Tag: Marvel (page 1 of 7)

When To Stand Tall

Courtesy Marvel Studios & Netflix

Having finally seen Luke Cage, it’s safe to say that it’s some of the best work Marvel has done on-screen, be the screen big or small. It just edges out Jessica Jones as my favorite of the Netflix seasons so far. Both Daredevil seasons average out to being, ironically, above average, and Jessica Jones is one of the most powerful and necessary works of fiction put on television in a long time. But it’s a hard watch, a grueling emotional experience, and I don’t know when I’ll be ready to watch it again.

I’d start watching Luke Cage again at any opportunity. It’s just… it’s so good.

Part of what makes it good is its message. Luke may be super-powered, with bulletproof skin and super-strength, but he strives to be ordinary. He wants a quiet life, to be left to his own devices. He could easily market his skills or pursue a life with the Avengers, but we see him working two jobs to afford a small apartment in Harlem. Like any of us would. And when trouble arises and touches those he cares about, he stands tall. Like any of us should.

I took particular note of the differences between Luke and his adversaries. He neither wanted nor encouraged anyone to speak up on his behalf, to engineer end-runs around his foes, to spread rumors or anything underhanded. He went after them himself. He faced them on his own terms. He hit them where their treasure lies, he hit those treasure vaults hard, and when they called him out, he looked them in the eye and spoke his mind, right before, in his words (and those of the Wu-Tang Clan), bringing the motherfucking ruckus.

Luke Cage’s world is our world, a world of selfish schemes, corruption, and violence. I’ll get into some of the greater societal messages when I talk about that world and its reflection upon us, but for today, there’s something about Luke Cage that spoke directly to me, loud and clear.

The through-line of Luke’s narrative is the nature of standing tall.

“You have to fight for what’s right every single day, bulletproof skin or not,” Luke says in the finale. “You can’t just not snitch, or turn away or take money under the table because life has turned you sour. When did people stop caring?”

There are people in this world, too many people, who seek opportunities to get themselves ahead. They may see it as serving some greater good; they may be proceeding from a false pretense or a basis of false facts; they may simply want to make themselves more powerful or more attractive. We live in a world where the art of deception has become the art of distraction, of presenting rumors as facts, of manufacturing drama to pull attention and critical thinking away from the truth of a matter and giving power to conjecture. All too often, people involved in these situations, even good people with good hearts, are swept up in the tide and the circus-like atmosphere of the bandwagon, and opt for towing the line of group-think, even re-writing their own history and thoughts to fit a more pervasive narrative.

It’s not just a driving plot device in a fictional work like Luke Cage. It’s something that happens every day in reality. I’ve seen it. I’ve even been a part of it.

In my life I’ve run across way too many Cottonmouths, way too many Diamondbacks, and way way too many Mariah Dillards. We need more Misty Knights, and Claire Temples, and men like Bobby Fish and Pop. Men like Luke Cage.

It isn’t easy to stand tall. You may feel like you aren’t ready to do it. You may be scared to look for the facts and speak up on their behalf. When the pitchforks get distributed, and the propaganda machine spins up to power, and the gaslights begin to glow with their infernal illumination, it’s easier and safer to duck and cover. It’s a lot harder to stand tall.

But as much as I’ve seen people reveal their ugliest or most terrified or disappointingly two-faced natures, I’ve seen others do just that. Do the hard thing. Stand tall.

It didn’t matter if they had to reach out across a scorched bridge, or resist the restrictions of a problematic spoon-depleting health condition, or just look at the rolling juggernaut-like bandwagon and refuse to hop aboard. They went after facts. They held their own viewpoints without being colored by hearsay or shocked into silence or backpedaling. It wasn’t easy for them, and I deeply appreciate it. They humble me, inspire me, and propel me to continue being the best version of myself possible, every single day.

I am done turning myself down or making myself smaller in misguided attempts to make room for others. I’m going to keep standing tall.

After all, if you were to ask Luke when the time is to stand tall, he’d say one word.


Tuesday are for telling my story.

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.

From the Vault: Paging Doctor Strange

Courtesy Marvel Studios

It’s been almost six years since I originally wrote about Doctor Strange, and now, there’s a major motion picture telling his story. I haven’t seen it yet. But I’m very eager to do so. Part of the reasons why are laid out below. As is his origin story, at least from the comics, so… spoilers, I guess?

This is a time where, now more than ever, the world needs some magic, and those with the wisdom and humility to wield it for the greater good. The world needs wizards.

As much as I never really got into reading his stories on a regular basis, I’m a big fan of Doctor Strange.

Marvel’s a world full of armored geniuses, super-soliders and Viking gods. Standing right beside them is this bookworm, a former surgeon who managed to become Earth’s Sorcerer Supreme? How did he do it? Did he stumble across a magical MacGuffin or get touched by an angel or bitten by a magical spider?

No. He worked for it.

Granted, his origin story isn’t a terribly noble one, but this is Marvel we’re talking about. Strange was a gifted surgeon who cared more about his wealth and reputation than actually helping people. He got involved in an auto accident that damaged the nerves in his hands. He lost much of the fine manipulation necessary to be a surgeon. Stubborn and vain, Strange refused to take a position as a consultant or practice ‘lesser’ medicine and hunted down every potential cure he could find. His search was fruitless and drained his fortune, leaving him a destitute back-alley doctor, his reputation lost and his bar tabs mounting. Finally, he heard word of someone called “the Ancient One,” pawned the last of his possessions to seek the hidden monastery, and begged for the Ancient One to heal him.

The Ancient One refused. Furious, Strange very nearly left only to see the Ancient One beset by mysical forces. His curiosity overwhelmed his frustration and he began to speak to the Ancient One as a pupil does to a student. Uncovering treachery and trying to warn the master, Strange overcame his selfishness and vowed to combat the evil he’d seen with his own eyes. Through years of study and practice, he became a sorcerer and one of the foremost minds of the arcane in the world.

He’s been through a lot. He’s faced all sorts of challenges from the likes of Doctor Doom to personifications of cosmic forces. He’s survived them all, with nothing more than the contents of old scrolls and his own quick thinking. And he has never, ever gone back to thinking only about himself. At every turn, he’s contributed to the greater good of the world around him.

How is this not something to which we should aspire? Doctor Strange is a shining example of the proper response to hubris and hardship. Despite all his challenges, all he’s lost, he soldiers on, taking on the next obstacle as resolutely as possible. He never gives up. Even when he loses the title of Sorcerer Supreme, he holds on to his abilities not to pursue his own aims, but to help from the sidelines, advise from the shadows. He still refuses to give up on a world that would have given up on him long ago.

Courtesy Marvel Studios I have to wonder if, these days, walking as he does with a sullen disposition and rocking a mean trenchcoat, he ever thinks back to those days as a surgeon, to the way he’d casually light a cigarette the moment he’s out of the operating room ensuring the patient can pay for the life-saving medicine he just administered. Since becoming a sorcerer, he’s never demanded payment, never asked for special recognition or reward. Even when he’s all but bugged to remain with Luke Cage’s New Avengers, he politely and humbly tries to tell them he’s not worthy to stand among them, that his mistakes are too great, his burdens too much for others to bear. Yet he has borne the hardships of others many times, and when Strange finally cracks the smallest of smiles, it’s a greater statement than reams of text could make.

Brian Michael Bendis and Grant Immoren are doing a fantastic job with Strange. I’m glad to see him in this current form and look forward to more. When I was a child, I was fascinated with the magic. Nowadays, I’m fascinated by the man.

“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!

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!

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