And Now For Something Completely Different!

With all the vitriol/passion this election has elicited, I needed a break from it all. I headed to the movies and saw Doctor Strange, the fourteenth installment in an unprecedented franchise that sparks its own interesting discussion about creative expression and corporate influence in the film industry.

People grumble about Marvel movies these days. They’ve been coming off the assembly line for the past eight years. Some folks are tired of big, flashy action movies or that they want something original. A lot of the criticism/cynicism towards these movies is valid.

For one thing, the market is flooded with superhero movies, and they’re not stopping anytime soon. Just next year, Marvel is releasing three more movies, DC is trying to right their ridiculous ship with two more installments to their attempt at a cinematic universe, and Fox is releasing another X-men movie.

If that doesn’t turn you off of comic book movies, how about the fact that they all have the same basic plot? Think about it. Hero faces a major setback, discovers something new within himself, uses that to overcome some big threat and save the day, and looks good on camera the whole time with just enough humor thrown in there for good measure. It gets generally predictable after a while.

That’s where some of the lesser known characters come in and shake things up. The formula may not change that much, but their worlds do more than enough to make it interesting.

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***Spoilers Ahead***

Much like Guardians of the Galaxy surprised audiences with the objectively bizarre premise and relatively grounded plot, so too does Doctor Strange thrill as it explores an untapped aspect of Marvel’s deep, complicated universe: magic.

Pure, unadulterated magic.

Stephen Strange (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), one of the best neurosurgeons on the planet, loses function in his hands after a car accident. Fueled by arrogance and frustration, he expends all of his resources on every treatment imaginable to regain his fine motor skills. He pushes away what few people he has in his life in his manic desire to return to normal, eventually tracking down a mystical lead in Nepal. Little did he realize the literal mysticism he was falling into.

Strange is a reluctant hero simply looking to get his old life back. Once his mind is opened to the possibilities of the universe by the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), he puts his entire being towards understanding the mystic arts with the hopes of healing himself. He ends up being remarkably proficient, but throughout the movie he’s reminded of how little he knows about the world he’s stepping into, especially in his confrontations with Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), the token bad guy whose plans will destroy the world.

In the end, it’s Strange’s intelligence that saves the day, not an all-out brawl like we’ve come to expect from superheroes. There’s still plenty of action, but there’s no literal final blow that determines the outcome.

***Spoilers Over***

A lot of this story follows Marvel’s tried-and-true origin story formula. However, it’s focus on the mystic arts allows for an emphasis on knowledge via supernatual scholarship, giving a fresh take on morality tropes that command center stage in most superhero movies and comic books in general.

As the title of the film implies, the entire movie’s story is about Strange, who Cumberbatch plays with the intelligence and charm people have come to expect. His journey towards rediscovery and healing is consistently at the focus, almost to the point that the other characters’ struggle seem inconsequential. The strongest example comes from Strange’s pre-sorcerer life. I had no idea what his ex-lover’s first name was (played by Rachel McAdams) until halfway through the movie. One more minor spoiler: On one hand, it was certainly a bold choice to forgo the romantic tropes most entertainment can’t live without. On the other hand, she comes across as more of a passive observer, a fleeting reminder of Doctor Strange’s life before becoming a sorcerer. Maybe that was the point? Regardless, she paled in comparison to Strange.

There was also controversy over casting Strange’s mentor, the Ancient One, who was traditionally an older Asian man. That’s not a stereotype at all (sarcasm, of course). Instead, they picked a damn good English actress, opting for whitewashing over forcing a respected Asian actor or actress into a racial pigeonhole. There was no politically correct option here, and that’s that. The social dialogue will continue as it always does, leading to progress down the road. In the end, her character was interesting enough, and Swinton performed well.

If you like fantastic worlds and entertaining movies that aren’t super deep, this is a pretty cool movie. It’s full of trippy visuals and action scenes that strike a blend between The Matrix and Inception with the colors of deep space nebulae. Plus, the funniest gags are from an inanimate object. Honestly, it was plenty different from the other Marvel movies for my taste, not to mention a great break from the current political climate.

 

If you’ve seen Doctor Strange, let me know what your thoughts are. Share if you liked it!

 I’m always looking for new stories, no matter the medium. If you know of any great books, movies, or video games that you absolutely love, let me know in the comments and, if I haven’t checked it out, I’ll add it to the list!

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A Different Marvel Hero

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Marvel has exploded into the mainstream culture since the turn of the century. They didn’t invent the superhero, but they created iconic, instantly recognizable characters: Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Avengers, Daredevil…the list goes on.

With the Marvel Cinematic Universe being as popular as it is, Marvel has gained the leverage to bring less popular characters to life, such as Jessica Jones on Netflix, the no-nonesense, tough talking street-level hero. I had certainly never heard of her, but after the TV show came out last year I was on the hunt for the Alias Comics the show is based on. Last week at the library, I struck gold!

***Spoilers Ahead***

Alias Volume 2 follows Jessica well into her private investigation career, taking on a case in a rural town in New York. A girl has gone missing, and the mother is desperate to know what happened.

With rumors flying through the town about Jessica’s supposed abilities and the possibility that the missing girl is a mutant, Jessica struggles to sift through the misinformation and small-town gossip to find the girl. Through all of this, Jessica reminisces on her former life as a superhero.

***Spoilers Over***

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Beyond these slight spoilers, I won’t say anything else. Unlike most comic stories, Alias takes a darker approach to comics. It’s not glossy and pretty. The lines are rougher, the colors more muted. Curse words aren’t *%&$ing censored. Jessica is (mostly) dressed down as opposed to hypersexualized like most women in comics. There is a scene of her previous life that’s drawn in the more popular flashy comic-book style, which only goes to show how drastically Jessica’s life has changed.

They also manage to tackle the issues of diversity and acceptance in regards to mutants. This is a fairly common topic in superhero comics, but it was interesting to watch regular people in a small town address the issue candidly instead of politicians or superheroes discussing them. It’s a refreshing change of pace.

For fans of the TV show, the influences are readily apparent. Shades of purple give the comic a distinct tone, much like the show. When I read Jessica Jones, I hear it in the voice of the actress playing her in my head. Even though most of the comic doesn’t take place in the Big Apple, the few scenes we get show a grittier, slower city.

Honestly, it’s one of those comics you have to read to fully appreciate. I’m glad I picked it up.

 

If you’ve read Alias Volume 2: Come Home, Rebeca, let me know what your thoughts are.

I’m always looking for new stories, no matter the medium. If you know of any great books, movies, or video games that you absolutely love, let me know in the comments and, if I hadn’t read it, I’ll add it to the list!

Not every comic is made for kids (The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes)

 

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People say comics are for kids. That at some point you outgrow them. Plenty of grown adults who would disagree wholeheartedly with that statement. Blending visual and literary storytelling can lead to some of the most compelling stories out there. I’ve reviewed 2 Sisters, and I’ve read V for Vendetta before. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention The Sandman.

No, it’s not about the shape-shifter made of sand from Spider-Man 3. Published by Vertigo, which is owned by DC Comics, Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes is the first book in a series about Morpheus, a powerful entity with dark hair and even darker eyes. Stripped of his powers, Morpheus must reclaim his rightful place as the Master of Dreams before the world plunges into chaos. Sounds like a fairly typical comic plot, I know, but I refuse to give anything substantial away. Gaiman’s comic isn’t hailed as the greatest comic of all time for nothing. You’ll have to read it yourself.

What can I tell you about The Sandman, you ask? It’s bizarre in only a way that Gaiman can pull off. Granted, he only writes the stories. A team of illustrators brought all the creepy, twisted monsters to the page. Everything originated from Gaiman’s imagination, though. The ooze dripping from the walls, the riddles of Hell and all the demons under Satan’s command, even the interactions with other DC characters are all Gaiman’s ideas.

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Plenty of classic DC characters and locations are referenced, and some even make an appearance. John Constantine receives a visit from Morpheus Arkham Asylum serves as a setting over several issues. Even Batman shows up, if only in a vision.

That being said, Morpheus’ journey takes him to the fringes of the DC Universe, primarily venturing to new territories where few of the classic DC characters would stand a chance. In no way, shape, or form do you have to be a DC fan to appreciate The Sandman. Think of it as more of a bonus.

There’s not much of the classic comic-book style BANG or POW in this. Gaiman opts for a darker, more terrifying vision, with very little physical conflict. Everything is either intelligent wordplay or mysterious, supernatural powers. Morpheus’ abilities are never spelled out for us, leaving us with a sense of wonder as to what he is capable of. There is one moment near the end where my eyes widened and I couldn’t help but whisper, “Whoa!” The buildup to it makes it even more powerful.

If you aren’t a comic fan, I feel that The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes will prove to be beyond entertaining, if not downright captivating. Most importantly, it proves that comics are one of the greatest media for storytelling.

 

If you’ve read The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes, let me know what your thoughts are.

I’m always looking for new stories, no matter the medium. If you know of any great books, movies, or video games that you absolutely love, let me know in the comments and, if I hadn’t read it, I’ll add it to the list!

Kick-Ass

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This past week I found Kick-Ass at the local library, and I had to pick it up. I’ve seen the movie adaptation a few times. It’s irreverent, at times dark, and hilarious. For a comic book movie, it wasn’t too bad. It’s fairly faithful to its source material, although some of the flair and power of Mark Millar’s story faded away in the translation from comic to film.

Kick-Ass is published by Marvel Comics, but none of its iconic heroes exist in this universe. The comics do exist, however, which inspires high-school nerd Dave Lizewski to become a real-life superhero…and sucking at it over and over again, as he constantly tells himself.

Dave’s voice plays a tremendous part in the power of Kick-Ass. He’s sarcastic to the point of self-deprecation about his complete inability to talk to girls or his ‘superhero abilities’. He and his friends curse (and they actually say ‘fuck’ instead of ‘#%*@’, like most traditional comics) and even use the word ‘retard’ fairly liberally. His direct, straightforward way of thinking may put a lot of people off right away, but Dave truly sounds like a teenager. I know that may not seem like a big deal, but a lot of writers struggle to write young people authentically.

Speaking of things that may be off-putting, this story doesn’t shy away from gratuitous violence. John Romita, Jr illustrates the grit and gore of a fight with a gripping energy. Every fight is bloody. When people get shot, sinew and blood spurts out the other end of the bullet hole. A preteen girl cuts people apart with deadly precision alongside her father. This story doesn’t coddle its readers, not one bit.

I don’t want to say more about the story. It’s fairly similar to the movie, but the book is far less campy and has a couple of twists that make it surprisingly powerful. Through all of the language and violence lies a sobering story about people trying to make a difference in the American tradition of superheroes. If you’re looking for a non-traditional comic book story, I’d recommend giving this a shot.

If you’ve read 2 Sisters, let me know what your thoughts are.

I’m always looking for new stories, no matter the medium. If you know of any great books, movies, or video games that you absolutely love, let me know in the comments and, if I hadn’t read it, I’ll add it to the list!