Operating on a Higher Plane: The Appeal of Dr. Strange

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The entrance of Dr. Strange into the Marvel Cinematic Universe gives Marvel the opportunity to explore on screen a type of character they’ve left so far underexplored. I don’t mean that he’s magic. I mean that he’s an asshole. But that’s what you love about him. Like all other great Benedict Cumberbatch characters, he just doesn’t have time for your nonsense. He’s too busy being awesome. And saving existence from extra-dimensional threats, yadda yadda yadda, but mostly it’s the awesomeness. Other than perhaps Tony Stark or Thor, MCU has spent much of its time exploring lovable lunks legitimately motivated by decency and good will. Tony Stark and Stephen Strange make no hesitation in demonstrating their inherent superiority within their fields and indeed seem motivated partially by displays of great virtuosity (and maybe saving people’s lives every once in a while, sure, granted). The problem then is how to translate that into two hours and sell it to people who have not yet, as I have, fallen in love with Dr. Strange. An added problem with Dr. Strange is the complexity of his internal mythology. Tony Stark at least exists within a world of speculative possibility. Dr. Strange, on the other hand, has his own otherworldly mythology nearly as complicated as the greater Marvel Universe. But comic book fans are arguably defined by an appreciation of narrative complexity, the capacity to demonstrate and appreciate great virtuosity within arbitrary parameters, and the tenacity to tackle difficult-to-love characters and love them even harder for it. The average movie going audience, not so much. Dr. Strange especially refuses compression or simplification. He always operates on a higher plane, and that’s why you have to love him.

Since the announcement of a movie based on Dr. Strange, who has been my favorite character since I started reading comics, I’ve offered myself as official Dr. Strange scholar to anyone willing to listen, but it takes a lot to explain the Lovecraftian, multi-dimensional mythology-within-mythology (“You see, there are three main god-like beings who give him power, and they’re called the Vishanti, and Agamotto is the one who looks like the Caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland, and that’s the guy whose eyeball Dr. Strange wears around his neck,” etc.); I readily correct speculation based on nonsense (“Mads Mikkelson can’t be playing Mephisto if he’s a former Ancient One ally since Mephisto is not a dude). I fear I’ll soon degenerate into Ancient Mariner-like babbling to strangers in the delighted delusion that this movie’s existence means somebody cares (“Get this: the god-like being he calls on to generated unbreakable red bands is Cyttorak, the same god who gives Juggernaut his power, so the power of Juggernaut is only one fraction of his awesomeness. That’s an interesting factoid, right? Right?”). However, film adaptations tend to simplify this geek-pleasing gratuitous level of intricacy using cheap tricks to cut through dense mythology and narrative/character complexities that take longer-form stories (like comics) years and years, pages and pages, volumes and volumes to develop. Film is just a structurally limited and inevitably less complex medium than serial storytelling forms like comics.

Marvel Studios in particular, as this decade’s masters of pleasing both general audiences and hardcore geeks, is especially fond of these cheap simplifications, but we tend to forgive the dilution of our beloved complexity amid the rapturous sobs of gratitude. Take, for example, this question: Why does Gamora hate Thanos? That small element of the comic book lore alone has as much complexity as a Thomas Hardy novel, but the Guardians of the Galaxy movie cheaply boils it down to one line: “He killed my parents in front of me.” Well…not exactly…but in just a second of film, despite the extreme simplification, we love Gamora and hate Thanos, and the movie is so great, who cares, right? The fact that a Guardians of the Galaxy movie even exists is enough argument against my overly particular quibbles, right? I fear, however, with the more personally beloved and more internally complex Dr. Strange, the delicate balance between gratitude and my offense at simplification may break the wrong direction.

That higher plane Dr. Strange operates on makes him less like Peter Quill and more like Dr. Who or Sherlock Holmes, struggling to relate to normal humans, having transcended human normalcy through a mix of natural genius, exhaustive self-education, and relentless dedication to his field. He’s more like Liam Neeson in Taken than Bruce Willis in Die Hard: he has a “particular set of skills,” and we delight in watching him practice this set of skills to the mortal detriment of his targets. Dr. Strange’s targets happen to be demonic, godlike, and/or cthuloid entities, but the principle remains the same. Marvel Studios tends more toward the normal, relatable, lovably-flawed Bruce Willis-type of character: Steve Rogers is the bullied, scrawny kid with quixotic ambitions; Bruce Banner is a timid and introspective nerd; Peter Quill is a normal guy acting out an 80s movie fantasy; Scott Lang is a well-intentioned but bumbling dad who Robin Hoods his way to jail (much more relatable than Hank Pym, the genius inventor who more commonly plays the role of Ant Man in the comics). When a character is a less relatable higher-plane-type, like Tony Stark or Thor, Marvel Studios tends to use grounding characters (like Pepper Potts and Jane Foster) who balance the beyond quality with overt discombobulated earthiness; or origin plots, the classic lofty-character-falling-from-grace gimmick that balances out the otherwise transcendent skill set (Tony has his injury, and Thor is humbled in exile, stories already well known to hardcore fans). If you have read the comics in the last few decades, you’ll see Thor is still an arrogant god despite experiences in humbling exile, and Tony Stark is still an arrogant billionaire genius despite various physical or psychological challenges – through decades of history, they’ve had hundreds of falls from grace and glorious returns to create the tapestry of their present character, and longtime fans appreciate the well-worn, threadbare comfort of each characters’ humanity as it weaves in the most complex ways with all their transcendence and brutality. Like any worthy relationship, it takes work over years and massive love/hate frustration.

However, the eternal return of origin stories gets especially tedious, and hardcore fans certainly wouldn’t tolerate hearing about radioactive spiders and cosmic rays a third time, so Kevin Feige claimed early in the Dr. Strange movie rumor-disseminating process that we would not have another origin story, and this came as some relief. But later rumors and set images and the teaser trailer have reversed this claim – Dr. Strange would be an origin story after all – so amid the joyous weeping and the ululations of “Oh, to be alive at such a time as this!” there is the more subtle antithetical “this again” which I have to struggle against hearing inside my own head.

Dr. Strange’s origin superficially reads a lot like Iron Man’s (and Stan Lee, who created Dr. Strange with Steve Ditko and Iron Man with Jack Kirby, loved the physical-injury-as-motivator story as much as he loved the classic dead-relative gimmick). Like Tony Stark, Stephen Strange started as an arrogant expert in his field disinterested in humanity; in the case of Strange, he was an arrogant brain surgeon who suffered nerve damage in a car accident and was no longer able to practice, a grounding factor not unlike Stark’s heart injury. Here’s where Stark’s and Strange’s stories diverge a bit: Stark has a family history and natural genius for technology (lumping him with another Hollywood favorite: the chosen one with greatness thrust upon him who must choose to responsibly use his gift); Strange, in contrast, must learn a brand new craft from a base of zero knowledge. Strange, in seeking a cure for his hands, finds the Ancient One who teaches him various forms of magic, and Strange soon becomes the greatest practitioner. Granted, some writers frame this progression from zero knowledge to mastery as a chosen one narrative, but the original and most common version of this story is that Stephen Strange encountered an unfamiliar craft and mastered it no time, a level of unrelatable virtuosity far beyond Tony Stark, a natural tech-genius raised in a tech-genius household. Here’s another basic difference: Stark is limited by what technology has the capacity to do; Dr. Strange is essentially limited by nothing.

A criticism sometimes lobbed at Dr. Strange by longtime fans of other comics is that his presence in the story functions as a lazy deus ex machine for lazy writers. In his defense, he has a long history of being poorly used outside his own comic, but that doesn’t mean his deus ex machina tendencies are necessarily a problem. Sure, when he shows up in a story at the last second – say, when Scarlet Witch has already killed Thor, and nobody else can stop her – and he is the only one who can save the day, sure, that’s a lazy deus ex machina. But his capacity to solve essentially all problems beyond any other character is not intrinsically a flaw. He could generate a spell to eliminate all crime in New York and put Spider-Man and Daredevil out of business, but he doesn’t because that’s below his interest when fundamental natural and supernatural forces require him to focus elsewhere. Here is a brief list of his powers just off the top of my head: flight, teleportation, mind reading, hypnotism, astral projection, generation of unbreakable bonds, at least three varieties of force blasts, generation of fire and mist, and the list goes on. In my favorite Dr. Strange story, he created life out of essentially nothing. However, Dr. Strange is one of the few superheroes whose power functions more like an anime character. He increases his own power to match the situation. He finds a new magical object or he accesses some hidden or forgotten or deep recess of power based on the fact that he’s a badass and a genius and has such a vast store of knowledge and power, not based on sloppy storytelling. If Spider-Man spontaneously manifested the ability to fly because this is the only way the writer could imagine him beating the Green Goblin, this would be ridiculous, partly because Spider-Man’s power range has remained roughly the same for half a century. In contrast, in Bleach, when Kenpachi is fighting Nnoitra Gilga, and he suddenly announces that he can double his power by using both hands on his sword, that’s not sloppy storytelling, that’s badass, but it’s a different kind of storytelling than American comics. Anime characters are constantly expected to increase power and excel at their particular brand of fighting. Likewise, if Dr. Strange meets an obstacle he can’t overcome with his present set of abilities (which is often in his stories) then he finds a way to outsmart his enemy or access new power to win.

Then there’s the other grounding method: Rachel McAdams will appear in the Dr. Strange movie as a Pepper Potts-like character who has no correlation in the comics, but Dr. Strange in the comics most often has no grounding character and arguably has no need for a grounding character. The closest thing Dr. Strange has to a powerless human counterpart or damsel in distress is his servant Wong, but Wong is an initiate in the same cult from which Strange learned his art so hardly a stand in for normal non-initiates. Strange’s most common love interest is Clea, the niece of his greatest enemy, Dormammu, a godlike being whose power is exponentially greater than Strange’s. Clea is also the daughter of Umar the Unrelenting (easily the greatest character name in comics and one of the most underrated badass female villains). Dormammu and Umar are both Faltinians, godlike energy beings who have each on various occasions ruled the Dark Dimension. Clea, in the Game of Thrones-like subplot of constantly-shifting royal succession, has also functioned as queen of the Dark Dimension. As much as I appreciate Pepper Potts as a counterpoint to Tony Stark, Clea as a half-flame-god queen of her own dimension is not quite the down-to-earth gal Friday type. It’s nothing new for arrogant pricks of great genius to be paired with a grounding character – Sherlock Holmes to Dr. Who, characters who operate on a higher plane who need the lower-plane normal to translate their geniusness. But nobody reads a Sherlock Holmes story for Watson. He’s that little dash of salt that makes the cake taste better.

This is why Benedict Cumberbatch, who has played Sherlock Holmes and nearly played Dr. Who, is such obvious casting for Dr. Strange – so obvious the announcement of his casting seemed so mundane, I could only say, “Well, duh. He’s been playing Dr. Strange for years now.” The appeal of the Cumberbatchian character, Dr. Strange included, runs counter to a whole batch of not-so-true truisms of storytelling that are ultimately simplifying tricks more than absolutes. The idea that characters should be likable, vulnerable, lesson-learning normals in order for audiences to relate or at least have someone present who stands in for normality is as much nonsense as “write what you know,” the most egregiously false of all writing clichés. Arthur Conan Doyle may have known a lot about crime fighting, but Stan Lee was no magician – thank Hoggoth he wrote Dr. Strange anyway and ignored that terrible advice. More accurately, the material for storytelling is the tension between the familiar and unfamiliar in various measures. Similarly, creating a likable, normal, vulnerable, relatable character is only a simple starting point and only vital when placed in contrast with unlikable characters and/or unlikable tendencies within that likable character. A normal character gains most vitality in being placed in contrast with abnormal circumstances or abnormal characters; stasis is the substance of stories only in its interruption.

Likewise, a character who operates above our mundane normalcy may seem unrelatable but becomes vital precisely in contrast to our own mundanity. The appeal in listening to Jimi Hendrix is not in how easily I relate to his guitar playing skill (I don’t play guitar at all, for the record) but in his virtuosity far beyond seemingly-normal human capacity. The appeal of virtuosity doesn’t have to be related to any real skill. Kids could make up a game out of throwing random objects at random targets – the parameters are irrelevant – but the kid who demonstrates greatest virtuosity will become admirable within parameters that only came into existence moments before. This is even more significant in fictional worlds where writers have the freedom to make up all the parameters. Stan Lee and subsequent Dr. Strange writers made up the rules of his magic (with a healthy dose of Lovecraft tributes/ripoffs but based on imaginary scenarios nonetheless) and they set up entirely fictional obstacles, and the capacity of Dr. Strange to demonstrate great virtuosity using made up skills to overcome made up obstacles becomes as exhilarating as the guitar mastery of Jimi Hendrix. Stan Lee from the very beginning set up seemingly impossible obstacles, unbeatable god-like enemies though we only had Lee to believe about how unbeatable these godlike enemies actually were. Dr. Strange’s first enemy was Nightmare, the embodiment of all nightmares, and Strange demonstrates great magical skill, breadth of knowledge, and practical cleverness in overcoming Nightmare, and in doing so, our admiration comes from this heightened level of skill, not his normalcy.

Don’t get me wrong, Dr. Strange’s appeal is in both his humanity and his super-humanity. The appeal of his humanity comes from the complexity of flaw and failure layered into the sediments of his history but remaining in many stories sub-textual motivations longtime fans know and new fans feel viscerally. Even beyond this, Dr. Strange is unique among heroes informed by intrinsic fractures in that his inter-dimensional travels are often embodiments of introspective journeys inward in which he explores all the unfolding dimensions of his own soul. In this sense, normalcy in art, any art, is grossly overrated, and the delight in the multifaceted complexity of supposed escapism is grossly underrated.

That being said, I am eternally grateful that a Dr. Strange movie exists even if the movie must, by necessity of the form, be a pale shadow of his greatness.

Dr Strange and the Avengers pig latin

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