How many superhero movies have I seen by now? Enough plus one.
I went into Doctor Strange already burnt out on these films. I’ve had my fill of these Marvel superhero origin stories where the hero goes to some magical realm, waxes dramatic, assembles a costume, beats on a smug baddie, and drops hints after the credits that he’ll join the Avengers. The plots boil down to “Campbellian monomyth + sequel bait,” and we leave forgetting everything within minutes. Then three years later, we see the sequel that ignores all the first movie’s character development anyway.
Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Stephen Strange, a brain surgeon of unparalleled skill and intelligence, whose arrogance and fear of failure hold him back from greatness. A car accident wrecks his hands and renders him incapable of doing his job and handling life. Like all people with career-ending injuries, he falls out with his only friend, spends his last dollar traveling to Nepal, settles in at a priory of sorcerers known as Kamar-Taj, and picks up the pieces of his life through magic. Before long, a Kamar-Taj apostate by the name of Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) embroils him in a war against time.… That’s not some pithy phrase; Kaecilius literally wants to destroy the concept of time.
Once we pass the pathos of the main character’s standard superhero death-and-rebirth, Doctor Strange gets by on its sense of humor. Director Scott Derrickson adheres to the Marvel Cinematic Universe playbook for pacing and timing of set-pieces, but he makes up for the narrative’s shaky points with strategic bursts of comic relief. In that sense, this feels like a Joss Whedon film. That, of course, seems appropriate for an Avengers tie-in, but it also speeds the realization that this movie has about as much to set it apart as the last Mega Man game you played.
Even before release, this movie drew ire for its whitewashing. In the comics, Doctor Strange has two prominent Asian supporting characters: his wizened Tibetan mentor, the Ancient One, and his obsequious Chinese manservant, Wong. Both started as clear Yellow Peril stereotypes, which made casting and updating the setting a sticky situation for Derrickson and co-writer C. Robert Cargill. They cast the decidedly white Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One, made her a Celt rather than Tibetan, and added gray morality to her characterization. They cast Asian-British actor Benedict Wong as Wong. Wong plays Wong (Do I call him Benedict or Wong? This got confusing fast!) as a staid, powerful librarian with an American accent. As a non-Asian, I don’t consider it my place to decide whether Derrickson made the right casting decisions. But as an Arab, I remain all too cognizant of the issue of Hollywood representation and the importance of feeling represented in culture. I will say that Swinton and Wong both do an excellent job, and I respect Derrickson for taking responsibility for his decisions.
Point of fact, this movie’s cast proves its greatest strength. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Strange’s mentor-cum-rival Mordo, a tragic object lesson in the dangers of holding out for ideological purity. I count Ejiofor among my all-time favorite actors because he brings something new, yet fundamentally human, to every single role. Mordo could have become Bill Mitchell from Inside Man or the Operative from Serenity, but Ejiofor’s well-considered portrayal feels like neither. (The character’s scarred face works with his real-life scar to boot!) Mads Mikkelsen balances menace and a sense of humor in his antagonist role; he employs the same combination of sociopathy and likability that defined Hannibal. Rachel McAdams plays Christine Palmer, the typical extraneous love interest, whom the script gives the least consistent characterization as usual. McAdams plays it to the hilt anyway, bringing as much consistency as she can to the character’s ductile personality.
The script has a lot to like and a lot to dislike.
In the comics, Strange’s battles can feel like glorified matches of Mornington Crescent or The Oldest Game. Characters take turns pulling some spell or relic out of their asses until one gets thrown in the Dark Dimension and the issue ends. To this film’s credit, its fight scenes introduce us to the characters’ capabilities and the “rules of the game” in a way that feels natural, with healthy foreshadowing. But the sorcerer characters lack diversity of powers; every major character has the same abilities. We don’t see anything that makes Strange the big hero; he goes from not having any mystical ability to Master of the Mystic Arts in no time. For the most prominent villain, Kaecilius suffers from hazy motivations. He worships Dormammu and opposes the Ancient One, but rather than just go after the Ancient One, he destroys foreign mystic sanctums because… reasons? Dormammu, for his part, goes mentioned but unseen and unexplained for most of the movie, which will bewilder viewers who haven’t read comics and didn’t think to hit up Wikipedia in advance.
Plot issues aside, the central character transformation impressed me. Strange, who coasts on natural talent and avoids taking on any responsibility at which he can’t guarantee success, has to learn to cope with failure. In fact, his ability to handle failure becomes his ironic secret weapon in the final climax. In real life, a willingness to risk failure and persevere is a fundamental part of mastering any skill, so I loved seeing that presented as a heroic trait. Strange succeeds as he becomes more willing to accept the possibility that he’ll make mistakes and embarrass himself.
Of course, we have to talk about the effects. Even for a superhero movie, Doctor Strange has the best set pieces I’ve seen in any Marvel movie. An overlong but beautiful sequence shows the Cumberbizzle careening through the Dark Dimension, which lovingly refers back to creator Steve Ditko’s art and even the corny 1978 telefilm. The in-universe explanation of magic and its depiction evoke The Matrix, Inception, and even Braid. Most of the action takes place in the “Mirror World,” which looks like our world given the M.C. Escher treatment. You know that math teacher from your old high school who decorated her classroom with Escher posters? Take her to this movie. She will weep with joy.
Doctor Strange boils down to a typical Marvel movie, albeit one with a committed cast and excellent visuals. The supporting characters could have more memorable personalities, but the narrative does a wonderful job challenging Strange in a way that matches with his strengths and foibles. But annoyingly, the movie pulls a Batman Begins and relegates the most iconic confrontation to the inevitable sequel. (Two post-credits scenes prolong the blue-balling.) That brings me to my main point of irritation: we don’t need more movies that feel like down payments. A movie should function as a self-contained story with something to remember and something to take away. I don’t need to know that the filmmakers held out the best content for the sequel. That’s why I got burnt out on these superhero movies in the first place: I’m tired of waiting for the sequel.Liked This? Share It!