A Skeptical Look at ‘Doctor Strange’

November 14, 2016

Superhero films--and those from Marvel Comics in particular--are too often bloated affairs that seem to be merely a series of spectacular (or, more often, "spectacular") fight scenes and set pieces only loosely stitched together with a thin narrative thread. The new film Doctor Strange offers a refreshing change of pace.

The moral arc of Doctor Strange, for those who are unfamiliar with the character, is one of hubris and redemption: Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant but arrogant surgeon whose hands are badly damaged in a car accident and must come to terms with his condition--or seek a remedy. In a venerable film hero tradition with only a touch of benevolent racism, Strange seeks inner knowledge and redemption in the Far East. Strange searches the world for examples of seemingly miraculous recoveries and finds one such case, which in turn leads him to the Himalayan mountains. There, after the requisite rebuffs and pride swallowing scenes, he meets a secret society of sorcerers led by the Ancient One (a delightful Tilda Swinton) and is soon forced into action to save the world.

Doctor Strange has many familiar elements, including a Hogwarts-like hidden school of sorcery where over time his confidence grows and he masters the mystical arts. Several scenes in Doctor Strange resemble a heady 1960s trip, which is no coincidence since that era spawned the character (created by Marvel Comics legends Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, who once again makes a cameo).

I winced a bit when Strange, the symbolic man of medicine, rationality, and science, is beguiled by his new master. The Ancient One explains, with undisguised condescension, to Strange that the gulf between the rational and mystical worlds is the result of willful blindness on the part of Western culture. If only Western doctors and scientists would break free of their restrictive, narrow-minded views of the world, they can learn to accept a wondrous reality far beyond their understanding-one of psychic powers, astral projections, miracle healings, and so much more.

This is, however, disingenuous, and it's annoying to see such a supposedly brilliant man fall for such pablum. The reason that Western science does not accept Eastern mysticism is not closed-mindedness but instead because it has not been proven effective in treating medical conditions. For example many people go to traditional Chinese and holistic practitioners to get their chakras, chi, or auras balanced. The idea of health being a state of balance has a long history, much of it mired in antiquated medical belief. Ancient people used to believe that disease was caused by an imbalance of fluids in the body called humors. There were four humors: yellow bile, black bile, phlegm, and blood. Working under this premise, physicians treated patients by trying to restore harmony and balance among the humors. Bloodletting was a common treatment (using both knives and leeches) along with the use of laxatives and purgatives.

There is an attractive simplicity to the humor model, though it is obviously incorrect and outdated. If you go to a doctor complaining of illness, perhaps not even the worst quack will search for an imbalance of the humors. Yet many modern alternative medicine practices seek to balance not the humors but other energies or fluids just as unknown to science and medicine. Repeated scientific studies have failed to prove that the human aura, chi, or energy field even exist, much less are subject to diseases-causing imbalances. It is medically true that "imbalances" can cause disease in some cases, but not in the way usually assumed. You can view the correct functioning of an organ as being in "balance" if you like, but it is not a medically accurate nor useful label. A kidney or lung that is not working properly or is cancerous is simply that; there is no "imbalance" of substance or energy that need be-or can be-corrected.

If the magical wonders presented to Strange were demonstrated under controlled conditions and then measured and observed by scientists (presumably a simple task), then the magic that can cure a few could presumably be harnessed to rid all humanity of disease. In science those who disprove dominant theories are rewarded, not punished. Disproving Einstein's best-known predictions (or proving the existence of psychic powers, astral projection, or alternative universes) would earn the dissenting scientists a place in the history books, if not a Nobel Prize. The evidence for supernatural powers, like the evidence for anything else, stands or falls on its own merits. There's no reason in the world that Western scientists would fear magic or the unknown, nor be afraid to learn more about the Ancient One's cosmology.

In fantasy films the mechanics of magic are always murky, such as whose magic trumps whose--not to mention why and under what circumstances. When we are solemnly told that there is only one way to break a certain spell, for example, we must just take such a claim at face value. (It's also not clear why Doctor Strange and his adversaries--all presumably highly skilled in magical arts that obviate the need for fisticuffs--nonetheless choose to duke it out; if you can shoot fireballs and force fields from your fingertips, why let a life-and-death battle come down to who can land a hard sucker punch?)

Such logical lapses are understandable from a narrative sense, since looking much beyond the surface reveals contradictions inherent in the plot's premise, and we'd much rather be wowed by the film's ample humor, heart, and special effects. Director Scott Derrickson wisely doesn't let us linger on these questions and he keeps up a good pace.

Cumberbatch is a magnetic actor and inhabits both Strange's surgical scrubs and magic cape equally well. The strong supporting cast, including Rachel McAdams, Chiwitel Ejiofor, and Mads Mikkelson, all help to ground an otherwise potentially outlandish film and make the audience feel that there's something at stake. Doctor Strange features extensive and impressive computer-generated special effects that are only occasionally gratuitous; a legion of special effects artists labored mightily to bend city blocks into M.C. Escher-like permutations for Doctor Strange, and the result (at least in 3-D) is gorgeous. Doctor Strange is one of the best Marvel films in years, propelled by intrigue and a satisfyingly complex plot. After a series of bombastic, yawn-inducing superhero films, this is just what the doctor ordered.


#1 Benjamin Radford on Monday November 14, 2016 at 2:54pm

I’ve seen some interesting comments by people who seem to have misread this piece as somehow criticizing the film for not being realistic, that it’s just a comic book movie.

Of course it’s fiction; I think it’s interesting to examine how fictional depictions of magic (or ghosts, demonic possession, etc.) in films and fiction compare with real-world beliefs and depictions. Saying, “This idea presented in a movie is interesting, let’s see how it might happen in the real world” is not necessarily pedantic. No one is complaining that “Dr. Strange” is unrealistic.

#2 gray1 on Tuesday November 15, 2016 at 7:46pm

Always go with what works, I always say.  Some reality tunnels are simply broader than others.

#3 Thomas B (Guest) on Wednesday November 16, 2016 at 8:20am

I agree with what you’re saying, Ben.  Fantasy only works for me if it somehow meshes with the real world.  There were horror movies made back in the 70s where the “scientist” characters are so closed-minded as to be ridiculous.  They would often deny what they witnessed with their own eyes, and even literally go insane from having to face “the truth”.  We watch these movies today and laugh out loud.

The Harry Potter movies work because in their narrative magic exists side by side with science.  They never claim that there’s anything “stupid” or “blind” about being rational.  In fact, Hermione is one of the most rational characters in modern fiction.

#4 Benjamin Radford on Wednesday November 16, 2016 at 8:32am

Thanks, Thomas. Glad you understood my point… many people didn’t!

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.