I have to admit I wouldn’t have gone to see this based on the trailer, as it just appeared to be a special effects spectacular, which is what you expect from superhero movies. And it seemed very formulaic - an apprentice, a mentor, a villain who wants to destroy the world - you know the script. What changed my mind was a review by Stephen Romei in the Australian Weekend Review (29-30 Oct. 2016), who gave it 3.5 stars, and re-reading it, gives a lot of the plot away. I’ll try not to do that here, but I’m not promising.
Dr Stephen Strange is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who is much better cast here than in The Imitation Game, which I thought was a travesty. As an aside, The Imitation Game was an insult to the real Alan Turing, but I don’t believe that was Cumberbatch’s fault. I blame the director, writers and producers, who, knowing the audience’s ignorance, gave them the caricature of genius that they expected the audience wanted to see.
Cumberbatch’s Dr Strange is a self-obsessed, egotistical, unapologetically self-promoting brain surgeon. He’s never known failure and that’s an important psychological point in my view. The first subliminal philosophical reference in this movie is the well-worn trope: the unexamined life is not worth living. This is pretty much the theme or premise of every story ever told. The point is that no one examines their life until they experience failure, and, of course, Strange faces failure of a catastrophic kind. Otherwise, there’d be no movie.
He then goes on a mystical journey, which many of us may have done at an intellectual level, but can only be done viscerally in the world of fiction. I should point out that I went through a prolonged ‘Eastern philosophy’ phase, which more or less followed on from the ‘Christian’ phase of my childhood. I’m now going through a mathematical phase, as anyone reading this blog could not have failed to notice.
Anyway, Strange’s journey is distinctly Eastern, which is the antithesis of his medical-science background. But he is introduced to an ‘astral’ or ‘spirit’ dimension, and there is a reference to the multiverse, which is a current scientific trope, if I may re-use that term in a different context. I don’t mind that ‘comic book’ movies allude to religious ideas or even that they mix them with science, because one can do that in fiction. I’ve done it myself. The multiverse is an allusion to everything that we don’t know scientifically (even in science) and is the current bulwark against metaphysics. Employing it in a fantasy movie to enhance the fantasy element is just clever storytelling. It embodies the idea, that is still very current in the East, that science cannot tell us everything.
There are 2 mythological references in the movie, including one biblical one. At one point the villain, Kaecilius (played by Mads Mikkelsen) attempts to seduce Strange to the ‘dark side’, which is very reminiscent of Satan’s attempt to seduce Jesus in the desert. I’ve always liked that particular biblical story, because it represents the corruption of power and status over the need to serve a disenfranchised public. In other words, it is an appeal to ego over the need to subordinate one’s ego for a greater good.
One of the themes of the story is mortality and immortality; something I’ve explored in my own fiction, possibly more explicitly. We live in a time where, as Woody Allen once explained in literary terms, we ‘suspend disbelief’ that we are going to live forever. We tend to avoid, in Western culture, any reference to mortality, yet it is an intrinsic part of life. We all eventually get there but refuse to face it until forced to. This is actually addressed in this movie, quite unexpectedly, as we don’t expect lessons in philosophy in a superhero movie.
Last but not least, there is a subtle but clever allusion to Camus’ famous retelling of the Greek Sisyphus myth (look it up), not something your average cinema audience member would be expected to know. It is embedded in one of those plot devices that I love: where the hero uses an unexpected ‘twist’, both literally and figuratively, and where brain defeats overwhelming force.