Doctor Strange

November 7, 2016

The latest episode of my favorite show was just fine and will make many people happy.  I do have some things to say about it.

The thing I liked most about this was the envisioning of a fractal/clockwork universe that unfolds according to set patterns that express a great and surreal beauty, and that magic allows one to manipulate those patterns.  (And I really love how Strange’s journey through these surreal backdrops resemble Ant Man’s journey through the sub-atomic in the climactic scene of his film.  It’s all one universe.)  And yes, I did see it in 3-D even though I’m mostly set against it these days. (In the preview for The Great Wall, the Matt Damon Chinese monster adventure flick, the 3-D was so awful and muddy I never did a get a good look at the monsters.)  I had indication that the 3-D would be mostly worth it in this one, and it was, lending a great fractal depth to the folding, spiraling, and stacking effects that make up a big part of the set pieces.  Very pretty.

As for the rest, I still wish Oded Fehr has played the lead role.  Not that there’s anything wrong with Cumberbatch, except for the fact that he’s in everything.  But it did make this clearly yet another movie about a really special white guy who’s just so special and when the mystical masters who’ve been working at this their whole lives fail, he’ll save us, even though he’s only been doing it for maybe a year or so.  And the egotistic attitude — and the fast cars, and the belittling treatment of everyone — made him too much like Tony Stark.  We’ve seen all this before.

This is going to sound weird, but this was too easy.  I know this is an origin story and we want to get through it quickly to get the good stuff.  But really, Strange should have been waiting on the temple’s doorstep for five months, not five hours.  He should have been there with a begging bowl and a beard down to his knees before he was let in for training.  That’s commitment.  What’s so special about him that the Ancient One immediately shows him her powers and the secrets of the universe?  I know we have to move the plot along, but still.  I did like that Strange wasn’t immediately able to work magic.  But once he could, and once he shaved that trademark goatee, after that he’s memorizing Sanskrit and sneaking into the library and stealing ancient artifacts and back to his old ego trip.  The Ancient One kept reiterating that Strange needed to let go of his ego if he wanted to be a powerful sorcerer.  He never did.  Sure, he has a bad moment when he actually has to kill someone.  He shouts something about breaking his oath to save lives.  But what about all the patients he let suffer and die because he wouldn’t take their cases, because he didn’t want to fail?  There’s a section of this character arc that’s missing, I think.  Rather than letting go of ego, Strange’s ego — his willingness to use forbidden magic because he’s just that good — saves the world, and I’m not sure that’s the right message here.

(Unless, of course, that really is the message the movie intended, that surrendering the ego is bunk and overweening ego is actually a good thing.  I mean, the Ancient One drawing on the Dark Dimension is an act of ego.  No wonder Mordo, who has faithfully followed the Ancient One’s teachings and diligently subsumed his ego throughout, is pissed off at the end.  I can’t blame him.  Seriously which is it, let go of ego or not?)

What makes the movie are the supporting characters, the Ancient One and Mordo, played by Tilda Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor, both tremendous actors who am I big big fans of.  I could watch them for hours and hours.  Despite my dissatisfaction with Strange’s character’s arc — and the whole cliche trope of the white guy saves everybody — these two made the movie a lot of fun.

When Iron Man 3 featured the Mandarin, it handled a potentially racist stereotype beautifully by confronting it head-on:  this character is a creation built to play on white fears about the “other.”  And so the movie’s Mandarin was literally a construct, an act, built to play on people’s fears.  It was great.  The white man who travels to the Far East to gain mystic wisdom and then wields that mystic wisdom better than the people who originated it?  That’s another problematic trope that we’ve been seeing since Victorian adventure stories.  And I wish the movie had found a way to confront, or at least address it, the way Iron Man 3 did.  One of the friends I went to see this with suggested that maybe Chiwetel Ejiofor should have played Doctor Strange and Cumberbatch could have been Mordo.  Hmm, now there’s an intriguing thought.



4 Responses to “Doctor Strange”

  1. jenwillis Says:

    Excellent review, and I agree with each one of your points. I, too, had a hard time with the too-quick progress, the retention of massive ego, and other areas that were simply too easy and/or superficial in explanation.

    And I also love Oded Fehr! Had he been considered for the lead in Doctor Strange?

  2. Gary Piserchio Says:

    Cool review. Just wanted to add that, even though I enjoyed the movie quite a bit, and liked Benadryl Cummerbund, the ending makes no sense at all (the time-loop thing). Assuming Dormammu isn’t an idiot, the very simple thing to do is NOT kill Dr. Strange. Either put Strange in suspended animation (so that Strange couldn’t kill himself) or just tie Strange up really really well and, I assume, time would just go ticking along.

    I’d have to watch the move again to be sure. But when Dr. Strange was knocked out near the end when he was backing time up (another problematic trope), didn’t that break the back-up spell? Or was it still going on even though Strange was unconscious? If it was still going on (I seem to remember Hong Kong being frozen in time), then that could be the bigger issue for Dormammu.

    As to the problem of backing up time: Back it up until the Ancient One is alive and no longer in danger. Back it up to before Mads goes mad. And so on and so forth.

    The movie has just as many plot problems as Iron Man 3, but both movies are just so much fun that the fun outweighs the gaping holes.

  3. JennWynn Says:

    I was frustrated by this movie. As you say, I couldn’t get past that he didn’t have to *try* very hard. Maybe this is his back story in the comics? He’s just so smart (and has that eidetic memory thing) that he doesn’t have to work hard? He does have that line about “study and practice” — but then we don’t see it?

    I saw it in 2-D, and the monsters in that Great Wall thing were muddy and unseeable there, too.

  4. LupLun Says:

    “What’s so special about him that the Ancient One immediately shows him her powers and the secrets of the universe?”

    My theory? Mostly being there at the right time. Remember the Ancient’s death scene, she talks about how she’s seen this moment? She knew she was going to die soon. She needed a successor. Probably she was grooming Kaecilius for that role, but when he went evil, she needed a backup plan. Mordu is a possibility, but he was too rigid. The others masters were either not strong enough, or so old that they were likely to die soon themselves. And she couldn’t risk showing someone how to extend their life the way she did, especially after Kaecilius. So she needed a student who was young, powerful, and able to think outside the box. When Strange shows up and seems to have potential, she takes a gamble on him and it pays off.

    Regarding the ego thing- I’m reminded of something I heard once about how superheros and supervillains are often very much the same, down to having similar backstories. The difference is that villains use their powers to selfish or malicious ends, while heroes are self-sacrificing. Strange defeats Dormmamu because, yes, he’s too proud to admit defeat, but also because he’s willing to condemn himself to an eternity of dying painfully to keep the earth safe; a villain in that situation would have just taken everybody down with him. So maybe the idea is that ego, like any other power, can be turned to good purpose if it’s wielded by someone with a heroic mindset.

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