Men comics or New Mutants if you want coming-of-age power stories. If you really have nothing better to do than watch this derivative offering, I suggest bringing a notebook. Write down what you liked, and it will be easy to find a series that does it much better.
Supernatural has returned to the television with a fascinating opener. I still hold that the series would have been better off ending after season five. Until then it is a consistent, engaging, progressive, and complete tale of two brothers caught up in the supernatural and the end of the world. Writer/Creator Eric Kripke had a definite story to tell, and he told it well. More writers should follow his example when he left rather than turn his story into something that it was never meant to be. But the world he created was enough fun, and the chemistry between Sam and Dean (Jared Padeleki and Jensen Ackles) was enough to carry the story through two limping recovery seasons that I tolerated more than enjoyed, and the last season which seemed to hit stride again. Season nine has a very strong opening, with interesting consequences, character positions, and some new twists that I hadn’t seen coming. For the second time in four years since the original story ended, I find myself looking forward to where the season will go.
The increasingly open partisan-attack pseudo-story continues in Revolution. Not only are the flag-wearing Patriots the ultimate evil, but they’re everywhere, behind every evil we have seen so far this season. It is openly implied that almost all the evil of the last few episodes of the past season were also their fault. Patriot sponsors now take the roll of the liberal interpretation of the CIA, always corrupt, always destroying, and always on the wrong side. Excellent performances and decent action continue in this season, but I’m not sure how much more I am expected to stomach. It is a tragedy that such an interesting world has been turned into a partisan propaganda piece because there is no lack of talent, creativity, and presentation in this series. It would be less of a travesty if J.J. Abrams and crew lacked the ability to tell a remarkable story, so they fell back on one-note political hooks. The truth is that these are some masterful storytellers, and people on all sides of the political spectrum would have benefited more from an original story than a partisan default. The second week did little to redeem the error.
Tom Hanks turns in an excellent performance this week as Captain Richard Phillips of Somali pirate fame. This historical drama retells the story of the attack on MV Maersk Alabama, the civilian’s response to the crisis, and the military intervention that ended it all. There are no spoilers here. Only the youngest members of the audience will not remember the events themselves. Director Paul Greengrass does an excellent job bringing historical events to the big screen. There is enough drama in the events that unfolded without adding additional melodrama. Barkhad Abdi plays Muse, the leader of the pirates, and he manages to stand on-screen with Hanks for most of the film without losing place. That is no minor feat. This is quite possibly Hanks’ best performance since Castaway. He is strong, human, sympathetic, and vulnerable in the face of an impossible situation. The villains in the piece are equally human, understandable if not sympathetic. This is one of those rare movies where everything is so well done that it is difficult to point out a flaw or single out an exceptional area for praise. The visual scope of the open ocean and wide tanker spaces lends itself well to the big screen. There is no gratuitous sex or violence, no irrelevant plot point thrown in to corrupt a simple, excellent story. I highly recommend it.