Another Fantastic Four movie has come and gone, another chance to capture the majesty and menace of Doctor Doom wasted. Way back when, in 2005, Julian McMahon’s Doom was theatrical and campy (while Michael Chiklis’ Thing, if right in spirit, was more Muppet than Marvel). This time around, Toby Kebbell’s Doom was annoying and unnecessary (while Jamie Bell’s Thing was undeveloped and pantsless).
But now, in the latest issue of Jonathan Hickman’s and Esad Ribic’s Secret Wars, Doctor Doom is sheer perfection. Their Doom is complex and fully developed, menacing and powerful—a character worthy of his role as the central figure at the heart of Marvel’s summer mega-event and as the god of Battleworld. Hickman and Ribic make it clear that Hollywood’s failure to make Doom interesting is not the fault of the character. That failure rests on the shoulders of Hollywood alone.
Ribic’s Doom is a study in pencil. He is gray and ever changing, like a storm cloud on the horizon; he is beautiful yet menacing, fluid yet solid as a stone. The shadows of his cape are cast in graphite lines. His terror mask gleams and then absorbs the light. Ive Svorcina colors Doom in white and gray, blue and orange, green and black so that Doom is like a thundercloud against the sunset, a rainbow in the heart of a storm. For a face that is hidden behind a mask, Ribic makes Doom appear truly alive, more alive than any human actor that ever donned the mask, that is for sure. Now Doom’s mouth is agape; now his eyes are unblinking and wide.
Ribic’s imagery is sustained, if not surpassed, by Hickman’s story. His Doom has taken on the burden of godhood and it shows. This Doom has killed his partner and friend and has thus forced himself into a web of his own lies and half-truths. Like Yahweh of old, he walks through the Garden of Eden that is his own creation, himself more a tempter than any serpent.
His daughter has doubts to which Doom responds with threats. “Undying love and eternal patience are not the same thing, child. Do not confuse them,” he says to her in a moment of coldly menacing anger. Yet, when she seeks to comfort him in his grief over the loss of his friend, we feel his wearying sorrow just a clearly. “We live our lives defined by the choices we make. And in the end, the high cost of living is death”. That’s what he says to her. And then, in a way that drives the point home—the point of his own brokenness, his grief, his need for confession—he says something else. He says, “We all deserve better”.
He repeats those words later, at least the first of them, in a revelatory scene with Molecule Man. It is a scene that sheds much light on the mysteries of Secret Wars, on the death of the Marvel multiverse and the birth of the Battleworld. It is more interesting for the light that it sheds on Doom. Like the gods of mythology, this deity known as Doom trucks in half-truths and in aphorisms disguised as wisdom. But Molecule Man does not allow him his self-pity, does not allow him his grief nor his self-deception.
“Stephen Strange is dead”, Doom says, and that at least seems to be true, though one can never tell.
“Well, well, now. Isn’t that a surprise”? Owen Reece, the Molecule Man, responds. “Was it cancer? It’s always cancer”.
“No,” Doom replies. “It was inner decay of a different sort. His doubt killed him”.
And that of course is true, in one way but not in another. It was his doubt, for sure, but it was also his faith. Strange how those two opposites are sometimes really one and the same.
Doom has come here to Owen Reece like a sinner seeking a priest. He confesses and some of what he says is true and some of what he says is a lie—like a sinner before a priest
“I want you to know”, Doom says, his eyes looking away in shame. “I want you to know that it was me who put him there”.
But nothing is lost on Owen Reece, the one who died for the sins of the worlds. “I know. You think I couldn’t smell the guilt on you? You reek of shame, God”.
Yes, yes he does.
Hickman and Ribic have given us something that we probably don’t deserve. Here, in the very heart of what is arguably the biggest crossover event in Marvel Comics history, they have given us a character study. In an issue that serves to advance the plot and elaborate the cosmic events at the heart of this big, world breaking, storyline, Hickman and Ribic take us to the heart of the matter and tell a story of pain and grief, of truth and lies. Just when I was expecting sound and fury they give us quiet conversation. Just when I was expecting gods and superheroes, they give us real people cowering before the majesty of faith and of doubt.
Hollywood, are you listening?