I just saw the trailer for the upcoming Dr. Strange film. Now I am thoroughly a long-time deep-dyed nerd – from Dark Star to Star Wars to Doctor Who (Tom Baker!) to LOTR to Primer to Skyrim to Firefly to Mass Effect and on and on and on. I was a nerd long before those enjoying nerdom as hip were even born. But I found myself wondering when, oh when, will we finally tire of this same old shit?
Here’s the movie: the world is going to be destroyed by some localizable evil agent. Our hero is a normal dude who suddenly gains magical powers. People plea with him to use his powers to save us. He reluctantly agrees. Vast mayhem ensues. He is on the verge of failure, but then cleverly manages to deal out a horrible death to the localizable enemy. Lock and reload for a sequel.
It’s a standard plot in the vast majority of comic books, and that’s what Hollywood is finding profitable these days. And, once you accept the plot as the only possible one, no one is doing a better job than Marvel. The films of the Marvelverse are clever and visually stunning, even if utterly predictable. But as I watched the fabulously talented Benedict Cumberbatch, armed with an American accent and a cape billowing out behind him, I thought: must I watch this again?
The problem may be that, nerdy as I am, I have never been into comic books. I tried, but I never got hooked in the way that keeps one buying issue after issue. (Actually, I once was hooked briefly on Mike Baron’s Nexus; whatever happened to that?) I think there might be a window in one’s life in which both comics and professional sports may get their hooks into you; if the window closes (by the time you’re 15 or so), then forget it, they never will. I admire the enthusiasm of Cubs fans and readers of comics (that is, I admire my friend Roger), but I just don’t have it in my bones.
But something else must be going on behind the insane success of the Marvelverse, since there just aren’t that many comics fans around. I think what’s happening is that the wonderful world of comics is being co-opted by another population. In my limited experience, comics fans all know the generic plot I described above. They are interested in what creative writers and artists can do with that plot line, in the special twists and innovations that only those in the know will recognize. (They’re like fans of blues music in this respect.) I think most real comics fans enjoy the Marvel films – how could they not? – but if you give them a moment they will tell you about twenty far more interesting and far less known comic story lines, such as (I’m making this up) Teutonic Heat Shield issues 127-143, or the adventures of Cerebus the Aardvark (no, I’m not making that up). They’ll see the Marvel movies as quite decent and enjoyable comics for the masses, but they can point you toward the really interesting stuff, if you’re interested.
But the bigger population co-opting the comic world, I think, isn’t so much into this connoisseurship. They are people who simply want to see spectacles, or violent solutions to malevolent problems. Everyone – no matter the politics, religion, economic class, culture, or language – can get behind the claim that there’s evil in the world, and that it sure would be nice to have a magic power to make it suffer and die. That’s a common denominator (and, come to think of it, the plot of every world religion). Now, as we become adults, we are supposed to recognize that the evil in the world is not localizable. It’s everywhere, in varying degrees, and we’re complicit in it. And there aren’t violent solutions; indeed, attempts at violent solutions only increase the evil (an idea Marvel Studios has begun to flirt with in Captain America: Civil War, to their credit). There is only, at best, complicated compromise, in the spirit of hope.
The most interesting SF films aren’t to be found among these blockbusters, to be sure. My family and I recently watched Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel, which was refreshingly clever, funny, and campy in its visuals. Ex Machina, I think, is a deep and wonderfully troubling film, and did enjoy commercial success. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, my daughter reminds me, brought a slice of the wide world of alternative comics to the screen, as has Kick-Ass and, to some extent, Deadpool. So, riding in on the current superhero supercraze is some genuinely smart comics and SF. So I shouldn’t grump. The challenge remains the same as it does in all matters: search for the signal amidst the noise.