There are numerous films about which I’d love also to blog and which I have of late seen, and yet it is Doctor Strange that motivates me most to make the time to write a post for a few reasons.
If foremost among these reasons is that the film brings together a bunch of ideas that are circulating in numerous other contemporary films, perhaps most especially the notion of a multiverse and the possibility of invisible spaces existing alongside/with(in) our world, it is not because Doctor Strange is the best of those films. Indeed, far from it – at least as far as this blogger is concerned.
Indeed, of recent explicit multiverse films, Everything Everywhere All at Once (Daniels, USA, 2022) is a thematically richer film, while Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria (Colombia/Thailand/France/Germany/Mexico/Qatar/UK/China/Switzerland, 2021), along with Ben Russell’s Invisible Mountain (USA, 2021) both in their own way link their engagements with a weird world to a ‘pataphysical history of imaginary/impossible and virtual spaces (which is not to mention a slew of recent horror films that are about unseen rooms in houses and unreliable, or non-Euclidian architecture).
That said, Doctor Strange does possess some uncanny parallels with another, earlier film, and which parallels can help us to unlock some its ‘secrets’ (perhaps ideological critique is what allows us truly to find the ‘Easter eggs’ hidden within films, above and beyond the usual ones that are designed as sales devices for much contemporary movies).
The film with which Doctor Strange has parallels is not Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (USA, 1946), a film that is referenced somewhat knowingly in Raimi’s movie when we learn that Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) has/had a sister who died from falling through some ice when he was a child – which is exactly what happened to George Bailey (James Stewart) in It’s a Wonderful Life, except that in that film George rescues his drowning brother, Harry (Todd Karns), an event that does not allow him to go to war since it costs George his hearing in one ear, and which in turn means that he remains stuck for life in Bedford Falls, a situation that leads an angel, Clarence (Henry Travers), to show George a parallel universe in which he never existed. The experience leads George to accept his small-town life, meaning that parallel universes generally end up forcing us to accept this one world with which we do live (we must of course credit Charles Dickens, if not earlier authors, for coming up with the ‘here’s a world where things turned out differently’ – as per A Christmas Carol from 1843).
While I wish not to parallel Doctor Strange too much with It’s a Wonderful Life, I shall route back to that film later in this blog, since a telling difference between the two films is that where George in part accepts his fate because he realises that he was never there to rescue Harry, who thus is dead in the parallel universe that he visits, in Doctor Strange it never even crosses Stephen’s mind that he might try to find a world in which his sister is alive. Rather, all of his efforts are focused on finding a world, potentially, where he is together with the basic object of his desire, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) – while also being about the search for a world where Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) can be a housewife rather than a superhero.
The film I wish to compare Doctor Strange with is, then, somewhat surprisingly Buster Keaton and Donald Crisp’s The Navigator (USA, 1924).
Full disclosure: I have written a book about Keaton’s film, Navigating from the White Anthropocene to the Black Chthulucene (Zer0 Books, forthcoming), and it is in part as a way of introducing some of the ideas to that book that I write this blog.
All the same, a couple of the parallels are, as mentioned, “uncanny” and thus worth elaborating.
For, Keaton and Crisp’s film involves a young man, Rollo Treadaway (Keaton), who gets caught on board a boat, The Navigator, that is set adrift by some saboteurs, and ends up running aground off the coast of a Pacific island. In a somewhat outdated and problematic (read: racist) fashion, Rollo, who is on board by chance with the object of his affection, Betsy (Kathryn McGuire), become threatened by cannibalistic and dark-skinned islanders, who try to board the titular ship, prompting Rollo and Betsy to try to escape via canoe and (these are all spoilers) finally to be rescued by a passing submarine.
So far, these might not sound like compelling parallels. But things get interesting when we consider that early on in The Navigator, Rollo decides that he is going to marry Betsy (who initially turns him down) at the precise moment that he sees an African American couple drive past the window of his sizeable mansion.
Furthermore, when the black cannibals abduct Betsy while Rollo is trying underwater to liberate The Navigator from the shoal upon which it has run aground, Rollo is attacked by an octopus, which he ends up killing with his knife (the slaughter of the octopus takes place behind a rock in Keaton and Crisp’s film).
Effectively, in the book-length project about Keaton and Crisp’s film, I argue that the octopus is, through the film’s editing patterns, equated with Blackness, in the sense that Blackness becomes, like the octopus, a sort of intelligent alien outside of “humanity,” which comes to be understood distinctly as white humanity – and that Keaton/Rollo’s desire to form a heterosexual and heteronormative couple is driven by the threat of African Americans functioning in a similar fashion.
That is, the heterosexual union of the African American couple is so jarring an image to Rollo, because from the perspective of hegemonic whiteness African Americans are, as Roderick A Ferguson has identified, perverse and outside of heteronormativity, that he himself must become heteronormative (and Betsy be damned if she does not actually want to marry Rollo). As a result, we might understand that the heteronormative couple is born out of antiblackness as much as it is supposedly a “natural” or “normal” thing to do. And Blackness is rendered “weird” through its parallels with the octopus, a creature noted for its weird otherness not least in its partial appearance in the horrific and apocalyptic creature Cthulhu, the invention of the notoriously antiblack writer, H.P. Lovecraft. By this token, I propose, working both with and somewhat against Donna J. Haraway’s concept of the Chthulucene, that the latter is, or will indeed be, black – while the Anthropocene, or the era in which humanity (read: white humanity) has dominated and corrupted our planet, is essentially white. That is, white supremacy has to end, both effectively and psychically, for us to stop destroying our planet.
But what does this have to do with Doctor Strange?
Well, as readers who have seen the film might already be thinking, Doctor Strange starts with the eponymous superhero attending the wedding of Christine Palmer to Charlie (Ako Mitchell), a black man who otherwise is undeveloped as a character (at least in this film). And what happens as soon as Christine and Charlie get married? A giant octopus creature attacks New York, prompting Stephen, his cape, and Wong (Benedict Wong) to do their superhero thing and defeat it.
So… here is the parallel (if it needs spelling out): in both films, we see the fulfilment of black heteronormativity as such a threat psychically to the white male hero that the latter will go on a quest across the reaches of space and time in order to try to put right that otherwise offensive situation. And in both films, this threatening black otherness is linked via montage to a cthulhoid, tentacular and weird monster, namely the octopus.
Note that Stephen only ever really asks whether his life ends up with Christine – and that he is not bothered about a world where his otherwise dead sister might be alive. That is, Stephen, who clearly has not cared so much about Christine that he has pursued her with any vim or commitment in this world, suddenly does really care about her – because she is marrying a black man.
We don’t need to get too much into how the history of cinema has – from Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffith, USA, 1915) onwards – rehearsed the idea of the white woman as the stake for racial discrimination, in that the threat of the black male reinforces the notion of the white woman as the white man’s possession, and in that the “loss” of a white woman to a black man is so humiliating to white masculinity that it reveals how white masculinity’s empowerment and heterosexual possession of the white woman is built upon antiblackness (otherwise the black man would be no “threat”). But we can see that this history is being played out once again here – with the plot reinforcing the hegemonic power of white masculinity not only because a chief obstacle to Stephen’s quest is Baron Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), but also because Wanda, as craving domesticity over empowerment, reasserts female domestic servitude/subjugation as the “true” desire of all “decent” women.
And, finally, it is notable that the person who allows Stephen to do his universe-hopping is a woman of colour, America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez). For, white masculine empowerment really comes via an appropriation of the powers of the woman of colour.
In other words, for all that multiverse movies might allow us to imagine a world in which we might live or be otherwise (as Ashon T. Crawley might put it), Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness in fact uses the multiverse as a threatening trope that allows us to wish not for other worlds, but precisely for our own, white supremacist world. That is, Doctor Strange… provides us with white supremacist business as usual – and in this way is one of a slew of recent films that also seems to take horror at inter-racial relationships, be those told from either side of the colour line (don’t be in a relationship with a white person – as per Get Out, Jordan Peele, USA, 2017, or The Sleeping Negro, Skinner Myers, USA, 2020; or the more disturbing message that we get here – that a white woman marrying a black man is inadmissible to the white masculine imagination).
What this goes to show, then, is that even if Doctor Strange… is not explicitly a “white supremacist” film (as far as I assume, Sam Raimi is not a member of the KKK, for example), it is a film born out of a white supremacist world, and in proposing but failing to think otherwise, it appropriates what it means to “think otherwise” and, by not really delivering to us an “otherwise” world, it reaffirms white supremacy as the (hetero)norm.
The deaths of Celestine Chaney, Roberta A. Drury, Andre Mackniel, Katherine Massey, Margus D. Morrison, Heyward Patterson, Aaron Salter Jr., Geraldine Talley, Ruth Whitfield and Pearl Young all confirm that antiblackness is real, and that people are out there who believe that it is a legitimate enough worldview to justify a genocidal act like the one that took place recently in Buffalo. That antiblackness is not born in a bubble, even if we might blame Twitch and the internet for their roles in indoctrinating and giving a platform for the perpetrator of the mass killing. It is an antiblackness that is pervasive, sitting even in positions of great power, like that of the President of the USA.
To get rid of antiblackness, if it is even possible, requires not just decrying events like those in Buffalo, but in getting to the psychic roots of antiblackness in the white imagination (which imagines itself as supreme, and which cannot truck the threat of a black rival, as per Doctor Strange…). It is for this reason that I wanted to write my book about Keaton and Crisp’s otherwise classic comedy, and it is for this reason that I feel compelled to write this blog, even if, as mentioned at the outset, there are plenty of other films that I wish I could find time to write about right now.
I might update this blog and post a link to my book once one exists. Otherwise, if this blog has at all piqued your interest in the book, do keep an eye out for it.