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Through the Source Wall: Adapting Supergirl

Griffin

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Supergirl is a fantastic piece of television. From queer coding, normalizing said queerness, struggling with heteronormativity, survivor’s guilt, female empowerment and about a thousand other things, the CW has one hell of a gem on their hands.

In fact, you may be delighted to know that this incarnation of Supergirl is one of, if not the best interpretation over her entire 57 years of existence. And that’s not as subjective an opinion as it may seem. The current Supergirl comic, written by Steve Orlando, lifted the vast majority of the show for DC Rebirth since it “gets everything right, [they] just understand Supergirl.”

Behold, Supergirl Rebirth! It's just like the show, except she's in High School again and also other stuff!

Behold, Supergirl Rebirth! It’s just like the show, except she’s in High School again and also other stuff!

A Canon Immigrant scenario, when a character or narrative aspect created in a different medium is imported back to the source, is hardly unprecedented. Kryptonite, the Batcave, Superman’s ability to fly, Renee Montoya, X-23, Mr. Freeze’s origin story, the entire concept of Batman Beyond and even Harley Quinn were all originally created for adapted media.

But Supergirl isn’t like most adaptations.

No, Supergirl has the massive, built-in hurdle of, well, being about Supergirl and her supporting cast. Neither of which have ever been consistent for more than a year or so. And that’s what makes Supergirl all the more impressive for what it’s managed to do, a topic that was briefly touched upon in this week’s Fanwankers.

As Ian and Wendy so aptly pointed out, the problem with Supergirl, historically, has been that she’s not separated enough from her cousin to stand on her own. Even though she actually grew up on Krypton, which in theory should be more than enough to set her apart. Considering how this is an issue that everyone else seems to have solved long ago, it’s rather odd that it didn’t.

Here, have some examples!

  1. Batgirl (all of them, but especially Steph)
  2. Batwoman (Batman’s cousin on her father’s side; spooky, right?)
  3. Miss Martian
  4. Ms. Marvel
  5. Midnighter (gay Batman, in love with Apollo)
  6. Apollo (gay Superman, in love with Midnighter)
  7. Robin (all five of them; including Steph!)
  8. Hawkgirl
  9. Zatanna Zatara
  10. Superboy (all of them)
  11. Blue Beetle
  12. Miss America
  13. The Question
  14. Wolverine (X-23/Laura Kinney)
  15. Batman (there have been four)
  16. Superwoman (Lana Lang; go read it!)
  17. Wonder Girl (both?)
  18. Catman (no, really. He’s the world’s greatest tracker)
  19. Dr. Light (the second one)
  20. The Flash (all of them)
  21. Kid Flash (all of them, again)
  22. Impulse
  23. Jesse Quick
  24. Aqualad
  25. Captain America (the one who isn’t a Nazi)
  26. Thor
  27. Lena Luthor
  28. Red Arrow/Arsenal
  29. Green Lantern (all seven human members; Alan Scott technically counts)
  30. Black Canary

Okay I’ll stop, but you get the point. It is very much a solvable problem. Seriously, if every Robin managed to do it, what’s so different about Kara? Despite numerous long-running solo books, reinventions, and revivals, Supergirl, as a concept, has yet to really stick as something integral to the DCU. She’s around, but that’s about it.

So, the question is, how did the CW manage to do what over half a century of creators arguably couldn’t? What pieces did they move around to make all of this happen? Why, and how, does it all work together? And, most importantly, did they retain the essence of the mythology, even if they changed the specifics?

Short answer: Very Yes, and it all comes down to the characters. Also, the DEO.

Supergirl/Kara Zor-El/Kara Danvers

This is by far the most astounding feat. Because, oh, God. Oh my God.

Supergirl is an absolute mess. Oftentimes literally.

It's funny because she's 16 and in a dive bar.

It’s funny because she’s 16 and in a dive bar.

Look, there have been four Supergirls. And by four I mean five, because let’s not forget Power Girl. That’s her doppelganger from Earth-2/the Pre-Crisis era/Pre-Flashpoint Earth-2/Post-Flashpoint Earth-2/Post-Convergence Earth-2/Post-Cohesion Earth-2/Rebirth Earth-2. No, I’m not making this up, I swear.

Anyway, the origin story that Supergirl chose to go with was, thankfully, not the original 1959 version. Nor was it the Post-Crisis version, where DC Editorial wouldn’t let her be an actual kryptonian so they merged a college student with an interdimensional alien thing. Again, not making it up.

They also didn’t use the one after that, which was…never explained? I think? I know Darkseid was involved, and they made an animated movie about it. I think they just wanted the “real” Supergirl back, even though that caused some chronic pain/rage issues for Power Girl. Who was also around. Something about vibrational frequencies.

Simply put: everytime they touched, Power Girl would get this feeling to go all murder-y on Kara. Like an immune system attacking a disease. Or something.

So, from what I can gather, Supergirl is using a pretty heavily adapted version of the New 52 origin. Also known as the “wow this could have been so much worse” origin. Already a teenager when she left Krypton, but circled the Earth’s sun in stasis for like 30 years until she smashed into Siberia.

Basically they just kept the time dilation part, changed the reasoning and pulled the Phantom Zone along for the ride. The mentor/protector thing is, as far as I can tell, a wholly new idea for Kara and it’s one I very much like. Though it’s important to note that, as far as I’ve been able to find, Kara has never gone by Kara Danvers until this show.

You can credit the whiplash you're feeling to Kelly Sue DeConnick, Sterling Gates, Greg Rucka and Bryan Q. Miller.

You can credit the whiplash you’re feeling to Kelly Sue DeConnick, Sterling Gates, Greg Rucka and Bryan Q. Miller.

Her original secret identity, so that she could attend college, was Linda Danvers. Ironically, Linda Danvers was also the name of the third Supergirl. Except she wasn’t Kryptonian, but instead the result of being merged with some sort of fallen angel/parallel universe shapeshifting protoplasm thing named Matrix. Who was also the second Supergirl. Like I said before, DC Editorial was really pushing the Last Son of Krypton thing at the time.

Kara, as stated and showcased above, has a consistency problem. Sometimes she’s enthralled by Darkseid and takes out the entire Justice League. Occasionally she has amnesia. Other times, she’s a college student and a member of the Teen Titans. Or she’s an unstoppable rage monster who vomits acid blood.

Kara as a Red Lantern is an awesome concept, but the execution wasn't too great.

Kara as a Red Lantern is an awesome concept, but the execution wasn’t too great.

And sometimes she’s a member of the Legion of Superheroes because Superboy-Prime punched reality itself and knocked her into the 31st century. That last one is way more awesome than it sounds, but the fact of the matter here is that, for Kara, the writers had very little to go on. Or, more accurately, a lot to go on but very little of it…workable.

The idealistic, inspiring, earnest and genuine Kara Zor-El we have gracing our screens each week might appear to be the most obvious way to write her, but it wasn’t. Even the Justice League cartoon depicted her as someone with a big chip on her shoulder. It’s a little ironic that, in trying to help Kara Zor-El stand on her own merits, they made her mentality closer to that of her cousin’s.

It says quite a bit, then, that the closest thing that Supergirl had to her DCU counterpart was the Red Kryptonite episode. Yes, the one that has our title character acting like a massive jerk to everyone around her is typically how she’s depicted.

Isn’t it great that they didn’t do that?

Alex Danvers

Honestly, a case could be made that it’s the creation of Kara’s adoptive sister that makes Supergirl work more than anything else. As I’ve said, one of the biggest obstacles is finding a way to really cement Kara as someone who isn’t just a one-note Distaff Counterpart of her cousin. She’s had adoptive parents before named Danvers, but she’s never had a sister.

Well, aside from that time she lived with the Amazons, but that’s hardly the same.

Alex Danvers is nothing short of phenomenal. To be frank, she was the one who made me stick with this show before it truly found its groove. She’s great at what she does, and she genuinely finds fulfillment in it. Also she’s a badass secret agent who wears practical gear and clothing.

It’s like Boob Armor. Every time I don’t see it, I smile because nobody’s ribs are going to get shattered.

How can you not love this?

How can you not love this?

Not only is she her own character, and a great one at that, but her relationship with Kara is what sets her apart from Superman in a huge way. Superman has his own supporting cast, sure, but the closest thing he’s ever had to a sibling was—excluding his clone Kon-El aka Superboy—Kara herself. And she, simply put, isn’t. She’s his cousin.

That disconnect is what allows Alex to truly shine in Supergirl, as she grew up with Kara. They matured side-by-side, fostering a level of emotional intimacy and trust rarely seen in even the best of people. No matter how bad things get, and yes they have gotten pretty bad, like that time Alex killed Kara’s aunt, they’ll always be there for one another.

Even if one of them is going through a soul-crushing and validating existential crisis.

Yes, Alex and Kara have some friction between them at times, regarding the environment in which they were raised and how Kara’s secret pulled much of their parents’ attention to her, but they’re working on it.

Sisters don't judge one another. They judge others together.

Sisters don’t judge one another. They judge others together.

And why shouldn’t it be as simple as that? It’s a common and relatable problem that springs up between siblings. That conflict humanizes Kara far more effectively than anything else really could, and it elevates Alex to an entirely different level. She can keep up with Supergirl, because she needs to be able to keep up with her sister.

Plus, she snuck up on and killed a Kryptonian.

The race of people who can hear for thousands of miles in every direction, see through everything except lead, and possess reflexes almost as fast as the Flash. To sneak up on them is all but impossible.

There are maybe six people in the DCU who could pull that off: Bruce Wayne, Dick Grayson, Lady Shiva, Cassandra Cain, Deathstroke, and the Spectre.

Guess we’ll have to add Alex Danvers to that now, huh?

Jimmy Olsen

Once I realized that I’d have to touch upon the madness that is Jimmy Olsen, I started to have second thoughts on this piece. Then third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, and so on, alllll the way up to fifty-one.

I suppose you could say it was a…Countdown of sorts. One that lead to a Final Crisis of fortitude where I decided to write this anyway and ignore those other fifty-one thoughts.

Nope. No context. Countdown doesn't get to have its joke explained.

Nope. No context. Countdown doesn’t get to have its joke explained.

Jimmy Olsen, also known as Superman’s Pal since he had a long-running book of the same name, is a photojournalist for the Daily Planet. He’s a hard worker and a good reporter. He also has a signal watch that emits a frequency only Superman can hear. And that’s about it. He’s more or less the same guy there that he is on TV.

Except he’s black and has a way better job!

Good on you, Jimmy! Lord knows you deserve it for all the crap you've put up with.

Good on you, Jimmy! Lord knows you deserve it for all the crap you’ve put up with.

Jimmy’s initial purpose on Supergirl was to help root the show in with a pre-established Superman mythos that we weren’t shown. His transfer from Metropolis to National City grants the narrative a certain level of credibility that it otherwise wouldn’t have. At least, not initially. Think of him like a crossover character from another show that doesn’t technically exist.

Even the intro to every episode of Supergirl goes over how, yes, Superman’s around, but this isn’t that story. So, really, you get rid of Jimmy, you lose a pretty important part of this show’s foundation. I don’t think they’re going to do that, but y’know, something to keep in mind.

However, being Superman’s Pal isn’t really his claim to fame, as it were. Back in the Silver Age, he had a habit of acquiring random superpowers/transforming into strange creatures and then shortly reverting back to normal. I’m bringing this up because putting Jimmy in the role of Guardian is a far more natural fit than you might expect.

The Silver Age was weird.

The Silver Age was weird.

He’s been in and out of the Superhero game about as many times as we’ve seen the death of Thomas and Martha Wayne. Which is a lot. For him to actually stick with it for once, and not call himself Mister Action, is a pretty clever subversion.

Lead-lined armor? I thought they weren't going to have Gotham characters on this show.

Lead-lined armor? I thought they weren’t going to have Gotham characters on this show.

Jimmy’s debut as Guardian is probably the biggest boost in notoriety the mantle has ever received. Even his brief stint on Young Justice didn’t do all that much. Guardian just isn’t a very popular character, since he’s a non-powered street level vigilante operating in Metropolis. Which is pretty silly if you take a moment to think about it. The fact that the name is still around at all is probably because he was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby back in the Golden Age.

Respect for the those who came before, and all that.

Cat Grant

You know how some shows have a Breakout Character that effortlessly overshadows everyone at all times? Even when the title character is basically a demigod? Cat Grant is that character, but you already knew that. What you may not have known is that, well…she has never been this awesome.

The sass was always there, but the intelligence and justified sense of accomplishment weren’t. Only delusions. Until DC Rebirth, she didn’t have a media empire, and instead of demanding Supergirl do better she just insulted and blackmailed her. Constantly. Which, of course, made her into a bit of a sad punchline even when the jokes themselves weren’t very funny.

catgrantimplants

In an earlier issue, she tried to shove her new breasts into Clark’s face. Obviously. it didn’t work. And yet Kara is the one who notices them.

It probably goes without saying that she was really, really, really, really sexualized. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, but it becomes problematic when nobody does anything with it. She tried to use it to her advantage, but nobody took her seriously. Cat was a bully before she got implants, and even more of one afterward. She also acted as a massive propaganda pandering tool who exploited everyone around her for fame and notoriety. That’s it. No ulterior motive or justification that re-contextualizes everything, like she does on Supergirl. Just a bully who demands attention.

Yes, Cat. Be more aggressively sexist against a teenage girl. Everyone will love you!

And then there was, I dunno, some New 52 stuff in there with a website and quitting the Daily Planet with Clark Kent after some speech about journalistic integrity—look none of it made sense, okay?

All of this is, of course, in stark contrast to the Cat Grant we have on Supergirl. Instead of a washed up has-been, we got a damn Empress who possesses Dr.Cox-ian levels of sass, intellect, wit and inspiration. Or, at the very least course correction.

Just as Kara is meant to be a positive role model for young girls, Cat is designed to be Kara’s. The effect this had on the first season, as Kara tried over and over and over again to be a better hero, employee and overall person was palpable. She improved. She grew.

Kara became someone worthy of the title of Supergirl, one which Cat gave her in the first place, and most importantly she’s fully aware of that. It’s something she has successfully internalized because Cat Grant kept pushing her in every facet of her life.

Without Cat, there wouldn’t be a Supergirl.

It’s a shame that she’s in a limited role this season, but thankfully that air time has been filled with something rather curious.

Maggie Sawyer/Renee Montoya

This is, hands down, one of the most interesting cases of intellectual property law I’ve ever seen. If you’re not a massive DC comics nerd, this is something you probably wouldn’t pick up on. Even then, not a guarantee. Now, you may think it strange that I’m zeroing in on a character that’s only got three episodes under her belt, but can you really blame me for attributing some of Supergirl’s continued success to her?

I mean, good lord, she just oozes charm and stage presence. Floriana Lima jumps into the fray and locks herself in from minute one, and that’s just fantastic. Yes, her primary role here is to expand the mythos, bringing in a “normal” perspective to the DEO zany-ness and establishing all that fun stuff about aliens. And boy, oh boy, does she ever knock that one out of the park.

She’s gay, she’s Latina, she’s tough and she’s smart. She loves the job, loves the people and always goes the extra thirty miles—okay I can’t not.

Take a moment to consider that I haven’t even said her name in this section. Y’see, I wasn’t kidding about the IP rights, and that crossed out name isn’t entirely a joke.

There’s another reason the showrunners wanted a lesbian cop on their show, aside from the whole “Alex Danvers Almost 30 Coming Out” plotline. The folks who make Supergirl wanted somebody that would allow them to connect classical racism and homophobia to extraterrestrial otherness. And they clearly wanted to do that with a heaping bowl of charm and snark.

Maggie is neither of those things. She’s blunt, sincere and loyal to a fault but rarely charming and never snarky.

However, there are two other characters off the top of my head who could fit that bill, and Fox owns the broadcasting rights to both. Renee Montoya and Kate Kane, with Kate’s Judaism subbing in for Renee’s race as a point of prejudice. Obviously, Kate wouldn’t work for a lot of reasons—she’d have to show up as Batwoman, she wouldn’t be away from Gotham for long, and then Batman would need to cameo, just to name a few—so you default to Renee.

But, again, can’t use her. Gotham had her run around in its first season, and then dropped her entirely.

Have I ever mentioned how much I love 52? I'm sure I have, but there it is again. Just in case.

Have I ever mentioned how much I love 52? I’m sure I have, but there it is again. Just in case.

So, you’ve got this great plotline and this awesome social commentary that you want to explore. Except you can’t because you’re missing that final piece. You could always just make up a new character, but you’re adapting from an absurdly expansive source material so that’d be ridiculous. And then it hits you. The only thing you can’t use is her name. You can lift her entire character, her essence, and call her something else.

Warner Brothers actually did something similar for The Dark Knight. They wanted to use Renee but the plot demanded that she became one of the corrupt cops—out of desperation, not greed—under Joker’s control. As that’s something Renee quite literally destroyed her entire professional and personal life to not be, they renamed her Anna Ramirez and called it a day. Though, if they hadn’t, it’s ironic that she’s the only detective Two-Face didn’t kill in that movie.

Lucky for everyone, it just so happens that there’s another lesbian cop in the DCU who, despite being part of 16 years worth of stories in Gotham, was originally a Superman character.

Also that whole “coming out later in life” thing? Yeah, that’s Maggie’s origin story. She was married. Had a daughter.

Now, I would never in a thousand lifetimes say these two are interchangeable. They are not, nor will they ever be. I am, however, saying that this was a brilliant move from so many perspectives. Brand recognition for one, even if most people only know who Maggie is because DC wouldn’t let her marry Batwoman. Remember how psyched people got that an “out and proud” non-white lesbian cop was going to be a series regular on Supergirl? Remember how we’re all still psyched, because she’s beyond awesome?

Of course you do.

Supergirl needed—yes, needed—Renee Montoya to make this work, and they didn’t just give up once they realized they couldn’t win that legal battle. They pushed some pieces around, did their homework, scrubbed away the trauma that comes with growing up in Gotham and trusted that the audience would respond to this character regardless of her name. Since, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what they call her. What matters is if they stuck the landing on the narrative they’re trying to tell.

So far? Holy hell, yes.

The Department of Extra-Normal Operations

The Department of Extra-Normal Operations has a strange history. They’re DC’s attempt at an organization like SHIELD, with one important foundational difference. They’re designed from the ground up to sound just as boring as the FBI or the NSA. As if it were a typical “alphabet agency”. There are times when it does work, like during the Janus Directive crossover event from the late 80s. Or, during the aptly named yet short-lived solo series Chase starring Cameron Chase.

They even hire attorneys to handle meta-human cases, representing both heroes and villains. There was even a time when Wonder Woman was on trial for the murder of Maxwell Lord, which was broadcasted live worldwide.

The murder, not the trial.

Checkmate, you lying bastard.

Can you believe a jury acquitted her for that? I mean, the trial focused on the fact that Max was still a federal agent when she killed him, even though he went super-duper-ultra-rogue. But hey, it was the only way to stop him from mind-controlling Superman into killing everybody.

Also he’s a massive jerk who killed his best friend, so in the words of the at-the-time late Ted Kord: Rot in hell, Max.

Anyway, there are also instances when the DEO just comes off as blatantly evil. Like that time they blackmailed Batwoman by threatening to throw her father in prison if she didn’t act as an operative. Of course, when she does call their bluff, it turns out they’ve been holding her long-thought-dead-all-over-again twin sister hostage.

Yeah, so the DEO was run by a talking skeleton who sweat Cyanide. No, really. His name was Mister Bones, and he’s presumably still in a coma from getting shot in the face.

The DEO in Supergirl are actually the good guys, and it took me a few episodes to understand that. I kept expecting them to be evil, but that never really happened. They watch the skies and keep people safe from the things that defy explanation, so who better to serve right alongside them than Supergirl?

It’s an inspired choice for adaptation. Especially when you consider how government-backed superheroes are typically depicted in the DCU.

In short, rarely positive.

Superman from The Dark Knight Returns became nothing more than a puppet for President Totally-Not-Reagan. Captain Atom often has standing orders to take down Superman should he ever go rogue. The Force of July are a team of meta-humans sponsored by the government tasked with performing hyper-jingoistic clandestine operations. The Justice League of America, in some instances, are sanctioned by the United States government.

There’s also that whole thing with the Colony, an army of soldiers trained to operate like Batman but with military precision. And that’s not even touching Task Force X, aka the Suicide Squad. Contrary to popular belief, they did often have members who aren’t super-villains.

So, for Supergirl to be serving with the United States government in an official capacity, and in a manner that doesn’t make her a living weapon…it’s a pretty big deal. It’s the kind of thing her cousin would, and does, typically avoid like the plague. Kara found purpose and success working with the DEO, which only legitimizes Kara even more.

See, Superman is still a vigilante. Kara? She’s officially sanctioned.

When Supergirl punches something into the sun, she does so with authority. When she speaks about hope and unity, she’s addressing everyone in a way her cousin can’t. In this continuity, he doesn’t quite have as big a leg to stand on in that regard. There’s no JLA or JSA. He’s not part of a team because he doesn’t think there is one.

Kara, however, found and made one through her sister. Through the DEO and the Manhunter from Mars. If there is to be a Justice League on her Earth, it wouldn’t form around Superman.

It’d form around Supergirl.

After all, as everyone knows, you can’t have a Justice League without the Martian Manhunter.

Told you so.

In Case You Were Wondering, J’onn J’onzz Requires No Further Explanation

The show works. Against all odds, and over half a century of storytelling Supergirl works. From Kara’s recharacterization, Alex’s creation, Cat Grant’s reinvention, the DEO’s restructuring to Maggie Renee Maggie Renee Maggie Renee Maggie’s inclusion, it all just flows together. Sure, it can be campy, and sometimes it stumbles, but that’s just the nature of episodic storytelling.

Not every tale is solid gold, and not every message is perfect. Still, I, and I assume you as well, want to know what happens next. And that’s the biggest key. Same with comics. Would you keep watching if you didn’t care? Would you keep reading?

No, you wouldn’t. Good money’s on that you already do, and that you’re watching Supergirl. But if you’re not, I don’t think I can make a better argument than this.


Images courtesy of DC Comics and The CW

Griffin is an Entertainment Writer operating out of the Chicago area. He likes puzzles, deconstructing other puzzles, and talk show branded ice cream flavors.

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Analysis

Crazy Ex Girlfriend through a Sondheim Lens

Kylie

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Full spoilers for all 3 seasons of Crazy Ex Girlfriend.

I don’t make my love for Crazy Ex Girlfriend a secret. It’s essentially media wish-fulfillment for me: a musical dramedy with an loudly jewish female protagonist that seeks to deconstruct tropes and storytelling conventions about how women are typically written, served alongside mental health positivity and an optimistic take on humanity. It’s clever, it’s meaningful, it’s unapologetic, and I cannot express how relieved I am that it’s renewed for a 4th and final season—the season that was always planned as its end-point.

So it’s with great chagrin that I’ve got a bit of a “but” to add here. Because while all this is true, I struggled a little with Season 3. It’s not that I found it any less pointed or intelligent, but I did feel that structurally there were issues. Something seemed like it was missing…just some kind of absent je ne sais quoi that the first two seasons possessed. Then there were also some story beats that suddenly appeared, rather than the usual meticulous seeding and build-up to which I grew accustomed.

This isn’t to say I disliked Season 3, because I found a ton of value in it. But I did feel that there was a little bit of prioritization of themes at the cost of a cohesive story. Paula suddenly being the “office bitch”, Heather impulsively agreeing to be Darryl’s surrogate after criticizing Rebecca for the exact same thing… The best example is probably in the finale, where Rebecca pleads “guilty.” In all these cases it’s clear what the writers are going for; Rebecca is being very literally haunted by her past, since you can’t just skate with no repercussions, even you personally take a step towards healing. She wants to atone for all the messed up stuff she’s done, hence her pleading “responsible” initially.

Except she’s an amazing lawyer who surely understands that she isn’t actually guilty of attempted second-degree murder, which is what the charge was. Sure, it’s important to not plead “insanity,” but “innocent” was a perfectly viable option! Pleading guilty, while thematically satisfying and good in a character arc, pushes the scene out of the realm of believability. Even Paula, who was obviously moved by that, probably would have known that there’s a way to repair their relationship that doesn’t involve admitting to a literal murder charge. And yes, the writers seem to know this wasn’t a rational decision on Rebecca part, but it still stretches characterization further than seems advisable.

I guess I’m lucky that all this was only a mild disappointment, but it’s for that reason that I haven’t really written anything on Season 3 as a whole yet. I think my solution was to wait and see the 4th season, because I do still have incredible faith in showrunners Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna to close out this narrative in a satisfying and meaningful way. I simply contented myself to let a vaguely outlined piece on the structural issues of Season 3 sit in a Google Doc, where I never touched it. The one time I tried, I ended up writing about how Crazy Ex Girlfriend’s command of diegesis is the model modern musicals should take, because it marries our gritty media realism trend to the dreamlike qualities of musical theater.

And now I realize that was my mistake all along: I shouldn’t have been analyzing Crazy Ex Girlfriend through the lens I use for most TV and movies…I need a musical lens. Specifically, I needed to view Season 3 through the eyes of Stephen Sondheim musicals.

Entering the world of the hat

Before you accuse me of it, yes, picking Sondheim specifically is mostly self-serving. But I have also spent a fair amount of time tracking down interviews and podcasts with Rachel Bloom (she never gives the same exact answer twice—it’s kind of incredible), and can confirm her love of the man too. She’s said her ideal Broadway role would be Dot from Sunday in the Park with George or Squeaky Fromme from Assassins, the latter of which happens to be her favorite musical, too. So I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Crazy Ex Girlfriend as an art form may have been influenced to some degree by the works of Stephen Sondheim.

Let’s talk about those works briefly, though. Sondheim’s musicals are diverse in subject matter, takeaways, and central themes. However, that’s not to say there aren’t commonalities, or that his style is malleable. While what he’s ‘known for’ often gets boiled down to lyrical cleverness by critics, a stronger feature of his music is that he writes with actors in mind. Emotional queues are almost embedded into his songs. It doesn’t matter what poor sap is singing “Franklin Shephard, Inc.”…the strength of the phrasing and flow lends itself to the breakdown in a way that is always going to be convincing.

Then, I can’t state this any better than Elaine Stritch and Bernadette Peters, but Sondheim consistently has lyrical depth. His songs are gut-punches usually, but layered gut-punches at that.

His melodies are a bit unconventional, in that you’re unlikely to be able to sing his songs the first go-around. Contrast that to Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber, who can generally write tunes you’re able to pick up by the final verse. Of course there’s exceptions, but if you want an at-home experiment, see how well you follow the melody of this versus this.

You can tell just from interviews that Sondheim is a perfectionist, a horrible overthinker, and permanently never fully satisfied with the end result. If you’ve had the pleasure of reading Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat, he spells it out on the page in a way that bridges aspirational and concerning.

His neuroses are not incredibly dissimilar to Rebecca Bunch as a protagonist. It’s perhaps for that reason that the themes he tends to like exploring are shockingly relevant to the show. I don’t think it’s constructive to give you a laundry list of all of them, but typical features of Sondheim musicals include family strife, ambivalent views on love and relationships, obsession (of self, others, or ways obsessive behavior unfolds), and disillusionment.

Otherwise known as Crazy Ex Girlfriend Season 3.

Reaching through the world of the hat like a window

When I first began thinking about the last season through a Sondheimian lens, it was thanks to a song added to Merrily We Roll Along after its unsuccessful first broadway outing:

So, old friends, now it’s time to start growing up. Taking charge, seeing things as they are. Facing facts, not escaping them; still with dreams, just reshaping them. Growing up.

It often annoys me when stories are described as “coming-of-age” tales for adult characters. For instance, the dialogue surrounding Kylo Ren complete with The Last Jedi writer/director Rian Johnson saying he was transitioning from “adolescence to adulthood” was particularly grating, since it felt a little like robbing him of his agency as a fully grown man who is also a fascist and makes these messed up choices on his own accord.

At the same time, Crazy Ex Girlfriend is very much about Rebecca Bunch coming into her own as an adult—coming to understand her identity specifically by shedding her childish idealization of romance and fairy tales. Hell, she takes responsibility for herself for really the first time at the end of Season 3. But the thing is, as Sondheim eloquently puts it, “Growing up, understanding that growing never ends.”

This is something hammered again and again by the show. We need look no further than Darryl or Paula to see that they’ve more than delivered on definitive adults who still are pushed towards betterment and maturity. Darryl is impulsive and too lead by his feelings, and he learns not to go to the extreme with his ideas while still acting on his wants. Paula meets Rebecca when she’s in a complete rut, discovers the absence in her life due to her lack of risk taking, and pursues her law degree. Rebecca herself is never treated like an adolescent free of agency; any infantilization that occurs is of her own doing (see: the introductory song in Season 2), and ultimately to her detriment.

It’s for this reason I thought about how Crazy Ex Girlfriend perfectly meshes with Merrily We Roll Along, at least in its second act (which happens first chronologically). Rebecca is the Joe, with her idealized dreams that come crashing down. However “Growing Up” reaches a drastically conclusion for her; where Joe allows himself to be swayed/seduced by Gussie that leads him towards an empty path—one where he shirks responsibility and commitment to his friends—Rebecca rejects Nathaniel and prioritizes absolution from Paula instead. The choice offered was nearly the same, yet the choosing leads to wildly different, and more uplifting outcomes (ironically as she’s facing years in prison).

Where this analogy falls apart is that the tragedy of Merrily We Roll Along is in the backwards timeline of the play; we see our main cast get happier, and freer, and full of hope knowing that things end up with the bitter end of their friendship. Crazy Ex Girlfriend is the would-be the opposite experience, where we see our central character in a healthier place, even if it may be a bit more of a serious and adult place. Rebecca was never *happy* to begin with, so much as she’d delude herself. In fact, part of the reason she’s so drawn to Josh is that he’s happy to get to that level with her.

Disillusionment itself, along with the theme of taking responsibility, is something straight out of Assassins. The entire musical serves as a deconstruction and break-down of the American dream through the eyes of history’s presidential assassins (would-be and successful). However in each of their cases, there’s a reason they did it…something blame. They did it to make their friends listen, or because they were told they’d be ambassador to France. Obviously Rebecca is a far more stable person than a murderer, but we do see a similar determination to rationalize her behavior, particularly in Season 1. If she does bad things (like literal stalking) in the name of love, it’s okay, right?

Of course, she’s a good guy whereas the assassins are, you know…assassins, which is why she rejects the mutual conclusion that they come to in “Another National Anthem.” She wasn’t just screwed by the system, or romantic rivals, or even her mental illness. She is fully responsible for what she does, and those actions have influence on others.

It’s actually a collective responsibility, as she’s been aided over the years, mostly by Paula. Rebecca taking the out Nathaniel offered would have impacted Paula most of all, sending the strong message that there’s no need to ever own up to your shit if you can justify it well enough. Nothing is ever anyone’s fault, right? I mean, she was given those beans; they persuaded her to trade away her cow for beans. And without those beans there’d have been no stalk to get up to the giants in the first place!

Except like in Into the Woods, placing the blame and passing the buck gets rejected. No one is alone in the sense that responsibility is never individualistic. Rebecca owning up to her past is the first step in healing the circle around her. “Fight for their mistakes, everybody makes…one another’s terrible mistakes.”

In some ways, that’s the note I expected Crazy Ex Girlfriend to end on. Yet there’s a Season 4, and more story to be told. If Into the Woods is the direction, then I suppose it ends with a group number to the same effect. Yet we have other Sondheim options into which we can delve.

I should quickly point out that while A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is parodic in a way Crazy Ex Girlfriend is, the comparison for that particular musical ends there. And Rebecca had her Sweeney Todd revenge story as a Scary Scary Sexy Lady, so we can probably rule those out. And unless she becomes the Mayor of West Covina or spends the entirety of Season 4 bemoaning the loss of spoken Yiddish among jewish populations in the US, I’m quite certain we can rule out Anyone Can Whistle and Pacific Overtures too.

What does that leave us with? Well, there’s Follies, where Sondheim holds neurotic self-indulgence under a lens. There’s also a love trapezoid of doom, which was carefully picked apart in Season 2. Oh and the musical numbers within the show are pastiches. The influence this had on Crazy Ex Girlfriend almost slams you over the head, particularly when it boils down to two couples discovering unpleasant truths about their pasts and presents. The collapse of innocence isn’t something that’s going to be hand-waved by this show, though I have to imagine the ending may be slightly more uplifting. There is a self-consciousness to the show that mirrors the attitude of Sunday in the Park with George, but given how wildly different the demons are that Sondheim was working out to the type of bubbly, expressive character Rebecca is, it’s hard to draw many parallels. And I have to assume time-travel is off the table.

Which leaves us with the two incredibly relationship-focused musicals: A Little Night Music and Company. Where the former is concerned, the ending isn’t incredibly. In fact, the musical itself isn’t incredibly deep, though the score certainly is. Sondheim originally didn’t even want to write it after reading Hugh Wheeler’s book he was to use (a friend talked him into it since he was given free rein on the music). Basically, a bunch of people realize who they’re actually in love with and commit to each other in the end.

This…could happen. But I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t find it odd. It’s not that I don’t understand shipping Rebecca and Josh or Nathaniel, but it would just seem so uncharacteristically cliched if the end spot was “ho hum we’re all happy now because love.” Rebecca is certainly deserving of love, and her very visceral fear of intimacy is distressing; I’m hoping she comes to a healthy place with that. And that could necessitate her ending up with someone. But the tone of that would, I’m guessing, be worlds different from say, the tone of Henrik and Anne running off.

However, it’s Company that I believe offers the best solution. This is a concept musical of Sondheim’s that loosely follows a commitment-phobic man in his 30s struggling to understand relationships. Bobby learns a lot from his married friends, and ultimately comes to a place where he realizes he’s open to love and all the messiness it entails…as much of a pain as it is. He goes from bemoaning convincing a woman to stay longer than just a night, to being okay with a very safe and deluded idea of marriage, to being willing to have emotionally vulnerability in a relationship.

Rebecca Bunch is almost the exact opposite of Bobby. She comes in willing to crowd someone with love (and wanting to be crowded herself) to the point where she romanticizes her not-so-bright former crush and West Covina, California. It’s her obsession in the way it’s Bobby’s phobia. Yet I think there’s a way for those two character arcs to converge. In fact, Bobby’s “Marry Me a Little” ambivalent fantasy is not dissimilar to the idealized outcomes Rebecca imagined in a marriage with Josh.

“And then, in a wonderful way Everything in the past will just fall away My daddy will love me And my mommy will love me And Josh will love me and then I’ll never have problems again.”

In both cases, neither of them had the concept of a sustainable relationship really understood…just what they’d get out of it. Then they both kept growing.

Rebecca obviously doesn’t need a “Being Alive” moment in that she’s never needed convincing to open herself to love. But she does need to open herself to vulnerability. If she finds someone, it’s someone she has to recognize is as frightened as she is of being alive, and that’s okay. Because it’s not about love curing everything, but about healthy relationships that allow you to grow individually.

“Somebody make me come through, I’ll always be there.”

This is the spot that Rebecca seems destined to reach. She’s a good person, right? Well there’s nothing more to that point than taking healthy approaches towards relationships, romantic and platonic alike. She deserves both and shouldn’t fear either, but instead must learn to trust in herself to be okay getting there.

Which is exactly what Season 3 set up.


Images courtesy of The CW

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Analysis

The Antagonists Are Back in Sorceress of Darshiva

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Image Courtesy of Penguin Random House Books

In my last article I said that there weren’t concrete antagonists in Demon Lord of Karanda. Well, this book solves that problem, providing antagonists in spades. Sorceress of Darshiva, published in 1989, is the penultimate book of the Mallorean. It also brings a sense of danger and threat from our actual antagonists rather than secondary ones. Yes, Zandramas actually shows up in this novel. And as more than just a shadow at that, and it’s everything the series needed. Eddings also does some fascinating stuff with un-rooting the Angarak people from the systems introduced by Torak. Overall, Sorceress of Darshiva is one of my favorite novels in the whole series, and for good reason.

Spoilers for all of Sorceress of Darshiva, and all of David Eddings’s previous books.

What Happened?

Sorceress of Darshiva starts with our protagonists following Zandramas to Melcene. Melcene is a series of islands that house the commercial trading center of the east, and Silk is very at home there. Belgarath, Garion, and Beldin meet Senji, a clubfoot alchemist. He accidentally discovered sorcery in an attempt to turn lead to gold. Senji has one of the three original copies of the Ashabine Oracles. It’s a McGuffin that they’ve been chasing for two books now, and the payoff is excellent, and will be discussed in depth below. Senji also tells them that Cthrag Sardius was kept at the University for a number of decades.

After the meeting with Senji, the company finds out that Zandramas brought Baron Otrath with her when she left Melcena. He’s a cousin of Zakath’s, and Zandramas plans to use him as the Angarak king for the prophecy. We also see several POV changes in this period. Queen Porenn calls a meeting of the Alorn council upon receiving news of what happened in Mallorea. The Council decides to fake an alliance with Urgit to bring some of Zakath’s attention off of Darshiva and his attempt to location Garion and company.

Eventually, Zakath recaptures Garion and company traveling through Darshiva, on their way to Kell. Cyradis persuades him to join them, and they continue on their way to Kell. Zandramas fights with the ghost of Poledra, Belgarath’s wife. Durnik smashes two demon lords and is officially a disciple of Aldur. At the very end of the book, Garion picks up she-wolf and her cub. Belgarath and Beldin remember that Grolim’s can’t enter Kell and that the location of the Place Which Is No More is in Kell. They deduce that they are finally ahead of Zandramas, and the book ends.

Three Antagonists

Torak, the Dragon God of Angarak

The novel begins with a prologue from a Melcene history book. It details the foundation of the Melcene nation and how it fused with the Mallorean Empire. Considering that it provides a summary of those nations since the beginning of the world, it obviously mentions the now dead god. It’s been discussed before about how it’s the systems that Torak set up that are evil, not the people in those systems. This prologue shows that in effect. The historians describe Mallorea and Melcena as almost a utopia before Torak shows up before Vo Mimbre.

“A reign of terror descended upon Mallorea. … In one stroke, Torak’s disciples overturned millennia of military and bureaucratic rule and returned absolute dominion to the Grolims.” (p. 6).

This moment shows most clearly how it’s the systems that Torak set up that Garion and company despise. The forced conversion, which parallels a Western view of the totalitarian communism of the USSR. Generational indoctrination is a powerful thing, and it happened at Torak’s behest. The god who wears a mask made of iron and cracked the world.

But Torak also shows up outside ancient history. When Garion finally finds a copy of the Ashabine Oracles, he discovers that Torak directly addresses him. Belgarath calls it Torak’s one moment of sanity. It tells Garion that “what is foretold in these pages is an abomination. Do not let it come to pass.” (p. 95). Torak admits that his side winning is an abomination and tells his would-be killer to stop it. Then, later, he destroys it. It’s the willful self delusion that forms the central critique of the Soviet Union. That it broadcast the idea of the communist ideal while being otherwise.

Zandramas, the Child of Dark

In addition to the dead Child of Dark, we see the current Child of Dark as well. They’re both antagonists, and they both have the same place in the prophecy, but this book makes them distinct. It does this by exploring Zandramas’s history and by actually giving us two glimpses into her point of view.

In Zandramas’s point of view, we see constellations rise beneath her skin. Zandramas attributes this to the Dark Prophecy exerting more of it’s power over her. We can see that she’s terrified. These moments also allow us to see Geran, the emotional center of this, for the first time since the first book. We see that Zandramas makes sure he’s taken care of, but doesn’t want him inconveniencing her. She leaves his care to Naradas and another priestess.

Zandramas’s terror and her overall plan, as discovered by her history, make her distinct from Torak. She began life as a priestess of Torak, working under Naradas. Then, after Torak died, the Dark Spirit took control of her, and she ran wild for years. When she returned to the temple, she charmed everyone into working for her. She preached that a New God would come and she would be his bride.

Torak always wanted to be the center of everything. Kal Torak literally means king and god. He dominated Angarak and demanded human sacrifice, but he wasn’t ever loved. Garion won because of that. Zandramas learned from the Dark Prophecy’s mistakes. She doesn’t want to be a god, she just wants to be the power behind the throne, both secular and spiritual. This corresponds to the transitional period of communism, where the USSR traded with capitalist countries before it collapsed.

Cthrag Sardius, the Sardion

Juxtaposed against the human motivations of our other antagonists, we see the Sardion. This book solidifies what the Sardion is. In essence, it’s the evil counterpart of the Orb of Aldur. The two stones were originally one stone, but they were divided and now they war against each other.

But, unlike the Orb of Aldur, a band of ‘savages’ found the Sardion and their generations polished it, like Aldur polished the Orb. Eventually the Melcene Empire collected it for their library, and it stayed there for millennia. Then, when the Battle of Vo Mimbre happened on the other side of the world, a historian stole it. His ship sank, and the Sardion with it. Cyradis told everyone that the Sardion is in the Place Which Is No More, where the final meeting will take place.

But the real horror of Cthrag Sardius lies in what it will do to Geran. One of the requirements for the final meeting is a sacrifice. In this case, it’s a person who will hold both the Orb of Aldur and the Sardion in their hands. With the both of them they’ll have unlimited power to reshape the world. The new god of Angarak will either heal the world, or destroy it utterly. Zandramas wants Geran to destroy the world and make it in the image of the Dark Prophecy.

It is that image, Geran with both stones in his hands, that so terrified Torak. That is why Garion might have to kill his only son. The idea of the world falling to communism routinely terrified people during the Cold War. They taught their children to glorify America, as the anti-communist utopia instead. Geran’s eventual fate takes that and twists it in a way that horrifies the characters and the readers.

The Final Un-Rooting of Systemic Evil

Secular

One of the subplots in Sorceress of Darshiva is how Urgit manages to finally reject and exile Agachak. He lays down the law, and Cthol Murgos transitions to one where the church’s, and Torak’s, lingering influence diminishes. Previously, Urgit’s advisors, including Agachak and his father’s generals, ruled his behavior. Now, after some advice from Garion, he’s managed to root them out. Agachak goes to the absolutely stupid Gethel of Thull, and convinces him to join him in Mallorea. But it’s still a victory for Urgit and for the light. It’s the proactive nature of someone who won’t be controlled again, and who won’t allow his country to be controlled either.

Urgit also has a victory in his pseudo-alliance with the Alorns. While on the Alorn side, it is purely a diversion for Zakath, on Urgit’s side it’s something more genuine. He wants peace with his ancestral enemies, and he’s taking steps to secure it and to step further away from the dark.

Zakath’s transition to the light also takes place in this book as well. Once he recaptures Garion and the rest, Zakath originally wants to send them to Mal Zeth. With Cyradis’s command, that changes. Cyradis reveals that Zakath is the Empty One, another figure of prophecy on the side of the light. After a few moments of internal conflict, Zakath agrees to go with them. Immediately afterwards, it’s like a personality transplant. Zakath, Emperor of Mallorea, had been grim and shied away from doing violence himself. Zakath, friend of Garion, can only be described as Arendish. Laughing at everything, getting into every possible fight, and with some other indefinable Arendish quality to him. He’s acting like someone from the ‘civilized West’ rather than someone from Angarak, and that speaks to this unrooting.

Sacred

The un-rooting of Torak’s influence also plays out on sacred grounds as well. While Garion and company travel through Peldane and Darshiva, they see many different temples. All the masks above the temples, that once showed Torak’s face, are now blank. Urvon and Zandramas fight all through Peldane and Darshiva over who the new god will be, but this change says more than that. It’s a preparation for a new god, either Urvon, Geran, or whoever Garion chooses.

It’s not only the people preparing for a new god, the possibility of the new gods are also preparing. Before their capture by Zakath, the company winds up in an abandoned farmhouse for shelter. An old Grolim comes to them, and offers them food and hospitality. He talks about how he heard the voice of the new god, and now he decorates the altar with flowers and repents everything he did for Torak. He believes that the Light god prepared him to be its first disciple. A Grolim, someone inside the power structure determined as evil, repenting and being a driving force for good is new, and excellent for the philosophy of the work.

The current existing Prophecy makes an appearance shortly after the Grolim disappears and says all of this. He then goes on to say, “when Destiny is reunited, there should be a new voice. … Millions of years of enmity between us have warped our perceptions a bit … I’m not suited to deal with a united universe. I’ve got too many old grudges. The new voice can start out fresh without any preconceptions.” (p. 146). Those grudges and preconceptions are exactly why Eddings is being so careful to change the perception of the Angaraks by characters and readers alike. To accept the fictional and actual antagonists as people.

In Conclusion

In 1989, Eddings published Sorceress of Darshiva and the Berlin Wall fell. That symbolic fall prophesied the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. There’s no mistake in the fact that he combines the final moments of un-rooting with preparations for a future afterwards. This book focuses heavily on the antagonists, yes, but it also finalizes that change in the people previously stigmatized by their association with them. That Torak’s moment of sanity, Zandramas’s fear, Zakath’s acceptance, and Agachak’s banishment all occur in the same book is important.

It signals all of that preparation for the future. By showing the quasi-human nature of our antagonists, except the Sardion, it makes the readers more likely to accept their followers as people with hearts and souls. By un-rooting the enemies turned allies from the systems that made them enemies, it does the same thing. That this all happens the year the Berlin Wall fell is hyper significant. It’s a symbolic gesture, yes, but symbols and stories mean things. Who better to know that than an English teacher with a predisposition for archetypes? Eddings may not have realized that he was writing a metaphor for the Cold War, but it’s there in his symbols and his philosophy nonetheless, especially here, and especially now.


Image Courtesy of Del Rey Books

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Analysis

Dr. Strange May Be A Truly Cult Movie

Angelina

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dr strange cult

Watching Dr Strange was a truly strange experience for me. I sat before the screen expecting two hours of mindless fun as I watch a self-absorbed jerk become something like a decent guy. You know, this ever-present and ever-satisfying “break the haughty” narrative. A safe bet, not too harsh on the haughty (it’s MCU, after all), but harsh enough we cheer him getting his comeuppance. What it turned into, was two hours of flashbacks as I watched a haughty jerk being broken and brainwashed into a cult.

Probably I wouldn’t react that badly if this experience was not something from my personal past. Things I saw at the screen were excruciatingly familiar. I couldn’t help rooting for the jerk, because I knew all too well what it is, feeling that you are nobody, that the world is crumbling around you—and then being handed something like a power over it.

And while I am sure that it was nowhere near authorial intent, I couldn’t help wondering how many people—impressionable, vulnerable people—would buy into the narrative and turn to some secret knowledge to cope with their illnesses or insecurities. After all, Kamar Taj, both in appearance and in teaching, is very far from fantasyland. You can find dozens of wannabe Ancient Ones just around the corner, waiting for easy prey.

Yeah, sounds very purple, but let me show you why am I so agitated.

What Is a Cult?

A cult—also a totalitarian cult, toxic cult or destructive cult—is a religious or posing as a religious organisation which teachings and practice are designed to achieve and execute total control over its members’ life and death. Not quite a lucid definition, and that’s why the thin line between a cult and a new religious movement is so thin. The subject is controversial, the “cult” word is thrown around as a slur and generally only time we can safely use the definition is, while talking fiction or the cults that 100% exposed themselves as such via some drastic action. Mass suicide or terrorist attack, usually, and sometimes both.

But still there is a list (several lists, but they mostly talk the same things in different wording) of traits that may alarm you that the group is most probably toxic. Let me show how astonishingly well Kamar Taj fits the criteria. Then I’ll try to demonstrate how typical dr Strange’s situation actually is and what usual manipulative tactics were employed to guarantee his loyalty. I’ll use the list provided by M. Kuzmin in his thesis.

1. A Teaching that Rationalises and Encourages Control and Manipulation

They don’t just brainwash—they do it for the greater good and to prevent lesser ones from slipping on the path to salvation. Or something like that. It is prime trait of a toxic cult; a pity it is not easy to see it through, as the real teaching is not revealed until a person is considered “ready” (read: is totally broken).

Through the movie we hear Mordu describing his own path into Kamar Taj. He tells how he went there to get weapons and training sufficient to fight his foes and was promised to get those. Then he was made to go through usual training routine until he understood that his past—name included—was nothing and Kamar Taj was everything and he is destined to be its adherent. Though he recognises manipulation, he not only completely justifies it, but also expresses hope such would be dr Strange’s fate, too.

dr strange cult

I have some questions why non-White people comprise the blindly devoted part of Kamar Taj, but that’s a different matter

And indeed, no one in the Kamar Taj is anywhere near ashamed of stringing along a desperate disabled person with promises of healing all the while basically training him as a cannon fodder for future battles.

2. The Leader, Regarded as an Absolute Unquestionable Authority

While there are some cults that have group leadership, this figure is almost inevitable when we talk about the cult, as they are built around them. The guru may proclaim themselves a literal god (or God), as Shoko Asahara or Maria Devi Christ did, or a prophet, as Jim Jones. They can even settle for indefinite “possessor of the knowledge”, as Marshall Applewhite. No matter what they chose, entire existence of the cult depends on their very person and something only they know or can do.

Does Kamar Taj have such a person? Oh, certainly. The Ancient One is just that; an absolute, infallible guru who is right even when she is actually wrong, and whose actions are not for the lesser minds to judge. She wields absolute authority over her acolytes and can make them fight using real weapons or even leave for dead on a whim. All the while the very idea that she may be wrong is a heresy for the loyal Kamar Taj members, and a sign something is “unwell” with the person in question.

3. The Teaching Changes When Situation Changes, But It Is Never Acknowledged

They promised us the world’s end and it didn’t come? Oh, you see, it was not the real end. It was never about something like that. Or better: yesterday they taught absolute monogamy, but now the guru is caught cheating. So, as the guru is never wrong…

Well, we have an entire plot point, no less, dedicated to this exact rule of cult. So, the entire Kamar Taj had existed for ages on a premise that Dark Energy is bad and corrupting and everything Dark Dimension is vile. But lo! The guru used dark energy to sustain her all those innumerable years! She must be a crank, then? A liar, who forbid her loyal acolytes the thing she had been doing all along?

Nah. No way, You see, the rules exist to break them and cheat, and if you think the rules that you were manipulated to accept as a final truth matter, you are our next bad guy.

Or was it an instance of the next cult rule?

4. Each Subsequent Hierarchical Level Is Granted a Different Version of “Truth”

Basically this is the most glaring distinction between a religion, whatever new, and a cult. You join a religion, and you know what does it teach and what do you subscribe to. If it was one god, three goddesses and a ritual cup of tea every three hours when not asleep, that’s it all along. With a cult, you join for a god, three goddesses and a cup of tea, but then learn that it’s not tea but actually vodka, and when you progress in the ranks you may learn that there is one goddess and no god at all, and then – that gods are nothing, only guru matters. And then something.

The teaching of Kamar Taj does change from rank to rank, too. You come to them because they are healers and martial artists. If you are fit for them, you learn about astral and the source code of the Universe. Next level, and you learn the purpose of Kamar Taj is to protect Earth from a certain other dimension and you have to obey strict rules unless you would harm our world. Even next level, and the rules matter nothing and result is all. And then something.

And Others

To save time and space let me not delve into other very fitting criteria—like having a teaching that combines syncretic religion with pseudo-science, that justifies and even encourages violence towards critics and ex-members of the cult, that encourages active service in “do whatever you are told” way… Kamar Taj is already cult-like enough.

But nothing proves it as well as main character’s story. Just look for yourself.

Cult Brainwashing 101

So, we have a man in his late thirties/mid-forties, the age of crisis. This man suffers an accident and is now disabled. As his only profession requires the very ability he’s lost, he searches for rehabilitation and encounters a rumour of miraculous healer. Desperate, he goes for it and gradually becomes an active member of a group that presents itself as Earth’s only hope and secret guardians. He never heals and is never able to go back to work. Also, he leaves the world forever, going on to live on the group’s premises.

Huh, sounds familiar, doesn’t it? But it can get worse.

dr strange cult

A visual metaphor for severing all ties with your past life—a “must do” for any cultist

Our hero roams the world in search of the healer, until he encounters a group of thugs. Those thugs beat him violently and destroy the last memento of his previous life: his wristwatch. Only then a member of the group intervenes and quickly saves the day. He waits, because he was told to wait. Because apparently our hero needs…something. Do you know what? He needs to lose everything and to be on his utmost vulnerable when presented with the cult teaching—and to be thankful for help. While not too common, the tactic is widely employed irl. It ensures bigger susceptibility of the adherent-to-be through combination of humiliation and gratitude.

Also, the very exhaustion he suffers because Kamar Taj remains hidden from him is quite helpful, too. Exhausted people are not quite able to think critically, as analysis and logic require much energy and all energy they have goes to sustaining them alive and upright.

And Then Some

dr strange cult

The least acid moment

Moving on, our hero is presented with some mumbo-jumbo and then graced with a very, VERY acid vision. While here it’s magical in nature, it would be literal acid irl. Secretly feeding newcomers with hallucinogens is a very, very common tactic of those cults that emphasise and promise secret knowledge and spiritual experience. Bright, wild hallucinations make people believe that they were granted visions and have some supernatural power in them.

So, our hero’s weakened mind is bombarded with mumbo-jumbo, followed by acid visions “proving” the mumbo-jumbo is actually true. Nice. But not perfect. To add a final touch, our hero is cast away and left on the street with nothing but his clothes, broken watch and a promise of miraculous healing. He has nowhere to go but to the c… Kamar Taj. But the Ancient One knows her manipulation 101 and makes him yell, beg, despair. He has to wish for acceptance with all his heart, to see no other way. He must beg, because nothing is as effective as humiliation.

Except for a death threat, of course. Being humiliated AND left in a mortal peril is much better. Do I need to remind our hero is subjected to it?

Conclusion (Or Lack Thereof)

My goal was not to imply the authors of the movie did all that on purpose. Never would I even dream of such a thing.

What I actually think is, that the authors used the same tropes the real-life cults use in recruiting new members and promoting their teaching. Those tropes are widely popular in popular culture—which is actually the very reason the cults use them. Familiarity is quite important when encountering something new. Things already at least seemingly familiar attract much more trust and attention than completely new ones.

Combined with several instances of what I consider authorial tone-deafness, this lead to a load of unfortunate implications. As with Thanos, the end result is horrifying idea no author would’ve supported as it is, but accidentally promoted.

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