IMDB Synopsis: While on a journey of physical and spiritual healing, a brilliant neurosurgeon is drawn into the world of the mystic arts. Director: Scott Derrickson
Writers: Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson | 3 more credits »
Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams
I love a good superhero origin story. And Marvel is better at it than DC, with the exception of Batman Begins. Doctor Strange is the Ass-hole-to-Hero origin story that helps us confront sustainability from the dark side, a refreshing perspective.
In it, world-famous know-it-all neurosurgeon, Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), looses the use of his hands, wastes all his money on western medicine to get it back, tracks down an Asian-esque guru, gains more power than he ever could have imagined, fights evil, and his hands still tremor. Slapstick cape aside, Doctor Strange guides us through all of the tropes of Hollywood and sustainability.
Normally, Hollywood would not bat an eye at Orientalism. From Mister Miyagi to Kwai Chang Caine to Maz Kanata in The Force Awakens, the Asian as “Mystic with Answers” is a persistently racist character. Things are…well…different in Doctor Strange. The “race” of all-knowing powerful, proverb-spitting teacher is cloaked (ug) in Orientalism, but of mixed race among mixed props. And no one is more mixed than the leader Tilde Swinton as the bald headed, saffron robe-wearing, tea serving Ancient One, looking an awful lot like eponymous Powder from 1995’s Powder. Is it more or less racist? I can’t tell. It feels like classic Orientalism – a mishmash of the koan-speak of Buddhism, props from Nepal, wardrobe from Japan, and likely many more that are not obvious because, well, that is the point of Orientalism. As BuzzFeed News Film Critic Alison Willmore points out – a “blurring culture to revel in a vague sense of Asian exoticism without bothering with specifics, and, more pressingly, without the people.” That’s it.
I accept this now as part of “just what Hollywood does.” In the Doctor Strange comics, the Ancient One was Tibetan, which is the original racist stereotype that the movie was trying to avoid. So is a super-white lady actor playing a super Asian male character more or less racist? Would we be more comfortable if she had a Fu Manchu to stroke? Director Derrickson claims that he cast a woman to break gender stereotypes, and that he cast a white woman to avoid the trap of racial stereotypes, and in those noble-minded decisions stepped in a little pile of shit by erasing Asian stereotypes but relying on the props and iconography of several countervailing Asian cultures. This is a privileged perspective, I admit: to be accused of whitewashing in an effort to avoid stereotyping. It’s a no win situation we have created.
What does this have to do with sustainability? Well, because the way things are presented is how they are understood when they are not examined. And, if this series of essays is meant to do anything, it is an attempt to encourage new readings of things. That, and sustainability is not just about the environment – it is about culture as well.
I might say – I do say – sustainability is a culture-first problem. But let’s stick to the reading. The movie is “about” avoiding the Apocalypse, in this case magical beings from another Universe fucking up our world. And it is about the redemption of American assholery. Dr. Stephen Strange goes from a stereotype of know-it-all, 1%er American to holistic thinker. That’s desperately the shift that is needed in sustainability.
Dr. Strange insists on being called Dr. even after he loses his talents as a neurosurgeon. Once he learns some lessons, he insists on being called simply Stephen (titles matter), and ultimately becomes Doctor again only after he has learned that there are things that he does not know. The Ancient One shows him an ancient text that contains, early sketches of the human anatomy, more detailed Grey’s Anatomy drawings of the vascular system, and MRIs of the human structure. This is the blind men and the elephant moment – everyone is describing the system from their own perspective and not from the whole. That is corporate sustainability today in a nutshell. It establishes a moment to move from my sustainability to our sustainability.
As Doctor becomes Stephen becomes Doctor, his face portrays the journey. Like any good re-invention (Rocky, Batman, Al Gore), he goes through his training montage (which I love) and his face transitions from clean shaven, to little beard to big beard, and ultimately to boy-band street magician’s beard. The premature student motif is also present here. Ancient One’s insistence that “he’s not ready yet,” echoes Luke Sky walker leaving his training on Degobah too early in Empire Strikes Back. Yoda and Obi Wan confront him with their “‘you will become an agent of evil, you’re not ready”’ speech. The point here is not that Dr. Strange isn’t ready (he’s not yet Doctor), it’s that these stories are told over and over again through pop culture because we can relate to then in a Joseph Campbell kind of way. And we can take these moments as teachings of our own relationship to sustainability. The stories both reflect and in form culture, and this folds in on itself like the Matrix, like Inception and like time and space in Doctor Strange.
For example, in modern pop culture, Apocalypse is an over-night event; a giant wave, a meteor, a zombie outbreak, an earthquake. Things happen fast (even zombies are fast these days). So, in real-life and real-time we start to expect the same. Quick aside – this is why race is important in these issues – we learn about race and gender from pop culture as much as pop culture is a reflection of the attitudes of race and gender. And sustainability. Lack of awareness of speed allows climate deniers to point to weather as an argument against global warming. It allows them to hold up a snowball as evidence that climate change is a hoax. And our language opens up space for dissent as well. We’ve been far too inexplicit when it comes to describing the crisis we face. crisis we face
“Global Warming” wasn’t quite the right term since temperature is always relative in a myopic Inhofeian way. “Climate Change” is better, but opens the door for passivity. “Change happens” is the skeptic’s out. Apocalypse, environmental destruction, will happen slowly on several generations’ watch. Humans will destroy the very ecosystem that they need to survive. Politically, we’re watching it happen now in real time – slowly. Deconstruction of the Environmental Protection Agency is just the 24th in about 100 steps towards the end.
“Ecosystem Collapse” is, for my money, the more accurate framing. It’s scarier.
Back to time, and the concept of time in Doctor Strange. Time is what saves the planet in the movie. Doctor Strange (with the new found power of time manipulation) traps the evil other-universe overload in a time loop. Doctor Strange is now willing to suffer for infinity, to die over and over, to save the planet. He wears the overlord down to protect the earth.
We don’t have that luxury. We need to act quickly over time to reverse the damage we have done – not just slow it down. I heard Paul Hawken pose it like this at Greenbiz a few years ago
“We’re driving a car at 100 miles an hour towards a cliff. Do we slow down or stop?“
Doctor Strange realizes he has to stop, reverse course and fight. It’s time to levitate to take on planetary destruction face to face – of course it has a human face in the movies.
Ancient One Powder talks about preventing countless terrible futures, and that’s where we sit today. Doctor Strange asks us to ask what are our futures? Sustainability does that too on its best day. On the other days, sustainability asks a darker question: Will we survive at all?
We are stuck in a bit of a loop of our own here though. Doctor Strange’s loop is about experiencing time and pain over and over. I feel a similar pain at sustainability conferences where we still have discourse over the definitions of sustainability, and where corporate greenwashing stills buys the center stage. Again and again.
At the end, turning back time is the Marvel answer the earth’s destruction (DC did it too with 1978 Superman). We don’t have the luxury of reversing time. …Or maybe we do. Elon Musk (aka Iron Man) is working on the Hyperloop, a levitating speeding bullet train designed to revolutionize human travel. In the end, Hyperloop is either going to be revealed as a time machine….or as Snowpiercer.