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Don’t look now, but Netflix has a superhero problem

LiveMint logoLiveMint 23-03-2017 Raja Sen

It is apparently Donald Trump’s fault. The fact that Marvel Studios, which churns out knockout hit after knockout hit, finally has a dud on its hands, is — we’re told — his bad. After smash hits like Daredevil and Jessica Jones, something truly odorous has emerged from the Marvel stable.

Nobody deserves to watch Iron Fist. It is a catastrophically bland series with an uninteresting protagonist. The writing is embarrassing. The actor playing hero Danny Rand — a dragon-punching kung fu superhero, responsible for raising some well-sketched hell in the comics — has turned the character into a charmless, gormless man-child who has no business shouldering a 13-episode series.

This chap, Finn Jones — who looks like Hyde from That ’70s Show with a minor haircut and a perpetual hangover — says everyone hates the series because Trump has made it uncool for a superhero to be a white billionaire. That archetype is now “public enemy number one” and not someone audiences can throw themselves behind, opines Jones. (Somewhere in the shadows, Batman, Iron Man and Elon Musk are polishing their toys and shaking their heads.)

To be fair, this declaration isn’t as stupid as it sounds. Marvel and Jones received much flak for casting a white man in a kung fu role — even though the original character from the comics is white — but those origins were drawn up in the ’70s and could use a serious refresh. Instead of making a white man the chosen one in a martial arts fantasy, the creators had the option to hand the baton to an Asian hero and create something thrillingly diverse and potentially groundbreaking. Alas, petitions went unheard and Marvel churned out this tone-deaf series about a whiny brat.

When the first season of Daredevil premiered on Netflix two years ago, jaws dropped. It was slickly produced, with fine characters and wondrous fight choreography — a hallway sequence remains a milestone in superhero fight scenes — and, more importantly, the binge-watch was brilliantly suited to a comic-book narrative. When a reader devours a story arc spread across multiple issues, each individual fragment holds pleasure, certainly, but it’s even more exhilarating to re-read the last bit and save up the next bit, gathering narrative momentum and, finally, swallowing the entire story whole, a gluttonous overnight gulp that leaves the reader spent and sated and smiling. It’s the stuff Netflix dreams are made of.

Jessica Jones upped the ante. It was dark and brutal in ways Marvel hadn’t yet explored, and had a phenomenal female protagonist, but the creaks imposed by the format were starting to show. Was it a good idea, for example, to create 13-episode stories with one primary antagonist? This reduces the storytelling stakes in, say, episodes 6 through 10, because you know nothing conclusive (or too lethal) can happen, making for an inevitable drag until the climactic showdown.

The second season of Daredevil was just about okay, and Luke Cage turned out to be a relatively vacant show with a lethal soundtrack. Despite being long in the tooth, this stuff worked for true believers. The comic-book completist knew Netflix had him/her covered.

And now comes Iron Fist. It is a truly mediocre show, yet the principal reason Iron Fist is awful doesn’t have to do with how the show is but, rather, why it has been made in the first place. The plan for the Marvel Television Universe is to create these four characters in individual shows and then, just like The Avengers on the big screen, to throw them together and create a giant multistarrer series called The Defenders, featuring them all punching bad guys in unison.

It’s a fine idea in theory, but each individual piece has to have its own charm. Daredevil had finesse, Jessica Jones had personality, Luke Cage had swagger. This new show, with none of the above, shows just how lukewarm the Marvel template feels. How much placeholder television are we expected to watch in the hope that the endgame will be worth it?

Spoiler alert: It’ll probably disappoint. As someone who has read and grimaced through many a gigantic “crossover event” where characters from various comics have a tediously massive and prolonged adventure together, I assure you that most crossover events are not worth the slog. Also, they aren’t worth the hassle of reading each interrelated comic book. If you only like two characters, read their issues and the story will still fall pretty much into place. Which is why you can easily watch, say, just Jessica Jones and The Defenders and you’ll still be sorted.

The superhero genre isn’t what it used to be, and there remains little room for templates. Deadpool is unashamedly irreverent, Logan is a bleak Western, Guardians Of The Galaxy may well turn out to be this generation’s Star Wars, and Legion looks like something Stanley Kubrick conjured up during a monthful of Sundays. Marvel, the former house of ideas and current builder of on-screen universes, needs to pull up its spiderwebbed socks. Superheroes deserve super stories.

And super actors. There is exactly one good thing about Iron Fist: the striking Carrie-Anne Moss playing the sharpest of lawyers, classing up even this show with her supremely snarky eyebrows. She may not be punching metal walls, but wow. Give her a series, Netflix. There’s no superpower like style.

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