You’ve never seen the magical side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) before, but after seeing Doctor Strange in theatres, I guarantee that you’ll want to see more of it.
The MCU has broached science fiction before between the inventions of Tony Stark and the space adventures of the Guardians of the Galaxy. Now, the MCU approaches traditional fantasy by exploring the world of magic and spells with the future Sorcerer Supreme, Doctor Strange. How well did this film treat the subject of magic and how faithful was it to its source material?
Doctor Strange was no stranger to its source material, though some changes were made to serve the cinematic timeline and larger plotlines. Firstly, the MCU’s Doctor Strange is set in the 2016 contemporary world, whereas the comic debut was set during the Silver Age in the 1960s. Naturally, many facts changed as a result.
The biggest change surrounds the villain “Kaecilius”, portrayed by Mads Mikkelsen, and “Baron Mordo”, portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor. Mikkelsen (Hannibal, Casino Royale) is no stranger to playing villains and if you’re looking for a good villain, you’ll be happy to hear that he delivers. However, in the comics Kaecilius is merely a named disciple of Baron Mordo, and most of Kaecilius’ role and power in the film is actually closer to Baron Mordo in the comics.
The problem is that the modern setting of the MCU could never explain Baron Mordo’s reason for turning baddie; in the comic universe, it’s a product of his disillusion from WW1. It’s unclear how the MCU will treat Baron Mordo, but his disillusionment with the modern world will have to be derived from another source if he does become a villain.
The second large change to source material was the Eye of Agamotto. In the comics, the Eye could emit light to dispel illusions, look into the souls of others, and had the capacity to view incidents that had recently passed. While the comics never explained its origins, the MCU has made the Eye of Agamotto a significant relic to serve a larger plotline: now, the eye is an Infinity Stone, specifically the fifth Infinity Stone, called the Time Stone. I don’t think most fans would complain about this change; however, the power of amulet may have been greatly exaggerated in the film and let’s just leave it at that.
The most controversial deviation from source material was the casting of Tilda Swinton for the portrayal of the “Ancient One”. The Ancient One in the comics was an elderly man of Tibetan descent, but the MCU decided on a female of Caucasian complexion for the role. Whatever your feelings on this matter, Tilda Swanton delivers a powerful performance. Unfortunately, the bald cap that she wore was extremely noticeable at parts and provoked some laughs from the crowd during scenes that were supposed to be somber.
This movie has an excellent cast and the actors deliver. Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange is spot on, both as the arrogant surgeon pre-magic and as the humorous yet intensive the-ends-justifies-the-means magician post-magic. The only deviation was his mastery of pop culture references; the MCU’s Doctor Strange has a definite advantage over the graphic novel’s character in that regard.
The film’s treatment of magic is both faithful and intricate. The explanation of magic in the film was gratifying because the film actually provided a magical system. Magic was derived from scrolls and old texts and there was a requirement to study spells as a subject, rather than just have some innate use of them. The use of geometry to distinguish between the different types of spells was evocative of alchemy and the mandalas that originally influenced the character’s creator, Steve Ditko. Alternatively, the geometry could have correlated to the Sacred Geometry in the occult genre that informed the later Doctor Strange graphic fiction.
As an extension of magic, there is an appropriate analogy to be made between this movie and Inception. The manipulation of physics and structural solidarity, exemplified by the folding of city streets or the walls of a church in the trailer is fully utilized in the movie. These mind-blowing visuals are complimented by multi-dimensional traveling. My only gripe is that alternative dimensional beings weren’t significantly explored like they are in the comics. Nonetheless, you plan to see the film, watch it in 3D!
Doctor Strange is a fantastic origin story that is both intriguing and humorous in all the right areas without dwelling on the hero-founding incident. As one who usually complains when a film isn’t faithful to its source material, Doctor Strange’s slight deviations from the source material are illusions: too small to cause incident, and not even worth investigation by the graphic novel’s Eye of Agamotto.
Book-to-movie adaptations have always been a natural indicator of a literary work’s popularity.
When cinema was only beginning, black-and-white adaptations of Shakespeare’s work served as an indication of what society perceived as “good” literature from an academic standpoint. Today, that hardly seems to be the case.
Movies and TV shows show us that today’s focus is a bit less on the quality of scripts and a bit more on the quantity of bills. The adaptation of literary works is no longer a novelty, translated to add dimension to the original series. Instead, it’s all about taking a series as far as it can financially go.
Cassandra Clare’s New York Times’ bestselling series, The Mortal Instruments, shamelessly mixes many common (and more importantly, popular) speculative elements. From werewolves and vampires to the legend of the Nephilim, the spectrum is quite wide.
First, we have a standard love triangle between the female protagonist, Clary Fairchild, her best-friend-turned-vampire, Simon Lewis, and the Shadowhunter (read: demon slayer) Jace Wayland. There is also a romance between Alec Lightwood and Magnus Bane, which explores not only the issue of racism in the division between the higher Shadowhunter society from the lower shadow world, but also addresses duties to one’s family in the case of Alec’s homosexuality.
The series came out at a time when the hype was still in full swing for the more familiar aspects of the speculative realm, and the call for more vampires and werewolves, along with the growing demand for magicians and fairies, caused publishers to narrow their vision.
It’s safe to say that the original 2013 film adaptation of the first book, then, did not come as a surprise. Not only did it guarantee that many fans would see it, but it would also act as an extra push for the book series, whose position on the bestsellers’ list began to grow shaky in 2012. The film’s poor reception, however, demonstrated differently.
The movie received mixed reviews and failed to recoup the budget, causing directors to speculate whether or not a second movie would be released. Petitions were posted online for sometime by fans who trilled their undying love for the series, wanting to see more. Their request was partially satisfied when an announcement was made stating there would, in fact, be a TV adaptation of the series starting from scratch, with a new cast and a different interpretation of the plot.
I will readily admit that I have been guilty of falling into the trap of popular series. I jumped onto the bandwagon with The Hunger Games as soon as the first book came out. Others, such as the more recent Divergent, I hoped to stay away from, but after watching the first two movies my curiosity got the better of me and I did end up reading the books.
With The Mortal Instruments, however, my patience ran out after the first two books, and after hearing that the series’ immense popularity caused Clare to add three more books to her initial trilogy, I was adamant in my refusal to touch it. Yet I must also admit that I saw the movie when it came out a few years ago and (perhaps against my better judgement) just finished the first season (yes, there’s a second season coming next year) of the TV show.
Why? Because of the curiosity to see what came of these attempts.
I thought to myself, was it worse than the books? Was it better?
Turns out it wasn’t great. For me, The Mortal Instruments proved itself to be a case study of sorts in a discussion of profit and the coexistence between the film and publishing industries. It’s partially understandable that a TV adaptation, rather than a movie franchise, allowed for a new start and possible changes in the way the original plot was presented.
The irony lies, however, in the similar reception the show, though some credit should be given to the overall higher reviews. The insistence on running a second season, given the way in which the first sloppily crammed subplots and events from various books into one, is the more puzzling aspect.
Perhaps we should be worried more about addressing a different kind of “dark force” that books skid around or fall prey to: the allure of franchising and riding the wave of popularity. While there are certainly some interesting plot points and witty dialogues within the books, there is not much that The Mortal Instruments, along with its tangle of prequels, sequels, and spin-offs, adds to the literary world.
The very fact that the franchise has expanded so much makes one wonder whether the author really is so enamoured with her own construction, or whether the influence of popularity has a bigger role. Making a remake of something not entirely successful the first time is a similar case of trying to keep the popularity alive for a series that is difficult to evaluate as a literary work.
The series focuses too much on appealing to its audience with its modern references and speech, and the way it falls prey to character archetypes that earlier New York Times bestsellers have already exploited.
Series such as The Hunger Games have arguably warranted their film adaptations. Moreover, even with the shortcomings and plot errors that occurred, a handful of these film adaptations did it right the first time they took on the job.
The fact that there is a remake of an adaptation should already act as a warning sign that begs the question of how much say the writer has in their own creation, as well as how much dignity they carry forward with it. It’s common nowadays to meet those who say they write in order to produce the next “big thing” and become a bestseller, and to a degree the allure of profit is understandable.
Yet it is hard not to go back and wonder about some great novels that may not have received movie adaptations, such as Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Milton’s Paradise Lost. It also begs the question of why other great works—Shakespeare being the most common—have received so many if the possibility of them being forgotten is practically impossible. Perhaps it is because few have come to recognize the modern incarnation of the classical demon, and the way in which it has precipitated into current society in a quiet comfort.
There have been four attempts to bring Marvel’s first family to life on the big screen. First in 1994, then 2005, 2007, and most recently in 2015.
Whatever grand cosmic meaning might be found in four failed Fantastic 4 movies escapes me, but all of them have sucked.
I’ve heard people say maybe the Fantastic 4 just suck as a concept, or maybe they can’t be translated well into live action, or maybe they’re just too far out to get right. But… no. I’m here today to tell you that isn’t true at all.
The reason that we’ve never seen a good Fantastic 4 movie is because, well, nobody has ever made a real Fantastic 4 movie. Almost none of what made the comics so incredible for so many decades has ever been realized on screen.
Let me elaborate in the form of four major points, because that structure both allows me to argue what I want and also kind of make this whole thing a Fantastic 4 pun, which means this is the best day of my life.
1: We have never actually seen the real Doctor Doom.
In the comics, Victor Von Doom is the iron-fisted dictator of a sovereign island nation called Latveria, and grew up as an orphan living with a band of gypsies. The group he was in stayed on the move to avoid the wrath of the oppressive regime, until, through a combination of inventions and black magic, Victor lead an uprising and seized control.
Because yes, Doctor Doom can do magic.
A once-handsome man, Victor Von Doom’s downfall started when he summoned a portal to hell in order to bring his mother back to life; however, true to comic form, the portal exploded in his face instead, forcing him to seal himself inside a suit of magical armour.
Also in the comics, Victor is a master of science and technology, rivalled only by the mind of his college roommate, Reed Richards. Both studied science that I assume Stan Lee made up on the fly. This all happened in his early twenties, until, after getting his doctorate, Victor was kicked out for unethical practice and sent back to Latveria (where he lead the aforementioned uprising shortly after.)
See? Doctor Doom isn’t even a supervillain name, you guys. Victor has a doctorate. His actual name is just Doctor Doom.
Word play jokes aside, Doctor Doom is arguably one of the greatest supervillains ever put to page. He once took on the Celestials (otherworldly beings of infinite power) and forced Galactus to kneel before him, and became essentially God as the most powerful being in the entire Marvel Universe (twice). He can occasionally do good as well, proving that he actually cares about the people of Latveria, and in one instance he even protects Franklin and Valeria Richards (the children of his worst enemy) from harm.
In fact, Doom has actually saved the world several times, because when all the heroes are sitting around contemplating what to do, Doom just busts open the door with a cry of “DOOM CARES NOT” and that’s that.
None of the details of this incredible character have ever appeared in a movie. In the 2005 movie, Doctor Doom was a seedy business man who gains the power to shoot lightning, and in 2015 he was a… programmer? I guess? Why is Fox so afraid to make Doom the magical science tyrant he truly is? They even have a problem with his name. In each live screen version, they tried to change his name (“Victor Von Damn”, and “Victor Domeshev “, respectively), and then changed it back at the last second.
The ongoing dynamic between Doctor Doom and Mr. Fantastic is probably one of the most interesting relationship in comics, save for that of Professor X and Magneto from the X-Men. Their rivalry and hatred of one another is strangely contrasted by the respect and kinship they try so hard to hide. Despite being morally polar opposites, deep down both Reed and Victor know that the only true equal either one has on the entire planet, maybe the entire universe, is each other. They are the two smartest men in the universe, both of them convinced that they have the right way and authority to save the world. But while Reed gets to be the hero, Doom is the villain.
In the movies we’ve never gotten past “Victor is jealous because Reed is smarter and can make out with Sue”.
If you need more convincing of how great of a character Doctor Doom is, go read the entirety of Jonathon Hickman’s Fantastic 4 run, half his Avengers comics, and his colossal finale Secret War. I promise, it will convince you. Doctor Doom is the number one Marvel supervillain according to Newsarama, and the third greatest comic book villain of all time according to IGN. So why are the studios so afraid to give us the Doom we deserve?
2: Where is Galactus, the devourer of worlds!
Does anybody actually remember Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer?
I mean, no, not really. Because that movie was terrible. But it is pretty easy to name both the best and worst thing that movie managed to do. The best? I’ll admit, the Silver Surfer looked damn cool.
This is a character that Jack Kirby created supposedly because he was tired of drawing spaceships. It is the shiny, nearly featureless outline of a man who flies on a surfboard. It’s not such a hard thing to get right and they did. So what was the worst thing?
Probably the evil space cloud. That was not Galactus. Like Doctor Doom, Galactus is a genuinely fascinating and complex character.
The gargantuan planet eater Galactus is the only survivor of the universe that existed before our own. In fact, Galactus essentially is the universe of before, bonded to the last mortal of its existence, and was reborn into the giant purple-hatted being that constantly clashes with the Fantastic 4. But the fascinating thing is that the character of Galactus himself is not actually evil. He is a thinking being that can be reasoned and debated with, as well as a force of nature. Galactus destroys what he feels he must for his own survival, and for what he believes is best for the universe as a whole. He even created the Silver Surfer in order to seek out uninhabited planets that Galactus could eat without committing genocide.
And sure, Galactus often goes back on his word in that respect and tries to destroy the earth. But he is also a being that Reed Richards and the Fantastic 4 have spoken to, and have come to an uneasy alliance with.
So, as opposed to a boring space cloud, imagine superheroes fighting a planet sized alien being with a purple helmet who has existed since before the dawn of time itself.
I mean, maybe it’s just me. But a movie dealing with that character sounds genuinely interesting.
3: Science Fiction Extraordinaire
Right off the bat, lets skip the origin story.
Over half of the Fantastic 4 movies that have been made have been about the Fantastic 4 getting their powers, and then spending the whole movie trying to get rid of their powers.
That is genuinely the least interesting premise for a Fantastic 4 movie I can possibly conceive of, unless someone were to film Ben Grimm sitting on the toilet for two hours reading a newspaper. Seriously. Most superheroes don’t actually require that much context. That’s why so often the second movie for a superhero character is the better movie (The Dark Knight, Spider-Man 2, The Winter Soldier, and X-Men: United all come to mind).
So why not skip ahead to when the Fantastic 4 are genuinely an interesting family of pure insanity? So many of the classic FF tales are huge science fiction adventures into the depths of the earth, or the depths of space, or occasionally into another dimension entirely!
The early days of the Fantastic 4 were illustrated by Jack “The King” Kirby, who is basically the godfather of comic book art. Kirby’s FF days were punctuated by massive otherworldly images, shapeshifting aliens, mind-bending space battles, and galactic invasions of Earth.
In one comic, Mr. Fantastic (Reed Richards) was once inducted into an inter-dimensional organization called the “Council of Reeds”, which was entirely populated with alternate reality versions of him trying to save the multiverse. Best part? The story culminated with Doom defeating a race of Gods and the Human Torch locking himself in another dimension to fight an endless army of insect monsters. I mean that is… that would make the most wacked-out movie ever, right? And there’s the fun of the Watcher, an alien who lives on the moon and can see everything and has a giant head.
So far, we have seen none of that in the attempts at bringing them to screen, because the studios seem weirdly embarrassed of the more science fiction elements of the Fantastic 4 universe. Really, if you want these characters to work, abandon self-consciousness at the door. Give us the insanity and true scope of science fiction possible with these characters.
We were all happy to watch a talking raccoon with a space gun mourn the death of his talking tree friend.
We can handle it.
Above all else, the Fantastic 4 are a fundamentally different group dynamic than any other super team in comics. They aren’t the collection of mighty heroes like The Avengers, or the collection of outcasts like X-Men.
The Fantastic 4 are fundamentally a family. So you want to make them stand out from the rest? Make them an actual family. Instead of the painfully awkward romance between Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman (who where near strangers), Give us the actual married Reed Richards and Susan Storm. But more than that. Give us their children, the occasionally cosmically-powered Franklin Richards and the super-genius Valeria Richards. Give us The Thing and the Human Torch being referred to as “Uncle Ben” and “Uncle Johnny”. Give us that super uncomfortable kinship between Valeria Richards and Doctor Doom, who see eye to eye on slightly more than her parents might wish.
Because that, more than anything else I’ve mentioned, is what sets the Fantastic 4 apart. This is a story about a real, developed and mature family that behaves as such. Please, someone out there, give us all these things.
Give us the real Galactus and Doctor Doom, and Mole People and shapeshifting aliens, give us the family dynamic and science-fiction insanity that have graced the pages of comic books for over half a century.
The speculative community has been nurturing a climate of social equity in the past few years. From the removal of statuettes depicting the openly racist H.P. Lovecraft from the World Fantasy Awards, to Cixin Liu winning the Best Novel Award at the 2015 Hugo Awards (the first Asian novelist to do so), it is clear that mind-sets are changing.
However, with each step forward, there is always a step back.
When I heard that Hollywood was casting Scarlett Johansson as Major Motoko Kusanagi in the upcoming adaptation of the manga Ghost in the Shell, I knew there was going to be trouble. Ever since the news was released, many fans have criticized the studio’s decision to cast Johansson in the role of an Asian character. Hollywood’s casting decision goes against the speculative community’s goal of social equity by perpetuating misrepresentation, while also revealing an integral flaw within their understanding of the manga.
Whitewashing is still commonplace among Hollywood films—just think The Last Airbender and Gods of Egypt. Moreover, Paramount and Dreamworks studios’ choices to whitewash their major characters reveals a very common and deep-seated fear: almost every big studio is afraid of losing money on film projects. According to Max Landis, a Hollywood screenwriter who defended the Ghost in the Shell casting decision in a YouTube video, there simply aren’t any A-list Asian actors that would ensure the film’s financial success. Not only is this assumption wrong (fans were hoping that Rinko Kikuchi would get the role), it is offensive, and indicates the industry’s financial motivations for the film above all else. Apparently, offering break-out opportunities for the many Asian-American actors struggling to find work in the industry just doesn’t seem to be an option. While this decision affects the social aspect of the film, it also affects its merit as an adaptation.
The studios’ selection of the film’s lead, screenwriters, and director indicates an important misunderstanding of the concepts established by its Japanese predecessors. Scarlett Johansson is most well-known for her action-oriented roles in The Avengers films, while screenwriters Jamie Moss (Street Kings) and Jonathan Herman (Straight Outta Compton) have only ever written action-thrillers. To top it all off, the film’s director is Rupert Sanders, whose only movie is Snow White and The Huntsman. The fact that the director and screenwriters are all inexperienced new members of the industry who have only ever done action films, with action-star Scarlett Johansson in the lead role, definitely points to a focus on action over thought.
However, gunfights and action scenes were never the focus of Ghost in the Shell. Of course violence is present, but its use is minimalistic and often only as a last resort. The point of the series has always been about asking questions that challenge the concept of the human condition. What does it mean to be human if your body is entirely prosthetic? Is artificial intelligence humanity’s next evolutionary step? What defines individuality if memories and thoughts can be hacked, deleted, and replaced? These are all questions that the original manga and its anime adaptations successfully tackle, with the cyborg Major Kusanagi being the embodiment of those themes as she is literally a ‘ghost’, or collection of her original memories, within a prosthetic body or ‘shell’. Ghost in the Shell is about questioning the human condition. It is quiet, introspective, and delicate—never loud.
While I have no doubt that a successful live-action adaptation of the manga can be pulled off, Hollywood’s decisions should serve as a warning for most fans to prepare for disappointment. Ghost in the Shell would’ve been a perfect opportunity for an Asian actor to play an intriguing character and to potentially break out into the mainstream. Instead, Hollywood is content to stick to its routine of whitewashing roles, perpetuating cycles of misrepresentation, and creating adaptations which fail to convey the themes of the source material. This film may have the title Ghost in the Shell, but I doubt it will have the heart of its predecessors.
The only good thing that has come out of this controversy has been the response from fans and the wider speculative community as a whole. By forcing Hollywood to recognize that their actions are outdated and harmful, hopefully the industry will be forced to change its behavior in the future. While the outlook of this film may seem bleak, as it is scheduled to be released in 2017, with not enough time for any major changes, perhaps enough time for its studios to at least consider the community’s response.