Doctor Strange and the Troubled Hero in Fiction

Doctor Strange
Copyright © 2016 by Marvel Studios

I finally got around to seeing Doctor Strange, that great addition in the ongoing Marvel Cinematic Universe. While I admit that my interest in the MCU these days only centers around movies featuring a talking raccoon and a literal-minded alien played by Dave Bautista, it’s still nice to see what other stories this saga has to offer. And I must say, Strange definitely stands on its own as a magic-centered storyline.

But as I was watching this movie (and trying to deal with Benedict Cumberbatch doing an American accent), I noticed a neat little storytelling trick that I’d like to explore in detail. Namely, this: how do you make a hero’s flaw part of the story?

You’d be surprised at how difficult it can be to give a modern hero a serious flaw. Most storytellers settle on a traumatic incident, like the loss of a loved one, or they fall back on a general feeling of inadequacy. But in the MCU, we get heroes with personality flaws right off the bat. In Stephen Strange’s case, it’s his arrogance. He’s a brilliant neurosurgeon and he damn well knows it. He’s also more likely to consider how things affect him than he does consider anyone else.

Rewatch the scene where Strange and his love interest Christina are having their last conversation in Act One, right before he finds the lead that sends him on his mystical journey to Kathmandu. Christina’s trying to impress upon him that he’s more than just a skilled surgeon, that life isn’t just about continued success. But Strange refuses to give up, even when it means outspending himself on experimental, unguaranteed treatments to fix his nerve damage. It’s a tense, well-played scene, and it gives us the starting point of his inner and outer journey.

In Act One, Strange only wants one thing: to be healed and to be a success again. In Act Two, when faced with the Ancient One and the truth of how small he is within the multiverse, Strange wants to still be a success, but now it’s in a different field. He learns to deal with his shaking hands and perform real magic, but he still hasn’t corrected his basic flaw. He’s still, for lack of a better term, an arrogant prick.

It isn’t until Act Three, when the villain has all but claimed victory in Hong Kong sanctum, that our hero actually becomes a hero. He puts himself forward in a single act of self-sacrifice, rather than looking for the shortcut and the ego boost. Even when it means (spoilers) locking himself in a recurring loop with an eldritch being outside of time,  Strange puts all his knowledge and skill to use, but he does so for the larger purpose of saving the earth and all its inhabitants. He also makes a deal with said godlike entity, showing a patience and concern that Stephen Strange from Act One would never demonstrate. It’s in this sequence that he proves himself to be the Sorcerer Supreme.

Now, you might say that we can see the same character arc in films like Iron Man and Thor, where we watch those heroes grow from arrogant, boastful prodigies to slightly more humble, world-oriented people. And you’d be right, of course. In that sense, Doctor Strange fits the same character design as them.

But what I find interesting about Strange is that its hero isn’t a playboy billionaire inventor or a Norse god made human. For all his brilliance, Stephen Strange really is human. He has the same gift to learn magic as anyone else, and it’s only by an accident and the patience of a good teacher that he learns to harness it. That same human starting point also makes his arrogance a little sharper by comparison. He’s a good surgeon, but he’s also more self-destructive and dismissive than, say, Tony Stark or Thor might be at the beginning. It’s a kind of a hubris that we can all relate to, even if we don’t really want to see ourselves that way.

Even in an era where we’re inundated with superhero movies and antiheroes in the vein of Walter White and Don Draper, it’s still good to stop and examine what kind of people we’re rooting for and just how they grow as characters onscreen. We don’t simply go, “He’s a gambler!” or “He’s got pride!” The flaw has to be something our heroes wrestle with in the course of their journey. Ideally, it’s something they overcome by the end of their story, even if their tale has a tragic end. When you look past the fireworks and landscape-bending magic shows, this is what you have at the heart of Doctor Strange and I’m glad it’s there.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2: Same Galaxy, Same Heroes, and Some Fresh Beats

Copyright © 2017 by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

I have to be honest, here. The last Marvel Cinematic Universe film I watched in theaters was Guardians of the Galaxy. Not that I’m not intrigued by what the studios have put out since then, but nothing else really matched the insane energy and ethos of that movie. It seems only fitting, then, that I hit the theater last week to watch its sequel.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 picks up pretty soon after where we left off with the first movie. Our heroes—Peter Quill, Gamora, Drax, Rocket, and Groot—are flying across the galaxytaking odd heroic jobs for money. After a job with the “superior race” of the Sovereign goes south (thanks to Rocket’s last-minute petty theft and snark), the Guardians find themselves hunted. Even worse, Gamora’s sister Nebula and the Ravagers under Yondu, Peter’s old mentor, take up the pursuit. Our heroes then split off when Peter encounters his long-last father, Ego (played by Kurt Russell). But Ego’s intentions aren’t what they appear to be, and soon the gang is striving to get back together, uncover the truth, and stop a maniacal plot that—you guessed it—threatens the whole galaxy.

I must admit that, when this film started rolling, I was a little bit thrown. It didn’t have quite the space adventure flair that the first Guardians film had. Vol. 1 (if we can call it that now) had an obvious Dark Lord, a quest, a magical item, and tons of space battles from start to finish. Vol. 2, meanwhile, has a more introspective take on its adventure. Sure, they’re saving the galaxy again, but it’s from a more personal threat. And in the meantime, they’re dealing with their personal issues, from fatherhood (Peter and Yondu) to estranged siblings (Gamora and Nebula) to self-worth (Drax, Mantis, and Rocket).

Not that any of this is bad, mind you. I mean, this is Peter Quill coming to terms with his heritage. That kind of soul-searching is expected (and, at times, a little obvious considering where the main twist was headed). But nowhere did I expect to love every single scene between Rocket Raccoon and Yondu. They were two of a kind in this film and I couldn’t get enough of them. Especially in the epic Ravager battle in the midpoint (you know the one, where the Jay and the Americans song starts playing up).

Meanwhile, I do like some of the new characters they’ve added. Mantis is a bit one-note at first, but her interactions with Drax and even Gamora add a lot of personality over time. She’s genuinely sweet in an otherwise cynical universe. And there’s the introduction of Stakar Ogord, a top dog Ravager, played by honest-to-God Sylvester Stallone. Honestly, the movie would be lesser without him in the role. He made it his own, and he has a great tie-in to Yondu’s story.

And on that note, let’s talk about Yondu. Without spoiling anything, he’s the unsung hero of this entire story. As much as I like Quill (and I do!), Yondu had a pretty good character arc. We learn a lot about his past and we get to see him grow a little. Which is appropriate when you pair him up with Rocket, and you learn that, between the two, Yondu’s a little more humane than his furry counterpart. But this is also a story about fatherhood, and Peter’s learned as much from Yondu as he has from his mother back on Earth. Watching their interactions adds a depth to the film’s central theme: that family isn’t about genetics, but who’s in your corner.

If you liked the first Guardians movie, then you’ll like this one, too. It has the same great characters, all shown in a new dimension, and it’s a rip-roaring series of twists from start to finish. It’s also a science fiction film with a good emotional core, beyond all the cool stunts and visuals. I wouldn’t quite say it’s better than the original, but at least it’s on par and I’d rather watch these outer space comic tours out of anything else Marvel is offering these days.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is available through Marvel Studios. It is currently playing in theaters.

Bibliography: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Directed by James Gunn. Produced by Kevin Feige. Written by James Gunn. Based on the comic by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning. Perf. Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Dave Baustista, Vin Diesel, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillian, Pom Klementieff, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Sullivan, Sean Gunn, Sylvester Stallone, and Kurt Russell. Marvel Studios. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. US release date: May 5, 2017.


Choosing My Favorite Heroes for 2016 and Beyond

Copyright © 2016 by 20th Century Fox

Who are my heroes?

This is a question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately. And if you’ve followed me in the past, you might know that I’ve blogged about my favorite characters and my favorite character archetypes. But this year, when audiences are tuning in for movies like Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and TV shows like Supergirl and The Flash, I’m going to focus more on the context of superheroes.

First, a confession: I didn’t grow up reading comic books like other geeks. My love and general knowledge of heroes like Batman, Superman, the X-Men, and Spider-Man all came from their respective cartoons back in the Nineties—and once the Nineties were over, I stopped following them as my interests went roaming elsewhere. So I don’t have that big of an appreciation for “classics” like Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, which Batman v. Superman pays homage to in its visuals and its plot.

For me, it’s telling that my favorite superhero stories from this year don’t feel like they belong in the genre at all. Guardians of the Galaxy is nothing more than a comedic space opera, with none of the usual trappings of costumed heroes and villains. Marvel’s Jessica Jones is the story of a survivor and how she fights her abuser, with one or two mocking jabs over fighting in a costume or using a codename. And then, of course, you have a fourth-wall-breaking joyride like Deadpool that plays the genre half-straight, but then calls out every stereotype and cliché with a bloodstained, R-rated grin.

Part of me will always love Batman and Superman, but only because of their incarnations in the DCAU that I grew up with. These days, I’d rather watch a superhero story that doesn’t look or feel like a superhero story. I think there’s something great about a story that doesn’t fall back on traditional genre markers. I can watch Ryan Reynolds build up a relationship with Morena Baccarin, only to become a complete lunatic who’s aware he’s in a superhero movie rather than a stock heroic character like, say, Colossus. And I can watch Krysten Ritter relive her trauma while fighting and pursuing David Tennant’s Kilgrave without any need for a costume or a codename.

So, I guess what I’d be looking for in future superhero stories are characters who can have fun with their genre or who can blend into the real world without costumes or pseudonyms. That’s why I’m looking forward to the sequels for Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpool, as well as new titles like the announced Black Widow movie. And while I may not belong to the larger fanbase that will spend money on larger projects like Batman v. Superman or Captain America: Civil War, I’m content to watch and enjoy superheroes that meet a niche market like mine.

Marvel’s Jessica Jones: Fighting for a Soul on Netflix Originals

It’s an interesting time for television (thanks to Netflix) and we’re still riding high in films and TV shows based on comic book superheroes (thanks to the Marvel Cinematic Universe). So, of course, we’re going to see more Netflix shows from Marvel. First came Daredevil, and now we’ve got Marvel’s Jessica Jones.

In New York City, Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) is trying to make her living as a private investigator, using street smarts and superhuman strength to serve subpoenas and get evidence of cheating spouses. But her past catches up with her when she encounters a young woman caught in the clutches of Kilgrave (David Tennant), a man with mind control powers and no conscience. Desperate to spare others from the same fate she endured, Jessica joins forces with her adopted sister Trish (Rachael Taylor), a ruthless attorney (Carrie-Anne Moss), and the formidable Luke Cage (Mike Colter) to expose the madman and bring him to justice, one way or another.

Copyright © 2015 by Marvel Television
Copyright © 2015 by Marvel Television

Now I’ll admit that I never read the original comics, but the fact that Krysten Ritter (whom I know from Breaking Bad) was playing the lead role got my interest. As a character, Jessica is a great anti-hero and an excellent portrayal of an abuse survivor. She’s bitter and sarcastic, but she doesn’t sacrifice any sympathy points during her investigations, even when she’s roughing up suspects or Kilgrave’s minions. It helps that she knows the pain they’ve undergone in mind control, which also makes her clever when she finds a way to circumvent that control.

Speaking of Kilgrave, this is easily one of the darkest villains in the MCU. Tennant’s villain is charismatic, pleasure-seeking, dangerously unhinged, and effective at pushing everyone’s buttons. Almost no one is safe from his influence once he’s in earshot, which often results in a trail of fresh corpses once they’re useless to him. Kilgrave was great to watch, but I had trouble at times seeing how he was both a man-child and a talented manipulator. Still, David Tennant plays both sides well (and yes, it was creepy to hear such villainous lines in the same Estuary English accent he used in Doctor Who).

Besides Kilgrave’s monologues, my other favorite parts of Jessica Jones (apart from the brutal fight scenes) were her interactions with Trish. Rachael Taylor makes a nice, optimistic contrast to Jessica’s hardboiled shell, but she backs that optimism up with a lot of physical prowess and some good investments in home defense. I don’t know why, but I love it when a good relationship between two women gets established and explored in TV or film. And as we see in this show, both Jessica and Trish have helped each other get past a shared history of abuse, which ties nicely into the central theme.

My only real gripe with the show had to do with its subplots and supporting characters. At times, I liked the romance with Jessica and Luke Cage, but at other times, I found it a little boring. And that goes double for any of the cutaways to her neighbors Robyn and Reuben or the subplot of Jeri Hogarth’s messy divorce (which I usually skipped). The sole redeeming factor in the supporting cast was Malcolm (Eka Darville), who does an amazing transformation from a comic relief character to a nuanced and surprisingly moral ally.

In between all the fistfights, epic body slams, and blood splatters, the show goes deeper than other media into subjects like rape, abuse, and other traumas. Jessica Jones isn’t afraid to throw words like “rape” and “consent” in Kilgrave’s face, even while he tries to avoid being tagged that way or paint himself as another victim of unwanted superpowers. It’s a little refreshing to see this side of sexuality explored in a modern show, as well as to see survivors find their way toward recovery. It’s what makes the dialogue between characters like Jessica and Hope Shlottman so effective.

By the end of the first run, I liked the show better than Daredevil at times, if only for Krysten Ritter’s performance. While I enjoyed the side characters in Daredevil a little more, I found this version of Jessica Jones to be very compelling, from her dark past to her tightrope walk between protecting the innocent and taking the easy way out. She’s a great protagonist and I can’t wait to what else lies in store for Alias Investigations.

Marvel’s Jessica Jones is now available for viewing on Netflix.

Bibliography: Marvel’s Jessica Jones. Created by Melissa Rosenberg. Based on the comics by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos. Produced by S. J. Clarkson, Liz Friedman, Allie Goss, Kris Henigman, Cindy Holland, Alan Fine, Stan Lee, Joe Quesada, Dan Buckley, Jim Chory, Jeph Loeb, and Melissa Rosenberg. Perf. Krysten Ritter, Mike Colter, Rachael Taylor, Wil Traval, Erin Moriarty, Eka Darville, Carrie-Anne Moss and David Tennant. Marvel Television; ABC Studios; Tall Girls Productions. Netflix (distributor). Original release date: November 20, 2015.

Looking Back at the Success of Marvel’s Agent Carter

You really have to give Marvel Comics credit for being able to achieve multiple media franchises in a few years. Not only do we get the ambitious Marvel Cinematic Universe, but we’re starting to see a rise in mainstream superhero TV shows. From Marvel properties like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to DC Comics’s Arrow and The Flash, it’s no longer so weird to see superheroes fighting crime in primetime.

Of course, most of these shows are based on long-established superheroes. It’s less likekly we see something based around a side character like Marvel’s Agent Carter. This 8-part miniseries tells the story of Peggy Carter (played by the lovely Hayley Atwell) after the events of Captain America: The First Avenger. Back in postwar America, she has to contend with the men who retake control of the Strategic Scientific Reserve while also conducting her own investigation into clearing Howard Stark’s name of treason. What follows is Peggy’s journey from glorified secretary to a respected field agent, all while facing down a mysterious organization known as Leviathan and dealing with Stark’s deadliest inventions coming back to threaten the world.

Copyright © 2015 by ABC Studios and Marvel Television.
Copyright © 2015 by ABC Studios and Marvel Television.

I think, ultimately, there were three things that gave Agent Carter a chance to shine where other contemporary superhero shows don’t.

A strong, smart, and humanized female lead.

Everyone knows about the ideal of the Strong Independent Female Character, who doesn’t require a man to be successful or to offer her sympathy–yet more often than not, still has to contend with men taking the spotlight. Peggy Carter’s story is a critical view of that trope, based not only on deconstructing old standards but paying homage to real-life female operatives during World War Two (like Phyllis Latour Doyle). Peggy can fight and scout out threats just as well as her male counterparts, with her only major flaw being not trusting others to help, whether it’s well-meaning agents like Daniel Sousa or non-fighting types like Edwin Jarvis and Angie Martinelli.

An honest look at the attitudes and politics of the postwar world.

It’s easy to separate the Forties and the Fifties in American movies and TV shows. If the good guys are fighting Nazis, it’s the Forties; if they’re fighting Communists, it’s the Fifties. However, as producer Christopher Markus put it:

“Everything was up for grabs for quite a while, and murky. We didn’t know we really won.”

That brief ambiguity after World War Two and just before the start of the Cold War is mined for some good plots in Agent Carter. We see the effects of war on veterans like Daniel Sousa and Jack Thompson, as well as the unfair discrimination put on women who worked hard in wartime, only to get sidelined and demoted when the men came home. And I’ll admit that, while some of the blatant sexism in the first few episodes did make me roll my eyes, the show did progress enough for me to see Peggy get some better treatment from her colleagues, some of which is probably accurate to changing attitudes about women in that era.

Plus, I imagine it’s really hard to stay a chauvinist when your supposed “secretary” is outclassing you as a fighter, a field commander, and a spy.

A well-developed myth arc.

Shows like Arrow or The Flash have decades of comic book lore to draw from when creating their own story arcs and villains, from Deathstroke to Gorilla Grodd and so on. And while we all know about the enemies of Captain America, we don’t know who would be a match for the likes of Peggy Carter. In this case, we’re treated to a mysterious organization called Leviathan, a glimpse at the Russian program that would eventually spawn Agent Nastasha Romanoff, and the first signs of how the SSR eventually gave way to the S.H.I.E.L.D. organization we know from the Marvel saga.

Instead of going for the usual bad guys that were common in a superhero’s run, we get a glimpse behind the curtain at the backstory of the movies themselves. It’s a lot better than waiting almost 70 years for Steve Rogers to be thawed out.

I’m glad to see that Agent Carter got such a huge response during its run. And speaking as a member of the 18-to-49 male audience (the so-called “key demographic“), I would love to see more female-led shows with top writing like this.

Marvel’s Agent Carter is available through ABC.

Bibliography: Marvel’s Agent Carter. Created by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. Produced by Tara Butters, Michele Fazekas, Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, Chris Dingess, Kevin Feige, Louis D’Esposito, Alan Fine, Joe Quesada, Stan Lee, Jeph Loeb, and Sara E. White. Perf. Hayley Atwell, James D’Arcy, Chad Michael Murray, Enver Gjokaj, and Shea Whigham. ABC Studios, Marvel Television, F&B Fazekas & Butters. ABC (channel). Original run: January 6, 2015 – February 24, 2015.