Why Dr. Strange Is So Damned Hard To Write, Or: The Problems With Comic-Book Magic

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 6.03% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

So Marvel is finally making a Doctor Strange movie!  Which is great!  Doctor Strange is one of my favorite comic characters!
…one of my favorite comic characters who I hardly ever read!
It seems strange, to be a fan of a dude you don’t ever buy his comics, but that’s because – like Superman – Doctor Stephen Strange is an awesome idea, usually executed awfully.  When you get someone who gets Dr. Strange, the man is written wonderfully.  When you don’t, you get Comic-Book Magic.
Comic-Book Magic is the least satisfying form of magic.
You know Comic-Book Magic when you see it – the magician waves his hands, and a wave of fire sweeps across the landscape.  Then he waves his hands again, and he summons a great clanking suit of animated armor to kick ass.  Then he waves his hands again, and he teleports himself and all his friends away to the Heaven Dimensions.  Then he waves his hands again, and heals all his friends’ wounds, and conjures up a buffet of turkey, and a palace for them to live in and you’re wondering a very important question:
What can’t this guy do?
And here’s the thing: “What can’t this guy do?” is the key to all good fiction.
Every hero (or heroine) has gotta struggle, man – that’s the point.  Fiction is fundamentally about growth.  And you don’t generally grow as a person until you find something all your current techniques don’t work on.  The tough ladykiller finds a beautiful woman who all his best pickup lines fail to impress!  The all-duty female soldier finds a moral dilemma her orders can’t fix!  The sensitive new-aged therapist meets a hardened street kid who his talk-it-out techniques fail upon!
When the old tricks don’t work, you have to learn new tricks.  That’s the character arc.  In failing, the character finds new strengths.
Comic-Book Magic never fails.
The trick to magic – or superpowers in general – is that if you grant someone Powers Beyond Mortal Comprehension, those powers have to have inherent limits.  The reason Batman always works is that, as smart as Batman is, we know he’s a dude who can get shot like any of us if someone gets lucky.  Spider-Man is the fastest hero, but almost never the strongest.  The X-Men all have awesome powers, but they’re never going to have any outside friends because they are hated mutants.
What about Superman?  Superman has the most inherent limit of all: he’ll always use his powers to save people first.  Which means Superman is endlessly faced with dilemmas where he has to stop the bad guy, but that building is about to collapse!
That’s pretty much why the good comic book characters work: they have a combination of power limits (Batman’s a very strong man, but still a man) and psychological limits (and he won’t kill anyone).  You have a really good sense of what will threaten them physically (the sniper has Batman in his sights!) and psychologically (Batman can’t kill that sniper, even though he wants to!), and from that you derive endless tension.
And maybe in a lot of those stories, there’s a very small character arc – Superman learns a trick he can use to fuse a building and stop the bad guy at the same time – but it is there.  (The best comic stories, the ones become canon and get made into movies,  are the ones where the lesson is huge – Spider-Man discovers that he can’t just put the mask down, Batman discovers his hidden strengths when Bane completely breaks him.)  But those character arcs, big or small, come because the character’s powers and psyches have limits.
Comic-Book Magic, however, has no limits.  What can’t Dr. Strange do?  Well, officially?  Not much.  Various writers have given him temporary handicaps, but they’ve never really stuck.  So the only reason Dr. Strange can’t raise the dead or turn the Earth into a wad of cottage cheese usually consists of bullshit inconsistencies – “Oh, the stars aren’t in alignment.”  “The veils are cloudy.”  “You know that one time I totally did that was because of mystic stuff that will totally never happen again.”
So there’s no tension in Dr. Strange’s battle sequences.  We literally don’t know what his weak spots are.  How would you defeat Dr. Strange?  Um, well, probably don’t confront him in his Inner Sanctum.  That, we know.
But aside from that?  It’s formless, silly magic.  Bad Dr. Strange comics have a lot of clunky asides like “His magic is too strong for me! I must flee!” or “The Crimson Bands of Cyttorak will hold these thieves,” because in truth even long-time readers don’t have a good sense of when Dr. Strange is in trouble.  He has to tell them.
You don’t have to be told when Captain America’s got a challenge: You see that five-ton robotic Nazi robot clanking in his direction firing missiles, and you go, “Uh-oh.”
(Which, as an aside, is why I thought very hard about the magic system in my upcoming urban fantasy Flex.  I knew it would have videogamemancers battling government SMASH teams of Unimancers, and anarchomancers going toe-to-toe with bureaucromancers, and I wanted the rules to be clear enough so you would know when someone was winning or losing.  Magic in my universe has a lot of powers, but the drawbacks are both psychological and physical, which helps a lot when determining when your favorite gal is on the ropes.)
So Doctor Strange has some problems as a movie, because if on the screen he can do anything, then he’s basically a walking Deus Ex Machina.  And traditionally, if that happens then you do the Superman thing of saying “Here is a psychological limit that encompasses a wide variety of things he will never do,” but Dr. Strange doesn’t have that baked in.
So I hope the writers of Dr. Strange are smart enough to put those elements into the movie.
For all that, you might ask, why was Dr. Strange so beloved?  And the answer is simple: despite what I’ve told you, not all stories are about character growth.  Some are travelogues, a person ushering you through a landscape of endless Weird Shit – and Lee and Ditko were miraclemakers of Weird Shit, their visuals and imagination beyond compare.  Sure, we might not have known what Dr. Strange could or couldn’t do, but who cared when you had flame-headed Dormammu and hordes of unstoppable Mindless Ones and the crazy half-faced Eternity standing watch?
So Dr. Strange was a weak character in a strong travelogue… and that was wonderful as a comic book. A comic book written by two of the all-time greats of the industry.  But comic books are not often written by all-time geniuses, they’re churned out by the month by average shmoes, and when you get average shmoe trying to show you Great Wonders you get half-baked meh.
Plus, as a movie these days, we expect a little more than a walk through wild special effects.  And my fear is that Dr. Strange will be an erzatz Green Lantern with no yellow weakness and no recharge time, able to whip up anything he wants whenever he wants, just because who the hell knows how magic works?  And I suspect that, given the current writer for this project is the guy who did Prometheus, instead of explaining what magic is we’ll have the even less satisfying technique of obfuscation and mystery, where we don’t even know what magic is but the very point is that it doesn’t make sense.
Which isn’t fun.  Which is why Prometheus is not well-loved these days.  Once you figure out that something doesn’t make sense on a fundamental, practical level, you get even more bored than you do by a guy who can solve any problem with a wave of his hand.
So please, Dr. Strange people: do the smart thing.  Even though Marvel has never defined the laws of magic before, I urge you to do so in your film.  And even though it is not set in stone that Dr. Strange follows the Hippocratic Oath, it’s better when he treats it like a lifetime commitment.
Because otherwise?  You’ve got something visually splashy that won’t stick in the heart.  Please.  Make it clear what Stephen Strange can’t do, and won’t do, so when he figures out how to win despite these drawbacks I will be cheering for him.

3 Comments

  1. John Wiswell
    Jun 19, 2014

    I love that you get Superman’s great weakness. It’s what makes me love the big guy.

    • Scott Evans
      Jun 19, 2014

      And that’s precisely why I thought “Man of Steel” failed. Because it didn’t have that one main motivation baked in: to save people first.

  2. Aris
    Jun 19, 2014

    You might appreciate this short (and in-progress) work’s take on magic: http://qntm.org/ra

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