I love a good superhero origin story. And Marvel is better at than DC – mostly, with the exception of Batman Begins. Doctor Strange (2016, Scott Derrickson) is the Asshole to Hero origin story that helps us confront sustainability from the dark side, a refreshing perspective.
World-famous know-it-all neurosurgeon, Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), looses his power (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 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 teachers are cloaked (sorry) in Orientalism, but of mixed race. And no one is more mixed than the leader Tilde Swinton as the bald headed, safron robe-wearing, tea serving Ancient One looking an awful lot like 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 that is the point of the 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 Holywood 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 of she had a Fu Manchu? 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 the 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 for ourselves .
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 Sustainability and X series 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. More on that in Sustainability and Spinal Tap (coming soon, maybe).
But let’s stick to the reading. The movie is “about” avoiding the Apocalypse, in this case magic beings from another Universe fucking up our world for good. 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 is 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 Dr becomes Stephen becomes Doctor, his face portrays the journey. Like any good re-invention (Rocky, Batman), he goes through his training montage (which I love) and his face goes from clean shaven, to little beard to big beard, and ultimately to boy-band magician’s beard. The premature student motif is also present here. Ancient One’s insisting that “he’s not ready yet,” echoes Luke Skywalker 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. They both reflect and inform culture, and this folds in on itself like the Matrix, like Inception and like time and space in Doctor Strange.
For example, in 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.
“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 too much passivity. “Change happens” look at the data, is the skeptic’s out. Apocalypse, environmental destruction will happen slowly on several generation’s 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.
Pop-culture teaches us that Apocalypses happens fast. They do not. And the concept of time, brings us back to Doctor Strange. Time is what saves the planet. 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 last year: 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. Time to levitate to take on planetary destruction face to face. Of course it has a human face in the movies. And maybe it does in real life too.
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? We are stuck in a bit of a loop of our won 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 Snowpeircer.