Tuesday 15 November 2022

Y'know, I guess one person can't make a difference

So this year I wound up seeing Dr Strange and the Multiverse of Madness (2022) twice in the cinema, without needing to pay. I don’t go out of my way to see Marvel movies, but I was curious about this one, because I wanted to see what a veteran director of genre movies with a distinctive visual sensibility would do with the most policed and marketed cinematic property of our generation. The second time, I was interested to see if I was wrong.

It made me sad. And even sadder the second time. 

Come with me if you want to be awesome
First, let’s look at the good bits, and why they enable the bad.

What Sam Raimi did in this movie was pull in people he had worked with before to give the thing a visual stamp that placed it in the lineage of Drag Me to Hell (2009) or Army of Darkness (1992), that EC Comics-inspired pulp tradition that he’s always riffed on, full of pulp-tinged shrieking undead, herky-jerky zombies, cursed wastelands and spooky mansions. Also, Bruce Campbell is in it.

Raimi mixes his own style with the hokey cosmic visuals of classic Dr Strange comics – Benedict Cumberbatch's brightly coloured costume and immobile hair could have been illustrated by the great Gene Colan. (Note: Gene Colan is my favourite superhero artist. Yes, I am the sort of person who has a favourite superhero illustrator. You don't know everything about me.) Elizabeth Olsen's Scarlet Witch looks like she’s flown out of a comic book. There’s a big eyeball thing. Strange at one point saves himself and his friends from a bus being thrown at them by creating a giant magic cartoon buzzsaw and sawing the bus in half, which is not really a thing you'd see in the majority of Marvel superhero comics made between roughly about 1984 and 2006, I reckon. Inevitable leader of the Young Avengers America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) makes these cosmic space portals that are delightfully star-shaped and drawn by Steve Ditko. Dr Strange’s classic comic book love interest Clea (Charlize fucking Theron) pops out of a dimensional rift in a bright purple superhero suit.

It is hands down the most visually arresting Marvel movie I’ve seen, and although it is just as laden with CGI as any of the others, it’s a film made by people who have an idea of what an imaginary object would do in a physical space. Because Raimi cut his teeth on practical effects, Raimi’s team have a better grasp of fantasy physics, and rather than everything feeling oddly weightless as they tend to in the other Marvels, with a bounding Hulk, for example, who in film after film looks like a weird bouncy bubble, things have the qualities of weight or weightlessness as appropriate for what they are. In short, this film looks delightful.

It is still nonetheless a shining example of what the House of Mouse does when they take a director with some distinctive stylistic quirks – say directors who made films like Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) or What We Do in the Shadows (2019), or films like Slither (2006) and Super (2010), or even a movie like Serenity (2005). And the Dark Lord Mickey gets those directors to paint their style – the irreverence of a James Gunn, the droll whimsy of a Taika Waititi, the leaden liberal phoniness of a Joss Whedon – in a superficial way over the same film. Over and over again.

With Great Power Comes a Great Merchandising Opportunity
What to say about a film where one of the big Oh Emm Gee shocks is a scene where a bunch of disposable alternative world versions of Marvel superheroes turn up on a platform and they're like the Illuminati right? So John Krasinski is Reed Richards, in advance of when he gets to be our Reed Richards in an upcoming Fantastic Four movie. Squee! Oh wait, that's Hayley Atwell as Captain Carter, from the Disney+ What If? show! Double squee! Oh look, it's Lashana Lynch as Maria Rambeau! Remember her from Captain Marvel? You can see that on Disney+ if you missed it in the cinema! Squee! Is that, could that be Anson Mount as Black Bolt from the Inhumans series, which you can also see on Disney+? Eh. I guess, but no one cares about that one.

But wait. Who's in that wheelchair!? HOLY SHIT IT’S PATRICK STEWART PLAYING PROFESSOR X. So. Much. Squee.

And OK, egos are at play here. Sir Patrick only agrees to be in your genre media if he gets a bit that shows he’s wiser and more compassionate and more kickass than anyone else (see also Star Trek: Picard). But apart from making sure we know that Prof X is still cool when he’s like 120 years old, why are these distracting and arguably detrimental Special Guest Appearances even fucking here?

Wait. Hold that thought. OMG. Facebook just gave me an ad for a Captain Carter action figure! 


Sorry, what was I saying? No, lost it. I’m sure I’ll think of it later.

But. OK. Look. I don‘t care about the merchandisable cameos really. What matters is that this is the same film. There is a goodie. There is a baddie with sympathetic elements (who is still a baddie). There is a moral. There is a big CGI set piece that in fairness looks slightly less like spending half an hour watching someone else playing XBox than usual. There are collect-the-set cameos from other Marvel series and movies. There are plot elements that will be enriched for you if you have a heavily used Disney+ subscription. In fact, there are plot elements that require you to have a Disney+ subscription to really understand. If you haven’t seen WandaVision (2021), you are going to have trouble fully comprehending why Wanda has turned into a villain all of a sudden.

And there is, more than anything, an underlying assumption that the same thing will send you down the road to madness, violence and villainy, will push you over the moral precipice and drive you to murder loads of disposable but eminently merchandisable alternative universe superheroes (but not the green minotaur dude, he’s from the comics and he’s all right. Phew). And what is that?

It's a wish to make substantive change.

That doesn't seem fair
So in Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), Adrian Toomes AKA the Vulture (Michael Keaton, being a Bird Man again) is a blue collar construction guy whose crew has been put out of a job by superheroes and the government agencies that watch out for them. He decides to unionise by scavenging alien/supervillain technology stuff and using it to support his buddies. This is criminal and inevitably means he does bad things. Of course he does.

In The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (2021) the Flag Smashers are concerned about poverty and inequality. Inevitably they quickly become murdering terrorists. Same goes for Killmonger (Michael B Jordan) in Black Panther (2018) who is anti-colonial and therefore has to be a murdering villain. In Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the leader of a group of badly treated white collar employees. The inevitable result of organising for their rights? A long con and a heist. Of course.

And then there’s Thanos. This needs a little expansion: so, when Jack Kirby created Darkseid as the villain of his Fourth World comics, he intended that character as a personification of fascism, a kid-friendly warning of the consequences Nazism brings. Jim Starlin’s creation Thanos was a straight, explicit lift of Darkseid. It's a generalisation given thirty years of comics, but in some versions of the print character Thanos is in love with Death. Like literally. Like he wants to date the Grim Reaper or something. He’s kinky for murder. But the filmic Thanos (Josh Brolin, mostly), present in approximately a gajillion MCU movies, is not that character. This Thanos is driven to the murder of 50% of all living creatures by a desire to make the universe better through making it possible to equitably share resources. Wanting to end scarcity? Makes you want to murder half the universe. Obviously it follows. Obviously.

But all of these are bad people!

And that’s the point. None of these motivations – equitable treatment for workers, ending poverty or colonialism or scarcity – are bad things. But they are not just imputed as the motivations of bad people, they are the reason why these otherwise sympathetic characters turn bad.

It’s not just Marvel movies, and just dumping on Marvel and Disney is a little bit specific here. It is endemic across the board in products of the Comic Book Movie-Industrial Complex. Take Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019) for instance, where the ecoterrorists (and repeat after me: there’s no such thing as an ecoterrorist) decide that kaiju-enabled genocide is on the table because they believe in human-caused climate change.

In Dr Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Wanda’s evil-magic-gathering alternative-self-possessing toyetic-cameo-massacring apple-tree-blighting rocky-monster-befriending rampage comes from wanting to alleviate the grief she feels for the loss of her children.

Wanda is a reality-altering sorceress and her children – and it’s complicated, right – were never really hers, she imagined them, which is explained fully in the later episodes of last year’s series WandaVision (which you can see on Disney+ (which is only about seven quid a month)). Wanda reasonably thinks that she can find them elsewhere in the infinite Multiverse and discovers the existence of America Chavez, a young woman with the power of multiversal travel.

She then decides, obviously, that she will need to murder America and steal her powers and gets hold of the Darkhold, which is the evilest book in creation and which drives you mad when you read it, to pursue America with demons and monsters and possessed alternative selves. Because that's what you do when you’ve got the power to change things and you decide to change things. You go mad and start murdering people. And  then you attempt to murder an alternative version of you and steal her kids.

One of the worst and stupidest avenues of media narrative critique is the fake plot hole, whereby some nerd boy will attempt to rewrite the story how he’d do it, and then call it a plot hole because a story that doesn’t satisfy his idea of how a story works has “plot holes”. And of course that is not what a plot hole is. This is just a story that is written in a different way. Inevitably I’ve already seen online a “plot hole” critique of Multiverse of Madness that goes: why didn’t Wanda help America hone her powers and find a version of her kids that didn’t have a mum? Because in an infinite Multiverse that must be a thing, right?

And of course that isn’t really a plot hole. It's because they simply don’t want to tell that story. Because that would be a story where wanting to make substantive change works. Where someone could change their lot in life through action and co-operation and this would be a net good. No: the basic underlying message of the MCU is: “Yes, we get that you might want to make things better, but trying to change your lot or change the structures that confine you is wrong-headed and always turns to evil ends.”

And yes, it might simply be that there is a school of screenwriting that assumes that a sympathetic villain is just more interesting. There is. It's one of those saws that basic screenwriters reel out along with “save the cat”. Sure, it's a thing. But that is not the only thing at stake here. And the point is, how these villains are sympathetic.

I specifically used the term “wrong-headed” there because it’s a liberal term, it is a Blairite term, it is a Democrat term, it is the term of the sort of person who thinks that a phrase like “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” as Obama used it is somehow not a reassuring lie to keep us in our places. It is the term of someone who trusts our legal bodies and structures of government not to embark on the systematic stripping of human rights from anyone who is not a straight white man during the administration of a leadership that professes to be about protecting those rights and then watches helplessly while those rights are stripped away. And then reads out an emotional poem on YouTube and sends out a circular asking for money or something.

And puts up a Pride flag. 

Which reminds me. America was brought up by two Mums! She’s got LGBTQ+ badges all over her denim jacket! She is so queer-coded it hurts. She is a walking gaydar magnet. And it doesn’t mean anything to her.

This is not representation. Because her mums are swiftly killed off (or as good as killed off) in her Tragic But Only As Long As It Needs To Be Backstory. Because they are just badges, and in every other way it’s just the same story as everyone else’s with some pinkwashing and a slide into Kill Your Gays. It is tokenism. It is a sop to distract us from the underlying point that the film wants us to understand, and which even has Strange’s boss/friend/sidekick Wong (Benedict Wong) say at the end: you don’t get to make a difference. Suck it in and be happy with it.

And by the way, we have some action figures to sell you.