Doctor Strange Both Subverts and Affirms the Usual Marvel Movie Complaints

CAUTION: This article contains major spoilers for Doctor Strange.

There’s a recurring set of complaints about the “samey-ness” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The argument comes in several forms. One common strain posits that every Marvel movie simply follows a predetermined formula, involving some McGuffin (lately, an infinity stone), an undercooked villain, and an inevitable third act action sequence that sets everything right. Another contends that the MCU films lack distinct authorial voices and break down to a house-mandated style. And one recurring grouse, even among fans, focuses on the way Marvel Studios films are shot and lit and even color-corrected.

There’s a grain of truth to each of these critiques, but as I discussed with Robbie Dorman on the Serial Fanatacist Podcast, I find them all largely unavailing. For one thing, even the studio’s first set of films, released prior to the game-changing Avengers team up (Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger) have vastly different vibes and tell markedly different types of stories. From a Shakespearean-influenced high fantasy romp, to a 1940s throwback adventure, to a military-heavy fugitive narrative, to a more traditional hero’s origin story, the Marvel movies have come in different flavors from the very beginning.

What’s more, while there are common themes of redemption and certain recurring motifs common to many superhero films in the MCU, there’s also a focus on character that has served to distinguish Marvel’s films from one another independently of the antagonists or plot obstacles in a given film. As others have pointed out, Marvel Studios has found great success by focusing on the development of its heroes (and those close to them) making their personal journeys the driving force behind these films, rather than the newest set of villains or big plot development that have driven other franchises. And, over the course of fourteen movies, plenty of entries in the MCU series of films have subverted the tropes that the series’s critics accuse it of slavishly adhering to.

Doctor Strange acts as both a confirmation and a rebuke to these arguments. It features some of the MCU’s most dazzling visuals and breaks with some of the franchise’s biggest conventions. And yet, at the same time, it feels like a recapitulation of many of the same types of stories and beats that other Marvel Studios films have employed in the past.

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The Walking Dead Offers Four Great Sequences and Remembers Those It’s Lost in “Go Getters”


So often, the average Walking Dead episode is a mixed bag — a collection of scenes where half of them excite and the other half result in eyerolls. But what keeps so many still watching is the way that the show can put together a few extraordinary sequences — ones focused on character, or a tense interrogation, or even the usual zombie-killing action — that remind us why we started following the series in the first place. There are four sequences in “Go Getters” that show the potential of The Walking Dead, the things that keep us coming back, in an episode centered on how we honor, vindicate, and above all remember the dead.

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The Walking Dead Repeats Itself to Death in “Service”

I enjoyed the season premiere of The Walking Dead better than most. I understand the complaints that it was too bleak, too cruel, and too hopeless, but to my mind, it made sense to embrace those elements in order to establish Negan, both a character and as a threat. There have been so many ineffectual villains on this show, so many antagonists who seemed like mere speed bumps along the way toward Rick and company’s inevitable victory. TWD needed to make a big introduction to convince the audience that Negan and The Saviors were something different, something dangerous and more serious.

I also didn’t mind the hopelessness of that opening episode. Sure, it’s difficult to watch our heroes being broken, to see characters we know and love brutalized while the bad guys take great joy in the effort. But shows like The Walking Dead need stakes. In order for the good guys’ eventual triumph to feel earned and meaningful, the series has to make its main antagonist not only someone whose defeat doesn’t seem preordained, but also someone who’s actually worth beating. The suffering at this point of the arc will, with any luck, pay off down the line when the protagonists strike their blow against Negan and his goons.

The only problem is that the premiere already felt like a lot. It gave us a lot of blood and guts, a lot of horrible acts, and a lot of Negan preening and chewing scenery. That worked as an opening salvo for the character and as the culmination of the build his debut, which had been bubbling up since the midpoint of Season 6. But it was a great deal to take in all at once. The viewer can only stand so much of that level of cruelty and velvet-trimmed venom before it starts to overwhelm.

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The Walking Dead: “The Cell” Plumbs the Depths of Daryl and Dwight Better without Words


I’m often struck by the technical and structural audacity of The Walking Dead. It’s frequently a gorgeous show, with visuals that grab you even when the frame isn’t filled with zombies. But it’s also a show that can be quite adept at communicating its ideas and themes with visuals alone, albeit one that is maddeningly inconsistent about when it feels like doing so. To that point, “The Cell” centers on the experiences of two characters, Dwight and Daryl, and opens with a pair of montages with next-to-no dialogue, but which nevertheless tell us everything we need to know about who these characters are and what their situation is.

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The Walking Dead Embraces Paradise, Peace, and Deadwood in “The Well”


In between Seasons 6 and 7 of The Walking Dead, I finally found the time to watch Deadwood, the acclaimed, short-lived HBO series that helped usher in the current era of prestige television that The Walking Dead has been trying desperately to be a part of. And though Deadwood is a longstanding critical darling while The Walking Dead has been a perpetual whipping boy in the critical community, the most recent seasons of TWD have focused on the same question that consumed Deadwood for its three-season run — specifically, what does it take to make a society?

That’s an oversimplification of both shows, but to my mind, Deadwood was first and foremost about what it means to build a civilization: the myths we perpetuate, the wheels we grease, and the dirt and blood we try to scrub off the floor or otherwise hide in the process. From the onset of the Alexandria arc, The Walking Dead has been interrogating the same idea. Whether it’s Deanna’s vision for Alexandria as the start of a sustainable bit of rebuilding, or Gregory running the Hilltop as his own little fiefdom, or Negan extracting his pounds of flesh with The Saviors, The Walking Dead has been interested in what type of system, what sort of leaders and visions for the future, will prevail. All of these people, like Deadwood’s Al Swearingen, are trying to fashion a society in the midst of something approaching a state of nature, and this era of the show seems as poised as any to dig into the ways that these differing perspectives clash and conflict.

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The Simpsons: Bart Learns the Value of his Mother’s Love in “Marge Be Not Proud”

One of the great things about the Simpsons as characters is that they can pretty much do anything or be anything. You can put Our Favorite Family in whatever kind of story you’d like, from a standard domestic squabble to a world-threatening catastrophe, and for the most part, the characters are so universal and recognizable that they’ll still fit regardless what sort of narrative they’re dropped into. It’s part of what makes the show’s Treehouse of Horror franchise work — these characters can be slotted into any number of spoofs, pastiches, and homages, because they’re firm but malleable enough for it to click no matter the setting or plot.

But as I discussed with Robbie and Matt on The Simpsons Show Podcast, I often find that my favorite episodes of the show draw back to the quieter and more relatable stories for these characters. I warm to the ones where they feel like real people going through trials that we can all understand, accented with that trademark Simpsons irreverence.

That’s what’s so striking about “Marge Be Not Proud.” In a series that can claim some of its greatest triumphs in the guise of monorails gone awry, and city-threatening comets, and town-hopping, knife-wielding, Machiavellian maniacs, The Simpsons makes such an impact in this episode by stepping back from the commedia dell’arte-style flexibility of its characters, and focusing on the specific and down-to-earth story of a boy and his mom experiencing one of those moments that makes them see each other in a different light.

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The Walking Dead Gets Biblical in its Season 7 Premiere, “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be”


Most people know the bible story of when God tested Abraham.  It’s one of those biblical references that just filters through the popular consciousness, even if you haven’t cracked open Genesis anytime lately. The Good Lord tells Abraham, his devoted servant, to prove his devotion by offering his son, Isaac, as a sacrifice. Abraham follows this command, building an altar, binding his son to it, and raising his knife in the air, ready to perform the grisly deed. But God stops Abraham at the last minute, explaining to him that this was all simply a test of his devotion and then providing a ram to be sacrificed instead.

I can remember hearing this story in Sunday school and how the rabbi would milk this moment a bit. Keeping second graders enthralled with bible stories isn’t necessarily easy work, but he knew how to draw out the details of the story, embellish a little at the margins, and hold the tension of moments like that one. Even if you’d heard the rabbi tell this story half-a-dozen times before, he made you believe that maybe this time it would be too late, that Abraham would act and all would be lost. He knew, in short, how to build the suspense.

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The Colossal Divide: Shadow of the Colossus, Roger Ebert, and the Space Between Auteur and Audience


In the years since I first wrote about Roger Ebert’s disdain for video games, he’s been in the back of my mind each time I’ve picked up a controller. He believed, and argued quite strenuously, that video games could never be art. At the height of the firestorm of controversy he unleashed with this statement, Ebert went so far as to declare that no game could ever achieve the same level of artistic transcendence as the great films and novels and paintings from around the world, all of which stood head and shoulders above such a hopelessly shallow medium.

It’s a ludicrous, haughty, even arrogant proclamation. And yet, as I discussed with Robbie Dorman on the Serial Fanaticist Podcast, in the years since his death, I’ve tried to at least understand where Ebert was coming from. He is a giant in the world of criticism and a smart and generally open-minded critic at that, even if he has a particular view of what’s required to create “great art.” That makes his critiques, however frustrating, worth unpacking, even if they’re not necessarily worth accepting.

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The Simpsons: Hank Scorpio and a Perfect Tone Are the Keys to Greatness for “You Only Move Twice”


One of the most persistent narratives about how and why The Simpsons fell from grace is that, at some point, the series lost its tether to reality. The argument goes that the tone of the show was always meant to be exaggerated, but also ultimately grounded, and that as the series got on in years, its quality suffered as it moved further and further away from the conceptual limits that kept The Simpsons at least nominally within the real world.

And yet “You Only Move Twice,” one of show’s most acclaimed episodes, also features one of the most outlandish twists in Simpsons history. After Homer moves the family for his new job in faraway Cypress Creek, it turns out that, unbeknownst to him, his cool new boss, Hank Scorpio, is actually a Bond villain. The twist isn’t depicted by way of subtle hints here or there or a last-minute reveal. Instead, the episode spends much of its run time ensconced in city-destroying lasers, ineffective death traps, and flame-thrower battles to repel the U.S. military, the very sort of farfetched fare that typically rankles diehard fans.

Then, to add to the absurdity, at the end of the episode, Scorpio seizes the East Coast and gives Homer a special parting gift — ownership of the Denver Broncos, replete with the team practicing on The Simpsons’ front lawn. It’s so far from reality, not to mention the standard rules of the show’s universe, that the series doesn’t even begin to address these developments in later installments. It’s exactly the kind of ridiculous, game-changing-yet-ignored ending that hated former showrunner Mike Scully and current ruler of The Simpsons roost Al Jean are routinely excoriated for today.

So why does this work so well in “You Only Move Twice”?

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Suicide Squad Is a 90s Blockbuster in 2016 Clothing


Caution: This review contains major spoilers for Suicide Squad.

Suicide Squad director David Ayer and the brain trust behind D.C. Comics’ nascent cinematic universe achieved something I didn’t think was possible — they managed to produce a 1990s blockbuster in 2016. With the emergence of late sequels like Jurassic World and Independence Day: Resurgence, perhaps this shouldn’t have surprised me. But the refurbished, Day-Glo atmosphere of the third entry in the perpetually stumbling DCEU still managed to catch me off guard. I’d anticipated a copycat of Guardians of the Galaxy and its quippy “bad guys gone good” spirit, but I didn’t imagine that M.O. would be filtered through a lens borrowed from twenty years ago.

Nevertheless, all the elements of a Clinton-era blockbuster are firmly present and accounted for: Will Smith gives a standard Will Smith Performance™, one that could have easily been transplanted from Men in Black or, heaven help us, Wild Wild West. There are dry cool action movie lines aplenty. And there’s a cartoony, almost surreal vibe to the entire film, that makes Suicide Squad seem divorced from the attempts at realism embraced in Batman Begins and closer to the cornucopia of neon camp in Batman Forever.

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