Comic book superheroes are weird, both within their own stories and on the outside world from which they’re created. One of the weirdest things is to realize that any superhero with any history has been handled by multiple creators, leading to multiple interpretations and often a spectrum of what defines those characters. This can lead to some confusion among any character that has been around for more than a decade or two. Fans and creators will often latch onto whatever element they loved about the character and assume stories about that are more valid and worthwhile. This overlooks the truth that fictional characters aren’t real, and that they behave how creators want them to. As much as we might like to consider these characters as real people, they have no will or personality of their own. They exist and behave with the intent and design of people behind the scenes.
This is why every decade or so these characters tend to change as the creators, the audience, and the culture around them changes. We can argue all we like about which version of Batman is the definitive version, but there is really none. Whether we’re talking about Miller’s grizzled old Dark Knight Returns, the noir-ish detective of Batman: The Animated Series, or the underrated action hero The Batman, we’re talking about interpretations that appeal to us. And it’s easy to mistake our preferences for the best version.
It gets weirder with characters that come with extra baggage. As many different versions of Batman that we have, most every agrees with the basic premises of how he operates, where he lives, his methodology, his abilities. But what about stranger characters.
For decades, Marvel’s Thor was a magical alien. It was accepted that the Asgardians (along with many other similar extradimensional aliens) had come to earth in the past and allowed themselves to be worshiped as gods. They were not, however, gods as we expected. They were simply a different life form with magical powers and superhuman abilities. The current trend is to actually view them as incarnations of mythological concepts and ideals. No longer aliens, but something more mystical. It is, however, a rather new interpretation. Or an old one if you want to look at it like that.
I’ve always preferred the magical alien version because it avoids stories I just don’t find interesting. I’m not interested in how Thor is worshiped. I just enjoy stories of Thor fighting aliens and fire demons. But that’s a preference, not a default.
But there is no character quite like Dr. Strange who suffers from interpretation fluidity. It doesn’t help that his powers are vaguely defined to begin with. Thor might be magical, but his basics are simple enough. But Dr. Strange is Sorcerer Supreme, the most powerful wizard on his world, and that’s about as vague as it can be. Strange has to interact with superheroes on a regular basis, and that his powers change depending on the needs of those stories.
It’s why a character like Strange is so wildly inconsistent, and why any version is going to make someone unhappy. I tried the new title, and I didn’t find it particularly engaging because it comes with all the “Magic has a price” expectations that I’ve never found interesting. Others will disagree. But I much prefer the version we ended up with in the recent movie, who is all about study and practice and often uses a more martial arts based form of sorcery, which is why, unsurprisingly, Dr. Strange is one of my favorite of the Marvel films. (Minus the whitewashing problem, which will always be a black eye on an otherwise enjoyable movie.)
It’s a mistake to even bother thinking of definitive versions of characters that are passed from creative team to creative team. As much as people might laugh at those old comics where Batman fights weird aliens or Superman concocts a mean-spirited prank to “teach Lois a lesson”, those stories informed those characters and were how they were written for decades. And Dr. Strange has been everything from a mysterious master of the occult to a more traditional power bolts and shields kind of hero. It’s fine to have a preference, but it’s often silly to assume the superiority of our own favored version.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,