"If I think about the future of cinema as art, I shiver" (Y. Ozu, 1959)

THE SUPERHERO OF THE SPECIES - Dr. Strange (Scott Derrickson)

Thursday, 30 March 2017 08:06

Giona A. Nazzaro

Turn on, tune in, drop out


Dark, menacing storyteller of infernal sceneries, anxieties, and possessions, Scott Derrickson, director of acclaimed horror films such as Sinister and The Exorcism of Emily Rose, has finally been given a huge budget but has not muzzled his gaze and his obsessions: with Doctor Strange he has realized the most exciting film in his already intriguing career. In the past, Derrickson was accused of nourishing crypt-Catholic phobias based on the abundant presence of monsters, demons, and even devils crowding his films as well as on his never ironic, but literal approach to the representation of Evil (mandatory uppercase). Adapting the world of the Marvel supreme sorcerer to the big screen, Derrickson manages to remain faithful to his poetics by reinventing it, but also to find one of the best possible ways to interact with a key figure of the Marvel mythology. Created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko (the creators of Spider Man, in short), Doctor Strange is the one character from the House of Ideas who actually managed to negotiate with the psychedelic insurrections of the Summer of Love. The states of hallucination provoked by spells and magic rituals – to the disappointment of Ditko, who has never made a mystery out of being a conservative – have always been interpreted by beatniks and hippies as an invitation to trips, just like the well-known mantra “turn on, tune in, drop out” sung by lysergic guru Timothy Leary. Therefore, while mystic Stephen Strange fought against the hordes of Dormammus on the astral planes of existence, his readers ideally followed him on the paths of altered states of consciousness. Derrickson’s first merit is to appeal explicitly to this psychedelic mythology, something that undoubtedly makes his movie the most visionary and free adaptation of all super-hero movies done so far (including both Marvel and DC). On top of this, the film director and his screenwriters also avoided the ‘new age risk,’ which a superficial adaptation would have certainly fallen prey to. By re-evoking the origins of Stephen Strange, surgeon prodigy who loses the use of his hands following a car accident, Derrickson resorts to a syncretic collective imagination that draws at the same time from Piranesi and Matrix, Jim Starlin and Escher. He also confers an extraordinary tactile nimbleness on the world of the master of mystic arts, as if a digital origami were willing to reveal its own nature of paper. In the initial set piece, set in London, the city of glass and steel foreshadowed by J.G. Ballard folds upon itself as if returning to the origins of its own conception, where time begins, like a multi-dimensional pop-up book owned by a dreaming child-demiurge. Watching more closely the mechanics of reality protecting the architectures of the tangible world, you can notice disturbing erotic inlays that inevitably refer to the geometries featured in the infernal music boxes used by the coenobites to penetrate the world of humans in Clive Barker’s Hellraiser. Compared to Zack Snyder’s heavy hand and the irritating paucity of his “destruction porn,” Derrickson does not give up one ounce of spectacular value while at the same time remaining loyal to the Hippocratic Oath taken by Strange, i.e. saving human lives. Even more so, he proves that if you know your comics, then you can find tremendous though-provoking opportunities and inspirations to intersect the drawings and the image (see the most moving moment of the film). By skilfully, comics-wise, alternating humoristic details (likely drawn by Ditko himself) and more epic ones, and following the classic scansion of the super-hero Bildung by the book, he shows that only by a deep understanding of the basic structures of the source material can you conquer true freedom if you want to deal with comics and film. In fact, even the inevitable cameo of Stan Lee is characterized by a surprising touch of irony, in tune with the lysergic philosophy underlying the movie, with the Marvel patron laughing out loud while reading Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception. Notice should be taken of the levitation cape, as red as Superman’s and as caring as his little dog Krypto, which moves with a sensuous elegance that no Snyder will ever manage to understand. In the film ending, Derrickson wins his boldest bet: to replace a fight with a philosophical reflection on the nature of time. He is even forgiven for the reiterated product placement of Jaeger-Le Coultre, that is transformed into an actual diegetic element. With Doctor Strange, with the title role magnificently played by gifted Benedict Cumberbatch, Scott Derrickson opens up never heard-of possibilities for superheroes on the silver screen. To be continued.




Doctor Strange appeared for the first time in North-American kiosks back in July 1963 in no. 110 of the Strange Tales collection. Launched in 1951, when Marvel was named Atlas, the collection is now remembered by comics philologists for being the incubator of some of those who would later become the most iconic and beloved Marvel characters, such as the Human Torch and Ant-Man. The creation of Stephen Vincent Strange, described by Stan Lee in a letter published in The Comic Reader in 1963 (according to Max Brighel), is attributed to Steve Ditko only. “We have a new character in store for Strange Tales. It’s just a five-page filler. His name is Doctor Strange. Steve Ditko will draw him, and his theme is magic. The first story is nothing terrific, but he’s got potential. It’s Steve’s idea.” The character, conceived as a filler for a comic book mainly devoted to fantasy and horror stories, is immediately successful. Proof is his popularity among the then rising counterculture interested in eastern philosophies as a means to protest against military ideology, the one that encouraged youths to go and die in Vietnam. Pink Floyd are the most obvious example of the fascination with the good doctor, who was plainly cited in the cover of their second album, A Saucerful of Secrets, made by Storm Thorgerson’s Hipgnosis studio, as well as in the song Cymbaline (to be found in the album More). Less known that Roger Waters’ band, Dr. Strangely Strange – a band loved by Olivier Assayas – transform the doctor’s mystic philosophy into their debut album, Kip of the Serenes. Apparently, Ditko found his inspiration for the supreme sorcerer in his favourite radio show, Chandu the Magician, created by Harry A. Earnshaw and R.R. Morgan and broadcast from 1932 through 1933. Also a film with Bela Lugosi was allegedly drawn from this series. From January 1964 onwards, the doctor’s adventures were featured regularly in Strange Tales. From #147, August 1966, Ditko handed over the drawing to Bill Everett, the graphic creator of Daredevil. From May 1968, Strange became the collection’s hero, while the creative control was handed down to writer Roy Thomas (who is famous for his beautiful saga of The Avengers, among others) and cartoonist Gene Colan, whose kinetic trait gave their indelible marks to Daredevil and Dracula. (He would also draw competitor DC’s Batman.) Due to a gradual downturn in sales, Strange Tales was shut down in November 1969. In Italy, Doctor Strange, member of the Defenders, appeared for the first time in the Editoriale Corno periodical devoted to Spider Man. Over the course of his publishing history, Strange has always played a crucial role in the Marvel Universe, both as member of the secret group of the Illuminati and in the recent saga Secret Wars. Moreover, Panini is currently publishing the instalments of The Last Days of Magic written by Jason Aaron (Scalps) and pencilled by talented Chris Bachalo.



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