5 reasons to watch CLASS, Patrick Ness’s DOCTOR WHO spinoff

In truth, there are so many more than just five reasons to watch CLASS.

Class logo

It’s beyond awesome. It’s extraordinary TV. It’s not just in the highest echelon of DOCTOR WHO storytelling, it’s in the highest echelon of TV storytelling… of ANY storytelling of any kind. The show is thrilling, exhilarating, hilarious, emotional, terrifying and utterly, utterly grounded in the authentic lives of five teenagers at the newly remodeled Coal Hill Academy… which just happens to have a rip in space-time that lets through all kinds of horrors.

Here are the five most pressing reasons for you to watch.

THE CAST

Class - Ep6

The cast of CLASS is a truly bad-ass collection of excellent actors. They all play wounded characters with complex lives and pasts, and they do it brilliantly, with everyone bringing just the right balance of humor and ALL THE EMOTIONS and copious amounts of badassery. That’s a tricky and delicate balance, but they all do it: Sophie Hopkins as April, the nice girl who’s anything but meek, Fady Elsayed as Ram, the tormented, anguished soccer star (football in the UK btw), Greg Austin as the uptight Charlie who’s carrying cosmic levels of baggage, Vivian Oprah as Tanya, grieving for the loss of her father and struggling with being a 14 year-old in a class of 17 year-olds, and Jordan Renzo as Matteusz, Charlie’s Polish boyfriend, and in some ways the moral center of the show. That’s the gang. But we can’t forget the sinister, spiky Miss Quill, played with delicious malevolence by the fantastic Katherine Kelly, who brings rage, nonchalance, and pathos to a powerhouse of a role. Quite possibly the best line-readings you’ll find anywhere on TV in 2017. In fact, without a doubt the best. An iconic performance that rivals any in the DOCTOR WHO universe.

Class Quill

THE STORYTELLING

It’s hard to talk about the storytelling on this show without (a) destroying my thesaurus in search of enough superlatives and (b) giving anything away. Suffice it to say, the level of storytelling in this show is amongst the best we’ve ever seen from DOCTOR WHO.

Class Ram

Awesome storytelling very much pictured.

There are individual episodes of CLASS that are top 5 of any in the Whoniverse. The overall arc shifts and evolves powerfully, driving all 8 episodes (each of which works so brilliantly alone but still form part of a stunning whole) to a jaw-dropping, head-spinning, gut-punching finale that BEGS FOR ANOTHER SEASON DO YOU HEAR ME BBC AND BBC AMERICA???? As writer and showrunner Patrick Ness himself put it on Twitter…

Speaking of Mr. Ness…

PATRICK NESS

The rhinoceros-loving, permanently blue polo-beshirted YA megastar author who brought us the stunning CHAOS WALKING trilogy—as well as the frankly traumatic A MONSTER CALLS (novel and screenplay), brilliant sci-fi/contemporary masterpieces MORE THAN THIS and THE REST OF US JUST LIVE HERE, and the forthcoming RELEASE—is the only writer who could have made CLASS what it is.

Ness

Not pictured: blue polo. Or rhinos.

His ability to weave thrilling tales about genuinely grounded and authentic teens, stories that are shot through with savagely cutting humor and heart-hurting sadness, is unparalleled (I mean, except maybe by J.K. Rowling and Joss Whedon… they all sit on a single throne of awesomeness. It’s a tight fit). His writing in CLASS is on a whole new level. His characters are compelling, complex, beautifully diverse in a way that just reflects the world, funny, fierce, and brave. As they deal with tests, detentions, and, yes, terrifying monsters from throughout the universe, they keep everything painfully grounded and real. The writing here is just a joy to behold. The jokes hit hard, the emotions even harder, and it’s genuinely horrifying and scary when it needs to be. It brings a thrilling edge to the Whoniverse that we’ve never seen before.

THE DIRECTING / CINEMATOGRAPHY / EDITING / EFFECTS / MUSIC

I snuck a few extras in there. Of course, the show couldn’t be great without Ness writing some seriously intense scripts and a series of wonderful performances to really bring them to life, but it could have gone horribly wrong elsewhere. Simple things like putting the camera in the wrong place, lighting shots too brightly, editing too loosely or clumsily, adding music that doesn’t feel quite right… You know when you’re watching a show, and something just feels off? Yeah… you won’t have that feeling here. Because this show never puts a foot wrong. It’s kind of incredible.

Class Quill Charlie

Ed Bazalgette directs 3 of the 8 episodes, while the rest are beautifully shot by Phillipa Langdale, Wayne Yip, and Julian Holmes. They do a phenomenal job. This is fantastic-looking sci-fi that’s slick, has depth, looks gritty and ferocious, and really foregrounds the performances. One episode takes place pretty much entirely in one classroom—and it’s one of the most visually fascinating and kinetic episodes of all of them. The special effects are amazing, easily on a par with the flagship show, and in some cases, far more convincing. Every element of this show comes together to form one hilarious, emotionally devastating joyride through space and time.

THE FUTURE OF THE SHOW DEPENDS ON IT

At the time of writing, the show hasn’t been picked up for a second season… but it hasn’t been canceled either. It aired in the UK last year on an online-only channel, and reading between the lines, it seems like the powers that be are waiting to see how it performs on BBC America. So, my geeks, my nerds, my Doctor Who fans, my fans of sci-fi, of great TV, of great storytelling: Deploy! PLEASE WATCH THIS SHOW. We need joyously great TV shows like this. It’s genuinely up there with monster hits like STRANGER THINGS and GAME OF THRONES, it hits you in the feels like THIS IS US (OK, maybe it doesn’t reduce you to a quivering pile of sadness every single week, but it’s not far off), it’s at least as witty as BUFFY ever was, and sometimes more so, it introduces some truly scary and iconic new monsters and threats, and it’s got a visceral edge that you won’t be expecting.

So watch this damn thing. You’ll be glad you did.

For more info on the show, head on over to the BBC America CLASS site.

CLASS starts its 8 episode run on BBC America at 10.10pm Saturday April 15, following the premiere episode of Peter Capaldi’s final season as DOCTOR WHO.

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2015 in review

2015 was a great year for pop culture — even aside from the multi-platform global pop culture-consuming behemoth that was Star Wars, this year was inspiringly full of rich, exciting and immersive books, TV shows, music and movies. And awesome droids.

So let’s get to it.

MOVIES:

Star Wars Episode VII The Force Awakens. Could the movie of the year have been anything else? Spoiler: no. It was beautiful, full of wonderful old and new characters, and so many emotions. And no, Rey wasn’t a Mary Sue — she was a complex, capable woman whose entire life had prepared her to be ready when the call to action came (if you don’t believe me, read Greg Rucka’s excellent Before The Awakening, which gives you backstories for Finn, Rey and Poe. Rey’s is particularly engrossing — she really is one of the great characters of the Star Wars universe. (Here’s my full spoiler-free Star Wars review)

Kingsman: The Secret Service. This was fresh, inventive, stylish, witty, engaging, with rich characters and a propulsive story, and a genuinely and gloriously bonkers sense of fun and glee. It also showed us how devastatingly great a Matthew Vaughn-directed Bond movie would be… but if he had made one of those (he came close to making Casino Royale), we wouldn’t have this. And we needed this. Colin Firth kicked ass entirely convincingly, and newcomer Taron Egerton delivered a swaggering, young Han Solo-like breakout performance. Genius all round.

The Martian. Yes. Yes yes yes! Ridley Scott scienced the shit out of this, giving us one of the great space movies of all time, taking Drew Goddard’s sharply funny script and giving it the bad-ass disco soundtrack we never knew it needed. Expertly shot, brilliantly acted by Matt Damon (the majority of whose scenes were alone and direct to camera), and the best Lord of the Rings reference you’ll ever see.

Inside Out. This was Pixar to the power of infinity. This was heart-achingly emotional, which you’d expect since it’s a movie about emotions, from the company who brought you the most emotionally devastating opening to a movie EVER (Up). What you might not expect was how heartfelt, humorous and bitter-sweet it all was, plus how the mesmerizing story managed to be utterly profound as well as relentless entertaining. Warning: contains achingly funny moments, and some that are utterly gut-wrenching. You will cry.

Straight Outta Compton. Director  F. Gary Gray delivered a breathlessly gritty and fiercely kinetic look at the birth, rise and fall of Compton’s NWA, from their loose beginnings to the evolution of their personal empires (Dre’s Beats, Cube’s movie career). The heart of the movie was Jason Mitchell’s cherubic, charismatic and ultimately heartbreaking performance as Eric “Easy E” Wright; his story is the true center of the movie, with the others woven tightly around it. It gives you the thrill and danger of the music, the harsh realities that made it necessary, and the often uncontrollable dynamics within the band. A great script kept tight control over the sprawl of events, and excellent performances from the actors playing the band (including Ice Cube’s son playing Cube) made this utterly gripping.

Honorable mentions:

Avengers Age Of Ultron / Ant-Man. Marvel’s two movies this year both came with some serious baggage. Ultron had to follow up the massive success juggernaut that was Avengers, but do it even bigger this time, while Ant-Man had a hugely troubled production with the removal of Edgar Wright weeks before filming was due to start. Both films were mandated by the studio to fit the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe: oddly, Ant-Man fared better with this, given extra resonance and benefiting from being bolted into the MCU, while Ultron seemed to suffer from one extra layer too many in a movie that was jam-packed with too much greatness — it’s a long movie that actually would have been better with an even longer four hour extended cut. There’s just so much Joss Whedon genius-level awesomeness to love and not enough time to truly love it. Ant-Man, on the other hand, was short, sweet, quick on its feet, and full of Edgar Wright DNA (no one handles exposition like him. No one!). Both movies were fun; Ant-Man was just a little more so. But Ultron was still a wonderful Whedon-fest, and a towering achievement of screenwriting and direction.

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. The best of the MI bunch. Written and directed by Chris McQuarrie, this was tight, entertaining, and it barreled along through plot points and set pieces without ever releasing its grip on us. A huge amount of fun, with crowd-pleasing performances, hair-raising stunts, and the type of twisty-turny plotting you’d expect from the man behind The Usual Suspects.

BOOKS:

Book of the year: Illuminae, by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. This was one of those books that make you realize all the many beautiful possibilities of what books can be. Composed of emails, security logs, and many other things that I won’t spoil, this was an utterly engrossing sci-fi story, rich with complex characters you immediately care about, viscerally thrilling space stuff, and fiendish plotting. Totally unputdownable. Full review here.

Close competition: Patrick Ness’s The Rest Of Us Just Live Here, and Robert Galbraith’s Career Of Evil (Galbraith is actually J.K. Rowling). Two perfect five star novels here. Ness delivered his usual blend of thrills and compassion, while Rowling gave us her most exciting Cormoran Strike novel yet, with an absolute kicker of a throw-the-book-across-the-room ending. *shakes fist at J.K. Rowling!!*

Honorable mentions:

Lost Stars, by Claudia Gray; The Weapon Of A Jedi, by Jason Fry; Smuggler’s Run, by Greg Rucka; Moving Target, by Cecil Castellucci and Jason Fry; Before The Awakening, by Greg Rucka. AKA, the Star Wars novels. Lost Stars (reviewed here) was stellar, Jedi, Run and Target were beautifully written standalone adventures featuring Han, Luke and Leia during the Original Trilogy, and Before The Awakening focused on key Finn, Rey and Poe backstories. Fascinating, entertaining stuff.

MUSIC:

Two artists dominated: Adele with her insanely anticipated beautiful powerhouse of an album, 25, and Carly Rae Jepsen with her EMOTION album, which was light years ahead of her previous effort. While Adele did exactly what you’d expect her to (albeit brilliantly, beautifully and flawlessly, of course — with I Miss You and The River Lea as particular standouts ), it was Jepsen who delivered the year’s biggest surprise: an extraordinary, gorgeously 80s, mesmerizingly hook-y set that didn’t have one filler — full of massive choruses drenched with bittersweet melancholy and honesty, all delivered with gloriously soaring vocals. Why this wasn’t on more year-end best-of lists is a mystery. It’s brilliant.

TV:

Special mention for Downton Abbey‘s magnificent final season and majestic final ever episode, which was this year’s Christmas special (for those who have seen it… it airs in the US in January). The perfect send-off, full of warmth, wit, and, yes, feels.

Supergirl. This show is bright, beautiful, full of verve, grit and hope — all about finding your truest self and being it. Melissa Benoist embodies all of that in a vulnerable, complex, utterly engaging performance. She brings Supergirl to life in a way that makes perfect sense.

Jessica Jones. Epically gritty, dark and messed up, but sweetened with some killer sarcastic putdowns, a damaged and soulful performance from Krysten Ritter, and a horrifyingly charming villain in David Tennant’s brilliantly played Kilgrave. Thrilling TV throughout, perfectly paced, full of heart and rage and loss and becoming the person you’re meant to be.

Supernatural. 11 seasons in, it’s still slaying. Here’s my breakdown of why this show STILL kicks ass.

Honorable mentions:

The Walking Dead. This half of the current season delivered three monster, high octane, real-time  episodes that were likely the greatest consecutive episodes in the show’s run… then pulled out of that very suddenly and slowed things way down for the standalone Morgan flashback episode, before reconnecting with the current storyline again. Although Here Is Not Here contained great writing, beautiful character work, and killer acting, it really did stop the momentum in its tracks at a particularly tense moment, and consequently the show took a while to pick up speed again. But by the mid-season finale, it was BACK. It’s the best it’s ever been, and that’s saying something.

Quantico. One of the greatest new network shows in a long time, this is gripping, unstoppable, incredibly tense, and twist and turns and twists and turns, and then does that some more. The cast gives deeply accessible and charismatic performances, and the story just does not quit. Very, very addictive, very tightly written (the show has two ongoing strands, past and present, which interweave and comment on each other and keep the story flowing), and very addictive.

But, if I had to pick the ultimate “things of the year”….

  • Star Wars
  • Illuminae
  • Jessica Jones
  • Carly Rae Jepsen’s EMOTION

And, if I could only pick one thing overall… It’s pretty clear… this little guy won 2015!

BB-8

The breakout star of Star Wars (with fierce competition from the fresh and energetically  great performances of Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Adam Driver), BB-8 owned 2015. The little droid was the heart and soul of Episode VII, and we loved him. Let’s be honest, we would all happily sit there and watch a  two hour movie that was JUST BB-8 AND NOTHING ELSE. Search your feelings… you know it to be true.

So, hope you enjoyed 2015… Have an awesome 2016!!!

IRON MAN 3: You’ll nevverrr seee itttt comminnggggg

The first of the summer 2013 blockbusters, Iron Man 3 gets the season off to a tremendously invigorating start. With a cracking script co-written by the creator of the highly sarcastic, superhero-deconstructing Brit TV show No Heroics, Drew Pearce, and genre king Shane Black, who also directs, this is a big, beautiful blast of pop culture awesomeness. That it just happens to handily redefine the superhero movie along the way is just an added bonus.

Spoilers

Spoilers

As many have pointed out, this looked like it was going to be something of an Iron Man Into Darkness kind of sequel, with all those previews of Tony talking about his nightmares, and getting his ass kicked. As it turns out, the movie is much more fun than those trailers would have had you believe. And the way it flips EVERYTHING on its head halfway through is fantastic, a scene of such staggering disbelief that you almost can’t take it in as you’re watching it. It’s a genius move from the writers. A twist that changes the movie, and the genre, that’s somehow also completely hilarious and brilliant. That, along with the live-wire one-liners that electrify pretty much every scene (with trademark Shane Black inclusivity, everyone from Tony to bit-part henchmen who only appear in one scene get great dialogue), make this a non-stop, old-school thrill ride.

It’s that combination of old-school banter, new-school psychological deconstruction (wait, come back!), and particularly post-postmodern meaningful twistiness and playful sincerity that formed the filmmakers’ answer to the big, giant, frankly terrifying question that loomed before them like Thanos himself: how the HELL do you follow The Avengers?

Bringing together the dry, wry British comedy stylings of Pearce with the 80s-soaked action/banter genius of Black was the beginning of the journey. They are the twin strands of Iron Man 3‘s ludicrously entertaining DNA. Its soul (we’re just going to proceed with some good old fashioned Cartesian duality here, m’kay?) is Robert Downey Jr. Because Black & Pearce can write the hell of out Tony Stark’s dialogue, but it’s Downey Jr that whips those words off the screen with the ultimate in nonchalant panache. Downey Jr IS Iron Man, to be honest. He’s the fortunate beneficiary of one of the strongest Marvel scripts yet, which gifts him with continued emotional complexity, and some stunningly inappropriate and therefore wonderful zingers.

He’s surrounded by extraordinary talent: Gandhi, Mike from Neighbors, the creator of GOOP… I mean it though: Ben Kingsley, Guy Pearce, Gwyneth Paltrow, Rebecca Hall, Don Cheadle, Jon Favreau… It’s a brilliantly deep bench of talent which, along with Black’s utter assurance as a director, keeps this movie moving, and ensures that it’s always robust.

From the big set pieces (the attack on Tony’s mansion, the climactic mega-battle), to the smallest of moments (Tony’s rapport with and utter condescension to his little sidekick;  Favreau’s running Downton Abbey gag), this movie will put a big, silly grin on your face. And, if you’re especially geeky, the closing credit sequence, which is a very 80s style recap of all three movies to date, will make that grin even bigger. Such is the genius of this movie that even its post credit sequence is simultaneously a funny throwaway moment, and also the key to the entire film.

Mac and C.H.E.E.S.E., the reboot

Mac and C.H.E.E.S.E., the reboot

The only downside is the somewhat under-cooked nature of the female roles: it’s particularly disappointing to see Pepper Potts reduced to a screaming, Fay Wray-style helpless woman in distress, especially since she was so sharp and impactful in Joss Whedon’s take on her. But few are as great as Whedon at gifting women with incredible roles in movies and TV. Still, a little more oomph in her character here would have gone a long way. Hall isn’t bad, but she is more of a catalyst than a protagonist. For someone of her talents, that’s a shame.

That aside, this is a brilliant movie, which is relentlessly entertaining, and a highly worthy follow-up to the most successful superhero movie of all time. It’s the only move Marvel could have made; just another indicator of how smart Marvel has been in building this cinematic universe.

4 out of 5 Iron Men Suits

SouthLAnd “Off-Duty”: How to be awesome

As regular viewers (and if you’re not, start now), you all know that SouthLAnd sets an extraordinarily high bar with every episode.

Sammy Bryant on the move, SouthLAnd style

Sammy Bryant on the move, SouthLAnd style

No other show is constructed and executed as tightly, precisely and brutally as this one. The scripts are taut, ferocious, bulletproof. The whole scriptwriting tenet of “get into the scene as late as possible and get out as soon as you can” is taken to a whole other level by the SouthLAnd writers’ room. They elevate that beyond being an artform; it’s writing like a martial art, where the slightest movement can result in you being slammed to the ground emotionally, winded, breathless. You can find yourself feeling sad without even knowing why, because they just pulled some of that ninja shit on you.

Point being, when I say that Zack Whedon’s script raised the bar again, I’m really saying something. It’s not easy for a new writer to the room to do that. It’s a testament to SouthLAnd‘s writer selection process that Whedon is the second scribe this season (after Aron Rahsaan Thomas) to ace their debut script.

Sure, he comes from Hollywood writing royalty. A veritable dynasty, if you will. You all know about his brother Joss (Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Avengers to name just a few), their father, their grandfather. Another of the brothers, Jed, has been working with Joss for years, and has a major production role in the new S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot (which ABC needs to order to series like, now). Of course, that doesn’t guarantee that Zack would be able to knock it out the park; but the fact that he did, spectacularly so, isn’t entirely surprising.

One area which the show hasn’t quite been hitting the target this season has been the opening few minutes leading into the freeze/photo flash voiceover. They’ve lacked a certain oomph in season five, for the most part, compared to previous seasons. Zack changed all that, giving us just a brief glimpse of an off duty Sammy creeping up on an unseen perp screaming and firing a handgun at civilians. Staying off-duty is “easier said than done,” said the voiceover, followed by the customary title letting us know how many hours earlier the episode was jumping back. It’s usually in the double figures, 15, say, or 17; this episode was tight, and just took us back 5 hours. That immediately upped the pressure and the stakes, and in fact we reached Sammy’s off duty shooter moment in the middle of Act One.

Easier said than done

Easier said than done

This script meant business.

Sammy’s takedown of a huge, topless guy shooting at cars and taking a hostage set up a nice contrast to Sherman’s “poster boy” arc; “Come on,” Sherman tells Bryant shortly afterwards, “don’t tell me you didn’t love every minute playing bad-ass for those cameras.” Hatosy’s answering smile was pure gold; hell yeah he liked it. It was a nice character moment for these two, whose relationship has often been spiky and fraught. The continuing saga of Tammy’s assault charges against Sammy further bolstered the Sherman/Hatosy friendship, with Sherman unequivocally letting Bryant know he’s got his back.

Sherman’s relationship with Cooper was decidedly more frosty.

You can never go back

You can never go back

Only the writers know why, but the decision has been made to keep these two as icy and fractured as possible. It’s rough, given the emotional history that they have; the show was born from their TO/new boot relationship, and one of its biggest emotional payoffs was Sherman saving Cooper’s life by getting him to rehab. Since then, in two seasons, their only contact has been an awkward nod partway through season four, and the excruciating and heartbreaking conversation in this episode, which started awkwardly, ended abruptly, and played out with Sherman and Cooper at opposite ends of the bar, ignoring each other for the rest of the night (until Sherman got his booty call). It’s good drama, but it’s f**king annoying too. There’s surely a lot of mileage to had be had from playing the two of them off each other in a more sustained way as Sherman develops his true cop style while Cooper winds his down. Still, SouthLAnd thrives on moving forward relentlessly, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s sad that their bond is broken, but that’s the world of the show; things get broken, and you move on.

Whedon’s script played all of this to perfection though, along with Cooper’s increasing conflict at the prospect of possibly leaving the force, and in contrast to his short friendship with Ben, his deep, everlasting history and friendship with Dewey. Whedon did a great job with all their scenes, and gave Dewey all the best lines — Tommy Howell nailed every last one of of them in what was a bravura episode for him.

Cooper wasn’t the only one that Sherman wasn’t showing the love to. That booty call he followed up on wasn’t from Brooke, who he called his girlfriend for the first time at the start of the episode; it was from a girl he met on patrol.

Sherman's "oh shit I just called her my girlfriend" face

Sherman’s “oh shit I just called her my girlfriend” face

So giving a girl your card so she can call if she needs to is definitely #1 in the Sherman playbook. I hope they play this out; Annie Monroe, formerly of the pop-punk LA girl band The Like, has been a great addition to the cast, always making the most of her brief screen time with naturalistic charm and enviable snark.

But you know we have to talk about Regina.

Off-Duty was directed by the incredible Regina King, her first time behind the camera on SouthLAnd. And it wasn’t like they gave her an easy one to help her out of the gate. No way. This was a brutal script to shoot: multiple tense and complicated action sequences, so many high stakes and key to the series emotional and character scenes, and some really huge moments for Lydia to act. King was a phenomenal director.

With formidable DP extraordinaire Dana Gonzales at her side, she gave us one of the most kinetic, emotional and visceral episodes to date. The action sequences had a hyper-vivid quality, the locations perfectly backdropped the emotional arcs; the whole thing was as emotional as her performances usually are, and in the same way — subtle but devastating.

All in all, this was one of SouthLAnd‘s strongest ever episodes, a great debut on the show for Whedon as writer and King as director. Their pairing produced TV gold. This show knows exactly how to move fast and stay alive. It’s thrilling.

 

Random Witness Statements:

  • “Amazing to think that for every one of those people there’s a pair of disappointed parents…”
  • Sherman is fan of the arts, apparently
  • The subtle handling of Sherman tipping off vice about his former weed dealer
  • King’s acting opposite the serial killer on death row
  • EVERY SINGLE SCENE WITH DEWEY
  • Cooper loves his cactus garden like Dewey loves kale
  • This really was a brilliantly constructed episode by Whedon
  • “Guy’s a monster, and now he’s going to reap the whirlwind”

 

How to be awesome (look closely, you'll see it)

How to be awesome

We Have A Hulk: How The Avengers Took Over The World

Wow.

I mean… Wow.

Whether you were a total Whedonite, or just a Buffy or Firefly fan, or someone who knew he did that vampire thing but didn’t know about the comic books or web shows, or you just weren’t a fan of Joss Whedon at all, it was impossible not to kneel before The Avengers as though it was an all-powerful demigod demanding your allegiance. In a good way.

Kneel!

What a remarkable achievement this movie was on each and every level. Never before has a franchise been born character by character before being pulled together into one massive, all-conquering whole. For that we can thank the unswerving vision of Marvel Studio’s head honcho, Kevin Feige. From 2008 through 2011, he shepherded Iron Man 1 & 2, Thor and Captain America into production, setting up the title characters, and weaving in Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson, Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, and Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow. Each movie not only set up its lead, but also evolved the Avenger Initiative backstory a little more, through one-liners, brief glimpses of the S.H.I.E.L.D. world, and crafty post-credits stingers.

With that heavy lifting taken care of, the biggest task still remained: how to take all those characters and synthesize them into one fast-moving, massive spectacle of an event movie, while retaining the humor, soul and smarts of each of the previous installments.

Which is where Joss Whedon came in.

Joss Whedon directing Mark Ruffalo

It’s no easy thing, to keep so many characters in the mix, giving each their moment(s) to shine, without losing any of them — this is especially true when the characters in question are iconic; are all (or have the potential to be) stars of their own movies & franchises. At least, it’s usually no easy thing in the movies. In TV, on the other hand, keeping multiple character arcs rolling and interweaving as you escalate stakes and understanding is simply business as usual. Todd VanDerWerff made this point in a brilliant piece for the Onion’s AV Club. He talked about how J.J. Abrams, another TV superstar-turned-movie-god, also had the same intuitive understanding as Whedon: focusing on the good guys and their interactions and emotional connections is a powerful foundation, especially in a huge movie. There are exceptions, of course, most notably Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, which are dark and extraordinarily focused odes to isolation and loneliness (also, they’re works of utter genius). However, in the case of The Avengers, which is a high-energy, brightly-colored rock-n-roll universe, focusing on our heroes was a brilliant move on Whedon’s part.

Everyone got arcs and awesome moments (although Robert Downey Jr may have had a few more than most, knocking them all out of the park). Whedon found a way to humanize each of his heroes (most poignantly using “the cellist” and the trading cards to make us care about Agent Coulson), which drew us in all the more: such care is rarely taken in tentpole pictures, and even when care is taken, it’s rarely done with such skill and charm.

The script really is a force to be reckoned with; this is writing as superpower. It begins with a boom, then rides that momentum easily as it swoops from character to character, using one to segue to another, never losing pace as it builds up the cast; then it ratchets up the stakes, the conflict, the sheer size of everything — bringing the team together then breaking them down then finding a nuanced yet brutal emotional lever to launch the massive, rollicking final third of the movie.

This juggernaut of narrative pace is shot through with constant soul, emotion, and, most importantly of all, a relentless and brilliant sense of razor-sharp wit. This may just be the greatest comedy of the year, even as it lays an early claim to blockbuster movie of the year, and possibly even highest grossing movie ever made.

Whedon brought other great grace notes to his performance as writer & director, flourishes that made the performance even more his own: casting the iconic rebel Harry Dean Stanton as a janitor (to Hulk: “son, you have a condition”); using Lou Ferrigno as the voice of the Hulk; ending the movie with Soundgarden’s first song in fifteen years.

The Avengers in action

On so many levels, The Avengers is basically a glorious expression of everything I’ve ever loved about genre and pop culture. As a child, bringing together multiple characters was simply how I did it; that’s what toys were for. In my childhood games, it wasn’t unusual for Captain Kirk to join Spiderman, Superman and the Daleks for a face off against dinosaurs (f**k off, I’m copyrighting that, it’s mine!)… so the notion of superhero team events is basically wish-fulfillment on a massive scale: thank you, Mr. Whedon, for making this match-up so much more than the sum of its parts.

But that’s enough about Joss and the boys. Let’s talk about Scarlett.

Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow in The Avengers

As the lone female, Scarlett Johansson had her work cut out. But she had Whedon on her side, one of the great feminists of pop culture, a true believer in the awesomeness and awesome power of women. Who better to make Black Widow unique and memorable, soulful and strong, kickass and funny? But having Johansson bringing Whedon’s words to life on the big screen was a truly special thing. She brought a stormy, sensual quality to the Black Widow/Natasha Romanov, playing her with a quiet strength interlaced with a hurt soulfulness, and a sharp intelligence, hidden like a knife, wielded with deadly precision and speed.

Yes, she kicked ass with the best of them, but her shivering, shaking vulnerability after just barely avoiding being killed by Hulk is just one example of what makes Natasha Romanov so human, and is one of the reasons this movie has so much heart and soul. Johansson gave the movie its warm yet broken & tortured soul. In the process, she made an airtight case for a standalone Black Widow movie.

I could keep going, but then the run time of this review would almost match the movie.

In conclusion, The Avengers was a majestic blend of humor, soulfulness, intelligence, mad thrills, and a visceral, always-building visual crescendo.

Iron Man

An extraordinary pop culture rush, in other words.

Final rating: five out of five quippy one liners.

The Nine Lives Of Chloe King

From Alloy Entertainment, the illustrious YA book/TV packing behemoth behind massive pop culture hits like The Vampire Diaries, The Secret Circle, Gossip Girl & Pretty Little Liars amongst many others, comes The Nine Lives Of Chloe King, ABC Family’s contender for new genre show of the summer.

In truth, it’s much more than just a contender: it fully and skillfully owns its genre DNA, relishing it like few other shows on the air right now. Based on the trilogy written by Liz Braswell, both the show and the source material feel like YA Stephen King, with their rock-solid grasp of genre, and gleeful approach to story.

The show begins with a breathless chase sequence on the morning of the sixteenth birthday of Chloe King, a normal-seeming San Francisco teenager, who is being chased to the top of Coit Tower, from which she falls. And dies.

And then comes back to life.

As in all great YA stories featuring kids with extraordinary abilities, the supernatural changes that Chloe starts to experience dovetail smoothly with the turbulence of adolescence. This combination of the supernatural and everyday is one of the many things the show does brilliantly. Chloe’s relationships with her longtime best friends Amy and Paul, with her adopted mother, with her annoying boss in the store where she works, and with the mysterious guy Brian who shows up in the store one day — all these are given time, depth and convincing backstory. All those scenes have an easy, natural quality that grounds the more fantastic elements of the world.

But the show is about the fantastic. Aside from coming back from the dead, Chloe starts developing speed, agility… and claws. She discovers that she’s the key figure in a prophecy of the Mai, an ancient race of, as you may have guessed from the title, cat people. The Mai are engaged in a war with the Order of the Tenth Blade, a war in which Chloe is the unwilling focal point. The show follows her developing powers, her struggle to reconcile her human life with her new and extraordinary world, and, of course, a breathless and urgent love triangle.

Where this show succeeds (and others fail), is its ability to shift gears on the fly between episodic events, major story arcs, intense supernatural fight scenes, and small, intimate character moments. It has a great genre central story fueled by secrets, revelations and the many intense emotions that make up high school and complex family life. Its grasp of all these elements makes it a natural successor to Joss Whedon’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

The writing, directing and soundtrack are all strong, propulsive and highly entertaining, but shows like this also need a solid cast, and in this respect, The Nine Lives Of Chloe King kicks major ass. The show’s star, Skyler Samuels, channels her inner Kate Winslet to portray the simultaneous power and quirky vulnerability of Chloe in a consistently winning performance. As Chloe’s best friend Amy, Grace Phipps is also front and center in terms of performance, bringing an engagingly live-wire chaotic charm and emotional intelligence to the mix. And Amy Pietz brings a complex, deep sense of emotional truth to her portrayal of Chloe’s adoptive mother: their scenes together are often painfully real, and are one of the important grounding elements in the show.

The show is a charming, entertaining mystery with claws, teeth, raging hormones, and a series of engaging plotlines that, thanks to the instinctive understanding of genre and awesome writing of original author Liz Braswell and now Daniel Berendson & his team, all successfully intertwine with the central war between supernatural species.

ABC Family has consistently provided a complementary alternative to the CW’s darker programming slate, by carving out a great track history in teen drama and edgier fantastical fare, such as Kyle XY (exec produced by The Vampire Diaries‘ Julie Plec). The Nine Lives Of Chloe King is another excellent example of that trend.

It’s a perfect summer show that successfully takes the supernatural teen baton from The Vampire Diaries and runs with it. Let’s hope the show itself has more than one life, because there’s more than enough intrigue and story potential for many more seasons.