This review has some spoilers for Dr Strange. If you think Marvel films can be spoiled, don’t read it.
It’s a Friday evening. You’re bored. You meet up with a couple of friends to see Marvel’s latest blockbuster. You were unsure whether to bother, but the ridiculously high ratings convinced you. Line up. Get popcorn, sit down. Lights dim. You see the story of some kinda flawed, jejune white dude meeting up with a paternal mentor figure, whom reveals to him his hidden potential. He shares some smoldering looks with some woman character, they kiss at some point. She’s not important. Suddenly, his father-figure dies, at the hands of a villain in some respects just like him. He needs to grow up, and fast; learn responsibility and humbleness and how to kick ass, and defeat his shadow self. After a climatic struggle, he eventually prevails. Credits roll. A cross reference to a different movie is made, a nod to the fans who were keeping up.
It was alright. It was visually impressive. And as uninspired as the plot was, there was a playful buoyancy to its presentation that was hard to hate. It was entertaining, you say. You can’t deny that.
A month roles by. You’re bored. Marvel’s latest film is showing. Line up, get popcorn, sit down. A somewhat naive white dude’s father goes missing, he has to kill or reconcile with his brother. There’s some girl, she’s not particularly important. What is important is main character face has to break away from his father’s guidance and learn to think about others before his powers are unlocked. He does, he defeats his brother. Credits roll.
You’re outside the cinema. Marvel’s latest film is showing. ‘Haven’t we been here before?’ You cry out. ‘Shh, it’s starting.’ your friend says, guzzling popcorn. You meet a prodigious, but somewhat wet-behind-the-ears white dude-
In Marvel’s latest film, Dr Strange, Stephen Strange (genius sociopath poster-child Benedict Cumberpatch) plays a talented neurosurgeon -albeit a rather conceited and antisocial one, much to the discontent of his love interest Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams)-, who in a car crash, tragically looses fine motor control in his hands. He seeks out experimental cures, where he stumbles across the Kamar-Taj, where the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), takes him under her harsh-but-fair tutelage, teaches him about astral projection and other dimensions, and helps him unlock his magical potential. However, Kaecilius, (Mads Mikkelsen) the Ancient One’s former pupil, plans to destroy the three sanctums to summon Dormmamu of the Dark Dimension, to liberate humanity from temporal existence, and bring Earth into the Eternal realm. The Ancient One dies, Strange learns responsibility and humility, and in a daring gambit, he traps Dormmamu and himself in a time loop, and says he will free Dormmamu from perpetual stalemate only if he leaves Earth to its own devices. Dormmamu agrees, Earth is saved, credits roll.
The film received some negative press for making the Ancient One Celtic, -rather than Tibetan, as in the comic,- explicitly to avoid a sovereignty debate; China being a substantial portion of Marvel’s target market. While this has fairly enough sparked condemnation, it’s hardly surprising. It’s not like any Marvel film has ever aspired to anything beyond lowest common denominator entertainment, a hyper glossy, CGI set of variations on a single paint-by-numbers picture. Civil War received a few approving nods for having a black man and woman (no black woman though) among the major hero roles, but what is the value of inclusion in a narrative utterly incapable of discourse, a space without content?
This is a common critique of liberal multiculturalism. To paraphrase Zizek; like decaf coffee is coffee without coffee, multicultural tolerance is pure assimilation; the other without otherness. Black men and women can now feature in narratives, as long as they communicate nothing in their inclusion; as long as they adhere as strictly as possible to the tropes originally built to situate a white male. This is most apparent in the latest Star Wars, or the Ghostbusters reboot; films celebrating diversity through grafting women and people of colour into the mechanical retching of prefabricated molds.
A friend suggested seeing Dr Strange on acid, so I did. I wouldn’t recommend it. The visuals of Dr Strange are undeniably fantastic; somewhere between Inception and Cyriak, but the passive titillation will only leave you with a hollow feeling. If you’re intent on tripping, go for a walk in the forest. Stare at some road kill for four hours. Do something that will draw attention to, or change, your understanding of yourself, the world, and your place within it. As much as Dr Strange’s architecture spiraling into itself successfully imitates a hallucinatory experience, -and the film makes a sly nod to Huxley’s the Doors of Perception, in typical Marvel’s endearingly clumsy wink-nudge humour fashion- its spectating serves no grounds for meaningful reflection. Buy a ticket, sit down, go home.
There is something interesting in the stakes presented in the film, however; Kaecilius wants to bring Earth into the eternal realm to liberate humanity from their enslavement to time. By contrast, the Ancient One claims that temporal existence is what gives life meaning. But while representing the ossification of eternity, Kaecilius genuinely wants to bring about something resembling an actual event; he wants change. And while believing in the dignity of transience and contingency, like all Marvel heroes, the Ancient One only upholds the absolute ossification of the status quo. But how is the forced endless repetition of the present not just another totally administered eternity? Really, both are hypocritical, and both are evil.
And this is good. It means the choice is not negligible, but significant. There is a moment half way through, after Kaecilius talks to Strange, that Strange seriously questions why he assumes Kaecilius is wrong, and if the Ancient Ones self appointed guardianship it really so benevolent. Unfortunately, it doesn’t last, and as the film progresses Kaecilius and Dormmamu return to the role of blank villainy.
What really limits superhero movies from substantial commentary isn’t the escapist empowerment, or the fact that the protagonists punch their way through all problems (though these are both certainly limitations,) but ultimately, it is that the heroes are never heroes of social upheaval; they exist only to protect currently existing society from exaggerated and hyper-villainous threats. They are always heroes of propaganda, heroes of reaction. Anyone seeking the radical transformation of society is inevitably antagonistic. Heroes cannot be progressive, because progress itself is the root of all evil.
In the original comic, rather than defeat Dormmamu, Dr Strange ends up helping Dormmamu fight the Mindless Ones, -horrifying creatures without comprehendible consciousness, whose faces appear as total absence- and Dormmamu agrees to Dr Strange’s terms in lieu of this. This would have been a more interesting ending. As Butler, Laclau, or any undergrad post-structuralist could tell you, the trouble with the Absolute is that it is always false; the Absolute only maintains itself through violently banishing what it negates into incomprehension; a spectre haunting the boundary of politically acceptable reality. Gender binarism, for instance, maintains itself through the exclusion of and the (symbolic and literal) violence it inflicts on those that fail to adequately perform its norms. But even if it can only appear as inarticulable negation, that which is outside the boundary of ‘acceptable reality’ can still bite back. Ideology can be revealed as having been only ideology after all, and inso falter.
Dr Strange is still reactionary in the comic, but at least the narcissistic centrality of his heroism is usurped; the universe is a murky slew of complex forces, and he is just another figure among them. The film Dr Strange, however, remains firmly trapped within its binary moral absolutism, its entirely unreflective ideology. Dr Strange and Kamar-Taj good. Kaecilius and Dormmamu evil. No third option available. Dr Strange wins. Credits roll. Go back home. Back to the day job. Repeat until the next film. Repeat. Repeat.
But maybe there is hope: Dr Strange openly pays lip service to multiverse theory. So, perhaps we can imagine a simultaneous, better world. Where Kaecilius succeeded. Where eternal life is granted in The One; full Hegelian positivity reigns supreme, and humanity is subsumed in the absolute idea at the end of history. Or perhaps it was a false promise; and all life becomes eternal only through disintegration into death absolute. But even this is a victory of a kind. The end of all life is a small price to pay, if it to free us from the time-loop fate of forever watching shitty Marvel movies.