Doctor Strange saves our universe from threats that emerge from other dimensions, whilst Luke Cage battles gangsters in Harlem. What does it mean to say two such wildly different stories take place in the same fictional universe?
I’ve mostly kept this spoiler light but have thrown in some more spoilery notes at the bottom. If you haven’t seen the film and the show yet then don’t read them.
A minor but recurring character in Luke Cage – the latest collaboration between Netflix and Marvel – is a hawker who stands on street corners in Harlem offering footage of “the incident”. By which he means the battle between alien invaders and the Avengers at the end of their first film. Assuming Youtube exists in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), his business model seems rather shaky. Nonetheless the show’s creators clearly felt the need to remind the audience that the stuff they are seeing theoretically occurs alongside the adventures of Tony Stark, Steve Rodgers and Co. Perhaps the showrunners doth assert too much. You can certainly see why audiences might doubt this. None of the characters from the films appear, the events of the show have no bearing on the arc of the films and the tone is radically different. Luke Cage’s powers are being strong and bulletproof, which seems rather mundane next to say the ability to summon lightning from a hammer. His opponents are not aliens, demi-gods or killer robots but gangsters and corrupt police and politicians. And the stakes are lower: he is fighting to defend a neighbourhood rather than the world.
This contrast is heightened further by the arrival of Doctor Strange. The latest Marvel film tells the story of a brilliant but arrogant surgeon, who having been crippled in a car accident makes a desperate attempt to overcome his injuries by turning to mysticism. That puts him on the path to being a powerful sorcerer and sets him up for a confrontation with evil powers. This is a film in which people have the ability to bend buildings, reverse time and travel between dimensions. It all seems pretty far removed from Luke Cage’s street level adventures.
Despite these huge disparities, Doctor Strange and Luke Cage share a key strength: an impressive style borne of a clear hinterland.
Both of their source materials arose from Marvel trying to expand their range of comics to reflect new social movements. With Strange it was the counter-culture and the new age. The panels of his comics look like illustrations of an acid trip and Pink Floyd even included some of it on one of their album covers. Luke Cage, or the Hero for Hire as he then was, was Marvel’s take on blaxploitation: its hero is a black man who speaks in street slang – or at least his white creators’ idea of what street slang was – and got his powers as the result of a miscarriage of justice.
The visuals of Doctor Strange are appropriately mind-bending. They have been repeatedly compared to those of Inception, and you can see why. Characters can manipulate space and time so that, for example, roads bend upward and people fall down them. But that actually understates the weirdness of Doctor Strange. The characters in Inception dream only of earthbound locations. By contrast, those in Doctor Strange travel to all kinds of strange dimensions with appropriately out there colour schemes.
This opens up new possibilities for action sequences. Director Scott Derrickson doesn’t exploit them perfectly. In a film where the audience cannot rely on their knowledge of the conventional rules of physics, it was probably unwise to have so many fast cuts and so much juddery camera work. Those decisions render some of the fights illegible. However, they feel a lot fresher than the conventional Marvel fare, In particular, Derrickson finds slapstick humour amongst the oddness of the proceedings.
For very different reasons, Luke Cage also depends on the latter quality. Most of the time there is little that the show’s street level villains can do to put its bulletproof hero is physical danger. So wisely the episode directors try to make confrontations funny rather than tense:
However, this isn’t really a show about action. It’s far more about a place: Harlem. I don’t know if the picture it presents is true to the real place but the version we see in Luke Cage certainly feels like a real place. This show’s Harlem becomes a stage on which to evoke African American life. It luxuriates in the dialects, history and, above all else, the music of that community. And because virtually the entire cast is black, we see a full gamut of characters of colour rather than just the usual stereotypes. This winds up illustrating why diversity in the media is an artistic as well as a social virtue: Luke Cage brings to the fore themes and narratives that are relatively neglected by TV that is mostly made by and for white people.
For all their strengths, Luke Cage and Doctor Strange do both suffer from structural flaws. Much has been made of the fact that Doctor Strange sticks closely to the conventions of the superhero origin story. I’d suggest this is less of a problem than the fact it feels like it is rushing through that narrative. There’s a lot of telling where we might hope for showing. Only Strange himself has a fleshed out character arc, the supporting cast are mostly neglected. One key character experiences a dramatic transformation in just two pieces of exposition.*
By contrast, Luke Cage manages to fully flesh out its story. Unfortunately, it does so about 8 episodes into its 13 episode run. At which point it starts adding flab rather than flesh. This sadly is a familiar problem for the Marvel/Netflix shows.
And speaking of familiar problems, the villain in Doctor Strange is underwhelming. While Marvel movies tend to work despite their failure to produce noteworthy adversaries, if they are going to cast Mads Mikkelsen, probably the world’s premiere menacing European, you’d hope they would give him something interesting to do.
Bad guys is one of the things that the Marvel TV series have generally done better than the films but sadly Luke Cage doesn’t. The villains we initially encounter are fairly interesting but the big bad is too broad by far: a grounded series really didn’t need a cartoonish enemy who almost seems to be licking his lips as he theatrically quotes Bibles verses in a manner that is supposed to be menacing but is mostly just annoying.**
I’d also suggest that neither project really lands its attempts at making deeper points. Doctor Strange tries to set up an ideological conflict over the role of time in human life. But this feels tacked on with the vindication of the good guys’ position being presented in exposition rather than emerging organically from the story.
Luke Cage does better and there’s nothing wrong with it moving from depicting African American lives in general to tackling the specific issue of police violence against the community. However, I don’t feel it has any new points to make on the subject nor is its depiction of it especially potent. So it’s not a problem but nor is it
Despite gripes like these, both Doctor Strange and Luke Cage are stylish and entertaining projects that I’d heartily recommend.
Having spent a fair amount of time noting the similarity of their strengths and weaknesses, let me return to the observation that they are of course very different enterprises. Which begs the question what does it mean to say that they happen in the same fictional universe (or I suppose given Doctor Strange’s powers multiverse)? I suppose it implicitly creates the possibility that Strange and Cage might someday meet. But that seems unlikely. The disparities between their powers would be too great: an existential threat to Cage would be trivial to Strange. He and the rest of Marvel’s grandest and most powerful characters are off limits to the TV series. But that I would argue is their strength. It means that the TV series have to become distinct from the films rather than a cheaper and more regularly produced facsimile of them. The series based on DC comics like Gotham and Supergirl can make use of iconic characters like Superman and the Joker. But Marvel’s can’t and that forces them to explore the cracks of a world in which superpowers exist, to ask about the lives of ordinary people in such a reality and to understand its details. The films may be spectacular but the TV series are in many ways more interesting.
* Even Chiwetel Ejiofor can’t make Mordo going from being a bit pissed with the Ancient One’s compromises to mercilessly hunting down his fellow sorcerers seem convincing without at least some time being devoted to it.
**And did it really have to go all Spectre? Why do the hero and villain have a link going back to childhood? Isn’t that an implausible co-incidence? And why does his motivation have to be daddy issues?