Illinois isn’t exactly the crossroads of the comic-book universe(s), but from bottom to top, the Prairie State has connections. There’s Metropolis, of course, across the Ohio River from Kentucky, with its Superman statue and museum on DC’s dominant hero. And Chicago is where Marvel’s terrific “Siege” limited series in 2010 featured Thor buddy Volstagg accidentally causing an explosion that killed all the spectators in Soldier Field.
And last week, Hollywood’s latest comic-book motion picture, “Doctor Strange,” opened from east to west, Champaign to Quincy, contributing to an impressive $325 million worldwide box office. “Doctor Strange” stars Benedict Cumberbatch as a surgeon who develops mystical powers after an accident injures his hands.
Sean Howe, author of “Marvel Comics: The Untold Story,” took time to share some perspective on “Doctor Strange” and the whole phenomenon of superhero films and television shows led by Marvel, from the big screen epics to TV’s popular series “Daredevil,” “Jessica Jones,” the new “Luke Cage” and next year’s “Defenders,” featuring those three plus the Punisher and Iron Fist.
Howe sees the productions as enjoyable but not yet reaching their potential.
“I think Marvel has done a terrific job, for the most part, although I still haven’t seen a franchise sustain greatness,” he says. “In other words, while I think the standard of superhero movies has improved tremendously, I don’t think they’ve yet transcended the label of ‘superhero movie.’ (A big stumbling block is the dreaded All-Fighting Third Act, which everyone I know finds to be a drag.)
“I think the Captain America films have been the most consistently satisfying,” he continues. “The first and third Iron Man films have a lot to recommend too.”
Out of Marvel’s long string of successes — also including the X-Men, various Spider-Man, Daredevil, Fantastic Four(s), Deadpool or Guardians of the Galaxy — Howe is reluctant to pick a favorite movie. Instead, he focuses on moments.
“Favorite scenes (are) the ‘Time in A Bottle’ sequence in ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past,’ the great hallway fight scene in ‘Daredevil’ (and) the flashback hospital scene in ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’.”
Comparing DC Comics’ attempts — which have been uneven since the Christopher Reeve Superman pictures and the various Batman feature — is more interesting since the former print front-runner is playing catchup in multiplexes even as it’s carved a popular niche on television with “Lois & Clark,” “Smallville,” “Arrow,” “Flash” and “Supergirl.”
Howe says, “I think the DC films could learn a lot from the tone of the DC television shows. The strength of the DC Universe has very little to do with brooding and violent action. It might — sometimes — work for Batman, but a Superman movie should feel inspiring and uplifting.”
Studios and producers alike may not be fully marketing one of their great strengths, Howe adds.
“I wish that comic book companies would put more effort into promoting the art form of comics rather than just the characters,” he says. “The special effects in ‘Doctor Strange’ are extraordinary, and I loved the nods to (artist) Steve Ditko’s visual style, but there’s still a lot that a comic page can offer that a film can’t.”
As far as storylines, Howe says come critics’ complaints about never-ending sagas instead of single-issue plots may have some merit, but some readers are attracted to long, involved yarns.
“I’d argue that Marvel offers a greater number of limited-issue story arcs than they used to,” Howe says. ‘Marvel always produced fewer self-contained single issues than DC did; in fact, that was the appeal for some readers, and a big factor in Marvel’s unparalleled world-building.”
Speaking of world-building, the most prominent — dominant — creative force in books, graphic novels, and broadcast and theatrical releases remains Stan Lee, the ubiquitous face of Marvel: literally.
“Stan Lee’s current role at Marvel is really just that of ambassador,” Howe says. ‘Even those who don’t know about, say, (artists) Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko recognize his face when he pops up in various cameos. He’s swamped when he makes public appearances, and is for all intents and purposes the face of the brand.”
That brand is planning ahead, with “Guardians of the Galaxy 2,” “The Black Panther,” a “Spider-Man “ reboot, “Ant-Man & the Wasp” and “The Avengers: Infinity Wars” ahead, plus DC’s “Wonder Woman,” “Justice League,” “Aquaman” and “Shazam” scheduled in the next few years.
As Lee would say, “Excelsior!”
Contact Bill at Bill.Knight@hotmail.com