Rather than starting this week’s episode with the usual Spider-Man versus C-grade supervillain fight, “Strange” opens with Peter Parker waking up for a school day like any other, except he has four extra arms and Aunt May’s head has been replaced by a spider’s. The nightmare is one of the most reliable storytelling tropes for exploring a character’s fears and insecurities, and this week’s Ultimate Spider-Man finally casts an eye inward to explore Peter’s relationship with his Uncle Ben through dreams. Ben’s influence on Peter has been a major component missing from this show, and it’s nice to finally see the writers explore the foundation of Peter’s heroism. Even better, it’s done in the context of an Iron Fist/Dr. Strange team-up, making this Steve Ditko tribute episode one of the show’s best installments.
A dreamwalking Iron Fist saves Peter before he falls prey to the deep sleep that has fallen over New York City, and suspecting that the supernatural is involved, takes Spider-Man to see Earth’s Sorceror Supreme, Dr. Strange. A scientist at heart, Peter has trouble believing in all this magic junk, which brings up memories of Uncle Ben telling him that “life is full of magic.” Spidey has to start believing if he’s going to take down Nightmare, King of Dreams, and when he travels into the dream dimension with Iron Fist and Dr. Strange, he is forced to confront his greatest tragedy.
Dr. Strange is a character who has never been able to break into the A-list, despite the efforts of some of superhero comics’ major talents. Is it the high collar on his cape? His lack of a mask? A resistance to embrace a magic-based superhero? Dr. Stephen Strange is one of Marvel’s most fascinating figures, an arrogant doctor forced to learn humility when he loses the use of his hands in an accident and travels the world to learn how to heal himself. Under the guidance of the Ancient One, Stephen became the Sorcerer Supreme, responsible for protecting the Earth from mystical threats.
I could see the Ultimate Spider-Man version of Dr. Strange sustaining a series of his own, although I’m not feeling the long-haired look. He’s a magic badass that conjures chains and knives from thin air, and Jack Coleman (Heroes, The Vampire Diaries) gives him a strong voice that demands respect. He’s also quite skilled at playing humor, like when Spider-Man asks Dr. Strange to guess what number he’s thinking of and Strange replies, “You aren’t thinking of a number, you’re thinking of flapjacks.” This episode takes it easy with the cutaways, and shows that its possible to have funny stories without throwing in all the non-sequiturs.
Of the four S.H.I.E.L.D. teens, Iron Fist is the one with the deepest connection to the supernatural, spiritual world, making him the perfect companion for Steve Ditko creations Spider-Man and Dr. Strange as they head into the dream dimension, fashioned in Ditko’s psychedelic style. Last week, I talked about how we don’t really have a feel for the wants and needs of these characters. “Strange” doesn’t provide that information but it does show us the opposite, resulting in the kind of character introspection I’ve been waiting to see on this series.
When Spider-Man begins opening doors in the dream dimension, he peeks in on his teammates’ worst nightmares: White Tiger has to take a final for a class she didn’t go to all semester; Power Man struggles to keep an entire building from falling on a group of civilians; Nova is terrified of bunnies. When Danny encounters his nightmare, it’s the dragon Shou-Lao, whom he defeated to gain the power of the Iron Fist. The creature strips Danny of his gift, feeding on his fear that the Iron Fist was never meant for him, that he wasn’t worthy. Like Ava in “Why I Hate Gym,” Danny gets some much needed development in “Strange,” and we’re finally beginning to see what motivates these individual heroes. I would have liked to see more of Danny’s awesome kung fu moves, but his big hit against Shou-Lau looks fantastic. Hopefully this means we’ll get a trip to K’un L’un in the future of this series, because I’d like to see what these writers do with a kung-fu story.
When Nightmare exposes Spider-Man to his worst dream, Uncle Ben walks out to meet his nephew. Rather than bringing Spider-Man to his knees, the sight of Uncle Ben fills Peter with joy and reinvigorates his sense of duty. Instead of wallowing in depression and blaming himself for his uncle’s death, Peter takes responsibility for the tragedy and tries to prevent it from happening to others by dressing up in red and blue tights. The dialogue gets a little heavy-handed in the Uncle Ben scenes, and Ben’s more of a walking inspirational quote than a character, but it’s worth it for the quiet moment of Peter thanking his uncle and telling him he misses him. Spider-Man learns that once you face your nightmares, there’s nothing to be afraid of, and he sends out a magical broadcast to the sleeping city reminding them that it’s all just a dream and that it’s time to wake up. The ending’s a bit too convenient, but that’s the way magic works: it does what you need, when you need it to, and logic or science be damned. All you have to do is believe.
- I saw The Amazing Spider-Man this past week, and I really enjoyed it. I much prefer Andrew Garfield to Tobey Maguire, although I could do without the skateboard his chemistry with Emma Stone the strongest part of the movie. Marc Webb does a great job making web-slinging an exhilarating visual experience, but the Lizard is a total dud.
- The more I see the Spider-cycle, the more ridiculous it becomes.
- Reference battle: Spidey’s “It penetrates and binds us?” vs. Danny’s “There are greater things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
- “Dreams are the window to the soul. Someone has slammed them all shut.”
- “Don’t call him a wizard, he’s a doctor.”
- “I cannot allow myself the luxury of fear.”
- “I am no child! I am the master of the mystic arts!”
- Iron Fist: “A dull blade can make an excellent hammer.” Spider-Man: “I heard excellent and dull. Am I offended or not?”