Sweet Christmas arrives early with Luke Cage (No Spoilers)

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Riding the crest of a Blaxploitation wave, Luke Cage was created in 1972 by Archie Goodwin, John Romita, Sr. and George Tuska (with help from Roy Thomas). It’s taken a long time for one of Marvel Comics’ most important black heroes to reach the screen, but boy has it ever been worth the wait.

With this latest series from Netflix, the cooperation between the two companies has really hit a creative peak. Featuring often lower key (but always entertaining) superheroics, touching on hot button topics to give the drama satisfying depth, and with a top notch cast (highlighting beyond due but very welcome diversity, which also extends to the production team behind the cameras), Luke Cage comes in both barrels blazing and feels as unstoppable as its titular hero!

We’re introduced quickly and confidently to the cast of characters – central to which is Harlem itself, given far more of a distinct personality than Hell’s Kitchen in Daredevil and Jessica Jones – in a relatively slow burn first episode, in fact the pacing throughout is charmingly classical, there’s no tearing through ADHD storytelling – everything proceeds at an even, steady tempo, giving characters time to live and breathe and allowing us to understand or care about each one. By about the third episode this approach really starts to pay dividends and then with episode four giving us a revised version of Cage’s origin from the comics, suddenly everything seems to click into place and you realise you’re hooked for the rest of the run. It’s an approach that will give this show long legs and I suspect will play well for repeated viewings (and yes, this is definitely a show that will stand up to more than one watch).

As I mentioned earlier, the cast is uniformly excellent. Colter is magnificent, striding through the episodes like a powerhouse (or even a “Power Man”, a neat in-joke used several time in early episodes – a name used by Cage in the comics), completely owning his show – all quiet dignity with fire and steel just below the surface. Cage is morally conflicted, enough to ensure there’s more than a single layer to enjoy, but at his core he is filled with a sense of righteousness and acts on that until the world forces him to step out of the shadows.

In one scene midway through the season, Cage eulogises the death of a neighbourhood friend and in doing so, gives a stirring speech to rival the kind usually given by the likes of Captain America. Cage is firmly established here as not just as man who will do whatever it takes to get the job done, but as a man to look up to, a hero.

For old time fans longing to see Cage in his traditional comic book outfit of metal headband and yellow blouson, let’s say you won’t be entirely disappointed (though you’ll be glad it doesn’t hang around long – some comic book conceits don’t translate to film). That’s just one of many nods to the character’s four-colour origins and to the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe. There’s also a stronger sense here of the Netflix shows slowly coming together, as we gradually head towards the eventual team-up series, The Defenders (in fact, now we’re only waiting for the last of the key characters to be introduced, in next year’s Iron Fist).

They say a hero is only as good as his or her enemies, and Luke Cage has some great villains. These aren’t pantomime, moustache twirling cardboard cut-outs, however, Mahershala Ali and Alfre Woodard (as Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes and Mariah Dillard) are nuanced people, misusing the tools of power and money, both of who believe themselves to be the hero of their particular story. There are great fireworks here, not only between them and Cage, but between each other, and we’re allowed to feel empathy towards them as much as we’re allowed to find their actions repugnant. It’s this kind of layering which elevates drama and what helps to make these shows so engrossing. Cottonmouth and Mariah are fine additions to the Netflix rogue’s gallery established by Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk and David Tennant as Killgrave. Ali brings a lizard-like cunning to Cottonmouth and Woodard is sharp and brittle, making it as pleasurable to spend time in their company as with the lead character.

Simone Missick gives us a great Misty Knight, another name which will send frissons of glee through comic book readers, her resolve in the law becoming increasingly conflicted by both the corruption she sees around her and the growing issue of superhuman vigilantes. In fact, she’s so good I’d be interested to see her go onto her own show (and be given the bionic arm she sports in the comic books). There are more than strong suggestions that Knight is already “enhanced”, so the rest wouldn’t be that huge a leap.

On the downside, this still suffers from an overlong running time. Like all of the Marvel/Netflix shows to date it’s at least three or four episodes too long. A more sensible eight to ten episodes per season would really have helped every show, and Luke Cage suffers from some narrative diffusion in later episodes (and a less effective villain) in the season’s second half.

Luke Cage is also gifted with a fine soundtrack, with both its funky as heck, 70s soul-inspired music score as well as excellent diegetic and non-diegetic use of soul, r ‘n’ b, blues and hip hop – the sequence of Cage rampaging through one of the bad guys’ stash houses set to Wu-Tang Clan’s ‘Bring Da Ruckus’ is particularly inspired and indeed, kickass rousing. I can pretty much guarantee you’ll be whooping as Cage smashes his way through armed henchmen using a ripped off car door as a shield. I know I was.

And let’s not beat around the bush here, this is an important show for Marvel, the diversity behind the scenes and onscreen is both vital and energising. The show takes the time to bring in real world issues that affect a community like Harlem, and doesn’t shy away from wider issues of race, diversification and bigotry. It’s all handled deftly and intelligently, mixed in well with the superhero antics.

Marvel TV is already streets ahead of its cinematic kin in terms of diversity, having already headlined its first female lead we’re now given Marvel’s first headlining person of colour (and yes, I know we’re getting Black Panther and Captain Marvel movies, but Netflix will probably be on second seasons of their two shows by the time the films are released). These things are important. They matter. More so than ever in a world where a candidate for the U.S. presidency can openly spout invective of racial hatred. The fact that Marvel hit the target with superb dramatic productions each time is the icing on the cake!

Showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker has done something I wasn’t sure was going to be possible, he’s continued the upward ascendancy of the Marvel/Netflix productions and, Sweet Christmas, he and his talented cast and crew have given us the best version of Luke Cage we could ever hope to get.

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Looking For The Perfect Beat But This Ain’t It – The Get Down

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Baz Luhrmann’s swirling, sprawling new series for Netflix, The Get Down, came with such promise.

One of the channel’s most expensive series treads on fertile ground, chronicling the black and latino generation who revolutionised music by breaking from disco to invent hip-hop, and set against the tinderbox background of the Bronx in the late 1970s. This is vast, dramatically untapped territory, and it’s an important point in cultural history.

Rather than a straightforward drama, the show, created by Luhrmann and Stephen Adly Guirgis, tries to edge towards the wild, freewheeling and highly theatrical approach Luhrmann has used in films like Romeo and Juliet and Moulin Rouge. Sometimes this works, the sense of mythologising feels note perfect against the backbeat of hip hop, and during the musical numbers it hits an undeniable, infectious energy, and of course the soundtrack is blistering.

Unfortunately, and all too frequently, the theatricality feels like a let’s-just-put-the-show-on-right-here high school play, and distances us from the hollow, one dimensional characters – youngsters fighting against familial and societal barriers to realise their dreams. It’s mythology writ small, rather than large.

The cast try hard, injecting spirit into their roles (particularly Justice Smith, Herizen F. Guardiola and Shameik Moore, who manages to make his character likeable despite being saddled with some seriously irritating whirling dervish mannerisms) but they’re swimming hard against the tide of bombast and cliche. If you think Martin Scorsese & Mick Jagger’s Vinyl lacked depth, you’ll find much of this thinner than a 1980s flexi-disc.

Ironically, and particularly in the pilot episode, it feels like a show at war with itself, neither theatrical enough or dramatic enough, leaving it stranded in the middle of the dancefloor making some particularly awkward moves.

The show does seem to stand a little steadier on its feet by the last episode, so perhaps there’s hope for the next six episodes (which will air next year) but right now it feels like too little, too late. I went into this with a palpable sense of excitement, but found myself mostly unmoved.

This is a story waiting to be told and a record waiting to be spun, but Luhrmann and Netflix have skipped the groove on this one.

Netflix’s Power Man & Iron Fist get real!

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As an avowed Marvel Comics geek from way, way back (heck, I was even a member of F.O.O.M. – the Friends of Ol’ Marvel fan club – in the 1970s, and still have my membership card), I’ve been following the rise of Marvel’s film and TV properties with great excitement and enthusiasm. The fact that their productions are of a high standard has pleased me all the more.

After the huge success of the Netflix Daredevil show (the second season was given the green light virtually hours after the first one dropped to big ratings for the channel), it was genuinely thrilling to see them pushing ahead with some of Marvel’s lesser known properties.

Jessica Jones also proved to be a hit, and now here we are with trailers for not only Luke Cage but also Iron Fist. We’ll speak more of these guys after you’ve feasted your eyes on the trailers:

 

Cage, created in 1972 by Archie Goodwin and John Romita Sr.(with help from Roy Thomas), and Iron Fist (AKA Danny Rand), created by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane in 1974, were attempts by Marvel to capitalize on the Blaxploitation and Kung Fu crazes, but were later paired up as Power Man & Iron Fist – Heroes for Hire.

So it’s genuinely thrilling to see these second tier characters emerging to digital life (in the shape of Mike Colter and Finn Jones), especially as both look set to kick some major ass. I’m now hoping we’ll see Marvel dig a little deeper and give us major productions for Forbush Man and Frog Man (try Googling them) or, dare I even whisper it, Howard the Duck (after his cameo in Guardians of the Galaxy)!

Meanwhile, Luke Cage drops on September 30, 2016 and Iron Fist hits sometime in 2017.

UPDATE: As if that wasn’t enough excitement from Netflix for one day, we’ve also been treated to the first teaser (set to Nirvana’s Come As You Are, no less) for The Defenders, the show which will see all their characters team up. It’s a Marvel-icious overload:

 

Star Trek And Chill!

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In news sure to excite Netflix subscribers around the world, the new Star Trek TV series will head to the channel in 2017.

The still untitled series will air in the U.S. and Canada on the CBS All Access channel, but Netflix has secured worldwide rights (outside of these two countries) for its 188 territories, and each episode will be broadcast within 24 hours of its U.S. premiere.

This is fantastic news to everyone except torrent pirates (who were no doubt expecting a torrent party with the show only airing on the CBS exclusive channel), and adds to the already huge buzz about the first Star Trek TV production since Scott Bakula and crew sailed off into the galactic sunset with Star Trek: Enterprise, in 2005.

Additionally, and in a move certainly intended to build and prime a new audience for the new series, all 727 existing episodes of the iconic Star Trek television library – including Star Trek: The Original Series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager and the previously mentioned Star Trek: Enterprise will be available on Netflix around the world by the end of 2016.

Alex Kurtzman and Bryan Fuller are co-creators and executive producers for the new Star Trek, based on Gene Roddenberry’s original series. Fuller launched his career writing for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager, and created highly regarded TV series including Dead Like Me, Pushing Daisies and the sorely-missed Hannibal. Kurtzman is co-writer and producer of the blockbuster films Star Trek and, rather less thrillingly, Star Trek Into Darkness.

Set to begin airing in January 2017, we can only hope this show carries on the pioneering spirit of Roddenberry’s original series, which aired from 1966 – 1969 and was followed by a slew of movies and TV shows.

Between this news, positive word of mouth on the new feature film, Star Trek Beyond, and Paramount’s announcement that Star Trek 4 will move ahead with the current movie crew and with Chris Hemsworth reprising his role as Kirk’s father, George (last seen sacrificing his life for his wife and son in the 2009 reboot), it seems there’s still going to be plenty of chances for man and woman to go boldly beyond the franchise’s 50th anniversary!

Source: Netflix