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Doctor Strange

Entry updated 3 January 2022. Tagged: Film.

Film (2016). Marvel Studios presents. Directed by Scott Derrickson. Written by C Robert Cargill, Scott Derrickson and Jon Spaihts from the Comic book character of the same name created by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, which first appeared in the Marvel Comics anthology series Strange Tales #110 (July 1963). Cast includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Chris Hemsworth, Rachel McAdams, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton and Benedict Wong. 115 minutes. Colour.

A former surgeon searching for a cure to his irretrievably damaged hands finds a cabal of Secret Masters who draw the Magic for their Superpowers from Dimensions beyond that of the Earth.

The fourteenth film of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and the first since Marvel Studios divested itself from Marvel Entertainment and became part of the Walt Disney Company, first feints at a different approach to the previous thirteen – here our Hero must learn something about the limits of his ego before returning stronger, fitter, faster to the supernal path of self-esteem and individuality – then reverts to the successful formula of a single man saving the Multiverse and everything in it. That this Orientalist confection succeeds so well at wedding the Mythological scale of the Marvel Superhero to the sudden shifts of perspective attendant to the computer-generated age of digital Cinema is down to Doctor Strange's visual panache, a typically-stentorian and theatrically-accomplished performance as Doctor Strange by Benedict Cumberbatch and the realization of the longstanding connection between the Cosmological doctrines of Theosophy and the Pulp traditions of storytelling from which Doctor Strange so evidently draws its inspiration.

Arrogant-but-capable Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) ruins his surgeon's hands in a clifftop car-crash and, finding no solution in medical science (see Medicine), winds up on the doorstep of the "Kamar-Taj", a clandestine brotherhood dedicated to protecting the Earth from extra-dimensional danger not only from its Keep in Kathmandu, but from sanctums in London, New York and Hong Kong. Strange makes the acquaintance of sorcerer Mordo (Ejiofor) and librarian Wong (Wong) before being taken under the tutelage of "The Ancient One" (Swinton), a venerable Tibetan man in the Comic from which Doctor Strange is adapted, here rewritten as a non-Asian, and possibly non-binary, person of follically-pristine appearance. Strange masters the book-bound spells that grant the Kamar-Taj access to the Earth's mirror zone (see Technofantasy) before moving onto "relics" including a levitating cloak and "The Eye of Agamotto", an amulet that allows its user to manipulate Time. Strange shows the same aptitude for these dangerous magical assaults on the "natural order" of time and space as Kaecilius (Mikkelsen), a former student of the Ancient One gone to the bad in search of Immortality, only Strange, of course, must master their use in order to protect the both the Kamar-Taj and the Earth from Kaecilius and his cronies, who assault each of the Sanctums in turn, killing the Ancient One and revealing that s/he had, in fact, been drawing some of the power by which s/he prevented the End of the World from the Dark Dimension, a place beyond the depredations of Entropy occupied by the Villainous entity Dormammu, Kaecilius's new master.

Three set-piece battles at each of the sanctums fly by – in effect, the same battle three times over – much enlivened by extending the four-dimensional City-scapes of Christopher Nolan's Inception (2010) into interlocking mandalas and intricate Chinese puzzles of doors, buildings and streets that lead to deeper, more arrestingly psychedelic Parallel Worlds, such as the one in which Doctor Strange defeats Dormammu by trapping it in a Time Loop. (Quite why Dormammu keeps its end of the resulting bargain it strikes with Doctor Strange is one of several plot-holes left unexplained by the script.) Dormammu is visually and thematically redolent of previous villains in the Marvel franchise – the constructed AI Ultron from Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) and Thanos from Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) to name but two – and allusions are also made to the MCU-wide McGuffin of the "Infinity Stones": Doctor Strange's Eye of Agamotto relic is shown to be one of these and a credit-cookie sequence between Doctor Strange and Thor (Hemsworth) reveals it to be part of the terms of a future hook-up between the two superheroes.

There is in the end little in Doctor Strange that is not about its eponymous hero's ability to impose his Perception of reality on everyone around him: former paramour and nurse-in-waiting (see Women in SF) Christine Palmer (McAdams) does not change him (despite a few dramatic allusions to this possibility), any more than does buddy who warns him against the dark side Mordo, or barely-realized bad guy Kaecilius. Doctor Strange starts as he ends, as someone who knows better than anyone else how to hold fragile human systems together, whether at the level of the body, the world or indeed the Multiverse: the global Economic centres of London, New York and Hong Kong are his focus, the tenets of "Shamballah" or Shangri-La [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] – knowingly referenced as a Wi-Fi password in the film – the Metaphysical justification for the moral and intellectual superiority of his class. The guy in the cape knows best, just as he does when he is Doctor Who or Sherlock Holmes, the ongoing complexity of creation being too much for the mere gamut of humanity to comprehend. [MD]

see also: Imperial Gothic; Imperialism; Yellow Peril.


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