Let’s Talk About Doctor Strange’s Terrific Vaudevillian Joke

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Light spoilers ahead

Marvel's Doctor Strange, out this weekend, is broadly a movie about people with the power to play with space and time. Not to spoil too much, let’s just say buildings are Inception-ed and space-time is Looper-ed. Still, no bending of reality drew my attention more than when the movie stopped its action for a solid 30 seconds, so that Benedict Cumberbatch and Mads Mikkelsen could do their best Abbott and Costello.

Setup for the joke begins early. In the movie, Cumberbatch plays a neurosurgeon named Dr. Stephen Strange, who becomes the superhero Doctor Strange. He is the sort of doctor who corrects people who call him "mister," a thing he does multiple times in the early going. Mikkelsen is the bad guy, who generally seems very serious. Midway through the film, our hero and our villain finally meet. Exciting, right? But before they throw magic glowing shapes at each other they have this interaction:

Photo: Marvel Entertainment

When I reached out to the filmmakers to ask who wrote the joke, they wouldn't say whether it was the director, Scott Derrickson, writers Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill, or Dan Harmon, who was hired to punch up the script. But it is clear that, no matter who wrote it, this is some major vaudeville shit. Any more vaudevillian, and Cumberbatch and Mikkelsen would both be wearing bowler hats and there'd be a guy selling pickles outside. (Appropriately enough, the scene took place in lower Manhattan, vaudeville's spiritual home.)

Comedy has always been a big part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Largely this is because comedy was one of the things that set Marvel comics apart when they started, but it’s also because of the tone director Jon Favreau set with the first Iron Man. The Chicago-improv-trained Favreau gave Robert Downey Jr. plenty of room in the action to do bits. Audiences ate it up, and henceforth, it was written that all Marvel movie heroes would be quipsters. Whether they're scientists, soldiers, demigods, burglars, space-burglars, or literal brain surgeons: These dudes are going to be cracking wise. The constant one-upping in the Avengers movies feels like being stuck in a room full of improvisers, if improvisers had muscles. Guardians of the Galaxy took this up a notch by giving each member of the ensemble a fully distinct comedic type, so much so that the hilarious planning scene feels like something you would have seen in Community. But when you consider that so much of the quipping in the other Marvel films is about making pop-culture references, the anachronism of that Doctor Strange joke is noticeable in contrast.

But it works. In Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, Alan Alda’s character offers this theory on comedy: "If it bends, it's funny; if it breaks, it isn't." It is less well known than the other satirical line from that speech — “Comedy is tragedy plus time” — and in the context of the movie it's supposed to be read as stupid, or at least inane. The rumor is, however, that the character was based on famed comedy writer Larry Gelbart, who would say similar things. And it’s hard not to see the truth of the maxim in Doctor Strange. This joke bends: The humor comes from the movie stopping in the middle of an action scene, when tensions are at their highest, to do a silly comedy routine. (The joke also pushes the boundaries of Mikkelsen’s character, whose lines in the bit don’t really jibe with the rest of his villainously formal manner.)

But the joke doesn’t break. Form follows function: In a movie in which characters can enter a “mirror dimension” that allows them to battle without affecting the real world, the directors and writers created a safe space for a good joke without affecting the rest of the movie. It may be strange, but who are we to judge?