Friday, March 24, 2017

The Immortal Iron Fist

I have a Marvel Unlimited subscription. There was really no question that I was going to watch the Netflix/Marvel Iron Fist for reasons of completeness if nothing else.

Marvel's Defenders: Gotta catch 'em all.
You have questions. I have answers. Mild spoilers for this show (and Daredevil as it builds on that) below.

1) What's this show about?

It's the story of Danny Rand (Finn Jones), a billionaire orphan who ended up stranded at a trans-dimensional Tibetan monastery and learned how to turn his fist into a steel-door denting weapon. Now he's back in New York, and vigilantism will occur. 

No, it's really not more complicated than that. To reiterate: billionaire orphan rescued from fateful plane crash by monks, develops magic martial arts punching power, comes back to New York, fights ninja-themed crime. 

2) How ethnically insensitive is Iron Fist?

There's been a lot of controversy about this issue, so I thought I might get this one out of the way early. The portrayal of Asian ethnicity and culture in Iron Fist is, I feel, what would count as "really good for 1987." There's a notable lack of East Asian folks behind the camera (maybe one director, and I'm not including the RZA, who did direct an episode, but yes, I am aware the Wu-Tang Clan are not, in fact, from Asia) which comes out in the treatment of settings, characters, etc., even though there's a definite effort not to be completely stereotypical.

What I mean by the above is that the show is clearly "Asian through non-Asian people's eyes." That's not the worst crime against humanity, but with a big budget product with years of development, it's not a great look, and I hope Marvel tries harder in the future. 

One thing that tweaks me just a little, though, is that Iron Fist gets so much flak because the main character learns martial arts in a trans-dimensional Tibetan monastery but is not Asian, whereas Daredevil hits all of the same major plot points in a more insensitive manner, but we give it more of a pass, possibly because it's so much worse at cultural sensitivity we don't even see the appropriation. Here's a chart:

Plot point
Daredevil treatment
Iron Fist treatment
Young white boy who develops special powers is orphaned at an early age and gets martial arts training from an Asian-themed organization...
Of mostly white guys, run by an old white guy with a John Wayne-y accent
Of Buddhist monks, mostly played by Asian actors
The hero’s main antagonist is The Hand, a ninja death cult best described as...
A weird Asian magic ninja group straight out of a Sax Rohmer (author of The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu and many, many other racist pulps) novel.
An Asian-themed Hydra with magic, but clearly including a lot of normal people with normal-ish motivations and not just a weird death cult of zombie ninjas all the way down.
The hero’s martial-arty love interest played by an Asian actress is...

Elektra, a one-woman killing machine.
  1. One of three women with more than a couple speaking lines in the entire season; 
  2. An antagonist with severe impulse control issues, leading to Daredevil basically trying to "fix" her; and
  3. As the only notable Asian member of the Asian-themed martial-arty organization that trained Daredevil, clearly also a [mild spoiler] Macguffin for The Hand, because you know, that had to be the Asian character.
Colleen Wing, a down-on-her-luck martial arts instructor.

A complex, but fundamentally good, character who is treated by the Iron Fist as an equal.

For the record, not the only non-pushover woman on the show, unlike, say, Daredevil.

The character of Madame Gao, played by Wai Ching Ho, can be summarized as…
“Inscrutable” dragon lady combined with evil grandma.
A complicated and clever adversary to the Iron Fist, less rooted in an Asian-ness than from a wisdom that comes from being super-old.
Asian organized crime in the show is...
Run by Madame Gao in a weird magic way or by Hand ninja in an often weirder magic way.
Partly the Hand, but also some Chinese Goodfellas types who, while they do martial arts, aren’t treated as some sort of different type of criminal like “the Triads” or “the Yakuza” are in other shows; they’re an ethnically-homogenous organized crime group that happens to be Chinese.

This is not to absolve Iron Fist of its sins, but to say that, if we call out Iron Fist but just sort of let Daredevil slide, we're basically just reserving sensitivity to Asian culture for explicitly Asian-branded shows.

Now, on top of this, Iron Fist's treatment of women is a significant improvement over Daredevil. Most notable is that the Iron Fist for much of the show rolls in a team of three, that three usually being Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) and Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson). Much of the time, the Iron Fist is planning to do something impulsive and stupid, and Claire and Colleen tell him, "no Danny, that's impulsive and stupid," and guess what? That's treated by the show as good advice, and half the time the Iron Fist actually listens. That's right, a superhero show where the white guy superhero doesn't just blow off or become emotionally unavailable to the women in his life when they tell him not to do something dumb! Also he doesn't lie to them all the time!

3) Does that mean Iron Fist passes the "Bechdel Test"?

Sort of! 

The problem is that, often, two women are talking about a man in a non-romantic way. For example, there's a long scene where Colleen and Claire are looking after an unconscious man with a sucking chest wound, and arguing over whether it's safe to bring him to the hospital. For the Bechdel Test, does that count as a conversation "about a man"? Other examples of where this is complicated:
  • Claire and Colleen talking with Danny over whether or not to kill a particular man
  • Colleen and Jeri discuss some legal trouble that Colleen and Danny have gotten themselves into
  • Two members of the Hand, both women, where one is upbraiding the other for being disloyal to the organization due to not following the orders of a male superior.
So, yes, women are far more visible in Iron Fist than in Daredevil; they're clearly half of society and in a wide variety of roles. But, as we've established, being better than Daredevil is kind of a low bar.
Average number of actresses with lines in a scene with Joy Meachum (Jessica Stroup).
If neither Claire or Colleen are in the scene, the likelihood of two women having more than a line in a scene drops logarithmically. Joy Meachum (a childhood friend of Danny's and major corporate power player) operates in a world where the only other women, except very occasionally Jeri Hogarth, are assistants or less senior board members with few if any lines. If it's not to Claire or Colleen, I don't think Madame Gao ever speaks directly to a woman in this show. 

4) So, apart from that, how's the show?

Perfectly acceptable. If you are willing to watch Marvel's Agents of SHIELD for an entire 26-episode season without shutting it off mid-way through saying that it's "too comic-booky," then you'll find Iron Fist perfectly diverting. 
Shirtless Finn Jones. You're welcome.
The big problem with Iron Fist is that Jessica Jones and Luke Cage were bigger than just a comic book punchy-punchy story; they dealt with being a comic book character in a world with sexism or racism; a world where punching through doors and not worrying too much about being shot wasn't sufficient to protect someone from man's inhumanity to his fellow man. Iron Fist is not that deep, and doesn't mean to be. He's a guy who makes his fist glow and punches ninjas with it. I mean, if you want it to be a story about white privilege, he basically buys his way out of being arrested at least once on the show. But that's so not the point Iron Fist is trying to make. 

Pacing is decent, acting is pretty good (great performance from Carrie-Ann Moss reprising her Jessica Jones role as attorney Jeri Hogarth). 

Characterization is a little spotty. Danny Rand has some PTSD and anger issues, but they don't manifest consistently or always plausibly. The Meachum sibilings Joy and Ward (Tom Pelphry) -- the chief corporate officers of Rand Enterprises, the company that gives the Iron Fist his billionaire fortune -- keep switching sides between "good," "self-interested," and "evil" in ways that seem to fit the plot more than any sort of organic development. 

The martial arts scenes are some of the best I've seen. One of my complaints about a lot of shows (CW shows like Arrow especially) is that the fight choreography does not distinguish between when a superhero takes on a ninja master and when he/she takes on a guy who has no training at all except in the duration of the fight. Iron Fist does. When the Iron Fist takes on less-well-trained people, he moves like water through them. It's only on the better adversaries that it even looks like it's hard for him. 

The martial arts scenes are also entertaining when they're set up to pay homage to various Hong Kong action films. Keep an eye out!

Also, one of the better comic show depictions of a functional drug addict, surprisingly. 

5) Does there happen to be a minor plot point that depends on a legal controversy that makes you dumber about the law?

Why yes, there is! 

Midway through the season, there's a plot point about whether a Rand Enterprises plant on Staten Island is causing cancer. 15 people in a half-mile radius around the plant have gotten cancer. And there's a legal action by the cancer sufferers against Rand.

I won't tell you how the plot point is resolved, but the big problem with this plot point is that key facts as to whether this case is meritorious are left vague so the main characters can have a moral dilemma about it. The writers wanted some characters to say "no money for you!" without seeming totally heartless, but also didn't want to go so far as to actually show that the plaintiffs didn't have a case.

The problem is, it's really mostly one way or another depending on the science.

I used to do toxic torts, so I know these cases and the way they're litigated pretty well. In order for a plaintiff to actually have a chance of winning in court, the plaintiffs need more or less three things:

  1. biological plausibility - science that shows that the Rand plant emissions could cause the cancer in question. For example, I worked with estrogenic chemicals alleged to cause breast and reproductive cancers. Those same chemicals weren't linked to, say, lung cancer or leukemia. Benzene is linked to blood cancers but not, say, prostate cancer.
  2. science showing level of risk - If I increase your risk of cancer by .0001%, should I be liable if you get cancer? Courts in America basically have said that I have to at least double your risk of cancer before there's liability. So the Rand plant emissions would have to be scientifically shown to double or more the risk of whatever cancers they cause.
  3. elimination of other causes - plaintiffs can't have been exposed to large amounts of other carcinogens, have bad family histories of cancer, etc. and expect to prove that the Rand plant caused their cancer. This is super-problematic for the linked Marvel universe as we know at least the following fictional environmental issues:
    • New York suffered an attack by alien robots that probably were made of toxic metal and almost certainly released a crap-ton of ionizing radiation. 
    • And do you know where NYC dumps debris from stuff like "the Incident"? The Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, probably somewhere near the Rand plant given zoning laws. That's where all the toxic metal shards and radioactive monster corpses went if they were too mangled for SHIELD, the U.S. government, or Tony Stark to grab for study.
    • We know from Agents of SHIELD that a teratogenic substance -- Terrigen -- has been introduced into the American food supply through contaminated fish.  
Now, if we actually knew how close plaintiffs were to proving any of the above, the moral dilemma becomes less fuzzy, it's either, "they probably were poisoned by the plant, but we have better-paid and better-sounding experts so we can roll the dice and bury them with endless litigation" or "these plaintiffs have bad luck but they almost certainly didn't get cancer from the Rand plant any more than they got it from vaccines." 

Thursday, March 16, 2017

A Great Place to Get Away With It All

Even if you’re not a comic book fan, there’s a story that I promise you already know about the “All-American Teen” who could never decide between which two girls he liked most. Archie Andrews has been a staple of the comic book world since his debut in 1939. He’s been imagined and reimagined in books, movies, radio, and TV shows steadily for nearly 80 years. Now, with their new series Riverdale, it’s the CW’s turn.

See? Milkshakes! Totally family-friendly, right?

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a network knows for its teen-friendly audience would be eager to get their hands on such an iconic property as Archie. What may be new is the particularly CW-y gloss that the network has applied to the story. The Archie comics have typically been a slice of small town Anywhere, USA, with a largely non-threatening cast of characters telling innocent stories.

Like most comics which have had to figure out ways of telling stories about characters that don’t age even as the world around them does, Riverdale has attempted to keep up with the times, beginning to add non-white characters and plots while mostly keeping to non-offensive, apolitical storytelling. In that way, the crux of the characters always remains the same with the DNA of the story remaining remarkably similar to the comics.

Archie, as usual, is presented as a fairly typical boy next door. He struggles with normal teen problems like balancing schoolwork with football practice and trying to become a musician. The girl next door, terminally sweet and understanding Betty Cooper, nurses a long-standing crush on Archie. Meanwhile, rich girl from New York Veronica Lodge moves to town with her mother seeking to escape the legal troubles her financially criminal father has made for them back in the city. And thus we get the classic set up of All American ginger boy choosing between Blonde good girl and Raven-haired sophisticate.

Fact: Google's autocomplete suggestion for searching images of Betty and Veronica is "Betty and Veronica kiss"

But! A twist! This is the CW. A simple, down-home teenage coming of age story was never in the cards. Riverdale adds some new dimensions, taking us away from Pleasantville and dropping us right smack in the middle of Twin Peaks. The driving action of Riverdale is focused much less on dates to the prom and much more on the dead body of Jason Blossom, fellow teen who went missing over the summer and is found at the river with a bullet in his head. His twin sister, Queen Bee Cheryl Blossom, is cagey and also the only witness to his mysterious disappearance. Meanwhile, Archie’s affections for Betty and Veronica are significantly overshadowed by his own secret – he’s been having sex with one of his teachers since the summer and the two are struggling to stay under the radar. There are even hints that the teacher herself may not be the sweet, lovelorn sop she appears to be as her subtle manipulations of Archie begin to show themselves over the first few episodes. Meanwhile, a much more emo Jughead narrates the action, recounting the story and how it dovetails with his own falling out with his old friends in classic Philip Marlowe style.

"She smelled the way a good hamburger looks after midnight..."

Despite growing out of the wellspring of all modern teenage drama, Riverdale owes almost an equal debt to other teen-focused genre benders as it does to its source material. Veronica Mars and Vampire Diaries, two shows that also focused on the lives of teenagers told through a noir-coated lens, are particularly evident inspirations. And like those attempts at presenting more mature, nuanced teenagers, Riverdale strides confidently up to some provocative themes, albeit in a sometimes clunky way.

When Archie wants to write music for girl supergroup Josie and the Pussycats, Josie herself shuts Archie down, rightfully pointing out the unlikelihood that white boy Archie can write in the voice of three black women. “No, baby, you don’t,” Josie tells Archie when he tries to tell her that he understands that the girls face obstacles. While the set-up is a little strawman-y, it’s still significant that a primetime network showed a black girl unpacking privilege to the white boy hero of his own story.

In the same episode, Betty and Veronica confront the boys of the football team who have been dating and then ranking the girls they go out with using a secret journal after Veronica is made the butt of a social media joke by the captain of the team. “I will not be slut-shamed,” Veronica huffs before joining with a group of girls, including Ethyl, played by guest star Shannon Purser (Barb of Stranger Things) who gets a much better ending to her story than in her last series. One characters even winks to the audience at the end with the line, “Hashtag JusticeForEthyl.” And while the pushback against slut-shaming smacks of empowerment, it also lacks the courage of its own convictions. None of the girls in the players’ book, after all, actually did any of what the players said. As such, they weren’t reclaiming their right to enjoy their sexualities, merely defending their good reputations.

Riverdale’s updating of its classic themes and motifs actually isn’t without precedent. That Archie has taken such a turn away from his staid reputation actually isn’t much of a surprise when you consider that somehow, over the past several years, Archie has become one of the more subversive properties in American comics. For example, here are just a few of the things that have ACTUALLY HAPPENED in his books:

·         In 2010, Archie Comics introduced the character of Kevin Keller, an openly gay high school student who becomes part of the gang. The character has carried over into the CW series and even has a will-they-or-won’t-they storyline with Moose, another classic character from the comics.
·         Jughead officially came out of the closet in 2016 as asexual. Really, this shouldn’t be a surprise given that Judhead’s only real love stories have ever been centered on hamburgers.
·         In 2015, Archie and his friends faced off against the Predator. Yes, that one. It…didn’t end well.
·         Archie finally married Betty.
·         Archie finally married Veronica.
·         Betty and Veronica finally got sick of Archie and married each other.
·         Archie died, albeit in a future timeline. In the story, Archie is shot in the stomach saving Kevin, who has become a US Senator, from an assassination attempt.
·         Possibly best of all, the long-running series Life With Archie was cancelled and somewhat replaced with a new series called Afterlife With Archie, in which a zombie outbreak occurs in Riverdale (thanks to Jughead) and the crew must contend with a Walking Dead-esque future. The series is played for straight-up horror, not an ounce of camp to be found.

So it’s not crazy that Archie, typical American teenager, finds himself in this iteration at the forefront of murder, intrigue, and not a little sexual tension. (Seriously, Archie’s abs are actually a plot point in multiple episodes.) The show leans into the camp factor, fully aware that it’s occupying the middle space in the Venn diagram of teenage love stories, 80s-era evening soap operas, and modern social awareness. And while it may not be the most innovative thing on television, it’s proving highly watchable.

Archie DAAAYYM-drews

Riverdale airs Thursday nights on the CW.