Friday 15 December 2017

Dr Strange: is the latest Marvel superhero more arthouse than summer smash fare?

Marvel Comics
Marvel Comics

Alex Lawson

Is Marvel newly-confident in the wake of several box-office hits or is it a case of the comic book stable rummaging in its pockets for the last flash of silver?

An arrogant neurosurgeon turned bashful sorcerer with a magic pendant and penchant for arcane language: Dr Strange inhabits a world far removed from the shirt-busting Hulk or Clarke Kent's specs-to-Superman act. But the aptly named oddball, who debuted in Strange Tales No 110 in July 1963, is to join his cape-wearing kin in making his first showing on the big screen as the latest Marvel Comics character to become a film star.

His lack of profile outside of the ardent comic-book community may have raised concerns that Marvel is running out of steam after dominating the blockbuster roster with franchise hits including Thor and Iron Man, but this 2D superhero with a stethoscope is certainly colourful enough to warrant a three-dimensional outing.

Strange is initially a talented yet egotistical neurosurgeon. However, he loses the dexterity in his hands after a car crash shatters his bones and, as he attempts to recover, he dabbles in the dark arts in the Far East, becoming humble in the process. This leads to an unlikely career switch as Strange becomes responsible for defending the human race against threatening beings from a mystical hell. Reborn as a sorcerer supreme, his swashbuckling adventures are conducted wearing a levitation cloak, a sash that can be extended to 10 times its length (no, really) and all while muttering spells.

A spark of his previous arrogance remains in some great quotes: "I've battled Mephisto and Nightmare. You don't even rate," he says to his adversary Firebrand, and "perhaps I accidentally transported myself to an alternate reality where nobody but me can fight," he muses.

He certainly has an impressive following. In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe, the One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest author Ken Kesey lauds the kaleidoscopic nature of Strange's universe, and Marc Bolan's troop of glam rockers referenced him on T.Rex's 1971 track "Mambo Sun".

The film itself has sparked a raft of rumours online since the director Scott Derrickson last week tweeted a photo of himself with a Dr Strange comic proclaiming it his next project, albeit unconfirmed by Marvel. Meanwhile, a disparate swathe of big names have been linked to the title role, from Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Justin Theroux to Jared Leto, Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch. The latter two appear most likely because they are both geek fans, but Cumberbatch's heaving schedule may dictate matters before Martin Freeman, his Sherlock sidekick, can even eye up a superbelt.

So is this Marvel finding the confidence to put its more intriguing characters centre stage, flush from the cash of a string of box-office hits, or the comic-book stable rummaging in its pockets for the last flash of silver? Well, if the company is inclined to make a quick buck, it has held out so far under extreme pressure from fans to initiate a money-spinning crossover that brings together several superhero dynasties. Marvel sold off Spider-Man, The X-Men and Fantastic Four to rivals Sony and Fox in the Nineties and shareholders have reportedly called for a supergroup to blaze a spider-webbed, sharpened-clawed trail.

Marvel also appears confident of its long-term prospects. Kevin Feige, the Marvel president of production, has said that it has scheduled its movies until 2021 with a debut for Ant-Man and a further Avengers outing on the cards.

Dr Strange also appears to have a number of typical ingredients for the big screen, alongside his surgeon-to-sorcerer transformation. His love interest with Clea, a fellow mystic, offers plenty of Hollywood glamour, not least as she is revealed to be the niece of arch-nemesis Dormammu. The multicoloured world that Strange inhabits could also lend itself well to the screen, albeit more arthouse than summer smash.

However, Strange has been tried before and may need to be tweaked. In 1978, Peter Hooten played the lead in a straight-to-video adaptation which caused few ripples. Also, Wong, his East Asian manservant, is unlikely to make the cut because the character has racist overtones.

If Dr Strange does make it to the big screen it could bring some much-needed new life to a genre increasingly dominated by threequels and familiar faces. It could also represent a marked departure from Marvel's traditional troupe of big-name, flying mavericks.


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