Sunday, July 15, 2018

Recent Movie Roundup 30

I think it was in one of last year's recent movie roundups that I noted that while everything in the world seemed to be terrible, at least the movies were good.  On the level of popcorn entertainment, if on no other, 2017 was a genuinely great year, delivering instant classics like Get Out, impeccable crowdpleasers like Wonder Woman, and slightly off-the-wall experiments like Spider-Man: Homecoming or Thor: Ragnarok.  Now here we are in 2018, everything in the world is, amazingly, even worse than it was last year, and as if to add insult to injury, the movies aren't even that good.  After the early highlight of Black Panther (which I'm increasingly coming to think of as an honorary 2017 movie), most of this year's blockbuster entertainment has run the gamut between fun-but-dumb (Deadpool 2), inessential (Solo), and pretty lousy (Infinity War).  I don't even have high hopes for the rest of the year, whose "highlights" include Mission Impossible: Fallout, Venom, and Aquaman.  The following bunch of films were all perfectly entertaining, but even the best of them pales besides what 2017 had to offer.
  • Incredibles 2 - This fourteen-years-later follow-up to one of Pixar's greatest successes--and one of the best superhero movies of the 21st century, one that anticipated, and in many ways outclassed, many of the live-action films in the ongoing, post-Iron Man superhero boom--had a lot of expectations riding on it, and it's probably not a great surprise that it doesn't quite manage to live up to them. That's not to say that Incredibles 2 doesn't have moments of greatness that match the original.  Its action scenes are thrilling and imaginative, taking full advantage of its various superpowered characters' abilities and the snazzy tech they've been furnished with.  There are some genuinely laugh-out-loud sequences, most involving the youngest member of the superpowered Parr family, baby Jack-Jack, and the problems of corralling an infant with seemingly-unlimited superpowers.  Edna Mode turns up, of course, with her familiar and irresistible combination of genius, ego, and murderous inventiveness.  It's an extremely fun movie.

    But it really isn't much more than that, and the checklist above is probably a big part of why.  Incredibles 2 is the sort of sequel whose approach is to give the audience all the things they loved about the first movie, but bigger, louder, and in greater quantity.  There's a reason this is one of the longest movies in Pixar's roster, and it's not because the plot desperately needs it.  Rather, you can sense the filmmakers' (like the first film, this one has been written and directed by Brad Bird) desire to cram in every idea they had while brainstorming, in the belief that this is what the audience wants.  But unlike other unnecessary-but-successful Pixar sequels like Toy Story 3 or Finding Dory, Incredibles 2 never finds a way to build on what its predecessor originated.  The Edna Mode scene is an Edna Mode scene, allowing her (and Bird, who also voices the character) to cut loose with all the tics and idiosyncrasies we love and remember so well.  But it does nothing new with the character, and this is true for the rest of the movie as well.

    Perhaps the glut of fanservice is also meant to conceal the fact that Incredibles 2 is also not nearly as smart as its predecessor.  The original Incredibles had one of the tightest, most perfectly-crafted scripts in Pixar's history (I might even go so far as to say in Hollywood in general), and one of the things that made it work is that it drew Bob and Helen Parr as intelligent, experienced people who were aware of the pitfalls of their profession (or rather, the tropes of their genre) and knew how to avoid them.  What's more, it painted them as emotionally intelligent, aware of the need to maintain their marriage and take an active role in the raising of their children. 

    Incredibles 2 walks a lot of that back when it has the Parrs unthinkingly accept the offer of a superhero-buff industrialist to bankroll them and help them reform their image (the brief superhero renaissance promised by the end of the first film is cut short by concerns about mayhem and property damage), even though any genre-savvy viewer will be instantly suspicious.  Even worse, it reduces Bob to the cliché of the dumb, clueless husband, when it turns out that Elastigirl, not Mr. Incredible, is to be the new face of superhero-dom, leaving Bob at home to care for the kids. 

    In the first film, Bob came off as distracted and depressed, but nevertheless a good, loving guy.  That impression is destroyed by Incredibles 2, in which Bob can't even manage to pretend not to feel dismayed and displeased at being upstaged by his wife.  His struggles to juggle the kids' needs, and slow realization that he needs to step up as a parent so that Helen can have her moment, would be more impressive if they weren't such a massive step backwards for the character (among other things, implying that, despite working at a job he despised and found extremely boring, Bob had virtually nothing to do with the care and upbringing of his children until Helen got a job).

    Perhaps in response to the decade-plus of debate over the original Incredibles's political subtext, Bird dispenses with any ambiguity about the sequel's politics, stuffing it with tons of overly-complicated dialogue that sounds clever but turns incoherent at the slightest examination.  In an early scene, the Parrs are informed that they can't be superheroes anymore because "politicians don't trust people who do good just because it's right".  This is, obviously, completely wrong (it's also one of the ways you can tell this movie's production stretches back to well before the Trump administration), but what's worse is that the idea is dropped almost as soon as it's introduced.  Later, Helen fights a villain who insists that he is trying to free people from their passive dependence on screens and entertainment, which might be a boldly subversive statement to make in an entertainment that millions of people will watch on a screen, if the film actually did anything with it. 

    Incredibles 2's ultimate villain tries to awkwardly tie this technophobia to a distrust of superheroes, insisting that people have become too dependent on supers and won't solve their own problems (to state the obvious, this seems highly unlikely in the world of these films, where superheroes have been illegal for fifteen years).  But the film's response to this is to, well, have superheroes save the day, and no one seems to feel that this in any way validates the villain's point.  In the end, it's hard to tell what Incredibles 2 is about, beyond the opportunity to let these characters do their thing for two hours.  That's not nothing, but it's not the sequel we were hoping for, or that the original film deserved.

  • Ocean's Eight - This all-female sequel/reboot/remake of the delightful Ocean's Eleven series (itself a remake of a Rat Pack film from the 60s) does little to conceal its connection to those films.  Like Ocean's Eleven, it starts with our protagonist (Sandra Bullock as Debbie Ocean, sister of the original's Danny) scamming her way through a parole hearing by promising faithfully to stay on the straight-and-narrow, and, as soon as she's released, looking up her old partner in crime (Cate Blanchett as the stylish, cool as a cucumber Lou) so they can put together a team of equally quick-witted professionals to pull off a major score that turns out to have a personal component for their leader.  There are some differences--Debbie's objective is revenge on the man who left her holding the bag and facing a prison sentence, not winning back a lost love (though the fact that her relationship with Lou, though never explicitly acknowledged as such, could very easily be read as a partnership in more ways than one gives the film a subtext of romantic reconciliation).  And, of course, the context of the job--a jewelry heist at the Met Gala--is a change of pace from the previous Ocean films, and a nice touch given the all-female cast, since it allows our heroines to immerse themselves in an environment where almost everyone--marks, accomplices, obstacles--are women.

    Nevertheless, Ocean's Eight feels very much as if it was written to a template, hitting setbacks and reversals almost exactly where a fan of the original films would expect them--as in a scene in which Lou realizes that Debbie is planning revenge against her ex, and gives her a speech that is almost word-for-word Rusty's "now we're stealing two things" rebuke from the original Ocean's Eleven.  To be clear, this isn't a bad thing--there's a reason Ocean's Eleven is a classic, and recapturing its highs with an all-female cast of this caliber (as well as Bullock and Blancett, the film features Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham-Carter, Sarah Paulson, and Mindy Kaling) is worth the price of admission even if you can tell the twists ahead of time, especially because women so rarely get to play the types popularized by the Ocean's films, of chill dudes who know their business but also have each other's back. 

    The problem is that recalling the original Ocean's Eleven so strongly serves to highlight just how poor the plotting is in Ocean's Eight.  In an early scene, Debbie tells Lou that she spent five years in prison planning this score, but the job we actually see is rooted in compromise, improvisation, and coincidence (not least, as the film's final twist reveals, the fact that the entire score rests on the Costume Institute choosing a particular theme for that year's exhibit).  A long final stretch of the film in which the job is completed but Debbie and crew must scramble to throw off the attentions of an insurance investigator (James Corden, who gets some of the film's best jokes but is still playing a part that should have gone to a woman), only makes it more obvious that the characters have done a terrible job of covering their tracks, and that in six months they should all be in prison.

    Most importantly, Ocean's Eight lacks the original films' sharpness.  The twist at the end of Ocean's Eleven is one of the most thrilling moments in modern pop culture, and while that's obviously a tough act to follow (the two subsequent Ocean's movies, after all, were never able to recreate it) there's nothing in Ocean's Eight that even comes close that jaw-dropping realization of how thoroughly and delightfully we've been tricked.  Instead, the film coasts on its stars' charm and wit--Hathaway's shallow yet surprisingly savvy Hollywood star, an unwitting accomplice of the gang as they manipulate her into borrowing a valuable Cartier necklace for her red carpet appearance, is a particular highlight, but everyone, including relative acting newcomers Rihanna and Awkwafina, carries their weight.  That's not nothing, and I left the theater after Ocean's Eight feeling thoroughly entertained.  But the more distance I get from it, the more I feel like these women deserved a better script, one that would have elevated Ocean's Eight from a gimmick into the classic that its cast could absolutely have delivered.

  • Ant-Man and the Wasp - For all the reasonable objections raised to the concept of the MCU delivering a lighthearted, comedic romp only months after depicting galactic genocide at the end of Avengers: Infinity War, this is the only film I've watched recently that actually outdid its prequel.  That, of course, has a lot to do with the fact that the original Ant-Man was half-baked at best, and easily one of the MCU's least successful entries.  For the sequel, returning director Peyton Reed and his writers demonstrate an impressive capacity to recognize what worked in the original film--so Michael Peña's delightful ex-con character Luis returns with a lot more to do, including a scene in which he motor-mouths a summary of the events that took place between the two Ant-Man movies that is one of the sequel's comedic highlights--and jettisoning the stuff that didn't. 

    Most of all, this means downplaying the role of Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), whom the original Ant-Man repeatedly and unconvincingly tried to sell as a hero, despite the fact that Evangeline Lilly's Hope Van Dyne was a much more persuasive candidate for the position of that film's protagonist.  Ant-Man and the Wasp instead leans into the fact that Scott is a self-sabotaging idiot.  The film opens with him only three days from completing the two-year home arrest sentence he was saddled with after thoughtlessly running off to fight alongside Captain America in Civil War, a choice that among other things forced Hope and her father Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) into hiding.  Scott could do nothing but goof off for 72 hours and things would be fine, but instead he latches on to the flimsiest excuse to reach out to Hope and Hank, and from there his life descends into chaos.

    Despite its title--very clearly chosen to assuage the angry response to Ant-Man's sidelining of her--Hope is not the co-lead of Ant-Man and the Wasp.  But then, neither is Scott.  The film is rather the MCU's first true ensemble piece, with multiples storylines and protagonists, each with their own goal.  Hope and Hank hope to rescue the missing Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), lost for decades in the quantum realm, for which task they need Scott, who seems to have forged a connection with Janet during his own foray in the realm in Ant-Man, to help them.  Their efforts to retrieve the last components they need for this project are interrupted first by Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), a mobster who wants to sell their research to criminals, and later by Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), an assassin who can phase through matter. 

    The latter turns out to be the daughter of one of Hank's former SHIELD colleagues, whose failed experiment doomed his daughter to a lifetime of pain and a looming death (if nothing else, you have to appreciate the Ant-Man movies for their casual insistence that SHIELD was always a dysfunctional shitshow, spewing far more chaos into the world than it ever solved), so it's hard not to feel that she has a point even though she's willing to kill Janet (and Scott, Hope, and Hank if they get in her way) to save her own life.  Similarly sympathetic is Luis, who just wants the security business he's started with Scott to stay afloat, and keeps causing trouble for the Pyms by butting in at just the wrong moment.

    It's refreshing for an MCU movie to extend so much sympathy and attention to each one of its characters--really, the only character who isn't even a little bit sympathetic is Burch, and even he's not very malicious; when he wants to get information out of Luis, for example, he resorts to truth serum, not torture.  Even a subplot in which Randall Park plays Scott's long-suffering FBI monitor, who knows that his prisoner is breaking the terms of his plea deal but can't prove it, is given space to breathe.  But as Ant-Man and the Wasp draws to a close, this proliferation of plotlines doesn't converge as elegantly as it should, and the film's ending feels rushed and crowded. 

    This is compounded by the fact that using it for fight scenes is literally the least interesting, least imaginative use to which one can put Hank Pym's miniaturization technology.  The early parts of the film recognize this--a scene where Hank miniaturizes the entire building where he keeps his lab, thus turning it portable, drew gasps from me for its implications for the technology's possible implementations.  But as the story approaches its mandatory big fight finish, these flights of imagination fade away--there are only so many times you can rely on the gag of "something that is supposed to be small is big", or vice versa, before it feels like you're reaching for ideas (the film actually gets more mileage out of scenes in which Scott's suit malfunctions, stranding him in child size or giant size, and forcing him to improvise around those limitations).  Still, the film's use of humor, its relatively modest stakes, and its compassion for every one of its characters, mark it as a step in the right direction for the MCU and for the Ant-Man series in particular--even if the post-credits scene reminds us that in the wider world of the Avengers movies, none of these qualities are as prized as they should be.

Monday, July 09, 2018

A Political History of the Future: Tacoma at Lawyers, Guns & Money

My latest Political History of the Future column discusses Tacoma, the follow-up to Fullbright's paradigm-busting exploration game Gone Home (see my review here).  Tacoma takes a very different approach from Gone Home's 90s-set domestic drama.  It puts us in the head of Amy, a salvage specialist in 2088 dispatched to the titular space station, to discover what catastrophe caused the crew to evacuate, and how they responded to it.  So far, so familiar, but as in Gone Home, Tacoma plays with our genre expectations, approaching its premise with a refreshing lack of melodrama or sensationalism, and exploring the human connections formed on the station, and how the disaster affects them.  It also, as I write in my column, gives us a panoramic view of life in this late 21st century future, where corporations have even more power than they currently do, and people find their lives, relationships, and happiness held hostage to the whims of a company's bottom line.
One of the points revealed by these conversations and email exchanges is how strongly the economic system in the game's future is tilted towards corporations. While money still exists in the game's world, it is heavily supplemented, and in some cases superseded, by loyalty points—either "customer loyalty", which locks consumers into purchasing from a single company, or "company loyalty", which discourages employees from moving from one corporate employer to another. The game is very smart in how it introduces this concept—it takes a few conversations for us to realize how commonplace and insidious it is, because most of the characters take it for granted. ... What's smart about how Tacoma introduces these ideas is how it avoids the obvious, dystopian spin it could have put on them ... while also making it clear how they curtail the freedom and happiness of ordinary people

Monday, July 02, 2018

Five Comments on Luke Cage, Season 2

I don't have that much to say about the second season of Luke Cage.  Which is actually a shame, because despite some problems, I'd say that it's the strongest and most consistently entertaining season of television the Netflix MCU has produced since the first season of Jessica Jones.  It's just that the things I'd have to say about it are basically a combination of my review of the first season, and my review of the second season of Jessica Jones.  The stuff that worked in season one is back here, but better--the strong visuals, the amazing music, the thrilling fight scenes, the palpable sense of place.  And like Jessica Jones, coming back for a second season seems to have freed Luke Cage from the burden of having to justify its own existence as a superhero show about X (a woman, a black man), and allowed it to simply tell a story in which most of the characters are people of color (and some of them have superpowers).  At the same time, a lot of the problems that plagued the first season, and suggested that the Luke Cage concept might not be as durable as we could hope, are back in force here, with little indication that the show is interested in addressing them.  Here are a few thoughts I had at the end of the season, though the bottom line is that it is definitely worth watching.

  1. Luke Cage's second season feels like a second crack at the story the show failed to tell in season one.  Strictly speaking, the story that dominates the second season is a continuation of the one from its first, but realistically, they are both the same story, the second time around with the kinks worked out.  In both seasons, Luke finds himself caught in between the established Harlem crime mafia, ruled over in the second season by the semi-legitimate Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard) and her mobster henchman--and now lover--Shades (Theo Rossi), and a newly-arrived crime boss with powers that rival Luke's.  In the first season, this was the profoundly unimpressive Diamondback, whose appearance derailed the entire season.  The biggest course-correction made by season two is to substitute that character with John "Bushmaster" McIver (Mustafa Shakir), who represents the Brooklyn-based Jamaican mafia, and whose powers come from Obeah medicine.

    It's almost impossible to express what a huge shot in the arm Bushmaster represents for the show.  It's not just that he's a better-written character than Diamondback, with more nuance to his personality and more intelligence in his schemes against both Mariah and Luke.  And its not just that the season avoids the disastrous bifurcated structure of season one, introducing Bushmaster in its first episode and slowly ramping up his challenge to Harlem's existing power structures.  The show also makes some very smart choices in how it builds Bushmaster's connection to the Harlem characters.  Where Diamondback had a parachuted-in family connection to Luke that never felt particularly persuasive or interesting, Bushmaster turns out to have a connection to Mariah, or rather her criminal forebears, the Stokes, whose memory both haunts and galvanizes her.  Bushmaster and Mariah's fathers, it turns out, were business partners, but Buggy Stokes cheated Quentin McIver of his share of the business, setting off a violent family feud that has claimed lives for generations, and which Bushmaster now intends to end.

    The stage is thus set for a twisty multigenerational crime drama with many fascinating elements.  Mariah's relationship to her family, and particularly her harsh but effective crime-boss grandmother, Mama Mabel (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), was a highlight of season one, and introducing an additional wrinkle in the form of a criminal feud with another family allows us to delve even further into the Stokes' storied history.  The conflict between Harlem-based African-Americans and Brooklyn-based Jamaican immigrants is the kind of story one hardly ever gets to see on TV, and it allows the show to explore the nuances of the prejudices and mutual incomprehension that lie between the two communities--as well as their tendency to be lumped together by outsiders, as when Harlem residents complain that they are experiencing increased police harassment after the Jamaican mafia carries off some public acts of brutality.

    Other stories include Mariah's attempts to reconcile with her daughter Tilda (Gabrielle Dennis), who grows suspicious of Shades's presence in her mother's life; Shades's own desire to cross over to the legitimate side of business even as Mariah begins to enthusiastically embrace the criminal life; and new character Comanche (Thomas Q. Jones), Shades's long-time compatriot, whose suspicion of Mariah initially seems like garden-variety misogyny and ageism, but is eventually revealed to be romantic jealousy over Shades.  The show ties them all together beautifully, into a storied tragedy about the past catching even with people who are trying to escape it.  It's the story that season one hinted at--particularly in its standout scene, in which Mariah's cousin Cottonmouth goads her about her abuse at the hands of their uncle, finally causing her to snap and kill him--but wasn't able to pull off.  Season two does so in spades.

  2. Luke himself continues to be the least interesting character in his own show, and feels almost incidental to the season's most interesting storyline.  This was already a problem in season one, but as Luke Cage gets its crime storytelling under control, it becomes increasingly clear that it doesn't have a correspondingly strong story to tell about its putative hero, or even a particularly important role for him to play in its more successful storylines.  It's not just that Luke isn't particularly instrumental in settling the Stokes/McIver dispute--he protects a witness here, defuses a conflict there, but the ultimate showdown occurs because of choices made by Mariah, Bushmaster, Tilda, and Shades, not him.  But about halfway into the season you realize that almost every standout scene that will stay with you--moments like Comanche admitting to Shades that the relationship they embarked on in prison meant more to him than just a way of venting his frustrations, or Mariah telling Tilda that she was conceived from rape--doesn't even include Luke in it, and would in fact have been significantly worse if he had been there.  (I'm obviously not including the fight scenes here, and there are some genuinely great ones over the course of the season; but as much as I enjoy good action scenes, they're not why I watch this show.)

    This ends up feeling like part of a greater problem revealed by Luke Cage's second season--that after appearing in three shows and four seasons of television, Luke Cage remains the Netflix MCU's most poorly-defined main character.  He seems to have a different personality in every show he appears in.  In Jessica Jones, he's a romance novel hero, brooding yet sensitive, willing to take direction in bed, and disarmingly vulnerable outside of it.  In the first season of Luke Cage, he was something very different, an earnest small-c conservative with a profound sense of his own dignity.  In The Defenders, he was the team dad, defusing Matt and Jessica's intensity and corralling Danny's puppyish tendencies while also smacking down his thoughtless arrogance and quick recourse to violence.  And now in Luke Cage's second season, he's something else yet again, a local hero who is both burdened and seduced by fame, and who struggles with his desire to set things right by strength of arms, no matter who gets in his way.

    It's not that any of these character arcs are unconvincing or poorly executed, but taken together they create the sense that Luke is the Netflix MCU's utility player, and make each one feel less convincing and less urgent in its own right.  Season two of Luke Cage tries to delve into its hero's psyche by confronting him with his disapproving father (Reg E. Cathey in his final role), whose harshness towards Luke is matched only by his inability to admit his own failings.  Through him, the show tries to spin the argument that Luke struggles with internalized rage, which emerges both in his conflicts with his father, and in his increasingly-rocky relationship with Claire Temple, who ultimately leaves after he has a violent outburst during an argument.  It's not that Luke has never been angry on screen, but the idea that this is his besetting flaw feels like an informed trait (not to mention, very similar to Matt, Jessica, and even Danny's core flaws).  For this reason, and because the writing for it is less successful, the scenes addressing this inner struggle are rarely as engaging as, for example, Mariah trying to win over Tilda, or Bushmaster conversing with his friends and relatives in the Jamaican community.

    There's the hint of a more interesting idea that crops up later in the season, when the show suggests that Luke's sense of responsibility for his community is as much a negative trait as a positive one.  That he not only feels an obligation to protect Harlem, but sees himself as having the right to assert his authority over it.  This leads to the season's final twist, in which Luke establishes himself as "the king of Harlem", making deals with competing mob bosses to keep their business out of the neighborhood, while a dying Mariah wills him her club, Harlem's Paradise, making his rule visible as well as tangible.  This sets up a very interesting situation for the third season, in which Luke will apparently try to be a crime boss, minus the crime.  But given how poorly the Netflix MCU, and even his own show, have served this character so far, it's hard to hope for great things.

  3. This is still an incredibly frustrating show for anyone who hoped that it would address police brutality and the broken relationship between African-Americans and the police.  It's true, season two avoids some of season one's most egregious choices, such as a subplot in which Mariah, a prominent black politician, cynically uses Black Lives Matter rhetoric to conceal her crimes and inflame public opinion against Luke.  But the season remains caught in a seemingly irreconcilable bind between its superhero premise and its cultural moment.  Most superhero shows these days are essentially cop shows with less accountability, and the Netflix MCU in particular is disturbingly wedded to the notion that the police have had their hands tied by due process and the rules of evidence, which allow criminals to evade justice "on a technicality", thus requiring extra-legal interference from people like Matt Murdoch, Frank Castle, or Luke Cage.  But in a setting like Luke Cage's Harlem--and on a show where the hero periodically reminds us that his skin color can easily cancel out his heroism as far as the authorities are concerned--that's a troubling choice, whose implications are only sporadically acknowledged.

    The season thus veers oddly back and forth between addressing the persecution that black people experience from the police and other authorities, and endorsing the abuse of police power (even though it stops short of justifying outright violence).  In one scene, Misty Knight complains that the NYPD leadership's reaction to Bushmaster's initial, theatrical forays against Mariah is to increase uniformed officer presence in Brooklyn, which is sure to result only in the harassment of law-abiding Jamaicans.  One of Misty's main storylines over the course of the season involves seriously considering--and very nearly carrying out--a plan to plant contraband weapons on a recently-released criminal who has been beating his wife.  When she's forestalled by the man's death, she admits that she's been at risk of going down a dark path and that she's afraid of ending up like her partner, Scarfe, who worked for Cottonmouth and regularly fabricated evidence.

    At the same time, however, this is still the same Misty who gets visibly angry when the law prevents her from roughing up suspects or interrogating them without their lawyer present.  Near the end of the season, she suggests that Tilda demanding a warrant before allowing Misty to search her store makes her similar to Mariah.  Especially given that Misty is such a heroic and stalwart figure, the way that the show repeatedly expects us to sympathize with her impatience with people exercising their constitutional rights feels like something we're meant to sympathize with.  And in a show about a community whose rights have historically been curtailed and ignored, that feels like an unjustifiable choice.

  4. Alfre Woodard gives the performance of a lifetime.  Woodard has been doing terrific work in film and TV for decades, including of course in the first season of Luke Cage.  But season two deepens and complicates Mariah's character, and gives Woodard a meaty role which she sinks her teeth into with gusto.  In her hands, Mariah becomes a mass of contradictions, and both the performance and the writing make it clear that these inner conflicts are rooted not just in Mariah's moral bankruptcy or her difficult family history, but in her race, and in the difficulties inherent in being an intelligent, powerful black woman.  Woodard excels at switching between Mariah's respectable, matronly demeanor and the "street" persona she associates with her past and her family.  She is at once desperate to cement her legacy as Harlem's savior, and completely ruthless and self-absorbed as a burgeoning crime boss.  As her involvement in criminal activities deepens, she veers wildly between ebullience at her newfound power, and dark despair when things don't go her way.  She also gets to address Mariah's sexuality, something that few older actresses get to play with, and is at turns rapacious, jealous, and insecure.

    It's a performance, and a character, that reminded me a great deal of what Viola Davis is doing on How to Get Away With Murder.  Both actresses are playing women who live on a knife's edge, who have supposedly overcome their troubled pasts, but who are constantly aware of the fact that as black women, they are always being judged and observed, and always on the verge of being pulled back down--until they finally decide to jump.  Like Davis, Woodard is fearless in portraying the psychological cost of a life lived with this uncertainty, and with the need to play a part in order to get ahead.  She lets us see beneath Mariah's mask, and what's there is dark and often unpleasant to look at.  But Woodard and the writing for Mariah make it clear that as much as that darkness is rooted in Mariah's own shriveled soul, it's also the result of a lifetime of being taught to hate herself--by her family, who refused to allow her the space to recover from rape and abuse, and by a society that insists that she is lesser because of the color of her skin.  One very good thing to have come out of the Netflix MCU is the glee with which it has allowed older actresses to play thorny, unsympathetic, but completely magnetic characters--Sigourney Weaver in The Defenders, Janet McTeer and Carrie-Ann Moss in Jessica Jones.  But Woodard is in a league of her own.  If you watch the show for no other reason, watch it for her.

  5. Yes, Danny Rand shows up.  It's only for one episode, and there are some good action scenes in it as Luke and Danny figure out how to combine their powers in a fight.  Plus, the work done in The Defenders to tone down Danny's smug arrogance continues here, and one can almost believe that he and Luke genuinely like each other.  All that said, Danny is still an annoying, pointless character, and his Luke Cage cameo does nothing to dissuade me from my decision not to watch Iron Fist's second season whenever it arrives.  (Colleen Wing also guest-stars earlier in the season, and is so much fun that it's depressing to remember that she's still stuck on Iron Fist.  Daughters of the Dragon, Netflix!  You made a dumb Punisher show, now do this!)