Doctor Strange; or, Why I Won’t Recommend My New Favorite Movie

#Doctor #Strange #Fan #Art. (Doctor Strange Movie Poster) By: Marvel. ÅWESOMENESS!!!™ ÅÅÅ+: Long story short, I saw Doctor Strange in theaters twice and am now slightly obsessed.

What else to say? This film is by far the most skillful rehash of the Marvel storyline, with a solid story and some more thoughtful themes than we’ve seen previously. It has beautiful cinematography and CGI, masterful storytelling, and an epic soundtrack by Michael Giacchino. Oh, and it’s now one of the five movies that have ever made me cry. I loved almost everything about it.

And yet I won’t recommend it? No, sir- that is, not to just anyone. And therein lies a tale.

Anywho, I’ve been wondering how to format this post, and at last I decided that it will be what I call a “rant,” in which I simultaneously review a movie and rave about all the little details I like, all the while striving to avoid spoilers- but beware of the comments section, because I can make no promises there!

Like all good reviews, rants begin with an attempt at a plot summary, in case you, like me, have never read any comic books or don’t know anything about this new addition to the Marvel canon.

Stephen Strange, a genius with a photographic memory, is the finest neurosurgeon around, and he knows it. All of which makes it humiliating when a nasty accident destroys the nerves in the arrogant physician’s hands and threatens his career. After blowing his fortune on world-famous doctors who try and fail to help him, Strange uses the last of his money to fly to Kathmandu in the hopes that the stories of miraculous healing at Kamar Taj might somehow come true for him.

There Strange meets the Ancient One and her wizarding folk, who are not what everyone claimed they were- but not as they seem, either. It’s the beginning of Strange’s journey into a whole new world of infinite dimensions. And of course, learning of an infinite dimension, as the Ancient One says, means learning of infinite dangers.

So… the pros.

chiwetel ejioforLet’s start with the obvious- can we just appreciate the characters? There’s Strange,
arrogant and brilliant like Tony Stark, but more likeable and dorky. Then there’s the Ancient One, an awesome fighter and slightly sassy take on the mentor archetype. Baron Mordo, a mentor/sidekick of sorts, is Inspector Javert- end of story. Kaecilius, the main baddie, is powerful enough to challenge the heroes, and his skewed worldview almost makes enough sense to defeat Strange’s will to fight. And then there’s Christine Palmer, the love interest and possibly the only normal person in the whole film. I call her Molly Hooper. 

None of the characters is a true hero- not at the beginning, at least- but are what we call “grey characters,” with their own sometimes-questionable goals. Like Strange, each has a unique perspective on the world, and we follow each arc to a logical end (for the first movie in a trilogy, of course).

And oh yes, they all bring their own humor on the adventure. If there’s one thing Marvel can do right, it’s humor.

As for the story itself… I know a lot of bloggers have talked about this already, but Doctor Strange doesn’t shy away from questions about the nature of the universe. (One reviewer calls it “the most religious superhero movie ever.“) Are we matter and nothing more? Is there really no ghost in the machine? Strange thinks so- until the Ancient One literally knocks his ghost (called his astral form) out of him and through a series of colorful spiritual worlds. Strange, like us, is forced to face the very real spiritual realm and find his place in a world that’s bigger than himself.

My favorite scene of the film takes place in a hospital room, where Christine stitches up Strange after an encounter with Kaecilius. One of the minions attacks- in his astral form- and Strange has to fight the guy off. Lights flash and equipment rattles as the two ghostlike figures whirl through the air. Maybe it’s just a cool little addition to an action movie, but it’s more likely supposed to be an allegorical look at the spiritual war in our own world.

And then we have that fantastic mingling of theme and plot that writers always love. At the end of the film, as Dormammu and his Dark Dimension threaten to consume the entire world, Strange makes a bold choice to keep the earth safe. I won’t go into spoilers, but Strange’s plan for counterattack is simultaneously a clever plot twist and a picture of sacrificing everything for a cause that’s bigger than oneself. Besides, it’s a vivid illustration of the gospel in that Strange gives up what matters most to him and faces pain and death in an effort to save the world from the darkness. For me personally, this film gave the opportunity to look at the greatest story ever told from a new angle I’d never seen before.

Did I mention that we have a new Marvel villain?

Besides all this, it’s worth mentioning that the directors take a few shots at some false worldviews. Kaecilius and his little friends, devout followers of something like Buddhism with Gnostic tendencies, spend the film striving for eternal life and enlightenment as part of the One. And- this shouldn’t be a spoiler– it’s this desire that ultimately leads to their defeat. The film also tackles morality: the line between good and evil isn’t the Jedi-like dualism of films like Star Wars, but rather a distinction between right and wrong based on common sense and the ultimate purpose. Magic spells have consequences. Mordo may be an inflexible bringer of justice, but he’s right when he says the bill always comes due.

So why not watch it?

The simple fact is that this movie has the same potential pitfalls as a Harry Potter- if HP had been made by a Christian director of horror films- which is to say, it’s really hard to tell where the line is between Christian and anti-Christian elements. We have on one hand Christian undertones and obvious biblical parallels, and on the other, dark rituals and other confusing territory.

Another gif in case you wanted severe nausea.

Kamar Taj is a mystical school of sorcery, and it wears that badge more prominently than Hogwarts would ever dream of doing. Strange studies occult books like “The Key of Solomon”  and uses a relic called the Eye of Agamotto to manipulate time. Characters meditate and chant, and Kaecilius uses dark spells to open a portal to the Dark Dimension (a Satanic realm) in a Catholic church. I could go on, but you get the idea: Doctor Strange could easily lead a naive person, especially a Christian one, into some dark territory. (Watch this vodcast for more discussion on the occult elements.)

So… who should watch Doctor Strange?

Here’s the way I look at it- if you’re pretty good at discerning truth from lies in twisty stories like Harry Potter or Batman Begins, go right ahead and enjoy what may be the finest Marvel movie ever made. Invite a friend and chat about it- two minds are better than one when it comes to philosophy. But if that isn’t you, better opt for the second best Marvel film, Captain America (being sure to skip that terrible ending, of course).

[GIF] DOCTOR STRANGE (2016) ~ Benedict Cumberbatch. Trailer 2.

Because capes.

Did you go see Doctor Strange? If so, what’d you think? If not, do you think you’ll give it a try?

Dear Fellow Writers: It’s Not for Adults, Either

notforadults

Dear fellow writers,

Let me begin with a story. It’s what I do best, after all.

It is a sunny afternoon. You and I are walking down a country lane next to a brook of water. We have talked about everything from philosophy to chocolate to characterization, and now we are on the subject of the lovely summer weather.

“Such a beautiful day,” I comment.

“Yes,” you answer with a smile. “I just love walking underneath the clear blue skies.”

Without warning I slap your face. Hard. On purpose.

With pain shooting through your cheeks and anger rising in your stomach, you turn and stare at me. “Why on earth would you hit me?” you demand.

“Because it makes this story seem more realistic.” I shrug, grin, then skip off down the lane.

Now, friends, what do you think?

Rather, do you even have to think about it? I just can’t do a thing like that. Hitting you for no reason was gratuitous, hurtful, and just plain cruel. I would never really do a thing like that, and neither would you. Slapping people like that makes me look like a selfish child who doesn’t know anything.

Now, then. If you wouldn’t slap a person across the face for the sake of realism, why on earth would you slap them with a curse word, a mindlessly violent act, or a pornographic scene in a book?

I talked about this some time ago in my article “The Wince Factor” at Kingdom Pen. A Wince Factor is a sudden, unexpected slap that authors put into their stories for various purposes. As I said then, some of these Wince Factors have a legitimate place in the story- like, say, slapping Bruce Wayne for trying to get illegal revenge on a crook. Others, though, have absolutely no place in a story- like having a Tyrannosaurus Rex swear in a children’s movie for no apparent reason, or like putting “adult” scenes in Titanic.

So what’s the difference? Here’s a better question- do you want your future children doing the same things you make your characters do?

Let me say it this way: gratuitously putting so-called “adult content” in books is abusive to the reader and only proves the author to be a lazy amateur.

If I have to use swear words, sex scenes, or sword-killings to make my story seem real and “juicy,” then I am either lazy or an amateur, or perhaps both. Whatever the situation, at some point I must grow up and start putting some educated effort into my occupation. 

Mine is not an unqualified opinion. I’m a published author myself, and I’m learning to make indie films and podcasts. As far as audiences are concerned, I’m eighteen years old and a second-year college student who watches lots of kids’ movies with my siblings. I also read the books that were intended for people well into their thirties or forties. All in all, I’m the intended audience for most television shows and books. Therefore, I am more than qualified to make a statement about all the stuff writers are putting into books and movies.

But is the media really playing to the tastes of the 32% or more of consumers who share my values? I don’t use swear words, and I get uncomfortable every time someone uses a swear word around my younger siblings. I don’t like watching excessively violent character deaths. I have a zero-tolerance policy for gratuitous sexual content in media.

Now I know some of you are about to go to the comments section and start flaming me for being a Christian bigot. I don’t blame you; Western culture in general has the uncivilized notion that to be an adult is to drink alcohol, watch pornographic movies, and use swear words, and their only defense against opposing viewpoints is to slap them with a label and call it a draw.

But it seems that a person who cannot discern the best action in these cases is simply an oversized version of the child who throws a tantrum at the grocery store when his mother doesn’t buy him all the candy in the store, and who sticks out his tongue when told that he is misbehaving. Who is the bigot- the mother, or the child? Writers ought to know that there is a distinction: growing older is getting the ability to purchase all the candy, but being an adult is discerning whether it’s good for your waistline and your wallet. Likewise, being an adult writer is choosing to have a positive impact on the worldview and behavior of your audience.

Think of it this way- if the good guys like something, the readers love it. If the bad guys are motivated by something, the readers loathe it. The author’s opinion becomes the reader’s. Whether or not mass murderers are inspired by films, you can see evidence of a storyteller’s power even in the grocery store: Elsa and Anna on party napkins, or Captain America’s shield on a cereal box. Think about that- Marvel influences your choice of breakfast foods. We writers have great power, and with great power comes great responsibility.

Media rules the world, so don’t be a tyrant.

Here’s a big news flash- you don’t have to describe every detail in order for readers to know that a thing happened. Andrew Klavan, author of If We Survive, knew that it was crucial for one of his protagonists to use a swear word as part of her character arc, but he was still writing for Christian teenagers who don’t appreciate those sorts of things. So what did the ingenious Klavan do? He made the swearing scene happen off-screen. The character’s arc was completely developed and the story still packed quite as much of a punch, but Klavan didn’t have to verbally abuse his readers to achieve that effect.

Again, in the 1950s, if someone was beheaded in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness or if the Duke of Gloucester had a you-know-what scene with Lady Anne, Mark Robson and Laurence Olivier just made those things happen off-screen. And no one ever criticized Olivier for being a bad storyteller. So are our stories in the 2010s more developed, or just more debauched?

No more excuses. At this point, we all have two options. One, we can take out the bad stuff and write purpose-filled books, proving that we know right from wrong and care about helping people to understand the world we live in. Or two, we can leave the bad stuff in and prove that we don’t really care about anything but the money.

It’s your choice.

Sincerely,
Hannah A. Krynicki

Am I right or wrong? What do you think about gratuitous content in media? 

What Marvel Taught Me About Writing, Part One

I haven’t made any secret of the fact that, basically, I don’t like Marvel movies.

Don’t get me wrong. Superhero stories are a wonderful subgenre, just like every other kind of story (except perhaps vampire romances… but that’s a post for another time). If well-done, a superhero movie can be pretty darn awesome. Take Batman Begins, for example; I loved that film. It completely changed my perspective on superhero movies.

The thing is, most Marvel movies aren’t well-done. Be honest with yourself; would Shakespeare look at The Avengers and applaud? No. No, he wouldn’t, and you know it. Fortunately, I think I have figured out the reasons (yes, plural “reasons”) why this particular series is a flop. And, cynical optimist that I am, I have turned it into a list of lessons to be learned for writers that I will share over the next two weeks. You’re welcome.

And yes, I will absolutely spoil the movies for you. Sorry I’m not sorry.

You can recycle an old plot, but you should at least tell a new story.
Still of Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans in The Avengers (2012)

“Tony, do you ever feel like you’re suffering from severe deja vu?” (image credit)

Paul Assay comments in his review of Thor: The Dark World, “Marvel movies are as reliable as a six-pack of Coke: Every can tastes the same.” I couldn’t have said it better than that. Yes, I understand that we have a limited number of plots, but we have unlimited stories to tell, countless lessons to teach. You’d think that in eight years, Marvel would have come up with a new message to teach its huge fan-base.

Yet pick any Marvel movie at random and see how well it fits my description: Hero has problems, hero encounters bad guy, hero’s friend “dies” (but not really), and hero sacrifices himself and overcomes insurmountable obstacles to defeat bad guy. Moral of the story: a hero is someone who does good heroic things and beats bad guys.

How did I do?

Look, even when you are rewriting an old plot, if you want to write to be distinguished from all the other twaddle out there, you need to tell a new story. Have a character learn something new about heroism or strength, and your story will be all the better for it.

If nothing else, take the time to write a solid story and characters.

“That’s my secret, Loki. I’m always angsty.” (image credit)

If you’ve read this blog for some time, you know something about my conflicted feelings for the movie Thor. The storytelling drives me crazy. Leaving all the terrible acting and dialogue aside, the story just didn’t work, and for that we can blame the characterization.

Let’s start with Thor. All he ever does is whine, smile obnoxiously, or walk around without a shirt on, and I for one do not find any of those things attractive. Even within the context of the story he is a vain, greedy, cruel boy. And we are supposed to care?

Jane. She was supposed to be the Strong Female Character who changes Thor’s character for the better. How, by getting him a cup of coffee and then watching the stars with him? As cute as that sounds, it won’t teach the arrogant Jotun-slayer about the value of humility. 

Ah, but it doesn’t stop there. As for Odin… seriously, what kind of person tells their son that he’s a failure- while the son is hanging off a bridge?? Then he throws a big party after he thinks Loki is dead.

What about Loki, though? Most people agree that Loki would have made a better protagonist than Thor. I agree. Yet Loki has his own character problems. Despite being promoted on several posters as “the god of mischief,” he doesn’t really work much mischief in this movie. Thor does that very well on his own. (I tell you, their roles should have been reversed! Confounded comic books.) As popular as Loki is with fans, he doesn’t even live up to his label.

The most disappointing thing is that Thor did have a chance to be a genuinely good movie with poignant lessons about kingship, sacrificial love, and family values, but the lack of characterization ruined that chance. Don’t let the same thing happen to you. Get to know your characters.

Ah, there’s more… but that will have to wait another week. Check back next week for Part Two!

What do you think so far? Am I right, or do you disagree with me on any of these problems?

She-Elves, Princesses, and Assassins: Let’s Bust Some Archetypes

Confession time.

We writers, especially young writers like myself, pride ourselves on breaking stereotypes and making the world of literature a better place. We purge our stories of anything that even hints of cliche and strive to write earth-shattering plot twists. We find the cleverest ways to work in a “soapbox theme” without coming across as preachy. Occasionally, we have even gone “indie” and published on our own. We don’t need no stinking Big Four or stock characters to make it.

But it’s time to admit the truth. In the midst of our fight against author- and story-stereotypes, we have allowed Hollywood to take over in other areas. We have allowed them to decide on what exactly is a Strong Female Character.

So, today, we’re going to sit down and do what we writers do best. We are going to rethink the standard that Hollywood has given us, and maybe we will even break a few archetypes. I’ve chosen three which pop up everywhere in movies and books these days- and a bonus, they haven’t already been analyzed on at least fifty different blogs. The bad news is that I won’t get to pick apart Katniss or Bella. The good news? You don’t have to read yet another post about Katniss or Bella.

Hear me now: All this is not to say that the characters I will talk about are bad characters. Some of them did a good enough job in their respective stories. But, by definition, these ladies are not strong. We hold male characters to certain standards of “strongness,” and we should do the same for female characters, right? Of course right. So here we go.

The Soapbox Suffragette: Tauriel of the Hobbit trilogy is the captain of the entire elven guard, a favorite of the king, and everyone’s love interest. She can do no wrong. Moreover, she suddenly finds it feasible to rush off after her boyfriend Kili a pack of orcs, dragging Legolas and the rest of the kingdom to war like a redheaded Joan d’Arc. All this is in direct defiance of royal orders- but that’s perfectly okay, right? She is an empowered heroine who is doing the right thing!

Now, the first problem we notice is that Legolas, for instance, could have done every one of these things (save falling in love with Kili), but instead he had to take on the role of Thranduil’s indoctrinated minion. He was villainized by her very presence in the movie. And one does not simply villainize Legolas.

So if Legolas could easily have filled her role, why bring Tauriel into the story in the first place? According to TheOneRing.net, writer Philippa Boyens “created her… to bring that energy into the film, that feminine energy.” Feminine energy? Tauriel is in the movie as a beacon of girl power- but in a fantasy tale about the dangers of greed and pride? That has nothing to do with the story! Tauriel is ineffective because she distracts Kili, Legolas, and the whole audience from the real story. Now I think we have a name for that sort of character… oh, right. The damsel in distress. Not only is Tauriel irrelevant, but she is a self-defeating character.

The Immature Ideal: Rapunzel from Tangled is gullible, naive, positively grubby, ditzy, and a bit- well, um- vague. And she has a million different hobbies, but she feels that every one of them is pointless; when will her real life begin? Everybody loves character like that. Don’t they?

What Disney may or may not have realized is that Rapunzel- and every other young protagonist they write- becomes a role model for millions of kids worldwide. Little girls and big ones dress up like Aurora, sing “Let It Go,” and pretend that they have magic hair that glows when they sing. This is not necessarily a bad effect; for at least fifty years, Disney produced mature models like Snow White and Cinderella. But then came the age of Ariel, Jasmine, and Rapunzel.

As cutesy and relatable as Rapunzel is, everything that Mother Gothel says is true of her: she is immature and naive, all too ready to disobey her mother’s commands in favor of getting what she wants. Watching this movie and others, little girls are bombarded with the message that they must follow their heart’s desires. That’s right, the heart that tells them to disobey authority and run away from home with a man of poor reputation. Just like Lydia Bennet. Is that the sort of role model parents want for their children?

I think not.

The Ambiguous Assassin: Natasha Romanoff, AKA Black Widow, is the kick-butt fighter from pretty much every Marvel movie ever made. She has the mental capacity of Alan Turing, the weaponry of the ancient Chinese, and the strength of Arnold Schwarzenegger. There is no beating her. End of story. When I look at any character like Natasha, I try to figure out her place in the metanarrative, if you will. Yet this is well-nigh impossible to do.

Natasha isn’t a role model/Mentor. None of her stunts, however awesome they look with CGI, makes her a role model, even in the grayish context of the Marvel universe. If anything, she takes on the role of student rather than teacher. Yet she isn’t the Young Protagonist, either, for she undergoes little, if any, character transformation. She is not a suffragette like Tauriel. She is not here to preach girl power or fight chauvinism; she is here to fight Bad Guys.

As a primary or even secondary character, Natasha is ambiguous. She has no inalienable role in the movie- unless that is to look good, knock down bad guys, and balance out an otherwise all-male cast. But, of course, they could have gotten Thor to do all three of those things. (I’m sorry, I’m sorry…) So where does Natasha fit? Well, we have a seat for characters like her, and it isn’t on the stage of Strong Female Characters. It’s on the bleachers with the tertiary characters and the Foils.

Remember- I’m not saying that Tauriel, Rapunzel, and Natasha have no use in a story. I’m saying that they are mislabelled as strong characters and thus are given too much credit for the job that they do. Put them in different roles and they are just fine. Otherwise, I’d call these archetypes busted.

What do you think? Should we bust these archetypes, or did I overlook something important?

Slow-Mo Is Dangerous

A few months ago, I sat down with the clan to watch a new family movie. Very clean, decently executed, and for the most part well-acted- but I didn’t enjoy it. It felt slow and stuffy for some reason, almost as if I was watching a series of gifs, and I wondered why. I only realized the reason when, in our traditional discussion that finishes off any family movie night, my brother commented, “The entire thing was in slow-mo!”

I (internally) snapped my fingers. That’s it! The whole movie was chock-full of slow motion scenes; probably 1/5 at least of all the scenes had some amount of slow motion. We all chuckled, but everyone agreed. The cinematography had pulled the audience out of a perfectly good story and thus killed the entire project.

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The point I want to make is this: don’t kill your story with slow-mo. How is that possible? Writers don’t tell stories using hi-def cameras, so how can we do slow motion scenes at all?

I’ll show you how with an excerpt from one of my new favorite books, The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak (page 368, if you care to read the rest of the story):

They rode toward the corner, where the day’s importance reached them. Liesel knew. It was that feeling again, of being watched. A voice pedaled inside her. Two laps.

Look at the window. Look at the window.

She was compelled.

Like an itch that demands a fingernail, she felt an intense desire to stop.

Those paragraphs breaks are not my own additions. They are Zusak’s. He means to convey tension, and he does it splendidly. Read it again- you can feel the strain in the bleak air, the terror of the moment. Visualizing this in your head, you can’t avoid imagining this scene in slow motion. And that’s what I mean.

Isn’t this wonderful, you say? We have the ability to tell stories the way directors do, with colorful mental images. Our jobs just got ten times better.

Seriously. It gets stranger the longer you watch it.

And ten times harder. You see, going back to the movie I mentioned at the beginning, it’s quite possible that we can overdo the dramatic side. Don’t get me wrong; a little drama, while nothing short of annoying in real life, can enliven a story and deliver just enough impact to make the reader care. On the other hand, too much drama will make your story feel like that movie: a collection of slow and stuffy gifs. It’s like the overuse of participle phrases. It’s not a bad thing to use, but too much is simply too much.

What is the simplest way to avoid this problem? I would suggest that we follow a simple two-step plan:

  1. Read what we have written.
  2. Have someone else read what we have written.

Simple as it may seem, we writers tend to be blind to the weaknesses of our own writing. Re-reading and visualizing the scene and then getting someone else to do the same can be a tremendous help. After all, we wrote the story so that readers would enjoy it to the fullest; why not get a test-reader to see if your approach worked? Get a second opinion, and then get down to editing.

Have you ever used slow motion? How did it work for you?