‘Doctor Strange’ Brings the Magic

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Marvel’s Doctor Strange is exactly the kind of superhero movie we all wanted to see back when the ads were promising that we would “believe a man can fly.” The mystic warriors here do a lot more than fly, and it’s all visually stunning. Much more important than the eye candy, however, are the personalities involved, their histories and motivations, and the importance of what they are all fighting for or against. If those things don’t engage us, the amazing effects are just a digital fireworks display.

Fortunately, engage us they do, and the result is a real-life distillation of the excitement and drama we found in comic books as kids. Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) isn’t the Master of the Mystic Arts fighting a bunch of nameless faceless monsters just because that’s what the job description says; he’s fighting to preserve the Earth and stop a lunatic renegade sorcerer with messianic tendencies from “saving” the world by feeding it to the all-consuming darkness of another dimension. More to the point, Strange is fighting this battle because he has to, before he’s ready, knowing he’s in way over his head and has to do it anyway. That’s compelling drama.

Marvel's DOCTOR STRANGE Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) Photo Credit: Film Frame ©2016 Marvel. All Rights Reserved.
Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch)
Photo Credit: Film Frame ©2016 Marvel. All Rights Reserved.

While all that’s going on Strange is also fighting an internal battle, as the man he is trying to become has to destroy the man he used to be. When we meet him, Stephen Strange is an arrogant narcissist; while he is a brilliant surgeon, he carefully chooses and rejects cases on the basis of whether they will make him look more brilliant and enhance his reputation. He’s also a showboater, doing procedures “the hard way” solely to impress the rest of the surgical team. Naturally he has left a few damaged relationships in his wake.

After the horrific accident (seriously, the car crash is going to give kids nightmares beyond anything else in the film) destroys his hands, Strange is driven to extreme and desperate lengths to try to restore his abilities so that he can return to his self-serving, ego-building surgical practice, believing that all of his worth lies in what he does rather than who he is. His coming to terms with the Ancient One’s admonition that “it’s not about you” drives Strange’s story, but his is not the only story being told. Indeed, it’s not about him, as evidenced from the very first scene of the film; Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen, very creepy) and his followers invade the Ancient One’s library, behead the librarian (shown in shadows on the wall, mercifully) and tear a few pages out of a book, leading into a first-rate kung-fu actin showdown with the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) in an undulating cityscape that might have been conceived by M.C. Escher and Salvador Dalí after a three-day drinking binge, which serves merely as an appetizer for what’s to follow.

What follows are scenes taken directly from classic comics, easter eggs a-plenty, and a random sprinkling of connections to the rest of the Marvel Universe, including references to the Avengers and a few name-drops of really obscure characters from comics that Joe Mainstream has never heard of, including Runaways and Brother Voodoo.

The supporting cast carries their part of the film very well. Rachel McAdams does a credible job as Dr. Christine Palmer, Strange’s sometime girlfriend, surgical partner, support system and scapegoat, ultimately saving his life in a tense/funny action scene involving her trying to provide emergency medical care to Strange’s body while his astral form carries on a fight around them. Benedict Wong as the replacement librarian, Wong, is a no-nonsense hardass who serves as impatient mentor and occasional ball-buster to the good Doctor, reminding him that he does not know as much as he thinks he does. He’s got some beautiful moments, and his presence almost makes up for the whitewashing of the Ancient One.

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Yeah, I said it. Scott Derrickson has also said it. In trying to avoid a lot of stereotypes and cliches, he swapped one offensive trope for another, and he has taken responsibility for it. While it would have been nice to see an Asian actor play the Ancient One as something other than the same old “Magical Asian” that we’ve seen in dozens of movies ranging from Lost Horizon to Remo Williams, the fact is Tilda Swinton admirably delivers a Sorcerer Supreme who is exactly what Doctor Strange needed. No doubt, Ken Watanabe or Michelle Yeoh or another Asian performer could have given an equally effective performance, and Derrickson definitely left the door open for the role to be recast in future films, but Swinton’s performance is excellent.

Chiwetel Ejiofor serves as a friendly rival to Strange; Mordo is a rigidly precise student of the Ancient One, who is more than a little irritated by Strange’s cavalier approach to the rules. Fans of the comic have a pretty good idea how that will play out, but what’s interesting this time is the why and how of his character arc, and Ejiofor sells it convincingly.

Fans of the comic also have a mental checklist of things they expect to see in a Dr. Strange movie, and one of the impressive tricks Derrickson manages is showing how these iconic elements came into Strange’s life without it feeling contrived or forced; consider for a moment the first 15 minutes of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, wherein we see how Dr. Jones acquired his bullwhip, hat, fear of snakes and the scar on his chin, in one extended and painfully-contrived action sequence. As amusing as it was, we were all acutely aware of what Spielberg was doing, but it was enough fun that we let him get away with it. Derrickson does something similar here for the fan base, but most non-comics fans will be oblivious to it, because he does it deftly and spreads it out over a couple of hours.

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So, about that checklist… Minus any spoilers, here’s what you can check off: the Cloak of Levitation; the Eye of Agamotto; the Wand of Watoomb; extradimensional weirdness on an epic scale; the Ancient One, Mordo, and a whole bunch of mystical kung fu warriors; and Wong. Even the orange gloves make an appearance. About the only thing missing is Clea, and maybe she’ll show up in the sequel. The Cloak of Levitation in particular is hugely entertaining. At GeekDad, I called it “the most entertaining piece of fabric since Aladdin’s flying carpet,” and I’ll stand by that.

Of the 14 Marvel movies so far, I’d rank Doctor Strange in the top five, along with Iron Man, Captain America: The First Avenger, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Captain America: Civil War. It’s almost as funny as Ant-Man, with a resonant emotional core on the same level as Captain America and Iron Man, and as weird as Guardians. Like the latter, this is a movie that could only be made by a studio powerful enough to tell investors to shut up and cash their checks. It’s an original take on the superhero genre, and in a nice twist, the plot is not about chasing after a cosmic MacGuffin for a change. The conflicts are genuine, driven by human emotions that actually make sense to us.

25 Comments

  1. M-Wolverine

    The last paragraph kind of echos my feelings perfectly. I don’t know that we want to get into too spoiler-y territory this early, so I’ll keep it at the review level.

    This movie should probably with the Oscar for Art or Production design, but probably won’t, even though it’s certainly the most creative visual movie of the year. And yes, it reflects the comics as much or more than it does other inspirations, like Inception.

    The casting is excellent, and they’ve given depth to a lot of characters who don’t even have it in the comic. Dr. Strange (character and movie) is funny, without it making the characters out of character or too Bendis-y. Cumberbatch sells both sides of Strange, the asshole and the hero. Wong is hilarious, and I’m now glad that Hannibal stole Mikkelsen away from Thor 2, because this is a much better role (and Hannibal was awesome). You always hear that “the villain is the hero of their own story” but he really sells it. I’d say the only one who gets kind of pat beats is Rachel McAdams. She seems like too big a star and too good an actress for the part. I can only hope/imagine they promised her something bigger in a sequel. The way Marvel plans ahead, I wouldn’t doubt it.

    I’ll tackle the next two together because it’s brought up in the review. Swinton is an excellent Ancient One. I’m not sure how much you can update the character and have the character serve the purpose it has. So it’s a catch 22 character. Because you can bet with it was cast with an old Asian guy people would be complaining about that stereotype too. Though I’m not sure I buy his definition making it a Dragon Lady character if he cast it with a woman. Michelle Yeoh would have been awesome. I didn’t really see the character as “domineering.” Tough for sure, but very caring too. And to me Dragon Lady usually connotes evil and conniving, which wasn’t this character. But lets be honest, he’s being nice to address it, but it really wasn’t white washing, or Asian stereotypes, it was all about not having a Tibetan main good guy in the movie for Chinese release. The screenwriter all but admitted it before they muffled him. They move the location, add Hong Kong as an important location, and the Chinese Asian guy got to stick around. The only color these decisions were based on was green.

    However it seems…inconsistent…to have a major problem with this (not just any minor problem, but a big one) and just kind of shrug at a guy with the name Mordo not being Eastern European but suddenly being African (or whatever his origin is supposed to be in the movie…his accent doesn’t really make it clear, which is fine). Because Mordo being an Eastern European Dracula stand in type is pretty much who he is in the comics. Which is not to complain about it. Mordo isn’t really that original a character, as much a stereotype as the Ancient One or Wong. He does have pretty good bad guy motivation as the jilted student replaced by the new, better one, but it hardly originated with him, or made him unique. In the movie he really is a fully rounded character. I wondered why an actor of Ejiofor’s caliber would take the role, but the script and he gave it such depth, I can see why. He’s maybe Marvel’s most complex character. I still think Ejiofor would have been a great Black Panther, but Boseman was so good, and this was such a good Mordo, I was glad to see they weren’t wasting him.

    The movie does have the Marvel formula in it. But Dr. Strange has such a great origin it’s one of those that’s best not to tinker. Equally good is the ending, with one of the most creative heroic resolutions seen in awhile. It does everything smoothly, and the shorter than usual run time (for a Marvel movie lately, though not by any means short) keeps things moving. There are tons of easter eggs, but no one is stopping and pointing them out. They’re there in the background if you know and aren’t any short of speed bump if you don’t. And it’s a movie that does the Marvel place setting for sequels, but doesn’t feel that way because it’s not setting up the next Marvel movie, but the next Dr. Strange movie. Amazing Spider-man 2 this is not.

    Mainly I come away from it all still having to pinch myself that great C level characters like Dr. Strange are getting big budget movies, whereas kid me in a world where Peter Hooten TV movies were the “highlight” of what we could get. I feel like pinching myself daily. Oh, how lucky to be a child in this day and age.

    And yes, for those who haven’t caught the info on the Internet, there are the two (mid and end) credit sequences, so stick around.

  2. Simon

    Why is Grant Morrison punching Angel Heart?

    And that spellcasting reminded me GUNNERKRIGG COURT, heh. (These bits, anyway.)

    – “The Cloak of Levitation in particular is hugely entertaining. At GeekDad, I called it “the most entertaining piece of fabric since Aladdin’s flying carpet,””

    Discounting a lot of shapely costume parts, natch. (Travis sez: Twirling nipple tassels too?) Mmm… The Golden Fleece? Rorschach’s mask? There oughta be more… (Listicle!)

    – “It’s an original take on the superhero genre”

    To what extent is such fantasy movie still “superhero”? (I mean, we don’t call superheroes Hercules, Zorro, Steve Austin, the Man from Atlantis, Luke Skywalker, Neo, or Harry Potter. Isn’t it in part the DC/Marvel source that does it?)


    t.y.o.P.S.: Salvadore=Salvador, Dali=Dalí, Iron=Iron

    1. Le Messor

      “Isn’t it in part the DC/Marvel source that does it?)”

      Well, yes frankly.
      But…
      “To what extent is such fantasy movie still “superhero”? (I mean, we don’t call superheroes Hercules, Zorro, Steve Austin, the Man from Atlantis, Luke Skywalker, Neo, or Harry Potter.”

      I’ve heard Hercules called a superhero many times (I mean the mythical one, not the Marvel one), and him and Zorro both called precursors to the concept.

      I’m sorry, I barely talk about Steve Austin or The Man From Atlantis anymore, but why not?

      Harry Potter… I was recently asked by somebody “Harry Potter? Is that a superhero?” (NB: the guy who asked me, judging by looks, wasn’t born yet when the last Harry Potter movie came out. Don’t be too hard on him.)
      I gave it a bit of thought, and said “Yes, kind of.”

    2. “To what extent is such fantasy movie still “superhero”? (I mean, we don’t call superheroes Hercules, Zorro, Steve Austin, the Man from Atlantis, Luke Skywalker, Neo, or Harry Potter. Isn’t it in part the DC/Marvel source that does it?)”

      All of those except the last two have HAD superhero-type comics about them, and several– Steve Austin and Zorro– have current ones, despite neither having had any sort of film or TV presence in decades. Moreover, when I had the column at the old stand I used to complain that DC revamping BOOKS OF MAGIC, with its Neil Gaiman pedigree and its teenage wizard protagonist, into a more kid-friendly series was one of the easiest and obvious ways to lure mainstream readers in bookstores, but they never did it. It seemed like a no-brainer to go after Harry Potter fans that way– especially since Books of Magic came FIRST– but DC has had a habit over the last three decades of saying, no, no, even though we have a stable of characters beloved PLANET-WIDE, we don’t want everybody in the world reading our comics. We’d much rather zero in on the middle-aged Sheldon Coopers of the world because that’s our target market. Sigh.

      That leaves Neo and the Matrix movies, and those are so heavily cross-pollinated with superhero comics, manga, and stuff from British comics like 2000 AD that I really think you have to give Neo at least half-credit.

      Not to get all pedantic and etymological about it. But drawing the distinction is giving me flashbacks to angry lettercol arguments about whether or not it was fair to call guys like Ghost Rider and Son of Satan “superheroes” just because they were in the same shared universe as the Avengers, or the endless message-board wrangles about whether or not Batman should be called a “superhero” because he has no powers. I’m of the school that says if they have superhuman abilities or tools that are the equivalent, fight evil on an open-ended basis, and appeal to the same audience, then the differences are probably superficial. Your mileage may vary.

      1. I swear to god I saw, at some point, Books of Magic paperback novels. They apparently did nothing, because it was a dollar-type store where I saw it/them (can’t remember how many there were), but DC did do some at some point. Undoubtedly well past when they would have done any good.

        Not that that was your main point, but still, it’s something that I saw.

      2. Le Messor

        “I’m of the school that says if they have superhuman abilities or tools that are the equivalent, fight evil on an open-ended basis”

        I’d also add having a secret identity – which applies to Zorro, Batman, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Ghost Rider.

        I also don’t think you need everything that makes a superhero to be a superhero – just ‘enough’. Whatever that means.

        1. Simon

          @Le Messor:

          – “I also don’t think you need everything that makes a superhero to be a superhero – just ‘enough’.”

          Yeah, as most “rules” are liable to have some exception. Like, the Fantastic Four not having a secret identity, Batman not having superpowers, or Luke Cage not doing altruistic crimefighting.

          But to me, the #1 rationale seems to be, “because Marvel or DC said so”, heh. (Retroactively enrolling Hercules or Zorro or Harry Potter, doesn’t that look like superhero-washing or flag-planting?)

          1. Le Messor

            Well, I wouldn’t really define either Hercules or Harry Potter as super heroes – I’d more just say ‘well, you could say that; the word fits’.

            Hercules (and his ilk) is mostly cited as a prototype.

            Ooh! Costumes are also important.

            What about non-Marvel and DC superheroes (despite their joint trademark over the word, depending on how you spell it)? The Phantom, Nexus, Valiant Press’s stable?

        2. Simon

          @Le Messor:

          From a public-perception standpoint, I’d assume they’d be called superheroes too? (Another element could be the original silliness or puerility of what they called “that junk” intended for preteens, that still tend to permeate most superhero comics like a WWE show. Even Matt Kindt’s DIVINITY VOL. 1 falls from sci-fi to jejune once the superheroes literaly waltz into its last chapter.)

          My original point wasn’t to reheat taxonomic debates, but whether the movie would be perceived by the mainstream public as a superhero story or a supernatural thriller. Hercules or Harry Potter films aren’t seen as superhero movies. For a Dr. Strange film, I guess that would depend on its style and content?

          1. Le Messor

            “From a public-perception standpoint, I’d assume they’d be called superheroes too?”

            Oh, right; the general public (salute!). I have no idea what normals call anyone or anything.

            “My original point wasn’t to reheat taxonomic debates, but whether the movie would be perceived by the mainstream public as a superhero story or a supernatural thriller.”

            I hadn’t understood that, sorry. See above, but from what I’ve seen most of the normals do understand Doctor Strange is a Marvel movie, and therefore superhero.
            But not all of them know that.

      3. Simon

        @Greg Hatcher:

        – “if they have superhuman abilities or tools that are the equivalent, fight evil on an open-ended basis, and appeal to the same audience, then the differences are probably superficial.”

        Wouldn’t that more or less include Santa Claus, Tarzan, James Bond, and such? (Who I don’t regard as “superheroes” either.)

        1. frasersherman

          Not Tarzan, who only fights evil when it crosses him or threatens his loved ones. And I don’t think classic Santa qualifies, though it’s easy to retool him as a superhero (Mark Gruenwald’s Son of Santa from 25 years ago comes close)

  3. Edo Bosnar

    Just got back from seeing it, and yes, it was awesome at many levels. I agree with pretty much everything you said (and yes! The Cloak of Levitation reminded me of Aladdin’s magic carpet; I found that very endearing).
    I mentioned in that previous post that I wasn’t all that happy with some of the casting choices, but Cumberbatch really won me over. The whole Swinton/Ancient One thing still bothers me a bit, for all of the reasons you and M-Wolverine mentioned, but being the actress she is, she also sold it quite well. And this version of Mordo is quite interesting, as he’s something that Mordo never was in any of the comics I read: likeable, very much so initially.
    Anyway, this is another winner from Marvel Studios (in fact, with the exception of Incredible Hulk, they have yet to really disappoint me with any of their offerings).

  4. Alaric

    I just saw the movie, and enjoyed it. However, I also found it somewhat irritating. My three favorite Marvel movies, so far, are Captain America: The First Avenger, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Ant-Man (personally, while I enjoyed Winter Soldier, I find it somewhat overrated). This movie came very close to equaling or even exceeding those three, but somehow, something about it just missed a beat for me. Something about the movie just felt oddly rushed to me, like everything needed just a little more time than it was given. Cumberbatch was great, though.

    1. Le Messor

      Alaric, I agree with most of what you said.

      I’m not sure how I’d rate them, but GotG and Ant-Man would certainly be two of the highest. Probably Avengers after that.
      Captain America would also be very high for me, but not top three.

      I liked Winter Solder, but not as much as everyone else seemed to – and for pretty much the same reasons.

    2. M-Wolverine

      I’m not going to turn this into a ranking thread, but I will say I kind of liked that it was a more standard 2 hour movie. There are some movies in the genre and the like that can fill the extra 20 minutes that seemed tacked on to every one of these things nowadays, but a whole lot of them seem to be filler that 15 minutes could easily be cut out of. The fact that you needed to add ANOTHER half hour to give BvS any sort of coherence shows how many problems that movie had.

  5. frasersherman

    Sigh. Was so psyched to love this movie, but I only liked it.
    •I kept hearing Tony Stark’s voice out of Stephen Strange’s mouth.
    •Waaay too much time spent on the origin, the medical drama at the beginning and the training scenes (I know it wasn’t a montage but still).
    •Mikkelsen is every bit as dull here as he was in Casino Royale. And he was very dull. Not even remotely ominous as Caecilius.
    •Too much Cloak of Levitation. Though if I’d liked the movie more I might not have minded.
    Still liked it, but definitely the MCU story that disappointed me most so far.

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