Steve Ditko’s psychedelic vision comes to life in ‘Doctor Strange’ sequel
The character of Dr. Stephen Strange, currently played on screen by Benedict Cumberbatch, has always been an odd choice for a Marvel comic book. Unlike the patriotic Captain America, who addressed the “greatest generation” and their still-patriotic children who had yet to morph into the Vietnam-era anti-Americanist faction, and the angsty Spiderman, who appealed to nerd teens, Strange only appealed to the then nascent counterculture.
Created in 1963 by Steve Ditko, not self-promoting Stan Lee, it’s obvious the character was a head trip for hippie enthusiasts reveling in psychedelic drug culture and mystical gibberish.
Ironically, Ditko was poles apart from flippant immorality and collectivist-minded counterculture. Politically, he was a staunch supporter of Ayn Rand, committed to property rights and what today would be called social conservatism, seeing the world in black and white at its brightest. He wouldn’t have voted for then-candidate George W. Bush in 2000 because he wasn’t conservative enough.
It’s understandable, however, that the Doctor Strange demographic sees the character as Marvel’s answer to Timothy Leary. Ditko’s art for Strange often took a surreal twist, then collapsed into psychedelic worlds that seemed to spring from the panels of the comic book page.
Reality, central to Ditko’s worldview, was fluid and often deceptive, and thus did not provide a stable berth for taking political and moral positions. Strange simply saw himself as Earth’s protector against invading demons and wizards, supporting an amoral government world that Ditko often disagreed with.
In Ditko’s hands, Strange never really appealed to readers who didn’t use recreational drugs and weren’t inundated with I-Ching nonsense. He never really fit into the Cold War culture of patriotic anti-communism that Captain America, Spiderman, and even the Hulk championed.
When Ditko very publicly left Marvel Comics, the character lost much of its pizzazz. Strange was shuffled from artist to artist, none of which matched Ditko’s imaginative world-building. Instead, it became little more than a cheap version of Mandrake The Magician.
The dense visions and diverse realities that Ditko constructed have not been captured by subsequent artists. In the hands of less morally certain writers, Strange had doubts about himself and sometimes wondered if the world he guarded was worth saving. Although the hippie world of the late 1960s and 1970s eventually caught up with him, Strange then had moments when he thought about hanging up the mystical mantle and taking up the costly life of a surgeon again.
Strange limped off and then blossomed as writers and artists realized the character could take readers to more hopeful areas of Marvel, but equally flawed characters couldn’t go. Doctor Strange was Marvel’s closest thing to a horror comic.
The character, a former surgeon, was fleshed out, and as befits many physicians and doctors, was arrogant and considered the society he was saving once a month to be inferior to him.
This is the version transferred to the screen. ‘Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’, played by Cumberbatch, is always arrogant – but the actor projects an appealing selflessness. Cumberbatch, a supremely intelligent actor, anchors the story with villains and shifting realities that threaten to collapse his performance and the script under its weight of special effects.
As with Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen’s turn as Scarlet Witch gives audiences a platform from which to follow the story and its dizzying special effects. Without the on-screen pair, nothing is as it seems, and the viewer is scratching their heads as to what is real and what isn’t.
Directed by Sam Raimi, who cut his teeth in horror movies, “In The Multiverse” is Marvel’s scariest yet. It’s also a tribute to Ditko, showing that his bold and imaginative vision, drawn almost 60 years ago, is now achievable thanks to CGI.
Ron Capshaw is a Florida-based writer.