I know, I know. A million people have probably already made that stupid pun, but in this case, it’s literally what I thought about halfway through Doctor Strange.
Not because I didn’t get what was happening on screen. It was because even though I enjoyed what I was watching, it felt somehow empty and pointless. Unlike the most recent iteration of Fantastic Four, I didn’t come out of it wondering who I’d have to stab to get my money back. And unlike the DC Universe so far, I wasn’t scratching my head trying to follow the damn story.
That’s not to say that the Marvel films to this point have all been home runs, or that Doctor Strange completely makes even basic sense all the way through. But I can say without a doubt that I enjoyed it, and even enjoyed it more than I’d expected. However I can also say that I knew for a fact, before the film ended, the reason why I felt so conflicted. It’s the same thing I thought halfway through the original Thor back in 2011, and it’s one of the biggest reasons I’ve started to grow tired of superhero films in general.
It’s because at the moment, it feels like for the most part, there are two major categories of superhero flick:
Category 1: A tent pole film that is more expensive than giving everyone on earth breast implants. A super-hero event that serves as a linchpin in the ongoing Cinematic Universe someone is trying to make. The heroes are super conflicted, and fate of the earth/universe is dependent on some stupid MacGuffin
Category 2: An “in-between” story made almost entirely of generic action movie beats. Designed to introduce a new character into the larger Cinematic Universe and serve as connective tissue between Category 1 films. The heroes are always super conflicted, there’s a platonic love interest, and the fate of the earth/universe is dependent on some stupid MacGuffin
Exceptions exist, like Wolverine’s solo series of films, and pleasant surprises like Deadpool. But the former were very uneven in quality to say the least, while the latter is probably not sustainable as a genre, as much as I enjoyed it the one time. And then there’s the X-Men franchise itself, whose quality has been as inconsistent as its box office. Part of the problem would seem to be a persistent indecision about what the hell to do with the characters.
It’s not surprising then, that studios prefer to find a successful formula and stick to it. Marvel, in fact, has largely chosen to do this both in a narrative and character sense. This has resulted in a miasma of “sameness” across the the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Most of the films are fun, but you could also just swap characters between the majority of them, and very little would have to be changed. Personally, I’m a little past tired of paying to see the same goddamn movie again and again.
But I would seem to be in the minority so far. And of course the so-called DC Extended Universe has, so far, comfortably nestled itself somewhere between “disorganized clusterfuck” and “protracted narrative abortion“.
I’ll let you decide precisely how far, one way or the other.
Which brings us back to Doctor Strange; a Category 2 movie that’s so hardcore about it I’m not sure whether to applaud with enthusiasm, or roll my eyes and do that douchey slow-clap.
The decision to even move forward with a Doctor Strange project actually does deserve genuine applause. If idiots like me can see that Marvel films are becoming stale despite their success, rest assured that so can the idiots who make them. Both Thor and Doctor Strange have better served to bridge together the larger Marvel tapestry than Iron Man’s increasingly ridiculous solo adventures. More important, they introduce an aspect of mysticism and off-world intrigue that’s sorely needed, since you can only destroy Manhattan so many times.
It also shows a level of ambition on the part of Marvel that I wouldn’t have thought possible just a few years ago. Part of the reason I stopped reading comics as a child was because of the inherent sameness across titles. Nobody ever really dies, or suffers any long-term trauma from living in a world where you and everyone you know have been murdered and reborn countless times.
But growth and change are almost anathema to the world of comics, lest the heroes we adore stray to far from what made us love them in the first place. So for all the talk about the virtue comics as a form or storytelling, I’d say that it all depends on the format. And if you’re looking to marry truly compelling stories long term continuity in this world, it’s probably a fool’s errand.
This is one of the things I liked the most about Doctor Strange – I kind of cared…if only just a little. I was briefly interested in the character as a child (I even owned this book), but when every story was an extended acid trip of Pink Floyd visuals and theatrical monologing, I quickly grew bored with it. The character himself was a brilliant (of course, nobody’s ever just good, they’re always brilliant!) neurosurgeon named Stephen Strange, whose medical prowess was matched only his immense dickishness. Am I saying that he’s basically Doctor House with fancier clothes?
But, also not far off. Now that Marvel has gotten deep enough into their bench to start calling up the D-list heroes, who better to add legitimacy than Benedict Cumberbatch? He’s a seasoned actor, and currently the star of a popular television show. His buttery baritone single-handedly revived the women’s undergarment industry in Great Britain. And yet his pleasant, boyish manner also makes him acceptable to your mother. Handsome, talented, and blessed with one of the most recognizable voices in film; I can literally think of no better man to play the guy in that outfit at the top of this page.
Well…about that. The film version starts out with the same origin story. Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) is a brilliant surgeon, has a disfiguring car accident, blah blah blah. When his shattered hands are personally repaired by one of his colleagues – who is also one of the best surgeons on the planet – all he can do is complain about how he could have done it better. Strange is respected for his talent, but has managed to alienate everyone around him with his inherently self-centered worldview.
He’s all hubris, wrapped up in a vaguely off-putting American accent.
Wait, what? Cumberbatch was famously asked to bring his normal voice and pasty-whiteness to the role of a Hindu guy in one of the Star Trek movies, but now that you have him literally playing a wizard in a cape, we require him to sound like Pat Sajak? No, we don’t. I don’t care if Stephen Strange is an American. Half of what makes Benedict Cumberbatch Benedict Fucking Cumberbatch is his voice. My God – nobody ever hired James Earl Jones or Patrick Stewart and said “no, please, leave your distinctive vocal mannerisms at home”.
Ok, maybe once.
And if you think I’m making too much of this, consider the following. Cumberbatch’s American accent is actually quite good. But it’s not Christian Bale or Bob Hoskins “I had no idea he was even British” good. Every time he’s asked to emote – and it happens more in this film than you’d expect – here comes Macbeth. I guess my only point is, if he wasn’t able to do the accent perfectly, why do it at all? It would have been far less distracting than constantly trying to figure out whether or not I just heard someone accidentally say “aluminium”.
In any case, Strange turns to non-traditional remedies to fix the damage to his hands and ends up in Tibet – the rumored home of a mysterious cure for nerve damage. Strange tracks down the reclusive mountain cult said to posses the knowledge he seeks, and finds it led by a strangely androgynous looking woman known only as The Ancient One (Tilda Swindon). Now, in the comics, this character was, well, an actual Tibetan guy. There are a number of reasons why they decided to go with a different look, the primary one being that the “white-bearded old Asian guy” has kind of been done to death.
Fair enough. And I see no reason why the character shouldn’t be female.
But at no point does anyone attempt to explain how the whitest and most British woman on earth managed to become the ageless leader of a millennia-old group of Tibetan sorcerers. I would have been happy if they’d tossed in a single throwaway line about her having been the daughter of wealthy adventurers who was raised by wolves after a fatal tea-drinking expedition. But they didn’t, and for me, to not address it at all actually drew more attention to it.
That aside, the film’s second act is one part Strange acting skeptical as people continue to use powerful magic around him. Then, he quickly becomes the most powerful wizard out of the dozens of people in the building who have been working at this since they were toddlers because duh, he’s the main character.
The point I am about to make is that we cast Tilda Swindon as an “old Asian guy” because we wanted to break a trope. But the rest of the movie retains the “white guy goes abroad, quickly becomes better at Asian stuff than actual Asians” template that I would argue is a far more ubiquitous cliche. Strange seems to take all of a handful of days to go from Doubting Thomas to manipulating the very fabric of time like a DJ on a turntable. Again, it wouldn’t have taken much to at least address the possibility that becoming a master sorcerer isn’t like taking a two-week correspondence course.
Not only that, but Doctor Strange casts Rachel McAdams in the thankless role of Disposable Woman, whereby she serves as both Strange’s not-love interest (they work at the same hospital), and a convenient safety valve every time our hero needs a place to crash, or someone ready to drop whatever they’re doing to treat an impromptu head injury. I can’t even comment on her performance, since most of her lines are variations on “Stephen, what are you doing here?!” and “You know I can’t do that!”, right before she does the thing anyway.
Like I said earlier – Doctor Strange is a Category 2 so hard, they might as well advertise it that way.
In a nutshell, Doctor Strange is a B-list Marvel flick starring (mostly) A-list actors being asked to sleepwalk through C-list material. But was it any GOOD?
Yes. Yes, it was. Cumberbatch plays a conflicted hero who is suffering in ways we’ve seen so many times before that it barely registers. And, if it’s as easy as it appears to become a master wizard, I don’t know why everyone isn’t doing it. But Cumberbatch acquits himself well, as does Swindon, as does McAdams, as does Chiwetel Ejiofor as one of Strange’s Magic Academy colleagues, and the great Mads Mikkelsen, who has the unenviable task of making a very bland villain into something memorable (he gets an A for effort).
All of these actors are accomplished enough to handle the material effortlessly, and even though the story itself is generic, Strange’s adventures in the Astral Plane are genuinely fascinating, and they open the door for the Marvel Universe to take things in new and interesting directions. Ironically though, if you stripped Doctor Strange of its context within the MCU and presented it as a standalone film, I would say that it was interesting, enjoyable, but not something you could build a franchise out of.
I could be wrong, as the echo from my derisive laughter when they first announced an Iron Man film still reverberates inside my home, mocking me.
But I’m not wrong. Doctor Strange is, on its own, a decent film that I would recommend to anybody looking for a couple of hours to spend. It won’t change your life, it won’t expand your mind, and it doesn’t seem to have challenged anyone IN it, either. And as with most Marvel films, the story revolves around the battle for an all powerful object that in the wrong hands can destroy the universe, blah blah blah. But for better or worse, the Marvel cinematic Universe is a well oiled machine that operates according to a well established formula.
Which makes the most important question the only question: Does Doctor Strange fulfill its role as a Category 2 film in the MCU? Yes. In fact, hell yes. On it’s own it’s a solid, if unremarkable action movie. But as an individual puzzle piece in the larger Marvel world, you might even call it a home run.
When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favorite head up against the barroom wall, and he looks you crooked in the eye and he asks you if ya paid your dues, you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye, and you remember what ol' Jack Burton always says at a time like that: "Have ya paid your dues, Jack?" "Yessir, the check is in the mail."