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Non-Review Review: Doctor Strange

Some Marvel films succeed by pushing against the house style to provide a clear and unique artistic sensibility, like Iron Man III and Guardians of the Galaxy, films that are undeniably informed by the stylistic sensibilities of their directors as much (if not more than) the concerns of the shared universe. Those films are never distinctive enough to compare to the work done by Tim Burton or Christopher Nolan, but they stand out from the rest of the Marvel production slate for their willingness to tell a different story in a different style.

Some Marvel films suffer from their adherence to the production company’s house style. Just about anything interesting was smothered out of Thor: The Dark World, which frequently seemed to have been written and edited by a computer algorithm designed to amplify the well-received elements of the first film and graft them on to a familiar structure. Even some of the relatively strong films on the slate are not immune, with Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War unable to follow their bolder ideas to conclusion.

It's a kind of magic...

It’s a kind of magic…

However, there are also films that succeed through their understanding of the studio’s house style and sensibilities, working firmly within the structures and boundaries of what might be termed “the Marvel Cinematic Method.” These films do not just acknowledge the expectations imposed upon these blockbusters, they play towards them. In doing so, they embrace the stability and consistency that such a tried-and-tested approach affords, affording the production team the opportunity to craft enjoyable adventures starring likable actors doing fun things.

The original Thor is perhaps the best example of this approach. Often underrated and overlooked in assessments of Marvel’s cinematic output, Thor ranks among the very best of the company’s feature film slate by virtue of its willingness to embrace the stock superhero story at the heart of the script and focus upon making its cast likeable and its plot moving. There is a solid argument to be made that Thor is the purest solo superhero movie produced in quite some time, dating back to Richard Donner’s Superman. No irony or deconstruction in sight. Just simplicity.

Hair today...

Hair today…

Doctor Strange wisely opts for a similar approach. There are very few surprises to be found in the plotting and structuring of the film. The movie unfolds almost exactly as the audience expects. All the pieces are there, and they are assembled with the reliability of the very expensive watch that the title character chooses to carry around as a memento. The arrogant lead character humbled by tragedy. The nihilistic opponent who embraces the end of all things. The romantic co-lead. The stoic supporting character immune to our hero’s charm. The fallen mentor.

Doctor Strange is not particularly interested in subverting or twisting these stock elements. Instead, it focuses on honing them to a fine point, executing them with the help of a spectacular cast and a knowing grin. More than that, the relative simplicity of the plot framework allows director Scott Derrickson to hang some really impressive choreography and set pieces. The Marvel films have been (fairly) criticised for a certain textural “sameness”, and so the visual and aural stylings of Doctor Strange come as a breath of fresh air.

Strange fascination.

Strange fascination.

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Marvel 1602 (Review)

After spending the tail end of last year looking at the tangled inter-continuity crossovers at Marvel, I thought I’d spend January looking at some of the looser “out of continuity” tales at the major companies.

Although DC invented the term “elseworlds” to describe alternative continuities featuring familiar characters in unfamiliar settings, it was really Marvel who ran with it. Even discounting the Ultimate line, Marvel has produced any number of alternative continuity worlds within the past decade or so – not stories or chapters, but worlds. Tales spin-off in so many different directions that these stories become viable alternative versions of the Marvel Universe, just with a variation upon a theme. Marvel Noir offers us the Marvel Universe as seen through a smokey glass-half-empty lens, with tales of Daredevil, X-Men and Spider-Man changed to fit in this strange new setting. Writer Neil Gaiman, however, crafted an especially interesting alternative to mainstream Marvel with 1602. It pretty much does exactly what it says on the tin, transposing the modern day Marvel Universe to 1602.

Take these broken wings...

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Brian Michael Bendis’ Avengers – New Avengers Vol. 3-4 (Hardcover) (Review/Retrospective)

This is the eighth in a series of comic book reviews that will look at the direction of Marvel’s continuity (and, in particular at their “Avengers” franchise) over the past five or so years, as they’ve been attempting to position the property at the heart of their fictional universe. With The Avengers planned for a cinematic release in 2012, I thought I’d bring myself up to speed by taking a look at Marvel’s tangled web of continuity.

And now we’re entering a continuity-heavy area. You have been warned. As if we’ve been in a continuity-free zone for the past couple of weeks, remarks you, trusted reader. This is where my little experiment to venture deep into the heart of Marvel’s comic book continuity becomes a little bit more complicated and a little bit more difficult. Whereas the first part of Bendis’ run on New Avengers was relatively stand-alone (while still drawing on decades of events and continuity), it’s at this point the series becomes irrevocably intertwined with the on-going events at the heart of the Marvel Universe. It’s been described as “a spine”, and that’s pretty much exactly what it is: it’s a support structure which ties together the big Marvel events year-on-year, a thread that joins events like Civil War and Secret Invasion and Siege to each other and the greater fictional universe.

Wolverine learns the hard way not to bring claws to a gun fight...

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