Thursday, November 10, 2016


Directed by Scott Derickson and starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Stephen Strange, Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong as her assistants Mordo and Wong, Mads Mikkelson as his enemy Kaecilius, and Rachel McAdams as his girl friend, Dr. Christine Palmer.

“Death gives us the meaning of our lives.”

This is the mantra that pervades the new superhero movie, DR. STRANGE.  Too bad the theme is ultimately dropped. Only immortals need apply here.

Dr. Strange is a Super Sorcerer who first appeared in the byline of Steve Ditko in Strange Tales #110 in 1963. He brought mysticism to the Marvel Universe (as if the very presence of super heroes isn’t pretty damned mystical already). He lives in a mansion called the Sanctum Sanctorum, located somewhere in New York City (Times Square is probably the actual location). He begins his comic book existence as Stephen Strange, a surgeon of preternatural gifts and a colossal ego, who has no time for petty medical emergencies but is interested only in the Big Cases. When he loses the use of his hands in a terrible auto accident, he abjures Western healing and departs to Kathmandu in search of medicinal alternatives. He meets a bald, androgynous guro simply named The Ancient One who invites him to forget everything he knows and submit to supernatural arts. Not only are his hands healed but he acquires magical abilities, a powerful amulet known as the Eye of Agamotto, a Cloak of Levitation, and an enemy named Kaecilius. This guy (whose eyes are ravaged and glittering with evil intent) bestrides multiple dimensions of time and space. In sum, as one critic has observed with decided understatement, “DR. STRANGE is the gateway into the cosmic corners of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where things can get pretty trippy” (Clark Collis in Entertainment Weekly).

So, what exactly is going on? I’m blamed if I can give you a coherent report. And I doubt if the movie can, either. Characters, super powers, martial arts, cool costumes, and tussles with extra-dimensional bad guys scatter and tumble across the Marvel Universe. We do know there is an other-worldly condition known as the Dark Dimension that can give immortality to the characters—but at a price, as the Ancient One realizes. Indeed the theme of Time and mortality dominates the action. Time is the relentless force that propels and ends our days; it is the proposition that only death can give meaning to our lives. Yet, Time must be harnessed, reversed, manipulated, halted and death be defeated. Immortality is the prize. The evil Kaecilius wants to wrest Time from its inevitability and play with it like a child with a toy. Dr. Strange in his new identity as a cape-wearing superhero of burgeoning powers confronts Kaecilius—and the battle is on. And it doesn’t end there. The Good Doctor also must face the dreaded Dormammu, who rules the Dark Dimension. He is one of the oldest foes of the Ancient One and is plotting to invade the dimension of Earth.

Meanwhile, super powers are not conferred only to Men in Tights (and I must add in an unexpected touch that Strange wears pants, not tights). There is Dr. Palmer, who will assume a new identity of her own, “Night Nurse,” who provides medical assistance to the good guys and a romantic involvement for Strange. Stay tuned.

Paradoxically, the array of fantastic effects, which includes breath-taking chase scenes across cities whose architecture is fractured and splinted, twisted into pretzel shapes, and where gravity is a sometime thing, looks for all the world like a rather old-fashioned ‘70s psychedelic trip. Pink Floyd wouldn’t be out of place here. It is all very dazzling, but in its relentless assault on our senses inevitably becomes sense-numbing and, oddly, rather irrelevant to the attraction of the characters themselves.

Sadly, DR. STRANGE, despite the delightful presence of an occasionally errant cape and a sprinkling of wryly comic touches, falls victim to the same disastrous trope to which every superhero movie succumbs: nobody ever dies. This is a constant irritant to me. Mortality is never a factor. The imminence of death does not illumine life. Superheroes can bash and pummel and thrash each other ad nauseam to little effect. The real drama of any story, i.e., the frailties of the human condition, are notably absent. Thus, there is never any accountability or consequence to anything. And although the story of Dr. Strange seems preoccupied with Time and mortality, like I said at the beginning, there is ultimately no such thing, everything and everybody just goes on forever, like Tennyson’s Brook, ceaseless, unchanging, undying. They are, in the final analysis, only a succession of flattened tints and tones of the comic-book page.

I turn instead to the first and still the most intelligent of modern “super-hero” narratives, Philip Wylie’s GLADIATOR, published in 1930. I recommend it. It explores the plight of a truly superior man in a world of ordinary people. Despite his extraordinary gifts, he is all too mortal. Alas, when the “Superman” comic book character appeared almost a decade later, most of the implications of this sobering theme was lost. “Conscience was bickering inside him,” writes Wylie of Hugo Danner. “Humanity was content; it would hate his new race. And the new race being itself human, might grow top-heavy with power. . . ‘If there were only a God,” [Danner] whispers in his last breath, ‘what a prayer I would make!’”

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