In Detail: Iron Man – The Party (01.07.33 – 01.13.36)

Tony Stark is up for a party, and nothing could illustrate that more than the thumping music, the roar of an engine and the sight of one of those sleek, beautiful sports cars racing down a urban landscape, bypassing lesser, slower cars with ease.

This Audi R8 gets to have its engine prominently displayed, along with the “STARK 4″ registration plate. Gotta pay for the Gulmira action scene somehow! Anyway, Stark is a playboy is coming out for a spin, and this brief moment is supposed to remind us of the kind of lifestyle Stark (as well as being an advertisement for Audi).

Stark arrives at the gala, all style and grace as the camera pulls up and around the parked car. A tip for the valet, a movement to button the tux, this is all flash and money, to make clear in our mind the kind of celebrity superstar that Stark really is. Almost immediately Tony is drawing the eyes of beautiful women in very expensive looking dresses, not to mention the flashing of paparazzi cameras.

One of the only people who doesn’t seem to be aware of Tony’s big entrance is Obadiah Stane, talking to a reporter somewhere on the red carpet, looking resplendent in a nice tuxedo.


STANE:
… Weapons manufacturing is only one small part of what Stark Industries is all about, and our partnership with the fire and rescue community…

This gala is for the Fire Brigade apparently (there is a fire truck in the background of one of the earlier shots, lights blaring) but what’s really important is the first part of this piece of dialogue, where Stane actually appears to be peddling the Stark line, downplaying Stark Industries’ manufacturing of weapons. This is the sort of line you’d expect from someone who is onboard with Tony’s new vision, paving the way for the company to work on something else, something non-lethal like…fire engines? With the repeated looks at Raza back in Afghanistan, this sort of thing seems designed to lower our suspicions of Obadiah just a tad, and make the coming revelation that much more impacting.

Stane is suddenly distracted by the sound of cheering and female yelping to his left, and here comes Tony Stark. The tux, the flashing lights, the female adulation. One blonde actually has something to say:

WOMAN:
Hey, Tony, remember me?

TONY:
Sure don’t….

He doesn’t even look at her, walking on without a care. Is this the true return of Tony the womaniser, or is this more of a Bruce Wayne thing, where Tony is acting out to deflect attention from his more secret activities?

Marvel’s obligatory Stan Lee appearance also follows, at Tony pats a bathrobe wearing OAP who is surrounded by beautiful women:

TONY:
You look great, Hef.

The Lee cameos are just one of Marvel’s little idiosyncrasies – even Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D got in on that act – but as a brief nod to the core audience, they could be a lot worse. Lee being a doddering old man like he is portrayed here, looking around confused when he is tapped on the shoulder, does sort of fit.

Tony walks right up to Stane all smiles.

TONY:
What’s the world coming to when a guy’s got to crash his own party?

STANE:
Look at you. Hey, what a surprise.

Obadiah’s reaction is a bit hard to read. His words sound like they are picked very carefully, as if he is both surprised to see Tony at this event and unsure of how to react. It’s a very public moment – the camera are still going off throughout this scene – but it’s also somewhat personal, as Stane ensures that his words and reactions can’t be misinterpreted too much. Tony seemed to be a recluse living in his basement, now he’s out and about just like he was before. And, he’s still stealing Stane’s spotlight, literally in this case.

TONY:
I’ll see you inside.

STANE:
Hey, listen, take it slow, all right? I think I got the board right where we want them.

Stane whispers this in Tony’s ear, a tone and look of genuine concern evident. He doesn’t want Tony pulling another press conference moment and, in conjunction with what we heard him sayIng to the reporters, this is another indication that Stane is on Tony’s side and is helping whim with his new and improved vision for Stark Industries. Tony is acquiescing in this:

TONY:
You got it. Just cabin fever.

An indication of just why Tony is at this party, trying to get away from the recluse he realised he was becoming…and that the world was seeing him as.

Inside the party (the sumptuous Walt Disney Concert Hall), party guests mill around, soft jazz plays and everything appears to be in full swing for this gala. Tony head straight for the bar, where a familiar face is waiting.


TONY:
(To barman) Give me a Scotch. I’m starving.

AGENT COULSON:
Mr Stark?

TONY:
Yeah?

COULSON:
Agent Coulson.

The impeccably pressed suit, the deadpan manner, nothing has changed about Agent Coulson since the first time that we saw him.

TONY:
Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. The guy from the…

COULSON:
Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division.

TONY:
God, you need a new name for that.

COULSON:
Yeah, I hear that a lot.

Again, I can’t believe that I never quite picked up on that on a first viewing. Stark, kind of like Pepper earlier, is barely paying any attention to Coulson, not even looking at him directly.

COULSON:
Listen, I know this must be a trying time for you, but we need to debrief you. There’s still a lot of unanswered questions, and time can be a factor with these things.

Stark couldn’t care less, because he’s spotted something much more interesting across the room: Pepper. Moreover, Pepper, in a backless blue dress, her hair styled and looking very different to how we have been traditionally introduced to her.

TONY:
(Distracted) Let’s just put something on the books.

COULSON:
How about the 24th at 7:00p.m. at Stark Industries?

TONY:
Tell you what. You got it. You’re absolutely right. Well, I’m going to go to my assistant, and we’ll make a date.

Quite the brush-off. Tony goes straight over to Pepper.

TONY:
You look fantastic! I didn’t recognise you.

And she does. Not to emphasise the point, but she does look stunning. The only glimpses we’ve had of Pepper so far in Iron Man have shown her as purely professional – business suit, black shoes, fixed hair, no real bling. She didn’t look ugly in any way, but she wasn’t a bombshell. Here – this dress, the hair, the lipstick the jewellery – she looks completely different, a whole side of her that we haven’t had the chance to see yet. She’s surprised to see Tony, and in a slightly negative way.

PEPPER:
What are you doing here?

TONY:
Just avoiding government agents.

PEPPER:
Are you by yourself?

She’s concerned, much like Obadiah. Just what kind of nonsense could Tony pull here?

But then things go in a very different direction:

TONY:
Yes. Where’d you get that dress?

PEPPER:
Oh, it was a birthday present.

TONY:
That’s great.

PEPPER:
From you, actually.

TONY:
Well, I got great taste.

You’ll remember, way way back near the start of the film, Tony gently teased Pepper about a gift he had gotten her for her birthday (and the fact that he remembered). It was not only Tony’s “Save The Cat” moment in terms of character definition, but it helped to make his relationship with Pepper stand out, as opposed to his relationship with the likes of Christine Everhart. We never found out what the gift was, only that Pepper liked it and that Tony was, evidently, very pleased with himself for picking it out.

Now we know that the gift was this dress. It’s an interesting gift to give. Assuming that Tony actually did the legwork in getting it, it is at once both thoughtful and a bit creepy. The dress certainly looks good on Pepper, it can’t be denied. But it’s a remarkably intimate garment to gift to someone, with a very sexual side to its appearance and material (or rather, the lack of it in certain areas). Was the dress some kind of come on from Stark? Or is this really just what he thought Pepper would appreciate, a gift that is remarkably more forward than the usual kind of thing between employer and employee.

Compare with the gift that Pepper got Tony in the last sequence. That was personal too, and the kind of gift that went beyond a simple professional relationship. Like this dress bringing out a different side of Pepper in Tony’s eyes, the display case for the reactor, with the caption, was meant to show off a side of Tony’s personality – his non-literal “heart” – that isn’t immediately obvious to both people. Pepper obviously liked the dress – she’s wearing it after all – and Tony liked the display case. These two know each other to a degree that has not really been seen to any great extent with other relationships in Iron Man so far.

TONY:
You want to dance?

PEPPER:
Oh, no. Thank you.

TONY:
All right, come on.

PEPPER:
(Being led onto the dance floor) No…

It is a bit of a strange moment now. There’s an awkwardness between the two before Tony even asks her to dance, due to Tony’s surprising presence at the gala and Pepper’s clothing. Then Tony asks her to dance, and literally doesn’t take no for an answer. Pepper protests gracefully and quietly, but is obvious in her unease with being asked to dance by Tony, and then being dragged away by him even when she declines. There’s something in this section to be said about gender roles and the dominant position that Tony takes with Pepper. We can chalk this up to Tony’s experience with women maybe, whom he is constantly leading around and playing with like toys. He isn’t used to being turned down, and perhaps thinks that Pepper really does want to dance with him and just needs a bit of encouragement. The fact that this is an undercurrent of disrespect for women goes uncommented upon.

Pepper allows herself to be led onto the dance floor, smiling blandly at others taking note of Tony’s sudden appearance and the fact that she is dancing with him. The two settle into a gentle sway, but this if offset by how obviously nerve filled Pepper is, sighing and biting her lip.

TONY:
Am I making you uncomfortable?

PEPPER:
No. No. I always forget to wear deodorant and dance with my boss in front of everyone that I work with in a dress with no back.

TONY:
You look great and you smell great.

PEPPER:
Oh, God.

That’s a great little run-on sentence from Pepper. We’ve never seen her really unnerved or panicked before – her tears upon Tony’s return was the most potent emotional display from here thus far in the film – but this is Pepper worried, because of the social situation Tony has, literally, dragged her into. Office politics might seem an odd consideration in this setting, but for a woman in the position that Pepper is in, right hand to a man like Tony Stark, being seen like this must be disconcerting. Tony’s reply probably doesn’t help, being a bit forward in tone, matched by the unashamed look in his eye, clearly exhibiting an interest.

He decides to respond to the situation with humour, like he always does:

TONY:
But I could fire you if that would take the edge off.

PEPPER:
I actually don’t think that you could tie your shoes without me.

TONY:
I’d make it a week. Sure.

PEPPER:
Really? What’s your Social Security number?

TONY:
….Five.

PEPPER:
Five?

TONY:
Right.

PEPPER:
Right. You’re missing just a couple of digits there.

TONY:
The other eight? So I got you for the other eight.

It’s easy banter between these two, which helps to cut the tension for just a moment (and to illustrate, again, how reliant Tony is on Pepper).

But then suddenly things get a bit more serious again, and Iron Man gives Tony and Pepper a moment, just a few seconds, where they are wordlessly looking at each other, in this setting and doing this activity, suddenly realising, or so it seems to me, the place that they are heading to together. Pepper’s awkwardness lapses, Tony looks a bit more serious. And, just as with the “You’re all I have” moment earlier, there is a very definite sense that the two are closer to acknowledging the true depth of feeling that they have for each other.

But then the moment is broken:

TONY:

How about a little air?

PEPPER:
Yes, I need some air.

Pepper answerers very quickly, snatching at anything to make the tension disappear. The two wander off, with a brief look at a very grumpy Agent Coulson to bookend the scene. He’s not getting that date, and he knows it.

Cut to Tony and Pepper on a balcony elsewhere in the building. Overlooking a busy street. The camera is back further that it was now, allowing us to take in the two more singularly, without the distraction of party guests and music, save for the occasional passing of a few couples. Pepper is tense, playing with her hair, which is strikingly out of character for someone as apparently prim and proper as she has been seen up to this point.

PEPPER:
That was totally weird.

TONY:
Totally harmless.

PEPPER:
It’s was totally not harmless, by the way.

TONY:
We’re dancing. No one’s even watching.

PEPPER:
Everybody who I work with…

Tony is very soft spoken in this moment, almost murmuring his objections to Pepper’s distaste for what they just did. But he’s not admitting fault either, he seems to be trying to mollify Pepper to an extent. We might appreciate how strange a step this is for Tony, trying to show genuine affection towards a women he possibly loves, as opposed to just trying to get her into bed as fast as possible. Pepper’s reaction, while perfectly justified as she will explain in a moment, might have thrown him.


TONY:
No, you know why? I think you lost objectivity. I think they just… people… We just danced.

PEPPER:
No, it was not just a dance. You don’t understand because you’re you. And everybody knows exactly who you are and how you are with girls and…all of that, which is completely fine. But, you know, then me, you’re my boss, and I’m dancing with you.

I actually found it a bit unsettling, and maybe bad for the character, that Pepper is rambling on like this in the face of a romantic advance, stumbling over the words and shying away from voicing firm opinions. It just seems so contrary to the women that she has been shown to be so far in the film, knowledgeable, confident, professional and sure of herself. But, then again, none of that involved personal romantic stuff, so maybe that is just this side of Pepper’s personality, unused to dealing with such things, especially when it comes from someone like Tony Stark.

TONY:
I don’t think it was taken that way.

PEPPER:
Because it makes me look like the one who’s trying to…

TONY:
I just think you’re overstating it.

PEPPER:
You know, and we’re here, and then I’m wearing this ridiculous dress, and then we were dancing like that and…

And then things get more serious, with some light tones in the background featuring some xylophone melody (OST: “Extra Dry, Extra Olives“, the closest Iron Man comes to a love theme). The shot sets things up for a kiss, that classic view of two people in profile, with the added smalsh of there being a balcony in the background. Pepper’s words get slower, and then they are just staring at each other, like they were before.

It’s a nice, tender moment, with a certain inevitability about it, that you have seen a thousand times before. Many of us will know the sheer terror and excitement of that moment, when you lean to kiss the girl or guy for the first time.

But Pepper is hesitant, her facial expression donating second thoughts long before their lips are on the verge of touching.

And then the spell is broken:

PEPPER:
…I would like a drink, please.

TONY:
Got it, okay.

PEPPER:
I would like a vodka martini, please.

As if she realised the danger of the thing that she was about to do, Pepper breaks it off, grasping at the excuse of needing a drink.

Tony, seemingly not entirely comfortable with everything himself, immediately agrees to go and get Pepper a drink, with an odd up close shot focusing on her as she shouts out her drink order to an already departing Tony, maybe just to show how deliberately slow and nerve-settling she gets out the words. Ah, to alcohol, 5he cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.

Tony heads to the bar, ordering a drink in his own unique style:

TONY:
Two vodka martinis, extra dry, extra olives, extra fast. Make one of them dirty, will you?

But an unpleasant surprise awaits. Tony scans the room and quickly averts his eyes when he sees the oncoming Christine Everhart, whom we last saw getting kicked out of Tony’s mansion way back in the first ten minutes of the film. She’s looking much the same as always, only with more of her covered than the last moment she was onscreen.

EVERHART:
Wow. Tony Stark. Fancy seeing you here.

TONY:
Carrie?

EVERHART:
Christine.

TONY:
That’s right.

I suppose it is intentional that you don’t really have a clear idea about whether Tony is joking or serious here. Either way, the conversation is not off to a good start.

EVERHART:
You have a lot of nerve showing up here tonight. Can I at least get a reaction from you?

TONY:
Panic. I would say panic is my reaction.

Awkward…I do love how Stark bites his lip and tenses up here, unable to walk away because he’s waiting on the drink, forced to listen to Everhart even while Pepper is waiting for him elsewhere. But then things take a much more serious turn.

EVERHART:
‘Cause I was referring to your company’s involvement in this latest atrocity.

That piques the interest, certainly. But Tony isn’t biting just yet, turning to humour.

TONY:
Yeah. They just put my name on the invitation. I don’t know what to tell you.

But Everhart, for all her faults as a journalist, is at least tenacious, and presses the issue.

EVERHART:
I actually almost bought it, hook, line and sinker.

TONY:
I was out of town for a couple months, in case you didn’t hear.

This is much like their first conversation actually, in dialogue and framing. We cut back and forth, the lines are short, everything is rapid-fire: Everhart’s criticisms and Tony’s blasé attitude towards them. Still, at the last point he does get a bit more annoyed (right around the same moment he was getting annoyed earlier).


EVERHART:
Is this what you call accountability? (hands Tony some photographs) It’s a town called Gulmira. Heard of it?

Um, yeah. Yeah we have. Now isn’t that a weird coincidence. From earlier, in the cave:

TONY:
You still haven’t told me where you’re from.

YINSEN:
I’m from a small town called Gulmira. It’s actually a nice place.

Too much of a coincidence. Tony is immediately intrigued, and the reveal of what’s on the photographs is delayed for a few tantalising seconds.

Oh, hey Bakaar. The coincidences keep piling up, don’t they? Anyway, continuing with the plot hook established with that first panicked look at a Stark Industries bob about to go off in Tony’s face in the opening sequence, we now see the dark, twisted side of the industry Stark was overseeing: his weapons, branded and all, being used for atrocity and carnage somewhere in Afghanistan, in the hands of people who should not have them. Even worse, one almost looks like a working Jericho missile system. The horror of the situation is accentuated by a sudden echoing ring from the score. However, I will say that there is a bit of a plot hole in this whole thing which is this: American weapons like this, in the hands of a terrorist group, would be surely be headline news worthy. Why is Everhart going to Tony with this and not the press that she is, nominally, a part of? Just looking for a reraction?

TONY:
When were these taken?

CHRISTINE:
Yesterday.

TONY:
I didn’t approve any shipment.

CHRISTINE:
Well, your company did.

She remains piercing with her accusations, Tony is defensive, in a way he has never been with her before. It’s interesting that Tony moves to defend himself and not his company, almost as if a certain disconnect between the man and the organisation that bears his name is already evident, a state of affairs reaffirmed in Tony’s last words to Everhart on the subject:


TONY:
Well, I’m not my company.

And he isn’t, not anymore, not since the cave, the escape and Yinsen’s death. But, if Tony Stark is not the company, and is not approving these shipments, then who is? Oh, I think we might have an idea at this point.

Outside the gala, Tony confronts Obadiah, who is now busy trying to get media cameras out of his face. Tony is upfront with Stane:

TONY:
Have you seen these pictures? What’s going on in Gulmira?

Obadiah’s reply, hushed so no listening ears might pick up on it, is absolutely chilling:

STANE:
Tony, Tony. You can’t afford to be this naive.

The final breaking between Tony and Stane is going on right before our eyes. With those words, Obadiah picks up the mantle of a villain, and he isn’t going to be dropping it. His words are simple and said directly, the well practised justification that Stane must have been telling himself for a long time.

Tony is immediately serious, accusing, angry in his retort. This is not just illegality, immorality and betrayal. This is Stane having a personal hand in Starks’ ordeal.

TONY:
You know what? I was naive before, when they said, “Here’s the line. We don’t cross it. This is how we do business.” lf we’re double-dealing under the table… Are we?

Stane just stares back at Tony for a moment, the violins swelling in a nervous note. He’s considering. Considering how to handle this, whether to come up with some excuse, some lie, some way out, or to just keep going. This is actually one of the defining moments of the entire film, and Stark’s life.

Obadiah moves Tony to face the camera, for the surface reason of getting a good paparazzi shot of the two of them together. We might also notice Everhart in the background, looking on but apparently not privy to the details of this whispered conversation.

Tony simply stares, almost comatose with shock, as the revelation comes:

STANE:
Tony. Who do you think locked you out? I was the one who filed the injunction against you. It’s was the only way I could protect you.

Stane, in response to Stark’s decision to completely alter Stark Industries modus operandi, is trying to get rid of Tony from the business entirely. Worse, much worse, he’s involved in selling guns to terrorists, the very terrorists that captured and tortured Stark in Afghanistan. And even worse, he phrases this admittance as if he was doing Stark a favour, protecting him by keeping him ignorant and trying to get him out of the way. What else could Stane be hiding? We’ll find out soon.

The breaking is done. The friendship is decisively over, Stane doing away with it easily, with just a few words, and not even sticking around very long to hear any of Tony’s thoughts on the matter. Tony starts after him as he walks away, tense with anger, and with what may be the beginning of tears in his eyes. Everyone, the press, guests and even Everhart walks away from him as the camera pans out. He seems more on his own than ever.

The question is, what will Tony Stark do now?

For The Film

This is an intervening sequence, coming between two different action sequences, designed to move the plot forward and get two very important things done. First, the Tony/Pepper relationship, and the romantic undertones to it, has to be explored in greater depth, accomplished by a somewhat awkward come-on from Tony and Pepper’s flustered reaction, which belies her obvious interest. Secondly, it needs to finally delineate Stane as a villain of the story, albeit one who might not be the primary antagonist (which, at this point in the film, still seems like it is going to be Raza), accomplished by that characters decision to break away from Tony and simply admit the underhanded things he has been doing. Tony Stark steps back into his usual environment here, the glitz and glamour of celebrity, but is left feeling cold and isolated by the conclusion. He’s a changed man, and circumstances are changing around him.

Characterisation

Tony Stark

At the start of this sequence, Tony Stark is racing back into the role he once played, the devil-may-care playboy, at least in appearance. But what he really wants to do is get closer to Pepper, it’s just the method of doing so leaves a bit to be desired. Struggling to find a romantic connection after a life of keeping distance, his efforts with Pepper are hit and miss. Then, a shockwave to his life, which hits him like a tonne of bricks, leaving him angry, confused and almost tearful. That anger is important, and how he reacts will show much of the man Stark intends to be in the future.

Obadiah Stane

He’s finally had enough of the pretence. For the whole film, he’s been in a shadow, playing the loyal friend even while despising his position and working against Stark. Now, he breaks free from those shackles and almost proudly declares his antagonism towards Stark and the manner in which he has been going about fulfilling it.

Agent Coulson

Still as tight and mostly unreadable as he was before, Coulson seeks Stark’s attention and is visibly annoyed when he doesn’t get it.

Pepper Potts

She appears out of her depth in this sequence, mortified by her boss coming onto her in such a public fashion. But her attraction to Stark is a real thing, something that she is unable to really rationalise and deal with properly, balking out of confronting issue twice over. But the look in the eyes is real enough.

Christine Everhart

She’s back, and a bit better at the journalism thing now. Her disgust at what she sees as Stark’s hypocrisy is keenly felt, and raises her up in the audience’s eyes, even if her overall role in the story is still quite small. She’s a catalyst for the Stark/Stane breaking, and that’s enough.

Next time, Tony returns to Afghanistan.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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Review: Veronica Mars

Veronica Mars

Trailer

"We used to be friends, a long time ago..."

“We used to be friends, a long time ago…”

I was a big Veronica Mars fan. I thought, before viewing, that the premise was a gateway to childishness and smalsh, but was delighted to find a dark, moody and utterly enthralling detective mystery show, in a setting that allowed an exploration of a multitude of unlikely themes: sexual assault, unwanted pregnancy, class divide, police and political deceit, destructive relationships and feminism. Its second season remains, for me, the benchmark in how to mix the procedural and the serialised, with a clever overarching plotline mixing in with independent stories.

It’s cancellation after just three years, and without a proper ending, was a gutpunch. But, through the power of Kickstarter, a fact namedropped subtly in the production itself, Veronicas Mars has been allowed to ride again, possibly for one last conclusive adventure, or maybe as the start of something more.

Nine years on from her last adventure in the California town of Neptune, Veronica Mars (Kristin Bell) has left behind the private detective business of her father (Enrico Colantoni) in favour of New York and pursuing a career in law alongside her reliable boyfriend Piz (Chris Lowell). But when ex-flame Logan (Jason Dohring) asks Veronica to help him prove his innocence in the death of his girlfriend, Veronica is drawn back to Neptune, and a world of celebrity, conspiracy, corruption and murder.

More in-depth discussion of the film, with spoilers, from this point on. For my shorter, non-spoiler, review, click here to go to The Write Club.

Veronica Mars sets itself up very quickly, so that the fans of the TV show can settle in as fast as possible. Even as Veronica namedrops things that occurred to her in the course of her three years in Neptune – like that sex tape incident – it is remarkably clear how much has changed. Veronica might still have the biting wit and the incredible confidence, but she’s also a long way from where she was: she has the career in law ahead of her and a stable, long-term relationship with the easy going and imminently likable Piz (no matter what the shippers think).

But Thomas does a great job at undermining this apparent tranquillity, and that’s before Veronica is even called back to Neptune. She and Piz seem great, but she’s a somewhat absent girlfriend, who has not even met his parents in nine years. She mocks his work colleagues, and generally seems a bit too blasé about her life. And then Logan Echels gets on the phone.

From there, Veronica Mars becomes the Veronica/Logan show. This may have been what a lot of the fans wanted, but the overwhelming dominance of those two ends up shafting a lot of characters, and all for a reason I’m not super happy with myself. The “On again, off again” nature of the Veronica and Logan, while entertaining for a time, had become very worn by the conclusion of the TV show, at least in my view. Enough time has passed that the return to this state of affairs is not as tired as it might be, but there were moments in the course of Veronica Mars when I could only roll my eyes at the way Veronica and Logan were looking at each other. A failure to launch is what it was, for the Veronica character.

That’s not even a bad thing inherently. Veronica isn’t perfect, and never has been. Admitting an addiction to drama and the kind of person Logan is, to the horrific detriment of poor Piz, actually does a great job of rounding Veronica out. I just feel like this is old ground, already well trod. In that sense, there is a certain lack of ambition in Veronica Mars.

On again, off again, will they, won't they...

On again, off again, will they, won’t they…

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Veronica Mars is, I expect, exactly what its financial backers wanted it to be: an episode of the TV show. Because that is what it is, just elongated out to nearly two hours. Every noteworthy character from the TV show that’s still breathing makes a return for the big screen edition, Logan is in legal trouble and needs Veronica’s help, Veronica is faced with the choice of the stable loving guy or the dangerous attractive bad boy, the police are corrupt (and there’s even a Sheriff Lamb in charge), hacking needs to be done, rich and poor clash, the high school bitch has it out with our heroine and a celebrity drops in for a little while. Thomas, having managed to inject life once again into the beloved franchise, simply keeps going with what wasn’t broken.

That is sure to make fans of the show very, very happy (and so I would say for myself) but I’m not sure that it really does the best work at making Veronica Mars stand on its own merits. The murder plot can feel a bit stretched out at times, very much like a 44 minute idea that Thomas is trying to make good for the big screen. With plenty of Veronica/Logan based drama to supplement, our private eye launches herself at the murder case. It’s a bit more serious than your standard mystery of the week that characterised the TV show, but still follows much or the same format: following the obvious lead, uncovering an unexpected conspiracy involving an unlikely character, laughing at the bumbling police efforts and a neat resolution. There is an added edge to proceedings of course – not least the murderous quality of the new Neptune police force – but the general feel of things is not all that different to what came before.

It’s still a fairly interesting murder mystery though. With the skill of the TV show in peppering subtle hints and drawing a satisfying conclusion from them, the film manages to craft a crime drama to hold the interest, just like Thomas did week in, week out nearly a decade ago. Logan is accused of murdering his celebrity socialite girlfriend, a Lindsey Lohan type it would seem, and Veronica comes to the rescue. The obvious is dealt with quickly, through the creepy stalker type that is an inevitable addition to this kind of story, but at least it’s done in a fun way, with Logan forced to go on a date with her, the kind of darkly humorous situation that is a hallmark of this franchise. From there it’s a heady mixture of surveillance, breaking, entering and awesome spy work, interrupted frequently by Logan staring longingly at Veronica and the occasional talking head from the TV show.

Of those characters, the supporting case, there is delight and some disappointment. Tina Majorino’s Mac, who had one of the shows great arcs, is sidelined to a few snarky comments and the standard hacking skills and Wallace, much as he suffered in the latter end of the TV show, suffers even more. But Keith Mars is back with a vengeance, still sticking it to an increasingly extremist man through his own investigations, and still regretting the amount of hands off parenting he does with Veronica. And Vinnie Van Lowe is still sleazing it up.

Beyond them, the amount of brief cameos is staggering and unnecessary. Just about every noteworthy character from the TV show that was still breathing pops back up, from Dick Casablancas to Celeste Kane. Newcomers to the franchise are bound to feel a little lost, especially when it comes to the multitude of cameos from characters not especially important to the story. As nice as it is to see that Dick Casablancas is still an “09er” asshat, he isn’t very important to the story being told. The high school bitch, the brief Sherriff department boyfriend, the weird Mayor’s daughter, the former principal, they all pop back up. I wouldn’t say most of them are really needed, and seem like a sop to the fans more than anything. The worst, perhaps, is poor Weevil. Veronica meets him a changed man, with a job, a wife and a baby daughter. Then for seemingly no other reason than to get the status quo back on track, he gets sucked back into his old life, with very little impact on the main plot. Weevil remains a representation of everything wrong in how Neptune treats those outside of the “09er” circle, marked for disappointment and injustice from the second he reappears in Veronica Mars, but really doesn’t serve much point to the story beyond that.  The standard issue of class divide (or war if we want to be overblown) returns then, as Neptune exhibits an increased  state of “One rule for some, another for everyone else”.  The rich still get away with everything, and the lower classes still have to play with the deck stacked against them, even in patently unfair situations. The example of Weevil in Veronica Mars is a bit clumsy, but serves to illustrate the point. Neptune is a town that is utterly broken, its authorities rotten to their core and propped up by an array of money and power.

The reunion scene, wherein a mass brawl breaks out and Veronica finally gets to punch that stuck up cow in the face, is nothing but pure fan service, but at least it eventually gets the plot moving in the right direction. Another dark and twisted conspiracy is slowly uncovered among the rich and powerful in “09er” land, one that has its tendrils, suitably enough, during the cast’s high school years. The false leads mount up, in true Veronica Mars fashion.

Along with all of this, Mars Investigations takes a long hard look at celebrity culture’s interactions with the age of mass media, a recurring theme, written and visual, being the preponderance of recording devices in the modern age, and everything that goes with it. Veronica Mars has always been about surveillance and the secrets we keep – the very first episode of the TV show has the viral spread of a video depicting a dead rich girls corpse as a plot point – and eases easily enough into an age where secrets are increasingly kept secret only for a very short time. I watched this film just after the celebrity nude photo scandal (a scandal insofar that innocent people were criminally targeted), and it’s fair to say that its message continues to resonate. This eventually leads to James Franco’s remarkable cameo, a strangely effective comic moment at a time when the film was embarking on its most serious section.

The intervening moments are supposed to belong to the morass of Veronica’s self-destructive need for drama, which draws her back into the arms of Logan conveniently just after the final destruction of her relationship with Piz. Veronica comes off badly in these moments in my eyes, but it is a decision and a situation based off danger and emotion, with her father nearly murdered by a corrupt police force and Logan facing a possible death sentence. Veronica Mars raises the stakes very effectively with the menace of Jerry O’Connell new sheriff, one half incompetent and one half deadly, committed to maintaining the police state he has somehow managed to create in Neptune.

Unfortunately, much of Veronica Mars' supporting cast has little to do here.

Unfortunately, much of Veronica Mars‘ supporting cast has little to do here.

The final confrontation is classic Veronica Mars, with the unravelling of a dark conspiracy that the “09er” youth have been covering up for decades (how dumb was Thomas’ decision to absolve Dick Casablancas of blame though?). I’ll say this for the murder mystery: I didn’t see the ending coming until it was almost upon me, and for something like that Veronica Mars is to be commended. There is light at the end of the tunnel, as Veronica Mars also brings in one of its previously standard themes, that maybe adds to the unreality: Just desserts. If you have something coming to you in Veronica Mars, you’re going to receive it eventually. No matter how rich or powerful, be sure your sin will find you out. Sherriff Lamb is shown up as corrupt. The charges against Weevil are dropped. Murderers are punished, the associates suffer. Hell, you cross Veronica Mars, and you get a punch in the face. Veronica Mars likes to tell a story where justice is served, even in such a loathsome hive of scum and villainy as Neptune.

All that’s left is the wrap-up which, again, is almost exclusively the Veronica/Logan show. Some of the stuff in their final dialogue is embarrassingly dumb, and very much a fan service exercise, but I suppose that I can forgive it, seeing the quality of most of what came before.

What is needed afterwards was a sense of closure, that thing that was so lacking from the unplanned ending of the TV show. So, there is lots of that, a sense of characters and arcs being left in satisfying places. Keith Mars is on his way back to the sheriff’s department, Mac escapes from data entry drudgery. Even in a negative sense, Weevil gets dragged back into the biker gang world.

And then there is Veronica, left sitting behind her father’s desk, taking on the mantle that so many of the shows followers expected and wanted. That’s fine, even suitable, and matches the overall theme of Veronica being unable, even a decade on, to stay away from all of the drama in Neptune and the way that she can manipulate it. Thomas manages to create effective closure in our relationship with Veronica, while also leaving open the tantalising possibility of further adventures.

Who knows where Veronica Mars goes from here? Part of me feels that this should, perhaps, be Veronica’s final bow, before repetitiveness and atrophy bring the franchise down to a level that would result in a bad taste. You don’t want Veronica trapped in the same role forever, and the chance of the great game changer – the “Veronica in the FBI” idea – is now long gone (with a nod in its direction appearing in this film).  Maybe the decent way, in narrative terms, that this film ends should be our last onscreen look at Mars Investigations.

The few films this year featuring women in the lead role have largely failed to impress me, so it’s nice to see one that actually does. Veronica has always been a great example of a woman in entertainment: confident, assertive, intelligent, sexually unashamed, emotionally flawed and very modern in everything about her. All of that has continued on to the big screen. There is something so imminently likeable about Veronica Mars, even with the snark and the occasional arrogance.

Maybe it is just a simple matter of having a fleshed out character, who stumbles sometimes, who makes bad choices but who generally is always on the right path. There’s something very real about this character, even if the situations she finds herself in are frequently unreal. Rob Thomas’ creation and Bell’s acting have crafted Veronica Mars into the state she is in today, something that should be close to an icon for how to treat women in the fictional worlds of the entertainment industry.

The film’s unique financial backing makes its profit margins and chances of a sequel a little hard to judge, but if Veronica Mars has proven anything, it is that a loyal fanbase can make things happen.  Their reward for that commitment is a fine film extension of a brilliant franchise, which captures just about everything that made the TV show so good, even if it is very much a fan-centric production. Perhaps it will be Serenity-esque and become a glorious but final farewell. Or maybe this is just what Veronica Mars needed to kickstart itself.

The plot is good, the acting is great, the visuals are outstanding and the script is everything that the TV show was nearly a decade ago. Veronica Mars has some issues with the way it approaches being its own entity, and the manner in which its main pairing move through the production. Still, I feel like there is something for veterans of Neptune Noir and newcomers in this film. One I would firmly recommend.

"Remember me when...you're good to go"

“Remember me when…you’re good to go”

(All images are copyright of Warner Bros. Pictures).

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Review: Gotham (“Arkham”), Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D (“Face My Enemy”), The Flash (“Fastest Man Alive”), Arrow (“Sara”)

These reviews will be spoiler-free for that particular episode, but will not refrain from discussing details of past episodes.

Gotham – “Arkham”

“You know why they hire a professional? Cause he finishes the job!”

On the eve of a crucial vote on the future of Gotham’s Arkham district, Gordon and Bullock are tasked with finding a skilled assassin who is targeting politicians.

I’ve noticed some people commenting critically on Gotham’s somewhat varied tone, which switches from deadly serious to campy at the drop of a hat, most notably in its script. But I don’t really see the problem as being that severe. Gotham, which I think is trying to have that OTT comic book feel in a lot of what it does, has its ridiculous elements, but everything in the show has a twisted quality, which “Arkham” exhibits strongly.

Our main plot, like that of “The Balloonman” is a step up from the first couple of episodes. “Richard Gladwell” (Hakeem Kae-Kazim) receives little characterisation, but is still memorable and effective as a villain in a way that makes him more than acceptable as a bad guy of the week. He’s a master of his craft and interesting to boot, but not without his weaknesses or an ability to get caught out, and the hunt of Gordon and Bullock to find him also helped to show off their vastly different methods of tracking down criminals.

That, and it was able to mix into some of the supporting plots well enough. Gotham is still weighted down, but at least in “Arkham”, various strands melded into one briefly, as the brewing gang war, Cobblepot and Bruce Wayne all found themselves with a stake in the Arkham decision. That made for an expansive, well told story, where part of the attraction was in trying to figure out how all these various players were going to come out on top when it came to the iconic mental institution, something bookended by a suitably lengthy epilogue section after the main plot point had been resolved.

That doesn’t mean that it’s all good. Barbara’s interactions with Gordon were fairly strained in this episode, leading to an unlikely ultimatum. And Fish Mooney’s interjection, showing off Gotham’s warped combination of camp elements with serious darkness, just felt distracting and overly sexualised without any point. In fact, four episodes in, it’s fair to say that Gotham has some serious problems with its female character, who nearly all embody very negative traits.

Likes/Dislikes: I liked Cobblepot’s daring in making a self-made step up in the Maroni organisation. I liked the lighting for the final confrontation, nicely backlit. I liked the closing conversation between Gordon and Wayne. I disliked the Joker-esque “try-outs” scene in the Mooney sub-plot. I disliked the conclusion of Cobblepot’s plot in “Arkham” which seemed too neat and tidy. I disliked the way Falcone was seemingly sidelined despite his apparent importance to the main plot.

I think Gotham is on an upward swing now, something to be welcomed. With the additional room provided by a merging of plots and the absence of the MCU, it had the ability to tell a decent story with an interesting villain, and has done some significant set-up for the future. I’m sure plenty of fans will be enticed by the mere mention of the words “Arkham City”.

Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D – “Face My Enemy”

“Nostalgia’s fine. But then life happens. It’s time to deal with reality.”

Agents Coulson and May track down a mysterious painting that features the same alien writing plaguing Coulson’s mind, a painting HYDRA has an interest in as well.

This is a rare thing for Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D: an episode focusing on the Coulson/May relationship. May, inherently, is a tight lipped, hard to read character and I wondered if this setting – something that seemed on the basis of promotion to be a comedy episode (I mean look at the title after watching it) – was the best way to open her up.

But it turned out it was. Another great episode, where Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D managed to not only maintain its new serious and dark tone, but actually work in levity effectively – thank Drew Greenberg for that I would think. Coulson and May’s time at the party allowed for some decent self deprecating humour, but then when the show needed to get back on mission, it did so with a vengeance, with a fine S.H.I.E.L.D/HYDRA showdown. The rivalry between those two organisations actually feels tangible and exciting this season, and that’s something to be very happy about: Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D needs that kind of effective serialisation to succeed.

I like how the Coulson and May relationship has been fleshed out here. They have a past, the nostalgia mentioned above, that might even have bordered on the romantic. But that just makes the crux of the episode harder, as Coulson tries to convince May to kill him if his alien writing fetish goes too far, as it did with Bill Paxton’s Agent Garrett last season. The humour actually works twice as well when Coulson makes the conscious choice to get serious, like even he is getting sick of the quipping deflection going on. And the action, wow. Easy to see why they got Kevin Tancharoen in.

The B-plot was fairly straightforward, but allowed Iain de Caestecker to continue his great work this season, struggling to fit in with a team that is bonding ever tighter together. Yes, the method they came up with to facilitate this was more than a little hackneyed, but it worked, and moved the Fitz character along while offering a few glimpses at the rest of the cast too. An emerging Hunter/Skye relationship has its pitfalls though.

Likes/Dislikes: I liked the final fight scene, which was the best this show has ever done. I liked May’s casual decision to forgo stealth at the party. I increasingly like Reed Diamond’s appearances as Whitehall. I disliked the rampant marginalisation of Trip, which the series is now actually referencing, a terrible sign. I disliked some (some!) of the comedy moments for plothole reasons. I disliked the rampant branding of HYDRA, which is looking increasingly ridiculous.

A great episode and, with the stinger, a decent set-up for next week. Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D really is a million miles away from where it was this time last year. That’s down to a commitment to tone change and an increased sense of serialisation, both of which I hope manage to attract a sufficient core audience.

The Flash – “Fastest Man Alive”

“Nothing is impossible Barry. You taught me that.”

Barry Allen, continuing to adapt to his new powers, faces his own self-doubts and a would-be assassin who can create multiple copies of himself.

“Nothing is impossible Barry. You taught me that.”

After a wonderful start, The Flash needs to do some basic groundwork to set itself up properly. The fish is on the hook, now they have to reel it in, by showing that there is room in this universe for much more than a flashy (har har) pilot.

And I think “Fastest Man Alive” does that. It maintains the focus on making Barry a character, complete and whole, who has messy relationships and plenty of doubts over his ability to be a hero. His conflict with Detective West is at the core of the episode, with flashbacks suitably used to showcase just how their interactions evolved. West has been given the chance to be a bit more than the equivalent of Detective Lance of Arrow right from the off, which is a good thing, and I liked the use of the character here, as a cipher for the need to get the “Red Streak” away from the sidelines and into the action properly.

The Flash seems happy to be a show which will throw itself into the superhero aspect wholeheartedly, and not peg itself back through repetitive introspection of its lead or a multitude of obstacles. This episode was good at showcasing those obstacles, through West and Caitlin, and how Barry is able to change minds about how far he can go. It also decided to give Iris a role to play outside of “love interest” by starting her on the Lois Lane path, even if she still seems, unfortunately, to be written as rather dull-witted.

The episode also benefitted from an improved villain. Multiplex is total Z-List, but is suitable for an episode like this, a “villain of the week”. Michael Smith got more time to expand on the character than the show allowed with Weather Wizard last week, and that worked in the episodes favour, both in terms of nifty science/metahuman powers, and in having a villain with a firm rationale. William Sadler, one of TV’s great “that guy” actors, doesn’t really get to offer too much as Simon Stagg, save in a few brief moments with the ever more mysterious Harrison Wells, whose motivations for being Barry’s mentor are one of the shows great attractions.

Likes/Dislikes: I liked the prologue fire rescue, cliché but well done. I liked the introduction of Barry’s “weakness” just as a physical problem for the character. I liked the joke about “Captain Clone” and the good humoured swipe it represents at some of Flash’s villains. I disliked the CGI for the final fight, which was a poor effort at a “Burly Brawl” type sequence. I disliked what I saw as the waste of Sadler. I disliked the lateness of Multiplex’s motivation, which would have been, in my view, better served by coming earlier.

I suspect The Flash will grow into greater serialisation as it goes on. Right now there are the shady shenanigans of Wells, but they have the unfortunate potential to be drawn out for a long time without much more elaboration. I hope soon we’ll be getting more into the murder of Barry’s mother and that much repeated glimpse of “Reverse Flash” (God I hope they don’t call him “Professor Zoom”). “Villain of the week” procedurals are fine, but The Flash needs to be more than that to succeed. As it stands though, it’s a bright, optimistic example of the superhero genre, and not afraid to show that fact of.

Arrow – “Sara”

“Everyone is looking to me to lead. If I grieve, nobody else gets to.”

The team react to the death of Sara in different ways: some guilty, some grieving and some seeking revenge.

Very early on in this episode Felicity namedrops the words “A Death In The Family”, the name of one of DC Comics’ most iconic stories. Maybe “Sara” was trying to craft a tale like that here (aside from firmly establishing that Team Arrow has a bond close enough to use that word). But I find a more apt comparison is with the Joss Whedon penned “The Body” from Buffy The Vampire Slayer, as various characters try to deal with a sudden and terrible loss.

“Sara” isn’t really about the hunt for that characters killer, a plotline that introduces a seemingly important Green Arrow villain only for very little pay-off. It’s about those reactions. Oliver has to try and bury his feelings so he can focus on the job at hand, which quickly turns into a decent introspection over what he expects out of the life he leads. Laurel seeks vengeance and faces the task of telling her father. Felicity revaluates her life and the desirability of the vigilante lifestyle. Diggle comes back into the fold as a matter of loyalty. Roy anguishes over an absent Thea and past regrets.

Everyone is grieving in their own way, reacting in their own manner, and while “Sara” doesn’t quite have the highest level of emotional impact that it could have, I still felt that it did a good job in portraying each member of “Team Arrow” as singularly as possible. New journeys and plot arcs are finding their genesis in this, perhaps the most serious and camp-free episode of Arrow yet.

The flashbacks help a lot. At first I thought they would be an unnecessary distraction, especially given the single episode return of Colin Donnell as Tommy Merlyn. But they ended up tying into the main plot very effectively as, in both instances, Oliver Queen deals with loss, showcasing his own brand of determination. We never had a reaction episode to Tommy’s death like “Sara”, but Arrow has found a place for him in this wake. I was sceptical about the continued use of flashbacks as a narrative device after the end of the second season, but “Sara” proves they can still find a role in these stories.

Likes/Dislikes: I liked the Oliver/Felicity conversation on grieving. I liked the re-emergence of Thea into the narrative. I liked the closing montage. I disliked Ray Palmer’s moments, which characterised him as intensely creepy and overbearing. I disliked the action scenes, which were clearly a secondary concern. I disliked Detective Lance’s lack of involvement.

A strong episode. It isn’t as good as “The Body” obviously, but it hits many of the same themes effectively enough, and gave us a good glimpse of the main cast in a pivotal moment of their lives. Some solid groundwork has also been laid for a few sub-plots going forward, namely those concerning the identity of Sara’s killer and whatever is going on with Thea. And on we go.

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Ireland’s Wars: Anarchy Under John

Having briefly discussed Ireland’s mostly unnoteworthy relationship with the Crusades in the last entry, we shall now press on with the narrative of the Anglo-Norman presence Ireland, beginning with the reign of the largely absent Richard I.

Ireland was marked by low-level conflict throughout his time on the throne, with a succession of Lord Deputy’s in Dublin, minor entanglements between the Anglo-Norman’s and the Irish in the north and the south, and wars between the Irish themselves. Or, to put it another way, business as usual. The English advance remained somewhat stalled. In Ulster, De Courcy found himself struggling to expand his influence in the north-east and west, facing numerous Irish enemies who had the strength to oppose his advances. In the south, on the borders of Thomond and the Irish territories in modern day Kerry, a constant level of simmering troubles ensuring a well scheduled amount of bloodletting, with the town of Limerick serving as the focal point of many of these conflicts.

In Richard’s absence, his younger brother John, the Lord of Ireland as decreed by his deceased father, eventually gained control of England, going so far as to rebel against his brothers authority in the closing years of the 12th century. The two were eventually reconciled though, and when Richard was killed at a siege of Chalons Castle in 1199, John succeeded him as King of England at the age of 30.

In Ireland, the new Viceroy appointed by John, a figure named Meyler FitzHenry, faced into the opportunities provided by a war of family strife on Connacht. Connacht remained one of the largest of the remaining Irish Kingdoms, though perhaps not the most powerful. Under the rule of Rory O’Connor it had enough influence and martial ability to be the preeminent Irish Kingdom, but since his retirement and the death of his son and heir, a constant cycle of family squabble over the succession had resulted, an extended conflict interrupted by periods of grudging peace between rival factions. Various Anglo-Norman nobles, including the powerful figure of William De Burgh and the governors of Limerick, intervened in this conflict at the beginning of John’s reign, seeking to place their backed candidate on the throne by strength of arms.

They eventually succeeded. Two Cathal’s – Carragh, the grandson of Rory and another nicknamed Crovderg – were the main rivals. The English initially backed Carragh, for whatever reason, and followed up on their support with troops and arms. Crovderg was driven out of Connacht, and when he tried to return with support from the Tyrone O’Neill’s, he was badly beaten and forced to flee once more, the combined might of Anglo-Norman military expertise and Irish troops proving too much for his ambitions.

Crovderg was undeterred by this failure, and perhaps saw some inspirations in the act of Carragh. He approached John de Courcy in eastern Ulster for support, and got it, with the noble all too happy to provide support for his candidate. So, the English in Ireland now became arraigned against each other in this proxy war, with different factions backing different candidates, perfectly happy to send their soldiers to fight against each other. But again, Crovderg was defeated when he tried an invasion of Connacht, after a battle at Kilmacduagh, with most of his force destroyed. What de Courcy thought about that is left unrecorded.

His actions appear to be on the side of the Crown’s opinions, for shortly after the Viceroy in Dublin was leading troops against Carragh, getting as far as Clonmacnoise, which was plundered. In the meantime, Crovderg, still alive and still seeking redress, travelled to Munster to try and get the English on his die again, meeting with William de Burgh. De Burgh controlled significant amounts of land in Limerick and Tipperary, and had carved out an imposing reputation for military skill. He was already interfering in wars between Desmond and Thomond, and was all too happy to lend support to Crovderg in his enterprises.

Why the support and the changing of sides? As stated, the various English nobles operating outside the Pale sometimes did not feel the need to follow the crowns policy, operating on the frontier as they did. They would choose to back whoever they liked in local disputes, as long as the result would enrich themselves, and were not liable to face much censure from Dublin because of it, or at least very little of substance. In a larger sense the Anglo-Normans seemed happy to promote and extend inter-Irish conflicts, for the simple reason that it kept the Irish busy with their own troubles and in a semi-permanent state of weakness.

In 1201, Crovderg and his army of Munster Irish and English marched into Connacht, eventually engaging Carragh in battle around the town of Boyle. Finally, things worked out in Crovderg’s favour, and Carragh was killed in the midst of several skirmishes. It did not take long for the alliance of Irish and English to fall to pieces, with annalists recording that de Burgh tried to have Crovderg killed, and that Crovderg’s troops soon turned on the English, killing many of them and forcing de Burgh to flee back to Limerick. The event simple previsaged more destruction, with de Burgh building up his strength and then devastating large parts of Connacht a few years later in a campaign of pillaging and plunder.

In the north there was further intrigue, as de Courcy power and independence in that region finally grew too much for John to bear. The King was engaged in a dynastic struggle with his nephew, Arthur of Brittany, who arguably had a stronger claim to the throne than him, a war that had led to severe difficulties in the English lands in France, especially Normandy. Arthur was eventually captured and possibly killed by John. De Courcy allegedly had backed Arthur claim to the throne and spoken of John as a usurper. This might have been an overt reason for his attaintment by John, but more likely is that de Coiurcy was considered too much of a renegade to the Anglo-Norman position in Ireland, seeking too much of his own power, perhaps even to the point of a crown.

John wanted those lands under better control, and turned to the de Lacy’s of Meath. Hugh, son of his father by the same name who had first conquered Meath for the English crown, was tasked with bringing de Courcy to heel. So, the army of Meath marched against de Courcy on behalf of John. De Courcy was evidently outmanned from the start, and sought the help and protection of his Irish neighbours, like the O’Neills to the west. It did him no good, with the rebellious noble captured after a siege of Downpatrick, sometime around Easter in 1204. He was sent to London in chains and would spend the rest of his life imprisoned. Hugh de Lacy on the other hand, was granted by John the Earldom of Ulster.

The whole affair, “in which many had been slain”, marked the start of a period of infighting among the Anglo-Norman nobles in Ireland, fighting that John eventually had to try and intervene in decisively. Throughout the later part of his reign, John had a fractious dispute with his noble subordinates, most notably the barons, which would erupt into all out rebellion and war on more than one occasion.

His policy towards Ireland was a mixed one, with the King treating Ireland as just another source of revenue on the one hand, and as a place for serious military expansion on the other. It was John who kickstarted a new wave of castle building, with more permanent structures ordered, especially in the west on or near the River Shannon. One of those, built in Limerick, still stands today, and remains one of the most pre-eminent examples of the periods castle-building craft still around and (mostly) intact. King John’s Castle, as the structure is still known, helped make Limerick the fearsome garrison town it became, and solidified John’s personal control over this vital point, a state of affairs that annoyed those Anglo-Norman nobles who controlled the land around the town. A similar state of affairs existed in the east, around the developing town of Drogheda, and further north, at Athlone.

John’s attitude towards his subordinates in Ireland, which involved playing favourites, harsh enforcement of debt payments and the denial of opportunities to increase personal power, inevitably caused conflict, even with those he had previously considered loyal to him. A critical dispute was with William de Braose, a former favourite, that John persecuted because of an unpaid debt. De Braose had been granted lands in the Limerick region, and so the conflict between the two spilled over into Ireland. De Braose found support among the de Lacy’s and William Marshal, and opposition from Meyler.

War soon followed, and chronicles at the time mention bloody fighting in both Munster and Leinster, as Limerick came under attack from Meyler and Irish chieftains and King’s choose sides, seeking to improve their own position. Fighting was, according to Irish sources, particularly fierce in 1207, where Meyler was pegged back. A siege at “Ardnucher” – the modern day town of Horseleap, Offaly – is especially noted as a great victory for the de Lacy’s.

By 1210, the situation had become intolerable for John, with large swathes of Ireland no longer under his authority in any form or in open rebellion. For the second, and last, time in his life, he made ready to lead an expedition back to Ireland.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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Revolutionary Remembrance: Thomas Smart

As per my statement in the last entry under this heading, I thought that I would follow through and look at some of those witness statements from the Bureau of Military History. Very simple methodology to find the entry: A random number generator of 1-26 to find the letter (S in this instance), then 1-74 to find an entry.

Our winner is witness number 255. Thomas Smart: C Company, 1st Battalion, Dublin Brigade, veteran of the Easter Rising.

Smart was a young member of the Irish Volunteers, who I can confidently guess was the younger Thomas in this home. At the time of his witness statement, he was around 48, but during the period he discusses he was just 16 or so, one of many very young men who probably graduated through to the Volunteers through Fianna Eireann. Smart joined the Volunteers in 1915, post split, and drilled in Foresters Hall on Parnell Street. He describes his company as having a majority who remained after the split, which would have been a rarity. His time with the Volunteers before the Rising involved extensive drilling and shooting practise, with some battalion-sized manoeuvres in the Swords and Finglas areas.

He claims to have had no prior knowledge of the Rising, which is believable. On the Saturday before the Rising, he was ordered to have his “section mobilised” the following day, which might indicate that Smart was more than just rank and file, though no other indications of rank are written about in the statement. On that Sunday morning, he was informed by future TD and Postmaster General J.J Walsh that all manoeuvres were cancelled.

The following maps are based on Smart’s account, and, due to the inherent likelihood of bias and misremembrance, are not intended to be a cast iron depiction of what occurred during the Easter Rising. Blue lines are for the Irish, red for the British. Thinner lines indicate position and direction of fire.

On Monday morning, the same person told him that mobilisation had gone ahead – Walsh would end up fighting in the GPO during the Rising, though Smart does not mention him again. Smart received this information on Blessington Street (1). From there, he attempted to get as many of his section mobilised, succedding with just four. Moving towards Blackhall Street, he ran into Commandant Ned Daly, commander of the 1st Battalion, advancing with his battalion down North Brunswick Street (2). From him, Smart received orders to move to the Four Courts (3).

Moving there, Smart hooked up with other members of his company in Hammond Lane (4), 30 in number, commanded by a Captain Frank Fahy. Smart was part of a group ordered to take the Four Courts. This group did so by moving to the east of the Courts to Chancery Place (5), gaining entry through locked gates by forcing a member of the DMP, at gunpoint, to give up the keys. After ensuring the Four Courts was clear and that all DMP prisoners were accounted for, Smart was part of a group that set up a position at the south-east corner o the building, looking east down to Qauys (6).

The first moment of combat for this group occurred shortly afterwards according to Smart’s account, as a contingent of Lancers, of the 5th Royal Irish Lancers and the 12th Royal Lancers, was spotted moving down the Quays, escorting two horse-drawn lorries. Allowing them to pass a position taken up at the corner of Chancery Street and the Quay, Smart and his group opened fire, with the witness admitting freely that they did so first (7). Several Lancers were unhorsed and wounded. Others moved up Church Street to avoid the fighting (8). Smart and his group captured a few Lancers and made them prisoners in the Four Courts. This incident is considered one of the first moments of “action” in the Rising, occurring before the Lancers’ later “charge” past the GPO.

Following this bit of combat, Smart and his group were withdrawn from their south-east corner post, since the position was thought to have little use. Instead, they were moved to the west of the building, on the third storey (9), a point that over looked Hammond Lane and the northwest of the city.

They didn’t stay there long either though. A burst of machine gun fire from “somewhere in Smithfield” (10) hit the barricaded window, fatally wounding one of Smart’s comrades, named Tommy Allen. So exposed to enemy fire, this post was abandoned quickly.

After that, Smart was placed with others outside the Four Courts, at a hastily erected barricade on the corner of Church Street and the Quays, which was reinforced by “a company from Chapelizod” (11). A car approached the barricade and refused to stop, leading to the Volunteers opening fire. The driver was wounded, and two British officers – one of them Lord Dunsany, an Irish born noble and noted fantasy author – were discovered in the car, taken in to the Four Courts as prisoners.

Smart remained at this point, save for seeking shelters at night, and assisted in erecting another barricade, on the other corner of Church Street and the Quays (12), the following morning. The position was coming under some sniper fire, but the location of the shooter could not be determined.

Just down the Quays to the west was where the next part of Smart’s account took place. Smart and others determined that men in civilian clothing passing parcels into a clothing factory next to a “public house” on Bridgefoot Street were enemy soldiers in disguise. Smart and others used home-made grenades to set the public house on fire, in the hope that this would end this activity, which it apparently did. The pub (13) was burnt out, with the Dublin Fire Brigade arriving too late to do anything about it. Smart, for some reason, is unsure whether this occurred on the Monday or Tuesday of Easter Week.

At this point Smart seemed to be dividing his time between the barricade at Church Street and a barricade on Bridgefoot Street. The barricade at Bridgefoot Street came under constant sniper fire, with two of Smart’s fellow soldiers, Mick Lennon and Joe Brabazon, wounded. Lennon was hit after trying to scrounge supplies to make stretchers, indicating that the positions were becoming hard pressed. The fire was eventually ascertained to be from a sniper on the Bridgefoot Area (14), far enough down on the south side of the city. Volunteer fire ended this attack, but Smart is unsure as to whether the sniper was killed or not.

Next, Smart briefly relates British attempts to get artillery trained on the Four Courts efforts that were ineffective owing to the lack of decent position. Volunteer fire drove British guns from the Wood Quay area (15), and only a brief bombardment later from the “corner of Parliament Street” (16) was affected, which destroyed a Volunteer outpost in the south-west corner of the Courts.

On the Thursday evening of that week, Smart volunteered to take a dispatch from the Church Street position north to Ned Daly, who was in Father Matthew Hall. The episode is somewhat immaterial, save for the confusion that nearly got Smart killed, when he was given the wrong password for rebel barricades at the corner of Mary Lane (17) and outside the Church Street church (18). Smart did eventually make it to the hall (19), and then returned to his post, without ever knowing what the dispatches contained.

On Friday, with British forces closing in, Smart and others were withdrawn from the Church Street barricades (20) and sent to “the Bridewell”, a building north of the Four Courts which houses a Garda station today (21). The British had advanced down North King Street (22) and were seeking to move south down Beresford Street (23). Volunteer fire and support from the Bridewell area helped to stem this advance for a time, and to inflict enough casualties on the British to be notable, but the end result was inevitable.

On Saturday evening, what was left of the Four Courts garrison received two orders to surrender from the Volunteer command, the situation increasingly untenable. Finally accepting this after receiving the second order, the remaining Volunteers moved to destroy what equipment they could and, for those in civilian clothing, attempt escape from capture.

Smart, apparently in civilian clothing due to the slapdash nature of his mobilisation, was one of those lucky enough to escape. The remainder of his account is a narrative of just that as, with the aid of a woman who was romantically involved with a British soldier setting up the cordon around the Four Courts area, he was able to get outside the encircling ring without too much trouble. Hiding in the homes of several different sympathisers, and avoiding confinement by the skin of his teeth on a couple of occasions, Smart made it home three weeks after the Rising, but was still a wanted man.

The narrative ends very suddenly, as Smart recounts how he tried to regain his former job but fled from an interview when, in his view, his former manager attempted to contact the authorities about his presence. Smart adds nothing more. Whether this means that he played no further part in the Irish Revolutionary Period, or that he just didn’t want to talk about it, is unknown.

Smart’s role in the ranks of the Volunteers during the Easter Rising seems fairly typical: brief moments of action coming in-between long bouts of tense tedium. Smart mentions only a handful of notable events and only three of them involved exchanges of fire with the enemy. The rest of the time goes by the wayside, simple patrolling of barricades not worthy of much note, Irish Volunteers waiting for events to unfold around them. When contact with the enemy was made, it seems to have been an mixture: a quick ambush over in seconds, a drawn out annoyance from a hidden sniper and then a desperate last stand just trying to delay an advance as long as possible.

Smart’s account, like most from 1916, illustrates the failings of the operation on a military level. The Volunteers were left hopelessly static by the approach of seizing key buildings and hold them, with little ability to manoeuvre or face the oncoming British threat with any potency. Smart’s area of operation was less than half a KM around the Four Courts for the entirety of Easter Week. The Four Courts might have offered protection and a decent view of the surrounding city, but was also a magnet for fire – the Volunteers did well enough to prevent an artillery bombardment they would have been powerless under. Six years later, the anti-Treaty IRA would be unable to do the same.

The Four Courts garrison were able to avoid much of the destruction suffered by other garrisons, particularly just a few streets over around the GPO. But, like so many other garrisons, they lacked opportunities or targets to really make any kind of impact. Smart was part of that effort, but appears to have faded into obscurity afterwards. But now, you and I will be able to better remember him and the effort he made.

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Review: Dracula Untold

Dracula Untold

Trailer

Bats!

Batman!

The Wicked Witch, Maleficent, now Dracula. Is this an age of rehabilitating villains? Who will be next to get this kind of treatment? Studios seem to be chomping at the bit to find traditional bad guys and turn them into something much more sympathetic, even when those attempts, like with the aforementioned Disney villain, are remarkably bad.

Of course the iconic blood sucker has always had a strange appealing aspect despite his antagonist status, something that has, no pun intended, bled into various other “vampire media”. The vast majority of people seem to want their vampires various shades of Twilight: dark, brooding, handsome, mysterious and maybe just a little bit evil (but not really). Whenever Dracula pops up on screen, there always has to be an attempt to pull him back from the well of pure malevolence. And here’s Universal’s latest shot at the character, a mix of Bram Stoker’s horror and the historical basis for the same book, which might just be the start of something much bigger, if reports are to be believed.

In the 15th century, Transylvanian prince Vlad (Luke Evans) tries to live peaceably with his wife Mirena (Sarah Gadon) and his young son (Art Parkinson), leaving behind his bloody past as a conscripted warrior for the Ottoman Turks, which earned him the epithet “the Impaler”. But when the new Ottoman leader Mehmed II (Dominic Cooper) demands he give over his son and a 1’000 others for his army, a desperate Vlad turns to a monstrous figure (Charles Dance), who offers him an array of superhuman powers – and an insatiable thirst for human blood.

In-depth discussion of the film, with spoilers, from here on out. For my shorter, non-spoiler, review, click here to go to The Write Club.

Dracula Untold is a bit of a strange one really. On the face of it, it’s an entertaining action-fantasy romp, which maybe takes itself a bit too seriously at times, but is generally of an acceptable level in the various parts of its production. On the other, you might well wonder at this sympathetic (and very anti-Ottoman/Turk) portrayal of Vlad III Tepes, and whether such historical aggrandizing and forgiveness of such a brutally cruel figure is really to be desired. Vlad wasn’t a pleasant individual after all, and no matter how much some people in Romania might like to think of him as some kid of folk hero, “the Impaler” sobriquet was not given unjustly.

But I suppose that it is important to leave that aside. Vlad III Tepes is not Dracula, just a loose basis, and Luke Evans’ character in this is not really Vlad III Tepes. With that in mind, you can begin to appreciate what works about Dracula Untold – it is, in many respects, the origin story for a 15th century superhero, with all of the hallmarks of that genre. With whatever it takes from the historical record, the skew is always obvious and forced – Vlad good, Ottomans bad – but that’s what happens when you’re making a film that is less biopic and more comic book.

In a world where vampire fiction is awash with bad romance and empty shells of characters, Untold at least goes back to the true entrancing nature of the “vampyre”, which usually manifests itself in an orgy of violence and an explosion of supernatural power. Untold succeeds, I think, at melding the recognised gory nature of Vlad III Tepes’ life with the creature he inspired, creating Dracula, a monster with a sympathetic side. At least in the sense of creating a good fictional narrative. I’m sure there are some historians tearing their hair out (and with good reason).

Of course, it is all wrapped around a fairly formulaic tale really, whose plot beats most will see coming a mile off, or at least the second we’re introduced to Vlad’s perfect family life early on. Untold is at pains to paint Vlad’s life as picturesque as possible, to a degree that not only causes, but actively encourages, eye-rolling. The beautiful wife, the loving son, the peaceful Kingdom. Jeez, I sure hope nothing goes horribly wrong for all of these people, thus giving Vlad a motivation to become Dracula!

I jest, but there is a certain lack of subtly throughout Untold’s opening stages. When the film actually does get around to it, it finds firmer territory in opening up on the relationship between Vlad and his son, ably played by young Art Parkinson. For Vlad, his son is both a cherished family member and a smooth succession, a continuance of the peaceful reign he has thus far enjoyed. Being  asked to give him up introduces an effective mirror for Vlad’s past life and a choice his own father made, and I found that the narrative of Untold was driven along nicely by this crucial choice, made better by some of the scenes shared between father and son. Vlad fights back against Mehmed for his wife, his people, his family, but it is made clear, in a very good way, that it is all about his son and what the freedom of his son represents. How far is a father willing to go to protect his child? It is a question asked many times in film, Untold is just doing it in a relatively unique setting.

That’s certainly a little bit better than the constant fallbacks on Vlad being a pacifistic soldier. Untold likes to hammer on that point a bit too much, of Vlad having enough of the bloody life that has given him his nickname, but he’s Ghandi now. But all of that sort of falls a bit flat when Vlad ends up slaughtering thousands with ease, and doing very little after the first act to try and find a peaceful way out. It’s just sort of shallow characterisation meant to make us feel a little bit more for Vlad that doesn’t get followed up on enough as the film progresses. If they had done more on an idea that Vlad was a very violent person through and through, but was just hiding this fact, maybe it would have been a little better. But that might have been too dark a path to take.

The meat and bones of the plot falls on the rivalry between Vlad and Mehmed, but the Ottoman ruler’s lack of screen presence leaves this aspect of proceedings a bit lacking. Untold works better when focusing on immortals, with the interaction between Vlad and Charles Dance’s vampire one of the stand-out moments. Vlad turns to him out of a well presented sense of sheer desperation, and the scene focusing on this vampire in the cave were well constructed horror pieces, if not particularly imaginative. Dance brings a very unnerving but entrancing quality to his character and the double edged sword that he offers Vlad. Enough work has been done beforehand to make us believe why Vlad chooses to drink the (literal) poisoned chalice. Dance’s character takes a back seat from there of course, but in terms of a catalyst it was quite good work from him.

Untold tries to be the story of a man who wants peace and who suffers through an appalling addiction crisis because of it, but the tension for such a story is a bit absent, since we all know how this tale is going to end. While the moments that try and portray that addiction are quite good and visceral, the punch is rather lacking – Vlad is becoming Dracula, it’s just a matter of which of his family are going to kick the bucket before he does so. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t have some fun and games in the meantime, and that is where Untold really starts to come out of its shell.

It is the action scenes where Untold does its best work then, thanks both to a willingness to go for the over the top exploration of undead power and just down to earth battle choreography. Two particular sequences stand out especially, the “Vlad versus a thousand” scene being the first. Its fantasy violence at its most fantastical, as Vlad shows off his new powers of strength, speed and transformation to wipe out a small bit of the Ottoman army. The effects are thrilling and some of the cinematography choices – the reflection in the sword most of all – really do add a very special something to the proceedings, with Shore seemingly focused on trying to put the audience in the shows of one of the helpless mortals that Vlad is flinging around with abandon. Giving us the first person view of the insects being trod on really does set the tone in the right way, as we come to see just what being this supernatural monstrosity means.

Better still is the whole “bat battle” sequence, well spoiled in trailers, but still very effective onscreen. On the face of it, the whole thing seems ridiculous, but I found it surprisingly entertaining and endearing, the way that this staple of the Dracula myth – the connection with bats – was elaborated and manipulated to give a proper sense of the kind of vast magical power that these creatures control. This is the inner warrior in Vlad spilling out and becoming manifest through a bizarre and grotesque manipulation of nature, which exudes power and terror in the process. Vlad smashes through an Ottoman army using just the dark power of the night, and only threats to his family prevent him from finishing the job. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a piece of media where I was actually impressed with what vampires can do. That’s something Untold is to be praised for.

It all leads up to a dark and noticeably bloody final act. The inevitable tragedy comes to pass with Vlad’s wife, whom he is directly unable to save, even with the amazing powers. This leads to the last grim sacrifice of what remains of himself – or so it appears – and the final confrontation with Untold’s true bad guy, the reckless and uncaring Mehmed. It’s all boilerplate storytelling, straight out of the Blake Snyder beat sheet, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work, it just isn’t very imaginative. But what gives it a little spice is the way that Vlad turns against his better nature, and then drags numerous other “good” characters down with him, creating this undead army that proudly declares “I used to think there were too many of you Turks. Now I think there is too little!”

A bloodbath of a finale ensues as Mehmed, in contrivance to the historical record, is ironically staked by Vlad. Their final fight was mildly interesting with the well done use of a recurring visual motif, the coins that Vlad tired to pay Mehmed off with. It leads to the final endearing moment in Untold, as Vlad, still that decent man underneath it all, realises that he has created an army of monsters, not same-thinking comrades, and makes the final choice to not be a monster himself. I suppose that was the right way to bring Vlad’s character arc to an end, showing him, once again, rejecting that warrior’s path and choosing something that will ensure a peaceful legacy and the reign of his son.

Or so it appeared. The closing moments may well confuse rather than sting as the director would have liked, a sop to a possible sequel that just sort of doesn’t land as well as it could have. Shore and Universal may well have been trying to do their own “I’m here to talk to you about the Avengers initiative” moment, but I felt like it just didn’t work, and rather undermined the emotional power of Vlad’s supposed last moment a few minutes earlier. I guess it all depends on what the studio is willing to make of it.

In terms of female characters, there’s Mirena and little else, save some unnamed women late on who join the vampire horde. Sarah Gadon does alright in the portrayal, but she has a total lack of agency or really interesting character traits, defined almost entirely by her love for her husband and her obsession with keeping her son safe. In narrative terms, she’s dominated by the Vlad character and never gets to do anything for herself. Her death is an inevitable part of the plot beats Untold has to take, and this film will be getting no kudos for the way that it treats women, underlined by the conclusion, where Vlad bumps into a similarly underagencied “Mina”, played by Gadon as well.

Untold isn’t afraid to be sombre and downbeat when it needs to be, without going too far. But there are aspects of its narrative and pacing that might rancour, with the film rarely stopping for breath past the mid way point, frequently taking some of the more ridiculous aspects of itself too seriously (and add the rather incomprehensible final shots). But the story, while formulaic to a fault (and God knows I find myself saying that a lot recently) is still enjoyable if you’re willing to accept the premise and settle into a tale that tries to re-imbue vampires with some of the supernatural power and terrifying wonder that they used to have before “R-Patz” came along.

Theme wise, while Dracula Untold doesn’t ask you to use too much of your brain, it still has a few points that it wants to make. The most pertinent is probably about addiction, which manifests itself in Untold in two ways. First, there is obvious thirst for human blood that characterises Vlad’s journey through the second act, a horrible draw towards taking the lives of others for his own gratification, a choice that he eventually does make for the best reasons possible. Vlad has the willpower to resist such an allure, and maintains that will even after his final transformation.

But in a larger sense, Vlad’s true addiction is not to blood, or at least not in the way that vampires have that addiction. His addiction is to the shedding of blood. He’s established in the opening moments as a particularly brutal warrior, whose cruel renown made him a feared man. The gaining of vampire powers allows him a release for that kind of need, as he tears Ottoman armies apart with ease, revelling in the death and destruction he is now able to met out all on his own. Vlad resists the drinking of blood, but is all too happy, despite his protestations, to take up the role of a warrior once again. Perhaps that is why he is such a perfect choice for the role of a vampire, why Dance’s bloodsucker was happy to give him the gift/curse. Vlad started out with an addiction to seeing blood flow, and while he could keep it under wraps for a time, like with the vampiric lust, he could not refrain forever.

I certainly liked Untold a bit more than I expected too. At its worst, it’s a bog standard fantasy/action film, with some dubious wordplay and a fairly lame villain. At its best, it’s a refreshing interpretation of a well worn character, utilising some modern film techniques to add something special to the Dracula mythos, with a fine lead performance and some great action moments. There is the possibility that Universal may be trying to reboot many more of their “Monsters” properties, with the aim of working them into a single continuity, Avengers-style.  Dracula Untold then could well be seen as Universal’s Iron Man, dipping its toes in the waters and seeing if the audience is there. I think this film is good enough to get that audience, and open the way for a lot more.

A surprisingly decent 90 minutes entertainment.

A surprisingly decent 90 minutes entertainment.

(All images are copyright of Universal Pictures).

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Review: Gotham (“The Balloonman”), Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D (“Making Friends And Influencing People”), The Flash (“City Of Heroes”), Arrow (“The Calm”)

These reviews will be spoiler-free for that particular episode, but will not refrain from discussing details of past episodes.

Gotham – “The Balloonman”

“This city is sick. It’s sick in a way I didn’t realise.”

“This city is sick. It’s sick in a way I didn’t realise.”

Gordon and Bullock investigate a vigilante, who is murdering the corrupt by attaching them to weather balloons. Cobblepot returns to Gotham even as the MCU probe his supposed death.

On the face of it, this is an episode I thought I wouldn’t be that mad about, judging by the somewhat over the top premise. And that premise, right from the moment you see a stereotypical banker type flailing around in the air attached to a balloon, is as campy and weird as Gotham could probably have gone.

But “The Balloonman” is surprisingly effective. Gotham gives its main plot a bit more time to breathe in this episode than it did last week, with the strangely unique manner of the murders giving the investigation into them an additional kick. Moreover, the whole thing is tied effectively to two very important aspects of Gotham and the story that it wants to tell: Gordon’s own perception of how bad things in the city really are, and the formative years of Bruce Wayne.

This is the first time that the plot of a Gotham episode has actually impressed me, managing to say something about the universe without getting bogged down with a routine story. Catching the Balloonman puts Gordon in a position where it is him against the world for a time, which is where his character should be, the chink of light surrounded by darkness. And boy is there darkness, with this episode showcasing, far more than the last two episodes, just how broken Gotham City is. Maybe some of it was a bit of overkill, but Gotham is supposed to be a cesspit. Throw in some great interactions with Bullock – still the shows best element in my opinion, at least so far – and you have a spine that can support the weight of all the other stuff going on.

Cobblepot’s return marks him as the character moving forward the fastest, and the very first scene was great at showing the den of inequity he’s a part of. His rise continues to be violent, but fascinating. Bruce Wayne’s interactions with Alfred are still a little strange, but I loved how the episode developed with him, with the Gordon/Balloonman dynamic almost becoming a substitute battle for Wayne’s soul. The Carmine/Mooney thing continues to trundle along which, along with the MCU/Barbara stuff, has become Gotham’s least interesting sub-plot. Making Montoya and Barbara former lovers is an admittedly interesting narrative choice, but the slow pace of the whole thing just makes it distracting in each episode.

Likes/Dislikes: I liked the “Bullock follows up on his leads” montage. I liked the idea that Gotham’s institutions are so corrupt that vigilantism is seen as inevitable. I liked the end scene, which promises the merging of plots and a new dynamic for Gordon. I disliked some of the visual choices for the victims, which seemed too ridiculous. I disliked the Wayne/Alfred “sword fight” scene.  I disliked, as I have generally, Camren Bicondova’s performance as Kyle, which has been unimpressive and stilted so far.

“The Balloonman” took a shot with a slightly whacky story idea and I think it paid off. Gotham is improving, a bit, and it can stand to spend a bit more time on its main and overarching plots like it does here, in future episodes. It remains a bit rough around the edges, but improvements are to be welcomed.

Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D – “Making Friends And Influencing People”

“Compliance will be rewarded...are you ready to comply?”

“Compliance will be rewarded…are you ready to comply?”

S.H.I.E.L.D tries to step in when former student Donnie “Blizzard” Gill is targeted by HYDRA – whose ranks now include Simmons.

This was a great episode of television, not just continuing the upwards swing of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D’s second season, but also making a case for being one of the shows best episodes full stop.

And it does that in a few ways. First, with the main plot, it utilises the existing universe in a way that the series needs to be doing, bringing back one of the minor “gifted” characters of last season, showing him as an evolved person, in both personality and powers, operating under new circumstances, something mirrored in the journey of Simmons. And then, it is an up close and personal look at this universe’s HYDRA: how it operates, how it recruits and how it goes about its business when it isn’t just trying to take over the world. The HYDRA of “Making Friends…” is an insidious thing, a Nazi remnant with a facade of normalcy, brilliantly shown through Simmons’ painfully normal morning routine on her way to work for a group of terrorists, kidnappers, brainwashers and murderers.

In terms of the larger narrative, there wasn’t actually much here, but that’s OK: this is the kind of set-up episode I can enjoy, because the set-up was so good. Reed Diamond’s “Dr Whitehall” is coming along nicely as a “big bad” for the season, and that’s without him really doing anything too substantial yet – it’s all been in word rather than deed, but has still been pulled off, even in something as subtle as discussing plant life that can live “for a thousand years” out of the ashes of destruction.

Back in S.H.I.E.L.D HQ we also get a few brief but effective sub-plots. Both this show and Gotham have lots of sub-plots per episode, but what makes Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D’s better is their ability to tell their stories and make their point in a single episode, as opposed to several. Skye takes additional steps as a field agent leading to a fatal moment of decision (boy, has she improved as a character), Fitz is forced to confront his own lack of purpose because of past trauma and even Hunter and May have a little back and forth that serves a larger purpose for the narrative. And there is the larger look at the dichotomy of S.H.I.E.L.D and HYDRA, who, this episode makes clear in a brilliantly understated way, are both capable of operating in the same manner.

It was all done very well, and mixed in with how HYDRA was portrayed – with a chilling amount of creepiness in those brainwashing moments – it made for a great episode.

Likes/Dislikes: I liked the brainwashing sequences in particular. I liked Fitz’ confrontation scene with “the Asset”, Iain De Caestecker is really doing fantastic work this season. I liked Coulson’s grocery lecture. I disliked the constant referring to Skye’s heart rate, which was a bit much. I disliked, again, the minimization of the Trip character, who seems to just sort of hang around now and do little. I disliked the open ended fate of one of the episodes characters, a “Did Jet just die?” moment if ever there was one.

Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D continues to impress every week, and that makes the question mark around its ratings – on a downward trend still, it would seem – very concerning. This is one of the best shows I’m watching right now, and I watch a lot of TV. Long may it continue with episodes like this.

The Flash – “City Of Heroes”

“To understand what I am about to tell you, you need to do something first. You need to believe in the impossible.”

“To understand what I am about to tell you, you need to do something first. You need to believe in the impossible.”

Barry Allen (Grant Gustin), a CSI assistant, is hit by lightning generated by a faulty particle accelerator. Awakening from a nine month coma to find he now has the power of super speed, Allen decides to use this ability to become a hero for his city and find out the truth about his mothers bizarre murder.

With the opening lines above, The Flash enters the broadcast world, an emotional exhortation for the audience to relax into the escapism that defines the comic book genre. And that’s the lead in to a remarkable opening.

What’s really great about “City Of Heroes” is that it has a lot to accomplish – nothing less than a standard superhero origin story, and all that entails – and manages to not only pull it off in 44 minutes, but does it with style. We get introduced to Barry, the inevitably long running love interest Isis (Candice Patton), gruff detective/copdad boss Joe (Jesse L. Martin), potential rival Eddie (Rick Cosnett) and that’s all before the whimsically portrayed origin, as Barry’s life changes with a flash of lightning.

From there, things get more serious (and that’s the tone, markedly different from your standard episode of the originator show, Arrow). We get introduced to the powers, the arrival of new “metahumans” and the Flash support crew: disgraced scientist Harrison Wells (Tom Cavanagh), super serious Caitlin (Danielle Panabaker) and the more relaxed Cisco (Carlos Valdes). All of that is mixed in with horrific flashbacks to the night Allen’s mother was murdered by another “speedster”, which will provide solid groundwork for an overarching plot going forward. Throw in a brief appearance by Arrow’s Stephen Amell, and things were really getting crammed in.

Something has to give, given the time constraints, and in-between adding airs of mystery to Wells and dropping hints about a variety of things, it’s the bad guy of “City Of Heroes” who has to get chopped down, with Clyde Mardon (Chad Rook) getting only a handful of lines and some neat effects as a Weather Wizard stand-in. The Flash chooses to focus almost entirely on its titular character, and that’s fine. Between his “obvious to everyone but her” dynamic with Iris, the Peter Parker-esque wonder at his own powers (lots of brooding heroes recently, making this a breath of fresh air) and his relationship with his wrongfully imprisoned father (beautifully elaborated on by the conclusion, where former Flash actor John Wesley Shipp suitably plays the father), Allen is a strong, well defined character by the conclusion of “City Of Heroes”.

Likes/Dislikes: I liked the general pacing of the episode, which felt like it was tripping along nicely rather than rushed, even with the mammoth amount of stuff required. I liked the simplicity of the “final battle” and what it represented for Allen. I liked the stinger scene, and all of the possibilities going forward it might offer. I disliked some of the references to the larger Flash mythos – especially the one involving the cage. I disliked the overly-repeated “Barry running” moments prior to his transformation, which was belabouring the point. I disliked the “Speak English” line given by Isis when Allen said something vaguely scientific – let’s not turn her into that kind of character.

The Flash is off to a really great start, with one of best pilot episodes I’ve seen in a while (make it a two parter/flesh out the bad guy, and it could have been a Flash movie). Lots of intriguing things have been established that can be followed up on, and it’s all wrapped around the very likeable and sympathetic main character. Thoroughly looking forward to the next instalment.

Arrow – “The Calm”

 “I’m scared of what would happen if I let myself be Oliver Queen.”

“I’m scared of what would happen if I let myself be Oliver Queen.”

Starling City has never been more crime free, thanks to the work of Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) and his team. Taking the opportunity, Oliver tries to move forward a blossoming relationship with hacker Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Ricards) but danger is not far behind, in the form of a new “Count Vertigo” (Peter Stomare).

Arrow has been a serious guilty pleasure of mine for the last couple of years, but I’ll admit I wondered how much longevity the show would have, especially on the back of the mania of its last few second season episodes.

“The Calm” appears to try and take Arrow in a new direction, but in truth a lot of plots and sub-plots are getting rehashed to bits, which is unfortunate. The general feel of things takes its cues from Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, between the fear drugs of Begins and a city where crime has been curtailed like the beginning of Rises. Like The Flash pilot it connects to, “The Calm” decides to focus on its main character over its villain – this “Count” being a pale shade of the wonderfully over the top edition of previous years – and the result is hit and miss.

Oliver’s relationship with Felicity, even here, seems painfully awkward and inevitably going nowhere fast. That might be one of the reasons Brandon Routh’s Ray Palmer has been thrown into the mix, to give her a love interest that won’t detract from the sort of crazy action that is at the backbone of Arrow – maybe the creators have decided they want to end this “Will they, won’t they” dynamic, which I think would be a good thing.

God knows there is drama aplenty all around. Oliver argues with Diggle (David Ramsey) over his safety, Detective Lance (Paul Blackthorne) seems to be dying and Sara’s (Caity Lotz) return presages more heartbreak. There’s also the new dynamic in the flashbacks, set in Hong Kong, where wig-wearing Oliver struggles under the confinement imposed on him by a currently motiveless Amanda Waller (Cynthia Addai-Robinson). But even while Arrow maintains the nominally dark tone, it keeps up with the campy ridiculousness that makes it so entertaining, between unnecessary spin moves, bad jokes, incomprehensible hacker talk and unlikely solutions to literal ticking bombs.

Likes/Dislikes: I liked the way Arrow is now an accepted part of the community. I liked how Oliver is still a putz when it comes to corporate activities. I liked the way “Team Arrow” seems like a well-oiled machine. I disliked the villains generally, who were fairly obvious knock-offs. I disliked the way Roy Harper (Colton Haynes) was relegated in plot terms (waiting for Thea (Willie Holland) to come back?) I disliked some of the “romance” scenes between Oliver and Felicity.

So, we still have Oliver struggling to balance personal and superhero lives, we still have the Lance family drama, we have another quasi love triangle involving Oliver and Felicity, we have another Count Vertigo, we still have similar corporate skulduggery, we still have “Oliver trying to survive in harsh foreign environment” flashbacks, we still have Diggle being pushed to the side. A lot of “The Calm” seems too much like what has gone before. But while I felt the majority of this episode was a little humdrum, the stinger certainly grabbed my attention, as Arrow made a very fateful choice about its narrative. It remains to be seen whether that narrative is just going to be more of the same, or will head off towards new places and new problems.

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