I felt uncomfortable as my friend Danny and I sat down to watch the latest Marvel comic book movie. He and I have been watching big-screen heroes together for more than 20 years. From The Hobbit to Harry Potter, from Star Wars to The Matrix, from Batman to Ant-Man, we love these stories of lonely characters who are catapulted out of their comfort zones, reluctantly recruited into rebellions against evil, and transformed into sacrificial heroes. And apparently the rest of the moviegoing world agrees with us. What could be more ordinary?
But life has felt anything but normal during this week of dramatic and deeply troubling news. I didn’t know if I could focus on, much less enjoy, Doctor Strange.
Nevertheless, as I drove home afterward, Danny and I couldn’t stop talking about this latest variation on the classic hero story. It has an unusual twist that I find, um, strangely reassuring.
A thousand new film reviews and articles are tracing Strange’s history. It’s easy to learn about how Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, the pair who first imagined Spider-Man, designed this spaced-out sorcerer who battles evil throughout alternate universes.
And it’s easy to see why director Scott Derrickson’s adaptation for the Marvel movie super-franchise is such a success. First: Marvel is a machine that makes blockbusters. Second: Strange boasts standard-setting special effects. (Many say it’s inspired by Inception, but its wildest moments have equivalents in comics that predate Christopher Nolan.) Third: Strange is played by one of this universe’s biggest stars—Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch as the goatee-sporting, cloak-draped hero. And fourth: It sticks to the basic Iron Man outline—rich egomaniacal genius is humbled, saved by science, and finds direction and purpose as a soldier in the cosmic fight against evil.
The more I think about it, the more these two hours of “escapism” seem relevant.
Consider this: The primary villain seems strangely familiar. Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) is a reckless bully who thinks he knows best about everything. He storms into the sacred sanctuaries (those that protect balances of power in the world) as if he owns them, and then threatens to tear apart the fabric of the world by slashing at it with his foolish pride. Watching this bad guy work was like imagining the delivery of nuclear codes to a dangerous egomaniac.
Or this: As military force and technology prove as useful for advancing evil as they are for advancing good, it seems like a good time to celebrate heroes who learn that matters of the spirit are essential. And Strange’s mentor, the Ancient One (played with unnerving authenticity by Tilda Swinton), is a living mash-up of religious traditions and ideas that emphasize spiritual warfare. She aims to “reorient” Strange’s spirit “to better heal the body." (Some religious media voices are alarmed, saying the film promotes the occult. But I agree with Josh Larsen (ThinkChristian) who says, “[I]t would be a shame to dismiss the movie’s Eastern-influenced, occult-inflected spirituality too quickly. After all, this is the first film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to allow that faith in something bigger than ourselves—rather than science, technology, or alien ability—can be a source of power.”)