Tag Archive: Superheroes


Doctor Strange” (2016) is a superhero film that is one of the latest additions to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, followed by this year’s ”Guardians of the Galaxy vol 2” and ”Spiderman: Homecoming” (both of which I have yet to see). The films comprising the series of Marvels cinematic Universe are constructed not only internally to a worldbuilding fiction but are additionally intended to have (slight) continuity amongst themselves as a group. Movies such as ”Iron Man” (2008), ”Thor” (2011) and ”Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011) lead up to ”The Avengers” (2012). After that, films such as ”Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier” (2014) built on the previous movies events. However, while ”Doctor Strange” is a part of this universe, it relies very little on the many previous films and focuses more on introducing Doctor Strange as a new hero, encased somewhat notably in its own world building.

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The plot follows the pompous, yet brilliant, doctor Stephen Strange, played by Benedict Cumberbatch. The doctor, specializing in neurosurgery, is world famous for being able to do near impossible surgeries with stunning results and we are witness to a short introduction to his brilliance from the movies very beginning. However one day, due to texting while driving, Stephen gets into an accident and undergoes himself massive surgery to survive. Strange survives, but his hands are irrecoverably damaged, destroying any possibility of his continuing being a surgeon. In his despair, Stephen does everything he can to get his hands back to the way they were, which leads him to a secluded unknown temple in Nepal. There he meets a woman named The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who´s a teacher of an ancient mystic art of magic. Stephen, realizing with these techniques he would again be able to use his hands as he did before, and even a bit more, starts studying along the ancient one. And as usual in superhero movies, an old pupil from the past emerges as a foe for the newcomer Stephen to defeat.

Doctor Strange” was plagued with controversy as soon as it was announced that the Ancient one was re-visualized from being male and Tibetan in the comics to Celtic and female in this cinematic incarnation. This is a complicated issue that I don´t really have an authority from which to comment on (I am not familiar with Doctor Strange comics and am Caucasian) so will link to some articles on the issue here.

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But beyond this issue, the movie has other problems. One is that the film itself is dull at times; the pacing in the beginning feels off and there are times that (while most likely intentional) the titular character comes off as whiny, trivial, and cruel, in the strongest sense, making it hard to connect with him. The fighting scenes felt lacking as well. While the battle scenes certainly are meant to invoke a psychedelic experience, they sometimes failed to capture the attention of the audience which the whirlwind sensation of the scenes most assuredly should.

On the flip side, there are lots of elements that work really well. The film features a scene where The Ancient One and Stephen discuss how he can learn to use magic, with the punch line being ”by studying, duh!”. That learning and achieving greatness takes a lot of practice is often glossed over or not even mentioned in most block buster films, which makes this scene both refreshing and honest. Also notable, engaging and tantalizing in the narrative is the character of Wong (Benedict Wong), the librarian who guards the books that contain all the knowledge of which Stephen is studying. Wong is portrayed as a very stoic, no-nonsense type of person but also as someone with a hidden soft side, with a welling sense of enticingly hidden humor. (It´s also shown in one scene that he enjoys Beyoncés music, which is both touching and hip! A hard duality to pull off in a film.).

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Left to right: Mordo, Stephen, The ancient one and Wong

Also as a resonating relation and nuanced capture of the personal in the Doctor Strange storyline, and, surprising despite the controversy around Tilda Swintons casting, the film actually does manage to showcase and develop a believable and moving connection between Stephen and the Ancient one.

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However ”Doctor Strange” also suffers from great lost opportunities and re- enforces tired tropes. It is, despite the films great efforts with Wong´s character, still jarring that the temple Stephen studies at has a mostly POC cast, but the token white guy has to be the lead and hero. ”Doctor Strange” also uses disability as motivation for the more able bodied characters. In activist circles, this trope is known as ”Inspiration porn” or ”teachable moment”. This trope has been a predominant role given to disabled characters, often reducing them to mere motivational slogans rather than giving them the narrative body of actual characters with their own stories elaborated to be followed in the text. In ”Doctor Strange” we are hit hard with the trope of a disabled person being a teachable moment – and simultaneously loose a potentially cool story line.

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Hamir

When Stephen in one scene is in despair over learning the arts, there is a scene where the Ancient one states that it is Stephen himself who holds himself back. Stephen explains he simply can´t accomplish anything giving the blame to the damage in his hands. In response, the Ancient one calls a pupil, Master Hamir (whom previously had one scene where Stephen mistok him for the ancient one), to come forward. It is revealed then that Hamir has only one hand, but is able to perform magic all the same. He then leaves, and Stephen realizes he can achieve greatness despite limitations.

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Hamir as a character immediately and definitely disappears after this incident. Even in this pivotal scene to the story arch the Hamir is given no lines of dialogue (it is worth noting that the film does not confirm Hamir as mute). When the major battle against the villains takes place Hamir is not seen fighting along other pupils. His capability to fight and use magic despite being disabled is merely there to inspire Stephen, who is written as able-bodied. Some would argue his injured hands are a disability, however Stephen himself only talks about not being able to perform surgery and never of the multitude of common day events which would impact those of limited mobility with hands. While this is a limitation, it is not the same as a disability; the most which is confronted by the character is the inability to perform surgery. Stephen seems never to note the marginalization which would occur in the vast arrangements of the social (and its hardware) to the character. This means that ”Doctor Strange”, despite its meagre attempts at diversity, falls into having it´s only Canon disabled character as a ”teachable moment” to transcend (which is only due by his hands becoming now “usable”). Both Hamir specifically, and Doctor Strange more generally, become textbook examples of ”inspiration porn”.

What makes this even sadder is that the world building in ”Doctor Strange” makes this trope very easily avoidable.

Since ”Doctor Strange” canonizes the fact that the magic the Ancient ones pupils use is available to people regardless of their bodies limitations, the film opens up the possibility of having people with varying disabilities (as well as different cultural/racial background) as pupils and guardians. It is odd that one would make such a thing possible, only to end up playing it safe. Diversity is a hot button issue in pop culture right now, and it is important to remember that part of diversity is including people with various physical and mental disabilities. When it comes to things like ”Doctor Strange”, that uses magic, it is odd that the story limits itself. Why not have a mute, one handed warrior as a part of Strange´s squad? There literally, inside the story, is no reason to not use the world building to justify diverse and unusual superpowered fighters. In fact given that many superheroes development their powers begin with “accidents” it is assuredly odd that this doesn’t find its way into more usage.

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Yet still the genre remains often enclosed and encircled by a set tired tropes and unfortunate clichés. Why not use stories with odd powers to include and shake up hierarchies? With more brave writers, Hamir could have been more than a small role, lingering outside of the story which was actually about such a character and therefore become a text of more power and insight.

My hope is that while superhero movies are trying new things, they will also try to do more daring things and use the potential in their stories to go to places further than the imaginings that we have in the ordinary of life. To the place where all abilities can find a place of not only understanding and acceptance, but one of unfolding, becoming powers.

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Inspiration porn has been going on for long

While ”Doctor Strage” is enjoyable, it ends up playing it safe in both race and able- bodieness. It is desirable to see the (most likely upcoming) sequels try to fulfil a more disability positive spin on this lore.

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Trigger Warning: Sexual violence.

Also spoilers for “Gotham” and “The Killing joke”.

This week I was a guest on Missmagicgirl´s youtube Channel. We discuss the classic comic “The Killing Joke” by Alan Moore (1988) and the movie adaption with the same name that was released in 2016. The conversation can be found below (I´m the one on the right). Enjoy!