Monday, September 23, 2013

Dr. Strange is the Villain of Matt Fraction's Defenders (and Silver Surfer is the Only Hero)

As soon as we see Dr. Strange in Defenders, he's being kind of an ass. In his narration, he already regrets the one-night stand he had with a young grad student who isn't even dressed yet. But his regret is full of insincerity and weird, insulting jabs at the young woman. From there, he doesn't stop being a jerk until, at the very end of the series, all of reality is saved through Strange realizing that he shouldn't have been so jerky to the aforementioned grad student in the first place. Which is admittedly a funny and surprising way to wrap up the story, but I'm not sure it's worth the pages and pages of him as an inept, arrogant superhero prick.
     Some amateur magician who tries to bully Strange gets his soul trapped in a jar and left on a random shelf, never to be thought of again. To be fair, he did threaten one of the great loves of Strange's life...but only kind of. The woman in question, Martha, was accidentally brought back to life by Strange, except that he brought her back as she was when he first knew her many years before. Since then, she'd been married and had children before she passed away, but the version Strange summons has no memory of that. When she asks him to tell her the truth, he does, and coming to terms with the idea that she died and came back and lost an entire lifetime of memories in between is almost impossible for her to handle. Before she can fully digest it all, the kid who ends up in a jar arrives and poses a danger to Martha and Strange's secret, impossible relationship, so Strange sends her away. He doesn't want to know where she goes, ostensibly for her own safety, and the poor woman (who can't use her own identity because she should be older and dead) ends up cast out in the world alone with no plan.
     These are small-scale offenses, and not the only ones, but there is a central, enormous dick move Strange makes that is literally the cause of all the rest of the trouble in the story. When he and the rest of the Defenders stumble on a bizarre, well-hidden, well-guarded, and totally inexplicable machine, his first thought is that they should steal it. With his allies' help, he takes it home to be studied, because god forbid there be something in this universe he doesn't understand. He also rather rudely sends the rest of his teammates away, since apparently no one could possibly be of any assistance to a mind as great as his. It's infuriating behavior right away, and the simple act of moving the concordance engine (as we learn the machine is called) from its original home is the mistake upon which the rest of the comic's end-of-the-universe narrative is based.
     It's too frustratingly complicated to get into how the Defenders learn the details of the concordance engine and what it's for, but it boils down to it being one of several that were built and placed on Earth by outside forces so that the planet would be especially full of superpowered people, hypothetically strong enough together to fight off the Death Celestials that travel from one universe to the next unmaking things. Strange's decision to displace one of the engines throws off their mojo in some vague way that leads to a Death Celestial showing up and successfully wiping out life on Earth instead of being stopped by a unified group of heroes like it was supposed to be. By the time Strange finally realizes it's all his fault, the damage has been done. So he goes back in time and uses very simple magic to prevent himself from ever even going on the adventure that would lead him to the engine in the first place. Instead, he takes the grad student he was so cold to the first time around out on a date, and apparently that tiny bit of pseudo-decency was all that had ever been standing between the obliteration of everything and life continuing as normal. Again, that concept makes me laugh, but it doesn't make me like Dr. Strange or look any more fondly on the time I spent with him.
     Because even if he course corrects in the end, for me as a reader, all the horrible shit that Strange's actions brought about still happened, and he was still dense and selfish throughout those events. Also, I'm not wild about the idea of a whole story building up to a final beat that undoes everything which came before it, but that's a different point, I guess. What I'm really saying is that Strange is both a bad guy and the bad guy in this narrative, responsible for the success of a great evil through several smaller evils of his own. The argument might be made that his intentions were good, but I don't buy that. I think his main intention was to figure out a mystery because he's fundamentally uncomfortable with the idea of something he can't solve or decipher. He never even asks if there could maybe be consequences to moving the engine, let alone considers what those might be, or thinks that maybe all the awfulness that follows might be because of what he'd done. Someone else has to point it out to him in a painfully direct way. And that someone is the Silver Surfer.
     Separated from the rest of the group by the hyper-powerful beings who originally built the concordance engines, Silver Surfer gets a full explanation handed to him of what's happening with the Death Celestial and how to fix it. What he does with that info is telepathically pass it on to Dr. Strange, showing the sorcerer the error of his past ways, and this ends up being the most important thing any of the Defenders ever do. Which I guess is what I really mean by my claim in this post's title that Surfer is the story's only hero. The other characters genuinely try their best to do good and battle evil, but Surfer has the only actual success. Everyone else manages to delay the game a little at best, and actively (if inadvertently) exacerbate things at worst. Even Surfer only does that much until a big-time deus ex machina plucks him out of time and space to show him the truth. Maybe he's not any more or less heroic than anybody else, just lucky enough to be more effective. But in terms of who puts an end to the primary villain's (Strange's) wickedness, it's Silver Surfer all the way.
     John Aman, the character played as the main antagonist, is also clearly a villain. He's just as self-important, over-confident, and stubborn as Strange, and their mutual tendencies to use violence first and keep everything to themselves is what makes them enemies rather than allies. They basically want the same thing, but fight one another instead of spending the time to figure out that they could be on the same side. Aman is worse insofar as he straight up murders several people, only to discover they weren't even the people he meant to kill. He also commits genocide against his own country, though we don't see that happen, just the aftermath. Yeah, ok, he's way worse. He's aggressively, knowingly evil at a level Strange never reaches. BUT. Though he's completely nuts and morally bankrupt,  Aman's ultimate goal is to undo Strange's original mistake in moving the concordance engine. He goes about it all wrong, but his obviously deep-running insanity makes me understand if not forgive his psychopathic methods. Dr. Strange, on the other hand, ought to know better. That's not objectively as bad, but it irks me more.
     Then there's the Death Celestial, a villain in the mindless beast sense, but on the stage for such a short time compared to either Aman or Strange. The same things apply to Nul, Breaker of Worlds, the enemy of the opening arc who leads the Defenders to the first concordance engine they find. These characters are one-note unstoppable forces, not possessing sentience in the way we understand it. Nul is more animalistic, driven by instinct rather than want. The Celestial presumably operates on a higher mental plane than humans have access to, but certainly doesn't perceive our lives as being significant, nor does it in any way try to communicate. It's an agent of constant devastation, not concerned with the details of the things it destroys. These characters are dangerous, but I hesitate to label them as "evil," and whether I do or not, they're not as responsible for what they do as the human villains who have the ability to look at the consequences of what goes down, and who actually care about them.
     So even if he's not the most forceful, purposeful, or maniacal of the many baddies in Defenders, Dr. Strange is the one who bugs me most. His particular brand of wrong-doing gets under my skin, because it's so easily avoidable, it's immature, and it comes from a guy who claims to be on the side of righteousness.
     Tomorrow: Forget everything I said above! Let's talk about how gorgeous this series is!

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