Doctor Strange (2016)
Directed by Scott Derrickson
Produced by Kevin Feige
Written by Joh Spaihts, Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill
Based on the Doctor Strange comics by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
Cinematography by Ben Divis
Music by Michael Giacchino
Disney DVD – library (1:55)
Yes, it’s another Marvel origin story, but this one’s a little different. First of all, unless you’ve read the Doctor Strange comics (created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko), you probably don’t know the beginnings of the Master of the Mystic Arts. I’ll give you the short version that doesn’t take half an hour: brilliant surgeon Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is also an insufferable jerk who’s far more interested in himself than the people he’s sworn to help. After a horrible automobile accident, Strange’s hands are so damaged that he can no longer perform surgery. Seeking a cure, he finds himself in Kathmandu seeking the healing of The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). There he finds… Well, you want to see the movie, don’t you?
Marvel had the opportunity to do something really special with Doctor Strange and in some ways, they took advantage of the opportunity. Compared to many of the other Marvel movies, we don’t see a lot of stuff blowing up, large-scale destruction and inane plots. Okay, well we get lesser amounts of those things than usual. Visually the film is interesting and we get at least a brief glimpse into the wild, blow-your-mind worlds that artist Steve Ditko (In my opinion, the greatest Doctor Strange artist of all time) could draw in his sleep. (Maybe that’s why they were so good.)
So far all is well. I must admit I was never a lifelong fan of the Doctor Strange comic books, but for the past several years, I’ve read many of them, appreciating how the character differs radically from many of the other Marvel superheroes. First of all, Doctor Strange has no real superpowers. He’s become the Master of the Mystic Arts by years of studying and practicing. We see this in the comics in the space of just a few panels, implying the passage of time, but all the powers that Doctor Strange has acquired, he’s earned.
Second, most of his adventures take place in other dimensions (sometimes not even in his own body, but through astral projections). This is why it doesn’t really work for Doctor Strange to be a “team player.” When he was in such situations in the comics (He was a member of a team called the Defenders.), Doctor Strange usually took care of whatever crises were taking place in the mystical world while his teammates kicked physical butt here on Earth. (Making him part of the Avengers, which appears to be the real point of the film, seems like a bad idea, but I guess we need someone to cover the void snarkiness left by the departure of Robert Downey Jr.)
In addressing the first problem of Doctor Strange’s powers, I’ll refer to Angelica Jade Bastien’s spot-on review of the film on Roger Ebert.com: “…nothing in Strange’s story feels earned. You also can’t ignore that ‘Doctor Strange’ is essentially the story of a white man who travels to an ‘exotic’ land, whose culture and people he doesn’t respect let alone know the language of. Yet somehow he just happens to realize he’s a natural at magic and gets good enough to beat practitioners who have been doing this for years.”
What she said. Yeah, I know it’s a superhero film and you have to show the superhero winning and you’ve got a two-hour (thankfully not more) window in order to do that. I get it. Yet by the end of the film, we’ve lost respect for this world. All of the awe and wonder of it has been compromised and while Strange may still have some cool spells to learn from time to time, his growth of skills and knowledge has pretty much stagnated. Imagine Harry Potter cramming seven years’ worth of learning into one book.
The film also wastes even more opportunities by barely touching on the spiritual and scientific nature of Strange’s universe. The science – or the breaking of the rules of science – of the mystic universe is barely addressed. Just a little more about that universe could’ve raised the stakes in terms of danger and impact. The opportunities were certainly there. I’m not asking for a dissertation, just a few lines about what hangs in the balance here, something the comic book was never afraid to explore, at least on some level.
Once again, Marvel has manipulated what was originally a good story that would still work cinematically in order to propagate it’s money-making machine. In the original comics, Stephen Strange began studying with The Ancient One at the same time one of the other students who had preceded him, Mordo, was close to becoming a master himself. Strange realized, however, that Mordo’s ultimate purpose was to overthrow The Ancient One, becoming the Master of the Mystic Arts for his own evil purposes.
Yet in the film, Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is Strange’s ally. Director Scott Derrickson claims that they wrote the character this way rather than as a villain to show how he went from good to bad. (Sort of a Anakin to Vader progression, maybe…) Okay, got it. But if Mordo’s not your villian, who is?
Presenting Mads Mikkelsen as Kaecilius, ex-student of The Ancient One. In the comic book, Kaecilius was a disciple of Mordo, who was a character in several issues, mostly doing Mordo’s bidding. In the film, Kaecilius is a character who’s essentially a place-holder: someone for Strange to battle in order to get to the real villain (Dormammu), with the ultimate purpose being to set up the next film(s). If you’re going to get someone with as much stature and menace potential as Mads Mikkelsen, you’d better give him something to do. For the most part, they don’t.
Tilda Swinton is excellent (When is she not?) as The Ancient One. I like the fact that The Ancient One is a woman, but there’s the “whitewashed” controversy of a white woman playing the part of what was originally written as an old Tibetan man. I’ve heard that this has more to do with international marketing tactics than storytelling and I get that, too. Money is at stake. But what’s also problematic is the fact (spoiler) that The Ancient One decides to compromise her power and position by tapping into the energy from the Dark Dimension, believing that this is the only hope for humanity. I find that implication that a female version of the character giving into the Dark Dimension (which, as far as I know, the comic book version of The Ancient One never did) is a slam (intentional or otherwise) against women. Perhaps I’m reading more into this than is actually there, but then again, maybe not.
Yet despite the issues I have with it, Doctor Strange is a mostly fun ride with some good performances and special effects that aren’t totally in your face. Casting Benedict Cumberbatch was a stroke of genius and I look forward to seeing what happens next in the series. The film is a breath of fresh air in that while it’s still a Marvel superhero movie, it’s different enough to be interesting. I think I like it more than my review indicates. But what I really want to do now is revisit the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko Doctor Strange comics.
Photos: Rolling Stone, Comic Book Movie, Comic Vine, Movie Detector, Comic Book News, Film Comment