Sunday, November 22, 2015

AKA Earned Suspension of Disbelief

Several months ago, I put aside a post about the Daredevil series that had recently aired on Netflix.  I couldn't file it down to the narrow point I wanted to make at the time (and I was also conscious that I have one about the Marvel live-action universe still on the page), but last night, I stayed up binge-watching (as the kids do these days) the followup series, Jessica Jones, and I think I want to work a few things out here. 

Daredevil was the only reason I gave in and got a new Netflix subscription early this year.  On the whole (and like most people), I thought it was fantastic.  There are any number of ways to take on the space-aliens-and-superheroes fare and keep it entertaining--god knows that like 90% of these books I read fall neatly in the sci-fi/fantasy basket--but I've always liked the stories best when they keep a strong connection to known reality.  I think this was as important for the oldest hero stories as it is for the new ones: you can't make anyone larger than life if no one around them is life-sized.  Almost always, the believable angle comes as a plausible approximation of human nature in the response to all the craziness (I always love the sane, marginalized characters who point out just how nuts everything around them is, or who can't help lampshading the plot flaws), but what I'm finding so interesting about Marvel's live-action efforts is how they've been very creative about the places the stories touch ground. 

I don't think Iron Man would have worked nearly as well, for example, without a 20-minute cut of Tony Stark's touch-and-go experimentation.  Something in there got the process of innovation some exaggerated flavor of right.  Shit never works too well at the beginning, even when you're a tech genius.  Agent Carter wasn't in the same league as the Netflix dramas, but it was occasionally very strong, and that one was held to earth by the unexpected tethers of institutional bias.  When I write it like that, it sounds like it's been done before, but it's a very different animal here, and the distinction is important.  Peggy isn't smashing her way through the sexist 1940s and punching oppression-themed villains in the eye (not yet anyway), she is more like a well-realized character who is struggling within a confining peacetime reality. 

Daredevil went on to do a whole bunch of things right in this regard too.  The grounding theme of this show was the human consequences of movie-theater violence.  In a stroke of genius, the aftermath of all the skyscraper toppling in The Avengers reverted New York to an old film-school version its corrupt, shabby self.  (Because for anyone who's been there recently, today's Hell's Kitchen is a world of safe boring storefronts, and modern Times Square looks like some unholy lovechild of Disneyland and Tokyo.)  And of course when the hero can get his ass kicked, get ground down, get laid up as painfully as Matt Murdock did, it makes any of his successes feel earned.  Seriously: Daredevil was a great urban Kung Fu story before anyone got in spitting distance of the red suit.  It would have worked every bit as well if he were just an athletic blind guy--the story didn't really need the "abilities."  I bought wholly in to the first ten episodes, even as syndicates of mystical old ninjas were running through the city, and this viewer didn't bat an eye.  Those places where it gave in to its comic self, that's when it stumbled a little. 

(The other way that Daredevil established its emotional stakes--and this is a strength of Jessica Jones as well--was by giving the characters room to act like believable friends.   To get close to someone as likeable but remote as Matt, you'd have to keep ignoring all of his subtle keep-away vibes, and they found a couple sorts of people who could.  It required some decent acting and direction to communicate it.)

So on to Jessica Jones, a character I was only vaguely aware of through the nerdblogs, who came out 15 years after I gave up on comics.  On TV, she is more obviously powered with enhanced strength and (at least some) resilience, and it's terrifying how all of that power means precisely fuck-all when it comes to the emotional challenges of acting like a hero. 

If Daredevil was about the consequences of violence, Jessica Jones is about the consequences of abuse.  Looking back on the binge, I see it mapped on every character thread, but as before, this is the tether to human realism.  David ("Tenth Doctor") Tennant plays the villain Kilgrave, who can make people obey him, who can make people want to obey him (and what good is super strength against that?).  This is an abuser who is additionally enabled by mindfuck powers (and it's not at all clear which came first), and it's damn interesting how often he resorts to conventional abuse too, because that's the kind of person he is.  It's damn interesting how willing the show is to get right in the head of people like this and develop it as a theme (not just Kilgrave, but a number other male and female characters act abusively as well), treating them with empathy, encouraging the viewer to understand their motives and to weigh their charming apologies, without forgiving a damn thing about what they do, and without ever ceding the agency of the victims.  It's a bit of a spoiler, but Kilgrave starts out as casually menacing, and the show gradually recasts his behavior as obsession, and then as petty obsession.  And the truth is, the Purple Man would be nowhere near as scary if he were bent on world domination, or revenge, or any of the standard supervillain schtick.  Nor is Luke Cage (Jones's lover, and total badass) allowed to ride in as a savior, even though if anything he is more powered than she is.  He understands that this is her demon to overcome, and the wannabe good-guy types who feel it is their job?  The ladies don't even let them drive.  It only sounds like a textbook in hindsight, because it's a character drama before anything else, and they do an good job of keeping it real.


Inkberrow said...

Please forgive my ignorance of the Marvel/D.C. ouevre, but is this "Daredevil" serial based on the same character from a Ryan Reynolds or Ben Affleck (?) cinema release from a few years back?

I've never understood who really own these creative properties, what with e.g. multiple and apparently rival Spiderman conceptions. Is it all public domain now, or do the owners just sell and resell?

I've also not understood the massive recent saturation of comic book/superhero teleplays. The general appeal I understand and appreciate, but it's been the kitchen sink and then fill it again.

Surely it isn't just a reflection of Teenage Boy (and Superannuated Teenage Boy at Heart) as the most reliable teevee and movie consumer. There's socio-cultural aspiration in there too.

Keifus said...

The Daredevil and Jessica Jones referred to up there are both tv shows that aired this year on Netflix. Kind of a Marvel after dark thing. They were quite good, a lot better than I expected, probably better than they deserved, given the original properties. (They're good now like I wished they were when I was 14, to be honest.) I felt that way about about some of the recent movies too. I wouldn't call them realistic exactly, but they touch reality in interesting places.

I'm pretty sure that all the stories and characters are corporate owned. When Marvel was really a financial mess, they sold film rights for their most popular characters to several of the studios, and spider men and the Affleck version of daredevil came from there. They started their own studio in the mid 2000s, and basically started printing money with the success of Iron Man. They still don't have film rights to all the comics characters though.

Within Marvel studios, they've made an effort to actually keep the stories connected to one another, as if it all happened as a shared history. In the movie The Avengers, a big cinematic battle took place in New York. These Netflix shows take place after that, and since the place had been wrecked in that fictional universe, they could reinvent the danger, the sleaze, the noir of an earlier city. Clever, and also a welcome "realist" comment on what action movie violence really implies.

switters said...

Daredevil headed to my queue.

Keifus said...

Cool. I'll be really interested to hear what you think of it.

switters said...

Also, I should mention I've been in love with Krysten Ritter since Gilmore Girls. Do I need to hold off on Jessica Jones till after Daredevil?

Keifus said...

That's understandable. I don't know if it hurts the case that she's in a couple scenes of improbably vigorous super-powered sex to remind us that this is a mature adult show. (Nudity free, but geez, they went on long enough to make me feel uncomfortable watching. I think a fadeout is standard here, guys.) But she's plenty enjoyable as a self-destructive, wise-cracking mess, with a hardened exterior and deeply buried heart of gold.

(They're intermittently going for noir, but if I'd thought of it before, I'd have compared her to new Starbuck. It makes sense to imagine both of those shows as revised and upgraded pulp properties, now with permission to take the characters seriously and tell good stories.)

Anyway, no I don't think it matters which one you watch first.