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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Summer Adventures

Late June/early July saw the Morefield clan on a loooong car trip to Missouri for Laura’s bi-annual family reunion.  To make it more manageable, we broke it up with stops along the way, notably in St Louis to see the famous Gateway Arch:

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Later we took Jason to visit the St Louis Chess Club and Scholastic Center, which was really impressive compared to anything similar here in Richmond (which is, basically, zilch).  Lots of boards to play on downstairs and up, weekly classes and lectures, a nice chess-themed restaurant next door and just across the street is the World Chess Hall of Fame.  Jason was pretty excited to visit the very room he’d seen in the live stream of the US Championship back in April.

 

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Some friendly staffers agreed to sit down for a blitz game or two with Jason, then he got a real treat when Grandmaster and four-time US Champion Yasser Seriawan showed up to join them for a few rounds of bughouse.

While this was going on, Gracie and I took a walk around the block before settling down to a game of our own at one of the tables lining the sidewalk outside the Chess Club.

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From St Louis, it was on to Tan Tar-A Resorts at the Lake of the Ozarks, where apparently I was too busy relaxing to bother taking any pictures.  But anyway it was good catching up with family we hadn’t seen in quite a while, even if the temperatures were generally brutal.

On the way back, we broke up the ride again with a stopover in Louisville, KY and a trip to the Derby Museum.

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After all that time behind the wheel, I was ready to chill at home, but Laura and Jason had only a day to unwind before hopping a train to Philadelphia for five days at the World Open 2016. Jason managed to win 7 of 9 games for a fourth-place finish in the Under 2000 division, and pushed his rating up to 2015, placing him at “Expert” status.

At this writing, the boys and I are gearing up for a week at Boy Scout Summer Camp, so the fun’s not over yet.  I just checked the weather forecast to make sure we won’t be melting under a hot sun, and the good news is it looks like that won’t be a big concern.  The bad news is that’s because we’re supposed to get rain 6 out of 7 days we’re there, and most of that involves thunderstorms.  Yippee.

 

 

 

Hitting 50: Thunderball

tball-posterWith the latest Bond film, Spectre, in theaters, and considering I’ve been writing about 50-year-old things this year, it’s a good time to take a look at 007’s battles with SPECTRE a half-century ago in a film billed as “The Biggest Bond of All.”

Hitting US theater screens in December, 1965, Thunderball certainly would go on to be the biggest money-maker in the franchise’s history up to that point, and held that distinction for more than a decade, vindicating Eon Productions’ strategy of making each new entry bigger, flashier, louder and more expensive than the last. To paraphrase the old saying, “Nothing succeeds like excess.”

On the other hand, Thunderball was also where we first started seeing the negative effects of the “bigger is better” approach, as the film is bogged down by long, lingering shots of its opulent Bahamian locations and protracted underwater sequences, as well as a piled-on plethora of gadgets both big and small.  There’s an epic scale to the film that wasn’t found in its three predecessors, but on the human level, there’s not much to sink your teeth into; human beings — including Bond himself — tend to get dwarfed by the spectacle.

The pre-credits sequence sets the mood, as Bond assassinates an enemy agent (who’s in drag, because why not) and escapes from the upper floor of a sprawling mansion via jetpack (the Bell Rocket Belt in its most famous screen appearance).  The real-life jetpack pilot who performed the stunt insisted on the un-Bondian precaution of a safety helmet, so Connery has to don one as well for the sake of continuity, but at least Q-branch has gone the extra mile and painted it to complement Bond’s bespoke suit.

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Here we have in microcosm the whole spirit of “Classic Bond,” which is both ridiculous and awesome at the same time.  In the moment, the scene works, and in 1965 it was probably fairly astounding.  In terms of logic, however, it doesn’t really hold up: How did Bond get the jetpack up to the top floor?  If he’d flown in on it, someone would’ve heard it (it’s VERY loud).  If he’d carried it in the front (or rear) door and lugged it upstairs, one imagines that would’ve attracted some attention, as well.  Here’s where we’re really getting into the “Don’t think, just have fun” approach that will characterize the series for years to come.

Anyway, cue Tom Jones and his over-the-top rendition of the theme song (legend has it he fainted after hitting the last, extended note) and then it’s off to a secret meeting of that organization of global evil, SPECTRE.  In Dr No, it only got a name check. In From Russia With Love, we just saw a small office and a mysterious guy with a white cat with a handful of flunkies.  This time SPECTRE gets a massive Ken Adam set in all its stainless steel glory, with a large assemblage of no-goodniks plotting deviltry across the globe.  As in FRWL, bossman Ernst Stavro Blofeld browbeats a subordinate with threats of punishment before — surprise! — killing the co-worker next to him, instead.  But where in the earlier film death is dealt by a kick from a poison-toed shoe, this time the victim is rather more spectacularly electrocuted, his chair then lowered into the floor to return scorched and smoking.  And the meeting moves on to the next order of business…

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The Plot Du Jour involves the theft of atomic bombs, which SPECTRE manages by hi-jacking a British bomber and crashing it in the ocean, then removing the bombs via submersibles and a force of frog men.  The easily spotted wires holding up the model bomber don’t detract (much) from the wonderful audacity of the sequence, both on the part of SPECTRE and the movie-makers.  The various underwater sleds invented just for the film are impressive, though soon enough we’ll tire of aquatic sequences.

Moving to London, the spirit of visual one-upmanship continues as, instead of the customary one-on-one briefing in M’s office, Bond attends a much larger meeting in a massive mansion with giant paintings concealing equally huge maps and diagrams.  Here we get a rare (indeed to date, unique) glimpse of the entire Double-0 section.  Late as always, Bond takes the seventh seat from our left, suggesting we’re looking at agents 001 through 009, in order.  Interestingly for 1965 and the frankly chauvanistic Bond series, one of the Double-O’s is a woman.

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Soon enough Bond is off to the Bahamas to meet the Bond Girl and Bond Villain.  This is one area where it’s already become difficult to out-do what’s come before, but Thunderball takes a stab by giving one of them an eye patch.  In retrospect, it might’ve been more memorable if it had been the girl.

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Claudine Auger as “good girl” Domino Derval is a looker (rumor has it she and Connery had an affair during filming), but for my money the standout is Luciana Paluzzi as the evil Fiona Volpe, Bond’s equal when it comes to separating sex from sentiment.  In a nod to Pussy Galore’s “conversion” from bad girl to good girl in Goldfinger, Fiona delivers a fun speech on how a mere roll in the hay with Bond isn’t enough to change her stripes.  Fair enough.  It just means she ends up dead in the next scene.

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So then lots of other stuff happens, way too much of it underwater.  In fairness, though, the final battle between two armies of frogmen is pretty impressive, despite playing out in something close to slow motion thanks to the pesky laws of physics.

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As if to compensate, the showdown between Bond and Largo unreels in near-superspeed, with portions shot “undercranked” like a Keystone Kops comedy short.  I have no idea what they were going for here, but it always feels like the producers said, “Yikes, all those underwater scenes put us 20 minutes over our time!  You’ve got 30 seconds to wrap this thing up!”

 

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Anyway, virtue triumphs and, with the bombs retrieved and the world once more safe for democracy, Bond is allowed some relaxing downtime with the lovely Domino as they float in a raft, waiting to eventually be picked up by boat.  Just kidding; a big plane zooms overhead and jerks them into the clouds via “skyhook” extraction.  Bigger and better, remember? Subtlety is for suckers.

And so we reach the end of Thunderball, great big gaudy Christmas present plopped down in US movie theaters on December 22, 1965 amid a marketing frenzy that would serve as a blueprint for blockbuster franchises to this day.

Yes, the end, but James Bond will return. And if you think this one was over the top, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.