Recently Rated Movies #57: To Be Counted As A Marvel, Doesn't Something Need To Be Marvelous?

Somewhere in my giant pile of lost tapes is the original 1978 made-for-television version of Dr. Strange. I have not watched it in many a moon, but as I am recently reunited with it, I shall take it for another spin here in a matter of weeks (or days, if I locate it any time soon). Also back in my possession are a pile of Dr. Strange comic books, both in his '70s run as a solo book and numerous issues of Strange Tales from the '60s, which I paid about $3 apiece for a flea market in the 1980s. To say that I have always been a great collector of the Sorcerer Supreme would be an overstatement, as I never really found the energy to complete any runs or keep up with later incarnations beyond buying the first issue or so. But I have always admired the character and have spent considerable time pondering the reasons why he wasn't one of the top characters in the Marvel stable, or at least far more popular than he seemed to be.

Or has this changed? As you may be aware, Marvel Studios has charged headlong into a full slate of varied projects, and part of this charge includes a series of DVDs (produced with Lions Gate) which has reached the shelves over the past couple years featuring Marvel characters not otherwise tied up in license with other studios, i.e. Spider-Man and the X-Men. The first couple of films featured a too cluttered amalgamation of the mighty Avengers, and since this bickering group -- with their constant breakups and announcements of new lineups -- have always served as one of my nearest and dearest, I was rather disappointed in the first DVD. Some decent action, but the convergence of limited animation and CGI sequences really didn't match up well for me, while the dramatic scenes served to just about grind the confused effort to a halt. When 75 minutes of a film featuring the no-doubt pulse-pounding likes of the Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America and Thor seems instead something akin to a trio of nap-ready hours, then you know there are severe problems in the story department. Even though the sequel features the Black Panther in a prominent role, I have been reluctant to check it out for fear of being trapped within a jungle of ennui yet again.

Then, thankfully, Marvel skipped the clutter of the Avengers effort and started cranking out solo adventures for
their characters. Slapping up a quickie adventure of the Invincible Iron Man seems a good bet, especially as an introduction for those unfamiliar to the character, since there is a lot of money at stake with the big-screen feature version next year with what appears right now to be a perfectly cast Robert Downey, Jr. (Skipping the passing of most of the profits onto a major studio, Marvel is producing this film itself, as it will the upcoming Ed Norton Hulk flick, though both will be distributed by Paramount.) The problem with this animated version comes in reconfiguring Tony Stark's origins yet again to fit a possible new series. While I grew up with the Vietnam-era Stark, he has had his tale time-shifted before to the Gulf War, and now here, in The Invincible Iron Man, his formation into a hero occurs in China while in battle against the minions of his eventual arch-nemesis, the Mandarin. While I am inured to the ridiculousness that has overtaken the comics world in recent years when trying to adapt existing properties to a third, fourth and sometimes fifth generation of readers, my roots with Iron Man go back to his beginnings, getting to read my cousin's collection of Tales of Suspense and The Avengers as a child. And I ask that you forgive my reticence when alternate versions of an already established mental history pop into my view and start muddying the waters. Besides, what I am actually calling into question is Marvel's decision to produce an Iron Man origin in one film, when the very next year, the feature film version will switch the locale of his emergence once more to Afghanistan.

What is important for the moment, though, is this DVD. Let's get the good out of the way: the battle sequences here are outstanding, and while I don't think the computer-animated bits jibe any better here than in the Avengers disc, they didn't bother me as much. The pleasant surprise in the series of films thus far is the PG-13 rating. I do not pay attention to ratings at all, as they play no purpose in my cinematic travels. But I was downright shocked when I saw Stark cavorting "el buffo" in a hot tub with a bimbo (though there is no nudity, there is clever concealment via angles and props of the "offending" parts, i.e. nipples); what's more, she is clearly just a one-night stand, and not even the slightest effort is made to explain her presence as anything different than implied. (This was the moment when I reached for the ratings description on the Netflix envelope.) It's nice that Marvel is not creating these directly for kids, nor making allowances to clean these up for our now too-sensitive youth. (See tomorrow's post for more commentary on this social dilemma.) It has long been known that the audience for comics is far older than originally presumed.

Now, if only they could produce a plot more accustomed to adults, rather than simply continuing the Yellow Peril affliction that has plagued comics (Yellow Claw; the Mandarin; Fu Manchu) and pulp fiction (Fu Manchu again) since they started, and western culture for even longer. To be sure, Marvel counterbalances this by providing an Asian heroine, Li Mei, even if she actually exists only as a vessel in which the Mandarin's spirit may return to haunt the earth yet again. The payoff of all this is so highly transparent it could be a spirit itself, and the sequences involving the Elementals searching for the rings which will eventually help the Mandarin return are monotonous after a while, apart from seeming jimmied in from another movie. Li Mei only seems to be there to portray the Noble Sacrifice, giving up her life for the White Man. And once again, even with my past Iron Man experience, I found myself not caring at all about the dramatics nor about any characters outside of Tony Stark, including Jim Rhodes and Pepper Potts, characters that I usually enjoy having around. Again, a disappointment, but I should be used to such disappointments when speaking of the history of Marvel's animated output. Admittedly, these new DVDs are better than anything that has preceded them, but they are still lacking in decent plotting and too jammed full to allow what good ideas are in there to breathe. One final quibble: you go all the way to China, and have Iron Man battle dragons, but no Fin Fang Foom? For shame...

So, all the more surprising to find how much I genuinely enjoyed the fourth movie in the series, Doctor Strange. In fact, I believe I have found the first in the series that I will probably purchase somewhere down the line. Sure, his costume is different than I am used to, but that cloak always did look a little silly. If Iron Man can constantly update the look of his armor, why can't a magician hire a fashion consultant? And when I first heard about this
DVD's imminent release, I felt "Really?" pop into my brain. I expected a Hulk or Thor animated film first -- you know, one of the characters that I would presume would be far more popular than Doctor Strange. Then I found out that there is a proposed Strange film set to come out in 2009, and it all started to make sense. And, of course, on a personal level, I would actually much rather see a film about Doctor Strange than those other characters anyway.

Yet again feeling the need to start things off with an origin (and wildly divergent from the initial comics version, while still retaining the most important elements of Strange's nature and background), the film presents us with vast numbers of apprentices to the Sorcerer Supreme, otherwise known as The Ancient One of Strange lore. Battling creatures brought to the physical world by the dread Dormammu (Strange's traditional arch-nemesis), the feel is almost initially like a metaphysical version of the X-Men, with the powers of each apprentice manifesting themselves through different weaponry or media. This group
includes Mordo, and even if you don't have any knowledge of Dr. Strange, you still just know Mordo is going to turn out to be a dickhead, let alone a turncoat.

Luckily, some asshole surgeon named Stephen Strange turns up and gets his tale of obsessive woe underway, and somehow, even with some weak voice acting in a couple of key roles, the whole affair actually becomes fairly intriguing and builds smoothly towards its inevitable superheroic finish. I mean, come on, it's an origin story. Is there any doubt what he will be by film's end? An entry like this is all about hitting the key points, but doing so in a far more involving way than the Iron Man film did. Even though its starting to seem like every superhero heads off to the Orient for some sort of spiritual awakening, Strange really did do this in the original comic (its one of the details they kept), so its pleasant to see these training parts in Nepal are so well-turned. (I like that they keep rebuilding the wall on him.) And the overall look of the animation throughout its length is far more cohesive than the previous Marvel efforts.

I was also pleased to see the more adult reflection of that PG-13 rating again, since there is much death (some of it slightly gruesome, with characters being reduced to mere skeletons in seconds) at play here. No niceties abound in this mystical world, with stakes this large, except where the good Doctor is concerned. Because the story is not just about a man learning to become a hero and world protector; it's about a man learning to heal his mind enough to become a decent human being again.

Let's see the Punisher try that without killing half a city block in the process...

Doctor Strange
Director: Frank Paur // Animated, 2007
Cinema 4 Rating: 6

The Invincible Iron Man
Director: Frank Paur // Animated, 2007
Cinema 4 Rating: 5


I haven't checked out any of the Marvel DVDs, despite my ongoing comic book geekdom. I've traditionally not been a Marvel fan, which may have something to do with it.

Have you kept up with any of these series' lately? The latest Dr. Strange mini, by Brian K. Vaughan, was quite excellent. Iron Man, the initial 6 issues of the new series, were incredible, but then it went a bit downhill. Disappointing, really, since Daniel Knauf, whose writing I enjoyed in Carnivale, is in charge of it these days.

Iron Man & Strange are rarities, in that they actually came about their 'powers' through study, work, and intelligence. Not radioactivity or some other cosmic accident. I like that.
B-Train said…
I love Doc Strange, he is one of the charators I got into as a child goin thru my grandma's collection of books. Him, Swamp Thing, Conan,Sgt. Rock and Doc Savage... Doc Savage now there is someone who never got a decent movie
Anonymous said…
Fear the yellow peril, because we're gonna take the world!


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