Movies & TV / Columns

411 Comics Showcase: Doctor Strange

November 4, 2016 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard

I hope there’s actually someone around to read this. Since the Cubs finally won a World Series, I assume we are living in the end times. But just in case we aren’t, I’m here to answer the burning question of every casual movie fan that’s wondering when superhero films will finally die.

Just who the hell is Doctor Strange and why should you care?

Marvel Studios returns to theaters this week with Doctor Strange, the fourteenth film in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe epic. The Scott Derrickson directed film is sure to rule the box office, but how big of a hit will this be for Marvel? Hard to say; the marketing has given fans a taste of the premise and the mind-blowing visuals, but hasn’t focused on the actual character so much. Comparisons to The Matrix and Inception seem appropriate. And with a small legion of talented actors who are more cult favorites than legitimate movie stars, the filmmakers seem to know who this film is going to attract. The question is; will it be enough to turn Doctor Strange into a mega-hit or simply a modestly successful blockbuster?

In many ways, that situation sums up Doctor Strange’s entire existence. Most dedicated comic fans know who Doctor Strange is, but history shows that his dedicated audience is not always enough to sustain an ongoing comic book series. His stories tend to deal more with solving magical mysteries and discovering bizarre new dimensions and planes of existence. The character developed a dedicated cult following in the sixties; readers were attracted to the mystic story elements and psychedelic art. Both are trademarks of the character and while I don’t personally engage in anything that might enhance the reading experience, it’s certainly something that piques my interest.

Doctor Strange was the invention of Steve Ditko, the writer/artist who helped Stan Lee create Spider-Man and later created the Question and the second version of Blue Beetle. Ditko came up with the basic idea as well as the design, though he got his name from Strange Tales, the anthology series where he made his debut. Issue #110 featured a short story that introduced the character as well as his valet Wong and his teacher the Ancient One, and his homebase called the Sanctum Sanctorum. Doctor Strange would be a regular backup feature in the series, which featured a rotating cast before settling down with Nick Fury as the other main attraction.

Stephan Strange’s origin was first published in Strange Tales #115, revealing that he was once the most skilled surgeon in the world. But he was hardly altruistic; Strange was arrogant and concerned only with fame and money. As so often happens to prideful characters, Stephan ended up crashing down to earth; quite literally in fact. A car accident permanently damaged the nerves in his hands, leaving him unable to perform his surgeries. Too proud to accept a career as a consultant, Stephan traveled the world in search of a cure before meeting the Ancient One. Though initially a skeptic, Stephan found new purpose as a sorceror. In many ways, he can be seen as a mystical counterpart to Tony Stark; haughty and uncaring until a tragedy changed his worldview.

While Ditko served as primary plotter, taking Strange to fantastic new worlds to battle foes like Baron Mordo, Dormammu and Eternity, Stan Lee helped flesh out the characterization with extravagant exclamations like “By the hoary hosts of Hoggoth!” Much like Stan’s “science” in the comics, this was mumbo jumbo that was included to be memorable and fun to read, though some of the more obsessed readers were known for trying to divine the hidden meanings of the mystical plot elements.

The Sorcerer Supreme is one of the most powerful of Marvel’s heroes, which means he rarely clashes with common criminals. Given enough time to think, Strange is able to cast a spell to do almost anything. While this could lead to a boring, tensionless story, Strange is often fighting demons and eldritch gods that take considerable effort to defeat, and often battle him psychologically. Perhaps his most well known power is his astral form, leaving his physical body to travel almost anywhere, including dreams and other dimensions. Strange is also closely associated with his self-explanatory Cloak of Levitation, the versatile amulet called the Eye of Agamotto, and the encyclopedia of white magic known as the book of Vishanti. It’s nice to have writers actually justify those stylish capes for once.

Something that does become very evident when reading classic Doctor Strange stories is that certain plot elements may not translate to a modern audience. While I personally don’t think there’s anything malicious in the Ancient One’s Fu Manchu stock character, it does feel somewhat dated. More troublesome is Wong, who is portrayed as a friend to Strange but is also explicitly his servant… and that doesn’t quite work for me. I recognize that a comparison to Alfred is valid, but any time minority characters are subservient to white characters, it does become a bit sketchy. It’s hardly a surprise that the new film has become the center of some controversy; as director Scott Derrickson has said, it’s a Kobayashi Maru of cultural sensitivity. While my personal belief is that any stereotype can be overcome with good writing, there are less opportunities to flesh out minor characters in a two-hour film. I respect his efforts to change Wong and the Ancient One around, and feel he’s handled the controversy with class and thoughtfulness.

Doctor Strange’s specialized skillset makes him an ideal guest star, but it also functionally dictates that he never be a full-time member of a team like the Avengers. He’s best suited to the Defenders, a team of powerful loners that come together for common goals but rarely interact with each other. The “not quite a team” was originally Doctor Strange, Namor the Sub-Mariner and the Hulk. I’ve found these books to be enjoyable because of how the characters interact with each other as opposed to more stable teams like the Avengers or the Justice League.

Doctor Strange is a character that I am, admittedly, fairly new to reading on his own merits. Unsurprisingly for a guy who loves DC characters like Doctor Fate and Etrigan the Demon, I’ve been enjoying most of what I read. As a character, Strange walks a fine line between being obnoxious and charming, and the stories and art tend to be engaging. I’m most fond of a Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martín mini-series The Oath, but his 1970’s ongoing series is fun and his brief appearances in Strange Tales are quick reads. If you prefer a more recent take, Jason Aaron and Chris Bachalo’s most recent series is also worth reading.

As for the movie? Well, I haven’t seen it yet. It’s not a movie I’ve been dying to see my whole life, but I do think it’s cool that it’s getting made. The cast has a tone of great actors, though I worry that Mads Mikkelson will be woefully underused. You’ll get my full thoughts in a few weeks when I take a look back at what 2016 offered in terms of comic book movies.

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Michael Ornelas and I write weekly on 411, taking turns introducing each other to films the other hasn’t seen. Last week, we closed out October with a Persian-language vampire film A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night . This week, Michael decided we should watch Idiocracy before we find out which massively unpopular candidate wins the election.