Taking aim at Sarah

It’s been a tough time for wise-cracking American talk-show hosts of late. Letterman, Leno and Stewart have found Obama just a little too perfect to make the butt of their jokes and their lines about McCain’s age were getting a little, well, old. But then along came Sarah, the answer to their prayers. They’ve been taking aim at her lack of experience, her image and of course her gun-love. "Another vice president who's a hunter” remarked Jay Leno. "What could go wrong there?"

With rumours of Sarah Palin having an affair appearing in the National Enquirer (who turned out to be right about John Edwards's indiscretions after all), it looks like Sarah will keep setting them up and the comics knocking them down until election day.

Coping with a leak

Now to hissy fit news. In a move that will only affect those who know the names of the Jonas Brothers, author Stephenie Meyer is threatening not to finish the final part of her Twilight book series (a sort of teenage romance with vampires) after an early draft was leaked online. "I feel too sad about what has happened to continue working on Midnight Sun, and so it is on hold indefinitely”, sobbed Meyer. “This has been a very upsetting experience for me, but I hope it will at least leave my fans with a better understanding of copyright and the importance of artistic control." We can but hope, Stephenie.

Elsewhere, Metallica are coping rather better with internet leaks after their new album, Death Magnetic, appeared online this week, ahead of its official release on 12th September. "If this thing leaks all over the world today or tomorrow, happy days", said Lars Ulrich. "It's 2008 and it's part of how it is these days." Whether their management will be quite as philosophical is questionable. Earlier this summer a playback of Death Magnetic was organised for a variety of music magazines. Thequietus.com turned up and wrote a fond review, only to face irate phone calls from the band's management demanding it be taken offline. At which point Metallica themselves got involved, and expressed surprise at their management’s decision: "WHY?!!! Why take down mostly positive reviews of the new material and prevent people from getting psyched about the next record. . . that makes no sense to us!"

No joy for lesbian horses

Finally, the wait is over. The Diagram of Diagrams has been announced. The Diagram Prize is the prize for the oddest book title, now celebrating its 30th birthday with a competition for the best of the worst. Despite tough competition from How To Avoid Huge Ships and People Who Don’t Know They’re Dead, the public has chosen a winner: Greek Rural Postmen and Their Cancellation Numbers. Commiserations to the Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories.

Show Hide image

Marvel's Doctor Strange is like ketchup – it's formulated to please, but you won't love it

Benedict Cumberbatch’s well-honed turn in Doctor Strange is enjoyable, but the film isn't one you'd ever fall in love with.

In 2004, Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article asking why there were dozens of varieties of mustard, and yet a single brand of ketchup – Heinz – utterly dominated the market. He discovered that Heinz ketchup was a perfect synthesis of the “five known fundamental tastes in the human palate: salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami”.

Food scientists call this amplitude: Coca-Cola has high amplitude, blending vanilla, cinnamon and brown spice in a way that makes it difficult to pick out an individual note. That also makes it easier to drink buckets of the stuff; the palate tires easily of a single, spiky flavour, as with orange juice. But ketchup? You can smother that on anything.

The studio behind The Avengers, Thor and Iron Man has invented a similar condiment. Let’s call it Marvel Sauce. Take one superhero movie, add an even mix of buff beefcakes and Shakespearean actors, then marinate in light sarcasm to offset the fact that everyone is talking seriously about giant hammers or saving the world in costumes they look like they have to be sewn into.

That the process creates homogeneity is not the snobby criticism it might at first appear. (I’ve drunk Coke in places where the water wasn’t safe, or local tastes were very different from mine, and I’ve been grateful for it.) Yet it does mean the films’ greatest strength is also their greatest weakness.

Doctor Strange is smothered in Marvel Sauce. It looks phenomenal: if you liked the city-folding from Inception, this film lets M C Escher’s grandchild have a go with the software. The actors are first-rate, from Chiwetel Ejiofor as Baron Mordo to Mads Mikkelsen’s baddie, Kaecilius. (Wanted: someone else who studied Latin at school to appreciate my joke about Kaecilius being “in horto sedet”.) The tone is just right, undercutting anything too portentous with snark and slapstick. At one point, Benedict Cumberbatch is giving it proper, squinty-eyed, superhero duck face in the mirror when his sentient cloak pokes him in the eye.

Admittedly, the plot is pretty thin. Our hero is Dr Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch), an arrogant surgeon at a New York hospital with a lucrative sideline in after-dinner speeches. (He has to be American: first, NHS surgeons don’t make enough money to own the watches and glass-walled midtown apartment on show here. Second, he’d be Mister Strange, and would spend half his fights explaining this to people.)

One night, he is purring off to an after-dinner speech in his Lambo when he decides to look at MRI brain scans on his Microsoft Surface while overtaking in heavy rain. This is a bad idea. He wakes up with scarred and damaged hands and is bereft until his physiotherapist tells him about another patient who recovered from breaking his back. Strange finds the guy, who tells him to travel to Nepal (a change from the Tibet of the comics, apparently made to appease Chinese film distributors) to learn some old mystic bollocks.

From there on, the story suggests that the screenwriters have more than a passing familiarity with The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. Strange enters the special world, meets the mentor – a bald Tilda Swinton, who teaches him to bend time and space – and undergoes an ordeal, including his death and rebirth. He “seizes the sword”, an eye-shaped necklace that can rewind time, and uses it to battle Kaecilius’s plan to collapse Earth into the Dark Dimension. There is one surprise, which is that Strange’s core superpower is revealed to be boring enemies into submission.

Is this film enjoyable? Yes. Is it the kind of film you can fall in love with? No. I left thinking of the one Marvel film that’s mustard, not ketchup: the profane Deadpool. Its hero is also disfigured and cut off from his old life. But Deadpool’s scars ruin his face, and he is ostracised and feared. Strange gets to make swords out of energy and teleport using a magic ring, which seems a decent consolation for not being able to play Chopin. Deadpool also gets a real human woman as a love interest, rather than the one-dimensional saint of an A&E doctor of Dr Strange, played by Rachel McAdams. But then, Deadpool was an 18-rated parody, and this is a blockbuster. It’s ketchup. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage