2015 has seen Marvel’s media dominion diversify more than ever. And that’s saying something. But on small and big screen, the conclusion of their Phase Two demonstrates a healthy return to the good old basics of their juggernaut machine. A return to corporate espionage mashed together with some second-chance vigilante justice that’s a tad grey, and not in that old-fashioned SHIELD way – Jokerside turns to Daredevil and Ant-Man. *Spoilers as guaranteed as an end credit teaser*.
Read on or jump to: Ant-Man
Daredevil (Netflix, 2015)
The Devil in Hell’s Kitchen
“I had to choose paths or fate would choose for me”
JOKERSIDE’S ALREADY ADMITTED ITS FONDNESS FOR PREMIER SILVER AGE HERO FLASH OVER AT DC COMICS, AND NOW IT’S TIME TO COME CLEAN ABOUT MARVEL. DAREDEVIL’S ALWAYS BEEN A FAVOURITE. Was it the Frank Miller comics or perhaps his link up with Bill Bixby’s Incredible Hulk? No, apparently it was Marvel Superhero Top Trumps (1988 variety) – one fixed and classic image among the many (64 to be precise) that will always steer Jokerside’s view of the heroes and villains of the Marvel universe.
Or maybe it’s just a red thing.
Whatever, an unmissable adaptation of Daredevil has been a long-time coming. An instantly fascinating character, but an awkward one, Daredevil was Fox’s second big stab at the Marvel machine following X-Men in 1999. But that 2003 film, despite getting a lot more right than people gave it credit for, performed poorly. And that was even before the emergence of the solid Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). The film was packed out with characters from the Daredevil myth including Electra, Kingpin and Bullseye but its lack of success showed how comic book films have always teetered on a razor edge. Although Joe Carnahan’s 70’s pitch at the end of the Fox era was intriguing, it came too late in the game for the rights bods at Fox and the Man without Fear soon found himself back in his home fold. But what could Marvel do with their returning devil?
“This is the part where law meets reality”
Daredevil lends himself to a series, with famous storylines on page, particularly Frank Miller’s stunning runs, doing much to cast him as a compelling character. Beyond the accident, the subsequent blindness, the fierce protection of Hell’s Kitchen, the law and the Catholicism, Daredevil’s far more a product of top creators’ lengthy explorations of how all those elements fit into a tight and claustrophobic universe. He’s certainly not as mass-friendly as Spiderman despite being a mere two years younger than him in publication, and quite easily the ideal choice to spearhead Marvel’s charge on Netflix.
Daredevil knows just when and when not to comply with the Marvel universe. Ant-Man’s heist structure is a good example of the studio’s ‘genre’ approach to their films, a tack that’s served them brilliantly, particularly through Phase 2. If anything Daredevil thematically responds to legendary 1970s films of New York, from Scorsese to Friedkin, in setting out a grittier and defiantly earth-bound hero amid the phase that set out Marvel’s extra-terrestrial agenda. That was unavoidable, especially after Carnahan’s speculative sizzle reel.
“This district is changing”
Most importantly Daredevil plays very well to the small screen budget. The climax of the second episode Cut Man with its brilliantly orchestrated corridor take-down of Russian henchmen, who keep coming back for more against this quite human vigilante, shows that at its best. Just think how this is going to pan out with The Punisher’s entrance just round the corner…
“I’ll always be there. When you really need me to patch you up”
Before then, that second episode looked like an early misstep; the wounded devil was limited and the action slowed with the appearance of a bottle episode. But it just served to raise the threat levels, taking the time to introduce Night Nurse character Claire Temple to tend Murdock’s wounds before that pounding ‘single-shot’ beat ‘em up. It was a risk, but with that That kind of scene, just what you want from old Horn Head’s show, pops up again and again, from the car lot rescue to car headlights in the fourth episode to the Devil’s final confrontation with Kingpin. And by that time the Devil’s finally gone red.
“They say the past is etched in stone, but it isn’t.”
The show wisely takes a flashback approach to the Devil’s origins after getting ‘that’ road accident out of the way in the first scene. But, though small segments here and there it doesn’t reveal too much. We hear that Matt’s grandmother called the Murdock’s devils, see the red of his father’s final boxing kit. It’s a neater short-form that does much to inforce the character of the Man Without fear, especially when his powers are subtly dealt with. There’s no laboured display of his Dare-devil sense, just one visual representation and ambiguity around the properties of the chemicals that took his sight.
“Isn’t that the plot to kung-fu”
Episode Seven serves up Stick from the comics, the man who really taught Murdock that there was more to see without his sight. It was a short relationship, and the considerable rise of Murdock’s powers in the interim remains unexplained at season end. Particularly intriguing as the flashback of his first attack sees a blunt and stumbling attack that leaves with the image of Murdock, fists dripping with blood, seared in the mind.
“Time and distance afford a certain clarity”
Kingpin had to be the villain to kick off this bold new and definitive Daredevil. He provides an ideal balance to not only the hero but his allies. Both he and the devil are sides of a coin, both fighting their way out of Hell’s Kitchen only to return to make it better. Until the Good Samaritan speech in the final episode when Fisk, calm as ever, realises himself as “the ill intent”. At that time, the scope had grown with Karen Page’s murder of Wilson creating another balance point, both haunted by night terrors. It’s in the final episode that the two main players realise their destiny. While the Kingpin is born on the streets, the Daredevil is born on the rooftops.
“A woman who can be bought isn’t worth having”
It’s a bold and definitive portrayal of the comic big bad, almost pinning everything Marvel knows about villains to his bulky form. In a series that is mostly competent and reassuring rather than stunning, where the majority of twists are homicidal, he’s only heard until his random appearance at the finale of episode four. And oddly, he’s first seen in an awkward proposition with art dealer art Vanessa in front of the art-work that would come to sum him up. Vincent D’Onofrio’s brilliant in the role, capturing the physical presence and capturing complete unpredictability. Fisk’s upbringing and development are as deftly touched on as his nemesis’ come the eighth episode, but for the most part he is a controlling, withdrawn and OCD creature of habit, who shuffles uncomfortably when his delicate plans are snagged. Not that there’s are many points when we aren’t left with the impression that he’s in control. Much time is taken to cast Kingpin as a dedicated man, one eager for a future, one desperate for a life, leaving his prowess as a formidable force for sharp flashes. It’s a building and powerful performance of understatement, until it’s broken by those incredible feast of physical violence. The clue was there during the dinner date of the fourth episode, opening to the Goldberg Variations Aria now popularly associated with another big and small screen psychopath. But while the savage and prolonged beheading of Anatoly that follows is a shock, when the end game sees him losing contacts and even his friend and confident Wesley it’s hard not to feel some empathy for the bulk of a man.
“I am not here to threaten you, I am here to kill you”
His real twist is to emerge from lethal anonymity to a position as public philanthropist and saviour of Hell’s Kitchen. Coerced by Vanessa, it seeds the cracks in his business and ensures he has somewhere to fall from. But his power and reach is never truly quantified, just suggested along with his formative years and intelligence and language skills. When it comes to the breadth of this Kingpin’s manoeuvring there’s no better showcase than the two ways he disrupts Ben Urich’s work: one strategic, the other fatal. The only time the Kingpin smiles is in flashes when he’s near Vanessa or with glee when he’s successfully killed Urich.
Daredevil may only gain his moniker at the end of the final episode, but Fisk is never called Kingpin. We last see him just as we first did, in front of the wall/painting that signifies his peace and whole being. The finale gives hope that we’ll see him again and see more of the comic storylines picked up. Frank Miller’s Born Again remains the number one adaptation for many involved with the character and would be a great fit here – especially as a slight reverse to the plot of the first season – and in spite of the references the series has already made to it, and characters dispatched.
Meeting of the Two
“We’re going to be like Maverick and Goose”
While Fisk’s empire crumbles, through manipulation, mistrust and irritations, much of what forms the hero comes is taken from the movements of the villain. Following the music backed opening that confirmed Kingpin’s murder of Urich, the key part of the finale is the Nessun Dorma powered montage of the Fisk empire collapsing. A score for a score. Crooks, cops, lawyers, media and Senator Cherry, there’s even time for a cathartic twist when Urich’s editor is found not to be complicit. That’s more than just the end of Fisk – the take-down that justifies the route Nelson and Murdock Attorneys took; that forces allies and confidantes into the horned ones’ path and by proxy gives him his distinctive and lightly, though crucially, armoured suit.
“It’ll start a war”
After opening with Catholicism, religion comes front and centre again from three quarters of the way through the season. In episode nine, a lengthy opening from Father Lanton, justifies his personal experience rather than the Catholic position that the devil “walks among us, taking different forms”. It’s comes as Fisk has the upper hand, when Murdock’s been subdued by the death of officer Blake and Elena Cardenas, the resident of a block who the lawyers desperately tried to help; when all evidence seems useless and everything seems to fall against the hero. And that’s very Daredevil.
“A character flaw I suppose, we all have them”
The three meetings
In true minimalistic style, there are three large meetings between Daredevil and Kingpin. One’s voice alone, as the crime king looks to have the devil trapped.
“Yeah, I think he’s some kind of ninja”
The second’s in that key episode nine, “Speak of the Devil” where battered by Nobu the assassin, Kingpin delivers the final blows before foolishly leaving the killer shot to Wesley. As throughout, Daredevil is almost a minor irritation in the facets of Kingpin’s grand plan. That sets up the reflective episode 10, simultaneously looking back at how Nelson and Murdock met while the non-vigilante lawyer realises that his great pal has lied to him for years.
“Tell Mr Potter I’ll need a new suit”
The third comes in the gripping final confrontation, of course in the back streets of New York. Helpfully built up by the criminal internal disputes that led to Vanessa, and therefore Fisk being held away from the action in the latter episodes. There are some small and unfortunate pieces of coincidence that propels the tight plot, particularly concerning Fisk’s mother and the truth of his childhood, but much of that comes with the territory of Murdock’s vigilante and lawyer personas.
“Not everyone deserves a happy ending”
Daredevil isn’t stunning. that may sound blunt in the face of universal praise, but nothing gritty really can be. Especially between these main players. Its strength is in the drawn out, built-up war of attrition that balances the various facets of hero and villain. It’s strong and watchable television though, with a lasting impact. And that makes it a resounding success as an adaptation of Daredevil. So what next for Horn Head, having proved the Netflix and Marvel experiment successful? The last surviving member of Kingpin’s cartel Gao is surely set for a return. Hailing from further than China? Whether that means she’s an, ahem, Skrull or not, she may well return in New York for Iron Fist, given the familiar emblems stamped on her marvellously unimportant Heroin racket. We’ll have to wait for more Fisk however. While Elektra is destined to add a further dimension, anti-hero Punisher taking up what is surely villain duties should make for a compelling second round. And before that there’s the dark horse of Jessica Jones. If you’ve never read her short-lived Alias comic, you’ll be in for a treat…
“I wanted to make this city something better, something beautiful. You took that away from me, you took everything”
Ant-Man (Marvel, 2015)
The Ant of San Francisco
Marvel’s inevitable flop… Nope.
The second big risk of Phase Two that began with Iron Man 3 two years ago, Ant-Man might not stretch expectations like Guardians of the Galaxy, but it seems the most disrupted.
It easily has the most troubled production history of the Marvel films and a speedy turnaround following the departure of director Edgar Wright in spring 2013. Then there was the rather disappointing first trailer, seemingly cut to make every weak joke fall flat. Critics tensed, culture vultures started swirling. After all, surely a Marvel flop’s inevitable…
Emergence of the Ant
The Marvel heist
The end result may not crank out the indie it once promised, but it’s typically lean and stylish and manages to do what Wright originally intended: The Marvel heist.
And like Daredevil, it’s a dip back into the world of corporate espionage that Iron Man was built on. It’s a simple plot with a great deal of time spent setting up the hero and his training as well as laying down the heroes’ scheme. But then, that’s the general rule of the heist flick.
Initial box office suggests Marvel’s weakest film since 2008’s The Incredible Hulk, which puts an interesting slant on Marvel’s determination to establish it near the top of its franchise, far more than it did with the Hulk. And that’ all the bolder as the limited production period does peek through in the finished product.
Rejection, frustration, delusion and the side effects of cutting edge science are difficult to pull off in one villain
The humour is broader than it might have been, but no doubt an easier of not better fit for the MCU than the combined scribbles of Wright and Joe Cornish’s pens. But the real loss isn’t humour; it’s character development. The motivation for Hank Pym’s daughter Hope is reduced to an awkward and rushed expository overload between her and her father. While over at Pym Technologies, villain Yellow Jacket isn’t shown to expose himself to particles half as much as everyone tells him he does. In fact, when the perfectly fine Corey Stoll isn’t exec smarming it, he looks as confused as the audience about that one. As much of the time constraint is placed against the stabilisation of the Pym particle there seems little time for villain Darren Cross to train in miniature like Lang’s able to, but that’s a real part of the story that has to be jettisoned. Rejection, frustration, delusion and the side effects of cutting edge science are difficult to pull off in one villain, and Ant-Man struggles on the canvas of comedy and heist.
On the other side, Lang’s selection leaves a lot to be desired, although the method is nicely rolled out. But then, as that’s probably down to limited scripting time again, some jumps may prove to make more sense from the hindsight of future developments. Pym’s dismissal that “The suit took its toll on me” seems a bit throwaway, but must surely be in the context of Janet’s loss rather than the ropey idea that particles have a debilitating effect on body and mind. Yes, that’s a MacGuffin that effects heroes and villain.
There’s nothing as exciting as Wright’s original showcase footage
A character like Ant-Man is necessarily more about the effects than some other heroes – Well, just Captain America and Black Widow really. But this is a great chance to drag us back to the nightmare world of the microscopic that Hollywood steers clear of far too often. The effects hold up very well, considering that strict lead time. But tellingly there’s nothing as exciting as the original showcase footage Wright pulled out some years ago. Director Peyton Reed’s strong resume in comedy shines through for the most part, and is probably far more important than ground-breaking fantastic voyages. Because it’s not by any stretch not awe-inspiring or unimaginative. There’s just the nagging feeling that this have sparked off into unknown sci-fi territory given the chance.
S F Foes
San Francisco is a real breath of fresh air
He may be ostensibly as generic as some of Iron’s Man’s cinematic foes, but when Yellow Jacket is allowed to emerge as an individual he’s a striking villain. Tapping straight into Grimmish horror, his odd emergence into Lang’s daughter’s room where young Cassie asks if he’s a monster could have been more memorably scripted, but leaves the analogies clear. And then, importantly, leads to the great children toy fight scenes. Played for laughs as much as action, they work, and make a timely change from the usual and tagged city bashing at the end of a Marvel film – as Hank Pym wryly observes at one point.
Pym and formerly Lang’s mistrust of the Avengers isn’t the most refreshing part of the film, that has to fall to the setting. Filming in San Francisco and making the most of the city’s features, is a real breath of fresh air. And amid the heist caper and miniaturisation jokes, the relaxed Californian climes adds the right tone to the New Yorks and Washingtons of this universe. It’s notably much more effective than the New Mexico setting of the original Thor or even London in the thundering sequel.
Ant-Man adds some rare depth
The Avengers come in many shapes and sizes, as Ant-man sets out to prove literally and obliquely. Despite threatening a lower box office take than some of his stable-mates it seems he’s done just enough to stay in the frame before the better known Spider-Man quickly swings into play.
Ant-Man adds rare depth, and not just the meta-texture of taking the villain from one of Pym’s personas in the comics. By pushing back to Hank Pym and Janet van Dyne in their prime as Ant-Man and the Wasp, Ant-Man edges away from the overloaded nostalgia of Captain America and Agent Carter. Although it’s fitting that the film kicks off with Carter and Howard Stark at the building of the Triskelion, the other part of the MCU set to expand into the past at a cooler rate than the heady days of Marvel’s Phase One. In context though, having seen the fall of SHIELD, it’s strange that Pym’s concerns over both Starks and SHIELD are left so ‘renegade scientist’. And perhaps more so that, despite the Avengers having not yet fully come into play, Pym’s so oblivious to them by the end.
Those Avengers tie-ins seemed central to Wright’s departure from the project, but seem fairly imperceptible in-film. Sure that may fall down to Hope’s brief and final slice of character development, but most probably the neatly concealed one man and ton of insect take-down of the new Avengers HQ. A shame considering that’s a token, but unexpected reveal. Again, away from the Triskelion we see being constructed at the beginning the tree lined fields of Upstate New York (or Norfolk UK as the original Ultron filming unforgettably enshrined it) mark another nice departure.
Marvel manages to pull in a leading female member of the Avengers this phase…
Overall, Ant-man builds the future a little more deftly than other films in the MCU, no names Iron Man 2. Not only is there the pointed mystery of Janet Pym’s disappearance, her face always hidden on screen, but the classic marvel post-credit stings. The first post-credit scene sets things right, with the Wasp ready to respond to the Avenger’s call sometime in the future. There’s no little joke in Hope’s comment that it’s about damn time. And no coincidence, while information on the incoming Captain Marvel film remains scarce, Marvel coup is to pull in another leading female member of the Avengers just before Phase Two’s conclusion.
But really, Ant-Man’s no Iron Man. There aren’t the same in-mask shots in the same way that Lang’s a talented electronics expert but no Stark. He’s an everyman, which is no doubt why he seems very central and increasingly important to the upcoming Avengers schedule. And the second post-credits scene leaps forward to the middle of Civil War, the first film of Marvel’s Phase Three. It’s a strange choice, different from previous building teasers, but signals the intention that Civil War will be a break-neck and immediate piece.
The largest hint of all comes at the molecular level
Elsewhere, things are a little looser. While Hydra’s appearance, suggested to be a quite different after their collapse in Age of Ultron, and no doubt thanks to the new stewardship of Ward Grant in Agents of SHIELD, seems a waste in view of pending films on the Marvel slate. Perhaps the largest hint of all comes at the molecular level. Sinking to sub-atomic to beat the villain the effects scope, or Reed’s interest, wasn’t quite up to making 2001 or Star Trek: the Motion Picture level of awe but it certainly felt very strange, Dr level Strange. Having been name-checked to no real effect in The Winter Soldier, it might have only taken a voice-over or Doctor Who-like flash of a visage to hint irresistibly at the incoming horror orientated film.
But in a phase that’s taken us from PTSD to conspiracy, from self-destructive AI to the Dark World and out to the galaxy, it’s commendable that Marvel also found time to take us to the realm beyond reality. And with the Hydra-outed Mitchell Carson seemingly getting away with the Yellow Jacket formula thanks to some deleted scenes, there’s plenty of potential to get back to the world of miniaturised molecule em’ups.
Overall then, Ant-Man pulls it out of Ant-Man’s helmet. It’s not perfect, but there’s no pretence it wouldn’t be anything other than sleight. Some praise it as the best Marvel film, which seems to be a reaction to the heavy-hitting entries in this Phase. the balance isn’t as good say The Winter Soldier, although that film’s conspiracy/’70s slant wasn’t as broad. As the last phase ended with The Avengers and Ant-Man is sandwiched between Age of Ultron and what may as well be called Avengers 2.5, it’s wise and able to play to its strength. There’s no need for Marvel to duck their considerable plans for the character in the web in the face of lower profile box office thanks to the the broad universe they’ve successfully spun out It’ll be interesting to see if and how a direct sequel happens. But for now it’s time for a breather. The impressive Phase Two has finished and we’ll have to wait until next year’s Phase Three to see where else the MCU can take us.