15 November 2016

Let's Get Back on Track. A Strange Doctor Track

So after all that, let's start talking about what doesn't matter again - superhero movies. Now, I haven't seen Doctor Strange (2016) yet, although considering I threw down cash to see Suicide Squad (2016), I feel like I owe it to see a superhero film that isn't completely awful. Then again, despite largely straying from the advertising (as much as possible), and not really being tantalized by spoilers or clickbait-y articles, I don't have a huge pressing need to see it.

That realization gave me the impetus for this post, which is a bit different than usual. All summer long, and throughout all the big movies of the year (although it'd behoove the nature of this site to one day acknowledge and thoroughly discuss all the non-franchise non-blockbuster films coming out. Of course, I'm not sure what words I'd have for Sully [2016]. Actually - Tom Hanks is a brand to himself, even if David S. Pumpkins may turn out to be his most endearing character, I could do it), I'll try to forecast the potential for critical, commercial, and most importantly, cultural success, but since we're already knee-deep in Strange (even if the 2016 Election has overshadowed everything else in our lives), that seems kind of off, now.

The other day I watched this video, which lead to this post, which really got to me. Maybe it's just the super-contrarian in me that goes against everything I read, since a few years ago I was posting this exact sort of thing all the time, although I've kind of bucked against that recently. That's mostly because more and more it seems like Marvel is playing with that formula and creating things like Guardians of the Galaxy (2016), Winter Soldier (2014), and CIVIL WAR (2016) that don't flirt at all with that origin prototype. Even Ant-Man (2015) ended up being pretty likable. In fact, I'd argue more coherently that Marvel had a second movie problem more than a first movie problem, where nothing quite worked.
"I am fire. I am death!"

Of course, I'm not completely naïve. Origin stories in general tend to be a little stifled. Superhero films tend to work best when we get right into it. There is enough of a collective understanding that whatever the reason folks got their powers doesn't really matter. We're never strung up watching The Incredibles (2004) or Megamind (2010) stumbling over why anyone is doing what they're doing. Instead it's a focus on story, which is where a lot of the MCU is now. That's perhaps why people have been hesitant over Doctor Strange, because after we really hit a groove in seeing some of these these other characters four or five times now, it's like we're struggling going back to the basics. That's one reason I'm excited for Black Panther (2018) because we've seemed to not give a shit about where this guy got his panther powers in CIVIL WAR. As it should be. We never really re-hash origin stories in comic books. Well, mostly.

But let's take this video apart a bit, because a lot of that criticism is outdated. First, I think that Marvel films actually often hit their humour pretty well, mostly due to the charisma of their principal actors. Now, there is certainly a streak here starting from the endless charm and perfect casting of Robert Downey, Jr wherein every other new star needs to be goofy and jokey (see Chris Pratt and [non-Disney] Ryan Reynolds), which cuts through some of the inherent self-seriousness. I also have less of an issue with the MacGuffins, because they're a time-tested film trope and in the better films like the ones mentioned above, don't overtake character development. It would be cool to see more stories based around their abilities instead of them all doing sort of the same thing, but it's setting up Infinity War (2018) to be a mash-up of MacGuffins in addition to characters, which is kind of tantalizing.

I'd also agree with their villain problem in the sense that Marvel always really loves its evil Doppelganger villains. From Abomination to Whiplash to Yellowjacket, the big baddies is almost always some kind of evil version of the hero. Loki works because he's so different, and has strengths where Thor is weak and vice versa. The Winter Soldier is certainly a doppelganger, but there's so much more heart, character development, and emotional investment there that it becomes rewarding. Again, though, they've lately done really well in the villain department. Aldrich Killian worked because his powers could directly destroy Stark-made tech (That's another reason why the magic-based Mandarin was always an effective foe, although he's endlessly problematic in these non-racist times). I've also always said Ronan worked in Guardians because he's the most self-serious of any villain ever, which makes him work in direct opposite of the irreverent space-team. His big final monologue is cut off with a dance-off challenge for fuck's sake. I also generally liked Zemo because his final plan was distinctive and simple rather than something more obvious in a Marvel film.

All this is a suggestion that Marvel seems vaguely aware that they're continuously repeating themselves and so actively seeks to mix up its universe constantly. Once S.H.I.E.L.D. seems like the stable rallying point, they blow it up. Once the Avengers are set, they tear them down. And once we're all in in a world of technology and aliens, they add a bunch of magic. Comic universes are always crazy because the rules are very fluid. There's not a lot of other fictional universes that have aliens, magic, technology, mutants, ancient gods, and mutant sewer dwellers. Imagine if a bunch of aliens invaded Harry Potter or Indiana Jones! Wait...fuck that.

After all this, the issue with Strange becomes that step back. After we've finally reached a point where zero fucks are given for bizarre characters (uhhh...Vision anyone?), it feels like we're reaching back to the well with what's essentially an Iron Man (2008) with magic. There are also plenty of problems, from the weird attempt to diversify the Ancient One by making him a woman, yet losing his Asian-ness and the throwaway treatment of Rachel McAdams, who suddenly has an awful career. These are all problems indicative of a culture worse than a single film can remedy (hint: it's part of a culture that just elected a pussy-grabbing reality star its 45th President). This is not to absolve Doctor Strange, but to put its inclusive casting, story structure, and script problems into an accurate perspective.

I'll see Doctor Strange sometime because I am a fan of that mystical universe for all its weirdness, especially Dark Dimension / Astral Plane stuff, especially once they get into the evil demonic magic parts of the Marvel Universe, like Dormammu, Umar, Zom, the Vishanti, all these crazy blokes. I can only hope we get to more Kirby-esque weirdness instead of pseudo-inception weirdness. But for now, that's as best I can sum up where we are in the MCU, and how some popular criticism is justified, some is no longer relevant, and some could certainly be attributed to their attempts to launch new heroes using a lot of the tropes that are now a bit outdated as we become more comfortable with weirdness. You know what did a great job, actually, was that Doctor Strange: The Sorceror Supreme (2007) animated movie that used to be on Netflix. Check that out if you're looking for a quick fix that doesn't care as much about continuity as live action.

So what do you think about Marvel? Still better than DC? Well, from a pure filmic standpoint that's got to be true so far. Did you see Doc Strange? Leave one below.

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