Art Imitates Life (The Underlying Message of Doctor Strange)

I didn’t want to have to post this. I had an absolute blast writing it, but I was hoping (and, until now, assuming) that everyone already kind of knew what I was saying, that it didn’t really need to be said.

Well, now Donald Trump and Steve Bannon control the White House, Christian terrorism is on the rise, and everyone’s shouting at each other like “this wasn’t my fault!”

Okay, so I was wrong. Here we go.

2016, right? What a year that was. Warner Brothers teamed up with DC to prove (twice!) to everyone that they don’t know how to make comic book movies. Fox stumbled off of their Deadpool high with X-Men. Paramount painfully mishandled Star Trek’s 50th anniversary (not that Universal did much better with Back to the Future’s 30th in 2015). Meanwhile, Universal, eh, they did all right.

It was a really good year for the House of Mouse, however: Civil War, Finding Dory, Moana Rogue One. Disney and their subsidiaries are on fire right now (which is kind of poetic, given how many wildfires California had last year). They just can’t seem to not stick the landing with audiences and critics alike (despite the usual detractors).

So, what put all of these films over the top? What do they have that the other studios can’t seem to consistently grasp?

Well, they all featured well-rounded characters, memorable quotes, and some well-choreographed action sequences. I mean, those things got and kept butts in seats, sure, but the answer we’re looking for lies underneath all that. Each of these otherwise fantastical films contained, at their cores, a surprisingly grounded and applicable thesis.

Captain America: Civil War expertly represented the real-world relationship between the public and private sectors and asked questions of the role and reach of government as well as the ethics of taking responsibilities of a sovereign nation and burdening them onto yourself. Finding Dory, meanwhile, showed the value of proactivity and the danger of playing the victim for too long. Rogue One reinforced the importance of optimism and determination in a world that seems against you. Finally, Moana offers a lesson in selflessness and warns against the dangers of complicity.

Now, you may have noticed one film missing from the list. It’s last year’s one black sheep film from the Marvel machine: Doctor Strange

And it’s one of the most important films of the year.

According to Box Office Mojo, Doctor Strange grossed $664 million and some change at the box office. That’s certainly not a terrible return. I mean, they did better than break even against the film’s reported $165 million budget, but compare it to Civil War’s $1.15 billion and you. begin to see the problem. Even DC’s critically panned Suicide Squad beat it by $100 million.

The primary complaint about Doctor Strange was that it was yet another formulaic origin story. It had pacing issues, controversial casting, and the good doctor isn’t exactly Spider-Man when it comes to instant recognition. What’s more, Mads Mikkelson’s villainous Kaecilius (which should totally be somebody’s rap moniker by now) was as bland as a white rice sandwich. The mind-bending visuals were initially impressive, but ultimately failed to deliver in the third act. Overall, it felt like a really strong premise that could have maybe just used a little more workshopping. before heading into production. Unfortunately, this gave most audiences the impression that it was just narratively unoriginal, which is not true, not at all.

I’m not saying it deserves an Oscar for its writing, but it deserves better.

This is where Disney (and, by extension, Marvel Studios) has mastered the art. Even their “good enough” films contain more depth than many other studios’ tentpoles. For example, peel off the trippy visual flair and the mystical mumbo jumbo, and Doctor Strange becomes a stark (Marvel pun not intended) commentary on our current political climate.

Think about it. Kaecilius and his followers stand for the conservative extreme: misinformed, disenfranchised, and cynically critical of the current world order. Mordo represents the liberal extreme: rigidly ethical, blind to viewpoints other than those he espouses, and easily turned against his own kind if he catches even the faintest whiff of compromise (sorry, I mean “hypocrisy”). The Ancient One plays the role of a liberal leader, who may have once been a radical like Mordo but was forced to realize that the world is not so black and white. Dormammu, well, he’s a giant demon that destroys everything he touches. I think we can all infer what he symbolizes.

Then there’s Doctor Stephen Strange, curious about both sides of the conflict, decided on neither, and regularly being turned off to the whole thing entirely because of how absolutely crazytown everything even remotely related to it is. In this allegory, Strange is the moderate, the rationalist. He uses his head to guide his heart (sometimes to a fault, as in his relationship with love interest Christine Palmer), he readily listens to opinions from both sides (as is evident in his mid-fight interview with Kaecilius), and he alters his opinions to cooperate with reality (unlike the presumptuous disciples of Dormammu and the overly judgmental Mordo). Furthermore, just like the majority of us moderates, he is utterly incapable of convincing either extreme to tone it down a bit. However, it is his willingness to listen, his constant thirst for knowledge, and his critical thinking—unclouded by partisan absolutes—that allows him to approach Dormammu not as a combatant seeking to defeat the beast, but as a negotiator seeking the best possible outcome.

This “you’re either with us or you’re against us mentality” is growing tiresome, and the creative team at Marvel seems to be picking up on that, whether they mean to or not. If Iron Man is the hero of industry and Captain America the hero of the underdog, Stephen Strange is the hero of the silent majority, and this is where the film breaks off from every Marvel film before it. Our hero doesn’t gain some new power that allows him to offer a brute force beatdown to anyone who stands in his way, nor does he have some epiphany that strengthens his resolve to fight for what he believes in. Instead, he realizes what must be done and uses his cleverness to see it through.

Doctor Strange represents the ultimate political figure, strategic, diplomatic, rational. He doesn’t just ram his own way down others’ throats. A rational person understands the inherent risks of that gambit far outweigh the rewards. No, instead he approaches his opposition as an equal and says “I have come to bargain.”

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