Jessica Jones S2: Has All My Pet Peeves, Is Good Anyway

17 06 2018

Jessica Jones Season 2 is not about saving the world from aliens, or the city from ninjas, or the neighborhood from ruthless real estate developers. It’s about coming to terms with trauma and power. It’s a human scale story with super-powered people who are eminently believable and compelling. I liked it more than any Marvel tv series, except maybe The Punisher. Which is weird to say, because Daredevil, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist are some of my favorite comic characters. It’s also weird because JJS2 includes all the pet peeves I’ve been grinding on ever since Heroes got everything all wrong. Let’s go down the list.

1. No costumes, no logos, no hero names. Here’s the thing about superheroes: historically, they are ridiculous. The whole idea is juvenile. But, over time, the audience has matured* and demanded that superheroes mature as well, becoming something greater than throwaway entertainment for young boys. And storytellers have obliged, in many different ways, with varying results (I’ll resist the urge to start cataloguing them here.) In many cases, storytellers’ first step is to dispense with the costumes and hero names.

I can see the logic; the tights are embarrassing, the names are silly, and both just highlight the infantile roots of the superhero. That’s flawed logic though. It strikes me as an outsider’s logic, a poseur’s logic, the logic of someone who wants to sell something to an audience without understanding that audience. The names, the costumes, and the logos are characterization devices. With one look at a superhero costume (especially in the act of using their powers) we know everything we need to know to jump into the story. From that point, our expectations can be fulfilled, subverted, expanded, or whatever the story requires.

In The Punisher and season 1 of Daredevil, the lead character only shows up in costume in the final episode. In all the other Marvel/Netflix series, costumes are absent. The Defenders goes so far as to openly mock the idea of costumes. It’s supposed to be witty, and sort of meta, and inject some true-to-life atmosphere, but it struck me as a played-out tactic. Huge audiences have already accepted Iron Man, Spider-Man, and Captain America. To assume that a costume gets in the way of telling a solid, relatable story is just dumb.

Jessica Jones of course never wears a costume, and never uses any name but Jessica Jones. But it works. The costume is not something her show is running away from. She is just better suited to bluntly asserting her everyday identity in all situations.

2. No supervillains. Too often, superhero stories amount to the heroes fighting amongst themselves, or fighting for nothing more than to retain ownership of their powers. Ant Man is just Hank Pym and Scott Lang trying not to let Ant Man technology hurt people. Iron Man, Iron Man 3, and Avengers: Age of Ultron are, similarly, about cleaning up Tony Stark’s messes. Daredevil Season 2 is mostly infighting between Daredevil, the Punisher, and Elektra. And the whole point of Civil War is heroes in conflict with each other. Which is certainly a rich vein of story to explore. But if the heroes have no reason for being other than mitigating their own existence, the whole thing becomes an exercise in irony.**

Again, I get it. Here in the 21st century, supervillains are even more ridiculous than superheroes. The classic tropes around threatening the world into submission with some doomsday device just don’t make sense any more. The evils that plague us are impersonal and institutional, corruption woven together with legitimacy in a complex web, unsusceptible to the kind of straightforward and gratifying solutions that superheroes are designed to provide. But let’s be honest; this state of things is not new. And it doesn’t make supervillains dramatically impossible, just more challenging. Surely there are ways to embody and personify entrenched corruption, duplicitous media, climate destruction, and so on. To simply not provide a hero with a combatable nemesis is just a failure of imagination.

In JJS2, pretty much everyone treads on all sides of right and wrong. The closest thing to a villain is Dr. Malus, and even he is difficult to write off as irredeemable. But again, in this case, it works. Jessica is up against herself. She’s trying to figure out how to live with her power and come to terms with her past. Malcolm, Trish, and Alisa all function alternately as helpers and hindrances, while their own struggles parallel, intersect with, and illuminate Jessica’s. There’s just no call in the story for a Kingpin or The Hand.

3. Misused/underused powers. Like costumes and hero names, powers can (and should) be a window into the character’s nature. They also should be visually interesting; both comic books and film/video are visual media after all. In general, superhero movies and shows lean heavily on choreographed martial arts. I enjoy that kind of thing, but I also want to see energy beams and inhuman forms and general weirdness. And much of the time, there’s plenty of that other stuff on screen (my favorite thing about Ant Man was the feast of micro-scale imagery). But sometimes it’s clear that fancy fist fighting is standing in for the more expensive-to-produce special effects. Or worse, standing in for creative application of powers (Daredevil is a big offender here).

Jessica Jones’ powers are barely even defined. She’s strong and she’s durable. It’s kind of a minimal default power set, without any thematic rationale like unbreakable skin or spider-strength. The Defenders suffers from a lack of differentiation among its characters. All four heroes do essentially the same things most of the time. I waited in vain throughout that series for a demonstration of Jessica’s superior brute force.

But yet again, what bothers me elsewhere does not bother me in JJS2. Jessica’s broad-stroke powers are her blessing and her curse, a metaphor for all kinds of power people wield and the repercussions of doing so. Which is a common theme with superheroes (hello, Spider-Man’s catch-phrase) but it’s not often explored with the depth and sensitivity of Jessica Jones.

I’ve been nursing a grudge for years against properties that “get superheroes wrong.” There’s no point to such grudge-holding in any case, but it’s clear to me now that I don’t have to cling to any criteria for what makes a superhero story. There is such a wealth of on-screen material out there now… lots of it is still bad, but lots of it is really, really good. And a lot of the good stuff is looking for new angles on the genre, much as the comics started doing in earnest 30 years ago. Ever since 2002’s Spider-Man, I hoped the movie adaptations would follow a similar path to sophistication, only faster. 16 years later, on the whole, storytelling on the screen is rivaling–even exceeding–that of the comics.

Once in awhile, you get what you wish for.

*”Mature” is an odd way to describe staying attached to the comics of our childhoods.

**I’m all for irony. I’d love to see an absurdist superhero movie. But that’s not what Marvel or DC are doing.



Reinvention of Self (Red Pill Version)

19 03 2018

matrixPillsRed(I found this in my drafts, written almost 3 years ago but I guess I never thought it was finished. Gonna go ahead and post it now.)

At the ripe old age of 45 I got sick of feeling like an insecure 13 year old around new people, and decided to apply my hard-won wisdom and maturity (one assumes by this time) to the problem. I thought, be intentional about my identity. Who can I be that isn’t affected by what others think?

I decided I would be everyone’s friend, whether they knew it or not. I didn’t alter my SOP of hardly interacting with anyone, but looked at everyone around me in the most positive light I could and made an effort to be helpful whenever possible. To maintain my intention I mentally repeated a mantra: no judgement, no entitlement. I would require nothing of anyone, and make only positive assumptions.

It doesn’t exactly sound like a power mantra, does it? I’m not sure how I arrived at it. Certainly my aikido practice was a contributing factor. Anyway I found it to be surprisingly empowering. It broke a cycle I had been riding in my head forever; feeling self-conscious, then defensively projecting negative judgements on everyone else. Which reinforced my self-consciousness, which pedaled the cycle on and on. They hate me–>I hate them–>they hate me–>I hate them–>∞.


Also, sorry for being a judgemental prick all the time.


The Punisher

13 12 2017

I’ve read comics my whole life, and never been a fan of the Punisher. I prefer my superheroes with masks and powers and a noble aversion to murder. The Punisher’s arsenals of plain old guns never interested me, and by the time he came along his brand of gritty vigilante justice had already been done to death.

But The Punisher on Netflix is incredible. Taken purely on the merits of storytelling, thematic ambition, and visual styling, The Punisher is the most successful film or video comic adaptation to date. It is the Watchmen of superhero movies and series, far more so than Zach Snyder’s Watchmen movie could hope to be.

Sean T. Collins, my favorite critic of these things, has this to say: “There’s not a single live-action superhero adaptation I can think of that comes anywhere near that level of self-critique, or has anything approaching its courage to question the very wish-fulfillment elements its audience has come to see.” Click for the full recap.

My one reservation as I watched the series – and it’s a pointless quibble – was, “this is not a superhero story.” And even that reservation went away in episode 11. I have more to say about that, but I’ll save it for another post.



Al Franken Should Resign

1 12 2017

I was a big fan of Al Franken. I was hugely disappointed when he was accused of sexual misconduct, and when the infamous photo was released. I tried to rationalize a way for him to keep his job. But I think it’s best if he steps down. In no particular order, here are my reasons and related thoughts.

Franken has done some great work for progressive causes as a senator. But we don’t know who would replace him. It might be someone much better.

Not all crimes are the same. Roy Moore’s are much worse, for example. But we are in a powerful, maybe precarious moment of reckoning. There must be consequences across the board. For Franken, resigning from office seems proportionate to the offenses. For Roy Moore and similar offenders, additional penalties should be in order – ideally, jail time.

Some are worried that we are suddenly giving too much credence to accusers. I believe that after generations of power imbalance and sexual predation, we owe it to women to start from the assumption that their accusations have merit. Certainly, let’s investigate, let’s verify. There is always the possibility that a woman may falsely accuse a man to bring him down. However it’s much more likely that a given man of influence has abused his power. Let us erase the habit of disregarding female accusers as liars or hysterics.

I hate to lose a strong senator, because I am wrapped up in our tribalistic partisan conflict. I don’t want us on the left to devour one of our own while those on the right manipulate and triumph. But that tribalist partisan impulse is misguided. For one thing, Franken is now compromised, whether he remains in office or not. But more importantly, the conflict that matters is not dems vs repubs, but right vs wrong. Let us hold everyone – everyone, from media personalities to studio executives to the president himself – to the same standard of simple decency. Franken must resign. Moore must resign. Trump must resign. Let us be clear and unwavering. Enough is beyond enough.


Stuff I Like: The Fixx

25 10 2017

An ongoing effort to say positive things about things

I’m always mildly surprised to find another fan of The Fixx. I know I shouldn’t be. They are a successful band from a time when success meant a certain amount of crossover appeal. But they occupy such an awkward space; too weird for the mainstream, not weird enough for the underground. I always assume everyone else will find something to dislike about them, which is all kinds of unfair to everyone, especially The Fixx.

I discovered The Fixx when I was 11 or 12, and just beginning to notice current music and how I might relate to it. The infant MTV was not part of our rudimentary cable package, but for some reason WTBS out of Atlanta was, and they showed music videos on a program call Night Trax. One night the voice-only VJ introduced the video for Saved By Zero (from their second album, Reach the Beach) with the words “a strange band called The Fixx.” At that point the video and the song hardly mattered– I knew these were my guys.

Since then they’ve recorded 8 more studio albums, most recently Beautiful Friction in 2012. I just bought it last year. It is everything you could want from an 80s band in the 2010s. It sounds quintessentially Fixx, with subtle veins of electronic oddness, yet it’s up-to-date, relevant, mature and accessible. I recommend it to everyone; mainstream or underground, 80s kid or not.

Always Punch Nazis

20 09 2017

Always punch Nazis. Deny them access. Take away their signs and their flags. Shut down their platforms. Fire them from their jobs. Expel them from their schools. Punch them hard and fast, as much as you can before they run away. Here’s why.

Nazism is about mass murder, plain and simple. We know it. They know it. No one is arguing about it. There is no nuance in Nazism. There are no layers to their philosophy. There are no useful principles to live by if you ignore the outdated, controversial-by-modern-standards stuff. There are no ambiguous competing translations of Mein Kampf. Nazism leads to just one place: the concentration camp. This is their goal. This is what they willfully embrace. Gas chambers. Bodies of the other reduced to ash and showering the landscape.

Freedom of speech? Yes, it’s sacred. But nobody has license to say anything they want free of consequence. If you lie, commit fraud, commit slander, that fact that you used language to commit a crime does not immunize you. Yes, hate speech is generally understood to be protected by the First Amendment (it may be time to reexamine what constitutes incitement to violence.) Even so, private citizens, private organizations, and private property owners don’t have to stand for hateful, bankrupt, poisonous, actively harmful rhetoric. If the social marketplace rejects your message, that’s not censorship. That’s the consequence of a shitty message.

Want to march for a different immigration policy? Go ahead. Want to change how our economy works? Say your piece. Want to debate the existence and effects of white privilege? We can have a conversation. None of that gains any traction under a swastika flag. Quite the opposite: a Nazi flag erases all other positions and makes your demonstration about homicidal bigotry. Leave that shit in your secret garage shrine (or better yet, wise up and burn it.) Anyone marching with Nazi regalia has chosen a starting point on the wrong side of the single most settled debate in human history. Those who want to re-fight World War II should expect to be met accordingly.

Is punching counter-productive? Does violence only feed the cycle of violence? Ordinarily I would say yes. But Nazi symbols and Nazi speech are an attack, as surely as bullets from a gun are an attack. Nazis marching openly in our streets are a direct attack on American values. They cannot go unchallenged. You don’t have to punch if that’s not your thing. Just be iron-willed in your resistance. In truth they are weak and broken people, and you will intimidate them. Yell at them. Mock them. Stand in their way.  Throw eggs. Throw paint. Use mace. It is justified. Be very clear; these are traitors. These are terrorists. They want to kill you. (Don’t quibble if you’re not Jewish or black or gay. Ethnic cleansing hurts all of us, and it’s plain wrong, and you’ll wind up on their list eventually.)

Some have said that there is a militant right-wing contingent that will launch a second civil war if Trump is impeached. I don’t buy it. Modern day American Nazis have no stomach for a real fight, because they’ve never faced real oppression. Despite being laid off, divorced, and otherwise miserable, they’ve had it easy. They only have rallies and organizations and media platforms now because we’ve let them have those things. And before an unrepentant racist became our president, they were fringe enough to be harmless in the grand scheme of things. But things are different now. They are poised to entrench and expand their role in our public life. We must reject them; unequivocally, eternally, in solidarity.

Always punch Nazis.


Stuff I Like: Voltron

2 09 2017

First in an occasional series meant to lighten the mood around here a little bit

Truth be told, I was not a huge fan of Voltron back in 1985. I watched it after school, because I would watch any cartoon with giant robots, but I found it to be overly cutesy and pretty dumb. At 14 I was probably aging out of the target demographic.

However I am a huge fan of the new Voltron on Netflix. This is a smart and stylish update and a pure distillation of everything good about classic mecha anime.

Some high points:

  • Pidge is a girl, and her name is Katie.
  • The mice are actually funny.
  • Princess Aurora is heroic and interesting.
  • The steady reveals of characters’ histories and powers is still not exhausted after 3 seasons.

Low points:

  • They still call her Pidge instead of Katie.
  • Hunk is just the funny fat guy.
  • And that’s about it, really.