Dr. Strange or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Supermen

The formula for superhero films is thus: Well-meaning but flawed heroes battle against their emotional demons whilst trying to take down nefarious (yet ultimately incompetent) villains who are hell-bent on taking over the world. Along the way there are lots of CGI-heavy explosions and destruction of cities with death counts in the thousands as collateral damage. And it has proven to be a mega money-making formula. But the more the film studios churn out these films, the more quickly the merge into on amorphous blob of mediocrity. This year alone we’ve already had Deadpool, Batman V Superman, Captain America: Civil War, X-Men: Apocalypse and Suicide Squad. And we’re not done yet; Doctor Strange is still coming. From 2017 to 2020 there are 16 projects due for release from Marvel and DC alone; including beloved fan-favourites we’ve all heard of, like Aquaman, Shazam and the Inhumans.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange in Marvel’s upcoming film.

The latest DC film, Suicide Squad, opened to a strong box office performance (spoiler alert: it’s shit). DC’s other film this year, Batman V Superman, also enjoyed a successful first week (spoiler alert: it’s even more shit). Despite negative reviews from critics, people are still flocking to see them. Even the two better superhero movies to come out this year; Deadpool with its attempted dark humour and Captain America: Civil War with its focus on antagonism between the heroes rather a super villain; still share one common flaw:

Superhero movies are essentially just long, predictable and expensive commercials for the next film.

When Avengers came out in 2012 it was something we’d never seen before. It was the pay off for what five movies had been building up to it, and for the most part it was good, dumb, goofy fun. But more importantly it made a lot of money; so much in fact that every other studio has been floundering to imitate its success even since. As a result we now have Marvel Cinematic Universe owned by Disney, the Warner Bros. DC universe, Fox’s X-Men universe (which is also a Marvel comic but not part of the Marvel universe). Oh, and Sony has the rights to Spiderman which is also a Marvel comic but wasn’t originally part of the Marvel universe except now he is after making a cameo in Captain America: Civil War. Confused yet?

You only have to consider some of the latest superhero movies, like Fantastic Four, The Amazing Spiderman 2 or Batman V Superman to notice how rushed these films are, with the studios obsessed with setting up connected universes and throwing in unnecessary cameos. As a result these movies feel more like homework requiring you to have knowledge and investment in the previous films. Captain America: Civil war was a good film, but it felt like sitting through two hours of explosions just to see Spiderman’s cameo – which would have actually had an exciting impact had I not seen him in the fucking trailer for the movie anyway. What’s worse is knowing all the actors have contracts for multiple films means that I never once actually had to fear for the safety of any of the characters involved. War Machine might be plummeting to the earth at 100km per hour, but he’s contracted until 2020 so he’ll come out just fine.

If the studios want audiences to keep paying for exorbitant ticket prices then they are going to have to lift their game. A film like the mess that is Batman V Superman is clearly just trying to pander to a fan service by throwing the two popular characters together just for the sake of it. And that’s all well and good, but it isn’t the comic-book fans who have made these movies a box-office success: it is the general movie-going public. And whilst the studios pump hundreds of millions of dollars into producing these films, the reality is that majority of these people have never actually read a comic in their life. Especially not ones about talking raccoons or ant-men. It’s reasonable to suggest that what the audience wants, and deserves, are quality movies that are fun on their own merit. Otherwise how else can you make people excited to see Doctor Strange?

I’m not suggesting that every superhero movie has to be entirely bleak and depressing like The Dark Knight to be considered a worthwhile film. The Dark Knight was exceptionally well-made, with clever dialogue, unique characterisation, an emotionally-gripping plot and realistic action sequences that didn’t over-rely on CGI. But on the complete opposite spectrum is a film like Guardians of the Galaxy. It doesn’t take itself seriously at all but still offers a (relatively) cohesive story whilst having fun characters, a great soundtrack and cool action sequences to keep it entertaining. But more importantly what Guardians has that many of its peers don’t is an entirely self-contained plot that can be enjoyed without the need to have invested in other films.

Hey, if I don’t enjoy superheros movies then I don’t have to watch them, right? But what other blockbusters is Hollywood offering me right now? Lowest common denominator trash like Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or some other brand name that can be commercialised. Speaking of exploiting nostalgia for shameless name recognition, don’t even get me started on that new Ghostbusters film – the whole basis for which is that it is just like the original but this time the genders have been swapped. The original Ghostbusters is a great film but it is also a product of its time that doesn’t warrant a whole franchise being created from it.

So with Marvel releasing Doctor Strange at the end of the year – continuing the trend of scraping the bottom of the barrel to find another character to make a film with – the question is whether I will actually pay to go and see it. I really want to enjoy it and I certainly hope that Marvel can buck this trend of making predictable profit-oriented business products instead of making great films. But it’s hard to be overly optimistic.


CoffeeCat Investigates: A Week with Pokémon Go

Unless you’re as ignorant as Pauline Hanson trying to order off the menu at a kebab shop, you’ve no doubt noticed an increase in the number of individuals intently focusing on their smart phones of late. Hordes of nostalgia-driven millennials are descending upon the streets and traipsing around town determined to catch every imaginary creature they can find. Pokemon GO was only released a month ago but has spread faster than bird flu, infecting millions of phones and becoming the latest – and perhaps the single most important – cultural phenomenon of 2016. And I hate it.

     I hate it with a sense of frustrated futility as I watch every one I know slowly succumb to downloading the game. I hate the attempted commercialisation of nostalgia. I hate the constant server crashing and the glitches that plagued my time with it and I hate the lack of any deep or meaningful gameplay. But more than anything else – I hate myself for playing it anyway.

    I spent one whole week with this disappointing, deficient (yet incredibly addictive) game, playing it constantly until I had a near existential crisis.

‘I desperately wanted to catch every single one of those little bastards. But at the end of the day I wasn’t actually enjoying myself. I was miserable and distracting myself with an overly complicated pedometer.’

Pokemon mania arrived in the late 1990s with Nintendo releasing a series of popular Game Boy games and a companion television series. Soon the creatures were absolutely everywhere. I remember being swept up by this craze, religiously watching the show every morning whilst wrapped up in a blanket and admiring my trading card collection. Pokemon GO only features this original generation of Pokemon that I remember from my childhood. As such I enthusiastically downloaded it as soon as it was released, hoping for a trip down nostalgia-lane. I persisted through the myriad of technical problems the game had upon release and set out for a walk in my local park. But no sooner had I begun immersing myself in the fanciful world of my long-forgotten childhood than my phone died. I was to discover that Pokemon GO churned through a phone battery faster than Donald Trump changes his policies.

    Later that day, with the addition of a newly purchased portable battery charger on hand, I set back out on my journey only to come to yet another depressing realisation; Pokemon GO is nothing like the games I so fondly remember playing as a child. Sure, Pokemon games have never been particularly complex. The plot of the games revolves around the adventures of children who are actively encouraged to forgo seeking an education and instead to roam the wilderness seeking wild animals and then forcing said animals to fight one another. The combat system of the games has never been particularly complicated and usually just involves the simple strategy of choosing the type of Pokemon your opponent is weak to. Even the Pokemon designs lack any real sense of creativity. There’s a seal Pokemon called Seel, a pigeon named Pidgey and a monkey called Mankey. Nonetheless, the games undoubtedly hold a simplistic charm which has seen the franchise manage to continue for 20 years releasing what is effectively the same game every few years with a make over and the addition of a new bunch of creatures.

    But all these gameplay mechanics that made the franchise so popular are nowhere to be found in Pokemon GO. In fact even calling it a game implies a very liberal definition of the term. Using a player’s smart phone camera and GPS signal the game makes it seem as if wild Pokemon are populating the real world. Whilst walking around real-world locations players may encounter these creatures and attempt to catch them. But this action is done with a simple swiping of one’s finger across the phone screen. Pokemon GO also offers an under-developed gym battling mechanic, but that just boils down to tapping the screen as fast as possible.

    Yet despite all my criticisms of the game something drew me in and kept me playing it anyway. On the third day I organised to catch up with my best friend so we could play the game together. We walked along the beach for an hour enthusiastically catching anything that crossed our paths. But at the same time there was this strange sense of embarrassment at how public our actions were. Almost everywhere we walked we encountered other people playing the game, but every time our paths crossed the players would lower their phones so we couldn’t see what they were doing and avert their gaze. It’s reminiscent of that awkward exchange you share with a dog owner when you witness their dog taking a shit in public: you know that the owner has no plans of picking up the shit and is merely waiting for you to move out of sight so he can walk on as if nothing happened. And the owner knows that you know this too. That is Pokemon GO in a nutshell – a bunch of adults ashamed of their actions but doing them anyway.

  On the fourth night things started getting weirder. At one stage I found myself running out of the house into the pouring rain just because the game told me a rare Pokemon was nearby. By the fifth night – due to it being cold and rainy – I decided to drive around to find new areas instead of walking. I pulled over outside a local playground that happened to house a Pokemon gym and proceed to ‘battle’ there. There’s something profoundly sombre about the moment you realise that you’re in your mid-twenties and sitting in your car outside a playground at eleven at night trying to catch another Pokemon whilst thinking ‘this isn’t how I thought my life would turn out.’


     I’m not sure what it was about Pokemon GO that had engulfed me so much that week. Maybe it was just the appeal to my nostalgia, believing that if I kept catching and evolving Pokemon I could re-live some remnant of time when I was happier and care-free. Or maybe it appealed to a sense of completionism, as I desperately wanted to catch every single one of those little bastards. But at the end of the day I wasn’t actually enjoying myself. I was miserable and distracting myself with an overly complicated pedometer.

    Now sure, I will admit that there are some positives to Pokemon GO. The game encourages people to get outside in the real world, socialise and to do and see ‘real’ things. But let’s not kid ourselves. In order to play the game you need to constantly look at your phone, and every time I ventured down to a local PokeStop all I could see were players standing around, squinting at their phones and ignoring one another. Nature is intrinsically beautiful, and essentially gamifying such basic pursuits as going outside is not the right way to experience it. I am very comfortable with my game/life balance and I don’t see the need to mix the two or to pretend that playing Pokemon GO is somehow socially superior to playing PlayStation in my bedroom. AR technology is clever, and I suspect we will see many interesting new things as other companies try to cash in on the success of Pokemon GO. But all Pokemon GO is really doing is distracting us from the very environment it tries to entice us into. Instead of sitting indoors staring mindlessly at our screens we are now unwittingly experiencing the outdoors whilst staring mindlessly at our screens.

    At the end of the day I’m sure there are many people out there who are having fun playing Pokemon GO. But you’ve got to admit, it’s a bit fucking weird isn’t it?