Chekhov’s Mage: Dr. Strange in the Defenders

Those writers reading my blog are undoubtedly familiar with “Chekhov’s gun.” This is a rule coined (or supposedly coined) by the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov: If you put a gun on stage in the first act, you need to use it by the end of the play.
I personally don’t think as an absolute unbreakable rule (I may discuss that at a later date) but reading Marvel’s Defenders has reminded me a similar rule applies in fantasy and it definitely shouldn’t be broken: If you establish in the first act that your mage has a particular power, he’d better use it when the time comes.
The Defenders began as a team consisting of the Hulk, the Sub-Mariner and the sorcerer Dr. Strange (other members followed). Unlike the Avengers, they were a “non-team” with no formal structure or team leadership; they fought together because of chance or friendship as the circumstances dictated.
The late Steve Gerber’s run on the book is fondly remembered for some of the absurd features he threw in, such as an elf that randomly shows up and shoots people, and never gets explained. I’m less impressed because I bought the book for a supporting character, Valkyrie, and Gerber clearly didn’t like using her. Plus, when you end a big, multi-issue plotline simply by having Hulk hit things until you break——well, that’s kind of weak.
But the focus of this post is Gerber’s use of Dr. Strange, which comes off wildly inconsistent (and if you’d like to know more about Stephen Strange, master magus, this post on the Sanctum Santorum blog does a great job). Early on, asked why Dr. Strange was easily beaten up by the mundane thugs of the Sons of the Serpent, the editor explained that as far as Gerber was concerned, Strange’s power to affect the physical world was limited: Zapping demons is one thing, but taking out an armed mob was another.
Not only was this not consistent with previous stories (which I could forgive——comes with the territory in comics), it wasn’t even consistent with Gerber’s own work. Later on, Strange manages to paralyze an entire invading force; in the Defenders Annual, he restores and teleports hundreds of kidnapped miniaturized people home in the blink of an eye (and shrunk by science, I note, not by magic)

That’s sloppy. If Strange has limited ability in the physical world, fine, but he can’t then pull sweeping spells out of his hat to fix the plot. If he has that kind of power when the writer needs it, he has it when the writer doesn’t need it, so there’d better be a good reason he doesn’t use it.
For example, in Robert E. Howard’s People of the Black Circle, a sorcerer kills the King of Vendhya by magic in the opening pages. He also emphasizes that he can’t just zap someone dead: The stars have to be right, he needs a lock of the man’s hair, etc. While the mage does display deadly talents later in the book, they’re limited enough Conan can survive.
Likewise, Phil Lovecraft faces any number of evil enchantments in Cast a Deadly Spell, but nothing that simply casts death spells. The rules aren’t spelled out like that section of the Howard story, but it’s obvious the villainous mages can’t just zap him (I discussed when and when not to spell out the rules in fantasy back in March).
Dr. Strange, of course, suffers from being in a super-hero book when his own series tended to operate off from the regular Marvel Universe; his foes were other sorcerers, not super-villains, so physical battles were infrequent. In Defenders, they were the norm.
But that’s still no excuse for using magic as a deus ex machina.

5 Comments

Filed under Comics, Reading, Writing

5 responses to “Chekhov’s Mage: Dr. Strange in the Defenders

  1. Ahh… ‘deus ex machina’. The big words that make you look so little … probably worse than just that.

    It IS so important to make sure you make your fire-breathing protagonist burns down the antagonist in the final showdown if page 1 says he can do this.And don’t make the protagonist suddenly fly while he burns down the baddie (hey, it seemed like a good idea at the time) if that character never could before!

    A good reminder for us writers!

    • frasersherman

      Sticking within the established rules has made it harder coming up with endings for some of my stories (oh dear, how the hell are they going to beat him now?) but it pays off.

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