There are several depictions of heroism on display at your local theaters, the most commercially viable being the latest Marvel entry (and soon-to-be franchise), Dr. Strange.
Fortunately it happens to be both an exciting and entertaining film, with action set pieces that don’t tax the viewers’ endurance, impressive effects, strong supporting characters, and a recognizably human hero in Benedict Cumberbatch’s Strange, an arrogant doctor for whom fate issues both a comeuppance and a chance for redemption.
For those not familiar with the backstory of Dr. Strange, the movie (in fairly broad strokes) sketches Strange’s journey from brilliant neurosurgeon (with an ally in ex-romantic interest Rachel McAdams) to a career (and life) threatening car wreck, followed by a series of surgical procedures, an encounter with a miraculously recovered paraplegic (Benjamin Bratt) and finally, a trek to Tibet (the fictional Kamar-Taj), where his persistence earns him an audience with the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, unconventional—but effective casting). This enigmatic sorcerer sees something promising in Strange that allows her to overlook his flaws, and she assigns him to study under another sorcerer, Mordo (Chiwitel Ejiofor)—and provides a very handy Cloak of Levitation (which at times is a character unto itself).
Of course, no tale is complete without a villain, and Dr. Strange has an effective one in the Ancient One’s former pupil Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who has gone to the “dark Side” more or less in his willful desire to wreak havoc with both the laws of nature and mankind itself. The confrontations between Strange and Kaecilius, especially those set in the “Mirror” dimension (with effects similar to that of Inception), work well because the frenetic action is juxtaposed with Strange’s fumbling attempts to master his powers. Cumberbatch convinces (and contributes wry humor) to the action scenes, and also shows the character’s growing (albeit) grudging humanity. He gets fine support from Ejiofor’s conflicted Mordo, Rachel McAdams’ sympathetic and efficient friend/ex-lover, and Benedict Wong (doing a lot with a little) as the protector of the relics). Finally, under Scott Derickson’s direction (with a script co-written by Derrickson, Jon Spaihts, and C. Robert Cargill), you have a superhero film that doesn’t overstay its welcome. One leaves anticipating the next installment…
Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge is another kind of “superhero” film, only this time the hero is all-too-real, and his incredible heroics are the product of courage, belief, and an immense force of will. It’s based on the true story of Desmond Doss, a pacifist who joined the Army as a conscientious objector and hoped to serve as a combat medic. The first half shows what makes Desmond tick, from the traumatizing experience of striking his brother with a brick, to the difficulties of living with an alcoholic father, an ex-soldier who lost many of his friends in World War, to his charmingly tentative courtship of an attractive nurse, and finally to his Army training, among a group of soldiers who have no sympathy for him or his beliefs---particularly his refusal to carry a rifle. This section has many of the stock characters/situations you find in this type of war drama, but they are presented here with a conviction (and occasional subtlety) that makes it above-average. Andrew Garfield’s Desmond is no saint; he can be obstinate, wrong-headed and slow on the up-take. Likewise Vince Vaughn’s Sergeant suggests the human side within Desmond’s main antagonist; it’s one of his better performances.
However, it’s on the merciless battlefield of Okinawa that this truly becomes a Mel Gibson film—for better or worse. Gibson doesn’t shy away from the mayhem and carnage; in fact his camera embraces it. Yet if one can make it through these all-too-lovingly recreated savagery of battle, one can appreciate the impressive—and improbable nature of Desmond’s heroics--as a medic under fire, he saved over seventy wounded soldiers without firing a shot. Garfield’s portrayal makes the bravery and tenacity a logical extension of his pre-war persona. That this does not come without some personal cost is painfully evident, and helps to make Hacksaw Ridge (including the coda) a moving exploration of both the horror and heroism inherent in war.
Loving is another, even more improbable look at heroism. It’s the true story of a 1950s Virginia couple whose crime is they want to stay married—in a state where interracial marriage is illegal. Sad to say in these so-called enlightened times, but there were a number of states that had anti-miscegenation laws on their books. So when Richard Loving (a white man), and Mildred Loving (a black woman) married in Washington D.C. and tried to make their home (among family and friends) in Virginia, they were swiftly arrested and sentenced to a year in jail---a sentence that would be suspended provided they move immediately. After years of exile, and much trepidation, the couple decided to fight back in the courts. With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union and the successful resolution of their landmark Supreme Court case, were finally able to return home. Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga beautifully portray the Lovings as people who just want to be left alone to live and love. The film suggests that the years away from home took their toll—on family relationships especially---but there are hints that Ruth’s desire to engage a legal defense caused a little friction. This is not a wildly emotional film with a tearjerking payoff; instead it’s a quiet, fairly powerful drama of how love can endure in spite of significant odds.