Category Archives: Films

Tools of the New Ancient One: Symbols and Easter Eggs in Doctor Strange

Doctor Strange began with a Wonder Woman trailer (among others) emphasizing how long Marvel is making us wait for a superheroine movie. At the same time, The Ancient One, Strange’s mentor, does a decent job bringing us this archetype; many of the symbolic tools she passes to her protégé are likewise strikingly feminine.
She begins the film in complete control (much like Wonder Woman in all we’ve seen of her). With spinning circles of golden light that she wields as blades, she decimates the foes led by Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius. Further, she has complete control of the world around her, bending and warping reality to entrap them. Finally, she ends the fight by summoning a golden wheel of spinning fire and walking through her portal without an extra breath spent.

Magic leaves sparkler trails when the characters gesture their way through spells, forming shields or whiplike weapons or cool patterns just for the showy hell of it. It makes the air crackle like a sheet of ice when they travel to the mirror dimension, which is like our dimension, only less easily damaged in fight scenes. Magic warps reality itself in Doctor Strange, making buildings fold in on themselves and streets bend and curve in impossible directions, twisting and turning like the world is a Rubik’s Cube in the hands of an impatient child. It allows rooms to stretch out like elastic, then snap back into shape. (Willmore).

Saffron robes suggest enlightenment and, with the hood drawn up, mystery. She’s cool, in a way Doctor Strange longs to become.Meanwhile s bald woman is surprising, suggesting an androgynous hybrid.

“Look, she’s a chameleon in everything she does,” says Feige of Swinton, whose credits include Snowpiercer, Trainwreck, and 1992’s Orlando, in which her character transformed from male to female. “She has this amazing [ability to] harness of this androgynous sense. So, we use the term ‘her’ and ‘she’ in the film but, other than that, it’s very androgynous. Because it doesn’t matter.” (Collis)

The androgene, in myth, is a magical person, with skills and wisdom of both genders. Thus She will teach Doctor Strange how to use his hidden feminine side, all while battling male foes on the battlefield. When EW asked Swinton whether she is playing a man or a woman, the actress responded, that “I wouldn’t know how to answer that one. I think it’s all in the eye of the beholder” (Collis).

Her perfect poise, supported with dramatic music, then switches to more popular tunes as Strange appears in his operating room. This dramatic juxtaposition emphasizes their contrast: She has devoted her life to serving the world, but he is still very much part of it, seeking fame and material success. When he’s crippled, Pangborn sends him to Kamar-Taj in Kathmandu, a place of “gurus and sacred women” where he can learn magic.

Casting a forty-year-old white woman as “The Ancient One” of Kathmandu subverts all expectations. When Strange meets her, she’s quietly serving tea, while he logically assumes the seated elderly Asian man is the ancient one. She corrects him with a self-aware smirk. Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) has told Strange at the gate, “Stephen Strange, might I offer you some advice? Forget everything that you think you know.” However, Strange is still surprised over and over.
Of course, casting Tilda Swinton (however excellent a job she does) is a problematic moment of whitewashing.

It is absolutely unsurprising that Swinton is terrific in the role — embodying ageless beings is one of her many strong suits, from her gender-switching, century-spanning turn in Orlando to her patchouli-scented vampire in Only Lovers Left Alive. But not even the rewarding sight of a mischievous, hairless Swinton informing the film’s self-centered protagonist, “It’s not about you,” can obscure the point that Doctor Strange has missed. The film doesn’t actually get away from the cliché of a white guy soaking up Eastern wisdom and turning out to be a more gifted practitioner than the people it originated from. It just scoops out and replaces the character who’d traditionally be the source of all that wisdom, rather than figure out a way to improve and deepen him. In doing so, Doctor Strange ends up treating Asianness like it’s a lifestyle choice rather than having anything to do with culture or race. (Willmore)

Destroying the themes of the “Tibetan-mystic-hidden in-the-mountains,” stereotype by subverting age, costume, and gender rather than race would make a much more progressive statement. Likewise, Wong, while an amusing character who now has a much less subservient personality, was mostly left out of advertising and trailers. This when Daredevil fights hordes of faceless ninjas and Iron Fist also has disturbing racial questions makes the MCU seem more than a little backwards.
In fact, the entire movie has cultural stereotyping throughout: “It calls upon a classic kind of Orientalism, blurring culture to revel in a vague sense of Asian exoticism without bothering with specifics, and, more pressingly, without the people,” Allison Willmore explains. As she adds:

The worst of those half-steps is also a matter of visuals. Kamar-Taj is a mishmash of Asiana — it’s in Nepal, but its residents like clothing that’s Japanese-inspired, especially in the combination of robes and the obi-like sash favored by the villain Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former Ancient One pupil gone wrong. Strange, upon arriving, is shown a book in which an MRI chart is placed alongside a chakra and acupuncture one. The latticework panels that line the walls look like chinoiserie, while the courtyard seems modeled after a Buddhist temple. The saffron garb the Ancient One is first spotted in seems to recall those of a Buddhist monk as well, though it’s not religion she teaches, per se — more a new way of looking at the universe. Christine, when she re-encounters Strange, muses that it sounds like he’s joined a cult, and Kamar-Taj does, at times, feel like a particularly demanding meditation retreat.

Of course, the institute continues to subvert expectations: its students come from many races, especially the Black character Mordo, who’s generally front and center. Later, Mordo hands Strange a card with Shamballa written on it, but denies Strange’s guess that it’s a mantra he should meditate to, saying, “It’s the wi-fi password. We’re not savages.” Wong, who actually has a quirky sense of humor, listens to Beyoncé.
Nonetheless, Strange is instantly skeptical of the Ancient One’s teachings. She shows him a chakra chart beside an acupuncture chart and an MRI, emphasizing that each artist has part of the puzzle – spiritual knowledge is as valid as science. Of course, Western medicine is notoriously skeptical of acupuncture and Strange complains that he’s seen the Chakra drawings in gift shops (a valid complaint, as the deep spiritual practice has gone mainstream). He insists, “I don’t believe in fairytales about chakras or energy or the power of belief.”
If these stories are all about a chosen one who can save the world, the Ancient One is the chooser. She eyes a skeptical Strange. “You wonder what I see in your future? Possibility.” When he dares to shove her in anger, she then pushes his astral form out from his body.  Strange is still skeptical, demanding, “Did you put mushrooms in my tea? Was my tea drugged?” However, she responds calmly that it’s “Just tea. With honey.” She needn’t use magician’s props because she’s already magic incarnate. As she explains, she had to show him a deeper reality. “You’re a man looking at the world through a keyhole. You’ve spent your life trying to widen it. Your work saved the lives of thousands. What if I told you that reality is one of many?” She also opens his third eye, through only her touch. After she pushed him through a tangle of alternate dimensions, overwhelming in their majesty and horror, he’s convinced. “Magic sends the movie’s title character, Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), spinning through the cosmos, through black-light multiverse dimensions, and through the pupil of his own giant eyeball. The look is a little bit The Matrix, a little bit Inception, a little bit Dark City, and all acid trip” (Willmore). First he’s hurled into space, overlooking the planets, with a gently flapping butterfly. These delicate creatures symbolized the soul, but Strange cannot grasp it before he tumbles away. There’s a dark world of purple, a magical one that’s blue with psychedelic colors. Glowing blue crystals suggest the heavenly serenity he lacks but that awaits him.
Through the trip, she maintains complete control, hauling his body back for a moment to examine it, then throwing him back into the cosmos. She narrates, like the overarching form of god – a mother who can pick up and put down that baby as she pleases. At last, he returns, stunned. She smiles, “Have you seen that at a gift shop?”
He falls at her feet, humbled and gasping. “Teach me.”
She considers for a moment. “No.”
Her people throw him out, and he must humble himself at her door, accept that he knows nothing and show his determination before he’s finally welcomed. In a vivid symbol, his watch is as shattered as he is. Since it’s from Christine, it symbolizes her love, which Strange holds onto even though it’s destroyed. Watches symbolize man’s preoccupation with time – they are artificial and Strange keeps his all locked in a drawer, suggesting a control over these trophies. When he approaches Kamar-Taj, it’s shattered, emphasizing that he will have to throw away such physical controls.
Mordo describes the Ancient One as unpredictable and “merciless yet kind” – a host of contradictions indicating her multifaceted nature. The mentor understands the workings of the universe in a way the untried hero does not. In many ways, becoming a spiritual tutor is more of a women’s role, and especially appropriate for the mature man. The elderly Dumbledore, Gandalf, or Obi-Wan teaches the young hero to use his powers but also shows him how to grow up. Strange is already grown, and all his training has focused on the physical world of prestige and control. He knows science and has built a reputation based in his accomplishments. Thus the spiritual woman can introduce him to his untapped mystical, self-effacing side.
When their lessons begin, she opens a classic protective circle with the nine sephirot inside. Etz Chiym, the Tree of Life, is the symbol at the heart of the Kabbalah. It encapsulates creation, existence and the return to the Divine in ten spheres called sephirot and the twenty-two paths through which they interrelate. The sephirot are the 10 attributes/emanations in Kabbalah, through which Ein Sof (The Infinite) reveals himself:
Keter, the Divine Crown
Hokhmah, Wisdom
Binah, Understanding
Hesed, Mercy
Din, Justice
Tif’eret, Beauty
Nezah, Eternity
Hod, Glory
Yesod, Foundation
Shekhinah, God’s Presence in the World

They emphasize a path to enlightenment through selflessness and awareness of the universe – traits Strange most needs to acquire. The shape is also connected to the World Symbol – the entire world order (consisting of spheres) held together by “a mysterious, unseen central force that the Hindus called Maya – the Goddess who created the material universe” (Walker 63). The World Tree of Thor’s Norse mythology has a similar image.
The most basic magic is the portal, a fiery wheel conjured with a double-circled finger ring. Circles are particularly feminine symbols, suggesting the lifecycle. “The universe begins with roundness; so say the myths,” Walker says. “The great circle, the cosmic egg, the bubble, the spiral, the moon, the zero, the wheel of time, the infinite womb; such are the symbols that try to express a human sense of the wholeness of things” (2). Gauntlets, wristbands (seen later) and rings accentuate the acts of the hands – symbol of active power. Thus the physical power is augmented with the spiritual, something that confuses Strange, who’s certain his shaking hands are stopping him from achieving the latter.
Hands are a masculine symbol, indicating the worker and emphasizing his effect on his environment. Strange has loss the full use of this physical tool and thus must replace it with mental and spiritual ones. When the Ancient One has Master Hamir show that he can do magic with one hand missing, she teaches that physical power is not the only form of strength. She thus teaches him to surrender his will rather than trying to impose it on the world. She also abandons him on Mount Everest, a place higher and physically mightier than he is, to emphasize he will not win with physical gifts.
When Mordo spars with Strange, he orders him to defend himself, and Strange creates his first weapon – a glowing cord stretched between his hands. In ancient myth, cords bound the earth to the heavens and people’s minds to their reason. Ropes thus emphasize interconnection and bonds between body and spirit. The Fates spun a lifeline for each person, and the Egyptian goddess Hathor bound sinners in glowing ribbons. They can also represent the umbilical cord, connecting each person with the divine mother. In Greece, “Ariadne’s thread leading Theseus through the Labyrinth (into the darkness and out again) represented the rebirth journey” (Walker 130). Strange is operating under the Divine Mother’s guidance and also trying to connect with the people around him, leading himself at last in a journey of rebirth.
The Ancient One also offers Strange the Mirror Dimension, where he can train without affecting the physical world. Once again this is a feminine symbol of her power and spirituality, one Doctor Strange uses under her guidance:

Rather than a sign of vanity, this mirror was a divine soul-catcher, or passage to the spirit world, as it was considered universally. Amaterasu’s mirror is her shotai, her god-body. When she bestows it on her grandson, earliest emperor of Japan, she says, “My child, when thou lookest upon this mirror,
let it be as if thou wert looking on me. Let it be with thee on thy couch and in thy hall, and let it be to thee a holy mirror.” Today it is the most sacred image of her at her shrine at Ise.16 Celtic women were buried with their mirrors, as a gateway to the afterlife, and Buddhist and Christian teachings describe
a future in which we can see beyond the shallow reflection of our current existence. Snow White’s stepmother seeks her mirror’s advice as from an oracle, and some magicians trap their victims as “slaves of the mirror” forever. In Egypt, the word for life and mirror is the same (ankh). One reflects the other. In fact, the ankh symbol is an image of the goddess, round head over outstretched arms and upright body. It became known in Egypt as a symbol of sexual union, feminine circle and male cross united. Thus it came to represent immortality, worn by the gods to show their eternal life. (Frankel 47-48)

Mordo tells Doctor Strange that nothing more is known about her “except that she’s Celtic” and really, really old.
While Strange is most closely associated with the Book of Vishanti, the plot begins when the villains steal an incantation taken from the Book of Cagliostro, a magical text penned in the late 18th century that gathers mystical knowledge from countless sources. Books obviously symbolize the intellect and all the wisdom Strange must aquire, so he reads as many as he can. Nonetheless, Strange finds the juxtapositions of science and the occult frustrating:

Dr. Stephen Strange: [on magic] This doesn’t make any sense.
The Ancient One: Not everything does. Not everything has to.

The Ancient One teaches him that he must start over – study and practice his skills as he did through all the years of medical school, but this time take a different path. Instantly, Strange starts cheating the system, learning how to use the mystic Eye of Agamotto to tamper with time. His teachers are aghast, telling him he isn’t just warping time but breaking it and could be stuck in a time loop forever.
The eye as a protective charm is seen most as the Middle Eastern Hamsa/Hand of Fatima or witches’ Evil Eye. Barbara Walker describes the eye as the judging stare of the crone, or the essential eye contact between mother and baby – a formative image that lingers with the child long into adulthood. “So many ancient traditions identify the birth-giving goddess with the All-Seeing Eye that there might well be an archetypal connection” (308). The Hamsa (a protective hand with a blue eye in the center) uses this magic to ward off evil forces. Thus Strange’s long-prized amulet connects him with the mystical feminine side of reality. Its green light suggests the mystic and arcane. The design remains similar to that in the comics, albeit with the addition of the Seal of the Vishanti over the top of the eye. Steve Ditko in fact drew inspiration from the real world charm The All Seeing Eye of the Buddha, which protected its wearer against evil.
When there’s an attack, he stumbles through a portal into the New York Sanctum, wearing the Eye of Agamotto. He fights the invaders with his cord, but they transform the building around him, suggesting a command over reality itself. He summons light wheels like those of his teachers’ but they’re clumsy. He hasn’t yet mastered the magic. Only when he fights them using the world as a tool – switching the portal to different locations – does he succeed. He fights them with a kind of torch with a bowllike cauldron on the end. Kaecilius smirks. “You don’t know how to use that, do you?” Of course, the is another feminine symbol, combining the bowl of the womb with the flame of enlightenment — Strange can’t yet master either. Kaecilius smashes him into a display case, where the Cloak of Levitation escapes and protects him.
A cloak suggests disguise and concealment – feminine attributes in folklore. Red is often the color of the mature woman, the mother, brimming with life energy, while his tunic, blue as the sky, suggests spiritual enlightenment. In classic art, the Virgin Mary wears a blue cloak and red robe – the reversal of Doctor Strange. The Cloak of Levitation shields Strange from blows and drags him to the weapons room where it pulls him away from swords and spears of physical, masculine battle, in favor of a more defensive straightjacket.
With Kaecilius entrapped, the men talk and Strange discovers Kaecilius has an agenda much like his own – to end mankind’s suffering and death. When he calls life “little sparks,” Strange must accept that they think the same way. Nonetheless, he defies Kaecilius, insisting, “The Sorcerer Supreme defends existence.” When his enemies wound him, he portals back to Christine and gets her help in healing him as he fights on the astral plane. Nonetheless, he blends his old world and new, using the defibrillator to power his astral self.
At last the cavalry comes and Strange flings himself, Mordo, and the enemies into the mirror world. To his shock, however, they are stronger there. The heroes are losing, tossed around a shifting reality, until, suddenly, the Ancient One joins the fight. Instantly, she takes control, creating a swirling stable patterned floor underneath them. Her symbol is reminiscent of the Celtic triquetra, three circular arcs enclosed by a circle, reflecting a protective Pagan or Christian trinity. Her glowing circle weapons become fans, a feminine image of defense and concealment. At once, Mordo realizes she wields the power of darkness as well as light. However, Strange realizes that everyone compromises, that her knowledge of darkness has made her more equipped to fight. This lesson appears in stories of Hulk and Daredevil, but Mordo rejects it. Meanwhile, the Ancient One fights valiantly, but is defeated.
Strange brings her to the hospital, and finally humbles himself to ask Doctor West for help – he’s learning to let go. When he sees the Ancient One’s astral form float away as his team operates, he follows. Under a sky full of stars and snowflakes, with flashes of lightning, they talk. Winter signifies age and death – an ending to things. Lightning is conflict, magic, emotion – all the things Strange stands poised to embrace. Stars suggest the infinite. There, the Ancient One tells Strange he must choose between medicine and magic. She also must tell him, “Arrogance and fear still keep you from learning the simplest and most significant lesson of all…It’s not about you.”
He takes this lesson to heart for the final conflict. He uses the Eye to save the innocents around the Taiwan Institute, then fashions himself, not a weapon but a simple protective device. His green armbands of looped time break all the rules, much as his teacher did. Like her methods, they’re effective. They suggest the arcane power of magic combined with the simple human magic of his long-shattered watch, now restored to a stronger, if different form – like himself.
Using his own cleverness and instance on breaking rules, he flies off to confront the smoky-headed Dormammu. The image for this head is actually Cumberbatch’s, emphasizing that he’s the tiny voice of reason and altruism within, battling his monstrous, selfish greed. The world around them is purple with bruise-colored spheres like a wound…or like dark magic. This is the enemy’s stronghold, where the hero has no power. Thus Dormammu kills him over and over. Sometimes the hero’s task is to endure, weaponless, to sacrifice all he has to save innocents. This Strange does, dying over and over to prolong life on earth, saying only “Dormammu, I’ve come to bargain,” until he wears down the villain with his passive resistance. On a few occasions, he defends himself with golden shields, suggesting a new mastery, but each time, he dies. He’s at last learned to surrender his will, saying “I could lose again and again and again forever.” At this, Dormammu finally gives in.
Returning to earth, Strange does not kill Kaecilius and his goons, but gives them what they always wanted — eternal life as part of the one they worship. He has saved the world as mastered the powers of his master, the Sorcerer Supreme. Nonetheless, he sets aside the Eye of Agamotto until he’s ready. Since it’s an Infinity Stone, this suggests setting aside entry into the MCU multifilm conflict, though his time will come soon enough.

If you enjoyed this analysis, do check out more with The Avengers Face Their Dark Sides: Mastering the Myth-Making behind the Marvel Superheroes https://www.amazon.com/Avengers-Face-Their-Dark-Sides/dp/0692432450
Easter Eggs

• Doctor Strange first appeared in Strange Tales #110 in 1963, by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. His origin story only came in his fourth appearance, in Strange Tales #115. The movie plot is about right.
• In the comics, the book was stolen by Baron Mordo so he could use its power to defeat the Ancient One. In the movie, Kaecilius takes his place, but Mordo makes the journey to villain through the film. In Strange Tales, Kaecilius is one of Mordo’s disciples. Here he takes Mordo’s place as villain, while Mordo gets a more extensive origin story. In the comics, the book contains the knowledge to control time. In the movie, it explains how to use the Eye of Agamotto to achieve the same end.
• In the comics Christine Palmer is actually the name of one of the Night Nurses (there have been three). Another Night Nurse is Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), the ER nurse who ends up helping out the various members of the future Defenders during their shows.
• The song playing while Strange has his life-changing car crash is the psychedelic rock classic “Interstellar Overdrive” (1967) by Pink Floyd. The band featured artwork from Strange Tales #158 on the cover of their second album, A Saucerful of Secrets (1968), which featured the Living Tribunal.
• Some of Dr. Stephen Strange’s prospective surgical patients include an Air Force colonel injured in a suit of armor. The timing is wrong for Col. James Rhodes, aka War Machine. But it might be the soldier who was injured testing Justin Hammer’s Iron Man armor back in Iron Man 2, shown in the courtroom scene. Strange rejects an elderly woman to preserve his statistics and is also told about a young woman with schizophrenia and an inhibitor chip who was struck by lightning. This last might be significant — Lodestone and Nebula have had implants to either control or enhance them.
• Dr. Nick West, who in the movie has a rivalry with Doctor Strange, is based on Nicodemus West, a doctor who, in the comics cannot save Strange’s hands after his car accident. West is a prominent character in The Oath (2007), a popular five-issue Doctor Strange miniseries by Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin, which heavily influenced the tone of the movie
• The scene where Strange wakes in the hospital bed is framed in homage to this cover shot comes from Brandon Peterson’s run on Doctor Strange, which shows the car crash origin.
• A few throwaway lines from the Ancient One recall some of Strange’s comics titles. She refers to “the language of the mystic arts,” and Doc is known as the “master of the mystic arts” in the comics. Her title is Sorcerer Supreme, eventually his own.
• Wong connects Strange to the larger Marvel universe when he explains, “Heroes like the Avengers protect the world from physical dangers. We safeguard it against more mystical threats.”
• Avengers Tower appears in its rightful place as part of the New York City skyline.
• The Ancient One’s home of Kamar-Taj has always been part of the story, though it wasn’t named until much later in the comics.
• When Strange is finally allowed to stay with The Ancient One, Mordo hands him a piece of paper with “Shamballa” written on it. Mordo deadpans that it is the Wi-Fi password. It also nods to the famous Doctor Strange storyline “Into Shamballa”, in which Strange was given the chance to shepherd in a golden age for mankind, but at a cost so severe he couldn’t bear to pay it. This reflects the theme of this film – the cost of power.
• Many theorize that Ejiofor’s role is a combination of Doctor Voodoo, the Houngan Supreme (like a Sorcerer Supreme, but for Voodoo), and Baron Mordo.
• Wong first appeared in Strange Tales #110, as a stereotypical servant, who could fight but not use magic. Here he’s been updated with more of a personality, a position of authority, and Sorcerer powers.
• Trying to break the ice with Wong, Doctor Strange asks if he just has a single name “like Adele” and then proceeds to mention Bono, Eminem and Drake as well as Aristotle, getting in piles of pop culture. When the pair meet again, Strange compares Wong to Beyoncé, a comment Wong ignores, then later he’s seen listening to her on his walkman.
• The Book of Vishanti is “off limits” to Strange until he steals it from Wong. In the comics, The Vishanti are a trio of benevolent Gods from the multiverse. Agamotto was appointed by the Vishanti before ascending to become one of them.
• An Extra called Clem So with long white hair also appears as one of the sorcerers – he was in Guardians Of The Galaxy in the prison, with the artificial leg.
• One of the mages at Kamar-Taj is Tina Minoru (played by Linda Louise Duan). She is a link to The Runaways comics universe, since she is the mother of teen heroine Nico Minoru. Tina wields the Staff of One, which she eventually leaves to Nico.
• Master Hamir – the sorcerer with one hand – is an allusion to Hamir the Hermit. In early issues of Strange Tales, he was the Ancient One’s personal servant and later the father of Wong.
• Mordo wears the Vaulting Boots of Valtorr — Valtorr is a powerful mystical entity Strange invokes repeatedly in the comics.
• The Living Tribunal may not have a staff, but his existence is set up here. In comics, he’s powerful enough to battle the Infinity Gauntlet.
• The Book of Cagliostro comes out of the Steve Englehart/Frank Brunner Doctor Strange comics
• Doc’s Sanctum Sanctorum at 177a Bleecker Street with its distinctive window with the Sanctum rune appears. From the very first story it was listed as being in Greenwich Village, a more bohemian and dangerous place in 1963 than currently.
• There was initially going to be an Easter Egg specifically pointing to The Black Knight. The New York Sanctum includes the Black Knight’s headwear.
• The Crimson Bands Of Cyttorak is a spell that sends red coloured bands of energy out of Strange’s hands like whips to bind his enemies. His magical cord weapon seems reminiscent of this.
• Doctor Strange was given the Cloak of Levitation by the Ancient One at the conclusion of his second battle with Dormammu (in Strange Tales #127), and he kept the look ever since. the Eye of Agamotto is his best-known accessory.
• Doctor Strange and Mordo’s outfits are closely modelled on their traditional comic book looks, from the former’s white streaks in his hair, blue belted tunic and flowing red cape to Mordo’s green robes.
• The Oath echoes the movie scene in which Christine Palmer operates on Strange while speaking to his astral form. Both star Palmer, though in the comics, she’s Night Nurse.
• From Doctor Strange’s first appearance he’s doing astral projection. The astral plane fistfight is right out of Strange Tales #111, in which Strange and Mordo battle, knocking each other through walls and so forth.
• The Ancient One is first introduced in Strange Tales #110, as Doctor Strange consults with him before taking on a case. The Ancient One in the comics does draw power from the Dark Dimension – his name is often uttered in various spells and incantations by both Doctor Strange and The Ancient One.
• In Steve Englehart and Frank Brunner’s A Separate Reality, the Ancient One gives Strange a mysterious metaphysical pep talk then dies.
• While the smoky-headed Dormammu didn’t appear until Strange Tales #126, he was mentioned all the time and is Strange’s most well-known foe
• The Eye of Agamotto, which can manipulate time, is finally revealed as the Time Stone, one of the Infinity Stones — only the Soul Stone now remains unaccounted for in the MCU.
• The Master of the New York Sanctum is referred to as Drumm. This is Daniel Drumm, the brother of Jericho Drumm, Brother Voodoo, a heroic sorcerer in the Marvel comics.
• When he prepares for battle, Wong is seen grabbing a kind of magical staff, in fact, the Wand of Watoomb.
• Strange’s original artist – Steve Ditko – gets homages with some of the art, especially The Dark Dimension. The tiny Doctor in the world of strange connected spheres is all him.
• Strange slams into the side of a bus on which Stan Lee is reading Aldous Huxley’s 1954 essay, The Doors of Perception, an account of using mescaline, which is a hallucinogen similar to LSD. This references the trippy quality of Steve Ditko’s early work on Strange, and the sixties counterculture it foreshadowed.
• There are a significant number of similarities between this film and the animated Doctor Strange film from 2007. In both, Dr Strange is taught personally by the Ancient One about reality warping, and by Wong, and the Ancient One’s disciples travel the world. Strange also has a female “sidekick,” with Gina Atwater instead of Christine Palmer. In both, Baron Mordo is black and develops a resentment for what Strange and his fellow Sorcerers have become.
• The facial capture for Dormammu was performed by Benedict Cumberbatch, while the voice was provided by an unidentified British actor.
The more I thought about it the more I liked the idea,” said Derrickson. “Because no one understood Dormammu better than Benedict did. I also wrote that role to be a kind of ultra-inflated version of Strange. He is an ego run amok; he is this cosmic conqueror where everything, where literally everything in the multi-verse is about him.There’s something interesting about this confrontation of this little, tiny guy who has this power of time and this monstrous conqueror who is trapped by a clever gambit. There’s something about that worked well, and I didn’t think anybody to interact with Benedict than he, himself.” (“13 Coolest”)
• In the comics too Strange and Dormammu are forced into a pact when Strange helps save the demon from the Mindless Ones and Dormammu is forced to agree not to ever attack Earth again.
• When Kaecilius and his associates are banished into the Dark Dimension, they transform into blob-like, one-eyed creatures known as the Mindless Ones. These extra-dimensional creatures with no will of their own attack many Marvel characters. They may appear in films to come.
• The warnings come after the instructions repeatedly…and at the film’s end, there’s another warning – this one about distracted driving.
• Thor appears in the first post-credits scene and sets up Thor: Ragnarok, as he searches for his father, Odin. Strange did team-up with Thor in an early story involving Loki.
• The second post-credits scene shows Mordo’s development as a villain. In the comics, Mordo is Doctor Strange’s rival, introduced in Strange Tales #111, with an origin story in Strange Tales #115.

If you enjoyed this analysis, do check out more with The Avengers Face Their Dark Sides: Mastering the Myth-Making behind the Marvel Superheroes https://www.amazon.com/Avengers-Face-Their-Dark-Sides/dp/0692432450

Works Cited
“13 Coolest Doctor Strange Easter Eggs, References, and Trivia.” IGN, 26 Oct 2016 http://www.ign.com/articles/2016/10/26/13-coolest-doctor-strange-easter-eggs-references-and-trivia?page=1. Web.
Collis, Clark. “Tilda Swinton Says her Doctor Strange character’s Gender Is ‘in the eye of the beholder’” EW, 30 Dec 2015. http://www.ew.com/article/2015/12/30/doctor-strange-tilda-swinton-ancient-one. Web.

Frankel, Valerie Estelle. From Girl to Goddess: The Heroine’s Journey in Myth and Legend. McFarland and Co., 2010. Print.
Walker, Barbara G. The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects. Harper, 1988. Print.
Willmore, Alison. “The Incredible Visuals and Unfortunate Orientalism of “Doctor Strange.” BuzzFeed, 27 Oct., 2016. https://www.buzzfeed.com/alisonwillmore/doctor-strange-review. Web.

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Guest Blog Posts

With my monthly column for legendary women and occasional posts on Thought Catalog, I guest blog more than I blog on my own site. The thought occurred that I and others might want to find them all. So here they are:

Legendary Women

Game of Thrones Season Six Wrap Up June 2006

DC Bombshells Rewrite History Mar 2016

“Is it more sexist not to hit you?”- The Women of Deadpool Feb 2016

Comparing Rey Amberle and Wonder Woman Jan 2016

2015 Geek Girl Power Comics Shopping Guide Part 1

2015 Geek Girl Power Comics Shopping Guide Part 2

2015 Geek Girl Power Comics Shopping Guide Part 3

Skye’s Heroine’s Journey 2015

Supergirl Pilot 2015

Joss Whedon’s X-Men 2015

Doctor Who and Missy 2015

CW’s Vixen 2015

The MCU Black Widow 2015

Game of Thrones Season 5 2015

 

Also article and interview about my Buffy and the Heroine’s Journey:

http://www.legendarywomen.org/content/buffy-and-her-journey-heroine

http://legendarywomen.org/content/valerie-frankel-author-buffy-and-heroines-journey-interview

Thought Catalog

Hot Teen Vampires And Werewolves: How Did They Start, And More Importantly, Who Gets The Girl? 22 Mar 2016

Game Of Thrones Season Five Wrap Up: The Book vs The Show And Where We’re Going

One of the big disappointments for me (and I’m not the only one) were the Sand Snakes.

28 Jul 2015

How Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. Is Very Joss Whedon

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has returned, and to no one’s surprise, Skye’s new plot expands the Marvel Cinematic Universe while simultaneously transforming her into a superhero.

8 Apr 2015

The “Strange, Young-Old” Peter Capaldi Will Bring Doctor Who Back To Its Origins

More to the point, this Doctor is on a mission to find the Time Lords and restore the balance, returning the series to, perhaps, its mid-series premise of a “secret-agent-man” Doctor taking orders from the higher-ups and interpreting them to his rebellious liking.

20 Aug 2014

12 Game Of Thrones Mysteries That Are Going To Drive You Crazy

Who will win? Who will finally take the Iron Throne?

11 Jun 2014

“The Day Of The Doctor” And The Hero’s Journey

“The Day of the Doctor” is a perfect Hero’s Journey arc…if “The Night of the Doctor” (the brief online minisode available here) is included.

26 Nov 2013

Game Of Thrones Recap: Thoughts On The Season 3 Finale And Beyond

After last week’s WHAM! of an episode, viewers approached with trepidation. However, this episode was mainly wrap-up. Walder Frey gloated, Joffrey gloated, Tyrion and Tywin debated ethics, Tyrion broke the news to Sansa, Arya took a very small revenge.

10 Jun 2013

Other Websites

Hogwarts Professor: Aug 21, 2013 – Mortal Instruments: City of Bones and Alchemy

Denise Derrico’s Key of Dee: Jan 2016  Why Rey Needs a Light-Chakram 

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Filed under Books, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Comics, Doctor Who, Films, Game of Thrones, Heroine's Journey, Star Wars, Superheroes, Uncategorized, Young Adult Fantasy

Rebooting A New Hope — the Catch of Force Awakens

Most of us have seen the Original Trilogy so many times, it’s taken on a life of its own in our memories. Beyond the fact that we can all quote Yoda from memory, there’s also the weird distortion that happens when every single cute moment has become a T-shirt or a meme. You’ve probably attended a Star Wars wedding. The Force Awakens is as much a sequel to our collective memory of those films as it is to the films themselves.

In that context, a lot of The Force Awakens is about revisiting the big ideas of the Original Trilogy through the eyes of a new, younger set of characters, and rediscovering them. There’s no way to strip away the cultural baggage that’s accrued to the first three Star Wars films, and get at the essence of what they actually were—so instead, this film aims to connect to that collective miasma of shared ideas, while making it all new again (Anders)

Fan-service and shout-outs to the original movies are constant. To some extent this is acknowledging this world’s history – legends of Luke and Han, with the Millennium Falcon or Darth Vader’s skull as souvenirs of the earlier adventures. Other callbacks continue the original aesthetic – use of scale to emphasize the vastness of planets and ships beside personal fliers and tiny individuals.  The Force Awakens specifically offers the grungy looking “used future” rather than the shiny CGI droids and intricate costumes of the Old Republic. Nonetheless, technology has both aged and advanced, in small, subtle ways that feel believable, such as X-wing upgrades and the mobile BB-8. There’s the feel of Old Star Wars, from the designs to the vanished racist aliens, cloying children, pod races, painful dialogue, and midichlorians of the prequels. Instead, humor and camaraderie are central, to the point of lots of hugging.

“If we got intoxicated by the nostalgia of what we were doing, the movie was gonna suck,” Abrams admitted (“Director J.J. Abrams” 66). It’s a risk the film frequently takes. In particular, he has recycled the entire plot. Plans hidden in a droid, a Death Star equivalent, three young heroes who mirror the original ones out to save the galaxy.

The Force Awakens essentially retells the story of A New Hope, beat for beat. It inverts some things here, gender-flips some things there, and tweaks a few other things. But this is a movie about a child of mysterious parentage who grows up on a desert planet and proves essential to blowing up a massive, planet-destroying space station. Rewriting the Star Wars saga, this is not. Instead, it’s a bit of a remix. (VanDerWerff)

The similarities run deeper than that, even. If you lay A New Hope alongside The Force Awakens, Rey meets Han Solo roughly when Luke meets Obi-Wan Kenobi, and her one-woman escape from the clutches of the First Order turns her into the imprisoned Leia and the Luke who rescues the princess all in one character. Rey’s story and Luke’s mirror each other almost exactly. (VanDerWerff)

Abrams has also brought back many of the emotional resonances. The conflict between father and son in this film is different from the one in Empire, yet startlingly similar. Like Luke, Rey seeks the truth of her parenthood and has (possibly) an evil relative in a mask tempting her to the Dark Side.

Abrams notes, “George Lucas told a story about everyman, everywoman characters who were nobodies who had to step up and become somebody. The idea that there would be a new crop of nobodies in the Star Wars universe who didn’t realize yet they would become somebody, that was a very powerful feeling” (“Director J.J. Abrams” 66). Some of the elements and characters are flipped, as Rey definitely doesn’t need a rescue, allowing the audience a moment of fun.

The visual message is clear: Don’t take anything at face value, because you’re never seeing the whole picture. Abrams loves to surprise and startle his audience, but he also goes into this movie with a laundry list of things that we’re expecting to see, because Star Wars. Instead of simply setting up expectations within the narrative and then playing off them, he’s in a position of having to play off our pre-existing expectations—so he gives us what we expect, but still tries to keep us off guard.

But at times, nostalgia definitely overwhelms storytelling, and at times the determination to give us the “greatest hits” of Star Wars is a little too ingratiating. (Anders)

Of course, a valid point is how derivative it all was the first time around. Even without this major commentary on how life works, it was still recycled storytelling. The heroic space melodrama appeared in Flash Gordon, also a story of a young hero mixing space and fantasy while rescuing his heroine from the Dark Lord. There’s a heavy dose of old radio dramas, too, where superheroes flew into space in great genre mash-ups. The plot is pure hero’s journey as everyone has noticed – King Arthur in space. The other stories follow this as well. Critic Chris Taylor notes: “Spoiler alert: Every Star Wars trilogy is going to follow the arc of the hero’s journey. As did every work of fiction from Gilgamesh to The Hunger Games. As will all the spin-off Star Wars movies” (Taylor).

The original trilogy is also derivative within itself as films one and three have Death Stars, and Luke finishes the fight Darth began with Obi-Wan. In Empire, Luke must choose between the bigger picture and saving Leia and his friends, something the Emperor continues taunting him with in the third film. The prequels, too, are obsessed with the bonds of family and friendship while rehashing character appearances and massive nods to the series that will follow. Taylor adds:

The entire Star Wars series is intentionally derivative of itself. This goes back to The Empire Strikes Back, which reprised Luke’s Jedi training with Obi-Wan — using a creature who grew out of a version of the “Ben Kenobi” character in the third draft of “The Star Wars,” as it then was. The derivative version ended up being better, and darker, with Luke’s vision of facing Vader springing out of it.

Lucas learned a vital lesson: Keep iterating on the same ideas and you’ll strike gold….Say what you like about J.J. Abrams, but there is no greater imitator of George Lucas than George Lucas. (Taylor)

One could even argue that the repeated plot elements each time are commentary on human nature – each time the world is fixed, someone else must invent a new superweapon or try again with plans from the old one. As Gerry Canavan explains:

…while I can certainly understand the impulse to complain about The Force Awakens as derivative, I really think this is more repetition with a difference than mere or base or stupid repetition. One Death Star is a horror; two Death Stars and one Starkiller Base and whatever horrific murder innovation the First Order will come up with for Episode 9 is something more like the inexorable logic of history, grinding us all to dust. Likewise, it’s true that The Force Awakens hits many of the same story beats as the Original Trilogy, but almost always in ways that are worse: the death of Obi-Wan was sad but mysterious, suggestive of a world beyond death which the Jedi could access, while the death of The Force Awakens’s version of Obi-Wan is not only brutally material but visceral and permanent, as far as we have any reason to believe right now. The loss of Alderaan is sad, but the loss of what appears to be the entire institutional apparatus of the resurgent Republic is unthinkably devastating; aside from the loss of life it would take decades for the Galaxy to recover from such an event, even if they weren’t having to fight off the First Order while doing it. (Canavan)

True, but so far, the new film doesn’t have much identity to set it apart – if its scenes, shots, characters and plots mirror A New Hope so completely, viewers could really use a clue what this new story has to offer that’s different from the old one.

If you enjoyed this, it’s an excerpt from a longer book. We’re Home: Fandom, Fun, and Hidden Homages in Star Wars: The Force Awakenshttp://www.amazon.com/Were-Home-Fandom-Homages-Awakens-ebook/dp/B01A59W4XQ/ The book is for sale in paperback and ebook, free through Kindle Unlimited. Also, check out A Rey of Hope: Feminism, Symbolism and Hidden Gems in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
http://www.amazon.com/Rey-Hope-Feminism-Symbolism-Awakens-ebook/dp/B01A6OP99Q

 

Works Cited

Anders, Charlie Jane. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens Is the Most Fun I’ve Had at the Movies in Ages.” IO9, 16 Dec 2015. http://io9.gizmodo.com/star-wars-the-force-awakens-is-the-most-fun-ive-had-at-1748271186

Canavan, Gerry. “From “A New Hope” to no Hope at All: “Star Wars,” Tolkien and the Sinister and Depressing Reality of Expanded Universes.” Salon 24 Dec 2015.

http://www.salon.com/2015/12/24/from_a_new_hope_to_no_hope_at_all_star_wars_tolkien_and_the_sinister_and_depressing_reality_of_expanded_universes/

“Director J.J. Abrams.” People Special Star Wars: The Force Awakens Edition, Dec 2015. 66.

Taylor, Chris. “Questions for Anyone Who Calls Star Wars: The Force Awakens a ‘Remake’.” Mashable 23 Dec 2015. http://mashable.com/2015/12/23/force-awakens-is-no-remake/?utm_cid=mash-com-fb-main-link#Tz7esDdYusqD

VanDerWerff, Todd. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens: 5 Ways the New Movie Copies the Original Film.” Vox, 21 Dec. 2015. http://www.vox.com/2015/12/21/10632690/star-wars-the-force-awakens-spoilers-han-solo-new-hope

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Filed under Films, Pop Culture, Star Wars, Uncategorized

Gender Subversions in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Luke Skywalker has vanished.
In his absence, the sinister
FIRST ORDER has risen
from the ashes of the Empire
and will not rest until Skywalker, the last Jedi,
has been destroyed.

With the support of the REPUBLIC, General Leia Organa leads a brave RESISTANCE.
She is desperate to find her
brother Luke and gain his
help in restoring peace and
justice to the galaxy.

Leia has sent her most daring
pilot on a secret mission
to Jakku, where an old ally
has discovered a clue to
Luke’s whereabouts . . .

 

In itself this title sequence more than provides the exposition. It sets up a new kind of story with a shift in who gets to be front and center.

Luke is gone. In fact, he won’t be the hero-leader of the story at all. All of the other characters will make a new narrative and show what they have to contribute, front and center. The second paragraph introduces “General Leia Organa” – no longer Princess Leia and not Mrs. Leia Solo either. She is the active one as she organizes the search, while Luke remains passive, waiting to be found. In fact, Luke doesn’t have a single line in the film, only waiting as active Rey sets out to find him, much as Princess Leia waited the first time around. “Leia is in need of finding in A New Hope, so Luke is in need of finding in The Force Awakens” (VanDerWerff). In the book, Rey’s thoughts provide a fun callback to this switchover:

His hair and beard were white, and his countenance was haunted. He did not speak, nor did she.

Remembering, Rey reached into her pack and removed his Lightsaber. Taking several steps forward, she held it out to him. An offer. A plea. The galaxy’s only hope.

All this sets the scene for a far different Star Wars universe, one that’s been changing for a while:

There has been a noticeable increase of prominent women in Star Wars; most notably with Ahsoka and Ventress in Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and Hera and Sabine in Star Wars Rebels. But in these cartoons they are still supporting players in Anakin and Ezra’s stories. They are most certainly included, even at times emphasized, and in the case of Ahsoka receive a great amount of development, but they are never the character who’s central to the story. (Moran)

Certainly, there have been strong women in Star Wars (well, two of them) with more in the less-popular television shows and novelizations. However, women’s roles in the franchise have always been sidelined. Certainly, Leia was bold and powerful in her time: When attacked by Stormtroopers in her first scene, the senator in modest white with giant hair buns snatches a blaster. She even shoots first. Unleashing her powerful tongue while imprisoned by the Empire, she mocks them all with “Darth Vader, only you could be so bold,” “Governor Tarkin, I should have expected to find you holding Vader’s leash. I recognized your foul stench when I was brought on board,” and the memorable, “Aren’t you a little short for a Stormtrooper?”

Billie Lourd says, “When I noticed the movie for the first time, I noticed my mom was not only as confident and strong as the men, she was one of the most confident characters in the entire film. It made me realize women are just as powerful as men and that we can truly do anything they can (if not more)” (“Billie Lourd,” 52).

While Han Solo shirks responsibility and Luke Skywalker fumbles around with his evolving, boyish perception of the hero, Leia gets things done. When her own rescue goes awry, she grabs the blaster herself and finds a way out. She’s not just a princess but a radical fighting for freedom under a tyrannical empire.

“She had contempt for and worked with men, and I liked that,” Fisher says. “There was something human about her. It showed that she could do whatever she needed to do, and if she could do that, then everybody could do it. People identified with her. She’s like a superhero.” (Woerner, “Women”)

Nonetheless, she’s the goal of the story for Luke – the princess needing rescue, not the hero growing in power. Of course, her most problematic moment is watching her lie there on display in her gold bikini to please Jabba and the male audience. (In Leia’s prequel book to The Force Awakens, she refuses “a two-piece brown swimsuit adorned with gold braid” and insists on dressing more modestly in a joking homage) (Castellucci 132). Her romance is less problematic, conducted between fellow fighters basically equal in power (most of the time she outranks Han but they’re on his ship and neither intimidates the other).

Meanwhile, she values her fighting ability and perception but uses neither to become a Jedi knight. J.J. Abrams notes that he, co-writer Lawrence Kasdan and even George Lucas had discussed this issue together but decided against it:

It was a great question, and one we talked about quite a bit even with Carrie [Fisher]. If there is ‘another’ why not take advantage of this natural Force strength this character had? And one of the answers was that it was simply a choice she made, that her decision to run the rebellion and ultimately this Resistance, and consider herself a General as opposed to a Jedi, it was simply a choice that she took. Not that there isn’t any regret that should could have and didn’t. But clearly we’ve seen and we do again, she is clearly Force strong. (Abrams, “Why Didn’t”)

In the new story, she leads the Resistance, but only behind the scenes.

Like Leia, Padmé starts strong but then fades away, literally. On Tatooine she proves able to explore the desert world and take care of herself, though she only makes feeble protests at Qui-Gon’s high-handedness. Episode two, the queen fights for her life in a gladiator pit, but also has her clothing artistically slashed through the revealing white fabric. A great deal of time is spent lounging in gorgeous, impractical outfits while Anakin protects her from scary killers. The third is the worst:

Amidala gives up everything, including the will to live, when the love of her life (Anakin Skywalker) turns to evil. She physically dies of a broken heart while cry-birthing Luke and Leia Skywalker. Padmé doesn’t even get the glory of living on as a political martyr; her whole story is swept under the rug so Darth Vader can take the stage. (Woerner, “Women”)

All this is why Rey is such a shakeup. Obviously, she’s completely strong and capable in every scene. In fact, Star Wars not only makes big strides at putting a female front and center, but also at not dwelling on it. No one calls her “princess” or implies she’s too sheltered – which she isn’t. In fact, she’s the first female character growing up outside of privilege – scavenger rather than ruler or senator. “She feels very modern,” Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy says of Rey. “I think she will be relevant to audiences today, she embodies that sense of self-reliance and independence. I think that’s who she is” (Woerner, “Women”).

Yet it isn’t until she meets Finn (John Boyega) where we get to relish watching her defy gender stereotypes. Within minutes of screen time, she disarms Finn with her spear, hides them both from stormtroopers, rescues him — no more hand-holding! — and flies the Millennium Falcon. Just like that, Finn is forced to abandon those quaint, traditional gender-role ideas that were programmed into him since birth by the dictatorial First Order. (If only Earth could adapt as quickly.) (Sperling)

On their first meeting, Finn strides in to rescue her, only to see her outfight all the goons attacking her without any help. Working on the Falcon, Finn is helpless with tools and Rey must direct him in another gender-flip. When he infiltrates the Starkiller Base to rescue her, he finds she’s already saved herself. Likewise, when he takes on Ren with a lightsaber, Rey is the one to win the duel, then save Finn after. The only one Finn actually rescues is the male Poe.

“I hope Rey will be something of a girl power figure,” Ridley says proudly. “She will have some impact in a girl power-y way. She’s brave and she’s vulnerable and she’s so nuanced … She doesn’t have to be one thing to embody a woman in a film. It just so happens she’s a woman but she transcends gender. She’s going to speak to men and women.” (Howard)

There are other flips on traditional gender roles. Though it’s kept family friendly, Kylo Ren violates Rey’s mind, and she fights back, violating his in response and reclaiming her power. She reveals him as a scared little boy playing Vader-dress-up rather than a real supervillain.

Rey thus stands out as a shining role model. One critic relates:

 Leaving the theater, my girls felt as empowered as their brother usually does after seeing one of the many blockbusters built for him. They never commented on how pretty Rey is. They never had to flinch because Rey was a sexual object to some man in power. They just felt strong. Equal. I can only imagine how the film will feel to girls in parts of the world where women are not allowed control over their own bodies or hearts or minds. Imagine a generation of both sexes, growing up believing that girls are powerful. Imagine the force of a billion girls realizing that, one day, they can rule the galaxy. (Sperling)

Another noticeable change is how the women suddenly appear everywhere. Maz and Leia ensure that Rey isn’t the only woman in the galaxy – a problem Leia always had.

The rest of the women in the Star Wars prequels and originals were sidelined to cantina bar stools or Coruscant hallways, banished as background players or imprisoned dancers, with the occasional exception of a Mon Mothma cameo (“Many Bothans died…”). This list becomes only more frustrating when compiled with deleted scenes from Return of the Jedi that revealed footage of multiple female rebel pilots attacking the Death Star. Sadly, most of the lady rebels wound up on the cutting-room floor, save for one pilot whose small line was dubbed over with the voice of a man in the finished film. (Woerner, “Women”)

This time, “Abrams acknowledges the past while fashioning his own pluralistic future filled with a female hero, female generals, and even Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), the galaxy’s first female villain,” added Marlow Stern in The Daily Beast. She concludes: “In this Star Wars, the Force that awakens is woman” (Howard). On Jakku, the first villager who pulls out a blaster to defend them all from Stormtroopers is a woman. Female faces casually appear with Jess the fighter pilot, Rebellion Doctor Kalonia, and some of the aliens on Jakku and Maz’s bar. There’s K-T, the pink companion for R2-D2. Even Leia’s biographer droid Peazy has a female voice. Niima Base itself is named for “old Niima the Hutt herself” (Fry, Rey’s Survival Guide). Carrie Fisher jokes, “It’s good to have a little help. I liked being the only one when I was 19…now I need some backup” (Breznican, “The Force Awakens” 84).

The Bechdel test (named for comic strip creator Alison Bechdel) insists that a film or show must meet the following criteria:

  1. It includes at least two women
  2. who have at least one conversation
  3. about something other than a man or men

This is not the only criteria for a feminist film, and it certainly has its flaws as a theory, yet it also emphasizes how many women in films take the role of sidekick or girlfriend whose only purpose is to aid the hero on his quest and worry about his problems. Famously, the first trilogy, with only Leia beside a few shots of Aunt Beru and Mon Mothma, does not pass, despite Leia’s strength.

The prequels, however, do, at least somewhat. Episode I has Padmé and Anakin’s mother, Shmi, discussing politics. Episode II watches Padmé and the queen discuss whether the Naboo people should leave the Republic. Episode III, however, does not pass, thanks to a lack of conversation between female characters.

More problematic is these heroines’ purpose in the stories: Leia is the inspiration for Luke and Han’s heroism as they fight to save the princess. Padmé, likewise, is the great catalyst of Anakin’s life, fueling his descent into evil. The women’s own desires are sublimated under the heroes’ struggles and the become only the Anima, the woman who guides the hero to understand his undeveloped feminine side.

Rey, meanwhile, makes her own choices and drives her own narrative. Han, Chewie, and BB-8 appear more to aid her story than their own. While Rey barely encounters Leia onscreen, Maz fills the role of mentor and aids her through the Bechdel issue.

Star Wars was always a boy’s thing, and a movie that dads could take their sons to. And although that is still very much the case, I was really hoping this could be a movie that mothers could take their daughters to as well,” Abrams said during a November appearance on “Good Morning America.” (Howard)

Maz and Older Leia’s roles certainly wave to the mothers as well as daughters. While Yoda is a power fighter in Attack of the Clones, Maz’s strength seems to derive from quietly surviving, observing, and advising, seeing much that others do not. She’s a grandmotherly figure in homespun, unusual in the galaxy and certainly unique to action films.

Maz is in many ways the new queen of the franchise: The symbols on the flags outside her castle include Boba Fett’s Mythosaur skull, Ziro the Hutt’s Black Sun tattoo, the Broken Horn from Star Wars: Rebels, pod racer insignia, and Hondo Ohnaka’s pirate symbol. There’s also the 501st Legion, international fan-based organization that builds and cosplays armor from the franchise. This subtly suggests that women, even grandmothers, can be fans too – this isn’t just a world for teen boys.

There’s also the return of Leia, no longer an action girl and young romantic heroine as she used to be, but a loving mother and wife (or at least conflicted ex-wife). Though she’s not a nineteen-year-old action heroine, she still gets moments of romance:

Leia: You know, as much as we fought, I always hated it when you left.

Han Solo: That’s why I did it, so that you’d miss me.

Leia: I do miss you.

In the novelization, she’s shown making more important choices, from sending a representative to plead with the Senate to determining her son’s future:

 “[Snoke] knew our child would be strong with the Force. That he was born with equal potential for good or evil.”

“You knew this from the beginning? Why didn’t you tell me?”

She sighed. “Many reasons. I was hoping that I was wrong, that it wasn’t true. I hoped I could sway him, turn him away from the dark side, without having to involve you.” A small smile appeared. “You had— you have— wonderful qualities, Han, but patience and understanding were never among them. I was afraid that your reactions would only drive him farther to the dark side. I thought I could shield him from Snoke’s influence and you from what was happening.”

Her voice dropped. “It’s clear now that I was wrong. Whether your involvement would have made a difference, we’ll never know.”

Along with her relationship with her rebellious son (described but not seen onscreen) she takes a motherly interest in Rey, the new romantic and action heroine. Of course, Rey is likely either her daughter or her niece – many viewers wondered if before Leia’s embrace and farewell, Leia imparted this information. She sends Rey off with “May the Force be with you,” symbolically passing the torch of adventuring to the next generation. As the mature princess and love interest, she’s another character unusual in this sort of film.

Another twist is that Phasma, the “Chrome Trooper” played by Gwendoline Christie, was originally designed as male.

After The Force Awakens unveiled its first cast photo, featuring only one new female character, online media outlets (including io9) criticized the male-dominated cast—and it turns out this was a major factor in their decision.

“Everything was happening simultaneously,” [writer Lawrence] Kasdan told Vulture. “When the idea came up to make Phasma female, it was instantaneous: Everyone just said, ‘Yes. That’s great.” (Lussier, “Gwendoline Christie”)

While this Stormtrooper captain role would generally be taken by a man, the more interesting fact is that she never removes her mask – only her long ponytail and voice identify her as female.

“What feels so modern about Captain Phasma is that we are used to forming our immediate relationships with female characters, conventionally, due to the way they are made flesh,” Christie told io9. “So for us to form our immediately and initial relationship with this character, who happens to be a female character, who happens to be Star Wars’ first female villain on screen, I felt that was really modern. That we respond to her through her character and her actions initially rather than the way she’s made flesh.” (Lussier, “Gwendoline Christie”)

Her appearance emphasizes that the Empire and its splinter groups have women (and perhaps have always had women no one has seen) Likewise, the First Order has seemingly shed the speciesist philosophies of the old Empire, since now their leader Snoke is an alien. In a universe where aliens represent people of color, this is a clear shift in the metaphor. No longer are the Aryan Nazis preying on the Wookies and other marginalized races.

More directly, people of color are now scattered through the universe, along with women. Casually in many scenes, there are more Blacks and Asians among the Resistance or in the gangs that board Han Solo’s ship. Leia’s second-in-command is the Asian Admiral Statura. With Poe (whose actor, Oscar Isaac, is Guatemalan), and Finn (John Boyega) front and center, the universe has a lots more diversity all of a sudden. Finn’s unmasking in fact suggests the Stormtroopers might be any race now, unlike their sameness in Attack of the Clones. Thus the universe is being rewritten in a way that allows fans of all races and genders to join in the fun.

Of course, there are still barriers to fight past onscreen. Helen O’Hara, provocative author of “Star Wars Hero Poe Dameron: Is Disney Brave Enough to Make him Gay?” writes: “The time would seem to be coming where we could and should have a hotshot X-wing pilot who happens to be gay.” She adds:

When reunited after believing one another dead, Poe runs towards Finn and throws himself into an embrace; if Finn were a woman, we’d be in little doubt that that was enough to signal interest. Should we doubt it just because they’re both men? The Force Awakens radically put a woman and a black man front-and-centre; why not add a gay man and complete a trifecta of the underrepresented?

Certainly, Poe and Finn are close, and Poe isn’t seen caring for Rey or any other woman onscreen or in his books. The actors played with the issue in an interview while leaving everything open:

“I think it’s very subtle romance that’s happening; you have to watch it a few times to see the little hints. At least I was playing romance; in the cockpit I was playing romance,” joked Oscar Isaac on Ellen the day before the movie came out.

Boyega agreed, “I was playing romance,” – though it wasn’t clear that he was talking about the same scene, or that he was any more serious.

Isaac finished by saying, “I won’t say with which character. It could be a droid.” (O’Hara)

If you enjoyed this, it’s an excerpt from a longer book. A Rey of Hope: Feminism, Symbolism and Hidden Gems in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
http://www.amazon.com/Rey-Hope-Feminism-Symbolism-Awakens-ebook/dp/B01A6OP99Q The book is for sale in paperback and ebook, free through Kindle Unlimited. Also, check out We’re Home: Fandom, Fun, and Hidden Homages in Star Wars: The Force Awakens http://www.amazon.com/Were-Home-Fandom-Homages-Awakens-ebook/dp/B01A59W4XQ/

 

Works Cited (Book)

 

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Foster, Alan Dean. Star Wars: The Force Awakens. USA: LucasBooks, 2-15. Kindle Edition.

Fry, Jason. Rey’s Survival Guide. USA: Readers Digest, 2015.

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Gray, Claudia and Phil Noto. Lost Stars. USA: Disney Lucasfilm Press, 2015.

Noto, Phil. Star Wars: Before the Awakening (Digital Picture Book). USA: Disney Lucasfilm Press, 2015.

Rucka, Greg and Marco Chechetto. Shattered Empire. New York: Marvel, 2015.

Rucka, Greg. Smuggler’s Run: A Han Solo Adventure. USA: Disney Lucasfilm Press, 2015.

Walker, Landry Q. All Creatures Great and Small: Tales From a Galaxy Far, Far Away. USA: Disney Lucasfilm Press, 2015.

—. The Crimson Corsair and the Lost Treasure of Count Dooku: Tales From a Galaxy Far, Far Away. USA: Disney Lucasfilm Press, 2015.

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—. High Noon on Jakku: Tales From a Galaxy Far, Far Away. USA: Disney Lucasfilm Press, 2015.

Wallace, Daniel and Annie Stoll. Star Wars Rebels: Sabine My Rebel Sketchbook. USA: Reader’s Digest, 2015.

Wendig, Chuck. Aftermath. USA: Disney Lucasfilm Press, 2015.

 

 

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Abrams, J.J.“Why Leia Didn’t Become a Jedi.” IGN, 7 Dec 2015. Online video http://www.ign.com/videos/2015/12/07/star-wars-the-force-awakens-why-leia-didnt-become-a-jedi

Anders, Charlie Jane. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens Is the Most Fun I’ve Had at the Movies in Ages.” IO9, 16 Dec 2015. http://io9.gizmodo.com/star-wars-the-force-awakens-is-the-most-fun-ive-had-at-1748271186

Anderton, Ethan. “Ewan McGregor, Alec Guiness and Frank Oz Are All in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” SlashFilm, 20 Dec 2015. http://www.slashfilm.com/you-can-hear-alec-guinness-and-ewan-mcgregor-in-the-force-awakens

Baker-Whitelaw, Gavia. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens gives us another beautiful three-way friendship.Daily Dot, 21 Dec 2015. http://www.dailydot.com/geek/star-wars-force-awakens-finn-rey-poe-ot3-friendship-romance/

Barr, Tricia. “Luke Skywalker’s Journey to Heroism.” Star Wars Insider 2016 Special Edition 2015. 6-11.

“BB-8.” People Special Star Wars: The Force Awakens Edition, Dec 2015. 63.

“Billie Lourd.” People Special Star Wars: The Force Awakens Edition, Dec 2015. 52.

Breznican, Anthony.  “The First Order” Entertainment Weekly: The Ultimate Guide to Star Wars, 2015. 90-91.

—. “The Force Awakens.” Entertainment Weekly: The Ultimate Guide to Star Wars, 2015. 78-85.

—.“Star Wars: The Force Awakens: J.J. Abrams Reveals Backstory of Alien Maz Kanata.” Entertainment Weekly, 11 Dec 2015. http://www.ew.com/article/2015/11/12/star-wars-force-awakens-lupita-nyongo-maz-kanata

Bruce-Mitford, Miranda. The Illustrated Book of Signs and Symbols. USA: DK Publishing, 1996.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New York: Princeton University Press, 1973.

–. Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2004.

Campbell, Joseph with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth, ed. Betty Sue Flowers, New York: Doubleday, 1988.

Canavan, Gerry. “From “A New Hope” to no Hope at All: “Star Wars,” Tolkien and the Sinister and Depressing Reality of Expanded Universes.” Salon 24 Dec 2015.

http://www.salon.com/2015/12/24/from_a_new_hope_to_no_hope_at_all_star_wars_tolkien_and_the_sinister_and_depressing_reality_of_expanded_universes/

Castellucci, Cecil “Writers on Writing: Claudia Gray and Cecil Castellucci.” StarWars.com, 11 Dec 2015. http://www.starwars.com/news/writers-on-writing-claudia-gray-and-cecil-castellucci

Cirlot, J.E. A Dictionary of Symbols. New York: Routledge, 1971.

Cox, Carolyn. “Whiny Babies Complain About LGBTQ+ Characters in Star Wars, Chuck Wendig Responds Excellently.” The Mary Sue, 8 Sept 2015. http://www.themarysue.com/naboo-hoo-hoo.

“Director J.J. Abrams.” People Special Star Wars: The Force Awakens Edition, Dec 2015. 66.

Dodgens, Wes. “The Corruption of Powerful Symbols.” Star Wars in the Classroom. EDventure Quest Learning LLC. 2012. http://www.starwarsintheclassroom.com/content/ss/history/corrupting_symbols.asp

Frankel, Valerie Estelle. Buffy and the Heroine’s Journey. USA: McFarland and Co., 2012.

—. From Girl to Goddess. USA: McFarland and Co., 2010.

—. The Many Faces of Katniss Everdeen: Exploring the Heroine of The Hunger Games. USA: Winged Lion Press, 2013.

Fry, Jason and Kemp Remillard. Star Wars: The Force Awakens Incredible Cross-Sections. USA: Disney Lucasfilm Press, 2015.

Hidalgo, Pablo. Star Wars: The Force Awakens Visual Dictionary. USA: Disney Lucasfilm Press, 2015.

Howard, Adam. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens Hero Rey Hailed as Feminist Icon.” MSNBC, 22 Dec 2015. http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/star-wars-the-force-awakens-hero-rey-hailed-feminist-icon.

Keyes, Rob. “Luke Skywalker’s Role in Star Wars: The Force Awakens Explained.” ScreenRant 20 Dec 2015. http://screenrant.com/star-wars-7-luke-skywalker-role-explained/

Lussier, Germain. “Gwendoline Christie Didn’t Know that Captain Phasma Was Originally a Man.” IO9, 7 Dec 2015. http://io9.gizmodo.com/gwendoline-christie-didnt-know-that-captain-phasma-was-1746696902

Moran, Sarah. “Star Wars: How Rey Brings Balance to the Franchise.” SlashFilm, 21 Dec 2015. http://screenrant.com/star-wars-force-awakens-rey-female-characters/comment-page-1/#comments

Mounet Lipp, Gerhard and Bambi. “ML Mural Art.” Family Trees and Crests. http://www.familytreesandcrests.com/heraldry-symbols.htm

O’Hara, Helen. “Star Wars Hero Poe Dameron: Is Disney Brave Enough to Make him Gay?” Telegraph 1 Jan 2016. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/film/star-wars-the-force-awakens/poe-dameron-gay-disney.

“Queen of the Desert.” People Special Star Wars: The Force Awakens Edition, Dec 2015. 74.

“Returning Cinema’s Greatest Space Saga to the Screen.” Entertainment Weekly: The Ultimate Guide to Star Wars, 2015. 86-87.

Robinson, Joanna. “A Rey of Light.” Vanity Fair, 16 Dec 2015. http://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2015/12/star-wars-force-awakens-daisy-ridley-rey-feminist-bechdel-test

Shepherd, Rowena and Rupert. 1000 Symbols. New York: The Ivy Press, 2002.

Sperling, Nicole. “The Power of Rey: Daisy Ridley’s Star Wars Heroine is an Instant Icon.” Entertainment Weekly, 12 Dec 2015. http://www.ew.com/article/2015/12/22/star-wars-force-awakens-rey

Star Wars Database http://www.starwars.com

Szostak, Phil. The Art of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. USA: Abrams Books, 2015.

Ultimate Sticker Collection: Star Wars: The Force Awakens. USA: DK Children, 2015.

VanDerWerff, Todd. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens: 5 Ways the New Movie Copies the Original Film.” Vox, 21 Dec. 2015. http://www.vox.com/2015/12/21/10632690/star-wars-the-force-awakens-spoilers-han-solo-new-hope

Vogler, Christopher. The Writer’s Journey. USA: Michael Wiese Productions, 1998.

Von Franz, Marie Louise. The Feminine in Fairy Tales. USA: Shambhala 1993.

—. “The Process of Individuation.” Man and his Symbols. Ed. Carl G. Jung. New York: Doubleday and Co., 1964. 158-229.

Walker, Barbara G. The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects. San Francisco: Harper, 1988.

Woerner, Meredith. “Adam Driver of Star Wars Reflects on the Man behind the Mask, Kylo Ren.” LA Times 21 Dec 2015. http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/herocomplex/la-et-hc-star-wars-adam-driver-20151221-story.html

—.“The Women of Star Wars Speak out about their New Empire.” LA Times, 4 Dec 2015. http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/herocomplex/la-ca-hc-the-women-of-star-wars-the-force-awakens-20151206-htmlstory.html

Zweig, Connie. “The Conscious Feminine: Birth of a New Archetype,” Mirrors of the Self: Archetypal Images that Shape Your Life. Ed. Christine Downing. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. 183-191.

 

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Filed under Films, Pop Culture, Star Wars, Uncategorized

Comic-Con News and Announcements

Ah, Comic-Con. The weekend when EVERY FRANCHISE shares upcoming news, trailers, first glimpse, and spoilers, in such a way that my own projects go crazy. I don’t just geek out — as those who know me know, I use the new info to write books on Game of Thrones, Sherlock, Doctor Who, and the fans themselves (there’s a big fat list of my books at http://www.amazon.com/Valerie-Estelle-Frankel/e/B004KMCLQK/). So as I collect all these juicy announcements on my favorite fandoms, complete with writeups and articles, I thought I’d post them all in one place…then see how many new books I’ll be writing.

The Game of Thrones Comic-Con panel sounded like overpacked fun…jokes, bloopers, and Sand Snakes casting (writeup at http://www.tor.com/blogs/2014/07/game-of-thrones-panel-sdcc-2014). With FIVE books on GoT, I think I’m covered.

BBC One has confirmed that Sherlock series 4 and a new special will be filming in 2015. http://www.hypable.com/2014/07/02/sherlock-series-4-special-filming-announced/ I have a book on the canon and pop culture references in seasons 1-3, but I’m sure another Sherlock book is due. Perhaps on relationships and characters.

News and promos for the third Hobbit. Peter Jackson said they hope to have a museum one day of The Hobbit and LOTR (unsurprising — the Harry Potter one does well). My Hobbit parody (on the first movie) is much-liked, but the sales figures aren’t really high enough to push me to write a second, not to mention a third. We’ll see.

Just when we thought Battlestar Galactica was completely over, the movie is on its way…I hope. http://www.hypable.com/2014/04/07/battlestar-galactica-movie-universal-screenwriter/ … And yes, if they make it, I’ll do a BSG analysis book.

Marvel’s AvengersAssemble Season 2 is coming: http://youtu.be/Tku2Pgdftx8. Age of Ultron approaches as well, after Guardians of the Galaxy. I am writing an essay on Black Widow for an anthology, so I’m keeping an eye out for all her different versions. Also, I have planned (okay for years) to write a book on the heroine’s journey among superheroines. With so many Black Widow adaptations and now a Wonderwoman movie in the works, the time may be right. ish. And I have an Avengers book planned in time for Ultron.

Trailers for Insurgent (I have one book–that should cover it), Mockingjay (two books–again, covered), The Giver (childhood staple) and The Maze Runner (just read book one) all showed. I COULD do a Maze Runner/Giver book on boys’ dystopias having done three on girls’ dystopias.

Buffy season ten (comics), Angel and Faith comics, possible Wastelanders and still no news on our precious Doctor Horrible 2. But I just did a book on pop culture in the Whedonverse and I have more Whedon books coming any minute.

And plenty of beloved authors, costumes and classics, as the con is more packed than ever. Looks like I have some writing to do…

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The Hobbit Review: I Blame Radagast

Yes, like most fantasy writers, I’m a hopeless, committed, Tolkien fan. When I saw Fellowship of the Ring, I loved every minute with no reservations. I saw changes happening, but I also how they were a wise idea when changing book to film. In fact, I’m fine with changes, IF they make a good story. I enjoyed The Hobbit, but this time, some of the film’s issues were more heavily pronounced, so I can’t approach this in such a head-over-heels delighted manner. Of course, I realize Peter Jackson was somewhat backed into a corner. The studio insisted on three films, while he thought (correctly) that he had the material for about two. There must be a giant franchise or nothing, it seems. Well, it seems the franchise has returned, but a bit shakier this time around.

The movie begins with a hefty prologue explaining what happened with Thorin and Smaug’s invasion. THEN there’s a second prologue, as older Bilbo chats with Frodo and writes his book. Yes, we get to see Sting, the party sign, Frodo, and the Hobbit hole that looks incredibly messy over the dialogue about its snug tidiness. We even get Ian Hom uttering “In a hole in the ground, there lived a Hobbit” and see Frodo set up the events in Fellowship. But none of this is really a part of the story.

I grew up loving the cartoon pair of The Hobbit and Return of the King (I was less thrilled with the oddly filmed LotR part one). Their catchy music and silly cartoons made them Disneylike, though as I learned later, they were reasonably faithful retellings. In the cartoon movie, as with the book, we are introduced through the simple, fussy, homebody of a Hobbit who hates adventures. He is us, the reader unused to the wider world. The dwarves and Gandalf usher him and us through the wider world of Middle Earth together as we come to empathize more and more with Bilbo. The cartoon Return of the King (which skips the other two books) introduces Bilbo as a heavy frame – he is celebrating his 111st birthday (or something like it) with Gandalf and Elrond (introduced to us in The Hobbit movie) and the four younger hobbits, and Frodo tells him about his epic quest in Return of the King. Gollum and the ring provide another heavy link, as do repeated songs and themes.

In this film series, LotR was our introduction, so it’s oddly framing The Hobbit, rather than the more logical reverse. Gone is our introduction to the fussy little nearly-human character, and instead, we’re introduced to the large foreign world of “Erebor,” home of the dwarves. This is a land unseen  in LotR, and even for book fans, the name comes oddly to our ears –the book dwarves are obsessed with “Lonely Mountain” as they call it.

Then comes the link with the previous movie trilogy: Ian Holm and Frodo are our guides, the party scene is just about to start, and Bilbo remembers smoking smoke rings long ago…cut to the actual story. This has been a terribly long introduction to give us a summary of past events and then link us with the other tale.  All this, especially the scenes in Erabor is beautifully crafted with cgi and the amazing detail that made LotR a favorite. But the scenes have little place in the story. As we continue, we’re thrust into D & D style dungeons and complex, unhelpful subplots. In the attempts to be epic like LotR, the story is less linear and thus less charming.

This trend continues through the film, a voice crying, “Look, it’s the same story over again, please go spend on collectible rings and goodies from the franchise. Look how every moment matches the other so well!” Some scenes like Bilbo’s green door or meeting Elrond must match up with Fellowship, that was inevitable. Even the new scenes are filmed in similar locations in New Zealand. Casual references to Bree and the First Alliance of elves seem unnecessary, but make sense.  But the number of new scenes and filming choices that ALSO echo Fellowship are truly numerous, so much so that they turned from cute to tedious:

  • Gandalf whacks his head on the iron chandelier in Bag End
  • Thor’s goblin battle in Moria seems nearly identical to Isildur’s battle in which he took up the shards of Narsil and avenged his father.
  • Thorin himself, the deposed dark-haired king filled with nobility, who risks his life for bumbling hobbits and seems a born leader, is much more like Aragron than book-Thorin.
  • Balin seems the replacement Gimli, with an older, settled wisdom. He says “laddie” a lot.
  • The fact that they’re being hunted, Gandalf’s demands to know who our heroes told.
  • A mass of bad guys converges from all directions in the same scenery as the Nazgul scene, our heroes flee into Rivendell
  • A morgul-blade warns that Sauron is about
  • The wargs attack in what looks like the LotR warg setting
  • Gandalf says, “This way, you fools!”
  • Saruman criticizes Radagast’s mushrooms like Gandalf’s smoking in Fellowship
  • Galadriel, mysterious and somewhat imposing, offers vague comfort and strokes a hero’s hair
  • Gandalf praises “the everyday deeds of ordinary folk” – this is why he recruits Bilbo in this one and Sam in Fellowship.
  • After Rivendell, montages of trudging single-file over snowy mountains and other scenes.
  • The storm giants versus Cruel Calhedras
  • The goblins’ hole resembles the goblin factory of Fellowship
  • The ring flies up into the air and lands on a finger
  • The shadowy ring-world
  • They all race down narrow bridges that are collapsing
  • Gandalf uses the moth to summon the eagles, complete with music
  • They end in the forest, as our hero makes a tough choice of what he stands for, then they’re attacked
  • Azog is like the Head Uruk-hai, a big bad guy created to give the part one movie some closure.  Aragorn/Thorin has the epic battle with him.
  • Boromir dies against the Head Uruk-hai, Thorin gets semi-squished.
  • They look far across Middle Earth to their final destination, say something optimistic, and end part one.
  • The narrow-pupiled eye (admittedly Smaug’s) that’s seeking them

Most of these moments share the same music with the original trilogy. As a fan, I enjoyed the musical allusions, but they do emphasize the repetition of the scenes. Also, after offering us these three time periods: Bilbo’s birthday, Smaug’s invasion, and the “present,” no dates are mentioned. This is also a bit disconcerting for those trying to stay focused. Much worse was the 48fps speed, which gave me a headache. More oddly, when the camera panned, everything looked blurry to me. I truly pray this style doesn’t catch on.

Returning to the story, the setup in Bag End irritated me a bit. Bilbo fails to mention Gandalf is most famous for dragging Hobbit kids off on crazy adventures, so it’s less than clear why Gandalf is there harassing him and why Bilbo assumes that’s why he’s around, until much later. The revelation that Gandalf knew Bilbo was adventurous as a child and has adventures in his Took blood is a bit too late, only after they’ve been arguing over the adventure part for some time. In the book, Bilbo invites Gandalf to tea, so there was an appointment on some level – again, this made a tad more sense in the story than the unwitting invasion in this one. The invasion itself was played quite well, however, from teasing Bilbo about his plates while juggling them expertly and singing, to our hero in his Arthur Dent bathrobe acting completely kerflomoxed, yet determined to stand up for his precious doilies.

After this, the dwarves gather to sing of Smaug’s destruction and their need for vengeance. In book and cartoon, this was the opportunity to explain to Bilbo (with colorful flashbacks in the cartoon) what exactly happened in the past. But we’ve already had the out-of-nowhere lengthy summary, so when they sing, the story just stops. Creative writing students like myself recognize the exposition moments and talking (or singing) heads scenes that do not advance the story, and thus interfere with the plot moving along. Sadly, however, Peter Jackson has left them in place. Fellowship cut a twenty-year gap between Bilbo leaving and the ringwraiths coming for Frodo (Frodo also moved house, hiked, and sang songs in the bath, all worthy of cutting). This added action and urgency to the story, changing it to a desperate flight. The Hobbit seems to have added those twenty years back in.

Radagast the Brown is partially responsible for this. As in the book LotR, he shows up to spout dire warnings of unspecific direness. He’s amusing-looking as he drives his wonderful rabbit-powered sledge (not, as far as I know, canon from anything) and loses track of all his thoughts. But again, when he comes onscreen, the plot basically stops. In LotR, when Gandalf leaves, he has a wizard war with Saruman. Even when Frodo just wanders, he stumbles into Faramir’s small-scale battles. But Radagast doesn’t take on the Necromancer — he plays with hedgehogs. (And he could’ve fought the Necromancer and gotten somewhat creamed, thus giving his plot arc a plot). Instead, he just strolled. Gandalf’s white council with Galadriel and Saruman, while a treat for fans, is just as bad. It’s no wonder the dwarves ditch in the middle of it.

The dwarves themselves aren’t very individual. In fact, most of them don’t have much dialogue at all, with nothing that sets them apart. There’s Thorin the Aragorn ripoff.  Kili the hot archer. Balin the wise advisor, Dwalin the messy eater, Bombur the fat guy.  Even after Bilbo has a long conversation with Bofur, the dwarf says nothing to particularly individuate him from his fellows. Granted, they’re all dwarves, all with the same mission. We don’t have the obvious differences of LotR with a dwarf, an elf, a man of Gondor, etc. But Merry and Pippin made an effort, to say nothing of Sam.  Aside from different weapons, these dwarves don’t seem to have different personalities. Admittedly, book and cartoon don’t separate them much either. But with this scope, there seems a missed opportunity.  In canon, Balin dreams of restoring Moria, and Gloin is father to Gimli. There must be more to show.

This film also seemed to have too many villains. Azog hates Thorin’s family, the Necromancer is filling the woods with evil, the goblin king (played by the Marshmallow Man?) knows all about Thorin and hates him on principle. The storm giants are too long and too realized for a force with no personality and no foreshadowing, who, it seems, is out to get them too. The moose-riding wood elves hate the dwarves; they’re just waiting for movie two. And of course, the dragon’s coming. While there are hints a dark evil may have sent the dragon, we lack the certainty of LotR –you are either on the side of life (though elves and dwarves may squabble a bit) or you work for Sauron (like Saruman the traitor and his spells on Cruel Calhedras). In this one, everyone’s out to get Thorin, who, let’s face it, isn’t actually as important as Aragron. Only the meeting with the elves, wary but courteous, felt like a normal encounter. The book has the dwarves mostly encountering strangers and having isolated adventures with them. There are hints of a larger world and backstory (“Bilbo, the Necromancer’s so nasty, I know even you have heard of him” or “We punished Azog for what he did to my grandfather”) but they don’t tell all those stories – that would distract from the main plot. Here, all those stories have been added. It’s cluttered.

Fans will be happy to note that Gandalf’s silvery scarf appeared. However, he seemed rather a bumbler. “Is he [Radagast] a great wizard or is he more like you,” Bilbo asks, and after Gandalf’s not very persuasive of anyone back in Bag End, he seems to deserve that. The flaming pinecones he hurls at the wolves are a disappointment, as I expected colorful fireworks or at least small explosions (he’s a wizard, not Bilbo with a matchbook!) His light-filled rescue in the goblin cave likewise lacked much of special effects or pyrotechnics. Sting glows, but it seemed a disappointment that Glamdring doesn’t.

This seems like a lot of negativity, but honestly, I enjoyed the film and would see it again. Unlike some fans, I’m not desolated by heresies committed on the adaptation. It was fun and clever, with great tie in moments to the first set of movies. Thorin is very different (and very Aragorn) but noble and likeable as he risks his life repeatedly for the useless hobbit, since that’s what a king does (like Aragorn). While Thorin’s and Bilbo’s relationship isn’t identical to the book, it has some interesting room to develop, and I can’t wait to see how they feel about each other in the War of the Five Armies. Our hero, who played befuddled terribly British Arthur Dent and terribly puzzled  British John Watson seems ideal for proper English gentleman Bilbo. I’d always pictured Bilbo as pudgier, but there was enough roundness to get the point across. His power of “hiding” is not really addressed with the LotR hobbits, but it works well here, laying the groundwork for current and future heroic deeds.

Gollum seemed straight out of The Two Towers, with his split personality and fish song. That said, he was fantastic and delightful in every way. The riddle game was realistic, with the right blend of playful and truly creepy.  The moment where Bilbo showed pity was beautifully done…though Bilbo somewhat spoiled it by kicking him in the face. Nice pitying.

There were other delightful moments: The elves were not as “silly” as in the book, but they did try to entertain the dwarves with fresh salads and graceful harping, to predictable results. I loved that the dwarves wanted chips (though those seem more British Hobbit than Germanic dwarf to me). The White Council was believable as they bickered over whether the current peace was real, or foreboding of darker times to come. And I’m sure fans were thrilled to see this scene, which was absent from the book but important in the bigger picture. It was also interesting to get into Gandalf’s touching reason for recruiting Bilbo (and presumably other hobbits): “[It’s] the small things – the everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keeps the darkness at bay.” Very nice, and it links with LotR themes and Bilbo’s future.

Should you see this film, LotR part four? Sure, if LotR part four’s what you’re in the mood for. But I should warn you, its attempts to be “more epic” and tell a “big LotR story” have robbed it of some original Hobbit charm.

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