Sunday, 21 May 2017

Early thoughts on Luke Cage and Iron Fist

Because I'm a glutton for punishment, and I sometimes disregard my own advice, I've started watching Iron Fist on Netflix. This is after seeing some not-awesome reviews on the AV Club, and a friend on Facebook warning me that it was terrible.

Turns out that, at least four episodes in, Iron Fist isn't terrible, but it's also probably the least compelling of the four Marvel-related series that Netflix has done so far. But there are nine episodes to go, so it could start sucking really bad!

Specifically, the thing that makes it the worst of the shows, after Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, is Iron Fist himself. Each of the other title characters is sympathetic and compelling (more or less) - with Daredevil you get to see Matt Murdock balancing his life as a lawyer and as a vigilante, with Jessica Jones you get a survivor's perspective on sexual abuse, and with Luke Cage you have an old-school blaxploitation hero who can punch through walls.

Your mileage may vary on all of these, but the point is that when the main characters are onscreen you're interested in what they're doing. This doesn't seem to be the case with Iron Fist - or at least it's taking way too long to get to the point.

On the other hand, a lot of the other stuff that's happening around Danny Rand is pretty neat. Colleen Wing, in particular, seems to have a lot more going on, character-wise, and I want to see where they take her character. To a lesser extent, the machinations of the Meachums and their dealings with the Hand are also pretty interesting, and I'm looking forward to seeing how it ties in with Daredevil, or how it leads into the upcoming Defenders series.

As far as Luke Cage, these aren't early thoughts, because I've gone through and watched it, but as I said, it was clearly an update of movies like Shaft and Dolemite. This led to some cheesy acting and dialogue, but on the other hand it was neat to see the machinations around Harlem. And Mike Colter didn't seem as well-used as in Jessica Jones, but he makes for a good lead to build his show around.

I also really liked Cottonmouth, and thought that it was a shame they traded him in for Diamondback. The latter villain had a greater connection to Luke, of course, but Mahershala Ali's performance was pretty great - they did a nice job of showing the two sides of his character, and the way they pulled him in different directions was underlined by his increasing loss of control as the show went on.

Or, to put it another way, he would have fit into the Stringer Bell/Avon Barksdale storyline from the Wire.

The Marvel shows have featured a pleasingly high number of Wire alumni, so I guess it shouldn't be a surprise that the black-themed Luke Cage should draw on that show for thematic inspiration. And if it doesn't quite reach the same heights as the Wire, well, what can? But at least they're getting inspired by the best.

Now that Iron Fist is out, the next time we see these characters is going to be in the Defenders, because apparently everything has to now tie into a shared universe and bring characters together as a team. That seems kind of a shame, because it feels like we're getting a pretty big gap to revisit Daredevil and Jessica Jones in particular, and you have to question whether such a long hiatus will do either show much good. It's possible (perhaps even likely) that Netflix is treating them all as substantially the same show, for production purposes, but as I say, I'd rather see what the DD and JJ showrunners have in store for us next, rather than taking a long detour to effectively replay the Avengers movies.

The one exception is the upcoming Punisher series - Jon Bernthal was pretty great in the role for Daredevil, so I'm curious to see where his story goes. I even just started reading Garth Ennis's old Marvel Max book featuring the Punisher, so I'll be looking out for any influences from that.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Looking Forward to Juve-Real in the Champions League

You know what I just realized earlier this week, when I was going through my old blog posts? I failed, unaccountably, to write a post-match report on last year's Champions League final!

In my defense, it was a bit of bad scheduling on my part - I found myself at SFO on the day of the game, watching bits and pieces while waiting to get called to my gate for my flight to Buenos Aires. Then, when I did head to my gate, I kept up with things on my phone, and can now definitively report that if you ever want to ratchet up the tension of watching a penalty shootout, do it on the BBC's or the Guardian's minute-by-minute reports while waiting to board an international flight.

Also, let's be honest, what takeaways could there be from an almost note-perfect rematch of the 2014 final? Well, okay, loads - the fact that it was, as I say, almost note-perfect in how it played out. Sure, 2016 didn't feature three extra-time goals like the previous meeting, but morally it might as well have done.

Funnily enough we got another rematch this year, of sorts, though in the semi-final instead of the final. Real once again beat Atletico, this time over two legs, though Atleti gave their rivals a big scare in the second leg. This puts Real in its second final in as many years, and its third in four years, as well as its first time defending its title in the Champions League era (and its first time since winning it in each of the first five times the tournament was held).

They meet Juventus on 3 June, which also marks Juve's second final in the last three years. This makes it my home team's most dominant period in the competition since the late 90's, when it made the final three times in a row and won it once.

So what does this year hold? I'm obviously hoping for a Juventus victory, though I understand that Real Madrid probably have the odds in their favor. The bods at aren't much help in their head-to-head ranking of the two teams' meetings: Juve has the slight edge over all, with 9 wins in 19 meetings, but Real has more experience winning this competition. In fact, Real's gotten to the final 14 times compared with Juve's 8, but once there has won the competition 11 times, whereas Juve's won it just twice.

Stats are maybe not the best indicators of future results, but they certainly give an indication of what's likely to happen, and my suspicion is that Real's going to win this one. As I said, they have more experience playing in the Champions League final, and more experience winning it. One need only look at 2014 and 2016 to see that even if they are held to a standstill in the regular 90 minutes, they always have enough left in the tank to win it in extra time or penalties.

I don't doubt that Juventus have that level of professionalism and energy, but I think that Madrid are just better at showing up for these kinds of games, and I also think that playing over one leg, rather than two, means Real will be on their guard to avoid slipping up. Moreover, comparing this match with Juve's previous appearance at this stage, against Barcelona in 2015, we're once again pitting one of the best attacks in Europe against one of the best defenses in Europe (if not the best).

That match ended 3-1 to Barcelona, and the Juve backline that night will likely still be playing on 3 June, though they'll each be two years older. That age, of course, hasn't stopped them from being the stingiest back line in this year's tournament, with three goals conceded all season (and a 3-0 shutout of Barcelona themselves over two legs). And Cristiano Ronaldo is also starting to slow down a little, though that's meant he's deadly in a different role than what he used to play - and he's still surrounded by an amazing forward line for Real.

And yet...

That slight edge does go to Juventus, with 23 goals for and 19 goals conceded. Will it be enough to win the tournament, or will Spain's dominance of the Champions League extend to a fourth year?

We'll find out in just under three weeks.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

A Left At War With Itself

So the fascists didn't win the presidential election in France today. Hurrah!

Except the left appears to made itself an irrelevancy, by losing out in the first round, enabling centrist Emmanuel Macron (who some of my friends on Facebook describe as a neoliberal, about which more anon) to be the standard bearer for reasonable, non-fascist politics.

What's the opposite of hurrah?

I didn't vote in the French election, of course, and I don't really know Macron's politics. If I could have, of course, I would have happily voted for him, to do my part against Marine Le Pen. A quick glance at his Wikipedia page shows that his policy positions aren't too different from mine, though I'm not in total concordance with him on his support for forcing internet companies to allow government access to encrypted communications, and I'm not sure his €500 "culture pass" is necessarily the way to stop French Muslim youth from becoming radicalized.

I guess this makes me a neoliberal to be opposed as well?

This kind of talk has been depressingly common of late, and I'm here this week to call down a pox on both the houses of the left, throughout the world. From the US, to the UK, to France, and wherever people are attacking each other for being insufficiently socialist, or for being too socialist; effectively for replaying that "People's Front of Judea" scene from Monty Python's Life of Brian.

But I also don't want to apportion blame only to the really leftist side. I can get that out of the way now, if you like:

I was un-convinced by Bernie Sanders, though I agree with much of what he said and would have happily voted for him if he'd won the nomination. Specifically, I don't think he'd have automatically won those rural or Rust Belt votes that eluded Hillary Clinton, and it's hard to get a sense of his positions on foreign policy, beyond wanting to bring home the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yet more than Senator Sanders himself it's certain segments of his support, who seemed to have swallowed wholesale the lies about Hillary Clinton, alongside the completely true things that made her not a great candidate. I don't know how big a demographic of Sanders voters went for Trump, but I have seen those people - they're out there, and the internet echo machine that turned Clinton into something slightly more hated than Satan is heavily to blame.

While we're talking about her, Clinton and her cabal need a lot of blame too. For one thing there was the whole "her turn" approach of her campaign, where everyone dissenting against her was considered to be insufficiently Democratic. This is the same group that pulled dirty tricks on the Sanders camp, and that has refused to fight down ticket, even at state or local level, leaving the Republicans (and worse) to crawl in.

In the UK, Jeremy Corbyn earns my nope because of his poor handling of the whole Brexit thing. Again, I agree with him on a lot of issues (though notably not on his opposition to NATO), but with his old-left distaste for the EU, he's failed to provide a reasonable alternative to the Conservatives, and I see it as eminently possible that after the June 8th elections Labour under Corbyn could find itself not just decimated but reduced to a party not much bigger than the Liberal Democrats. His heart is in the right place when he wants to protect the National Health Service, but what if he sided with Tim Farron and said that he'd stop the Brexit train if he became prime minister?

Again, I have some choice words for the Blairite wing of the party. My main objection is that they seemed determined to campaign as Tories-lite, which I think even Tony Blair himself was too smart to do - he is, after all, the only Labour leader in my lifetime to have won an election. But Ed Miliband's one advantage, as history will likely not recall, is that if he'd won the election in 2015 there wouldn't even have been a referendum on EU membership. The fact that everyone else on that side of the party was even less presentable than him is... distinctly uninspiring.

Then there's Jean-Luc Mélenchon, in France. I always find it worrying when I agree with the Economist on left-wing politicians, but I can't deny that he cut a not particularly reassuring figure. As with Corbyn, I didn't agree with his positions on Europe or NATO - which aren't all that different from Le Pen's.

To sum up, what I find annoying about these far-left wings of the parties is their supporters' lack of tolerance for viewpoints different from their own but still recognizably leftist - Corbyn supporters seem to be particularly prone to accusing people who disagree with them of being "red Tories", which is just absurd. This is Justin Bieber politics, where any divergence from your own views is seen as a personal attack on you, and it needs to stop.

And what else needs to stop is the traditional wings' insistence on moving ever further right. I've mentioned the Labour Party, but the Democrats seem to have gone as corporate as all get-out in the last decade - there are a lot of things I admire about Barack Obama, but I'm not convinced he saw the urgency of the growing income inequality in the US, or how it was translating into right-wing support and left-wing apathy. And there's only so much that he can blame on Republican intransigence.

The main thing that I need to criticize both sides of the left-wing parties for is choosing this moment, when radical right-wing populism and nationalist/racist demagoguery are resurgent, to focus on destroying one another. It's easy to blame the more leftist sides of each party, because they're louder (especially on Twitter), but if Donna Brazile had shifted more of the DNC's resources toward winning votes in key states, rather than smearing Senator Sanders, we'd at least have a safer ratio of Democratic senators and representatives in the Capitol.

What's heartening is that in the US in particular, people are mobilizing, and not just along party lines. Voters in both parties seem to have noticed that they're in danger of losing their access to healthcare and to national monuments, clean air and water, etc. Macron's victory in France today is another welcome step toward restoring sanity, but I hope both that it doesn't get undermined by the far left, and that he doesn't further discredit mainstream, centrist politics with scandals and overly corporate-friendly policies.