Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Should ‘Doctor Strange’ Give Us Hope Comic Book Movies Are Still Fun?

At some point you sort of expect it to stop. The investment, mostly, but also personal interest and curiosity. With the ambush now year-round from Marvel and DC and Fox Studios of comic book movie after comic book movie, numbness can occur without one really noticing it. That is, until you’re watching one of these films in theater and it hits you: “Haven’t I seen this before? Like twice?”

Burnout accusations differ between studios. The last installment of Fox’s X-Men franchise, Apocalypse, sighed its boredom, and its characters, once vibrant, were dull and depthless. A franchise that invented the modern comic book movie with X-Men, now produces bloated, tired films. Hugh Jackman ending his decade-plus run as Wolverine with Logan, a trailer raising earned expectations, doesn’t help the brand’s aimlessness. So what happens when a pillar in a house of cards retires?

Reports surfaced that stars Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, and Nicolaus Hoult reached the end of their three-picture contracts and remained unsigned. Those price tags won’t be cheap, which is why, according to The Hollywood Reporter, Fox is eyeing a reboot of X-Men, a franchise that’s already been rebooted. You’ll remember Fox already tried this approach with its other comic book property: the dumpster fire Fantastic Four reboot.

Those aren’t the only wheels churning in quicksand. The Channing Tatum-attached Gambit project lost director Doug Liman in August and is stuck in development. Deadpool 2 also lost director Tim Miller, who helmed the original, over creative differences with Ryan Reynolds. With the studio already promising a Deadpool 3, it needs Reynolds, who made the sarcastic, deliriously immature superhero relatable to casual audiences. Without him and Deadpool, it’s a studio possessing a bunch of rickety vehicles with no one to currently drive them.

Warner Brothers’ DC properties and its extended universe…do we really need to discuss this? The results couldn’t trend worse. Through his masterpiece Batman trilogy, Christopher Nolan engendered great support for DC. But like the Golden State Warriors, they blew that 3-1 lead.

We could nitpick the individual movies—honestly: Batman V. Superman didn’t deserve its critical bashing; Suicide Squad did—but a general distrust permeates DC’s properties. Its “filmmaker-driven” approach, while admirable, hasn’t produced anything stellar. Its hire-five-noncollaborating-screenwriters-for-one-script approach, not admirable, created the messiness of its world.

Can it reverse course? The Wonder Woman film’s trailer teases a promising WWI, old-timey epic, though it’s too heavy on the Chris Pine. It doesn’t help the movie’s director Patty Jenkins—pro: first female helming a comic book movie, possibly offering fresh perspective; con: kind of unproven, huge leap from her primarily TV background into a giant studio tentpole—has already faced allegations the film’s “a mess” from a former WB employee, forcing a public response otherwise.

Meanwhile, The Flash has lost two directors over creative differences and Bret Easton Ellis provoked rumors over Ben Affleck’s The Batman script, stating it has “serious problems” but executives remained largely apathetic over fixing them. He’s since backtracked those comments, though it hasn’t swayed the prevailing image surrounding WB’s DC movie universe—super rich kids crashing daddy’s Ferraris, knowing the foreign market’s insurance claims will pay for the mess. (Hold that thought.)

Perhaps Warner Bros. have learned from their mistakes if Aquaman, of all movies, is any indication. Casting Game of Thrones’ Jason Momoa dispels the negative wiener association of the character. Hiring horror savant James Wan, who also directed Furious 7, and allegedly promising him control, will (hopefully) ensure a competent product. His description of a “swashbuckling action adventure…in the spirit of Raiders of the Lost Ark meets Romancing the Stone” sounds what no DC movie has been yet: fun.

Which is sort of the mission statement of Marvel. Change the context if you want. America vs. Nazi period piece, sci-fi buddy squad flick with talking raccoons, Norse mythology, sure. But ruthless fun is what you’ll have.

If the above summary of Fox and Warner Bros. properties seems less than inspiring, Marvel’s future plans sounds just tiring. An onslaught of films manifested like a machine army, so massive, so powerful, so everywhere. Even the most stringent and proud critics have given up arguing against their existence. Acceptance was inevitable. What hope does an individual battling a tidal wave?

This is the point for a necessary pause. This article is not meant as complaint or enraged criticism. This is a top-down view of where we’re at with it. As frustrating and messy as things seem, most of these films are exciting. The scope of these enterprises are incredible. Plus, they make billions of dollars. Yeah with a damn b. Whatever opinions you or I hold—casual moviegoer, cinephile, enthusiast—are sort of irrelevant. Suicide Squad sits at a 26% on Rotten Tomatoes; it made close to $750 million worldwide, making over 50 percent of its gross overseas.

It just doesn’t matter, you want to think (or you’re Bill Murray). These studios don’t care, you can’t help but believe. But that’s cynical and only half of the truth. Or maybe I’m still too high from Doctor Strange.

Probably because of other (important) events in this country, Doctor Strange didn’t generate giant buzz preceding its release, but has owned the box office (close to half a billion already). This is stunning. Why? This movie shouldn’t work. It’s about a mystical, dimension-bending sorcerer who protects Earth from magical, cosmological threats. A hippie “head” characterized the comic’s early readers because they experienced similar perceptions tripping on psychedelics. Oh, and they liked the colors. This was a *tokes once* druggie comic, man. He battles demons “normal folk” can’t and will never see. To repeat: None of this should function into a mainstream movie.

Yet it’s a bona fide smash. Critics adore it to the point some label that praise overhyped. Doctor Strange doesn’t break Marvel’s hero journey origin stories as much as bend and push that concept to its limits. The film’s storytelling efficiency astounds, even if they probably chopped off too much character fat. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Steven Strange is typical Marvel superhero: punky, egotistical, in his own way, until he becomes a hero. Brainy and relentless, Cumberbatch finds some room to make Strange his own, and not “new superhero Y.”

The film also remains true to the comics’ ethos: Two to three sequences really make you wonder if you’re tripping. It may steal from Nolan’s Inception and M.C. Escher’s perspective-twisting artwork, but it wears those influences proudly. It knows you know.

What’s so encouraging, then, is that Marvel allowed Scott Derrickson, another director emerging from horror, to execute this off-color vision, albeit within their restricted palette. And goodness is it relieving to see some color. Marvel’s machine earns deserved flack for its drab, muted aesthetic for its film universe. Even in Strange, the dialogue is shot in the least imaginative way possible and a sense of place remains sorely lacking. So when Derrickson has room to detour and awe, using some new toys and effects within the Marvel universe, it’s probably more rewarding than it should be. This loosening-up possibly hints at a new structure from Marvel: Include some Easter Eggs, follow the road map to larger Marvel universe narratives, then make whatever film you want.

This was a *tokes once* druggie comic, man. He battles demons “normal folk” can’t and will never see. To repeat: None of this should function into a mainstream movie..

This largely hasn’t been the case. When Edgar Wright and Ava DuVernay both quit different Marvel movies, questions of a commitment to filmmaking surrounded the studio. During Joss Whedon’s press tour with Avengers: Age of Ultron, he labeled his experiences as “really unpleasant” and overall sounded like he had PTSD. It made Marvel resemble some totalitarian regime from their own source material.

Ryan Coogler stands out as one of the most exciting young voices in Hollywood. His signing-on to direct Black Panther follows the procedure for many of these existing IP behemoths, which is to snatch up talent while they’re hot and available. For example, Colin Trevorrow directed the indie favorite Safety Not Guaranteed and was rewarded with keys to the Spielberg kingdom, helming Jurassic World last year and he’ll direct Star Wars: Episode IX (no pressure, dude). Similar pattern occurred for Josh Trank: created the cult hit Chronicle, and earned himself Fantastic Four duties. And we all know how that went! What most don’t know: That misfire cost him the Star Wars: Episode VIII job.

Anytime a fresh talent enters these colossal franchise waters, it’s difficult not to worry they’ll lose something precious in the process: their confidence, their career, their voice. What happened to Trank is tragic. The worry: Will that happen to someone as talented and vital as Coogler? Another one: What other personal vision could he be creating instead of playing director-for-hire?

Derrickson and Doctor Strange should give us hope. He was allowed to play. The money on display in the film’s visual effects just aren’t seen outside these franchises. For movie fans, these films stand as one of the final bastions to find what a real budget can do. Derrickson didn’t waste his shot—those moments are mesmerizing. He also was given room to tell a worthwhile story of a man learning self-sacrifice and letting go his ego. An optimist might view the film as a neat character drama dressed in superhero clothes.

But maybe Doctor Strange is just fool’s gold. Maybe this is a case of director and studio sharing similar visions, as Derrickson has indicated. Maybe we’re headed to a seven-vehicle, Heaven’s Gate pileup with one of these projects eventually.

Hopefully not. This country has enough destruction right now as it is. No wonder we keep watching these superhero tales, no matter what the studios provide. We’re all just wishing someone will save us.


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