By the omnipotent will of the Hoary Hordes of Hoggoth, Dr. Strange, master of the mystic arts, is to come to a big screen near you. The powers that be have apparently green-lit a motion picture starring the Sorcerer Supreme—who also happens to be one of the most interesting characters from the classic early Marvel. Big Hollywood stars like Benedict Cumberbach and Tom Hardy are rumored to be vying for the lead part. Thus, fans should be gesturing with significant gestures and praising the Omnipotent Oshtur for his beneficence. Right?
Well, no, not exactly right. In truth, and verily, the prospect of a Dr. Strange film should fill anyone who loves the comics with nameless dread, or, at least, with vague indifference. Hark, students of the black arts, and Noah Berlatsky shall tell thee … why!
The early Dr. Strange comics are thoroughly entertaining, creative, and often laugh-out-loud funny. Stan Lee, never a subtle wordsmith, reaches untold heights of gleeful portentous balderdash, rivaling Lovecraft himself for silly syllable-twisting mystic nomenclature. When characters aren't dodging the Crimson Bands of Cyttorak, they are calling on the might of Vishanti or channeling the power of the dread Dormammu! Meanwhile villain after villain pops up to issue sweeping threats and refer to themselves in the third person. "There is no place on earth for you to hide, doomed one! The eyes of Mordo are everywhere!" Mordo declares. "You do not deceive Shazana!" thunders Shazana. Even the hero gets into the act: "Master your disciple entreats you—be not on guard against Dr. Strange!" Power in the mystic arts comes at a price—ye may never again use the first person.
Entertaining as Lee's text bubbles are, though, the real pleasure of the comic is the art. The plethora of mystic battles, eldritch creatures, and nether dimensions gave Steve Ditko the opportunity to really let loose, and he made the most of it. The comic is an exercise in elegantly extravagant pop surrealism: cloaked forms with heads on fire wrapped in intricate patterns of mystic force; towers of green heads looming out of green mist into purple nowhere; giant beings whose bodies are interplanetary vistas. Amid all the visual pyrotechnics, the characters pose with dramatic stillness: hands gesturing hyperbolically and eloquently, garments billowing, like kabuki actors dropped into a landscape composed by Escher imitating Dali. It's goofily beautiful and beautifully goofy—cheesy, graceful, and unique.
That uniqueness is very much tied to Dr. Strange's comic-ness. Ditko's art makes great use of stagey poses and patterning; his images are designed for the page. Similarly, Lee's hammy dialogue nods to and builds on the overheated pulp tradition of which comics are a part. Other comics creators can, and have, built on these foundations to make their own stories in the spirit of the original—in "The End of the Ancient One," for example, the wonderful Marie Severin almost out-Ditkos Ditko in representing mystical forces as abstract criss-crossed patterns of lines. Similarly, Lee successor Roy Thomas cheerfully filled the captions of numerous stories with mystical references to the Flame of Faltine, etc.
Because their success was so comics-specific, it's difficult to see how Ditko and Lee's vision would translate to the movie screen in anything but the most Bowdlerized way. It's vaguely possible, I guess, that Hollywood might embrace the corn and have dread beings making ridiculously overblown speeches about their overweening power. Flash Gordon did get made, though it isn't the blueprint for superhero films these days.
Even in the unlikely event that the studio attempts to capture Lee's humor, though, there seems little hope that anybody will try to approximate Ditko's visuals. Instead of imagery based on careful composition, whimsical imagination, and an attention to the hand moving across the surface of the page, we're much more likely to get standard-issue Hollywood computer graphics and standard-issue Hollywood explosions. It'll be messy and loud and dramatic, rather than silly and lovely.
I don't hate Hollywood special effects. I'm happy to watch things blow up and mystic force bolts shatter walls and nifty monster make-up. There's every possibility that a Dr. Strange film could be well written and entertaining. But there's very little chance that a Dr. Strange film will have much of the particular charm, or the greatness, of the original comics.
Which raises the question—why bother with Dr. Strange? Why not just make a mystical Hollywood blast-fest called Mr. Odd, or Captain Unusual, or some such? Why reference the original vision if that original vision isn't going to be reproducible in another medium?
The answer to all those questions is fandom marketing. People have a relationship with an established property; there's a network of interest to build on. And that network of interest, confusingly, doesn't have much to do with the original vision at all. Some folks would riot if Lupita Nyong'o were cast as Dr. Strange, but no one cares that the film almost certainly won't look like Ditko's art. Somehow the race and gender of an imaginary character matter, but the artistry of a real person doesn't.
It's probably even too much to hope that the movie might prompt Marvel to put out an affordable edition of the original Lee/Ditko comics; at the moment, all the collections appear to be out of print. That's the ultimate mystic power of marketing, though: The trademarked property proliferates endlessly and meaninglessly, while the actual people who created it disappear.
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