Tag: film (page 1 of 20)

Doctor Strange Is My Hero

Courtesy Marvel Studios

I’m going to take a break from pontificating on our current crisis and the implications of the resurrection of ultra-nationalism to talk about a comic book wizard. Because it’s a form of self-care and it’s something that tickles the cockles of my imagination.

I used to do reviews on a fairly regular basis, and while there’s definitely enough going on in Doctor Strange to warrant several paragraphs, I’d like to dwell more on why I feel like the character is one of the best transitions from page to screen Marvel has done yet. Let’s keep it simple: Doctor Strange is the best Marvel origin movie to date. It has compelling and complex characters, downplays the humorous elements to rely more on well-woven world building and truly stunning visuals, and even gives us a villain with more depth than a soup spoon. Not lots of depth, but its there. It’s well-cast, well-written, and Jack Kirby is smiling from the Great Beyond at the capture of his visions of the realms beyond our reality. The true strength of the piece, however, is Stephen Strange himself.

Way back in 2010 I pontificated on Strange in the comics, given the decision to have him lose the title of Sorcerer Supreme due to an act of hubris that, while motivated by the best of intentions, cost him dearly. In the film, we can see both that hubris and that humility and self-sacrifice, which I’ll get to. But what makes Strange stand out from the start is his baseline level of self-awareness. He knows how great he is, but he tempers that with taking opportunities to save lives as well as proving it. The opening scene’s bullet extraction is a fantastic, pitch-perfect moment of character-building without too much exposition or too many bells and whistles.

Okay, from here on, it’s spoiler territory. Fairly be ye warned.

When he loses the fine dexterity of his hands, Strange pushes himself to find a way to fix himself, improve himself. He isn’t motivated by an outside force, nor is he willing to settle for a more mundane profession, like teaching or dictating his theories to another person. While he is ambitious, arrogant, and even antagonistic at times, to the degree he alienates friends & colleagues and burns up his life savings, he is still seeking a return to his former glory, a position where he can regain his cushy lifestyle and keep saving lives. That, by itself, makes for a good story.

Then, when he arrives at Kamar-Taj, a very interesting thing happens. Once the Ancient One actually allows him to study, he throws himself into those studies. The haunted and hurt surgeon gives way to the astounding and curious student. A legitimate bookworm and very quick study, Stephen Strange gains a fundamental grasp on the essence of the Mystic Arts even as he struggles with the hand gestures that manifest even the most basic of spells. His focus on and struggles with his mangled hands do get in his way, but when he is studying, he gets out of his own way to a degree that is even more inspiring than his redemptive struggle itself.

Then, after the obligatory Marvel cinematic fight and chase scenes (which are still Inception-levels of creative and compelling, no seriously, they are that good), we come to his confrontation with Dormammu, ruler of the timeless Dark Dimension and overall sadistic bastard. What does Doctor Strange do? He doesn’t unleash any offensive spells, never throws a single punch. Instead, he uses his mind. Knowing that time is foreign to Dormammu, he locks himself and the godlike creature in a time loop, bewildering and frustrating his opponent rather than seeking to destroy or even cripple it. Haunted by the one murder he did commit (even if it was in self-defense), Strange pushes himself to redeem the act, refusing to do actual battle with Dormammu. He dies, over and over and over again, to fill Dormammu with such impotent rage that the entity has no recourse but to bargain with the sorcerer. His calm and somewhat whimsical admission that “pain is an old friend” perfectly encapsulates this strategy. And it works. At last, we have a Marvel movie that reaches its climax in a way that, while gruesome, ultimately resolves in a non-violent fashion.

And after all of that, Strange is not Sorcerer Supreme. He has no predefined destiny, no obligatory position as an exemplar or pinnacle-occupying hero. Instead of promoting his own genius or prowess, he humbly becomes the mere guardian of one of the Sanctum Sanctorum locations that protect our world, and offers his assistance to those who share his goals, even if they present a possible threat. He shows intelligence, discretion, charisma, and an ongoing desire to continue improving, continue changing, continue to do and get and be better than the man he was at the start of his journey.

This is why I hold him in higher regard than Captain America.

I may get some backlash for this. But while Captain America basically was born as a paragon of the virtues United States citizens aspire to exemplify and wish their country would represent, Stephen Strange is truly a self-made and ever-improving vanguard of actions matching intention and morals defining actions. Relying on his wits and intellect rather than physical violence or even his powers, he shows us that what it takes to be a hero isn’t what you are, but the choices you make, especially if you’ve made bad ones in the past. Steve Rogers has made mistakes, but not to the degree of Stephen Strange. Tony Stark has improved himself, but not to the degree of Stephen Strange. He is simply, in my opinion, head and shoulders above the rest. And not just because of the Cloak of Levitation.

I’ll be watching Doctor Strange quite a few more times. I suspect it will join other works in my yearly practice of revisiting narrative moments that inspire me on a foundational level. There are echoes of who I was, and goals for who I want to be, in the cinematic portrayal of Stephen Strange. This deeply personal connection, along with its production values, memorable portrayals, and mind-bending effects, is why Doctor Strange is, if not the best, one of the finest Marvel movies they have or will produced.

“I Know A Guy”: The Ant-Man Review

With my financial situation on shaky ground and everything else in upheaval, it’s difficult for me to justify expenses outside of feeding myself and keeping the utilities on. Even costs for transit, be it gasoline or passage on trains and busses, can be questionable. That said, I do want to keep up with the ongoing continuity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, both because their plotlines and characterizations are more coherent and because, well, they have yet to blow the landing. Even the nadir of the films, Iron Man 2, is a decent flick in and of itself, and is buoyed up by the following films in a form of ‘better in hindsight’. Granted, it’s still nowhere near as good as any other Marvel film to date, but it’s still pretty good. I almost have to grade these things on a curve, and I was wondering if Ant-Man might become the new anchor for the low end of said curve. I managed to satisfy that curiosity without destroying my meager budget because… well, I know a guy.

Courtesy Marvel Studios

I honestly have seen threads of more than one Iron man movie getting woven into Ant-Man since I saw the first trailer. A successor picking up the threads of a line of business the founder didn’t want? Iron Man. Keeping super-tech out of the wrong hands? Iron Man 2. Inventor who’s a bit of a prick looking for redemption and overcoming emotional obstacles? Iron Man 3. It’s one of the problems Ant-Man has: this is ground that’s been tread before. This might be because the creative team had to plunder old ideas when Edgar Wright left the project. It was a big question hanging over Ant-Man: “Can this Marvel movie survive some of the awful behind-the-scenes stuff that plagues other productions?”

The short answer? “Yes.”

The longer answer is that this particular Marvel outing, like many of its successes, is much more personal in focus and small in scale. It also conveys a lot more humor than, for example, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. I think this is due to its roots in the works and concepts of Edgar “Shawn of the Dead”/”Hot Fuzz”/”Scott Pilgrim” Wright. As much as there were some genuine laughs to be had, there are also a few moments where I felt they were pushing too hard for the comedy. It never gets embarrassing and the jokes don’t necessarily fall flat, but they get more of a rueful smirk than a good laugh.

Character development and interaction, too, averages out to a baseline for Marvel films. Michael Douglas is a seasoned actor and his gravitas and ease work well with the material. Paul Rudd definitely has the self-effacing leading-man chops required for this project, and he also demonstrates that he is more than capable of working side-by-side with other talent without overshadowing them. I was very happy to see Evangeline Lilly given plenty to do, as much as Marvel tends to sideline its female characters, and the promise within the credits fills me with hope. I want more diversity in my superheroes, dammit! The criminal sidekicks are amusing at times, the daughter is adequately precious, and the menace of Yellowjacket feels more legitimate and immediate than the vague nature of Obediah Stane or the criminally underused Laufey of Jotunheim.

What makes Ant-Man worth watching is the inventiveness of its technology, from the scale-shifting nature of the suits to the interactions the characters have with ants. The action scenes pop with ideas and quick thinking as much as they do with punches and bullets, and getting along with legions of ants makes for fun and occasionally adorable sci-fi antics. While you understand Pym not naming individual ants, you feel for Scott when he chooses to do so anyway. This isn’t the breakneck, visceral action of Winter Soldier or the grandiose set-piece action of Age of UltronAnt-Man, in just about every sense of the word, is playing on a smaller stage, and yet remains interesting and fun to watch despite (or perhaps because of) this reduction of stakes and scale.

So, in the end, is Ant-Man worth seeing? I’d say it is. While it doesn’t have the legitimate above-average quality of the Captain America entries thus far, or the unabashed fantastical fun of both Thor flicks that are available, it’s still fun, still interesting, and still earnest in its intent and execution. While not the studio’s best, it doesn’t disappoint and hits all of the right notes for a Marvel movie. I will admit to the sort of mentality that inclines me towards liking both Thor movies, and that isn’t everybody’s bag, but for the most part, Ant-Man works for me.

Until Michael Bay casts Martin Lawrence as T’Challa, Make Mine Marvel!

Walk the Fury Road

Have you seen Mad Max: Fury Road yet? … Seriously? Have you not been on the Internet at all? Are you not aware of how universally praised this film is by (almost) everyone? I want to discuss why there’s a parenthetical “almost” there, but I think that’ll work best if you’ve seen the movie. So turn off your browser, saddle up, and head to the cinema.

Go on.

I’ll wait.

Okay. Back safely?

WAS THAT NOT AMAZING?

Courtesy HugoHugo
“We Can Do It (Furiously)” by HugoHugo

I think it’s safe to say that Mad Max: Fury Road is the best film of the series George Miller has been responsible for over the course of the last three decades. It is, in no uncertain terms, the Platonic ideal of the lone nearly-silent protagonist in a post-apocalyptic wasteland getting drawn into adventures not of his own making. It’s Fallout with less nostalgic music or Americana kitsch, more bizarre muscle cars and screaming guitar riffs.

(Was that rig with the suspended guitarist whose axe had a flamethrower not the BEST?)

Mad Max has spoken to fans for years and years. The lone adventurer in the desolation of the devastated Outback, wheeling and dealing for gasoline in the midst of outlandish bandits and barely-alive survivors really speaks to the independent streak in young men. He’s tough, taciturn, capable, and above all, crazy enough to do wicked cool and highly dangerous stunts and get into fights out of his weight class. At least, that’s how Mel Gibson played the character.

Tom Hardy certainly brings the tough, taciturn, capable, and crazy as well, but he also brings an element that, to me, Gibson had a tendency to overlook: humanity. Max is haunted by his failures. He’s withdrawn because of people he’s let down, family he’s lost, friends he’s seen hurt or killed. If he hadn’t already established himself in things like Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, and above all, Bronson, I’d say this is a star-making turn for him. Max is also smart, especially in the way Hardy plays him, and I really appreciate that despite this being the fourth movie in this series, Max shows growth and a difference in understanding from where he is at the start to where he is at the end.

Despite the title and the performance, however, this movie does not belong to Max. It belongs to Furiosa. It belongs to the women.

Courtesy WB Studios

The first time we actually see all of the wives fleeing the clutches of Immortan Joe and what have to be incredibly gross and unconsented kisses, they are hosing each other down and using bolt cutters to remove the metal belts Joe slapped on them to keep them “his.” I remember clearly, as that tableau was presented, some dude behind me in the theater uttering the word “Nice.” I felt my stomach turn. Thankfully, as the movie continued, it was clear that his sort of attitude was the very one these women were not only escaping from, but actively fighting against.

You see, while the wives are very attractive, and clad in varying degrees of white clothing that might be meant to be alluring, at no point do any of them feel like pawns in a greater game, like things to be pursued or saved. These women are saving themselves. Yes, Furiosa is the means of their salvation (and I’m getting to her, trust me), but these characters conspired with one another intelligently, planned their escape methodically, and even take up arms to defend the freedom they’re struggling to attain. Max and Nux appearing are incidental things. Yes, they prove to be helpful in the cause, but they are not the agents of change in this story. The women are.

I cannot stress enough how important this is. This is a 21st-century Hollywood blockbuster. This is a tough-as-nails gorefest breakneck action flick. This sort of thing is designed to pull in audiences that are predominantly male. And yet, smuggled in under the explosions and gunfire and nitrous injections and fistfights is a very strong, very clear message: Men are not the only heroes. Men are not the only saviors. Women do not always need to be damsels in distress; they are more than capable of saving themselves, thank you very much. As much as each of Immortan Joe’s unconsenting wives personifies this, the focal point of this mentality is clearly Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa.

Courtesy WB Studios

Not only is Furiosa a woman who is clearly an equal to every man she encounters, if not superior in skill, tenacity, strength, and cunning, she thoroughly and consistently proves that she is the driving force (pun somewhat intended) of this story. She overwhelms Max in a fight. She drives as well as Max. She’s better shot than Max (and, in one scene, he demonstrates that he knows this. I literally squee’d). She helps the wives escape, gives them a destination, and dedicates herself to protecting them along every mile of the Fury Road. Oh, and did I mention she does this with a disability? We never find out how Furiosa lost her arm, but between the prosthetic (which is, in and of itself, pretty badass) and her general levels of skill and guts (also badass), that loss does not slow her down one bit. If this isn’t role model material, I don’t know what is.

From the moment this aspect of the film became clear, word began to circulate that so-called “men’s rights activists” (MRAs) were livid about it. “Mad Max belongs to men!” seemed to be the common rallying cry. “Action films belong to men! Hot chicks in movies get saved by men!” So on and so forth, to ever-descending degrees of disgustingness. The truth, of course, is that these arguments are ignorant and baseless. Good artists, be they filmmakers, authors, painters, or musicians, make art for everyone, even if everyone might not be into the art being made – not everybody can get into the music of Philip Glass or the films of Takashi Miike, for example. George Miller is a good artist, and he made Mad Max: Fury Road for everyone, at least everyone over the age of consent, given the blood spatters and deformities and drug use and violence and whatnot. Male, female, or anywhere in between, I’d like to think that everybody can admire Furiosa, root for the wives, and chuckle along as Max finds a way to help in the righteous cause he’s been searching for and finally found in the frightened but determined women huddled together in the back of the War Rig.

This is not an easy road to walk. The ideas of feminism and equal representation and triumph in the face of adversity, disability, and the partiarchy get opposed even in the relatively enlightened days of the 21st century. Indeed, Immortan Joe is a personification of the patriarchy, demanding the devotion of the young men under his control and expecting everyone, especially women, to bend entirely to his whims. Nux, one of the War Boys and the soul to whom Max is bound (literally, for the first hour), shows us not only how such control affects a human being, but that said being has the ability to overcome it. When we meet him, Nux is living only for himself and the approval of his paternal figure; by the end, Nux is living for people who, by the standards of the figure he so highly esteemed, aren’t considered people at all. There’s so much in this film that belies its simple, action-flick nature, and it isn’t easy to walk the road of making sure everyone knows it, and knows that the sort of “male gaze” bullshit that has dominated films and stories like this for centuries cannot and will not persevere.

I’m going to see Mad Max: Fury Road again, in cinemas if possible, to walk this road as much as I can. And I’d like to think that, if you are reading these words and understanding their full meaning, you’d be willing to walk it with me.

The Audacity of Ant-Man

Courtesy Marvel Studios

One of the many names by which Marvel has gone by in years past is “the House of Ideas.” It’s incredibly apt. Since embarking upon their cinematic universe, Marvel has shown that they are overflowing with premise after premise that strikes unique chords and resonate with audiences across ages, genders, and just about every demographic you can think of. Guardians of the Galaxy, by most reckonings on a conceptual level, should not have worked as well as it did. And yet, people bounce around the streets, dancing to music, and chanting “OOGA CHAKA” at the drop of a space-hat. Marvel’s ideas work.

So why does Ant-Man feel like an even more audacious prospect than Guardians did?

Before the trailer dropped earlier this week, I was looking at Ant-Man with a bit of skepticism. Granted, I don’t know a great deal about the character, save that Henry Pym has had a plethora of personal problems and many, many identities. The redemption arc for Scott Lang is a road well-traveled, but the new trailer addresses that by keying into an Iron Man-like mentality of both humor and addressing a character changing without necessarily altering their nature.

Scott: My days of breaking into places and stealing stuff are over. So what do you need me to do?
Hank: I need you to break into a place and steal some stuff.
Scott: … Makes sense.

Marvel’s films, at their most successful, strike a very particular balance between humor, action, world-building, and character development. Looking at Ant-Man, it was difficult to see all of those elements in play at first. Now that the trailer covers all of those touchpoints, the project feels a lot more solid, but no less audacious.

Going back to the Guardians of the Galaxy comparison, Ant-Man is a relatively unknown character from Marvel’s pantheon. We also have Doctor Strange and Captain Marvel coming. But a sorcerer and an Air Force pilot given super-powers that are on par with DC’s Superman is a bit easier for new audience members to internalize than a guy whose power is shrinking to insect-size and talking to other insects. Putting that character into a major motion picture with all of the monetary and marketing support of Marvel Studios requires supreme confidence and a very well-organized plan, in which Ant-Man plays a part.

Marvel is not the sort of studio that is willing to rest on its laurels with derivative sequels and other means of generating cash. New characters, new directions of story, and long-range plans aimed to both build an expansive universe and please their fans. I don’t know what part Ant-Man has to play within this plan, but Marvel is sticking to it, and despite the scale to which this new hero tends to shrink, my guess is that his part will be anything but small. It’s an audacious plan, an ambitious plan, and if anybody can pull it off, it’s the House of Ideas.

Until the day Coulson becomes a Black Lantern, Make Mine Marvel!

500 Words on Remakes

Courtesy LionsGate

I’ve taken it upon myself, on multiple occasions, to take tales told since time immemorial and put them in modern context. Greek myths in space, Norse myths in the Old West, and so on. So, as a rule, I have nothing against remakes. I think they can be good, if they are done correctly and with respect. I

Consider Dredd and the 2011 version of Conan the Barbarian. In both cases, the title character eschews a great deal more towards the material from which they were born. Karl Urban as Dredd never takes off his helmet, doesn’t go for bombastic declarations, and the atmosphere around him is gritty and realistic rather than grandiose and covered in shiny metal or neon lights.

As for Conan, while the 1982 version is a lovely classic of good old-fashioned high fantasy sword-and-sandals adventure, the 2011 version had a title character who hewed closer to Robert E Howard’s text. Conan was never a man of great words or deep letters, but Arnold’s nearly silent performance was a bit too stoic. Jason Momoa, in addition to being closer to the description Howard gave us, speaks often and echoes the original tales. I will admit, the statement of purpose we got from Arnold in 1982 is pretty killer:

“Conan! What is best in life?”
“TO CRUSH YOUR ENEMIES, TO SEE THEM DRIVEN BEFORE YOU, AND TO HEAR THE LAMENTATIONS OF THEIR WOMEN.”

But in 2011, Conan boils himself down this:

“I live, I love, I slay, and I am content.”

These words come from arguably the most well-known Conan story, ‘Queen of the Black Coast’.

He shrugged his shoulders. “I have known many gods. He who denies them is as blind as he who trusts them too deeply. I seek not beyond death. It may be the blackness averred by the Nemedian skeptics, or Crom’s realm of ice and cloud, or the snowy plains and vaulted halls of the Nordheimer’s Valhalla. I know not, nor do I care. Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.”

I for one would love to see Jason Momoa star in a depiction of ‘Queen of the Black Coast’, or ‘Red Nails’. I’d like to think there’s potential for an adaptation of one or both of these tales. Especially with the way Mr. Momoa broods, sneers, laughs, and fights when we saw him playing Conan. Basically, I’m adding this idea to my “future content creation” bucket list.

Hey, a man can dream, right?

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