Sunday, June 11, 2017

Steve Ditko as Baron Mordo

FYI: This post contains “spoilers” regarding the Doctor Strange movie and the final chapter of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's famous Eternity storyline. This shouldn’t bother you, as great art can’t be “spoiled” (everyone knows that Macbeth creates Frankenstein’s monster, but that doesn’t stop us from re-reading Gulliver’s Travels) but, regardless, you’ve been warned.

Dr. Strange was the first Marvel movie I’ve watched all the way through since the first Avengers film, which was so terrible, fatuous, and stupid it put me off the MCU entirely, once and for all I thought. I gave Civil War a chance on Netflix, and made it about twenty minutes in—those twenty minutes embodied everything I hated about Marvel movies.

I expected to spend maybe twenty minutes on Dr. Strange, which is also streaming on Netflix. To my astonishment I ended up watching the entire film and actually enjoying it. For a huge budget blockbuster film it actually exhibits some creativity and genuine trippiness. In many ways, although it deviates from the original Lee/Ditko source material, it captures its spirit. The ending, with the confrontation between Dr. Strange and Dormammu was reminiscent of the classic panels from Strange Tales #146, in which Dormammu battled Eternity as Strange dealt with the consequences. It was a lot of fun seeing that brought to life.

How beautiful this is!

The biggest of the movie’s improvements on the original Lee/Ditko source material is the portrayal of Baron Mordo. Actually in the movie he’s not yet a Baron, I guess—they just call him Mordo. It helps first and foremost that the Intellectual Property is embodied by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who has a compelling presence and is a good actor besides. At the start of the movie he’s a faithful follower of the Ancient One and a partner and friend to Strange. But when he learns that the Ancient One has been taking energy from Dormammu’s Dark Dimension, and that faith is shaken. Then, when Strange bends time to trap himself and Dormammu in a Groundhog Day-style loop—despite repeated warnings that YOU SHOULD NEVER MESS WITH TIME—Mordo walks away from Strange. As far as Mordo is concerned, Strange has committed a serious breach and while he might have saved the day this time, his actions could lead to devastating consequences down the line.

Mordo, then, is a rigidly moral and uncompromising man who believes that one should stick to their principles, regardless of the cost.

The reasons why Doctor Strange co-creator Steve Ditko left Marvel are not entirely clear and the source of a great deal of conjecture. In one version Ditko, an Objectivist, didn’t think that Doctor Strange’s mystical world was worth exploring, when there were so many horrible if mundane things happening here in reality, where A should equal A. Another version of the story is that Ditko didn’t appreciate Stan Lee’s re-writing his suggested dialogue on the Spider-Man stories he, Ditko, was plotting and drawing. Ditko, apparently, wanted Spider-Man to be a more aspirational figure, as opposed to a “realistic” one. Ditko believed that heroes should be figures that we look up to, not figures that reflect our own weaknesses.

But remember: in the early 1960s there were no royalties or bonuses for comics creators. Stan Lee, as a "company man," was doing all right for himself. Ditko, as a freelancer, wasn't. And Ditko, seeing his comics creations make tons of money for Marvel, and seeing them be licensed as TV shows, felt he was entitled to a greater cut of the proceeds. He also wanted to be fairly credited for his role in creating the work.

Whatever the specifics, Steve Ditko did not believe he was being treated fairly by Marvel. Rather than compromise his principles, he walked.

Despite the fact that Ditko was a smashing success with Doctor Strange, and, especially, Spider-Man, he left Marvel to strike out on his own, doing work for hire at DC and getting a pittance at Charlton in exchange for full creative control. In fact, Ditko’s material at Charlton featuring Blue Beetle and the Question is among his best work.

I don’t know if the creator’s of the Doctor Strange film had this in mind, but it’s easy to see the similarities between Movie Mordo and Steve Ditko. When Stan Lee I mean Doctor Strange is willing to bend the rule to achieve some success, Mordo sees this not as a success to be savored but as a failure to be ashamed of, and he refuses to play along. Disappointed and disillusioned, he strikes out on his own, to chart his own path.


Steve Ditko has stuck to his own principles throughout his career, unwilling to “cash in” on his past successes. It’s interesting to consider whether or not the filmmakers at Marvel Studios—many of whom surely know their Marvel history—decided to use him as a model for one of Doctor Strange’s top villains.

One of the few recent photos of comics legend Steve Ditko?

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