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This week’s reviews: sci-fi adventure The Nevers, dystopian drama Shadow and Bone, and Disney+ Marvel hero hit The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.
The Nevers (HBO Max)
Before one can begin to tackle the ass-kicking Victorian women who populate HBO Max’s The Nevers, it is important to address the issues involving its creator Joss Whedon.
Due to accusations by several actors who’ve worked with him, the writer/director who brought us both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Avengers is problematic, to put it lightly, and his alleged actions will be an issue for many when it comes to projects bearing his name. Whedon left the show post-production but he did create it. Like a lot of entertainment out there, The Nevers is best enjoyed if one separates the artist from the art, so that is how it shall be reviewed here.
A Victorian sci-fi drama brimming with supernatural creatures, steampunk aesthetic, and badass femme fatales who can backflip in a corset, The Nevers is an interesting take on a well-worn subject. In lieu of Slayers or Dolls (remember Whedon’s short-lived Fox drama Dollhouse?), we are introduced to “the Touched”– people with extraordinary gifts ranging from extreme height to visions of the future. Society regards such individuals with either disdain or morbid curiosity, but their problems are only just beginning as they are also being hunted by a mysterious order.
The story’s central figure is Amalia True (Jenny Fraser), a prim and proper young widow on a mission to save “the Afflicted”– people with supernatural abilities. And much like Professor X, this belle in a bustle has a few afflictions of her own.
In this age of superheroes, The Nevers is nothing we haven’t seen before. X-Men, Buffy, Dollhouse, Harry Potter…all deal with aspects of everyday people with supernatural powers. However, its witty script helps elevate the material beyond the sci-fi tropes. The deadpan delivery and well-written words serve up laughs and a narrative that clicks.
A sci-fi fantasy with lofty expectations can fail to deliver the goods for a number of reasons and shabby world-building, over-complicated plot, or bad writing have taken down many a lavish production. Thanks to a whip-smart script, well-developed characters, and a talented cast bringing its material to life, The Nevers almost never feels played out, even if its creator might be.
Shadow and Bone (Netflix)
Netflix’s Shadow and Bone is yet another dystopian series in which the fate of all mankind is in the hands of a teen girl. And far as sci-fi fantasy and semi-apocalyptic young adult stories go, it hits all the right beats. There are magical orphans and an ancient prophecy regarding said orphans; CGI cryptids; evil elders and an assortment of British accents. Yes, Netflix’s latest adaptation has all of the end-of-the-world touches we have come to know and love. But is it good? Yep. But you gotta give it a sec.
Based on Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone trilogy and The Six of Crows, the series follows the adventures of Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li), a soldier turned soothsayer who discovers she is the Sun Summoner– a mythical being destined to save her world. But before she can flex her newfound talents, she must defend herself and her friends from those who wish to control her.
Heavily influenced by Russian history and gunslinger mythology, the Netflix series has a lot to unpack, and the first episode unloads a whole bunch of information on the viewer. It can be a little overwhelming. The audiences must learn the rules by which this universe operates, as well as its history and its unique languages. But once Alina finds her starshine, the story picks up, allowing the audience to get to know the characters and the exotic new world they occupy.
Shadow and Bone succeeds where so many fantasy adaptations fail if you stay with it and understand that it requires a bit of patience. It takes inventive writing and great acting to really bring a world to life, and this one evolves nicely if you make yourself at home for a while. Welcome to the Grishaverse. You are gonna like it here.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (Disney+)
Hot on the heels of WandaVision, Disney+’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier continued Marvel’s march into Phase Four, once again using its Avengers B-team to both focus on larger issues while setting up future films. If you still haven’t seen the Disney+ drama -which aired its season finale on April 23- it’s time to fly in.
Picking up where Avengers: Endgame left off, Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie) is dealing with a dilly of a dilemma as he ponders the options left to him after the former Captain America/Steve Rogers gives him his shield. But just like WandaVision wasn’t a show about a lie, a witch, and a wardrobe change, Winter Soldier isn’t a show about a shield, but rather what people believe it represents.
While the world attempts to recover from both the loss of two of its greatest heroes and the sudden return of half the population of Earth, both Sam and Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) struggle to find their way in a Captain-less world. But the show digs much deeper than that. It is not just about rudderless heroes looking for a cause, but about the disenfranchised- be it a lost population, a reluctant superhero, a misguided teen with a taste for violence, or man-made champions made into monsters.
Winter Soldier has a job to do: it needs to expand previously unexplored characters while introducing new information that sets up the next phase of the Marvel universe. But within this chore, Winter Soldier makes itself relevant by asking difficult questions. Will the world accept a Black savior? What will happen to the previous saviors that were created to protect us? Who will protect us from them? While WandaVision was really about processing grief, Winter Soldier takes on bigger issues, such as systemic racism and a broken political power structure.
Within these serious themes, there is a message of hope and a surefire plan for box office domination. Short-sighted individuals might be rallying in protest on social media about where the show is leading, but their bellyaching should mean nothing in the larger scheme of things. Captain America is a hero of the people -all the people- and we’re excited to see how Marvel makes sure viewers get that if there’s another season. ❖
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