Editor’s Note: Paul DeBenedetto is a writer and comics fan from Brooklyn who used to run the comics blog Wednesday’s Child. He is also a reporter covering the borough of Queens for DNAinfo.com, and his work has appeared online and in print for various local and national media outlets. Given that he knows his stuff when it comes to superheroes and graphic literature, we asked him to whip something up in response to the recent confirmation of Marvel’s Doctor Strange adaptation.
Dr. Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme, is officially coming to the big screen. That’s the news Kevin Feige had for MTV’s Splash Page, who interviewed the Marvel Studios president on Friday about their Phase Three films. This next crop of Avengers franchise titles will touch on “different corners” of the Marvel Universe, Feige said, with Doctor Strange being confirmed for release around the same time as the long-awaited Ant-Man movie from Edgar Wright.
“Doctor Strange, which I’ve been talking about for years, is definitely one of them,” Feige told Splash Page. “He’s a great, original character, and he checks the box off this criteria that I have: he’s totally different from anything else we have, just like Guardians of the Galaxy. He’s totally different from anything we’ve done before, as is Ant-Man, which keeps us excited.”
Indeed, a Dr. Strange film would open the door to Marvel’s magic world much in the same way Guardians of the Galaxy will introduce cosmic Marvel to a new audience. Like both the Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man, Dr. Strange is a Marvel hero without big-name recognition. But there’s a lot about this fan favorite that would make for a great, large-scale action-fantasy adventure, as long as the filmmakers stay away from some of the more esoteric and dated aspects of Marvel’s number one sorcerer. Here’s what will work for a Dr. Strange movie, and what won’t:
Keep: Origin Story
You could probably write the entire movie based on this, one of my favorite origin tales. The gist: Dr. Stephen Strange is a brilliant surgeon and all-time jerk. He cares less about helping people than he does about his own prestige. One day he gets into a horrible car accident that breaks his hands. Doctors can’t fully repair the damage, so he travels the world on a manic quest to find someone, anyone, who can help him restore his greatness.
His voyage takes him to Tibet (duh!), where he finds the Ancient One, the Sorcerer Supreme. The Ancient One sees something in Strange and invites him to study in the Himalayas, much to the chagrin of the Ancient One’s current pupil, Baron Mordo. Mordo, in a fit of jealousy, joins forces with an evil being called Dormammu. Strange finds out and attempts to warn the Ancient One, who fends off the attack and welcomes in his new protege, Dr. Strange, a newfound believer in magic who has dropped his conceited ways. Strange trains with the Ancient One for years, finally becoming the Sorcerer Supreme himself.
That’s a great start, right? Let’s go through the checklist: 1. A fundamentally flawed protagonist; 2. who loses everything; 3. finds a mentor; and 4. undergoes a great change. It would also frame Baron Mordo as the yang to Dr. Strange’s yin, the would-be Sorcerer Supreme, much like the relationship between Thor and Loki in the Kenneth Branagh and Joss Whedon films. It also sets up a grand finale pitting Dr. Strange against a god-like entity at the end of the film.
Discard: His Magic Items
Get rid of ’em. Who cares? In the comic, Dr. Strange uses these artifacts to perform certain kinds of magic. One of those, the Orb of Agamotto, appears in Thor as an Easter Egg in Odin’s Trophy room. That was a great shout-out. Now never mention it again.
It’s just too much explanation. Who cares how Dr. Strange does magic? What if he just does it? You know, some made-up magic words, and ta-da! Bad guys defeated. Don’t bog the movie down with boring continuity porn.
Keep: No Secret Identity
His name is Dr. Stephen Strange (Strange! What a surname). No Clark Kent or Peter Parker here. Because why? The “secret identity,” while a classic superhero trope, creates phony tension in a story: villain finds out hero’s secret identity; goes after family/friends; hero finally defeats villain. It works well enough as a lazy plot device, but it isn’t new or interesting, and it certainly isn’t necessary.
Dr. Strange doesn’t need to hide his identity because Dr. Strange is a character whose world is defined by the writer. So, write to the character’s strengths. He shouldn’t fight bank robbers; he should fight sorcerers and interdimensional beings. And I don’t think you need to write a scene in which Baron Mordo looks in the white pages to find the Sanctum Sanctorum (Strange’s presumably rent-controlled loft apartment in the Village).
Discard: The Costume
I would like to preface this by saying I think Steve Ditko is one of the most interesting and provocative comic book artists who ever lived and that I love the swinging ’60s Marvel costume designs. Just look at what a completely bizarre and awesome costume Spider-Man has. What kind of a sociopath would design a costume made up almost entirely of webs that had to be individually drawn? Steve Ditko, that’s who.
But it’s been a central problem with a lot of comic book films: How do you adapt the costumes? Bryan Singer went full-on leather fetish in X-Men. Christopher Nolan went paramilitary-yet-authentic for his Batman movies. And I heard from no less than three reliable but anonymous sources that Zack Snyder actually bought the wardrobe for Watchmen for pennies on the dollar at Joel Schumacher’s last garage sale.
This is not a popular opinion. Dr. Strange’s costume is kind of the coolest thing about him in the comic. But the Sorcerer Supreme’s duds are too campy for film. Adam West campy. Original Dr. Strange TV movie campy (puffy sleeves, a giant collar, a cape). No doubt the film will try to set up Dr. Strange as a powerful force in the Marvel movie-verse. But you can’t do that if he looks like Liberace.
Is it endearing to a comic book fan? Sure! Just check out the gold trim on that cape! But, and I mean this with all due deference to Mr. Ditko, this one is maybe a little ostentatious for the big screen. Because seriously: check out the gold trim on that cape.
As I touched on before, Dr. Strange has some seriously underrated villains. Much of that has to do with the fact that the book hasn’t really played well with a mainstream audience. But Mordo is a perfect foil for Strange. And Dormammu, the ruler of the Dark Dimension, is the perfect “big bad” for the film’s ending, right down to his giant fireball for a head.
There are also the Mindless Ones, giant stone lemmings from another dimension who often work for Dormammu but essentially do the dirty work for any bad guy Strange happens to be fighting that day. And they shoot lazerbeams out of their faces, so you know…
Quick, name your top five favorite Asian Marvel superheroes. Here, I’ll spot you Jubilee, Psylocke and Sunfire, a character most casual comic book fans have never heard of. Oh, my, what a hard game to play! Yes, as surprising as it may sound, an industry run almost exclusively by white men has had some problems in the diversity department.
No, we don’t get a lot of Asian superheroes around these parts. What we get is Dr. Strange’s mystical Chinese manservant named “Wong.” Wong is part of a long, storied history of fetishizing Asian culture: he is wise and stoic; Iron Man‘s Mandarin is evil and all powerful (also: named “Mandarin”). It’s all very exotic. I actually think there’s room for a role like Wong’s, a magician’s apprentice and confident. Hell, call the guy Henry Wong, if you want. But while Stan Lee and Steve Ditko (arguably) get a pass for the times they lived in, we now live in a big, bright future. Do better.