Superman, 2020

I’ve always been interested in the ways comic books imagined the future, especially when I was living in the “future” in question.  As a kid, I read a reprint of an old Captain Marvel (“Shazam” variety) tale that featured a time traveler from the distant era of 1977.  It was almost 1977 when I read it, and nobody I knew had a time machine.

In 1980, Superman #354 introduced a backup feature called “Superman 2020,” positing what the future might bring for the Superman family 50 years into the future.  This was one of several such features introduced in hopes of generating reader interest in a time when Superman comics were increasingly viewed as old-fashioned and dull by most of fandom.  Another “let’s try anything” back-up feature followed the adventures of a married Clark Kent and Lois Lane on Earth-2, while another examined what would have happened if the infant Superman had landed in Gotham City to become “Bruce Wayne,” not “Clark Kent.”  In the case of “Superman 2020,” we see what would happen if Superman aged in real time, had a son and then a grandson, who operated in the titular year.  In the end, the answer to all three “what-if” scenarios was that, ultimately, a Superman story is pretty much a Superman story regardless of the details.  All Superman stories boiled down to how to creatively use super-powers to combat the challenge of the month, be it earthly criminals, alien invaders, scientific threats or natural or man-made disasters.  At story’s end, the varying iterations of Superman might go home to a bachelor apartment, to the missus, to Wayne Manor, or to a futuristic floating city depending on which version’s in play, but aside from those variations, they’re all the same stories about the same guy doing the same things.

That said, it’s always interesting seeing what comics creators thought life would be like in 2020.  For starters, according to writer Cary Bates and artist Curt Swan, the entire East Coast of the United States would be one sprawling metropolitan entity:

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I understand the implied commentary on “urban sprawl,” but it’s hard to imagine something like this working.  All those absorbed cities — and a lot of smaller ones in between — would have to agree to a shared government, which means a lot of mayors, councilmen, boards, planners, etc would have to give up their positions and/or influence.  And think of all the ball teams that would have to be retired! But anyway, it’s an interesting concept.

Even with cities this size, there’s still not enough room for everyone in 2020 given the population explosion, so the city of New Metropolis has been constructed, snow-globe style, in Earth orbit.

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Again, lots of questions about how this could work physically as well as politically (how would a foreign government feel about an American city passing overhead from time to time?) but the interesting take-away is that someone in 1980 could think, even in a comic book story, that we’d progress this far scientifically in just 50 years.  We sure dropped the ball on that.  I mean, iPads and Bluetooth headsets are cool and all, but it’s remarkable how our former daydreams of massive-scale engineering achievements have been surrendered in favor of advances in personalized technology that fits in our pockets.  We don’t get a big bubble over a floating city, but we do get lots of metaphorical little bubbles around each of us, shutting us out from our real-world surroundings, and each other. 

Anyway, the hero of our story is Kalel Kent, or at least he goes by that name for about a page and a half.  For reasons that remain unclear, Kalel decides to kill off his “secret identity” so he can adopt a series of new ones.  Step one is to get himself declared legally dead by crashing his “Vexor” flying car (because it’s 2020) into the side of a cliff.

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Here we see a time-honored trope of comic book logic: vehicle crashes and burns, someone says “No one could have survived that crash,” and that’s good enough for a death certificate.  Never mind that no body is found.

Also, it’s interesting that for all the starry-eyed prognostications of technological development, no one foresees the future’s higher standards for establishing, documenting and verifying proof of identity.  Kalel is confident he can just make up a new name and start a new career whenever he wants, with no birth certificate, proof of citizenship, diplomas, degrees, certifications, tax records, you name it.  And indeed that’s just what he does for the rest of the series.  In the comic book year of 2020, creating a new identity is as simple as it was in 1400.

You also have to wonder why a revolving door of secret IDs would be a good idea, and really there is no reason whatsoever within the logic of the story.  The reason is rooted in OUR world, where changing things up every couple of months frees writers — theoretically — from worrying about issues of continuity or “sameness”, and the cast of supporting characters, workplaces, etc can change the moment they start to feel stale.  Except, again, a Superman story is a Superman story, and it doesn’t matter much whether he slips away to go on a mission from his job as a reporter, a cab driver, a mailman or a schoolteacher, as this series will eventually bear out.

As you’ll note from the image above, the Superman of 2020 is missing the famous “S” logo on his chest.  That’s because it’s passed down in a formal ceremony from generation to generation, and today’s the day he’s due to get his “badge” from Pa and Grandpa Superman.

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I love that “21st century slang” note from the editor.  Shouldn’t slang be more succinct, or at least catchier, than the verbiage it replaces?

Elsewhere, we see that 50 years of progress has not eliminated evil and small-mindedness from society, as we witness a gathering of “racial purity” zealots in a sort of “Make Earth Great Again” rally:

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This group tricks the young Superman (referred to here as “Superman III”, because nobody knows yet how bad the movie will be) into following a hologram of his father and grandfather, whereupon he’s trapped in a metallic cube.  In time he will be able to smash his way out, but in so doing, he’ll trigger an explosion that destroys New Metropolis, accomplishing the twin goals of avoiding possible alien contact and besmirching the “Superman” family brand.

The xenophobic “Purists” group adopts a none-too-subtle variation on a Nazi swastika as their symbol, but interestingly their salute rather presciently suggests the controversial “OK” hand gesture that’s become associated with racist ideology in the real 2020.

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Superman III figures out the plot, emits a supersonic whistle that alerts his dad and grandfather, and then proceeds to hammer away at his cube-shaped trap to generate a morse code message about the hidden bomb in New Metropolis.  His elders hear and decipher this message, find the bomb and remove it, so when Superman III escapes the cube, the city is not destroyed.  You know, the usual perfectly feasible comic book stuff.

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With that settled, the ceremony proceeds as scheduled and Superman III takes his rightful place as a defender of the Earth.

The feature will return for a handful of additional installments, each finding Superman III in a new identity and solving new problems, but again aside from the futuristic cityscapes and fashions, there’s not much to differentiate this strip from “regular” Superman, so it never really picks up any momentum.  Almost immediately Bates and Swan are gone as the strip is handed off to (in my opinion) lesser lights like Bob Rozakis and Alex Saviuk.  Basically, it never feels like more than “filler.”

If anything, I’d rate it even lower than the “Married Superman” or “Bruce Wayne Superman” backup strips because here, there are three Supermen, more or less identical aside from grey hair and wrinkles.  It can’t help but diminish the stature of your hero to make him just one of three, and the least experienced and powerful of the three, at that.  Even when the elder Supermen aren’t featured in a tale, you always know they’re around somewhere to take up the slack if this kid fails.

So if I could tell my 1980 self how close this story came to predicting 2020, I’d have to say not very close on the good stuff (floating cities and flying cars) and too close on the bad stuff (racist movements and neo-fascism).  Probably younger me would be more fascinated to learn I can now read and discuss this story through a computing device connected to the rest of the world.

Exit Stan Lee

I didn’t grow up as a fan of Stan Lee.

In fact, it’s fair to say that as a kid, I didn’t “get” Marvel at all.  Weaned on Superman and Batman, I viewed superheroes as unflappable paragons of confidence, competence and moral certainty, whereas Marvel’s heroes were conflicted, insecure, short-tempered and at the end of the day not always even sure they were in the right.  On meeting each other, their first impulse was to trade punches; even when they cooperated, they bickered and griped.  More than that, Marvel the company was flagrantly, brazenly after my money.  Individual issues of their comics almost never told a complete story, being just chapters in sagas that had begun long before I showed up and would end…well, maybe never.  If you bought a Spider-Man book, you were apt to be presented with a guest appearance by Daredevil or the Human Torch or some other character in the middle of a story of their own; if you wanted to fully understand what was going on, you had to go buy their book, too.  Marvel wasn’t satisfied with just some of my money, they wanted it all, and even if I obliged, I probably still wouldn’t get a complete story.

A banner across the splash page of all Marvel books yelled, “Stan Lee Presents…”  putting a name to the mastermind behind this Machiavellian money-grab, doubtless a corporate mogul who sat like Uncle Scrooge in a vault piled high with quarters coaxed from the pockets of me and my pals and millions like us.   At this stage of the game, Stan wasn’t really writing stories for the comics, so I only knew him as that guy “presenting” everything, and I only “heard his voice” through his “Stan’s Soapbox” editorials, which often as not could be summed up as, “We’ve got another book out, so what are you waiting for? Go Buy It!”  There was just a shameless hucksterism to the guy that rubbed me the wrong way.  After about the hundredth time I saw Stan use the word to close out a column, I finally asked my Dad what “Excelsior” was, and he laughed and said, “Wood shavings!”  Somehow that fit my impression of this guy who was selling us a bill of goods.

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But then in the late 70s, things changed a bit for me when a series of paperbacks from Pocket Books reprinted the early adventures of Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk and Dr Strange, and finally I got to “meet” Stan not as a publisher or promoter, but a writer.  That’s when I finally “got” the appeal of both Stan himself and the company he built.  Stan’s Spider-Man took a character that had never appealed to me beyond his cool costume and power set and made him dynamic and funny.  Early Spidey was almost like a parody of conventional superheroes: living in his aunt’s house instead of a mansion, dealing with homework deadlines between crimefighting missions and stuck repairing his own (lone) costume with a needle and thread.  Stan’s successors — writing the 70’s Spidey I saw on the spinner racks — had picked up the baton and doubled down on the misery and suffering while losing the (for me) crucial humor, Stan’s implicit message that even Peter Parker’s Job-like suffering was part of the over-arching. playful poke in the eye to staid, conventional superheroics. With Steve Ditko putting Spidey through insane contortions and Stan providing him with genuinely funny and rarely repetitive one-liners, the first 38 issues of Spider-Man (or anyway the 21 I got to read in those books) became favorites.

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To really appreciate Stan’s contributions, though, you needed to experience the whole comic, not just the story itself.  The letter columns featured lively banter with readers who were clearly loving the opportunity to put in their two cents and see their names in print.  Some of the letters could even be harshly critical, especially of Ditko’s art, which is undeniably an acquired taste, but that didn’t stop Stan (in his “editor” hat) from printing them, anyway.  On the “Bullpen Bulletins” editorial pages, in the lettercols, in the cover blurbs and “editor’s notes” at the bottoms of panels as well as the word balloons and captions, the “voice of Marvel” was consistent in its convivial, inclusive, upbeat and playful approach, and the “voice” was Stan’s.

Stan established the “Marvel style” of comic book creation, which involved supplying an artist with a basic story idea (if even that) and letting the artist plot it out and make his own decisions about how to pace and structure things.  Then Stan would supply all the captions and dialog to flesh out the pictures on the page.  This allowed Stan and his small stable of artists to churn out an amazing amount of content on a monthly basis, compared to the established industry practice of having a writer put down every word as Step One, then provide detailed instructions to the artists on how to illustrate each panel.  Looking at those early books, you can see where artists like Ditko and Jack Kirby reveled in their new freedom to contribute their ideas, but over time these blurry lines between who did what would lead to hard feelings and feuds that played out publicly.

Probably the ideal collaboration, for me, came when Lee and Ditko teamed up for Dr Strange.  Providing a perfect complement to Ditko’s trippy other-dimensional landscapes and bizarre creatures were Stan’s brilliant spells, name-dropping arcane powers, demons, mages and worlds we couldn’t wait to learn more about, and expanding the scope of Strange’s universe by the mere power of suggestion.

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Part of the fun of those early stories, for me, comes in the palpable tension between creators, the sense that artist and writer are pulling in different directions.  There are many times when it certainly looks as if, say, Jack Kirby drew a sequence with a particular idea in mind, then Stan came in and changed the tone and momentum of the scene entirely.  It’s fun to speculate on why he took things in a different direction; did he misinterpret Jack’s intentions?  Did he simply disagree and exercise his power of having “the last word”?  Did he make things better or worse?  People often compare the Lee/Kirby team to Lennon and McCartney, and while it’s far from a perfect analogy, I agree it’s spot-on in one regard: sometimes the pairing of two competing geniuses creates a magic that’s never recaptured after the team splits.

Probably to acknowledge the huge contributions of his collaborators, Stan broke with tradition and ran credits for every Marvel story, letting fans know who wrote and drew them, and for good measure who lettered and colored them, as well.  Just letting us know comics were in fact penciled and inked and lettered and colored pulled back the curtain on how these things managed to appeared on the spinner racks each month as if by magic.  Now when young fans got tired of arguing over whether The Thing could beat The Hulk, they could argue over who the best artist was.  More importantly to the industry, new generations of fans could start considering a career in making these things, themselves.

I confess I gave up buying monthly comics a long time ago, but I still go back to those vintage adventures often, and I find I keep purchasing them over again in new formats every few years.  I continue to be impressed with Stan’s writing, given that he still seems generally regarded as more a PR wizard than an author.  As celebrated as his Spider-Man continues to be, it’s impressive that Stan wasn’t a one-trick pony.  He didn’t try to fit all his heroes into the Spider-Man mold, and he could write in different styles.  The Thing could be as funny as Spidey, but his humor came from a more tragic place.  It was well-nigh impossible to imagine Dr Strange ever making a joke, but he was every bit as entertaining to me for all his sober-mindedness.  And while Daredevil could sink into Parker-like depressions and even the old-school Captain America tended to mope about his dead sidekick, The Mighty Thor had a wonderful lust for life and couldn’t have been happier to be who he was.  (The arrival of cosmic threats that would have had Superman thinking, “I’ve never battled a foe so powerful…[choke!]…I may never see Lois and Jimmy again!” found Thor wading in with near-giddy enthusiasm: “At last a worthy opponent!”)  And since they were all different, things got interesting when these heroes crossed each other’s paths.

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As noted elsewhere, this is probably Stan’s most enduring contribution: the concept of a cohesive, interconnected universe that lends itself both to stories of individual heroism and sweeping sagas on a cosmic scale.  If (for me anyway) a lot of the old fun is gone from the comics, it’s found a second life on the big screen, where Stan’s storytelling approach is playing out in blockbuster movies unfolding the saga of an interconnected universe that blends spectacle and emotional stakes with a pervasive sense of humor and fun.

Anyway, every story has to end at some point, and Stan’s ran on longer than most. He had a good run of 95 years and left behind a huge legacy that involves making people happy.  A fella can’t ask for much more than that.  And if I missed out on being a Marvel kid the first time around, at least now I can feel like a kid every time I read those old tales from Stan and Jack and Steve (and John, and George, and Marie and Bill and Joe and the rest of the Bullpen).  Thanks for that, Stan, and godspeed.

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RIP Steve Ditko

One of the key architects of the “Marvel Age of Comics,” Steve Ditko passed away last week at age 90.  I was going to write that he “left us,” but for most of his career he wasn’t really among us, choosing a life of privacy over celebrity, shunning conventions and interviews and earning himself (fairly or not) a reputation as a hermit and recluse, “the JD Salinger of comics.” Unlike his collaborator Stan Lee, who’s basked in the limelight longer than most people have even been alive, Ditko never seemed to feel comfortable in the public eye, preferring to let his work speak for itself.

It certainly spoke to me, and rather against the odds.  Young Me was a DC fan, whereas Ditko’s most notable works were produced for Marvel.  Further, I was a devoted fan of Neal Adams and the “realistic” approach to comic art that took hold in the Bronze Age, whereas Ditko’s style was pretty much the opposite of all that; quirky, cartoony and what you might call “oddball.”  Nonetheless, when I saw his work on “Shade: The Changing Man,” “The Creeper” and one of the million-and-one variations on “Starman,” it was oddly compelling.

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Some time in the late 70s, Pocket Books released a series of paperbacks collecting vintage Marvel comics in vivid color, and for the first time, I had an opportunity to read the earliest issues of The Amazing Spider-Man.  I’d always liked Spidey’s costume and power set, but I was turned off by the never-ending sob story that was Peter Parker’s life by the 1970s.  Nevertheless, I took a chance on these little books and was blown away.

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The earliest Spidey stories, I learned, were inventive, energetic and delightfully quirky.  A lot of that came from Stan Lee’s distinctive flair for witty dialog, but it was Ditko’s art that signaled this was not your average superhero book.  Where other heroes flexed massive chests and biceps and stood around with their fists on their hips, Spidey was a spindly little teenager who moved in spider-like ways that made him equal parts “cool” and “icky.”  He had a degree of super-strength, but he didn’t plant his feet on the ground and deliver haymakers; he did back-flips and somersaults and stood on the ceiling to punch down at you.  And while Lee and Ditko’s Peter Parker had problems, they often had a sense of the absurd about them, making the book seem almost like a spoof of the superhero genre.  Unlike Bruce Wayne and a host of other millionaire playboy heroes, Pete had to worry about paying the rent.  Superman had a Fortress of Solitude, but Pete was relegated to a cramped room in his Aunt’s house that afforded little privacy. Batman had a cave full of costumes for every occasion, but Pete had just one and he had to sew it himself.  When he lost it, he had to borrow a copy from a costume shop, only to find it didn’t fit and had to be held together with webbing.  When Ditko left the book, Pete’s problems persisted — and multiplied — but that sense of the absurd left, replaced with soap-opera melodrama.  Pete turned movie-star handsome, pretty girls filled the book and in short order, Spidey was as muscular and hunky as any other superhero.  Everything looked glossy and beautiful, but the soul of the feature was forever altered.

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Those little Pocket Books also introduced me to the earliest adventures of what would become my favorite Marvel character, Dr. Strange.  Dealing with sorcery, demons, nightmares and journeys to dimensions unbound by earthly rules of logic or physics. these stories gave Ditko’s imagination free reign.  Doc’s expressive hand gestures and the swirling, pulsing, crackling light effects they generated created a sort of guidebook for future artists tasked with illustrating “magic.”  His trippy extra-dimensional landscapes were equally definitive; with no “ground” to stand on, characters moved about on pathways that hung in the air like unfurled scarves, meandering at times through the disembodied jaws of serpents to little “islands” that seemed to be melting away like warm ice cream, while the “skies” were filled with spheres sprouting slithering tendrils of who-knows-what.  In Ditko’s hands, landscapes seemed not only alive but predatory.

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Years later, I would buy this material again as a hardbound “Marvel Masterwork,” and then again as a “Marvel Omnibus.” And odds are the next format it’s released in, I’ll buy it again.

When he left Marvel after a dispute that will forever be shrouded in mystery (because he thought it was none of our business, and didn’t care if we were on his side), Ditko went to Charlton Comics long enough to revamp Blue Beetle with a new man behind the mask and a new costume as eye-catching as its predecessor was deadly dull.  Like Spidey’s costume and Strange’s, it remains in use to this day, fully 50 years after Ditko designed it, and despite the fickle tastes of changing fandom.

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Designing enduring costumes was something of a specialty for Ditko.  Somewhere along the way, he also re-imagined Jack Kirby’s clunky, “walking tank” version of Iron Man with the streamlined red-and-gold armor that has survived, with variations, through decades of comics and films.

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In fact it’s fair to say that no matter what “superstar” artist works on Ditko’s creations, whether it’s Spidey or Strange or the Creeper or Blue Beetle or The Question, there always remains some intrinsic “something” that draws a straight line back to the creator.  His fingerprints are unmistakable.

On the flip side, there is also the matter of Ditko’s politics, or maybe I should say his worldview.  As a devoted admirer of Ayn Rand, Ditko’s most personal works reflected his Objectivist beliefs, most notably in the form of his self-owned character “Mr A,” who saw life in black and white with no shades of gray.  In his first story, Mr A refuses to save the life of a villain about to fall to his death, noting that “to have any sympathy for a killer is an insult to their victims.”  To put it mildly, this sort of approach proved divisive in fandom, but it’s pretty clear the mind behind this material isn’t interested in seeking approval from anyone.

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Apparently, Ditko died as he’d lived: alone and in privacy; as much as two days may have passed before anyone realized he’d expired. I can’t help but feel sad about that.  But then, the only way I’d ever “known” him was through his work, stories that are still on my shelf to be pulled down from time to time and be found exactly the way I remember them. So in a way, I guess nothing’s really changed much for me.  But somehow, it was cool to know that holed up in a little apartment somewhere was a genius artist who changed pop culture with his talent, then disappeared because he felt like it; a guy who valued his own personal belief system more than applause and fame. To some folks, that would make him kind of a nut, but then guys who think like the rest of the world are never going to give us something like Spider-Man or Dr Strange.  And even if he wasn’t the type to mingle or grant interviews or show up at premieres of multi-million dollar films based on his creations, he somehow seemed paradoxically “there” all my life.  Knowing that he’s not anymore makes the world feel a little emptier.

Anyway, whatever dimension he’s moved on to, I hope he’s at peace.

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Bat-Signal Over LA

The city of Los Angeles arranged a nice tribute to Adam West yesterday, flashing the bat-signal on the side of City Hall.

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The cool part is they got the symbol right: there have been several iterations over the years, but this one matches the one on West’s costume (on the show, the shape of the projected signal was different, but why quibble?).

What makes it doubly awesome, though, is that LA City Hall doubled for the Daily Planet starting with the second season the old “Adventures of Superman” TV show, making for a cool, if probably unintentional, cross-reference.  Wish I could’ve seen it in person.

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Dr Strange on the big screen

Last month I got got to see my personal “most anticipated” Marvel film: Dr Strange.  The good doctor has always been my favorite Marvel character, and while I don’t know if I’d call this entry my favorite Marvel film, I was very pleased with it, overall.

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First up, I knew we were in good shape when Benedict Cumberbatch was cast as Strange.  Everything I’ve ever seen this guy in has been great, and he’s proven with Sherlock and The Imitation Game that he can do the “super-intelligent oddball” routine very well (if you’re going to be typecast, there are worse labels to bear than “smartest guy in the room.”)  He didn’t disappoint, and the rest of the cast was terrific, as well.  Beyond that, the special effects were fantastic, as well as the music (Michael Giacchino is probably my favorite film composer working today), so I have few complaints.

There’s been criticism from some quarters that the script is too derivative of earlier Marvel entries, which I anticipated, but actually the reverse is true.  The first thing I said to Laura when we came out of the first Iron Man film was “they stole the origin from Dr Strange,” by which I meant “super-talented but selfish, arrogant jerk redeems himself through heroic acts.”  In the comics, Tony Stark was a millionaire genius inventor, yes, but — at least in the early days — he wasn’t presented as a self-centered jackass.  Yes, he made his fortune from munitions, but in the early, Commie-bashing Marvel Age, that was presented a virtue, not a sign of moral compromise.  The movie’s presentation of Tony as a tragic figure with boundless creative potential yet locked in a tragic cycle of bad behavior, scandal and substance abuse was NOT a feature of the comics; it was a meta-textual nod to the real life story of star Robert Downey, Jr.  As much as Downey became Iron Man, with that film Iron Man became Downey.

Having proven a box-office winner, Iron Man went on to…let’s say “inspire”…other super-hero films, like “Green Lantern” and “The Green Hornet,” both featuring selfish, immature jerks who fall more or less sideways into heroism in spite of themselves, even though this formula runs entirely counter to how either character was portrayed in their decades-long histories in other media.

In the comics, it was Stephen Strange who was the self-absorbed jerk who for all his talent as a surgeon was falling far short of his potential as a human being.  Obsessed with fame and fortune, he refused to help patients who couldn’t afford his fees, or to contribute to any efforts that might advance medicine unless they were sure to increase his personal fame.  After a truly life-changing experience, he ends up at the extreme opposite end of things: dedicated to the welfare of all mankind at great personal risk to himself, and with no hope of recognition or reward. (Since he battles threats mankind must never perceive, to reveal his victories would, in effect, reverse them.)

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The movie did a pretty good job of portraying this, I guess.  It’s established from the start that he’s a brilliant surgeon, but it’s not until the last few moments before Strange’s fateful accident that we see he’s only willing to take on the “glory” jobs (later reinforced in a scene with Benjamin Bratt as a would-be patient once rejected by Strange).  Certainly he turns into a Class-A creep after the accident, driving away the woman who loves him (Rachel McAdams as Dr Christine Palmer) in his prolonged spiral into bitterness and self-pity. For me the pay-off comes late in the film, when Strange and The Ancient One converse in their astral forms and The Ancient One tells him that for all he’s learned, he’s still missed the most important lesson of all: “It’s not about you.”  This was the moment where I thought, “Yes.  This film gets it.”

I will admit, though, that the efforts to cast Strange in the “smart ass” mold were only partially successful, not really true to the character and not the best idea unless you want to invite comparisons to RDJ, who can never be beaten at his own game.  I also didn’t appreciate the couple instances of foul language in the film, especially from Strange himself.  I like to think I’m not prudish, but in a film with obvious appeal to kids, and which is on the whole far more accessible to and appropriate for young audience than any of DC’s sick efforts, these moments were jarring and unwelcome.

But let’s focus on what they got right.  One thing I always dug about Strange was that he operates in his own little corner of the Marvel Universe, with whole worlds and dimensions to explore on his own without running into other superheroes all the time or crossing over into company-wide “event” stories.  Both readers and Marvel accountants alike always loved the way Spider-Man was running into Daredevil, or the Hulk was trading punches with The Thing, because it meant in order to really enjoy your favorite book you had to know what was going on with the rest of Marvel, and every now and then if you wanted to see the end of your Avengers story, you had to buy an issue or two of The Defenders, or whatever.  I never dug that, partly because I frankly considered some Marvel characters nowhere near as good as others, or as deserving of my change, but also because I grew up in the boonies where I was lucky to find two consecutive issues of any title on the spindle rack, much less the entire Marvel line.  Due to his nature, Dr Strange could usually be counted on to star in self-contained storylines in his own little sandbox, and that’s carried over into the film, which despite a few Easter eggs and call-outs to other characters is not at all dependent on the rest of the MCU to work.

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Second, I always enjoyed Strange’s trippy sojourns to other dimensions, as first imagined by artist/creator Steve Ditko and later by such talented illustrators as Gene Colan, Frank Brunner, Marshall Rogers, Paul Smith, etc. Again, the film does a great job of this with its take on The Dark Dimension, home of the Dread Dormammu. Like Ditko’s original, it’s a topsy-turvy dimension full of weird, seemingly organic structures, including orbs connected by creepy tendrils. Laura mentioned that they looked like neurons and dendrites, which I confess never occurred to me but, if intentional, makes wonderful sense in a film about a superhero neurosurgeon.

Also great fun are scenes that fold reality in on itself like a sort of origami-on-LSD. Rooms, buildings, streets, whole vistas are twisted sideways and upside down in kaleidoscopic fashion, lending an Escher-like quality to several battle scenes.

Marvel's DOCTOR STRANGE..L to R: Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch)..Photo Credit: Film Frame ..©2016 Marvel. All Rights Reserved.
Marvel’s DOCTOR STRANGE..L to R: Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch)..Photo Credit: Film Frame ..©2016 Marvel. All Rights Reserved.

Then, there’s a third effect at the end of the film as Strange invokes a time-reversing spell that causes everything and everyone to move backwards except the principal characters, all sorcerers engaged in half-magical, half-martial arts combat.

Throughout all this, bystanders go on about their lives unaware of what’s happening under their noses, which checks off another item from my wishlist. In the comics, Dr Strange conducts his battles above, below, around and through the forms of mortals who are oblivious to these goings-on, and the stakes involved. Besides just being a cool concept in general (who’s to say what’s going on right now on a plane we can’t see?) this also gets us past the thorny issue of collateral damage in superhero movie throw-downs, an issue which has caused some controversy in several films, including casting a pall over “Man of Steel” that more or less powered the entire plot of Batman v. Superman (about which the less said, the better). Dr Strange finds a way to have its cake and eat it, too, giving audiences the big-budget effects they’ve paid for, but without inviting the “disaster porn” label.

Waaaaaay back in the 70s, I watched the original Dr Strange TV movie with high hopes that came to naught. There, we got a permed Stephen Strange with a bland costume and cheapo special effects. It took four decades, but at last we’ve got something awfully darned close to the movie I was hoping for, with the Cloak of Levitation, the Eye of Agamotto, the Sanctum Sanctorum, Dormammu, Mordo and Wong, so I’m happy. With the success of this film and before it The Guardians of the Galaxy, we can now hope for all kinds of Marvel B-listers to have their day in the sun, and that’s awesome. Especially since after all this time, the only thing DC’s had any luck with is still Batman.

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