At this year’s San Diego Comic Con, Marvel once again planted a big, wet kiss on the fans’ mouths, with new footage and casting information covering everything from Captain Marvel (yay for female superheroes, double yay for Alison Brie) to Doctor Strange (nice-looking trailer, even if it looks a bit too much like a mashup of The Matrix and Inception). There were also a couple of titbits for those following the Netflix series, including an action-packed teaser for Luke Cage. I liked the character in Jessica Jones and I thought it’d be interesting to have a new Marvel property with a strong, individual style, so the promise of a blaxploitation-inspired series combined with a more modern sensitivity intrigued me.
Cue the teaser, which has Luke taking on a bunch of goons with the aid of his super strength and a car door, all biff-, bam- and pow-like. I’ve seen some fan reactions, and they all seem to agree: this is shaping up to be a badass series for a badass character.
Myself? I found it boring.
Of course, a teaser needs to be punchy. I expect that most of the Marvel teasers ever since the Cinematic Universe was launched would’ve focused on fisticuffs and one-liners. But it was yet another superpowered dude beating on a bunch of other dudes. It brought to mind the main reason why I’m getting bored with the second season of Daredevil (I’ve got four episodes to go) and why so many of the third acts of the Marvel movies leave me dissatisfied: the Marvel franchises deliver action, but they’re not that great at keeping the action interesting, at making it varied and surprising. Daredevil may fare worst in this respect: they set the bar high in the first season with the hallway fight in the second episode, an homage to the iconic sequence in Oldboy that was thrilling and, yes, badass, but after that diminishing returns began to set in. The fights never are less than professional, but they blend into each other, feeling like filler. Jessica Jones did better by having a villain who was about words, not punches, which made the conflict primarily about character, not clobbering, so when there was physical combat, it was striking and specific rather than just this week’s fight. While the Luke Cage teaser was different from Daredevil‘s action sequences – Cage is much more about sheer strength than ninja balletics -, it still made me give a preemptive sigh. I like Cage the character much more than Cage the two fists attached to a guy.
Perhaps I’m in a minority and the fans love the fights. I know a number of people who were bored with Daredevil‘s dialogues but perked up whenever there was violence, so they may want a Luke Cage that is largely about breaking through walls and beating up bad guys with car doors. It’s not that I expect pacifist superheroes that talk everything out with the bad guys (mind you, it’d be interesting if they tried) – but I want the fights to be interesting and meaningful. I want the action to be effective, and it loses its effect when it’s used as the default. What I’d want is for the Marvel showrunners and producers to take notes from the best action films, which always kept their setpieces specific rather than generic – and most of all I want them to take a page out of the Sergio Leone/Quentin Tarantino playbook when it comes to action. One thing that these two do masterfully (and Tarantino is clearly inspired by the godfather of the operatic spaghetti western) is to build up the tension slowly but steadily and then release it in an explosion of violence. It’s Hitchcock’s bomb under the table, which is more effective than the bomb blowing up: the audience sits there on the edge of their seats, knowing that the situation will erupt any second now – and when it does, it’s thrilling and exhilarating and shocking.
Not every action sequence can work like this, and I don’t want the Marvel properties to look and feel like Leone or Tarantino, but in order to remain interesting they need to understand that too much of a good thing tends to become dull. If the fans want action, by all means give them action – but make it the best action you have. Make it exciting, not comforting: don’t make it the mac’n’cheese of your story. Make it build on the characters, and make it say something about them, about who they are, in terms that are more specific than “badass”. If an episode looks and feels as if the script basically says, “And then they fight”, well, you need to try harder. Otherwise, “badass” can quickly morph into “boring”.