Nov 07 2016

The Dr. Strange Narrative

doctor-strange-2I saw the latest Marvel Studios movie, Dr. Strange, last night with a large crowd of friends, many of whom are fellow skeptics. Overall I enjoyed the movie – the acting was very good, there was plenty of good eye candy, and some interesting plot elements. I always enjoy Cumberbatch, although his fake American accent was not great.

For those who are not familiar with the comic book character and have not yet seen the movie, there are some massive spoilers ahead. However, if you have seen the trailer I am probably not going to reveal more that was in there.

As often happens when skeptics see science fiction and fantasy movies, there is a discussion about how the movie treated skeptics and skepticism. There are always two basic sides in the discussion, and individuals can hold both views simultaneously. On the one hand it is disappointing to see the same tired Hollywood tropes about science and belief. On the other hand, the movie is clearly escapist fantasy and therefore should not be held to any standard of realism.

These two positions are not mutually exclusive, and I accept both. It is fantasy, and to some extent that is the end of it. It is a vehicle for telling an interesting story, and no one should confuse any plot element with the real world. As long as it is not pretending to be a documentary or based on a true story or any such nonsense, it should be judged purely as fantasy.

However, we can judge the quality of the story-telling. Even in a world where magic is real and we just suspend our disbelief and accept that premise as a given, the other character and plot elements still have to work. In other words, if you use the fact that the movie is fantasy to excuse lazy writing, the narrative can fail even if we accept the fantasy elements.

One clear indication of lazy writing is relying on old Hollywood tropes. That is the major weakness of Dr. Strange, in my opinion.

The main character, Dr. Stephen Strange, is a world-class neurosurgeon. He is also an arrogant narcissist. That’s not implausible, but it’s a little too on-the-nose for that character, which makes it uninteresting. There was an opportunity here to give the character some depth, but instead we got a two-dimensional egomaniac.

When he encounters the world of magic and sorcerers he is initially skeptical, and defends that position with a fairly unimaginitive rant about how the world is only particles and matter. He is eventually shown undeniable proof that magic is real, and he accepts it, which is reasonable unto itself – a skeptic in a world with actual magic should accept the reality.

But here is where the tired old Hollywood trope is invoked without anything new, and without anything interesting. His guru-mentor explains to him that he has a narrow world view and is closed minded, and he just has to let go and believe and then he will find the power of magic himself. This is the power or virtue of belief trope that Hollywood loves.

She also endorses things like chakras and acupuncture as real, just incomplete. This is also a common trope – real world superstitions are actually real.

Yet another old trope is how Dr. Strange becomes a powerful sorcerer. I do like the fact that he advanced through study and practice, and he relied heavily on his intelligence. In that way he is like the Hermione character in Harry Potter. But, his great intellectual virtue was that he had a “photographic memory.”

It is as if Hollywood cannot conceive of an intellectual virtue any more complex than just having a good raw memory. At one point someone observes that memory alone cannot explain how quickly Strange is progressing, so clearly he also has a raw talent for magic. That is pretty much the entire Hollywood repertoire for intellectual ability, memory and talent.

In the end, I found this all to be lazy and uninteresting. The arrogant doctor or scientist who discovers that his worldview is narrow, Western, and closed minded, has to surrender what he thinks he knows and just believe in order to gain the power he needs and save the world. He is led on this journey by an exotic-looking guru whose big wisdom is – just believe.

As an aside, while I have enjoyed some of the Marvel movies over the last decade or so, when they fail it seems to be because they combine lazy writing with over-the-top action and special effects. Unfortunately, the latter just isn’t enough, and is getting old fast.

Meanwhile, cable TV has really raised the bar on good writing. Series like Breaking Bad have complex characters and interesting plot lines that become more interesting over time. That is always a good tell – as you get more distance from the movie or TV show, do you like it more or less? Does the story become more interesting as you think about it, or, once the glow of the action has faded, do the characters and plot leave you flat?

As an example of how Dr. Strange could have been so much better by just going one level deeper than the same tired tropes I outlined above, imagine the following. First, let’s make the character of Stephen Strange a little more interesting. You don’t have to spend as much screen time establishing that he is arrogant. There are scenes that do nothing more than that. Give his arrogance a deeper purpose. Perhaps he has seen patients harmed by believing in pseudoscience, perhaps even a family member. This gives his rejection of mysticism a little more teeth.

Not just his world view, but his identity as a man of science is threatened by the undeniable realization that magic is real. The movie really glossed over this potential internal conflict. He could have resolved this conflict and made the world much more interesting, and offered a better explanation for his rapid rise to power.

What if Strange, because he is a brilliant scientist, saw in the world of magic what no one else saw, that there actually was an underlying set of rules and laws that make as much internal sense as the laws of physics. What if they were just extensions to those laws of physics.

The very assumption that the universe ultimately makes sense, and refusing to give into mysticism and the demands to “just believe” could have given Strange insights into the workings of sorcery that eluded his predecessors.

The movie opens the door for this, explaining that there are other dimensions and some people can draw energy from those dimensions to perform “magic.” OK, what if Strange realized that this energy still must obey conservation laws, and that has implications. These other universes have their own laws of physics, and understanding them, plus the meta-laws about how different universes interact, could provide a basis for the science of sorcery.

Instead they went with, “I have a photographic memory.”

The character of Dr. Strange is essentially that of a brilliant scientist who becomes a sorcerer. That is cool, but the potential of that character was completely unexplored.

I don’t think I am asking a lot. I am just tired of lazy writing, and there are plenty of examples of excellent writing out there. The bar has been raised, meet it or be doomed to mediocrity.

My 17-year-old daughter came to the movie with us, and she expressed that she is so tired of being fed the same-old movies. I warned her that she is just 17, she can’t become that jaded until she is in her 40’s. It’s jarring that she is already tired of Hollywood recycling the same old franchises, remakes, and story lines, over and over.


I love fantasy and science fiction, so I clearly have no problem with fantasy elements in movies, or with science-fiction gimmies. Even as a skeptic I have no problem if pure magic is a major plot element.

One of the pitfalls of writing in speculative fiction, however, is that the existence of magic and gimmies is an invitation to lazy writing. The author can just use, “It’s magic” as a complete explanation for some aspect of their world. In science fiction they just need to replace “magic” with some bland technobabble to achieve the same effect.

In a way the author does not have reality to fall back on. They have to create their own reality. This takes more and more careful writing to do well. If you fail to do that you will likely fall back on tired tropes of which we are all sick.

I do especially despise anti-scientific or anti-intellectual tropes. They are narratives that we don’t need more of in our culture. Whether you live in a world of magic or not, belief is not a virtue. Whether learning to become a neurosurgeon or a sorcerer, you need more than a good memory.

For these reasons, Dr. Strange, while entertaining, failed to be a great movie.

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