I’m going to talk about Doctor Strange, and I know it’s only just come out in the USA so I’ll be very careful about any spoilers. I’m not going to talk about specific events from the film so much as aspects of the character and the themes that have cropped up in the Doctor Strange comics as far back as the 60s and 70s, so if you are completely unfamiliar with the character and want to go into the movie completely blind, I’d encourage you to skip down for now.
So, for all intents and purposes Stephen Strange is magical Tony Stark, in terms of personality type, approach to power, mannerisms and more. It makes sense that Marvel would put him as kind of the bedrock for the magic-based portion of the MCU, because Tony Stark did really well for the super science section. Doctor Strange is an origin film not just for the character but for how magic is approached in the setting, and it puts in extra legwork so that followup films won’t have to.
Where Strange differs from Stark is in how they deal with trauma and what themes they kind of embody. Stark is someone who suffered a near-fatal accident and his story and arcs are about struggling with different kinds of addiction and the existential crisis launched by coming face to face with mortality and blinking. He wants to build a shell around himself, and then his friends, and then the world, and a lot of his adversity is self-made by overreach. It’s compelling and something that a lot of people can relate to; everyone has had a time where they swing too far one direction and it comes back to bite them, they’ve overreacted and had to deal with those consequences.
Strange, to me, and even back when I was a teenager, became a story about someone dealing with chronic pain in their life.
Stephen Strange based his entire life, work and even his personality around having amazing control over his hands. When he loses the precision and accuracy from severe nerve damage, he feels that he has nothing left. His best stories, to me at least, are about him struggling with the prospect of getting that back and what he has to give up for it.
Because he could get his hands back. Any time he wanted, he’d be able to channel raw magic power into his broken fingers and keep them healed up. It would require constant concentration and he wouldn’t be able to utilize any other magic, but he could do it. So why doesn’t he?
That’s a question that rings really true as someone who has suffered from chronic pain stemming from ulcerative colitis and the related surgeries since age 16. I can manage my pain down to the point where it is non-existent. It requires regular medication doses, very careful attention paid to meal planning, eating on a tight schedule and keeping to bland foods, and certain exercises to help maintain core strength without straining abdominal muscles. I could do all of that, but I would be giving up a lot.
If Strange did it, he’d be giving up the entire new world and friends he discovered while learning how to handle the pain. He travels a long arc in the comics learning that even though he has to give up being a surgeon, he can still do a lot of good in the world and beyond, and even then it pains him to do so since it was a core element of who he was prior to his accident. I really feel that. There are certain jobs and roles that my own ailment has locked me out of forever, and it took me years to come to terms with that. I still feel a little resentful from time to time, but I have come to terms with the fact that it forced me into new things I might have otherwise ignored. Many of my current, close friendships are a direct result of my hospital stay and fallout and taking my experiences into college with me, learning to work around them as much as I learned history and English and everything academic.
Doctor Strange is about going through something traumatic, having to carry it with you for the rest of your life, and acknowledging that you’re going to look at the world much differently than everyone else. Where he sees the astral plane, and dreamscapes, and the cosmic beyond, I see calendars and clocks and having to time exactly when I take my meds if I want to have a drink that evening, keeping track of what and when I’ve eaten so that I don’t overload my system with anything and give myself paralyzing stomach cramps for the rest of the day, so on and so forth. It’s seeing another layer of reality.
When presented with the chance to go back and “fix” himself many times over in the comics, Strange often struggles with it and, after being tempted, decides to stick with the timeline he’s lived and knows he did good in already. Similarly I don’t know that I would go back and change anything about my own medical issues, even if I could. If I did, there’s a chance I might not have met my wife and my current group of good friends, I may not have read the books that I read about pain, books that inspired me to look at fantasy and science fiction from new angles. I might even have my charming, bleak sense of humor brought about through near-death and regular bursts of pain.
I hope I don’t sound too self-pitying or anything here, because I’m not. Like Strange has done I consider it something that’s made me stronger and fundamentally changed the way I approach many, many things. It’s made me weirder in a good way.
Anyway, I would recommend the film. The plot arc is a little Marvel by the numbers, but the spectacle of the magic differentiates it from how same-y the Iron Man, Captain America and related movies feel. Yes, Stephen is basically Tony with glowing orange mandalas instead of holograms, yes Mads is brilliant but a bit underused like every MCU villain whose name isn’t Loki, but it felt a hell of a lot fresher than anything else the setting has put out since Winter Soldier.
Although holy shit do I wish they’d stop the white savior stuff. I adore Tilda Swinton and I think she did a great job with her role, but there’s no reason it couldn’t have been given to a Tibetan actor. Having one Celtic master of the eastern arts teach them to a white New Yorker and both of them being better than all of the Asian characters around them was so cringeworthy it actually hurt. I’m so sick of the ~orient~ being portrayed as a few mystical cities where westerners go to get superpowers instead of a fully realized place with its own superheroes and villains, and Marvel is in a perfect position to change it up. Luke Cage has been running up critical acclaim for handling racial matters with dignity and depth, so why the hell is that sandwiched between Daredevil’s abysmal ninja fever season, Doctor Strange and the upcoming Iron Fist not even trying something new or fresh like and Asian-American Danny who has to rediscover parts of his heritage cast aside by his ancestors?
I don’t want to come away from a movie feeling like I enjoyed it in spite of those flaws when they could so easily fix them.
I ended up reading A Taste of Milk and Honey twice, back to back, and that’s not something I do with many books. Not even novellas. It’s such a rich, deep story that lends itself to re-reading though, while the details of the end are fresh in your mind. Not even in the sense of a foreshadowed twist or something like that, but as a complete piece of literature it feels so much better the second time through.
I’ve spoken at length about how much I love Kai Ashante Wilson’s work. His essays are brilliant, his first book Sorcerer is one of the best things I’ve read in years, and my expectations were very high for Honey and I’m pleased to report that those expectations were all exceeded here. It’s so good it feels almost unfair, and I’m having a hard time coming up with a longer review than “just go read the damn thing” because any hint I give as to the plot structure or the story itself are going to give away key things that were a delight to stumble into on the first read.
It’s a multi-faceted love story that expands the world hinted at in the Wildeeps, where cultures reminiscent of Imperial Rome and the Greater Maghreb region from antiquity are feeling out a nascent treaty under the watchful eyes of seven foot tall, obsidian immortals who speak in complex, contemporary mathematical talk in a world of gladiuses and togas. It’s a book about looking through the cracks and figuring out what is actually happening underneath, and in a way that you feel like you deserve what you learn when you put it all together. You are dropped in headfirst but this is one of those stories where it’s to the benefit of the greater narrative to have to play catch-up.