Wolverine and Me

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Damn, am I ever excited for LOGAN (2017). Each new trailer is more impressive than the last, and I think it’s fair to say that the X-Men movie franchise is nostalgic for most, considering that it’s been going strong since the 2000s. Of course, any 90s kid will tell you that the 1992 cartoon show was better.

That was where I first met Wolverine, and damn did he help me through my childhood.

I’ve said before that Spider-man taught me that it was ok for me to be who I was, no matter what society thought. To a certain extent, Wolverine taught the same lesson, with his brash, devil may care attitude. He chain-smoked, drank, didn’t mince words, and didn’t have a problem kicking ass when he needed to. The Mary Sue pointed out that Wolverine’s behavior was emblematic of the worst aspects of masculinity: physical dominance, aggression, lechery, etc. While the Mary Sue isn’t wrong, I’d argue that its read is overly simplistic.

HOW overly simplistic is up for debate, though...

HOW overly simplistic is up for debate, though…

Wolverine in the 1992 cartoon and in the movies IS a messed-up guy possessing all of those vices. Having no memories and being a societal outcast will do that to you. In the cartoon show, you could set a watch by how often he flies off the handle… yet at the same time, Wolverine was a character deeply aware of his character flaws. He saw his hot temper as weakness, not a strength. He understood that he sometimes needed distance from his teammates to better understand his personal shortcomings. He understood that he couldn’t always have what he wanted, especially romantically. He was never a stranger to his feelings. For as much as Wolverine was propped up as the ultimate phallus (hilarious, considering that EVERYONE reminds him of how short he is), the cartoon show went out of its way to “emasculate” him.

Check out what happens when Wolverine goes up against Proteus:

Holy shit. There was NOTHING so mind-blowing as a kid than seeing the toughest character you’d ever known break down sobbing. Especially when bullies picked on you for that. It was ok to experience the full range of human emotions.

The ultimate lesson of the cartoon Wolverine, and even the movie version is that everybody hurts. Physical wounds, mental wounds- everyone faces times of sadness and tragedy, and sometimes it’s hard moving past those times. Yet we must.

In 1993, the X-Men comics took that a step further, when Magneto did what he’d always threatened in the movies: he ripped Wolverine’s metal skeleton out.

Paaaaaaaaain

Paaaaaaaaain

Wolverine nearly died. By the time he stabilized, he was back to flesh and bone (claws included), and his healing factor was nonexistent. In short, he was dying. There wasn’t any sense in projecting rage -his team had done all they could to save him. All that was left was for him to put his affairs in order.

The Wolverine I knew, the one from these pages, was one of immense humanity and frailty. Once an indomitable warrior, each new fight could be his last. He had to bury his ego and accept pity and mercy from his enemies. He had to accept that he couldn’t be there for everyone who needed him. He had to accept that even he was going to die.

About 21 years later. In a completely unrelated arc, long, long after he’d gotten all his powers back and then some.

The point is, sure, Wolverine is emblematic of plenty of negative, traditionally masculine values, but he also embodies countless strengths of character, including humility, restraint, and tenderness. Considering the directions the X-movies went, it’s easy to forget, too, that Wolverine, like the rest of the X-Men, is a human (and mutants!) rights’ activist. As a child, those latter virtues meant the world to me and shaped how I’d approach good times and bad times. As an adult, I like to think I follow those same lessons.

Plus, Wolverine’s a badass, amiright?

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DOCTOR STRANGE: NOT QUITE THE MASTER OF THE MYSTIC ARTS

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Marvel’s Sorcerer Supreme has always been one of my favorite characters, so as you might imagine, I had big expectations for DOCTOR STRANGE (2016). With its mind-bending visuals, decent great comedy, and good performances, it’s by no means a bad movie. After that, its themes, characters, and structures aren’t as well-realized as it thinks. If you have the courage to soldier on, brace yourself for a SPOILER-FILLED discussion.

So what’s holding this movie back?

  1. Triumph and Torment

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Whenever I watch a movie, I ask myself “Is this succeeding on its own terms?” Thus, what is DOCTOR STRANGE trying to do? Obviously, its storytelling goal was to tell the origin of Doctor Strange as a master of mystic arts by way of a dimension-hopping magic/martial arts movie. A success, in that regard.

Thematically though, it gets muddy. On one hand, Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is learning to get over himself. “It isn’t about you,” the movie says, but his final confrontation with Dormammu has less to do with that –though it is physically about self-sacrifice- and more to do with a larger understanding about time, the cycles of life and death, and more. Strange isn’t overcoming himself in this confrontation; he’s displaying his mastery and understanding of time, a fundamental force of nature.

In some key scenes, Strange dallies with time, using the Eye of Agamotto to rot/unrot an apple, to momentarily restore pages to a spellbook, and to reverse the flow of damage to Hong Kong. We’re told, in a handful of scenes, that one doesn’t use magic to disrupt reality, but to preserve it. This is the message of The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), the obsession of Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the duty of Wong (Benedict Wong), and indeed, the mission  of the masters of mystic arts in Kamar-Taj.

EVERYONE talks about how important it is to preserve the natural order, and it’s a big deal when people are found in violation of it.  When Strange bungles time manipulation, Mordo and Wong warn him that there are ALWAYS consequences. But we never see consequences. It’s earth-shaking for Strange and (especially) Mordo to learn that the Ancient One has been defying the natural order, but there are no consequences until the day is saved. Even then, when Strange defies the natural order to reverse time and “resurrect” a ton of people, it’s not clear if Mordo is more reacting to the Ancient One’s affront or Strange’s. Strange’s confrontation with Dormammu revolves around perverting the natural order through use of time.

So why isn’t messing with Time a bigger deal?

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As soon as Strange learns that a paraplegic “healed” himself with magic, why wouldn’t that be his continual goal in training? We see Strange act like a bastard early in the movie, but he loses the selfishness pretty quickly as he trains in the mystic arts. He displays altruism and survivalism, but little selfishness. Instead, why wouldn’t all of his training be focused on healing his hands? Channeling every new spell into his hands, continuing his muscle therapy exercises, etc.?  The Ancient One might know that Strange isn’t of pure heart, but she’s got her own agenda, dealing with incursions of a seemingly unstoppable extradimensional evil. Meanwhile, Strange’s fellow student, Mordo, might encourage his studies in time manipulation  to repair his hands, to undo the misfortune that’s come upon the world, etc. Little would Strange know, each time he uses Time magic, the dark entity grows stronger. As a result, Strange would discover that his selfishness has a price and that time isn’t a toy. There would be consequences, ripple effects, that threaten to destroy reality. He would defeat Dormammu, the dark entity, with time manipulation, but would he unlock a greater evil?

Using time as our way of exploring realities, we could see alternate realities where Strange didn’t study martial arts, where he had only empty happiness, where Dormammu wiped out reality, etc. Strange would learn the consequences of messing with time, and the value of the new lease on life he’d gotten.

Sure DOCTOR STRANGE hops around between a few dimensions and plays with fractals a few times, but this is all just window dressing for fight scenes, rather than examining our impact on eternity like in INTERSTELLAR or INCEPTION. DOCTOR STRANGE’s dimension-hopping is beautiful, but felt, at least to me, like video game levels, and somewhat interchangeable. Traveling through alternate realities of his past would make Strange’s journey much more character-focused.

  1. MCU Villain-syndrome. Again.

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THOR: THE DARK WORLD’S Malekith will always be the worst MCU villain, but Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelson) doesn’t have much going on for him. We never see his humanity. We never see what he’s lost to make him so obsessed with stopping death. Rather, Kaecilius marches around, blank-faced, brazenly murdering people. Isn’t that in conflict? The movie opens with him ceremonially decapitating a guy, and I’m not really sure why he needed to do that. If he’d needed the blood/spirit of the dead guy for magic, that’d be something, but it’s really not played upon. It’s almost like he kills the guy JUST so we know he’s a bad guy. We’re later told through exposition that Kaecilius defied the Ancient One’s teachings and did his own thing –like Strange does- but none of this is dramatized. All of this makes him feel blank and underutilized. That’s crazy when stopping death seems like a sympathetic goal.

Kaecilus launches periodic magic attacks around the world, robbing Strange of character-development time with people  like Mordo and Wong, stunting their relationships. For Mordo, this is especially egregious, as his relationship with Strange is central to Strange’s journey and will be central to the sequel. It’d be one thing if Kaecilius was a villain worth having… but he’s got nothing to sell him.

So why not combine Kaecilius and Mordo into a single character?

This way, Mordo and Strange can grow together as students, then friends, then comrades in arms… until it becomes clear that Mordo was manipulating everything, leading to him murdering the Ancient One. Now Strange has to stop his new best friend and the dark entity Dormammu, who’s been summoned to consume the world. This way, Mordo, his relationship to Strange, his agenda, and his betrayal, have all been dramatized. If that happened, I guarantee we’d be raving about Marvel’s best new villain.

  1. Doctor Strange: Sorcerer Still-Not-Supreme

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In the movie, Doctor Strange arcs from down-on-his-luck-surgeon to very-competent-with-magic-guy, which isn’t bad, but why not go further? We know that the mystics of Kamar-Taj are ranked Student, Master, Sorcerer Supreme, and that apparently a basic competency with magic is all that’s required to become a Master. Strange becomes a Master midway through the movie, just like most of the Ancient One’s acolytes, and from there, his advancement ends. Even though Strange has an unparalleled mastery of magic, even though the Ancient One, the Sorcerer Supreme, dies, nobody appoints Strange to her place. Why leave Strange only as special as his cohorts? Why doesn’t his arc end with him accepting the title of Sorcerer Supreme, defender of reality? The movie doesn’t have a good reason not to end this way, and a post-credits scene acts as though he IS Sorcerer Supreme. So what’s up there?

I’m also mixed on the teleportation-creating Sling Rings. I get why they’re there –focusing powers through artifacts creates rules so you can’t make shit up. That’s screenwriting 101. But why isn’t this subverted? Why doesn’t Doctor Strange find the power within himself to create portals WITHOUT Sling Rings during a critical moment? That too would’ve been screenwriting 101. There’s license to do this, considering Strange’s exponential advancement as a sorcerer.

  1. Why bother with Dormammu?

This seems a silly question, as building up the unstoppable entity is the whole thrust of the movie, but Strange’s confrontation with him isn’t special. It’s not two rivals squaring off, but a first-time meeting that, bereft of special effects, would have little gravitas. What follows is a test of wills and magic loop-holing. While that’s a classic, appropriate Strange tactic, it doesn’t NEED to be against Dormammu. Why not employ this same magical trickery against Kaecilius? Spread out the reverse-time fight scene to build to this climactic showdown of wits? Then, the threat of Dormammu can hang over the credits, only to pan out in the sequel. Using him now as a one-off makes about as much sense as making Galactus a space cloud in FANTASTIC FOUR: RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER.

  1. The race thing.

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Doctor Strange must’ve been a difficult adaptation, given its origins in 60s-era Orientalism. By all accounts, director Scott Derrickson struggled to make the races and genders less offensive, but sort of missed the mark. Tilda Swinton IS good as the Ancient One, but that role absolutely belongs to an Asian woman. While I respect Derrickson’s argument that it would’ve been hard not to make an Asian-woman-as-Ancient-One a “Dragon Lady,” I’d argue that James Gunn’s GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY bear little resemblance to the original characters, or even the 2008 versions written by Dan Abnett. There was plenty of license to reimagine and update Doctor Strange’s mythology, especially when urban fantasy novels provides plenty of direction. Hell, Baron Mordo essentially got a whole new personality and philosophy here.

Now that we’ve wrapped up ACTUAL issues affecting the screenplay, let’s talk about nerd stuff. These things don’t make-or-break the movie, but they’re annoying little personal preferences from a guy who’s read a few comics.

Nerd Complaints:

  1. The Eye of Agamotto SHOULD NOT BE an Infinity Stone.

Man, do I ever loathe this idea. See, I’m not a fan of the Marvel universe as a whole. I love Spider-Man, the X-Men, and Marvel Magic/Horror. And I love that Marvel Horror tends to keep the rest of the Marvel Universe at arm’s reach. Making the Eye of Agamotto an Infinity Stone (the Time Gem) makes Doctor Strange a cosmic character, shrinks his universe, and limits the range of worldbuilding possibilities. After all, the Eye of Agamotto, in the comics, is an amulet literally housing the eye of Agamotto, an extra-dimensional caterpillar trickster god. I know that’s bonkers, but it’s Doctor Strange. Doctor STRANGE.

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I am NEVER doing shrooms again…

  1. I hate that Dormammu was a big head in the sky.

DOCTOR STRANGE went above and beyond in depicting the Dark Dimension from the comics, a place where space, time, and gravity don’t exactly apply. Given that its lord and master, Dormammu, is an all-powerful being bent on ruling EVERY dimension, I understand why he might be adapted as “mystical Galactus” (he’s out to consume every dimension instead of every planet), but doing so undercuts the breadth of lore surrounding him: Dormammu’s kingdom is literal; he’s got an evil sister who’s mystical-Lady MacBeth; his niece is the lover and student of Doctor Strange; and he commands an army of laser-shooting rock people.

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Seriously.

Although Strange HAS confronted loads of giant space heads, they tended to be minor deities, never to be encountered again. Dormammu is one of -if not THE- principle Strange enemy, and he’s party to most of Strange’s personal dramas. Undercutting and underutilizing him closes the door on tons of narrative potential.

  1. Why does Mordo have the wrong motivation?

I see what DOCTOR STRANGE is going for with Mordo: a radical follower with an inflexible morality, who will go off the deep end in DOCTOR STRANGE 2. His stated goal, going forward, is that there should be “no sorcerers.” Fine, but that’s the motivation of an entirely different character: Silver Dagger.

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This guy has ALL the crazy.

Silver Dagger is a crazed exorcist out to slay all things supernatural. He’s a stand-in for the religious far right, the stories about him debating belief vs. morality. His backstory naturally supports that.

Mordo is, as Derrickson put it, “very arch” –as in arch-enemy. In the comics, he’s a mustache-twirler, driven only by megalomania. There are plenty of ways to reimagine the character from being a disenfranchised student of the Ancient One. The easiest example is Anakin Skywalker approach. Make Mordo a tormented guy who’s honestly trying save the world and (as his full name is Baron Karl Mordo), he’s trying to save the people of his homeland from… something. He thinks magic is the answer. However, the Ancient One doesn’t trust him. Desperate, Mordo goes rogue, bungles his attempts to save his people, and needs to be taken down. There IS a way to make him a deep character that’s in-keeping with his comic origins, but the movie weirdly wasn’t interested in that.

But as I’ve said, these last three points are just comparing and contrasting to the source material. They have no bearing on if the movie worked or not. Infinity Stones are going crammed in there whether it’s appropriate or not. Dormammu’s lore can be replaced with another extradimensional demigod like Nightmare or Shuma-Gorath. I’m sure DOCTOR STRANGE 2 will make good use of philosophical-conundrum-Mordo. Just because something’s inaccurate, doesn’t mean it’s wrong for the material.

The Doctor Is Out

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Don’t get me wrong, DOCTOR STRANGE is still a fine MCU movie. I’m sure its visuals, rhythm, and climax will give the MCU a second wind. It IS entertaining… but I don’t think that it’s as successful on its own terms as it thinks it is. All that said, I hope the movie does well. Director Scott Derrickson has teased that his sequel would THE DARK KNIGHT by way of Doctor Strange, and that sounds hella interesting. My only hope would be that the creative team look hard at the common criticisms surrounding this (very polished) movie, and improve accordingly.

Until then, make mine Marvel (Studios).

Spider-Man and Me

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Who wasn’t blown away by CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR’s latest trailer yesterday? It looks like the payoff for nearly all of the groundwork of the MCU: Ant-Man on Hawkeye’s arrows! Captain America and Iron Man philosophically reversed! A reprise of “I can do this all day!”

And a certain cameo at the end.

I’m not prone to fangasms or going full-fanboy, but when Spidey showed up, his eyes narrowing just like they did in the comics and cartoon shows, I felt a physical surge of happiness. I couldn’t stop smiling. I was nearly crying. I was 7 years old again.

And as a 7 year-old, I had needed Spider-Man.

That’s how old I was when the SPIDER-MAN animated series premiered on Fox Kids in 1994. My Catholic school had a 1st grade class of 25 kids, and only 8 kids from 3rd-5th grade. Nobody else read comics in my class, or seemingly the entire blue-collar town. Bullies targeted me for my comic-reading and for not suppressing my emotions. The worst bully persisted until 7th grade. My 1st grade teacher was also an emotionally and occasionally physically abusive bully. My parents both worked late, so I spent most of my time alone at my grandparents’ house. I didn’t have any friends, really.

SPIDER-MAN’s cartoon debut was life-changing. Peter Parker was a nerd who, even in high school, was still bullied; had a distant, fair-weather friend; was closest only with his immediate family; was bewildered by crushes; was misunderstood by the whole world; had self-esteem issues; and had a snarky mouth that got him into trouble.

Just like me.

Spidey’s smart-alecking to villains and his giddy freedom in web-swinging cranked my imagination into overdrive. I wrote and drew my own Spider-Man comics. I stood up for myself to bullies and to my teacher to show them they didn’t run the world. I read even more voraciously, dipping into other comics. The world, or at least a small fraction of it, made a little more sense. I honestly thought if I tried hard enough, maybe I could actually BE Spider-Man.

What I didn’t understand back then, was that Spider-Man was his own worst enemy. The cartoon show didn’t hammer on the Uncle Ben stuff, which is key to his social & emotional stagnation. I thought it was ok to have low self-esteem and a martyr complex, and I went through some dark times as a grade-schooler. Bullies did bad things to me, and I thought they were my fault. Sometimes I still catch myself thinking that.

Amazing Spider-Man

But Spider-Man was still a power fantasy for me. No matter how bad things got as Peter Parker, Spidey could still trick Doctor Octopus into walking into a magnet. He could still trap Sandman into a vacuum cleaner. He could still overcome the darkness of the alien costume. Just as Spidey got a little help from his super-hero friends, so did I from my family and the friends I’d make in middle school.

And after awhile, I didn’t need Spider-Man to feel confident. I could do it on my own, and I never apologized to anyone for it.

At the end of 8th grade, I saw Sam Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN (2002), knowing its whole plot from the novelization. It wasn’t my first time with a live action Spider-Man -reruns of the 1977 TV show had seen to that- nor was it “my” Spidey, as Raimi used 60s & 70s comics as his chief inspiration. It was, however, Spider-Man. It marked Hollywood’s slow realization that it was ok to embrace nerdy things. It marked my realization that maybe there might be something more to movies.

I’m glad that Spider-Man was there when I needed him, and I’m glad that there were so many versions of him, even in the 90s. Sure, people who read ALL the Clone Saga hate it, but its characters were great! Ben Reilly, Spider-Man’s clone, had even more trouble connecting to his friends and family. Kaine, Spidey’s monstrous failed clone, was anguished at being cut off from society. With Spider-Man as a struggling adult, it showed that not even grown ups had all the answers. Heavy stuff!

I’m happy that the other iterations exist too: Spider-Man 2099, Spider-Girl, the Miles Morales Spider-Man, Spider-Gwen, Spider-Man Noir, Silk, and more. EVERYONE should have a character that they can relate to. “I believe there’s a hero in all of us, that keeps us honest, gives us strength, makes us noble, and finally allows us to die with pride, even though sometimes we have to be steady, and give up the thing we want the most. Even our dreams.”

And Aunt May’s advice from SPIDER-MAN 2 (2004) is why I don’t mind having drifted away from Spidey. It’s nothing condescending like saying that I grew out of him, but he’s no longer emotionally applicable to who I am or to what I need. And that’s ok. He shouldn’t have to grow up with me to be special. Because no matter what, he’s like that childhood friend from when you were too small to remember. The one that stuck by you when things were at their worst. The one whose jokes always cheered you up. The one who showed you that the world could be a brighter place.

He’ll always be Spider-Man.

As to CIVIL WAR, I obviously have a lot of assumptions at play. How do I know I’ll like this version of Spidey? I don’t. Haven’t I seen other live-action takes on Spidey? Yep. And I’ve always had mixed feelings about them. Is there extra baggage here, seeing a tonally & near-visually perfect Spidey when other favorite characters are getting reinvented and misrepresented wholesale? More than likely. After all, the last Spider-Man had water socks.

But more than that, the Spider-Man reveal was well-timed. We’d had over a year of rumors that he’d would show up in CIVIL WAR, and every day we wondered: “when will we see Spider-Man?” In the age of movie-scooping, I expected a pitiful behind-the-scenes leak, shot guerilla-style, as happened to AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (2012), which took the wonder right out of the character. Marvel had the whole geek community waiting for Spider-Man, and somehow avoiding leaks, they delivered on their terms, revealing Spidey in all of his angsty glory. We’d been waiting for Spidey.

And maybe we didn’t know how much we’d needed him.

Doctor Strange in the MCU

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DOCTOR STRANGE is one of the two comic book movies coming out in 2016 that have me legitimately stoked. It’s a Marvel character I truly love, the cast looks great, and the more I hear about the direction, the more I’m convinced it’s going to capture the spirit of the character.

That said, there are rumors and theorizing to how it will connect to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They’re a hair spoilery, but stuff that you  already know about if you’ve kept up with the Marvel movies.

Ok, so this article…

http://heroichollywood.com/home-1/2015/12/29/doctor-strange-will-feature-numerous-superpowers

 
…talks about the multitude of Dr. Strange’s magic powers (good stuff, as the guy has an infinite pool of magical abilities to pull from), but it also suggests that the Eye of Agamotto -the pendant he wears that is the source of a good chunk of his powers- may house the Time Stone, one of the six stones that Thanos wants.
 
I hate this idea.
 
1. “Shared Continuity”

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Nobody knows what ‘shared continuity’ means, but it doesn’t have to mean ‘everyone is involved;’ it just means that everything, however tangentially, is connected. Doctor Strange does not need to have a direct link to Thanos’ quest to get involved in Infinity War.

Why? Because he’s bigger than that. The guy literally protects reality as we know it on a minute t0 minute basis. An interloper of Thanos’ magnitude would NOT go unnoticed. He would (and has) taken on Thanos directly purely because he’s a blight on the universe; not because he’s in possession of a really powerful stone Strange knows about.

Sure, Doctor Strange will be involved in Infinity War (A. because he was in the comic and B. because EVERYONE in the movie will be in it), but he doesn’t NEED that direct of a tie to be invested in it, nor do we as an audience. We just need to know that shit’s getting real bad, and that the Avengers need help YESTERDAY.

 
2. The Eye of Agamotto

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The Eye of Agamotto literally houses the eye of Agamotto, a mystical demigod and it has unparalleled powers over wisdom and reality. Making it an Infinity Stone cheapens Doctor. Strange’s world by reducing his magical world to the shared cosmic one. Was the eye of Agamotto ever ACTUALLY Agamotto’s eye? Was Agamotto wearing the Time Stone Vison-style on his forhead? Was it a substitute for his eye? Was it converted into an Infinity Stone after Agamotto’s deeds?

Yes, the movie is still promising to travel to Doctor Strange’s (un)usual vistas, but his world is now a shared one, rather than an individual one. Again, that seems to cheapen it. Especially in that it will be, very likely, a parascientific one.

 
3. China and Magic

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Marvel movies are a huge deal internationally and count on China for much of their revenue. The problem with Doctor Strange is A. His trainer, The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), lives in Tibet, a hotly contested region. Calling Tibet by that name is enough to be blocked by Chinese censors B. China is not a fan of magic in movies either, and that will be highly censored. As a result, I expect the movie to be very crafty about what they do and don’t call Strange’s powers.

Much has been made of their connection to ANT-MAN’s Quantum Realm, so there’s lots of reason to believe that the DOCTOR STRANGE movie will contain a phrase like, “‘Magic,’ as we know it, is a manipulation of energy in a way scientists haven’t yet discovered” or something.

I get it, you’ve got to get past The China Film Group, but please, please, please God, don’t cheapen the single greatest magic-user in comics history. If magic is a parascience, what’s to stop Iron Man, Hank Pym, or Black Panther (surprise, he’s a brilliant scientist too!) from adding it to their arsenal?

4. A Strange Presence

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As it was once put in a Marvel comic, when Doctor Strange shows up, you know that things have gotten as bad as they possibly can, and often because he understands what superheroes & superheroines do not. If his involvement is one of the Infinity Stones, his knowledge will be passé. The Avengers are beginning to understand by the end of AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, and by all rights, the audience already knows this stuff. In essence, this is demystifying a mystic.

4. Comic Legacy

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This is a weird point, but Doctor Strange has, historically, had comparatively short comic book runs. By “short,” I mean, he’s never had a run that’s lasted 100 issues for whatever reason. Popular, but never wildly so. He has, however, played a major role in nearly every Event comic and is a frequent side character when the more popular heroes inevitably butt heads with a magic villain they can’t stop. Hell, he’s periodically led teams like The Defenders, The Midnight Sons, and The Illuminati. I get where in the MCU, his role will likely be similar: a guy with a rich world and backstory, but whose life is inextricably intertwined with the more-highlighted stories of other superheroes. That makes sense, but…

5. Petulant Comic Fan Bullshit

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…That’s just not what I want for Doctor Strange.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m going to watch the hell out of DOCTOR STRANGE when it comes out, but what I really want is a self-contained trilogy of movies that delves into his character and those of his allies and adversaries.

The new Spider-Man, Tom Holland, has been spotted on the Doctor Strange set. I LOATHE the idea of a sequel being a team up between him and a more popular hero because that’d be time taken away from the comparatively blank mythologies surrounding his villains. After all, they’re being set up in DOCTOR STRANGE: Chiwetel Ejiofor as Baron Mordo, Strange’s rival and superior; Michael Struhlbarg as Dr. Nicodemus West, Strange’s sociopathic replacement; and Mads Mikkelsen (!), who will in all likelihood play Dormammu, Lord of the Dark Dimension.

Hell, Amy Landecker will probably be playing Clea, Dormammu’s niece & Strange’s partner, a character who, in all of her years of existence never got character development proportional to her character’s potential. THAT’S a movie.

Seriously, the DOCTOR STRANGE movie franchise should do what the IRON MAN trilogy attempted and poorly executed -create a living, breathing world with characters who constantly build off each other for an eventual, insane payoff. The last thing I want to see is the franchise get Superman’d or Thor’d where other characters get thrown in to save a less-than-thoroughly popular character.

Fan-Whining Conclusion

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I’ve always loved comics, and a shared universe has always appealed to me within reason. What would it be like for Spider-Man to fight X-Men villains? What’s Daredevil’s relationship to Punisher? Hell, comics like “Suicide Squad” were invented to handle the fallout of shared continuity and the forthcoming SUICIDE SQUAD movie (another movie that can’t come out soon enough) was greenlit for the purpose of retroactively starting WB/DC’s shared continuity.

But I don’t want ALL the characters in ALL the comics; that destroys tone, stakes, scale, character, and emotional arcs. It’s why, generally, I despise Event comics. They’re the epitome of plot over character. When you read Batman, you expect it to take place in dark, gritty Gotham City, just as you expect Superman stories to be set in bright, shining Metropolis. The same tone applies to Marvel comic characters. I don’t want Captain America’s political intrigue overlapping Strange’s dark mysteries. Double for Spider-Man’s teen comedy. Triple for Thor’s overblown space epics. They’re just characters that don’t mean as much to me.

So, rewinding, is the Eye of Agamotto being the Time Gem really a big deal? Not in the grand scheme of things. If it organically bridges the overcomplicated stories in a way that plays to the strengths of excellent movie storytelling, all the better. Still, I really do worry about thematic and tonal unity, especially in the slog that was AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON. Too many disparate characters with too many disparate goals and directions. Not for me.

Now when they want to make a Midnight Sons movie with Doctor Strange, Blade, and Ghost Rider…

midnight-sons

HOW TO FIX THE FANTASTIC FOUR (2015)

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The stars were aligned against Josh Trank. Fox greenlit his Fantastic-Four-by-way-of-Cronenberg’s-The-Fly-Laboratory-Sci-Fi-Thriller, but nobody seemed to want it. When Fox realized that, they didn’t seem to want it and forced changes upon an already troubled production –much of which attributed to Trank himself. The result was, of course, an uneven mess with hints of Trank’s passion amid a whole lot of squandered potential.

While Fox wonders what to do with the Fantastic Four (2015) or just let the rights revert to Marvel, let’s talk about what they could’ve and maybe should’ve done.

THE FILM ITSELF

To recap: a Young Reed Richards and a Young Ben Grimm teleport a toy car to another dimension.

Seven years later, they’re recruited at a science fair by Dr. Franklin Storm and his shy daughter Susan to make a bigger, more stable interdimensional teleporter. Their teammates will include Sue, her adrenaline-junkie brother Johnny, and the criminally troubled Victor Von Doom. After some montages showing their “chemistry,” the teleporter is ready. With NASA threatening to steal the glory, the team decides to dimension-hop pre-emptively. So Reed, Ben, Johnny, and Doom go to another dimension, where they play with some magic green goo and everything goes wrong.

They return from this alternate dimension -minus Doom- with varying -and initially crippling- super powers and stuck in military custody. Reed escapes, leaving Susan (Invisible Woman), Johnny (the Human Torch), and Ben (The Thing) conscripted into military black ops missions. A year later, they are forced to track down Reed to force him to rebuild the interdimensional teleporter so the military can create more superpowered beings.

When Reed does this, the teleporting team retrieves Doom from the alternate dimension, only now he’s made of metal and has a messiah complex. He kills his way out of the military base and launches a scheme to destroy the world. After a fight, Reed, Susan, Johnny, and Ben defeat him, negotiate autonomy from the military, and rename themselves the Fantastic Four.

THE PAGE ONE REWRITE

Look at all the time jumps! A total of 8 years jump between story beats, and it’s all unnecessary. It makes it feel like we’re following a plot, not characters. The only jump this might’ve needed is the 7 year jump from children to teens, and even that is being generous.

What’s more, there are three separate movies here.
1. We have a protracted sci-fi lab thriller. Decently characterized with the occasional strong beat, but VERY by the numbers, even on the interdimensional journey.

2. We have a sci-fi military thriller, where the military tries to force the team into something they are not (could this be a winking parallel to impositions forced by the studio?).

3. We have a superhero movie, where Doom threatens life as we know it for thinly explained reasons.

None of these work well together. It’s clear the Fox wanted the Interstellar-esque lab drama , and it’s also clear that it’s the only part of the movie operating with real authenticity. It’s clear they also felt that the military’s oversight was the only way to 1. Ground the characters and 2. Moor it to the Ultimate Fantastic Four comic, supposedly the movie’s key inspiration. The military angle is a shaky transition from the lab thriller, and one could be forgiven for assuming that they were going to be the film’s central antagonists. Problematically, Fox got cold feet when they heard the fan backlash to the liberal adaptation, and called for reshoots –most of which seemingly including the bloated and sudden Dr. Doom fight at the climax. It’s very likely that Doom had been intended to return for the sequel, but nothing else.

So what would’ve been the best version of this? What would’ve been the strongest sci-fi-laboratory thriller possible with this set up?

Simple.

A motley crew of researchers visit an alternate dimension and find themselves permanently changed. When they return, they discover to their horror that something returned with them.

Simple lab horror movie with the potential to grow. And you get there by the simplest, most concise means.

First off, don’t waste time establishing childhoods and how people got on the team; just have them on the team preparing for the momentous trip across dimensions. Start the story as late as possible to keep a steady momentum and to organically develop character in a way relevant to genre. Don’t tell us for a half hour before the mission that this is a team; let the mission show how they become a team.

Secondly, no green goo. Don’t waste time in this alternate dimension if it’s not where your story wants to go. All you need is a containment suit breach or suits that didn’t perfectly protect against the dimension’s radiation. That causes the team to “develop random mutations” or something. You don’t need for the heroes to touch green goo and directly encounter the elements that mirror their prospective power-set.

Thirdly, no Victor Von Doom. He’s too interesting a villain to squander on an identical origin story as your protagonists. Save him for the sequel when he can be your Heath Ledger Joker.

Here’s what I’m getting at: the acquiring of super powers isn’t your Act One Turning Point; it’s your Inciting Incident. The act one turning point is the conflict they must face.

So the team is horrified by their transformations, but not so horrified by what they find: husks of their scientist friends and soldiers around the base. Something has been killing and digesting them. Pulling themselves together as much they can -they’re all blaming each other for their mutations- they find the killer: a monstrous, insectile thing with a crazy appetite, crazy powers, and a crazy growth rate.

Yeah, that’s a bastardization of Annihilus, but it doesn’t HAVE to be Annihilus; it could just be a random monster. It could also be a new villain -another scientist who they went on the mission with. The point is, we establish by minute 25 that this ragtag team has to stop this monster before it gains more power and escapes into the world. THAT, ladies and gentlemen, is our Act One Turning Point.

From there, Act Two is the still-learning Fantastic Four fighting Alien on steroids-and much of it plays out like Alien. The creature keeps jumping out and killing people, the Fantastic Four surviving by the instinctual & accidental use of their powers. As this thing grows in size and power, so does the scale. Jump scares turn into small skirmishes, which turn into destructive battles, which finally turns into a full-on Kaiju battle as this thing escapes and threatens all life on Earth. The whole while, the Fantastic Four are getting acclimated to their powers, conflicting with each other, and trying all they can to stop this thing to no avail.

Act Three, the Fantastic Four realizes that they can’t fight it conventionally and the military -try as they might- sure as hell can’t. So the answer lies in science. Eventually, in the midst of a crazy kaiju fight, Reed Richards gets the team to act as unit to science this thing to death. Or to another dimension, whatever. Having saved a city from destruction, the Fantastic Four are hero-celebrities and return to the Baxter Building, where they continue to use science to benefit mankind.

Boom. Themes of teamwork, unison, and the triumph of science, all within an organically structured movie that smoothly transitions from body horror flick to super hero epic.

LINGERING PROBLEMS

That said, none of this changes the fundamental issues at play:

1. Fantastic Four is a fun, lighthearted family team of sci-fi explorers. Trank’s vision and this proposed rewrite simply could not and would not deliver that. It could’ve been a great superpowered horror movie (and that kind of thing should exist, damn it), but it would never have been a Fantastic Four movie in the minds of fans.

2. It would not have been a Marvel movie, which is an insurmountable, emotionally-set goalpost that would’ve been impossible to meet. Even if the movie had been Marvel-styled and perfect, people would’ve hated the movie for not being in Marvel’s possession and for aping Marvel’s style.

So, best case scenario, ignoring point #2 for the fallacy it is, what could Fox have done to make a faithful and appropriately updated Fantastic For movie?

THE OBVIOUS

1. Don’t make it a Cronenbergian body horror in a laboratory. I love Cronenberg, but the Fantastic Four doesn’t fit his worldview.

2. The Incredible Hulk. Seriously, there had already been a Hulk movie, nobody needed another protracted retelling of the origin story. Incredible Hulk recapped the origin story in its opening credits. Arguably, Fantastic Four should’ve done that. With the origin out of the way, the movie would’ve been free to tell whatever story it chose with whatever elements it chose. It also wouldn’t have felt so prosaic. By now, we’ve seen countless superhero origin stories. We can do without for awhile, especially on an established property.

3. Wonder. I made a point of mentioning how Reed and Ben teleport a toy car to the alternate dimension. It’s such a simple, but elegant beat, but when they eventually travel to the alternate dimension, they should’ve found the car. Maybe it’s warped all to hell, foreshadowing their future, or perhaps it hasn’t aged a day, and reminds them of how far they’ve come. Of how long they’ve been friends. That they’ll always be friends. The alternate dimension is such a cool idea, and it’s played so matter of factly, erasing it’s potential to be a fanciful daydream that inspires us for the better. It SHOULD do that.

4. Take my proposed outline and make the alternate dimension monster Annilihus, a conqueror with a massive bug army. When they escape -gaining powers in the process- Annihilus and his army force their way into our dimension to take over. The Fantastic Four comes together as a unit to science them away, everyone’s skills coming into play at least once.

DOOM

And you know what? With my outline, it would’ve been crazy easy to set up Doom for the sequel. Maybe Annihilus is stopped/banished/killed with outside aid, like a hacking code from Latveria. Maybe Richards “borrows” Latverian tech, not realizing the source. Maybe Dr. Doom straight up appears and fights this thing with a pre-existing and suggested rivalry. The point it, is sets up that Doom was in some small way instrumental to defeating Annihilus and thus, in his mind, KEY to defeating Annihilus. That would give a sequel an emotional foundation: Doom constantly reminding Reed of his superiority.

And if we want to get crazy, all we need to show is a deep-space imaging device, a space radar, or something showing a blip. Maybe a dark spot in space. Maybe an energy spike. Doom was monitoring something approaching and was preparing. Maybe Fantastic Four 2 would’ve been about Doom attempting to take over the world to prepare for the coming onslaught. And if that panned out, Fantastic Four 3 could’ve been about that onslaught: Galactus, and whether or not the world was ready.

…and whether or not the deposed Doom would deign to save it.

FANTASTIC FINALE

The Fantastic Four is a property with infinite storytelling potential. Unfortunately, that property is continually squandered by inappropriate creative visions, studio mismanagement, and total lack of foresight –issues which resound throughout Fantastic Four (2015). Clearly there’s a creative spark behind Trank’s effort, but it’s not faithful to the material. Fox wanted a quality movie –not to mention one to do gangbusters at the box office- but the studio seemed driven by “make money; don’t spend any,” “not Marvel,” and “not comic-booky.” Those are typical sentiments of the mediocre pre-MCU Phase 1 era, and they’re a recipe for disaster with the project’s other idiosyncrasies.

It was a rush job created solely to keep the property out of Marvel’s hands, and with a little foresight, it could’ve been as transcendent as everyone hoped it’d be. A story of family coming together under unimaginable circumstances. Of vistas and beings beyond our wildest dreams. Of optimism for tomorrow and all the challenges it brings. It could’ve been a perfect update of a classic comic.

It could’ve been fantastic.

Sorry. Couldn’t resist C;

Ant-Man or Wasp?

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Ant-Man (2015) is a great movie. A lighthearted sci-fi heist adventure with great comedy, imaginative setpieces, relatable characters, and brimming with themes of redemption, legacy, and responsibility. If you haven’t seen it, it’s absolutely worth your time and money. It’ll surprise you and leave you feeling like a kid again. Now, having said that…

It could be better.

The first act is very slow because it’s telling two stories, the connection between them not initially clear; the heist itself has little in the way of tension as Ant-Man doesn’t exactly struggle with anything; and Yellowjacket, though evil shit, doesn’t make much of an impression or offer any more depth or complexity. Again, great movie, but there’s a constant sense -both apparent from the story structure and from narrative beats- that the movie would’ve easily been better as Hope Van Dyne’s -the Wasp- movie.

Seriously, nearly every element of the movie would’ve improved with her as the protagonist. It would’ve been more tense, more exciting, more rich, and even more affecting. Answering “how” involves getting into…

SPOILER TERRITORY

…so with that, let’s look at…

1. THE CHARACTERS

Make no mistake, Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang/Ant-Man is a fun protagonist. Imprisoned for robbing from a corrupt CEO, he’s a down on his luck ex-con who’s trying to provide for his daughter with the whole world against him. He’s creative, resourceful, and an everyman with the same quirky humor as you’ve come to expect from Marvel movies -an archetypical thief with a heart of gold, really- but his connection to the plot is only tangential. Sure, he’s motivated to infiltrate Pymtech and destroy & steal the Yellowjacket technology, but only to help his daughter. He’s no personal connection to the mission whatsoever. He doesn’t NEED one, and the movie functions decently without it, but as a result, all of his major decisions lack punch and character-coherency. We’ll get into that in a bit.

Hope Van Dyne, meanwhile, is a slick businesswoman working under Darren Cross, the villain, and has been doing so for months, monitoring his process in attempting to replicate her father’s shrinking formula. She’s never recovered from her mother’s mysterious death; she’s got a strained relationship with her father who she doesn’t trust and who, conversely, doesn’t seem to take her seriously; she’s trained herself, body and mind, to peak physical condition for the purposes of the heist -even to the point of demonstrating extreme finesse with ant-communication technology; and she’s straining under the expectations of men who want to run her life for her. Stealing and destroying the Yellowjacket technology means everything to her: it means validating her agency for herself and to her father; it means escaping the specter of her mother; and it means saving some semblance of her relationship with her father.

Hank Pym, the former Ant-Man & Hope’s father, functioning mainly as the overseer of the heist, is haunted by his past. He laments bringing Darren Cross to a position of power at his company, Pym Tech and he’s struggling to fix his relationship with his daughter before it’s lost forever. Central to this, he’s still mourning the loss of his wife, Janet Van Dyne -the former Wasp. On their last mission in the 60s, She sacrificed herself to stop a nuclear missile, apparently dying by shrinking out of existence into the theoretical Quantum Dimension. It is later reviewed in a mid-credits scene, that he’d been working with Janet to create an enhanced Wasp suit prior to her death, which has been in mothballs ever since.

Darren Cross/Yellowjacket, is by all accounts, a mustache-twirling villain. Guy’s a ruthless, cunning, and inhumane businessman …and that’s about it. The movie pays lipservice to his mind being addled by the Yellowjacket shrinking formula, which is utterly unnecessary. His boss/assistant relationship with Hope borders on the romantic, but its founded out of Cross’ sense of abandonment by his mentor, Pym.

The characters don’t work to their fullest as the first act runs through nearly all of this, winding up telling two loosely-connected stories -one Scott’s struggle to provide for his daughter, the other Hope & Pym’s struggle to stop Cross, and it’s all too clear that Scott’s story, while deeply relatable and funny, has nothing to do with Hope & Pym’s story.

To be fair, there’s some thematic overlap between Scott and Hope & Pym’s stories; both are redemptive and attempts to do right by their respective daughters. While that offers some thematic unity, it doesn’t create story unity. What that means, is every beat that is or should be Hope’s -drama, suspense, and action- comes across muted. Scott and his cohorts’ (one of which played by Michael Pena who SINGS in the role) stories and presence muddy all of that. The script coverage solution is simple:

2. REMOVE SCOTT LANG.

Seriously, removing Scott from the narrative, or at the very least minimizing his presence improves nearly everything.

A) THE LEAST AMOUNT OF REWRITING APPROACH: Rather than going through all the motions of Scott being down on his luck after his release from prison, just simplify by having Pym approach him in prison. This way, you have more time to keep the story focused on Hope & Pym’s political intrigue and their reconciliatory father/daughter arc. Scott acknowledges at one point that the reason Pym refuses Hope the Ant-Man suit is because Pym hired Scott to be expendable. When the heist goes south -because of course it did- kill Scott Lang. This raises the stakes. It forces Hope to make a decision against the wishes of Pym, which forces him to acknowledge that he can’t protect her forever. That would force Hope to take out Cross/Yellowjacket by shrinking out of existence, which would mirror what happened to her mother and be traumatic for her and Pym, which would be more powerful and make her subsequent escape even more powerful.

What’s interesting is that the movie constantly supports a story of this structure anyway. Hope clearly outshines Scott throughout his training, outstaging him every step along the way. She practically screams at Pym to let her use the Ant-Man suit, and when she’s rebuffed enough times, demonstrates nearly unparalleled skill at ant-commanding -possibly to catastrophic proportions. The script is building toward her suiting up and carrying on the mission -especially with her personal connection to the villain, who she comforts as a younger -maniacal- brother… It just opts out of going that way. It’s a shame that in a universe that has no problem killing Quicksilver to advance Scarlet Witch’s story, the same could not be done to Ant-Man for the Wasp.

B) THE FULL REWRITE APPROACH:

Much of the movie would play out as before: Pym quitting SHIELD in 1989 over the unapproved culturing of his Pym Particles. Cross has long since booted Pym from his own company, Pym Tech, and has renamed it Cross Tech. Hope dealing with Cross’ discoveries. Pym discovering how close Cross is to discovering his formula. Pym & Janet getting desperate to stop him…

And Hope discovers where Pym had been keeping the Ant-Man suit all of these years.

She tries it on, and Pym sends her through a trial by fire as punishment, which only deepens the wedge between them, leading to more conflict. Meanwhile, her interactions with Cross are deepening to something like a romantic relationship, although it has a dangerous -almost pitiable- quality. Guy’s arrogant as hell, but deeply insecure with a massive inferiority complex. Hope knows she’s getting closer to him to discover his strategy & weaknesses… but knows that he’s clinging to her out of a sense of mutual rejection by Pym.

Pym tries to wear the suit again, and things go horribly wrong -either physically, PTSD, or both- leading him to realize that he flat can’t use the suit again… but neither can Hope. He feels he’s GOT to protect her.

Little does he know that Hope’s been wearing the suit and training in secret, rapidly gaining in power… in direct correlation to Cross’ Yellowjacket formula’s progress and their relationship. There’s a sense that she can redeem him… but not in a way that’s healthy for either one of them. She begins to subtly sacrifice his feelings to discover weaknesses in his plans. She discovers the worst: he’s just successfully tested his Yellowjacket formula and is ready to make the sale to Hydra.

Pym’s discovery of Hope’s secret training leads to a major falling-out between them, leading to Hope going rogue with the Ant-Man suit to try to take out Cross’ Yellowjacket formula. She gets very close, but her heist goes very badly, leading to Cross discovering her duplicity and very nearly killing her with the Yellowjacket suit. While she manages to disable the Yellowjacket’s weapon systems and escape, she’s at death’s door. Pym arrives just in time to rescue her and escape.

Best. Looking. Villain. Ever.

As Hope recovers, she and Pym freak out at each other, leading to Pym revealing how Janet sacrificed herself by disabling her shrinking regulator and shrinking out of existence to stop a nuclear missile. How if it was his choice, he wouldn’t have allowed it. Hope smiles through tears, “But it was her choice.” Pym nods, and shows Hope what he’s been hiding all along: that he and Janet had been working on an enhanced Wasp suit in the days leading up to her death. With the Ant-Man suit destroyed, it only makes sense for her to wear this.

However, to get past Cross’ defenses now that he’s aware of her, Hope’s going to have to steal some critical technology from an old Stark base -that they discover on the Halo drop in is now an Avengers base, leading to a confrontation with the Falcon.

Meanwhile, having discovered the power of the Yellowjacket suit firsthand, Cross/Yellowjacket wonders why he should bother being a petty arms dealer when with his powers, he could run Hydra -and thus the world. He attacks a Hydra base to download their files and use his shrinking formula to blackmail world leaders. Hope & Pym, discovering this, launch a counter-sabotage mission before he can succeed. Hope/Wasp uses her creativity and ability while Pym operates as her eye in the sky.

Confronting Yellowjacket, he collapses into a mental breakdown about her, Pym, and how everyone should take him seriously and know how much better he is than them. He didn’t need Daddy’s help or respect. The ensuing fight leads back to Pym’s house, where Yellowjacket prepares to assassinate Pym. Wasp, realizing there’s no other way to stop him but to disable her shrinking regulator. A tearful final conversation between Wasp & Pym. One realizing she may never see her father again after coming so close to closure, Pym realizing that he’s going to lose his daughter as he lost his wife -just as he feared. Wasp begins shrinking out of existence and utterly dismantles Yellowjacket. While going through the acid trip that is the endlessly shrinking trip to the Quantum dimension, Hope recalls a lesson from Pym, and reverse-engineers the technology to escape back to normal size.

With stability returned and Hope & Pym’s relationship repaired, they resume control of Pym Tech with the goal of making the world a better place through variations of the Pym Particle formula. However, they find themselves approached by the Falcon to aid in a major crisis to the Avengers…

“And about you kicking my ass. Don’t ever do that again. …Please?”

The point of all this is twofold: enhance the natural drama to the fullest extent and to raise tension throughout the movie. For a heist movie, there’s almost no fear of getting caught and no real mistakes or moments of suspense in the heist itself until the very end. It’s strangely toothless. This rewrite would force the movie to keep a focused narrative while making Cross’ villainy more tangible and nuanced, leading to two suspenseful cat & mouse-style heists.

Of course, that represents the barebones rewrite -and honestly, probably the best way to do so. That said, one could easily include scenes throughout the 1960s during the height of Pym & Janet’s time as a superpowered spy team leading to the reveal flashback of her demise to Hope. This would show a different side of Pym -a carefree, optimistic spy who believed in his particle and all the good it could do, and the deeply passionate love he and Janet had for each other, which would make seeing her scene of sacrifice all the more affecting.

C. THE LEGO MOVIE

What I mean is, Peyton Reed might be a helluva lot smarter than I’m initially giving him credit for.

Y’see, The Lego Movie is 100% deconstructive of the modern blockbuster. At every opportunity, it subverts and criticizes tropes, from its tabula rasa protagonist, to its gender politics, to its exposition, to the way it handles action, to its very direct address of conformity and following the instructions. The Lego Movie thinks it’s deeply unfair for Emmet to be the protagonist and wants you to feel it too.

And it’s possible that Ant-Man‘s doing the same.

In a bloated blockbuster of increasingly meaningless wholesale destruction and nearly unbelievable scale, here comes a movie mocking by dealing with things as small and inconsequential as ants. It tells a much more personal story to greater effect. It parodizes disaster porn with literally blowing up scale models and climaxing by leveling a 4 year-old’s bedroom. And it’s all played as matter-of-factly as the destruction in its competitors’ films.

In the same way, it’s all too clear -and directly stated by the movie- that Hope SHOULD be the protagonist. In every way she deserves it and the movie would benefit from it. But perhaps that’s the point! Perhaps, in lieu of permission to make a female-led movie, Ant-Man‘s creative team made a movie lamenting that there just aren’t female-led superhero movies. Hope’s line in the mid-credits scene when she receives her Wasp suit seems to underscore this. “It’s about damn time.”

But how much of this is intentional? I’d argue maybe 50%. Where The Lego Movie was focused through Emmet, WyldStyle and her struggles were central to the narrative and remained so until the very end. Arguably, while Ant-Man attempts to echo this, with Janet’s protracted shelving, it doesn’t keep her meaningful throughout the climax as would be the logical response. While The Lego Movie‘s message is “Things are shitty, but they can get better, Ant-Man‘s is “Things are shitty. Deal with it. Or maybe not. I don’t know.”

D. SO… WHY DIDN’T OPTION B HAPPEN?

The “Wasp” movie could’ve been written to happen so easily, one wonders if it wasn’t deliberately prevented. As I’ve said, Marvel Studios has a big problem with female representation. That seems to be the most obvious answer. The company still feels it has to work up to “big ideas” like female-led movies, which I still feel is a massive cop-out.

All that said, thanks to his infamy in the comics for beating his wife and creating Ultron, Ant-Man’s a hair more well-known, but the Wasp has nearly always been his teammate and has certainly been on the Avengers for longer than he has. It makes just as much sense to make a Wasp movie as an Ant-Man movie.

The fact is, despite the relatable everyman charm and tension-diffusing humor that Scott Lang brings to the table, we’ve seen his like too many times before in the MCU: the archetypical trickster. Ant-Man, 3 Iron Man movies (5 if you count the Avengers movies), Star-Lord, and Loki. What’s more, Marvel knows comedy works. Guardians of the Galaxy got a much-needed push from its comedy, as did the Avengers. Arguably, Age of Ultron “suffered” at the box office from having less of it. Thus far, Winter Soldier is the MCU’s only “serious” thriller, but that was a sequel to an established property. Unless Marvel found a way to mine comedy from it, my “Wasp” rewrite suggestion probably would’ve been too risky a pitch for their practices.

It could also be as simple as “Wright and Cornish wrote Ant-Man. We’re doing Ant-Man.” That’s the most fair answer that addresses the fact that Marvel’s been wanting to produce this script for over a decade. Removing Hope’s frustration and anger from the material reveals a script with a much older structure -one that befitted superhero movies of the mid-00s when the genre was beginning to find a consistent voice and reliable narrative structure. If released ten years ago, Ant-Man would’ve been among the high bar of superhero movies. Perhaps even with Batman Begins and just above Spider-Man 2. Today, its unbalanced-but-otherwise-direct origin story with “evil version of protagonist” villain feels like a throwback. Not an unwelcome one, mind you, but one that’s sort of behind narrative trends in the genre.

Moreover, with superhero movies -particularly Marvel movies- popular in the mainstream, we, as an audience, are a lot to choose from. We’ve seen some truly excellent stories, some clearly pushing the genre forward, and we’re beginning to demand that transcendence on a regular basis.

D. “LESS IS MORE”

This has been the lesson for 2015 blockbusters. Well, critically, anyway. The slick simplicity of Mad Max: Fury Road has been the model for excellence this year at a time where movies are bloating themselves to the point of breaking. Jurassic World was a baffling slurry of disjointed narrative, theme, and character beats all in the service of a nostalgia trip, and Avengers: Age of Ultron forced plot beats and themes that were inappropriate to its story, when the answer was as simple as “It’s Iron Man’s story.” Already, critics are praising Ant-Man for its comparative brevity to Age of Ultron, but those reviews are mixed, all highlighting central issues in story focus and pacing.

Is this a teachable moment for Marvel? With Captain America: Civil War on the horizon, I doubt it. That’s going to be Avengers-lite. Still, maybe there’s hope for the upcoming Dr. Strange, Captain Marvel, and Black Panther.

I’d sure like to think so, anyway.

IS MARVEL’S SEXY SPY/ASSASSIN TROPE A PROBLEM?

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Like all of nerdom I’ve been excited about the upcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron. (2015). I’ve been watching super hero movies from the early 2000s –back when Raimi’s Spider-Man movies ruled the world- and a trend leapt out at me. I’m not sure what to do with it and, interestingly, it’s a trend that’s become a backbone of the MCU:

Marvel’s breakout female characters are ALL Sexy Spy/Assassins.

THE EVIDENCE:

Sure, the Marvel-franchise movies and the MCU (The Marvel Cinematic Universe. Movies specifically produced by Marvel to be part of a shared film continuity, for those who don’t know) have a wide variety of female characters, none more varied perhaps than in the X-Men franchise, but the high-profile characters? The ones that garner cult followings and become screen favorites? All Sexy Spy-Assassins.

-After the 2000s X-Men movies, Mystique, a shapeshifter known for infiltration, assassination, and sabotage, reached infamy and got her own comics series. She couldn’t do this in the movies without being nude, and for becoming other various sexualized women. This fan interest resurged after her appearance in X-Men: First Class (2011), when her portraying actress, Jennifer Lawrence came into the height of her popularity.

-With her Alias (2001- 2006) fame and Daredevil’s (2003) modest success at the box office, Jennifer Garner got to reprise her role as the unrequited lover and resurrected assassin Elektra in the 2004 movie of the same name. During the 2000s, she Marvel comics’ most popular female character. Daredevil (2003) kept her in a low-cut top and the theatrical version included her in a gratuitous sex scene.

-Black Widow got popular after her appearance in Iron Man 2 (2010) as the titular character’s sexpot secretary and undercover secret agent. Her popularity reached a fever pitch after her role in Marvel’s The Avengers (2012) and only increased after her appearance in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). She is set to be the core of Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) and now has a dedicated monthly comic series. She was introduced in Iron Man 2 as a sex object whose combat prowess was shocking and her first scene in Avengers featured her tied to a chair in lingerie.

-Agent Peggy Carter was the internet’s big takeaway from Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), in which she served as Captain America’s tough as nails commanding officer and lover. Her popularity launched the spin-off miniseries Agent Carter (2015), where she worked for a homeland security agency, investigating a massive attack happening right under her noses. She was a ranking officer who wished to be taken serious. The pilot episode had her go undercover as a busty blonde bombshell and use the old knockout lipstick cliché.

While they’re far less popular, we should also mention…

X-Men: First Class‘ Moira Taggart is a top CIA agent who finds herself entrenched in the secret world of mutantkind. Mere moments after her introduction, she strips down to her bra and panties to infiltrate a New Vegas Club.

-Sharon Carter is Captain America’s attractive blonde neighbor in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, who is revealed to be an agent of SHIELD tasked with monitoring and flirting with him.

-Mariah Hill, an agent of SHIELD, and appearing in The Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and poised to appear in Avengers: Age of Ultron, is a prominent member of SHIELD from the comics, but an as-of-now minor character in the MCU. While she’s not been sexualized, the internet seems to like her, probably because her actress, Cobie Smulders, was big on How I Met Your Mother (2005-2014)

-Gamora is an assassin and primary team member of the Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). Despite apparently being among the most lethal assassins in the galaxy, the camera lingers on her ass during Star-Lord’s joke about his sexual exploits, and Drax calls her a whore. Strange, considering that Drax is a literalist and that Gamora’s shown no outward sexual tendencies around him. She’ll soon receive her own dedicated comic series.

-Agent May on Agents of SHIELD, team mom and stone cold assassin, was largely considered the best and most interesting character of the first season. She’s not been extensively sexualized.

-Dottie was the alias of one of Agent Carter‘s primary antagonist, who was a nameless Russian spy/assassin who used the guise of a naive, simple woman to complete her missions.

CLARIFICATION:

Being a sex-positive feminist, I’ve got absolutely no problem with empowerment in all the forms it can take, and that includes women kicking ass. As far as I’m considered, a person is allowed to identify in any manner they choose and to live the life they see fit.

Similarly, I’m not criticizing any of these female characters, nor the movies in which they appear. I recognize that in a few cases, their sexualization is intended to be deconstructive of preconceptions or to address the prevailing sexism of their generation (Looking right at you, Agent Peggy Carter).

In broad terms, there is NOTHING wrong with any of these characters. All I’m doing is identifying trends.

Sure, there are similar trends among the other Marvel movies. Female side characters tend to be Romantic Science-Savy Assistants (Jean Grey in the X-Men franchise; Karen in Blade; Susan Storm, the Invisible Woman in the Fantastic Four franchise; Betty Ross in the Hulk franchise; Pepper Potts in the Iron Man franchise; Jane Forester AND Darcy Lewis in the Thor franchise; and soon Hope Van Dyne in Ant-Man). This is another form of limited representation. Sure, it can be empowering, but it’s an issue typical of a patriarchal-focused cinema. These women are meant only to aid in the man’s journey. To support the journey, not share in it.

Anyway, it’s just strange that in a host of movies by the same parent comic book company, all playing to different genre, scale, tone, structure, and with no limit to who could have what powers and abilities, there’s such a limited range of representation.

It’s cool. She got to briefly wear clothes in X-Men: First Class.

ORIGINS?

In the broadest possible terms, I think it boils down to the sexy/dangerous dichotomy dating back to the Femme Fatale trope in Noir fiction. The idea is that stalwart men can only be undone by their sexuality and that women with questionable morals knowingly exploit that. Regardless of the characterization, the codification is that sex is a weapon and that female sexuality is inherently dangerous and deceitful.

Contrast this with male spy/assassins. The key assets of a tropic female spy/assassin are sexuality and misdirection; for a male spy/assassin, violence and domination. James Bond is a whole ‘nother conversation about sexual politics.

The Femme Fatale is an old and storied trope throughout cinematic history, and seemingly a comfort zone for shorthanding powerful/villainous female characters.

It’s interesting to note that apart from Mystique, few of Marvel’s Sexy Spy/Assassins aren’t villainous Femme Fatales. Either they’re ‘good guys’ or willing to side with the heroes to advance their own agenda (even Mystique, as the X-series continues!). There’s an argument to be made that this just makes them glorified support characters in a man’s story. You could counter by stating that the story’s not about them, but seriously, why can’t it be equally their story? The ‘buddy cop’ formula in films like Lethal Weapon (1987), Beverly Hills Cop (1984), etc. works WONDERS for dual protagonists.

BUT WHY IN MARVEL?

It’s an incredibly complicated question. Mystique gained popularity from X-franchise because she’s consistently been THE most interesting female character. Sure, Storm and Jean Grey are great characters, but their movie portrayals have been vanilla, especially juxtaposed to Mystique taunting opponents with their preconceptions, her struggle for equality, and weaponizing her sexuality. Unlike Rogue, who wishes to erase her identity, Mystique fights for her identity to be accepted.

Spider-Man’s (2002) Mary Jane was just “protagonist’s girlfriend,” allowing Elektra to take off in Daredevil. She wasn’t fantastically portrayed, but she didn’t need to be; she needed to be a “Kickass Female Character” (another interesting trope) for an audience dying to see their gender as more than side characters.

After that, it’s hard to say if the proliferation of these kinds of characters is coincidental, spurred by audience reactions, or because outside of teams, Marvel has few female heroes not based on male heroes.

BUT IS IT A PROBLEM?

Hard to say. Women are at least getting SOME representation by strong characters, but as sidekicks, lovers, victims, and sometimes outright objects.

Yes, Black Widow’s about-face in Iron Man 2 and in the Avengers is intended to be deconstructive of objectification and power dynamics, but both movies utilize it in a way that’s shocking for the audience and surrounding characters. Iron Man 2 flat objectifies her. It feels very “I can play with the boys too!” instead of her character just being capable in her environment like Peggy Carter in Captain America and in Agent Carter. It’s the difference of suggesting that superheroing is a boy’s stage where women may be allowed to enter and superheroing just being a stage.

Similarly, it’s weird that the idea of a female-led superhero movie is risky move. It’s like saying that 30-something white male is tabula rasa and that anything else is exotic. That’s an issue endemic to modern blockbuster cinema and to comic books and it IS deeply, DEEPLY problematic and limiting.

Ultimately, Marvel’s Sexy Spy/Assassins and their situations are constructed by their writing teams. None of these characters have to express their sexuality in such on-the-nose ways. Seriously, Mystique is nude throughout the X-movies. Hell, Winter Soldier was the first movie in three appearances to prove that Black Widow didn’t need skimpy outfits to be an unstoppable undercover agent.

Things like this can make it feel like the Sexy Spy-Assassin is a popular trope because it allows women to feel empowered in a way that gratifies and appeals to the heterosexual male ego. That because she’s a deliberately sexualized side-character, she doesn’t have to be taken as seriously. That in many ways, no matter how much she’s characterized… She’s still an object in the eyes of the audience.

SO WHAT WOULD I DO?

I applaud the X-Men franchise for showing a wide range of female characters and abilities and question why the MCU can’t match it. The widespread success of The Hunger Games, Maleficent, and Frozen shows that audiences are starving for relatable female characters. There’s no legitimate reason why a female-lead movie couldn’t have been made.

So how about some elevator pitches?

America would go nuts for Captain Marvel, a gutsy soldier from the Midwest, who learns to lead with her newfound cosmic powers –even when they make her the target of an alien assault.

Why not Ms. Marvel? A Muslim girl from Jersey struggles with her identity when becoming an Inhuman and fighting monstrous bad guys makes that even harder. She’s so popular, that images of her are being used to counter Islamophobia.

Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver could’ve had a great story about rival siblings on the run from superpowered mad scientists.

How about a Thunderbolts movie, about a pack of criminals masquerading as Avengers-ripoffs superheroes and lead by the cunning Songbird, who’s out of her element when she has to lead them in a death-defying mission to save the country?

Ant-Man could’ve been The Wasp, about a plucky size-changing thief and her misadventure to redemption and greatness!

Seriously. Space Grim Reaper.

Guardians of the Galaxy has a myriad of fascinating female characters like Mantis, a martial artist who can predict the future; Phyla-Vell, Space Grim Reaper; Starhawk, a transsexual Superman; Moondragon, a psychic were-dragon; and more! What, are we saving all the cool characters for the sequel?

Hell, I STILL think that Black Widow should’ve gotten a METAL GEAR SOLID-inspired movie.

I just don’t buy Marvel’s line that there’s a “perfect time” to release X kind of movie. Sure, we as a culture like to see certain kinds of movies at certain times of the year, and things wax and wane in popularity all the time in the cultural zeitgeist, but if you ONLY ascribe to that philosophy, you’re not creating culture; you’re following.

The movies that blow our minds? The ones we pile into the theater to see? More often than not, it’s because they were expertly-crafted stories with fantastic characters who made us feel something real, not because they happened at the precise moment in time. Those are the movies that create culture. The ones that ignite trends, fads, and imitations. They are the Star Warses, the Lords of the Rings, the Batmans, the Iron Mans, and the Avengers

Marvel is one of, if not THE foremost creator of culture in America as of 2015. Hell, they were that in 2012 when the Avengers hit theaters. They could’ve released anything and pushed any protagonist with any race or gender, any set of skills, any set of powers, and with any worldview. I’ll never say they did wrong… but perhaps they could’ve done more.

ALMOST DONE, I PROMISE

As I’ve said before, I’ve got nothing against the Sexy Spy/Assassin trope, sex-positive lifestyles, or assuming whatever identity you choose. Even calling out the Sex Spy/Assassin trend, I wouldn’t say that any of these characters are, on their own, regressive, or that sympathizing with them, reading their comics, or cosplaying them is wrong. If a character gives you comfort, good for them and good for you for finding them!

Hundreds of women have latched onto these characters and have been empowered by them. That counts for something.

It just doesn’t seem fair to me that as a straight white male, I have a variety of protagonists to identify with -a super soldier, a space Viking, a rage monster, an archer, a guy in a robot suit, and countless others- while women have to settle for the Sexy Spy/Assassin or the Romantic Science-Savy Assistant.

Our world is becoming ever more aware of its diversity. It’s about time we start making movies to reflect that. I hope that Scarlet Witch’s modern-day sorcery will capture the imaginations of Age of Ultron audiences. I’m crossing my fingers that the MCU Spider-Man will be cast black, both for what nuance that could bring to the character and so black audiences will have greater representation than “BFF of White Hero.”

Seriously, we have to wait until maybe 2017 for the Luke Cage Netflix series and until 2018 for the Black Panther movie. We really couldn’t have had one non-white Avenger?

Progress is good. It makes us better, and it makes society better. We need to start asking more of our entertainment.