Every Comic Book Movie (Ever): Doctor Strange (feat. Some Thought on the State of the Comic Book Film)

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There is another Marvel movie out, in case you had not heard, and while Andrew and I will discuss Doctor Strange in depth on the next episode of the podcast, I wanted to use this space to write about the film as it relates to the larger world of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

This will be a sort of diagnosis (ahem), if you will.

In case you are sensitive to this sort of thing, there will most assuredly be spoilers.

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Where are we now?

It has been eight years since Iron Man stormed movie screens and kicked off what was then the risky, uncertain endeavor of a universe of connected, but parallel films. The gamble has more than paid off for both Marvel Studios, and their parent company, Disney. One can argue over many things concerning these films, but it is impossible to deny that they have been hugely successful and that there has never been anything quite like this. The idea of launching groups of “solo” films which would then connect in The Avengers remains ambitious, and despite the many copycats, and my own relative ambivalence toward the Marvel films, no one has pulled the idea off more successfully.

In fact, no one else who has tried has really pulled it off yet. Sony had an ambitious interconnected universe planned around the success of The Amazing Spider-Man and its sequel, but the disappointing box office of the latter has led to a partnership between Sony and Disney to bring a new Spiderman into the MCU fold. The X-Men films have never quite branched out in the same way the MCU has. Despite a convoluted time-travel plot to try and simultaneously launch sequels to the X-Men films of the 2000s while rebooting them, the franchise has yielded only a few Wolverine-centric entries and Deadpool, whose success may push the franchise into MCU territory, or may prove a blip on the radar. Then there is the Fantastic Four universe which exploded on the runway. And to keep with the metaphor, we have DC, who, after backing the successful and often audacious Batman films of Christopher Nolan, has had to hit the reset button and build the plane while it’s in the air with Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman, and the upcoming Wonderwoman and Justice League – which may be the DCU’s last real hope to compete at Marvel’s level.

I am not even saying most of these Marvel films have been particularly good (they haven’t, in my opinion), but the fact that the whole enterprise, eight years on, continues to grow and expand and remains successful financially is impressive, and a testament to the model that Marvel has built. This model is a kind of hybrid of the way Marvel’s comics wing operates, and the Golden Age of Hollywood studio filmmaking. I will be the first to admit that responding to my broadest criticism of these films – that they lack a distinct aesthetic vision from film to film and bring nothing new to the art of cinema – would likely make them a less successful corporate endeavor. But with Doctor Strange, it appears that Marvel may, at least, be searching for a middle ground – a way forward.

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The Doctor is in: Doctor Strange as remedy

The thing about perpetuating a franchise for nearly a decade is that ten years is a very long time – actors age or drop out, technology changes, sequels start to yield diminishing returns. One of the benefits of the Marvel system is that, while they have produced 14 films up to this point, they are not all direct sequels. Marvel can tell new-ish stories that sort-of stand alone while still tying them into the brand. For a while, these stories were all Avengers-centric, but in an effort to expand, and potentially modulate its universe, Marvel, beginning with Guardians of the Galaxy, started expanding its (already large) cast and plot strands. Next came Ant-Man. And now we have Doctor Strange. And while each of these films orbit the Avengers, they also try to inject some new blood into the years long saga of the Avengers Initiative.

On one level, Doctor Strange accomplishes this task – it introduces a new hero who, thinking purely in terms of plot, is the type that could lead an Avengers film at some point (Robert Downey Jr. isn’t going to stick around forever). But much like Guardians of the Galaxy introduced more hard sci-fi elements to the MCU, Doctor Strange introduces a new dimension of sorcery and magic which has been essentially untouched in the MCU.

And the film really rips the viewer right into this world. The first fight scene has the dual qualities of being both interesting to look at, and not overstaying its welcome. There is no expositional dialogue explaining exactly what is happening. Just a theft and a chase. Here is a villain. Here is a hero. Here are some buildings getting folded.

As interesting and effective as this sequence is, it is completely dwarfed by the first interaction between Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One and Benedict Cumberbatch’s titular Doctor in which she removes Strange’s soul from his body and sends him flying through multidimensional space and the astral plane. The film is a surrealist, mind-melting trip. Director Scott Derrickson flexes his horror chops here, bringing genuinely memorable, and grotesque, images to the MCU. There is nothing in any of these films like Cumberbatch’s damaged fingers growing more fingers which continue to grow more fingers. It is a fascinating and show-stopping sequence in a world of films that could use much more of that. And while I have seen much stranger things on film before (pick any David Lynch film you like), it struck me while watching in the theater that most people who watch these films have not. For that alone, I am grateful for this film.

While Doctor Strange stretches some of the visual boundaries of the MCU, it also seems to make some oblique nods to the problems and critiques levied at past films. The climactic sequence contains the two most notable. First, instead of a city-destroying ending (of which we have, by now, seen more than enough to make them boring), Strange reverses the damage wrought on Hong Kong. In backwards-motion, the city is slowly put back together, until it is stopped mid-stream, allowing for some interesting shots of civilians frozen in time before the moment of terror. The sequence is a welcome reprieve from the expected endings of comic-book cinema fare.

Second, and this may be entirely unintentional, though no less notable for it, Strange uses a bizarre, Sisyphean method of saving the day. He traps himself and Dormammu, the film’s barely-defined villain, in a time loop in which they must relive the same ten seconds or so of Dormammu destroying Strange. The time loop is meant to eventually wear down the villain and force him to bargain as, in the loop, he cannot commence with world conquering, and must be content to merely crush Strange over and over, hoping for a different result. One could cynically read this as the way in which Marvel slowly grinds down audiences, delivering essentially the same scenario film after film until we wear down and give into the whole enterprise. Less cynically, one could read it as the director’s hopeful vision of breaking away from the relentless Marvel style of filmmaking and trying to craft something more personal and cinematic.

Doctor Strange cannot help but get tripped up in the Marvel net, however.

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The Doctor is out: Doctor Strange as symptom

The first sign of trouble was when Edgar Wright left Ant-Man so late in the game over “creative differences.” Ideally, these are the kinds of difference you resolve (or don’t) before shooting begins, when a director and studio are forming a joint vision for what the film should be. Marvel choosing an offbeat and well-respected director like Wright was a good sign that they would be expanding the ways in which these stories could be told, parting ways with him was a sign that Marvel/Disney, as a corporate entity, still could not resist calling some major shots even on a smaller off-beat entry like Ant-Man. Ant-Man ended up being fine, I guess – at least, it performed to expectations at the box office, which left Doctor Strange on the horizon as the film that could potentially shake things up.

But the film is tasked with doing so much that we have seen before. It’s an origin story after all.

So we have Strange as narcissistic but genius surgeon, brought down by his own hubris, unable to save himself. Here is the motive. He gets in a car wreck. Here is the inciting event. He has a vague love interest in Rachel McAdams’ character who is so poorly drawn that she is almost invisible in the film. Popping up now and again as a plot convenience to motivate or challenge the hero. Like Tony Stark (or, at times, Bruce Wayne), Strange is not particularly likable. I am still not convinced that Strange, with his High Laurie-in-House accent ever quite crosses the threshold into endearing self-absorption, like Stark – and I certainly never once found myself hoping he would find a way to fix his hands.

There is so little time for him to have a satisfying arc in this new and magical world which, despite the amount of time spent explaining the way the magic works, remains vague and borderline nonsensical. There seems to be no particular reason why these people can bend the world into Escher-like contortions (or Inception squared, if you prefer) other than that it looks cool – and the boring orange sparks the conjure out of thin air which form their portals and weapons do not even have that luxury – which would be perfectly acceptable if 90% of the characters’ dialogue in the middle act of the film was more than just droning on about how all this stuff is supposed to work and what it is supposed to mean.

There is also a persistent visual problem which the MCU (and really, most comic book films) has yet to solve. The long history of most of these characters gives a wide range of visual representations to choose from, but they are all, of course, two-dimensional. The trick is in translating these (often iconic) flat, static images into cinematic and dynamic ones. Marvel’s default response has been to simply render these classic images in 3D, mostly avoiding any radical redesign. For some characters, this approach works well (Iron Man) for others, the silliness which is less apparent in a drawing on a page becomes absurd when exaggerated into reality and placed on the body of a living, moving, breathing person (Loki’s helmet). This tactic is popular outside of Marvel as well and usually results in all kinds of useless fabric geometry from which few heroes have been spared – Captain America, Spiderman, Superman, Batman, and Black Panther have all fallen victim. Then there is the issue of masks. Cowls in particular. These look fine in comics – movies are another story. It took Nolan three films to get a cowl that didn’t make Christian Bale look like he was in a neck brace; Captain America is more persuasive as a hero when the mask is off; and I cannot even make it through commercials of CW’s The Flash without laughing at that supremely dumb mask he is wearing.

Doctor Strange opts for kaleidoscopic, Dali-esque surrealism in the early sequence I have already lauded in the space of this piece, but when it comes to staging the final confrontation with the film’s big bad, Dormammu, in the Dark Dimension, the film loses its nerve. The design of the Dark Dimension draws inspiration from nebulas and visual representations of neurons, but fails to convert these interesting touchstones into compelling cinema. The result is a sea of muddy blacks and blues with occasional neon bursts. There is also a geographic problem in that the characters never have any tangible relation to the ill-defined world around them. There is never a moment where Cumberbatch does not look like he is on a big soundstage surrounded by green screen. The close ups draw a stark line between the real fabric of his clothes and the computer simulated fantasia around him. The long shots turn him into a CGI blob amidst a sea of other, larger CGI blobs.

Consider these four shots from inside the Dark Dimension:

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Now consider this single panel from the comic:

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Whereas the film opts for nebulous blobs, the comic goes for more geometric psychedelics. And the colors in the comic may be more subdued, but they are better defined and, in fact, help to define the impossible space of the dark dimension, making them more effective visually. In the illustration, we can place Strange firmly within the space, even if the limits of the space itself fade into impossible orange. We can trace a path along distant strands of green and pink over a cut and paste background of stars and tracings of orbits which render our three dimensional galaxy as two dimensional wallpaper in the theoretically four dimensional space of the Dark Dimension. Despite being a static image on a page, the illustration is more interesting because it gives the eye so many possible paths to take while it simultaneously establishes the heroes place in all of it. It is a tough thing to do, but frustratingly, the film mostly does it in the first sequence between the Ancient One and Strange, and descends into visual blandness at its dramatic climax.

There have been creative and beautiful solutions to the problems of translating comics to cinema. Whether it is Guillermo del Toro’s intricate, handmade Hellboy films, Christopher Nolan’s nü-noir Batman, or the brilliant choice of putting Hugh Jackman in a white tank top instead of bright yellow spandex. One of the most interesting things Marvel has done of late is give the new Spiderman a classic, flat look to his costume that looks straight out of the comic. While it is incongruous with the copiously over-textured Power Rangers look of the Avengers, it is preferable and memorable. It draws directly from the iconography of the character. It is a literal translation, but one that works as cinema.

And that is what I want more than anything out of these films: good cinema. Comic book adaptions aren’t going away anytime soon. If they are going to stick around, they should push at the boundaries they have erected for themselves. There are some signs of that.

It’s odd, I went into the theater the other night hoping that Doctor Strange would provide the sign. It ultimately did not. But I did get my sign. And it came crashing in wearing a white tank top with Johnny Cash playing in the background:

Every Comic Book Movie (Ever): Hellboy II: The Golden Army

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Welcome to October here at Deja.Revue. If you have not noticed already, I tend to be a fan of the creepy, the weird, and the left-field in comics. So I though October would be a perfect time to indulge those predilections even more than I already have. Horror, as a genre in comics, has always been just off to the side. Less flashy than superheroes, and something of a mutant child of crime comics, the genre has a breadth and depth which is, in my opinion, almost unmatched. I do not hope to cover the whole diverse range of the genre in the coming month, but I do hope to give you a survey of some of my favorite works on page and screen. If you would like to read further, Paste has an excellent list of horror comics you should read. For further reading on the history of horror comics, check out Mike Howlett’s essay in the back of this excellent horror anthology that I will not have the time or space to write about this month. If all goes according to plan, I will have a column each Monday for you, culminating, fittingly, with Halloween at the end of the month. Don’t forget to turn off the lights.

The designation of Hellboy II: The Golden Army as “horror” is dubious, to be sure. I will not spend the bulk of this article defending its inclusion in my run of horror-related pieces (and anyways, I will more than make up for this genre fraud next week), but I will say that the guiding hand of director Guillermo del Toro, along with the soul of the source material, are enough to merit an exploration of this film in the present context.

I have yet to write about the first Hellboy film directed by del Toro, and while I think one could jump into Hellboy II without seeing the first (a virtue of most comic book films 1978-2011), I would recommend seeing Hellboy because it’s a gem. The setup is fairly simple: the titular character is a world-ending demon from hell who ends up being raised by a kindly British professor and expert in the occult. As an adult, he works for the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense (B.P.R.D.) along with other agents with “enhanced talents.” Hellboy likes cats, beer, cigars, and the music of Tom Waits. Ron Perlman plays Hellboy in one of the great character/actor matches in all of film history.

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The plot of the film is not particularly important. There are ancient artifacts, a troll market, an abandoned underground city, a forest god. What makes this film distinctive is the meticulous, handcrafted nature of everything put on camera. Del Toro is famous for this. I might say that Hellboy is a better film than its sequel, but Hellboy II is a better film to look at. Every frame is stuffed to the edges with real things, intricate things. Every item in the film is something you could pick up and flip through, or open, or play with. The tactile, physical nature of the film extends to the enormous cast of creatures that populate the various set pieces. If you look far into the background, what you will see are extras in heavy costume and makeup, filling up a world so that we can be engulfed in it.

This is an old idea of horror – going back to the silent era – that mise en scène sets the mood, and plays a larger part than plot in building atmosphere and suspense. The sets of Hellboy II are lavish, but they range from the playful to the sinister. These are not merely dark places, but whole worlds unto themselves.

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The playfulness of del Toro’s design spills over into the rest of the film. This movie is fun. And not in the way that a movie trying to be fun is fun, but in a genuinely, organically pleasurable way. The emotional beats are simple and build gently on the groundwork from the first film. They are effective because the actors never oversell them, and in fact, the film is more subdued than one might imagine. One of the film’s best moments involves Hellboy and Abe Sapien (a sort of mer-man who also works for the B.P.R.D.) lamenting their troubles in love over beers and singing along, gently, to Barry Manilow. It’s an unexpectedly warm and touching scene.

Couched in del Toro’s elaborate world, the characters’ dramas both big and small never feel silly playing out in such lovingly constructed environs. Hellboy and his girlfriend, Liz Sherman, a pyrokinetic, hash out their domestic problems in blazes of flame. Only later when they reach a shadowy chamber where one of del Toro’s more terrifying creatures (a dark angel with eyes dotting its wings) hands them their fate, do they put their arguments behind them and commit to each other for good. The small scale of the human drama could feel absurd in this fantasy world, but it doesn’t because del Toro and his actors treat the world with respect – they know how fragile it is, and things do threaten constantly to fall apart.

Hellboy II is a monster movie where the monsters are the bad guys and the good guys. Really, its not even that, because the good guys are fighting to subvert their own dark destinies, and the bad guys fight for what they believe to be a noble cause. But it still manages to be an excellent evocation of classic creature features, showing reverence to its references and giving care and attention to its own creations. We need more comic book films like this. We need more horror films like this. Hellboy II is not a perfect film, but it is a film undoubtedly assembled with love and passion by all involved. With all that care put on the screen, how could we not enjoy it?

Opening Volley: Stranger Things

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As you know (hopefully), we at Deja.Revue have started a podcast. The first episode is up on iTunes. It’s a bit rough, and a trial run for sure. We hope to bring you a new podcast every month. One of the goals of the podcast is to branch out into the larger pop-culture world and cast our eye on whatever the flavor of the month is. So, for the upcoming ‘cast, Andrew and I will be discussing the Netflix Original Series Stranger Things.

The discussion will be less confined than the page, so in order to get my thoughts down, and touch on a few specific things about the show, I’m introducing a new column: Opening Volley. I plan on doing something like this whenever the podcast comes around. My hope is that it will open up discussion here on the blog, as well as give you all a heads up on what we’ll be discussing so you can catch up if you like. Selfishly, it will also give me a leg up on Andrew heading into recording. Rest assured, the discussion will range more widely in podcast form and those of you who will inevitably disagree with this article will be have a capable champion in my colleague.

Stranger Things is a Netflix Original Series that has taken the world (or, at least, the internet) by storm over the last month or so. The series mainly centers around a group of kids, Mike, Dustin, and Lucas (played by a group of mostly unknowns, who put on entertaining and believable performances), in Hawkins, Indiana whose world is turned upside down (ahem) by the disappearance and apparent death of their friend, Will. While searching for him, they come across a strange girl named Eleven (played by Millie Bobby Brown, whose performance here good, though her magnetism in press appearances makes one wish she were given more room to breath throughout the series) in the woods who may or may not hold the key to finding Will. At the same time, Will’s mother (Winona Ryder, an actress whom I love, is similarly stymied by the narrow range of her character) searches desperately for him and descends into a seemingly grief-stricken madness, which may, in fact, not be madness at all. She is joined by the town sheriff, whose past contains uncomfortable resonances with the present, and who begins to center his search for the boy around the mysterious Hawkins National Laboratory. Running parallel to all of this is a teen drama involving Will’s older brother, Mike’s older sister, her boyfriend, and the disappearance of her best friend. While the various plot strands here may seem a bit confusing or convoluted, I will say that the show mostly handles this problem with grace by keeping the various groups separate for its roughly 8 hours of runtime. But, as Sean T. Collins points out in his great Vulture piece, triangulating the particular fears of each group into something truly terrifying proves simply too broad of a goal for the show to achieve. However, I will leave that for later discussion.

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Allow me to zoom out for a moment. Netflix began dipping their toe into original programming around 2012. They began to push it in earnest in 2013, which brought House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, and the long-hoped-for-revival of cult favorite Arrested Development. The merits of each of these shows will vary widely based on who you talk to, but since then, Netflix had churned out a massive slate of original content each year. And not just “TV” shows, either: movies, documentaries, stand-up specials, Christmas specials, talk-shows, and a huge slate of kids programming have all been part of the nonstop onslaught of content which Netflix has invested in, created, or nabbed the exclusive distribution rights for. Now, I cannot claim to have seen all, or even most, of this content. There is a ridiculous amount of it and I only have so much time. But I would like to put forth an argument here which does not, I think, require that one see every single second of Netflix Original Content.

Most of this content, regardless of its quality, was made primarily on the basis that it resembles non-original content that has been popular on Netflix in the past. You may say, “Yes, duh Ian, of course they made something because they thought it would be popular with people who like other popular things. That is how capitalism works.” To which I say, yes, lamentably, this is how things have always worked, to an extent. The difference is that Netflix (and other streaming services who have branched out into original content) has more data than any other network or movie studio has ever had, or has ever dreamed of having. Presumably, though it is notorious for keeping its viewing numbers under wraps, Netflix can tell exactly how many users have watched a particular show, or film, or whatever. Not only can they tell you how many people have watched it, they can also tell you when they watched it, how quickly they viewed an entire season, whether someone watched it and turned it off 5 minutes in, or watched it all the way through in a single sitting. TV networks are expanding the Nielson system in order to better understand how audiences watch shows, and what they watch, but even that much-expanded system leaves tons of gaps. Similarly, movie studios have box-office and DVD/Blu-ray sales and VOD sales and rentals to go by, but again, the gaps are enormous.

What this mountain of data leads to are shows that often feel like they were created by Netflix’s algorithms instead of real people. The revivals, or continuations, of shows that have been cancelled elsewhere are an obvious example of this: Netflix knows a bunch of us watched all three original seasons of Arrested Development, so it makes economic sense for them to pull all the strings they can to be the exclusive carriers of the show’s return. Ditto all of their Marvel/Disney content. On the one hand, Netflix took a gamble on House of Cards, it being their first high-profile release. On the other hand, Netflix knew exactly how many people liked the British original, as well as things like Mad Men, or The West Wing. So yes, it was a gamble to get into the game, but they were holding all the cards. There are exceptions to this art-as-algorithm equation, but even these exceptions are created from the same You Might Also Like mentality – they just happen to rise above it on an artistic level. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a great show, but it only got the green light because Netflix knew how much people loved 30 Rock (both shows are created by the same team) and The Office (which shares with the Netflix series the great talents of Ellie Kemper).

This brings me back to Stranger Things. To say the show owes a massive debt to its influences would be an understatement. If you removed every callback, reference, and homage from the show, I think you would be left with only some B-roll of the Christmas lights hanging over the hastily-scrawled alphabet on the wall (easily the greatest image the show conjures), backed by an interesting synth score (which, admittedly, owes a great deal to John Carpenter, but which, I think, manages to be interesting enough on its own). Netflix knows how many of us watched E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jaws, Poltergeist, The Goonies, Stand by Me, The Shining, The Thing, Halloween, Alien, Nightmare on Elm Street, Freaks and Geeks, The X-Files, Twin Peaks, Fringe, etc. and its only job is to concentrate those, repackage them enough to call it “Original,” and hook it directly to our veins via a Netflix subscription. I cannot be sure that every single one of these works has been on Netflix at some point, but I know for a fact that most of them have. Lest you think I am merely being cynical, the most obvious rip-off comes in the scenes when Eleven is inside the sensory deprivation tank. The look of the scene is lifted in its entirety from Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 indie sci-fi film Under the Skin, which starred Scarlett Johansson and has never been on Netflix. But as you see below, this single fact does not make the appropriation any less egregious.

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The show mostly pulls the teeth out of its influences however, making them taming, more palatable. While watching Stranger Things I found myself wondering who exactly this was for? For those who grew up with the works that are referenced, it seems the original works themselves would be a quicker, more direct, route to nostalgia. And for those younger viewers with limited or non-existent knowledge of the tropes and references, the show would seem to be almost nonsensical. My conclusion is that the show is meant for everyone. Parents who grew up with this stuff can watch something same-ish with their kids minus the more edgy elements of the original works. People who have been meaning to get around to Poltergeist, or Alien, or the collected works of Steven King can skip that long, boring road, and get all of it in just 8 hours. However, in the shows quest to be pleasing to the masses, in its quest to be for everyone, it fails to be directed at anyone in particular. This lack of specificity, an element which the works it owes its debt to all share, leaves me cold by the time season one ends, despite having found it to be a vaguely pleasurable watch.

The failure of Stranger Things, then, is not that it is not enjoyable, it is designed to be, but that it never pushes beyond its influences. It is content merely to be an entertaining collection of callbacks to movies that Netflix occasionally acquires the license for. They know you like this stuff – Spielberg, Steven King, John Carpenter, et al – they have the numbers to prove it, but a bunch of people watching E.T. does not net them the kind of profit and publicity that an “original” series does. So they give us Stranger Things, an ironic title considering how intentionally familiar it all feels.

 

-Ian