Damien Hirst's memento mori

The enfant terrible picks up his brushes

On a dark road, a man meets a sinister figure who warns him to turn back, because "things get very serious if you carry on down this road". This is Damien Hirst explaining to the late Gordon Burn the meaning behind Turn Away from Me, which is included in his new exhibition "Nothing Matters" at White Cube. A feebly painted ghost raises its hand, which appears to float out from the grim darkness of the background. Hirst portrays his close friend Angus Fairhurst, like Hirst a "Young British Artist", who took his own life in the Scottish Highlands last year. It is a moving image, thick with the fear of death and haunting in its warning from the next world.

This show marks a big shift in Hirst's career. The enfant terrible of the YBAs has left behind animals preserved in formaldehyde in favour of good old-fashioned paint. He is taking a risk, but knows he can trade on his celebrity. In an explicit homage to Francis Bacon, Hirst has produced a series of gloomy, large-scale triptychs in which a number of recurring motifs -- flies, ashtrays, skulls -- function as memento mori, or intimations of mortality. He takes much of his symbolism from Old Masters: crows, empty chairs, skulls, knives and so on.

But, for all Hirst's debts to tradition, these paintings lack poetry and finesse of execution. Compare them, for example, with some of the most poignant renderings of birds ever done, by the French etcher Félix Bracquemond, and you'll know what I mean. There is something gross and raw about the roughness of the paint slashes with which Hirst creates his bloody effects.

There is also something unsatisfying about the so-called blue paintings on show concurrently at the Wallace Collection. In one or two canvasses, phantasmagorical shapes give the viewer the shivers, but for the most part I agree with Tom Lubbock, who, writing in the Independent, concluded that "they're extremely boring".

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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