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.