Holy balls, guys, I have seen Doctor Strange and it. Was. AWESOME. While I understand a lot of viewers may be sitting this one out due to the whitewashing of roles that in the comics were for people of Asian heritage, this title is one I have a soft spot for. Plus, it's my husband's favorite (possibly only usurped by Iron Fist, I'm not sure and I won't make him choose), and a chapter in a greater whole. With some of my favorite actors sharing screen time, I couldn't miss it.
So, you should know that after this picture I'm about to post, there will be spoilers. If you don't want to know what happens, please enjoy the picture and click away. I'll see you later.
Sweet bolts of Balthak, you guys, this was so goddamn good. It was pretty. It was poignant. The acting was on point. The Easter eggs were fun. Michael Giacchino's score was fucking brilliant. And I squeed my pants during the first coda scene. (I will not spoil that.) I admit that as I'm writing this, I'm still in the afterglow, so it's difficult to spot the flaws I'm sure are there (aside from the Asian characters being written/portrayed as white.) I will say this about the Ancient One. Guys, I see why they went the route they did of casting the goddess Tilda Swinton. First off, she's Tilda Fucking Swinton. But, the original Ancient One had a very cliche, yellow fever look. Like Pai Mei in Kill Bill. Putting that out there now would've been offensive. Furthermore, had Marvel/Disney cast a Chinese actor, many markets would've been pissed as hell because of the political issues between China and Tibet. Had they cast a Tibetan actor, they would've lost the whole of the Chinese market. Yes, it sucks. It was not an easy decision in that regard, I'm sure. But Avatar Tilda owned, you guys. She was spectacular.
Anyway, what I want to talk about has little to do with the stellar cinematography, mind-blowing effects or delicious fan service. No, what I want to talk about is chronic illness.
As regular readers will know, I've been dealing with chronic pain for a while. On top of a host of pelvic issues that date back to my daughter's birth (she turned 11 last week), I also have nerve damage due to herniated discs, degenerative disc disease, polycystic ovarian syndrome, and depression. These are invisible illnesses. I do not look sick. I do not appear to be anything other than a hale and hearty woman in her mid-to-late thirties. But I'm not okay. I'm in pain daily. I start each day with the rattle of bottles. I have to give myself weekly injections. I've spent years trying to either fix these things on my own, "just push through, the pain's not that bad", or denying them with the help of my doctor who insisted everything was in my head or just my "new normal". This year I've been taking control of my healthcare again and trying to retrain my brain, but that's a different blog, methinks.
I went into the film knowing Doctor Stephen Strange's origins: a master neurosurgeon who loses the use of his hands in an accident. I didn't expect, however, to sit down for the film and see a veiled discussion of chronic pain. The distorted, fractured landscapes were an odd mirror, but there are things about this film that truly resonated with me and what I'm currently wading through. (Yes, I know we all bring our own filters and baggage to the theater, but hear me out....)
So Strange wakes up after an hellacious car crash to find multiple pins in his immobilized hands. He's told of extensive nerve damage. He goes to physical therapy and scoffs at it because it's not working fast enough for him. He spends his money on experimental surgeries and treatments to try to fix himself. Seven times. Nothing relieves the pain, weakness and palsy that has become the doctor's new normal. He is desperate to go back to the old life, to get control of his body back. And he believes it can come through science. He trusts that to be true.
However, it fails him. All the doctors and all the surgeons can't put Cumberbumpty Dumpty back together again. He travels to Nepal with a last ditch effort to find healing. What he finds is Avatar Tilda teaching sorcery, ways to expand what "reality" means beyond the boundaries of science.
Though he is a willing student, he doesn't surrender to the process. Much like his experience with physical therapy, what Strange thinks he knows blocks him from learning more. (A common thread in movies of this type: "How can you fill your cup if it is already full? How can you learn if you already know so much?" - Forbidden Kingdom.) Even after he masters sorcery, he is still aiming for one thing and one thing only. He continues on and on with the end goal of fixing his hands and returning to his old life, just like it always was. Cars, parties, lavishness and arrogance.
Avatar Tilda informs him that "not everything can be fixed". This was one of the first lines that really punched me in the gut. The second came in the third act, when Doctor Strange has embraced his role and his power, has humbled himself and gone to face the denizen of the Dark Dimension, Dormammu. Within a time loop, the pair relive an encounter over, and over, and over. Each time, Stephen endures great pain. When Dormammu threatens an eternity of same, the good doctor squares his shoulders and says, "Pain is an old friend."
Boom. There it was. Something I've been saying of/to myself for a long time now. Before my back injury in 2008, before my daughter was born in 2005, I had another back injury in 2002. Before that I had ovarian cysts rupture. Before that I had shoulder problems that went back to at least 1990. I've dealt with pain of one stripe or another for a very long time. I've always been proud of my ability to endure, but after doing that for years upon years without relief, I'm kinda tapped out. It's not as easy as it used to be.
Over the past years--particularly this year when I discovered just how much my now-former primary care physician ignored...how much could've been avoided if she'd listened--I've been thinking I could just get back to the old me. I could lose the weight I've gained. I could miraculously fix my back or my pelvic issues.
But some things can't be fixed.
The film's frank theme resonated with me. I can't go back to what I once was....but it doesn't mean this is the end. It doesn't mean I'm finished or that my best days are gone. I might not be able to be healed. Ever. But, like the doctor, I can be better. I can be more. (Sure, I can't sling spells or open up portals between here and there. Nor do I have the cutest damn cloak of levitation this side of Aladdin's magic carpet. But still!)
I know that this is just pecking on the tip of a very big iceberg. Our society doesn't like to talk about invisible illnesses. Mental health, chronic pain, any slew of legitimate ailments that affect people...we don't talk. There's still a stigma. Marvel didn't have the conversation for us, nor did they particularly delve into everything. For example, we never see Doctor Strange go on a Houseian bender on pain killers. We never see him have to sign forms that treat him like a criminal just to get pain relief. We never see him go on cocktails of drugs to try to find the right one. However, we see the soul-crushing journey that is finding nothing that works for him. Cumberbatch beautifully portrays that desperation, what it's like to cling to that last shred of hope that you can reverse time to the exact moment you became sick or injured, and fix it all through the tried and true rock of ages that is science and logic.
Many of us living the "spoonie" life and dealing with chronic illness/pain recognize the failure of that science and logic. Because it has failed us. Being on this cocktail of drugs that renders you null and void is the best you can expect sometimes.
The one aspect of this movie that does give me pause, I admit, is the time frame in which all of this happens. There are a few milestones that give us an idea where this film falls in time-wise to the rest of the MCU. For example, at the beginning, Dr. Strange is given a chance to operate on an Air Force colonel injured wearing experimental armor. This could be Colonel Rhodes (Rhodey, AKA War Machine) injured in such a way at the end of Captain America: Civil War. However, director Scott Derrickson says that this isn't something to read into. That it wasn't, in fact, Colonel Rhodes. The coda scene during the credits (the one I'm not spoiling) tells us we're right before the events of Thor: Ragnarok. But, within the movie (and appropriately) time is rather fluid and nebulous. (Also, in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Stephen Strange's name appears as one of the targets of the helicarriers. So, if he was just a neurosurgeon at that time, why is he flagged for execution?) Anyway, this is me taking the long way around to say that the movie has a questionable time frame for this kind of thing. Strange has seven surgeries. SEVEN. The recovery time between those, the scheduling, deciding the last one failed.... all of that is years worth of agony right there. Plus, in the article above, Derrickson says that Strange's training with the Ancient One takes about a year. If, as is the popular theory (again, debunked by Derrickson) that Strange's accident happens after the events of Civil War, all of his treatments are done in the span of months, not years.
So that's my one beef. The time line for a patient in his situation is grossly sped up. (But then again, when dealing with the Time Stone....)
Anyway. Doctor Strange was glorious. It's an origin story that shines a small light on chronic pain and disability without being inspiration porn. It's not a meme, nor is it a complete dissertation on the topic; it's the thesis statement of a greater conversation we can all have. We're not all going to find answers on the same path. Some of us are going to have to step outside of what others expect and consider normal to find our way.
And that's not so much about health, but life itself.