Watched Doctor Strange this weekend. It was very enjoyable, and if you’re a fan of superhero movies, I’d recommend it. If you aren’t, well, you’ve seen it before (more or less) and shouldn’t trouble yourself.
Superhero movies, and most notably the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), tend to be repeated retellings of the same basic stories. There is a reluctant hero of some kind, he (or, much more rarely, she) is granted the mantle of power, sent forth by will or necessity to battle evil, receives wisdom at the foot of a wise elder (who often dies), and at last vanquishes evil and assumes their responsibility as champion of the defenseless. There you go – just about every superhero movie in history, boiled down to a few plot points. If that structure looks familiar, that shouldn’t surprise you – it’s all classic Joseph Campbell, the ancient monomyth reborn and retold in the guise in the modern world.
Now, this often gets held up as a point of criticism: comic book movies, they say, are all the same. Well, first of all, you have to admit that they’re right – they totally are the same. If you’ve seen Iron Man, you’ve also seen Doctor Strange and Thor. The movies – in terms of theme, plot, pacing, and character – just aren’t all that different. There is, however, something that the critics also have to admit: different doesn’t automatically mean “better.” Consider this: how many pizzas have you eaten throughout your lifetime? Probably tons of them, if you’re anything like me, but even if not you don’t need to use pizza – try “bottles of wine” or “blue jeans” or “shoes.” There are lots and lots of things we value and enjoy and crave that are, basically, broadly the same every time we consume or use them. Of course, nobody would ever say that all pizzas are created equal (or all wines, or all jeans, etc.) but also the fact that we’ve experienced “pizza” before does not invalidate future interactions with “pizza.” It’s still pizza; I still like it.
Just so with comic book movies. They all operate in the same basic sphere and run according to the same basic forumla. Even across sequels, a kind of pattern tends to play out. First there’s the “Origin Story” (frequently featuring a Macguffin), then there’s the “Coping with Hero Life” story, then we’ve got the “Everything Falls Apart” sequel, and so on and so forth. We all know the steps. We still like the dance, though.
Now, I’ve lamented the fact that superhero movies rarely break conventions, and I do stand by that – there is substantial room for innovation in the cinematic realm, at least. That said, there is some appreciation to be gleaned from watching talented people polish the old standard to a healthy gleam. Telling a story well is every bit as important as telling a new story. In recent years, this story has been mastered by the folks behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe, without rival. Yeah, they all tell the same basic story, but discussing how well each of them does the same task is still worthwhile. We watch sports, remember, and those feature the same exact game with the same basic rules over and over again and yet nothing diminishes our enthusiasm.
Anyway, after getting out of Doctor Strange, my friends and I had a discussion of where the movie ranks in the hierarchy of MCU films. We generally considered it to be in the “top half.” We then had to discuss what was the median – which MCU movie ranks in the exact middle? My friends said Ant-Man, which is actually the only MCU film I haven’t seen. Given that, and given that Ant-Man may just be the exact center of the MCU, I’ve decided to rank all the other existing MCU movies, from best to worst (in my opinion). Here we go:
13: The Incredible Hulk
12: Iron Man 3
11: Iron Man 2
10: Avengers: Age of Ultron
8: Captain America: The First Avenger
7: Thor: The Dark World
6: Marvel’s The Avengers
5: Doctor Strange
4: Iron Man
3: Guardians of the Galaxy
2: Captain America: Winter Soldier
1: Captain America: Civil War
Now, a few of these I’m open to moving around a little. You could swap the Iron Man sequels, if you like. GoTG could be below Iron Man 1, but generally I’m satisfied, here. Notably, few of these movies are actively bad (well, some come close), but clearly some serve up the same dish with a bit more flair. I’ve no idea where Ant Man fits, but currently the median film is Thor: The Dark World, which seems mostly fair.
Well, what do you think?
You ever notice that we tend to like the bad guys better than the good guys? I mean, let’s face it – Darth Vader is way cooler than Obi Wan or Luke. Luke only gets cool when he starts wearing black and force choking Gamorreans who piss him off.
Same goes for comic books. Who’s your favorite: Wolverine or Cyclops? Everybody picks Wolverine. Never mind that he’s irresponsible, violent, rude, and bloodthirsty – Cyclops looks smug. We can never forgive smug. Batman Vs Superman? Clearly the violent vigilante trumps the boy scout in blue. Every single time.
In The Oldest Trick, I’ve got a pretty bad guy as my main character. Calling Tyvian a “scoundrel” is putting it very mildly. He’s a petty, conceited, manipulative narcissist who thinks nothing of throwing other people to the wolves for the sake of his own comfort (comfort, mind you – not even his safety). You really ought to hate his guts.
And yet we don’t. From Frank Castle to Hannibal Lecter, from Dexter Morgan to Lucifer himself, we’re always willing to give the jerks, the creeps, the psychos and the villains the benefit of the doubt. Weird, isn’t it?
Here’s my thinking: Antiheroes (and I use the term loosely, as it can be defined in many ways – here I basically mean someone who is an amoral, immoral, or ‘dark’ protagonist) appeal to us in three major ways.
They Do What We Dare Not
Have you ever wanted to spill coffee on someone because they were being a jerk to the barista? Have you ever wanted to chew out your boss in front of everybody? Have you ever wanted to smash flat some jerk in a BMW who ran a red light and almost killed you? Well, guess what? The bad guy will do it for you.
In a world full of petty (and not so petty) frustrations, there is catharsis in those who simply break the rules to inflict what we see as justice on those we dislike. We refrain ourselves, of course – unlike the villainous personality, we are functional members of society – but we do so enjoy watching the wicked get a taste of their own medicine from those even worse than they are. Heck, this is the entire underlying theme of the Saw franchise, right? Those jerks deserve what they got on some level. We show up to watch them get it.
They Make Us Feel Like Better People
There is also a certain joy in realizing you are a better person and a better judge of character and situation than these otherwise exceptional people. For Example: Hoo, boy – are we ever glad we aren’t Walter White, right? Man, I mean, he’s pretty awesome and what-not, but he just keeps making decisions that’ll get him in deeper, doesn’t he? Were it me, I woulda walked away way, waaay earlier than that. I could do it. There has to be a way, right?
Shakespeare trades heavily on this notion in his tragedies. Iago and Othello keep digging themselves deeper and deeper and deeper and, oh man, you know what’s going to happen, right? That’s what makes it awesome. The good guy – the guy who keeps doing the right thing – he’s dull (or so we think). Captain America is never going to lie to his girlfriend. That makes us feel inferior. You know what the most common criticism levied against Superman is? He isn’t “identifiable.” This I take as code for “he wasn’t a fuck-up in high school.”
Sure Supes is identifiable. He grew up as a farmboy in middle America. It’s not his Kryptonian heritage you find alien. It’s the fact that he never set his dad’s car on fire while trying to re-enact a Jackass stunt. With Batman – brooding, obsessive, loner Batman – you never have that problem. You got it together compared to that nutjob.
The Hope for Redemption
This last one is a bit rarer, but it comes up a fair amount. We all love a good redemption story. We like to think that those crazy villains that we (secretly) admire can, one day, clean up all their bad habits and become good people like us. The whole of the existing Star Wars movies, for instance, is just one long story dealing with the fall and subsequent redemption of one Anakin Skywalker. We eat that up. Likewise, the journey of Tony Stark from playboy to superhero is the most compelling aspect of the MCU at the moment. His character’s personal journey is the one we love best.
See, as much as we enjoy the antics of those antiheros doing what we dare not, we also realize that their lives are not happy ones. Batman is a tortured, tragic soul in many ways. Wolverine is fundamentally alone. Conan the Barbarian lives an empty life. That sad music played at the end of every Incredible Hulk episode for a reason, guys. Being the antihero sucks. Even Lucifer has a rough time of it.
So we watch in the (sometimes) vain hope that they can pull themselves together. That, even in their tortured hearts, the darkness can be pushed back and good can prevail. Even if only for a moment, before they plunge back into shooting mob bosses and blowing up corrupt politician’s cars.
As you know, if you read this blog, I will be attending ITVFest in Dover, VT on September 24th-27th where I will be giving a talk about World Building in Fantasy and Science Fiction on Saturday, 9/26, at 11am. Go and check it out!
Also, The Oldest Trick will be coming out in Mass Market Paperback on September 29th! Pre-order your copies now!
Finally, watch my Goodreads page for the possibility of a giveaway of some The Oldest Trick e-book copies! I plan on doing it as soon as I figure out how!